The Hall of Fame voting lately has been interesting in the way that a good opening band is interesting. We learned a few things this year. We learned that persistence pays off — Bert Blyleven’s 13-year odyssey driven by the stubborn persistence of his numbers has been fascinating to watch. We learned that writers like to send messages — Robbie Alomar fell four votes short of the 75% he needed in Year 1. This was apparently a way to admonish him for the spitting incident that marred his career. In year 2, voila, he got NINETY percent of the vote. We learned that players who can do EVERYTHING well like Barry Larkin, but perhaps nothing legendarily well, will have to build momentum. Larkin should get his most deserved call next year.
Still … this is all just the prelude. We are about 18 months away from the craziest Baseball Hall of Fame election ever, the one that I think will define Cooperstown for future generations. This class will be even crazier than the FIRST Hall of Fame election, I think. Six remarkable players will become eligible for the Hall. All six may end up in the Hall of Fame. Then again, none of the six may end up in the Hall of Fame. It all depends on how the wind blows.
I would say that up to now, we’ve gotten an inkling — but only an inkling — of how voters feel about steroid era players. I say “inkling” because, frankly, I think all of us have probably pinned too much meaning to what the voters have done so far. There have been, best I can tell, three real Hall of Fame candidates who either HAVE BEEN or MAY HAVE BEEN aversely affected by either direct or indirect PED connections. Those three are: Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Jeff Bagwell.
McGwire is probably the most prominent. He hit 583 homers in his career, 70 in one season, and he has admitted using steroids. He had not received even 25% of the vote on five ballots, and last year had his lowest total yet (19.8%).
Rafael Palmeiro has 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, either seemingly would make him a Hall of Fame lock. But he tested positive for steroid use. And he received just 11 percent of the vote last year — he’s in danger of falling off the ballot in the next year or two.
Jeff Bagwell has never tested positive, has consistently denied using, and as far as I know has never been named as a user by any even vaguely legitimate source. But he received just 41.7% on his first ballot, and many people believe this is because of some noise and static surrounding his career.
All together, this seems to strongly suggest that the Hall of Fame voters will be Kenesaw Mountain Landis harsh when it comes to steroid users and their suspected brethren. It seems to strongly suggest that the Hall of Fame road ahead for anyone who used or appeared to use performance enhancing drugs is cold and barren. That’s certainly what I’ve taken from it.
But … maybe it isn’t quite that simple. Take them one at a time.
Here’s the question: Was McGwire an absolute, no-doubt, dead-lock Hall of Famer BEFORE the whole steroid saga came to light? Maybe … but maybe not. It seems to me that McGwire’s care performance is a whole lot like the great Harmon Killebrew. Both were low average hitters with limited defensive value who walked a lot and slugged many home runs. Killebrew had his numbers somewhat suppressed by a tough pitchers era … if you neutralize his and McGwire’s statistics, you get a pretty interesting comparison:
NEUTRALIZED STATS (via Baseball Reference)
Killebrew: .262/.383/.519 with 596 homers.
McGwire: .269/.396/.589 with 591 homers.
Not exact — McGwire’s slugging percentage is 80 points higher — but it’s pretty close. And here’s the thing: Killebrew did not exactly waltz into the Hall of Fame. Even though he hit 573 homers, even though he led the league in homers six times, even though he was the essence of baseball class, it took him four voting classes to get into the Hall of Fame. Gil Hodges actually got more votes than Killer his first year on the ballot, and Hodges is not in the Hall.
It’s very interesting when you look back: Five hundred home runs only recently has become viewed as a Hall of Fame hallmark. It wasn’t alway so. Eddie Mathews hit 512 homers, and when he came on the ballot in 1974 he was not only the greatest third baseman in baseball history, nobody was even close (Brooks Robinson was still active then — Mike Schmidt and George Brett were just starting). Mathews got 32.3% of the vote that first year. Can you imagine that — 32.3%? For EDDIE MATHEWS?
In other words, when you look at a little history you see that the Hall of Fame have at times been tough on home run hitters. Ralph Kiner got three votes his first year on the ballot, and only five votes two years later. Frank Howard got six votes his only year on the ballot. Darrell Evans got eight votes despite hitting 400 homers. Dale Murphy was a Gold Glove winning centerfielder and iconic player who five times hit 35-plus home runs, and he can’t get any Hall of Fame momentum going. I think history suggests that a player like Mark McGwire was no slam dunk. His case really pinned on his 70-homer season. And once that season became tainted … well, you see the result.
Palmeiro’s case leads to an interesting and somewhat heated argument I had recently with someone about Johnny Damon. You probably know I’m a huge Johnny Damon fan, have been ever since he was young and in Kansas City. And so you may be surprised what side of the argument I ended up taking.
The argument was on the day Jeter got to 3,000 hits. Someone was talking about how amazing it is that Damon would get to 3,000 hits and eventually go into the Hall of Fame. I said, plainly, that I thought Damon WOULD get to 3,000 hits, but there was no way he was going to the Hall of Fame. Not a chance.
Yes, this led to some fairly severe back-and-forth. At some point, I became so heated in my opinion, I uttered a fanbole — I said that Damon would never even get 20% of the Hall of Fame vote. I probably don’t believe THAT. He will probably get 20% of the vote. But I don’t think he will get even close to the Hall of Fame. Why not? Well: He’s not a Hall of Fame player. That’s not a knock on him. He’s been a wonderful player. But, even in his best year, he has never been one of the 10 best players in baseball. He’s usually not one of the 20 or 30 best players in baseball. Nobody I know argues that. He’s a good player with an amazing ability to stay healthy. That’s not an inconsiderable achievement. But it’s not a Hall of Fame achievement. Nobody — from the person driven by gut reactions to the people driven by advanced stats — thinks Johnny Damon belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
So why is this even a discussion? Because he will get 3,000 hits. And 3,000 hits has become a Hall of Fame standard.
Which brings us around to Rafael Palmeiro. He was a much better hitter than Damon. But like Damon, few think of him as a Hall of Famer. As far as I can tell, he never — not even once — led first basemen and DHs in WAR. This is not to say WAR is the end all, but if someone can make an argument that the guy was never even the BEST FIRST BASEMAN OR DH IN BASEBALL, well, how in the heck can you suggest he’s a Hall of Famer.
Sure: I looked it up. It’s true, he’s never led first basemen and DH’s in WAR. But it’s more telling than that. He only finished SECOND once.
Rafael Palmeiro’s WAR among 1st baseman and DHs:
1993: 2nd (behind John Olerud)
Remember, that’s only among first baseman and DHs — the least challenging defensive positions in the game.
There’s no easy way to define a Hall of Famer. But the folks at the Hall of Fame like to say that the Top 1% of all big leaguers are Hall of Famers — meaning that there are seven or eight in the Hall at one time. That seems fairly logical to me. Was Rafael Palmeiro one of the seven or eight best players in baseball for any sustained stretch of his career? No. I don’t think anyone argues that. He was an outstanding and consistent player. But he was not a Hall of Famer.
So why the discussion? Well … it’s those Hall of Fame standards again. He had 3,000 hits AND he had 500 homers. Two Hall of Fame standards, one guy. And some voters and observers undoubtedly feel trapped by such things. That’s the only reason anyone could think that a unanimously selected good-but-not-great player like Johnny Damon can suddenly become a Hall of Famer by getting to 3,000 hits. That’s the only reason that Rafael Palmeiro drew any kind of Hall of Fame consideration — and the only reason why his low vote total sparked the belief that the voters were cracking down on him for steroid use.
I remember in the 1980s, there was real consternation over Dave Kingman, when he hit his 400th homer. Oh no! What will the voters do? They’ve always voted for 400 home run guys! Will they actually vote Dave Kingman into the Hall? Dave Kingman? He was such a one-dimensional player! He will sully the Hall of Fame! What will the voters do? It was an actual issue, a real concern.
Kong got three votes. Three.
Palmeiro’s Hall of Fame vote total was certainly less than it would have been … but I don’t think Palmeiro was going to be elected into the Hall of Fame anyway. Let me rephrase this to make my point more clear: I’m NOT SURE Palmeiro would have been elected to the Hall of Fame anyway.
This is the toughest one because in my opinion Bagwell shouldn’t be in this conversation. McGwire admitted. Palmeiro tested positive. Bagwell — nothing. But the sense is that he IS in the conversation, that his relatively low vote total represents whispered suspicions by voters. And maybe it does.
But one more time, history suggest it wasn’t going to be THAT easy for Bagwell no matter what. Yes, he was a great hitter. He hit the ball HARD. But other great hitters who hit the ball hard have not made the Hall of Fame — Dick Allen, Albert Belle, Frank Howard, Dave Parker, Reggie Smith, Rocky Colavito, George Foster, these guys and numerous others come to mind, they could crush the ball at varying (but high) levels of success. What makes Bagwell a Hall of Famer in my mind is a bit more subtle. He hit the ball hard, yes. But he walked a ton. He played very good first base defense. He had surprising speed. All this takes him up to Hall of Fame level for me. But players with somewhat subtle cases for the Hall of Fame tend to need some time to get there. Heck, Duke Snider needed 11 years get the necessary votes.
In other words, I’m just not sure any of this really gets at the heart of what Hall of Fame voters think about the Selig Era and the inflated numbers that came out of it. Yes, absolutely, it looks like the voters are leaning in a certain, hard-line direction. But we don’t really now, not yet.
In 18 months, we will know. Yes, in 18 months we will find out EXACTLY what the voters thing. That’s because in 2013 those six players will be eligible.
— Barry Bonds
— Roger Clemens
— Sammy Sosa
— Mike Piazza
— Curt Schilling
— Craig Biggio
Wow. How about that list, eh? You have the all-time home run champ and perhaps the best pitcher in baseball history. But then you have the only man to his 60 homers three times. You have the best hitting catcher in baseball history. You have a pitching icon, one of the most famous and best postseason pitchers ever. And you have a multiple Gold Glove second baseman with 3,000 hits and more doubles than George Brett.
At that point, there will be no place to hide. There will be no subtleties involved. And as a bonus, the pressure will be INTENSE that first year, because the ballot will get backlogged even more the next two years. In 2014, Greg Maddux*, Frank Thomas and Tom Glavine are added to the group (not to mention Jeff Kent and Mike Mussina). And in 2015, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz come on board (along with Gary Sheffield). It’s going to be nuts.
*Our own Sam Borden wrote about how Derek Jeter is really the only active player to have a shot at being a unanimous Hall of Famer. A couple of things: One, I would say Jeter has no shot at it. I’m not saying this is right — I cannot think of a single viable reason why anyone would NOT vote Derek Jeter for the Hall of Fame. But the same is even MORE true for: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Johnny Bench, Frank Robinson, Rickey Henderson, Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Mickey Mantle and a handful of others. None of them were elected unanimously. The whole “nobody gets in unanimously” nonsense has taken on a life of its own, and I suspect nobody will EVER be good enough now to get in unanimously. I can say with some confidence that Derek Jeter, as wonderful a player as he has been, will not break that trend.
Two, the guy I’ve chosen to have the best shot at a unanimous selection is Greg Maddux. The reason for this is more about practicality than anything else. The players with the Top 2 percentages in Hall of Fame voting are pitchers — Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan each got 98.8% of the vote. This makes sense to me. Pitchers, in many ways, have less to prove than every day players. You might recall that I once did the Willie Mays Hall of Fame, and while I meant it as a joke, it does seem true to me that every day players are much easier to knock because there are so many things they have to be good at to be as good as Willie Mays. They have to hit, hit with power, run, field, throw and all that. Ted Williams might be the greatest hitter ever — but he was an indifferent fielder at best. And it seems to me that the goofballs who did not vote Ted Williams to the Hall of Fame could make themselves feel better by saying: “The guy couldn’t field.”
But no Hall of Fame voter judges pitchers like that. Nolan Ryan was an obviously flawed baseball player. He couldn’t hit. he was a famously apathetic fielder. He rarely gave even a half-hearted effort to hold runners on base (runners stole 757 bases off him — which is TWO HUNDRED more than Greg Maddux or any other pitcher of the last 60 or so years. Even his pitching was flawed — the guy holds the all-time walks record by almost a thousand.
But Ryan’s greatness as a pitcher — no one ever was more unhittable — made him a near-unanimous Hall of Fame. I just think pitchers have a better chance of breaking through the absurdity of the “no one gets in unanimously” logic because they only have to be great at pitching. And the pitcher with the best chance to break it is Greg Maddux. His greatness shines through from all directions. He has the incredible career numbers — he won 355 games, he had more than 3,300 strikeouts, his .610 winning percentage is better than Tom Seaver’s. He has all the individual honors — four straight Cy Young Awards, a stretch of dominance as great as anyone in baseball history (in 1994 and 1995 — two strike shortened seasons — he went 35-8 with a 1.60 ERA). And he did it all in crazy offensive era. I’m sure one or two or four people will vote against Maddux. But I’m not sure how they will justify it in their minds.
OK. so, back to the Bewildering Six. Here’s the rundown.
1. Barry Bonds. All-time home run leader. Best hitter anyone ever saw. Sort of, kind of admitted using steroids. Many people are pretty sure he did. Often unlikable. Had a .531 on-base percentage the last seven years of his career with 368 intentional walks. That’s THREE HUNDRED SIXTY EIGHT. Before he bulked up and became best hitter anyone ever saw he was basically an off-center and surly Willie Mays mixing power, speed, the ability to get on base with some spectacular defense (though he played that defense in left field). He had two Hall of Fame careers, at least. He’s also the pivotal player of the Selig Era and there could be many who will refused to vote for him.
2. Roger Clemens. Has argument as best pitcher who ever lived. Won 354 games with astounding .658 winning percentage. Struck out almost 4,700 batters. Won Cy Young Award seven times. Has strongly denied using steroids, even before Congress. He was then indicted on perjury charges — perjury trial ended in a mistrial. No one is sure whether or not he will be retried … but many people are pretty sure he used steroids. Often unlikable. As a young pitcher, he went 24-4 with 2.48 ERA in 1986, and his 1991 season (21-6, 1.93 ERA) is one of best of last 50 years. As an old pitcher, he won Cy Young as a 41-year-old, and as a 42-year-old, led league with a 1.87 ERA. Had two Hall of Fame careers, at least. There could be many who will refuse to vote for him.
3. Mike Piazza. Probably best hitting catcher in baseball history. Has never admitted using steroids and has never been linked to steroids in any official way. However, he has been implicated by several anonymous sources, and according to Jeff Pearlman’s book “The Rocket That Fell To Earth,” he even admitted to at least one reporter in an off-the-record conversation that he used PEDs. Very likable. He was a 62nd round draft pick by Dodgers — the story seems to be he was taken as a personal favor from Tommy Lasorda to Piazza’s father — and five years later as a rookie he hit .318 with 35 home runs. For four years, from 1995 to 1998, he hit .343 and averaged 35 homers and 109 RBIs. Was always viewed as a poor defensive catcher because he was ineffective throwing out base stealers. But, man, could he hit.
4. Sammy Sosa. Hit more than 600 homers. Only player in baseball history to hit 60-plus homers three times. One of most beloved figures in Chicago Cubs history as a young player. New York Times reported that Sosa tested positive in the 2003 PED survey test; he had long been a suspected PED user. Was very likable as a young player, but lost some of that likability through the years. He and Mark McGwire were said to “save baseball” with their magical home run chase of 1998. He hit 66 that year. He hit 63 the next year. After leading the league with a mere 50 homers in 2000, he hit 64 in 2001. Nobody in baseball history hit as many home runs in a five-year span as Sosa did from 1998-2002; nobody comes especially close. One of the more astonishing (and melancholy) bits of trivia is that Sosa hit more than 60 homers three times but did not lead the league any of those years. There could be many who will refuse to vote for him.
5. Curt Schilling. Perhaps the greatest postseason pitcher in baseball history. His 11-2 record with a 2.23 ERA in the postseason tells only part of the story. In 2001, his remarkable playoff and World Series run — 4-0 with a 1.13 ERA — led the Arizona Diamondbacks to a stunning world championship and led to him sharing the Sportsman of the Year Award with Randy Johnson. In 2004, his seven strong innings while blood soaked through his sock was the emotional kicker in the Red Sox almost unbelievable comeback from three games down in the ALCS against New York, and the bloody sock game has become a part of baseball lore. At age 40, he went 3-0 in the playoffs and Series to help the Red Sox win another championship. He periodically has been outspoken against steroid use. Some like him, some don’t. He won only 216 games in an injury splattered career — some great years are flanked by some subpar ones — and there could be some who will say that he did not sustain his greatness for long enough.
6. Craig Biggio. A wildly underrated player for much of his career, he did not start getting recognition until he started to reach some of the landmark baseball numbers such as 3,000 hits. Unfortunately, by then, he was not a great player. Has never admitted to using steroids, has never tested positive, has never been linked in any viable way. Very likable. Bill James ranked him the fifth-best second baseman of all time, and a representative year might be 1997 when he hit .309, walked 84 times, was hit by 34 pitches, hit 37 doubles, eight triples and 22 homers, stole 47 bases, won a Gold Glove and did not hit into a single double play all year. He was, in his prime, an ingenious player who took advantage of every small opportunity offered to him. Funny thing, then, that it wasn’t until he got his 3,000th hit — when he was an every day player at least two years longer than he should have been — that people started considering him a real Hall of Fame candidate. There could be many “gut” voters — the ones who believe they just KNOW a Hall of Famer the way they KNOW what is and isn’t funny — who will not vote for him.
What will happen with that class? I honestly do not know. My best guess it that Bonds and Clemens, after a short limbo period, will get voted into the Hall of Fame. But I don’t think that’s a lock — the 75% necessary for election is a high percentage. I think Piazza will have a slightly easier time. I think Sosa will get shut out. I think Schilling will need to make a slow and steady climb, not unlike Blyleven. And I think Biggio will get elected, but perhaps not in the first year. Truth is, though, I don’t feel confident in ANY of those guesses. That will be a wild year and in many ways it will define what the Hall of Fame becomes.