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  • The 2017 ballot for the Modern Baseball Era Committee is a dreary one, but there is still a deserving candidate out there who is still awaiting enshrinement.
By Jay Jaffe
November 10, 2017

On Monday, the Baseball Hall of Fame announced its 10-candidate ballot for the Modern Baseball Era Committee, a slate of nine players and one executive whose greatest contributions to the game occurred during the 1970–87 timeframe. Even for a process designed to reconsider long-retired players not elected via the writers' ballot (managers, executives and umpires are included as well)— this feels like a particularly reheated slate. Six of the candidates have been considered via at least one Era Committee ballot before, namely Steve Garvey, Tommy John, Dave Parker, Ted Simmons, Luis Tiant and Marvin Miller, the lone non-player. While Don Mattingly, Jack Morris, Dale Murphy and Alan Trammell are all first-timers here, each spent the maximum 15 years on the BBWAA ballot, with Morris the only one coming anywhere close to the 75% needed for election by the end of his run:

Player

15th Year

Max Pct.

Jack Morris

61.5%

67.7%

Alan Trammell

40.9%

40.9%

Tommy John

31.7%

31.7%

Steve Garvey

21.1%

41.6%

Dale Murphy

18.6%

23.2%

Luis Tiant

18%

30.9%

Dave Parker

15.3%

24.5%

Don Mattingly

9.1%

28.2%

Garvey, Mattingly and Tiant received their highest shares of the vote in their ballot debuts, with Parker and Murphy doing so in their second years. When the Hall announced the truncation of the 15-year eligibility window to 10 in the summer of 2014, Mattingly—who along with Trammell and Lee Smith was grandfathered in, as he was past the 10-year point — was down into single-digit percentages. In short, the candidacies of those players were arguments for a mercy rule. While players who slips below 5% in any year are removed from the ballot, arguably additional thresholds should be met later in the run. No candidate with 25% or less in year 5 has been elected since the writers returned to annual voting in 1966, for example.

That's an argument for another day. My point here is that if this process is truly designed to give player candidates a second (or third, or fourth…) chance at election, the Historical Overview Committee—a panel of 11 BBWAA elders that builds the ballots—would be better off incorporating some who have spent less time in the sun. Simmons is the lone candidate here who received less than 5% at any time; he did so in his ballot debut, yet he's getting another chance, and quite justifiably given the quality of his traditional and advanced statistics. Missing in action are contemporaries such as Buddy Bell, Dwight Evans, Bobby Grich, Graig Nettles, Dave Stieb and Lou Whitaker, Trammell's longtime keystone partner. None has ever appeared on an Era Committee ballot, in part because the HOC takes prior BBWAA voting into account rather than starting from a fresh slate.

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As that partial list suggests, and as was pointed out before the ballot's release, there are dozens of candidates worthy of reconsideration in this context. With three decades worth of sabermetric advances, we can do a better job of putting players' careers into perspective than ever before, through basic stats like ERA+ and OPS+ or more advanced ones like WAR and JAWS, and in doing so recognize ones who, like 2011 BBWAA honoree Bert Blyleven, were unduly slighted in their day.  

If there's a silver lining here—and man, am I looking for one—it's that the change the Hall announced in July 2016 means that this is hardly the last word on the era. When the Hall disbanded the old Veterans Committee process in 2010, they introduced three 16-member Era Committees voting on a triennial cycle, namely the Pre-Integration Era (1871–1946), Golden Era ('47–72), and Expansion Era ('73 onward). In two full times through the order, none elected a living ex-player — the last one elected by any small committee was Bill Mazeroski in 2001 — and combined, they honored just two ex-players (2012 Golden Era choice Ron Santo and 2013 Pre-Integration choice Deacon White) out of eight total honorees, with complete shutouts of both the 2015 Golden and 2016 Pre-Integration slates. The new reorganization divides candidates into four eras: Early Baseball (1871–1949), Golden Days ('50–69), Modern Baseball ('70–87) and Today's Game ('88 on), and instead of a simple quadrennial cycle, the slates are considered with different frequencies within a 10-year cycle emphasizing more recent eras:

2017: Today’s Game

2018: Modern Baseball

2019: Today’s Game

2020: Modern Baseball

2021: Golden Days and Early Baseball

2022: Today’s Game

2023: Modern Baseball

2024: Today’s Game

2025: Modern Baseball

2026: Golden Days

Thus we can hope that those such as Whitaker who missed this year's cut get a chance in two years or at least somewhere in the next seven. That's not too much to ask. 

The results of this year’s vote will be announced on December 10. In the meantime, I will be evaluating the playing candidates using my JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) system, a means of using Wins Above Replacement on both career and peak (best seven years) axes to compare them to enshrinees at their position. I’ll breaking out Trammell and Morris in adaptations of full-length profiles I wrote during their BBWAA runs, doing a separate profile for Miller, and running the rest in two batches. The first, featuring the two other pitchers and the lone catcher, follows here.

Tommy John (62.0 career WAR/34.7 peak WAR/48.3 JAWS, 83rd among SP)

Avg HOF SP: 73.9/50.3/62.1

John's 26 seasons in the majors, from 1963–74 and then 1976–89 (when he was 46 years old), are more than any player besides Nolan Ryan. That missing 1975 season, and his subsequent longevity, owes to his pioneering role as the recipient of the most famous sports medicine procedure of all time, the elbow ligament replacement surgery performed by Dr. Frank Jobe in 1974 that is now named for John, who subsequently undertook an arduous 18-month rehab for which there was simply no road map.

From a WAR standpoint, John's value was virtually equal on both sides of the surgery (31.1 WAR before, 30.9 after), but 164 of his 288 wins, and most of his fame, came after going under the knife. In the five-year span from 1977–1981, he placed in the top five in Cy Young voting three times (twice as runner-up), won 20 or more games three times and pitched in three World Series for the Dodgers and Yankees, though all on the losing side. A groundballer who didn't miss many bats (4.3 per nine overall, 3.4 per nine post-surgery), he ate innings like few other pitchers, with seven seasons of more than 200 after the surgery, and four of at least 175 from age 40 onward. His total of 4,710 1/3 innings ranks 20th all-time, and he's 26th in both wins and shutouts (46). Alas, he never led his leagues in any of the Triple Crown categories (wins, ERA and strikeouts), made just four All-Star teams, and didn't crack 30% of the BBWAA vote until his final year ballot.

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One can play "what if" and surmise that had he not missed the end of 1974 (including the Dodgers' trip to the World Series) and all of '75, John might have gotten to 300 wins, and thus automatic enshrinement. Then again, it's entirely possible that his elbow (or another body part) would have instead given way in his late 30s or early 40s, after he'd made a few million dollars in free agency, at an age when rehabbing might have seemed less appealing than when he was 31.

While the early versions of my system showed John to be slightly above the standard for enshrined starters, more recent iterations that account for his low strikeout rate put him much farther way. He's far below the standard for pitchers on the career, peak and JAWS fronts, and failed to get any traction on the 2011 or 2014 Expansion Era ballots. One would need to apply a very large bonus for the surgery to justify his election. That the Hall honored him in tandem with Jobe in 2013 is enough for my tastes.

Luis Tiant (66.7/44.6/55.6, 51st among SP)

Avg HOF SP: 73.9/50.3/62.1

The Cuban-born son of legendary Negro Leagues pitcher Luis Tiant Sr., Tiant was as colorful a character as the island produced, known for his Fu Manchu mustache and ubiquitous stogies—which he would even take into the shower—as well as his unique deliveries. Best remembered for his eight-year stint with the Red Sox (1971–78), he pitched for six major league teams over the course of his 19-year career (1964–82), finishing with a 229–172 record and a 3.30 ERA (114 ERA+).

​Tiant pitched in the Mexican League in 1960 and '61, but didn't return to Cuba after the latter season out of fear that he would be banned from further outside travel. Signed by the Indians in 1962, he debuted in the majors in '64, when he was (allegedly) 23. After four mostly good seasons while bouncing back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation, he broke out in 1968—the "Year of the Pitcher"—to lead the AL in ERA (1.60), shutouts (nine, including four in a row at one point) and WAR (8.4). Tiant finished 21–9, but Denny McLain's 31–6 season with a 1.96 ERA took home the league's Cy Young honors. The Cuban hurler slumped dreadfully the following year, losing 20 games and more than doubling his ERA, and while battling injuries and ineffectiveness, he passed through the hands of the Twins and Braves before winding up in Boston.

Though his 1971 season, was dismal, he rebounded to lead the AL in ERA (1.91) again in '72, and emerged as the Red Sox’s staff ace, reaching the 20-win plateau in 1973 and '74, and helping the team to the 1975 pennant. After throwing a shutout in Game 1 of that classic World Series, he returned on three days' rest to gut out a complete-game victory in Game 4, "delivering 163 pitches in 100 ways," as Sports Illustrated's Roy Blount Jr. described it, and he started the epic Game 6 as well. That year, the great Roger Angell classified six aspects of his deliveries in a New Yorker essay later collected in Five Seasons. Two favorites:

1) Call the Osteopath: In midpitch the man suffers an agonizing seizure in the central cervical region, which he attempts to fight off with a sharp backward twist of the head.

4) Falling Off the Fence: An attack of vertigo nearly causes him to topple over backward on the mound. Strongly suggests a careless dude on the top rung of the corral.

After departing the Red Sox, Tiant spent two years of diminishing effectiveness with the Yankees and then brief stints with the Pirates in 1981 and the Angels in '82 before retiring.

As colorful as Tiant's career was, his Hall of Fame case is more monochromatic. He earned All-Star honors just three times, and never placed higher than fourth in a Cy Young vote, though he did rank in the top 10 in WAR eight times. He notched far fewer wins than nine of the 10 contemporary starters already enshrined, six of whom reached the 300 plateau (Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver and Don Sutton) and three more of whom (Blyleven, Ferguson Jenkins and Jim Palmer) had at least 268; among that cohort, only Catfish Hunter (224) had fewer.

Via the advanced metrics, Tiant is about seven wins off the career WAR standard for enshrined starters, and six off the peak. Among his aforementioned contemporaries, he ranks below all but Sutton (50.7) and Hunter (38.2), and below all but 23 of the 62 enshrined pitchers. One has to give him substantial credit for cultural ambassadorship to justify a vote for enshrinement.

Tiant never made much of a dent in the BBWAA voting, debuting at 30.9% in 1988 but never topping 20% again, and  he got minimal support on the 2005, '07, '09, '12 and '15 committee processes. Thus, he doesn't figure to have much of a shot here, but there are worse things the voting panel—and you, the reader—can do than watch The Lost Son of Havana.

Ted Simmons, C (50.1/34.6/42.4, 10th among C)

Avg HOF C: 53.4/34.4/43.9

I profiled Simmons at length for The Cooperstown Casebook, released this past July, but with enough excerpts of the book in circulation for the publisher's taste, I'm sticking with the digest form here. 

The 1970s was a bountiful era for outstanding catchers. Johnny Bench, Gary Carter and Carlton Fisk are all in the Hall of Fame and occupy three of the top four spots in the position's JAWS rankings. Simmons wasn't quite in their class, but he ranks 10th at the position, below eight Hall of Famers plus still-active Joe Mauer, and above the other seven, of whom only Roy Campanella was voted in by the BBWAA.

A six-time All-Star during his 13 seasons with St. Louis (1968–1980, though he played only seven games combined in the first two years), the switch-hitting Simmons was known more for his bat (.298/.366/.459, 118 OPS+, 2,472 hits, 248 homers) than his glove. He ranked among the league's top 10 in batting average six times, in on-base or slugging percentage nine times and in position player WAR five times. Behind the plate he was an adequate backstop, maligned for his throwing during his era—particularly by manager/GM Whitey Herzog, who essentially ran him out of St. Louis and later sat on the 2011 and '14 Expansion Era committees that bypassed him—but essentially average via Total Zone (-8 runs career). He threw out 34% of would-be base thieves, equal with the weighted league average of the time, and while he was less adept at pitch blocking, his bat, elite for the position, more than made up for it.

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Traded from the Cardinals to the Brewers in a December 1980 blockbuster that also included Rollie Fingers, Simmons had two good seasons—including their 1982 pennant-winning one and an All-Star follow-up—and one bad one behind the plate (with increasing amounts of DH work) in Milwaukee before being asked to hang up the tools of ignorance In 1984, his lone season without a game caught, he split his time between DH, first base and even third with disastrous consequences, hitting .221/.269/.300 for a 61 OPS+ with -2.6 WAR. For his eight-season post-St. Louis career, which included a later stop in Atlanta as well, he hit .260/.313/.395 and compiled only 5.3 WAR. He's one win above the peak average for catchers, but thanks to that crater is 2.3 wins below the career standard and thus slightly short on JAWS. Still, I strongly believe that being among a position's all-time top 10 is a sufficient reason to justify a vote. While conceding that Simmons is right on the borderline, I'd put him in based upon the evidence.

Simmons got just 3.7% of the vote in 1994, his only year on the BBWAA ballot. That may have had something to do with lingering resentment over the fact that in 1972, in the wake of former teammate Curt Flood's challenge to the Reserve Clause, he became the first playing holdout in baseball history, playing well into the season without a signed contract before the Cardinals gave in to his demands. College educated at the University of Michigan, he simply wasn't cut from the same cloth as the average major leaguer of his time. A 1978 Sports Illustrated profile by Ron Fimrite introduced him as the St. Louis Art Museum’s newest trustee, described his and wife Maryanne’s collection of early-eighteenth-century furniture, and summarized his early-career rebelliousness:

He was unyielding even when it became evident that his views did not sit well in a community as conservative as St. Louis. He denounced the Vietnam War and was outspoken in his contempt for the Nixon Administration. He allowed his hair to grow to his shoulders; that gave him a leonine look and earned him the nickname Simba ... At that time, he was a lion roaring his defiance.

How much Simmons’ iconoclasm affected voters of the day is unknown, but between that and the shadow cast by Herzog, it's not hard to do the basic math. Likewise, it's hard not to notice that one of the 11 members of the HOC is the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Rick Hummel, a Spink Award winner who covered Simmons' years of stardom and has described his own "passionate pleas" to include Simmons on committee ballots in the past. In doing so, Hummel shone a light into the disadvantage that the victims of the Five Percent Rule face in this context. "Where the rub comes is that when the voters in December ask how many ballots Simmons lasted in the regular BBWAA elections, the answer sadly, unbelievably, is one … The veterans' voters, then speaking to any BBWAA members on the committee, say, ‘Well, you must not have liked him very much.’”

In light of Simmons’ previous slighting by the writers, it's laudable that he’s on this ballot, but one can only wish the same could be said for Whitaker (whose case I'll touch upon in my Trammell breakout) and others. Likewise, one can hope that the voters give Simmons' career the thorough consideration it deserves. He's worthy of enshrinement.

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