OK, so there are five players left on my ballot … and I’m exhausted. I have written about 15,000 words about the Hall of Fame already this week, and I’m not even through the entire ballot? You have got to be kidding me.
No, it’s worse than that. I have left what are, for me, the five toughest calls. If you read Thursday’s installment of Hall of Fame Week, then you know that I have used up eight of my 10 Hall of Fame votes (I have never entirely understood why the Hall of Fame limits writers to 10 … but they do). So I have two votes left and five players who in my mind all have both strong Hall of Fame cases AND serious flaws in their Hall of Fame cases. I voted for two of the five. I suspect these final two will not match many other ballots.
Here we go:
— Kevin Brown: OK, this is an oversimplification — just like most of my arguments. But it seems to me there’s a pretty good chance that every single pitcher with at least 3,000 innings pitched and an ERA+ of better than 120 will end up in the Hall of Fame … every one of them except two. This is, I admit, using my own projections, and it is certainly possible that I’m wrong about who will and won’t go into the Hall of Fame.
But here is the list of the 3,000 inning/121-or-better ERA+ pitchers who are not in the Hall of Fame.
1. Roger Clemens (143 ERA+): I think he will have some serious blowback because of the steroids stain, but he has an argument as the greatest pitcher of all time and I think that will win out. He will get in.
2. Randy Johnson (136 ERA+): First ballot.
3. Greg Maddux (132 ERA+): I think he will break Tom Seaver’s record for highest percentage of the vote (originally remembered Nolan Ryan with highest, but Seaver’s percentage was 98.84% and Ryan’s 98.79%).
4. Curt Schilling (128 ERA+): It won’t be an easy ride, but I think in the end his great postseason record and impact on the game will get him in. More on Schilling in a minute.
5. John Smoltz (125 ERA+): With his dominance as both a starter and closer, I think he will be a first ballot pick.
6. Mike Mussina (123 ERA+): I could be wrong here, but I think 270 wins, a .636 winning percentage and retiring while on top will eventually send Mussina to Cooperstown.
So who are the two who I think will not get in? Well, one is Eddie Cicotte, who you might remember was played by Edward R. Murrow in the movie “8 Men Out.” Cicotte was banned from baseball for his pro-communist statements on television, no, wait, I’m confusing things. Anyway, he’s banned from baseball forever and no one even seems to be fighting for him anymore.
The other is Kevin Brown. I admit to having mixed emotions about him. He was an undeniably dominant pitchers at times in his career. He twice led the league in ERA, finished second two other times — when it comes to preventing teams from scoring runs (which many would say is the pitcher’s No. 1 goal) he was undoubtedly one of the best at it of his generation. He ranks 10th among non-Hall of Famers in another little stat I like called “Runs Saved Against Average” — he saved 304 runs above average, just one behind certain Hall of Famer Tom Glavine.
But Brown’s case is still borderline. His case is, on the surface anyway, the same case as Schilling. It is NOT the same case Schilling, but it is on the surface. First the similarities:
Kevin Brown: 211-144, 3.28 ERA, 127 ERA+.
Curt Schilling: 216-146, 3.46 ERA, 128 ERA+.
Awfully close. Kevin Brown is Schilling’s No. 1 comp on Baseball Reference. And Schilling is Kevin Brown’s No. 7 comp (Higher up on the Brown comp list are No.1 Bob Welch, No. 2 Orel Hershiser and then a couple of Hall of Famers, No. 3 Don Drysdale and No. 4 Catfish Hunter).
But here are a couple of key differences: Schilling’s strikeout-to-walk (3,116 to 711) is is historic, the best ratio since 1900. I mentioned above that many people would say a pitcher’s No. 1 goal is preventing runs, but the numbers strongly suggest that there are only so many ways a pitcher can do this — walks and strikeouts are two of the very few things somewhat within a pitcher’s control. Brown’s strikeout-to-walk is is very good too (2,397 to 901) but obviously not in Schilling’s stratosphere. When you consider they are both borderline Hall of Fame choices, this seems a big advantage for Schilling.
The other thing, as mentioned, is Schilling’s remarkable postseason record — 11-2, 2.23 ERA (4-1 with a 2.06 ERA in the World Series). He pitched the famous bloody sock game. He was breathtaking enough in the 2001 World Series to be SI’s co-Sportsman of the Year. People have different views on how much postseason performance should be considered when talking about the Hall of Fame, but this is a big checkmark in Schilling’s column. Brown, meanwhile, was generally blah in the postseason, and his 0-3, 6.04 World Series record is less than blah.
And this is Brown’s biggest Hall of Fame problem for me: He was a terrific pitcher. But when you have a borderline Hall of Fame case, I think you need to bring something extra, something that separates you from all the other borderline Hall of Fame cases. As I have grown older, I have come to believe that greatness is not simply a line … Willie Mays wasn’t great simply because he hit well and fielded well and ran well. Greatness is a multilayered, three dimensional thing. Brown’s often brilliant pitching earns him his day in court, but in the end, is the verdict that he he great? He was at points in his career. But he was also a surly pitcher who did not seem to add much to team chemistry, and he did not distinguish himself in the postseason. He signed a gigantic contract at age 34 but did not age well, to the point where at the end he was considered an albatross. He falls short of the Hall of Fame for me, but not by much.
— Fred McGriff: I have a soft spot in my heart for McGriff. To me, he was an awful a friendlier and shorter-lived version of Eddie Murray … at least from an offensive perspective. Murray hit .287/.359/.476 with a 129 OPS+. McGriff hit .284/.377/.509 with a 133 OPS+. Murray played in 8 All-Star Games and started one. McGriff played in only five All-Star Games but started three. Neither won an MVP award, though Murray finished second two times. They were both very solid hitting first basemen with remarkable, almost mystical, powers of consistency.
That said, there are some important differences. Murray was a far superior defender. And Murray was good enough for long enough to hit 500 homers and amass 3,000 hits. McGriff fell just short on the homers (493) and well short on the hits (2,490). Murray’s career value (66.7 WAR) is quite a bit higher than McGriff’s (50.5).
I’m a big fan of Jay Jaffe’s Hall of Fame posts — I think he has the most sensible numbers approach to the Hall of Fame question by measuring a players career AND his peak. Jay’s research shows McGriff falls just short of the Average Hall of Fame first baseman in both career value and peak value. To keep the Murray comparison going, Murray’s peak was just a touch higher than McGriff bit it is also borderline for the Hall of Fame. But Murray’s career value soars. I think in the end, when it comes to the Hall of Fame, you need to offer something sensational. A sensational peak. Sensational career totals. Something. I guess my feeling is that McGriff wasn’t quite good enough for LONG enough. The vote is a regretful no. But I plan to look at it again next year — and every year he’s on the ballot.
— Dale Murphy: People who have followed my Hall of Fame votes (this would include my mother and perhaps my father) know that Dale Murphy is my Hall of Fame weakness. I have voted for him every year. And I have done this knowing full well that he has a tragically flawed Hall of Fame case.
The problem with Murphy is that his career is almost all peak value. He had six great years. He had one or two decent years in addition, but just one or two. And everything else was pretty awful. His heights, I think, were markedly higher than Jim Rice and Andre Dawson, the last two outfielders voted into the Hall of Fame. But Dawson had nine good-but-not-great seasons; Rice had four or five. Murphy had those one or two. And that is why they are in the Hall and Murphy probably won’t get there.
I get that. But I keep voting for Murphy anyway. I don’t know that six exceptional years is enough to make someone a Hall of Famer if they can’t back it up with some value in other years. Jimmy Wynn had seven terrific seasons, and, impossibly, did not get a single Hall of Fame vote (even Tommy Helms got a vote that year). But maybe that’s because people didn’t appreciate Wynn’s great seasons (so much of his value was tied up in his ability to walk).
People did appreciate Murphy. He won two MVP awards, he won five straight Gold Gloves, he was the singular star for the SuperStation Braves teams of the 1980s who fitfully wore the self-proclaimed mantle as “America’s Team.” He, as much as anyone I suspect, spread the gospel of baseball in the South with the way he played and the way he carried himself.
Murph, you probably know, began his career as a catcher. The line at the time was that one day the Braves decided he was too tall to catch. The Braves made him a first baseman, where he wasn’t very good, and they came to realize that his great athletic ability might play in center field. At 6-foot-4, there was a gnawing feeling he was too tall for center field too, but at the point they had to do SOMETHING with the guy. He was 24 years old, had a gigantic hole in his swing and his position was still up in the air.
But in 1980, he had his first great year, hitting .281/349/.510 with 33 homers and he made a stunning defensive transition to center field. He was fluid, and he rarely made mistakes, and he showed off a strong arm. After an uneven strike year, he jumped into the conversation of best player in baseball. He won his first MVP in 1982 (.281/.378/.507) and his second in 1983 (.302/.393/.540 — led league in slugging and had a 30-30 season). He was helped out by his ballpark — the affectionately named Launching Pad — and a great defensive reputation that people still argue about (he won Gold Gloves both years but some say Murphy did not have enough range to play center). Still, he was legitimately great both those years, and pretty close to great the next two years after. And he probably had his best season in 1987 when he hit .295/.417/.580 with 44 home runs and a good transition to right field.
And then … he fell off a cliff. He didn’t just fall a cliff, he did a Wile E. Coyote fall off a cliff and then had a big chunk of rock fall on top of him. After his a decent 1988, he hit .236/.304/.403/.388 the rest of his career was was just barely above replacement level.
Is that enough to make a Hall of Fame career? Most would say no. I wrote yesterday that I loathe the Hall of Fame character clause and I do. But if it is going to be there — and I have no illusions that it will ever go away — shouldn’t it be there to REWARD class and dignity as much as to PUNISH players who don’t quite live up to standards? Bill James suggests — and I concur — that the clause may have been a direct effort to reward a player like Eddie Grant, a light hitting infielder from the early part of the 20th Century who hit .249/.300/.295 over 10 seasons for four teams from 1905 to 1915. But he went to Harvard, was widely respected in baseball, and he gave the last full measure of devotion when he died in battle in France during World War I. Our guess is that Kenesaw Mountain Landis may have written the Hall of Fame character clause to encourage people to vote for Eddie Grant. Few actually bought the argument — Grant never received more than three votes. But it seems likely the clause was not put in to exclude as much as INCLUDE.
Murphy tried to be a role model … he took that seriously. He was a class act, and he promoted the best of the game with the way he played and the way he carried himself. Like Musial, I would say you probably can’t find anyone who dealt with Dale Murphy — teammates, fans, media, anyone — who did not love and admire the guy. I’m not saying this alone should get him into the Hall of fame. But I do think it can be part of his case.
I’m under no illusions that Murphy will ever get any Hall of Fame momentum. He is drawing fewer votes now than he did his first couple of years, and I suspect with the loaded ballot this year he will take a big drop. I was torn about who to give my 10th vote to … but in the end I decided to stick with Murphy for another year. At his peak, he was a Hall of Famer, and a six-year peak is pretty strong historically. I voted yes.
But, yes, I’ll admit, I wish he’d had a few even reasonably productive years after age 32. If he did, I think he’d be a solid Hall of Famer. Through age 31, his numbers compared very well with Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield. Those guys had a second act. Murphy decidedly did not. It seems silly that what is keeping Murphy out of the Hall of Fame is not additional greatness but rather a few years of solid mediocrity. But baseball is a tricky game.
— Rafael Palmeiro: The question that I suppose can be asked here is — should Rafael Palmeiro’s positive drug test have a different impact on Hall of Fame voters than the drug noise the surrounds Mark McGwire Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez and so on?
Maybe. Maybe not. I can’t tell anymore. I guess the point is that none of those others ever failed a drug test … or at least not a drug test where the results were to be made public. More to the point, Palmeiro’s failed drug test came at a time when baseball WAS testing. I think we can argue nonstop for the next month about what the baseball guru’s stance was about steroids in the 1990s. But to me the trump card is that, for whatever reason, baseball did not test. And because baseball was not testing, I do not think they can make any legitimate claim that they were trying to discourage players from using steroids.
But then steroids in baseball became a real embarrassment, and testing was instituted, and by then there could be no mistaking baseball’s stance: They wanted performance enhancing drugs out of the game. That’s when Palmeiro tested positive. It is not impossible — or even entirely improbable — that it was a false positive (as Palmeiro claims). These things DO happen more than anyone wants to admit. But considering that Palmeiro was widely viewed as a steroid user, and considering that he was probably the most obnoxious of the deniers at the Congressional Hearing, he certainly wasn’t going to get the benefit of the public doubt.
I vote for Mark McGwire, so I am openly voting for someone who has admitted taking steroids. Is Palmeiro different because of the timing, because he tested positive when steroids was CLEARLY AND INDISPUTABLY against the rules? Maybe. Maybe not. Like I say, I can’t tell anymore. Palmeiro’s Hall of Fame case is pretty clear and pretty forceful from a career perspective. He had 3,000 hits AND 500 home runs, and both of those have been magic Hall of Fame numbers.
But … again I turn to Jay Jaffe. Rafael Palmeiro’s peak just wasn’t quite Hall of Fame. His career numbers are awesome, as mentioned, but he played in one of the greatest offensive offensive eras in baseball history, and he spent his career in terrific hitters parks. In many ways, I think he is simply Fred McGriff in a more favorable hitting environment. Look at their neutralized statistics (that is putting their numbers into a 716-run environment):
Comme ci, comme ca.
There are players in the Hall of Fame with great career numbers and uninspiring peaks. I think Palmeiro has a powerful case because of those career numbers, but it’s a borderline case. And the big question is: If Rafael Palmeiro has a borderline case, does his positive drug test tilt the scales to “No?”
With my ballot bursting already, I decided this year: No.
— Larry Walker: How good does someone have to hit at Coors Field to be considered an all-time great? It’s a fascinating question. It’s funny — Coors Field seems to be the first park that has actually altered how the average fans views baseball players. Whenever you would tell people that, say, Jim Rice’s numbers or Don Drysdale’s numbers or, yes, Dale Murphy’s numbers were greatly aided by their home park, people would generally shrug. So what? But I get the impression that many people, maybe even most people, look at Larry Walker’s great numbers and think only “Yeah, mirage, Coors Field.”
The player whose Hall of Fame election probably has most to do with home park was Chuck Klein. From 1928-33, Klein played in the absurd Baker Bowl … one of the most ridiculous hitters parks in baseball history. The right field wall was only 280 feet from home plate, and right center was only 300 feet away. It was so ludicrously close to home plate, that they kept adding height to it just to give it some semblance of fairness. They never could make it tall enough.
Here is what Chuck Klein hit at the Baker Bowl:
1929: .391/.434/.734 with 25 doubles and 25 homers in 71 games.
1930: .439/.483/.794 with 32 doubles and 26 homers in 77 games.
1931: .401/.469/.740 with 23 doubles and 22 homers in 76 games.
1932: .423/.464/.799 with 26 doubles and 25 homers in 81 games.
1933: .467/.516/.789 with 25 doubles and 17 homers in 74 games.
OK, that’s just laughable, right?* In those five years, He led the league in homers four times, in doubles twice, in runs three times, in RBIs twice and he won the triple crown in 1933 (despite hitting .280/.338/.436 on the road). Well, OF COURSE he did. He was traded to the Cubs for three players and $65,000 in 1933. And he never led the league in anything again. He hit .278/.343/.447 the rest of his career.
*Other great Baker Bowl feats:
— In 1929, Lefty O’Doul — who was trying to remake himself as a hitter after his pitching career was halted by an arm injury — led the league with a .398 batting average. He hit .453 at the Baker Bowl.
— In 1930, the entire Philadelphia team hit .344 at the Baker Bowl.
— That’s OK. In 1939, opponents hit .359 at the Baker Bowl.
Chuck Klein is in the Hall of Fame, though it should be said he never got much support from the writers. The veteran’s committee voted him in. He was inducted in 1980, long after his death in 1958. That always makes me sad. If you’re going to put a man in the Hall of Fame, you should put him in while he’s alive and can celebrate it.
Larry Walker put up three or four of the most remarkable offensive seasons in baseball history while playing in the pre-humidor Coors Field. I’ve tried to make this point many times in many ways, but I don’t know if I ever have fully made it: The number effects that people attribute to steroids can be reproduced simply and legally with a great hitters park or a livelier baseball. Walker was a very good player in Montreal from 1990 to 1994 — his OPS+ was 130, and in 1994 he hit .322 and led the league in doubles with 44. He could hit a baseball hard.
Then he went to Coors and in 1997 he hit .366 with 46 doubles, 49 homers … you know how many other players in baseball history have hit .350 or better with 45 doubles AND 45 homers in the same season? One. Lou Gehrig in 1927. It was pure lunacy.
So what did Walker do the next year? He hit .363. And the next? He hit .379/.458/.710 — you bet, he led the National League in the all three of those splits. In 2001, he hit .350 (led the league again) with 38 homers, 123 RBIs, 107 runs scored. In all, he hit .334/.425/.618 his years in Colorado.
How much of that was Coors Field? A lot of it. Over his career, Walker hit .381 at Coors Field and he slugged .710. Overall, Walker hit 70 points better at home (.348 to .278) and slugged 142 points higher at home (.637 to .495).
But if you have done your math, you know that I’m voting for Walker. I think he was a great all around player. His 140 career OPS+ — and that, of course, takes into account his ballpark — is significantly better than Dawson (119), Rickey Henderson (127), Rice (128), Tony Gwynn (132), Dave Winfield (130) and Kirby Puckett (124) — the outfielders who have been voted in since 2000. Obviously, they each have different cases (Henderson’s OPS+ is entirely beside the point when looking at his career), but it shows how good a hitter Walker was. His .278/.370/.495 split for road game certainly pales against his home numbers, but those are still very good road numbers — yes, he played in a good offensive era, but it’s worth point out that his road on-base percentage is better than George Brett’s CAREER on-base percentage, and that .495 road slugging is higher than Reggie Jackson’s CAREER slugging.
Walker was also a fabulous right fielder, based both on reputation (seven Gold Gloves) and numbers (his defensive WAR is 9.6 which is very high). He was an outstanding base runner and base stealer (he stole 230 bases at a 75% rate).
There are not many players in baseball history who were really good at everything. Larry Walker was really good at everything. Injuries shortened and interrupted his career, and he definitely got a huge numbers boost from his home park. But the Larry Walker I remember hit the ball hard, ran the bases brilliantly, played superior defense and kept finding ways to be productive even as his body was breaking down on him. He had a huge peak, and took advantage of his home ballpark to put up some of the best seasons in baseball history. For that, he got my 10th and final vote.