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November 30, 2004

Prospectus Matchups

The Class of '05

by Jim Baker

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The 2004 Hall of Fame ballots were sent on Monday, and they include the usual worthy candidates like Bert Blyleven and Tommy John, both of whom are still waiting for induction. In addition to the 15 men returning from last year's ballot, there are 12 HOF-eligible rookies. It is this dozen--the Freshman Class of 2005--that will be the focus of today's outing. Here they are, in alphabetical order:

  • Jim Abbott: I was surprised that Abbott's career had lasted long enough for him to be eligible for election to the Hall. He did make it into a tenth season, just enough to be included on the ballot. Abbott's career was ended prematurely by arm troubles, but it was not a career on the Cooperstown track by any means. He had an outstanding year in 1991 and one almost as good the next year, although he got no support in '92. He was decent again in 1995. Aside from that there was a lot of struggling. While his career makes for an inspiring story, it's not one that mandates consideration for a plaque.

  • Wade Boggs: Boggs fits just about all the definitions of a Hall of Famer. He had a nice peak and hit the necessary milestone career-wise. He played the majority of his career at a position that is under-represented in Cooperstown. Is he a first-ballot candidate? Probably.

    We don't like to talk about batting average much in these parts, but, after the first seven years of his career, Boggs had the third-best BA in history behind Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby. Hitting .356 through the age of 30 is an amazing accomplishmen, especially when coupled with Boggs' well-known proclivity for pitch selection. That his average became much less impressive after that (.307 for the rest of his career) was pretty disappointing for those of us era-centric enough to want to see someone who played in our lifetimes up there with Cobb, Hornsby, Joe Jackson and Ted Williams.

    Boggs' lack of home run power cost him voter support at awards time, and will probably cause him to lack the full-throated support of Hall voters as well. He did not fare well in MVP balloting, even at his peak. He was probably jobbed for the American League Most Valuable Player Award in 1987. If nothing else, he should have much higher than ninth place, as evidenced by the EQA standings that year (number in parentheses is MVP finish):

    .358 Wade Boggs (9th)
    .344 Paul Molitor (5th)
    .335 Mark McGwire (6th)
    .334 Alan Trammell (2nd)
    .332 Dwight Evans (4th)
    .319 Don Mattingly (7th)
    .318 George Bell (1st)
    .305 Kirby Puckett (3rd)
    .290 Tony Fernandez (8th)

    Boggs also had some compelling evidence for an MVP the following year. He had the best VORP (96.6) and EQA (.358) in the league. Once more, though, he found himself lined up behind the inferior Puckett and a handful of others, including winner Jose Canseco, whose VORP and EQA suffered greatly by comparison.

    Boggs' seventh-place finish in 1986 was another example of his undervaluation by writers of the mid-'80s, although this time out, Mattingly earned his higher finish. Boggs' best showing, fourth, came in 1985, which was probably about where he belonged that year behind the mis-ordered trio of Mattingly, Rickey Henderson and George Brett--although a strong case could be made for him having had a better year than Mattingly.

    It's pretty obvious that Boggs was the best player in the American League from 1985-1988. He totaled a VORP of 377.7, the highest in that particular time frame. Clay Davenport's research shows that players with EQAs over .350 were very rare until the 1990s. Boggs (1987 and 1988) was just one of six men to pull it off in the '70s and '80s. He did it twice, along with Brett (1980 and 1985) and Joe Morgan (1975 and 1976). The others were Mike Schmidt (1981), Jack Clark (1987) and Kevin Mitchell (1989).

  • Tom Candiotti: There's just no way around it: starting pitchers with losing records do not get into the Hall of Fame. Even translating his stats, Candiotti still doesn't muster a .500 showing. Was he, at any time, a Hall of Fame-caliber pitcher? Look at what he did with Cleveland in the early going of 1991 before being traded to Toronto. That's Cooperstown stuff. Unfortunately, it was just over 100 innings.

  • Chili Davis: One thing we should keep in mind: these players are not presenting themselves for election. They are automatically eligible because they played ten years and left the game five years ago. Davis had a very nice career, one better than 90% of the young men who ever get to appear in a major league game, I would reckon. Let's not look at his eligibility as a cause to dismiss his candidacy, but as an excuse to celebrate his career, short of Cooperstown though it may be. Davis was a remarkably consistent offensive contributor, one who, by his third year, began a string of 16 seasons in which his EQA never got below .274 and was usually much closer to .300. The man could hit.

  • Mark Langston: Any pitcher who survives long enough to win 179 games deserves some sort of pat on the back. When you consider how few men make it that far, Langston is to be congratulated. Langston makes the all-time Traded for Great Players team, too, for getting swapped out for Randy Johnson in 1989.

  • Jack McDowell: One of the better starting pitchers in the American League from 1991 to 1993. He even got a Cy Young Award out of the deal, although Kevin Appier was a stronger candidate that year ('93). He's not a Hall of Famer.

  • Willie McGee: Younger people looking at clips of Willie McGee will probably be shocked at how narrow he was across the chest. Now that beefy boys rule the batters' boxes, a fellow with a slight upper body like McGee's seems like an impossibility. Yet he could leverage some pop when need be. The first time most people saw him was when, as a rookie in 1982, he hit two homers in Game Three of the World Series. McGee got a lot of postseason face time with the Cardinals and departed St. Louis at just the right moment, arriving in Oakland in time in 1990 to help them reach the postseason. McGee might not have been great, but he certainly was famous within the context of the game. He was easily one of its most recognizable faces.

  • Jeff Montgomery: Montgomery's career helps illustrate why with closers, it's probably worth waiting 10 or 15 years rather than five to decide if they belong in the Hall of Fame or not. What, exactly, do all those saves mean? Montgomery's career ended in 1999 with him sitting on 304 saves. At the time, that was good for ninth all-time. Now, in the five years since Montgomery hung 'em up, he has already fallen to 16th on the list, and will plummet further. Obviously, the 300-save mark is not going to function as the threshold milestone that its win counterpart has over the course of time. However, since only two men (three soon enough with Trevor Hoffman knocking on the door) have saved 400 games, then that's almost too elite a number to consider, isn't it? With 18 men across the 300 threshold already, though, that's too low. The best thing to do here, of course, is not have a threshold number like 3,000 hits, 500 homers or 300 wins.

  • Otis Nixon: In spite of qualifying for the batting title just six times, Nixon is 15th on the all-time stolen-base leader board. This is a position he is going to hold onto for many years to come, as anyone close and active is close to retirement and close to being inactive. That's about it, though. His EQA high-water mark was .280 in 1991.

  • Tony Phillips: I've never smoked crack, but something tells me it's got to be pretty hard to play at the major league level after having done so. If there were a Hall of Fame for players who performed well in spite of self-inflicted handicaps, Phillips would be in it. If there were a Hall of Fame for guys who excelled while playing a lot of different positions in the course of the same seasons, he'd be in that one, too. He'd definitely also make the bizarre-career-layout Hall of Fame. Consider that this is a 2,000-hit, 18-season career in which he was not really given a set position until he was 37 years old (left field, by the White Sox), and that only lasted one year.

  • Terry Steinbach: A low-walk, high-K catcher who could bust out some big lumber when need be, especially when things got out of hand offensively in the mid-'90s. Like a lot aging players active at that time (including Tony Phillips and Chili Davis, seen above), Steinbach set a career high in home runs at a time in his life when most catchers are retiring. Not a Hall of Famer, but one of those guys who should get to play catch on the lawn of the place. In other words, a very good player who is just not quite HOF material.

  • Darryl Strawberry: I distinctly remember jumping through hoops so I could see Strawberry's first major-league at-bat on television because I wanted to be present at the creation. Oh, well.... In a parallel universe, Strawberry wouldn't be eligible yet because he'd still be down at the end of somebody's bench, waiting to be called upon to whip his bat through the strike zone more quickly than most men ever have. He had three excellent seasons and six more very, very good ones before the age of 30. Had he been able to string together two more half-way decent (or even complete) seasons after that, he would be in a position to make a decent case for Cooperstown, all the attendant hassles notwithstanding.

So, the freshman HOF Class of 2005 has just one member worthy of induction, that being Boggs. Perhaps this paucity of overwhelming stars bodes well for those ballot-veteran holdovers, still waiting to get the happy call.

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