Roger Clemens' statistics are clearly Hall-worthy but his connection to the Mitchell Report may keep him from being elected. (AP)
The Baseball Writers Association of America unveiled its 2013 Hall of Fame ballot on Wednesday, kicking off what's sure to be a contentious six weeks of debate before the results are announced on Jan. 9. The 37-player ballot (listed below) adds 24 newcomers to 13 holdovers and is the deepest in recent memory in terms of high-quality candidates. It is also the one most fraught with controversy, as the top newcomers — Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza — have connections to performance-enhancing drugs to one degree or another.
Debate over the propriety of holding their alleged transgressions against them in this context will suck up much of the available oxygen, deflecting attention away from other impressive first-timers such as Craig Biggio, Curt Schilling and Kenny Lofton. Meanwhile, a trio of holdovers (Jack Morris, Jeff Bagwell and Lee Smith) have crossed the 50 percent threshold, suggesting they're on their way to eventual enshrinement, while others such as Tim Raines, Alan Trammell and Edgar Martinez are still trying to get similar attention from the voters. The pool of more than 600 eligible voters will list anywhere from zero to 10 names on their ballots, with candidates needing to receive at least 75 percent of the vote to gain entry. Last year, only Barry Larkin went over the threshold.
As you're aware if you've been reading this space, my own arguments about Hall-worthiness tend to rely heavily on advanced metrics such as WAR(P), True Average and the various defensive metrics. Aided by my JAWS system — now available on virtually every player card at Baseball-Reference.com — I'll be digging deep into each and every one of those candidacies in detail in the coming weeks in this space. For the moment, however, I think it's worth appreciating this ballot's sheer heft as well as the weighty issues that voters will confront.
Particularly with this crop of candidates, PEDs are the 800-pound gorilla. Voters have already been confronted with the issue with the candidacies of Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez and others, and their judgment thus far has been harsh. McGwire, who broke the single-season home run record with 70 in 1998 and finished with 583 in his career, hasn't received more than 23.6 percent in six years on the ballot, and has dropped below 20.0 percent in the past two years after explicitly admitting to PED usage. Palmeiro, one of just four hitters to reach both the 3,000 hit and 500 home run plateaus (Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray are the others), received just 12.6 percent last year; clearly, voters are still holding his 2005 positive test — revealed shortly after he joined the 3,000 club — against him despite his protestations. Gonzalez, a two-time American League MVP, dropped off the ballot after receiving just 4.0 percent of the vote in his second year.
For some voters, there's no forgiveness for any kind of PED transgression, or even the hint of one. Anyone named in the Mitchell Report or outed as being on the 2003 survey list is a cheater cheater pumpkin eater who knowingly tried to gain an advantage on his opponents, and anyone who seemed to bulk up in mid-career is subject to speculation. Such voters will point to the Hall of Fame's character clause, which states that "Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played," conveniently ignoring the fact that the Hall is a rogues' gallery not only of sign-stealers and spitballers but also those with worse sins of character, racists and Ku Klux Klan members, Prohibition-era alcoholics, cocaine users, amphetamine users, spousal abusers and sex addicts. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner who wrote the clause in question, spent the entirety of his 24-year tenure upholding the color barrier. So much for moral clarity.
For other voters, actual proof of the infraction and its timing matters. Steroids and precursors such as androstenedione were used for decades before Major League Baseball began testing and penalizing players, with the first suspensions beginning in 2005. When a bottle of androstenedione, which metabolizes into testosterone after being ingested, was discovered in McGwire's locker in the summer of 1998 — creating front-page news and kicking off a soapbox derby that continues to this day — the drug was still legal under U.S. law. Not until mid-2004 was it added to baseball's list of banned substances. By this reasoning, the andro-usage admissions of both Piazza and Bagwell which long predated the ban shouldn't be held against them, and likewise for the BALCO-tainted Barry Bonds, but the positive test of Palmeiro is fair game, and the twice-positive Manny Ramirez (who won't become eligible until at least the 2017 ballot) can probably kiss his chance at Cooperstown goodbye.
Still others are content to skirt the entire issue, viewing the so-called Steroid Era as a less-than-flattering part of baseball history just as segregation was. To gain the vote, a writer has to have been part of the BBWAA for at least 10 years, which means that virtually all of those with a ballot were working at a time when PED usage was at its zenith. Some have actually admitted their own complicity in looking the other way or underreporting what they saw taking place, others simply understand the era's place in the shadow of a decades-long labor war in which the owners were so focused on breaking the players' union — a war that led to the 1994-1995 strike — that the two sides could never agree on any kind of testing regimen, and concerns over making money, particularly after the strike, trumped those of a level playing field. Others quite reasonably don't want the BBWAA to become a law enforcement agency.
Many nuanced positions exist along that spectrum, some of them tougher to justify than others. A voter may believe that McGwire wouldn't have been a Hall of Fame-caliber player without the drugs, but that Bonds or Clemens had already done enough by the time they allegedly began using. In the absence of scientific proof as to the benefits of PED use, or information about when players used, it's all a guessing game, and those claiming otherwise are relying more on a belief system than evidence. At another extreme is the small handful of voters who take the trouble to mail back blank ballots on the theory that the entire era is tainted by rampant PED usage, and thus nobody should go in; since those votes count among the total number of ballots and thus those needed for election, they make it that much harder even for older candidates to gain entry.
Beyond the PED issue is the propriety of using round-numbered milestones as guaranteed markers of entry. With the exception of Palmeiro and all-time hits leader Pete Rose, who was banned for life after admitting to gambling on baseball, every hitter with at least 3,000 hits is in, which by that logic should mean that Biggio is worthy of automatic entry while Raines, who finished with 2,605, is a questionable case. One counterpoint is that many players who reach those milestones often do so to the detriment of their teams; Biggio hit just .251/.285/.381 while collecting 130 hits in his final season, and was actually 2.3 wins below replacement level.
Another is that such milestones are unequally distributed across eras; the recent one saw home runs flying out of the ballpark at record rates for reasons that almost certainly go beyond steroids — expansion, new ballparks, high altitude and even the composition of the ball itself are culprits (a topic I delve into in the Baseball Prospectus group book Extra Innings, released earlier this year and excerpted here). Prior to the 1993 wave of expansion that kicked off the high-scoring era, just 14 players had reached 500 homers, and just three had topped 600. Now 25 players have reached the 500 level and eight the 600 one, including Sosa (609) and all-time home run king Bonds (762) as well as McGwire (586) and Palmeiro (569); given context, neither number is automatic anymore.
Meanwhile, Bert Blyleven's 2011 election broke a 19-year streak in which no starting pitcher with fewer than 300 wins had been elected since Ferguson Jenkins in 1991. Schilling, who won "only" 216 games, is the vanguard of a wave of outstanding pitchers who racked up a ton of strikeouts but pitched in an era where starting every fifth day and yielding to increasingly specialized bullpens in the sixth, seventh or eighth inning was the norm, and the pitcher win itself came to be understood in the context of offensive and defensive support. While 300-winners such as Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson will be on the ballot in the coming years, the candidacies of Schilling, John Smoltz, Pedro Martinez and Mike Mussina — all of whom fell shy of 300, with Mussina's 270 topping them all — will also deserve play.
Schilling's candidacy also raises the question of how much to weigh postseason considerations in considering a player's total case. The expansion of the playoffs in the wild-card era has created new opportunities to shine when the spotlight is the brightest, and he did so with distinction, going 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA in 19 starts while helping his teams to four pennants and three world championships. Of the 10 players with the most postseason innings pitched, eight — all but Whitey Ford (sixth) and Dave Stewart (10th) — hail from the post-1993 era. Schilling ranks ninth, while Andy Pettitte's 276 2/3 leads the pack and represents more than a full season of work by today's standards.
As for hitters, how much should Biggio's relative failures in October (.234/.295/.323 in 185 plate appearances as part of six postseason teams) or ballot holdover Bernie Williams's successes (.275/.371/.480 with 22 homers in 545 PA as part of six pennant winners and four world champions) count?
Virtually everyone with a blog, a column or a Twitter account will be debating such matters in the coming weeks, some more logically than others. The decibel level will rise and tempers will flare, because to some of us, matters of baseball history are important. Few easy answers will emerge, and the chance of consensus on any of the issues is slim, just as it was when the BBWAA handed out the hardware for the 2012 MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year and Manager of the Year awards. We'll all need a vacation from the topic when it's done. But in the meantime, we should have some fun in figuring out how to recognize greatness. For as seriously as we take this multibillion dollar industry, it's still a game.
The complete list of candidates:
Yrs on BBWAA ballot
Sandy Alomar Jr.