Wednesday January 6th, 2010

The Hall of Fame clock is about to tick much faster for the stars of the 1980s. Another election has passed without the likes of Tim Raines, Jack Morris and Dale Murphy getting very close to enshrinement. Even worse, they have only two years remaining before an avalanche of candidates joins them on the ballot, threatening not only to harm their candidacies but also to flat-out end them.

The top new candidates next year are Jeff Bagwell, Rafael Palmeiro, Larry Walker, Kevin Brown, John Franco and Juan Gonzalez. (Realistically, Bagwell is the only one with a chance for quick enshrinement.) The 2012 ballot is less impressive; the star power begins and ends with Bernie Williams. But then the window for enshrinement for holdover candidates practically shuts.

First-time candidates on the 2013 ballot include Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mike Piazza, Sammy Sosa, Craig Biggio and Curt Schilling. And the 2014 ballot includes five guys I regard as first-ballot Hall of Famers, making for the largest elected class ever: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Jeff Kent and Mike Mussina.

Steroid-connected players and, as Barry Larkin and Roberto Alomar found out, even some great players are not getting in on a first ballot. So by 2014, based on established voting patterns, you will have this collection of stars on the ballot: Palmeiro, Clemens, Bonds, Sosa, Schilling, Maddux, Glavine, Thomas, Kent, Mussina, Walker, Williams, Franco, Raines, Morris, Murphy, Mark McGwire, Fred McGriff, Edgar Martinez, Lee Smith, Alan Trammell, Dave Parker and Don Mattingly. And that's only a partial list.

Baseball writers are permitted to vote for a maximum of 10 candidates. You tell me -- which 13 players from that previous list would you leave off your ballot? And keep this in mind: If a player is not named on at least five percent of the ballots, he is thrown off the writers' ballot forever.

Now you get an idea why the next two years are hugely important for holdover candidates. The 1980s were not a particularly robust period for fashion, rock music or superstar baseball players. None of the five winningest pitchers of the decade are in the Hall (Morris, Dave Stieb, Bob Welch, Charlie Hough and Fernando Valenzuela). Three of the top five players in runs are not in (Dwight Evans, Murphy and Raines). If the stars from that era don't make it to Cooperstown in the next two ballots, their best remaining chance just might be with the notoriously-tough Veterans Committee far down the road.

ANDRE DAWSON: Great guy. Great player. Great career. Great nickname. Congratulations to the Hawk. Why did it take nine tries? Dawson played 21 seasons. In 14 of them he was worse than the league average at getting on base. He had fewer 100-RBI seasons (four) than Danny Tartabull. But the young Hawk was a fantastic all-around player. He was a premier defensive player and base runner and -- I believe this is what ultimately helped him get elected -- was universally respected and admired by all those in the game. His reputation in the game was stellar.

ROBERTO ALOMAR: It's stunning that one of the five best second basemen to ever play the game missed election by eight votes. Alomar, along with Cal Ripken and Paul Molitor, was one of the smartest ballplayers I have seen. I once saw him throw out a runner at home plate with the infield back -- a play that could only be made with quick thinking and terrific arm strength. He once told me that no runner ever got to his body while he turned a double play. He thought like a manager -- he understood other positions almost as well as his own -- and I enjoyed talking with him after games about strategic elements because he sometimes understood them better than his own manager.

BARRY LARKIN: I was surprised he didn't get more support (51.6 percent) because he played a premier position well enough and long enough to be considered among the 10 best shortstops in history -- and the best in his league in his days. Twelve All-Star games, nine Silver Sluggers, three Gold Gloves, an MVP, power, speed, captaincy, ability to hit leadoff or third, first 30-30 shortstop ever... I don't get it; what's missing? Don't say 3,000 hits or 500 home runs, because nobody gets there playing their entire career at shortstop.

TIM RAINES: In 17 years I never have voted for a player who did not eventually make the Hall of Fame. I fear Raines might be the first. He was the greatest offensive weapon in his league in his prime, once scoring an NL-record 19.6 percent of his Montreal team's runs. He was a better player than Lou Brock (easily; look it up) and reached base more times and scored more runs than Tony Gwynn. He stole bases nearly at will -- succeeding on 85 percent of 954 attempts. He is harmed as a candidate by issues that have nothing to do with his greatness: a low profile in Montreal, part-time roles in New York and Chicago, and two player strikes, especially in 1981, when his rate of stolen bases (71 in 88 games) put him on pace for the glory Rickey Henderson received the next year for smashing Brock's record of 118.

FRED McGRIFF: OK, this is another guy who could break my record of never voting for a guy who didn't get enshrined eventually. McGriff's 21.5 percentage is one of the most ridiculous outcomes of this election. The guy hit more than 20 homers more times than any first baseman who ever lived (14) and played more games at the position than all but two. He has a better OBP, better slugging percentage, more 100-RBI seasons and more 30-homer seasons than Eddie Murray. His reliability as a run producer over an extended period is very underrated.

BERT BLYLEVEN: The momentum grows. I consider him as a classic borderline candidate, not regarding it as a mistake whether he is in or out. His career certainly was prolific enough, with lots of numbers to convince you that he belongs.

What stops me is that he bounced around so much in his prime baseball years, a guy with great stuff who gave hitters uncomfortable at-bats without truly putting down roots as an elite ace. Sounds like Javy Vazquez. Between the ages of 25 and 37 -- a 13-season stretch -- he was traded five times, pitched to a 3.51 ERA (a dozen pitchers were better in that span, including Rick Reuschel and Jerry Reuss) and was a statistical doppelganger for an aging Joe (not Phil) Niekro.

Of course, he had a few good years before and one after that window. The point is just that his traditional prime years were spent bouncing around as a very good but not an upper echelon pitcher, and thus, fairly or not, was born his reputation that has kept him out for 13 ballots. (Blyleven pitched 22 seasons overall and finished in the top three in ERA three times, as many as Stieb and two fewer than Orel Hershiser.)

The bottom line is that the dude took the ball. Blyleven started 685 games, 11th most all-time. He simply was good enough long enough for Cooperstown.

THE RISING: Blyleven received only 17.5 percent of the vote in his first year on the ballot (and even less in his second and third years). Since the current voting rules were put in place in 1967, only one player -- Duke Snider -- ever made it into the Hall of Fame after starting out with worse support in his first year on the ballot. Here are the only players in the post-1967 voting era to start out with fewer than 30 percent of the vote and eventually get elected by the writers:

1. Duke Snider, 17.0 2. Don Drysdale, 21.0 3. Billy Williams, 23.4 4. Bruce Sutter, 23.9 6. Luis Aparicio, 27.8 7. Early Wynn, 27.9 8. Jim Rice, 29.8

Raines (24.3) and McGwire (23.5) are also looking at historic lengths to their climbs.

ELECTED vs. SELECTED: Less than half the Hall of Famers have been elected by the high standards of the BBWAA. (The rest were ushered in by committees of various rules and composition.) Think of it as the virtual Hall within the Hall. In the 44 ballots since 1967, the writers have elected 60 players -- 34 of them were easy (first-ballot guys), and only 26 made it after not passing on first look.

EDGAR MARTINEZ: This was a real tough one for me. I have deep respect for the manner in which his peers regarded Martinez, a virtuoso of the art of hitting. I started out thinking that he probably should be a Hall of Famer. But here's the problem: If you're going to completely disregard half of baseball -- the defensive half -- then you better be extraordinarily great in the other half. Martinez wasn't.

Martinez did put up appealing-looking rate stats. (The .300/.400/.500 thing stirs our predilection for round numbers.) But the mass of his hitting isn't as impressive as the rate of it. Even as a DH, Martinez had trouble going to the post. Only four times did Martinez play in 150 games and put up an adjusted OPS of 120. Since 1987, the year he broke in, that ties Martinez for 36th with, among others, Richie Sexson.

If you drop the games played to 140, Martinez has eight of those 120 OPS+ seasons. Not bad. But since 1961 (the start of the 162-game schedule) that puts Martinez at 29th, tied with guys such as Mark Grace, Greg Luzinski and Frank Howard, and fewer than McGriff, Bobby Abreu and Carlos Delgado. I'm sorry, that's just not extraordinary enough.

THE FUTURE: Congratulations to Blyleven and Alomar. They didn't get in, but they can plan their induction parties for 2011. For DHs and steroid-connected players, the news is much worse. Martinez's 32.6 showing was good, but not great. He has a long way to go. And McGwire has barely moved the needle in four cracks at the Hall, remaining between 22 and 24 percent.

The surprise of this election is that Alomar and Larkin are no-doubt Hall of Famers, but neither one reached the 75 percent threshold. Both will get in someday, and soon, but this ballot offered a reminder of the difficulty of getting into the Hall -- not just for borderline players, but even for the great ones.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.