For a time, Sean Casey was one of the best hitters in baseball, batting at least .310 five times in seven years from 1999-2005. (Matt A. Brown/Icon SMI)
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.
To be eligible for election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, a player must appear in games in at least 10 major league seasons, with a career that ended at least five calendar years ago, and then be nominated by at least two members of a six-member screening committee. Getting those 10 years in -- even in fragmentary form -- is no small feat itself, but from that point to nomination is a seemingly arbitrary process. Prior to Tuesday's announcement of the official 2014 ballot, the Hall of Fame's website listed 34 players among the future eligibles for this year, but "only" 19 wound up making the cut.
Not necessarily the best 19, either, at least according to JAWS. Why Shannon Stewart (fourth in the AL MVP vote in 2003) and Esteban Loaiza (runner-up in the AL Cy Young voting that same year) were left off while Jacque Jones and Armando Benitez made the cut is a mystery. If there's a line separating Sean Casey and J.T. Snow (both on the ballot) from Dmitri Young and Jose Vidro (both left off), or Mike Timlin (on) from Keith Foulke (off), it resembles the boundary of a hopelessly gerrymandered congressional district.
Not that this is a tragedy in the grand scheme of things. Particularly given the backlog of strong candidates, the majority of the newcomers have no shot at gaining the 75 percent of the votes necessary for election. By my measure, 11 players fall at least 20 points shy of the JAWS standard at their positions and a 12th is off by 19.6, too far to make any real case for them. It will be a surprise if even one of those players receives the minimum five percent of the vote necessary to remain on the ballot for next year.
Even so, these potentially one-and-done types were accomplished players who deserve at least a brief valedictory. In 11 years of analyzing the BBWAA ballot using JAWS, I’ve never let one -- not a Bobby Witt nor a Shawon Dunston -- pass without comment. Two of this year's doomed dozen finished with lifetime batting averages above .300, another one won a Cy Young award, another threw two no-hitters and helped pave the way for a flood of Japan's best players to come stateside. So before sinking my teeth into the more substantial candidates, I’ll spend a few posts running through the ones about whom we might say, “They also served.” First up, the hitters.
Paul Lo Duca
Avg HOF C
Avg HOF 1B
Paul Lo Duca (1998-2008)
Born in Brooklyn but raised in Arizona, Lo Duca was a 25th-round pick out of Arizona State in 1993, the year he won The Sporting News College Baseball Player of the Year honors. Alas, with Mike Piazza being named the NL Rookie of the Year for the Dodgers that same year, Lo Duca's future in the organization appeared limited at best, so the team tried him at first base and third base as well as catcher while he methodically climbed the organizational ladder. A good contact hitter with plate discipline, he debuted in 1998, after Piazza was traded to the Marlins, but didn't stick in the majors for good until 2001.
When he did, he revealed himself as something of a hidden gem, batting .320/.374/.543 with 25 homers and 90 RBIs that year en route to 4.6 WAR. Manager Jim Tracy even used him as a leadoff hitter for a good chunk of the season. Alas, he never came close to that level of production on the offensive side again, though his work behind the plate was generally well-regarded, and fans and media often referred to him as the heart and soul of the team. Over the next three seasons Lo Duca hit a combined .280/.334/.399 with an average of 10 homers and 3.0 WAR per year, making the NL All-Star team twice but being traded to the Marlins in a controversial six-player deal in July 2004, amid his best season since 2001. The three players Los Angeles acquired -- Hee-Seop Choi, Brad Penny and Juan Encarnacion -- all flopped, and while that didn't prevent the Dodgers from winning the NL West title, it remained an unpopular move.
After earning All-Star honors again with the Marlins in 2005, Lo Duca was traded to the Mets, and despite becoming embroiled in a trashy tabloid drama off the field, he responded with one of his better seasons at the plate, batting .318/.355/.428 for a team that won the NL East, swept the Dodgers in the Division Series and came within one win of a trip to the World Series. From there, his bat quickly faded, and the Mets let him depart as a free agent after the 2007 season.
Two days after he signed a one-year, $5 million deal with the Nationals, his name surfaced in the Mitchell Report as having purchased steroids and human growth hormone several times between 1999 and 2004. Furthermore, he was implicated as having helped put several other players (including fellow 2014 ballot newcomer Eric Gagne) in touch with Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski, one of the central sources of the allegations in the report, for the purposes of purchasing PEDs as well. Oops. He didn't make it through the year with the Nationals before being released, and after a brief return to the Marlins, his time in the majors came to a somewhat ignominious end.
Sean Casey (1997-2008)
By the time Casey reached the majors in 1997, he had already acquired a nickname: "The Mayor." As legend has it, he was so outgoing and loquacious when playing first base in the Cape Cod League in 1994 that one of his coaches gave him the nickname, suggesting he focus on baseball instead of running for office. After winning the NCAA Division I batting title at the University of Richmond in 1995, he was drafted in the second round by Cleveland, but wound up playing just six games for that star-studded team in September 1997 before being traded to the Reds for pitcher Dave Burba on March 30, 1998.
The rebuilding Reds planned for Casey -- 20th on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects List at the time -- to take over their first base job after Hal Morris departed via free agency. But after playing in just two games, Casey suffered a fractured right orbital bone when a thrown ball hit him in the face during batting practice. He needed surgery, wound up missing more than a month and struggled badly enough in his return that he went down to Triple-A. After hitting just .200/.289/.212 in the first half, he put up a strong second half (.300/.394/.498 in 254 PA) and kept going. He rewarded Cincinnati's patience in 1999 by hitting .332/.399/.539 with 197 hits, 25 homers and 99 RBIs, earning All-Star honors and finishing fourth in the batting title race.
Casey hit a combined .303/.366/.453 over the next six seasons, finishing with a batting average of .300 or higher in four of them and making two more All-Star teams. Shoulder problems made it more difficult for him to maintain his power, particularly during an anemic 2002 season; twice in that span he topped 20 homers, but twice he finished in single digits. In that era of inflated offense, his 114 OPS+ and 2.1 WAR per year over that stretch wasn't anything special for a first baseman. He didn't do too badly in the contract department even coming off his shoulder woes, netting a three-year, $20.2 million deal from the Reds for 2003-05 and an $8.5 million club option for 2006 that was picked up in October 2004; by the end of the deal, he was the team's second-highest paid player behind Ken Griffey Jr.
Casey was traded to the Pirates, his hometown team, in December 2005, but he didn't stay long. Flipped to the Tigers on July 31, 2006 in time for their stretch drive, he didn't do much over the final two months of the regular season but caught fire in both the Division Series and the World Series, hitting .529/.556/1.000 with two homers in a losing cause in the latter. He spent one more season as a regular in Detroit, during which his most notable accomplishment was being voted as “the friendliest player in baseball” in a Sports Illustrated poll. After spending 2008 as a backup with the Red Sox, he retired at age 34 and soon moved into broadcasting for MLB Network and other outlets.
Richie Sexson (1997-2008)
A 24th round draft pick out of Brush Prairie, Wash., Sexson came up in Cleveland's system at the same time as Casey; the two made their major league debuts two days apart in September 1997. With Jim Thome holding down first base, the 6-foot-6 Sexson was forced to the outfield, where his defense could best be described as "adventurous." After hitting .310/.344/.592 with 11 homers in a 49-game trial in 1998, he bashed 31 homers and drove in 116 runs in 1999 but his overall batting line (.255/.305/.514) was much less impressive; throw in his ghastly defense and he was just 0.1 wins above replacement level.
Sexson hit 30 homers in 2000, split between the Indians and the Brewers; he was part of a seven-player deal in late June of that year. In Milwaukee, he settled in at first base and took advantage of the friendly dimensions of brand-new Miller Park, bashing 45 homers in 2001 and again in 2003, with a dip to 29 in between, a welcome distraction for a hapless, poorly-run team that lost 294 games over a three-year span. He earned All-Star honors in the latter two of those seasons and hit a respectable .274/.362/.533 in those three years, good for a 132 OPS+ and an average of 3.0 WAR per year.
A year away from cashing in on his prodigious power via free agency by that point, Sexson was traded to the Diamondbacks as the centerpiece of a nine-player deal in December 2003. Alas, a labrum and capsule injury in his left shoulder limited him to 23 games that season and required surgery. Still, he managed to secure a four-year, $50 million contract to return to his home state with the Mariners -- a deal that caused headscratching at the time, and would eventually wind up on many lists of bad contracts.
At least initially he made good, bopping 39 homers in 2005 with a .263/.369/.541 line for career bests in OPS+ (144) and WAR (3.9). He fell off to 34 homers and 2.7 WAR the following year, then crashed through the floor. He managed just a .205/.295/.399 line with 21 homers in 2007, his age-32 season, during which he was the 10th-highest paid player in the majors. After starting '08 in similar fashion, he was released by Seattle while still owed more than half of that year's $14 million salary. Though he caught on with the Yankees, his time in the majors was finished after just four weeks in the Bronx. For all of his power -- enough to rank 11th in the majors in homers from 2000-06 with 231 -- he was just too one-dimensional to survive.
J.T. Snow (1992-2006, 2008)
The son of former NFL wide receiver Jack Snow was a fifth-round draft pick by the Yankees out of the University of Arizona in 1989. Alas, Snow didn't have the bat to supplant even a late-career Don Mattingly. After just seven games with the Yankees toward the end of the 1992 season, he was part of a three-player package sent to the Angels that offseason in exchange for pitcher Jim Abbott. Snow spent four years in Anaheim, struggling dreadfully with the bat in the early going but evolving into a respectable hitter; in 1995, he batted .289/.353/.465 with 24 homers for a team that lost a Game 163 tiebreaker to the Mariners.
By that point, Snow had gained more attention for his slick fielding; he won the first of six straight Gold Gloves that year, and if modern defensive metrics (-13 Total Zone, −17 Fielding Runs Above Average) don't support the idea he was all that good, well, those were different times. Or perhaps not; the 1996 edition of the Baseball Prospectus annual noted, "His Defensive Average was terrible, calling the Gold Glove into question." Ouch.
After falling off offensively in '96, Snow was traded to the Giants for two players that November. In his first year in San Francisco, he responded with a .281/.387/.510 line, 2.9 WAR and career highs of 28 homers, 96 walks and 104 RBIs, all of which helped the Giants win the NL West. He couldn't maintain that power, but his high on-base percentages and reputation as a good fielder (despite grading out as more or less average by then) enabled him to keep his first base job for the next eight seasons, even though he averaged just 1.2 WAR per year and battled a slew of injuries.
During that run, Snow was part of three more NL West-winning teams, including the 2002 NL champions. In that seven-game World Series against the Angels, he hit .407/.448/.556 and in Game 5, memorably yanked manager Dusty Baker's son, three-year-old batboy Darren Baker, out of harm's way after crossing the plate, with teammate David Bell running full speed close behind him.