Breaking Down The Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot

The Baseball Writers Association of America recently released its 2012 Hall of Fame ballot. Time for the rending of garments and wails of despair.

If you’re not a member of the Hall of Fame nerd club, the high-pitched arguments over who gets in and who doesn’t might seem strange to you. Here’s why I care: It means a great deal to the players up for nomination, both in terms of career validation and post-career earning potential; it establishes standards for greatness in a way that a single-season award or other accolades cannot; and it’s about justice being done, with players being honored or left out for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.

My first-ever piece for Grantland covered what I consider the right reasons and standards for Hall of Fame inductions, and the wrong ones. Here’s a quick sample:

    “The era in which a player played, the park he played in, and the competition he faced all matter when evaluating his legacy. Position and defense also matter: A shortstop or a third baseman shouldn’t be expected to hit nearly as many homers as a left fielder, because he’s providing a lot more defensive value by fielding his position.”

In other words, looking at a player’s career batting average, home run total, or win total isn’t thorough enough when it comes to casting your ballot. If Babe Ruth is on the ballot, fine, just mark his name down in ink. For nearly any other player, context is king.

With that established, here’s my hypothetical ballot for this year’s slate of inductees, in order of preference.

Jeff Bagwell — There are three plausible reasons for why Bagwell didn’t get in on last year’s ballot:

1. Voters are extremely reluctant to vote for players on their first ballot, unless they’ve had extraordinary careers. This is the Joe DiMaggio argument. If Joe D didn’t get in on his first try, why should Player X make it? The problems with that line of thinking are that the voting process was quirkier when DiMaggio came up for election that is it now, plus plenty of players with lesser careers than DiMaggio made it on their first try. Tony Gwynn not only got in on the first ballot, he also received 97.6% of the vote, the seventh-highest percentage in Hall of Fame voting history. Tony Gwynn was a terrific player and a worthy Hall of Famer. He was not Joe DiMaggio.

2. Suspicion of PED use. It’s a mortal lock that more players have used substances that either skirted or crossed the line of league-mandated legality than has been reported in the Mitchell Report or other places. If you want to apply a slight discount to the offensive numbers of Bagwell’s era, that makes sense, much as you’d ding Sandy Koufax and his peers a bit for pitching off 900-foot mounds in cavernous stadiums. But leaving aside how to handle a player who has in fact been caught using or admitted using, there is no hard evidence to suggest Bagwell used. You can’t just look at a player’s build and know what he used or didn’t use, and when. The first player ever to be suspended under MLB’s new (as of 2005) PED policy — former Rays outfielder Alex Sanchez, who weighed a buck-eighty soaking wet.

We’re not doctors. We don’t try to fake our way through brain surgery. Let’s not feign expertise when it comes to outing PED users either.

3. Bagwell gets lumped in with all the other slugging first basemen of his era. I am slightly more attuned to this argument. It is certainly true that the era in which Bagwell played featured a cavalcade of first baseman who can mash — partly due to PED use, but likely even more so because of smaller ballparks, smaller strike zones, and other factors. And Bagwell did fall a bit short of some round numbers, just missing a .300 lifetime batting average (.297) and falling more than a bit short of 500 homers (449). But these are blunt, arbitrary thresholds that don’t come close to telling the whole story. Few players of the past quarter-century had a better batting eye than Bagwell, who racked up 1,401 walks in his relatively short (by Hall of Fame candidate standards) 15-year career, the 28th-highest total in baseball history. He also lashed 488 doubles (64th all time), ran the bases well for a guy his size (202 steals, took the extra base more often than his first-base peers), and played excellent defense. He had a great peak, winning one MVP award and being a viable candidate for at least a couple others (six top-seven finishes in Wins Above Replacement, led the league twice). He also had a great career, finishing with a higher WAR count than such greats as Rod Carew (first-ballot Hall of Famer) or Robin Yount (another first-ballot Hall of Famer). That “if Joe D can’t make it, neither should you” argument looks sillier and sillier.

If you apply even the most cursory analysis beyond home-run totals, and you’re willing to go even a half-step beyond, “that guy has big biceps, he’s out,” there’s no rational way you can keep Jeff Bagwell off your Hall of Fame ballot, and out of the Hall of Fame.

Barry Larkin — Last year, Larkin bagged the highest percentage of the vote (62.1 percent) for any player who didn’t gain the 75 percent needed for induction. History tells us that players who fare that well in the voting on their first try are a lock to eventually gain induction sooner than later. He might even get in now, in a very weak year for first-time candidates. But just in case, check out Larkin’s no. 12 ranking among all-time shortstops in WAR, ahead of Ozzie Smith, Lou Boudreau, Pee Wee Reese, Luis Aparicio, and Joe Tinker (all Hall of Famers).

A quick note about Wins Above Replacement (both the Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs versions) — It’s a solid measure of all-around value, taking into account offense, defense, the position a player played, the era in which a player played, and other key factors. That doesn’t mean that lining up players by WAR and blindly picking off a list is the optimal way to vote. Other factors must be considered, with some players getting bumped down for reasons that the stat can’t fully calibrate. In Larkin’s case, you have a player who excelled in every facet of the game, played a premium position, had a long, productive career and a very good peak, and didn’t play in extreme ballparks. Apply a sniff test, or a numerical test, and he should get in.

Mark McGwire — And here we come to a player who actually has acknowledged using PEDs. There are any number of ways to handle a player like McGwire, with no perfect answer to quandary. My stance: It’s a tiebreaker, that’s about it. We know many players used in McGwire’s era, and we know that offensive conditions were extremely favorable to players even without chemical helpers. So if a player is borderline by statistical standards and has either admitted to using or been busted for it, I’ll leave him off my fake ballot. McGwire was not borderline. There are the 583 home runs, of course. But he also drew 1,317 walks (1,167 of those unintentional). His combination of power and on-base ability made him 10th all time in OPS, 24th all time in Win Probability Added.

Tim Raines — Let’s get this out of the way first: I’m biased. Tim Raines is my favorite player of all time. That doesn’t change the fact that he is, objectively, a deserving Hall of Famer. Don’t take my word for it. Read Keith Law for a present-day take. Or read Peter Gammons’ Sports Illustrated opus on Raines and Rickey Henderson from 1986, a piece which illustrates how Raines was viewed in his prime as one of the very best players in the game. This wasn’t just a subjective view. Total Baseball‘s numbers ranked Raines as a top-five player every year from 1983 through 1987. Bill James ranks him as the 40th-best position player of all time. He was electrifying and ruthlessly effective, stealing 808 bases while doubling as the most accurate base stealer of all time (84.7%) for someone with anywhere near as many attempts. For all the Tim Raines stats, analysis, and testimonials you can possible handle, spend a few minutes at Raines30.com.

To make your life easier, I’ll leave you with one stat: Tim Raines reached base more times in his career than Tony Gwynn. First-ballot, 97.6%-of-the-vote Tony Gwynn.

Edgar Martinez — 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). He gets my vote.

Alan Trammell — There’s a running theme to all of these picks: Each one requires nuance to properly evaluate their skills. Now if you’re an extreme Small Hall voter (or fan) who believes Cooperstown should enshrine Ruth, Mays, and maybe five other guys, Trammell’s not your man. But if we’re going by existing Hall of Fame standards, Trammell is a worthy choice. Even with his subtle skill set (elite defense in his prime, solid .352 lifetime OBP in a medium-offense era while playing a premium position), Trammell probably gets a lot more attention and maybe makes the Hall had he just won the AL MVP in 1987. But voters chose George Bell’s 47 homers and league-leading 134 RBI over Trammell’s .343/.402/.551 season. Voters didn’t have access to WAR at the time, which would have shown Trammell being worth more than three more wins than Bell that year. But even if we just use the tools available at the time, a shortstop who hit like Trammell still should have been acknowledged over a slugger at an offensively-rich position like Bell’s left field. (Wade Boggs was arguably as good or even a little better than Trammell, so handing that MVP to Trammell isn’t a slam dunk anyway.)

At any rate, Trammell’s career looks fairly similar to Larkin’s, with comparable career value to Ozzie Smith (66.9 WAR for Trammell, 64.6 for Ozzie). The Hall of Fame doesn’t get diminished if Trammell gets in. If anything, Tram and double play partner Lou Whitaker (69.7 WAR, but somehow off the ballot for not even getting the needed 5% to stay on) should go in together, with the spirit of Ernie Harwell ushering them in.

Notable exclusions — None of the first-time candidates have enough to warrant a vote. Bernie Williams comes closest for me, but he suffers from below-average defense, which offsets his underrated offensive skill set. The two holdovers who came closest for me were:

Rafael Palmeiro — I’m not swayed by round numbers such as 500 homers and 3,000 hits, since WAR and other advanced stats already bake all of that in. And Palmeiro is the classic PED tiebreaker guy. Career WAR of 66.0 (near Rick Reuschel, Kenny Lofton, Ozzie Smith) gets dinged just enough to make him a near-miss.

Larry Walker — 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.

Jonah Keri’s new book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, is a national best-seller. Follow him on Twitter at @JonahKeri.


Previously from Jonah Keri:

Reyes’ Deal ShowsThat The Marlins Aren’t All Talk

What They Need: National League
What They Need: American League
Much Ado About Bobby Valentine

Read more of The Triangle, Grantland’s sports blog.

Contact us at triangle@grantland.com

Filed Under: MLB

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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 national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri