People talk all the time about who “feels” like a Hall of Famer and who does not. I know exactly what they’re saying because I feel those same impulses … and yet, I don’t know exactly why it’s true, why some players feel like Hall of Famers while others (who might be even better players) do not.
Start here: There are countless ways to rank every day baseball players (and countless more to rank pitchers) but it seems pretty obvious to me that when it comes to the Baseball Hall of Fame we basically rank them by three categories:
3. Base running (base stealing, mostly)
There are 123 position players with more than 5,000 plate appearances in the Hall of Fame. Well, actually, there are 126, but Miller Huggins, Al Lopez and Leo Durocher are not in the Hall for their playing. So that leaves 123. I broke up the 123 in the three categories using Baseball Reference. I used WAR runs batting to determine hitting productivity. I used WAR runs fielding to measure fielding. I used WAR runs base running for base running. Pretty easy.
I then ranked all 123 in each category and added up their rankings to determine the best all-around players in the Hall of Fame. For instance, Willie Mays ranked 10th in hitting, 4th in fielding and 9th in base running — that gave him 23 points, making him by far the best all-around player in the Hall of Fame (the lower the number the better).
Here is the Top 10:
1. Willie Mays, 23 points
2. Hank Aaron, 49 points
3. Rickey Henderson, 56 points
(tie) Al Kaline, 56 points
5. Honus Wagner, 69 points
6. Eddie Collins, 87 points
7. Tris Speaker, 88 points
8. Roberto Clemente, 92 points
9. Ty Cobb, 97 points
10. Joe DiMaggio, 100 points
Obviously, all these players — and a few others — could do everything exceedingly well. They are all slam-dunk, no doubt, nobody would argue Hall of Famers.
Others, could do two things exceptionally well. Some examples:
— Carl Yastrzemski (29th in hitting, 5th in fielding)
— Mike Schmidt (20th in hitting, 15th in fielding)
— Mickey Mantle (7th in hitting, 13th in base running)
— Joe Morgan (25th in hitting, 6th in base running)
— Pee Wee Reese (18th in fielding, 16th in base running)
And this idea of excelling in two categories would fit many players in the Hall. I would say, all in all, that at least half of the players in the Hall of Fame excelled in two of the categories or all three.
And that leads us to the other half — and almost all of them were specialists, players who were fantastic at one thing and not so great at others. Some examples:
Ten players in the Hall of Fame mostly for hitting*:
— Ted Williams
— Harmon Killebrew
— Willie Stargell
— Ralph Kiner
— Orlando Cepeda
— Willie McCovey
— Tony Perez
— Hack Wilson
— Reggie Jackson
— Jim Rice
*Now, let me say quickly that nobody is in the Hall of Fame ENTIRELY for any one thing. For instance, just in this list of 10, Reggie Jackson had a great arm and, as a young man, was a base stealing threat. Tony Perez had great leadership skills. Harmon Killebrew was a credit to the game in every way. And so on. But it’s pretty apparent that these players and many others were not great fielders, were not fine-tuned base runners, they are in the Hall of Fame MOSTLY because they could swat.
Five players in the Hall of Fame mostly for fielding:
— Brooks Robinson
— Bill Mazeroski
— Bobby Wallace
— Ray Schalk
— Rabbit Maranville
I don’t think there are any players in the Hall of Fame MOSTLY for base running, but several players were helped greatly their base running. Here are five players who I think were helped hugely by their base running prowess:
— Lou Brock*
— Max Carey
— Lloyd Waner
— Luis Aparicio
— Ozzie Smith
*Brock had 3,000 hits which made him pretty much a Hall of Fame slam dunk anyway, but his base stealing probably kept him in the game long enough to get those 3,000 hits.
All of which, finally, leads to a theory: I think players who excel in one phase of the game tend to FEEL like Hall of Famers more than players who do a lot of things well but perhaps don’t do anything transcendently well. Lou Whitaker … Dwight Evans … Willie Randolph … Reggie Smith … Bobby Grich … these are some of the non-Hall of Famers on top of the WAR chain. All of them were good in numerous ways. They all were good fielders, all good hitters, all good base runners (well, Dewey was pretty slow). WAR adds these things together and comes up with players who were more valuable over a career than, say, Jim Rice or Ralph Kiner. But, it seems to me, our minds tend to word differently: We latch on to singular seasons, spectacular feats, outsized achievements. The mind latches to RBIs. The mind latches to diving plays.
It’s just something I was thinking about when I looked at the eight players I voted for the Hall of Fame last year.
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Last year: 41.7%
The public narrative from last year is that numerous BBWAA writers did not vote Bagwell because they suspected him of using steroids. I don’t know if that’s true. In my mind, Bagwell is a slam-dunk Hall of Fame hitter but not everyone sees him that way. And it is true that he falls short of some of the the career hallmark numbers. He did not hit 500 home runs (449), he did not come close to 3,000 hits (2,314), and while it’s not exactly a hallmark number, it probably didn’t help Bagwell that he did not quite hit .300 either (.297).
In other words, I think some voters probably DID pass on Bagwell because of their suspicions — something I STRONGLY disagree with — but I would bet most voters probably saw Bagwell as kind of a borderline case anyway, and figured there was no harm in waiting a year to see what new facts emerged. I think he will probably jump up into the 50s or 60s in the voting this year … unless I’m wrong and a lot of people really aren’t voting for Bagwell because of whispers.
For my purposes, Bagwell was a truly great hitter. I even would say he is the best hitter who is eligible and not in the Hall of Fame — at least until Barry Bonds and Frank Thomas get on the ballot. Three times he led the league in times on base, five times he was in the Top 5 in on-base percentage, and seven times he had a slugging percentage better than .550. For 10 years — 1993 to 2002 — he hit .306/.422/.574, and even though that was when offense was king, those crazy numbers were still good enough to make him the best hitter East of Barry Bonds.
Bagwell was a good enough hitter to merit the Hall of Fame on that alone, but he was also an excellent defensive first baseman and a base stealer — he remains the only first baseman in baseball history to have a 30-homer, 30-stolen base season, and he did it twice. I think he’s the pretty clearly best player on the ballot this year.
I do not like talking about steroids and baseball because it feels like it all has been said, positions have been staked, everyone seems entrenched. But I will say this: I have almost no doubt at all that some great players who nobody suspects used steroids. And I have almost no doubt that some players out there who people whisper about did not use steroids. There is something about PED use we simply have a hard time getting our minds around: We can’t tell from numbers, and we can’t tell from body types, and as much as we me believe in our our steroid radar, we can’t tell just by looking either.
Jeff Bagwell has said that he never used steroids. Could he be lying? Of course. But as far as I know, nobody has publicly offered any evidence at all that he is lying. It’s true that presumption of innocence is not a requirement in the court of public opinion — you have every right in your day-to-day life to presume whatever you want. But, seems to me, presumption of innocence is pretty good policy. It is prominent (though not explicitly stated) in both the fifth and sixth amendments of the Constitution. It is at the core of the most just decisions going back hundreds and hundreds of years. It is the end result of the best in human thought about justice.
If someone provides a failed drug test for Bagwell, or someone publicly testifies that he used, well, then it will be a good time to evaluate. But as far as I’m concerned, Jeff Bagwell absolutely did not use steroids. He is innocent. As far as I know, nobody has even tried to prove him guilty.
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Last year: 62.1%
Last year: 24.3%
I think Barry Larkin will get into the Hall of Fame this year, and I think he deserves to get in.
He was a great player. In the section above, I list those players who did everything well — he fits right in. He hit for average, got on base, hit with some power, played excellent shortstop defense, stole bases, led by example, starred in the World Series …
I’m talking about Barry Larkin.
No, actually, I’m talking about Alan Trammell.
No, actually, I don’t see much difference between them.
Take two shortstops. They play almost exactly the same length of time — one had almost 9,400 plate appearances, the other almost 9,100. They have almost the exact same number of hits. One had a 116 OPS+, the other a 110 OPS+. One has three Gold Gloves, the other four (their defensive statistics, if you prefer those, are similar). One won an MVP award, the other finished second and should have won. One had a great World Series, the other won the World Series MVP. One played in a better era for offense, and had more homers, doubles and stolen bases. The other was more consistent and, by WAR, had three of the four best seasons between them.
By Baseball Reference, Barry Larkin had 68.9 WAR, Alan Trammell 66.9.
By Fangraphs, Barry Larkin had 70.6 WAR, Alan Trammell 69.5
Larkin has a slight lead, but realistically they are are about as close as two shortstops can be. Trammell is Larkin’s No. 1 comp; Larkin is Trammell’s No. 2 comp — and now they are on the Hall of Fame ballot together. But while Larkin is on the Hall of Fame doorstep (I really do believe he will be elected this year), Trammell has been on the ballot for 11 years and has never seen his case spark with the voters.
You could reasonably argue that Larkin was a slightly better player. But I’m not sure I’ve heard a good argument how the Hall of Fame line could be drawn in the slender gap between them.
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Last year: 37.5%
At the start, I brought up the point that few players get into the Hall of Fame for being good all-around players. In general, you need to do something surpassingly well. Get a lot of hits — 3,000, for instance — and that will put you in good shape. Hit a lot of home runs — say 500 of them of them — and you will likely get the call. Win batting titles, set a significant record, make a bunch of amazing defensive plays, these are usually the things that will capture the voters’ hearts. There are exceptions, of course. But your best bet is to doing something amazing.
Tim Raines is probably the only guy on the ballot this year who can say that he was the very best ever at one prominent baseball skill. Raines is probably the best base stealer in the history of Major League Baseball. He does not have the MOST stolen bases — he’s fifth all-time. He does not have the highest stolen base percentage — he’s second among players with 200 stolen bases behind Carlos Beltran.
But when you put it together — 808 stolen bases with only 146 times being caught — it’s the greatest combination in baseball history.
Tim Raines was a great player for five years, 1983-87, and a good player for the next 15. As I’ve written before, over his career, he reached base more times than Tony Gwynn and scored almost 200 more runs with those times on base. He happened to play in the era of the amazing Rickey Henderson, who you will notice ranked third on the “best all-around players ever” list above. He happened to play in the same outfield with Andre Dawson, who cast a big shadow. For these and other reasons, I think people tend to overlook a simple truth: Tim Raines was a great baseball player.
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Last year: 32.9%
Would Edgar Martinez have a better Hall of Fame shot having been a lousy third baseman than a great designated hitter? I can’t say for sure, but I think the answer is: Yes. There are plenty of lousy fielders in the Hall of Fame, and some of them were not nearly as good a hitter as Martinez.
From 1990 to 2001, 12 years, Edgar Martinez hit .321 and obeed.429*. Those are both so impressive, it’s hard to choose the more impressive between them. He won two batting titles, three on-base titles, led the league in runs, doubles, RBIs, times on base, OPS, OPS+ and runs created. His 1995 season was insane, one of the best in American League history, he created 161 runs in a 145-game season, the most per game in the AL since Mickey Mantle’s Triple Crown season. The guy could swat.
*I’ve been trying to come up with a good verb for on-base percentage. I thought for a while of using “on-based” as the verb, but it sounds stilted. I then wanted to go with reach as the verb — Edgar Martinez reached .429 — but that doesn’t sound right either. So I’m trying a new verb, “obee” — the phonetic spelling of OB — and we will see if anyone buys in. I have a pretty good guess already.
But it is true that Martinez was a DH for three-quarters of his career, and I don’t think it’s fair to just write off that concern. It’s a difficult leap for many voters to put someone in the Hall of Fame who was not good enough defensively to even play in the field. Yes, Paul Molitor cruised into the Hall of Fame, and he was a DH for about half of his career. But Molitor also had 3,000 hits. If Martinez had 3,000 hits, he would have gone in first ballot too.
I am voting for Martinez because I think he’s one of the best hitters in baseball history. True, he played DH, but that’s because the DH exists. If there had been no DH, they would have played him at third base and lived with the consequences because he was that good a hitter. The biggest job of an every day player is to help the team create runs, and few have done it better than Edgar.
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Last year: 20.3%
I go back and forth on Larry Walker. To me, he has three issues:
1. He had a relatively short career.
2. He played his prime in Colorado when Coors Field was a joke of a ballpark.
3. He is exactly the sort of player — good all-around player without any dominant imprints — who tends to wither and die on the Hall of Fame ballot.
One at a time: The short career thing has kept his career numbers low. He only had 2,160 career hits and 383 career home runs. That’s fewer hits than Larry Bowa, fewer homers than than Andres Galarraga. Players who do not reach (or come close) to the Hall of Fame hallmarks usually find themselves in no-man’s land.
Playing his prime in Colorado unquestionably inflated his numbers. Over a career, Walker hit an absurd .381/.562/.710 in the splendor of Coors Fields’ light air. Away from Coors Field, yeah, he didn’t hit that. Truth is, if you neutralize his numbers — as Baseball Reference will do — they take a big fall.
Actual numbers: .313/.400/.565, 2,160 hits, 383 homers, 1,355 runs, 1,311 RBIs.
Neutralized: .294/.378/.530 with 2,040 hits, 357 homers, 1,205 runs, 1,175 RBIs.
Compare that neutralized line to this neutralized line:
.280/.383/.502 with 1,909 hits, 395 homers, 1,122 runs, 1,186 RBIs.
That second line is Norm Cash, who spent about 23 seconds on the Hall of Fame ballot.
But it is the third issue that I keep coming back to … Larry Walker did everything well. He was a fabulous defensive player. He was a marvelous baserunner. He was a high average hitter with great power … and this was true even in years when he was not playing in Colorado.
True, I don’t think he could have had hit .366, 363 and .379 in consecutive years outside of Colorado. I don’t think he could have had a year like he had in 1997 — when he hit .366 with 46 doubles, 49 homers, 143 runs, 130 RBIs, 33 stolen bases, a .720 slugging percentage — outside of Colorado.
But, history is history. Larry Walker did play in Colorado at that time — somebody had to play there. And while I do think you have to keep those numbers in context, I also think they’re pretty amazing numbers.
I think Larry Walker is a tough case. He’s right on the borderline for me. But I’m a Big Hall of Fame guy (more on this in a bit), so I’m voting for him.
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Last year: 19.8%
Here’s a question: Why would any player who took steroids during the Selig Era admit it?
It has been almost two years now since Mark McGwire came forward and admitted using steroids. He came forward in order to clear the air because he wanted to come back to baseball as a hitting instructor for the Cardinals. You will remember that scene — he was interviewed by Bob Costas, and it was a sometimes emotional, sometimes confusing, sometimes enlightening, sometimes infuriating, sometimes tense interview. I thought, for the most part, it was genuine, from the heart, McGwire didn’t blame anyone else, he didn’t pass the buck, he admitted using steroids, he admitted it was wrong, he was willing to put himself out there publicly as an example for kids who would be tempted to use.
Others passionately disagreed — they thought McGwire came off as fake, they could not abide his refusal to admit steroids made him the player he became, they were furious that he did not go into specific details.
History — at least Hall of Fame voting history — suggests that more people fell on the other side of the argument. McGwire’s Hall of Fame percentage dropped pretty dramatically after the admission, and I have a feeling that it will drop again this year and next year … I would not be surprised if McGwire drops off the ballot before his 15-years are up. This for the most efficient home run hitter — one homer per 10.6 at-bats — in baseball history.
I’ve discussed McGwire’s Hall of Fame candidacy ad nauseum through the years so I won’t discuss it again. But I will ask: Why would any player ever voluntarily come forward again? I think there are so many things we don’t know about baseball’s steroid era, so many things that the players who used could offer to prevent future players from using. If it’s supposed to be about the kids, well, what could be more useful than to have players who used come forward, explain why they used, how they used, why it was wrong, how to avoid the pitfalls and so on and so on? Plus, as fans, it would help us understand that era of baseball a lot better.
But why come forward? I think about Pete Rose. For years, people said if he would just ADMIT to gambling on baseball and the Reds and apologize for it, then forgiveness could begin. But when he did admit and apologize, the goal lines had moved. His apology came too late. He wasn’t being completely honest. He was only apologizing to make money (even signing and selling, ‘I’m sorry I bet on baseball’ autographed baseballs). I don’t disagree with these things, individually, but I do believe that no Pete Rose apology would have been good enough.
I don’t think Mark McGwire’s apology could possibly have been good enough to win over the masses. But whether that’s true or not, I think every Major League Baseball player who used steroids was watching to see the reaction. A pretty clear message was sent: If you used steroids in the Selig Era — when there was no testing, tacit encouragement by the powers that be and nobody got punished — keep it to yourself.
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Last year: 12.6%
In 2000, Dale Murphy received 23.2% of the vote — more than Jack Morris and Bert Blyleven. Just four years later, he was down to 8.5%. He had lost more than half his support. I’m not sure why that happened, but he has never come close to his earlier percentage.
I mentioned above: I’m a big Hall of Fame guy. I have become that way more and more through the years. I still have what I think are high standards, but I love the Hall of Fame and have come to believe that there are more great players out of it than non-great players in it.
Yes, I’ve mocked the idea of using “If X is in the Hall of Fame then Y should be in the Hall of Fame,” logic because you can basically make an argument for ANYONE doing that.
— If Rick Ferrell is in the Hall of Fame (and he is) then Javy Lopez should be in.
— If Javy Lopez is in the Hall of Fame, Bob Boone should be in.
— If Bob Boone is in the Hall of Fame, Jim Sundberg should be in.
— If Jim Sundberg is in the Hall of Fame, Lance Parrish should be in.
— If Lance Parrish is in the Hall of Fame, Bill Freehan certainly should be in.
And so on.
— If Catfish Hunter is in the Hall of Fame (and he is) then Fernando Valenzuela should be in.
— If Fernando is in, Sam McDowell should be in.
— If McDowell is in, Ron Guidry should be in.
— If Guidry is in, Bret Saberhagen should be in.
— If Sabes is in, David Cone should be in.
— If Cone is in, Luis Tiant should definitely be in.
And so on.
But the truth remains: There are many, many players who have never even been seriously considered Hall of Famers who were better than Ferrell or Catfish, better than Joe Tinker or Roger Bresnahan, better than Jesse Haines or Ray Schalk or High Pockets Kelly or Freddie Lindstrom or a dozen other players in the Hall of Fame. My point thought is not to compare but to merely say: The Hall of Fame does not have a defined standard. The system is a hodgepodge — through the years players have been elected by sportswriter vote, by a veterans committee, by a Negro Leagues panel and by the Hall of Famers themselves.
And so, the Hall of Fame line can be pretty much wherever you want it to be. Whoever your Hall of Fame pet candidate happens to be, I probably can find you at least a half dozen players in the Hall of Fame who were not as good.
Dale Murphy is my Hall of Fame pet candidate. And, yes, there are at least a half dozen outfielders in the Hall of Fame who were I don’t think were as good Dale Murphy — Lloyd Waner, Chick Hafey, Ross Youngs, Chuck Klein, Lou Brock, Hack Wilson — and several others who I think were very close, including the recently inducted Jim Rice. But I’ll readily admit that there at least as many NON Hall of Famers who I think were better than Murphy over their whole careers, such as Minnie Minoso, Tim Raines and Dwight Evans.
So why vote for Murphy? Well, three reasons — at least two which I hope are legitimate.
1. I think, Murphy’s peak is Hall of Fame worthy. From 1982-1987 — six years — he hit .289/.382/.531, won two MVPs and five Gold Gloves, led the league in home runs twice, RBIs twice, slugging twice, runs once and walks once. I’m not saying, by the way, that he DESERVED all those MVPs and Gold Gloves, but he was a great player and a good fielder, and over that time he might have been the second best player in the National League (with Tim Raines, Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez in the mix). He also had a very good 1980 season.
Murphy would be in the Hall of Fame — I feel pretty sure of this — had he not fallen completely off a cliff at age 32. This is true for other players as well, but it’s particularly striking for Murphy. At age 31, he had a 132 OPS+ — he hit .279/.362/.500 in a pitchers era. But he hit .234 the rest of his career. If he’d had even one more good year … but he didn’t.
2. I think Murphy represented the game well at a time — and isn’t this almost always true? — when baseball was facing various problem. There was the strike. There were drug issues.
This clause is still included in the BBWAA Rules for Election: “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”
Obviously, these are not all weighed evenly, but if you give Murphy points for integrity, sportsmanship and character — and I think almost anybody would give him those — that seems to push a borderline case over the top.
3. I do think Murphy was, at his best, a better player than Jim Rice and Andre Dawson, who were both elected into the Hall of Fame over the last few years. I don’t mean that as a knock on either one. I just think he had more great years than either of them. I realize that I’ve lost that argument … and I never came particularly close to winning it. It’s not the only argument I’ve lost. But I keep voting for the guy.