What a nightmare. I cannot imagine being a National Baseball Hall of Fame voter the next few years. Deciding whether or not a player is worthy of baseball’s most prestigious honor is bad enough. Sifting through the moral implications of PED use, in combination with all the other complications which come with voting on the Hall of Fame ballot, is an arduous task. To make matters worse, I have to limit myself to 10 players.
There are multiple questions a prospective Hall of Fame voter must consider before choosing who to include, and exclude, from their ballot. The first, and most controversial, question is how to deal with steroid and suspected steroid users. Personally, I feel steroids should not be considered when evaluating players before the MLB implemented testing. Baseball did not regulate PED use; we have no clear understanding on the scope of PED use and we hardly understand how steroids affect play. Would Mark McGwire have hit 70 homers without steroids? Would Roger Clemens have won 300 games without steroids? Frankly, I don’t know, you don’t know, and we will never know. The only information we have available to us, is their play on the field, tainted or untainted.
I will use a variety of stats, both traditional and advanced, to evaluate players. For career value I will rely heavily on Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system, which takes into account both peak and career value. For me, I think a player must have a strong career and high peak in order to qualify for the Hall of Fame, with peak value taking precedence over a long career. Best I can tell there are 22 viable Hall of Fame candidates currently on the ballot. I’m going to evaluate each player in three posts. In the first post I will discuss all the players who I think have a case, but don’t quite make my hypothetical Hall of Fame line. The second will evaluate all the players who do, in my opinion, merit induction into the Hall of Fame, and the final post will discuss who would make my hypothetical ballot. Without further ado…
Everyone has a favorite Yankee, even if they hate the Yankees. From my generation, Mariano Rivera became the current ‘favorite’ Yankee, for many reasons. Rivera is a great guy, humble, generous and caring. He gives a lot back to his home country of Panama, he never accepts credit for his greatness and wherever you go, some pitcher has a "how Mariano Rivera helped me become a better pitcher story," even non-Yankees. Back in the ‘80s Mattingly was ‘everyone’s favorite Yankee.’ To quote Bill James Mattingly was 100% ballplayer, 0% bull----. In his prime, Mattingly was a breathtaking ballplayer, practically without weakness. Mattingly hit for average, 7 out of 14 seasons with a batting average over .300. Mattingly hit for power, 4 out of 14 seasons over .500 slugging percentage, 4 seasons of 40 or more doubles and two 30 plus homer seasons. Mattingly was a great defender, winning 9 Gold Gloves in 14 seasons. At his peak, Mattingly was a Hall of Fame ballplayer.
Unfortunately for Donnie Baseball, his peak didn’t last too long. His OPS+ in his prime, by year: 156, 156, 161, 146, 128, 133. His OPS+ afterwards: 81, 103, 108, 120, 113, 97. In his prime, Mattingly was a Hall of Fame caliber player. He won an MVP award in this time, was the heart of dreadful Yankees teams, however he did not last long enough. He only collected 222 home runs and 2,153 hits. His career OPS+ of 127 is good, but not legendary, especially for such a short career. Many Mattingly supporters compare him to first ballot selection Kirby Puckett, who also had a short career (12 seasons), did not put up big career numbers (2,304 hits and 207 homers) but also had a great prime and was a fantastic defender. However, Puckett was a centerfielder, and great hitting, Gold Glove, center fielders don’t come along too often. Puckett ranks 22nd under Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system, while Mattingly ranks 35th. Non-Hall of Famers ahead of Mattingly include Norm Cash, Keith Hernandez, John Oldreud. Mattingly was a great ballplayer, but didn’t last quite long enough to qualify for the Hall of Fame.
Fred McGriff is another excellent first baseman who fell short of many career milestones. In his 19 year career McGriff compiled 493 homers and 2,490 hits. McGriff’s case is somewhat comparable to Mattingly, except in reverse. McGriff did not quite hit Mattingly’s highs, he never won an MVP award, never came particularly close to leading the league in WAR. However, unlike Mattingly he didn’t fall off as much as he aged.
The main case for McGriff is he compares well to first basemen after the 1930s, and before the ‘90s. Fred McGriff is comparable to BBWAA choice Tony Perez. McGriff’s career line is .287/.377/.509 which is better than Tony Perez’s .279/.341/.463. In fact, McGriff is right behind Perez in Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system, ranking 27th. However, if you compare McGriff to the meat of Hall of Fame first basemen, he compares unfavorably. McGriff put up good numbers in an offense dominated era. First basemen are expected to hit well today. First basemen of McGriff’s era didn’t have to merely be a better than average hitter to be productive, they had to destroy the average player. McGriff is not even the best first baseman on the ballot! Jeff Bagwell’s career .297/.401/.540 line is far superior to McGriff’s (even with context added, Bagwell’s OPS+ is 15 points higher than McGriff’s). Mark McGwire also ranked higher than McGriff. McGriff was another excellent player, but he did not quite reach the peaks necessary for the Hall of Fame.
No player has sparked more arguments than Jack Morris. Quite frankly, I don’t understand the enthusiasm for Morris, although this is probably because I never saw him play. Morris won an eye catching 254 games, but was not particularly dominant in any way. Morris played on high scoring teams, in a pitching dominated era. His 3.90 ERA is not great, regardless of context, and would be the highest in the Hall of Fame. His ERA+ of 104 would be the lowest in the Hall of Fame. To put that in context, Paul Byrd has an ERA+ of 103, Tim Wakefield has an ERA+ of 105. Morris did strike out a ton of batters (2,478), finish a lot of games (175 complete games) and pitch a ton of innings (3,824 innings pitched). However, despite Morris’ general ineffectiveness at preventing runs, he was considered an ace in his prime. He holds the Major League record for most Opening Day starts. Many managers counted on him in the playoffs.
Despite how people viewed him at the time, looking at his career stats, it becomes clear he isn’t even close to the best starter on the ballot currently. Morris ranks 159th in the JAWS system, here are the others starters on the ballot by the JAWS system from best to worst:
Roger Clemens 3rd
Greg Maddux 10th
Curt Schilling 27th
Mike Mussina 28th
Tom Glavine 30th
Kenny Rogers 113th
Hideo Nomo 419th
Nomo, it should noted, spent only 12 years in the Major Leagues and started his career in Japan. However, that’s 6 pitchers who rank ahead of Morris, including Kenny Rogers (who has not received any Hall of Fame support as far as I can see). I understand Morris pitched one of the greatest games in postseason history, but Morris’ regular season career was good, at best, and average, at worst.
Palmeiro put up unbelievable career numbers. He is one of 4 players with 3,000 hits and 500 homeruns (Willie Mays, Eddie Murray and Hank Aaron being the others). However, Palmeiro more compiled these numbers, during an offensively charged era. He never led first basemen and designated hitters in WAR in any season during his career. He never hit 50 homers in a season, or 50 doubles. He was considered a good defender, and won 3 Gold Gloves.* By JAWS Palmeiro ranks 11th for first baseman, however this is largely powered by his lengthy career instead of a strong peak. By peak he ranks 22nd in JAWS. Finally, I think it’s pretty clear Palmeiro is not particularly close to being the best 1st baseman on the ballot. I would argue both Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell are better than Palmeiro. I also think Edgar Martinez was a much better hitter than Palmeiro. With a little better peak, Palmeiro probably makes the Hall of Fame, but his long career makes him somewhat interesting.
*Granted, one of those Gold Gloves came in a year where he played barely a quarter of his games at first.
Smith’s claim to fame is that he held the career saves record with 478 from 1993 until 2006, when Trevor Hoffman passed him. When he retired, he was largely hailed as the greatest one inning reliever in baseball history (until modern closers Hoffman, Wagner and Rivera came along). It’s difficult to measure the impact of relievers. WAR, it has been argued, underrates them because they pitch so few innings, but in a large number of games. The value of the save has been greatly discussed, with many sabermetricians arguing the value of one inning at the end of the game is no greater, or less than any other inning. Recently, the use of so many pitchers as closers has led many to question the value of an ‘established’ closer. However, Smith was an excellent closer in his time, he led the league in saves four times, three times in the NL and once in the AL. He struck out nearly a batter an inning during his career (8.7/9), and prevented runs at a well above average rate (career ERA+ of 132).
The problem Lee Smith runs into is how he compares with other relievers. He certainly compares favorably to Bruce Sutter, who had a short career, but is frequently credited with inventing the split fingered fastball (although he almost certainly didn’t). He seems quite similar to Rollie Fingers, although he trails Goose Gossage, Dennis Eckersley and Hoyt Willhelm. For his career Lee Smith has 27.6 WAR, which is less than Gossage and Wilhelm, but higher than Fingers and Sutter. However, Lee does less well against modern closers. Smith pales in comparison to Mariano Rivera, but also fairs poorly against Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner. Hoffman compiled only 28 WAR, but had over 600 career saves. Wagner compiled about as many WAR as Smith (27.7) but was far more dominant, striking out over 11 batters per nine over his career. In the end, I think Smith has a better case than any of the players I’ve looked at so far, but I don’t think his case is clear cut, and I think he falls just short of the Hall of Fame.
Sammy Sosa is one of 7 players in baseball history to hit 600 homeruns, and that is essentially the case for Sammy Sosa. His career line of .273/.344/.534 indicates a player who hit for a ton of power, but doesn’t offer a ton of on-base ability. His 609 home runs are historically impressive, his 379 doubles are not. To me, his case seems similar to that of Andre Dawson. Both won MVPs they didn’t deserve, Dawson in the year he led the league in homers and RBIs, which was largely powered by Wrigley Field, and Sosa in 1998, when he beat out McGwire despite the latter having a nearly 100 point lead in on-base percentage (although Sosa’s case for the MVP is stronger in ’98 than Dawson’s was in ’87). Sosa fell off a cliff at 36, once he lost his power he became a below average ballplayer.
Ironically according to JAWS Sosa is about on par with the average Hall of Famer in terms of peak value, and falls well short of the career value mark. Sosa ranks 17th in the JAWs system sandwiched between Reggie Smith and Ichiro. In the end, I think Sosa presents an interesting case, but I’m not ready to declare him worthy of the Hall of Fame. I like his power, but I feel like he made too many outs. I think Sosa’s case deserves more attention in the future.