How I decide who gets my Hall of Fame vote, and why steroid users don't belong

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Tuesday January 10th, 2017

A jarring thought occurred to me recently: Many people who never covered a day of the Steroid Era are voting for the Hall of Fame.

Writers accrue their voting rights after holding a Baseball Writers Association of America card for 10 consecutive seasons, so the idea of considering players you didn’t cover is not new. On my first ballot, for instance, was Ken Boyer, who played his last game when I was in grade school. (Back then, players remained eligible up to 20 years after their last season, a window since reduced to 15.)

What is jarring is that the Steroid Era stands apart from any era in the game’s history. You have to understand the unique context of that era. As time passes and as veteran writers prefer the path of least resistance, which is to just pretend it didn’t exist or lazily decide “everybody was doing it,” the disgrace of the era ebbs. Newer writers didn’t cover it. Eleven of the 12 first-year writers listed on BBHOFTracker.com voted for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, a 91.7% support rate for two players who in four years never cracked 50% of the vote.

Four years ago, I wrote about why I would not vote for any player known to be connected to performance-enhancing drugs. Five years ago, I wrote about the insidious damage of PED use, telling the story of four righthanded pitchers around the same age and with similar ability on the 1994 Fort Myers Miracle, a Class A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins. Only one of them reached the big leagues, and it was expressly because he was the only one to use steroids: Dan Naulty.

Read both. But if your attention span won’t allow it, digest this, the money quote from Naulty:

“I was a full blown cheater and I knew it. You didn’t need a written rule. I was violating clear principals that were laid down within the rules. Whether they were explicitly stated that I shouldn’t use speed or testosterone didn’t need to be stated. I understood I was violating mainly implicit principals.

“I have no idea how many guys were using testosterone. But I would assume anybody that was had some sort of conviction that this was against the rules. Look, my fastball went from 87 to 96! There’s got to be some sort of violation in that. It was not by natural cause. To say it wasn’t cheating to me was ... it’s just a fallacy. There’s just no way you could say that’s not cheating. It was a total disadvantage to play clean.”

As someone who has spent years talking to players who used steroids and players who abhorred them and now hearing revisionist history, I can explain some concepts that help me fill out a ballot.

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Evidence (or Lack Thereof)

Voting for the Hall of Fame when it comes to “suspected” steroid users is akin to sitting on a jury during a civil trial, not a criminal one. No one is going to jail. The task is to decide whether “a preponderance of evidence” connects the player to PED use. Hearsay, rumor, innuendo, “eyeball tests” and the like are not evidence. I’m talking about public evidence—and I don’t disregard such evidence because the job is “too hard.” There is no way I condone, endorse or celebrate steroid use under any circumstance. That means you don’t “earn” the right to cheat the game and your fellow competitors because you are “already a Hall of Famer.”

Clean Players

I’m not just talking about the ones on the ballot; I’m talking about the hundreds of clean players who had their livelihoods compromised by steroid users. These are the voices I hear every time I fill out a Hall of Fame ballot. I know how bastardized the game was back then. The inspiration for the 2002 story I wrote on steroids in baseball, which began the public pressure that eventually led to the union dropping its iron-clad resistance to drug testing, were the many clean players who volunteered to me over the '00 and '01 seasons how the game was horribly twisted. They told me their dilemma: Either you put yourself at a disadvantage by playing the game clean, or you were forced to risk your health, conscience and legal standing to keep up with the cheats. One clean player I know competed three times with three different teams for a starting job. All three times he lost the job to a steroid user. He never made big money.

In my 2002 story, people mocked former NL MVP Ken Caminiti for suggesting that as many as half the players were on PEDs, claiming he exaggerated the problem. Many of the same people today, in order to simplify their voting, blithely say, “Ah, everybody was doing it.”

Fred McGriff

Fred McGriff is the best example of why people who didn’t cover the Steroid Era don’t understand the historical harm it caused. Here’s why McGriff is a Hall of Famer, and I’ll try to dumb it down as much as possible because I know most people have neither the time nor the awareness for nuance:

1. Only 31 players in baseball history have hit 475 home runs. Every one of them who has been on the ballot and not been connected to steroids is in the Hall of Fame except one: Fred McGriff (he has 493, good for 28th place);

2. Only 37 players in baseball history have posted an OPS+ of 129 or more over 10,000 plate appearances—a rare feat of sustained excellence over many years. Every one of them who has been on a ballot and not been connected to steroids is in the Hall of Fame except one: Fred McGriff. (He ranks 24th at 134, better than first-ballot Hall of Famers such as Tony Gwynn, Eddie Murray and Dave Winfield.)

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So why has McGriff never received even 25% of the vote after seven tries? Steroids. He chose not to use them, and his numbers suffered in comparison to those who did.

Let’s play a game. Suppose that after his age-33 season, when he hit 22 homers and drove in 97 runs in 1997, McGriff went to BALCO for their cutting edge drugs and detailed doping regimen—the same age Barry Bonds was when, according to Game of Shadows, he decided to seek such help. Now let’s give McGriff’s career statistics the same BALCO boost—on a percentage basis based on McGriff’s numbers to that point—that Bonds enjoyed after age 33. Here’s the difference.

Years

Home Runs

Hits

Average

"Clean" McGriff

493

2,490

.284

"BALCO" McGriff

564

2,567

.293

With BALCO’s help, McGriff becomes one of only eight players in baseball history to hit .293 or better with 564 home runs. The others: two steroid users (Bonds and Alex Rodriguez) and five all-time greats (Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Albert Pujols, Frank Robinson and Babe Ruth).

Now let’s really get silly and imagine that Bonds never went to BALCO. Let’s imagine that Bonds’ numbers declined after age 33 the same way they did for “Clean” McGriff—essentially a normal aging pattern. That means, for example, that Bonds’ batting average after age 33 goes down two points (not up by 26 points, as it did), his home-run rate slows (not goes up 20%) and he is done at age 40 (not 42).

Now look what happens in our bizzaro world in which McGriff goes to BALCO and Bonds does not:

Years

Home Runs

Hits

Average

"Clean" Bonds

599

2,587

.289

"BALCO" McGriff

564

2,567

.293

When it comes to Hall of Fame voting, nobody has been more harmed by the Steroid Era than McGriff.

Peak and Longevity

I generally vote for players who were among the very best in the game for roughly a decade and have major career numbers. Exceptions exist, such as someone with a Sandy Koufax-like peak. For instance, when Clayton Kershaw throws his first pitch of this season—it will mark his 10th season, the minimum for Hall eligibility—he will have earned my Hall of Fame vote.

I have withheld my vote for Edgar Martinez because I didn’t see enough longevity. His stat line has similarities to those of Will Clark and Moises Alou, for instance, both of whom fell off the ballot after a single season. But while covering Martinez, I always understood him to be one of the best pure hitters in the game, and countless opponents said so. I went back and dove into his prime again. Was it exceptional? This list, among players who are Hall eligible, provided more information.

Player

Years with 140 OPS+

Career Hits

Dick Allen

11

1,848

Edgar Martinez

10

2,247

Fred McGriff

9

2,490

Jeff Bagwell

9

2,314

Charlie Keller

9

1,085

Posting an adjusted OPS of 140 or better is some serious raking. Only 12 players did so last year. To have roughly a decade’s worth of elite hitting is exceptional. Note how McGriff turns up again here.

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Choice

More than 400 people consider 34 players with more than 4,000 combined available spots on the ballots, and only those players named on at least 75% of the ballots get elected. Difference of opinion should be both expected and honored.

Former New York Times baseball writer Murray Chass handed in a blank ballot. Do I agree with his decision? No, but I respect his freedom of choice as a qualified voting member of the BBWAA. By the way, there's nothing new here: blank ballots were cast at least as far back as 1991, as well as in in 2003 (five), '07 (two), '09 (five) and '14 (one).

In 72 elections, the BBWAA has elected 121 players to the Hall of Fame, an average of just 1.68 per year. That’s how hard it has been to get elected to the most prestigious, most talked about Hall of Fame in all of sports.

The Today’s Game Committee's Choices

The most ridiculous new narrative is that because this committee voted Bud Selig into the Hall of Fame, now we must vote in steroid users. This is laughable on so many levels, starting with the concept of chucking your voting standards to adopt those of this committee. Do you know what percentage of Hall of Famers have been voted in by the BBWAA? Just 38.8%.

But let’s just say you do take your cues from this committee. Did you see what the 16 committee members did with admitted steroid user Mark McGwire? He got “fewer than five votes,” which is the Hall’s way of saving also-rans from the embarrassment of having their true vote total announced. It was a complete repudiation of an actual player who used steroids, not an executive. So why isn’t that the new narrative to guide a vote?

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“Morality”

People who vote for steroid users like to use this word as a pejorative, as in, “We are not the morality police.” Relax. Save the overwrought comparisons to racists, drunks and sociopaths. We’re not talking about taking the measurement of how people live their life. We’re talking about the very bedrock of sports: fair play. If you don’t have an even playing field, you lose the foundation of competition. It should be my best and against your best, not my best against the best drugs you can covertly use to transform yourself.

So yes, we’re talking about integrity, but integrity as it relates only to how a player competed on the field.

“Environment”

“A flawed time.” “A loose era.” “A loosey-goosey culture.” Stop with the linguistic gymnastics and excuses. We are all a product of the choices we make. To blame the “environment” is to miss the conscious decision a player faced: Either you engaged in cheating that was so wrong you had to hide your usage and you could never admit it—and most still haven’t—or, as many did, you played the game clean.

McGwire, one of the few admitted users before testing said it best when it comes to taking ownership:

It’s a mistake that I have to live with for the rest of my life. I have to deal with never, ever getting into the Hall of Fame. I totally understand and totally respect their opinion and I will never, ever push it. That is the way it’s going to be and I can live with that. One of the hardest things I had to do this year was sit down with my nine and 10 year old boys and tell them what dad did. That was a really hard thing to do but I did it. They understood as much as a nine or 10 year old could. It’s just something, if any ball player ever came up to me, [I'd say] run away from it. It’s not good. Run away from it.

Wins Above Replacement

Like RBIs and saves, Wins Above Replacement is a semi-junk stat. Bill James has no use for it, yet some writers wield it incessantly. It is a measurement of nothing. It is an approximation, an attempt to roll everything about a player into one number. So it’s useful as a rule of thumb, like walking off the distance between two points and using your strides to “calculate” the distance. It tells you something, but I don’t want my contractor building my house like that. Yet writers are using WAR as an exact measurement, including the folly of using numbers after decimal points to split hairs. If you blindly believe in a stat that considers Bobby Abreu better than Yogi Berra, Lou Whitaker better than Reggie Jackson and Jeff Bagwell better than Joe DiMaggio, you better do some more homework.

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