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January 11, 2006

Prospectus Today

The Election

by Joe Sheehan

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As expected, Bruce Sutter is the latest member of the Hall of Fame, and the only one elected in the most recent balloting. In a year where no new candidate picked up more than 58 votes, Sutter stepped into the vacuum to add 56 votes for a total of 400, 10 more than he needed for election.

It's not fun writing that a guy shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame. It's much easier to write that someone does deserve an honor, which is just one reason why most players see gradual rises in their vote counts over time. It's more enjoyable to talk about what a player's accomplishments were, what positive memories he created, rather than objectively compare him to his peers and to established standards. Because of this, much of the coverage of Sutter's election ignored his short career and his clear inferiority to another reliever on the ballot, and continued exaggerating his role in the use of the split-fingered fastball and the development of the closer position.

It remains true, however, that Sutter didn't have nearly the value that Rich Gossage did, and his edges over Gossage stem largely from usage patterns that were developed to protect Sutter from injury. In other words, to cover up a flaw, an area in which he was inferior to Goose. Save totals are the primary manifestation of this, but you can also see it in ERAs, where Sutter's lighter usage helped his numbers as compared to Gossage.

Over at ESPN.com, Rob Neyer did a chat session, and one of the questioners pointed to Sutter's having a Cy Young Award, whereas Gossage doesn't, as evidence of the former's Hall worthiness.

Have you ever actually looked at that award? Sutter took a fractured vote with 77 of a possible 120 points, and just 10 of 24 first-place votes. It was one of the lowest winning vote totals of the 12-team era. Moreover, Sutter benefited from one of the more ridiculous split votes of all time, as Astros teammates Joe Niekro and J.R. Richard finished 2-3 right behind him, sharing 13 first-place votes. Richard, however, was vastly superior to Niekro in every way that year, with a lower ERA (and RA) in more innings, a 313/98 strikeout-to-walk ratio (versus Niekro's 119/107), and eight more complete games than Niekro. Niekro's edge? A 21-11 record against Richard's 18-13, which was worth nine first-place votes to Richard's four.

Sutter's Cy Young Award is essentially the product of cluelessness among some voters in evaluating those two pitchers. If Richard gets proper credit, he wins the Cy Young Award, and a major part of Sutter's Hall of Fame case, certainly vis--vis Gossage, disappears.

What's galling is that Sutter is getting his Cooperstown pass in much the same way that he got that Cy Young Award: through a crack in a voting process. This is the most frustrating aspect of his election, and the one that calls the electorate into greatest question. What was acknowledged openly in the coverage of yesterday's voting results was the idea that Sutter benefited from the lack of qualified first-ballot candidates. With no new players to vote for (Orel Hershiser led the way with 58 votes, and only two new candidates, he and Albert Belle, will make it back for another year), the voters changed the question from, "Is this player a Hall of Famer?" to "Who is the best player in this group?" That's simply the wrong question to ask; this isn't the MVP award, where you're trying to determine a winner from among a field of candidates. This is the Hall of Fame, where the standards are set and it is entirely possible to have a year in which no one meets them.

If you look at the voting, though, you can see the shifted standard. Fourteen of the 15 returning candidates saw their vote totals rise in this election (Willie McGee being the understandable exception). The absence of new, highly-qualified candidates caused voters to lower their standards and drop votes on players who they normally would have ignored. That factor, and not some sudden collective reconsideration of Bruce Sutter's career, is what pushed him over the top.

I think this is a huge hole in the process. Being a Hall of Famer should be about being one of the greatest players of all time, and even if the various Veterans Committees have screwed that standard up permanently, we should at least look to uphold the standard in the initial balloting. By electing Bruce Sutter just because he was the returning guy with the highest vote total, and there was no one new to vote for, the BBWAA has sullied the process and the honor.

Some of the coverage of Sutter's election tried to spin it as a recognition of the value of relief pitching and the closer role. That's simply spin, and false spin at that. What, the first 16 years after Sutter's career no one thought closers were important, but after a season in which the World Champions basically picked theirs out of a hat each month, now everyone realizes how important they are? Please. Bruce Sutter is a Hall of Famer this morning because no clear-cut Hall of Famers retired after the 2000 season. His career looks no different today than it did yesterday, last week or last year. His election came due to a shift in a standard--not in how relievers are evaluated, but in how Hall of Fame candidates are.

If you think I'm off base, consider that most analysts, while praising Sutter, took pains to point out that none of the players who fell short is likely to be elected next year, when Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken Jr. and Mark McGwire become eligible. This is an acknowledgement that electability, rather than being a function of performance and the Hall's standards, is instead a game where the rules change depending on the competition. It's a ridiculous notion, and that it's so openly discussed should be cause for considerable criticism of the voters.

The game, however, bodes well for a number of players other than Sutter. Gossage, Jim Rice and Andre Dawson all ticked up above 60% in the voting, an area which usually means eventual election. Now, it's likely that some of those gains are "soft," an artifact of the voting pattern I've been excoriating, but even so, I think Rice and Gossage will both find their way into the Hall in 2008, and Dawson in '09 or '10. In the three years that follow the '06 ballot, just one certain Hall of Famer comes eligible, Rickey Henderson in '08, and just one other viable candidate, Edgar Martinez in '10. When you consider what the '05 ballot, the Sutter election, means in terms of how the BBWAA approached it, I think you can also have hope if you're a supporter of Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris, based on their gains this year and the upcoming weak ballots.

Election to the Hall of Fame is baseball's highest honor, and the dispensation of that honor should be taken seriously. The standard has to be the Hall itself, the players in it (with a caveat for institutional errors over the years). With this election, the BBWAA turned the Hall of Fame voting into the MVP voting, where the standard is the players on the ballot. Among this group, Sutter had the most support going in, and for that, he was elected.

As I wrote the other day, in immortality, as in life, timing is everything.

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

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