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July 28, 2010

Prospectus Hit and Run

Don't Call it the Veterans' Committee

by Jay Jaffe

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The National Baseball Hall of Fame's Board of Directors threw another changeup. One day after the Class of 2010 enjoyed its day in the sun, the board announced a restructuring of its procedures to consider managers, umpires, executives, and "long-retired players" for election to the Hall of Fame. In doing so, it buried the lead: the institution has put a pillow over the face of the Veterans Committee it radically expanded in 2001. In fact, the press release outlining the re-re-revamped procedures doesn't use the phrase "Veterans Committee" at all.

That august body, which had been enlarged to incorporate all living members of the Hall of Fame proper, the surviving Ford C. Frick Award and J.G. Taylor Spink Award recipients, and a couple of old VC members whose terms hadn't expired, didn't elect a single new member in 2003, 2005, or 2007. In the two cycles since being retooled again, the new VC tabbed three managers (Billy Southworth, Dick Williams, and Whitey Herzog), three executives (Barney Dreyfuss, Bowie Kuhn, and Walter O'Malley) and one umpire (Doug Harvey) but just one player (Joe Gordon) for enshrinement. All eight of those honorees gained entry via smaller panels appointed by the board, not via the larger body; Gordon fell into the category of pre-1943 players, separate from those whose careers began after that year.

It's tempting to say good riddance to the unwieldy group, the most glaring failure of which was their inability to get former Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Marvin Miller into Cooperstown. Not even Reggie Jackson, one of the first marquee players to profit from the free agent system that flowered on Miller's watch, could find it in himself to recognize the tireless labor leader with a vote in his favor. "I looked at those ballots, and there was no one to put in," he said after the 2007 vote. When Miller advocates Brooks Robinson, Tom Seaver, and Robin Roberts—a member of the group that originally chose Miller to take over the union—declined seats on the committee charged with electing executives, Miller took the unprecedented step of asking not to be considered on future ballots.

Though the new VC pitched four shutouts in the player election department, one can argue that they at least did no harm by anointing an unworthy player. Nonetheless, a couple of omissions do stand out. Both the traditional numbers and the JAWS ones show Ron Santo as eminently worthy of enshrinement, at times ranking as the best eligible hitter not in the Hall of Fame. While he received majorities in the 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009 votes, he has yet attain the 75 percent supermajority necessary for election. Aside from him and the still-active Joe Torre, whose managerial contributions will put him over the hump but cannot currently be considered part of his case, none of the other players most popular in those votes—Gil Hodges, Jim Kaat, Tony Oliva, Maury Wills, Vada Pinson, and Luis Tiant—have strong enough credentials when compared to the players elected by the writers.

The problem with the dismissal of the big-bodied new VC is that it is being replaced by something which looks a whole lot like that old VC, or the more recently constituted subcommittees: 16-member Voting Committees for each of the three eras outlined by the reorganization, comprised of "Hall of Famers, major league executives and historians/veteran media members," the latter a group which has been long on ex-newspaper columnists and short on research scholars; why in the hell aren't John Thorn, Pete Palmer, and Bill James—three men who've added more to our baseball knowledge than just about any BBWAA member—among the "historians/veteran media members" included? The old VC, which generally consisted of 15 members, was guilty of some of the most flagrant electoral mistakes in the Hall's history. The running joke is that failures to turn up the volumes on hearing aids resulted in the elections of catcher Rick Ferrell and center fielder Lloyd Waner, the lowest-ranked players at their respective positions according to JAWS, not to mention the less-qualified brothers of pitcher Wes Farrell (who's not in) and left fielder Paul Waner (who is). Cronyism was an even more glaring problem; Frankie Frisch, who was on the VC from 1967-73, ran something of an underground railroad between the Polo Grounds and Cooperstown, helping former teammates Jesse Haines (1970), Dave Bancroft (1971), Chick Hafey (1971), Ross Youngs (1972), George Kelly (1973), Jim Bottomley (1974), and Fred Lindstrom (1976) gain entry. All of those players rate below the JAWS positional standards, and over the years, some have ranked as the single worst enshrined player at their positions, with scores so low that by definition they're thrown out before the computation of those standards. Just 15 of the 84 qualifying players elected by the old VC exceed the JAWS standards, and with the exception of shortstop, at least the two lowest-ranked players at every position came from that VC.

As for the three eras—Pre-Integration (1871-1946), Golden (1947-72), and Expansion (1973-89 for players; 1973-present for managers, umpires, and executives)—it's questionable whether committees devoted to focusing on those three specific time periods are a better choice than the previous iteration's four committees devoted to focusing on specific vocations (managers, umpires, executives, and long-retired players). While the decision to use the arrival of Jackie Robinson as one line of demarcation makes sense on multiple levels, the use of the word "Golden" to describe the middle era devalues those on either side of it, and the choice of 1973 as the other line of demarcation is an odd one. No new teams were added to the majors in that year, expansions having occurred in 1961, 1962, 1969, and 1977; it's the arrival of the designated hitter which makes 1973 a landmark in baseball history.

These three unequal slices of history have unequal numbers of candidates who even approach the current standards for admission, but very few who clearly surpass them. The Pre-Integration Era is already saturated with substandard Hall of Famers due to the inclusion of so many VC-elected players from the late 1920s and early 1930s, at times surpassing an average of three enshrined players per team; from the last round of JAWS numbers, the most glaring omission is that of Bill Dahlen, and from there one quickly slides into borderline cases such as that of the aforementioned Wes Ferrell, or the likes of Piano Legs Gore and Jack Glasscock. The so-called Golden Era ranges between 1.5 and 2.3 enshrined players per team, and the verdict is similar: with the exception of Santo and Torre, the pickings are slim. The best case beyond those two may belong to Dick Allen, but for the most part, the players likely to be considered will simply rehash recent VC ballots. Do we really need to put Roger Maris' family through another election cycle?

The good news is that those rehashed candidacies won't crowd out players from the Expansion era, whose representation tails off from 1.5 enshrined players per team to 0.7, a level well below that of the rest of the 20th century. When I culled an all-star team of the best eligible but unenshrined players this past winter, the most compelling candidates not currently lingering on the BBWAA ballot hail from that era, including Bobby Grich, Jimmy Wynn, and Ted Simmons. That's not to say that they're definitively worthy, just that their cases merit a fresher look than the aforementioned pre- and post-war horses. Each member of the aforementioned trio slipped off the writers' ballot after receiving less than the requisite 5 percent in their lone appearance and have yet to grace a VC ballot. Grich was considered for the 2009 ballot but didn't make it through the semifinal round to become one of the 21 players voted upon by the new VC.

Which brings us to the eligibility requirements. Managers and umps with 10 or more years of experience who have been retired for at least five years are eligible, with candidates 65 and older eligible as of six months following retirement. That's a curious buffer zone which would seem to eliminate retiring skippers Bobby Cox and Lou Piniella (and who knows, maybe even Torre) from consideration this time around, as the Expansion Era ballot will be voted upon at this year's Winter Meetings. Executives need to be retired for at least five years, though again, those 65 and older get the express route. Players have to have played in at least 10 major-league seasons, avoided MLB's Ineligible List, and been retired for 21 or more seasons, which eliminates Pete Rose, Shoeless Joe Jackson and his seven accomplices and leaves players such as Dwight Evans (who retired in 1991 but lasted just three ballots) and Lou Whitaker (who retired in 1995 but went one-and-done on the BBWAA ballot) waiting until a later date. Darrell Evans (who retired in 1989) gets in under the wire this time around, as do Simmons, Buddy Bell, Dave Concepcion, Ron Guidry, Tommy John, and Graig Nettles. Meanwhile, the Golden Era election will occur at the 2011 Winter Meetings, and the Pre-Integration Era election at the 2012 ones. If the Hall of Fame hasn't changed the rules by then.

It's unclear whether any of this constitutes improvement. Among the not-too-shocking revelations from the ex-players' era in control of the voting was that their standards tend to be even more conservative and reliant on old-school thinking as the most grizzled columnist. Triple crown stats and pitcher wins ruled the day, and in the end, everyone up for a vote was still found wanting. One would hope that a revamping of the committees means incorporating fresh voices and fresh information into the process, but those of us who've been fooled before by the Hall's changeups are braced for more of the same frustration.

---

On the topic of the Hall of Fame, when Piniella announced his retirement at the end of this season early last week, I did a series of radio hits in which his status as a future honoree was more or less taken for granted. While I'm somewhat less sure of what a Hall of Fame manager's credentials look like relative to those of a Hall of Fame player's, Piniella's case appears to fall short of the mark.

Piniella ranks 14th all-time in wins, with nine managers above him enshrined and three active ones (Tony LaRussa, Cox, and Torre, respectively third, fourth, and fifth on the all-time list)—inevitably bound for bronze; Gene Mauch, who never won a pennant and has a career record below .500, is the odd man out. Piniella's .519 winning percentage is better than four of those 13 skippers (Casey Stengel, Bucky Harris, Connie Mack, and Mauch); the latter three are all below .500, but Stengel, Harris, and Mack each won at least two World Series, whereas Piniella won just one, that with the 1990 Reds. In fact, with the exception of Mauch, each of the 13 guys above Piniella won at least three pennants, whereas Sweet Lou had just one despite finishing with his league's best record two other times (the 2001 Mariners and 2008 Cubs).

Of the managers right below Piniella on the all-time list, seven of the nine are in the Hall, though some were elected as much for their playing as for their managing. Of that bunch, only the two non-Hall of Famers, Ralph Houk and Jim Leyland, have lower winning percentages, with the latter still below .500. Of those nine, eight of them won at least two pennants, the exception being Clark Griffith, who had credentials as a player and owner to burnish his case. Four of them (Houk, Tommy Lasorda, Dick Williams, and Miller Huggins) won at least two World Series.

In fact, if you take a list of the top 50 managers according to career wins, Piniella ranks 13th in games managed but slips to 27th in games above .500, 31st in winning percentage, tied for 36th in pennants, and tied for 18th in world championships. Among the 13 managers from that group with just one title, eight have higher winning percentages, and eight have multiple pennants; none of the men in that group with just one pennant are in the Hall for their managerial skills.

Piniella got something of a raw deal at the outset of his managerial career. Despite winning 90 and 89 games in his first two campaigns managing the Yankees, he was kicked upstairs into the general manager position, as George Steinbrenner hired Billy Martin for his fifth and final fling. Martin didn't last the year, being fired in late June despite a 40-28 record, and Piniella did double duty to finish out the season, going 45-48 as the Yankees finished a disappointing fifth in the AL East. He turned around and won it all in his first year in Cincinnati, riding the arms of the Nasty Boys and the bats of Barry Larkin and Eric Davis to a championship, but he lasted just three years in Cincy, brawling with Rob Dibble in the clubhouse during his final year and clashing with owner Marge Schott. He departed after being offered a one-year deal with a pay-cut following a 90-win season, 16 wins better than his previous campaign.

Piniella didn't take long to land another job, emerging in Seattle, where he took over a Mariners team that had finished with just one winning season in their first 19 years of existence. Piniella presided over the Mariners' march to relevance, reaching .500 seven times in 10 years and taking them to the playoffs four times. But he also ran three of the worst bullpens of all-time from 1997-99, squandering the end of the Randy Johnson/Ken Griffey Jr./Alex Rodriguez era. His 2001 club, which tied the single-season wins record with 116, lost to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. While he did pilot the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to their first 70-win season and non-last place finish, his third year was such a disaster that he stepped down with a year remaining on his contract. After sitting out a year, he returned to lead the Cubs to the playoffs in 2007 and 2008, but went 0-6 in two first-round exits, crushing defeats which appear to have foreshadowed the club's fall from relevance and the damping of Piniella's flame over the past two years.

Between his playing career and his managerial career, Piniella has led as fascinating and entertaining a life in baseball as anyone of his era. Put his notorious temper tantrums on a highlight reel, and I'd buy the DVD to watch on cold winter nights. Ultimately, his case as a Hall of Fame manager rests more on longevity than it does sustained success. In a world where Herzog and Williams—two innovators who won multiple pennants, and made the playoffs more frequently without benefit of the wild card—needed a quarter of a century to gain election via the Veterans Committee, I just don't see how Piniella has got enough to get into Cooperstown. At least not anytime soon.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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