I’ve put off this wonderfully miserable exercise about as long as I can. The Baseball Hall of Fame, one of the great American institutions, continues to captivate fans like me. Given a different geographic and family life situation, I’d drop everything and visit tomorrow. Once a year, though, the Hall’s management gives the Baseball Writers Association of America the chance to weaken the institution, to pit generations against generations, fans against fans, writers against writers. And I’m sick of it.
I’m sick of complaining about the ten-man voting limit. I’m sick of explaining why I don’t care who used steroids. I’m sick of explaining how much harder it’s gotten to make the Hall of Fame with each passing generation. I’m sick of arguing for context, for ignoring round numbers and considering accomplishments in all facets of the game. But then, I can’t ignore it.
I can’t ignore the opportunity to relive the greatest peak in pitching history- Pedro Martinez’s 1997 and 2003…. or was it Randy Johnson’s 1998 to 2004? I can’t ignore the compelling case of Tim Raines, who’s absolutely deserving of enshrinement, down to his last three years on the ballot, and probably not one of the ten most deserving players this year. I can’t ignore Larry Walker, who somewhat quietly (though he won an MVP and two batting titles) put together one of the great Hall of Fame cases of his generation but might not even get the five percent he needs to stay on the ballot another year.
So here’s my take. Below, I’ll rank every player worth a conversation on this year’s ballot by my assessment of his hallworthiness. If I’ve written extensively about a player in past posts, I’ll keep it brief this year. Numbers in parenthesis are Hall Ratings per Hallofstats.com, where 100 is a borderline Hall of Famer.
1. Barry Bonds (359). I think Barry Bonds was the best baseball player ever. I think the best baseball player ever should be in the Hall of Fame.
2. Roger Clemens (291). In terms of accumulated greatness, read the statements above and replace “player” with “pitcher”.
3. Pedro Martinez (185). Read the statements above and replace “accumulated” with “peak”.
4. Randy Johnson (217). I can’t believe I’m four names deep and still talking about players with legitimate cases as the best ever at what they did. Despite not posting an above-average, full season until age 26 and not emerging as a star until 29, Johnson won more games (303) than all but three lefties since World War II, struck out more batters (4,875) than any pitcher in history except Nolan Ryan, and earned more WAR (104.3) than any southpaw in history except Lefty Grove. Grove and perhaps Warren Spahn are the Big Unit’s only competitors for the Best Lefty Ever title.
5. Mike Piazza (145). The best-hitting catcher ever. It’s a simple statement with which everyone seems to agree. Why, then, do we have to argue over whether he belongs in a group with Ray Schalk and Ernie Lombardi?
6. Jeff Bagwell (163). The third-best first baseman of the 20th century. It wasn’t a slow century either. Jim Bottomley and Orlando Cepeda are in the Hall of Fame with a <I>total</I> Hall Rating of 142.
7. Curt Schilling (170). When it comes to the outcomes most within a pitcher’s control, or to postseason domination, there’s been perhaps no one equal to Schilling in the game’s history. If I had a ballot, I might leave him off for personal reasons given all the other worthy players, but he belongs in.
8. Mike Mussina (162). Jack Morris almost got in the Hall last year. Mussina was better by any measure- traditional or sabermetric, qualitative or quantitative.
9. Larry Walker (150). Hallofstats tells us he’s the 59th greatest player ever. Even if park factors are muddling his case and he should be 75th, that’s Barry Larkin/Robin Yount territory.
10. Edgar Martinez (134). It’s excruciating to draw a line here. Edgar hit like an inner-circle Hall of Famer. His time as a designated hitter keeps him off ballots, but if we’re looking at his case objectively, we have to give him some credit for what he could have done as a fielder, right? He was an average third baseman until the Mariners pushed him to first, and later off the field completely. Just a win or two of speculative credit puts him in the Paul Molitor/Frank Thomas “no-doubter” group. And that still ignores what Edgar could have doen in the majors while he was dominating the Pacific Coast League as a 26-year-old.
11. John Smoltz (135). Smoltz is another guy I think WAR sells short. This has nothing to do with the “versatility” some evaluators like to credit him with because he won a bunch of games and saved a bunch of games. Any elite pitcher could have succeeded in either role. Rather, it’s a reflection of the value Smoltz gave up by pitching out of the bullpen for most of four years.
In 2001, Smoltz was recovering from an injury that cost him the entire 2000 season. It was probably a wise move to stick him in the bullpen and limit his exposure. In 2002, Smoltz led the league in saves and Bobby Cox would have gotten some pushback from management and Braves fans had he moved him back to the rotation. But by 2003, Smoltz was the best reliever in the game, and certainly one of the game’s best pitchers. He struck out 10.2 batters per nine and carried a 1.12 ERA through 64 1/3 innings. For his troubles, he earned 3.3 WAR. Is there any question he could have been worth more as a starter?
Smoltz’s 66.5 pitching WAR are 39th all time among pitchers, between Hall of Famer Vic Willis and near-miss Luis Tiant. Give him 2 more wins in 2003 and 2 more in 2004 and he tops 70, jumping into the top 30 between Hall of Famers Old Hoss Radbourn and Don Sutton.
He’s not a borderline guy. Somehow, though, he might not be in the top ten on this ballot either.
12. Tim Raines (127). A Hall of Famer. I think he’ll see some momentum based on this year’s rule change (10-year ballot limit) and next year’s (12-man ballot limit) and get in before his time runs out.
13. Alan Trammell (141). If Larkin’s in, Trammell should be in. It’s that easy. There’s a strong case he’s in the top ten on this ballot. I can’t argue against it, but I can argue for a few of the guys above.
14. Mark McGwire (123). If you’ve spent any time on this site, you know how I feel about Big Mac and what he meant to me as a baseball fan. He’s a lost cause at this point, so I’ll stop arguing his merits. Here’s hoping Rickey Henderson or Mike Schmidt some other respected Hall of Famer stands on a podium someday and says “I was a great baseball player and I took tons of steroids. They were delicious and they made the game more fun and most of my teammates took them too”. Then voters might stop withholding votes from Bonds and Clemens and McGwire’s induction will eventually follow through some Veterans Committee full of former elite-level juicers.
15. Craig Biggio (126). I hope Biggio gets in this year. He has a sabermetric case and a traditional case. That said, it baffles me that so many voters include him ahead of Walker, Martinez, and Trammell. Round numbers are pretty, I guess.
16. Sammy Sosa (115). 609 home runs. I don’t care if he played against Little Leaguers, got to hit off a tee while everyone else faced Randy Johnson, poisoned opposing players before games, and killed kittens without remorse. That’s a Hall of Fame number.
17. Gary Sheffield (114). An atrocious outfielder, a likely steroid user and a Hall-of-Fame jerk. That said, the man hit 509 home runs and had a career OPS 40 percent better than league average. He might not even get the five percent he needs to stay on the ballot.
18. Jeff Kent (102). This is the borderline for me. I don’t care if players of Kent’s ilk are in or out, and it doesn’t much matter, since the BBWAA has little interest in reviewing their cases.
19. Fred McGriff (94). Like Kent, McGriff’s induction wouldn’t weaken the Hall by much, but I’m not clamoring for it.
20. Nomar Garciaparra (90). A Hall-of-Fame peak. A legend in Boston. I moved to New England as his star was fading, and was happy to see Orlando Cabrera take his place on the way to a title, but Nomar in his prime puts many Hall of Famers to shame.
21. Brian Giles (97). That 97 means Giles’s numbers, even adjusted for his crazy era, are about as good as the worst guys in the Hall and the best guys out of it. A “big-hall” proponent who thinks the likes of Ron Cey and Jose Cruz (and Bobby Doerr and Tony Perez) are worthy should support Giles’s candidacy. I’m not feelin’ it, but crazier things have happened.
22. Carlos Delgado (75). Felt more like a Hall of Famer to me than Giles ever did. Perhaps that’s because I was a Blue Jays fan in the ’90s and Delgado hit a ton of home runs and had a social conscience. I hope he gets a few votes.
23. Don Mattingly (77). He might have been better than Delgado- he certainly had a higher peak. In this conversation, it doesn’t matter much.
24. Lee Smith (62). Only “worth a conversation” because he saved a ton of games and voters keep wasting precious ballot spots on him. Great pitcher, maybe better than his Hall Rating, but not a Hall of Famer.
Given a binary “in/out” ballot, as the Baseball Bloggers Alliance used this year, I support the candidacies of the top eighteen players above, though I’m not offended by any argument against Sheffield’s or Kent’s candidacy.
If limited to ten names, I’d vote for Bonds, Clemens, Pedro, Johnson, Piazza, Bagwell, Mussina, Walker, Edgar, and Smoltz.