On January 22, the Hall of Fame will announce who will join Harold Baines and Lee Smith for induction this summer. For the ninth straight year I hereby cast my Hall of Fame ballot. Or, rather, I write about the ballot I would cast if I had a vote. Which I do not, because of reasons. Don’t judge me. Most of you guys play fantasy baseball. I can play fantasy Hall of Fame voter.
Since my vote is imaginary I could, if I wanted to, vote for more than ten players. I don’t, though, for the same reason you don’t play a left fielder at catcher on your fantasy team. There are rules, even when you’re playing pretend. Of course, as you will see from my comments below, there are far more than ten who I think are worthy, even if I can’t imaginarily vote for them all.
Without further ado, my take — some less thorough than others — for every candidate on the ballot. If you don’t want to wade through it all, the ten I choose will be listed at the end.
THE NEW GUYS
Mariano Rivera: The only question about his candidacy is whether or not he breaks the all-time record for the highest percentage of votes, currently held by Ken Griffey Jr. He won’t be unanimous, of course — we know that already — but I suspect that he’ll fall short of Griffey’s mark because a lot of idiot voters believe that relief pitchers are somehow unnatural non-players and will leave him off their ballot. Others will cite idiotic “if Willie Mays was not unanimous, no one shall be!” precedent to do so, because as we all know two wrongs make a right. Still others will continue to grandstand about the PED era and submit blank ballots which must be counted as no votes. It doesn’t matter, of course, because Rivera is the greatest of all time at his job and that’s Hall of Fame-worthy even if you don’t appreciate his job.
Side note: I’d like to see the Venn Diagram of people who, during the baseball season, talk up closing as “the hardest job in baseball” and go on about how it takes a special unicorn to do it but who, when Hall of Fame voting comes around, discounts relief pitchers and does not believe them worthy of consideration. Logic would dictate that those positions cannot overlap, but I bet there is someone out there who, somehow, believes both things.
Roy Halladay: From 2002-2011, Halladay went 170-75 with a 2.97 ERA and 1,699 strikeouts in 2,194 2/3 innings. He went to eight All-Star Games, won two Cy Young Awards, in 2003 and 2010, and finished second twice more. During that span, he led his league in wins twice, innings four times and complete games seven times. He never won an ERA crown, but he finished second three times, third twice and fifth twice. bWAR ranked him as his league’s top pitcher in four of those seasons, and he was in the top four eight times. Halladay’s 62.4 bWAR from ages 25-34 ranks as the 10th best ever among pitchers. Everyone else in the top 16 on the list is a Hall of Famer.
Which is to say, he absolutely had a Hall of Fame peak. Many years more than a peak, actually. A slow start to his career and an early, injury-induced retirement prevented him from putting up the sorts of overall career numbers some inner-circle Hall of Fame pitchers had, but the greatness of his peak and the length of his peak should overcome that in ways that other peak-centric candidates (Mattingly, Murphy, etc.) fall short.
And let’s say what a lot of people aren’t saying: yes, he’ll get more votes this year than he probably would have had he not died in that plane crash because that’s how people tend to operate sometimes. It doesn’t matter. He’d be Hall of Fame worthy regardless and I have no problem whatsoever with emotion getting him over a hump he might not have gotten over for a couple of years otherwise.
Andy Pettitte: For years I assumed he’d get a ton of Hall of Fame support thanks to his reputation as a big-game pitcher, a career win total that owes a hell of a lot to pitching for stacked Yankees teams and his reputation as a good guy. I also assumed that, to get that Hall of Fame support, a lot of voters would have to engage in some serious cognitive dissonance regarding Pettitte’s PED history, which is nowhere near as mea culpa-ful as it’s often portrayed. Seems I was wrong to assume that, because so far he’s not getting much support among voters and will likely fall way short. Voters seem to think that Pettitte was a merely good, not great, pitcher, and/or they are treating his being named in the Mitchell Report as disqualifying.
For my part, I wrote up a very long thing on his candidacy right after he retired, and I stand by it. Short version: he was a very good but not great pitcher and there are multiple pitchers on the ballot now (Rivera, Halladay, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling and Billy Wagner) who have a far better claim to Cooperstown than Pettitte does.
Todd Helton: Gaudy numbers for sure, which will almost be entirely dismissed by voters because he played in Coors Field. To be fair to Helton, his splits are not SO insane that a credible case can be made that he was a mere Coors Field creation ( 1.048 OPS at Coors, a very good .855 OPS on the road) but voters have been far less-justifiably dinging Larry Walker on that score for years, suggesting to me that Helton doesn’t have a chance. I think he falls a tad short too, partially because of his park. There aren’t a ton of guys with home/road splits as extreme as his in the Hall of Fame, and all of them were elected before people understood park effects in any sort of statistically-specific way. None of that should be considered a knock on Helton, though. He’s the greatest player in the Rockies’ 26-season history and was among the best players of his era.
In related news . . .
At this point it’s worth noting that, yes, Helton — and a ton of the guys to come on this list — have better Hall of Fame cases than Harold Baines had. We could repeat that for scores and, maybe, hundreds of players who are not or who will not be in the Hall of Fame. I said all I wanted to say about that back in December. Let us just acknowledge that this once and move on, because to getting into the “if Baines is in ___ should be too!” game is both (a) miserably boring; and (b) pointless. Forget it Jake, it’s the Veterans’ Committee. Let us move on.
Derek Lowe: At times a top starter and at times a top closer, with a record of 176-157, an ERA of 4.03, 1722 strikeouts and 794 walks in 2671.1 innings. He added 86 saves, leading the league in that category with 42 in 2000 for the Boston Red Sox. Of 681 career games, 377 came as a starting pitcher. Sort of a John Smoltz/Dennis Eckersley-lite in terms of the shape of his career. Of course, he was nowhere near the starter that Smoltz was and nowhere near the reliever Eck was, so in the end he had roughly half of each of those guys’ overall career value. Still, fun career.
Rick Ankiel: What a strange career. Sometimes it was sad, such as seeing him lose it as a pitcher to the yips in the 2000 playoffs. Sometimes it was wonderful, such as when he reinvented himself as a position player and made the bigs again. Every time he gunned a runner down from the outfield with that cannon of an arm it made you wonder if he couldn’t still pitch somehow. And maybe he can: as of last fall he was actually trying to make a comeback as a reliever. Assuming that does not happen, we are left with a great story of a pitcher whose promise was never realized and a hitter who, while not great by any stretch, had some moments. A better story than a Hall of Fame resume, but stories are usually better.
Jason Bay: A Rookie of the Year Award, as Silver Slugger Award and three years in which he nabbed some down-ballot MVP votes, but not a Hall of Famer, obviously. Underrated when he toiled in relative obscurity for some bad Pittsburgh teams and then thought to be overrated later when he landed on better, more high-profile teams and people said “wait, this is the guy who was so underrated?” Still, a solid guy who got on base at a nice clip and had some pop. The Expos, who drafted him, the Mets, who traded for him when he was super young, and the Padres, who got him from the Mets and let him play all of three games in the bigs before sending him to Pittsburgh, all tossed him aside for whatever reason and got burnt in so doing. One of those deals — from the Padres to Pittsburgh — was for Brian Giles, who I often mix up with Bay when I’m lazily remembering baseball from like 13 years ago.
Lance Berkman: Very, very good, but almost all of his career comps are guys who have fallen short of Hall of Fame consideration or who eventually will. Jim Edmonds without the defensive value. Dick Allen without the media hatred. Jason Giambi without the PED associations. In the end, a fantastic hitter who didn’t have defensive value and whose career was just a few years too short to make a strong case for Cooperstown.
Roy Oswalt: Roy Oswalt was one of the best when he was in his prime, but then his prime ended, as did his health and effectiveness and, sadly, that ended what I think was a Hall of Fame trajectory. A 163-102 record, with 150 of those wins coming in his first ten season. A 3.36 ERA and a K/BB ratio of 1,852/520 over 2,245.1 innings in 13 years in all. The pitching Dale Murphy. Not as good as Murphy at his peak, of course, but up there. Just one of the best. And then the unfortunate premature falloff. Except in Oswalt’s case it was more obvious as to why he fell off. All of that being said, he’s the only guy on this year’s ballot who was once awarded a bulldozer as a contractual incentive and that has to count for something.
Freddy Garcia: Garcia is someone who, when the ballot was announced a few months ago, I thought was pitching way too recently to be eligible. Which is wrong with respect to the bigs — he was last in the majors in 2013 and last in affiliated ball in the Dodgers minor league system in 2015 — but he’s actually still pitching. At the moment he’s in the Venezuelan Winter League. In 2018 he pitched the regular season for Leones de Yucatan in the Mexican League. Check out their roster. It’s full of names you might remember. God love the “they can take this ball away from me when they pry it from my cold, dead hand” kind of ballplayers.
Jon Garland: A big part of the 2005 World Series-winning White Sox and a back-to-back 18-game winner in 2005-06. He was never great, obviously, but he was solid for a long time. Might’ve been an even longer time than it was if not for a rotator cuff injury from which he came back but which, nonetheless, more or less ended his career.
Travis Hafner: He got a really late start to this big league career — he wasn’t a regular until he was 27 — but he was an absolute monster of a hitter for a couple of years, putting up a line of .306/.423/.626 (174 OPS+) between 2004-06. Then, sadly, injuries took their toll and he was left a diminished hitter with zero defensive value for most of the rest of his career. Still, if you go to Indians games, even today, you will see people wearing jerseys with “Pronk” written on them. A bright light that burnt out too quickly.
Ted Lilly: Pitched for Montreal, Oakland, Toronto, the Yankees, the Cubs and the Dodgers over 15 years. Often very good, but never truly great years. Made the All-Star team a couple of times. Pleaded no-contest to insurance fraud after he fudged the date on some damage to his RV. You know, the typical career.
Darren Oliver: A 20-year career, partly as a starter, partly as a reliever. Half of those seasons came with the Texas Rangers. If Michael Young wasn’t on this ballot Oliver would certainly be The Most Rangers Player on it. In other news, how many guys play 20 years and never make an All-Star team? Not a ton I reckon. Most are probably swingmen like Oliver or, alternatively, catchers who spend the last decade as backups and who are now almost statistically certain to be a coach someplace.
Juan Pierre: A lunch bucket player if there ever was one. Juan Pierre appeared in 821 consecutive games from 2002 to 2007, but one of those games in the middle was as a pinch runner, so under the rules it was actually two streaks, interrupted by the pinch-running. The breakdown: 386 straight games, the pinch-running game, and then 434 games. Each of those streaks was better than just about anyone does today. Led the league in steals three times. Led the league in caught stealing seven times. Which, well, did I mention how durable he was?
Placido Polanco: He spent 16 seasons in the big leagues in which he hit .297/.343/.397 with 104 home runs and 723 RBI in 7,887 plate appearances. He was one of the earliest guys who, in his career, people realized was way better than they thought thanks to WAR and the appreciation of overall defensive value. He made $51 million in his career, but if he was born 15 years later he’d be getting SUPER fat money as a Ben Zobrist/Marwin Gonzalez super utility guy.
Miguel Tejada: Won the AL MVP award with the Athletics in 2002, serving as the face of the team — and, seemingly, the nightly hero — as the A’s won an AL-record 20 straight games and took the AL West crown. Those were the “Moneyball” A’s, of course. A couple of years later, when the A’s had to choose whether to spend their money on long-term extensions for either Tejada or Eric Chavez, Billy Beane chose Chavez. He choose . . . poorly. From 2004-on, Chavez would total 17.4 WAR in 11 seasons while Tejada would total 25.2 in nine, making five All-Star teams. I mentioned lunchbucket players: Tejada played in 1,152 straight games between 2000-2007, which is the fifth-longest streak of all time.
Vernon Wells: Timing is everything. Vernon Wells had his best season in the bigs in 2006, with a batting line of .303/.357/.542 and posting a WAR of 6.2. On the power of that season — and a couple of pretty good ones before — the Blue Jays signed Wells to a seven-year $126 million dollar contract. Wells would never play up to that contract and, wherever he went, he’d be derided for it. Which is absolutely nuts when you think about it.
For one thing, Wells didn’t offer himself that money and sign the checks. The Blue Jays, and whoever acquired him, did. Indeed, at the time Wells signed his deal, he said he thought the Blue Jays overpaid for him, saying “I personally thought they were crazy, but that’s what they get paid for, to know these things.”
For another thing, players often catch heat for big contracts because they allegedly hamstring a team from making the sorts of moves needed to win. And, to be clear, no, the Blue Jays did not win with Vernon Wells. Still, they managed to trade him to the Angels for a good player in Mike Napoli (who was then flipped) and the Angels managed to trade him to the Yankees. See, also, Matt Kemp, who has been traded three times on what was allegedly an untradeable contract in recent years. Teams can handle these deals because they are hugely profitable businesses. In the Blue Jays’ case, they’re owned by an even more profitable business. Yet all the hate gets thrown on players. Teams like it that way.
Anyway: Vernon Wells was not a Hall of Fame player, of course. But nor was he, or should he be, the poster child for greedy players who are paid more than they’re worth. He tried to warn the Blue Jays. They wouldn’t listen. Not his fault.
Kevin Youkilis: He didn’t have a particularly long MLB career, but he won to World Series rings with the Red Sox and did mix in a three-year run as one of the AL’s best players, hitting .308/.404/.560 with 75 homers from 2008-10. Only Albert Pujols (1.078) and Manny Ramirez (.970) had better OPSs than Youkilis .964 mark during that span. He finished third in the AL MVP balloting in 2008 and sixth in 2009. He was a .306/.376/.568 hitter with six homers in 29 postseason games. His career lasted only ten seasons due to injuries, sadly. It felt longer, though. In a good way. Not in the “gosh, it seems like we’ve been waiting for our food forever” kind of way.
Michael Young: The bizarro Steve Garvey. Like Garvey, he was an excellent player when he played — excellent all-around player, seven-time All-Star, got some MVP votes — but was probably not quite as good as his reputation. Was talked about often as a future Hall of Famer when in his prime, just as Garvey was. But, as was the case with Garvey, with distance it’s pretty easy to see that he was not a Hall of Famer. The bizarro part: where Garvey was loathed by his teammates and loved by the national press, Young was HIGHLY respected by his teammates and often overlooked by the national press. Also, unlike Garvey, whose reputation went into the crapper after his playing days were over, Young’s public persona has improved greatly over the past few years. There’s probably a lesson in there about the dangers of self-promotion and the value of doing good things when other people aren’t watching.
THE HOLDOVERS (last year’s vote percentage)
Edgar Martinez (70.4%): It’s criminal that he’s not in already. His failure to get in is, almost certainly, due to the fact that he was a full-time DH for most of his career. I know I said I wouldn’t play the Harold Baines card anymore, but dammit, I’m playing it here. Baines was a DH for well over half of his career and he was a far inferior one to Martinez. While I realize it’s a different electorate than the Veterans Committee, BBWAA Hall of Fame voters have a choice: they can (a) maintain their misguided hard-grading of outstanding designated hitters like Martinez, thereby keeping their self-styled integrity and intellectual consistency intact; or (b) prevent the ridiculously absurd result of Baines giving a speech in Cooperstown this July while the vastly superior Martinez sits at home. So far it looks as though Martinez is getting a bump in the voting. Let’s hope that holds up. Given how close he came last year, I think it will.
Mike Mussina (63.5%): Hall of Fame voters have routinely, and appropriately, adjusted downward for hitters with big numbers in big offensive eras. They have never seemed to adjust upwards for pitchers in those same eras, which is exactly what Mussina was. He was an outstanding pitcher who was outstanding despite pitching in the most offensive-first era in history and while pitching his entire career in a division with some offensive juggernauts. Even then, his numbers were not just “good for a guy in an offense-heavy era.” They were just flat good. The 270 wins and 123 career ERA+ makes that clear. As does the 83.0 career WAR. He was likewise not a “compiler” whose numbers are due solely to longevity. He received Cy Young votes in nine separate seasons, with all of those finishes being in the top-6. Mussina is a Hall of Famer by comparison to most existing inductees. He deserves to be in now.
Roger Clemens (57.3%) and Barry Bonds (56.4%): Bonds is the second or third greatest hitter of all time and one of the top five overall players of all time. Clemens is one of the greatest pitchers of all time. No one seriously disputes this even if a lot of people un-seriously do. I have dealt with all of this at length, so won’t do it again here. Really, though, there’s nothing else left to say.
Curt Schilling (51.2%): Bill wrote recently about the Hall of Fame’s “character clause” and how it might apply to Schilling. Bill and I agree on a lot of things but we differ somewhat here. No, I don’t differ from Bill in thinking that Schilling is a sack of crap as a human being, as he totally is. I just take issue with the character clause altogether. Yes, it galls me a bit that it’s being used by voters to penalize some players and not others, but if I think it’s illegitimate to use in one instance, I believe it’s illegitimate to use in all instance. At best I’d use it as a tiebreaker if Schilling was my 10th candidate on the ballot and another guy was, in my mind, his exact equal in terms of baseball value, but that’s not likely to happen very often. Short of that, I sleep very well at night (a) believing that Schilling was a Hall of Fame-worthy pitcher; while (b) thinking he’s a horse’s ass. As far as the baseball goes: he was about as valuable a pitcher, overall, as John Smoltz, who waltzed into the Hall of Fame. And, like Mike Mussina, he was better than most of the guys of his era and his era was tough for pitchers. He was great at his best and above average most of the time. That’s Hall of Fame worthy to me.
Omar Vizquel (37.0%): A guy everyone wanted to call a future Hall of Famer at the end of his career for some reason but whose numbers do not in any way support it. Yes, he was a good defender, but he wasn’t as good as the best defenders at his position AND he hit worse than most of them. So what is the argument again?
I hate to be cynical, but I think it has a lot to do with Vizquel (a) lasting a long time in the game; (b) being friendly and approachable when it came to media time; (c) being willing to talk openly, without cliches, including saying negative things about other players on occasion, which made him “a straight shooter”; and (d) his having personal tastes, interests and an intellect that are somewhat unusual for a professional athlete (Vizquel is a noted art aficionado, for example). All of that made him very interesting to cover as both a player and a coach, and when sports writers have someone interesting to cover, they really, really like it, especially if the guy is both interesting and friendly, which Vizquel has always been. All of which is to say that sportswriters can be super hard on some players, but sometimes they’re cheap dates.
Larry Walker (34.1%): And sometimes they just don’t see value when it’s right in front of them. It’s maybe a bit more understandable when the player in question has a lot of value tied up in things that weren’t, historically, quantified well, but that doesn’t change the player’s value. Walker was one of those guys: an all-around great player with a lot of that greatness tied up in plate discipline, defensive value and base running. Still, the dude won an MVP award and three batting titles, while flashing power, defense and speed. I suppose playing in Colorado hurts him too, as mentioned above in the Helton blurb. Walker’s splits, though, were far less pronounced. Another thing that I should’ve mentioned with Helton, is that Rockies’ splits of that era were even more pronounced because the road parks Rockies players hit in — in San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco — were among the most pitcher-friendly parks in baseball at the time, and that should count for something. Anyway, Walker hit well in Montreal and St. Louis too. I think the whole case against Walker on the part of voters is that, as he played, no one thought of him as a Hall of Famer, which is such a weird basis on which to judge a guy. Especially given that we have a five-year waiting period specifically because, I thought, we aren’t supposed to trust contemporaneous judgments.
Fred McGriff (23.2%): I have gone back and forth on McGriff ten times since he retired. Personally, he was one of my favorite players, but a guy who has suffered for having the prime of his career straddle the low-offense/high-offense eras between the late 80s and early 90s and who has spent his entire Hall of Fame candidacy on a very crowded ballot. That said, I think he’s more borderline than a lot of voters like to say he is. I think his case is talked up more than it might otherwise warrant because he’s seen as a symbol of “clean” baseball as opposed to dirty, steroid-era baseball. Probably worth noting that the only evidence we have for that is that he was leading the league in homers with a much lower total early in his career and not doing do later in his career. There are lots of reasons why that may be the case and we disappear into the land of way too many unknowns by assuming that McGriff’s legacy was somehow a “victim” of PED-using players. All of that being said, I’d strongly consider a vote for him if I had one. Thanks to the crowded ballot, he’s not been a lock for my top-10.
Manny Ramirez (22.0%): A career .312/.411/.585 (OPS+ of 154) hitter with 555 homers and 1,831 RBI. He was simply better than all but a handful of his peers with the bat and that’s the stuff of a Hall of Famer in my book. Of course he’ll never make it because of those positive PED tests. I get that, but there are already PED users in the Hall and there will be other PED users in the future. The difference between Manny and them: he was actually punished for his PED use. People like bright lines, and testing positive in the post-testing era seems to be the brightest of lines for Hall of Fame voters.
Jeff Kent (14.5%): Big offensive numbers that were partially a function of his big offensive era and little or no defensive value. I need more from a middle infielder. He falls short in my book. Which is the second time I’ve referenced “my book” thus far. I have no book. I don’t know why I say such things.
Gary Sheffield (11.1%): A great hitter — probably better than you remember — but a poor fielder and a world class piece of work. That’s not a good combination for a guy who wishes to get into the Hall of Fame. The ten-vote limit hurts him a lot, as I suspect a lot of voters would consider throwing a guy like him a vote if it didn’t mean taking one away from someone else. Which is to say the line between “absolutely” and “no way” is below Sheffield, even if I am pretty certain he never gets in.
Billy Wagner (11.1%): Man he was good. I won’t play the Harold Baines card anymore, but I’ll happily play the Lee Smith card once: Wagner had 56 fewer saves than Smith, but he was better than Smith by every other measure. Wagner pitched in 169 fewer games and labored for nearly 400 fewer innings than Smith, but he only had 55 fewer strikeouts. I’d probably let this go more if Smith’s long candidacy had been characterized as one of long term value as opposed to “dominance,” but in reality, Wagner was the guy Smith’s supporters were describing all of those years. He threw harder than his contemporaries, struck out dudes at a much higher pace than his contemporaries and, unlike Smith and most other relievers, your chances were usually over when Wagner jogged out to the mound. Dude was still at the top of his game when he retired. If he had decided to hang on a bit longer and climb that all-time saves list a bit — two more average seasons and he’s third behind Rivera and Hoffman — he’d likely already be in. Or at least close to it.
Scott Rolen (10.2%): I want Martinez and Walker to get in simply so we can switch to Rolen as our go-to “the most underrated guy on the ballot” talking point. He appeared in seven All-Star Games and won eight Gold Gloves at third base. He was the 1997 Rookie of the Year and won one Silver Slugger. While an excellent hitter — he had a .364 career OBP and an OPS+ of 122 — the strength of his Hall case comes from a defensive-heavy component of his WAR, which places him among the top-10 all-time third basemen. Of that group, only Adiran Beltre is not in the Hall of Fame already, and he will be a little over five years from now. Rolen, however, will be on the outside looking in, I suspect, forever. It’s a shame.
Sammy Sosa (7.8%): He continues to pay a much higher price for PEDs than just about any other player. This despite the fact that he never tested positive for them, was not named in the Mitchell Report and was not part of any of the other PED investigations like BALCO and the Biogenesis stuff. Yeah, I strongly suspect he used, but there is no player in that gray area whose Hall of Fame vote total has been as impacted as Sosa’s. Heck, he gets way less support than even Ramirez does, and Ramirez crossed that bright line we talked about. Very weird for a guy with 600 career homers. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Sosa’s exile from the world of baseball since the end of his playing career — the Cubs have cast him out even though the current owners and front office weren’t around when Sosa was there — has hurt him quite a bit. Then, of course, some voters are just racist jackwagons.
Andruw Jones (7.3%): The Scott Rolen of outfielders. A very good offensive player at times but, obviously, defense was his calling card. Extraordinary defense at arguably the most important defensive position. If he was not the best center fielder ever — and some have said so — he was certainly the best in my lifetime. He fell off a cliff offensively and defensively following his age-29 season, of course. Had he not done that we’d be having a very different conversation, but he did start young and some guys only have so much on the odometer.
So, after over 5,000 words, those are the candidates. Here is . . .
MY IMAGINARY HALL OF FAME BALLOT: Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, Edgar Martinez, Larry Walker, Manny Ramirez. and Scott Rolen. Just falling short but who I would consider if there were more than ten slots: Fred McGriff, Andruw Jones, Billy Wagner, Sammy Sosa, Gary Sheffield.