I made my first trip to Cooperstown in the summer of 1996. I’d grown up obsessing over baseball history, so it was an unforgettable day.
When I was 7, my dad had given me picture books detailing the exploits of old-time players like Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown; at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, I was able to gaze at Three Finger Brown’s old glove and jersey, and read about his gnarled pitching hand and how he’d used his condition to his advantage. As I got older, I became obsessed with whether or not Babe Ruth really called his shot in the 1932 World Series; the Hall had half a room full of Ruth memorabilia, including the tree-trunk-size 44-ounce bat he swung and, sure enough, a clip of Ruth pointing his bat right before he went yard.1 Growing up in Montreal, I’d become well versed in the legend of Jackie Robinson, learning how he starred with the Triple-A Royals in 1946 before shuttling to Brooklyn to start his historic big league career; the Hall boasted enough Robinson displays to fill an afternoon.
My favorite exhibit was far more modest. In a hallway set off from many of the most popular attractions stood a year-by-year display listing all the no-hitters in major league history. At the far end, I spotted the entries for 1995, the most recent season. Only two pitchers had thrown no-hitters that year: Ramon Martinez, the excellent right-hander who’d no-hit the Marlins at Dodger Stadium, and his younger brother Pedro, who’d fired nine perfect innings against the Padres at Jack Murphy Stadium before seeing Bip Roberts break up the no-hit bid in the 10th — still good enough for Hall recognition. I stared and stared. Two brothers who’d grown up in poverty alongside four other siblings in a tiny, tin-roofed shack with dirt floors had been transported to big cities a world away; they’d bamboozled hitters and now they were forever linked in greatness and honored at the mecca of baseball history. To me, it was what the Hall was all about.
It’s downright depressing to contemplate what the name “Hall of Fame” evokes today. Every year around this time, talking about the Hall becomes an exercise in derision. These players aren’t worthy because they may have put something in their bodies that may or may not have been legal when they may or may not have done it. Dismiss that guy, because he didn’t hit the random, round-number milestone. The negativity that oozes through the annual voting process can make us bitter about the eligible players, the game’s rich and amazing history, and even this museum in a tiny hamlet that many people have never actually visited.
It’s easy to get sucked into the muck and declare that arguing over the right to a small plaque in a huge room in a random building in the middle of nowhere isn’t worth all the emotional energy. All I can say is that if you love baseball, Cooperstown is worth the visit.2 And even though the rows of plaques honoring Hall of Famers make up merely a tiny portion of the actual Hall, they’re worth caring about. If you believe as I do that baseball is a great game, and that the Hall is meant to honor greatness, then you should understand why searching for a way to improve the voting process is worth our time.
Each year, the Baseball Writers Association of America decides the fate of the players up for induction. Any BBWAA member who’s been in the group for 10 or more years is eligible to vote. Even with that seniority-based restriction, we’re left with a large group of voters; 569 ballots were cast last year. A group that large invites diverse opinions, and diverse opinions invite a lack of consensus. That’s exactly what happened with the last vote. No player received the 75 percent share of the vote needed to gain election, triggering widespread outrage, especially among those of us who saw 10 or more deserving candidates on the ballot. After the shutout, I catalogued several problems with voters’ approaches, and I’ll continue to weigh in on future results, because I disagree with the methods that many voters use to evaluate candidates, including how they account for the debate on performance-enhancing drugs and the context (or lack thereof) they use to evaluate candidates’ credentials.
The BBWAA can’t do much to change particular voters’ selection methods. There are, however, three improvements the association can and should implement to improve the voting process.
Three Ways to Fix Hall of Fame Voting
1. Lift the limit of 10 votes per ballot. Some voters’ inflexibility on players linked to PEDs (or even players accused of being muscular) has created a backlog of viable candidates. What’s more, the split on those players has caused a negative trickle-down effect for other deserving holdover candidates.
Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Mike Mussina, and Jeff Kent join this year’s ballot, meaning writers who want to vote for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and the like have to exclude candidates they might find worthy in order to whittle down to 10. Hell, even writers who definitively refuse to vote for PED guys are running into this problem. But the 10-player ballot limit remains in place because … well, there’s actually no reason, other than that’s how it’s always been. The good news is that some BBWAA members are speaking out. New York Times writer Tyler Kepner broached this at the winter meetings, arguing that the 10-candidate limit does more harm than good. While the idea met with some resistance at the higher levels, many rank-and-file BBWAA members supported Kepner’s proposal, and the group voted overwhelmingly to form a committee to discuss this issue and other potential voting reforms.
Others have tried, unsuccessfully, to challenge the ballot limit in the past. But with Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz set to hit the ballot next year, and with no end in sight for the backlog, expect a growing chorus of support for reform.
2. Until no. 1 happens, abolish the 5 percent minimum threshold. With so many deserving candidates, some players who merit consideration are instead ignored, putting them at risk of not earning 5 percent of the overall vote and getting knocked off the ballot for good. We saw this last year, when first-time candidates Kevin Brown and Kenny Lofton were one-and-done; neither Brown nor Lofton was a slam dunk Hall of Famer by any stretch, and the fact that both are criminally underrated played a big role in them missing the cut, but some voters might have given Brown and Lofton the nod if they’d been allowed to go deeper than 10.
This year, players like Sammy Sosa (12.5 percent of the vote last time), Rafael Palmeiro (8.8 percent), and maybe Kent (the all-time leader in home runs by a second baseman) run the risk of suffering the same fate as Brown and Lofton. Again, I’m not saying Sosa and Palmeiro have perfect track records, especially to voters who won’t back players suspected of PED use; nor am I denying that Kent’s home runs came in an era rife with offense, or that he delivered only two truly elite seasons. But if lesser candidates like Jim Rice and Lee Smith can hang around for years and build support, it seems unfair to deny others that right simply because they became eligible when so many great candidates were also on the ballot.
As long as the 10-player limit exists, the 5 percent rule needs to go.
3. Strip non-baseball writers of their voting privileges. Even the best of us fall victim to confirmation bias from time to time, absorbing pieces of evidence that support our existing beliefs and rejecting new sources of information that contradict what we think we know. Baseball writers aren’t immune to this phenomenon. The less access we have to new ideas, the less likely we are to think about the game in an open-minded way.
Given that risk of falling behind the times, people who no longer cover baseball shouldn’t vote on the sport’s highest honor. The most jarring example of this surfaced last year, when three former baseball writers publicized their Hall of Fame votes at their current place of employment … GolfersWest.com. If the BBWAA truly cares about the voting process, it’ll stop allowing people who haven’t covered the sport since acid-washed jeans were popular to retain voting rights.
There’s an easy fix: Hall voters who stop actively covering baseball should have to reapply to maintain their votes. The BBWAA, which currently employs a probationary evaluation period for members who lose their jobs or switch media outlets, could do something similar strictly for Hall voting rights, forcing writers to prove they’re still covering baseball in some way, or forcing them to sacrifice their votes. Regardless of how long this review period lasts, it would allow the BBWAA to keep tabs on its voting members and avoid the mockery of golf writers casting Hall ballots. While there’s certainly value in having watched Jack Morris play, there’s as much or more value in recognizing that the game has changed since Morris retired.
The BBWAA has myriad raisons d’être, but to the public its most visible role — in addition to voting on annual awards such as MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year, and Manager of the Year — is voting for the Hall of Fame. I became a BBWAA member for the first time last week. I’m still 10 years away from casting my first actual ballot. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to effect change from within, improving the process by which we recognize a player’s greatness. The next generation of Three Finger Brown fans should expect nothing less.
Breaking Down the Ballot: My Top 10
This year, there are more worthy candidates than spots on the ballot. Tough choices abound, but here’s a look at what my top 10 would be, in order of preference, if I had a vote now.
1. Barry Bonds: On numbers alone, Bonds is one of the three or four best players of all time, and that’s before factoring in the quality of competition in his era compared to what Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb faced. Of course, Bonds’s candidacy isn’t nearly that simple for many voters or fans. OK, let’s assume that, despite there being no positive drug test, Bonds took PEDs. Since the two most common arguments pointing to Bonds’s PED use are that (a) his numbers shot to the moon at an age when that very rarely happens, and (b) he went from being an athletic, all-around terror to a gigantic home run machine, let’s also assume that Bonds started juicing after the 1999 season. That would square with the popular narrative that Bonds was jealous of the attention going to Mark McGwire and Sosa in ’98, and that an injury-plagued ’99 season would’ve pushed Bonds to seek chemical help while rehabbing. To further extend this exercise, let’s assume that Bonds deserves absolutely zero credit for everything that happened from 2000 on. His remaining career numbers would be:
2,000 games played
445 home runs
1,455 runs scored
460 stolen bases
Bonds’s first 14 years work out to the sum of Jimmie Foxx’s entire career. And of course, this exercise twistedly assumes that without PEDs, Bonds would’ve been eaten by wolves on Christmas Day 1999 and never played again.
Some will argue that players linked to steroids should automatically be disqualified for life from Hall consideration and that even suspicion of use absent a failed test or other concrete evidence should trigger that ban. Those aren’t the standards I use to evaluate players’ Hall cases, though, so Bonds is the easiest pick for me this year.
2. Roger Clemens: Just for fun, let’s try the same exercise with Clemens, counting everything up to the Rocket’s otherworldly numbers in Toronto:
2,776 innings pitched
Clemens’s first 13 years top Warren Spahn’s entire career. And if you’re willing to take Clemens’s career numbers for what they are, you might rate him as the greatest pitcher of all time, and certainly no lower than third.
3. Greg Maddux: Nobody will require convincing on Maddux, except for the handful of showboaters who’ll send in blank protest ballots, because by gum, if Mickey Mantle can’t be voted in unanimously, no one can. So, I’m not going to offer any long-winded analysis of Maddux’s career value, or shake my head at how a pitcher with a fastball nowhere near as hard as Clemens’s or Pedro Martinez’s or Johnson’s could possibly dominate the way Maddux did, or regale you with sparkling anecdotes from his career (this throwback Tom Verducci piece already does a good job of that).
Instead, I’ll ask you to simply ponder what Maddux did in his prime. In 1994 and 1995 — the height of the PED, small-ballpark, juiced-ball, pitcher whiplash era — Maddux threw a total of 411⅔ innings and gave up just 73 earned runs. Let me help you with the math: That’s a 1.60 ERA, posted under infinitely more challenging conditions than the 30-foot mounds, gigantic ballparks, and 145-pound shortstops Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson faced when they put up their video game stats.
No star pitcher in the last 25 years has been more secretive about the keys to his success than Maddux. It’s just as well. This way, our theories can be limited only by our imaginations.
4. Jeff Bagwell: It’s far too facile to glance at Bagwell’s Triple Crown stats, see that he fell short of 500 home runs while playing in the homer-happy ’90s and early aughts, and toss him into the “maybe” pile with the other first basemen. Too many voters have done that. Bagwell’s incredibly well-rounded game makes him a blatantly worthy Hall of Famer. He posted a .408 career on-base percentage (no. 31 in the past 100 years) and a .540 slugging average (no. 34 all time) while playing most of his home games at the Astrodome, a brutally punishing park for hitters. He stole 202 bases, the most for any postwar first baseman. He played elite defense.
Of course, that’s the rub when it comes to arguing Hall worth: People see what they want to see. Dave Concepcion’s advocates will yell all day about defense; Lou Brock’s backers will jump up and down about his stolen bases; Larry Walker’s detractors suddenly pretend to be scholars on the intricacies of park factors. Likewise, the round-number fetishists ignore Bagwell’s strengths in other areas.
Don’t lump Bagwell in with Fred McGriff, Carlos Delgado, or even McGwire when discussing the first basemen of his era. Bagwell was better than all of them, and his exclusion from the Hall of Fame will remain a black mark against voters until they put him in.
5. Frank Thomas: Bagwell and Thomas were born on the same day and have long been compared. Thomas’s career path was pretty different, of course, with more games played at DH than at first base, and none of the non-hitting skills that Bagwell possessed. But man, could the Big Hurt mash. Using wRC+, a stat that takes a hitter’s offensive contributions and adjusts them for park and league effects, Thomas rates as the 21st-best hitter of all time, in a virtual dead heat with Willie Mays and Hank Greenberg. Thomas’s best season was downright Bondsian, only without the Bonds drama:5 .353/.487/.729, numbers that, on an adjusted basis, were only ever topped by Bonds, Ruth, Williams, Hornsby, Mantle, Gehrig, and Cobb. It wasn’t easy to put up numbers that stood out at a time in baseball history when 30-homer second basemen seemed a dime a dozen, but Thomas did.
6. Curt Schilling: Wins are a flawed and wildly misleading stat for comparing pitchers across generations. The five-man rotations that popped up in the ’70s and ’80s (and continue today) make it pointless to compare Pedro Martinez’s wins totals against, say, Juan Marichal’s. Teams’ increasing reliance on bullpens — which some traditionalists say is because today’s pitchers come from weaker stock than those who toiled 50 years ago, but actually has a lot more to do with the much tougher lineups and postage-stamp-size strike zones that make pitching deep into games that much tougher — has also slashed starters’ ability to earn a decision on any given day. To properly gauge the value of pitchers in the wild-card era, we need to weigh their run-prevention skills and innings counts against their contemporaries.
By those standards, Schilling was a beast, someone who plowed through lineups during an incredibly tough period for pitchers, including during many years spent in hitters’ havens in Boston and Arizona. He posted a park- and league-adjusted ERA 27 percent better than league average, tied with Gibson and Tom Seaver and better than Nolan Ryan, Bob Feller, and many other all-time greats. And while I don’t usually go nuts over postseason stats, Schilling was so astoundingly successful in October (2.23 career playoff ERA) over so many appearances (133⅓ career playoff innings) that he might have a case as the greatest starting pitcher in playoff history.
7. Mike Piazza: The best offensive catcher of all time (by a wide margin) hit .308/.377/.545 and cranked 427 home runs over 16 years. He gained a reputation as a defensive butcher, which was probably a bit overblown, the inverse of an offensively inept catcher whose defensive skills are glorified to justify sticking him in the lineup. At any rate, unless you live in Murray Chass’s Land of Definitive Bacne Evidence, Piazza is an easy call for the Hall, probably the sixth-best catcher of all time behind Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Pudge Rodriguez, Carlton Fisk, and Yogi Berra.
8. Mike Mussina: He’s a rich man’s Morris. When people argue for Morris, they cite his ability to take the ball every fifth day without fail, pitch deep into games, and give his team a chance to win. Mussina did that, too, but he did it better, allowing fewer runs in a significantly tougher era for pitchers. From 1995 through 2003, Mussina averaged 222 innings pitched per year, topping the 200 mark in every one of those seasons (including in ’95, a strike-shortened year). During that time — the peak of the PED era — Mussina struck out about four times as many batters as he walked, and posted a 3.64 ERA that was 28 percent better than league average. Granted, Mussina was just the sixth-best pitcher in the game during that span, but there’s not much you can do when you’re pitching alongside five future Hall of Famers, three of them arguably among the five best pitchers of all time and the fourth with arguably the best two-season peak of any pitcher ever. Mussina was no stiff the rest of the time, either, ending his career with an ERA 23 percent better than league average, putting him on par with Marichal and ahead of Hall of Famers Phil Niekro, Fergie Jenkins, and the next guy on this list.
9. Tom Glavine: He’s a deserving Hall of Famer, and it’d be cool to see Glavine go in the same year as Maddux and Bobby Cox (though I’m not the only one to question the BBWAA’s ability to elect multiple deserving candidates at once). Forget about Glavine’s wins. Glavine was an excellent pitcher who played for one of the winningest dynasties6 of all time in Atlanta, at least through the 2002 season. He was also incredibly durable with remarkable longevity, and his 4,413⅓ innings pitched rank 16th among all postwar pitchers. He was never in Maddux’s class, and didn’t have the overwhelming peak years that some of his contemporaries did. But as much as some daydreamers like to think the Hall is only for Ruth and Mays and Aaron, it’s a pretty big place, and Glavine fits comfortably, even without factoring in his 305 wins.
10. Tim Raines: The 10th and final spot on my hypothetical ballot came down to a steel cage match pitting Raines against Craig Biggio. It was exceptionally close, and in a sane world in which the silly 10-player limit didn’t exist, I’d vote for both of them (and a few others, as you’ll see below). Raines gets my vote because he reached base more times than Tony Gwynn or Roberto Clemente7 and because he stole 808 bases8 with the highest success rate (just less than 85 percent) for anyone with anywhere near as many attempts. But he’s a rock-solid9 pick because he was arguably the best player in the National League for half a decade, something very few players in Raines’s era or any other can claim.
That’s my 10. Here are five more worthy players who are so closely bunched together that I have to list them alphabetically. They’d all have my vote if ballots weren’t limited to 10 candidates.
Five Other Worthy Candidates
• Craig Biggio: Biggio doesn’t need to lean on 3,000 hits to justify a vote. He was an elite offensive player at second base (and pretty damn good when he started his career as a catcher, too), hitting for power,10 stealing 414 bases, getting on base more than 40 percent of the time in four seasons, and almost never missing a game while in his prime. Of course, voters already showed a blind spot for excellent all-around second basemen when they dismissed Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker from past ballots, and Biggio’s credentials might not be better than Grich’s or Whitaker’s. If voters need to be beaten over the head with the flashing “3,000 Hits” sign to get over their inability to consider second basemen in a different light than first basemen or left fielders, so be it.
• Edgar Martinez: As I wrote in 2011:
There’s some merit to the argument that a designated hitter should be highly scrutinized when weighing his Hall of Fame worth, given their lack of defensive value. But Edgar was a godless hitting machine, hitting .312/.418/.515, placing 44th all time in WPA. He benefited from the hitter-friendly Kingdome in the early part of his career, but then continued to rake at Safeco Field, a nightmare of a ballpark for right-handed power hitters. The Mariners’ near-sightedness prevented Edgar from cracking the everyday lineup until age 27; even the biggest DH haters would likely back him had he broken in three or four years earlier. But there’s no need to play what-if here. Monster peak (.356/.479/.628 in 1995, when he was the best hitter in the league), and plenty of longevity (his streak of nine straight years with an OBP above .400 extended past age 40).
• Mark McGwire: Yes, it’s odd that McGwire (583 home runs) and Sosa (609) would be considered borderline candidates to voters who don’t penalize for PED use. But the best we can do is compare players to their contemporaries, and by those standards, both McGwire and Sosa fail to look like all-timers once we get past that insane 1998 season and the couple of peak years surrounding it. I have McGwire in and Sosa just missing the cut because Sosa made outs a lot more frequently than Mac did. Though really, whether you want to vote for both, neither, or just Sosa (McGwire was terribly injury-prone for much of his career, played in just 1,874 games, was a butcher at first base, and ran poorly when he wasn’t able to trot around the bases), each argument is defensible.
While we’re here: Kent came just short for similar reasons. Players from his era need to hit a ton to stand out, or better yet hit a ton and do lots of other things as well. Kent was a great hitter at an up-the-middle position, but he was also a fairly one-dimensional player who had only two truly elite seasons (2000 and 2002). Again, no tears shed if he does get in one day, because he was really, really good. He’s just right around the point where I draw the line.
• Alan Trammell: He was Barry Larkin before Barry Larkin. In fact, adjust for the tougher offensive era in which Trammell played, then account for Trammell’s all-world defense at short, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why Larkin (a worthy Hall of Fame pick once you get past Triple Crown stats and compare him to other shortstops throughout history) breezed in, while Trammell (a worthy Hall of Fame pick once you get past Triple Crown stats and compare him to other shortstops throughout history) has been such an afterthought for voters.
• Larry Walker: Yes, he played at Coors Field. No, he didn’t hit 500 home runs. But as I wrote last year:
I’m … deeply suspicious of Coors Field, and believe raw park effects may not accurately measure the boost certain players get from that park, particularly a lefty power hitter who could ride that jet stream in right-center out of the park during the heyday of the Blake Street Bombers. But Walker also hit .314/.410/.592 away from Coors during his peak 1997-99 years, making up for a career delayed by injuries with video game numbers when he was at his best. He continued to mash all the way to the end as a Cardinal. He was an excellent fielder with a terrifying arm, stole 230 bases at a 75 percent success rate, and his top statistical comp at Baseball-Reference.com is Duke Snider. He also scores better than average among existing Hall of Fame right fielders in JAWS, and by that standard has a significantly better case than Sosa does.
Again, if your Hall is Babe Ruth or bust, there’s no room for Walker. But in my Hall, Walker shouldn’t need a ticket to get in.