A Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot That Sadly Won’t Be Counted

Kenny LoftonThe 2013 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot includes 37 players, a few of whom have either admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs, or been found to have used them. The ballot’s announcement means a river of sanctimony is about to be unleashed, where a pack of holy writers band together to block Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens from the Hall, because won’t somebody please think of the children?!

I was all set to write a diatribe about the folly of excluding one of the five best position players of all time (arguably one of the top two) and one of the five best pitchers of all time (arguably no. 1). But even though the annual voting rarely delivers satisfying results, there are plenty of Hall of Fame voters who get it. So let’s cede the floor to Buster Olney, Pete Abraham, and Tracy Ringolsby, all of whom wrote eloquently about baseball’s loooooong history of players seeking that extra edge.

Wait, one quickie before we move on: Pud Galvin drank an elixir made from testosterone, which itself was derived from monkey testicles. He did this in 1889. Which is a shame, because it was so much fun to tweak the preachers who freaked the hell out whenever arguments for Bonds or Clemens for the Hall were made, while forgetting about the bowls full of greenies laid out on clubhouse tables for players in Hank Aaron’s era. Now we’ll have to use Pud Galvin and monkey balls as the punchline whenever the guardians of the game clutch their pearls over Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, and McGwire being the first players ever to do anything illicit in the history of sports.

Which brings us to the other theme for this year’s Hall of Fame ballot: the numbers game.

If there’s one thing wide swaths of Hall of Fame voters can agree on, it’s that snubbing players is a virtue. There’s the anti-steroids crowd, of course, some of whom exclude players simply because they had muscles and played in the ’90s, thus flaunting their med-school degrees and their clairvoyance (and ignoring many other factors that fueled baseball’s 15-year offensive surge). But they’re not alone. A few voters will leave their ballots blank, whether due to defensible principles such as believing writers shouldn’t be voting on the players they cover or because … well, who knows. There are the Small Hall types, who believe that players must pass the Willie Mays test to earn induction. Then you’ve got the keepers of the first-ballot flame. If Joe DiMaggio didn’t make it on the first ballot, the thought goes, why should anyone else? This ignores that Hall of Fame voting had arcane rules and customs 60 years ago, and that no one in their right mind would exclude Joe D. today. There are even thoughtful voters who pick a large number of deserving candidates, but somehow also take the strength of a given year’s ballot into account. My favorite incident of a writer doing his best nightclub bouncer impression came in the 2010 vote, when Bill Conlin said he voted for Tim Raines in his first year of eligibility, but then didn’t the next year, because less than 25 percent of his voting colleagues voted for him in year one, so he shouldn’t in year two.

Perhaps many of these voters have good intentions at heart, making an effort to preserve what they perceive as the integrity of the game by being discerning in their votes. Let’s just hope no more snubbed players go the way of Ron Santo before the gatekeepers finally relent.

All of this miserly voting is about to come to a head. Bonds and Clemens are joined by Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio, and Curt Schilling as first-time eligibles who clearly have good enough résumés by past Hall of Fame standards to warrant induction, as well as Kenny Lofton, who’s a stealth candidate but has pretty strong credentials himself. Next year, first-time eligibles Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas all offer no-duh Hall of Fame cases, and Mike Mussina would be a lock in a just world. The year after brings Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, and John Smoltz.

Which brings us to the numbers game’s most pressing problem, assuming you vote for players on merit and without regard for anything other than their playing career: Voters can only vote for 10 candidates per year. But there are more than 10 deserving candidates this year, meaning concerns about the strength of a ballot are about to matter for the first time. And if the snubbers have their way, it’s only going to get worse.

Last year, I picked Jeff Bagwell, Barry Larkin, Mark McGwire, Tim Raines, Edgar Martinez, and Alan Trammell with my hypothetical vote. You can read the rationale for each of those picks here. As hinted at earlier, I’m voting for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, because they’re Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens; I’m fine with using the sportsmanship clause of the Hall of Fame ballot as a tiebreaker on a borderline candidate, but excluding players with résumés on par with Willie Mays and Walter Johnson would be beyond the pale.

Here are the other players I’d vote for, if I had a vote and the ballot allowed more than 10 names:

Craig Biggio: In 1998, Bill James wrote that Craig Biggio was one of the five greatest second basemen of all time. He has penned several other love notes to the former Astros catcher turned second baseman, lauding Biggio’s diverse set of subtle skills — “getting on base, and avoiding the double play, and stealing a base here and there, and playing defense,” to name a few. Indeed, Biggio’s career line features a bunch of numbers that range from unappreciated to legitimately quirky: 4,505 career times on base (18th all time), 414 steals with a 77 percent success rate, grounding into double plays just 150 times in 12,504 career plate appearances, and being hit by a pitch 285 times, the second-highest total in baseball history. Thing is, there are plenty of other players with broad and underrated skill sets who’ll never see the inside of the Hall without a ticket — Jimmy Wynn and Bobby Abreu, Dewey Evans and Darrell Evans, Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker, to name a few. Some of those players deserve induction, some are more arguable, but none have the shiny traditional numbers to attract the three-quarters majority needed for enshrinement.

Biggio has no such problem. He ranks 15th all time with 1,844 runs scored. Oh wait, voters for both awards and the Hall care far more about the guys who drive in the runs than the ones who scored them. Very well. Biggio hung around long enough to become a replacement-level player, and also long enough to secure his 3,000th hit. He was a deserving Hall of Famer three years before retiring. But it’s the act of hurting his team long enough to get to 3,000 that ensured his induction.

Mike Piazza: Once again, with feeling: A player being muscular, plying his trade in the ’90s, and having back acne does not constitute real evidence that he took banned substances. So what we’re left with is the greatest-hitting catcher in baseball history, a masher whose .308/.377/.545 career line is so overwhelming for a player at his position that even playing in the PED era can’t wipe it away. That Piazza spent his entire career hitting in parks that ranged from punitive to cruel and unusual for hitters further strengthens his case. He was a nuclear disaster on defense, to be sure. But if you can claim to be the best of all time when you’ve chucked your glove for a bat, that’s reason enough for induction.

Curt Schilling: In an odd way, I view the playoffs about the same way I do PED use: Fine to use as a tiebreaker, but usually not something to obsess over. After all, a player isn’t responsible for the quality of the players his general manager chooses, and baseball players need a lot of help to crack the postseason. If you were ever going to make an exception, though, Schilling offers a strong case. He can largely thank his teammates for the 19 starts and 133⅓ innings of playoff baseball that he racked up. Still, having that large a sample does allow Schilling’s performance to actually mean something. Posting a 2.23 ERA with a strikeout-to-walk rate of nearly 5-to-1 over those 19 starts constitutes taking advantage of said opportunity. The regular-season numbers were already there, with Schilling ranking 26th all time in Wins Above Replacement among pitchers. He also ranks 29th in JAWS, a stat developed by SI.com’s Jay Jaffe that combines peak and career contributions to get a better read on, say, Sandy Koufax’s value vs. Don Sutton’s. As with Biggio, you already had a great Hall candidate without the signature stat or moment. But hey, if a bloody sock is what it takes for justice to be done, so be it.

Sammy Sosa: The thing about Sammy Sosa, aside from the PED suspicions, is that his career numbers are about as unimpressive as you can get for a player with 609 career home runs. Even counting his mind-boggling peak, Sosa’s career .344 on-base percentage isn’t all that impressive when compared to other Hall of Famers who played non-premium positions. Before his gargantuan breakout in 1998 as a 29-year-old, Sosa was a career .257/.308/.469 hitter who had averaged 34 homers a year over the previous five seasons, but was also notorious for swinging at everything, missing a hell of a lot, and not hitting 60 homers a year. He sits well below the average JAWS score for a Hall of Fame right fielder, too. Sosa does still get my nod, because his peak seasons were off the charts, and because if you go by position, the standards for right fielders are a bit skewed given you’ve got Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Stan Musial all at that position. But let’s put it this way: If you wanted to leave Sosa out of the Hall, I wouldn’t begrudge the decision. He’s a near-borderline candidate, and that’s before getting into what may or may not have happened before he went berserk in ’98.

Kenny Lofton: Yes, seriously, that Kenny Lofton. The well-traveled center fielder was a wildly underrated player throughout his career for having Tim Raines starter kit skills during an era in which those abilities were an afterthought. Lofton is one of four modern-era players with 1,500 or more runs scored who’s not in the Hall (Rafael Palmeiro, Bagwell, and yes, Raines are the others). He ranks 15th all time with 622 steals, swiping those bags at an excellent success rate a shade under 80 percent. He hit .299/.372/.423 lifetime, and played fantastic defense at a premium position in center field, whether you prefer advanced stats or traditional measures (four Gold Gloves). As with Raines, few monster seasons stand out. Instead, you have a multi-year stretch of excellence, in Lofton’s case the first three full seasons of his career, which netted nearly seven wins per year (he hit an outrageous .349/.412/.536 and stole 60 bases in just 112 games during the strike-shortened 1994 season). Lofton slots in nicely among the best center fielders of all time, just a shade below Duke Snider and above the likes of Richie Ashburn and Andre Dawson. He has no chance in hell of induction anytime soon. But he’s got my vote.

… and finally, one change of heart:

Larry Walker: Here’s what I wrote when I passed on Walker last year:

Toughest call of anyone on the ballot. At first glance, seems to have the numbers: .313/.400/.565, 16th-all time in OPS (1st in that category in both 1997 and 1999). WAR does a broad adjustment for park effects, and Walker’s career total of 67.3 puts him in that same range with Raines, Trammell, and Edgar. But I’m of the belief that certain players benefit more from certain parks than others, in a way that a generic park adjustment can’t fully calibrate. Walker hit a preposterous .381/.462/.710 at Coors Field; the rest of the time he was merely an above-average right fielder for his era.

Walker’s another of my all-time favorites, a former Expo who was so gregarious he would sometimes forgo the usual tradition of talking to his fellow outfielders during pitching changes to talk to the loons in the right-field bleachers (i.e. my buddies and I) instead. So you know this hurts. But considering all the angles, he doesn’t quite make it.

I’m loath to change my mind on anyone. After all, the numbers are the numbers, and if you truly don’t care about the strength of a ballot and weigh players based only on their merits, there wouldn’t seem to be any reason to flip opinions. But in Walker’s case, I suspect I was looking a little too hard for reasons to be impartial given my fandom and unabashed Raines support (full disclosure: Raines was my favorite player of all time, Walker was number two). I’m also 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.

Call this a case of being too discerning, even punitive, in the face of emotional attachment. Yes, I too was a snubber. No more. Larry Walker, you’re in.

Filed Under: MLB

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri