Skip to main content

Answers about Barry Larkin, steroids and Hall of Fame voting


Congratulations to Barry Larkin, who was elected to the Hall of Fame on Monday with the credentials of everything you would want in an elite player. Larkin played every phase of the game well, redefined his position, shortstop, never had to change positions or change teams and boasted a healthy peak and longevity to his career. Joe Morgan, another Reds great, said it best when he remarked, "Barry Larkin's election to the Baseball Hall of Fame comes at a time when statistics are as important as the eye test, and Barry passes both tests. When you watched him play you knew he was a special player."

The honor is well deserved for someone who also represented his game, his team and his family well with sportsmanship, leadership and philanthropy. Larkin was the only player elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America but, as usual, the results raised many questions -- though perhaps not as many as next year when Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio and Curt Schilling are on the ballot. Here are the key questions and answers from the election:

There were two big surprises about Larkin's election. What were they?

The first surprise was that it took three ballots to get such a no-doubt Hall of Famer elected. Larkin is one of the 10 best shortstops in history and redefined the position with an unprecedented combination of speed, power and defense.

The second surprise is that he took the biggest leap forward in the past 64 years of voting -- the biggest ever in elections with at least 400 ballots. (There were 573 ballots this year). Larkin gained 24 percent to go in at 86 percent. Much of that gain can be attributed to the lack of strong first-time candidates. (Bernie Williams received only 10 percent support while all other newcomers gained less than five percent, never to return to a writers' ballot.) When a candidate is identified as the clear, best choice, voters will want to be part of the "winning" candidate. Also, what the proliferation of information and conversation has done to Hall of Fame voting is to create the psychology of "campaigns." People buy into campaigns with momentum.

Who should be encouraged by the ballot results?

Jack Morris, Tim Raines and Jeff Bagwell. Morris jumped from 54 percent to 67 percent. No player ever has received 67 percent support and not eventually been enshrined. (Gil Hodges holds the record for the most support without enshrinement: 63.4 percent.) Morris has gained support for five straight years and now has not only momentum but also the imprimatur as the best-supported returning candidate for 2013. Again, people get influenced by the "wisdom" of the crowd.

Morris has two more chances on the ballot, and I think he now has enough momentum to go in on one of those. The so-called "crowded" ballot of 2013 actually will help him because many candidates are tainted by PED associations. The average voter puts five names on his ballot (out of a maximum of 10) and doesn't respect steroid users, so there is plenty of room for growth for guys such as Morris and Raines.

Raines received 49 percent on his fifth ballot, more than twice his debut (24 percent). His abilities to get on base, steal bases and score runs have been underappreciated, and his status as the next best thing to Rickey Henderson slowly and rightfully is being viewed as a high compliment, not a knock.

Jeff Bagwell started well last year (42 percent) and took an encouraging leap this year (to 56). He is tracking just behind the Hall of Fame patterns of Ryne Sandberg (49, 61, 76) and Larkin (52, 62, 86), suggesting about two or three more ballots may be in order.

Alan Trammell also made a solid gain from 24 percent to 37 percent, but he still has a mountain to climb to get another 38 percent in the four ballots he has left. Trammell is not helped by the comparison to Larkin, with significant gaps in rates and totals largely because Trammell essentially was done as an impact player at 32. Trammell had only seven qualified seasons with the modest OPS+ of 100 or better, which ranks him tied for 204th among retired players not in the Hall, in the company of guys such as Mike Lowell and Jeromy Burnitz.

Who should be discouraged?

Anybody who did not take a big step forward. No momentum on a weak ballot is a bad sign.

Lee Smith did crack the 50 percent barrier on his 10th try, but this is a guy who debuted at 42 percent. Smith had too many easy saves (of his last 77 saves, only one was for more than three outs), had no postseason success and is too comparable to John Franco, Jeff Reardon and a host of other non-Hall specialists.

Larry Walker showed little improvement, inching from 20 percent to 23 percent. Walker is hurt by the inflationary effects of hitting in Denver and by a lack of durability. Walker played 30 percent of his career games in Denver. He hit 98 points higher in Denver than elsewhere and hit home runs at a 49 percent greater rate. Walker played 17 seasons, but played 145 games only once.

SI Recommends

The others who gained little traction include Edgar Martinez and Fred McGriff, who I regard as the most overlooked candidate on the ballot. And the door is closing on Dale Murphy, who has one more try but has been stuck between 12 and 14 percent for five straight years, and Don Mattingly, who has three more ballots but has remained below 20 percent for 10 straight years.

What does the vote tell us about steroids?

Nothing has changed. The writers' position on steroids has not softened. Mark McGwire has been on the ballot six years and his percentage has not varied more than four points (20-24 percent). Support for Rafael Palmeiro (11 percent to 13 percent) hardly moved. They must hope some version of the Veterans Committee someday will view them differently.

Who has the best chance of getting elected next year among new candidates?

Biggio and Schilling. Biggio has the magic of 3,000 hits -- though he hung on for a long time as a marginal player to get there. Almost 40 percent of Biggio's hits came in his final eight seasons, when he was a below-average player (95 OPS+, .266 batting average). His poor postseason record won't help him, either (.234 with a .295 OBP). But Biggio had a solid nine-year peak in which he made seven All-Star games, posted an .842 OPS and scored 989 runs. Above all, he lasted an incredibly long time as a middle infielder. He compares favorably -- though with slightly less credentials -- to Robin Yount, who barely made the 75 percent threshold in his first year.

If Schilling is a borderline candidate, his postseason record (11-2, 2.23) puts him over the top. His teams won 10 of the 12 postseason series in which he played. Schilling may not have an impressive win total (216), but he's Don Drysdale with a better ERA+, more 20-win seasons and a better postseason record.

Schilling and Clemens are the only pitchers in history to three times win more than 20 games while losing fewer than eight. And here's the money nugget on Schilling: He has the greatest strikeout-to-walk rate in history (4.4) since the mound was set at 60 feet, six inches in the 19th century.

Hey, but what about great players who took steroids?

Some people will vote for them if they believe "they were great players before they started juicing." That kind of thinking condones steroid use based on talent -- that a voter endorses players corrupting the basic fairness of the game and the record book as long as they reached some nebulous level of achievement. When did it become okay for Bonds to get on the most meticulous, scientific PED regimen in documented history that made the home run record inauthentic? Three hundred homers? Four hundred?

Bonds and Clemens will get more support than McGwire because of the faction of writers who adopt this two-tiered position on steroids (it's okay for established stars, not okay for those trying to become one). If they get twice as much support, they still won't crack 50 percent. But such high-profile players very well could gain enough support over time to get in. It's a new phase in voting.

But wait, isn't it a voter's job to "tell the history of baseball" when it comes to Hall of Fame voting?

Not in my view. Hall of Fame enshrinement is very different from the Hall of Fame Museum, which tells the history of the game very nicely, even with non-Hall of Famers such as Pete Rose and Joe Jackson and steroid users represented. A Hall of Fame vote is the endorsement of a career at the highest level. And no one is "wiping out" an era. Plenty of players from the Steroid Era have and will be represented.

Yes, but have you noticed visits to the museum are down? Don't these baseball writers understand they should fling open the doors to steroid users to increase foot traffic?

Of course, the decline has nothing to do with the economy. It's because thousands of people are denied the thrill of gazing upon the plaque of Palmeiro, who not once was ever popular enough to get elected as an All-Star starter. It's a strange mandate for Hall of Fame voters: vote not with conviction but as a sales and marketing rep for the Hall.

Okay, so if Bonds and Clemens don't get in it on the first ballot it must be time to rip up the system and let somebody else vote, right?

Uh, no. (Translation: when my guys don't get in, the system must be broken.) How about we use a system in which 44 media members pile into a room and pick exactly between four and seven guys every year to put in the Hall of Fame and never announce the vote totals? That's how the NFL does it. The Baseball Hall of Fame is the most prestigious Hall of Fame because it has the highest, most time-honored standards. McGwire, Palmeiro, Bonds, Sosa, Clemens and the like will get 15 cracks at getting 75 percent support from 500-plus eligible baseball writers. That has proved to be fair enough over decades. Of the 297 Hall of Famers, only 112, or 38 percent, have been elected by the BBWAA. Congratulations to Barry Larkin, who played through the Steroid Era and met the threshold of Hall of Fame election to be number 112.