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McGwire doesn't make the cut, but nine others do
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Before I had a ballot, my definition of a Hall of Famer was strict — a minimum of 10-year dominance, a general belief that the Hall should include only the best of the best.
So, what happened to my exacting standards?
I’m sort of wondering myself.
I tell people all the time — it’s different when you get the ballot, when the responsibility is directly in your hands. I may view a player as borderline. But if his statistics are comparable to a Hall of Famer’s, he deserves legitimate consideration. Happens often — more often than the average fan might think.
Those comparisons are essentially the reason I vote for more than say, two or three elite candidates a year. But to go from my usual five or six to nine, my highest total ever? Well, I voted for four first-time candidates (Roberto Alomar, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez and Fred McGriff) in addition to five holdovers (Bert Blyleven, Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, Lee Smith, Alan Trammell).
I must say, I'm still not in love with that large a number, but obviously I believe each of my choices is worthy. And I will admit something else: On close calls, I generally lean toward voting for a player instead of against him. That's the opposite of the way many voters think, but I'm more lenient because a player who fails to attain 5 percent of the vote is removed from the ballot permanently.
The rule is too harsh; all players should remain on the ballot 15 years, not just those who meet the 5 percent standard. But until the rule is changed, marginal candidates should receive every consideration. You might say, “C’mon, even marginal candidates get 5 percent.” Not true. Lou Whitaker — a better-than-marginal candidate — dropped off the ballot after one year in 2001.
Maybe Whitaker isn’t a Hall of Famer, but he deserved better.
The process is not perfect; we all know that. But for the most part, it’s fair. The five-year grace period and 15-year eligibility period allows ample time for voters to reflect on candidates. Fans often complain about voters who add or remove players from their ballot from year to year. It’s a legitimate criticism, but keeping an open mind is important; perspectives change over time.
I have yet to vote for McGwire, but I am warmer to the idea than when he first appeared on the ballot in 2007. The more we learn about the Steroid Era, the better we understand just how deeply performance-enhancing drugs were entrenched in the game’s culture. My problem with McGwire is that his candidacy is largely based on power, and there is ample reason to believe that his late-career power surge was fueled by PEDs.
In any case, here are the nine players on my ballot:
Alomar: In the first half of the 1996 season — his first with the Orioles — he was the best all-around player I have ever seen. At the time, I was a sports columnist for The Baltimore Sun.
Alomar, a second baseman, could dominate a game defensively, and he was a wondrous offensive player, a switch-hitter with speed and power. He played with rare flair and intellect, throwing behind runners, seemingly guiding the ball at will down the third-base line from the left side.
The spitting incident? Ugly as it was, it should have no bearing on Alomar’s candidacy. Character, integrity and sportsmanship are listed among the Hall’s criteria, but the incident was a one-time mistake; Alomar long ago made his peace with umpire John Hirschbeck.
Larkin: His .371 career on-base percentage was 31 points higher than Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken’s. His .444 slugging percentage was only three points lower.
Larkin also won more Gold Gloves than Ripken, three to two, stole 379 bases — at an 83 percent success rate — and had more career walks than strikeouts.
OK, so Larkin didn’t revolutionize the position the way Ripken and Ozzie Smith did, and none of his achievements was as historic as Ripken’s consecutive-games streak. His 10 career trips to the disabled list also deprived him of greater counting stats.
Larkin was a more complete player than Smith and perhaps even Ripken.
Martinez: The last player I checked off on my ballot, but not for the reason you might think. I have no problem with a player who primarily was a DH making the Hall. Martinez and his brethren did not invent the rules; they abided by them. The best players at every position should be honored.
The reason I wavered on Martinez is that his peak was too short, lasting essentially seven seasons, from 1995 to 2001. The Mariners did not play him regularly until he was 27, and he did not reach stardom until he was 32. I cannot argue with voters who might say, “Not good enough.”
Still, Martinez’s percentage stats are staggering — and think about it: How many right-handed hitters of his generation were better?
Martinez is one of only 20 players in major-league history to produce a career batting/on base/slugging line of .300/.400/.500 or better.
Since 1945, only three non-active players with at least 7,500 plate appearances exceeded his .418 career OBP — Barry Bonds, Mickey Mantle and Frank Thomas.
McGriff: I know, I know; McGriff doesn’t strike you immediately as a Hall of Famer. But a comparison of his offensive statistics to those of Eddie Murray by the Rays’ public-relations department is rather telling.
McGriff had a higher OBP than Murray, .377 to .359, and a higher SLG, .509 to .476. Take it a step further, and he also had a higher OPS- plus, 134 to 129, according to baseball-reference.com.
Murray was a switch-hitter who won three straight Gold Gloves at first base in his late 20s; McGriff was a left-handed hitter and less-than-stellar defender. But McGriff’s offensive numbers, while compiled in a more hitter-friendly era, are too compelling to ignore. From 1988 to 2002, he averaged 31 homers and 97 RBIs.
If McGriff had hit seven more home runs to reach 500, would we even be having this discussion? His run of dominance lasted 15 seasons. His BA/ OBP/SLG line in 50 postseason games was .303/.385/.532.
Blyleven: Several years back, I appeared in a nationally televised debate with Blyleven. The subject was Blyleven’s candidacy. I argued against his election.
I felt badly leaving the studio that night, not because of my position on Blyleven, but because I found the process demeaning to him and certain other candidates. We end up talking about their negatives when, in fact, they all had great careers.
My initial reluctance on Blyleven was based on his similarity to two other candidates in the 280- to 290-win range, Jim Kaat and Tommy John. But I eventually came around on Blyleven, swayed largely by sabermetricians.
Blyleven ranks fifth all-time in strikeouts (though his career K rate actually was lower than Denny Neagle’s) and ninth all-time in shutouts. His ERA-plus — that is, his ERA compared to his league’s and adjusted to his ballparks — is higher than that of Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins, Jim Bunning and Catfish Hunter, and not far below Juan Marichal’s.
After 13 years on the ballot, it’s time.
Dawson: I’ve written in the past about the principal flaw in his candidacy — his .323 career OBP. Dawson explained to me in an interview a few years back that his teams wanted him not to take
walks, but to drive in runs.
I understand the sabermetric argument: Dawson simply made too many outs. But if Dawson had been asked to produce a .350 OBP, he could have produced a .350 OBP. He was a model player, an all-around marvel revered both by teammates and opponents not just for his playing ability, but also for his ability to endure through relentless knee pain.
(At this point you may ask, “Ken, if you’re willing to forgive Dawson’s .323 OBP, why are you unwilling to forgive Jack Morris’ 3.90 career ERA?” It’s an entirely fair question, but I fear that electing Morris would lower the standards for starting pitchers too dramatically. Call me inconsistent; it’s just the way I feel).
Raines: It baffles me that Raines received less than 25 percent of the vote in each of his first two years of eligibility. As a leadoff man, he wasn’t Rickey Henderson, but he also wasn’t that far off.
Rickey had the better career OBP, .401 to .385. Raines had the higher SLG, .425 to .419. And Raines, as pointed out by Joe Posnanski, also had the highest stolen-base percentage in history among players with 500 or more steals.
What exactly is the problem?
Smith: Probably my most controversial choice; many voters, like many fans, think little of the save statistic, and are reluctant to elect closers. But the best closers, like the best DHs, deserve to be in the Hall.
Was Smith one of the best closers? Inarguably. He retired as the all-time saves leader, though he has since been passed by Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera. He made 60 or more appearances in 12 straight seasons, a testament to his durability. His ERA-plus falls between Bruce Sutter’s and Goose Gossage’s.
Not an obvious or easy yes. But a yes.
Trammell: A similar candidate to Larkin, though not quite as strong. His low vote totals — never higher than 18 percent — mystify me.
Trammell was one of the top shortstops in the American League for nearly his entire career, second only to Ripken for much of it.
As my colleague Jon Paul Morosi pointed out in a recent column, Trammell and Larkin should not be penalized for playing in the same era as more historic figures at their position.
The 1984 Tigers won 104 games, then went 7-1 in the postseason to become World Series champions. It drives Tigers fans nuts that no member of that team is a Hall of Famer.
I do not vote for Morris. I no longer can vote for Whitaker. I vote enthusiastically for Trammell.
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