Hall of Fame Ballot, part 1

The baseball writers who vote for the Hall of Fame have their 2011 ballots in their hands. With 33 names and very few throwaways, it’s an impressive field, ranging from sure things who have been denied for years for no apparent reason to players sure to be the subjects of great debate for years to come to, well, Lenny Harris.

Let’s start with a quick note about my Hall of Fame standards. I think the only way we can objectively determine whether someone is a Hall-caliber player is to compare him to players at his position already in the Hall. Considering Hall of Famers from the best at his position (let’s call him “Mike Schmidt” to the worst (let’s call him “Fred Lindstrom”), an eligibe player should at least bring as much value over the course of his career as those players at the 25th percentile (among third basemen, somewhere between Jimmy Collins and George Kell).

Why the 25th percentile? If we set the standard at the bottom, the Hall gets real big, real fast. John Valentin, Tim Wallach, and Travis Fryman all earned more career WAR than Lindstrom, and no one’s advocating for their Hall of Fame candidacy. Using “as good as the worst Hall of Famer” as a standard, we could probably make a case for everyone on this year’s ballot and the entire 2010 Rays roster. If we set the standard at the 50th percentile, we’re raising the bar by a good deal, since requiring that an eligible player be better than the average Hall of Famer makes the average Hall of Famer better every year, thus making it much more difficult for future generations to make the Hall than it was for past generations. At the 25th percentile, we’re inluding everyone from the absolute best players of all time to the guys who compare favorably to some current Hall of Famers, without watering down the Hall any further with George Wrights and Jesse Haineses.

As usual, I’ll use WAR as my primary measuring stick, since WAR attempts to measure how many wins a player adds to his teams’ records over the years, and a player’s primary job is to help his team win. I’ll try to keep an open mind when considering players with certain intangibles like individual milestones, team success, or shortened careers due to factors beyond their control (segregation/serious injury/locusts).

The following are the players on this year’s ballot for whom I cannot make a compelling Hall of Fame case, with their career WAR total (per baseball-reference.org) in parenthesis. For reference, Mike Sweeney’s 23 career WAR place him 1000th among all players in major league history. Most players with 48.3 WAR or more (the Tony Lazzeri/Tony Phillips line) are in the Hall. The most WAR among previously eligible non-Hall of Famers is Bill Dahlen’s 75.9. Among 20th century non-Hall of Famers, it’s Lou Whitaker’s 69.7. I believe the fewest WAR for a Hall of Famer is Rube Marquard’s 24.2 (which equals Kelvim Escobar’s career output).

Lenny Harris (-.9): That’s right. For 18 seasons, Lenny Harris won fewer games than the next guy ready to be called up from AAA. Guess that’s why he was on the bench long enough to break the all-time record for pinch hits. WAR isn’t really fair to him, of course, since it punishes him for being without a position, when he probably could’ve thrown on a glove and been average for many of the years he spent primarily pinch hitting. Not a terrible player, but nothing like a Hall of Famer.

Kirk Rueter (12.1): The second-best pitcher on the 2002 National League champion Giants. And this is when I stop writing nice things about Kirk Rueter’s career.

Carlos Baerga (15): I remember Baerga as an occasional All-Star who played for loaded Indians teams in the 90s. Did everything well, did nothing extremely well.

Bobby Higginson (21.4): Will we get our first member of the 2003 Tigers in the Hall? I think we’re more likely to see Derek Jeter agree to play for free next year. It should be noted that Higginson made $11,850,000 to contribute .3 wins to the 43-win Tigers in ’03. If that represented the marginal cost of a win to the Tigers that year, it would have cost them $1.9 billion to win enough games to make the playoffs in the weak AL Central.

Bret Boone (21.4): Accumulated the third most WAR among the Boone family. Had one monster season (2001) in which he probably should have been MVP. Was solid again in ’03, but otherwise barely justified a starting job.

Charles Johnson (22): Hadlock Field is practically a shrine to Johnson’s greatness during the Portland SeaDogs’ tenure as the Marlins’ AA affiliate, but despite a lot of better-than-average big league seasons (including a .304/.379/.582 campaign in ’03), he never had the feel of a Hall of Famer.

Benito Santiago (23.8): 20 seasons, 9 teams, 5 All-Star games, and 1 Rookie of the Year award. Good player. Not as good as the worst catcher in the Hall (Ernie Lombardi?).

John Franco (25.5): A very good reliever for a very long time, and he actually accumulated more WAR than Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter. However, that’s also fewer WAR than Ben Ogilve and Art Nehf. Given that most relievers are failed starters and relievers pitch so few innings, it is my opinion that a reliever has to meet the Gossage/Rivera standard to be seriously considered for the Hall of Fame.

Marquis Grissom (25.6): Very fast. And that’s about it.

Tino Martinez (25.7): A mainstay on some good Mariner teams and even better Yankee teams, but never the reason his team was so good. If you really want to start a Tino debate, tell someone he was almost precisely as valuable, in aggregate, as Mo Vaughn.

Raul Mondesi (27.2): A former Rookie of the Year and an immensely talented young player, Mondesi never contributed more than 2 wins in a season after he turned 30.

B.J. Surhoff (34.4): Before I made fun of Lenny Harris above, I had Surhoff’s name in his place, if only because I remember Surhoff from early in his career as the guy whose baseball cards I always seemed to get two of in every pack, and from late in his career as the old guy clinging to a roster spot who always seemed to find his way into the Orioles’ lineup when I saw them play at Fenway Park. Who knew B.J. Surhoff had 2,326 hits and scored 1,062 runs? Who knew he brought more value to his teams than Eric Davis, Juan Gonzalez, and Ken Caminiti? He’s nothing like a Hall of Famer, but he was a pretty good major league ballplayer for a long time, and most people can’t say that.

Al Leiter (36.1): Probably closer than you think. Leiter was very good for a long time, contributing more wins to his teams than Hall of Famers Catfish Hunter and Jack Chesbro, but fewer than Charlie Hough and Andy Messersmith. His .551 career win percentage wouldn’t be an embarrassment to the Hall, but his 3.80 ERA would be the worst in the Hall (though better than Jack Morris’s 3.90).

Harold Baines (37): Hit the ball like a Hall of Fame middle infielder or a star outfielder. As a career DH, that doesn’t cut it.

John Olerud (56.8): I remember John Olerud being exceptionally good at two things: hitting singles and wearing a helmet in the field. Apparently, the guy was better than I remembered (and I was a Blue Jays fan for most of the ’90s). 255 HR, 500 doubles, a .398 career OBP… In 1993, he hit .363 with a 182 OPS+ and 8.2 WAR. Olerud had the same career WAR total as Hall of Fame first baseman Hank Greenberg, and more than George Sisler and Tony Perez, among others. Unfortunately, the players most similar to Olerud- Will Clark, Edgar Martinez, and Mark Grace- are all on the outside looking in. As good as he was, Olerud also pales in comparison to contemporary first basemen like Bagwell, Thomas, McGwire, and McGriff, all of whom will occupy the same ballot space as Olerud for the next several years (or until Olerud stops getting 5% of the vote, which may happen this year given the depth of the field). Great player, better than a lot of Hall of Famers, but the Hall is probably overstuffed with first basemen already and inducting Olerud over a more rounded player like Tim Raines or Barry Larkin wouldn’t be right.

In my next post, I’ll address the 18 candidates on this year’s ballot with better credentials than John Olerud (or at least the next few).

Continue to Part II, the yeses, or Part III, the debatables.

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