Hall of Fame thoughts on pitchers and under-supported candidates
Another Hall of Fame announcement arrives Tuesday, which is good news because we just might see the biggest class in 59 years, to say nothing of being done with a month of whining for another year.
This just in: The voting among qualified baseball writers never has been easy since it began in 1936. Imagine you were a voter in 1955, for instance, when rules required you to vote for 10 players. (Since 1958, voters can vote for up to 10 players.) Now imagine the internet existed then, giving amplification to complaints about a "crowded" ballot and the "difficulty" of making judgment calls. Talk about crowded; the ballot of 64 players that year included 35 players who eventually gained enshrinement.
How could 28 lunkheads not vote for Joe DiMaggio? How could Hank Greenberg miss getting the needed 75 percent for an eighth time? Where was the love for Joe Cronin? The torch-and-pitchfork crowd would have been searching for the one poor soul who voted for Charlie Berry, a catcher with only 539 career hits who never started 100 games in a season.
I bring up 1955 because this year could mark the first time since then that the writers voted in four players in one election. Pitchers Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez are locks to get in, pitcher John Smoltz is a strong candidate for election, and second baseman Craig Biggio, who missed by only two votes last year, could edge past the 75-percent threshold this time.
Despite all the teeth-gnashing, and on the heels of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas getting in last year, the writers are sending players into the Hall of Fame at a rate never before seen since current voting protocols have been in place since 1968. We never have seen six or seven inductees over two years. And next year, in addition to Smoltz or Biggio if they don't get in this year, we get Ken Griffey Jr. and probably one or two from among Trevor Hoffman, Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza and Tim Raines.
The process of election has accelerated because we have access to more information that spreads faster and wider than ever before. Another consequence to the flow of information is that the data give rise to the fallacy of "right" and "wrong" ballot choices.
Ruth Chang, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University, might as well have been writing about Hall of Fame balloting when she wrote an essay last weekend in The New York Times Sunday Review about how we make false assumptions of value in a data-driven world that's gone head-over-heels for cost-benefit analysis.
"We shouldn't assume that goodness is like distance," she writes, in which one distance is definitively more, less or the same as another.
She continues, "Options can be 'on a par' — different in value while being in the same overall neighborhood. If your alternatives are on a par, you can't make a mistake of reason in choosing one instead of the other."
Her overall point is that when you make a choice from among options "on a par," you imbue that choice with added personal value. The same philosophy can be applied to Hall of Fame voting. I will give you my four most under-supported Hall of Famers based on current voting, but don't mistake that for another "right and wrong" debate. You have your inner circle "above par" choices — the ones such as Johnson and Martinez who are no-doubt Hall of Famers. You have your one-and-done candidates, who are among the very few players to get on a ballot at all. And most everybody else is in that "on a par" territory.
What we get are more than 500 personal choices, not "right" or "wrong" choices. Get more than 500 writers together — it could be 500 doctors, bus drivers, taxidermists, poets … the method of entry doesn't matter — and the task of getting 75 percent agreement on personal choice is the very definition of why the Baseball Hall of Fame is so elite.
Under current rules, the writers have elected 73 players in 47 years, an average of just 1.6 per year. Overall, more players have found their way into the Hall of Fame through some form of a Veterans Committee (126) than have been elected by the writers (114).
A second straight big election class signals those ways are changing a bit, at least in the speed of how players are getting in. The key comes down to Smoltz and Biggio, both of whom get my support. The only oddity about their inclusion is that Smoltz seems to have separated himself from Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling, neither of whom came close to even a majority of the vote in their combined three tries at election. I don't see the separation. I do see Smoltz, Mussina and Schilling as "on a par" choices, and the idea that Smoltz could get three times the support that Mussina and Schilling have received baffles me.
Let's take a quick look at Johnson, Martinez, Smoltz, Mussina and Schilling, all of whom got my vote. I picked five categories below to illustrate their careers: wins above .500, adjusted ERA (ERA+), qualified seasons with an adjusted ERA of at least 125 ("great years") and how many times they finished in the top five in their league in ERA and in WHIP:
|Pitcher||> .500||ERA+||Great Years||Top 5 ERA||Top 5 WHIP|
Here you see how Johnson and Martinez stand out. You also see that Mussina and Schilling are right there with Smoltz. How to explain the gap in support when there is almost no gap in their careers? Smoltz does have the oddity of a three-year stretch when he averaged 48 saves as a closer (though most elite starters on a good team would rack up a ton of saves if moved to that role.) He also has one of the best postseason records of all time — though so does Schilling.
Here's one reason that probably influences the personal choices of voters: Smoltz spent all but 15 games at the tail end of his career with one team, the Braves. It shouldn't matter, of course, but fans and voters convey greater worth to a player when he gains iconic status with one team.
It helps Biggio and hurts Jeff Kent. It helps Jeff Bagwell and hurts Fred McGriff. It will help Trevor Hoffman and hurt Billy Wagner. It will help Chipper Jones and hurt Jim Thome. Lee Smith, Gary Sheffield and Tim Raines also don't get the boost of spending all of their prime years with one team. Mussina spent 10 years in Baltimore and joined the Yankees at age 32 for eight seasons. Schilling had great years with Philadelphia, Arizona and Boston.
Largely on how well Mussina and Schilling compare to Smoltz, I have them ranked among the four most under-supported candidates on the ballot. None of these four candidates will be elected Tuesday — if they ever get elected at all.
1. Fred McGriff (11.7 percent): He has yet to crack 25 percent of the vote, and with only four more chances left on the ballot after this year, it looks like he's not even going to come close to getting in. McGriff suffers from the lack of a "thumbnail narrative:" He is not associated with one team (he played for six teams, never more than five years with any of them), he was deprived of the national career appreciation that comes with 500 home runs (he retired with 493, a number shortened by the 1994-95 strike), his star dimmed as other sluggers turned to steroids (he won the home run title in 1992 with 35; seven years later, a like number, 32, left him 17th), and he has no team, person or "camp" turning his candidacy into a cause.
McGriff became only the 10th player to retire with an OPS of .886 or better over more than 10,000 plate appearances. In short: He remained great for a long time. The nine others all were "inner circle" first ballot Hall of Famers (Schmidt, Aaron, Robinson, Mays, Musial, Ott, Ruth, Cobb, Speaker.) And while Bagwell gets more than four times the votes of McGriff, when you compare the two of them, McGriff has more runs, hits, home runs, RBI, All-Star selections and more top-five seasons in home runs, OPS and Runs Created. And McGriff was a better postseason player by a mile (.917 OPS to .685).
2. Mike Mussina (20.3): Remember Mussina's 10 "great seasons," the ones with an adjusted ERA of 120 or better? He is one of only 12 pitchers in history with that many great seasons. All of the others are in the Hall except for Johnson, who is going in, and Roger Clemens, who won't be going in because of his connection to steroids.
He is the only great starting pitcher to pitch his entire career in the AL East during the greatest slugging era in history (he made 60 percent of his career starts at Camden Yards, Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park) — and he came out of it with 270 wins, second only to Clemens in the AL since the designated hitter was introduced in 1973.
3. Jeff Kent (15.2): The bad news for Kent is that no one ever was elected to the Hall of Fame after getting such little support in his first year on the ballot. The record for the worst such first-year support was the 17 percent by Duke Snider in 1970. Snider was elected on his 11th try. (The Hall recently cut the maximum years on the ballot to 10.)
Here's why his support is strangely low: He is the greatest slugging second baseman in history with the exception of Rogers Hornsby. He blows away Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg in every offensive category, he has more 100-RBI seasons than any second baseman ever, and only Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer had more seasons at second base with 250 total bases (10-9).
The extreme value of Kent comes from giving his team the bat of a first baseman at a middle infield position. He hit cleanup in 61 percent of his career starts and was a .290 hitter who hit .300 with runners in scoring position. Yes, the years of his career (1992 to 2008) were known as an offensive era, but nobody else hit like Kent at that position. Kent had 49 percent more RBI than any other second baseman in baseball during the span of his career.
Like McGriff, he's probably not getting in because he played for too many teams, has no "campaign manager" and is knocked for his defense. But say this about Kent's defense: His teams went to the postseason six times with him at second base, and he made 88 percent of his career starts there, playing the position to age 40.
4. Curt Schilling (29.2): Schilling is Don Drysdale with a better postseason resume. The good news for Schilling (216-146 with a 127 ERA+ over 3,261 innings) is that Drysdale (209-166 with a 121 ERA+ over 3,432 innings) did even worse than Schilling in his first two years on the ballot (21 and 29 percent). Drysdale needed 10 tries to be elected.
Schilling owns the greatest strikeout-to-walk rate since the mound was set 60 feet, six inches from home plate in 1889. He once had a season with fewer walks (33) than starts (35) while striking out more than 300 batters. And whom would you pick if you had one big postseason game to win? Schilling would have to be on your short list. He took the ball five times in postseason elimination games; his team won every one of those games as Schilling went 4-0 with a 1.37 ERA.