Yesterday, I examined the former players on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot who don’t have credentials worthy of a significant Hall of Fame discussion. Today, I’ll skip the middle group and talk about the players for whom I would absolutely vote for induction to the Hall.
I’ll list the players in descending order based on my estimation of their credentials, with their career WAR (per baseball-reference.org) in parenthesis.
Bert Blyleven (87.6): It’s absurd that Bert Blyleven is not in the Hall of Fame. There are 63 pitchers in the Hall of Fame, and it’s easier to make a case that Blyleven is among the top ten than that he’s outside the top 63. He’s 13th in career WAR among pitchers, behind three pitchers whose careers wrapped up before the home run was really part of the game. If you don’t like advanced statistics, try these: Blyleven won 287 games despite playing on bad teams throughout his career, struck out 3,701 batters, and had an ERA 18% better than the league average for his entire career.
The only marks against Blyleven’s case are the 430 home runs he gave up (a legitimate shortcoming), the 250 games he lost (a byproduct of all the bad teams he played for), and his never having won a Cy Young award (again, the bad teams; he led his league in complete games, innings pitched, strikeouts, WHIP, and ERA+ at least once each and had several compelling cases, most notably in 1973 and 1984). Blyleven should finally make the Hall this year, and 20 years down the road, no one will care that it took so long for the voters to realize just how good he was, but it’s a crime that he’s been denied for this long.
Jeff Bagwell (79.9): After Gehrig, Pujols, and Foxx, either Bagwell or Frank Thomas is probably the fourth best first baseman in baseball history (with all due respect to Cap Anson). Bagwell got on base at a .408 clip for his entire career, hit 449 homers and stole 208 bases, and was among the better fielding first baseman for much of his career. In his MVP season in 1994, he slugged a ridiculous .750 and averaged more than one RBI per game. He may miss induction on his first ballot due to the depth of this year’s field and the writers’ odd reluctance to elect someone the first time around, but certainly enjoyed a Hall-worthy career and will be there before long.
Roberto Alomar (63.5): After the quartet of superior second baseman (Collins, Hornsby, Robinson, and Morgan), Alomar challenges Charlie Gehringer, Craig Biggio, and Rod Carew for fifth place. Alomar was a good young player in San Diego, a perennial All-Star in Toronto, and a MVP-caliber player throughout his three-year tenure with the Indians. In 1999, Alomar slashed .324/.422/.533, stole 37 bases in 43 attempts, and led the league in runs and sac flies. Alomar will most likely, and most deservedly, be inducted this year.
Tim Raines (64.6): Almost certainly the most underrated player of my lifetime, Raines did everything a player can do to help his team win baseball games. He got on base 3,960 times (more than Tony Gwynn, among many other Hall of Famers), stole 808 of the 954 bases he attempted. Raines was worth more than five wins to the Expos for five consecutive seasons in the mid ’80s and again in 1992 with the White Sox. He accumulated more WAR than Hall of Fame outfielders Dave Winfield, Richie Ashburn, and Willie Stargell, among many others. Sadly, Raines may never make the Hall, as the voters have chosen to punish him, either for his cocaine use, for his relative lack of home runs, or for their unwillingness to interpret his numbers in a new light.
Barry Larkin (68.9): After Honus Wagner and Cal Ripken, there are several shortstops, namely Larkin, Arky Vaughan, Ernie Banks, Robin Yount, Derek Jeter, Luke Appling, Alan Trammell, and maybe Ozzie Smith and George Davis, who can contend for the third spot. Larkin hit for average (.295 throughout his career) and with some power (198 homers, 441 doubles), stole bases 379 in 456 tries, and played shortstop brilliantly (led the league in range factor in 1989, ’90, and ’91). He won an MVP in 1995 and contended in ’90 (when his Reds won the World Series) and ’96.
Larkin may spend another few years on the ballot, in large part because his numbers pale a little in comparison to those of the steroid era shortstops (Rodriguez, Garciaparra, Tejada) whose careers immediately followed his. When the dust settles, though, he’ll be in the Hall alongisde his peers and lesser shortstops like Travis Jackson, Rabbit Maranville, Joe Sewell, and Joe Tinker.
Alan Trammell (66.9): See Larkin, Barry. Trammell has probably suffered longer than Larkin will, since he played in a lower-scoring era and his offensive numbers show that, but in his prime, Trammell and Lou Whitaker were probably the best middle infield in the history of the game. Trammell’s raw numbers (.285/.352/.415) seem modest today, but he towered over his peers, receiving MVP votes seven times (he should have won in ’87) and accumulating more WAR than Pee Wee Reese, Ozzie Smith, and even Ernie Banks. Trammell will probably have to wait for the Veterans Committee, who should elect him and Whitaker together. If Tinker, Evers, and Chance are in the Hall because of a poem, Al and Lou should be there for being far superior baseball players.
Mark McGwire (63.1): Cue the morality police. There seem to be two types of arguments against McGwire’s Hall of Fame candidacy: the utterly absurd “I don’t vote for cheaters” and the more reasonable “without steroids, McGwire’s numbers wouldn’t have been Hall-worthy”. I don’t think those of us on the outside have any business trying to identify steroid users and punish them for their misdeeds, since evidence seems to show that many players, possibly a majority, used illegal substances, and many of them were the pitchers off whom McGwire hit some of his 583 home runs. To the second point, McGwire hit 49 home runs as a rookie, when he was almost certainly not using steroids. He had 220 home runs and 527 walks by his age 28 season. While injuries are a factor we can’t ignore, he certainly seemed well on his way to a Hall of Fame career before offensive numbers started blowing up all over baseball in the mid ’90s.
Steroids aside, Mark McGwire hit 30 home runs 11 times, 40 homers 6 times, 50 homers 4 times, 60 homers twice, and 70 homers once. No one else in baseball history can make that claim. McGwire wasn’t Lou Gehrig or Albert Pujols, but he compares favorably with Hall of Famers Willie McCovey, Hank Greenberg, and Eddie Murray, and those guys certainly don’t represent the minimum Hall of Fame standard for a first baseman.
The 1998 home run race happened, and it’s one of the reasons I follow baseball with as much passion as I do today. Until the writers stop trying to sweep that era under the rug and unite on the issue of how to treat suspected (or proven) steroid users, players like McGwire will languish on the ballot, overcrowding the field and keeping qualified candidates like Larkin and Raines from getting in. It’s time to vote for McGwire and show that Hall of Fame plaques are for the best players in baseball history, not the guys who helped little old ladies cross the street.
In my next post, I’ll parse the candidacies of the eligible players whose Hall of Fame cases are more debatable.