Breaking down the first-year candidates on the Hall of Fame ballot
The Baseball Hall of Fame ballot includes 34 names that can be distilled to one mystery: whether John Smoltz or Craig Biggio or — in what would be an upset almost a half century in the making — both gain election.
First-time candidates Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez should surpass the 75 percent of support required for election from the more than 500 voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (including me). Ballots are due by Dec. 27, and results will be announced on Jan. 6. On the heels of the enshrinement of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas last summer, that would make for five first-ballot Hall of Famers in consecutive years, an unprecedented flood of first-time inductees since the inaugural vote of 1936.
Smoltz could make it six first-ballot Hall of Famers in the back-to-back elections. Or, in his third ballot, Biggio could reach the threshold that he missed by just two votes last year. What are the odds of both Smoltz and Biggio joining Johnson and Martinez? Never before have the writers elected four players from the same ballot since annual voting under current rules began in 1968. The last time four players were elected was 1955, when voters were required to vote for 10 players, a rule that was changed in 1958 to allow writers to vote for up to 10 players. (The 1955 ballot included 64 players, 35 of whom eventually were enshrined.)
Last year, the average ballot that was turned in included 8.4 names, marking the fifth time under current protocols that the writers filled more than 80 percent of the available votes. The other years with so-called "full" ballots (1973, '74, '82 and '83) saw only a combined seven players elected. More votes do not necessarily equate to more players gaining election. The difficulty is not so much in the math as it is in the beauty of opinion: getting three-quarters of any group of nearly 600 people, let alone the writers who do vote, to agree on something.
Despite howls in some places that writers aren't flooding Cooperstown with enough inductees, the writers are filling ballots with fervor not seen in more than 30 years. Last year, for instance, seven candidates received a majority of the votes, the first time that happened since 1983. Six of the seven majority-supported candidates that year eventually gained election; the lone exception is Gil Hodges. That should be encouraging news in this or future ballots for Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza, who all cleared the 50 percent mark last year in addition to Maddux, Glavine, Thomas and Jack Morris, who dropped off the ballot after his 15th and final year of eligibility.
Due to a rule change from the Hall's directors this year (not from the writers), eligible players are now limited to 10 years on the ballot — as opposed to 15 — as long as they maintain at least five percent support. Of the 34 candidates this year, half are on a ballot for the first time. What follows are sketches and remembrances of those 17 first-timers, categorized by their chances of election:
I was sitting with Johnson one day at his home office in Arizona when he wanted to show me a hand-written letter he had received from Sandy Koufax. The great Dodgers lefthander sent the note in 1998 after Johnson passed him for what at the time was second place on the all-time list of most games with 10 or more strikeouts. Koufax had 97 such 10-K games.
"I passed Sandy after my trade from Seattle [to Houston]," Johnson said. "I got some letters. I didn't pay much attention to who they were from. I almost threw the letter away. It says, 'Congratulations. You might have a tough time passing Nolan Ryan.'"
Koufax didn't know it, but he had just challenged Johnson. Ryan had 215 double-digit strikeout games. Johnson was about to turn 35 when Koufax wrote the note. Johnson was less than halfway to Ryan's record. Johnson always did find the deepest breadth of his great will whenever someone told him what he could not do. One time in 2001, a radio show host told him that 300 wins was out of the question. After all, Johnson was 38 years old and had only 200 wins at the time. Johnson thought to himself, Why would you in your right mind think I couldn't do that? Why put a limit on it? Why set a bar?
Johnson pitched until he was 46 years old. He won 303 games. And Johnson very nearly caught Ryan for most 10-K games. He finished with 212, just three fewer than Ryan.
Will is the hallmark of Johnson's remarkable career. A gangly, wild, 6-foot-10 pitcher, Johnson at age 29 was a mediocre work-in-progress (49-48 with a 3.95 ERA and almost six walks for every nine innings pitched). But his career turned because of two events just four months apart in 1992: mechanical advice from Ryan during an impromptu bullpen session in Arlington in August, and the sudden death of his father, Bud, on Christmas Day. Johnson went 254-118 from ages 29-45.
Johnson posted some numbers that look fictionalized, especially in the game we have today. He struck out 18 or more batters in a game four times (and won only one of those games). He threw 150 pitches or more in a game nine times. He threw 67,096 pitches, and though his back and his knees pained him, he pitched until he was 46 and never had a major arm injury.
Two personal stories I think about when it comes to Martinez:
One: We were standing near the pitcher's mound on a makeshift field where amateur players train in Santo Domingo in his native Dominican Republic. I was asking Martinez what it felt like on the days when he knew he had his best stuff. He motioned toward home plate and told me those are the days when the distance between the mound and the plate seemed to be shortened. And then a mischievous smile came over his face. "Then," he said, "you are f----d."
I could feel the hair stand up on my arms. The little guy, the same guy who liked to tend to the flowers in his garden, was a cold-blooded competitor on the mound.
Two: spring training, Fort Myers, Fla. It's the first week of camp. Martinez is throwing batting practice to Red Sox hitters, all of them veteran starters. He is telling them what pitch is coming. He announces that he is throwing his changeup. The hitters know what's coming, and yet they keep swinging and missing. Rarely does the ball leave the batting cage. His changeup was that good: He could tell you it was coming and you still couldn't hit it.
I have seen many great pitchers. But I don't know of any other great pitcher I have seen who had three pitches that all were among the best in baseball. Martinez's fastball, changeup and breaking ball were that good.
You don't need to look up the numbers to know that Martinez was a Hall of Famer. Whenever he took the ball it felt like a postseason game; the partisan fans were thrilled with the idea he might do something historically great, and the opposing fans were agitated by his dominance and his swagger. But here goes, just because running his numbers are so much fun. Since the distance between the mound and the plate was set at 60 feet, six inches in 1893, Martinez owns two of the eight best seasons as ranked by adjusted ERA: 2000 (which ranks first at 291) and 1999 (eighth at 243). In one stretch of 231 starts, he lost only 41 times and won 134 times.
And for truly dominant primes, he belongs in this most elite company:
|Pitcher (years)||GS||W-l||Pct.||ERA||WHIP||ERA+||Avg. IP||Cy young awards|
On The Bubble
Smoltz pitched in 41 postseason games, 27 of them as a starter, and lost only four times. The scores of those losses were 1-0, 4-1, 2-1 and 5-2. He is without question one of the best postseason pitchers in history. Think about this: In his postseason career, Smoltz held hitters to a .221 batting average and hit .214 himself.
His career win total of 213 is held down because of a five-year period between ages 33-37 when he blew out his elbow and returned as a reliever. In his three full seasons closing, Smoltz averaged 48 saves and 75 innings per year, striking out 9.7 batters per nine innings — 23 percent higher than his strikeout rate as a starting pitcher.
Now let's ignore the win total and consider just how many great seasons Smoltz had as a starter. This might surprise you: Smoltz is one of only 17 pitchers to post at least nine qualified seasons with an ERA+ of 125 or better. Twelve of those 17 pitchers are in the Hall of Fame. Here are the only five pitchers in that group who are not yet enshrined:
Roger Clemens: 15
Randy Johnson: 10
Mike Mussina: 10
John Smoltz: 9
Curt Schilling: 9
Clemens is not going to be voted in by the writers because of his connection to steroids. Johnson is going in on this ballot. Mussina, Smoltz and Schilling all deserve to be elected. They have more seasons with an ERA+ of 125 or better than all-time greats such as Steve Carlton, Carl Hubbell, Bob Feller, Whitey Ford, Juan Marichal, and Ryan.
Staying On The Ballot
Let's deflate an urban legend Sheffield himself started: He never threw a ball into the stands on purpose in Milwaukee. Sheffield bragged after he was traded by the Brewers to the Padres in 1991 that he was so upset about being charged with an error by the official scorer in Milwaukee ("I hated everything about the place," he said then) that he would say, "Okay, here's a real error" and "I'd throw the next ball into the stands on purpose."
Never happened. That was just a young Sheffield trying to sound tough. (He later recanted his boast, though people choose to cling to the original quote.) Only twice, both times in 1989, did Sheffield commit a throwing error for his second error of a game there. Neither case involved a ball thrown into the stands. The first event occurred in only his 38th career game; the second event included a cleanly executed play in between the two throwing errors.
So let's get rid of that reason not to vote for Sheffield. Now: steroids. Yes, Sheffield used them, though the only time we know he did was when he trained with Barry Bonds before the 2002 season and he said he used them unknowingly. Sheffield is the only star I know who, as an active player, without provocation admitted to using steroids; he did so in a 2004 SI story I wrote. Why would he make an admission? Because, he told me, he had testified under oath that he had been duped into using them.
Sheffield said he told the BALCO grand jury the previous year that Bonds arranged for him to use "the cream," "the clear" and "red beans," which prosecutors identified as steroid pills from Mexico. Sheffield, however, said he was told the substances were legal arthritic balms or nutritional supplements. Sheffield soon ended his friendship and training program with Bonds over personal conflicts, and when he later learned that the BALCO products were steroids, he told me, "I was mad. I want everybody to be on an even playing field."
That's it; we have no evidence that ties Sheffield to steroids other than those several weeks before the 2002 season when Sheffield lived at Bonds' home. Even during that 2002 season, when players were resisting the idea of steroid testing, Sheffield spoke out in favor of it, saying, "I would like to see testing. I mean you see how much guys are using it. Unless you've got something to hide, you won't mind testing, right?"
Put together the urban legend about throwing the ball into the stands, the BALCO connection that landed him in the Mitchell Report and his lack of a stable connection to one franchise — he is the only player to hit 500 home runs and play for eight teams — and Sheffield has a major image problem with the writers that probably is going to keep him from getting elected.
The shame is that Sheffield was a gifted hitter with a gold standard combination of bat speed and hand-eye coordination. He is the only righthanded hitter in history to hit 500 home runs without ever striking out 90 times in a season. (Only two lefthanded hitters have done so: Ted Williams and Mel Ott.) He is one of only four players with 250 stolen bases and 500 home runs. Willie Mays is the only one not connected to steroids; the others are Bonds and Alex Rodriguez.
Five times Sheffield finished in the top eight in MVP voting and three times he finished in the top five. He has Hall of Fame numbers, but he is a long shot to ever get elected by the writers.
Back in 2009, I wrote that Delgado was "The Lost Slugger of the Steroid Era." In the last eight years before steroid testing with penalties (1996 to 2003), Delgado hit 292 home runs, but to little fanfare. Only eight players hit more in that span, and all but Jim Thome have been connected to steroid use. I asked Delgado in 2009 if he had been tempted to try steroids, and before I could finish he cut me off. "Not one time," he said firmly. "I don't want to interrupt you, but ... People can think whatever they want. They're going to anyway. What are you going to do? React to what some guy in Kansas says? Or some guy in Philadelphia says or some guy in L.A. says?"
So I asked him why he would not have used steroids at a time when there was no testing.
"Health, number one," he said. "And number two, it's cheating."
(Within a year, Delgado's career was over because of a hip injury. Federal authorities wanted to talk to Delgado about his relationship with Anthony Galea, the Toronto-based doctor who in 2011 pleaded guilty to bringing unapproved drugs, including HGH, into the United States to treat pro athletes.)
Delgado posted fabulous numbers, including 473 career homers, 1,512 RBI and a .929 OPS. He is one of only six players with 10 straight seasons with 30 or more home runs, yet in those years (1997 to 2006) he was named to just two All-Star Games. So just who was occupying first base at the Midsummer Classic in those years, including the NL teams for the 2005 and '06 games? Jason Giambi (five times), Jim Thome (3), Mike Sweeney (3) Tino Martinez, Mark McGwire, Frank Thomas, Rafael Palmeiro, Mo Vaughn, Ron Coomer, McGriff, John Olerud, Tony Clark, Paul Konerko, Ken Harvey, Derek Lee, Albert Pujols, Nomar Garciaparra, Ryan Howard and Lance Berkman.
Delgado, who spent his prime years on mediocre Toronto teams, never gained traction as a truly great player during his era, and I suspect the same will be true in the Hall of Fame voting. McGriff, a fellow slugging first baseman and a better candidate, received 21.5 percent of the vote in his first year on the ballot, in 2010. Delgado would do very well on a crowded ballot to begin at such a number.
The summer when he turned 22, playing at Double A Trenton in 1995, Garciaparra weighed 165 pounds and slugged just .384. He was a speedy table-setter with a good glove, and there were questions about how he might hold up over the grind of a major league season. The next spring he arrived at training camp heavily muscled, having added 30 pounds. He slugged .733 at Triple A Pawtucket.
Over his first four full big league seasons (1997-2000), Garciaparra hit .337/.386/.577 and looked like an all-time great. I profiled him for a 2001 SI story better known for the cover photo: the former lightweight at Trenton posed bare-chested. A week later, he suffered a torn wrist tendon that wrecked his 2001 season.
Garciaparra rebounded to put up two big years in 2002 and 2003. In 2002, after the SI cover story I wrote about steroids in baseball, Garciaparra told the Hartford Courant, "I was never tempted [to use steroids], because my whole life was built around the belief that I was going to get to the big leagues."
Still, he was an early and consistent opponent of steroid testing, saying in 2002, "You think it's going to be confidential? I laugh at that," followed in 2004 by, "I don't trust testing. Testing is not the answer," followed in 2009, after former teammate Manny Ramirez was busted, with "I think there's definitely a problem when a 12-year-old could fail our drug test right now … Unfortunately, in today's age, everybody's already looking at [Ramirez] as a cheat. That's a strong word."
Midway through 2004, his age-30 season, Garciaparra was traded to the Cubs after negotiations about a contract extension broke down and Boston's internal metrics showed him to be a poor defender. The Red Sox went 42-19 after the trade and won the World Series. Garciaparra's career declined from there with more injuries.
We are left with a bifurcated career to consider. Through his 20s, Garciaparra posted a 134 OPS+, slugged .555 and played 130 games six times. Through his 30s, he posted a 102 OPS+, slugged .446 and never again played 130 games in a season.
One And Done
These players are almost certain to get less than five percent of the vote and thus won't be back on future BBWAA ballots: Rich Aurilia, Aaron Boone, Tony Clark, Jermaine Dye, Darin Erstad, Cliff Floyd, Brian Giles, Tom Gordon, Eddie Guardado, Troy Percival, Jason Schmidt.