Welcome to Part Three of our look at the 2017 Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot. If you’re just joining us, make sure to go back and read Part One, which was about the 13 players that I think are easy Nos, and Part Two, about four players who were automatic Yes votes.
In our final installment, we’ll be getting into the real meat of the issue. There are 17 players left to review and, with a few exceptions, all of them are plausible Hall of Famers. However, they all have flaws that could keep them out for a couple of years, or perhaps permanently. If you’ve been waiting for takes on DHs, closers, Coors Field, and more, this is the part for you. So let’s dig in.
Part Three: The Maybes
One of the problems with structuring this article this way is that, at a certain point, I had to make the tier divisions, even though they’re kind of arbitrary. I don’t think Cameron’s case is that much better than Magglio Ordonez’s, but I would rank him ahead of Magglio and, given where the dividing line ended up, that’s enough to move him up here.
Cameron has no shot at getting in, and very little chance of even surviving to year two on the ballot, but he deserves a great deal of credit for a career that’s always been extremely underrated. Despite making just a single All-Star Game, Cameron had six 4-WAR seasons, as many as Johnny Damon and more than Matt Holliday. And, despite three Gold Gloves, he had five seasons where he was worth more than a win in the field, as many as Ken Griffey.
Mike Cameron never had the bat, the counting stats, or the glory that would make him a likely target for Hall of Fame voters, but he’s more than deserving of a spot on the ballot.
Everything I said about Cameron could, more or less, apply to Drew as well. His reputation as an underachiever and the relative brevity of his career should keep him out of any serious consideration of a Hall vote, but he’s more than deserving of a spot on the ballot. If nothing else, his 2004 season with the Atlanta Braves is one of the great forgotten seasons of this era. At 8.3 WAR, only three players on this year’s ballot (Bonds, Sosa, and Walker) had any individual season that was better than Drew’s ’04, which gets even crazier when you remember that Drew didn’t even make get an All-Star spot that year!
That wasn’t even his best hitting season, either, as Drew had a 161 OPS+ in 2001 for the St. Louis Cardinals. It’s a shame that Drew’s contract, injury issues, and the weight of expectation that came from his dazzling potential have kept us from fully appreciating what a great player Drew was. Perhaps there’s no more fitting tribute to his strange, underappreciated career arc than being totally overlooked on an over-crowded Hall of Fame ballot.
Vlad represents one of the biggest splits between old-school and new-school thinking that you’ll see on the ballot. The James Monitor sees him as a humongous lock, behind just four other players on this year’s ballot in terms of induction odds. And yet, many of the advanced stats have him ranked as more of a borderline case. So what gives?
Let me phrase it this way: do you think Bobby Abreu is a Hall of Famer? It might seem like an odd question, but Abreu has more or less the same career WAR as Vlad (59.9 vs 59.3), the same 7-year peak WAR as Vlad (41.5 vs 41.1) and the same JAWS (50.7 vs 50.2). Yet, I doubt Abreu will get in. His Monitor score is below 100 and he doesn’t really strike me as the kind of player who’s going to generate the passion necessarily to get on-the-fence voters to take a closer look at his resume. A look at their stats side by side shows where the divergence is.
Vlad was the better hitter, but the gap is not as wide as their reputations would have you think. Instead, the difference is that Vlad brought the thunder, coming up just one home run shy of 450 and four runs batted in short of 1,500. Abreu, on the other hand, couldn’t even break 300 homers despite playing for two more seasons than Guerrero.
Then there’s the position disparity. While both were predominantly right fielders, Vlad played over 500 games as a DH, while Abreu spent just 161 games at the position. Regardless of what you think of the DH debates, you can’t really argue that the replacement level for a DH is much higher than any position that asks a player to contribute to both offense and defense.
Lastly, there’s Vlad’s Most Valuable Player award. While Abreu never even finished in the Top 10, Guerrero won the trophy in 2004, providing a huge boost to his Monitor score and a concrete sign for voters to point to when it comes to honoring his peak. But did Guerrero deserve the award? He was merely sixth in WAR among AL position players that year (admittedly not the end-all be-all). He wasn’t even the AL’s best hitter, as OPS+, adjusting for park and context, rated Travis Hafner ahead of him. But, maybe the most surprising part of all is that, despite finishing 23rd in NL MVP voting in 2004, Abreu himself was better that year, posting a 6.5 WAR vs Vlad’s 5.6. And it wasn’t because Abreu racked up WAR on the defensive metrics. Depending on how you weight on-base and slugging percentage (and most research shows OBP is more important), Abreu had better numbers, although they were in the weaker league.
Do I think Guerrero is a Hall of Famer? Probably. The numbers are borderline, but his swagger was so memorable and his game was so fun that I’d be tempted to edge him over the line. But I also don’t think it’s madness to leave him off your ballot in a year this crowded.
When I told my boss, Sean Forman, about how I was structuring this piece, he had just one question: “Trevor Hoffman isn’t going in the locks, is he?” There are a couple of odder situations, but, to be honest, the Hoffman conundrum is the toughest one I faced as a hypothetical voter. It’s also my favorite because it elicits strong passions on both sides, but it’s entirely based on what happened on the field in a way that, say, the tedious Bonds controversy is not.
The pro-Hoffman case is straight-forward, he was the second most well-regarded relief pitcher of his era. He led the NL in saves twice, came in 2nd five more times, and is #2 overall in the stat that has become, over the last 30ish years, the main way that we evaluate relievers. He had three Top 5 finishes in the Cy Young voting (which, by the way, was as many as Mariano Rivera) and even an…interesting 7th place finish in 1998’s NL MVP voting.
Hoffman pitched enough to qualify for rate stat leaderboards and, on that front, he delivers. He’s top 10 all-time in Walks and Hits per IP and Strikeouts per 9 IP, and he’s top 15 in Adjusted ERA+ and Strikeout-to-Walk ratio. From 1994–2009, Hoffman’s time as a closer, only six pitchers had a higher Win Probability Added and all six have either already been inducted or will be when all is said and done.
But is that enough to make up for the massive gap in production between Hoffman and basically everyone else in the Hall of Fame? Hoffman pitched 1,089.1 innings, which would trail only Bruce Sutter for fewest innings pitched by a Hall of Famer getting in on the merits of his MLB pitching. Hoffman pitched 200 fewer innings in his career than Babe Ruth, a man who’s in the Hall of Fame primarily for hitting. Sutter even has a slight edge in JAWS (24.6 vs 24.0) and a big edge in 7-year peak WAR (24.6 vs 19.9).
But is it Hoffman’s fault that he was trapped in a system that prioritized the “save” and thus limited his ability to make an impact? After all, he could only do what his manager asked him to do and managers in the 1990s, to an unprecedented degree, asked elite relievers to just give them one inning. Hoffman faced 1,633 batters in non-save situations; Sutter, despite playing six fewer years and 400 fewer games than Hoffman, faced almost an identical number of batters, 1,604, in non-save situations.
The save situation numbers are almost as striking. Hoffman pitched in a save situation in 696 separate games, facing 2,755 batters with a save on the line. While Sutter played in over 250 fewer save situations (412 games), he faced just around 100 fewer hitters (2,647) with a save on the line. That’s because most of Sutter’s saves and potential saves were more than an inning, while Hoffman got a save of four or more outs just 55 times in his career. And this comparison only gets more stark if you compare Hoffman to a less controversial inductee than Sutter, like Rollie Fingers or Rich Gossage.
In short, Hoffman couldn’t accumulate better stats because his manager wouldn’t let him. But should that even matter? What about a player whose WAR suffered because he was being played out of position? If a player had a Hoffman-esque career over the course of 4,500ish PAs as a pinch hitter, should they get into the Hall just because they probably could have contributed more if his manager let them? Does the fact that Hoffman excelled in a role that we now know to be less valuable than we thought at the time diminish Hoffman’s achievements themselves?
These questions only get more complicated as you work your way down the ballot. In fact, if you’ll permit me, I’d like to skip ahead to…
Billy Wagner, who has almost identical WAR numbers to Hoffman, not to mention the edge in JAWS. In fact, there’s really no way to argue that Wagner wasn’t a better pitcher than Hoffman.
Hoffman, obviously, gets the edge on longevity, but Wagner was better in just about every per-inning measure of pitching performance, including fielding independent metrics like FIP.
So the what-ifs cut both ways. Wagner doesn’t have fewer saves than Hoffman because he was a worse closer, but simply because he had fewer opportunities. He pitched in a save situation in 504 games, roughly 59% of his games. Hoffman pitched in a save situation in 696 games, as mentioned above, which was 67.2% of his career games played.
In other words, if Hoffman shouldn’t get dinged for usage shenanigans, then neither should Wagner. It’s impossible to argue that Hoffman was a better pitcher than Wagner using any metric except saves, which as a measure on their own are about as relevant as wins.
But Hoffman and Wagner were the 2nd and 3rd best relievers of their era. And just because previous 30ish-WAR relievers missed out on induction doesn’t necessarily mean that I think future ones should too. In short, I won’t be voting for Hoffman, but I don’t resent anyone who does. To me, the real crime is that Hoffman is a mortal lock for induction while Wagner won’t be getting anywhere close.
Jeff Kent is a low-peak guy who, I think, James’ Monitor is overrating because of what are traditionally excellent power numbers for a second baseman. Kent had 9 seasons with a slugging percentage over .500, trailing only Rogers Hornsby for most all-time by a 2B.
But you don’t need me to tell you that offense, in general, was up in the 1990s. Kent’s OPS+ of 123 ranks behind plenty of Hall of Fame second basemen, as well as several, like the eternally underrated Bobby Grich, who didn’t even get more than one year on the ballot.
Kent was pretty clearly the second best 2B of his era, and I won’t begrudge anyone who wants to vote for him. But if you do, know that I’ll be keeping a very close eye on how you treat Chase Utley, Ian Kinsler, and Robinson Cano, all of whom look like better players to me, when their turn comes up.
On the one hand, the debate over Martinez’s case is yet another tedious riff on how much we should blame a player for performing within the confines of his role. And yet, the real challenge that’s faced Martinez isn’t that he was a DH, but rather that his raw numbers seem below what would qualify a DH for entry. Here’s the 5 players who played at least 50% of their careers at DH and hit over 300 home runs:
The Big Hurt is in and Ortiz will likely follow on the first ballot, but that’s it. Baines stuck around for a few years but couldn’t clear 6% and Baylor didn’t even do that well. Edgar was someone whose sole job was to hit, and yet he barely cleared 300 homers and couldn’t even reach 2,250 hits.
Yet, if you read the column all the way to the right, and have some understanding of sabermetrics, you probably have a guess at where I’m going with this. Martinez didn’t merely get hits, he also got on base. He’s in the .300/.400/.500 club with plenty of room to spare, something that only Thomas, among that cohort, can also claim.
Adjusting for ballpark and era, Martinez had an OPS+ of 150 or better in eight seasons, which puts him in the Top 25 all-time. And WAR, which includes a very healthy deduction for the time Edgar spent as a DH, still ranks him ahead of recent inductees like Mike Piazza and Craig Biggio.
The problem, for Edgar, is context. He spent the first part of his career in a lower run environment than what we think of for 1990s sluggers, since the late 1980s and early 1990s were actually a relatively fallow period for scoring. Then, in the last 1990s and early 2000s, he moved to Safeco, a notorious pitcher’s park. It doesn’t even take some sort of 2000 Coors Field shenanigans to prove this point. If Edgar had played his entire career on the ’96 Yankees, his numbers would probably look a little more like what you expect from a Hall of Fame DH:
In short, Edgar’s bat is good enough that even an NL team would have found a way to keep him in their lineup. He’s one of the best hitters of all-time and a very worthy Baseball Hall of Fame inductee.
The strongest argument for the Crime Dog is a simple one: future generations deserve the opportunity to learn about the greatest nickname in baseball history. Still, after getting just around 20% last year, his seventh on the ballot, things aren’t looking too good for McGriff.
McGriff was a good player, but doesn’t really seem like a Hall of Famer to me. His OPS+ of 134 ranks with players like Boog Powell and John Kruk, while his JAWS is behind other clear Nos like Mark Teixeira. McGriff would be far from the worst player in the Hall, but with a ballot this crowded, it would be wasteful to throw him a vote.
Mussina’s case is interesting in that, in many ways, he’s a supercharged version of that most dreaded of Hall archetypes: the accumulator. While his career WAR of 83.0 would be the highest of any non-Clemens pitcher to miss the Hall, his 7-year peak is below players who missed like Kevin Brown and Dave Stieb.
The low peak was enough for me to knock him down to this middle tier, but it’s not nearly enough for me to keep him off my ballot. Mussina’s peak is a little flat, but he was an excellent pitcher for a very long time.
Using 8-WAR as, an admittedly arbitrary, marker for an all-time great pitching season, Mussina is one of 113 pitchers with at least one 8-WAR season. However, he only has one, something he shares with decidedly non-Hall of Fame pitchers like Pat Hentgen and Jose Rijo.
But if you lower the bar to 5-WAR, you’re still looking at seasons that we would define as All-Star worthy. And by that measure, Mussina looks much, much better:
There’s no one on that list who isn’t in the Hall or on the ballot this year. Mussina may not have been the greatest ever, but he was really really good for a very long time, more than enough to earn a spot.
I would put Posada in with Cameron and Drew as players who were better than the ones in part one, but still a cut below the ones who are truly in the running for the Hall of Fame.
That isn’t to say that he didn’t have a great career. By JAWS, Posada actually runs ahead of a few Hall of Fame catchers, like Roy Campanella (although that’s because Campanella’s career was so much shorter), and his 121 OPS+ is quite excellent for a catcher.
But Posada never had a 6-WAR season and was one of AL’s top 10 position players just once over the course of his career. Thurman Munson, another lifelong New York Yankees’ catcher, had a better JAWS, higher career WAR, and two seasons better than Jorge’s peak. Yet Munson’s still short of the JAWS average for Hall of Fame catchers and never came particularly close to induction. Posada deserves a little more recognition than the one-and-done that he may be in for, but not that much more.
There’s many who will look at 2004’s title run and automatically vote Manny in and there’s many who will look at 2009’s positive steroid test and automatically vote no. To my mind, Manny is a Hall of Famer, but I’m not 100% sold that he’s one of the ten best players on this year’s ballot.
In short, if Mussina’s case gave me slight pause because of the lack of extended dominance, then Manny’s is giving me even more trouble. Ramirez only had two 6-WAR or better seasons and his seven-year peak WAR of 39.9 ranks 11th on this year’s ballot. Much of that WAR gap is based on the defensive inputs, which are obviously less reliable for the early part of Manny’s career than they are now. But whether you use the numbers or the eye test, it was clear to anyone who watched Manny that he gave back a significant amount of the value he created at the plate with his fielding.
Still, these feel like nitpicks against an all-time great hitting record. Since 1990, just Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, and Frank Thomas have created more runs at the plate (via the batting input for WAR) than Ramirez. Do you remember Edgar’s stat about having eight seasons with an OPS+ over 150? Well, Manny had 9, which puts him in the top 20 all-time.
So I’ll resist the temptation to hot take you about Manny. He’s on my ballot.
Instead, it’s Pudge who I’ll be leaving off in order to come in under the maximum of ten players. Rodriguez had a great career, he deserves to be in the Hall, and I’m sure he’ll make it soon enough. But on a ten person ballot, you’ve got to make some tough cuts and, unfortunately, that means leaving off Rodriguez.
As a hitter, Rodriguez was just a smidge above average for his career; his adjusted OPS+ of 106 ranks 20th on this year’s ballot. Still, he played a premium defensive position and has an MVP award, even if the latter should probably belong to Pedro or Derek Jeter.
Rodriguez put up big numbers for a catcher, but he did it in a bandbox, and while that doesn’t diminish what he did, it should be considered with context. Would Posada be considered a Hall of Famer if he played in Arlington? On the numbers, it’s closer than you might think:
Of course, Rodriguez played the position much better than Posada, but his seven-year peak WAR of 39.7 is just seven wins ahead of Posada. That said, Pudge still has a huge edge when you consider the full course of his career, thanks to the fact that he stayed super productive at a premium position well into the late 2000s (posting a 2.5 WAR season in 2008).
In a perfect world of no limits, Pudge would get my vote. But in this one, where I have to reduce the ballot to ten, I’m afraid he’s just not one of my picks in this insanely crowded year.
Smith actually has the edge on Hoffman and Wagner in terms of both WAR and JAWS, but he lacks both the sheer dominance that Wagner showed in his small sample size and the fun milestone that Hoffman boasts. So it’s a quick no for me.
Perhaps no one’s candidacy is more befuddling than Schilling’s. Curt has taken a major ding in the early voting this year, as voters are pushing back on the racist, misogynistic, and homophobic content that he’s been purveying on social media.
Politics is well beyond the scope of this blog, but it’s reasonable to say that for many writers, Schilling’s behavior crosses a line. That’s especially because, on the other merits, there’s no good reason why Schilling isn’t already in the Hall. He’s well ahead of no-brainer inductees like Tom Glavine and Nolan Ryan in JAWS, 15th all-time in strikeouts (everyone ahead of him is either already in the Hall or named Roger Clemens), and boasts an impressive record of clutch postseason performances. The only real ding on his statistical record is his lowish win total, a stat that we’re hopefully not using in the year 2017 to decide whether someone should or shouldn’t get into the Hall of Fame.
Unfortuately, it’s also not like Schilling’s penchant for controversy was a new development in 2016. Here’s what Schilling was doing in 2015, well before a voting period that saw his share jump by 12–13 points. And here’s a report that came out around that time about his shady dealings in 2012 — a serious ethical problem that I’d hope character clause minded voters considered in one of the first four years Schilling was on the ballot, while he saw his vote climb from the high-20s to over 50%.
In the end, I’d simply feel like a massive hypocrite for spending years shouting about how the Hall isn’t the battleground for grand ethics debate, only to leave Schilling off because I find his behavior unethical. I think this is a different issue than what’s going on with the PED guys, and I understand if people feel like they need to draw a line here, but, the unfortunate truth is that this is a building that has found room for people like Cap Anson and Tom Yawkey. In a year this crowded, I can understand if Schilling’s repellant beliefs make the difference for you; but in the end, I’m making my decisions based on what happened on the field, and on the field, he was a Hall of Famer.
I toyed with the idea of giving Sheffield the tenth spot on my ballot, but couldn’t quite make the case for him. At 60.3 WAR, Sheffield ranks 11th on the ballot, ahead of Guerrero who may be getting in this year. However, some of that is accumulation; via JAWS, which better adjusts for peak, he’s 13th.
Among his position, he comes up short of the average Hall of Fame right fielder in JAWS and career WAR, but he’d hardly be the worst, ranking well ahead of inductees like Chuck Klein and Willie Keeler.
However, Sheffield simply never showed the kind of dominance that I’m looking for in a Hall of Famer. He had a few top three finishes in MVP voting but there’s no year that you can point to where he was clearly one of the five or even ten best players in baseball. His best WAR year was 2003, when he had 6.8 wins, and it’s going to be uphill sledding to convince this set of voters to take an age-34 peak season by a player named in the Mitchell Report very seriously.
But the main reason I considered casting my hypothetical ballot for him is that I don’t want to see him slip under the 5% threshold. Sheffield was a great hitter even in the context of his era, boasting three years with an OPS+ over 175. Someone with 60 WAR and top 30 spots in HRs and RBIs would almost certainly be getting a broader share of support if he had spent the majority of his career with one team. As it is, Sheffield is kind of an orphan — someone who was around, but never really endeared himself to one fanbase (especially given his tendency to speak his mind, both for good and ill).
In the end, I don’t think Sheffield is a Hall of Famer, but it’s closer than he’s gotten credit for.
For years, I’ve been opposed to inducting Sosa (and, before that, Mark McGwire). It’s one thing to fight for Bonds and Clemens, clearly the best players of their era who could each have several years of suspicious post-peak excellence shaved off their careers and still be Hall of Famers. But it’s quite another thing for a player like Sosa, whose entire resume is based around a few years of bashing homers that came out of nowhere.
And yet, something’s shifted for me. As Rob Manfried pointed out in his statement on the 2003 test that supposedly implicates Sosa, those test results were meant to be anonymous and confidential; a way for MLB to determine if it had a problem and what steps to take, rather than a way to assess guilt and dole punishment. What’s more, the testing is different from the kind used today and the results would almost certainly not hold up to an MLBPA challenge.
The lines were blurrier, the rules less clear, and the pressure to do whatever it takes greater than they are now, when PEDs are much more clearly and strictly regulated. At the end of the day, I simply can’t say that I know who achieved what for which reason. I can’t look at anyone who played in this era, even the people I trust and assume to be clean, and know with 100% certainty that their stats were earned ethically while others’ weren’t. And I’ve decided that it’s no longer sensible to base my vote on absurd hypotheticals about what I imagine a guy would have done in a world where PEDs didn’t exist.
All I have is what happened and, on the basis of what happened, Sosa has one of the most fascinating cases on this year’s ballot. His career WAR of 58.4 is well below the average right fielder in the Hall (73.2). His career was almost certainly worse than Dwight Evans or Reggie Smith, neither of whom managed to get any traction among the voters. And yet, there’s the peak.
In his seven-year peak, Sosa accumulated 43.7 WAR, above the Hall average. Of the 11 RFs with a better seven-year peak than Sosa, nine are in the Hall of Fame, the tenth is Shoeless Joe Jackson, and we’ll be getting to the 11th in just a moment. In his 2001 season, Sammy Sosa put up over 10 WAR and an OPS+ of 203, meaning his OPS was over double what a league average hitter would have done in the same ballpark and year. Since 1901, the only players to have a season with an OPS+ over 200 and not get into the Hall are Norm Cash, Jeff Bagwell, Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa.
As much as people want to go back and pretend it didn’t happen, the 1998 McGwire-Sosa race was one of the most electrifying baseball seasons of the last 30 years. For fans my age, that season and those two players provided a way into the game that was accessible and entertaining, the kind of personality-driven one-upsmanship that had attracted so many of my peers to basketball finding it’s way back into baseball.
Maybe I’ve gotten too soft and maybe it sucks that so many people were able to cheat without consequence, but the Hall isn’t just a building that celebrates the moments when baseball transcended the moment to reach out towards something bigger. It’s also filled with plenty of people who faced difficult moral tests and failed them. There’s lessons to be learned from that failure, just as much as from the people who did things “the right way.” If the Hall exists to celebrate the history of the game, then it needs to tell that full story, in all its complexity and moral shading. Like it or not, Sosa is an indelible part of that story and, in my opinion, his chapter deserves to be told.
With voters finally appearing to see the light on Jeff Bagwell, Walker has stepped up as my new hobby horse. In short, it’s absurd that Walker hasn’t been in the Hall for years, let alone that he hasn’t managed to crack 25%. Walker has none of the baggage of a Sosa, let alone even the suspicions some have cast on Bagwell. And yet, some voters seem to almost reflexively look for any reason to discredit someone who put up big offensive numbers in 1990s.
Their excuse for Walker: the bandbox of Coors Field. Between the offense-improving magic of Denver in the 1990s, and the brevity of Walker’s career, it’s easy to look at his raw counting stats and say that they’re not enough to merit induction.
But that contorts the real reason why statheads look at park factors. It’s not simply about giving a player an arbitrarily determined amount of extra credit or blame for playing in the park he played in. Rather, it’s a starting point that leads one to find quantifiable ways to remove contextual issues like that from statistical analysis, so we can determine how a player performed compared to what an average player would have done in the same situation.
And guess what? Stripped of context, Larry Walker still performed well, well above average. He had six 5-WAR seasons, (as many as Tim Raines and more than Derek Jeter), two 7.5-WAR seasons (as many as Bagwell or Johnny Bench), and one 9.8-WAR season, something that only two hitters have done without making the Hall of Fame (not counting guys currently on the ballot). With the exception of 2000, he spent every year from 1997 to 2002 with an OPS+ of 150 or higher, meaning he was at least 50% above average, even adjusting for park.
So while those video game style 1.100 OPS seasons were, in part, a product of Coors, they also represented Walker performing at a very high level. Not a best-hitter-in-history level, but still very, very good. And, unlike a lot of other mashers in this period, Walker could play the field. He had seven seasons with at least 10 fielding runs and he was one of the few right fielders from 1985–2005 to post over a win and a half of defensive WAR for his career (tough to do in a non-premium corner outfield position).
By JAWS, Walker is well ahead of the average Hall of Fame right fielder, and by career WAR, he’s just a shade below. In my mind, Walker’s a no-doubt Hall of Famer, and it’s a shame that it looks like it’ll be up to the new Eras Committee to get this one right.
Would Vote For if Ballot was Unlimited: