What is it that makes a baseball player worthy of the Hall of Fame? The more I think about it in context of the players on the ballot this year, the more complicated the answer becomes.
Many words have been shared here at Outfield Fly Rule. Smart words about stats – traditional and advanced – justifying specific candidates for enshrinement. If you haven’t already read the intro piece where we selected six players for the Hall of Fame in our OFR mock vote, I suggest you give it a look.
I will continue down the same road as my counterparts at OFR (along with our guests contributors Braves Option Guy and Tommy Poe from WalkOffWalk) in attempt to justify my ballot selections, but I want to look at my selections more as stops on the journey through my selection process, instead of only focusing on why I selected each player. In the spirit of Festivus (Yes, it is today. Get your pole out of the crawl space if you haven’t already), I might even air a few grievances along the way.
Stop 1: Trimming the Fat
Looking over the ballot of 34 eligible players, the most obvious first step is to get rid of the players who aren’t worth considering. That’s not to say these players weren’t good – Matt Stairs is the all-time leader for pinch-hit home runs after all. And many of these players hold special memories for me. I loved Jason Varitek’s gritty leadership and I hated Pat Burrell. (He was a Philly; what other reason do I need?) I even have fond memories of Freddy Sanchez. He was a diamond in the waiver-wire rough for my fantasy team one year. But let’s be honest, these 16 guys don’t merit Hall of Fame consideration, especially when compared to the other players on a really loaded ballot:
- Mike Cameron
- J.D. Drew
- Jorge Posada
- Magglio Ordonez
- Derrek Lee
- Tim Wakefield
- Edgar Renteria
- Melvin Mora
- Carlos Guillen
- Casey Blake
- Pat Burrell
- Freddy Sanchez
- Arthur Rhodes
- Matt Stairs
Yes, all my initial cuts are newcomers to the ballot this year. Maybe a couple of those guys, like Posada and Cameron, will make it past the one and done stage, but my mind already feels slightly less cluttered cutting the options from 34 to 18. That also means I only found three newcomers worth further consideration: Ivan Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, and Vladimir Guerrero.
Stop 2: The Method
Now that the list is narrowed, I’ve got to be honest with you, I’m still overwhelmed. The names remaining were all great players, but eight more have to go…at least for this year. But that’s why we have all the statistics, to help us separate the wheat from the chaff, or at least less tasty wheat. I don’t know if I’d consider any of these guys chaff. So a few days ago, I began building a spreadsheet that considered the candidates from two perspectives:
- How good they were they in the history of the game
- How good they were compared to the peers they played against
I know Wins Above Replacement is not the perfect stat, but when you have a lot of data from players with long careers feeding into it, it is reliable way to get an apples to apples comparison of different types of players. I started building the spreadsheet considering Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR). I wanted to see how the players WAR ranked all time and how it ranked versus the players they played against during their career. There are many other factors to consider, but this was a good overview from which I could adjust based on the other factors.
For positional players, I also consider wRC+ (weighted runs created plus), which provides reliable data on how well a player performed at the plate compared to his peers. While WAR is a comprehensive (hitting, baserunning, and defense) counting stat, wRC+ is a performance stat that tells us how good a hitter a specific player is compared to his peers. In other words, a player’s wRC+ won’t get better just because he does okay for longer than another hitter who put up great numbers for a shorter amount of time. For those not familiar with wRC+, 100 is average and every point of increase or decrease indicates the player was a percentage point better or worse than league average at creating runs (adjusted for park and league). If a player has a 150 wRC+, for instance, he would be 50% better than the average hitter during the selected time frame at creating runs. So a 150 wRC+ is really, really good.
I plan to use this data as a starting point and then adjust players up or down based on more information:
- Particular strengths of the player that set him apart, such as defense or base running
- How the player compares to all time players at his position.
- Character/integrity stuff
- Years left on ballot (Didn’t plan on this one, but turns out I’m a sucker for a last chance.)
- Who I like and don’t like and other personal biases (I ain’t above admitting it.)
Stop 3: Easy Picks
With a somewhat completed spreadsheet in place (I’d share it as a chart if it was all the way done, but it isn’t, sorry) and a pretty good idea of my personal criteria, I’m now setting out to make my hypothetical picks for the Hall of Fame.
In a crowded ballot featuring different types of players, there were some obvious choices that stuck out. I begin here.
Pick 1: Jeff Bagwell
Bagwell accumulated 80.2 fWAR in his career. That is the 36th highest of all time, matching Pete Rose and Brooks Robinson. During the span of his career, only Barry Bonds accumulated more fWAR. His 149 wRC+ ranks 25th all time (minimum 6,000 PAs), just behind Joe DiMaggio’s 152 wRC+ and just ahead of the 147 wRC+ of Edgar Martinez, Honus Wagner, and Mike Schmidt. Add to that decent defense (for a first baseman) and good base running, and I have no choice but to throw my hands up in the air and lament, “How in the wide world of sports is this guy still on the ballot for a 7th time? He’s a first ballot kind of dude!” Then, the obvious dawned – PEDs.
Grievance: The bias of the writers against performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) is becoming as much a stain on the game as PEDs itself. That might be overstating it, but it really bugs me and the airing of grievances is meant to be dramatic. So deal.
Seriously, though, when it comes to PEDs, there is so much inconsistency in what is counted against players – and how it is counted against players – that it’s making the voters a bit of a joke. Bagwell is the prime example. Any writer who looks at his numbers and concludes he isn’t a Hall of Fame player is an idiot. The writers – with a few exceptions I’m sure – aren’t idiots. So the only other answer is that a lot of writers have not voted for him because of PEDs. The only problem with that is he was never directly caught or named in any reports for using PEDs. It’s enough that he played baseball when other players players who got caught using PEDs also played baseball. That’s all anyone has to go on. Others like to draw more false correlations to try and make themselves feel better about not voting for Bagwell, like the Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy, who decided not to vote for Bagwell last year because of PEDs. In his own words to the Houston Chronicle:
“I know that’s unfair,” he said. “There’s no positive test, no Mitchell Report. He’s done everything he can publicly, and I understand how unfair and hurtful that is. But we are assigned a difficult decision, and that (not to vote for Bagwell) thus far is my decision.”
Shaughnessy noted the significant growth in Bagwell’s power numbers, adding, “He had two home runs in the minors and then (is) Rambo in the majors. That has always been problematic to me.”
Ignoring the minor detail that he hit six home runs in his two seasons moving quickly up the minor league ladder (before skipping AAA), it’s worth noting that he was a power hitter in college. There really isn’t anything to go on that solidly supports he used steroids. So is speculation enough? If so, there is no line and no one should be voted in. We have to assume all players have used something to enhance their performance, otherwise they wouldn’t be good enough to be in the majors. The Hall of Fame becomes a ghost town and the Baseball Writers – who are likely using performance enhancing drugs to keep themselves awake at night to write their lame PED stories (can you prove they don’t? I’m sure some do so they must all be guilty) – sit back and enjoy their self-righteous destruction of the Hall of Fame.
Coming off my extended grievance to a more practical takeaway, I decided up front that PEDs were not going to be a major factor in my decision. If a player is on the fence, then PED involvement would weigh into it. But I’ve always had a huge issue with people only using the “character clause” for the Hall of Fame when it hurts the player. If you aren’t going to use it to vote Dale Murphy – perhaps the person with the most integrity who has ever played the game (maybe a little hyperbole, but name someone better) – then I’m not going to use it to keep players out…. I guess I slipped into a second grievance there. Moving on.
Pick 2: Barry Bonds
Inarguably one of the top five players in the history of the game. His 173 wRC+ is tied for third all time (minimum 6,000 plate appearances). He must share that 173 wRC+ with Rogers Hornsby and Lou Gehrig. His 164.4 fWAR is second all time, 4 points behind Babe Ruth and 15 points ahead of Willie Mays and Ty Cobb. You can be dramatic and say, “Well, Barry Bonds wouldn’t be half the player he was without using steroids.” Okay, that would put his fWAR at 82.2, the 34th best fWAR of all time and ahead of Jeff Bagwell as still the best hitter on the ballot this year. The end. He might be a jerk who no one likes, but he also is one of the greatest players to ever play the game. Vote him in.
I share the following Fangraphs graph of all the positional players up for election into the Hall of Fame not so you can figure out whose who in the jumble, but because it is a visual representation of how far Barry Bonds separated himself from the pack as the elitest of the elite – remember that “pack” here is an elite group of players eligible for the Hall of Fame. It’s also worth noting that Jeff Bagwell is that blue line second from the top that ever so slightly separates itself from the others.
Pick 3: Roger Clemens
Clemens and his 133.7 fWAR (the highest for a pitcher in the history of baseball) was the Barry Bonds of pitching, so instead of wasting more words, I’ll point you to the ones for Bonds above. Vote him in.
Pick 4: Ivan Rodriguez
Rodriguez turns out to be a little harder than I first expected. When I first saw “Pudge” on the ballot, I instantly put him in the Hall of Fame as a first ballot guy, but I apparently remember the great hitting Pudge more than I remember the guy who struggled at the plate for a good bit of his career. There was a 5-year window from 1997 to 2001 where Pudge slashed .323/.359/.543 (124 wRC+) across 2,754 PAs. But the 4,648 PAs after that were more pedestrian, slashing .288/.325/.438 (98 wRC+) from 2002 through the end of his slowly unraveling career in 2011.
The short hitting peak followed by a drop off would put most people on the fence, and probably out of consideration, but Rodriguez had a few things going for him that allow me to maintain my confidence in my initial selection. Pudge was an all-around great catcher who was best known for his throwing arm, logging a caught stealing rate of 46%. He led the league in caught stealing percent nine times. He also was a good pitch framer. His 104 career wRC+ isn’t Hall of Fame worthy in and of itself, but a high hitting peak plus great defense from the important catching position bumps him up. However, Jose Canseco linking him to steroids, gives him a slight shift in the other direction. (Sorry, that’s not a strong case, especially for a guy who built a lot of value on the defensive side of the ball.)
Overall, his fWAR was 68.9, 35th highest of all time, and just a smidgen behind Gary Carter as the third highest for a catcher of all time. (Johnny Bench is first with a 74.8 fWAR.) There were several years where he could hit with the best of them, and there were several years where he could hit for a catcher, but he also was a hum-dinger of a catcher, not just a hitter who caught. He might not wind up being a first balloter, but he should end up a Hall of Fame catcher before too many ballots pass.
Here’s a graphical look at the top 5 catcher of all time by fWAR, along with Jorge Posada and Jason Varitek:
Stop 4: Panic
So now I am down to 14 players and I have six picks remaining. This is where I am most discombobulated. There’s two more really good starting pitchers, three relief pitchers I have no idea what to do with, six position players that include four outfielders, and a DH thrown in to further complicate things. Then there’s two borderline candidates in their last year to qualify for the Hall of Fame through the BBWAA vote.
The first thing is to break out the remaining nine hitters and just look at the cumulative fWAR to get a general picture:
Next, I need to start digging into each player to determine how they compiled their fWAR, considering areas such as baserunning, position, defense, and peak years. This helps bring some order to the chaos and get over the hump.
Stop 5: Analyzing the Hitters
The first thing that stood out to me from the graph was how much I was undervaluing Tim Raines and his career 66.4 fWAR. The graph above indicated that he not only started putting up good numbers early (3.7 and 3.0 fWAR seasons at age 21 and 22), but he also was able to maintain that production for quite a while compared to his peers on the ballot. He, like most others, tailed off in the back half of his career. He also wasn’t a power guy putting up flashy home run numbers, and he never had one of those mammoth years where he was putting up 8+ fWAR. But from his rookie season in 1981 through 1993 – a 12-year period – he slashed a very good .302/.391/.439 (133 wRC+), and averaged 63 stolen bases a season. Basically, what he lacked in power, he made up for in great baserunning and consistency. He wasn’t designed to be a middle of the order masher, but a top of the order table-setter, and few have done it better. I also can’t ignore that this is his last chance at the Hall through the BBWAA vote. At this point, he is a lock.
Pick 5: Tim Raines
Five votes down, and five to go.
Here is where a needed to trim a few players. The two that stood out on the other side of the graph were Jeff Kent and Fred McGriff. Kent compiled a nice career fWAR of 56.1. Compared to the other players, he started out a little late and slow, then went on to be one of the better hitting second baseman in history. But he was a poor baserunner, only a passable defender, and he just didn’t have the longevity and the peak years to make up for it. In a weaker pool of candidates, he gets more of a look mostly due to his position, but there were just too many other great hitters to consider in this list.
McGriff’s 56.9 fWAR was very similar to Kent, but he got there a bit differently. He started off hot, hitting 20 home runs after a mid-season call up as a 22-year-old, then he put up dominate 6.6 and 6.4 fWAR seasons the following two years. Because of his poor defense and baserunning, fWAR doesn’t quite reflect how good of a hitter he was during the first half of his career (from 1987 through 1994) when he slashed .285/.389/.541 (152 wRC+). His power was no joke. But while still putting up solid counting stats like home runs and RBIs, his overall output dropped during the second half of his career (from 1995 through 2004) when he slashed .284/.367/.482 (119 wRC+). A great hitter for sure, but he relied on his hitting to provide value, and it wasn’t quite good enough in the second half to push him into consideration with such a stacked field, especially playing first base, a position running deep with great hitters. As with Kent, in a weaker field I would love to consider him because I’m a huge fan of the Crime Dog, but he doesn’t make the cut this year.
The last two cuts for position players included my favorite and least favorite of the candidates on the Hall of Fame ballot. Vladimir Guerrero was just so much fun to watch hit. He was also on track for greatness. From 1998 through 2008, he slashed .325/.392/.581 (144 wRC+), hitting everything venturing within a few feet of the plate like it was a meatball down the middle. Then, from 2009 through 2011, he was only pretty good, slashing .295/.332/.458 (108 wRC+). Then, he vanished. He compiled a very nice 54.3 fWAR and closed in on some milestone counting numbers in a relatively short time span, but as the graph above indicates, he flatlined and disappeared a bit too early. I’m sounding like a broken record, but in a deep field, I had to drop him from consideration.
Now for my least favorite player, Sammy Sosa. He could hit, run, and play defense for a while, but when the running and defense declined precipitously, he more than made up for it with a sharp uptick in his hitting. Normally, his 60.1 career fWAR and all the counting stats should put him solidly in the mix for the Hall of Fame on my ballot. However, this is where PEDs come into play for me (along with a corked bat). With a limited number of votes and a ballot stacked with strong candidates, the hitter with the lowest fWAR remaining and a known usage of PEDs is an easy cut, 609 home runs or not.
Now to let my real bias show. I am cutting Edgar Martinez. I know his offense is clearly worthy of the Hall of Fame, but so is the offense of Gary Sheffield and Manny Ramirez, and you know what? They went out there and sucked it up on defense day in and day out. I’m not saying I would never vote for a guy who puts up a career 147 wRC+ (the same as Honus Wagner and Mike Schmidt), but when I look at that graph, I see Martinez push past some other players’ fWAR at the end of his career when he was still going strong and they were leveling out. I can’t help but wonder if he, too, would have leveled out more at the end with the additional wear and tear of playing bad defense day-in and day-out. I’m not saying I won’t vote for him in the future, but I just can’t rationalize it this round when there are three other positional players in Sheffield, Ramirez, and Larry Walker who put up similar fWARs and wRC+ numbers and played the field (with Walker doing an admirable job out there in stark contrast to the other two).
At this point in the process, I have narrowed a very crowded field of nine worthy positional candidates to just three. With five spots remaining on the ballot, let’s shift gears to pitching to see if I need to cut further here or if I can keep all three, which I would really like to do.
Stage 6: Determining the Value of a Relief Pitcher
I’ll be honest. This is one of the hardest areas to determine, and also the area I will spend the least amount of time considering. My first thought is not to include what’s his name, that other guy, and whoever. In a crowded field of talent, ain’t nobody got time for people in the least important position on the field. Relief pitchers are needed and valuable, obviously, but they don’t pitch a lot of innings and the save stat is overemphasized. Let’s be brutally honest, relievers are pitchers who couldn’t hack it as a starter.
But now my kinder side is taking over and I remember that the Hall of Fame is not just about the best players, but the best players at each position. Relief pitching is a skill that deserves some recognition (and will get it with Mariano Rivera coming soon to the ballot, and likely straight on into the Hall of Fame from there).
Bottom line, I’m going to vote for one of these guys. They are, after all, three of the top 10 relief pitchers of all time. How do I decide which one, though? Well, I can’t. If I had to pick one to pitch for me in a game during his career, it would be Billy Wagner without a doubt. If I pick based on who compiled the best counting stats over a longer career, then I’d have to go with Trevor Hoffman. Instead, I’m going with Lee Smith because it’s his last chance and I’m a sucker for last chances. Basically, I’m throwing my vote away here like so many accused me of doing in the presidential election, but it’s just the right thing to do. He was also a really great relief pitcher, but I’m not going to pretend that factored into it. I can’t imagine a world where I use a selection on him if it wasn’t his last year.
Pick 6: Lee Smith
I take comfort in knowing that the player I have to leave off will still be eligible next year. But that does mean I have three position players and two starting pitchers left, and only four spots on my ballot. So now I need to turn to the two remaining starting pitchers to see if I can cut one.
Stop 7: Analyzing the Starting Pitching
Starting pitching should not take very long. The ballot is heavy with great hitting, but light on pitching, which sounds about right for the era these players represent. No, Mike Mussina and Curt Shilling are not in the conversation for greatest pitchers of all time. But looking at their careers, they are in the tier right after that. Mike Mussina’s 82.2 fWAR ranks 17th for pitchers all time while Curt Shilling’s 79.8 fWAR ranks 20th. Since 1980, they rank fifth and sixth in fWAR, only behind Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez.
For my fellow Braves fans, note that this places them ahead of Hall of Fame pitchers John Smoltz (79.6), Phil Niekro (78.5), Warren Spahn (74.8), and Tom Glavine (66.9). Schilling and Smoltz are comparable players in terms of innings pitched (Schilling: 3,261; Smoltz: 3,473), walks allowed (711; 1,010), strikeouts(3,167; 3,084), ERA (3.46; 3.33), and FIP (3.23; 3.24). Smoltz has a slight edge in ERA, but Schilling walked noticeably fewer hitters while striking out more. It’s really hard to argue that one should be a first ballot Hall of Fame type player and the other not worthy of a vote.
I underrated Mussina. I knew he was good, but he continuously put up good seasons in an environment and era that benefited hitters over pitchers. In his 18 seasons, he put up a 5+ fWAR 10 times. If your into wins, he might have only had one 20 win season, but he had 11 seasons where he picked up at least 15 wins (19 twice and 18 twice), and he had 11 seasons he threw at least 200 innings (never throwing less than 152 innings). His numbers – traditional or advanced – are good enough that he should be rewarded with my vote.
For a visual comparison, here is the cumulative fWAR for Mussina and Schilling along with Atlanta’s big three, who were all first-ballot Hall of Fame selections:
I hated the Yankees teams that Mike Mussina pitched for, and I’m not a fan of Curt Schilling, but I can’t find any reason not to vote for them based on their performance, especially comparing it head-to-head against some of my favorite team’s hall of fame pitchers.
Pick 7: Mike Mussina
Pick 8: Curt Schilling
Stop 8: Final Cut
Grievance: I have to detour here for a quick message to the BBWAA writers: “I have a lot of problems with you people, and now you’re going to hear about it!” I’m about to have to cut the remaining player I least wish to cut. But this shouldn’t be so. The ballot is backed up with players who should already be in, and it makes it very difficult to work through the process with only 10 votes. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Jeff Bagwell, and Tim Raines at a minimum should not be taking my votes because they should already be enshrined! FIX IT!
Now, after days of digging through numbers, my final votes are going to go to two of the following three players:
- Larry Walker: .313/.400/.565, 140 wRC+, 68.7 fWAR
- Manny Ramirez: .312/.411/.585, 153 wRC+, 66.4 fWAR
- Gary Sheffield: .292/.393/.514, 141 wRC+, 62.1 fWAR
As much as I think Sheffield had one of the best swings to watch of all time – so much bat speed – I have to cut him. Despite having amassed more than 500 home runs, 1,600 runs, and 1,600 RBIs and walking at a higher rate than he struck out (13.5% BB vs. 10.7% K), I have to cut him.
Sure, I could cut Walker by blaming Coors Field, but wRC+ and WAR adjusts for park factors. Walker’s also ahead of them because he could field his position, and I can’t knock him for that.
Sure, I could knock Manny for PEDs, but even dinging him there isn’t enough; he was just too good of a hitter. A 153 wRC+ ties him for 19th all time with some guys named Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson. PEDs might knock him down, but it doesn’t knock him off my ballot.
I could probably blame myself for picking Lee Smith for no good baseball reason, but instead I’ll blame the process and the real voters of years past for allowing too few picks while leaving too many worthy players on the ballot.
Pick 9: Manny Ramirez
Pick 10: Larry Walker
Remember, while a few hundred people get real votes to decide who goes into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, there is always joy to be found in a Festivus for the rest of us. So whatever happens with the Hall of Fame next year, take some time now to gather round the Festivus pole and join your family and friends in the annual feats of strength, and remember the holiday doesn’t end until someone is penned! (And if you haven’t seen the Seinfeld episode I’m referencing, you’re the one whose really losing out this holiday season!)
Happy Festivus – and other holidays – from OFR.