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Four who probably won't make the Hall of Fame this year, but should

Hall of Fame time already? Well, no. But to beat the rush, here are a few thoughts about four interesting new candidates ...

Question: Who is the best eligible hitter who is not in the Hall of Fame?

I think this is an interesting question. It's interesting because the way it is framed we don't have to drudge up all the talk about Joe Jackson and Pete Rose -- neither one of them is eligible. Neither is Barry Bonds, yet.

One answer to the question is Mark McGwire. A lot of people would say that McGwire was not a great hitter -- as they define "hitter" -- but I would disagree. He had a .394 on-base percentage because of his incredible ability to work the strike zone (and McGwire had a HUGE strike zone). And in his prime he hit a home run every eight at-bats, which is simply unmatched in baseball history. But, well, we all know why McGwire is not in the Hall of Fame, and anyway he did hit .263 for his career which probably eliminates him from the discussion. My hero Duane Kuiper hit for a better average than Mark McGwire, though he was only good for a home run every, oh, 3,379 at-bats or so.

Dick Allen is a pretty decent choice as the best eligible not in -- his 156 OPS+ is better than all but 12 Hall of Famers (it ties him with Willie Mays for 12th). He played in a terrible hitting era, but from age 22 (when he put up one of the great rookie seasons ever) to age 32 (when he led the league homers despite playing in only 128 games) he was an awesome hitter.

Don Mattingly, I suppose, has his case -- he hit .307 for his career, won a batting title, an MVP, twice led the league in OPS+, twice in hits, three times in doubles. Over a career, though, Will Clark was probably even better, because he drew more walks and slugged better. So Clark deserves consideration, too.

Minnie Minoso, for regrettable reasons, did not make it to the big leagues as a full-timer until 1951, and from '51 to '61 he hit .305/.395/.471 for an OPS+ of 134. Indian Bob Johnson -- who never played for the Indians -- was 27 when he made it to the big leagues, and he punched up an OPS+ of 138 while hitting .324 and leading the league in on-base percentage and OPS+ when he was 38.

Babe Herman hit .324 for a career, though it was a relatively short one. Tony Oliva won three batting titles and led the league in hits five times -- Bill James has often said that he never saw anyone hit more savage foul balls than Tony Oliva. People often poked fun at Bill Madlock for caring so much about his stats, but he won four batting titles between 1975 and '83. One of my favorites was Pedro Guerrero -- from 1980 through '89 he hit .308/.383/.586 and through the eyes of a teenager he often seemed to be pretty much an impossible out.

But I think there's actually a better answer than any of those for the greatest eligible hitter who is not in the Hall of Fame. I'm cheating a little bit because this player is not quite eligible ... he will be on the ballot this year for the first time. But he will not get voted in, and I suspect he will not come close to getting voted in. And I think he might be the best hitter (non-steroid/gambling division) to not make the Hall of Fame.

That hitter, of course, is Edgar Martinez.

Look:

• Martinez's career average is .312 -- since the end of World War II (not including active players) only seven men with 7,500 or-more at-bats have a better batting average (Gwynn, Boggs, Carew, Musial, Puckett, Clemente, Larry Walker).

• Martinez's career on-base percentage is .418 -- FOUR ONE EIGHT. Only Bonds, Mantle and Frank Thomas have a better on-base percentage using the same criteria (since 1945, 7,500 at-bats, non-active).

• Martinez slugged .515 -- the same as Willie McCovey. Admittedly, it was a different era (and Edgar only once hit more than 30 home runs), but the point here is that Martinez was not a slappy hitter.

• Martinez led the league in hitting twice, in on-base percentage three times, in runs once, in RBIs once and in doubles twice. I've often said that one of the great MVP rip-offs in baseball history was when Mo Vaughn won in 1995 over Albert Belle -- who hit 50 homers and 50 doubles in a strike-shortened season, one of the great hitting years in baseball history. Edgar, you could argue, had an even BETTER YEAR than Belle (.356/.479/.628 with 121 runs, 116 walks, 113 RBIs, a 185 OPS+).

Best I can guess, Martinez will not get a lot of Hall of Fame support despite being one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, and there are at least three reasons. One, he was viewed as a DH -- well, he was mostly a DH. In his career, he played 1,412 games as DH and only 563 as a third baseman. There's a sense among many voters that a player who was not good enough to play the field on a regular basis -- no matter how good a hitter he may have been -- lacks that completeness necessary to be a Hall of Famer.

Of course, Paul Molitor was predominantly a DH, too, and he breezed right into the Hall of Fame.

Molitor, though, reached the hallmark number -- he got to 3,000 hits. And that's reason No. 2. Martinez, who did not get a chance to be a full-time player until he was 27, only managed 2,247 hits. He only hit 309 home runs. Molitor got about 3,500 more plate appearances than Martinez, and as such his numbers simply look better. But there is no doubt in my mind that Martinez was a better hitter than Molitor -- he just had a significantly shorter career.

And I mean that as no knock on Molitor. Jim Rice was just inducted ... and he didn't put up any Hallmark numbers. Martinez was a much better hitter than Rice, too.

And I mean that as no knock on Rice, either. The Hall of Fame is loaded, absolutely loaded with players who were not nearly as good at hitting a baseball as Edgar Martinez. Compare him as a hitter with almost anyone you can think of recent years -- George Brett, Wade Boggs, Rod Carew, Billy Williams, Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline or Yaz. You'll be surprised.

And that's reason No. 3 -- many people never realized or appreciated just how good a hitter Edgar Martinez was. He was out there on the West Coast, in Seattle, playing after people around the country went to sleep, after those East Coast newspaper deadlines. He never played in a World Series, and he was always overshadowed -- by Griffey, by A-Rod, by Unit, by somebody.

He was a truly great hitter -- world class. I'll be interested to see how the vote goes for him this year. Maybe I will be pleasantly surprised. But I expect a lack of support. And I expect that Edgar Martinez will hold the "Best Hitter Not In the Hall" title -- maybe he can have a championship belt made of it.

* * *

At the World Series a woman handed out a very nice full-color booklet to promote the Hall of Fame case of Roberto Alomar. I say it was nice because it looked nice ... but it had nothing much inside. A few numbers. A few bland comparisons to Hall of Fame second basemen. To me, it seemed oddly beneath Roberto Alomar's standing -- sort of like handing out a Hank Aaron booklet that makes his Hall of Fame case by pointing out that he hit more home runs than Goose Goslin.

Alomar, to me, has a case as the greatest second baseman since Hornsby. I am not the best person to make that case -- I, of course, happen to think that Joe Morgan is the greatest second baseman since Hornsby. But I could give it a try: Alomar won 10 Gold Gloves -- more than any second baseman -- and I think he was probably slightly better defensively than Morgan. He hit .300 for his career, walked just about as often as he struck out, hit double-digit home runs nine times, stole 30 or more bases eight times and was a terrific postseason player (.313 postseason average, .347 in his two World Series victories). He had his best year at age 33 in Cleveland -- he could have won the MVP that year. He did get traded to the Mets, where he finished off with three uninspiring years, and he retired at 36. So he did not get the number bump that so many players get in their later years.

Still, it's hard to imagine a much better Hall of Fame case -- a great fielding, great hitting, great running second baseman.

But ... I sense no buzz about Alomar's candidacy. I guess there are a couple of reasons for this. There was the spitting incident back in 1996 ... he spit in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck. And then, post-career, an ex-girlfriend filed a civil suit alleging that Alomar had unprotected sex with her despite having AIDS. Alomar denied that he has AIDS. This, of course, should have nothing at all to do with his Hall of Fame candidacy, but when a player has some sort of controversy swirling around, it probably does affect the way people think about him.

And then ... Alomar seems to be another player who was probably better than many people seemed to think when he was a player. Well, no, that's not exactly right -- he made 12 All-Star Games (10 as a starter) and won all those Gold Gloves and was top 6 MVP five times. So people did know of his brilliance while he was playing. It just seems like he was someone who did not stick in people's minds.

To sum up: Alomar won more Gold Gloves than Sandberg, Mazeroski, White or any other second baseman. He also cracked 2,724 hits -- more than any second baseman since World War II (Craig Biggio got more hits, but he spent quite a bit of time at other positions). He hit more than 500 doubles. He's one of only two players in baseball history to hit .300 with 200 homers and 400 stolen bases -- the other is first ballot Hall of Famer Paul Molitor who, as mentioned, spent most of his career as a DH.

If you want your baseball player who hits, hits with power, gets on base, runs well, plays great defense ... well, hard to imagine how someone could have a much better Hall of Fame case than Roberto Alomar. I think that, unlike Edgar Martinez, he will get voted into the Hall ... but I do wonder how long it will take.

* * *

I remember a few years ago, the Cincinnati Enquirer did a baseball special cover that featured a Hall of Fame plaque for Barry Larkin. This had to be 1996 or so, he was only 32 at the time, and it seemed a bit early to call Larkin a future Hall of Famer. Yes, he won the MVP in 1995, and he'd had a better year in 1996, but it just seemed too soon. I remember telling people then: Let's see how the rest of his career turns out.

As it turned out, he was injured in 1997, he had very good 1998 and 1999 seasons, more injuries in 2000 ... and that really was it for his career. He played four more injury-riddled years during which he mostly bickered with the Cincinnati Reds about money and being treated with respect.

And now I look back at Larkin's career -- well, it's interesting. I spent a lot of time around him in the mid-'90s when I wrote columns in Cincinnati, and I always found him to be a series of contradictions. He grew up in Cincinnati and he played his whole career in Cincinnati, but I never got the sense that he particularly liked Cincinnati. He was obviously charismatic and lucid and interesting when he wanted to be -- there seemed little doubt even that that he had a TV career ahead if he wanted one. But he rarely seemed all that interested in talking. He was the team leader that did not seem to enjoy being the team leader -- and other players did not seem to enjoy it either. It was weird.

As a player, well, Larkin was an amazing player to watch every day. Yes, I cringe when I hear that "you have to see him every day to appreciate him" cliche... but it really was amazing how many times we would be watching from the box and Larkin made a play that left you shaking your head in admiration. I suppose it felt that way because he was such a well-rounded player -- Bill James in the New Historical Abstract called Larkin one of the 10 most complete players in baseball history (italics his). He could do so many different things that could impress you.

• Larkin stole 379 bases -- and at remarkable 83 percent success rate.

• Larkin never struck out 70 times in a season, and walked 112 more times in his career than he struck out.

• Larkin hit double-digit home runs nine times, and as many as 33 in a season.

• Larkin finished in the top 10 in batting average four times, runs scored five times, walks three times, stolen bases five times, on-base percentage three times, slugging twice. He won three Gold Gloves. He won the MVP, the Lou Gehrig and the Roberto Clemente Awards. He made 12 All-Star Teams. He hit .353 in his one World Series appearance. And he played with a certain style -- he was just a graceful player. He made great defensive plays without diving, and stole bases with a seeming effortlessness.

I remember in 1995 -- his MVP year -- he seemed to always come through in the big moments. The numbers show that my memory isn't completely faulty. Larkin hit .345/.453/.591 with runners in scoring position that year. He hit .347 and slugged .653 with runners in scoring position and two outs. He hit .397 in Late & Close situations. It was just one year, of course, but I remember manager Davey Johnson saying with wonder that he could never remember a player who was so guaranteed to give you a good at-bat in those pivotal situations as Barry Larkin. And it sure seemed that way.

So that seems like a slam-dunk Hall of Famer, right? Sure. The knock is ... injuries. Only four times in Larkin's career did he play 150 games or more.

When he played, he was outstanding. And over the course of his career, he played almost 2,200 games. But he had SO MANY partial seasons -- 97 games in '89, 123 games in '91, 100 games in '93, the two strike years took away games, 73 games in '97, 102 games in 2000, 45 games in 2001 and so on.

This, I suppose, can make Larkin look like a borderline Hall of Fame choice. He only once finished in the top 10 in MVP voting other than the year he won it. He never led the league in a single counting statistic. We all know how I feel about runs and RBIs -- they are context stats -- but that doesn't change the fact that Larkin only twice scored 100 runs* in a season and only once drove in more than 75 -- and never 90. People look at those counting stats.

*I wondered how many fast, good-hitting Hall of Famers scored 100 runs fewer than two times in a career ... and I was stunned to find out that Rod Carew -- ROD CAREW! -- only scored 100 runs once in his career. Those were low-scoring days and Carew did score 98 and 97 in seasons. Still, that's shocking to me.

When you add it all up, I feel strongly that Larkin is a Hall of Famer. I'll vote for him. He did so many things well over a long career. But, the more people I talk with about him, the more I sense that he has a long, uphill Hall of Fame climb.

* * *

If you do not include active players, there are exactly 21 hitters in baseball history with 2,000 hits, 450 home runs and an OPS+ of 130 or better.

These include the obvious: Williams, Ruth, Gehrig, Aaron, Mays, Mantle, Musial, Bonds, Foxx, Ott, Frank Robinson, Schmidt, Stargell, McCovey, Reggie, Killebrew, Winfield.

The list also includes Frank Thomas, who should be considered obvious but people keep failing to appreciate just how good he was. It includes Eddie Mathews, who should be considered obvious but I always keep forgetting just how good he was. It includes Rafael Palmeiro, who will be on a lot of all-time great lists but, well, you know.

OK, so there's one more. And you probably would never think of him -- except he's the fourth player on our Hall of Fame first-timer list. Fred McGriff.

Whenever I think of McGriff, I think of Eddie Murray. They were not identical players, of course. Murray was a switch-hitter who won Gold Gloves at first base. McGriff swung left-handed and had had that wild flourish at the end of his swing, and he was generally viewed as a mediocre first baseman. Murray was called Steady Eddie for his remarkable consistency; McGriff (for his name) became known as the Crime Dog. Murray was seen by media types as moody, though teammates seemed to love him. McGriff was liked by pretty much everyone, though he was mostly known outside of baseball for his outstanding work on the Tom Emanski baseball video commercials.

Still, a quick and limited view of McGriff's numbers vs. Murray's numbers tells us a little something:

Murray: .287/.359/.476 with 504 homers and 129 OPS+ in 3,026 gamesMcGriff: .284/.377/.509 with 493 homers and 134 OPS+ in 2,460 games

Murray had 5 seasons with 30+ homersMcGriff had 10 seasons with 30+ homers

Murray had 6 seasons with 100+ RBIsMcGriff had 8 seasons with 100+ RBIs

Murray led the league in homers once, RBIs once, walks once and on-base percentage onceMcGriff led the league in homers twice, OPS once, OPS+ once

Murray hit .258 in the postseason, and .169 in three World SeriesMcGriff hit .303 in the postseason, and .279 in two World Series

Now, we all know that context plays a big role in all this. Murray played most of his career in a low run-scoring environment while McGriff played most of his career in the high-scoring 1990s and early 2000s. Still, McGriff's career as a hitter looks awfully good compared to that of Murray, who waltzed into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. McGriff, like the others in this column, will probably not get much Hall of Fame support at all.

So what's the difference? Well, for one, Murray hit the hallmark numbers. He played long enough to get 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. McGriff, played almost 600 fewer games and as such did not reach either of those milestones.

And perhaps more: The numbers have come to mean less to us. The offensive explosion -- and everything you would like to blame for that offensive explosion -- changed the meaning of 493 homers. Yes, McGriff hit as many home runs as Lou Gehrig and more than Musial, Stargell, Yaz, Billy Williams, Duke Snider, Al Kaline and so many of the other all-time greats. But who cares now? Gary Sheffield has 500 home runs. Sammy Sosa has 600. Barry Bonds has 762. Perspective is lost.

Baseball, more than any other American sports I think, leans on nostalgia. It is the sport that helps us cling to our childhood and feeds that human daydream that things used to be better. As baseball fans many of us want to believe -- we like believing -- that the game is fundamentally the same, and that great players from the distant past could be just as great (or greater) in today's game. We cannot believe that about runners or swimmers, whose times are so much slower than today's players. We cannot believe that about football players who were so much smaller and slower or basketball players who rarely dribbled with their left hand.

But in baseball we can believe it, we do believe it. There is little doubt, I think, that Edgar Martinez was a better than the vast majority of hitters in in the Hall of Fame, that Roberto Alomar and Barry Larkin were much better than most of the middle infielders in the Hall and that Fred McGriff, certainly as a hitter, probably belongs among the top five or six first basemen in there.

But I would say there's a pretty good chance that none of the four will be elected to the Hall this year. We do not even want to compare them with players already in the Hall of Fame. Nostalgia rules. The standard of greatness rises with the times. It's a funny thing: There are still groups fighting to get Shoeless Joe Jackson in the Hall because he hit .356 when the ball was dead, and white fielders wore leather pillows on their hands, and every game was in the daytime. I wonder if there will be as many groups fighting for Edgar Martinez, who hit .312 in modern days and also didn't take money from gamblers.

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