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December 28, 2007

Prospectus Today

My Ballot

by Joe Sheehan

Those writers who have ten or more years' standing in the Baseball Writers Association of America have a due date coming up: by Monday, they have to send in their Hall of Fame ballots for tallying, with the results to be announced the following week.

I don't have ten days' standing in that crowd, much less ten years, and given the way in which they've aggressively self-defined in recent weeks as a reporters' organization, I probably never will. My hope is that the very public discussion of the membership standards for inclusion makes it clear what I've argued for some time: that the nominal BBWAA is actually a BBRAA, a guild assembled to protect a subset of the people in the baseball-writing pool, to advance the interests of those whose primary actions involve attendance, querying, and transcription, and for a dying form of media, print dailies.

People who have done those jobs, or sort of did them, or did them for a little while and never got crossed off the list, or worked with the people who did those jobs…it's all a little confusing…have membership, various privileges related to access and voting, an imprimatur that marks them as a professional and defines those not carrying the card as less than. Professional baseball writers who do not perform the job in a particular fashion-no matter the quality of their output, size of their audience, or length of their career-will not be granted these privileges. Some of the highest-ranking, longest-tenured members of the BBWAA have made it clear, in their own words, that reporting, rather than writing, is the bright-line test for membership.

I say these things not to be insulting, but to make clear that the organization, despite its name, is not an organization of American baseball writers. It's a lobbying group, and an exclusionist one, dedicated to the needs of newspaper reporters. And it is proudly so, as became clear over the last few weeks. That certain privileges accrue to this limited subset of the baseball-writing universe is an anachronism that should be addressed by Major League Baseball, by the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and by teams themselves. Until such time occurs, I will comfortably regard the group in toto as a trade guild while maintaining the respect and admiration I have for the work of many talented members individually. I encourage others to do the same.

In the spirit of pretending that permeates this discussion, I'm going to offer up my own Hall of Fame ballot, or rather, what names I would vote for if I had one. Since I've covered many of the arguments for and against a number of these players in past columns, I'll focus today on just a handful.

The ballot lists 25 names, most of whom fall closer to the minimum requirements for inclusion on the ballot than they do the minimum requirements for Cooperstown. We remember fondly Brady Anderson, Rod Beck, Shawon Dunston, Chuck Finley, Travis Fryman, David Justice, Chuck Knoblauch, Robb Nen, Jose Rijo, and Todd Stottlemyre. They all had substantial careers and provided great memories. Some even won World Series rings. None are worthy of enshrinement, or even a serious discussion.

That leaves 15 other players. Of those, I would not vote for:

  • Harold Baines: Baines has no chance of induction, and I separate him from the group above merely because there was the late-career thought that had he reached 3,000 hits (he fell 134 short), he would be a complicated case. Baines was a productive hitter until the age of 40, but persistent knee problems ruined his defensive value, cost him playing time, and limited him to one appearance in the field after the age of 33. All of those things keep him out.
  • Dave Concepcion: Concepcion is in his last year on the ballot, which may earn him some extra votes and position him for an eventual Veterans Committee selection. He's not qualified by any but the "he's better than so-and-so" standard, comparing him to the mistakes that various iterations of the Committee made over the years.
  • Andre Dawson: He hasn't played since I last wrote about him, back in 2006. Like Baines, Dawson's career was altered by knees that diminished his defensive abilities early on. He did have tremendous defensive value when he first came up, and that, along with his longevity, give him an argument. With that said, a big portion of his case is an undeserved MVP award in 1987-he wasn't the best anything in the league-and I still can't get past the idea that an outfielder with a .323 OBP is not a Hall of Famer.
  • Tommy John: I covered him at the same time as Dawson. He pitched forever, without having much of a peak, and falls in with a group of pitchers of comparable value. If you're not separate from a pack, it's an argument that you're not a Hall of Famer. I'm back to not giving extra credit for the whole surgery-pioneer thing, too. Dr. Frank Jobe, however, has a case.
  • Don Mattingly: Sigh. If only…
  • Jack Morris: Not to be a jerk, but this is a free article. Anytime you see someone-like, say, Jack Morris-say that Jack Morris had a high ERA because he "pitched to the score," make them read it. Jack Morris put his team behind in nearly 2/3 of his career starts, and blew a lead once a month throughout his career. There was no pattern-none-to when he allowed the runs he allowed.
  • Dale Murphy: The point about Tommy John is germane to Murphy, Dawson, and the other corner outfielders on this ballot. If you can't stand out among a group of Hall of Fame nominees, it is likely that neither you nor the other guys are Hall of Famers. Murphy and Mattingly are essentially the same case: a Hall of Fame peak, but nothing else.
  • Dave Parker: Cf. Dale Murphy.
  • Jim Rice: Cf. Dave Parker. And for that matter, Albert Belle. The two were virtually identical in many ways, from overall value to their JAWS score to concentrating their value within a peak to a reputation as being intimidating to a rapid, early decline. Rice added in a massive home/road split that well exceeded the natural home-field and Fenway Park edges, and calls into question how good he would look had be been drafted by, oh, the Pirates. That Rice is probably going to be elected this year or next, while Albert Belle never came close, is one of those weird BBRAA things that will make less and less sense as time goes on.
  • Lee Smith: The reliever equivalent of Harold Baines, except that he managed to hold a rapidly-churning record for a few years. Smith was never quite as dominant as the other early-'80s firemen, nor as dominant as his one-inning closer peers. He's also quite clearly not the best reliever on the ballot. With Bruce Sutter in, though, all relievers start to look a lot better. Can we get Dan Quisenberry's case re-opened?
  • Alan Trammell: Once again, Trammell's candidacy is the most difficult one to evaluate. He was one of the best players in baseball at his peak, and was part of the bridge from shortstops as singles hitters to the better players we see out there today. On the other hand, he had a fairly short peak and a short career. I'm wary of the defensive numbers on him, as his home park was notorious for its high infield grass. With so much of Trammell's statistical case built on very good defensive stats at his peak, the twinge of doubt I feel about their validity makes me nervous. My bigger objection, though, is to the way his career ended. Trammell was done as a full-time player at 32, which is awfully early for a 20th-century position player being pushed for Cooperstown. Like Rice, Trammell would have been a Hall of Famer with a more typical decline phase. Instead, he had 10.2 WARP, total, after 32. I'm leaving him off, again.

That's 11. The four players who would get my vote are:

  • Bert Blyleven: Once again, Blyleven is the best eligible pitcher not inducted, and once again, he won't be. The one good thing to come out of the analyst community's work on Blyleven is that he's been raised from a down-ballot guy to someone whose merits are debated and whose vote totals have climbed. It is likely that Blyleven will eventually be inducted by the Veterans Committee thanks to the work of people like Rich Lederer. He will not only deserve the honor, but his induction will raise the standards of the Hall, statistically speaking.
  • Rich Gossage: Well, this is pretty obvious. To sum it up, Gossage had Bruce Sutter's career, then added another 10 seasons of league-average relief work. Sutter is a very weak Hall of Famer, the product of mythmaking and a weak ballot, but with his election establishing the standard, Gossage, his vast superior, becomes a no-brainer. Sutter's election lowers the bar for relievers in a way that's going to make for some strange discussions over the next 20 years.
  • Mark McGwire: McGwire the baseball player is overqualified for the Hall of Fame. JAWS disagrees, correctly noting McGwire's short career relative to the pool. However, McGwire carries many non-statistical markers, winning awards, setting records, and particpating on pennant-winning teams. Were it not for March 17, 2005, he would already be cast in bronze.

    Now that we have even more information about the spread of PEDs in baseball during his career, as well as substantial evidence that the use of these substances doesn't correlate well to performance, it's even sillier to hold McGwire out as a pariah. The notion that he somehow took magic beans and hit 500-odd home runs is at odds with everything we saw in the Mitchell Report. Or did I miss Chris Donnels' MVP awards? All not voting for Mark McGwire does is give the self-righteous a platform, and I do believe we have too many of those floating around.

  • Tim Raines: So much of Raines' value was tied up in things like defense, walks, doubles and stolen-base percentage that the gap between the perception of him by the voting pool and the analyst pool is as wide as it has ever been on any player. However, Raines produced value for his teams, so much so that he's not only a deserving Hall of Famer, but like Blyleven, one who raises the standards for entry. Jay Jaffe builds the case better than I can, and it's a strong one. The Rock is a Hall of Famer.

As for what will actually happen…Gossage is in. There's virtually no precedent for a player to get to 71.2 percent of the vote and not be elected. Sutter's presence in the Hall, which offended the Goose at the time, was actually the best thing to ever happen to his candidacy. For reasons similar to the ones that were behind Sutter's election-a ballot with few or no strong new candidates and a dearth of qualified holdovers-I expect we'll see Jim Rice either be elected or gain enough ground to make his election next year inevitable.

This voting pattern, where players in the marginal zone see their vote totals rise in weak ballot years, is a systemic problem in the process. I don't know how to fix it, but it continues to produce weak electees. All I can figure is that there's a portion of the electorate that does not wish to submit blank ballots, and as such, alights on the top returning candidate to avoid doing so. After all, it's much more enjoyable to vote for someone than for no one, and it's easier to write, "This is who I voted for," than "None of these players are Hall of Famers."

--

I hesitate to admit this, given that I'm supposed to be working on Baseball Prospectus 2008 27 hours a day, but I snuck out last light to see a show here in the city. It's a small Off-Broadway production called "Chuckleball," a fast-paced series of musical skits that uses current sports stories for material. With 30 numbers in a 90-minute show, I can't possibly recap them all, but among the highlights were a Tiger Woods parody (by Justin Sensense, one of a four-member cast); a hilarious reworking of "Me and Mrs. Jones" by Mike Mitchell Jr., as a police officer serenading Pac-Man Jones; Noah DiBiase's portrayal of Jason Giambi; and Katey Daniel's versatility as every female sports personality extant.

"Chuckleball" was a great break from the book. The show has a definite New York slant to it, and some basic level of sports knowledge is necessary to appreciate the humor. However, the wordplay, the tremendous voices of the stars and the energy they bring to the show can be enjoyed by everyone. A special nod to Meg Zervoulis, who soloed at the piano for the entire show, piling up Pianist Abuse Points by the handful. Will Carroll may have yet another world to conquer. Under the Clef, anyone?

The show will be closing in its current location next week, but plans are in place for another run as well as a touring troupe. Check out their website for more information.

And so ends my career as a theatre critic.

--

That also caps my contributions for the calendar year 2007. It was a wildly successful year for BP, as we continued to bring in great talent such as John Perrotto, David Laurila, and Marc Normandin. We put out another non-annual book, extended our relationship with Sports Illustrated, recast Baseball Prospectus Radio, and continued reaching more baseball fans in more places on radio, TV and satellite.

At the age of 36, I realize Baseball Prospectus is not only the coolest thing I'll ever do, it's become my life's work, and I wake up every day thankful for that. I love this job, cannot imagine having another, and I'm looking forward to another year of baseball that provides us all lots to talk about. Thanks for being part of the conversation.

May all of you have a happy, healthy and successful 2008.

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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