Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Halls Within a Hall

The problem of Hall of Fame voting is that there is only one Hall, and many candidates with widely varying qualifications. Because of this, I tend to think of the candidates in tiers rather than simply whether they are in or out. So here's how I see the baseball writer's ballot, which is due for submission on December 31.

The Broom Closet of the Immortals

2005 Inductee: Wade Boggs

This is based on my theory that, to combat the Hall's drooping standards of admission (while not breaking the hearts of anybody presently in the Hall) you could simply build a separate wing -- maybe a small room, or a large broom closet -- and put the extra-special guys in there. Y'know, so Ted Williams doesn't have to rub shoulders with Lloyd Waner and Babe Ruth doesn't have to keep the same company as Rube Marquard.

The one Immortal in this year's batch is Wade Boggs. How many HOF thirdbasemen would you pick over Boggs? My list is Schmidt and Brett, maybe Mathews. Whenever you're in the top three ever at your chosen spot, there's a good chance that you're someone special.

But it's even more basic. When you saw Boggs play, you knew you were watching a Hall of Famer. Check his list of comparables at bb-ref: seven Hall of Famers, and Tony Gwynn, who'll be in in a couple of years. You could eliminate the bottom 80% of the membership of the Hall, and Boggs would still make it. He's simply one of the very best players in Major League history.

The Hall of Well, Duh!

2005 Inductees: Bert Blyleven, Goose Gossage, Ryne Sandberg

These guys haven't quite gotten there with the voters, yet, but there's no good reason for it. Each would be an above-average Hall of Famer, and should be an easy choice for the writers, yet each has a flaw or counter-argument toward admission.

Blyleven to the Hall of Fame is such a cause celebre that I'm barely qualified to comment on it. Better to just point you to analysis by Rich Lederer, who is one of the curveballing Dutchman's most vocal advocates. The short version is that Bert's run-preventing skills were well above those of other HOF pitchers, and he was a valuable pitcher for almost all of his long career (ERA+ under 100 in only 5 of his 22 seasons). I would add that he pitched well in the postseason, too.

The counterpoint is a low winning percentage (from pitching on losing teams) , no Cy Young awards, only one 20 win season. Also, it seems like Mr. Blyleven was somewhat of a cad, particularly to the press. While it's easy to dismiss this view as small-minded, but it actually boils down to something that's a real detriment for someone wanting to be admitted to the Hall of Fame--in a sense, Blyleven wasn't famous.

I wasn't self-aware, much less aware of baseball, during the early part of Bert's career, but I never heard of him as one of the best pitchers in baseball, much less one of the best pitchers ever. People raved about Blyleven's amazing curveball, but as for the overall package, I never heard someone speaking with awe of him.

It's a problem, but not one that should keep him out of the Hall of Fame. He's currently in the Hall of Well, Duh! because the voters have had a few chances to do right by him, and haven't really put a proper effort into it.

Now, maybe it's just the fact that I'm a Yankee fan, but I was always aware of people being in awe of Goose Gossage. For nearly a decade, Goose was near the top of the list of pitchers you'd least like to bat against. He had a blazing fastball, was a scary guy, and was brought in to pitch the highest-leverage innings his teams had. Nine All-Star teams, four top 5 turns in the Cy Young voting, and two top 10 showings in the MVP voting all point to people agreeing that he was a damn impressive guy. Great, even.

The problem is, the Hall of Fame doesn't exactly know what to do with relievers. Almost intrinsically, it's impossible for a reliever to be as valuable as a starting pitcher throwing two or three times as many innings per year. In addition, pitchers like Gossage, who were relief aces before the current save fetish that's taken over major league managers, don't have the kind of numbers many writers associate with closers. Gossage's career high in saves--33 in 1980--would have ranked 14th in the majors in 2004.

Jay Jaffe has some good work over at BP (get that subscription, already!) that deals with the disparity between starters and relievers, putting the reliever threshhold around 70% of the standards for starters. By those standards, and the more visceral "I know greatness when I see it" standard, Goose should be in.

Ryne Sandberg's another one of those guys that, during his career, you figured was a lock for the Hall. He was a nine time gold glover at second base, with ten All Star appearances in his 15 full-time seasons. But the amazing thing about Ryno was his power--the kind of power you simply didn't see out of a middle infielder in the 80's and early 90's. So...power, defense, what was there not to like?

Sandberg's hurt somewhat by the modern awareness of park effects, as he did much better in the Friendly Confines than anywhere else during his career. He is also hurt by the year he lost to a premature retirement. All that still doesn't change the fact that he was the best second baseman in the National League, for most of his career. He should be in the Hall.

The Hall of Maybe

2005 Inductees: Tommy John, Bruce Sutter, Alan Trammel

With these guys, it wouldn't be a travesty if they got into the Hall of Fame. It also wouldn't be tragedy if they didn't.

Sutter and John come to this from opposite ends of the spectrum. John got far on his longetivity, while Sutter's career was cut short by arm problems. Both candicacies depend heavily on non-performance related "extra credit." Tommy John is better known for the ligament transplant surgery that bears his name than for his pitching. Sutter is credited with two "innovations": the popularization (or revival) of the split-finger fastball, and the implementation of the one-inning, only-with-a-lead closer.

Those are some significant achievements (although the value of that last one is somewhat dubious) but I think the careers of these two pitchers fall a bit short.

Trammel's not an extreme case, like Sutter and John, he's a tweener. His career falls right between the two definitive shortstops of his time. Ozzie Smith was the classic shortstop--thin, short and fast, with no power and a ton of leather; while Cal Ripken was the prototype for the A-Rod/Nomar/Jeter/Tejada junta that would follow--bigger, more powerful, not as dependent on glovework. Trammel had a medium build, and strong offense for a shortstop of his day, but easily overshadowed by the slugging shortstops of the present. His glovework was excellent (four gold gloves), but not as spectacular as Ozzie's.

The vote's been going against him the past few years, but on the merits, he really should be in the Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Prematurely Bronzed Plaques

2005 Inductees: Don Mattingly, Dale Murphy, Jim Rice, Darryl Strawberry

If you saw these guys play, at the right time, you were dead sure you were looking at a Hall of Famer. You might have daydreamed about induction ceremonies, and the wording of the inscription on their plaques. And in each case, you would have been a bit hasty.

From 1984 to 1987, Don Mattingly's batting average ran between .324 and .353. He scorched the ball with great extra-base power, and was the toast of New York City.

From 1982 to 1987, Dale Murphy averaged 36 homers per year. And this was at a time when 40 homers in a year was pretty rare.

From '77 to '79, Jim Rice led the league in homers twice, came in second once, and had a slugging percentage that hovered around .600.

Darryl Strawberry defined the word potential. In 1980 he was the first overall pick in the amateur draft. When he hit the major leagues, three years later, he was the Rookie of the year. Three years after that he was the best hitter on the best team in baseball. By the age of 28, Strawberry had 252 home runs, and it really seemed that the sky was the limit. He was the kind of player where you stopped what you were doing whenever he came to bat.

But for each one of these guys, something happened on the way to Cooperstown. A back injury in 1989 turned Mattingly from a superlative hitter to a below average one. Murphy inexplicably stopped hitting well in 1988. He never recovered his form. Rice's power fell off in his late 20's, and he later fell victim to a growing awareness of park effects. A number of smaller problems (alcohol, legal problems, injuries) and one huge problem (cocaine) scuttled Strawberry's career.

If you started bronzing those HOF plaques early for these guys, you're now left with useless hunks of metal--and memories of guys who, in their day, could give most of the men in the Hall of Fame a serious run for their money.

Hall of Pretty Darn Good

2005 Inductees: Dave Concepcion, Andre Dawson, Steve Garvey, Jack Morris, Dave Parker, Lee Smith

With these guys we're talking for the most part about long careers, winning teams, mystique and aura. There's no questioning that they were stars, or that they had periods of excellence. It's just that they weren't quite excellent enough for the Hall of Fame.

Concepcion and Garvey share in common Gold Gloves, All Star appearances, and connections to a dominant NL franchise of the 70's (the Reds and the Dodgers, respectively). They also shared a lack of OBP (both players ended their careers in the .320's) and power.

Dawson and Parker were slugging outfielders, both credited with great defensive prowess by the powers that be (a conclusion with which the defensive statistics of both men seem to disagree). The primary problem with these two is that outfielders tend to have to slug a whole lot to meet Hall of Fame standards. Dawson hit about 100 more homers over his career than Parker, but made up for it with 16 fewer points of OBP. Since Parker's OBP was .339, you can see that neither man was particularly gifted at getting on base. These two basically stand in the same limbo as Dwight Evans, who had better on base skills than either man.

Lee Smith and Jack Morris are united by meaningless statistics. For Smith, it's the All-Time Saves record, perhaps the least meaningful major record kept by MLB. It doesn't seem, at any point in his career, that Smith was the best reliever in baseball, or even in the top three. He was just really good, for a good long while. For Morris, it's the "most wins in the 80's" stat. Did that make Morris a better pitcher than Roger Clemens or Steve Carlton? Morris never posted an ERA under 3.00 in his entire career.

Although each player was an All-Star on multiple occasions, neither captured a Cy Young award. Neither really dominated the league. Smith winds up with too few innings to make it as a reliever, while Morris doesn't have enough wins to make it as a Don Sutton-type.

None of these guys would be the worst player in the Hall of Fame. Most could have arguments built for them, based upon comparison to some of the Hall's lesser lights. In my humble opinion, that shouldn't be how Hall of Famers are made.

The Hall of the Extremely Competent

2005 Inductees: Jim Abbott, Tom Candiotti, Chili Davis, Mark Langston, Jack McDowell, Willie McGee, Jeff Montgomery, Otis Nixon, Tony Phillips, Terry Steinbach

There's no shame being on this list. Everyone here put in 10 years in the bigs, most were, at one point or another, fan favorites. Everyone except Abbott and Montgomery saw the postseason, most played in at least one All Star game. These are some good careers:

Abbott pitched a no-hitter, and provided an inspiration for thousands of kids with disabilities. Candiotti was one of a line of Major League pitchers keeping the knuckleball alive, and had a nice cameo in the movie 61*. Chili Davis was a "professional hitter" from both sides of the plate, who retired with three World Series rings. Mark Langston was an ace strikeout artist, with a career that just wasn't quite long enough, or quite great enough, for the HOF. Jack McDowell got to live the life of a rockstar, based on being a star pitcher. He won a Cy Young award, and was a horse for the White Sox teams of the early 90's. Willie McGee was a league MVP, a terrific centerfielder, and one of the oddest-looking major leaguers of his time. Montgomery was an ace reliever right around the time that title began to lose its cachet, and also around the time Kansas City's first division run ended. He quietly had an excellent career. Otis Nixon was a pure speedster, perhaps the last of that breed that we'll see for quite some time. He shares the Major League record for most steals in a single game, with six. Tony Phillips was a great utility player, playing multiple positions in all but one of his 18 major league seasons. He exceeded 100 walks in a season five times, in a career marred by drug use. Terry Steinbach was one of the core players of the Alderson A's mini-dynasty; he was an All-Star MVP in 1988, and got a World Series ring the following year.

If this group gets five HOF votes, total, I'd be shocked. Barring a miracle, all of them will disappear from the ballot next year. Some will say they had no business being on the ballot in the first place. But I like the opportunity the HOF vote gives us, each year, to remember these competent veterans, and to look at their careers.

It reminds me of a line from an obscure cable movie, called "Lush Life." In the film, Jeff Goldblum and Forrest Whitaker play musicians, Jazz session players, and at one point Whitaker is lamenting that although the two played with plenty of Jazz greats, they weren't great musicians themselves.

Goldblum interrupts him. "You've got it all wrong. Those guys [the Jazz greats] need us. Without us, there wouldn't be enough music to go around."

Without these extremely competent players, there wouldn't be enough baseball to go around. You won't get a bronze plaque in Cooperstown, guys, but you'll have thousands of fans remember you fondly.

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