Gary Carter earned high praise during the peak of his career in the mid-1980s. (Ronald C. Modra/SI)
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2014 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to JAWS, please see here. For the breakdowns of each candidate and to read the previous articles in the series, see here.
Yet another consequence of the inefficient selection process for the Hall of Fame is that seemingly obvious choices for Cooperstown can take longer than expected to gain entry. It's a symptom that has already affected players on this year's ballot and will surely continue as the BBWAA electorate struggles with how to handle players connected to performance-enhancing drugs.
Even before this era, however, some stars were forced to wait for what in retrospect seem like ridiculously long times due to crowded ballots, changing rules and ill-informed electorates. So let's take another tour around the diamond, highlighting some of the most head-smacking situations. All of these players are in the Hall of Fame; some gained entry via the BBWAA after more cycles of voting than you'd expect, while others had to wait for the Veterans Committee to elect them.
Catcher (52.4 Career WAR/33.8 Peak WAR/43.1 JAWS): Gary Carter (69.8/48.2/59.0)
Carter, the inspiration for this piece, inherited the mantle of being the National League's best catcher from Johnny Bench and made 10 straight All-Star teams from 1979-88, starting seven of them and winning the game's MVP award twice. He was excellent on both sides of the ball, winning three straight Gold Gloves (1980-82), throwing out 35 percent of would-be base thieves and showing considerable power. He bashed 324 homers for his career, topping 20 nine times and 30 twice, and he reached the 100 RBI plateau four times, leading the NL in 1984. He helped the Expos to their lone postseason appearance in 1981 and was part of the Mets' 1986 World Series winners and 1988 NL East champs. Today he ranks second at the position in JAWS, with a peak score that's actually one win higher than the overall leader, Bench.
For all of that, it took Carter a ridiculous six ballots to gain entry from the BBWAA. He debuted in 1998 at just 42.3 percent on a ballot where 300-game winner Don Sutton finally went over the top on his fifth attempt, and one where Tony Perez was the only other player to receive 50 percent of the vote. He sank to 33.8 percent the following year, when George Brett, Nolan Ryan and Robin Yount went in on the first try. Perez and catching contemporary Carlton Fisk made it in 2000, the latter in his second time on the ballot.
Even after getting to 64.9 percent in 2001, the year that both Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett were elected in their first go-rounds, it still took Carter two more years; he fell 11 votes short in 2002 as Ozzie Smith gained first-ballot entry. Finally, he got over the top in 2003, joining first-time candidate Eddie Murray, and even then he got just 78.0 percent of the vote. His tragic 2012 death from a brain tumor at age 57 meant that he had only nine years to enjoy his Hall of Fame status; obviously, he should have had much, much longer.
First Base (65.7/42.3/54.0): Johnny Mize (70.9/48.8/59.8)
The Big Cat enjoyed a stellar career for the Cardinals, Giants and Yankees from 1936-55, earning All-Star honors 10 times, leading the NL in homers four times and slugging percentage four times and RBIs three times while also winning a batting title. He finished with a monster .312/.397/.562 batting line (158 OPS+) and 359 homers, an impressive total given that he lost his age 30-32 seasons to World War II. Late in his career, he was a valuable part-timer on five straight Yankees champions (1949-53), most notably clouting three homers in the 1952 World Series against the Dodgers.
For all of that, Mize never even received 45 percent of the BBWAA vote in 11 election cycles from 1960-73, the first three of which came when the vote was held biennially. He was finally elected via the VC in 1981. Today he ranks eighth in JAWS at the position, with the fourth-highest peak behind Lou Gehrig, Albert Pujols and Jimmie Foxx.
Second Base (69.5/44.5/57.0): Ryne Sandberg (67.6/46.9/57.2)
Until Jeff Kent came along, Sandberg held the home run record for second basemen at 277 (282 total) during a 16-year career (1981-97) in which he won an MVP award and nine straight Gold Gloves, made 10 straight All-Star teams and even helped the Cubs to two division titles. For his career, he collected 2,386 hits — a total suppressed by a temporary retirement that cost him part of 1994 and all of '95 — and batted .285/.344/.452 (114 OPS+). He ranks ninth at the position in JAWS, a bit short in career WAR but ahead on the peak and overall standards.
Sandberg needed three ballots to gain entry; he received 49.2 percent of the vote in 2003, the year Carter and Murray got in; future enshrinees Bruce Sutter, Jim Rice and Andre Dawson all polled above 50 percent that year. Sandberg climbed to 61.1 percent in 2004, the highest percentage after first-ballot inductees Paul Molitor and Dennis Eckersley, and he finally went over the top in 2005, joining first-ballot entry Wade Boggs and clearing the bar by just six votes.
Third base (67.4/42.7/55.0): Eddie Mathews (96.2/54.2/75.2)
On Monday I noted the BBWAA's epic failure when it came to recognizing Hall of Fame third basemen. Until Mathews was elected in 1978, Pie Traynor was the only one the writers agreed upon, and that came way back in 1948. A nine-time All-Star who helped the Braves to two pennants and a world championship, Mathews was a fearsome slugger who led the NL in homers twice, ranked in the top five nine times and retired after the 1968 season with 512 homers. At the time, that total ranked sixth overall and second in NL history behind Willie Mays. For his career, Mathews hit .271/.376/.509 (143 OPS+); today his JAWS ranks second behind only the similarly powerful Mike Schmidt.
For all of that, it took five ballots for Mathews to be elected. He debuted on the 1974 ballot, receiving just 32.3 percent of the vote while Yankees icons Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford went in together; on a ballot studded with 15 future Hall of Famers, five others received more votes, as did the still-yet-to-be-enshrined Gil Hodges. Mathews climbed to 40.9 percent in 1975, as Ralph Kiner was elected; to 48.7 percent in 1976 when Robin Roberts and Bob Lemon went in; to 62.4 percent and the second-highest vote total as Ernie Banks gained first-ballot entry in 1977. He finally earned election in 1978 with 79.4 percent of the vote.
Shortstop (66.7/42.8/54.7): Arky Vaughan (53.3/36.7/45.0)
Another great player with a relatively short career (1932-48), Vaughan lost his age 32-34 seasons to World War II and accumulated only 297 plate appearances across two seasons thereafter, though that late stint did allow him his only World Series appearance. He was an outstanding shortstop for the Pirates from 1932-41, winning the slash-stat Triple Crown in 1935 (.385/.491/.607), leading the league in on-base percentage in 1934 and '36 as well and making eight straight All-Star teams from 1934-41.
From 1932-43, he led the league in position player WAR once, ranked second five times and was out of the top 10 only in 1942, his first year with the Brooklyn Dodgers. For his career, he hit .318/.406/.453 fora 136 OPS+, which still ranks third among shortstops with at least 7,000 PA behind Honus Wagner and Alex Rodriguez; he's sixth in JAWS, with fewer games played than any other shortstop among the top 14.
Vaughan started receiving votes from the BBWAA in 1953, the year before the five-year retirement rule went into effect, but he didn't even crack 10 percent until his ninth go-round in 1966, and he topped out at 29 percent in 1968. The VC finally granted him entry in 1985, and he remains one of that body's best choices, however belatedly.
Leftfield (65.0/41.5/53.2): Joe Medwick (55.5/39.7/47.6)
A star of the Gashouse Gang-era Cardinals in the 1930s, Medwick hit a sizzling .324/.362/.505 for his career (1932-48); even in that offense-friendly era, that was good enough for a 134 OPS+. In 1937, he led the NL in hits (237) doubles (56), homers (31), RBIs (154), batting average (.374), slugging percentage (.641) and WAR (8.5) and won MVP honors. He finished in the top five in the batting race seven times from 1935-44 and in the top five in slugging percentage seven times from 1933-41, all of that while making 10 All-Star teams. He was a part-timer over his final four seasons as he bounced from the Giants to the Braves to the Dodgers and back to the Cardinals, and he retired at age 36, which limited him to "only" 2,471 hits. Today he ranks 15th in JAWS among leftfielders, a bit below the career and peak standards, but it's important to note that eight of the players above him played afterward.
Disregarding the smattering of votes he received in 1948, Medwick went through four biennial cycles without reaching 25 percent from 1956-62, then he shot up to 53.7 percent in 1964, a year in which the BBWAA didn't elect anybody. He reached 61.9 percent in 1966, when Ted Williams was elected on his first ballot, and then 72.6 percent in 1967. Because nobody received 75.0 percent that year, the rules of the day called for a runoff election, and he lost to Red Ruffing, 86.9 percent to 81.0. In 1968, during his ninth election cycle, Medwick finally gained entry, 20 years after the end of his playing career and just seven before his death at age 63. Yeesh.
Centerfield (70.4/44.0/57.2): Duke Snider (66.5/50.0/58.2), Larry Doby (49.4/39.4/44.4)
Baseball fans of the 1950s could argue over which of the three New York teams had the best centerfielder all they wanted, but Snider's inclusion in that debate with Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle probably owed more to the pugnaciousness of Brooklynites and to the Dodgers' near-perennial success in the NL than any overwhelming accomplishments on Snider's part.
That isn't to say that he wasn't excellent; the eight-time All-Star led the NL in slugging percentage twice, and in homers, RBIs and on-base percentage once apiece while helping Brooklyn win six pennants and its long World Series title. Done playing at age 37, he ended his career with 407 homers and a .295/.380/.540 line, good for a 140 OPS+. He led the NL in WAR twice (1953 and '56) while ranking second to Mays in the intervening two years, and today he ranks seventh at the position in JAWS, below the career standard but well above on peak, and one point above the overall standard.
Despite his credentials Snider could hardly buy a vote from the BBWAA. He received just 17.0 percent in his 1970 debut, a lower percentage than 19 other players, 13 of whom eventually wound up in the Hall of Fame; former teammate Hodges, who was in his second year of eligibility but who had a less impressive overall resume, netted 48.3 percent that year. It took until 1974 for Snider to reach 30 percent, and until 1977 to reach 50 percent; he was at 55.4 percent that year, still behind Hodges' 58.5 percent. In 1978, Snider got 67.0 percent, third behind Mathews and Enos Slaugher, and in 1979, he edged up to 71.3 percent — 16 votes shy — while taking a backseat to first-time candidate Mays. He finally went in the following year, with first-time candidate Al Kaline.
As for Doby, all the man did was break the American League color barrier in 1947, earn All-Star honors seven straight times from 1949-55 and help the Indians to what still stands as their last World Series win in 1948 and to the 1954 pennant as well. He last played 100 games in 1957, his age-33 season, and was done at age 35, which made for a short career. Even so, his 205 homers amounted to 27 per 162 games played, and his .283/.386/.490 line to a 136 OPS+. He topped AL position players in WAR in 1950 and '52 and finished in the top 10 eight times in a nine-year span.
The BBWAA shamefully gave him less than five percent of the vote in both 1966 and '67 (before the five percent rule was in effect), and it took until 1998, 51 years after he made baseball history, for the VC to honor him.
Rightfield (73.3/42.9/58.1): Enos Slaughter (55.1/35.0/45.0)
Slaughter spent 1938-53 with the Cardinals, crossing paths with Mize and Medwick but missing his age 27-29 seasons due to World War II. He never topped 20 homers, totaling 169 for his career, but he had eight top 10 finishes in batting average and six in on-base percentage, and finished his career with a .300/.382/.453 line (124 OPS+). He made the All-Star team in 10 straight seasons interrupted only by his war absence. Famously, he scored the winning run in Game 7 of the 1946 World Series, one of two he helped the Cardinals win, and he stuck around until age 43, spending most of his final six seasons with the Yankees as a potent part-time bat and making three more trips to the Fall Classic.
The loss of three prime seasons — and possibly 15 WAR — limits him to 26th among rightfielders in the JAWS rankings, but you can't hold his military service against him; he'd probably rank around 15th with a JAWS close to 54.0 assuming a reasonable showing during that lost time.
Slaughter debuted on the 1966 ballot and received 33.1 percent of the vote. He spent the next eight years ranging from the mid-30s to the mid-40s before reaching 48.9 percent in 1975 and then 50.8 percent in '76. Even then, he couldn't rally enough support among the writers. He topped out at 68.8 percent in 1979, his last year of BBWAA eligibility, but finally gained entry via the VC in 1985, 26 years after his final season.
Starting Pitcher (72.6/50.2/61.4): Bert Blyleven (95.4/50.7/73.0)
It's bad enough that 300-game winners Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry and Don Sutton took a combined 13 ballots to gain entry to Cooperstown, but that's still one less than it took Blyelven, whose loss of nearly two full seasons due to injury left him at "only" 287 wins. More impressive than that was his 3,701 strikeouts, a total that ranks fifth all-time, his 60 shutouts, which rank ninth, and his 4,970 innings, which ranks 14th. Blyleven spent much of his early years pitching for middling clubs, and he never won a Cy Young award, but he did help the 1979 Pirates and 1987 Twins to World Series victories with some big performances in both postseasons.
Blyleven debuted on the 1998 ballot, but received just 17.5 percent of the vote, and he didn't even top 20 percent until 2001, his fourth time around. His credentials got the attention of the sabermetric community, however. He stood out to me even before I invented JAWS and he went on to become its poster child; in the current iteration, he ranks 16th at the position, sandwiched between contemporaries Niekro and Steve Carlton. As that came to light, Blyleven gained further traction thanks in large part to an outreach effort to voters by a blogger named Rich Lederer.
Blyleven topped 30 percent in 2004, his seventh ballot, and 50 percent in 2006, his ninth. Even after reaching 61.9 percent on his 11th go-round, he still had to wait another three years; he fell five votes shy in 2010, when Andre Dawson got in and Roberto Alomar missed by eight, then finally crossed the line with 79.7 percent of the vote in 2011.
Relief Pitcher (40.6/28.2/34.4): Rich Gossage (42.0/32.0/37.0)
An intimidating fireballer who spent 22 years in the majors, Gossage enjoyed a long prime as a multi-inning fireman. He led the AL in saves three times (1975, 1978, 1980) while throwing 141 2/3, 134 1/3 and 99 innings, respectively — workloads unthinkable for closers by today's standards. A nine-time All-Star, he received Cy Young votes in five seasons and helped the Yankees to two pennants while adding another with the Padres. Today he ranks fourth in reliever JAWS, behind only Eckersley, Mariano Rivera and Hoyt Wilhelm.
Though he hit the ballot in 2000 with 33.3 percent of the vote, Gossage had to wait until after Eckersley's 2004 election before his candidacy really picked up speed. He climbed to 55.2 percent in 2005, then to 64.6 percent in 2006, the year that the statistically inferior Sutter (17th in reliever JAWS) gained entry. Gossage fell 21 votes short in 2007, while Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn sailed in on their first try, and finally received 85.8 percent in 2008, his ninth turn on the ballot.