While overall the BBWAA has done a good job of evaluating the game's greatest players, there are, of course, biases and inconsistencies that have plagued the Hall of Fame voting process for years. Many of these biases are so ingrained that it takes a conscious effort to move past them and evaluate candidates' true contributions fairly. These are five biases that Hall voters have exhibited and how modern players can take advantage of them. Want to make the Hall of Fame? Just follow these easy steps.
Earlier this decade, the baseball establishment woke up and decided to start valuing players who take a base on balls. The rest of the world has begun to take notice of statistics such as on-base-percentage and OPS, previously relegated to nerds only. While not as dramatic as hitting a home run or even a base hit up the middle, taking a walk and avoiding outs is an essential part of the game. Today's patient players are no longer underrated, and some are even deified (see Youkilis, Kevin, aka the "Greek God of Walks"). But while walks may no longer be undervalued by general managers and player agents, Hall of Fame voters don't seem to have gotten the message.
Even statistically minded folks like myself have trouble putting mind over matter. Edgar Martinez and Tim Raines don't feel like Hall of Famers to me. Andre Dawson and Jim Rice do. But a look at the numbers shows the opposite. Raines and Dawson have nearly identical OPS numbers in about the same number of games. Add in Raines' incredible speed and he is probably the better Hall candidate. Meanwhile, the numbers show that Martinez (OPS+ 147) was a vastly better hitter than Rice (OPS+ 128) in about the same number of plate appearances. Granted, Martinez was mostly a DH, but Rice wasn't exactly known for his defense, either.
So why is it that one's heart leads to Dawson and Rice, while one's head points to Raines and Martinez? Walks. The base on balls was a huge part of Raines' game, and Martinez averaged more than 100 walks per 162 games. Meanwhile, Dawson and Rice were free swingers who didn't draw many free passes -- especially considering their power.
Disdain for walks is the reason why Tony Perez and Kirby Puckett (40-50 BB per year) made the Hall with relative ease, while players such as Darrell Evans and Bobby Grich (80-100 BB per year) are never given a second thought, despite very similar offensive production. The thought of Evans and Grich in the Hall of Fame may seem crazy, but my head knows that this is simply because they earned their keep by drawing walks. Chicks don't dig the base on balls -- and neither do Hall of Fame voters.
Hall voters have long struggled with the question of how to evaluate the short reliever. Lately voters seem to be erring on the side of inclusion. Four modern relief pitchers have made the Hall: Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Dennis Eckersley. (Lee Smith continues to garner considerable support but is unlikely to ever gain admission.) Four closers doesn't sound like a whole lot, so why do I figure closers are overrated?
Simply put, relievers can't be of great value to their teams when they pitch so few innings. Granted, the innings that relievers throw are up to 70% more important to their teams, but even accounting for this fact, it's hard for a closer to have the same impact as a starting pitcher.
Plus there is the added fact that, in general, it's easier to perform well out of the bullpen than as a starter. A reliever can leave it all out on the field for one inning, while a starter has to worry about pacing himself for multiple times through the order. That's why bullpen ERAs are lower than starting ERAs, despite the fact that most relievers could never crack a major league rotation. History is filled with pitchers who successfully converted from starter to dominant closer. Meanwhile, very few, if any, have gone from failed reliever to ace starting pitcher.
Given these realities, for a closer to be as valuable as a starting pitcher or a position player, he has to be very good for a very long time, like MarianoRivera. But that's not the standard that the Hall has used. Sutter had just eight productive major league seasons. Fingers had a career ERA just 19% better than league average. That might be worthy of some votes were he a starter throwing 250 innings per year, but as relievers, neither of those pitchers were really close to providing Hall-worthy value to their teams.
Additionally, a couple of pitchers have solidified their Hall candidacies by becoming closers late in their careers. Eckersley converted when he was nowhere near a Hall candidate, but after just five truly dominant seasons he became a Hall of Fame lock. John Smoltz was another bubble candidate when he converted to the pen at the age of 34. After becoming one of the league's most feared closers for three years, his case was solidified.
Having a long, consistent, yet unspectacular career won't win you many fans or accolades, particularly if you're a pitcher. Bert Blyleven, Phil Niekro and Gaylord Perry all pitched very well for a long, long time, though none of them had particularly high peak performances, nor did they have out-of-this-world stuff. While Niekro and Perry eventually made it to Cooperstown (and Blyleven likely will by 2012), the voters were not eager to elect them, forcing all three to wait at least five years. However, a clear-eyed look at their contributions would indicate that they shouldn't have had to wait at all. All three of these men ranked among the top 20 Hall candidates of the past quarter-century in Wins Above Replacement. This compares favorably to the total WAR provided by Steve Carlton, Jim Palmer and Nolan Ryan,all of whom were first-ballot choices.
In another battle of mind vs. gut, the latter three just seem like surefire Hall of Famers, while Blyleven, Niekro and Perry don't. Why does this happen despite evidence to the contrary? Blyleven, Niekro and Perry never reached the "let's scalp tickets to see them pitch" level. They never had multiple standout seasons like Carlton or Palmer, or threw seven no-hitters like Ryan. They were simply very good pitchers who maintained a solid level of performance for more than 20 years. And over those 20 years they provided their teams with a lot of value -- more, in fact, than some flashier pitchers.
Third basemen have always had a tough time getting elected to the Hall. Part of the problem stems from the fact that the hot corner has a reputation of being a power-hitting position. While third base does allow for a bigger, stronger, slower player than, say, the middle infield, it's a mistake to assume that third basemen should have the same hitting prowess as first basemen or outfielders. Having a good fielder at third is enormously important, and as a result good-hitting third baseman aren't easy to come by. Fielders who can't hack it usually end up moving to first base. Guys who can hit and are good enough with the glove to play third are a rare and valuable breed.
Still, the categorization of third base as a primarily offensive position makes third basemen underrated by the BBWAA voters. That's why just six primary third basemen have been elected to the Hall by the writers. Even those who have made it have had to wait their turn, with Pie Traynor languishing for 11 years and Eddie Mathews waiting for five. One of the best eligible players currently not in the Hall, Ron Santo, also played third base (not coincidentally, he also drew a ton of walks).
While it's hard to think of many other definite should-be Hall of Fame third basemen, players such as Buddy Bell, Ken Boyer and Graig Nettles provided their teams with a fairly high total of around 60 Wins Above Replacement. Comparable players at other positions often at least make a run at the Hall, but not so at the hot corner. None of the players in question ever garnered more than 12 percent of the vote. The same scenario played out again on Wednesday, when Robin Ventura (55 Wins Above Replacement) was ousted from the ballot after receiving just seven votes.
In baseball, unlike basketball or other sports, one player cannot single-handedly account for the success or failure of a franchise. It's a team game, and all 25 guys have to contribute. Unfortunately for players stuck on bad teams, Hall voters have difficulty separating a player's performance from his team's.
This particularly applies to pitchers; despite advancements in statistics, voters still tend to focus on wins and losses. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the case of Blyleven, whose ERA, strikeouts, and career longevity should make him a no-brainer selection (his Wins Above Replacement indicate that he was the sixth most valuable candidate of the past 25 years). On Wednesday he was denied entry to the Hall for the 13th time. Despite all of his accomplishments, Blyleven played on bad teams with little run support, and Hall of Fame voters have punished him for it.
Elsewhere on the ballot, Jack Morris' stock rose again, now over 50%. Despite the fact that his ERA was just 5% better than league average over the course of a not-particularly long career, he's on track for enshrinement. Why? Great teammates and particularly great-hitting teammates. With Detroit's league-leading offense supporting him for years, it's no wonder he racked up 254 career wins. But many Hall of Fame voters don't seem to realize that other players were a big part of his success. His supporters will, of course, point to his clutch postseason performances, and rightly so, but how did he get the opportunity to pitch in those big games? Teammates.
For hitters, the equivalent statistic to a pitcher's wins is RBIs. Yes, good players rack up a lot of them, but it's also dependent on the context of the team. Players such as Tony Perez, who get a chance to be a big cog on a great offensive club, will find their paths to the Hall easier, while a better player like Barry Larkin, who didn't have that opportunity, will not enjoy the same advantages. Were he on the 1970s Reds instead of the 1990s Reds, Larkin might well be in Cooperstown already. Perhaps players who sign discount contracts with a contending team have the right idea.