I visited Cooperstown for the first time in the spring of 2012.
I admit, I’m a bit ashamed it took me so long. Apologies. I’ll be back in July to watch the class of 2017 induction ceremony. I cannot wait. I’ve spent most of the past month obsessing about filling out my first Hall of Fame ballot (the 2016 season was my 10th as a member of the BBWAA). I’ll be eager to hear the results of the voting, which will be announced on Jan 18. The induction ceremony next summer, though, will be pure stress-free joy, which will be nice.
Anyway, I had two main takeaways from the first time I visited Cooperstown.
First, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum far exceeded my expectations, and that was no easy task. I had dreamed of walking those halls since I was a little kid who read every single baseball book in the library, collected thousands of baseball cards (and memorized the stats on the back) and listened to games on the radio in the backyard while my friends and I played the game until the darkness made it impossible.
I was in Cooperstown for two days with my youngest brother, Luke. I read every word on every plaque in the Hall of Fame Gallery. I read just about every word at every exhibit in the museum, and I read a lot of them twice, just to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I said, “Luke, get over here, you’ve gotta see this,” at least a hundred times. I bought a ball cap with the Hall of Fame logo that I’ve worn too many times to count. I found as many mentions of “The Sporting News” as I could, and I took pictures of those mentions. I took pictures of the exhibits. I took pictures of the plaques. I even took a picture of the empty wall in the Gallery, where they would hang the plaques of the guys I voted for, if I was lucky enough to maintain my BBWAA membership a few more seasons.
The second thing was this: It’s the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. It’s the reality of the “and Museum” part that surprised me a bit. The Gallery, where they have the plaques of enshrined players, managers and executives, is essentially completely separate from the museum. The truth is, Barry Bonds already is in the Hall of Fame. I took a picture of the ball he hit for his 756th home run, which was in a display case dedicated to Bonds’ achievement. Pete Rose already is discussed in the Hall of Fame. So is Shoeless Joe Jackson. Those guys don’t have plaques in the Gallery, of course, but they’re well-represented in the museum.
I took another picture, too, of a little sign addressing PEDs:
“In documenting baseball history, the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) cannot be ignored, although a complete list of players who have used banned substances throughout time may never be known. In this museum you will find artifacts, images and stories of players who have either admitted to or have been suspected of using banned substances. Even though you will not always find specific references to this issue, the museum is committed to telling the story of PEDs within the game’s historical context.”
That’s how I’ll use my Hall of Fame ballot, too. The recent election by the Today’s Game Era committee of former commissioner Bud Selig, who presided over much of the so-called Steroid Era and long turned a blind eye (it was the profitable thing to do), was confirmation that this was the right approach. The Hall tells the story of baseball, warts and all.
Two quick notes: First, huge thanks to Sports Illustrated’s Jay Jaffe for creating his JAWS system, which provides statistical context for this Hall of Fame discussion, and all the work he’s done breaking down the candidates on the ballot. Invaluable resources. Here’s the landing page for his breakdowns of the candidates. And, second, all WAR numbers are Baseball-Reference formula. And, oh yeah, Baseball-Reference is awesome.
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens
Thoughts: I’m grouping these two together because, at this point, it’s hard to add anything to the Bonds/Clemens conversation, and it’s honestly hard to separate them. Last year, Bonds received 195 votes (45.5 percent) and Clemens was marked on 199 ballots (45.8 percent); personally, I’m not sure how someone could vote for Bonds and not Clemens. By the numbers, they’re two of the greatest players in the history of the sport. They’re also forever linked to performance-enhancing drugs. Either you think that disqualifies them from the Hall of Fame or you don’t, right? I see both sides of that debate, believe me. I’ve long vacillated on this issue, but I’ve made my choice. Last year, in votes publicly revealed on Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame vote tracker, 138 BBWAA members voted for both guys, four checked Clemens but not Bonds, and three chose Bonds but not Clemens. I’ll let others split those hairs and I’ll be fascinated to read their explanations. But both get my vote.
Thoughts: Being selfish for a moment, I’m pretty thrilled to cast a vote that will help Raines finally get into the Hall of Fame Gallery. I’ve long been on the Raines-for-Cooperstown bandwagon, even though it’s a shame such a bandwagon has to exist. Raines should have been enshrined long ago. His career WAR (69.1) and JAWS (55.6) are above the line for the average Hall of Fame left fielder (65.1 and 53.3, respectively). Not above the “worst” HoF left fielder, mind you. Above the “average” HoF left fielder. He’s fifth all time with 808 stolen bases, and his career stolen-base percentage of 84.7 percent is the best in baseball history for anyone with at least 400 stolen-base attempts. Raines reached base more times than Tony Gwynn. He had a better slugging percentage than fellow speedster (and noted home-run hitter) Rickey Henderson. He had a better batting average than Lou Brock. He was an outstanding defensive outfielder. Want more? Read this.
Thoughts: Should have been in by now. You don’t need me to run down his case. He’ll almost certainly get there this year. My vote will help, which is cool. And if not, this time, my vote will help him for whenever he finally reaches 75 percent.
Thoughts: To be eligible for the Hall of Fame, a player has to have played at least 10 seasons in the majors. Rodriguez, um, got off to a good start to his Hall of Fame-bound career. He was an AL All-Star each of the first 10 full seasons of his career (and then four more times). He won the AL Gold Glove at catcher each of his first 10 full seasons in the majors (and then won three more times). Over an 11-year stretch from his Age 22 season to his Age 32 year, Rodriguez hit .315 with an .870 OPS. In his peak, he completely shut down other teams’ running games because who would be foolish enough to try and run against him? His caught-stealing percentage was higher than 50 percent in eight full seasons, and he even threw out 52 percent (13 of 25) of would-be base stealers in 37 games in 2011, when he was 39 years old. He’ll get into the Hall soon enough; maybe not this year because of the PED connections, linked to Jose Canseco’s book. Soon, though.
Thoughts: I believe the attention generated by David Ortiz’s retirement is going to push Edgar Martinez into the Hall of Fame, maybe sooner than later. Kinda doubt it’ll be this season, but next winter? Hopefully. This is his seventh year on the ballot, which means he only has a couple of more shots now that the Hall reduced the number of years a player stays on the ballot from 15 down to 10. He had a big jump last year (from 27.0 percent to 43.4 percent), which is a great step in the right direction. My vote will be at least one more for the Mariners legend, and I doubt I’ll be the only first-time voter who sees Martinez for what he was — the best DH in baseball history. Which brings us back to Ortiz, who retired after his unforgettable 2016 season. He’s seen pretty much as a slam-dunk Hall of Famer, what with all the home runs and the three World Series titles as Boston’s DH. But compare advanced metrics, and you start to see how Martinez stacks up to Ortiz, and you realize what type of elite hitter Martinez was for so many years.
OPS+: Martinez, 147. Ortiz, 141
OPS: Martinez, .933. Ortiz, .931
WAR: Martinez, 68.3. Ortiz, 55.4
wOBA: Martinez, .405. Ortiz, .392
wRC+: Martinez, 147. Ortiz, 140
Ortiz hit more home runs, of course, and he has the three World Series rings — and he was a HUGE part in all three of those titles — but on a game-to-game basis, you can definitely make the argument that Martinez was the better hitter. Even if you side with Ortiz (and reasonable people will), it’s hard to argue that there’s enough of a gap between Ortiz and Martinez, who has yet to receive even 50 percent of the vote. I think a large part of the problem has been a lack of context for Martinez, who was a full-time DH for so many seasons. Frank Thomas took more than half of his at-bats as a DH, but he still started 968 games at first base. Paul Molitor was a DH most of the second half of his career, but again, he built his reputation as an elite hitter while playing somewhere on the infield.
With Martinez, though, few people outside of Seattle knew who he was before he started spraying doubles all over the place as the DH on those playoff teams with Junior Griffey, Jay Buhner (and his rocket for an arm), Alex Rodriguez, John Olerud and others. So he was known strictly as a DH, even though he was actually a pretty decent third baseman before he was shifted to full-time DH in an attempt to keep him healthy. Anyway, the point is that Ortiz provides context for what a Hall of Fame career looks like for a designated hitter.
Thoughts: The truth is, I see a lot of similarities between the Hall of Fame resumes of Mussina and closer Trevor Hoffman. Both were outstanding pitchers for a really long time (18 years) in the majors. Both were reliable safety nets for their managers (Mussina started at least 24 games every season after his rookie year; Hoffman made at least 48 appearances in 17 seasons). Neither won a Cy Young award, but both were regular vote-getters (Mussina finished top-6 nine times; Hoffman finished top-6 four times). Neither won a World Series, but both were their typical solid selves in the postseason (Mussina had a 3.42 career playoff ERA, Hoffman’s was 3.46).
The biggest difference? Innings, mostly. Mussina posted his 3.68 ERA/3.57 FIP over 3,562 2/3 innings. Hoffman posted his 2.87 ERA/3.07 FIP in 1,089 2/3 innings. I’ll get deeper into Hoffman in a minute, I promise. And, yes, of course I know that it’s not strictly a Mussina-or-Hoffman debate. But looking at pitchers near the back end of my ballot, the comparisons were inevitable. I think both will get in eventually and I’ll be happy for both. Had to make a choice now, though, and I’m much more convinced that Mussina belongs.
Comparing Mussina’s Hall of Fame resume to other starting pitchers who are in Cooperstown is a bit of an odd exercise. For Mussina, the “shiny” simply isn’t there. He never won a Cy Young. Never led the AL in ERA or strikeouts. Didn’t win a World Series. Only was an All-Star five times. Can a guy who was never “the best” in any given year really make Cooperstown? Sure. Yearly awards/category leaders are so very arbitrary.
Look at it this way: In 1993, for example, Jack McDowell had a 4.3 WAR and won the AL Cy Young. Mussina had a WAR of at least 4.3 in 12 different seasons. He had a WAR of at least 6.1 four times, including a career-best 8.2 in 1992. Problem was, he just happened to have his best years when other pitchers were outstanding, too. It’s like in 2013, when Mike Trout posted a 9.3 WAR but lost the AL MVP to Miguel Cabrera, who won the Triple Crown. When history looks back at Trout’s career, what Cabrera did that year will have zero bearing on the Trout assessment, you know? It should be the same with Mussina, whose career numbers (starting with his 83.0 WAR) mostly meet or exceed the standards set by starters who have already been inducted. The “shiny” Mussina’s resume deserves is a plaque in Cooperstown’s Hall of Fame Gallery.
Thoughts: When we think of Manny Ramirez as a hitter, it’s easy to get caught up in the video-game counting stats of home runs and RBIs. Especially the eye-popping RBIs. He had five seasons with at least 41 homers and he had 12 seasons with at least 100 RBIs; he had at least 144 RBIs three times, including a career-high 165 in 1999. His batting averages almost get lost in the mix, but he hit at least .300 in 11 seasons, including seven of at least .321. For historical context, only 11 hitters in MLB history played at least 2,000 games and produced a slash line of at least .310/.410/.510. Manny is one of those 11, finishing with career totals of .312/.411/.585 (Edgar Martinez, who’s also on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, is another member of that exclusive club, by the way).
Manny’s resume isn’t all about traditional back-of-baseball card stats, of course. His OPS+ of 154 is tied for 28th all-time, with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. His wOBA of .418 is 27th all-time. His ISO of .273 is ninth all-time. The list goes on. His WAR number takes a pretty significant hit because he wasn’t very good (OK, he was pretty bad) at playing defense and running the bases. But still, his WAR of 69.2 is higher than the average Hall of Fame left fielder, and that speaks volumes to how good he was as a hitter.
The biggest thing with Ramirez, of course, is the PEDs. He wasn’t just suspected of taking PEDs, he was actually busted and suspended by MLB twice, in 2009 and 2011. For a lot of voters, that’s the separation. I can’t argue that. It’s logical. Honestly, with a ballot this crowded, sometimes it’s only natural to look for negative reasons to eliminate players from your ballot instead of solely judging the positives of a resume. If you think, for example, 14 people deserve to be elected but you can only vote for 10, reasons like PED suspensions work as well as anything to whittle down your list. To me, though, he was about a month shy of his 37th birthday when the first suspension was handed down. Heading into that 2009 season, he already had 527 home runs, a .314 average, 1.004 OPS and 66.5 WAR. How is that different from Rafael Palmeiro, you might ask? He already had bona fide Hall credentials when he was suspended for steroid use in 2005, his Age 40 season, and that suspension crushed his Cooperstown chances. The answer is this: Maybe it’s not very different. But I didn’t have a Hall vote when Palmeiro was on the ballot, so I didn’t have to deal with that decision. I have to deal with Ramirez now, and it’s impossible to have watched him for his entire career and come to the conclusion that he was anything but one of the best hitters in MLB history, worthy of a plaque.
Thoughts: By the end of his Age 28 season (1995), Curt Shilling didn’t have anything resembling a Hall of Fame resume. He’d been traded three times already and had only one good, healthy season under his belt (his 5.9 WAR year for the Phillies in 1992, when he was 25). In his 206 career games (95 starts) through 1995, Schilling had a 3.56 ERA/3.37 FIP, struck out 6.9 per nine innings and had a 2.56 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Solid, but far from exceptional. He made only a total of 30 starts in 1994-95 because of injuries (and the strike, to a lesser extent), and it was fair to wonder which direction his career was headed. Not sure anyone other than Schilling saw what was coming.
From his Age 29 season through the end of his career (Age 40 season), Schilling struck out 9.2 batters per nine innings and had a 5.31 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He had six seasons with a WAR of at least 6.0, struck out at least 293 batters four times and led his league in complete games four times. Don’t listen to anyone who says “But he didn’t win a Cy Young award” because that’s just silly. He finished second three times, when he had WARs of 8.8, 8.7 and 7.9. Those are amazing seasons. Problem was, Hall of Famer Randy Johnson was in his prime, too, and doing things that seemed darn near impossible. The Big Unit won the award two of those years, posting WARs of 10.0 and 10.9; Johan Santana won the award the third time, with an 8.6 WAR. Like I talked about with Mussina, you cannot hold the success of others against Schilling for his Hall of Fame resume. And then, of course, you have Schilling’s postseason resume, which is incredible. In 19 career playoff starts, Schilling fashioned a 2.23 ERA. He went at least seven full innings 13 times. In seven World Series starts, he had a 2.03 ERA, and his team won the title three times.
As for the recent developments in Schilling’s very public political life, I have a difficult time seeing why they’re relevant to this task of filling out a Hall of Fame ballot. Personally, the vitriol that Schilling espouses on a seemingly daily basis — through Facebook and other social media posts — makes me sick to my stomach. It’s very true that he won numerous “good-guy” awards when he was a player, but now he defaults to attacking almost anyone who disagrees with him as “stupid” or “idiots” and “scumbags” or whatever. The “sarcasm” defense of that horrible “joke” Schilling made about the lynching of journalists was, well, indefensible. Do I think less of him as a person now than I did when he was a player? Yep. But this ballot isn’t about any of those things. It’s about who he was as a player, and Schilling did Hall of Fame things during his career, even after a slow start. Is he in the conversation about the greatest pitchers ever? Nah. But with his 3,116 strikeouts and 79.9 WAR leading his resume, he’s plenty good enough to be in Cooperstown.
Thoughts: His Baseball-Reference page certainly looks like a Hall of Famer’s page, doesn’t it? He played 15 years with at least 90 games, and he hit .290 or better all 15 years. He batted at least .324 seven different seasons, with a high of .345. He topped the 100-RBI plateau 10 times and hit at least 25 home runs 12 times, including five of at least 38 homers. He had two 30-30 seasons (homers/stolen bases). He received MVP votes in 11 consecutive seasons and won the 2004 AL MVP with the Angels. He was an All-Star nine times. His career slash line of .318/.379/.531 is outstanding, as is his career .931 OPS and his career 140 OPS+. Only four players in MLB history — Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Hank Aaron and Willie McCovey — ever received more than the 250 intentional walks he was given, proof he was considered a feared hitter by his peers.
His resume loses steam with some of the advanced metrics, though. He was not a good base runner, by any definition, and his defense, while often highlight-producing — when he threw the ball in from the warning track to cut down a runner on the bases, it was often hold-your-breath brilliance — was generally sub-par, by advanced metrics or just countable errors. Those things helped drive his WAR/JAWS below the level of the average Hall of Fame right fielder, though those numbers certainly don’t completely torpedo his case.
Look, the truth is this: Vlad is going to get into the Hall, and it’s going to happen sooner than later. There’s a chance he gets in this year; the early returns on the vote tracker have had him hovering around the 75 percent mark needed for election. He’s not in my top five this year, but he is in the 8-11 range. And when it came down to picking the final few names to check off, it makes more sense within the constraints of the 10-man ballot to go ahead and make this a strategic vote. If Vlad gets elected this year, that’s one more ballot spot that’s cleared for next year’s group, which includes several candidates worthy of consideration (Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel and Scott Rolen, to name a few). The other player I agonized over for this spot isn’t in danger of falling off the ballot, so I’ll revisit him next year.
Not quite this year …
Thoughts: This is that other guy I agonized over for the 10th spot on my ballot. I really wish Walker would have stayed healthy during his career. In his 16 full seasons in the majors (not counting his 20-game late-season debut in 1989), Walker averaged just 123 games per season. He only played more than 143 games in one season. He played a total of 1,988 games; only four outfielders (Joe DiMaggio, Joe Medwick, Ralph Kiner and Kirby Puckett) have ever been elected to the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA with fewer career games played. Why am I talking about games played? Because when Walker was healthy, he was one hell of a player (not to mention a blast to watch). And if he had stayed healthy, he would have been elected to the Hall a few years ago.
Even with all those injury issues robbing him of games played, Walker snuggles up to the standards for “average” Hall of Fame right fielders in WAR (72.6), peak WAR (44.6) and JAWS (58.6). The averages are 73.2, 43.0 and 58.1, respectively. That’s crazy impressive. The thing is this: Walker did everything well. He was an outstanding base runner. He was a Gold Glove right fielder (he won that award seven times). He had great discipline at the plate — he struck out 112 times as a rookie, and that number remained his career worst. He hit for power (high of 49 home runs) and he hit for average (high of .379).
It’s impossible to talk about Walker without discussing Coors Field, of course, and the video-game numbers the thin air in that ballpark tended to produce. Walker’s Hall of Fame proponents will always point to his home/road splits during his MVP campaign of 1997, and they have a great argument with that season. That year, Walker hit more home runs on the road (29) than at home (20) despite 36 fewer PAs on the road. His OPS at home and on the road were nearly identical (1.169 and 1.176). Those splits helped Walker become the only Rockies player ever to win the NL MVP, and deservedly so. But that one balanced season was really more of the outlier. In 1998, for example, Walker had a 1.241 OPS at home and .892 OPS on the road. In 1999, Walker had a .461 batting average at Coors Field and a .286 average on the road. In 1995, he hit 24 homers at Coors and 12 on the road. You get the point. We have to look at everything. Walker played nine full seasons with the Rockies, from 1995 to 2003, and he was traded to St. Louis after 38 games in an injury-interrupted 2004 season. Here are his home/road splits, solely from his time in a Rockies uniform:
At Coors Field: 592 games, .384/.464/.715, 1.179 OPS, 154 homers, 520 RBIs, .332 ISO
On the road: 578 games, .280/.385/.514, .899 OPS, 104 homers, 328 RBIs, .233 ISO
That’s a big damn difference, more than 100 points in batting average and nearly 200 points in OPS. It’s at this point, though, that I’ll say any player who posts a .385 on-base percentage and .899 OPS on the road is still a damn good player. Most everyone had some type of home/road split that favors the home ballpark. Walker hit .350 on the road against the Diamondbacks, .329 against the Cubs at Wrigley and always crushed the Braves in Atlanta (.326 at Fulton County Stadium and .317 at Turner Field). He was far from a home-field fabrication.
This is his seventh year on the ballot, and quite honestly, it’s disappointing to see how little support he’s received during his time on the ballot. Last year, he finished at 15.8 percent of the vote. This year, he’s been up above the 25-percent mark on the tracker, which is a good sign. It means he’ll be around for next year’s ballot, at least.
Fred McGriff, Gary Sheffield, Jeff Kent, Jorge Posada
Hate that I’m lumping them together and not spending more time talking about these guys (I did research them thoroughly, but they weren’t near my top 10). If I was building a baseball team from scratch, I would love to have any of these guys on my squad. Great players. Just cannot find room for them on my ballot this year. Maybe down the road, if/when the logjam clears.
Thoughts: OK, buckle up. I’ve had a hard time figuring out Hoffman’s Hall of Fame candidacy. One one hand, he has those 601 saves, which is second in MLB history, behind only Mariano Rivera. His consistent excellence was really damn impressive; he had at least 30 saves 14 times in a 15-year span (he only appeared in nine games in 2003 after shoulder issues). Hoffman was the first guy in MLB history to reach the 500-save plateau and the first guy in MLB history to reach the 600-save plateau. How is that kind of record-breaker not a slam-dunk Hall of Famer, right? It’s the “in MLB history” part that is deceiving. The category is saves. Saves weren’t even a thing until 1969. And even when the save became an official statistic, managers didn’t see value in designating specific pitchers as “closers” for many years. And even when that started happening, those closers regularly pitched two or three innings to wrap up a game. It wasn’t really until guys like Dennis Eckersley and Bobby Thigpen started racking up one-inning saves in the late 1980s that the save became a mass-produced statistic.
Look at it this way: Mickey Mantle is 18th in MLB history in home runs (536). Tony Gwynn and Nap Lajoie are tied for 18th in MLB history in batting average (.338). Lou Gehrig is 18th in MLB history in WAR (112.4). Know who’s 18th in MLB history in saves? It’s Jose Mesa. Yeah. Fine closer, sure, but Mesa is no Mantle/Gwynn/Lajoie/Gehrig in terms of being an all-time MLB great. Saves should not have the same place in MLB history as other counting stats. Can we please stop saying misleading things like “But Hoffman is second in MLB history in saves!” and start putting that in its proper context, like this: “Hoffman has the second-most saves since Dennis and Bobby helped revolutionize the way closers were used. Y’know, since the late 1980s.”
So, OK. Hoffman has the second-most saves of any player in this 30-year span. That’s still really impressive. Longevity absolutely counts when we’re talking about a spot in the Hall of Fame. It’s not everything, of course, and voters will place their own individual value on that part of a player’s career. Let’s look at where Hoffman ranks among his peers, the save guys. There are 40 players in MLB history with at least 225 saves (Brad Lidge is 40th, btw), so we’ll limit these rate numbers to what those 40 did as relievers only (not including what guys like Eckersley did as starters).
Opponents OPS: 8th (.609)
Opponents batting average: 10th (.211)
Opponents on-base percentage: 6th (.267)
Opponents slugging: 17th (.342)
Fielding-independent pitching: 9th (2.79)
Hits per 9 innings: 10th (6.99)
Walks per 9 innings: 8th (2.54)
Strikeouts per 9 innings: 14th (9.36)
Strikeout-to-walk ratio: 6th (3.69)
Home runs per 9 innings: 24th (0.83)
Hoffman didn’t finish higher than sixth in any of those categories. Doesn’t paint a picture of domination, does it? Hoffman had 17 seasons with at least 48 appearances, and he had a sub-2.00 ERA only twice. Rivera, on the other hand, had a sub-2.00 ERA 11 times. Billy Wagner had a sub-2.00 four times. Joe Nathan did it five times. Jonathan Papelbon has done it three times. Heck, Craig Kimbrel had a 1.51 ERA the first four full seasons of his career. Obviously, ERA isn’t a fail-proof gauge. But Hoffman, as you see above, is ninth in FIP, too.
Hoffman was great at one thing: Recording a ton of one-inning saves every year for a long time. Of his 601 career saves, only 55 of those required four or more outs. Yikes, right? That’s tied for 73rd all-time, with Ron Kline, Dan Plesac, Ellis Kinder and Keith Foulke. Is it his fault that he came up in the era of super-specialized one-inning closers (Hoffman had 1,035 career appearances and pitched 1,089 1/3 innings)? Of course not. He did the job that was asked of him, and he did it very well for a really long time. And remember that he was so good for so long even as his abilities changed, as he lost the zip on his fastball and he had to rely fully on a changeup that baffled hitters. Maybe with his stuff and his often-aching shoulder, if he’d made his debut 15 years earlier, Hoffman wouldn’t have been able to save 601 games in his career, but he did. That’s what counts. Among those 40 guys with at least 225 saves, Hoffman is fourth in save percentage (behind Kimbrel, Nathan and Rivera). There’s no doubt he’s one of the best closers of the past 30 years. But is that enough to get him in the Hall of Fame, in a game that stretches back to the 1870s?
Clearly, I’m on the fence with Hoffman and other closer-types. So on a crowded ballot with the 10-vote limit, Hoffman doesn’t make the cut for me. Look, I’m of the belief that the Hall should represent the changing flow of how the sport is played (I’m voting for Edgar the DH after all), which is why I won’t say “I’m never voting for a one-inning guy.” But I just can’t put those relievers ahead of starting pitchers or position players on my voting priority list. Hoffman probably will get in this year anyway, and that will be awesome for him. If he doesn’t make the class of 2017, I might vote for him next year (depending on how the ballot looks).
Thoughts: Unlike Hoffman, who struggled through a rough final season in search of his 600th save (at 42 years old, Hoffman had a 5.89 ERA in 50 games), Wagner retired when he was still one of the game’s most dominant closers. The lefty turned 38 during the 2010 season, when he had 37 saves and a miniscule 1.43 ERA for the Braves; he averaged 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings, against just 4.9 hits per nine. Wagner retired with 422 career saves, though he clearly had enough left in the tank to chase, at least, the 500-save mark. Hoffman, for example, had 119 saves from Age 39-42. Wagner decided to walk away, though. He’d missed most of the 2009 season with elbow ligament replacement surgery, and the time he spent at home with his wife and kids was powerful. So he retired with 422 saves. Hoffman kept pitching into his 40s and racked up a bunch more saves. And don’t take this as me dinging Hoffman for sticking around. Personally, I love the idea of athletes playing as long as their bodies will allow. One of my favorite things about Rickey Henderson was that he played independent baseball long after his MLB career ended, just because he loved the game so much. I’m just trying to show the biggest reason for the difference in a counting stat (saves) between Hoffman and Wagner. So let’s look at those same rate stats with Wagner. Again, just looking at the 40 pitchers with at least 225 saves in their careers.
Opponents OPS: 3rd (.558)
Opponents batting average: 2nd (.187)
Opponents on-base percentage: 2nd (.262)
Opponents slugging: 3rd (.296)
Fielding-independent pitching: 2nd (2.45)
Hits per 9 innings: 2nd (5.99)
Walks per 9 innings: 15th (2.99)
Strikeouts per 9 innings: 2nd (11.92)
Strikeout-to-walk ratio: 4th (3.99)
Home runs per 9 innings: 23rd (0.82)
Wagner has better numbers than Hoffman in nine of those 10 categories, many times by a significant margin. Hoffman did have a better save percentage (88.8 to 85.9), though, so his much higher save total isn’t JUST about the 186 more save opportunities Hoffman had over a longer career. What does this all mean? Wagner was the more dominant pitcher. Hoffman was an outstanding pitcher for a longer period of time. Are both Hall of Fame-worthy? Which one is MORE Hall of Fame-worthy? I don’t know the perfect answer to that question. This year, with the crowded ballot, I’m opting for stars who had bigger impacts on more than one inning. I’ll revisit these guys next year and the year after and the year after and make my decisions depending on who else is on the ballot.
Thoughts: Smith’s career overlapped just a bit with Trevor Hoffman’s — his final 30-plus save season (1995) was Hoffman’s first 30-plus save season — but their careers as closers were very, very different. Smith was the first closer to rack up big save numbers for a really long time. Smith had 13 consecutive seasons with at least 25 saves; he had at least 33 saves eight times in that run. This was a new thing in baseball. Look at the other closers in the Hall of Fame (not counting Hoyt Wilhelm, who was at the tail end of his career when the save became an official stat in 1969). Bruce Sutter had seven seasons of at least 25 saves, though not consecutive. Rollie Fingers was an elite reliever for more than a decade, but only had more than 25 saves twice, because that number wasn’t important for most of his career. Same thing with Rich Gossage. Dan Quisenberry, a brilliant pitcher whose career was cut short by injuries, had five 30-plus save seasons in the early 1980s.
Back to the Hoffman comparison. As pointed out earlier, Hoffman had only those 55 saves of at least four outs, which is 73rd in big-league history. Smith had 169 such saves, which is fourth all-time. Behind … you guessed it, Fingers, Gossage and Sutter (Quisenberry is fifth). That’s a biiiiiig difference. Smith had such a different role; Hoffman made 13 more appearances than Smith, but Smith threw 200 more innings than Hoffman. Smith took over the MLB career lead in saves in 1993 and held that distinction for eight years after he retired (with 478 career saves), when Hoffman took the lead in 2006. Here’s a look at how Smith ranks in those same rate categories as Hoffman and Wagner (remember, just the relief numbers for the 40 guys with at least 225 saves).
Opponents OPS: 21st (.645)
Opponents batting average: 26th (.235)
Opponents on-base percentage: 26th (.305)
Opponents slugging: 14th (.340)
Fielding-independent pitching: 11th (2.91)
Hits per 9 innings: 24th (7.87)
Walks per 9 innings: 21st (3.41)
Strikeouts per 9 innings: 19th (8.80)
Strikeout-to-walk ratio: 21st (2.58)
Home runs per 9 innings: 8th (0.63)
Those numbers aren’t dominating. Smith’s save percentage of 82.3 percent isn’t great, either, relatively speaking; it ranks 22nd of those 40 closers. He seems to fall in this strange middle ground. He wasn’t perceived to be as ground-breaking as Fingers, Gossage or Sutter and his total save number (478) doesn’t look nearly as shiny now, next to Mariano Rivera (652) or Hoffman (601). That resume is why he’s stuck around on the ballot for 15 years, but never got more than 50.6 percent of the vote. He won’t get in this year, his final on the BBWAA ballot, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he eventually gets in through the veterans channels.
Thoughts: There’s little doubt, of course, that Sosa took a PED-enhanced path to all those home runs. But I’ve had this one thought running through my head for a long time now: If I’m going to vote for Bonds and Clemens and consider Manny Ramirez (among others), how can I not vote for Sosa, a guy who finished with 609 career home runs and topped the 60-homer mark in three separate seasons? I honestly don’t have a great answer for that question. As explained in Jaffe’s Hall of Fame profile, it’s easy to forget how much of a lift that Sosa’s power — and joy on the field — gave baseball during the post-strike struggles. On the other hand, even with all those home runs, Sosa’s career WAR of 58.4 falls way below the standard for average Hall of Fame right fielders (it’s 73.2). In fact, only one right fielder with a lower WAR has ever been elected to the Hall by the BBWAA, Wee Willie Keeler (54.0 WAR), back in 1939. Remember how I talked about how reasons not to vote for some players are just as important as reasons to vote for some players? This is one of those “not to vote for” reasons.