An examination of the issues with voting for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, who should get in and more
This Wednesday, January 24, we will learn of the latest electees to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. 33 players are on the ballot for the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Any player receiving at least 75 percent of the vote will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on July 29 along with Alan Trammel and Jack Morris, who were elected via the Modern Baseball Era committee in December.
The book The Politics of Glory: How Baseball’s Hall of Fame Really Works by Bill James, the godfather of sabermetrics, forever changed the way I look at the Hall of Fame and really baseball. Even though the book came out in 1994, I highly recommend it to anyone interested in who is a Hall-of-Famer, who isn’t and how you tell the difference.
But before we get to who should be in from this year’s ballot, there remain a number of issues with the voting process. Some of these problems are easily fixable. Some have no answer and never will. But you can’t have a discussion about a Hall-of-Fame ballot until you ar least first acknowledge these issues.
1. The PED Problem – The Mitchell report came out on Dec. 13, 2007. A prevailing feeling at the time was that, eventually, we would have figured out the proper way to assess the so-called Steroid Era, even though it’s not like players started and stopped using PEDs on specific dates. Well, here we are more than a decade later, and we are more confused than ever. The terrific Web site BBHOFTracker.com, which tracks public and anonymous Hall-of-Fame ballots, has the likes of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens doing better than ever before this year. Does each get the requisite 75 percent? Probably not. But clearly there has been a softening of the previous hard stances taken by so many voters on PEDs. And the thing is, there is no easy answer.
2. The Logjam Problem – Quite simply, there are a bunch of players who should be in the Hall of Fame but aren’t. Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling are two slam-dunk Yeses who should have been in years ago. The fact that it took Tim Raines until his final year of eligibility to be voted into the Hall of Fame remains absurd. And then there are the guys who have fallen off the ballot who at the very least deserved longer looks: Jim Edmonds, Bobby Grich, Keith Hernandez, Kenny Lofton, Jorge Posada, Lou Whitaker. Not a single candidate was elected to the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA in 2013. That remains an outrage to this day.
3. The 10-Vote-Max Problem – You’re not allowed to vote for more than 10 players on a ballot. This is a big part of why the Logjam Problem exists. The max should be 15 or at the very least 12.
4. The Too-Many-Voters Problem – The Hall of Fame has addressed this problem somewhat, as ballots the last three years were mailed to about 100 less voters thanks to a rule disqualifying a voter if he/she hadn’t actively covered baseball within 10 years. But there were 442 ballots cast in 2017. That’s still way too many. You can’t convince me that 442 different people are putting in the work and research that proper voting requires. You can’t convince me that 442 different people truly understand and make use of new-age tools like WAR, OPS+ and ERA+; if they did, then Mussina and Schilling would be in. How many people should vote? I don’t know. But I know that number is a lot lower than 442.
5. The Not-Enough-Of-The-Right-Voters Problem – You can’t vote if you’re not a member of the BBWAA, and even then you need to have been a member for 10 years. That’s absurd. That guys like Brian Kenny of MLB Network, Jay Jaffe of SI.com and MLB official historian John Thorn don’t have votes is a joke. The voting body needs less of the wrong people and more of the right people.
Now to how I would vote on my ballot.
Regarding the PED guys, I will not rip anyone for his/her stance. As I suggested earlier, there is no right answer and there never will be. I get a kick out of people who slam others for their stances. There is no right answer! Every stance is flawed in some way.
My personal stance is the common-sense test. If you can’t pass the common-sense test of whether you used, then you don’t get my vote. That disqualifies Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez and Sammy Sosa. I still find it wrong that Ivan Rodriguez, who was named in Jose Canseco’s 2005 book Juiced and who famously (and hysterically) showed up at Detroit Tigers spring training having lost more than 20 pounds, was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2017. The reality is that using steroids in MLB became illegal in June 1991 per a memo from then-commissioner Fay Vincent. Was that at all enforced until 2002? No. Did MLB turn a blind eye to players juicing? Absolutely. But it was cheating. There’s reason that guys weren’t openly discussing their dosages of Winstrol or how to properly stack HGH with Deca-Durabolin. And if you’re still caught up in the lack of enforcement by MLB, know that the Hall of Fame directs voters to vote “based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played” – the so-called “character clause.”
As you’ll see, I’m a big fan of something called JAWS – the Jaffe WAR Score System, which was developed by Jay Jaffe of SI.com and involves averaging a player’s career Wins Above Replacement per Baseball Reference (bWAR) and seven-year-peak bWAR. WAR forces you to confront the totality of a player – his batting, baserunning and defense. JAWS takes everything a player does and factors in both longevity and peak. To me, you need an objective methodology. I’ve heard people over the years talk about how, “You know a Hall-of-Famer when you see one.” No you don’t. Our memories are highly flawed. Our abilities to objectively compare players are highly flawed. You need some kind of objective methodology. And while WAR isn’t perfect, it’s the best tool we currently have, and so I use JAWS as my starting point (and not as an end-all-be-all).
Here would be my ballot if I had one.
Trevor Hoffman – He had a very good career and lasted for a long time (he’s second in major-league history with 601 saves). I was a “no” on Horffman last year but also said that I go back-and-forth on him. Well, upon further examination and a year to think about his candidacy, I’m now a “yes” on Hoffman. A major item that has swung me in Hoffman’s favor is the stat Win Probability Added (WPA), which is a context-dependent metric that accounts for the incremental increase (or decrease) in chances of winning produced in each plate appearance given the inning, score and base-out situation. Hoffman’s 34.15 WPA ranks second all-time among relievers. That’s well behind Mariano Rivera’s 56.59 but is ahead of Goose Gossage’s 32.51, Dennis Eckersley’s 30.85, Hoyt Wilhelm’s 30.84, Bruce Sutter’s 18.25 and Rollie Fingers’ 16.19. Gossage, Eckerley, Wilhelm, Sutter and Fingers are all in the Hall of Fame. Hoffman should be too.
Andruw Jones – From 1998 through 2006, Jones has a slash line of .270/.347/.513 for a 118 OPS+ and an average bWAR of 6.1, trailing only Alex Rodriguez (7.8 bWAR) and Barry Bonds (7.5 bWAR) during that span. A player with that kind of nine-year peak is a Hall-of-Famer. Jones is one of the greatest defensive center fielders in the history of the sport; he’s no. 20 in major-league history with a 24.1 dWAR. It’s funny to me that so many people are advocating for Omar Vizquel for the Hall of Fame but aren’t for Jones, who was essentially Vizquel’s defensive equal at a position and yet a much better batter. Jones’ steep decline after his age-29 season of 2006 hurts, but he would get my vote.
Chipper Jones – He is one of two slam-dunk first-time candidates on this year’s ballot. Jones is sixth among third basemen in major-league history in career bWAR – 85.0, which ranks one spot better than Brooks Robinson’s 78.4. The JAWS average for the 13 third basemen in the Hall of Fame (yes, that is the total) is 55.2; Jones’ JAWS is 65.8.
Edgar Martinez – His case is complicated because so much of his career was spent as a DH as opposed to playing the field, and he should be penalized for that. Also, Martinez wasn’t really anything as a baserunner, and he should be penalized for that. But sometimes a player’s hitting is so good that it overrides bad (or nonexistent) defense and baserunning. Frank Thomas is an example of this. And so is Martinez, whose career OPS+ of 147 is tied with that of the likes of Willie McCovey, Mike Schmidt and Willie Stargell for 42nd all-time.
Mike Mussina – He should have gotten into the Hall of Fame when Tom Glavine did on his first ballot in 2014. Mussina outdoes Glavine in career ERA+, K/9, BB/9 and WHIP. ERA+ is particularly noteworthy here, because it adjusts for a player’s offensive environment (in Mussina’s case, the American League during the peak of PED usage) and home ballpark (Oriole Park at Camden Yaards and then Yankee Stadium). Don’t go by Mussina’s 3.68 career ERA; go by his 123 career ERA+. And when it comes of their postseason careers, the two are quite comparable. But Glavine reached 300 career wins and won two National League Cy Young awards, which are voted on by BBWAA writers who many times have gotten awards wrong. Mussina did not reach 300 career wins and won no Cy Youngs. But he should be in the Hall of Fame, no questions asked.
Scott Rolen – This is probably my most controversial pick. But Rolen is a classic example of why Hall-of-Fame voters need to make use of advanced stats, because they often reveal greatness. Rolen is a guy whose body of work exceeds his reputation. He is 10th among third basemen in major-league history in career bWAR – 70.0. As mentioned during our Chipper Jones discussion, the JAWS average for the 13 third basemen in the Hall of Fame is 55.2; Rolen’s JAWS is 56.8. His career OPS+ of 122 ranks ninth among third basemen in major-league history and is the same as that of three Hall-of-Famers in Ernie Banks, Paul Molitor and Tony Perez. And Rolen was an excellent fielder; his 20.6 career dWAR is 48th in major-league history among all position players. Rolen has no realistic chance of being voted into the Hall of Fame this year or likely any time soon, but, if you do the work, he deserves to be in.
Curt Schilling – If you don’t agree with Schilling’s political views or lack of judgment on Twitter, you’re not crazy. But that’s not a good enough reason not to vote for him. Schilling, like Mike Mussina, has a candidacy that’s a no-doubter. Schilling is tied with, among others, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver and Max Scherzer for 48th in major-league history among qualified pitchers with a career ERA+ of 127. And then there is Schilling’s postseason career, which is awesome: 19 starts, 11-2, 2.23 ERA, 8.9 K/9. He started for four pennant winners, including three World Series champions: the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks and the 2004 and 2007 Boston Red Sox. Schilling was what many people thought that Jack Morris was: a very good regular-season pitcher who became an all-time great in the postseason. Morris, despite what a lot of people think, was not Hall-of-Fame worthy, even though he got in this year. Schilling is Hall-of-Fame worthy, and it’s not even close.
Jim Thome – He is the other slam-dunk first-time candidate on this year’s ballot. Thome was a one-trick pony (batting), but, as was the case with Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez, the one trick was too good to deny a spot in the Hall of Fame. Thome is tied for 42nd in major-league history with a career 147 OPS+; among those he’s tied with are Martinez, Willie McCovey, Mike Schmidt and Willie Stargell. Thome is eighth in major-league history with 612 career home runs. That’s a Hall-of-Famer.
Billy Wagner – On a ballot that includes the likes of Trevor Hoffman, it is Wagner who is the reliever most worthy of the Hall of Fame. Wagner’s career ERA+ of 187 is exceptional, far better than Hoffman’s 141. Among pitchers with at least 800 innings, Wagner’s strikeout rate – whether you by his 11.92 K/9 or his 33.2 strikeout percentage – is the best in major-league history. The knock on Wagner is that he only amassed 903 career innings. Whatever. If you wanna be a slave to the save, one of the most overrated stats in baseball, then pimp Hoffman. But I prefer guys who got outs and were dominant. Wagner fits that description beautifully.
Larry Walker – The obvious objection to his candidacy is that he played so much of his career at Coors Field, which has been the ultimate hitters’ park over the years. But this is the beauty of OPS+ – it normalizes OPS based on the players’ run-scoring environments and home ballparks. Walker’s career OPS+ of 141 is better than Reggie Jackson’s 139. Walker surpasses the JAWS threshold of 58.1 for 24 Hall-of-Fame right fielders with a 58.6 JAWS. And Walker had an .860 OPS over 121 career postseason plate appearances.
Here are three players not under major suspicion of having used PEDs who I would not have room for on my ballot but remain very open to:
Vladimir Guerrero – His offensive numbers are great (career OPS+ of 140, 449 career home runs), his swing-at-everything approach was a ton of fun to watch and he had a cannon for an arm. But even with that last attribute, he rates terribly defensively. Guerrero is a really interesting case study in how much we should value defensive metrics mostly accumulated prior to this decade. He seems to be tracking toward being voted in this year.
Jeff Kent – As with Guerrero, Kent’s case has a lot to do with how much you trust defensive metrics, because the offense was there.
Fred McGriff – His candidacy has gained steam in recent years with the idea that he was a clean slugger in a time of dirty ones. The problem is that his career OPS+ of 134 just doesn’t look great when compared to the work of other Hall-of-Fame first basemen, and he doesn’t rate well defensively or in baserunning.
Finally, we learned on Dec. 10 that two members of the 1984 World Series champion Detroit Tigers – Alan Trammel and Jack Morris – had been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame via the Modern Baseball Era Committee.
I am very happy that Trammel got in. He is someone who just a few years ago I wouldn’t have thought was Hall-of-Fame worthy. But the more that I looked at his career – and with the right numbers – the more that I was impressed. The JAWS average for 21 Hall-of-Fame shortstops is 54.8. Trammel’s JAWS is 57.5, better than those of Derek Jeter and Hall-of-Famers such as Barry Larkin, Lou Boudreau and Joe Cronin. Notice, I’m not comparing Trammel with the worst of the Hall-of-Fame shortstops; I’m saying that he rates better than the average Hall-of-Fame shortstop. He was an elite defensive shortstop for 12 seasons (1980-91), was good batter (career OPS+ of 110) and came up big for the 1984 World-Series-champion Detroit Tigers in the postseason.
Morris has been maybe the ultimate case study in analytics versus eye test. I thought that the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) voters got it right in not electing Morris in his final year of eligibility on the BBWAA ballot in Jan. 2014. His 38.4 JAWS falls well short of the 62.1 JAWS average for 62 starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame. His career ERA+ of 105 is just a shade above league average, which is 100. And his postseason resume, which, yes, includes three World Series titles, also includes a career 3.80 ERA over 92 1/3 innings. Morris was tremendous in the epic 1991 World Series Game 7, but he also was responsible for some October clunkers. His reputation is far greater than his actual performance. But you know what? Morris had a tremendous career. He pitched at a time in which consuming innings was a much bigger deal than it is today. Would he get my vote? No. But all props to him for making the Hall.
The real shame in the Modern Baseball Era Committee voting results announced was that Marvin Miller again was denied election. Miller is a no-doubter, and that he died in Nov. 2012 without having been inducted is a real shame. This guy took Major League players from borderline abuse to having the most powerful union in not only sports but maybe the country. His achievements as MLBPA executive director are too numerous to get into, but I highly recommend the book Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball by John Helyar.