Hall of Fame Ballot (Part 2)

Sorting out the real candidates for induction into Cooperstown

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(In part one of this series, I broke down candidates 32 through 16. Those candidates can be found here. I also wrote about the case for Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds here.)

Here are my top 15 players on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot. The Hall of Fame limits voters to 10 votes. I used all 10 of my available slots.

15. Gary Sheffield

Predicted percentage: 10 percent

No. 14 outfielder not in the Hall of Fame

Gary Sheffield is an admitted user of performance-enhancing drugs, which probably eliminates him from consideration in the eyes of many voters. But Sheffield’s Hall of Fame case is complicated beyond PEDs. He was a remarkable hitter. Remember the menacing way he would rock the bat before the pitch? It was as if the bat was a snake trying to jump out of his hands. Then the pitch would come, and Sheffield would swing with every ounce of fury he had in his body. It wasn’t a healthy swing; it was the swing of a kid who had been bullied one time too many. If anyone could have knocked down an oak tree with a baseball bat, it was Gary Sheffield.

But here was the thing: He almost never missed. In an era of swing-and-miss sluggers, Sheffield did not strike out even 80 times in a season until he turned 35 and his bat had slowed infinitesimally. He was a .300 hitter into his mid-30s. He won a batting title. He was this crazy combination of rage and control. Over his career, he created 1,946 runs — more than George Brett, Derek Jeter, Al Kaline or Dave Winfield.

But man oh man, was he a dreadful defensive player. Baseball Reference has him listed as an impossible-to-believe 28.6 wins below average for his career. This would make him worse than Dave Kingman, Greg Luzinski and every other terrible fielder you can remember. It’s true: Baseball Reference rates Sheffield as the least valuable defensive outfielder in baseball history.

Fangraphs has a different metric for measuring defense, but they tell the same story. Fangraphs estimates that Sheffield cost his team 200 more runs than the average outfielder.

Baseball analyst Tom Tango ran through the numbers with me because they seemed so extreme, and, yep, that’s how they add up. Sheffield’s fielding range was dreadful. People ran on his arm. It’s hard to look at the numbers — or simply remember watching Sheffield play — and not conclude that he was a huge liability as a defender.

Why, though? Sheffield was a terrific athlete. He was a driven player and a smart one. What made him such a poor defensive player? It’s hard to say. Sheffield was emotional. He had huge mood swings on the field. Maybe, like Ted Williams, he just didn’t want to play defense.

This leads to a Hall of Fame conundrum: If Sheffield had spent much of his career as a DH, the way Edgar Martinez did, his Hall of Fame case would be very hard to dismiss. He ranks 32nd in offensive WAR, right alongside first-ballot Hall of Famer Frank Thomas, who alternated between DH and sub-par first baseman.

But when you include defense, Sheffield’s overall WAR free-falls to 116th all-time, behind — among others — Edgar Martinez (at 76). He hurt his team badly with his defense, and in the balance, I think he falls shy of the Hall of Fame line, even if you don’t mark him down for PED use.

14. Sammy Sosa

Predicted percentage: 8 percent

No. 12 outfielder not in the Hall of Fame

If early votes are any indication, Sosa looks like he will survive for another ballot. But to what end? He’s not gaining any traction. My guess is that voters have grown bored by his resume. Let’s face it: Sammy Sosa’s case revolves around home runs, and nobody likes to talk about home runs from the PED Era. Sosa is not an all-time great like Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens, so he will never be in the headline. And nobody wants to be reminded of the Sosa-McGwire show that captivated America in 1998 and now, like a high school yearbook haircut, embarrasses America.

It’s easy to forget that at one time, Sammy Sosa was the feel-good story in sports. He grew up dirt poor in the famed Dominican city of San Pedro de Macoris. He signed with the Texas Rangers at 16 years old and got his first call to the big leagues when he was 20. He hit his first home run at Fenway Park off Roger Clemens. Almost exactly a month later, he was traded to the White Sox for 1980s icon Harold Baines.

Sosa was a very different player in the beginning. He was fast, he played good defense, and he was offensively challenged. In 1992, in a rare crosstown deal between the White Sox and Cubs, Sosa was traded for 1980s icon George Bell. It is fascinating that that Cubs, so well known for the terrible Brock-for-Broglio trade, have been on the good side of some amazing deals: Fergie Jenkins for Bob Buhl and Larry Jackson; Ryne Sandberg for Ivan DeJesus; Sosa for Bell.

In Sosa’s second year with the Cubs, 1993, he had baseball’s only 30-homer, 30-stolen-base season. In 1996, at age 26, he hit 40 home runs for the first time. He was transforming.

And then, in 1998, the transformation was complete. He started hitting home runs, and he would not stop. He also lost all of the other parts of his game. Almost overnight, he became a defensive liability. He more or less stopped running. Pitchers started to work around him, forcing him (against his will) to take some walks. From 1998 to 2001, Sosa hit 66, 63, 50 and 64 home runs — that’s 243 home runs total. Nobody else hit that many home runs in four years. He hit more home runs in those four years than Roberto Clemente or Paul Molitor hit for their careers.

But the more home runs he hit, the less America was drawn to the Sosa feel-good story. You will remember when Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly challenged Sosa to take a drug test. Sosa made an awkward appearance before Congress, denying drug use but also refusing to speak English. Then, The New York Times reported that Sosa was one of the 104 players who failed a drug test in 2003. Those results were supposed to be kept secret, but they were not and Sosa — along with David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds — became the public face of baseball’s out-of-control steroid use in the 1990s.

Sosa’s Hall of Fame case revolves around his 600 home runs and his three seasons of 60-plus homers. With the majority of voters and fans still seething over PEDs, Sosa’s home run totals leave people cold. It is possible that years from now when the Hall of Fame creates a panel of experts to sort out the Selig Era that Sosa and his legacy will be reconsidered.

13. Jim Edmonds

Predicted percentage: 3 percent

No. 9 outfielder not in the Hall of Fame

How long does someone have to be great to be considered a Hall of Famer? Edmonds had five or six great seasons, which is about the right number for a typical Hall of Famer. He had three or four more very good seasons. And that makes up his career — he didn’t stay healthy enough or play long enough to push his career numbers into a range where Hall of Fame voters get excited.

Edmonds and Larry Walker have an interesting relationship. They were contemporary outfielders, of course, and they both did a number of things well. Their careers were about the same length — Walker’s was a touch longer. But Walker’s batting average was about 30 points higher, his slugging percentage about 40 points higher.

This was largely the illusion of Coors Field. If you compare their road numbers, Edmonds was a little bit better.

Walker: .278/.370/.495 with 168 homers.

Edmonds: .282/.371.518 with 189 homers.

Of course, you don’t want to make TOO much of that. Edmonds’ road numbers, after all, include his time at Coors Field. Also, Walker built his swing around Coors Field, which hurt his road game. I think Walker was a slightly better player because he did more things well — he was a better baserunner, and he didn’t swing and miss as much. But it’s very close.

Edmonds was a wonderful centerfielder. He wasn’t fast, but he had superior instincts and a diver’s ability to control his body. In 1997, Edmonds made a catch in Kansas City that many consider the greatest of all time. I’m one of the many. Michael Schur and I talked about it on the PosCast, and this is the best thing we could say about it: When someone makes a catch that special, you know they are a brilliant outfielder. You don’t need to see anything else. Many highlight catches are just spectacular coincidences. The ball happens to fly to the exact right spot and the exact right speed to allow the outfielder to stretch out just so. It’s timing. Average and poor outfielders make great catches.

The Edmonds catch was different. Only a master, someone with extraordinary body control and impeccable instincts and a genius for the game could make that catch.

12. Mark McGwire

Predicted percentage: 14 percent

No. 4 first baseman/DH not in the Hall of Fame

I have voted for McGwire. I did not vote for him this year because I did not have room for him on my ballot. But, given an unlimited ballot, I would vote for McGwire. It’s close, though, and I respect the case against him. Almost the entirety of McGwire’s Hall of Fame case rests on home runs. When you add in his steroid admission, I can see the argument that home runs are not enough.

I would vote for him because his were unlike anyone else’s home runs. And he was a spectacular show. After the strike, when baseball was struggling to connect with America, people would come just to watch him take batting practice.

One final thought on McGwire: I don’t think he got a fair shake after publicly admitting his steroid use and speaking his heart about it. I know some thought he held some stuff back, and others thought the apology was a cynical maneuver to get back into baseball. But I think McGwire is one of the few who honestly felt bad about his steroid use and one of the few (the only one?) willing to put himself out there, not because he was caught red-handed but because he wanted to be a part of this great game. I’m not saying his apology makes everything better. But the farther away we get from the Selig Era, the more McGwire’s apology stands out as a rare example of someone, at least, trying to do the right thing.

11. Larry Walker

Predicted percentage: 16 percent

No. 6 outfielder not in the Hall of Fame

Larry Walker had one of the strangest careers in baseball history. He grew up playing hockey with future Hall of Famer Cam Neely, and he dreamed only of being an NHL goalie. He was signed by the Expos for $1,500 after he failed to stick in professional hockey. The Expos took a chance on him mostly because he was Canadian.

Walker did not know much about baseball. Before he went to Class-A Utica, he would say, he had never seen a slider. He hit .223 that year, all of it on fastballs. Walker had a natural talent for hitting fastballs. He then slaved away at his new game. He missed an entire year with a knee injury. He struck out a lot. He improved. As a rookie, he showed enough promise that someone gave him a third-place Rookie of the Year vote.

Improvement came fast. In 1991, he hit .290/.349/.458, hit 16 homers, stole 14 bases, began to show off a strong arm in right field. In 1992, he hit .300 for the first time, won his first Gold Glove, finished top 10 in RBIs, slugging, total bases and OPS. After that, Dan Duquette said he had the talent to be like Ken Griffey or Barry Bonds.

In 1994, Larry Walker had his first great year. He hit .322, slugged .587 and was leading the first-place Expos when the strike happened. There is always talk about what might have been without the 1994 strike. Matt Williams or Ken Griffey might have broken Roger Maris’ home run record. Tony Gwynn might have hit .400. Well, Larry Walker had 44 doubles in 103 games — he might have challenged Earl Webb’s seemingly unbreakable record of 67 doubles in a season.

Then, the next crazy turn in his crazy career happened: He signed with the Colorado Rockies just as they were moving into beautiful-but-ludicrous Coors Field. That ballpark was like a science experiment. The ball soared because of the altitude and dry air, the outfield fences were way bad and doubles and homers popped like popcorn.

Larry Walker entered this crazy new world and put up some radical numbers. In 1995, Walker hit a career-high 36 homers in just 131 games, drove in 101 runs, scored 96. It was just a taste of things to come.

Walker had an insane 1997 season. He hit .366, cranked 49 homers and 46 doubles, scored 143 runs, drove in 130 runs, stole 33 bases. No one had ever put together a number cocktail quite like that. He won the MVP award. He won the Gold Glove. He won everything.

But how good a season was it? It was hard to tell. Walker didn’t stop. In 1998, Walker hit .363, won his first batting title, cracked 46 doubles and 23 homers and won another Gold Glove. He hit .418 at home and .302 on the road.

In 1999, he had one of the craziest home/road splits ever.

On the road, he hit .286 and slugged .519 with 11 homers — a nice year.

At Coors Field, he hit .461, slugged .879 and hit 26 homers.

It all added up to a .379 batting average, one of the highest in the last 75 years. Well, yeah: The guy hit .461 at home. But what did it mean? Bill James, in his entry about Larry Walker in the Historical Baseball Abstract, wrote about “phony baseball statistics” and wondered whether, at Hall of Fame time, people would see through them.

In 2001, Walker grabbed his third batting title by hitting .350, and he threw in 35 homers and 38 doubles, drove in 123 RBIs. Again, he hit better than .400 at home and less than .300 on the road.

In 2002, he had another 1.000 OPS season.  He had five of those 1.000 OPS seasons — the same number as Willie Mays, one more than Henry Aaron. People were so baffled by the Coors Field effect, Walker didn’t even make the All-Star team.

In all, Walker hit .313/.400/.565 for his career — split numbers that are almost unmatched. Only ten men in baseball history with 5,000 or more plate appearances have hit .300/.400/.550:

1. Jimmie Foxx

2. Lou Gehrig

3. Hank Greenberg

4. Rogers Hornsby

5. Stan Musial

6. Manny Ramirez

7. Babe Ruth

8. Frank Thomas

9. Larry Walker

10. Ted Williams

Of those 10, you will note, only Walker has more than 200 stolen bases. Only Walker had the reputation as an excellent fielder.

So what do you do with all this? Who the heck knows? You don’t want to give Walker too much credit for his crazy Coors Field numbers. But you also don’t want to forget that Walker was one of those rare players who did EVERYTHING well and was developing into a superstar before he ever went to Colorado.

What to do? For me, the last spot on my Hall of Fame ballot came down to Walker and Edgar Martinez. Both had amazing careers. Both have obvious flaws in their case. I think Martinez was the better hitter. I think Walker clearly did more things well. What to do? I voted Edgar. If I had 11 spots, I would have voted Walker also.

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Here are the ten on my official Hall of Fame ballot:

10. Edgar Martinez

Predicted percentage: 49 percent

No. 3 first base/DH not in the Hall of Fame

I have him at No. 3 at his position — behind Jeff Bagwell and Jim Thome.

People often say that designated hitters are “specialists.” I don’t think that is true. Yes, they don’t play in the field. But a specialist is, by definition, a person highly skilled in a specific and restricted field.

Hitting is not a specific or restricted field. Hitting is more or less half of baseball. If hitting is a specialty then so is pitching.

Martinez was a genius of a hitter. Michael Schur brought up this point: Edgar was 11 for 19 against Mariano Rivera with three doubles and two home runs. It’s a small point, yes, but it’s a pretty good statistic. Pitcher after pitcher will tell you that Edgar Martinez was the toughest hitter they ever faced.

9. Alan Trammell

Predicted percentage: 46 percent

No. 4 infielder not in the Hall of Fame

It looks like Trammell, in his final year on the ballot, will get a nice boost but he won’t get close to the necessary 75 percent.

I’ve often wondered if Trammell’s Hall of Fame story would have been different had he won the 1987 MVP Award. He should have won it, but instead lost out to George Bell, who had a cosmetically great season, but Trammell was a lot better.

Maybe that would not have made any difference at all — after all, Dale Murphy won back-to-back MVPs and couldn’t get any real Hall of Fame traction. But Trammell compares so well to almost every Hall of Fame shortstop, and maybe an MVP would have made that clearer to the masses. Trammell’s case will soon be in the hands of the Hall of Fame veteran’s committee. Maybe they will take a look at a Lou Whitaker-Alan Trammell double.

8. Tim Raines

Predicted percentage: 69 percent

No. 5 outfielder not in the Hall of Fame

Early Hall of Fame balloting shows Raines over the 75-percent line. Most people think that when the actual votes come in, Raines will fall just shy — setting him up for election next year in his final ballot.

But there is a chance he will get in this year. Wouldn’t that be great?

I’ve written many, many times about Raines. He was as good a player as Hall of Famer Lou Brock. He was as good a player as Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. He was as good a player as Hall of Fame teammate Andre Dawson (even if Raines himself does not believe that). And so on.

Instead of covering that familiar ground, let’s take a moment to remember just how good Tim Raines was at stealing bases.

Rickey Henderson stole about 500 more bases than anyone in baseball history. He was successful an excellent 81 percent of the time.

Lou Brock was successful 75 percent of the time. Maury Wills, often credited with bringing the stolen base back into the game, was successful about that same percentage.

Vince Coleman once stole 50 bases in a row; he was successful 81 percent of the time. Joe Morgan, the greatest baserunner of his generation, was successful 81 percent of the time. Willie Wilson, who I believe was the fastest man ever to play Major League Baseball, was successful an astonishing 83 percent of the time. It does not seem possible for anyone to top that percentage.

Tim Raines was successful stealing on 808 of 954 attempts. That’s 85 percent of the time. It’s untouchable.

7. Mike Mussina

Predicted percentage: 46 percent

No. 3 pitcher not in the Hall of Fame

6. Curt Schilling

Predicted percentage: 51 percent

No. 2 pitcher not in the Hall of Fame

It is time to start unloading some rage about the ongoing Curt Schilling Hall of Fame snub. A few years ago, you might recall that many, many baseball writers rallied around Jack Morris as a Hall of Fame candidate.

Morris was, by anyone’s reasoning, a flawed Hall of Fame candidate. His 3.90 ERA would have been the highest in the Hall of Fame. He did not win 300 games. He did not strike out 3,000 batters. He did not win a Cy Young Award. His 1.78 strikeout-to-walk ratio was pretty pedestrian — it ranks 146th of the 229 pitchers with 2,000 innings since 1950.

But many voters were happy to overlook these imperfections because Morris was a workhorse (he led the league in innings pitched once and finished in the top 10 several other times). He was reliable. And he had one of the greatest postseason pitching performances in baseball history — his 10-inning shutout against Atlanta in the 1991 World Series.

I was not a Morris Hall of Fame guy (to say the least), but I grew to appreciate why voters were so passionate about his case.

Now — here’s Curt Schilling. His ERA is a half run better than Morris. He did strike out 3,000 batters. He did not win a Cy Young Award either, but he finished second three times, twice to Randy Johnson. And his 4.38 strikeout-to-walk ratio is, yes, the best in baseball history.

To me, that last sentence alone should be enough to get Curt Schilling into the Hall fo Fame.

But here’s the baffling part. All those things that writers supposedly loved about Morris are so much more true of Schilling. He was a workhorse (he TWICE led the league in innings pitched and finished in the top 10 several other times). And he has a case as the greatest postseason pitcher ever. Schilling went 11-2 in October with a 2.23 ERA, a 4.80 strikeout-to-walk ratio, two shutouts and numerous legendary performances including the bloody sock game and a couple of gutsy games against the Yankees in 2001.

Curt Schilling should have been elected on the first ballot. He was not, in part (I suspect) because he only won 216 games and there are still people all caught up in pitcher wins. But I fear a lot of people are snubbing Schilling because they don’t like him. And that’s shameful. Curt Schilling was one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history. He won big games his whole career. These are the only things that matter when it comes to voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Mussina was an ace who was never quite recognized as an ace, and that has carried over a bit into his Hall of Fame journey. But I think people are beginning to appreciate just how good a pitcher he was. He should take a nice percentage leap this year, and I now believe he will get elected by the BBWAA.

5. Mike Piazza

Predicted percentage: 83 percent

No. 1 catcher not in the Hall of Fame

I think Piazza will get elected this year, and when he does maybe we stop with the silly steroid whispers that have marred this Hall of Fame process for way too long. I don’t know if Mike Piazza used PEDs, and you don’t either. There was no testing. That’s the point. There was no testing and no effort to punish steroid users and no plan to keep performance-enhancing drugs out of the game. That’s the real travesty.

And, in my view, it’s time to stop fighting that old fight. Everyone should focus on how to handle PEDs now and in the future because it will be a challenge. Performance-enhancing drugs will get better. They will become harder to trace. They will become safer and perhaps even legal. How will baseball deal with the future? This is what matters. It’s time to stop trying to win the battle of the 1990s. That battle is over.

Piazza was the greatest hitting catcher in baseball history.

4. Jeff Bagwell

Predicted percentage: 76 percent

No. 1 first baseman/DH not in the Hall of Fame

Here is the one to watch: Bagwell is RIGHT on the cusp. He could get elected this year. He also could fall just short. It will be very, very close.

3. Ken Griffey

Predicted percentage: 99 percent

No. 2 outfielder not in the Hall of Fame

Back in those naive days when everybody loathed Barry Bonds simply because he acted like a jerk a lot, Ken Griffey, Jr., was viewed, by consensus, as the best player in baseball. Well, Griffey was fun. Bonds was dour. Griffey radiated joy. Bonds radiated rage. Griffey played centerfield and had a luscious, musical swing. Bonds played left and had a violent swing that made us think of a gangster with a Tommy Gun.

They had much in common. They were both left-handed sons of 1970s baseball stars. They were both baseball prodigies who played about 100 minor league games before getting the big-league call. They both hit 16 home runs their rookie years and flashed promise for down-on-their-luck franchises. By the time they reached 30, each player already had one foot in Cooperstown.

And just about everyone thought — or wanted to think — Griffey was the better player.

In the 1990s, Junior hit .304/.384/.581 with 382 homers and more than 1,000 RBIs and runs scored. He won the Gold Glove every year, and he made the All-Star Geam every year. He led the league in homers four times, runs once, RBIs once and so on. He was on pace to break Henry Aaron’s home run record. He was a fantastic player and a wonder to behold.

He just wasn’t Barry Bonds.

We will never know the full extent of Barry Bonds’ PED use or how much of a role it played in his career. The popular storyline goes like this: In the late 1990s, he grew sickened by the way PEDs had puffed up otherwise inferior players. In response, he bulked up himself to show people what a real superhero looks like. Mission accomplished.

But we’re not talking about that Bonds, we’re talking about 1990s Bonds.

From 1990 to 1999, Barry Bonds hit .302/.434/.602 with 361 home runs and more than 1,000 RBIs and runs scored. You might say that’s similar to Griffey, and you can do that if you want to ignore 50 points of on-base percentage and 20 points of slugging percentage. But consider this: Bonds hit in a tougher ballpark. He stole about 200 more bases than Griffey. He won eight Gold Gloves himself even at a time when it was very hard for left fielders to win a Gold Glove.

Griffey will sail into the Hall of Fame this year, and I hope it’s unanimous. Bonds will not get elected at all because he presumably abused PEDs and a majority of Hall of Fame voters believe that disqualifies him from the Hall of Fame reward. Griffey was extraordinary. Bonds was the best player of his generation.

2. Roger Clemens

Predicted percentage: 44 percent

No. 1 pitcher not in the Hall of Fame

There are those who will say that Sandy Koufax was the greatest pitcher of all time.

There are those who will say that Pedro Martinez was the greatest pitcher of all time.

By the numbers, Clemens was essentially Koufax PLUS Martinez.

I’ve broken this down before, but if you want it quickly: Clemens in Boston went 192-111 with a 144 ERA+, two Cy Young awards, and an MVP. It’s not QUITE the Pedro Martinez career, but it’s very, very close.

Clemens after Boston went 162-73 with a 140 ERA+ and four Cy Young awards. That was pretty much Koufax’s career.

Roger Clemens by the numbers had TWO Hall of Fame careers. Even if you want to take one away because of his alleged PED use, it seems overkill to take away the other.

1. Barry Bonds

Predicted percentage: 44 percent

No. 1 outfielder and player not in the Hall of Fame

If Barry Bonds had retired at age 33 after the 1998 season — supposedly when he got the idea to start juicing — he would have had a career where he hit .290/.411/.556 with 400 homers, 400 steals, eight Gold Gloves and three MVP awards. He would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer and remembered as one of the greatest in the game’s history.

Instead, Bonds did not retire. He went on to hit .306/.505/.712 with 351 more homers. He broke the single-season home run record. He broke the career home run record. He won four straight MVP awards. He was so good that he broke the game — managers intentionally walked him 120 times in one season. And now he can’t get even 50 percent of the Hall of Fame vote.

As Morpheus once said: Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.