Well, it’s Hall of Fame time. It is one of my favorite times of the year and one of my favorite things to write about.
In past years, I was able to write about every player on the ballot in one post, but, well, I had to break it up this year. There’s just too much. Part 1 will focus on ten players – these are the ten that I would vote for if I could. Part 2 will feature the borderline guys and Part 3 will be about the rest.
This year’s ballot is stacked. There are many new faces that will likely boot some others off the ballot – Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Mike Mussina. I imagine most writers will have no choice but to vote for the maximum of ten – there are just too many qualified candidates on there. Then again, the Baseball Writers of America are historically stubborn when it comes to players on their first ballot. And stubborn in general.
So, let’s dive into this three part series with the ten players that get my vote:
Greg Maddux. You probably know that no player has ever been elected to the Hall of Fame unanimously. There have been some close calls – Tom Seaver received 98.8% of votes in 1992. Nolan Ryan, Cal Ripken, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, and a handful of others have eclipsed 95%.
Maddux is one the best candidates to have a shot at a unanimous election. He is one of the five or six best pitchers of all time. He has no connection to steroids. He won four straight Cy Youngs but also maintained his consistency for twenty years. There is, like, no argument to exclude him from the Hall – even if you’re a “small hall” kind of person. Of course, he won’t get elected unanimously because there are over 500 writers who vote, and a handful will try to make a statement or fill out the ballot incorrectly or send in a blank ballot. It’s the nature of the voting process, and it is unfortunate.
Maddux won 15+ games every year from 1988 through 2004, and that includes two strike-shortened seasons in 1994 and 1995. He never missed a start in that span. His numbers from 1992 through 1998 are absurd: 127-53, 2.15 ERA, 0.968 WHIP. He won four straight Cy Youngs from 1992 through 1995 and finished in the top 5 four other times. He won 355 games in all, the 8th most ever. The seven that are ahead of him all pitched in the early 20th century. He won 18 Gold Gloves, the most ever.
Maddux didn’t strike out hitters like some of his contemporaries – his career 6.1 strikeouts per nine innings was about league average. He never threw hard – he relied on a devastating changeup, a wicked two-seam fastball, and pinpoint control. He and Curt Schilling are the only pitchers with 3,000+ strikeouts that also walked fewer than 1,000.
Maddux was, of course, one of the smarter players in the game. He was disciplined, repetitive, and he would outwit hitters with breathtaking consistency. Wade Boggs once said of facing Maddux: It seems like he’s inside your mind with you. When he knows you’re not going to swing, he throws a straight one. He sees into the future. It’s like he has a crystal ball hidden inside his glove.
The bottom line is that Greg Maddux exceeds every possible Hall of Fame requirement, and he will undoubtedly be enshrined in Cooperstown this summer.
Tom Glavine. Glavine played alongside Maddux for ten years, and they formed one of the best one-two punches of any starting rotation in the history of the sport.
Glavine won 20+ games five different times. He won two Cy Youngs and had a dominant peak from 1991-1998: 140-64 with a 2.96 ERA. Like Maddux, he never missed a start, and he went on to win 305 games in 22 years.
Glavine is a Hall of Famer, no doubt, but I do think he is a bit overrated. His career 1.74 strikeout-to-walk ratio was not very good. He gave up a lot of hits – 200+ in every year from 1998 through 2007. This one time in college, I made a declaration (proclamation?) that CC Sabathia is a better pitcher than Tom Glavine was. This caused outrage from my roommates,* and a debate began. As I look at the numbers again, it’s actually pretty close.
Glavine: 3.54 ERA, 118 ERA+, 3.1 BB/9, 5.3 K/9, 1.74 K/BB, 1.314 WHIP
Sabathia: 3.60 ERA, 121 ERA+, 2.7 BB/9, 7.7 K/9, 2.86 K/BB, 1.232 WHIP
*The fact that this caused outrage from my roommates is why they were, in fact, my roommates.
Anyway, there are a lot of other variables here, including a few years at the end of Glavine’s career that hurt his overall numbers. But it’s pretty close if you look at just the rate stats. All of this is to re-affirm that my proclamation was not entirely off-base.
Barry Bonds. Here’s a thought from Joe Posnanski that I agree with: I don’t think the Hall of Fame should be a morally cleansed place where only the pure belong. I think the best baseball players should be in, plain and simple, and their stories — complete with their genius for the game and their moral failings — should be told. I think that’s the way history should be taught.
You can’t argue that Bonds wasn’t one of the greatest hitters ever – I think only Babe Ruth and Ted Williams were better. And, I would argue that Bonds had a Hall of Fame career before he, supposedly, started taking steroids. After 1998, Bonds was a career .290/.411/.556 hitter with 411 home runs, 445 stolen bases, and a 164 OPS+. Of course, Bonds then went on to destroy the record books and make a farce of the game – but even if you take out those years, Bonds should be in by the numbers alone.
But the numbers alone are not enough for many voters. Bonds was arrogant, a jerk, just a terrible person in general. He is the antithesis of the Hall of Fame’s character clause, and this is why he barely garnered 1/3 of the vote last year. I’m sure if I was a writer that had come across Bonds in a particularly snarly mood, I would have a vendetta against him too.
Still, the Hall of Fame is filled with racists and cheaters and jerks. Baseball does not exactly have a proud history in every respect. Who knows what we would have seen 80 years ago if we had the access to players that we do now. Man, I’d love to see Ty Cobb on Twitter.
Frank Thomas. In addition to having one of the best nicknames of all time, The Big Hurt has numbers that few can match.
He had a career line of .301/.419/.555 with a 156 adjusted OPS+, tied with Willie Mays for the 20th highest ever. He was absolutely dominant in the first-half of his career. After his age 29 season, he had a career line of .330/.452/.600 with an average of 36 home runs, 118 RBI’s, and 119 walks in his seven full seasons. From 1991-1997, he won two MVP awards and finished in the top 10 every year. He had 100 runs, 100 RBI’s, and 100 walks in each of those seven seasons (including 1994, when he only played 113 games due to the player’s strike). Few players have ever had Thomas’ skillset: high average, high power, and unyielding patience.
That 1994 season was truly legendary, and it’s amazing to think what his numbers would have been if the season wasn’t cut short. In 113 games, he reached base 252 times (including 109 walks) and he had 38 home runs, 101 RBI’s, and 106 runs. He hit .353/.487/.729 with a 212 OPS+.
If you average those numbers out over 162 games, here is what Thomas’ 1994 could have looked like:
.353/.487/.729 with 54 home runs, 145 RBI’s, 152 runs scored, 156 walks, 361 times on base (which, at the time, would have been the second most ever), and 417 total bases, which would have been the most since 1948. It would have been the best offensive season in a half century.*
*There were several players who were on track to have legendary seasons in 1994: Matt Williams was on pace for 62 home runs. Jeff Bagwell was on pace for 441 total bases (5th all time), 171 RBI’s, and a .750 slugging percentage. Tony Gwynn was hitting .394. And, of course, the Expos were poised for their first pennant ever. What could have been.
Anyway, it will be a real shame if Thomas doesn’t make it on his first ballot. He has never been connected to steroids, and even though he was primarily a DH in the second half of his career, he was still a very valuable player up through his age-38 season. And he had one of the most intimidating batting stances of all time.
Craig Biggio. Maybe this is an old-school mindset, but if you get 3,000 hits, you deserve to be in the Hall of Fame.
Biggio only once eclipsed 190 hits, yes, but he wasn’t exactly a singles hitter either. He hit 20+ home runs eight times and is fifth all time with 668 doubles. He was also a very patient hitter and had a knack for getting hit by pitches – five times he led the league, and his 285 are the most ever. He was pretty much the opposite of Ruben Sierra*, who went fifteen straight years without getting hit by a pitch.
*Back in 2003 when we were car shopping, we went to a Mercedes Benz dealer. The sales guy showed us a rugged looking, used G class (something like this) and said that it used to be Ruben Sierra’s car. This was, of course, when Ruben Sierra was still somewhat relevant. We didn’t buy the car.
Biggio was also one of the most durable players ever. He is 16th all time in games played, 12th in at bats, and 10th in plate appearances. His numbers compare very closely to his contemporary Roberto Alomar, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2011. Biggio received 68.2% of the vote last year, which bodes well for him.
Tim Raines. Raines is perpetually underrated. By WAR, he was the best player in the National League from 1983 to 1987. I would also argue that he was the best base stealer in baseball history – or at the very least, the most efficient.
Raines: 808 stolen bases, 146 caught stealing, 84.7% success rate
Rickey Henderson: 1406 stolen bases, 335 caught stealing, 80.8% success rate
Lou Brock: 938 stolen bases, 307 caught stealing, 75.3% success rate
There have been other efficient base stealers in history – Vince Coleman, Ichiro Suzuki, Carlos Beltran. But of those that have stolen 400+ bases, Raines has far and away the best success rate.
If you couple his base running with a career .385 on base percentage, 123 OPS+, and 69.1 WAR, then I think Raines has a clear case for the Hall of Fame. Yes, he never won an MVP and never hit more than 20 home runs. He was never viewed as the best player in the league. But, consider this: he finished with the same career WAR as Manny Ramirez even though he had almost 400 fewer home runs. He reached base more times than Tony Gwynn. Raines had a very different skillset, yes, but it certainly wasn’t any less valuable.
Jeff Bagwell. Here’s a thought: Jeff Bagwell is the best first baseman in the history of the National League.
There is an argument to be made. By WAR, he trails only Albert Pujols in the modern era (and if you include the American League, he trails only Pujols, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx). Whether or not you like WAR, there is no doubt that Bagwell is one of the best first basemen of all time.
Bagwell dominated the league for the better part of a decade – from 1993 to 2002 he hit .306/.422/.574, a 158 OPS+ and averaged 35 home runs, 113 runs, 114 RBI’s, and 104 walks. Like Frank Thomas*, he had a ridiculous 1994 season where he hit .368/.451/.750 and had 39 home runs in just 110 games. Bagwell is one of just six players to have a season with a .450 OBP and .750 SLG, along with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Barry Bonds, Rogers Hornsby, and Mark McGwire.
*Bagwell and Thomas have some eerie connections. Both were born on the same day – May 27th, 1968. Both were power-hitting first basemen who also showed an impressive amount of patience. Both won the MVP in 1994. It would be great if they went into the Hall of Fame together, but I don’t think that will happen.
Bagwell’s numbers merit selection, but he fell short last year. While he has never been explicitly connected to steroids, a lot of writers have their suspicions. Here’s the thing – the 75% threshold for election is so high that even if a small minority believe he took steroids, he won’t be able to get in. And then there are those that nit-pick Bagwell’s career for being too short or not as sexy as some of his contemporaries. It’s just really hard to get 75% of people to agree on anything. I think it would be good for the Hall of Fame if they lowered the threshold to 60% or two-thirds. But that’s an issue for another day.
Roger Clemens. If you divide all of Roger Clemens’ career numbers by two, he might still be a Hall of Famer: 177-92, 2458 innings, 3.12 ERA, 2336 strikeouts, 70 Wins Above Replacement, 3.5 Cy Youngs.
Like Bonds, Clemens has a difficult road ahead of him, especially after his appearance in the Mitchell Report and subsequent court hearings. But, like Bonds, Clemens had such an extraordinary and transcendent career. I would vote for him.
By WAR, Clemens’ 1997 (11.9) was the best season in the last 25 years, when he struck out a career-high 292 in 264 innings and had a 222 ERA+. Of course, Clemens had other legendary seasons:
1986: 24-4, 2.48 ERA, 8.9 WAR
1987: 20-9, 2.97 ERA, 9.4 WAR
1990: 21-6, 1.93 ERA, 10.6 WAR
1991: 18-10, 2.62 ERA, 7.9 WAR
1992: 18-11, 2.41 ERA, 8.8 WAR
1998: 20-6, 2.65 ERA, 8.1 WAR
Baseball-Reference considers a WAR over 5 to be at an all star level, and anything over 8 to be MVP level. Clemens had fourteen seasons with a WAR over 5 and six that were over 8.
A lot of younger fans will remember Clemens’ 2001 season, when he went 20-3 and won the Cy Young with the Yankees. It was a great season, yes, but that was when I first realized that wins don’t do a good job of measuring value. Mike Mussina should have won the Cy Young that year (really, you could make the case for a handful of other guys too). Moose pitched more innings, gave up fewer runs, walked fewer, struck out more, and had a much lower WHIP. But he went 17-11, which isn’t quite as sparkly as 20-3. Interestingly, Clemens had the reverse problem in 2005, when he had a 1.87 ERA but only went 13-8.*
*I remember that the Texas Rangers really wanted Clemens after 2005 and did this whole study where they determined that Clemens would have been 24-3 if he pitched for the Rangers that year. He would have undoubtedly run away with his 8th Cy Young.
Anyway, none of this matters because Clemens won’t get elected.
Mike Piazza. This one really grinds my gears. Piazza should have been a first ballot Hall of Famer last year – he’s only the best-hitting catcher in the history of the game. But, for whatever reason,* he wasn’t elected. It is a travesty.
*The reason, of course, is suspicion of steroid use. And these days, suspicion is enough to keep you off the ballot.
Piazza was famously a 62nd round pick by the Dodgers and was only chosen because his father knew Tommy Lasorda and asked for a favor. Piazza then went on to hit .318, .319, .346, .336, .362, .328, and .348 in his age 21-29 seasons with an OPS+ of over 140 in all of them.
Piazza hit 30 or more home runs nine times and finished his career with a .308/.377/.545 line, 143 OPS+, and 59.2 WAR. A lot of people remember him as being a poor defender, but the advanced metrics say that he was actually a valuable backstop in the earlier part of his career.
Only five catchers finished with a higher WAR than Piazza – Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Ivan Rodriguez, Carlton Fisk, and Yogi Berra. Piazza, however, played in fewer games than all of them, and so his peak WAR (the sum of his seven best WAR seasons) is only surpassed by Bench and Carter. Piazza leads all catchers in career home runs, slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+. He should be in the Hall of Fame.
Curt Schilling. One of the great advances in sabermetrics came from Voros McCracken in the late 1990’s, who essentially said that pitchers control three main things: walks, strikeouts, and home runs allowed. Any ball put in play is out of the pitcher’s control and mostly random.* This idea later became FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching, which a lot of sabermetricians value higher than ERA.
*The best example of this is Pedro Martinez in 1999 and 2000. Pedro was dominant in both years, but in 1999 opposing hitters had a .323 BABIP, while in 2000 it was only .236. He didn’t magically get better from year-to-year. A lot of BABIP is just random. This is why his ERA was higher in 1999, even though his FIP was much lower.
Schilling was the master of limiting walks and striking guys out. In fact, he finished with the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio of all time. This is an amazing feat. His 3,116 strikeouts are also amazing when you consider that he only once started 30 games before he turned 30. Only 16 pitchers have ever struck out 3,000. It is a rarer feat than 3,000 hits.
Detractors will look at his 216 wins and think meh, but really, he was one of the best pitchers of his day. And then there was his postseason dominance, where he went 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA in 19 starts. Yes, Schilling was a very outspoken and controversial player (and almost bankrupted the state of Rhode Island), but I think he exceeds the Hall of Fame standard.
I had a hard time choosing between Schilling and Mussina for this tenth spot. Ideally, both should be elected. Schilling had a shorter but more dominant stretch of seasons. Mussina was less dominant but more consistent. Here is how the two careers match up:
Schilling: 3261 innings, 216-146, 3.46 ERA, 127 ERA+, 711 walks, 3116 K’s, 80.7 WAR
Mussina: 3562 innings, 270-153, 3.68 ERA, 123 OPS+, 785 walks, 2813 K’s, 82.7 WAR
It’s very close, but I think Schilling was better. I’ll have more on Mussina in Part 2.