By In Stuff

HOF Story 2: The Holdovers

These are the six players I did not vote for last year. One of my rules of Hall of Fame voting is that I try to look at each player in a fresh way every year. Yes, in many ways, that’s illogical. None of these players have thrown a single pitch, fielded a single ball, taken a big league at-bat in the last year. Their Hall of Fame cases are precisely what they were last year.

But, you know what? They really aren’t. The world is in constant motion. And time does change our perceptions of players. We should embrace that — time is often our best friend. It took the voters 11 years to put away whatever emotional or immediate feelings they had about Duke Snider and vote him into the Hall of Fame. It took them 13 to determine Bruce Sutter’s role in baseball history. Lou Boudreau made it on his 10th ballot, Bob Lemon his 12th, Jim Rice his 14th, and while all that seems ridiculous — while it might even BE ridiculous — I think it’s part of the way our mind works. Over time, small slights are forgotten, new viewpoints emerge, new discussions shed light.

Yes, I know there are many people who think time also deceives — and it does — and that Lemon, Rice and Sutter among others SHOULD NOT be in the Hall of Fame. Sure, I know there are people who think only first-ballot Hall of Famers should be Hall of Famers — only the slam dunk choices, only the ones you just KNOW are Hall of Famers the way you know that the sky is blue, that every exotic meat tastes “a little bit like chicken” and that Parks and Recreation is on NBC on Thursday nights.

But Yogi Berra wasn’t a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Juan Marichal wasn’t a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Larry Doby wasn’t voted in at all by the writers, nor was Johnny Mize or Arky Vaughan, who was probably the greatest shortstop between Wagner and Ripken. I don’t want a Hall of Fame without them. I’d rather have a Hall of Fame WITH Yogi Berra and Juan Marichal and Larry Doby than one WITHOUT Jim Rice and Bruce Sutter. That’s not close for me. I am a Big Hall guy. I understand others aren’t.

In other words: I think a story like Bert Blyleven — a story where the writers slowly but surely come around to appreciating his greatness — is not sad but triumphant. I think a story like like Lou Whitaker, who fell off the ballot so fast nobody ever really got the chance to talk about him, is the sad one.

The best part of the Hall of Fame process for me is that every year, in the dead of winter, we talk about old baseball players and how good they were. Why else would we talk about Juan Gonzalez or Jack Morris or Lee Smith? What else give us the opportunity to revisit our childhood memories, to figure out all these years later if this player or that was really as good as we remembered?

* * *

Jack Morris

I’ve probably written as many words on this blog about Jack Morris as any other player save, perhaps, Yuniesky Betancourt.* It just seems like there is always something interesting going on with his Hall of Fame case. This year, for instance, I think we are going to see a big turn. I could be entirely wrong, obviously, but I predict Morris will take a pretty big leap forward in the Hall of Fame voting. And I think the big reason — irony of ironies — will be because Bert Blyleven was voted into the Hall last year.

*Back with the Royals! Get ready for Yuni updates throughout the year.

Blyleven, let’s be honest, has been a bane to Morris supporters for years. When Morris first came on the ballot in 2000, Morris fans simply took it for granted that he was a better pitcher than Blyleven. Come on: That wasn’t even worth talking about. It was no contest. Jack Morris was, well, he was JACK MORRIS, ace, warrior, Ruler of the Mound, Patron Saint of Game 7, Pitcher To The Score. And Bert Blyleven was, eh, he was Bert Blyleven. Morris popped on the ballot and got more than 22% of the vote right off the bat. Blyleven, who had been on the ballot for two years already, received fewer than 18%.

But then, people kind of noticed something funny. They noticed that Bert Blyleven’s statistics — those stubborn numbers — were a lot better than Morris’. His ERA was more than a half-run lower. He had 1,200 more strikeouts. He had fewer walks, even though he pitched many more innings. He had more than twice as many shutouts. He even had 37 more wins.

The Morris people didn’t just sulk, though. No, they fought back — sometimes using statistics of their own. Blyleven, in addition to have more wins than Morris, also had many more losses. And so “winning percentage” suddenly became a big point of reference. The case was made that Morris was a WINNER while Blyleven was a COMPILER. How do you make such an argument? Well, people started to say that Morris had displayed a powerful ability to “pitch to the score,” meaning that he only pitched as well as he needed in order to win the game (which explained away his relatively high ERA):

To pitch to the score, Morris would give up only as many runs as warranted. If his team scored seven runs, hey, why not, he’d give up five or six. But if his team scored just one run (something Morris’ teams rarely did since they were excellent offensively), he would bare his teeth and throw a shutout (like he did in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series). It was a comfortable theory and might have held except for two things:

1. In this new era of computers and information, people could actually LOOK BACK at Morris’ career, game by game. They did and could not find any evidence that suggested Morris won many games 1-0 and 7-6.

2. It was Blyleven, not Morris, who won more 1-0 games over the last 50 years than any other pitcher.

Another argument was that Morris was a brilliant postseason pitcher, again referencing his famous 1-0 victory over the Braves in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. But again, there were some obstinate details that caused problems such as the fact that Blyleven had a better postseason ERA and, alas, winning percentage, and the fact that Blyleven actually BEAT Morris in their one postseason match-up.

The Morris arguments were not entirely ineffective — he saw his vote percentages rise from 22.2% that first year to 53.5% last season (his 12th on the ballot). But Blyleven’s percentages climbed appreciably faster. By Blyleven’s 12th year, he was at 62.7% and seemed just about ready to get the necessary 75% for induction. The very next year he was at 74.2% — just a handful of votes away from induction. Last year, his 14th on the ballot, he was voted in at almost 80%.

Morris, in his 12th year, needs that big leap — he has only three years left on the ballot. And this is where the irony comes in: I really think Morris’ totals will leap this year — maybe even into the high 60s. Why? Several reasons, but the biggest is this: Blyleven is in the Hall of Fame now. Morris fans may still insist that he was a better pitcher than Blyleven, but as I kept telling various friends who are big Morris supporters, that’s a losing argument. They needed Blyleven off the ballot so that they could argue for Morris on his own merits rather than making vaguely illogical arguments about how Morris — despite the numbers — was better than Blyleven.

Morris, on his own footing, has his argument. He won 250 games which is quite a lot — beginning in 1901 only two eligible pitchers (Jim Kaat and Tommy John) have more wins and are not in the Hall of Fame. Morris did, at different times in his career, lead the league in wins, strikeouts, complete games, innings pitched and starts. He threw that incredible Game 7. He was a bulldog of a pitcher in an era where most good and great pitchers burned hot and then faded. Dave Stieb burned out. Dwight Gooden burned out. Fernando Valenzuela burned out. Ron Guidry burned out. At their heights, they were all better pitchers than Morris at his height, I think, but Morris was indestructible and he kept going.

In the end, I still did not vote for Morris. I don’t think he was a great pitcher in his prime — for instance, he never had a sub 3.00 ERA in a pitcher’s era — and he doesn’t have even close to the career value of the pitchers who have been called called “statistical compilers” like Don Sutton or Phil Niekro. He falls for me below the line. But I appreciate that smarter people think he belongs. And I do think he will make a move this year.

One more add: I think Morris NEEDS to make a move because the ballot is about to get overstuffed — and, worse for Morris, it is about to get overstuffed with pitchers. Next year, Roger Clemens will go on the ballot. He will obviously have his own issues, but he is unquestionably one of the best pitchers ever. And Curt Schilling will also go on the ballot, which I think is a bigger problem because Schilling’s case is a lot like Morris’, only it seems to me a significantly better Hall of Fame case.

The year after that — Morris’ last year on the ballot — Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine will get elected, and Mike Mussina (who was a Morris-like pitcher himself, but with more wins, a better ERA, more strikeouts, many fewer walks) will go on the ballot. The hill becomes steep after this year. He needs to get close.

* * *

Lee Smith

I wrote last year that Lee Smith’s Hall of Fame case reminds me of NFL Hall of Famer Charlie Joiner. When Charlie Joiner retired, he had the record for most receptions and recovering yards in a career. He was elected into the Hall of Fame 10 years later. He is now 29th all-time in receptions, and many receivers with dramatically better numbers — such as Cris Carter and Tim Brown and Andre Reed — are having a heck of a time getting into the Hall of Fame.

Cris Carter: 1,101 catches, 13,899 yards, 130 TDs

Tim Brown: 1,094 catches, 14,934 yards, 100 TDs

Andre Reed: 951 catches, 13,198 yards, 87 TDs

Charlie Joiner: 750 catches, 12,146 yards, 65 TDs

Well, we all know, the times have changed in football. Rules have changed. Defenses have changed. Strategies have changed. Football, even more than baseball, should have statistics like OPS+ or ERA+ that are adjusted to the time. For instance, I happen to think that Otis Taylor was a better receiver than all four of them but he played in such a different time and his numbers are so much less impressive (410 catches, 7,306 yards, 57 touchdowns) that he simply cannot get any Hall of Fame momentum built up.

But my point here in remembering Joiner here is not his greatness but his timing — even though he never has a season where he led the league in receptions, yards or receiving touchdowns (and never really came all that close), made only one All-Pro team and was often, even in his best years, the second or third best receiver on his own team (behind Kellen Winslow, Wes Chandler or John Jefferson), he was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1996, in part because of his amazing consistency and durability (he played 18 years), and in part — I would say — because he held the record for most receptions and receiving yards when he retired.

Another guy like that is Jan Stenrud, the only pure kicker* in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. When Stenerud was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1991, he had the second most points in NFL history behind Hall of Famer George Blanda (and ahead of Lou “The Toe” Groza). So he had the most points among pure kickers. Stenerud is now 12th in scoring and will probably be passed by the likes of Ryan Longwell, David Akers, Olindo Mare and Sebastian Janikowski before it’s all done. His Hall of Fame timing was good; he made it into the Hall before the game and perceptions changed pretty dramatically.

*That is to say, the only player in the Hall of Fame who was exclusively a kicker — George Blanda, Lou Groza, Gino Cappeletti (AFL Hall of Fame), Bob Waterfield and others kicked field goals and extra points but they played other positions too.

Lee Smith held the saves record when he retired, and he held it by quite a lot. He had 478 saves in his career and, at his retirement, nobody else even had 400. This suggested he would be inducted into the Hall of Fame, and pretty quickly. After all, relievers were being inducted into the Hall — by the time Smith made it on the ballot in 2003, Rollie Fingers and Hoyt Wilhelm were in the Hall, Bruce Sutter was picking up steam, Goose Gossage was getting some strong support — and Smith had by far the most saves. We can have long chats about what the save actually means, but it is certainly viewed by many (and was probably viewed even more this way in 2003) as the quintessential statistic for closers.

Smith got 42% of the vote his first year (a higher percentage than Wilhelm, Sutter or Gossage received their first year) and seemed well on his way. Only Smith’s candidacy never really took off. His percentage has basically stayed the same for nine years. In those nine years, closers Sutter, Gossage and Dennis Eckersley all were elected.

I think for the greatest players — the Willie Mays and Mickey Mantles and George Bretts — timing is irrelevant when it comes to the Hall of Fame. They really are timeless players. They would always get elected. But for many excellent players, timing is a huge part of things. When you retire, who is on the ballot, how the game is being perceived at that moment — these things play a role. I have to believe that Jim Rice is in the Hall of Fame, at least in part, because steroids overtook baseball and the voters were nostalgic for a different kind of slugger. I have to believe Bert Blyleven is in the Hall of Fame, at least in part, because the Internet was in full bloom and his fans made a convincing statistical case. I have to believe Catfish Hunter is in the Hall of Fame because he made it on the ballot a few years before the rush of 300-game winners.

Lee Smith’s timing seemed very good in 2003. But now it doesn’t. For one thing, he had to wait in line while voters put in Sutter and Gossage, who were already on the ballot. For another, saves are no longer in vogue as a statistic. And, perhaps most of all, his saves record has been shattered by Trevor Hoffman and, more significantly, Mariano Rivera. I say Rivera is more significant because Rivera has raised the bar of what a closer can be. I don’t think anyone can look at closers the same way after Rivera, with his 603 saves, his 2.21 career ERA, his 0.998 WHIP, his almost miraculous postseason record.

Should Lee Smith be in the Hall of Fame? That’s a tough one. It depends how you feel about closers and their place in the Hall of Fame. I tend to think there are too many closers in the Hall of Fame now — to me, a closer is a specialty position and I think there are literally dozens of starting pitchers not in the Hall of Fame who were as valuable over the length of their careers as Sutter, Fingers and Smith. But, I also feel bad for Lee Smith — I think had he retired a few years earlier with the same numbers, he would have been in the Hall of Fame within five years.

* * *

Fred McGriff

We all understand that in today’s baseball world, you pretty much need a great slugger at first base. When you look at the World Series winners the last few years, that becomes clear (in parentheses is where they finished in the MVP voting that year):

2011: Albert Pujols (5th)

2010: Aubrey Huff (7th)

2009: Mark Teixeira (2nd)

2008: Ryan Howard (2nd)

2007: Kevin Youkilis (DNP)

2006: Pujols (2nd)

2005: Paul Konerko (6th)

Most of the best teams have great-hitting first baseman these days. You look around these days and see megastars like Pujols, Miggy Cabrera, Price Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, Teixeira, Konerko, Joey Votto, Ryan Howard and others, not to mention emerging young players like Freddie Freeman, Eric Hosmer, Justin Smoak, not to mention good hitters like Mike Morse, Carlos Pena, Gaby Sanchez … it’s a first baseman’s league and it has been for a while now.

Thing is: It wasn’t always like that. The concept that every team needs a power-hitting first baseman (because first base is the least demanding defensive position) is really a pretty modern development. Go back a few years, and the best first basemen were guys like Wally Joyner and Keith Hernandez, Steve Garvey and Rod Carew, Al Oliver and Gene Tenace, Cecil Cooper and Mark Grace, an aging Yaz or Brett or Rose.

Oh, sure, there were always some big sluggers at first base — Killebrew, McCovey, Boog Powell, Dick Allen. But there weren’t many. Look at the first basemen from the World Series winners 20 years ago:

1981: Steve Garvey (25th)

1980: Pete Rose (DNP)

1979: Willie Stargell (MVP)

1978: Chris Chambliss (DNP)

1977: Chris Chambliss (29th)

1976: Tony Perez (DNP)

1975: Tony Perez (15th)

1974: Gene Tenace (DNP)

1973: Gene Tenace (DNP)

1972: Mike Epstein (DNP)

First base was where you put your old stars. First base was where you put your low average guys who might hit one out now and again. First base was for slick fielding singles hitters. And, if you were lucky, first base was for “RBI men.” Sure, there were terrific players at first base but it was not a marquee position. You realize that in the 50 years after World War II — roughly between Lou Gehrig and Jeff Bagwell — there were only three first basemen voted into the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA: Willie McCovey, Eddie Murray and Tony Perez.

Which brings us to Fred McGriff. By those standards — the standards of first baseman between 1945 and 1995 — Fred McGriff has a great Hall of Fame case. His career value — certainly as a hitter — compares well to the last two first basemen elected to the Hall of Fame by the writers: Murray and Perez. He has 493 home runs, more than 1,500 RBIs, and almost 4,000 times on base.

But, like with Lee Smith, his timing is off. It’s not enough to be a very good hitter as a first baseman. No, you have to be extraordinary. And as good as those career numbers look, if you look on this ballot McGriff is at best the fourth most productive first baseman behind Bagwell, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro. Edgar Martinez was a DH, but if you throw him in this discussion, well, he was a better hitter than McGriff. Don Mattingly’s career was too short, but few would say McGriff was as good a player as Mattingly at their best. I wouldn’t.

McGriff was a terrific player who by the standards of history was a strong Hall of Fame candidate. Trouble is: history has changed.

* * *

Don Mattingly

At age 26, Don Mattingly had a lifetime .331 batting average. He had won an MVP, he had led the league in doubles three times, RBIs once, slugging once and total bases twice. He had won three Gold Gloves and was widely viewed as a great fielding first baseman. He had driven in 110 runs four straight years at a time when few did that. It is no wonder that people (and I’m one of those people) remember Don Mattingly with such nostalgia. He was a great baseball player.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t a great baseball player after he turned 27. He got hurt, played through pain and on dreadful teams, lost most of the thump in his bat — he hit just .292 and slugged just .424 after his 27th birthday.

I’ve come to believe that the Hall of Fame should be a place for players who had a great peak AND a great career, the rarest of combinations. But I must admit that I HAVE sometimes thought that if you were a truly great player for an extended period of time — say three to five seasons — maybe you belong in the Hall of Fame no matter how the rest of your career turned out. I don’t know if that’s true, but I think it’s worth discussing. The Hall of Fame would certainly not lose prestige or honor with Don Mattingly in it.

* * *

Rafael Palmeiro

I must admit: I have nothing interesting to say about Palmeiro. I realize that I could say the same for every player, but I REALLY have nothing interesting to say about Palmeiro.

He pointed into the camera, Bill Clinton style, and said: “I have never used steroids, period.” He tested positive for steroids after testing was put into place but has vehemently denied using steroids — he says the positive test came from a tainted Vitamin B12 injection. He compiled huge numbers in a huge numbers era (3,020 hits, 569 homers), but in my opinion was never a great player — he only twice finished in the Top 10 in WAR and never higher than fifth. He played a supporting role in turning the Gold Gloves into a joke when he won the 1999 Gold Glove at first base despite playing only 28 games there and being a DH the rest of the time. He did Viagra commercials.

* * *

Juan Gonzalez

Which of these two seasons is better:

.310/.368/.632, 33 doubles, 46 homers, 118 RBIs, 105 runs.

.314/.368/.643, 33 doubles, 47 homers, 144 RBIs, 89 runs.

It’s close, but based on the numbers alone you would probably pick the second year right? One more homer, many more RBIs, a little bit higher average and slugging percentage …

The second year is Juan Gonzalez’s MVP season of 1996. The first is Juan Gonzalez’s 1993 season. And the truth is that Gonzalez’s 1993 season isn’t just better, it’s A LOT better. Why? Well, for one thing that first season, runs were much harder to come by. In 1993, his 46 homers led the league (as did his .632 slugging percentage). In 1996, of course, offense had exploded, and his 46 homers placed him fifth in the league.

But that’s not all. In 1993, Gonzalez’s Rangers played in Arlington Stadium — which was decidedly a pitcher’s park in the early 1990s. In 1996, Gonzalez’s Rangers played in the Ballpark in Arlington, which was (and is) one of the best hitters parks in baseball.

So in 1993, Gonzalez’s offensive WAR was 6.9. He compiled 31 Win Shares.

In 1996, Gonzalez’s offensive WAR was 4.1. He compiled 21 Win Shares.

So much is context. There are some people out there pushing hard for Juan Gonzalez’s MVP candidacy. I respect that. He is a two-time MVP, he led the league in homers two other seasons, he hit 400-plus homers in his career and so on. I have been sent carefully and lovingly crafted brochures telling me this and more. He was obviously a fine baseball player.

But context: I don’t think he was even close to the best player in the American League in either of the years he won the MVP (1996 was particularly galling). He was a terrible defensive player and indifferent base runner. He was essentially done at 32, though he managed to milk a couple more big contracts from saps like the Kansas City Royals after he had no more interest in playing baseball.

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