Hall of Fame vote worth watching for these five borderline candidates
When the results of the Baseball Writers' Association of America voting for the Hall of Fame are announced on Monday, the first two questions most fans will want answered are, who got in (likely only third-year candidate Barry Larkin, the long-time Reds shortstop and 1995 National League MVP, who received 62.1 percent of the vote last year), and how did the first-year players fair (none will get in, and former Yankee centerfielder Bernie Williams could well be the only one of the 13 to receive the five percent support needed to remain on the ballot for another year).
However, as we've seen in recent years with the elections of Bert Blyleven, Andre Dawson, Jim Rice and Goose Gossage, being voted into the Hall of Fame is often a process that takes many years. It's thus important to note how other candidates fared, even if they fell short of election for yet another year. After all, this year's 10 percent increase could indicate next year's inductee. Here, then, are five players who are unlikely to make it in this year, but have received enough support in past elections that they demand watching:
Bagwell didn't hit 500 home runs or collect even 2,500 hits, but he was a rare five-tool first baseman who spent the first nine years of his career playing his home games in the cavernous Astrodome and hit .304/.416/.545 (159 OPS+ over nine years!) while averaging 33 home runs, 119 RBIs and 20 steals per 162 games over that span. He was the 1994 NL MVP and finished in the top three two other times. He also won the 1991 NL Rookie of the Year award after making the jump to the majors from Double-A following a trade from his hometown Red Sox to the Astros for reliever Larry Anderson that is arguably the worst trade in major league history. Bagwell made four All-Star teams, won three Silver Sluggers and a Gold Glove. The 1994 players strike, which interrupted his MVP season and halted his 50-homer pace (he slugged .750!) and an arthritic shoulder that ended his career at 37 are to blame for him falling 51 homers shy of the magic 500, but by any objective measure, he's a slam-dunk Hall of Famer.
So why was he only named on 41.7 percent of the ballots in his first year of eligibility? His short, 15-year career might have played a part, but more significant seems to have been many writers' suspicions that Bagwell used performance enhancing drugs. Those suspicions are based entirely on the fact that he was a muscular player who hit a lot of home runs during what is now known as the Steroid Era. Bagwell did bulk up noticeably during his career, but no meaningful evidence has ever been made public connecting Bagwell to PEDs. My suspicion is that the combination of the outrage over Bagwell's treatment on last year's ballot and the lack of any PED revelations in the wake of that vote will have led many voters to be kinder to Bagwell this year, as our
Bagwell's 41.7 percent last year compares very well to the showings of the two known steroid users who have reached the ballot, Mark McGwire (who debuted at 23.5 percent, peaked at 23.7 percent in 2010, and dipped below 20 percent last year), and Rafael Palmeiro (who debuted at a mere 11 percent last year). It's also comparable to the first year-results for eventual Hall of Famers Gary Carter (42.3 percent) and Hoyt Wilhelm (a perfect match at 41.7 percent), and better than the first-year showings of many players who were ultimately elected by the writers, including sluggers Eddie Mathews (32.3), Jim Rice (29.8), Billy Williams (23.4), Duke Snider (17.0), and Ralph Kiner (1.1)
Raines, like Bagwell, has a slam-dunk resume, but he lacks a single, signature number to anchor his case. Raines fell roughly 400 hits shy of 3,000 in part because he drew a ton of walks, but he reached base nearly as many times in his career as 3,000-hit man Tony Gwynn (3,977 times to Gwynn's 3,995). If you add walks and steals to total bases then subtract times caught stealing, Raines bests Gwynn by a lot (5,763 to 5,243), and Gwynn received 97.6 percent of the vote in his first year of eligibility. Raines' basestealing was overshadowed in its own time by Rickey Henderson's otherworldly swiping (though he twice led the majors in steals, beating out Rickey). Still, he finished fifth on the all-time list with 808 steals with a significantly better stolen base percentage (84.7 percent) than three of the four men ahead of him (there's no caught stealing data for 19th century speedster Sliding Billy Hamilton), and all four of those men are in the Hall of Fame.
Raines was a seven-time All-Star, received MVP votes in seven seasons and won the NL batting title in 1986 (beating out Gwynn). From 1983 to 1987 he hit .318/.406/.467 (142 OPS+ over five seasons) while averaging 71 steals (at an 88.8 percent success rate) and 114 runs scored a year (as well as double-digits in both triples and homers). The biggest criticism of Raines is that he ceased to be a star player after leaving the Expos at age 31, but he had a big year for the AL West champion White Sox in 1993 (.306/.401/.480), was an important role player on the 1996 to 1998 Yankees in his late thirties and was good enough to play 23 seasons in the major leagues.
With Bert Blyleven having finally been inducted last year in his 14th year on the ballot, Raines has become the new cause célèbre among sabermetricians, and for good reason. As strong as Raines' case appears to be, he received just 24.3 percent of the vote in his first year on the ballot in 2008 and actually dropped to 22.6 percent the next year, when Henderson was elected. That course has since corrected itself. Raines made a 7.8 percent jump in 2010 and gained another 7.1 percent last year to get up to 37.5. Look for him to get above 40 percent this year, putting him on course for eventual induction by the writers, though he may have to wait until after the loaded ballots of 2013 and 2014 for his day to come.
Morris is the most debated player on this ballot, and if Larkin gets in this year and Morris doesn't, it will make Morris the man with the highest vote percentage in both 2010 and 2011 still waiting for induction. The trick is that Morris has just two years of eligibility left and the 2013 and 2014 ballots are loaded: among those eligible for the first time in 2013 are Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio, Sammy Sosa, Curt Schilling and Kenny Lofton; first-timers in 2014 include Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas, Tom Glavine, Mike Mussina and Jeff Kent. Writers can vote for up to 10 players in any given year, but borderline candidates tend to see their vote percentages drop in years with a significant number of more clearly deserving players on the ballot. Morris and eventual Hall of Famers Blyelven, Rice and Andre Dawson all saw their percentages dip the last time the Hall inducted more than one first-year candidate, that being 2007 when Gwynn and Cal Ripken went in. That means this year could be Morris's last best chance for induction by the writers.
Though I don't have a vote, I'm among those who thinks Morris doesn't belong. I'd put him in a class with Andy Pettitte as an above-average pitcher and memorable postseason performer who came up with the right team at the right time but was never truly dominant over an extended period of time (during his peak, from 1979 to 1987, Morris posted a 116 ERA+; Pettitte's career mark was 117). Morris's many Opening Day starts say as much about the lack of options on his teams as it does about his worthiness as a true ace. He wasn't the best starting pitcher on the 1991 Twins or 1992 Blue Jays, and he was effectively finished after that. As for the idea that Morris pitched to the score,
Morris is still well shy of the Gil Hodges Line of 63.4 percent (the highest vote percentage ever by a player who wasn't ultimately inducted by the writers), and a 22 point jump in one year is highly unlikely, so it's very possible that his candidacy could be out of gas already.
Smith first reached the ballot in 2003, when the only relievers in the Hall of Fame were Hoyt Wilhelm and Rollie Fingers. However, from 2004 to 2008, three more have been inducted: Dennis Eckersley (the only reliever to go in on the first ballot), Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage. That has helped illuminate the voters' idea of a Hall of Fame relief pitcher, revealing an emphasis on peak dominance over the long-term reliability that was Smith's calling card. Smith averaged 35 saves per season and more than a strikeout per inning over a 13-year period from 1983 to 1995 and retired as the all-time saves leader with 478, but he never won a Cy Young award, as Sutter and Eckersley did, or posted microscopic ERAs over a half-decade or more as all three of those more recent inductees did:
The catch for Smith is that he only had an ERA below 3.00 or an ERA+ above 140 in four of those nine seasons.
It's no surprise, then, that Smith's candidacy hasn't gained any steam in his first eight years on the ballot. He received 42.3 percent of the vote in his first year, dipped to 36.6 in 2004 (when two first-ballot candidates, including Eckersley, went in), climbed back to 45.0 percent in 2006, dipped again in 2007 when Gwynn and Ripken went in and has been between 43.3 and 47.3 percent in every year since, splitting the difference exactly last year. That doesn't bode well for his eventual induction. Still, only Larkin and Morris received more votes without being inducted last year and from 2004 to 2009, every player who finished ahead of him on the ballot eventually got in, as did Blyleven, who finished below him in 2004.
Martinez at his best was clearly playing at a Hall of Fame level. From 1995 to 2003 (his age-32 to age-40 seasons), Martinez hit .321/.438/.558, good for a 159 OPS+ over nine seasons. However, he has two major strikes going against his candidacy. The first is that that entire nine-year peak was spent as a designated hitter. Martinez didn't make more than seven starts in the field in any of those nine seasons, and, as we've seen in the Most Valuable Player voting over the last four decades, the baseball writers treat designated hitters harshly when measuring them against men who play the field. The second is that he had a relatively short career. Martinez played in 18 major league seasons, but he only qualified for the batting title in 12 of them due to injury and the Mariners waiting until his age-27 season to make him a major league starter. As a result, his .312 lifetime average was good for just 2,247 hits and his career .515 slugging percentage only translated to 309 home runs. Martinez was more of a doubles hitter than a home run threat, but that doesn't help his case, either, few writers are as captivated by two-baggers as they are longballs.
Still, there's a strong case to be made for Martinez based on that peak value and his status as arguably the greatest designated hitter in baseball history (David Ortiz has a case, but also a positive PED test). After all, the designated hitter is a position that every American League team has had to fill on a daily basis for the last 39 years. It seems hypocritical for the writers to induct five relief pitchers, who are technically role players not required by the rules of the game, while shutting out designated hitters, who
To wit, from 1995 to 2003, Martinez ranked seventh among all major league hitters in Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement (Bagwell, incidentally, is third on that list, behind only Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez). Only Bonds had a higher on-base percentage over that span (minimum 3,000 plate appearances), only three hitters had a higher OPS+ or drew more walks, only four hit for a higher average and only Garret Anderson hit more doubles. Handfuls of future Hall of Famers trail Martinez on those lists, yet, Martinez's vote percentage dipped in his second year on the ballot from the 36.2 percent he received in his first year.