On Wednesday afternoon, my favorite moment of the baseball off-season will occur: the announcement of the Class of 2017, the new inductees into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. In this piece, I’ll share the names of the ten players that I would be voting for if I had the privilege of casting a ballot along with the approximately 450 eligible voters for the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA).
The Hall of Fame limits writers to just 10 names, which is a yearly problem for those who feel that the 1980’s and 1990’s are under-represented in Cooperstown. Because of the issue of Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs), Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens sit on the ballot every year, occupying two spots on a large number of voters’ ballots. In a universe without steroids, Bonds and Clemens would have been inducted four years ago with nearly 100% of the vote. But they remain the controversial poster children of the PED era. A large bloc of writers vote for them because they were two of the greatest players in the history of the game and the belief that they already had Cooperstown-worthy accomplishments before they started using the drugs. Another large bloc of voters won’t vote for either because they cheated the game and their fellow players. For reasons I detailed in “Cooperstown’s Crumbling PED Wall,” a lot of the “no” votes are moving to “yes” but not enough to put the controversial stars into the Hall. So, once again, in 2018, these guys will be essentially limiting more than half of the writers’ ballots to eight other names.
Before I get to my list, please enjoy the latest in Cooperstown’s “exit polls,” courtesy of Ryan Thibodeaux’s “Hall of Fame tracker,” which compiles the publicly released votes of the writers. At this moment, 247 writers have revealed their choices, which is likely a little less than 57% of the eventual vote (440 writers cast ballots a year ago).
Based on the early votes, it seems pretty clear that Tim Raines (in his 10th and final year of eligibility) and Jeff Bagwell will be giving speeches on a hot summer afternoon in Cooperstown this summer. What’s up in the air is whether Ivan Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero or Trevor Hoffman will be joining them.
Although the Hall of Fame ballots don’t ask the voters to list their choices in order, I’ll do mine in the order that I would vote if limited to one, or four, or seven, etc. That means that the list is not a belief in how I would order the players by greatness but by voting priorities. Most people don’t subscribe to this, but I believe in strategic voting. If you believe that there are more than 10 players on your ballot who are worthy of the Hall of Fame, you have to make choices and sometimes that choice may be to vote for someone who has a better chance of getting in than someone you would otherwise slot above.
For first-time readers, a quick glossary on some statistics, cultivated from Baseball Reference:
OPS+ = adds on-base% and slugging% and adjusts for ballpark effects and the overall level of offense in a given era. 100 is average so, an OPS+ of 123 is 23% above average.
ERA+ = the same as OPS, but puts Earned Run Average on a scale where 100 is average.
WAR = Wins Above Replacement, a single number that attempts to add together, in one number, the number of wins a team would expect to get from the player above a player they could get in the AAA level of the minors. For hitters, WAR combines hitting, fielding, base running, double play avoidance and also accounts for the importance of a player’s position. Thus, a shortstop with statistics identical to a first baseman will have a much higher WAR. For pitchers, the quality of the defense playing behind him is taken into account. WAR is a “counting stat.” The longer you play, the more “wins” you can accumulate. However, a player can go into negative territory with WAR. This happens sometimes with players at the end of their careers.
Anyway, here is my list:
1. TIM RAINES (10th year on ballot, received 70% of the vote in 2016)
- 808 career stolen bases (5th all time)
- 6 straight years with 70 or more stolen bases
- 85% career SB% (best ever for min 400 attempts)
- .294 career AVG, .385 OBP, .425 SLG, .810 OPS
- 123 career OPS+ (4th best for any player with 500+ SB) (behind Bonds, Morgan, Henderson)
- 7-time All-Star
- 69.1 career WAR (6th best since 1901 or left fielders with minimum of 45% games started in left, behind Bonds, Ted Williams, Henderson, Yastrzemski, Manny Ramirez)
I wrote extensively last month about Tim Raines in “Time to Put Tim Raines into the Hall of Fame.” If Rickey Henderson had never been born, Raines likely would have been in the Hall of Fame years ago but he suffered by comparison to the greatest leadoff hitter in the history of the sport.
Two and half years ago, the Hall of Fame board of directors decided to limit the years a player can stay on the ballot from 15 years to 10 years. A “grandfather” clause was put in place for Don Mattingly, Alan Trammell and Lee Smith, who had already been on the ballot for more than 10 years. That’s why Smith is in his 15th and final year on the ballot while Raines is in his 10th and final year.
At the time, it was widely speculated that the decision was meant to get PED users off the ballot more quickly. In one respect, it accomplished that goal in that Mark McGwire was purged after the 2016 vote. There was concern, however, that a player like Raines, who was at 46% of the vote in 2014, would be collateral damage, that three years wasn’t enough to boost him from 46% to 75%.
Sometimes, though, deadlines focus the mind and it clearly worked here. A drumbeat in the sabermetric community for Raines’ worthiness permeated the entire voting body and his vote percentage has climbed from 46% in 2014 to 70% just two years later and it seems (per the “exit poll” voting) that Raines will finish well above the minimum requirement of 75%. Does this mean that half of the “no” votes in 2014 simply changed their mind in just three years? That would seem odd, given that Raines’ accomplishments haven’t changed. Well, certainly some of the voters have changed their opinions but, for others, it may be that they felt Raines was Cooperstown worthy but not one of the “ten best” so they voted for others. This year, however, it’s now or never so it’s a higher strategic priority.
Remember, the voting chart I showed you above is based on only half of the likely vote so the totals will change.
My prediction: Raines sails into the Hall with 87% of the vote and is the leading vote-getter.
2. JEFF BAGWELL (7th year on ballot, received 72% of the vote in 2016)
- 449 home runs
- 1,529 runs batted in
- .297 career AVG, .408 OBP, .540 SLG, .948 OPS
- 149 career OPS+
- 1994 N.L. MVP (39 HR, 116 RBI, .368 AVG, 1.201 OPS)
- 6 times in top 10 of NL MVP voting
- 8 seasons with at least 30 HR & 100 RBI
- Only first baseman in history with 400 HR and 200 SB
- 1991 NL rookie of the year
- 79.6 career WAR (5th best since 1901 for first basemen, behind Gehrig, Pujols, Foxx, and Carew). Carew started 51% of his games at 1st base, 49% at 2nd base.
Although he debuted three years later, Jeff Bagwell will always be linked to his longtime teammate on the Houston Astros, newly inducted Hall of Famer Craig Biggio. The Killer B’s were mainstays in Space City, playing together in the Astrodome and then Minute Maid Park for 15 seasons.
Here are some of Bagwell’s best numbers for ALL players from 1994-2003, the peak of his career:
Jeff Bagwell 1994-2003 Rank among all players (min 3000 PA) Home Runs 366 5th Sosa Bonds Palmeiro Thome Runs Batted In 1155 3rd Sosa Palmeiro Runs Scored 1160 1st Stolen Bases 166 19th Most for 1st Basemen OPS+ 156 6th Bonds McGwire Sheffield M. Ramirez E. Martinez Overall WAR 60.8 3rd Bonds A. Rodriguez
To be 3rd in Wins Above Replacement for a 10-year period (behind only Bonds and Alex Rodriguez) is extremely impressive, not to mention the fact that there’s an 8-win gap between Bagwell and the man in 4th place (Sammy Sosa). As I’ve written many times before, I look at WAR as a conversation starter so I asked myself, why would Bagwell be so high? The answer is that he was a power hitter who also got on base, fielded his position well and could run. Also it should be noted that for the first half of his career, Bags played in the hitter-unfriendly Astrodome (WAR and OPS+ give credit for that and taketh away in his Minute Maid Park years with the short porch Crawford Boxes in left field).
I’ll finish with a direct career comparison between Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas, elected to the Hall of Fame three years ago.
You can see that, on balance, The Big Hurt was a slightly better hitter overall. The reason he didn’t appear in the “rank” with Bagwell’s peers from 1994-2003 is that Thomas had three of his peak years prior (from 1991 to 1993, when he won his first MVP). Still, if Thomas was a better hitter, Bagwell was a better defensive player and a much better base runner. Add the fact that Thomas started more than half of his games as a DH, I would say that it’s a coin flip to decide who was the more valuable player.
If it’s a coin flip between Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas then Jeff Bagwell is a Hall of Famer. End of conversation, except for the “whisper” campaign that he might have been a PED user. Honestly, other than those whispers, the only reason I could see for not putting him in is that his career ended at the age of 37 due to a bum shoulder so he couldn’t amass the benchmark 500 home runs that we usually like to see from our Hall of Fame first basemen.
Based on the early vote, it’s almost certain that Bagwell will join his Astros teammate Craig Biggio in the Hall of Fame. In three years, his vote percentage has spiked from 56% to 72% to 88% in the early vote this year. I can see three key reasons for this:
- The obvious reason is that the ballot isn’t as clogged up with no-doubt Hall of Famers as it has been in recent years (with Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, Ken Griffey).
- Since he and Mike Piazza are linked at the hip for PED “whispers,” now that Piazza’s in the Hall, there doesn’t seem like a good reason not to put Baggy in as well.
- Bagwell and Biggio are so interconnected in Astros history that it may seem to voters that it lacks harmony that one is in Cooperstown and the other is not.
Prediction: Bagwell gets in comfortably with 85%.
3. IVAN RODRIGUEZ (first year on the ballot)
- 13 Gold Gloves (most ever for a catcher)
- 14-time All-Star
- 7-time Silver Slugger (best hitting catcher)
- .296 lifetime batting average, 311 HR, 1,332 RBI
- Career: 2,844 hits, 572 doubles, 1,354 runs scored (all categories best all-time for MLB catchers)
- Most games caught (2,427) in MLB history
- 68.4 career WAR (3rd best for catcher behind Bench and Carter)
- 1999 MVP with Rangers (.332, 35 HR, 113 RBI)
- 2003 NLCS MVP with Marlins (.321, 2 HR, 10 RBI)
- Led league in runners caught stealing % 9 times
- Career: threw out 46% of all would-be base stealers
Based on the early voting, catcher Ivan Rodriguez has a decent chance to be inducted into Cooperstown in his first year on the ballot. If all things were equal, this would be an obvious thing. In his 21-year major league career, according to WAR, Rodriguez was the third best catcher in the history of baseball (behind Johnny Bench and barely behind Gary Carter). The Puerto Rican born “Pudge” finished his career with a 68.4 WAR, just one percentage point ahead of the original “Pudge,” Carlton Fisk.
He was by far the best throwing catcher that I personally ever saw. He could cut down an opponent’s running game with a cannon of an arm and he had cat-like reflexes behind the plate. From the first time I saw him play, as a 19-year old rookie in 1991, he looked like a Hall of Famer in the making.
If inducted, he would be just the 14th catcher to make it into Cooperstown and just the 7th since World War II (with the most recent entry being his contemporary, Mike Piazza, who was enshrined last year).
Rodriguez has a no doubt Hall of Fame resume for sure except for the one big doubt, the potential that he took PEDs. His case is nearly identical to Piazza’s in that there are suspicions but no tangible evidence. Rodriguez never tested positive and he was not named in the Mitchell Report but, unlike Piazza, he was named by former teammate Jose Canseco in his two books “Juiced” and “Vindicated.” There is no proof that I-Rod used PEDs, none whatsoever. The only “evidence” against him is the written testimony of Canseco in the two books.
There is, however, one other factor that many writers have noted. Once MLB started implementing stringent drug testing in 2005, Rodriguez showed up at training camp 20-to-25 pounds lighter than he had been in the previous year. And it’s a fact that he was never a prolific offensive player again. In 2004, he hit .336 with 19 home runs, 86 RBI and a 137 OPS+. The leaner Rodriguez, in 2005, hit just .276 with 14 homers, 50 RBI and a below-league-average 95 OPS+.
Now, Rodriguez was 33 years old in 2005 and that’s an age when most catchers start or are already in the decline phase of his career so it’s hard to put too much stock in that but his days as a significant offensive force were over. On the other hand, after three consecutive years of throwing out less than 40% of all base-stealers, I-Rod gunned down over 50% of would be thieves in both 2004 and 2005 so his leaner physique might well have helped him with his primary function as a top-flight defensive catcher.
Are Canseco’s words and some weight loss enough to deny Pudge a place in the Hall of Fame? Based on the early voting, the answer is “no.” I-Rod is sitting in the high 70’s in an election where he needs 75%. Remember, though, that the list of early voters skews towards the more permissive bunch of Hall of Fame electors. In addition, it’s important to remember that many “old school” writers like to make players wait a year before voting for them, believing that a “first ballot” Hall of Fame player should be one of the super elites. On the other hand, I-Rod’s 13 Gold Gloves and 14 All-Star games are the types of credentials that a generalized “old school” writer likes to see.
Regarding the steroid question, I personally have no reason to believe that Canseco was lying about Rodriguez’ drug use. If you asked me to say “yes or no, did Rodriguez use PED’s” I would have to say “yes.” However, I don’t feel that Canseco’s word alone is a sufficient reason to hold back one of the greatest defensive catchers in the history of the game from the Hall of Fame and it’s clear that a great deal of writers agree. Also, I don’t think that being Canseco’s teammate (and thus named by him) is fair when you consider that many other players (including, maybe, Piazza) were likely users.
Currently enshrined Hall of Fame players, especially old-timers, generally take a hard line against PED users. A great feather in I-Rod’s cap is that he has the endorsement of the man considered the greatest man to don the tools of ignorance in the history of the game, Johnny Bench.
“He should be a lock. Thirteen Gold Gloves. As complete a catcher as I’ve ever seen. He was intimidating behind the plate, a real solid hitter and incredibly durable. He is everything you’d hope for at the position.”
— Johnny Bench (on Ivan Rodriguez, as told to the Dallas Morning News)
If Ivan Rodriguez is a Hall of Famer in Johnny Bench’s eyes, he’s a Hall of Famer in mine as well.
Prediction: this is going to be really, really close. The “early” vote has him at 79%, which is a little too close for comfort. A year ago, Piazza was at 86% in the public ballots released prior to the announcement and he wound up with 83% of the vote when all was counted, a 3% dip. For Rodriguez, a 3% dip would put him right at 76%. My guess is that he gets in, barely, but wouldn’t be surprised if he falls short.
4. CURT SCHILLING (5th year on ballot, received 52% of the vote in 2016)
- 216 wins, 146 losses (.597 winning %)
- Won 20 or more games 3 times
- 3.46 ERA, 1.137 WHIP (walks + hits per inning)
- 127 career park-adjusted ERA+
- 3,116 strikeouts
- 4.38 K/BB ratio (best in MLB since 1884 with minimum 1,200 innings )
- Member of 3 World Series Champion teams
- 11-2 with 2.23 ERA in 19 post-season starts
- 2nd in Cy Young Award voting three times
- 6-time All-Star
- 80.7 career pitching WAR (16th best for all pitchers since World War II)
I absolutely, positively am baffled that Curt Schilling is not already in the Hall of Fame. I wrote extensively about Schilling in my piece “Is Curt Schilling Tweeting his Way out of the Hall of Fame?”
In a nutshell, there are at least 27 writers who voted for Schilling last year who did not vote for him this year. The second most “yes” to “no” flips is 8. There is no question that Schilling is being punished for an offensive Tweet he sent with a photo of a t-shirt that talked about hanging journalists with a rope.
It was vile at worst and in poor taste at best but it doesn’t change the fact that Schilling was the best big-game pitcher of his generation. He wasn’t in the same class overall as recent inductees Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux or Pedro Martinez but he was one of the ten best in the regular season over a 25-year period of time and the very best in October.
Prediction: with dozens of voters switching their votes against him, Schilling sags to 46% of the vote.
5. EDGAR MARTINEZ (8th year on the ballot, received 43% of the vote in 2016)
- 309 home runs, 1,261 RBI
- .312 career batting average
- .418 on-base% (3rd best in last 50 years)
- 147 career OPS+ (8th best in last 30 years)
- 4th best OPS+ (159) from 1992-2001
- 7-time All-Star
- 68.3 career WAR
On the ballot for the 8th time, Edgar Martinez, a lifetime member of the Seattle Mariners, has never gained more than 43% of the vote so he seemed like a long shot to make it into Cooperstown through the writers’ ballot. However, Martinez has seen a massive surge in support this year. In the early voting, he’s surged all the way to 66% of the vote. So far, he’s flipped 43 voters from “no” to “yes.” That’s the kind of voting momentum that eventually puts you into the Hall of Fame.
Why the big shift among the voters? For me, there are a few reasons. First of all, he’s been endorsed by some of the greatest pitchers of his generation (Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Mariano Rivera). Second, he’s a favorite in the sabermetric community, which has proven effective in creating a cause around a player (as has happened with Tim Raines). Third, the fantastic final season of David Ortiz has perhaps softened the anti-designated-hitter position of many voters. In Big Papi’s swan song, Edgar’s name came up constantly as the gold standard among DH’s.
A .312 career hitter with a .418 on-base%, Edgar has been tremendously undervalued: this was a pure, professional, dangerous hitter. His distinctive batting style (in which he held his hands very high), delivered him a career 147 OPS+, which means that he was 47% better than the average hitter. That is identical to the career OPS+ of Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt, Willie McCovey, and Willie Stargell.
Martinez’s finest moment came in the fourth and fifth games of the 1995 Division Series, when he almost single-handedly lifted the Seattle Mariners (in the playoffs for the first time in their history) into the ALCS by defeating the Yankees. Edgar hit a 3-run HR and Grand Slam in Game 4, the latter of which (off closer John Wetteland) broke a 6-6 tie in the 8th inning. Of course, in Game 5, he hit the 11th inning double down the left field line immortalized by Ken Griffey Jr.’s amazing dash around the bases.
Like Piazza, Raines and Bagwell, Edgar had a 10-year stretch where, by a variety of measures, he was one of the very best hitters in baseball. During those best ten years (1992 to 2001), only Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Frank Thomas bested his 159 OPS+.
Edgar Martinez 1992-2001 Rank among all players (min 3000 PA) Batting Average .325 3rd Gwynn Walker On-Base % .435 3rd Bonds Thomas OPS+ 159 4th Bonds McGwire Thomas Doubles 376 3rd Grace Bagwell WAR Position Players 50.4 6th Bonds Bagwell Griffey Lofton Piazza
Taking a shorter view, a seven year span that started during the Mariners’ magical 1995 season, Edgar was arguably the best overall hitter in baseball with the lone exception of Barry Bonds.
Edgar Martinez 1995-2001 Rank among all players (min 3000 PA) Batting Average .329 2nd Walker On-Base % .435 2nd Bonds OPS+ 159 3rd Bonds McGwire Runs Batted in 773 10th Doubles 291 1st WAR Position Players 40.6 5th Bonds Rodriguez Bagwell Griffey
Where Edgar falls short on these charts is in the traditional power statistics of home runs and runs batted in. He was 17th in RBI from 1992-2001 and 10th from 1995-2001. Many sabermetricians will argue that RBI is an overrated statistic because it is too dependent on situations; needless to say a 4th place hitter gets more RBI opportunities than a leadoff hitter. But Martinez was a cleanup hitter more often than not.
When looking at his splits linked here on Baseball Reference, you can see that Edgar drew 57% of his career walks with men on base even though those only accounted for 48.5% of his career plate appearances.
More notable, Martinez drew 40% of his career bases on balls with runners in scoring position even though those situations only occurred in 29.5% of his plate appearances.
These type of splits are also seen with the incomparable Bonds: during Edgar’s 7-year peak of brilliance (in the table above), Bonds had only 9 more RBI than Edgar. Both men, despite playing on generally good teams with a good supporting cast, were both feared by opposing pitchers and extraordinarily disciplined hitters. Neither would swing at a bad pitch just in the effort to drive in the runners on base. Each would accept the walk if that’s all the pitcher was offering.
In all other metrics besides RBI, Edgar Martinez was simply one of the best hitters in baseball for a long period of time. To have posted the 5th best overall WAR for position players for a seven year period is remarkable for a designated hitter since WAR punishes hitters for not playing in the field.
As a potential Hall of Famer, Martinez’ candidacy suffers from two things: the DH factor and the fact that he didn’t become a full time player until the age of 27, which kept his overall numbers a little low. His 309 career home runs and 2,247 career hits are less than you would expect from a Hall of Fame hitter, although the hit total is somewhat artificially low because of his 1,283 walks.
It is a fair point that perhaps Edgar’s career was just a bit too short to merit a Cooperstown plaque. For me, his dominant peak and status as one of the hitting savants in baseball is good enough. But don’t take my word for it: look at what two of the recently inducted Hall of Famers (one a foe, one a teammate), plus one future Cooperstown inductee, had to say about Mr. Martinez.
“The toughest guy I faced I think — with all due respect to all the players in the league — was Edgar Martinez. He had to make me throw at least 13 fastballs above 95 (each time we faced). I was hard-breathing after that. Edgar was a guy that had the ability to foul off pitches, and it pissed me off because I couldn’t get the guy out.”
Pedro Martinez (on MLB Network Jan 6, 2015)
“Edgar Martinez is, hands down, the best hitter that I’ve ever seen. I’m glad I didn’t have to face him too much. Having seen him play from ’89 to all the way when I left, I got to see him a lot against great pitchers. Like I said, hands down, he is the best pure hitter that I got to see on a nightly basis. And I hope that his time comes soon, that he gets a phone all stating that he’s a Hall of Fame player, because he is.”
Randy Johnson (on MLB Network Jan 6, 2015)
“The toughest – and thank God he retired – Edgar Martinez. Oh my God. I think every pitcher will say that, because this man was tough. Great man, though – respected the game, did what he had to do for his team. That’s what you appreciate about players, when a player come and do what is right for the game of baseball, for his team and teammates.”
Mariano Rivera (to the New York Daily News, in April 2013)
Regarding the Great Mariano, Martinez faced him 23 times in the regular season. He went 11 for 19 (.579 average) with 3 walks and one HBP. Included in those 11 hits were 2 home runs and 3 doubles. Edgar’s OPS against Rivera was 1.705, nearly 400 points higher than the next best hitter (with a minimum of 10 plate apperances).
I’ll go with Rivera’s, Pedro’s and the Big Unit’s endorsements here. Edgar Martinez should be in the Hall of Fame.
Prediction: Edgar finishes with 63% of the vote and makes the Hall of Fame on his 10th and final try in 2019 or possibly next year.
- .318 career AVG, 449 HR, 1,496 RBI
- One of six players in MLB history with a .318 average and 449 HR (Ruth, Gehrig, Williams, Foxx, Musial)
- 8 times with over 30 HR and 100 RBI
- 9-time All-Star
- 2004 MVP with Angels (.337, 39 HR, 126 RBI)
- Highest WAR and OPS+ among MLB right fielders (1998-2007)
- 59.3 career WAR
- Led league in assists from right field 3 times
Vladimir Guerrero is on the ballot for the first time and I recently wrote a lengthy piece about his candidacy (“The Hall of Fame Cases for Vladdy and Larry”). To me (and a lot of writers), he’s an obvious Hall of Famer but his 59.3 WAR is only 12th best on the current ballot which may hold him back a bit. Despite his cannon launcher arm in right field, advanced metrics show him as a mediocre right fielder during his career.
Two factors will probably keep Guerrero from being a first ballot Hall of Famer. The first is that there are still some writers who are hanging onto the idea that being a “first ballot” Hall of Famer is a special privilege that should be reserved for players like Aaron, Mays and Mantle. The second is that the ballot is just so darned crowded that some may just have him in the 11th or 12th position (and the writers are limited to 10 votes each).
On Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame Tracker, Vladdy is (as of this writing) polling at 72.1%, just shy of the 75% needed. Among the 247 ballots that have been tracked, he’s 8 votes shy of 75%. There are ten different writers who have indicated that they would have included Guerrero if there was no 10-player limit. So if Guerrero falls 10 votes or less shy of 75% when the final results are announced on Wednesday, this will be the first definitive proof of the “rule of 10” keeping a player out of the Hall. Incidentally, all 10 of these voters named Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens on their ballots. For writers who vote for Bonds and Clemens, the crunch is really severe because they’re clogging up the ballot every year.
Prediction: Vladdy finishes at 73%, about 10-12 votes shy of 75%. The one hope I have that Guerrero will over-perform his “Tracker” numbers and squeak into the Hall is that the core of his candidacy (his high batting average and home run combination) is the type that appeals to “old school” voters who don’t reveal their ballots to the public.
7. MIKE MUSSINA (4th year on ballot, received 43% of the vote in 2016)
- 270 wins, 153 losses
- .638 career winning % (10th best all-time for pitchers with at least 200 wins in modern era)
- 3.68 ERA, 1.192 WHIP (walks + hits per inning)
- 123 career OPS+
- Won at least 15 games 11 times
- Nine times in Top 6 of AL Cy Young Award voting
- 5-time All-Star
- 7-time Gold Glove Award winner
- 82.7 career WAR, highest for any pitcher not in the Hall of Fame except for Roger Clemens
Mike Mussina was durable, consistent and a man of impeccable character, winning 270 career games in the rugged American League East. Of the nine starting pitchers with a career winning percentage better than Moose’s .638 mark, all but Clemens and not-yet-eligible Roy Halladay are in Cooperstown. And, whatever you think about WAR, when yours is the best in history for a non-Hall of Famer, that might mean you belong there.
The Stanford-educated Mussina retired on the top of his game after the 2008 season, at the age of 39. He won 20 games for the first and only time in his 18-year career in his final campaign. In typical under the radar fashion, Moose actually made the decision to hang up his spikes before the season began but kept it to himself, not wanting any “last season” hoopla. Of course, that decision came with a consequence: he stopped pitching just 30 wins shy of the 300-win mark, which almost certainly have punched his ticket to Cooperstown (more on this later). This is how he explained that decision:
“I have young children and they’re getting involved with things. I’ve been away a long time and I want to be involved more. I’m certainly not getting younger, they’re not getting younger and you can’t get that time back. It’s just the right time for me… I didn’t want to be one of those guys that bounces all over the place. That’s not how I feel about the game. If I can’t contribute at the level I want to contribute at, then someone else should be doing it.”
— Mike Mussina (November 20, 2008)
Besides falling shy of 300 wins, I can think of three reasons that Mussina has not gotten much support in the Hall of Fame balloting in his first three tries. The first is simply that there was an overwhelming amount of competition among starting pitchers on the first two ballots in which he was eligible. After a 14-year run in which the BBWAA inducted only one starting pitcher, the last three cycles have seen five worthy starters gain plaques in Cooperstown (Johnson, Martinez, Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine). Bill James pointed out twenty years ago that most writers like to balance their ballots with a mix of pitchers and hitters in the same ratio that you might fashion if you were building a roster. So Mussina (and Curt Schilling) have languished in the shadow of their more luminous contemporaries (which includes Clemens as well).
The second reason I think Mussina has been overlooked is that, while 270 wins and a .638 winning percentage are very impressive numbers, it is also true that he had the luxury of pitching for excellent teams for most of his career. The Baltimore Orioles won an average of 85 games per season (adjusted for the strike of 1994-1995) in Mussina’s nine full years there. In his eight seasons in New York, the Yankees averaged 97 wins per year. So, for Mussina’s career, his teams won an average of over 90 games, which certainly boosted his win totals. In his 537 career games (all but one which was a starting assignment), his teams scored an average of 5.4 runs per nine innings, which is 12.5% better than the league average during that time.
The third reason is that there are some writers (most likely older writers) who don’t like the fact that he only won 20 games once in his career and that he had a career ERA of 3.68, which would be the 2nd highest for any pitcher in the Hall of Fame. It is a truthful generalization that, on balance, older writers put more stock in wins and losses and younger writers look more closely at advanced metrics such as ERA+, WAR or FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching).
What many people likely overlook regarding Moose’s high ERA is that he pitched his entire career in the American League East, with DH’s and many PED-using players. His ERA+ (which adjusts for ballpark effects and is relative to the overall league ERA for each year in question) is 123 and that figure is higher than 32 pitchers already in possession of Hall of Fame plaques. This list of pitchers with an ERA+ worse than Mussina’s career mark include luminaries such as Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton, Robin Roberts, Nolan Ryan and recent inductee Tom Glavine.
Regarding Mussina’s personal decision to stop short of the 300-win finish line, it should be noted that, in the history of baseball, only thirteen pitchers achieved their 300th career victory by their age 39 season. Only two of them (Maddux and Steve Carlton) managed to accomplish this in the last 80 years. Six of the thirteen pitched in the 19th century.
Moose’s 270 wins through this age 39 season are 16th best all time among pitchers who debuted in 1901 or later and better than the mark posted by 35 Hall of Fame pitchers.
Finally, to make the case for Mike Mussina, let’s take a look at Moose and a contemporary from the opposing league, Tom Glavine. Here are their career numbers side by side:
Gulp: Tom Glavine started 146 more games, tossed about 850 more innings, pitched most of his career for a perennial division champion (the Atlanta Braves), and won just 35 more games than Mike Mussina. In addition, Moose struck out more batters despite dramatically fewer innings pitched. If you look at these two side by side, it’s impossible to have a rational argument that Glavine is a Hall of Famer and that Mussina is not.
Through his age 39 season, Glavine had 275 wins, only 5 more than Mussina’s final total. Glavine got to 300 wins because he decided to pitch for three more seasons: in those seasons he won 30 games and posted a league-average 4.33 ERA. Does it make any sense that one pitcher is a Hall of Famer and the other is not based solely on three mediocre seasons in his 40’s? No, it doesn’t make sense. Both players are Hall of Famers.
With Mussina and Schilling, there are two clear cut Hall of Fame pitchers waiting to be inducted but they’ve both been a little slow to catch on. Maybe they weren’t as great as the five recent inductees but they were still easily in the top 10 among all pitchers from the 1990’s and the 2000’s.
So the question is, what’s the right number of Hall of Fame starting pitchers from a two-decade era? Well a good way to answer that question is to look at previous 20-year periods in history. Obviously, many players had careers that started in one of these 20 year periods and ended in a different one but I’ve put those pitchers in the “era” that represents the best part of their career.
Hall of Fame SP Tot 1990-2009 5 Johnson Maddux Glavine Smoltz Martinez 1970-1989 10 Seaver Blyleven Niekro Ryan Carlton Perry Palmer Jenkins Sutton Hunter 1950-1969 10 Roberts Spahn Drysdale Koufax Gibson Bunning Marichal Ford Wynn Lemon 1930-1949 8 Grove Hubbell Feller Newhowser Ruffing Lyons Gomez Dean 1910-1929 13 Johnson Alexander Coveleski Faber Rixey Vance Grimes Pennock Hoyt Marquard Walsh Haines Bender 1890-1909 13 Young Nichols Rusie Mathewson Willis Waddell McGinnity Plank Joss Chesboro Brown Walsh Clarkson 1871-1889 6 Galvin Keefe Radbourn Welch Clarkson Ward
Well, it sure seems like there should be room for at least 4 to 5 more starting pitchers from the 90’s and 00’s. I say “at least” because there are now 30 teams in Major League Baseball. Until the 1960’s there were only 16.
So, here is a look at the 12 pitchers who pitched primarily in the 20 years encompassing 1990-2009 who had a WAR of 60 or above. As I’ve said many times, WAR is not the be-all-end-all of statistics, but it’s a good way to sort through players or pitchers.
The numbers speak for themselves. With the exception of the PED-tainted Clemens, Mussina and Schilling tower above the list of those who aren’t in the Hall. The only case I could make to be in the same league as Moose and Schill is for 2-time Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, who will be eligible for the Hall in two years.
Anyway, even if you put Clemens, Mussina, Schilling, and Halladay into the Hall, that would bring us to a total of 9 pitchers from the 1990-2009 era, which is about the right number compared to the past, even forgetting that there are more teams now than there were in the earlier history of the game. Honestly, 9 pitchers from this era should be the minimum.
By the way, for the record, here is the list of pitchers who had a career WAR between 40 and 59.9 who primarily pitched in these two decades: Mark Buehrle, Bret Saberhagen, Chuck Finley, CC Sabathia, Tim Hudson, Kevin Appier, David Wells, Orel Hershiser, Kenny Rogers, Johan Santana, Mark Langston, Jamie Moyer, Roy Oswalt, Bartolo Colon, Jimmy Key, Dwight Gooden, Frank Viola, Brad Radke, Cliff Lee, Javier Vasquez, Al Leiter and Tom Candiotti.
I could make a Hall of Fame case for Saberhagen, Hershiser, Santana or Sabathia but certainly not a case that the totality of their careers approached those of Schilling and Mussina.
Prediction: Mussina finishes with just under 60% of the vote this year and makes the Hall in 2019 or 2020.
8. TREVOR HOFFMAN (2nd year on ballot, received 67% of the vote in 2016)
- 601 career saves (2nd most all time to Mariano Rivera)
- 88.8% career save conversion % (3rd best ever to Rivera and Joe Nathan among pitchers with over 300 saves)
- 7-time All-Star
- Cy Young runner-up twice
- 2.87 career ERA, 141 career ERA+
Let me start by saying that I was for a long time a skeptic about Trevor Hoffman as a Hall of Fame candidate because of his lack of success in big games. He had 601 saves in his regular season career but, unless you’re a Padres fan, it’s hard to remember any of them. But any baseball fan will remember Scott Brosius’ home run in Game 3 of the ’98 Series against the Yankees or when he blew a 2-run lead in the bottom of the 13th inning against the Rockies, sending Colorado to the playoffs.
For reasons I detailed in my piece “Is Cooperstown Ready for Trevor Hoffman?” I have changed my mind. In Hall of Fame voting, it’s difficult to compare relief pitchers to starting pitchers and even more difficult to compare relievers to position players. Relief pitchers, especially the modern variety, generally only take the field for one inning in less than half of the team’s games. It’s not unreasonable to put relievers at the back of the line behind full-time position players or starters who routinely give their teams 6-to-9 innings of work.
For some of you, 601 career saves (second only to Mariano Rivera), a 89% career save conversion percentage and seven All-Star appearances are all you need to give Hoffman a plaque.
For those for whom that’s not enough, I’m going to briefly go beyond the basics.
Now, because they’re on the field less, relievers look vastly inferior to all other players when you count their WAR. Hoffman’s career WAR is 28.4, which is less than 23 players on today’s ballot, including Mike Cameron, J.D. Drew, Magglio Ordonez, Tim Wakefield, Edgar Renteria and Derrek Lee, who have so far gotten one Hall of Fame vote combined (Renteria got it). When discussing closers as Cooperstown candidates, WAR isn’t a relevant statistic.
The advanced metric that is relevant for closers is WPA (Win Probability Added). If you’re a relief pitcher entering the game with a one-run lead in the bottom of the 9th inning, your team has about a 80% chance of winning. If you enter with a a three-run lead in the bottom of the 9th, your team’s odds are at about 96%. So, if you close out a one run win, you have increased your team’s chances of winning from 80% to 100% and thus are awarded with 0.20 WPA points, the 0.20 representing the 20% increased odds of winning. If you think about this logically, you’ll realize that it can also go the other way: you can have -0.80 WPA points if you blow that one-run lead.
So, this the list of top 20 pitchers in WPA since the end of World War II:
As you can see, even with the disadvantage of vastly fewer innings pitched than all of the Hall of Fame pitchers on this list, Hoffman still helped his team win (on a win probability basis) more than all but 18 pitchers in the last 70 years. Not in the top 20 on this list are all of the current relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame (Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers and Hoyt Wilhelm) and 14 Hall of Fame starters.
Now I will admit that voting for Trevor Hoffman would be, if I were a voter, a strategic move. I don’t consider the totality of his career one of the ten best among the players on this ballot. I would normally put Fred McGriff or Jeff Kent in above him. But most writers disagree. Hoffman is on the cusp of Cooperstown, having earned 67% of the vote in his first turn on the ballot. In the history of the BBWAA writers’ vote, 10 first-year players (including Hoffman) received 65% of the vote or higher but fell short of the 75% needed to be inducted.
This is what happened to their vote totals in the years that followed:
As you can see, if you debut at over 65%, history dictates that you’ll cross the finish line in the years that follow. So here’s where strategic voting comes in. If you’re a writer who feels constrained by the 10-player limit, it’s better to “clear the decks” and reduce the ballot back-log by inducting as many worthy players as possible. The truth is that it’s better for all of the others on the ballot if Hoffman isn’t around filling up one of the 10 slots on a high number of voter ballots. As of this writing, on the Hall of Fame tracker, Hoffman is sitting at 72.9% so it’s going to be really close.
Prediction: Hoffman sneaks into the Hall of Fame, barely above 75% of the vote. This prediction is based on what happened last year. In the “exit polls” a year ago, Hoffman was at 63.5%. In the final tally, he finished at 67.3%, nearly 4 points higher. Why the difference, when most of the “exit polls” under-sample the players? The simplest answer is that the writers who choose to keep their votes private tend to vote on more simplistic terms. They look at Hoffman’s 601 career saves and see a shiny milestone that puts makes them Cooperstown-worthy. The same was true last year for Lee Smith, who finished with 34% of the vote, 6 points higher than in the publicly released pre-election ballots. Hoffman currently sits at 72.7% on the tracker so he’s right on the cusp.
Ok, and now the final two…
- All-time home run leader with 762
- Single-season home run leader with 73
- 1,996 career RBI (5th all-time)
- 2,227 Runs (3rd all-time), 514 SB
- 2,558 walks (most all-time)
- 1.051 OPS, 182 OPS+ (3rd best all-time)
- 162.4 career WAR (2nd all-time to Babe Ruth)
- 7 MVP’s
- 8 Gold Gloves
- 14 All-Star Games
10. ROGER CLEMENS (5th year on ballot, received 45% of the vote in 2016)
- 354 career wins (9th most all-time, 2nd most in last 50 years)
- 4,672 career strikeouts (3rd most all-time behind Nolan Ryan & Randy Johnson)
- Led league in ERA 7 times
- Only pitcher in MLB history to strike out 20 batters in a game 2 times (1986 & 1996)
- Won 1986 MVP (24-4, 2.48 ERA)
- 7 Cy Young Awards
- 11 All-Star Games
- 139.2 career WAR (3rd best for pitchers behind Cy Young & Walter Johnson)
I wrestled with this, probably more than a lot of the voters. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are two of the greatest players in the history of baseball but, because of their links to performance enhancing drugs, have been excluded from the Hall of Fame.
The argument against is simple and hard to argue against: they cheated the game, the cheated the record book and they cheated their fellow players. Their accomplishments have, simply put, been over-enhanced by using steroids.
Because of their PED use, these two legends have brought shame to themselves and have been “punished” by the Hall of Fame voters. In each of their first four tries on the ballot, the PED poster boys fell well under 50% of the vote.
Bill Madden, formerly of the New York Daily News and a recipient of the Spink Award (which means he’s been honored by the Hall of Fame), put it in the most personal terms in a recent appearance on MLB Network:
“If you cheated you cheated and it’s not fair to all the players who played the game without cheating… I go to the Hall of Fame every year, I go to the inductions every year. I talk to these guys, I’m not friends but I know these guys. I know them very well, and I don’t think I could ever look Hank Aaron in the face if I voted for Barry Bonds, I don’t think I could look Frank Robinson in the face if I voted for Barry Bonds. That to me is what this is all about.”
—Bill Madden (on “MLB Now” Jan. 16, 2017)
Something, however, has changed this year. I chronicled that change in my piece “Cooperstown’s Crumbling PED Wall.” In the early ballots released, Bonds and Clemens have seen their support rise to well over 60%. In short, the change can be explained by three reasons.
- It could be the induction last year of Mike Piazza (who is suspected by some of being a steroid user but was never linked to them) and the likelihood that Ivan Rodriguez (named in Jose Canseco’s book Juiced but never otherwise linked) will be inducted this or next year. The logic is, if you believe the Hall of Fame already has PED users in it’s great hall of plaques, you might as well put the best among them into the club.
- Some have argued that the induction of Bud Selig in December by the “Today’s Game” Veterans Committee has changed the minds of some voters. The argument goes that, if the commissioner who was at the helm of the game during the steroid era is in the Hall, then the best players of that era should be there as well. That’s a bit unfair to Selig since he was up against a player’s union which was, at the time, intransigent about not invading the players’ privacy by allowing them to be tested. Still, Selig was essentially the CEO of the sport. When you’re the CEO you need to take ownership of bad as well as the good.
- With every year that passes, newer and younger writers join the BBWAA voting body and older writers leave it. Many veteran journalists (including Madden) have argued that young writers, who didn’t cover the steroid era, don’t really appreciate the damage that PEDs did to the game. Proof to this argument is evidenced by the fact that 12 of the 13 first-time voters tracked by Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame Tracker cast ballots for Bonds and Clemens. But the Bonds-Clemens voters are hardly limited to the newbies: Spink Award winners Peter Gammons, Tracy Ringolsby, Paul Hagen and this year’s inductee Claire Smith are voting for Bonds and Clemens.
I respect the views of Madden and the other veteran writers who will never vote for a PED user but I don’t agree with it.
There are others who who try to split hairs by voting for those for who are suspected to be users but for whom there is no evidence against but DON’T vote for the obvious cases like Bonds, Clemens and Sammy Sosa. If you believe that Piazza and Rodriguez were PED users but it’s OK to vote for them because there’s no tangible evidence to cite but that it’s NOT OK to vote for Bonds and Clemens because of the existence of more evidence, that argument essentially says that the “red line” is whether or not the player “got away with it.”
I’ll be honest. I don’t know whether Piazza or Jeff Bagwell (who also has been suspected and will be getting into Cooperstown this year) were users or not, I really have no idea. But I am certain that Rodriguez used. Canseco, a former teammate, named him and I have no reason to think he was making it up. But is Canseco’s claim enough to deny entry to the greatest defensive catcher of our generation?
Every voter has to navigate the slippery slope of trying to figure out who did what and when. It stinks. It really does. I am convinced that the Hall already has at least one PED user in its walls. I’m not saying it’s Piazza, I’m just certain there’s somebody. And for that reason, I’m inclined to support Bonds and Clemens, the greatest player I ever saw and one of the two or three finest pitchers I ever saw.
Prediction: Bonds and Clemens finish in the high 50’s on their vote total and will continue to clog the ballot for many more years, possibly getting into Cooperstown in 2020 or 2021.
So, there it is, the Chris Bodig phantom Hall of Fame Ballot:
Tim Raines, Jeff Bagwell, Ivan Rodriguez, Curt Schilling, Vladimir Guerrero, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Trevor Hoffman, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
I’m proud to say that my ten picks are identical to those revealed by actual voters and my former ESPN colleagues Peter Gammons and Tim Kurkjian.
Now, as I’ve said before, I think there are far more than 10 qualified Hall of Famers on this ballot. So I’ll list them (in order) right here, with a brief comment.
11. Fred McGriff: leaving the “Crime Dog” out of the top 10 is painful. He’s clearly one of the most obvious victims of the collateral damage of the steroid era. His 493 career home runs would have punched an automatic ticket in an earlier era but the home run total benchmark has been cheapened by Bonds, Sosa, McGwire and others. Unfortunately, getting McGriff into the Hall of Fame is a lost cause on the writers’ ballot. McGriff has been on the ballot for seven years and never even reached 25% of the vote. It’s not going to help that Jim Thome and his 612 home runs are joining the ballot next year. McGriff may get into Cooperstown eventually but it will have to be through the Veterans’ Committee. It’s not going to happen with the writers so, if I were a writer, I would focus on players who have a fighting chance to make it.
12. Jeff Kent: you would think that his 377 career home runs (most ever for a second baseman) would mean an automatic ticket but Kent’s never caught on, finishing with 14%-to-16% of the vote in three years on the ballot. Because this is his fourth year of eligibility, there’s still time for him to get some traction. Edgar Martinez was at 27% two years ago and is now sitting in the high 60’s.
13. Larry Walker: he was a great all-around player, a five-tool star. The knock is that his statistics were inflated by 10 years in the Mile High air in Denver but his road stats hold up too. I spent a bit of time dissecting his home-road splits in my piece about him and Vladimir Guerrero.
14. Gary Sheffield: 509 home runs, 1,676 RBI, a truly feared hitter. He admitted using steroids but that he didn’t realize the “cream” he was using was a steroid and I’m inclined to believe him.
15. Billy Wagner: perhaps the most dominant relief pitcher of the 1990’s and 2000’s not named Mariano Rivera. There is a case to be made that he was better than Trevor Hoffman. His career adjusted ERA+ of 187 is 2nd best all-time (to Mariano). The knock is that he only threw 903 innings. You can read more in my piece about Trevor Hoffman. Consider me a “wait and see” on Wagner as a Hall of Famer.
16. Manny Ramirez: it’s impossible to imagine that Manny will be a Hall of Famer because he actually tested positive twice for PEDs. There’s a difference between the suspicions of the “steroid era” and the evidence available in the “testing era.” which started in 2005. Manny was one of the greatest right-handed hitters I ever saw but, as a two-time loser on drug tests, is going to suffer the consequences.
And, finally those who are getting some votes that I personally feel are not of Cooperstown caliber.
17. Sammy Sosa: many people who oppose the induction of Clemens and Bonds have made the point that, if you vote for them, you have to vote for Sammy Sosa too. After all, Sosa hit 609 home runs and had three out of four seasons with 60 or more. Why do I have him so low? It’s because, to me, his Hall of Fame credentials are not authentic. In my view, Bonds and Clemens were clearly Hall of Famers before they ever used. Mark McGwire hit 49 home runs as a skinny rookie. In my mind, Sosa was not on a Cooperstown track until he started using. I could be wrong, but it’s how I feel.
18. Lee Smith: his 478 saves are 3rd most all-time and he was really good for a long time. But I never felt he was the best or even second best closer in the game for an extended period. His career was longer than Bruce Sutter (who is in the Hall) but he never dominated as Sutter did. I think it’s fair to say that, overall, he belongs if Sutter belongs but he’s not close to the top 10 on this ballot.
19. Jorge Posada: he has really good offensive numbers for a catcher (275 home runs and a 121 OPS+) but he wasn’t a well-regarded defensive player. Playing a key defensive position on multiple World Series champions is a feather in his cap but, with the exception of the year 2000, it’s clear to me that the Yankees would have won all of those titles without him. In addition, his .224 average in 8 LCS appearances and his .219 in 6 World Series appearances are weak. If I were adding other members of the Jeter-Rivera Yankees to the Hall of Fame, I’d take Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte first. And if I were adding another Yankee catcher to the halls of Cooperstown, I’d go with the late Thurman Munson.
20. Edgar Renteria: don’t laugh at seeing his name here. In a different era, he might have been a Veterans’ Committee Hall of Fame inductee. He made five All-Star teams and won two Gold Gloves. He had 2,327 career hits which (for a shortstop) is more than 10 existing Hall of Famers. And he was a two time World Series hero (with the Marlins in 1997 and with the Giants in 2010). But he was really a poor defensive shortstop and had very little power. He does not belong in Cooperstown.
If you made it this far, you should be in the Hall of Fame!!
Thanks for reading!