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December 1, 2004

Prospectus Today

The Holdovers

by Joe Sheehan

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It's the start of a new month, and here's hoping that whatever ailed me in November has disappeared like Thanksgiving leftovers. I've been spending most of my time on Baseball Prospectus 2005, but I miss this space, and I need to get back to it, especially as the hot stove league ramps up in the next two weeks.

Yesterday, Jim Baker covered the 12 new names on the Hall of Fame ballot. Fifteen other players are also eligible for election, with Steve Garvey having the longest tenure on the ballot. This will be his 13th trip through the process.

A peek at player qualifications and voting patterns allows us to more or less dismiss the candidacies of seven of these guys. Garvey, Dave Concepcion, Tommy John, Don Mattingly, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker and Alan Trammell all qualify for the Hall of the Very Good, but none has a strong case for induction based on performance, nor any momentum in the balloting. All will probably ride out their 15 years without falling off, but also without being in any danger of induction.

Five other players are in a gray area, either qualified for the Hall but needing to pick up some steam, or just on the other side of the line but with some support from the writers. I'd put Rich Gossage in the former group, and Andre Dawson, Jack Morris, Jim Rice and Bruce Sutter in the latter. For many of these players, next year will be critical; there are no likely Hall of Famers coming on the ballot--Orel Hershiser, Albert Belle and Harold Baines head the list. After that, there will be a flood of new, overqualified candidates for years to come. Surefire Hall of Famers start coming fast and furious: Cal Ripken Jr., Mark McGwire and Tony Gwynn in 2007, and the voting for them will kill the momentum for lesser candidates.

I recognize that this should be a more black-and-white matter--you're a Hall of Famer or you're not--but in reality, things like quality of other players on the ballot, especially quality of direct comps, makes a big difference. For someone like Parker or Rice or Gossage, being the best available candidate matters, because there are voters who won't want to list no one, and others who will always list at least five or always fill out their ballot. The plaque doesn't say, "Voted in Because it Was a Weak Ballot" so the next two years are huge for these guys.

That leaves three candidates who don't fit in either of the above categories:

Bert Blyleven is so ridiculously qualified for the Hall of Fame that it pains me to have to keep writing about him. He should be in there already; like Ron Santo, he's so far above the standards for admission that his absence from the room demeans the place and the process.

The good news is that Blyleven has seen his vote total grow in the past couple of years, something I have no problem attributing to the push he's gotten from the analyst community. Many people have pointed out that Blyleven's falling short of 300 wins, and his .500 records early in his career, were less about his pitching and more about the support he received. On merit, he's a Hall of Famer, and I hope that the next two ballots get his total to a level that makes his election an inevitability.

Ryne Sandberg seemed like a Hall of Famer in his playing days, a power/speed second baseman who won an MVP and a bunch of Gold Gloves. Looking back, his career doesn't seem as impressive; his power was greatly inflated by Wrigley Field, he had a number of ordinary seasons mixed in with his MVP-caliber ones, and his Gold Glove defense was more reputation than performance. All of those things are probably why he was named on a bit less than half the ballots last year, a surprisingly low number. As Bill James put it, the further you get from a player's career, the more it becomes about the numbers. Sandberg, to a certain extent, has suffered from the same information explosion that has benefited Blyleven.

Had Sandberg not taken a year and a half off near the end of his playing days, he'd likely have added just enough value, not to mention statistical milestones, to be inducted on the first ballot. As it stands, he's still a strong candidate, the most likely one to reach Cooperstown in 2006's soft balloting, or if not, in 2008.

Lee Smith lost a lot of support in his second year on the ballot, thanks in no small part to the presence of direct comp Dennis Eckersley. Given that there are no clear standards for electing short relievers to the Hall, and that Smith is a bit like the pitching version of Harold Baines, I think he's seen his highest vote total. His career looks a bit less impressive each year as Mariano Rivera sets the standard for the closer position. Smith's main point is his status as the career saves leader, but looking at the top 10, only Eckersley and Rollie Fingers are in the Hall, and only Rivera is likely to ever be inducted. It's just not an indicator of greatness.

I don't have a ballot. If I did, it would include just four names this year: Blyleven, Gossage, Sandberg and Wade Boggs, in his debut season. Sandberg is a very close call, but his overall numbers are strong for a second baseman who largely played in a low-offense era, albeit in a good hitters' park.

Back tomorrow with hot stove stuff.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Hall Of Famer

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