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January 9, 2006

Prospectus Today

The Ballot

by Joe Sheehan

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Tomorrow, the results of the BBWAA balloting for the Hall of Fame will be announced. This is the weakest year in memory for new candidates, with none of the 14 first-timers likely to ever crack 50% in the balloting, much less find their images cast in bronze. With the electorate's votes being tallied, I wanted to take a belated look at the ballot and offer some opinions. I will not make elaborate statistical arguments in this space; for more detail, you should read Jay Jaffe's excellent pieces in which he evaluates the 29 players using his JAWS system.

Of the 14 new candidates, at least 10 are probably making their only appearance. Rick Aguilera, Gary DiSarcina, Alex Fernandez, Gary Gaetti, Ozzie Guillen, Gregg Jefferies, Doug Jones, Hal Morris, Walt Weiss and John Wetteland all had prominent places in the game in their time, winning awards, making All-Star teams and contributing to championships. None, however, even passes the sniff test for Hall of Fame consideration. Their inclusion on this ballot is an honor unto itself, one that will likely serve as the sole coda to their playing careers.

Four other newcomers had careers that deserve a bit more mention. Albert Belle, Will Clark, Dwight Gooden and Orel Hershiser.

  • Belle was a dominant hitter even in an era filled with dominant hitters. His nine-year peak, from 1991 through 1999, is clearly that of a Hall of Fame talent. Outside of that period, however, he had almost no value, thanks to a hip injury that ended his career shortly after his 33rd birthday. The lack of any decline phase leaves his career totals in line with other middling candidates, even as his rate stats scream, "inner circle."

    Belle doesn't have much to lean on other than his bat. He should have been the 1995 AL MVP, losing out as much to his own poor press and public relations as to winner Mo Vaughn. An average defender at his best, he was an indifferent left fielder the latter half of his career, and he had no moments or accomplishments that would spruce up his argument. Belle was a contributor to the Indians' mid-'90s resurgence, although he left the team after the '96 season and did not play in the postseason after that.

    To a certain extent, this is a moot point. The BBWAA looks largely at career counting stats, and Belle's won't separate him from the other outfielders on the ballot or from his peers to come. Any evaluation of Belle's candidacy is going to suffer from the inevitable discussion of the suspensions and outbursts that marked his career. Had he achieved any kind of decline phase, adding some years as a league-average hitter, there would be little question about his eventual induction. As is, Belle has little chance to make the Hall of Fame, and may slip from the ballot quickly. I'm comfortable with the idea that he's not a Hall of Famer, but I do think his peak performance deserves consideration.

  • Clark's candidacy is a bit the reverse of Belle's. The first baseman's career ran nearly twice as long as Belle's and featured postseason highlights, considerable defensive value and a better reputation as a person, at least in some quarters. Like Belle, Clark's career lacked much of a decline phase, and in fact, ended on a high note. In 2000, following a midseason deal away from Belle's Orioles, Clark hit .345/.426/.655 down the stretch for the St. Louis Cardinals, tacked on a .345-with-power postseason, and called it a day before the '01 season began.

    Again, though, we see where the lack of playing deep into a player's thirties hurts him. Clark wasn't a big-time power hitter, and his career totals of 284 home runs and 2176 hits don't jump out from the ballot. Much of Clark's overall value--101 wins above replacement--stems from excellent glove work at first base: more than 200 runs above replacement, per Clay Davenport's system. As we've seen with Gil Hodges and Keith Hernandez, first basemen do not make the Hall for their glovework. In an era when first basemen routinely slugged .550 with 30 home runs, Clark was usually around .480 and 15, while playing in very good hitters' environments. When you consider Clark's peers at first base, the men who have just retired or are still playing, you see just how far from a Hall of Famer he is. His career pales in comparison to the Jeff Bagwell class, and doesn't approach that of Frank Thomas or college teammate Rafael Palmeiro.

  • Gooden simply isn't as good as we think he was, because we remember Doc, and Doc didn't exist after 1988. Gooden struck out 200 men just once after 1986, had an ERA below 3.00 just once after that (in an injury-shortened campaign), and was essentially done at 28. He certainly warrants a spot on the ballot, but as great as the summer of 1985 was, it was followed by 15 seasons of frustration.

    Gooden threw 494 2/3 major-league innings, including 23 complete games in 66 starts, before his 21st birthday. Got that, Mr. Price? (Note: Cute, but Bryan Price is no longer the Mariners' pitching coach. Rafael Chaves has the job. My apologies.--JSS)

  • Hershiser's career followed a siimilar pattern: early heroics, including record-setting performances and a World Series ring, followed by injury and a second career built using a different skill set. Hershiser has a couple of markers that Gooden doesn't, including reaching the 200-win plateau, his work in October of 1988 that led to a championship, and an overall postseason record that features a 2.59 ERA in 132 innings. Hershiser also lacks the controversial drug charges that plagued Gooden. Even with those markers, and overall value that places him in the lower middle of Hall of Fame pitchers, he doesn't rise to the level of electability.

None of these four are Hall of Famers, and only Belle has a case under any but the most ridiculous definition ("Were these guys better than the Veterans Committee's worst offenses?"). I would be surprised to see all four fall off the ballot at once, and expect at least three to make a return appearance next year. I mean, Willie McGee is back on the ballot, and three of these four guys have much stronger cases.

There are 15 carryover candidates, two-thirds of whom I feel comfortable dismissing. There are the four outfielders who I have come to think of as a group: Andre Dawson, Jim Rice, Dale Murphy and Dave Parker. If uniqueness is one measure of a Hall of Famer, then the ability to lump these players together is a mark against all four of them.

Of the group, Dawson is the best candidate, given his longevity and his first career as a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder, before his knees gave out. Being a Hall of Famer should never be about a single number, but I just can't get past the Hawk's .323 OBP; a Hall of Fame outfielder should need a better mark than that to get into the room. Rice's short career and big home/road splits are marks against him, while Parker and Murphy simply weren't good enough, long enough, to warrant induction. Belle, just to make a point, has higher peak value than all of these players, and in fact, according to Jaffe's system, is the best Hall of Fame candidate of the bunch.

I wouldn't vote Belle in, and perhaps having him on the ballot makes it easier to again deny all four of these players my vote.

There are six other players who, for one reason or another, and by one margin or another, don't meet what I consider to be Hall of Fame standards. Dave Concepcion's candidacy seems to largely be, like Phil Rizzuto's, a product of great teammates. He's not even the best shortstop on the ballot, and the guy who's ahead of him straddles the in/out line. Steve Garvey probably leads the ballot in bonus points, with 10 All-Star appearances, a bunch of hardware (but really, .312/.342/.469 from a first baseman made you an MVP?) and a strong postseason record for five pennant winners. His stat line just doesn't measure up, however, especially when the defense turns out to have been good, not great. Don Mattingly has the stats of Garvey with a better-defined peak and more defensive value, and he was my favorite player ever. Let me put this succinctly: if I can't make the case for Don Mattingly as a Hall of Famer, the case can't be made.

Willie McGee isn't a candidate. Tommy John, who pitched forever, racked up counting stats and value that would make him a Hall of Famer if that were the only consideration. However, he had no peak to speak of, and I'm ambivalent about whether you can give him credit for showing that ligament replacement surgery could be an effective tool in salvaging and lengthening pitching careers. Jack Morris, well, I've written about him before, and I stand behind the research: he's out.

That leaves five guys who, to my mind, have to be given the most consideration.:

  • Bert Blyleven essentially has a campaign of people like me trying to get him into the Hall of Fame, one that peaked late last year over at Baseball Analysts. I'm with them. Blyleven isn't even a borderline case, but rather, an above-average Hall of Famer who is underrated due to criminally bad run support during his best seasons. The reputation he picked up as a guy who couldn't win close games is unfair.

    Blyleven may have been a difficult teammate--I mostly remember the 1980s version, the veteran jokester, although I've learned more about his earlier days over the years--but that's an argument you make about a player on the bubble. Blyleven should not be on the bubble. As Rich Lederer says, succinctly, "Since 1900, Blyleven ranks fifth in career strikeouts, eighth in shutouts and 17th in wins." Blyleven isn't qualified for the Hall; he's overqualified, and with six years of eligibility left, I'm optimistic that the voices of reason will eventually carry the day.

    Then we can all move to Ron Santo's case.

  • There are three relief pitchers on the ballot, and the only thing I'm certain of is that not all of them belong in the Hall. Bruce Sutter, Rich Gossage and Lee Smith had careers that spanned the transition from relievers as 120-inning firemen to relievers as 75-inning specialists. Smith is the all-time leader in saves, at least for one more year (Trevor Hoffman trails by 42), and has been garnering 35-40 percent of the vote in each of his three years on the ballot. The other two have been on the ballot far longer and are two of the top returning candidates.

    Let's try something here. Sutter threw the fewest innings, by far, of the three pitchers. Let's use Sutter's career as a baseline, then subtract it from the careers of Gossage and Smith to see what they did above and beyond Sutter's performance. Come on, it'll be fun!

    Same:

    
              W   L    G   SV      IP   H   R  ER  HR   BB  SO   ERA  PRAR   WARP
    Sutter   68  71  661  300  1042.3 879 370 328  77  309 861  2.83   507   55.2
    Smith    68  71  661  300  1042.3 879 370 328  77  309 861  2.83   507   55.2
    Gossage  68  71  661  300  1042.3 879 370 328  77  309 861  2.83   507   55.2
    
    Different:
    
              W   L    G   SV      IP   H   R  ER  HR   BB  SO   ERA  PRAR   WARP
    Sutter    0   0    0    0       0   0   0   0   0    0   0   ---     0      0
    Smith     3  21  361  178   247.0 254 105 106  12  177 390  3.86   202   22.2
    Gossage  56  36  341   10   767.0 618 300 277  42  423 641  3.25   271   28.8
    
    Do you see the problem here? Sutter's career value isn't just behind that of the other two; it's so far behind them that to induct Sutter is to set the bar in a place that forces you to vote for Gossage, Smith and a whole hell of a lot of other guys in the next 15 years. Smith, who no one really takes seriously as a candidate, vote totals aside, had Sutter's career and then three whole seasons on top of that of league-average relief pitching. Gossage had Sutter's career and another ten seasons of work. Each was, at minimum, 20 wins more valuable than Sutter in their careers.

    The argument for Sutter largely rests on two poles: one is the idea that he was a pioneer of sorts, with him getting credit for the split-finger fastball, the one-inning closer, or both. Well, he didn't invent the former and the latter was a managerial decision designed to keep Sutter's weakness--fragility--from becoming an issue.

    The other argument for Sutter is "dominance," the notion that he was a player who was a special one in his day, and that his value went beyond the numbers. Maybe that's true, but if the other guy in the room is Goose Gossage, I fail to see how bringing "dominance" into the argument is going to help the guy who isn't Goose.

    Sutter was a very good relief pitcher who had eight effective seasons, and whose career was over at 35. He came along under a set of circumstances that focused attention on his achievements, and helped to create the perception that he was a more important figure than he actually is. He doesn't measure up to the two relievers on the ballot, the limited standards set for Hall of Fame relievers, or the vast class of "closers" who will follow. I think Smith, whose career is shaped much differently, also falls outside the Hall. He's the Tommy John or Jim Kaat of relievers.

    There is absolutely no rational argument for having Bruce Sutter on a ballot, but not having Rich Gossage on it as well. You can vote for Gossage alone, you can vote for both or neither, but all ballots that list Sutter and not Gossage are fundamentally flawed, and reflect a lack of understanding of what the two pitchers accomplished in their careers.

    Is Gossage a Hall of Famer? The Hall of Fame is a binary honor, and some player has to be the first guy on the wrong side of the line. I guess for some people that's Blyleven, although the established standards of the Hall make that a ridiculous place to get out the chalk. Because the standards for relievers are vague, and the definition of "relief pitcher" has fluctuated so much, I find that I tend to stop at Gossage, whose best season was cleaved by the strike and who became a journeyman, albeit an effective one, over the last decade of his career.

    That changes this year, however. Seeing the gap in value between Gossage and Sutter, and reading Jaffe's analysis that places him comfortably between Hoyt Wilhelm and Rollie Fingers, I'm changing my mind and giving my non-existent vote to Rich Gossage for the Hall of Fame. It's fairly rare that I change my mind on a player once he's been on the ballot, but in this case, I think the arguments for Gossage--his peak value, his innings, his effectiveness through his decline phase--hold up against my objections to the vague standards for relievers.

  • Gossage isn't the only very tough call on the ballot. For a player who has yet to draw 100 votes in a year, Alan Trammell has a very strong case for induction, and a lot of backers.

    There's a notion that Trammell is being hurt by the fact that he played with a better shortstop as a direct peer in Cal Ripken Jr., and that the shortstops who came after him, in a hitters' era, have put up such superior numbers. I think both of these things may be true, but I also think it's possible for Trammell to be evaluated fairly with those things in mind. Moreover, I think the fact that better players have come along as the game has evolved is an argument against inducting Trammell. It's not just the ballparks and the greater desire for power from all positions and the other external factors that make Trammell's career pale next to the shortstops we're watching today. It's the fact that these guys are all better, and if the argument for inducting Trammell rests on the context of his numbers relative to shortstops, I don't think you can entirely dismiss modern shortstops from those comparisons.

    Statistically, Trammell gets a big boost from Clay Davenport's evaluations of his defense. Trammell is in the books with 497 Fielding Runs Above Replacement, a huge figure. He was racking up 30-40 runs on defense throughout his peak, leading to high WARP scores and a great position in Jay Jaffe's WARP analysis. I'm not willing to dismiss those figures, because I know Clay's system is designed to correct for the various external factors that skew defensive statistics. However, those runs are a big part of Trammell's statistical case, and if they're just a little bit off each year--remember how high the Tiger Stadium grass was in the 1980s?--Trammell's case falls apart.

    Trammell was not a great hitter, just a good one who had one monster year when everyone else did (1987), and was robbed of an MVP award for his troubles. He wasn't a very durable player even at his best, missing 10-20 games in most seasons, and he was really a part-time player--certainly a part-time shortstop--after age 32, as his body broke down.

    All things considered, I don't think Trammell has the peak value or the career value to warrant induction. Even excluding clearly superior players such as Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Miguel Tejada, Trammell has a hard time distinguishing himself from recently-retired Barry Larkin, a comparable player whose raw numbers look better because of era but whose career value, per WARP, is within a win of Trammell's. With so many comparable and superior players playing just outside of Trammell's era, I can't see a strong case for him as a Hall of Famer. He, like Gossage, is a marginal call.

I don't have a ballot. If I did, I would submit it with exactly two names on it: Bert Blyleven and Rich Gossage.

What do I expect to happen? Well, for all the talk about the upcoming induction of a slew of Negro League stars, the Hall of Fame wants and needs recent active ballplayers to build its summer weekend around. I think they'll get at least one.

For Bruce Sutter to make the Hall of Fame, about 50 voters have to add his name to their ballots. The makeup of a Hall of Fame candidate list shouldn't be an issue in determining who gets in, but in reality it is, and my guess is that enough voters either don't like submitting blank ballots or like filling in all the spots that Sutter is going to get a very nice phone call tomorrow morning, courtesy a weak crop of guys who quit after 2000. It's more about the math of the election than the math of runs and innings--and we know that Sutter's career hasn't changed a bit in the last 12 months--but in immortality, as in life, timing is everything.

Gossage would need to pick up about twice as many votes as Sutter needs, and that seems unlikely for a player who already made a huge jump from '04 to '05, going from 206 to 285. I doubt he makes it. Rice, the position player with the strongest support in '05, would need to add more than 100 votes, Dawson a bit more than that. These kinds of jumps seem very unlikely, although all three of these players are likely to pick up enough ground this time around to make their eventual election an inevitability, even with the competition becoming more stiff in the next few years.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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