Hall of Fame Ballot (Part 1)

From Eckstein to Hoffman: Breaking down the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot

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(In part one of this series, I broke down candidates 16 through 1, including my official ballot. Those candidates can be found here. I also wrote about the case for Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds here.)

There are interesting things happening in this year’s National Baseball Hall of Fame voting. First, in the past year, the Hall of Fame has pared down the number of voters. Last year, there were 549 voters. This year, the number might be closer to 450 because the Hall disqualified anyone who had not covered baseball in the past 10 years. Yes, it’s pretty crazy that there were 100 or more voters in 2014 who had not covered baseball in 10 years, but so it goes.

Nobody knows for sure how this change will affect voting, but the consensus is that the voting body just got considerably younger, more adept with advanced statistics and, perhaps, less judgmental about steroid use in the Wild Wild West 1990s.

Yes, how to treat admitted and suspected steroid users remains the hottest issue in Hall of Fame voting. Early balloting, as gathered by the estimable Ryan Thibs, does seem to show a softening of viewpoints. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are both polling at close to 50 percent, and while that does not get them all that close to the 75 percent election line, it is up quite a bit from last year. One of the big stories will be where those two end up this year.

Another story: Will Ken Griffey Jr. be the first player ever elected unanimously? Tibbs has collected 158 votes and, so far, Griffey’s name appeared on every ballot. This isn’t surprising, though. I suspect whoever would leave Griffey off the ballot would keep it secret. I remain skeptical but hopeful that he will get elected unanimously.

Below, I’ve written about all 32 Hall of Fame candidates, in order of how I see them. For your enjoyment, I’ve included a percentage prediction for each one, AND I’ve written how they stand in the Hall of Fame directory. For instance, i think Mike Piazza is the best catcher not in the Hall of Fame. I think David Eckstein is the 210th-best infielder not in the Hall of Fame.

And we begin with him:

32. David Eckstein

Predicted percentage: 0 percent

No. 210 infielder not in the Hall of Fame

Eckstein was a player who inspired powerful emotions in people. The reason is obvious: He was 5-foot-6, had a popgun arm, wasn’t fast, had no power and yet, somehow, he was a good and, pretty often, an excellent baseball player. He achieved this minor miracle by doing every little thing that nobody else wanted to do. For a time, he got hit by more pitches than anybody. He sac-bunted more than anybody. He rarely struck out, he’d gobble up the extra base, he studied hitters and positioned himself beautifully, he played hard every day.

It was all so admirable that, after a while, Eckstein somehow became OVERRATED as people would constantly talk about his grit and see in him intangible powers that probably did not exist. It got to the point where whenever anything good happened anywhere in the world, David Eckstein was given at least partial credit. But that wasn’t his fault. If there is a Hall of Fame for getting the most out of one’s ability, Eckstein would go in on the first ballot.

31. Brad Ausmus

Predicted percentage: 0 percent

No. 62 catcher not in the Hall of Fame

You can often tell a lot about a player’s defense by looking at their offense. Brad Ausmus couldn’t hit a lick. For his career, he hit an empty .251 with a staggeringly low .344 slugging percentage. But he still played 1,971 big league games and got more than 7,000 plate appearances. That alone should tell you just how amazing a defensive catcher Ausmus was.

30. Mike Sweeney

Predicted Percentage: 0 percent

No. 59 first baseman/DH not in the Hall of Fame

Sweeney is one of my all-time favorite players and people, so I can’t be objective about him. When he was a baby, his father put a plastic baseball bat into his incubator, and Mike metaphorically held on to that bat throughout his life. Man, did he love to hit. For five seasons, 1999-2003, Sweeney hit .320/.395/.525, and he walked more than he struck out. Sweeney was always tough to strike out, something he credited to a coach and, if I remember correctly, ice cream. He broke down in the second half of his career and never played 125 games in a season after age 28. Everyone loved him. He was and is one of the nicest people you will ever meet.

29. Mark Grudzielanek

Predicted percentage: 0 percent

No. 198 infielder not in the Hall of Fame

Grudzielanek did more or less everything well — except he would not take a walk. He had more than 2,000 hits in his career. He won a Gold Glove and was a very good defensive player year after year. He stole some bases early in his career and was always an above-average baserunner. He even flashed some occasional power — he once led the league in doubles, and his 391 career doubles in 19th all-time for second basemen.

But man, he would not walk. His career high in walks was 45, and that was dramatically higher than any other season. Late in his career, when was playing with some terrible Kansas City Royals teams, I said to then-general manager Allard Baird that if Grudzielanek could just take a few more walks, he’d be a fantastic player. To which Baird replied: “If he could walk, he wouldn’t be playing here.”

28. Mike Hampton

Predicted percentage: 0 percent

No. 231 pitcher not in the Hall of Fame

In retrospect, Mike Hampton was more or less the single worst guy for the Colorado Rockies to sign in 2001. Hampton was a good pitcher, but much of that was because of the ballparks where he pitched. In 2000, for instance, he pitched well for the New York Mets, but almost entirely because Shea Stadium was such a good pitchers park. At Shea, Hampton went 11-4 with a 2.04 ERA, allowed just four home runs and the league hit a measly .216 against him. On the road, he was 4-6 with a 4.83 ERA and the league hit 60 points better against him.

Ballpark effects seem to be pretty obvious stuff. But people miss the effect all the time. Hampton was not a strikeout pitcher — he walked a lot of people and relied on a two-seam fastball with a lot of sinking action to get double plays and to keep the ball in the ballpark. Well, none of that was going to work in Colorado with its altitude and dry air. In 2001, he was about the same pitcher on the road as he had been the year before. But in Colorado he had the predictable 5.77 ERA and the league hit .306 and slugged about .500 against him.

The horrors of 2001 blew all the fuses in his pitching brain, and the next year he came out and tried to throw much harder, which led to him losing the sinking action that had made him a good pitcher in the first place. Hampton’s 2002 was one of the worst starting pitching seasons ever, and the Rockies promptly dumped him on Atlanta where — surprise, surprise — Hampton regained his confidence and pitched reasonably well for a couple of years.

27. Mike Lowell

Predicted percentage: 0 percent

No. 163 infielder not in the Hall of Fame

He was a salary dump in 2005 when the Marlins and Red Sox made the Josh Beckett-for-Hanley Ramirez trade. Lowell had been a good player for Florida, but he was abysmal the year before the trade and the Marlins were convinced that he was done as a player. They were wrong — for the next three years, Lowell hit for average, power, played good defense at third and was a key player on the 2007 Red Sox championship team.

26. Randy Winn

Predicted percentage: 0 percent

No. 159 outfielder not in the Hall of Fame

In our Hall of Fame Poscast, Michael Schur and I agreed that Randy Winn had the sort of career all of us should dream about. Of course, we would rather dream about having Henry Aaron’s career or Greg Maddux’s career, but these are Greek Gods whose powers should be far beyond our imagination.

Winn’s career, on the other hand, feels attainable in a dream. He played 13 years in the big leagues. He hit 110 homers and stole 215 bases. He made an All-Star team. Three times he hit .300 for a full season and at different times he finished top five in the league in hits, doubles, triples and outfield putouts. He scored 100 runs one year. He made $42 million. He’s listed on the National Baseball Hall of Fame ballot.

That’s a dream life, isn’t it? Mike and I discussed Randy Winn’s award for September 2005 player of the month — we wondered where he keeps that plaque. We both hope he keeps it in a place of distinction and occasionally looks up at it, smiles, and thinks: “Yeah, not bad at all.”

25. Garret Anderson

Predicted percentage: 1 percent

No. 149 outfielder not in the Hall of Fame

I cheated on the predicted percentage; someone publicly announced they voted for him. Anderson fits right into the professional hitter genre, where Harold Baines and Al Oliver and Raul Ibanez and Chili Davis and Lou Piniella thrived. Anderson had 2,500 hits, 500 doubles almost 300 home runs. He twice led the league in doubles. It’s a big career. He absolutely refused to walk, though, and because of this he had just a .322 career on-base percentage and a 102 career OPS+.

24. Luis Castillo

Predicted percentage: 0 percent

No. 133 infielder not in the Hall of Fame

In 2000, Castillo had one of the weirdest seasons in baseball history. Castillo was a fantastic player in those days, and he mostly had a fantastic year. He hit .334. He led the league with 62 stolen bases. He scored 101 runs.

And he drove in 17 RBIs.

SEVENTEEN! It’s the lowest RBI total for any player in the last 40 years with more than 600 plate appearances. How does someone go about driving in just 17 runs? Castillo did it the old-fashioned way. He hit .380 with nobody on base and .211 with runners in scoring position. He went 1 for 8 with the bases loaded and 1 for 7 with runners on second and third. Both of his home runs were solo shots.

It’s tempting to say Castillo simply choked in the clutch, but this is one of baseball’s many illusions. Castillo was a slashy hitter, a guy who bunted for hits, a guy who beat out a lot of infield singles. That game is very effective with no one on base. But with runners on base, especially in scoring position, Castillo needed to play a different game, try to hit the ball through the defense, and he wasn’t very good at that in 2000.

The next year, Castillo was not nearly as good a player — he dropped 70 points in batting average and 47 points in slugging and stole half as many bases. But he drove in 45 RBI.

23. Jason Kendall

Predicted percentage: 0 percent

No. 12 catcher not in the Hall of Fame

Kendall was a superb player through age 30 while playing in Pittsburgh. He maintained a .306 career batting average, hit with a little pop, he made three All-Star teams, he probably should have won a Gold Glove or two.

The funny thing is that he made the real money AFTER he left Pittsburgh. In his last six years, he made more than $50 million. During those six years, his SLUGGING PERCENTAGE was .318. He hit eight home runs in more than 3,400 plate appearances.

22. Troy Glaus

Predicted percentage: 1 percent

No. 30 infielder not in the Hall of Fame

When Glaus was 25 years old, it looked like he just might be a viable Hall of Fame candidate. At 23, he’d led the league with 47 home runs, he walked 112 times and he played excellent defense at third base. The next year, his numbers were only slightly less than that. He was a terrific young star.

As he was turning 30, he had 257 career home runs, which put him at at about the same pace as Reggie Jackson and, yes, Barry Bonds. But by age 30, it was clear that Glaus just couldn’t stay healthy. He was a big man, and the wear and tear of the game just broke him down. He had one more good year at age 31 in St. Louis, but he retired at 33 with 320 career homers in 6,355 plate appearances.

21. Nomar Garciaparra

Predicted percentage: 3 percent

No. 18 infielder not in the Hall of Fame

There’s an argument to be made that filler years — that is to say, the years before a player becomes good and after the player has declined — should not matter much when it comes to the Hall of Fame. Those filler years have long played a HUGE role in Hall of Fame voting because they have allowed players to reach benchmark numbers like 3,000 hits, 300 wins, 500 homers and so on.

Craig Biggio was barely a replacement-level player his last three years, but without those extra at-bats, he would not have gotten the 3,000 hits that probably put him into the Hall of Fame.

But should it be like that? Or should the Hall of Fame represent the best players AT THEIR BEST? For seven years, Nomah was a stunning player. He hit .325/.372/.557 over those years, won two batting titles, averaged 100 runs and 100 RBIs per season, played fabulous defense and could have won the MVP award more or less in any one of those years. Very few players — and certainly very few shortstops — have ever been that good for that long.

Unfortunately, those seven years make up just about the entirety of Garciaparra’s career. He compiled 41 wins above replacement in those years — he finished with 44 WAR. If Garciaparra had managed to limp along the way Biggio did after age 35 — playing every day, banging out a few extra-base hits, compiling numbers — he would be in the Hall of Fame because Garciaparra was probably a better player than Biggio over their seven years peaks. But Garciaparra broke down at 30 years old, retired at age 35, and I suspect he will fall off the Hall of Fame ballot this year.

20. Lee Smith

Predicted percentage: 34 percent

No. 29 pitcher not in the Hall of Fame

Well, I might as well get my thoughts about Hall of Fame closers out of the way: In my mind, the only way a closer should ever be a Hall of Famer is when he (or she, sooner than people think) utterly transcends the position. Let’s make four points:

1. A closer is, almost without exception, a failed starter.

2. A closer pitches roughly one-third the innings of a starter and often throws fewer innings than the team’s most valuable middle reliever.

3. A look at history shows that teams win about 95 percent of the games they lead going into the ninth inning. That number has stayed fairly constant throughout baseball history, going back to the years long BEFORE teams used closers. In the 1950s, teams won 95 percent of the games they led going into the ninth. In the 2000s, teams won 95 percent of the games they led going into the ninth.

4. Just look at the Koji Uehara as a closer in his late 30s, the late-inning wonder of Wade Davis after he desperately tried to start or the closing career of Dennis Eckersley after he expired as a starter and tell me that great closers are rare birds.

When you put all four of these together, it’s hard to make a Hall of Fame argument for a closer. Lee Smith was a terrific closer for 18 years, and he retired with the saves record. He also pitched just 1,289 innings — half of, say, Bret Saberhagen, who won two Cy Young Awards and received little Hall of Fame support because his career was deemed too short.

That’s not to say a closer should NEVER be elected. Like I say, when you get someone who transcends the position — the way Mariano Rivera did — a closer should be a Hall of Famer. But I think that’s the only time. Lee Smith was an excellent closer, and you could certainly argue that he was about as good as Hall of Famers Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers. But, on the other side, I don’t think he was significantly better than John Franco, Kent Tekulve, Dan Quisenberry or John Hiller, among others. I just don’t think it’s quite Hall of Fame worthy.

And this won’t be the last time in this piece that I infuriate fans of closers.

19. Jeff Kent

Predicted Percentage: 16 percent

No. 15 infielder not in the Hall of Fame

There are a lot of people who like Jeff Kent’s Hall of Fame case more than I do, and I understand where they’re coming from. He had more career homers than any second baseman. He won an MVP award. From age 29 to age 37, he was good for a .300 batting average, 25 to 30 homers and 100 RBIs more or less every season.

Any argument against Kent will require denigrating his excellent career, and I don’t want to do that. In my view, when you consider the time when he played and the quality of his all-around game, he falls a little short of the Hall of Fame. But, he was unquestionably a terrific player.

18. Billy Wagner

Predicted percentage: 8 percent

No. 25 pitcher not in the Hall of Fame

17. Trevor Hoffman

Predicted percentage: 63 percent

No. 24 pitcher not in the Hall of Fame

I loved watching both Billy Wagner and Trevor Hoffman pitch, though obviously for different reasons. Wagner was a freak of nature. He looked tiny out there on the mound, and then he would wind up and fire these impossibly hard fastballs. For most of his career, Wagner was a one-pitch pitcher — there were always rumors about him perfecting a slider, which scared the heck out of hitters. His fastball was good enough to get anybody out.

Hoffman was a fantastic show. The bells from “Hell’s Bells” would start to ring — the bells of doom to the other team — and the San Diego crowd would go nuts, and it was goosebumps. He came out throwing that crazy changeup, like Bugs Bunny’s slow ball, and hitters would swing and miss, and it was another save.

So much fun.

And yet, I just don’t buy the Hall of Fame argument for either one, including Hoffman, who will get massive support this year and will get elected, I suspect, over the next two or three years. I will be happy when he does get elected because I like the guy a lot. But I didn’t vote for him this year, and I can’t see myself voting for him in the future.

As mentioned in the Lee Smith post, I just don’t think a pitcher should get into the Hall of Fame because he was a great closer. There are a lot of great closers. Wagner, I think, was every bit the pitcher that Hoffman was — Hoffman just decided to pitch longer (Wagner retired after one of his best seasons). Joe Nathan was a fantastic closer. Francisco Rodriguez was a fantastic closer. Jonathan Papelbon. Craig Kimbrel. On and on.

You see what I’m getting at here? I have come to compare it to kickers in the NFL. Kickers are important. And there have been a lot of really good kickers. To get into the Hall of Fame, in my view, a kicker should be fundamentally different and better than the others. I think Hoffman was a great closer. It’s just not quite enough for me.

16. Fred McGriff

Predicted percentage: 19 percent

No. 11 first baseman/DH not in the Hall of Fame

I love that we called McGriff the Crime Dog because there was once a cartoon dog named McGruff who warned children about crime. His name was McGRIFF, not McGRUFF. The crime dog was a minor character on the world stage. All of it had nothing to do with baseball.

And yet, somehow, “The Crime Dog” seemed the perfect name for him.

McGriff’s Hall of Fame case looks better when you look only at his career. He hit 493 homers, had a substantial .377 on-base percentage and was jaw-droppingly consistent.

The trouble comes when you compare him with other first basemen/DHs. As mentioned, I have him No. 11 on the all-time list for first baseman/DH. The players I have ahead of him include John Olerud, Will Clark, Keith Hernandez, the drastically underrated Norm Cash, the numbers buffet that is Rafael Palmeiro along with three players on this ballot. That makes it tough to vote McGriff even if he does have a strong case.