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November 30, 2007

Prospectus Matchups

The Freshmen

by Jim Baker

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What if the Hall of Fame selection process worked like this: Joe Morgan and Mike Schmidt drop by Tim Raines' dorm room to invite him over for a kegger to see how he gets along with the rest of the fellas. Things go fine. Next thing he knows, he's been kidnapped in the middle of the night with a pillow case thrown over his head. When it's removed, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Tom Seaver, and Sandy Koufax are standing over him, asking him to pledge. Several months of humiliation and team-building exercises follow until, one night, he finds himself in the candlelit basement of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, dressed in a black, hooded robe…

Anyway, as I often do this time of year, I'm going to take a quick glance at the freshman candidates for enshrinement.

Brady Anderson: Every 50-homer guy before Roger Maris eventually made it into the Hall of Fame--Babe Ruth, Hank Greenberg, Jimmie Foxx, Hack Wilson, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Ralph Kiner, and Johnny Mize. Since Maris, a number of people have hit that milestone who will never make it to Cooperstown, notably George Foster, Cecil Fielder, Albert Belle, Greg Vaughn, Luis Gonzalez, and now Mr. Anderson. There are a host of others not yet eligible or still playing who might not get there, depending either on the rest of their careers or how the winds of attitude are blowing by the time that they do become eligible: Andruw Jones, Sammy Sosa, David Ortiz, Ryan Howard, Mark McGwire, Prince Fielder, and Jim Thome. At 24, Anderson's second-highest single-season home run count is the lowest of any of the 25 men in the 50-homer club. Fielder the Younger is second at 28 (but with lots of time to improve on that number), while Gonzalez is third at 31. Anderson didn't have a full major league season until he was 28 years old. Prior to that, he had played parts of four seasons, amassing just over 1,000 at-bats. Amazingly (or not so, all things considered), his slugging average in that time was .306. On the plus side, he had a very high walk rate, stole bases at a decent clip, and will forever be associated with the Orioles' last rise to prominence.

Rod Beck: When the Salt of the Earth All-Stars play, Beck will close out the victory for David Wells. Remember when Beck was living in his camper outside the ballpark in Iowa? On some level, I thought it was one of the coolest baseball stories I had ever heard. On another, it kind of made me worry about him. It seemed practical but not rational, if that makes any sense. What a sad end. Sometimes life just sucks way too much.

Shawon Dunston: When somebody does something better than the very best people in his field, it's pretty jarring. Remember the first time you saw Dunston make a throw from shortstop? Didn't your eyes just about unhinge from their sockets? Dunston is already in the Arm Hall of Fame. It's one of the many satellite Halls of Fame located near but not in Cooperstown, New York.

Chuck Finley: Before hastily dismissing his chances of enshrinement, let's pause to pat him on the back for being just one of 110 men to be credited with 200 or more victories in their careers. Contemplate for a moment how many men have been handed a baseball to start their very first big league game, and then reflect on how many of them came through the funnel to get to the final stopping point that Finley did. Also consider how few are nipping at his heels. Among active pitchers, Tim Wakefield is at 168, Aaron Sele is at 148, and Bartolo Colon has 146. Here is the rest of the top-10 sub-200 active victory leaders:

141   Steve Trachsel
135   Tim Hudson
134   Livan Hernandez
133   Kevin Millwood
133   Tom Gordon
132   Woody Williams
129   Jon Lieber
128   Jason Schmidt

All of them are in their thirties already. Here are the top pitchers in career wins who are 30 or younger:

115   Javier Vazquez
113   Barry Zito
112   Roy Oswalt
111   Roy Halladay
107   Mark Buehrle
103   Mark Mulder
100   C.C. Sabathia
 93   Johan Santana
 93   Jeff Weaver
 92   Jon Garland

What will the attrition rate with this younger group be? Other than Weaver, I'm not ready to write anybody off from this list. Sabathia, at 26, is clearly off to the best start, but how long before his size begins to tell? What appendage-related horrors await the rest of them? Like all of us here at BP, I'm not a big fan of wins. During the season, I couldn't even tell you what a given pitcher's won-loss record is. In terms of career numbers, though, wins totals are indicative of at least a pitcher's desirability. When a pitcher like Finley wins 200 games, it shows he was someone who was held in high enough regard to get the ball 467 times. That's not grounds for inclusion in the inner sanctum, but it is something that deserves a great deal of respect.

Travis Fryman: A long time ago, they used to keep a Home Run leader board at the Baseball Museum in Cooperstown. I think they called it the 200 Homer Club. If I'm not mistaken, Bill White--at 202--was the last man on the list. Seeing Travis Fryman's career total of 223 homers reminds me of this for some reason. His decline phase started early owing to elbow ligament and shoulder problems, and he was done by the age of 33. He was never Cooperstown-bound, but it could have turned out better if not for all that.

David Justice: He's sort of the John Cazale of baseball. Cazale was in five features in his abbreviated acting career and all of them were nominated for Best Picture Academy Awards: The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter. Justice played for 13 full seasons in the majors and went to the playoffs 10 times. He missed one opportunity (1996) with an injury, and lost another year to the strike of 1994. That basically leaves 1990 as the only season in which he wasn't on a playoff team. One of the things that rarely gets mentioned is what he did when he got there. While among the postseason leaders in participatory counting stats, his career October line of .224/.335/.382 pales in comparison to his regular season line of .279/.378/.500.

Chuck Knoblauch: He certainly had a Hall of Fame peak. In 1995 and 1996 he was in his prime and appeared to be lining himself up for inclusion among the all-timers at second base. In fact, if you had asked most people at the time if he would still be playing in 2007 (he turns 40 next year), the majority answer would have been "yes." Instead of focusing on the negative and what could have been, though, let's do the nice thing and point to his career .287 EqA--a pretty nice number for a second baseman.

Robb Nen: Let's put it this way: unless the voters go insane and start equating saves with wins and voting in everyone who cracked 300, Nen has no chance. If not for injury, though, a case could be made that Nen would be the all-time saves leader at this point in time. He amassed 314 by the age of 32. Trevor Hoffman had 269 at that age, Lee Smith had 263, Mariano Rivera 223, John Franco 236, and Billy Wagner had 246. The only pitcher who was even close at that age was another player whose career ended early, John Wetteland, who had 296.

Tim Raines : The very best candidate in the class, but not one without some built-in detractions. Venturing a guess about his Hall of Fame chances, I'm going to say that Raines will immediately gain entry into a very small club with Bert Blyleven, Ron Santo, and Bobby Grich. In other words, we're going to be revisiting his candidacy for years to come, until such time as he is finally elected or falls off the ballot.

Jose Rijo: Because Rijo disappeared from the majors for five years and had a late comeback, he seems like something of an outsider in this group, chronologically speaking, as though he belongs to a different era than the rest of these players.

Todd Stottlemyre: Like Justice, a player who showed up on a lot of postseason rosters. With the expansion of the playoffs, this won't be such a big thing going forward, but to make it half the time, as Stottlemyre did--especially without ever playing for the Braves or Yankees--is a noteworthy accomplishment. Rijo and Stottlemyre have one All-Star Game appearance between them (Rijo's, in 1994), so their candidacies are formalities.

The hope for the Class of 2007 is, at best, one Hall of Famer. It will be interesting to see how Raines shakes out, but I guarantee he doesn't get a first-ballot nod. After that, it will be interesting to see how long it takes for him to make it. The second-best choice is Finley, a pitcher with better credentials than a lot of the hurlers who have previously been enshrined. For your own amusement, compare his WARP3 figures to those of people like Jesse Haines, Jack Chesbro, and Catfish Hunter, to name a few. I'm not advocating his induction, but based on some previous actions by voters, it's not as crazy a notion as it might seem.

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