In my mind, there are eight players on this year’s ballot who are clearly above my Hall of Fame standard. That does not mean that they are without their flaws. A couple of them have significant flaws … I refused to vote for one of them for a while until my thoughts about him and what he did crystallized somewhat.
In any case, when I first got the Hall of Fame ballot I gave it a quick glance and counted the players who seemed like easy Hall of Fame choices. These were the eight who came up.
— Roberto Alomar: There are differences of opinion about Roberto Alomar’s fielding. He won a Gold Glove every year but one from 1991 to 2001. That’s 10 Gold Gloves, and the general consensus at the time seemed to be that he was a brilliant defensive second baseman, one of the best of all time. But, since then, a few people studied the subject — Bill James for one — and came away with the contrary conclusion that Alomar was wildly overrated defensively. Sean Smith’s Total Zone Rating concludes that Alomar was actually a below average defensive second baseman for his career, and was below average every year from 1993 to 1996, when he won four of those Gold Gloves.
I bring this up because I think Alomar’s legacy depends on how you feel about his defense. If you feel that he was a solid but overrated defender — which probably sums up the anti-Alomar-defense stance — then he is one of the 10 best second basemen in baseball history. I would say only Morgan, Ryne Sandberg and Craig Biggio could match Alomar’s combination of power and speed. Alomar also hit .300 for his career, he walked more than he struck out, and he had three or four MVP type years. Yes, even without his defensive reputation, he is one of the best to ever play second base.
But … if you believe Alomar was a GREAT defensive player, as many people do, then he’s one of the five best second basemen ever and should be in the discussion with Joe Morgan and Rogers Hornsby.
All of which is to say: He’s a Hall of Famer either way. I think it was sad that Alomar was not elected to the Hall of Fame last year. His snub seemed to be based on some sort of wordless anger about Alomar’s infamous spitting incident and perhaps some of his post-career troubles. I should say here (and I’ll come back to this in a minute) that I truly loathe the fact that there is a character clause in the Hall of Fame voting instructions, a clause (perhaps written by Kenesaw Mountain Landis himself) that states: “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played.” I think that clause frees up voters to make moral judgments. And I think that kind of freedom often brings out the worst in people.
That’s not say that people who did not vote in Alomar last year were wrong. The beauty of the Hall of Fame voting is also the biggest problem with it: It’s messy. You have several hundred people (539 last year) with different standards, different ideals, different priorities, different moral attitudes, different point of views. They all vote based on what they are and what they believe. This leads to all sorts of interesting, sometimes bizarre, sometimes shameful individual votes — you already know that some people did not vote for Willie Mays or Hank Aaron or Stan Musial — but the hope is that the large number of Hall of Fame voters, and the high threshold of 75% needed for induction, will give us the worthiest candidates.
It was that high threshold that cost Alomar the Hall of Fame in his first year. He should get elected this year.
— Jeff Bagwell: OK, let me say this as clearly as I possible can say it: Jeff Bagwell, in my opinion, is one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. His 149 OPS+ ranks 19th all-time among players with 8,000 plate appearances. He is one of only 16 players to finish a lengthy career with an on-base percentage higher than .400 (.408) and a slugging percentage higher than .500 (.540). Among those 16, only Ty Cobb and Barry Bonds stole more bases.
He was a breathtaking offensive player, almost without weakness. He hit for average, he hit for power, he drew walks, he stole bases, he scored runs, he drove in runs, and he looked like a serious badass doing all of it. Remember how everyone talked about Jim Rice’s intimidation factor, so much so that after a while it became kind of a joke. Well, Jeff Bagwell was a scary hitter. He would plant himself into that wide stance, and he would swing the bat with ferocity, and I never knew if it was scarier to be the pitcher or the third baseman or some seated in a low seat without a net in front. There was enough fear for everyone. The guy was like a cartoon character.
It’s true that Bagwell played in huge offensive time. But he demolished the era. Every single year he was good for a .300 or so average, a .400 or so on-base percentage, 35 homers, 100 walks, 110 RBIs, 110 runs scored … that was just the starting point for Bagwell. A couple of times, he demolished even those numbers. His aborted 1994 season — when he hit .368/.451/.750 — is untouchable in any era. But his 1996 season, when he hit .315/.451/.570 isn’t far behind. In 1999 he walked 149 times and scored 143 runs. In 1997, he became just the sixth National Leaguer to hit 40 homers and 40 doubles in the same year*.
*And two of those six (Larry Walker and Todd Helton) did it Colorado, another one (Chuck Klein) did it in the old Baker Bowl — two absurd hitters ballparks. Bagwell did it in the bleeping ASTRODOME, a legendarily bad hitter’s park. Nobody had ever hit 40 homer runs playing half their games in the Astrodome. And this guy added 40 doubles to the trick.
Bagwell was a force of nature until he turned 35. By then, his shoulder was beginning to deteriorate. He had some sort of arthritic condition there … and it made his career end suddenly. At 35 he hit 39 homers, walked 88 times, and received an MVP vote. At 37, he was done.
Bagwell, to me, looks like a first-ballot, slam-dunk, didn’t have to think twice Hall of Famer. His rare combination of power and speed (he’s the only first baseman to have a 30-homer, 30-stolen base season, and he did it twice) along with his solid defense (he won one Gold Glove, but was generally viewed year-in, year-out as a very good defender), along with his ability to get on base, along with his solid nature and spectacular peak makes him seem like the surest of sure things.
But it doesn’t look that way. It looks like Bagwell will fall well short. And I can only come up with two somewhat related reasons:
1. The crazy offensive Selig Era has made us jaded about spectacular offensive numbers. That’s understandable, I guess. Bagwell’s six seasons of 39-plus home runs would have seemed otherworldly twenty years ago. After all, that’s as many as Willie Mays had, more than Mickey Mantle had, as many as Reggie Jackson and Mike Schmidt COMBINED. But the Selig Era has taken the jolt out of those numbers, in part because of steroids but also in part because we simply have grown numb after seeing home run after home run after home run after home run.
2. Jeff Bagwell — though he never tested positive for steroids, never was implicated in any public way, was not named in the Mitchell Report or by anyone on the record as a suspected user, and is not even on this rather comprehensive list of players linked to steroids or HGH — seems to have become in some voter’s minds a player who used performance enhancing drugs.
I can’t even begin to describe my disgust at No. 2 … it makes me absolutely sick to my stomach. This is PRECISELY what I was talking about when I said how much I hate the character clause in the Hall of Fame voting. I think it encourages people to believe their own nonsense, to stand up on high and be judge and jury. It’s something my friend Bill James calls the “I see it in his eyes” tripe. Bill has finished a book on crime — it is, he says, actually about crime books as much as crime — and one thing he kept running into in his research was people who claimed that they could pinpoint the murderer because “it was in their eyes.” Well, as Bill says, that’s a whole lot of garbage. Eyes are eyes. Some people look guilty when they’re innocent, and some people look innocent when they’re guilty, and most people don’t look innocent OR guilty except when we want to see that something in their eyes. Oh, but we love to believe we know. It’s one of the flaws of humanity. And the Hall of Fame character clause gives voters carte blanche to judge the eyes and hearts and souls of players.
I think my e-migo Craig Calcaterra has made this point on Twitter, but I’d like to also make it as strongly as I can: I’d rather a hundred steroid users were mistakenly voted into the Hall of Fame over keeping one non-user out. I don’t know if Jeff Bagwell used or didn’t use steroids. But there was no testing. There is no convincing evidence that he used (or, as far as I know, even unconvincing evidence). So what separates him from EVERY OTHER PLAYER on the ballot? Were his numbers too good? That’s why you suspect him?
Bagwell has written (or spoken) a story defending himself from the steroid charges. This is the takeaway: “I’m so sick and tired of all the steroids crap, it’s messed up my whole thinking on the subject. … If I ever do get to the Hall of Fame and there are 40 guys sitting behind me thinking, ‘He took steroids,’ then it’s not even worth it to me.”
I would say this to those people who would not vote for Jeff Bagwell because they simply believe he used steroids, based on how he looked or some whispers they heard. I have a better idea: Let’s just burn him at the stake. If he survives, you will know you were right.
— Bert Blyleven: My colleague and friend Jon Heyman wrote an entire column this year about why he did not vote for Blyleven, and it’s fair to say that I didn’t agree with much of it. Jon’s main point seems to be that though Blyleven’s career numbers may be impressive, his career lacked impact. He never won a Cy Young award (or finished higher than third), he never was a factor in the MVP voting, he only made two All-Star teams.
The facts are there, but I guess it depends what you mean by impact. Blyleven STILL ranks fifth on the all-time list for strikeouts — wedged between a couple of guys named Carlton and Seaver — and strikeouts seem to have some impact on the game. He ranks ninth all-time in shutouts, fourth if you only count the years after the deadball era — and shutouts seem to have some impact on the game. He won more games 1-0 than any pitcher in 90 years — and 1-0 victories seem to have some impact on the game. I guess I would like to believe more in those than in the award voters who often underrated him* or All-Star Game managers who usually have their own agendas.
*Blyleven was probably the best pitcher in the American League in 1973. This was not seen in his 20-17 record, but he was second in the league in ERA, first in ERA+, first in shutouts and he threw a staggering 325 innings. You may or may not have use for Wins Above Replacement, but he finished first in the league in WAR — not just for pitchers but for ALL players. The MVP voters were 30-plus years too young for WAR, however, and gave him one 10th place vote.
But Jon is hardly the first person to say, essentially, that Blyleven does not FEEL like a Hall of Famer. Blyleven was rarely talked about as one of the great pitchers of his time (though people did acknowledge his historically great curveball). I have never thought this should matter — after all, I can remember Steve Garvey, Fred Lynn, George Foster, Dave Parker and many others referred to as “future Hall of Famers” when they were at their peak, and it didn’t quite work out that way. This, I think, is why we wait five years before voting on a retired player. We want to let a lot of that nonsense dissipate.
And it should have dissipated. Maybe Bert Blyleven did not have a reputation as a great big-game pitcher, but 5-1, 2.47 ERA in the postseason (one of those wins coming over sainted big-game pitcher Jack Morris) and his record in 1-0 games suggest that he didn’t really let that reputation stop him from pitching well in big games.
Maybe Bert Blyleven did not get a lot of Cy Young support, but six times he had a higher WAR than the guy who actually won the Cy Young, which can only mean one of three things:
1. WAR is impossibly flawed and the voters were right.
2. The voters picked a lot of really bad Cy Young winners.
3. Bert Blyleven was absurdly underrated by the Cy Young voters.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be just ONE of those three three things. It could be all of them.
Anyway, yes, Blyleven’s Hall of Fame case has some lumps in it. I don’t think even the most devoted of Blyleven’s supporters — I would be in the team photograph, I suspect — would deny that. His winning percentage should have been better, he was kind of a pain in the neck, he was fairly mediocre for three or four years in the middle of his career, and he really only had one good year after age 36. He’s not Greg Maddux (who I think really should have a chance at being voted unanimously). He’s one of the 30 best starting pitchers in baseball history, I think. But if you want to find flaws, there are some there.
But I guess there was something else about Jon’s Blyleven piece that really bugged me … and he knew it was really bug a bunch of people. He said so right in the piece. He said: “Blyleven’s backers sometimes will also act astounded or even apoplectic over the fact that some, including myself, support Jack Morris over Blyleven.”
Yes. Apoplectic is the word. This, I find, is precisely where I stop being reasonable. I saw three or four stories from other people who voted for Morris over Blyleven, and it so boggles my mind that I have to keep myself from ranting. And I’m never very good about keeping myself from ranting.
I guess my simple comparison of Blyleven and Morris is this: Bert Blyleven won more games with an ERA more than a half run lower and an ERA+ advantage of 118-105. Blyleven struck out 1,223 more batters but, even more remarkably, walked 68 fewer batters. Why are the walks more remarkable? Because Blyleven threw 1,146 more innings than Morris. That’s 127 nine inning games if you are scoring at home. And he still walked fewer batters.
Blyleven had a reputation as a gopherball pitcher — well earned since his 50 homers allowed in 1986 is still the record — but he gave up fewer homers per nine than Morris. Blyleven threw more than twice as many shutouts, threw 70 more complete games, had a significantly lower WHIP, and he has more than twice as many wins above replacement (90.1 to 39.3). Morris had the better winning percentage, but it has been shown that is almost entirely attributable to Morris’ superior teams. Blyleven also has the better overall postseason numbers. I’ve written about this a million times, it’s out there on the internets if you want to go into greater detail.
Here’s the thing that bugs me most: Jack Morris has a Hall of Fame case. I don’t buy in, but I can see the case. He was an extremely durable pitcher who completed a lot of games and won a lot of games and pitched one of the more famous World Series games ever. There’s a case for him. But to make that case, logic insists that you MUST ACKNOWLEDGE Bert Blyleven first. Because Blyleven was better than Morris in every way that Morris was good. He was MORE durable, and completed MORE games, and he won MORE games, and he was so clearly more dominant in every way that can be recorded. And, as mentioned, when they faced each other in the postseason, Blyleven’s team won.
But some people have simply dug in against Blyleven. The stuff that Jon wrote about Blyleven not having impact — him not being a factor in Cy Young voting or MVP voting — is essentially true about Morris too. He never won a Cy Young. He never was a factor in the MVP race.
Jon’s essential explanation for his Morris support is to say “to some degree, you had to be there.” I sometimes say that very thing about a Midnight OIl concert I went to in 1994 — to understand Midnight Oil’s greatness you had to be there. But I would probably concede that doesn’t make Midnight Oil into the Beatles.
I should also say that I think Blyleven will get in this year and we can finally end these kinds of posts.
— Barry Larkin: Bill James and I have each done a list of our 32 Best All-Around Players in baseball history. Well, I don’t think Bill’s list is quite 32, and I’m not entirely sure we had the same thing in mind when thinking what “best all-around players” even means. We’ll run that thing out there sometime in January to keep the hot stove talk burning.
But I can tell you now that Barry Larkin is on both of our lists. He did everything. He hit. He hit with power. He ran. He defended. He threw. He walked. He played the game with a high level of intelligence and verve. I think he was a deserving winner of the MVP in 1995 (assuming you weren’t going to give it to Bonds every year), and he was probably even better in 1996.
The knock on Larkin is simply his durability — he only played 150 games in a season three times. But he was a fabulous player from 1991-98. That’s eight seasons when he posted a 134 OPS+ (Take Cal Ripken’s eight best seasons — not even in a row — and you get a 132 OPS+), he stole 206 out of 240 bases, he won two Gold Gloves, he slugged .487. There are not many shortstops in baseball history that can give you eight seasons like that. And he offered value in other years too. I think he’s a clear cut Hall of Famer.
— Edgar Martinez: I’ve made my peace with Edgar Martinez as designated hitter. Here’s why: It seems to me that had Martinez come along before the designated hitter, he would have played third base or first base left field or something. And he probably would have been well below average. But he still would have played. And he still would have hit as few have ever hit. The Hall of Fame has lousy defenders in it. Harmon Killebrew tried hard everywhere he played, but nobody ever viewed him as a great fielder. Ted Williams rather famously regretted how little effort he put into playing outfield. Willie Stargell was viewed as a subpar defender. Dave WInfield scored a minus-9.2 defensive WAR for his career, which is (A) the worst among Hall of Famers and (B) startling because he was widely viewed as a very good defender.
Anyway … the point remains. Martinez was a hard-working player and undoubtedly would have worked as hard as he could on defense if that had been his fate. But he had a different fate. He came up in the American League in the late 1980s. He did not play his first full season until he was 27, and that first full year he hit .302 and walked more than he struck out. He was almost exclusively a third baseman. The next year he hit .307, walked 85 times, increased his power somewhat, and played almost exclusively at third base again.The next year he hit .343 and led the league in hitting. He was still a third baseman.
And then he had injuries. He only played 131 games in 1993 and 1994. In 1995, he was 32 years old, coming off injury, the Mariners made him a DH. And he he had an absolutely remarkable season; he hit .356/.479/.628 with 52 doubles, 29 homers, 121 runs scored, 111 RBIs. That .479 on-base percentage is the second-best in the American League the last 40 years (behind only Frank Thomas’ 1994 season).
The Mariners struggled to find an effective third baseman to fill Martinez’s spot. But after 1995, there was no way the Mariners were going to put him back at third base and take any chances losing that bat. Over the next five years, Martinez never hit worse than .322, never had a lower on-base percentage than .423, never slugged lower than .554. His combined OPS+ those five years — and remember that DOES NOT EVEN INCLUDE HIS SICK 1995 SEASON — was 160.
The year after that, when he was 38 years old, he hit .306/.423/.543. His OPS+? Yep: 160.
Above, when I wrote about Jeff Bagwell, I mentioned that Bags was one of only 16 players to finish a career (min. 5,000 plate appearances) with an on base percentage higher than .400 and a slugging percentage higher than .500. Martinez is one of those 16. He’s one of only 13 to also hit better than .300. Throw in his 300 homers, his 500 doubles … the names are suddenly: Ruth, Gehrig, Hornsby, Williams, Musial, Bonds and Martinez.
He was a fabulous hitter — an all-time fabulous hitter. I understand people being a bit hesitant about naming a one-dimensional designated hitter to the Hall, but there is some precedent (Paul Molitor played more games at DH than any other individual position), and if we really consider being a great offensive player who offers little to no defensive value as “one dimensional” then the Hall of Fame has quite a few one dimensional players. I do think that for a designated hitter to be a Hall of Famer he needs to be a truly extraordinary hitter. I think Martinez was a truly extraordinary hitter.
— Mark McGwire: Last year, after I wrote how I felt about the Mark McGwire apology, I got a phone call from Mark McGwire. It was a bit of a strange phone call because, best I remember, I have never talked to McGwire in a one-on-one setting. Also, I was never really sure how he got my phone number.
Also, he didn’t exactly say why he was calling. We just kind of got to talking about things, and it was a good conversation, and before he hung up he thanked me for writing what I wrote. That was nice, but I can tell you: The McGwire saga is one of the most baffling things I can ever remember in sports. I have spent more time thinking about it than just almost anything else with the probably exception of Bruce Springsteen’s music and the remarkable appeal of Snuggies. And, after all this time, I still can’t say with any certainty that I have it right. Most people seem to be pretty sure I have it wrong, to tell the truth. But no matter how many times I spin it around in my mind, I keep coming back to the same place.
And that place is this: I think Mark McGwire belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame. I think it now more than ever. I didn’t always think this way. The first couple of years, I did not vote for him. But, as time has gone on, I have started to see steroids usage as a part of McGwire’s era. It’s not a happy part of the era — just like amphetamines was not a happy part of baseball, just like the color barrier was not a happy part of baseball, just like spitballs and corked bats and the electric system rigged up by the 1951 Giants are not a happy part of baseball.
But I believe steroids were a significant part of the game. As Buck O’Neil always said, players will constantly search for an edge (“The reason we didn’t use steroids,” he said, “was ’cause we didn’t have ’em.”). I find myself marveling these days at the NFL’s efforts to temper violent hits in football games. Who is fighting the NFL hardest of all? THE PLAYERS, that’s who, the very people who the NFL is trying to protect. This is because players don’t want to give up their right to pummel each other, health risks be damned. “That’s football,” they say. They want to push envelopes, stretch rules, come back too early from injuries, reach for the very boundary of whatever happens to be considered “fair play.” That sort of striving is hard-wired in the brains of many, many elite athletes — maybe even most of them.
When baseball did not test for steroids, what many players heard was: “Go ahead. Cheat. We don’t mind” And players don’t need to be told twice.
This is doubly true for steroids because I can see how easy it would be to convince yourself that it’s NOT cheating. After all, it’s only an injection. How much different is it than taking some of these “legal” supplements. Sure, it helps players work out longer, but the players still have to work out, they still have to deal with the pain and exhaustion of working out. Yes, it helps players get stronger, but they still have to connect with the pitch or throw it in the strike zone. Yes, it might help a player come back from injury quicker and maybe it will hold off the years — but, inevitably, what’s wrong with that? Isn’t the whole point of training staffs to get players to come back from injuries quicker and hold off the years?
And most of all: Yes, it’s illegal, and it’s wrong, and it’s dangerous and can have long-lasting health risks … but if nobody’s even testing, how wrong and dangerous could it be?
I’m honestly not trying to explain away the moral choices these players made. I admire the players who didn’t take steroids. I wish I knew for sure who those players were so we could celebrate them more. No, I’m simply saying that I have come to believe steroid use (and HGH) was widespread, and that a lot of people with authority looked the other away, and that it all became part of the game. And we will probably never know the full scope of it or all the players who did it.
I believe Mark McGwire when he says he used steroids at that point in his life when he was hurt and worried that his baseball career was over. It seems believable to me. I’m not saying he never did them before … I don’t know. I’m just saying It seems to me that faced with the choice of using steroids to help you come back or face life after baseball when you’re only 30 years old, yeah, it seems believable to me. Mark McGwire used steroids, and he worked out like a mad-man, and he reworked his swing, and he became the greatest home run hitter the world had ever seen.
And I finally decided that, for me, that last part — the greatest home run hitter the world had ever seen — merited my Hall of Fame vote. I don’t know what part steroids played in his historic home run performance, and I would suggest nobody else does either. If people believe steroids was the biggest factor, the crucial factor, then they will not vote for McGwire, and I get that. I believe steroids were probably not as big a factor as others believed. Yes, I think they helped him keep healthy. Yes, I think they helped him increase his strength. But, I also think McGwire made himself into a rare hitting talent. There were a lot of advantages to being a power hitter in the 1990s that had nothing to do with steroids (smaller strike zones, smaller parks, harder bats, perhaps even livelier baseballs). Also lots of players — hitters and pitchers — were using steroids. Only McGwire hit a home run once every 10.6 at-bats. It’s a better percentage than Ruth, better than Bonds, better than Mantle and better than Kiner. McGwire also walked a lot, offered some defensive value early in his career and put on an unprecedented show in 1998 just when baseball really needed something to capture America’s attention again.
I don’t think Mark McGwire will get into the Hall of Fame. I have written quite a bit about timing when it comes to the Hall of Fame, and I think McGwire’s timing is kind of lousy. I believe that the general fury about steroids in baseball will gradually fade. I think people may start to realize that taking steroids and taking amphetamines are not very different, at least on moral grounds, and nobody seems to care at all about the effect of amphetamines on baseball going back fifty years and more. I think legal supplements will only get better and more effective. I think people will start to wonder why they were so angry about steroids in baseball when it is undoubtedly a much bigger problem in football, where bulk and strength are more directly connected.
But by the time the fury dissipates, I think McGwire’s Hall of Fame case will be lost. Maybe that’s a fair price for what McGwire did. I’m not saying it isn’t. I’m saying that I have one vote, and I will use it to vote for Mark McGwire.
One final thing: I vote for Mark McGwire this year with a little bit of extra emphasis. And that is because of last year’s apology. This is probably where many people will disagree with me most. I think most people found McGwire’s apology to be inauthentic and self-serving and incomplete.
But I was thinking about this: How many players have voluntarily come forward and admitted steroid use? I’m not talking about players who got caught and THEN admitted it. I’m also not talking about players who were trying to get attention or sell books. I’m asking: How many players have come out of private life and admitted that they used steroids?
There have been two that come to mind. Ken Caminiti did. And Mark McGwire did. There may be others but those are the only two I can think of at the moment. Yes, you might say McGwire came forward because he wanted to get back into baseball as a hitting coach. I say: Isn’t that actually admirable? He wanted to come back and contribute in the game he loves (in a role that isn’t exactly glamorous). And to come back to the game he came forward and settled old scores and admitted what he did.
Yes, you might say McGwire refused to say that steroids made him the player he became and until he admits that he can’t really be sorry. I say: I think he’s sorry for taking steroids. I also think he refuses to believe they were a major reason he was a great player. You may disagree. But that doesn’t mean you’re right.
And, finally, I’m not sure we have come to appreciate just how extraordinary a thing it was for McGwire to come forward the way he did. Almost nobody else has done it. McGwire may have, along the way, lied to protect himself. But when he was pulled before Congress, he refused to lie. He was not ready to tell the truth, but he refused to lie. He became a private person and, as far as I know, at that point he never once lied about steroids. And then, one day, he came forward and said what he said. He did not blame anyone else. He asked for forgiveness. Did he tell everything? Was he hard enough on himself? Was he contrite enough? I don’t have any better answer than anyone else.
I just think when you compare him with all the other retired baseball players who have come forward to admit they used steroids and apologize for it, he looks pretty damned good.
— Tim Raines: The other day, I wrote that if there had never been a Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines might have been the greatest leadoff man in baseball history.
My friend King Kaufman didn’t buy the premise. He asked on Twitter “Who is the best No.2 hitter?”* His point — and it’s a solid one — is that it can be kind of pointless to break down hitters by batting order since the best ever No. 3 hitter — say it’s Babe Ruth — would also have been the world’s best No. 4 hitter, or No. 5 hitter, or No. 2 hitter or leadoff hitter too.
*I responded Wade Boggs or Rod Carew … Ty Cobb would have been one helluva No. 2 hitter, but Ty Cobb — like Babe Ruth — would have been a helluva wherever-he-hit hitter.
King is right … but it’s not exactly what I was trying to get across. By leadoff hitter, I didn’t mean a player who leads off the game (though, in seeing how silly that sentence looks, I can understand why it might have come across that way). There is a certain skill set that I think is suggested by the words “leadoff hitter.” I think it as follows:
1. A fast player.
2. Gets on base a lot.
3. Has some power just to add some spice to offensive contribution.
4. Steals bases at a high percentage.
5. Scores lots of runs.
There have been 41 players who have stolen 400-plus bases in their careers. That would get us through the No. 1 quality of my mythical idea of a leadoff hitter. Of those 41, fewer than half — 17 — have an on-base percentage greater than .360. Of those, 11 hit at least 100 home runs. I realize that we’re just slicing this list in an haphazard way, but I think the 11 remaining would be a good list of the 11 best potential leadoff hitters (by on-base percentage):
1. Barry Bonds.
2. Ty Cobb
3. Tris Speaker
4. Rickey Henderson
5. Joe Morgan
6. Tim Raines
7. Kenny Lofton
8. Roberto Alomar
9. Paul Molitor
10. Frankie Frisch
11. Craig Biggio
Bonds, Cobb and Speaker were not leadoff hitters, not in the way I am defining them here. They could have been, sure, but they all slugged .500 or better and were better suited for positions a couple of of spots lower in the lineup.
So the list would look like this ranked by on-base percentage:
1. Rickey Henderson
2. Joe Morgan
3. Tim Raines
4. Kenny Lofton
5. Roberto Alomar
6. Paul Molitor
7. Frankie Frisch
8. Craig Biggio
That’s a pretty solid quick list, I think. Morgan actually did not spend a lot of time in the leadoff spot in his career — 469 games compared to 1,136 games in the No. 2 spot, and 817 games int he No. 3 — but I do think that he was just about the perfect leadoff hitter and worthy of the No. 2 spot on this list.
And so is Raines. It makes me sad that people could see and appreciate Rickey Henderson’s greatness but simply overlook Tim Raines greatness. When you combine career 808 stolen bases (and a staggering 84.7% success rate) with a .385 on-base percentage with more times-on-base than Tony Gwynn with a great four-year peak in Montreal when he hit .323/.409/.477 and averaged more than 100 runs and 66 stolen bases … that spells surefire Hall of Famer for me.
The other thing about that “great leadoff hitters” list? Yeah, Kenny Lofton was probably a better player than you remembered.
— Alan Trammell: It really was a lot easier to decide what a Hall of Fame shortstop looked like back when shortstops couldn’t hit. Of the 14 shortstops who were inducted into the Hall of Fame when Alan Trammell played (15 if you count Ernie Banks*), six of them were below average hitters by OPS+. Another couple were barely above average. I’d say the only two great-hitting shortstops in the Hall of Fame then (again, not counting Banks) were Honus Wagner and Arky Vaughan, and the first played in the Deadball Era, the second was so wildly under-appreciated that the writers never even gave him one third of their vote.
*Banks played fewer than half his games at shortstop, though I got a thoughtful and pointed email on Wednesday from Tom Tango pointing out that I was inaccurate in calling Andre Dawson “a corner outfielder.” Tom’s point, a strong one, is that even though Dawson might have played more games at the corner, he was in fact a centerfielder. There was where he provided the most value. That’s where he was at his best. It’s a fair point, and in that same way, Ernie Banks is a shortstop.
So it seems great shortstop was expected to field the hell out of the ball, take some kind of leadership role and offer some value offensively, perhaps by stealing bases. But around the time when Alan Trammell was ending his classic great shortstop career, the rules had begun to change. Cal Ripken finished a career where he slugged 431home runs (no shortstop in the Hall had more than 170 homers) and he became the first shortstop to get to 3,000 hits, and of course he set the iron man record. Who could ever have imagined a SHORTSTOP breaking Gehrig’s record? And right around when Trammell retired, a new kind of shortstop emerged. That very year, Barry Larkin became the first shortstop to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in a season. Alex Rodriguez could do ANYTHING with the bat and the glove. Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra crushed the ball — really, hit the ball ridiculously hard. Soon enough, Hanley Ramirez would come along.
Standards change in baseball … and maybe the classic nature of Alan Trammell’s career loses some of its power as bionic shortstops emerge. But Trammell really was a great player. He was very good offensively. He posted a 124 OPS+ during his eight-year prime, and probably should have been the MVP in 1987. That’s very Cal Ripken like.
Trammell was also a very good defensive player, a good base runner, and a solid leader for some very good Detroit Tigers teams. I realize that people generally did not view Trammell as an all-time great player when he played. But I think that should be one of the missions of the Hall of Fame: To point out that sometimes we all miss greatness.