Breaking down first-year candidates for Hall of Fame: Who will get in?
Three shopping weeks before immortality. The 450 or so Baseball Hall of Fame ballots, including mine, must be submitted by Dec. 21, and the results will be announced Jan. 6. This election is like none other, because the Hall cut about 100 voters from the ranks of the Baseball Writers Association of America, taking votes away from those who have not actively covered baseball in the past 10 years.
The voting bloc is likely to be not only smaller (down from 549 ballots last year) but also younger. The vote comes down to three most important questions: 1. Does Ken Griffey Jr. get a record percentage of the vote for an outfielder? 2. Does Mike Piazza pick up the last 5.1% he needs to reach the 75% required for election? 3. Do Jeff Bagwell (56%) and Tim Raines (55%) gain momentum toward a 2017 election?
Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina, Jeff Kent and Fred McGriff have been woefully undersupported. They deserve to be in but are not getting in any time soon. Known steroid users are not getting in. Alan Trammell (last shot) and Lee Smith (penultimate shot) are not getting in. So let’s examine the new kids on the block: the 15 candidates who are on the ballot for the first time.
One of them, Griffey, is a lock to be elected. Eleven others are likely to fall short of the 5% minimum required to remain on the ballot. That leaves three others who will get at least a second chance of a maximum 10 chances. I have divided the 15 first-timers into four categories: 2016 electee, future electee, 10-year candidates and one-and-done players.
Ken Griffey Jr.: The best player in baseball through his 20s, Griffey inspired a generation of kids the way Joe DiMaggio did, played centerfield like Willie Mays did and, for awhile at least, hit like Hank Aaron did (at age 29: Griffey: .949 OPS, 398 HR, 1,152 RBIs; Aaron: .947 OPS, 342 HR, 1,121 RBIs). Now he will join Mays, Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle and Kirby Puckett as the only centerfielders elected to the Hall on their first ballot. Griffey put baseball on the map in Seattle, where fans there were privileged to see his historic greatness in person. Take a look at the players with the highest slugging percentage in any ballpark, minimum of 700 games:
|Babe Ruth||Yankee Stadium||.697|
|Jimmie Foxx||Shibe Park||.668|
|Ted Williams||Fenway Park||.652|
|Lou Gehrig||Yankee Stadium||.620|
|Frank Thomas||US Cellular||.612|
|Todd Helton||Coors Field||.607|
|Ken Griffey Jr.||Kingdome||.603|
In the summer of 1999, as the Mariners moved from the Kingdome to a much more pitcher-friendly Safeco Field, and with Griffey a year away from free agency (as was teammate Alex Rodriguez) and on his way to a third straight home run title, Seattle offered him $148 million over eight years. Griffey turned it down. Instead, and rather than wait a year for free agency, Griffey asked the Mariners after the season to trade him, preferring to play closer to his Florida home. General manager Pat Gillick had little leverage, and the offers reflected it. Finally, under duress and just before the start of spring training, Gillick traded the best player in baseball to the Reds for the modest package of Mike Cameron, Jake Meyer, Antonio Perez and Brett Tomko.
As part of the deal Cincinnati signed Griffey to a bargain extension: $116.5 million over nine years, or $2 million less per year than what the Dodgers gave pitcher Kevin Brown 15 months earlier. The money looked especially light 10 months later when money in baseball flowed like water in Roman fountains. Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Derek Jeter, Carlos Delgado, Roger Clemens, Mike Hampton, Chipper Jones and Mike Mussina all signed contacts worth more than Griffey, who quickly fell to the 16th-highest paid player in the game.
Griffey’s career was never the same after he forced the move. The Reds would win 85 games in his first year in Cincinnati, then post eight straight losing seasons. Griffey played for seven managers in his nine seasons with the Reds, who during that time ranked 23rd out of 30 teams in winning percentage.
The Mariners had been loaded with stars around Griffey. In 1997, for instance, Seattle set an all-time record for home runs (264). Rodriguez hit 23 homers that year and was fifth on the team, behind Griffey, Jay Buhner, Paul Sorrento and Edgar Martinez. Randy Johnson went 20–4. But Seattle lost to Baltimore in four games in the ALDS.
The Reds could give Griffey no such support. Meanwhile, Griffey quickly began to break down with assorted injuries, especially to his legs. He never led the league in any offensive category after leaving Seattle. You could break his career into two distinct halves:
Here’s another way to look at the change in his career: How he performed when hitting to the opposite field:
There should be no doubt that Griffey goes into Cooperstown representing the Mariners, even though he asked them for a trade. Griffey’s brilliance in Seattle was so sublime that he could have retired at age 29 and still been elected to the Hall of Fame. He played the game with a rare combination of skill, joy and ferocity. Catcher Dave Valle said he and other teammates would encourage Griffey not to dive so much for balls on the hard surface of the Kingdome—he said Griffey still bears the scars on his knees and legs from such skin-tearing effort—but that Griffey would have it no other way.
He played such a beautiful kind of baseball that he influenced an entire generation in the same way DiMaggio did: He was the template for Little League dreams. How many boys and girls went to bed at night under posters of Griffey? His is the story of two halves to a career, the first of which was as spectacular as any.
The only question left is the level of support he gets from the voting members of the BBWAA. The highest percentage of the vote gained by any outfielder is 98.23 by Cobb, followed by Tony Gwynn's 97.60. Griffey will get very close to those numbers.
Trevor Hoffman: His claim to Fame boils down to this: He did one very specific job better and longer than anybody other than Mariano Rivera.
The closer’s job is a narrow one: Make sure your team wins the game when it hands you the ball. It is the job of a specialist, like being a designated hitter or a placekicker, and it should not be treated like the fundamental jobs in sports. Closers become closers largely because they don’t measure up to the job requirements of starting. So the bar should be set higher for closers than it is for starting pitchers.
Hoffman deserves a long look, starting with his longevity. He was the first reliever to reach 600 saves and finished with 601, second all-time to the 652 of Rivera. More importantly, nobody else is even close to Hoffman. He has 26% more saves than every other pitcher except Rivera; Lee Smith is in third place with 478.
Okay, but we all know the save statistic is seriously flawed. Getting three outs before the other team scores three runs, for instance, is hardly heavy lifting. Another way to examine closers is save percentage: How often did he get the save when one was in order? Let’s take the men with the 13 highest save totals in history and re-rank them based on save percentage. Doing so gives us this listing:
1. Joe Nathan: .893
2. Mariano Rivera: .890
3. Trevor Hoffman: .888
4. Jonathan Papelbon: .884
5. Troy Percival: .863
6. Billy Wagner: .859
7. Francisco Rodriguez: .856
8. Randy Myers: .850
9. Dennis Eckersley: .846
10. Lee Smith: .823
11. John Franco: .808
12. Jeff Reardon: .776
13. Rollie Fingers: .758
The list skews toward the modern closer, who, helped by the specialized bullpen, is asked to get fewer outs for his saves. Even allowing for that bias, look where Hoffman rates: He has the best save percentage of any retired reliever except for Rivera.
On the subject of workload, we might as well give the old guard its due. Here’s the list of the most saves of more than inning, with the ranks of assorted closers following:
1. Rollie Fingers: 201
2. Rich Gossage: 193
3. Bruce Sutter: 188
4. Lee Smith: 169
11. Mariano Rivera: 119
16. Dennis Eckersley: 106
73. Trevor Hoffman: 55
142. Billy Wagner: 36
Hoffman had fewer career saves of more than one inning than guys like Rick Aguilera, Roberto Hernandez, Mel Rojas and Mitch Williams.
What Hoffman did best was to start the ninth inning and get three outs. Here's a list of players with the most saves of exactly one inning, along with, again, some select others:
1. Trevor Hoffman: 498
2. Mariano Rivera: 491
3. Billy Wagner: 369
4. Joe Nathan: 345
5. Francisco Rodriguez: 323
89. Bruce Sutter: 82
92. Rollie Fingers: 81
108. Rich Gossage: 70
Let’s use one more metric toward examining the closer’s job: clean saves. As mentioned, closers can give up runs and still get a save. But what managers really prefer is the clean save, or one with no runs allowed. Let’s re-rank the 13 relievers with the most saves by their “clean save percentage,” or how often they nailed down the save without giving up a run.
1. Billy Wagner: .924
2. Mariano Rivera: .920
3. Joe Nathan: .9124
4. Trevor Hoffman: .9118
5. Lee Smith: .900
6. Jonathan Papelbon: .900
7. Rollie Fingers: .900
8. Randy Myers: .899
9. Dennis Eckersley: .895
10. Francisco Rodriguez: .894
11. John Franco: .892
12. Troy Percival: .882
13. Jeff Reardon: .875
Once again, Hoffman rates extremely high. Among the retired relievers, only Wagner and Rivera had a higher percentage of clean saves than Hoffman.
Just how good was Hoffman in his prime? Starting in September of 1997 and extending through the '98 season, the Padres were 65–0 when they gave him the ball in save situations. (He blew one save in that time, but San Diego won the game in extra innings.)
From September of 1997 through 2006—nearly an entire decade—the Padres were 364–20 when they handed the ball to Hoffman with a save in order, a .948 winning percentage. One of the great iconic ballpark moments of this generation was to see Hoffman walk out of the bullpen in San Diego while the opening tolls of AC/DC's “Hell’s Bells” rang out. It wasn’t just because it was the perfect marriage of entrance music and game situation; it was because Hoffman was that good.
And Hoffman was that good longer than just about everyone except—here we go again—Rivera. Hoffman has at least 40% more 30-save seasons than every other pitcher who ever lived. Take a look at this list of the most seasons with at least 30 saves:
1. Mariano Rivera: 15
2. Trevor Hoffman: 14
3. Lee Smith: 10
4. (tie) Joe Nathan: 9
4. (tie) Billy Wagner: 9
One knock on Hoffman was that he did not pitch well in his limited postseason appearances. He lost Game 5 of the 1996 NLDS (he entered in a tie game in the ninth) and Game 3 of the 1998 World Series (he entered with no outs in the eighth inning after Myers issued a leadoff walk with a one-run lead). He also lost Game 163 in 2007 at Colorado (when handed a two-run lead in the bottom of the 13th). Hoffman threw a total of 13 innings in postseason play, or 1.1% of his career. Think of the postseason as extra credit work: it can add to a resume (as it has, or will, for David Ortiz, Schilling, John Smoltz, etc.), but such small samples should not detract from one.
The bottom line on Hoffman is that he was the ultimate specialist’s specialist. Put aside Rivera, and when it came to saving games, nobody did it longer and more efficiently than Hoffman. He looks like an eventual Hall of Famer, though it will take more than a few ballots for him to get in.
Jim Edmonds: He did most everything well on a baseball field, especially the valuable combination of playing centerfield and hitting for power. He won eight Gold Gloves and hit 393 home runs, and he is one of only nine centerfielders with a career OPS greater than .900 over more than 1,500 games. The others are all Hall of Famers: Cobb, DiMaggio, Mantle, Mays, Earl Averill, Duke Snider, Tris Speaker and the soon-to-be-minted Griffey.
So why is it that Edmonds is likely to do no better in the voting than Larry Walker, who has yet to get 25% in five ballots? Edmonds does not stand out from among outfielders such as Walker, Lance Berkman, Ellis Burks, Brian Giles and Bernie Williams. Walker, for instance, has better numbers than Edmonds when it comes to batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and hits.
The biggest question holding back Edmonds is this: Was he great for long enough? He finished with 1,949 hits and 1,199 RBIs—both less than what Burks produced.
The baseball writers have elected only one outfielder with fewer than 2,000 hits in the history of elections: Ralph Kiner, a guy who needed 13 ballots to get elected (the cap on ballots is now 10) and had outlier power. Kiner won seven home run titles and had five top-10 MVP finishes. Edmonds never led the league in any offensive category and had only two top-10 MVP finishes.
Billy Wagner: If you want dominating stuff rather than efficiency from a closer, Wagner is your man. Hoffman had 42% more saves than Wagner, who had 422 saves and a much lower conversion rate. But Wagner’s rate statistics are extraordinary. Start with ERA. Here is a look at the lowest ERAs among pitchers who threw at least 900 relief innings since 1969:
1. Mariano Rivera: 2.06
2. Billy Wagner: 2.31
3. Rollie Fingers: 2.70
4. Dan Quisenberry: 2.76
5. Rich Gossage: 2.77
6. Bruce Sutter: 2.83
7. Kent Tekulve: 2.85
8. Tug McGraw: 2.86
9. Gary Lavelle: 2.86
10. Trevor Hoffman: 2.87
Now apply the same parameters to a pitcher's WHIP (walks plus hits per inning), for relief work only:
1. Mariano Rivera: 0.97
2. Billy Wagner: 1.00
3. Dennis Eckersley: 1.00
4. Joe Nathan: 1.03
5. Trevor Hoffman: 1.06
6. Joaquin Benoit: 1.09
7. Rollie Fingers: 1.13
8. Bruce Sutter: 1.14
And we already saw above that Wagner had the highest percentage of “clean saves” among any other top reliever.
So what’s not to like? Wagner was even more of a specialist than Hoffman. He had 179 fewer saves than Hoffman, a lower save conversion rate and five fewer 30-save seasons, as well as fewer saves of more than one inning (36). Wagner worked more than one inning for a save fewer times than Armando Benitez—and 141 other relievers. So Wagner has to get in line behind Rivera, who isn't eligible until the Class of 2019, and Hoffman.
Less importantly, though influential in the optics of determining “fame,” Wagner never had a major defining moment in his career. He pitched for five different teams in his last eight years, never pitched in the World Series, gave up runs in half of his 14 postseason appearances and never had a one-run save in the postseason, where his teams went 1–7 in their series.
Garret Anderson: Among the 87 players with 2,500 hits, Anderson ranks 81st in on-base percentage. He did not like to walk: His career high in walks was 38, and he had 12 seasons in which he qualified for the batting title and failed to draw more than that total. Only Andre Dawson (also 12 such seasons) and Willie Davis (14) are comparable in the live ball era (since 1920).
Brad Ausmus: How valuable were Ausmus’s defense and leadership? Teams routinely tolerated his weak bat. He played 18 years and took more than 7,000 plate appearances despite posting an OPS+ of 75. That’s the lowest OPS+ in the past 100 years by a catcher with so many plate appearances, and the sixth lowest regardless of position, trailing five shortstops: Alfredo Griffin, Ozzie Guillen, Larry Bowa, Roy McMillan and Don Kessinger.
Those that can’t, teach: Ausmus, Bowa, Guillen, Kessinger and McMillan all became big-league managers.
Luis Castillo: He had the fifth lowest OPS (.719) of all players with 1,700 games since 1996, the year he broke into MLB. (Ausmus had the lowest.) He scored 100 runs once and never drove in 50 runs. Castillo earned $56 million.
David Eckstein: Given how his career began, Eckstein is one of the more unlikely names on a Hall of Fame ballot. Known as “Just Enough”—a nicknamed derived from how the scouts evaluated each of his skills—the 5'7" Eckstein made the University of Florida baseball team as a walk-on, was a 19th-round draft pick by Boston and was waived by the Red Sox three years later out of Triple A (where the Sox kept infielders such as Aaron Holbert, Andy Sheets and Donnie Sadler). Eckstein went on to play 10 years in the big leagues, two of them as the starting shortstop for two World Series winners (the 2002 Angels and '06 Cardinals). Eckstein hit .333 in those World Series, winning MVP honors in the latter.
Troy Glaus: He admitted to investigators that he turned to steroids in the winter of 2003–04—when baseball first banned them—under the excuse of improving a shoulder injury. The New York Times reported that Glaus testified before a federal grand jury that his agents, Gene Casaleggio and Mike Nicotera, referred him to a doctor in California, who provided the drugs. After Glaus spent three months on his drug regimen, Nicotera bragged, “He’s in the best shape of his life right now.” No kidding. A juiced Glaus cashed in: After the 2004 season, he signed the biggest contract of his life, getting $45 million over four years from Arizona.
Mark Grudzielanek: An 11th-round pick by the Expos, Grudzielanek played through age 40. Grudzielanek, then Montreal's shortstop, had 54 doubles in 1997. Only one shortstop since 1901 ever had more doubles in a season: Nomar Garciaparra, with 56 in 2002.
Mike Hampton: It’s impossible to think of Hampton without thinking about the Denver school system—the reason he once gave for singing an eight year, $121 million contract with Colorado after the 2000 season. Hampton would win only 21 games with the Rockies, and over the life of the contract, he went 56–52 with a 4.81 ERA.
Jason Kendall: Here is a cautionary tale for current Royals All-Star catcher Salvador Perez. Through age 30, when Kendall averaged a whopping 134 games per year behind the plate, Kendall hit .306/.387/.418. After that: .260/.333/.318. Perez, age 25, has averaged 140 games over just the past three regular seasons, to say nothing of his work in the postseason.
Mike Lowell: A dead pull hitter, Lowell hit 83% of his home runs to leftfield. He was made for Fenway Park: Lowell hit .295 in Boston and .275 elsewhere.
Mike Sweeney: He was a great hitter who played clean through the Steroid Era, which is to say his numbers (.297 batting average, .851 OPS) were overshadowed, even though he hit like Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda (.297 lifetime average, .849 OPS). Sweeney is the kind of hitter who could have posted Cooperstown-worthy numbers if he had juiced. Instead, he has something more important: his integrity.
“[I’m] able to look myself in the mirror for the rest of my life and know that everything on the back of the baseball card is 100% me,” he said at the end of his career, “rather than hit 500 home runs and not being able to look myself in the mirror the rest of my life knowing I cheated the game.”
Randy Winn: He seemed to be everywhere. Winn had a hit in 38 ballparks, played at least 400 games each in leftfield, centerfield and rightfield, and played 1,717 games with the Rays, Mariners, Giants, Yankees and Cardinals. And yet there was one place he was never seen: the postseason.