The Hall of Fame ballot backlog built up in recent years has been frustrating, to say the least. In 2016, some blessed space was opened up when Mike Piazza was elected and Mark McGwire and Alan Trammell aged off the ballot. Newcomer Ken Griffey, Jr. predictably sailed in on his first try as well.
Does all of this make filling out a 2017 ballot any easier? Maybe, but a voter who sees ten or fewer qualified candidates on this ballot is either a staunch steroid critic or believes the Hall should be far smaller than it is. At least three worthy candidates join the fray for this go-around, opening up a net of one spot from last year’s morass.
Let’s take a quick look at some of the new names and then try to put together a ten-name ballot. Numbers in parentheses are Hall Ratings from the indispensable hallofstats.com.
Casey Blake (37) – Over a thousand hits and 150 homers in a 13-year career. Most human beings can’t claim those exploits. Also, he was caught stealing more often than he successfully stole bases in his career.
Pat Burrell (28) – A bona fide slugger. Burrell hit 292 homers in 6520 plate appearances. That’s 58 percent of Eddie Murray’s homers in 51 percent of his plate appearances. As you can see from his Hall Rating (100 is a borderline Hall of Famer), Burrell didn’t add much value beyond his power.
Orlando Cabrera (31) – I suppose every baseball fan reaches the age where he has to evaluate the Hall of Fame candidacy of his all-time favorite player. For me, that age is 36 years, nine months, and a week. For many of us, it’s probably disappointing to see our favorite guy’s case look so flaccid.
Before he came to Boston in the fateful Nomar Garciaparra trade, I knew Cabrera as a dazzling gloveman plying his trade north of the border. Then he came to Boston, hit a home run in his first plate appearance, made up a personalized high-five with every player on the team, and hit in ten consecutive playoff games on the way to Boston’s first world championship in 86 years. He left for Anaheim so quickly that the words “Red Sox” don’t appear on his Fangraphs page unless you ask for in-season splits, but he left such a permanent mark in New England that it’s hard to picture him in another uniform. I met Cabrera at Hadlock Field in Portland a few years ago, where I was so starstruck that, rather than striking up a conversation, I awkwardly handed him my son and asked a staffer for a picture. Years later, I look at his baseball resume and see solid numbers- more than 2,000 hits, very good fielding and baserunning numbers- and, somehow, less value than Casey Blake. Life comes at you fast.
Mike Cameron (83) – Another short-term Red Sox, and a far better player than Cabrera, but one for whom I have far less admiration. Cameron stole almost 300 bases, hit almost 300 home runs, made countless dazzling catches in center field, and has a higher Hall Rating than Hall of Famers Hack Wilson and Roy Campanella. But he’s barely worth a paragraph on this still-crowded ballot.
JD Drew (87) – Oh, how I’d love to cast a Hall of Fame vote for JD Drew. A career .278/.384/.489 hitter (28 percent better than league-average), Drew was a strong baserunner and a decent right fielder with a lethal arm. After an MVP-caliber season in 2004 with the Braves and two disappointing seasons with the Dodgers, Drew came to Boston , where he replaced Trot Nixon, a player with double the enthusiasm and half the talent. Red Sox fans saw the new left-handed hitting right fielder with a seven on his back take pitches and show no emotion after strikeouts and missed Trot’s hard-nosed pluck, rarely stopping to notice that Drew walked in 14 percent of his plate appearances as a Red Sox and carried a .370 OBP (.390 over his first three seasons), or that his grand slam in Game Six of the 2007 ALCS might have been the most important moment en route to Boston’s second title in four years.
Drew was no Vlad Guerrero or Larry Walker, but he earned one more WAR than Kirby Puckett in over 200 fewer games. Had he been able to extend his prime for two or three more years, we might be debating whether he’s more worthy of a spot on this year’s ballot than Sammy Sosa or Tim Raines.
Vladimir Guerrero (111) – Vlad hit 449 home runs, the same count as Jeff Bagwell. His 2,590 hits are within 100 of Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Nellie Fox, Harry Heilmann, and Ed Delahanty. He had one of the great outfield arms in baseball history and, before Olympic Stadium messed up his knees, once stole 77 bases in two seasons. Everything about Vlad screamed “Hall of Famer”. Let’s hope he’s eventually one of the ten most worthy players on a ballot.
Carlos Guillen (46) – A good hitter and a shortstop, if not a particularly rangy one, for parts of 14 seasons. Very good career.
Derrek Lee (57) – In 2005, Lee hit .335/.418/.662 with 46 home runs and 15 stolen bases for the Cubs. His career fielding and baserunning numbers aren’t much to look at, but he was an elite hitter, and for at least one year, played like a Hall of Famer.
Melvin Mora (47) – During Mora’s tenure with the Orioles, I remember watching a game, probably on New England Sports Network, in which the broadcast team decided to have a little fun with Mora, probably in deference to his defensive versatility. When he came to bat, a graphic indicated that he was the father of quintuplets, a professional boxer, and the president of Venezuela. I can’t find any reference to the graphic online today, but as it turns out, the quintuplets bit was true, and he really did consider a run for President. He also reached base safely over 2,000 times in his career and played solid defense all over the diamond.
Magglio Ordonez (65) – Like Derrek Lee, Ordonez was a solid player who very briefly looked like a legend. In 2007, he hit .363/.434/.595 with 28 homers and 54 doubles for the Tigers. He had four 30-homer seasons before then, but never again reached 200 hits or 50 doubles.
Jorge Posada (90) – Posada’s Hall Rating is higher than that of Hall of Fame catchers Campanella, Rick Ferrell, and Ray Schalk. It’s also lower than that of Ted Simmons, Joe Torre, Gene Tenace, Thurman Munson, and Bill Freehan, none of whom is enshrined. While I support the candidacies of Simmons, Torre, Tenace, and Munson, I draw the line ahead of Freehan. Posada’s 103 hits and 11 homers in the postseason are worth some bonus points, but I would be more impressed if it didn’t take 125 games to compile them. He wouldn’t be an awful choice, but Posada certainly doesn’t fit with other BBWAA selections.
Manny Ramirez (129) – I don’t like talking about steroids every year when Hall of Fame debates pick up. Yes, some guys probably had advantages that helped them compile the numbers we use as ammunition for our debates. But there’s always been so much gray area- uncertainty as to who took what and how much it helped, complexity in what substances were banned when, and how (or even whether) the bans were enforced, etc.- that I’ve always taken a simpler approach of evaluating players’ candidacies based on their success on the field.
Manny’s a different case. He might have been the greatest right-handed hitter in baseball history. His defense was so bad that it canceled over 40% of his offensive value. His postseason exploits were legendary, and his love of the game was infectious. If he’d accepted a typical decline after the 2004 season, he might be heading to the Hall of Fame in 2017. But he took PEDs.
And he got caught. Twice. There’s a difference between sanctimonious writers playing moral arbiter by pretending they know who did and didn’t cheat in the juiced-up nineties and voters who refuse to elect a player who was twice caught and suspended, costing his team important wins. Manny was a Hall of Fame baseball player. I’d vote for him if I had the chance. But his candidacy is not going anywhere, and this time, I won’t blame the writers. I’ll blame the player.
Edgar Renteria (52) – Had a walkoff hit in World Series games in two different decades, with a whole decade in between. Also had a famous feud with my favorite player ever, the fellow Columbian shortstop I wrote about above.
Arthur Rhodes (38) – Struck out almost a batter an inning for 21 years. Also had an ERA over 4, though he pitched a lot of years in a high-powered American League.
Ivan Rodriguez (154) – Defensive metrics don’t always hold up in cross-era comparisons, but for what it’s worth, Pudge’s 317 Defensive Runs (per Fangraphs) are 37 percent better than any other catcher in baseball history. Johnny Bench fans may argue, but Rodriguez’s reputation backs up the stats. He could also hit a bit. He didn’t walk much, but he batted .294 over more than 10,000 PA and added 311 homers and an MVP award. A Hall of Fame without Ivan probably shouldn’t have any catchers in it.
Freddy Sanchez (25) – A solid middle infielder who probably didn’t need to be on the Hall of Fame ballot.
Matt Stairs (19) – A part-time slugger who belted the heck out of baseballs and probably didn’t need to be on the Hall of Fame ballot.
Jason Varitek (41) – A Hall of Fame plaque for Varitek would be easy to write. Caught four no-hitters. Captained two world champion teams. Hit almost 200 homers as a strong defensive catcher and an excellent pitch caller. Catalyzed the 2004 Red Sox with his role in a tide-turning brawl with the hated Yankees. Unfortunately, 1,307 hits and 24.3 WAR, even with all the intangibles, don’t make a Hall of Fame career.
Javier Vazquez (86) – Vazquez isn’t even on the ballot. I included him here because, if he were on the ballot, he’d be the fifth or sixth best newcomer. Win/loss record and ERA don’t recommend him, but this sampling of the all-time strikeout leaderboard does:
26. Warren Spahn, 2,583
27. Bob Feller, 2,581
28. Tim Keefe, 2,564
29. Jerry Koosman, 2,556
30. Javier Vazquez, 2,536
31. AJ Burnett, 2,513
32. Christy Mathewson, 2,507
33. Don Drysdale, 2,486
With the exception of Burnett, everyone on that list threw at least 500 more innings than Vazquez. With the exceptions of Burnett, Vazquez, and Koosman, everyone on that list is a Hall of Famer. The strikeouts don’t make Vazquez worthy of a bronze plaque, but they make him worthy of a long discussion and perhaps a writer or two casting a vote in his favor.
Tim Wakefield (60) – This has been a very Red Sox ballot, hasn’t it. Wakefield, Varitek, Ramirez, and Cabrera were on the historic 2004 team. Posada and Vazquez were on the Yankee team the Red Sox vanquished on the way up. Guerrero and Renteria, respectively, were on the Angels and Cardinals teams they beat in the ALDS and World Series. Cameron, Renteria, and Drew joined the team a few years later.
Wake pitched 3,226 big-league innings over 20 seasons as a starter, a long relief man, a swingman, a middle reliever, and, briefly, a closer. He threw a complete game in Game Three of the 1992 NLCS, started Game One of the 2004 World Series, and was still starting playoff games in his forties for the 2007 and 2008 Red Sox. He was never a strikeout pitcher, but he managed 2,156 of them. He threw more complete games (33) than Zack Greinke and David Price have thrown combined. That’s not a Hall of Fame resume, but it’s a really good one.
Those are the new guys. Now, let’s list all the players whose Hall candidacies I support, starting with the ten who would comprise my hypothetical ballot:
- Barry Bonds (362) – probably the best baseball player ever
- Roger Clemens (294) – possibly the best pitcher ever
- Jeff Bagwell (164) – the best first baseman born between 1910 and 1979
- Ivan Rodriguez (154) – probably the best defensive catcher ever; Yogi Berra and Gary Carter’s competition for the second best all-around catcher ever
- Mike Mussina (164) – the pitcher between Pedro Martinez and Nolan Ryan in career rWAR
- Larry Walker (151) – the biggest reason I still have a blog; the guy who inspired this piece and this one and this one
- Edgar Martinez (135) – a player who shares the same wRC+ (147) as Honus Wagner, Mike Schmidt, and Ralph Kiner
- Tim Raines (128) – a guy who reached base more often than Tony Gwynn, stole more bases than Joe Morgan, and earned more WAR per plate appearance than Derek Jeter
- Vladimir Guerrero (111) – the best outfielder in baseball once Barry Bonds retired
- Billy Wagner (65) – the pitcher with the best FIP and the second-best ERA of any retired reliever who pitched after 1920
Now, four more players whom I would vote for given unlimited choices:
- Curt Schilling (172) – Obviously, Schilling was better than Wagner. He was probably more valuable than every player named above except Bonds and Clemens. He has the best K/BB ratio in modern baseball history and is possibly the most accomplished postseason pitcher ever. And of course the Hall of Fame should reward on-field greatness above all else. All that said, the thought of giving Schilling a podium and letting him share his deranged and potentially harmful views of the world sickens me to the point where I can’t even give him the nod on my hypothetical ballot over a reliever with just over a third of the career value.
- Manny Ramirez (129) – A better player than Guerrero and probably Raines, and a guy I loved watching for many years. I’d love to see him in the Hall someday, but I’ll save my theoretical votes for someone who wasn’t caught cheating twice *after* a testing program was put in place.
- Sammy Sosa (116) – Another guy who was probably better than Guerrero and more valuable than Wagner, one who owns almost half of all the 60-homer seasons in baseball history. Unfortunately, ten guys have more solid cases that are more fun to defend.
- Gary Sheffield (116) – A player who offered value similar to Sosa’s without the historic numbers and the unbridled joy. Good enough for the Hall, but not close to earning a spot in my top ten.
And finally, six close calls just on the wrong side of my line:
- Trevor Hoffman (63) – Tons of saves, but he was basically Lee Smith, and I’m not sure Lee Smith is a Hall of Famer.
- Lee Smith (63) – Tons of saves, but he was basically Trevor Hoffman, and I’m not sure Trevor Hoffman is a Hall of Famer.
- Jeff Kent (102) – A great hitter at a premium position, but there are several more valuable second basemen outside the Hall.
- Jorge Posada (90) – If Posada’s presence was as meaningful to the Yankees as Varitek’s was to the Red Sox, he’s something like a Hall of Famer.
- Fred McGriff (94) – A perfectly defensible choice, but I’d like to see Keith Hernandez and other first basemen get in first.
- JD Drew (87) – He’s closer than you think.