The Baseball Writers Association of America elected Barry Larkin — and only Barry Larkin — to the Hall of Fame this week, which has caused the predictable amount of hand-wringing and wailing among the baseball media about who got snubbed, who deserves to get in next year, and of course…STEROIDS!
There are two major issues with Hall of Fame voting in this era: the gross negligence of some writers in properly valuing players (which is driven in large part by a reactionary mentality when violently dismissing advanced statistics), and the industry-wide ambivalence about how to deal with players suspected of steroid use.
On the MLB Network’s excellent new show Clubhouse Confidential last week, host Brian Kenny delineated three options for voters considering players tainted by the stench of performance enhancers:
1) Ignore the issue altogether and vote only based on what happened on the field
2) Purposefully exclude anyone associated with steroids, HGH, etc.
3) Consider each player on case-by-case basis: would he have been good enough to reach the Hall even without drugs?
I think it’s a little more complicated than that, and I think that option 3 in particular leads to a slippery slope. On one hand, there is no definitive proof what (if any) effect steroids and HGH have on performance. A direct causation has never been found. On the other hand, we all have eyes and we’re not stupid. We saw the way Barry Bonds’ body changed, and we watched him and McGwire and Sosa doing things on a field that had never been done before, and none of it seemed very natural. But can we trust our eyes?
My eyes told me for years that Derek Jeter was a great defensive shortstop. They were wrong. In general, our senses shouldn’t be trusted — at least not completely — because our perceptions carry all sorts of biases that confound our judgment. My instinct is to lean toward option 1. It feels completely wrong to say that Sammy Sosa, for example, belongs in the Hall of Fame. It feels wrong in my gut. But I think you have to ignore that sick feeling in your gut because there’s no other acceptable way to deal with this admittedly thorny issue.
The only issue that has ever kept players out of the Hall of Fame is betting on baseball. Not racism, wife-beating, amphetamines or any other sin. Well, maybe being a dick to the media.
So it seems unfair to signal steroids out as a deal-breaker just because Bob Costas got his panties in a bunch about them. Gaylord Perry, an admitted cheater, is in the Hall of Fame. But spitballs are considered a cute and organic way of cheating in baseball’s culture, while steroids are evil. It’s all the same thing.
As a fan, I don’t want guys I hate in the Hall of Fame. I have no respect of Sosa or Bonds, and it would be a sad sight to watch them make their induction speeches in Cooperstown. But as a rational thinking human being, I would have no choice but to vote for them if I had a vote. It’s my position that a Hall of Fame vote should only address what happened on the field — we can take into account the offensive era in which the steroids guys played and downgrade their numbers accordingly, but we can’t exclude them because they took steroids or because we think maybe they took steroids.
The precedent is that we let vile fucking people into the Hall of Fame. There’s no reason to stop that now. It’s easy to criticize writers (so so easy), so let me put my money where my mouth is. Here is how I would have voted on this year’s ballot, were I given a vote. In addition to steroids, here are some other things I put no stock in when imaginary voting: All-Star appearances, MVPs, Gold Gloves, Cy Young, etc. Judging someone based on how fans or writers perceived them during their career is backwards, and leads down a rabbit hole of subjectivity. Here we go…
Larkin should have been in before now. Of the many preposterous aspects to the Hall of Fame voting, perhaps the most preposterous is the way writers force players who they think belong in the Hall to wait a few year. They don’t vote for Larkin (or whomever) his first couple years on the ballot because he’s not worthy of it. He’s not great enough. What bullshit. A player’s either a Hall of Fame or he isn’t. The worth of their candidacy doesn’t grow over time. Jim Rice — who absolutely does not belong — got in on his 15th year on the ballot. So writers who didn’t think Rice was a Hall of Famer for 14 fucking years changed their minds all of a sudden. Players’ vote totals change by vast amounts each year as writers try to gauge their momentum, so the writers can say they were on the right side of history. It’s all so fucking logically corrupt.
Anyway, Larkin. He was great. He didn’t have the flashy power numbers of some more recent great offensive shortstops, but he posted 13 consecutive seasons with an OPS+ over 103, his career OBP is .371, he stole bases often and successfully (379 bags at an 83% clip), and he fielded his position far better than the norm according to most defensive metrics.
The fact that Jim Rice and Andre Dawson are in the Hall of Fame and Tim Raines isn’t is a crime against humanity. See here, here and here if you don’t believe me. Raines should still get in someday but it should have already happened.
Bagwell has served as the flashpoint for the bullshit steroids debate. We knew that Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, an admitted user and a caught user, wouldn’t get in anytime soon. But there is not one piece of tangible evidence against Jeff Bagwell. He never tested positive that we know of. He wasn’t named in the (revolting) Mitchell Report. All that exist are whispers and a resume filled with power stats. Leaving steroids aside — and that’s exactly what we’re doing on this ballot — Jeff Bagwell is one of the top ten first basemen of all time. Baseball writers need to stop considering themselves St. Peter standing at the gates of heaven, casting moral judgments and aspersions to and upon every retiree. Just let us know who’s fucking Hall-worthy and who’s not.
Jay Jaffe’s JAWS is the single most useful metric when measuring a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy. It’s not a be-all end-all (no stat or system is), but it’s an incredibly helpful guide because it measure a player’s peak and career performance against existing Hall of Famers at his position. So it takes into account both whether a player was good for a long time and whether a player was ever truly great (which I personally believe to be more important). Trammell’s JAWS score is 65.5; the average Hall of Fame shortstop’s score is 59.0. (For reference, Larkin’s is 69.9). Like Larkin, Trammell was good at everything but maybe not great at any one thing. Unfortunately, they both played in the era immediately preceding the offensive explosion at the SS position. But the man OPS’d .953 in 1987 (and was also a big-time post-season performer, particularly in the ’84 World Series). He’s in.
Yuck. Sadly, 583 home runs doesn’t mean what it used to mean. And I really fucking hate Mark McGwire. He sullied baseball’s most important record by cheating. But his stats say he belongs. He got on-base at a ridiculous rate in his career, and he obviously slugged a ton. I don’t think it’s as much of a slam dunk as it would seem — but because of injury/longevity issues and his one-dimensional ability, not because of needles.
Is the Hall of Fame always going to pretend designated hitters never existed? Dealing with DH’s should be simple: you penalize them for not playing defense and judge them on their body of work with that penalty included. You penalize them a lot when compared to great defenders and a little when compared to poor defenders. Essentially, you have to assume that DH’s would have played worse defense than the worst defenders of their era. Then, if their offense is enough to overcome that giant caveat, they’re in. Edgar’s offense was that good. His career OPS+ is 147. That’s insane.
That’s my list. I would have voted for six guys. Which means that everyone else is…
I personally believe that steroids (or whatever) helped extend Palmeiro’s effectiveness to the point that he’s a Hall of Famer. He wouldn’t have been that good for that long without help. As opposed to a case like Bonds, where he we would have been in the Hall regardless of his discovery of the clear and the cream. But considering Palmeiro strictly on the merits, he’s still not quite good enough. Largely because I value peak greatness over longevity, I don’t consider him worthy for inclusion. Palmeiro is proof that the old warhorse (!) milestones don’t mean anything anymore — he had 3,000 hits AND 500 home runs. If he had put up those numbers in any other era, he’d be in. But there’s not enough separating him from the other first basemen of his time except durability. And regardless of whether that durability was chemically enhanced, I don’t value it as much as other voters. (I also would never have voted for Don Sutton.)
Morris is the latest battlefield in the statheads vs. old-timey writers war, following in the illustrious footsteps of The Battle of Derek Jeter’s Defense, the Great War of Barry Zito’s Contract, and The Proven Closer Skirmishes of Aught-Nine. As usual, the nerds are right. Let’s take a look at a very traditional statistic: Jack Morris’s 3.90 would be the highest ERA of any pitcher in the Hall, despite the fact that he didn’t pitch in a particularly offensive era. The myth that he pitched to the score has been disproven. And while Morris came up big in some very big games, he also failed in those spots on occasion (8 IP, 6 ER vs. Minnesota in the 1987 ALCS). He wasn’t a postseason Superman. Just a good pitcher who had some great games and some bad ones.
To be in the Hall of Fame, a player has to be among the very best at his position ever. So just as I think DH’s belong in the Hall, so too do closers. But as with DH’s, they need to be held to a higher standard than starting pitchers because they don’t have as much inherent value. Smith accumulated about 30 wins above replacement over his career. That’s about the same as Andy Benes and Charlie Leibrandt. Comparing him only to other relievers, he’s above Rollie Fingers and behind Goose Gossage — but I’m not convinced any of them belong in Cooperstown. Dennis Eckersley? Sure, but he also had some good years as a starter. Mariano Rivera someday? Yes. Trevor Hoffman? I’m not so sure. The burden of proof is so steep for relievers that only the very best among them deserve induction. Smith’s career numbers — like Palmeiro — are based more on longevity than excellence. So no on Smith.
Dale Murphy and Don Mattingly
They put together some of the best seasons of their era, but neither lasted quite long enough. (Yes, this breaks my heart to say.)
Fred McGriff, Larry Walker and Bernie Williams
No, but it’s very close on all three. For each, you could make an argument that they’re borderline Hall of Famers. They all deserve more support on the ballot than they’ve received so far. Steven Goldman takes an interesting look at Bernie when compared to another borderline case — Kirby Puckett. These three certainly deserve to be in more than Jim Rice, and they’re the three that I’m most likely to change my mind about in coming years as metrics continue to develop and I continue to get smarter, obviously.
Not even close. And whoever the four people are that voted for Bill Mueller: they should not only have their BWAA memberships revoked, they should have their drivers licenses, U.S. citizenships and basic human rights revoked as well.