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My Inconsequential Hall of Fame Picks

OK, so I don’t have a dog in this particular fight, and I don’t have an actual real vote.  But as a baseball fan, I still care about who gets into the MLB Hall of Fame.  I don’t bother watching the speeches on induction day, (there’s frequently nothing worse than listening to a professional athlete make a formal public speech, unless it’s Chase Utley after he’s just paraded down Broad Street on a late October afternoon), but I do enjoy the debate.

First of all, I don’t believe the Hall of Fame should be the Hall of Very Good.  I think it should be really hard to get into the Hall of Fame.  But I’m also not in favor of virtually locking the doors shut, either.  I think only elite players deserve to get in.  I believe in looking at both sabermetric numbers and old school statistics.  I also believe in the eye test and asking myself, was this person one of the two or three best players at his position for an extended length of time?  If this player was a power hitter, was he one of the two or three most feared power hitters of his era?  If this player was a lead-off hitter, where did he rank among the lead-off hitters of his generation?  How many tools did this guy have and/or how dominant was this pitcher compared to his peers?

After doing this exercise, it’s not as easy as I thought.  The players below are all guys I think answer the above questions well enough to get into Cooperstown.

1.  Jeff Bagwell – 1B Houston Astros

Bagwell had a career WAR of 79.9, higher than any other potential inductee this year.  Last year, his first year on the ballot, he managed only 41.7% of the vote, and will likely fall short again this year.  Why?  Because he is suspected of using performance enhancing drugs.  Never mind that no proof of PED use by Bagwell has ever been brought forward, that he wasn’t even mentioned in the Mitchell Report, and that his career arc looks a lot like other players in the Hall of Fame.  Dave Schoenfield of ESPN.com said it best… people are wary of Bagwell because he has big muscles.

That’s muscular bigotry, my friends.

Instead, look at Bagwell’s numbers.  In 7797 career at-bats, he had a slash line of .297/.408/.540, with 449 HRs and 1529 RBIs.  He had a career OPS+ of 149, second-best among potential inductees, was an above-average defender, and while he wasn’t a speed demon, did average almost 13.5 steals a season.  He was Rookie of the Year in 1991, won the MVP in the strike-shortned 1994 season (where he had a ridiculous 1.201 OPS and OPS+ of 213), won three Silver Sluggers, and finished in the Top 10 of the MVP voting five times, including a 2nd place finish in 1999.

Yet he’ll probably miss out because he was too muscular.  Yay, writers!

2.  Barry Larkin – SS Cincinnati Reds

This is Larkin’s third year on the ballot, and he will probably be the only player to actually make it into the Hall of Fame this year.  He had a career WAR of 68.9, second-best among potential inductees this year, and was the very definition of a complete player.  Without a doubt, Larkin was one of the best two or three shortstops of his era, and the numbers back that up.  He played terrific defense and posted a career slash line of .295/.371/.444 for an OPS of .815.  He could hit for a little power (198 career HRs), steal some bases (389 for his career) and get on base, especially when compared to other shortstops already in the Hall.  Larkin’s best year was in 1995, taking the Reds to the playoffs and winning the MVP.  He was a 12-time All-Star and won 9 Silver Slugger Awards.  Last time around he got 62% of the vote, and seems likely to hit the 75% threshold this time around.

3.  Tim Raines – OF Expos/White Sox/Yankees/A’s

Raines is one of the most underrated players of the 1980s as one of the truly great lead-off hitters of that decade.  He was an on-base machine in his career (.385 OB%) stole a ton of bases (from 1981-86 he stole 71, 78, 90, 75, 70 & 70 bases and 808 for his career) and accumulated 2605 hits and 1571 runs.  From 1981-1992, Raines averaged 60 SBs a season while posting a slash line of .298/.397/.427 for an OPS of .814.  What hurt Raines was that he played most of his career for the Expos, tucked away in Montreal on some very bad teams, and that he played in the era of Rickey Henderson and, to a much, much lesser extent, Vince Coleman.  Raines made seven straight All-Star teams from 1981-87 and finished with a career OPS+ of 123.  He’s not a slam dunk, sure-fire Hall of Famer to be sure, but he was one of the top four or five outfielders/lead-off hitters for more than a decade, which is enough for me to vote for Rock.

4.  Rafael Palmeiro – 1B-OF Cubs/Rangers/Orioles/Rangers

As much as I hate to do it, I would vote to put Palmeiro into the Hall of Fame.  There are a couple reasons why I decided yes on Palmeiro.  The first reason is I do not believe that all steroid and performance enhancing drug users should automatically be disqualified.  They played during an era when an unknown number of players, pitchers too, were using PEDs.  No one really knows how rampant their use was.  And Palmeiro’s career numbers, even though he didn’t have what one would define as a true peak season or two, warrant his induction.

He finished his career with a 66 WAR and met some of the milestone numbers that many sabermatricians throw out, but I feel are still important for Hall induction.  He finished with more than 3000 career hits (3020), 500 HRs (569) and posted a career slash line of .288/.371/.515 for an OPS of .885.  He had a career OPS+ of 132 and from 1993-2003 Palmeiro posted some ridiculous numbers.  In that 11 season span, he averaged 39 HRs, 115 RBIs, 99 runs, and hit .288/.380/.555 for an OPS of .935.

How much PEDs and steroids influenced those numbers is unknowable, and that’s the point.  He was competing against other players who were doing the exact same thing.  Palmeiro never got a lot of recognition when it came to post-season hardware, but his career totals make him Hall eligible for me.  Even though he was a turd (his Congressional testimony is still a thing of cring-worthy beauty) his numbers warrant induction.  But it’s doubtful he’ll get in this time around.  Last year, Palmeiro received only 11% of the vote, and it’s highly unlikely writers will forgive him for his steroid use and lying about it.

5.  Alan Trammel – SS Detroit Tigers

Alan Trammel is an interesting case.  When you think of the great shortstops of the 1980s, you think of Cal Ripken, Robin Yount and Ozzie Smith right away.  The guy you don’t think a lot about is the third best American League shortstop of that era, Trammel.  He won three Silver Slugger Awards, four Gold Gloves, made six All-Star teams, and in his career year of 1987 (.343/.402/.551, .953 OPS, 28 HRs, 105 RBIs, OPS+ 155), finished second in the MVP voting.  He won a World Championship with the Tigers in 1984, and had a very nice peak from 1980-1990 where he hit .291/.359/.433 for an OPS of .792, and OPS+ of 119 while averaging 13 HRs and 66 RBIs a year.  Elite numbers for a shortstop in the ’80s.

It’s unlikely Trammel gets in too, though.  This will be his 11th year of eligibility, and last year he only received 24.3% of the vote.  I admit, he’s a fringe candidate and I can certainly understand the arguments for his omission.  But in my view, he’s worthy of the Hall.

6.  Mark McGwire – 1B A’s/Cardinals

I had to think long and hard about this one, and to be honest, I wanted no part of Mark McGwire in the Hall of Fame.  But, if I’m going to let Rafael Palmeiro in, then intellectual honesty dictates I let McGwire in as well.

Here’s why I’m holding my nose with McGwire.  While I would automatically vote for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and other players from the steroid era, I refused to consider McGwire for a long time because I wasn’t sure if he would have been a Hall of Famer without using performance enhancing drugs.  Guys like Bonds, A-Rod, and Clemens were all Hall of Fame players before their PED use was either exposed or admitted.  Plus, their all-around games (defense, speed, contact hitting) further buoyed their argument.

In his career, McGwire did only one thing well.  He hit homers.  He was a poor defensive player, had no speed, and hit for an anemic average during most of his career.  In fact, McGwire’s career appeared doomed a couple of times.  The first time was in 1991, when he hit 22 HRs and posted a slash line of .201/.330/.383 in 154 games.  That followed years where he hit .235 and .231.  Sure he was hitting for some power, but at the time, McGwire compared more to Dave Kingman than a Hall of Famer.  In 1993 and 1994, McGwire hit only nine home runs in each season (’94 being the strike shortened year of course).

Then all of a sudden, McGwire exploded in 1995 and never looked back.  In the next seven years, McGwire hit 345 HRs, averaging 49 a season, while hitting .278/.430/.683 for an OPS of 1.113.  Truly amazing power numbers.  But that’s all McGwire had, power.  And my suspicion is that McGwire turned his career around by turning to PEDs and steroids, allowing him to do the only thing he was good at, hit for power.

But, if I’m being intellectually honest, I can’t single out McGwire and assume I know when he started using PEDs, just like I couldn’t do it for Palmeiro, Bonds, Clemens and the rest of them.  At the end of the day, I don’t know who was using PEDs during the steroid era, and I assume many, if not most players, were.  If I believe that, then I have to look at the numbers, and according to the numbers, Mark McGwire was one of the greatest power hitters the game has ever seen.  Therefore, he’s in the Hall, albeit with a huge asterisk on his induction plaque.

7.  Larry Walker – OF Expos/Rockies/Cardinals

When first considering Walker, I dismissed him out of hand.  When I think of the elite outfielders of the 1990s and early 2000s, Walker didn’t leap to mind.  I also discounted most of his eye-popping statistics because he played in the hitter’s haven that is Colorado.

However, upon further reflection, his numbers were simply TOO good not to vote in.

He wasn’t a true HR hitter, amassing only 383 career homers.  But his other numbers were off the charts.  He won three batting titles, hitting .363 in 1998, .373 in 1999, and .350 in 2001.  He also hit .366 in 1997 when he led the league in HRs with 49, by far his career high.  He won the MVP award that year, when he also stole 33 bases, and led the league in OBP, SLG and OPS.  He won the Gold Glove that year as well and all told won seven Gold Gloves for his career (yes, I know, GGs are not the best measurement of defense prowress, but it’s what HOF voters look at, so just go with me here for a moment).

More importantly his OPS+, which is measured against the league average and adjusts for ballpark factors, was 150 or higher in five out of six seasons from 1997-2002.  That’s an incredibly high number, and seems to indicate that he was among the elite even though he played half his games in Colorado.  He finished with an OPS over 1.013 six times in his career, won three Silver Sluggers and made five All-Star Game appearances.  While numbers during that time were inflated because of the steroid era, Walker’s stats seem to indicate that he truly was great for an extended period of time.  He’s in.

***

And for me, that’s it.  There are guys I thought long and hard about and almost put on my list, but they just missed the cut.

Fred McGriff was a decent first baseman and finished with 493 HRs for his career with an OPS of .886, but in my mind was just a very good player, and not a great one.  Edgar Martinez, despite being one of the best contact hitters in the game, was a DH, and I’m just not voting anyone into the Hall of Fame that almost never played the field (Big Papi, you’re on notice).  Jack Morris, one of the more hotly debated potential inductees every year, fails to make my list for a couple reasons.  First, he never once had an ERA in any season under 3.  Second, he never won a Cy Young, his best finish was a tie for third a couple of times.  And finally, when you look at their career numbers, Brad Radke finished with more WAR than Morris did (40.9 to 39.3).  Perhaps that speaks more to WAR’s ineffectiveness for pitchers than anything else, but it’s there and I’m not ignoring it.

Other guys just missing out were Dale Murphy (didn’t sustain excellence long enough, despite an eight-year peak where he averaged 33 HRs a year and won two home run titles), Bernie Williams (post-season numbers help him, but he was not one of the elite outfielders of his generation), Don Mattingly (see Murphy, Dale), and, of course, Terry Mulholland (just seeing if you were still paying attention).

***

I came into this exercise thinking I knew who I was going to include and who I thought I’d leave out.  But that’s the trap the Baseball Writers of America (BBWA) fall into.  After looking at the numbers, and really asking myself if each player I considered was an elite player at their position during the era in which they played, I was surprised at who I would have voted in, and who I would have kept out.

Hopefully the BBWA is doing the same thing.  But, something tells me they’re looking for a free buffet lunch somewhere in America.

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