Breaking down Today's Game Hall of Fame ballot, Part 1: Baines, Belle, more
- The latest Hall of Fame reworking of the Veterans Committee will give players who fell off the writers' ballot another chance at Cooperstown. But do any of the quartet of Harold Baines, Albert Belle, Will Clark and Orel Hershiser deserve a plaque?
It's Hall of Fame season, and while the BBWAA ballot covering recently retired players—the process that produces most of the hullaballoo every winter—made headlines with its Nov. 21 release, the Today's Game Era ballot barely registered when it was unveiled back on Oct. 3. If that moniker doesn't ring a bell, it's because the Hall has once again reworked the process by which it considers executives, managers, umpires and long-retired players whose eligibility on the writers' ballot has expired.
This past July (during the Hall of Fame's Induction Weekend festivities), the institution announced what amounts to a redistricting. Instead of candidates being divided into three chronological eras—the Pre-Integration Era (1871–1946), Golden Era ('47–72), and Expansion Era ('73 onward)—to be voted upon in a triennial cycle, they've now been separated into four eras to be voted upon with differing frequencies within a ten-year cycle, because the earlier eras have been more thoroughly picked over by past committees, often to the Hall's detriment. Besides the Today's Game Era (for candidates whose greatest contribution came from 1988 onward), the other three eras are Early Baseball (1871–1949), Golden Days ('50–69) and Modern Baseball ('70–87). The schedule for consideration as follows (note that the year refers to that of induction; the balloting takes place the previous winter).
2017: Today’s Game
2018: Modern Baseball
2019: Today’s Game
2020: Modern Baseball
2021: Golden Days and Early Baseball
2022: Today’s Game
2023: Modern Baseball
2024: Today’s Game
2025: Modern Baseball
2026: Golden Days
As I noted in July, while the focus on more recent eras is laudable, the years chosen as dividing lines create some questions with regards to classifying candidates, even when the stated goal is to do so by the era in which each player had the greatest impact. That's less of an issue with this slate than the Modern Baseball one, though if you’re wondering why Jack Morris—whose 1991 World Series Game 7 shutout stands as his signature moment—isn't on this ballot, it’s because the bulk of his career ('77–95) and major accomplishments came prior to '88. From among the 10 candidates on the Today's Game slate, I’ll note the quibbles about the classifications of Harold Baines (whose best years were from 1982 to '87) and manager Davey Johnson (who won his lone World Series in '86) within the context of their evaluations.
Baines is one of five candidates on the ballot for their work as players, alongside Albert Belle, Will Clark, Orel Hershiser and Mark McGwire. Johnson and Lou Piniella, both of whom had several good major league seasons, are on the ballot as managers. Three executives—general manager/club president John Schuerholz, owner George Steinbrenner and owner/commissioner Bud Selig—round out the slate. Voting on all will be done by a 16-member committee of writers, executives and Hall of Fame players on Dec. 4 at the Winter Meetings in National Harbor, Md, with the results released that night at 6 p.m. ET.
Over the next few days, I'll be rolling out breakdowns of these candidates (using my JAWS system) alongside those from the BBWAA ballot, starting with the players (save for McGwire, whose JAWS profile I’ll revisit separately). All own interesting niches in baseball history, but none is a particularly impressive candidate in light of JAWS.
Harold Baines (38.5 career WAR/21.3 peak WAR/29.9 JAWS)
Average Hall of Fame rightfielder: 73.2/43.0/58.1
According to legend, once and future White Sox owner Bill Veeck Jr. spotted Baines playing Little League in Maryland at age 12. After regaining control of the White Sox, Veeck made Baines the No. 1 pick of the 1977 draft, with director of player development Paul Richards proclaiming that Baines "was on his way to the Hall of Fame. He just stopped by Comiskey Park for 20 years or so." No pressure, kid. But while Baines made six All-Star squads in his 22 years in the majors (including 14 seasons in three separate stints with the White Sox), injuries to his right knee led to eight surgeries, steered him to a DH role well before his 30th birthday and limited his accomplishments.
After struggling as a 21-year-old rookie in 1980, Baines emerged as a productive hitter during the strike-shortened '81 season, and from '82 to '87, he averaged 23 homers and 99 RBIs per year, hitting .292/.342/.477 for a 119 OPS+. He helped the White Sox to a division title in 1983, led the league in slugging percentage in '84 (.541) and earned All-Star honors three times in that span, though he averaged just a modest 2.8 Wins Above Replacement per year. He tore cartilage in his right knee in a collision with Twins pitcher Neal Heaton on Sept. 27, 1986, resulting in the first of his surgeries; he needed a second one the following spring. Upon returning, he was cast almost exclusively as a DH, playing just 81 games in the outfield over the remainder of his career.
Though his hitting actually improved (128 OPS+ from 1988 to '99), Baines's value dropped with the shift: He never reached 3.0 WAR in a season again, surpassed 2.0 WAR just six times in that span and was a far less valuable player in the Today’s Game Era than the Modern Baseball one. Still, he was beloved on the South Side. Traded to Texas in a 1989 deal involving Sammy Sosa, he became the rare player to have his jersey number (3) retired while still active; the White Sox did so when he first came to town as a Ranger. He bounced around the AL, spending time with the Athletics, Orioles (three separate stints) and Indians and returning to Chicago twice. Four times, he was dealt midseason to teams that made the playoffs, making his lone trip to the World Series with the 1990 A's. In all, he hit .324/.378/.510 with five homers in 113 postseason plate appearances spread over six trips.
Baines retired after the 2001 season, finishing with impressive career figures: 2,866 hits, 384 homers, a .289/.356/.465 line and a 121 OPS+. At the time, he held most major records for DHs, including games (1,643), hits (1,690), homers (236) and RBIs (981), though Edgar Martinez and David Ortiz would eclipse most of those marks. His rate stats weren't on par with those two; he had just one top-10 finish apiece in on-base and slugging percentages and never cracked a WAR top 10. He's tied for 54th in career WAR among rightfielders, below all but two of the 19 enshrinees; he's 101st in peak WAR, having just been surpassed by Bryce Harper; and he's 70th in JAWS, ahead of just one Hall of Famer (Tommy McCarthy). A small but devoted core of voters kept him on the BBWAA ballot for five years, but he never topped 6.1% and doesn't merit more support.
Albert Belle (39.9/35.9/37.9)
Avg HOF LF: 65.1/41.5/53.3
Belle terrorized pitchers—and just about everybody else—for a decade, bashing 381 homers before a degenerative hip condition forced his retirement at age 34. Even at the height of an era of inflated offense, his numbers are still something to behold. From 1992 to '99, he hit a combined .302/.382/.586 for a 152 OPS+ and an average of 40 homers, with five All-Star appearances and three top-three finishes in MVP voting. He slugged .600 or better four times, going as high as .714 in the strike-abbreviated 1994 season (future teammate Frank Thomas led the league at .729). The following year, in a 144-game schedule, he walloped 50 homers—something only two other players had done since 1965—and became the first hitter ever to pair those 50 homers with 50 doubles. Those two seasons made him central to the resurgence of the then-moribund Indians, one of baseball's feel-good stories of the decade.
Born Albert Jojuan Belle in 1966, the slugger went by Joey Belle at Louisiana State University, in the minors after being drafted in the second round in '87 by the Indians and into '90 after playing a total of 71 games in parts of two seasons with Cleveland. He built an unfortunate reputation under that name, missing the College World Series after getting suspended for chasing a heckling fan who was shouting racist insults and destroying a clubhouse sink at Triple A Colorado Springs after a rough night at the plate, which led to a brief suspension and the discovery that he was battling a drinking problem. After 10 weeks of counseling for alcoholism and anger management, he reemerged as Albert Belle, saying, "It's too hard to stay concentrated and focused enough to play major league baseball when there's alcohol in your system."
Belle broke out at the big league level in 1991, clubbing 28 homers with a 134 OPS+, though his anger issues continued; he earned a six-game suspension that year for firing a baseball in the direction of a Municipal Stadium fan who shouted, "Hey, Joey! Keg party at my house after the game!" Nonetheless, he became a centerpiece of the offensive powerhouse that John Hart assembled in Cleveland, cracking the AL's top five in homers for three straight years (1992–94) before leading with 50 in '95. His power persisted even after he was caught with a corked bat, discovered by the White Sox, in 1994; he received a 10-game suspension, but only after teammate Jason Grimsley crawled through a false ceiling to steal the bat from the umpires' dressing room, which resulted in an FBI investigation.
In addition to his homers, Belle led the circuit in RBIs in 1993 (129) and '95 (126) as well, hitting .317/.401/.690 for a 177 OPS+ and 6.9 WAR (both third) in the latter year as the Indians made the playoffs—and won the pennant—for the first time since '54. Though he homered off the Braves' Steve Avery and Greg Maddux in Games 4 and 5 of the World Series, his slugging was overshadowed by his $50,000 fine for screaming profanities at NBC reporter Hannah Storm, who was in the Cleveland dugout. The Indians lost the series, and shortly after that, Belle made headlines for chasing a group of teenagers who egged his house on Halloween. “Tick... Tick... Tick...” read the caption for his Sports Illustrated cover story the following year.
Belle became a free agent after another monster season (48 homers, 158 OPS+, 5.6 WAR and a league-high 148 RBIs) in 1996 and signed a five-year, $55 million contract with the AL Central rival White Sox, briefly becoming the majors' highest-paid player. He slumped to 30 homers, a 116 OPS+ and 1.5 WAR in his first year but rebounded in 1998 to 49 homers and 152 RBIs as well as league highs in slugging percentage and OPS+ (.655 and 172, respectively) and a career-best 7.1 WAR. Via a contract clause guaranteeing he would remain one of the game's three highest-paid players, he opted out when the White Sox refused to give him a raise and signed a five-year, $65 million deal with the Orioles, again making him the game's highest-paid player. After two seasons—one solid and one lousy—in Baltimore, he was forced into retirement at age 34 due to degenerative arthritis in his hip; 70% of his remaining $39 million in salary was covered by insurance.
Belle ranked in the AL top five in WAR three times and in the top 10 one other time from 1994 to '98. Nonetheless, lousy defense (-63 runs, with three years of double-digit negatives) and adjustment for the period’s high offensive levels take some of the starch out of his advanced stats; though Dick Allen-like in his nearly career-long immersion in controversy and early exit, his 144 OPS+ pales next to Allen's 156 in 639 more plate appearances. Belle's 35.9 peak WAR is 5.6 wins under the Hall standard, ranking 30th among leftfielders, ahead of just four of the 19 enshrined Hall of Famers and below even Jim Rice (36.2), George Foster (36.7), Roy White (37.0) and Lance Berkman (38.9). Belle is 40th in career WAR, ahead of just one Hall of Famer, and even without the injury, he was on the DH path due to age and defensive shortcomings, which limited his remaining value. He debuted with 7.7% of the vote in 2006, then fell off after the next year. He doesn't have a case to rise to the head of the class here, but does seem to have found inner peace at last.
Will Clark (56.2/35.9/46.0)
Avg. HOF 1B: 65.9/42.5/54.2
A six-time All-Star, Clark spent more than half a decade as one of the game's elite hitters, renowned for his sweet lefthanded swing. Had he not hung up his spikes after an impressive age-36 season, he might have finished with hit and home run totals that impressed BBWAA voters; instead, he fell off the ballot after receiving just 4.4% of the vote in 2006.
After winning the Golden Spikes Award as the top collegiate player in the country at Mississippi State, Clark was taken by the Giants with the second pick of the 1985 draft (future teammate B.J. Surhoff was first). He homered in his first minor league plate appearance; less than a year later, he did so again in his first major league PA (off future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, no less, then pitching for the Astros). Clark bopped 35 homers and hit .308/.371/.580 for a 152 OPS+ the following year, kicking off an impressive six-year stretch: From 1987 through '92, his 152 OPS+ (.303/.378/.515 despite playing half his games at pitcher-friendly Candlestick Park) tied Barry Bonds for second in the majors behind only Fred McGriff (154). Clark was the NL runner-up in OPS+ three times in that span, bookended by a pair of seventh-place finishes.
In 1989, Clark’s .333/.407/.546 line placed him second, third and fourth in the league, respectively, and his 8.6 WAR ranked second. He helped the Giants to their first pennant since 1962 that year, going 13-for-20 with six extra-base hits against the Cubs and winning NLCS MVP honors, but he cooled off in the earthquake-marred World Series, during which the Giants were swept by the A's.
After a subpar 1993 season, Clark left the Giants to sign a five-year, $30 million deal with the Rangers, who signed him to replace Rafael Palmeiro, who had departed for Baltimore. Clark hit .329/.431/.501 with 13 homers and a 141 OPS+ during the strike-shortened 1994 season, in which the Rangers somehow finished atop the four-team AL West despite a 52–62 record. In four more seasons in hitter-friendly Texas, he helped the Rangers to two more division titles but struggled to stay healthy, averaging 125 games a year and topping 20 homers just once. After '98, he swapped places with Palmeiro, signing a two-year, $11 million contract with the Orioles, joining incoming free agent Belle; Palmeiro returned to Texas on a five-year deal.
Those aging Orioles were no fun, going 78–84 in 1999; Clark, though productive, missed more than half the season due to a left thumb fracture and surgery to remove bone chips in his left elbow. He hit .301/.413/.473 through July 31 the following year before the nowhere-bound O's shipped him to St. Louis, where he had one of the greatest post-deadline deal performances: .345/.426/.655 with 12 homers—one in each of his first four games with his new team, starting with a pinch-hit blast—and 2.1 WAR in 51 games while filling in for an injured McGwire. That performance that helped the Cardinals win the NL Central and advance to the NLCS, where they fell in five games despite Clark's .412/.500/.706 performance in 20 trips to the plate.
Though he finished the season with a 145 OPS+ and 3.9 WAR and had interest from the Cardinals to return, Clark opted to retire, leaving him with 2,176 hits and 284 homers. Those totals didn't stand out in front of BBWAA voters, as he spent just one year on the ballot. From an advanced stat perspective, he had just three seasons among his league's top 10 in WAR and ranks 29th in peak score at the position, ahead of just four of the 19 enshrined first basemen and behind other non-Hall of Famers such as Keith Hernandez (41.0), John Olerud (38.9) and Mark Teixeira (37.9). Clark is 25th in JAWS, ahead of just six enshrinees—including Tony Perez (45.2) and Orlando Cepeda (42.4)—and again behind Hernandez (50.5), Olerud (48.4) and even Jason Giambi (46.3). He's another candidate for the Hall of Very Good.
Orel Hershiser (56.8/40.4/48.6)
Avg. HOF SP: 73.9/50.3/62.1
Hershiser spent 18 years (1983–2000) in the majors in a career bifurcated by a 1990 torn rotator cuff. Though "The Bulldog"—nicknamed by Tommy Lasorda in order to inspire tenacity and aggression—won more games and pitched in more World Series after the injury than before (105 and two compared to 99 and one), it's the 1988 season for which he'll always be remembered, for he closed the year on one of the greatest runs in baseball history. Unscored upon in his final 59 regular-season innings, he broke Don Drysdale's long-standing record, then won MVP honors in both the NLCS and World Series, helping a banged-up Dodgers squad upset the heavily-favored Mets and A's. That run led to his being named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year and a unanimous Cy Young win. His career was greater than just that one year, however. Though not overpowering, from 1984 to '89, Hershiser was the most valuable pitcher in baseball this side of Roger Clemens.
Drafted by the Dodgers in the 17th round out of Bowling Green in 1979, Hershiser spent September 1983 and most of the first half of '84 in the bullpen. But a one-run complete game against the Cubs on June 29 not only secured his rotation spot but also set off a 33 2/3-inning scoreless streak that included three complete-game shutouts—two of them two-hit, nine-strikeout efforts. He ranked third in the league with a 2.66 ERA in 189 2/3 innings and finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year vote (Dwight Gooden won). Thanks to a new split-fingered fastball, he made even bigger waves in 1985, going 19–3 with a 2.03 ERA (again third in the league) and finishing third in the Cy Young vote (Gooden won that, too). Though Hershiser's 1986 and '87 records looked mediocre (14–14 and 16–16), he was stellar in the latter season but victimized by lousy offensive support (4.1 runs per game in a league where 4.5 was average). That year, he also made his first All-Star team and led the league in innings (264 2/3), placing second in WAR (6.4), third in ERA (3.06) and fourth in the Cy Young voting.
Hershiser took things to another level in late 1988. From the sixth inning of his Aug. 30 complete game through five complete-game shutouts and a 10-inning scoreless effort during the season's final week, he didn't allow a run. He finished 23–8 with a 2.26 ERA and league highs in innings (267), complete games (15), shutouts (eight, a total unsurpassed since) and WAR (7.2) as the Dodgers won the NL West. After winding up on the short end in NLCS Games 1 and 3 against the Mets, he came out of the bullpen in the 12th inning of a thrilling Game 4, filling in for closer Jay Howell—who had been suspended due to pine tar on his glove—to secure the save. He tossed a five-hit shutout in Game 7 and was even better in the World Series against the powerhouse A's, twirling a three-hit shutout in Game 2 and applying the coup de grâce in Game 5 with a four-hit, two-run complete game, even going 3-for-3 with a pair of doubles.
Hershiser was nearly as good in 1989, again leading in innings (256 2/3) and WAR (7.0) and ranking second in ERA (2.31), but a meager 3.2 runs per game of offensive support dropped him to 15–15. The next season, he suffered a torn rotator cuff on April 25 that would cost him the next 13 months; the repair, done by Dr. Frank Jobe, was nearly as groundbreaking as the surgeon’s Tommy John procedure.
Though Hershiser would never again regain his previous dominance, he spent the remainder of his career demonstrating a doggedness in line with his nickname. He left the Dodgers after the 1994 strike was settled, signing with the Indians, whose fearsome lineup—including Belle, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Eddie Murray and Carlos Baerga—fueled his renaissance. He went 16–6 with a 3.87 ERA (121 ERA+) for a 100–44 team that won the pennant, then posted a 1.53 ERA over five postseason starts, combining on a shutout of the Red Sox, beating the Mariners twice and splitting a pair of decisions against the Braves in the World Series. With his team down 3–1, he outdueled Maddux in Game 5 to stave off elimination, but Atlanta clinched the championship in the next game.
Hershiser spent two more years in Cleveland, reaching the 1997 World Series as well, but after teammate Chad Ogea alleged that he threw spitballs, he was tagged for 13 runs in 10 innings over his two series starts. After bouncing around to the Giants and Mets, Hershiser came home to Los Angeles for a short-lived reunion in 2000. When he walked off the mound amid an eight-run second inning on June 26, Dodgers fans recognized that the end had arrived and gave him a warm and lengthy standing ovation in gratitude for the championship he had brought them.
Hershiser tallied 33.0 WAR from 1984 to '89—behind Clemens's 35.7 and just ahead of Bret Saberhagen (32.2) and Gooden (30.7)—and ranked among the NL's top five in WAR four times in that span, but his peak score is still around 10 WAR short of the standard at the position, and he's about 17 WAR short in career WAR. His JAWS is better than just 15 of the 62 enshrined starters, and his still-standing scoreless streak and outstanding postseason work (8–3, 2.59 ERA in 132 innings) aren't enough to bridge that gap. Flags fly forever, though, and his 1988 magic guarantees him a spot in the hearts of Dodgers fans.
If Baines, Belle, Clark and Hershiser make for a quartet of candidates whose merits for Cooperstown are significantly short, the same can’t be said for McGwire, whose case I’ll examine in my next installment.