08 January 2008

My Hall of Fame Ballot


By the time I finish this post, the Baseball Hall of Fame will have announced this year's BBWAA inductees, if any. Scuttlebutt suggests this is the year of the Goose, who might be joined by Dawson and/or Jim Rice. Lee Smith, Bert Blyleven and ballot newcomer Tim Raines round out the most likely candidates.

A popular HOF test, which I dont like as a stand alone criterion, is to ask if a comparable, positional counterpart is already in the Hall. "Comparable" is, of course, a loaded word, endlessly honed and redefined, but most of the new candidates are "in" by this lowest common measure. Slugging OFs like Rice, Dawson, Parker & Dale Murphy are conceivably all in, by way of Kirby Puckett; Tim Raines is clearly in by way of Lou Brock, and Gossage and Lee Smith are likely in "thanks" to Bruce Sutter. One could certainly argue Mattingly was the equal of Tony Perez or Orlando Cepeda at first.

The second test, a needed counterbalance to the first, is to locate contemporary positional "comps", who are not in Cooperstown. At 1B, for example, Will Clark and Jack Clark each played longer than Donny Baseball with considerably higher OPS+. Going back, Norm Cash and Dick Allen were better hitters than Mattingly, and Allen a better baserunner and comparable fielder. In the outfield, are any of today's slugging candidates really more deserving than Dwight Evans? Or even Fred Lynn? Ken Singleton? Cesar Cedeno? Barry Bonds' dad? Going back, are they more deserving than Reggie Smith or Jimmy Wynn, or one dimensional yet clearly superior hitters like Frank Howard or Rocky Colavito?

All these guys were summarily dismissed by the BBWAA, yet it's not clear to me that the careers of Dawson, Rice, Parker or Murphy were objectively better than any of these outcasts. One of the reasons it's so tough to distinguish between Dawson, Rice, Parker and Murphy is because none of them genuinely stands out as "great". Good as they were, they each have compelling arguments against them, and admitting one of them, when so many indistinguishable players of this caliber have been historically ignored, just doesnt seem right.

Tim Raines career OPS+ of 123 was slightly higher than all the wannabe OFs (except Rice 128), but Tim was a completely different prototype, in the Lou Brock-Rickey Henderson mold. He was a decent defender, not as good as Dawson or Murphy, but the ridiculous baserunning ( incl 800 steals @ an all time high 84% success rate) created enormous value beyond static OPS calculations. He needn't apologize for toiling in Montreal or for failing to be Rickey Henderson - his unusual, broad based skills, wielded over 2500 games, speak for themselves.

In the infield, I voted for Alan Trammell. His career 110 OPS+ wont elicit oohs and ahhs, but half of Cooperstown's shortstops were lower than that - and Trammell was a gold glover who turned more DP's ( with 84 fewer errors) than Davey Concepcion. He was much better than Davey with the bat and at least his equal in the field. Was Trammell as good as Ripken? No. Yount? No. Ozzie? Different prototype, but very likely no. Was he as good as Jeter? His range was a helluva lot better than Jeter, enough to make it an interesting comparison. Trammell was considerably better than Phil Rizzuto, he was better than Pee Wee Reese with the bat and glove, and alot better than Aparicio or overhyped swizzle sticks like Maury Wills and Omar Vizquel. The only comparable shortstop I can think of who recently fell short of induction was Tony Fernandez. It's quite reasonable to argue Alan's as good as half the SS's already in Cooperstown, and while I dont consider his lack of induction on the writer's ballot a glaring travesty, his paltry support from the BBWAA is rather puzzling.

On the mound, we consider starters Blyleven, Morris and Tommy John with Goose and Lee Smith in the pen. I now learn that Goose, who I watched as a Yankee fan in the 70s, is this year's lone inductee. Congratulations, Rich. He fits comfortably within the class of relievers inducted before him - Wilhelm, Fingers, Sutter and the hybrid SP/RP Eckersley. Only Wilhelm was clearly more effective over a longer period than Gossage; Eckersley threw alot more innings with slightly worse ERA+, Sutter threw just 57% of the Goose's career workload, and Fingers was quite comparable, probably a tad worse.

One shouldnt read too much into Save totals, given the evolving and shrinking role of closers. Just because Lee Smith or John Franco have 400 saves, doesnt mean they were as good as, let alone better than, Goose Gossage. If you think Gossage is the 17th best closer because he's 17th in saves, well, you just weren't there. Two previously eligible relievers passed by the Hall who might have a conceivable claim over Gossage are the late Dan Quisenberry (1043 IP, 146 ERA+, 244 saves) and the underrated Kent Tekulve (1436 IP, 132 ERA+, 184 saves). I dont think I'd take either before Gossage (1809 IP, 126 ERA+), but these less heralded, "game over" stoppers were every bit as good as Lee Smith (1289 IP, 131 ERA+) or John Franco (1245 IP, 137 ERA+).

In one respect, Jack Morris and Bert Blyleven were opposites. Given their respective ERAs, Morris won more than he should have - Blyleven less - but they were two of the best pitchers who debuted in the 70's, a decade dramatically underrepresented in Cooperstown. Indeed, not one pure starter from the 70's has ever been inducted. The latest debut for any HOF starter was 1967 - Tom Seaver - and we can expect a new logjam of starters (Clemens, Maddux, et al) to attract HOF attention shortly, but for some reason, between 1968 and 1983, not one HOF starter emerged on the scene. That's fifteen years - nearly one sixth of a century - and too long to be explained simply by a natural ebb and flow of positional talent. The DH was introduced, the mound was lowered, and for whatever reason(s), the challenges facing all pitchers of the era were different than before.

It seems past time we recognize a starter, somebody, from this era. If it's not Ron Guidry or Saberhagen or Vida Blue, then it ought to be Jack Morris and/or Bert Blyleven. Take your pick. If you fancy 68 career wins over .500, seven postseason victories including the 10 inning Game 7 WS shutout, then take Jack. If you're partial to 60 shutouts, 3700 strikeouts (5th all time) and a dozen seasons among the league's top ten in ERA+, then Bert's your man. Personally, I'd take Blyleven. A 118 ERA+, the same as Warren Spahn, with more innings than Roger Clemens or Greg Maddux? That Nolan Ryan can be inducted virtually unanimously and Blyleven receive such lukewarm support is a testament to the fact the Hall of Fame is about more than career statistics (which is fine) - and maybe to the fact that many stats based voters have little or no appreciation of more refined formulae that illuminate performance within the contexts of park and era (which is not fine).

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