Well, here we are in 2022, and the baseball world is aflutter with the tracking and debating of Hall of Fame ballots. It’s a tradition like no other, and something I miss when engaging with the Hall of Fame process for other professional sports.
Which is to say, baseball is really the only sport where the process remains interesting, albeit more contentious than ever. Which I think is a great thing, as well as an interesting tribute to a sport that some would be willing to argue is no longer the banner sport of the nation.
Getting into the Hall of Fame for professional football is still a challenging task, but the entire process is so lacking in transparency that it’s hard to have any real conversation about the process, which really kills the kind of hype and naturally occurring press coverage that induction merits in the baseball world.
And as for basketball, well, if you’re the sort who feels that baseball’s HOF has been diluted, you’ll probably want to turn your face away from a place where you can be enshrined for careers that took place largely outside of the NBA.
The primacy, controversy, and passion that surround the MLB’s Hall debate are a big part of what’s keeping Cooperstown at the top of the heap. I mean, say what you will, but it’s hard not to argue that the controversies of the Steroid Era actually revitalized interest in the entire process, and drew attention to it as it had slowly begun to wane. It’s created a unique scenario where people pay attention to the voting results to see who didn’t make it in, rather than the other way around.
[I recognize that I should take a moment to list my credentials, such as they are. I currently write for another SBNation blog, Pounding the Rock, over in the NBA section of the site, but I’m a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan. In spite of being a native Texan, the BoSox were the first team I actively followed from any pro-sports league, thanks to early 90’s episodes of Cheers. I thought it was hilarious then (as a part of me still does now) that anyone would name their team after a pair of socks. Had I known about the White Sox at the time we might be having a very different conversation, because four-year-olds are funny that way.]
Okay, now that some of my biases have been established, let’s launch into this thing. (Fair warning that I’m a ‘use all ten votes’ kind of guy)
Todd Helton - It’s a little frustrating to even have to argue about Helton, even if arguing is usually the fun part. From ’98 to ’04 the man was an absolute beast. His lowest batting average in that time was .315. His lowest home run and RBI totals were 25 and 96, respectively. We’re talking about a guy who basically averaged 35 home runs, 120 RBIs, 120 runs and 192 hits on a .340/.430/.620 slash line with an average OPS of 1.150 for seven years, and who has never really been touched by the steroid taint of players who had power numbers like that in the same timeline. And he did that while playing some of the best defense at first in the league. I couldn’t care less about the Coors Effect. If it were such an advantage why isn’t there at least one player putting up ridiculous numbers for the Rockies every single season? Hell, you’d think the elevation would have turned the entire team into Todd Heltons the way that it’s talked about. (I’m not saying it’s total nonsense, but I am saying it’s at least 50% jack-assery.)
Billy Wagner - There are only eight relievers in the Hall (nine if you count Smoltz), which is downright nonsensical. If you don’t think that relievers deserve to be in the Hall, that’s fine. You’re wrong as all hell, but you’re allowed to be. Billy Wagner’s only real sin was having to play in the same era of baseball as Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman. When it comes to admission worthy numbers, I’d be willing to put 400 saves right up there with 3000 hits and 300 wins. Only six players have reached that number. Wagner is one of them. Sure, there’d be more if the rules had been different back in the day, but they weren’t. So let’s give the guys who do make it there their due. Plus, I think any pitcher who excelled during the Steroid Era deserves an extra little bump to their candidacy.
Scott Rolen - As a former third-baseman, I’m willing to admit to some bias here, but Rolen was just so unbelievably good. A lot of people are pretty ho-hum about his numbers, but Rolen is really a defensive candidate, with above average offensive numbers. There are some players who are just so good defensively that you have to put them in in-spite of their numbers, but Rolen was more than passable in that area, so all you really have left protest-wise are a lack of ‘Big’ awards, durability issues, and that ineffable ‘star quality’ nonsense. Maybe Rolen never felt like a star to some people, but he won gold gloves at 23 and 35 (and likely would have won at 36 if not for injuries). He won eight in total, basically one for every time he played a full season (there are partial seasons I’d be willing to argue for) and should have been an All-Star in ’97 and ’98 (which would have left him with nine, as far as 14 seasons apart).
Rolen was a better hitter than Brooks Robinson, despite Robinson having an advantage in durability. And no less an expert than Mike Schmidt once claimed that Rolen was a better defender than he was. I understand the arguments against him, but the number of players who have the charisma and numbers of a David Ortiz or Ichiro Suzuki is infinitesimally small, and there are already players in the Hall who fall short of those parameters. Being an arguably top five player at your position should matter, and third base is underrepresented as it is. As for me, I’ve always hated the Cardinals, but I watched them just to see Rolen. Every third baseman I knew did. That’s HOF stuff if you ask me.
David Ortiz - Seeing as this is a Boston Red Sox blog, I don’t think I need to list all of my reasons for this one. Ortiz has the numbers, he has the postseason heroics, he has that cultural superstar feel. Still, I’ll always wonder a bit about his association with Manny Ramirez. Ortiz’s test never bothered me, but those years with Manny do a little these days. They weren’t just teammates, they were buddies, and that’s always made me feel a little wary. That being said, Manny got caught and suspended a number of times, and Big Papi never did, so that’s good enough for me to feel okay sending him in on the first try. Honestly, I’m just relieved that most of baseball seems to feel the same way about it. I loved Ortiz. To have to endure a campaign of nastiness against him would have been hard on my baseball-loving heart.
The Shoulda Beens:
Curt Schilling – I mostly resent that I’m having to vote to Schilling on his final try, because he probably would have been in years ago, if not for the incurable disease of being Curt Shilling off the mound. His counting numbers are pretty good, but his advanced stats are off the charts. If you faced Schilling, you had roughly a 24% chance of striking out, a 5.5% chance of being walked, and a 2.5% change of hitting a home run off of him. He had back-to-back seasons with at least 300 strikeouts and 61 walks (or less). No pitcher in MLB history has ever done that. To my knowledge Sandy Koufax is the only pitcher to ever even come close. He pitched 133 postseason innings, and only walked 25 batters against 120 strikeouts. He had 9 seasons in the top 10 for strikeouts, 8 seasons in the top 10 for hits per 9 innings, 10 seasons in the top 10 for walks per 9 innings, 9 seasons in the top 10 for ERA, all while tallying 11 seasons in the top 10 for complete games and seven seasons in the top 10 for innings pitched. It’s one thing to be a workhorse, it’s another thing entirely to be that diverse and efficient while serving as one. Like it or not, the man deserves a vote.
Andruw Jones - I’ve never seen a better center-fielder than Andruw Jones. I’m still not convinced that I ever will. He deserves the Sandy Koufax treatment, and probably would get it if his career had just ended suddenly instead of leaving us with memories of his decline. Only Willie Mays had a comparable peak in center. Andrew Jones had four seasons in which hit at least 25 home runs *and* saved at least 25 fielding runs as a center-fielder. There have been only two other such seasons in the entire history of major league baseball. That’s the top of the heap. Sure, his numbers would probably be first-ballot worthy if things had gone better after he turned thirty, but they’re still 8th or 9th ballot worthy as it is.
Omar Vizquel – I’ve read/heard the ‘was never MVP/wasn’t all All-Star enough’ argument, and I’m here to tell you that it’s really, really stupid. Context matters, and Vizquel had the misfortune of playing in the golden era of shortstops. He played shortstop at the same time as Larkin, Jeter, ARod, Ripken, and Nomar, overlapping with the beginning, end, or entirety of their primes, and he *still* won nine straight gold gloves. He won one of them, AT SHORTSTOP, at 39(!) It’s funny to me that Vizquel (the only defensive shortstop to rival Ozzie Smith) is on the same ballot as Andruw Jones (the only center fielder to rival Mays), but it also saves me the argument. If you’re *that good* defensively, and your counting stats aren’t total garbage, you get to go to the Hall. Sorry, not sorry. That’s the deal. Defense matters.
The Steroid Squad:
For a long time I wrested with trying to sift out the legitimacy of each individual offender (or heavily rumored offender), and I’ve got to be honest, it drove me insane. Not because I couldn’t come to any conclusions, but because of the inconsistency of the arguments. Some of these players (Bonds, Clemens, Sheffield)) never actually tested positive, but were in the thick of every investigation/report and may have only avoided a positive test because their careers ended before testing got serious. Some players tested positive so late in their careers (Ramirez, Rodriguez) that it’s hard to determine whether they already had the numbers.
So I combed every argument, every column, every report, every anything that I hoped would give me a consistent argument. And eventually I decided that the healthiest thing for me to do was to go get drunk and argue about it in sports bars the day the results came out. And it was then, in the midst of a very not sober conversation, full of "well that’s just your opinion, man" commentary, that lighting struck. Why was I stressing myself out over this? Why was anybody? The solution was right there, considering borderline players with borderline cases every couple of years: The Veterans Committee.
So, here is my two-part solution:
1. If a candidate is considered unworthy by enough of the baseball world, regardless of the reason, they are ignored by voters for their voting period and passed to the Veteran’s Committee by default. Why should anyone with a vote (or not) have to sweat a controversy that isn’t their fault? And this will allow for room for all of those other ‘character clause’ candidates; the Vizquels and Schillings of the world. It will also allow for votes to be spent on other worthy candidates, so we don’t end up with a bottleneck situation. And it’s not like you’ve doomed their case, you’ve just delayed it. Hell, the time out of the spotlight might actually benefit their cases and allow things to calm down a bit. They’ll probably still get voted in; it just might take 25 years. So be it. It’s a small price to pay for our collective sanity. And we can talk all we want about varying degrees of guilt, but ultimately they all fall into this category for reasons that relate to their own actions. Plus, anyone who might not have been guilty still gets a chance rather than seeing it totally torched by association.
2. I think that Bonds, Sosa, Visquel, Schilling, Clemens, Sheffield, Ramirez, Palmeiro, McGwire, and ARod, all deserve to be in the Hall. I also think there should be a penalty for cheating, etc. And think that that penalty should be a refusal to induct them during their lifetime. Save the honor of the ceremony for those whom there are less questions about. Bonds and Company deserve induction, but I’m not sure that they deserve a speaking platform. Hell, you can include players like Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe in this equation if you like, it works for them too. A lifetime ban should be just that; a ban for *life*, not eternity. So let’s make it a new unwritten rule. These are all players who’ve earned admission, just not a last word.
The Extra Votes:
Jeff Kent – This was a case that was particularly hard for me. On the one hand, Kent never managed to snag a single gold glove at his position. On the other hand, he’s easily the best player offensively at that position, and won an MVP in 2000 for arguably the best offensive season by any 2nd baseman, ever. But because of his fielding issues, Kent rates as 21st at his position overall in WAR, which is two places lower than the injury shortened career of one Dustin Pedroia. If Kent had been just a little better in the field, this would be a no-brainer. But switching positions wouldn’t have helped him much, since his counting stats are really only exceptional within the realm of 2nd base. If Pedroia, for instance, had been able to play close to the same number of games, it’s likely he would have surpassed most of Kent’s stats at the position outside of HRs and RBIs. In the end though, I felt nailed to the wall by my argument for position stats/performance. Kent’s borderline, but it’s the same argument I would use in favor of Pedroia, so if he gets to benefit from that, so be it.
Jimmy Rollins - There’s a good chance I would have voted for Rollins even without my stance on the Steroid Squad. If you take a look at his stats and compare them positionally, you’ll notice that the names Barry Larkin and Alan Trammell pop up a lot. And while Rollins would definitely qualify as a much lesser version of Larkin, he compares pretty favorably to Trammell. Both were top five fielders at their position during their respective eras, with enough pop to keep from clogging up the batting order. Both had a memorable postseason run ending in a title. Both kept their teammates on an even keel. I always felt that Trammell was late-ballot worthy. I see no reason not to at least give Rollins the same chance.
Torii Hunter – The argument for Hunter is a variation of the argument for Vizquel: Hunter was a tremendous fielder who has respectable counting stats. Only Willie Mays, Andruw Jones, and Ken Griffey Jr. have more gold gloves in center than Hunter, and his offensive counting stats, longevity, and durability are superior to Jones’, who I’ve already advocated for. I’m sure you’ve come to the conclusion that I favor Gold Glove winners. It’s true. All-Star appearances really aren’t much of a measurement the way that Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers are, and that’s why I favor them. Plus, they’re criminally undervalued in the whole WAR/JAWS conversation. Nine gold gloves are a lot at any position, but I’d be willing to argue that they’re one of the three most valuable fielding awards when they come at center, alongside shortstop and catcher. Plus, Torii Hunter was an absolute joy to watch, and gave probably the best quote after crashing and burning on the receiving end of a postseason grand slam: "Nah, I didn’t get no concussion test, man. I’m an old-school cat. Thirty years from now, if I forget how to ride a bike, that’s O.K." How can you not root for a man who spent most of his career putting his body on the line like that?
The Near Misses:
Bobby Abreu – Abreu was the unlucky 11th man on my ballot. It’s not that I’m opposed to voting for the guy. Honestly, I think he has about as good a case as Kent, Rollins, and Hunter. But I could only vote for 3 of the 4, and Abreu suffers from the similar issues fielding-wise that Kent does, except he was not as exceptional at his respective position as Kent was offensively. Abreu was about as solid a five tool player as you can get; just incredibly balanced, and I think he’ll still get enough votes to stick around. He certainly deserves the consideration.
Prince Fielder - Fielder won’t make the Hall due to his career being cut short by neck injuries, but he’s one of the more interesting what-ifs of my lifetime. Previous to his neck injuries Fielder was incredibly durable, which makes for an interesting question about how long he might have been able to play if he’d moved to DH. 5-7 more years, even as a designated hitter would made for an interesting argument, even if the numbers fell shy of his peak. It’s a pity that we’ll never know.
Tim Lincecum – If Lincecum had managed just three to four more peak seasons, I’d be shouting his case from the rooftops, but even then the vote would largely be an emotional one. You have to wonder if there’s room for that sort of thing anymore with the emphasis on advanced stats, but how can you not be romantic about baseball? Sometimes a player is so dominant, and captures your imagination so fully, that the brevity of the stretch doesn’t seem to matter. It’s a crime that we didn’t get more of Lincecum than we did, but at least we’ll have the memories.