Saturday, November 24, 2007

Torii Hunter Gets His Halo and Some Money

A little less than a month ago, it looked like we might be coming up on one of the most active offseasons in several years. Alex Rodriguez was on the move, and Miguel Cabrera and Johan Santana were heavily rumored to be traded. That's three of baseball's ten best players. Now, Rodriguez is still a Yankee, and the Twins seem to be pushing harder to get an extension for Santana - only Cabrera still seems very likely to be moving. Through Thanksgiving, the biggest player move was the Angels signing Torii Hunter to a 5 year contract worth between $80 and $90M, a move that has been widely panned. The more I look at it, I'm not totally sure why.

At first I was a bit skeptical myself. My range of thoughts were "whoa, isn't that a lot of money?" "Didn't they just sign Gary Matthews to a huge contract to play center field last season?" "Sure, Hunter may be a great defensive player, but don't the Angels need to do a better job of scoring runs rather than preventing them?" "Is Hunter still going to be holding up at age 36, which is where he'll be in year five?"

1. "Whoa, isn't that a lot of money?"
Well of course it's a lot of money. It's more money than I and everyone who ever reads this will see in their lifetime. But for a baseball player, that's just about where the market is. Compare to last offseason, where two outfielders signed megadeals, much bigger than Hunter's. Alfonso Soriano signed an 8 year, $136M contract, while Vernon Wells got 7 years, $126M. Annually, these are about the same as Hunter's deal, without those extra years at the back end, which bears mention because Hunter is older than the other two. For comparison's sake, Hunter blows Wells straight out of the water. Defensively, even though he's three years older, Hunter still covers more ground, and offensively, he's the far more consistent player. Even if Wells is having that excellent year he has once every three, he's only slightly better than what Hunter has been consistently doing.

What about Soriano? There probably isn't a player in baseball whose value is debated more than Alfonso Soriano (the only other candidates would be Derek Jeter and Barry Bonds). Some see Soriano as a 5-tool superstar, one of the elite players in the game, while others peg him as one-dimensional and totally overrate. Hunter, on the other hand, is generally regarded as a solid veteran, a good defensive player, who can make an all-star team in his best seasons. But really, Hunter and Soriano are pretty similar players offensively. Soriano's quick bat generates more power, but generally they're both guys who will hit about .290 with a .335 OBP and good power. Soriano's extra power is made up for with Hunter's signifacnt defensive value. Even if Hunter is only an average CF, an average fielding CF is MUCH more valuable than an average fielding LF who hits about the same, because the standard for what an average CF is stands so high. Of course, Hunter is not an average defensive CF. He's not the human highlight reel he was in his 20's, but he still gets a good jump on the ball, throws well, and has plus speed.

The Angels, meanwhile, are in a good position to spend this sort of money. Bartolo Colon's fat, umm, contract is off the books, and they look to be starting a good, young, low-cost infield of Wood, Aybar, Kendrick and Kotchman next year. The Angels could afford to overspend on another position. Which, taken in terms of the past two offseasons, they certainly have on center field. Which brings us to...

2. "Didn't they just sign Gary Matthews to a huge contract to play center field last season?"
Anyone who watches the NFL knows about the Detroit Lions draft day decision. Heading in, there was a lot of speculation that they would take Georgia Tech WR Calvin Johnson. That possibility was often ridiculed, as the Lions had taken WRs with three consecutive first rounders from 2003-2005, only one of whom turned into any value. How could they take another WR, after they wasted those other two picks on the position. Of course, they drafted Johnson, and he is having a productive season for a Lions team that is 6-5 and has a solid chance to make the playoffs for the first time since the Clinton administration.

I'm guessing most of you can see where I'm going with this analogy. Charles Rogers and Mike Williams were sunk cost for the Lions. They couldn't undo those mistakes, but they didn't let that cold truth handcuff them into not adding another player who they thought they could help their team. The Angels overpaid for Gary Matthews, then watched him go through a mediocre season. Torii Hunter is a marked improvement over Matthews, probably worth something in the neighborhood of two to four additional wins with his bat. That Matthews is going to make all that money doesn't make the Hunter signing a mistake. It does highlight that the Matthews signing wasn't the answer, and kudos to the Angels for recognizing that and improving their team.

Plus, it's not as if Matthews is completely without value to the Angels at this point. If he can give days off to Hunter every so often, and to the corner outfielders more frequently. If Matthews hits enough to allow Vlad to DH occassionally, Matthews can probably get five starts a week with everyone healthy, plus defensive replacement and pinch hitting duty. On top of that, it should make it so Vlad isn't so worn out at the end of the year. It wouldn't be all that surprising to see both Matthews and Hunter tally 500 plate appearances this year.

3. "Sure, Hunter may be a great defensive player, but don't the Angels need to do a better job of scoring runs rather than preventing them?"
The simple answer is no, they don't. Just because the team is already good at preventing runs doesn't mean they shouldn't try to prevent less. In fact, for a team like this that scores and allows few runs, allowing fewer is a bigger deal than a high scoring/high allowance team scoring a few more runs. In the case of the Angels, their margin of victory was often going to be thin, because of the average-ish offense. That makes preventing a few runs here and there all the more valuable, and Hunter should still be up to that task.

That answers the theoretical side of the question. The point more valid here is that Torii Hunter makes the Angels better at scoring runs as well. Sure, his .336 OBP last year is nothing spectacular, and he will certainly make his share of outs. The Angels needed to add power, however, and Hunter has more of that than most people seem to realize. There were only five players in the American League with more extra base hits in 2007 than Torii Hunter's 74: David Ortiz (88), Alex Rodriguez (85), Curtis Granderson (84), Magglio Ordonez (82) and Carlos Pena (76). Even if he loses a dozen of those moving into a pitchers park, he's be a huge boost in Los Angeles of Anaheim, where only Vlad Guerrero and Casey Kotchman had more than 50.

4. "Is Hunter still going to be holding up at age 36, which is where he'll be in year five?"
This one is the toughest one to answer. We just don't have any way of knowing yet. Highly athletic players tend to age better than big bruisers, but will Hunter's all-out style of play catch up with him? He hasn't been a stranger to the disabled list in his career, and the guys that lists as statistically comparable isn't very promising: Bobby Bonilla and Bobby Thompson had their last good seasons at 34, Kevin McReynolds at 32. Joe Carter's bat did hold up, hitting 25+ homers every year through age 36, but that's a bit of a strange list. I didn't think there was any way I'd ever compare Torii Hunter to Bobby Bonilla, who was notoriously bad defensively.

If Hutner's power this year was not a fluke, then he'll be a value throughout the contract, as even as his defense starts to erode, he's still a better hitter than Garrett Anderson has been the last two years, and the Angels won the division handily this year with him. With the talent that was out there, Hunter was a reasonable gamble. Unlike Matthews though, if Hunter tanks, the Angels are going to have a much tougher time swallowing it.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Before Manny, Francona delivered

Managers very rarely get noticed for doing something right, strategy-wise. It's much easier to second guess the decision-maker when things go wrong than to sit up and notice the strategy when things go right. I've personally always been only perfectly willing to rip Terry Francona when he sticks with the veteran too long or uses his bullpen sub-optimally.

With apologies to Jacoby Ellsbury, we're going to be ignoring the veterans vs. kids issue for now, and go straight to his bullpen. The complaints about Francona's bullpen use are familiar to every manager out there right now--they tend to manage to the statistic, rather than a situation. They'll use their fourth best reliever with a one-run lead in the seventh inning and the bases loaded, or with a tie game in the eighth, the highest leverage situations where a great reliever can help his team win more games, while saving him in case the team has a lead in the 9th. Meanwhile, that same manager will use his best reliever with a three run lead in the 9th, when the reality is that a terrible pitcher can come into a game and get three runs before he allows three runs a huge majority of the time- look at Joe Borowski. The talk this fall is how he's a great closer despite his statistics, saving 45 games in 53 tries, a rate that doesn't seem to jibe with his ugly 5.07 ERA and 1.43 WHIP. The truth is, these stats are right in line. To blow a two run lead in one inning, your ERA for a game needs to be over 18.00. With that in mind, a pitcher with a 4.50 ERA should be able to close a two run lead in one inning around 75% of the time. Borowski's success this year is more an indictment of the save statistic than it is an example of his innate ability to close games.

However, this isn't meant to be a condemnation of Borowski, who is far from the worst pitcher to be branded a closer, and has often pitched much better in his career. It's not a condemnation of Eric Wedge, either, who used his bullpen in roughly the same way the other 29 managers would have if given then same situation. Today, we're taking a moment to give a thumbs up to the way Terry Francona managed the team in yesterdays 6-3 win against the Angels.

Francona's first good move simply recognizing that he's managing in a different situation than the regular season. In mid-July, taking out Daisuke Matsuzaka in the 5th inning after only allowing three runs would normally make little sense. Matsuzaka was clearly not especially sharp, but he wasn't getting shelled by any means, and it was a one run game. In the regular season, using a bullpen to try to get 13 outs is a luxury a manager can ill-afford. In this case, though, nobody in the bullpen had pitched in five days, and the team had an off-day the next day. So Francona did not hesitate to go to his four best relievers, the last three (his three best) to get four outs apiece, rather than applying the one inning and out strategy that is most often employed.

Now, when four pitchers with ERA's of 3.10 (Lopez), 2.22 (Okajima), 2.05 (Delcarmen) and 1.85 (Papelbon) pitch 4 1/3 hitless innings, then perhaps its easy for the manager to look like a genius. Perhaps it's a shame that managing your bullpen to win, rather than waiting for a lead then managing your bullpen not to lose is worthy of praise. Still, the bottom line is that Terry Francona played all the right matchups, pushed all the right buttons, and has a 2-0 series lead to show for it. For that, there will be no more Terry Francona bashing from me. At least until Sunday, of course.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

I'm Gonna Ramble On

Curtis Granderson hit his 20th home run yesterday, to join the 20-20-20 club: 20 homers, 20 triples and 20 doubles. The last two players to do this were George Brett in 1979 and Willie Mays in 1957. Shouldn't this be a bigger deal? I mean, when you do something that Brett and Mays were the last two to do, it sort of speaks for itself.

Wait, well-mannered white guys do steroids too? Who would've thunk it?

The whole Phillies rotation is getting hurt, but Brett Myers is still in the bullpen. Charlie Manual seems like a swell enough guy, but some of his decisions over the past few years have been pretty indefensible.

Memo to major league managers. Relief pitchers are able to pitch more than one inning in close games. Also, at some point, a manager will figure out that having his fourth or fifth best reliever in with a bases loaded, one-out jam in the seventh inning because he needs to save his three best relievers just in case he's winning later in the game makes zero sense. It may not happen in my lifetime, but it will someday.

If anyone would like to step up and win the AL Cy Young award, they should do so. A month ago, Beckett seemed like he would get undeserving votes for being the guy with a lot of wins. Now he might be the deserving winner. Among the top 10 in ERA in the AL, only Brian Bannister and Kelvim Escobar have lower HR allowed rates, C.C. Sabathia is the only one with a lower walk rate, and Eric Bedard and Johan Santana are the only ones with a higher K rate. In fact, Beckett is in the top six in the AL in all three of those categories. No other pitcher is in the top six of any two.

Sox fans complaining about Daisuke Matsuzaka being a "$100M bust" should quit whining. Without even being able to quantify the cultural learning curve, simply adjusting to batter tendancies in the AL has been a huge step. Most notably is how much better major league hitters handle off-speed pitches, particularly up in the zone. Any 26 year old - no matter how much experience, so never mind a rookie - who strikes out a batter per inning is worth being excited about. With a year of experience, he should be a top-five candidate for the 2008 Cy Young.

To answer the question "how does one make the best thing in the world even better" has added minor league stats from 1992 forward.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

News & Notes

Justin Upton was called up yesterday. In terms of physical tools, he's the best player to come up in years. If you want someone to compare him to, think of Ken Griffey Jr, only less reliable defensively. He spent this season tearing up the minor leagues and working with Brett Butler (perhaps the most underrated player of the past 30 years) until Butler suffered a mild stroke last week.

The Dunne Deal fan favorite Lew Ford was sent down to Rochester today. It made me realize that I'm probably the only person alive who would welcome being demoted from my job back to Rochester. Lew could probably help a team looking for a backup outfielder, but it seems that the Twins have an organizational philosophy against trading from their strengths to fill their weaknesses.

Right now I'd have Justin Masterson as the #1 prospect in the Sox organization. He strikes people out, doesn't walk people, and when people do hit the ball, they hit it on the ground. In 33 innings since his promotion to Portland, he's striking out more than a batter per inning, about four times as many times as he's walking someone, and getting 4.5 times more ground balls than fly balls. For comparison's sake, groundball master Brandon Webb gets 2.78 ground balls for every fly ball. 33 innings is a small sample size, but nobody puts up stats like that by accident.

As I'm writing, Bonds has hit #755. Most of the guys Bonds homered off of were doing PEDs too. What are people so offended about anyway? Do they think people will appreciate Henry Aaron less? There are plenty of reasons to dislike Barry Bonds, but this steroids issue, and the constant battering we've taken from holier-than-thou sportscasters has managed to make Bonds into a more sympathetic figure than he's ever been.

One of the funniest things I've seen this week is on ESPN's "Page 2" they have a list of "50 future football Hall of Famers" includes 20 guys who would be there if they retired today, and 30 who are all the guys who have been drafted high in the past two years. Really, it's embarrassing. One of the picks they have there is Shawne Merriman. Who, as you recall, failed a steroid test, and also got votes for defensive player of the year. If Barry Bonds gets suspended next season for 50 games (which is about 5% more of the season than Merriman's four game suspension in the NFL) and spends the rest of the season being the best player in the league, he'd be getting serious MVP consideration? I seriously doubt it. The hypocrisy on this issue is just overwhelming.

So it seems to me that Bonds two biggest crimes have been being better at baseball than everyone who is doing what he does, and not smiling enough.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Sox Bullpen

Now a week into spring training games, the question of who will be the Red Sox closer continues to be a wide open one. Now, this isn’t the time for discussion on the merits of the closer role—the Red Sox will not be trying a committee setup like they did in 2003. So, who are the candidates?

Joel Piniero – What’s the old saying? If you tell yourself someone is a good pitcher enough times, maybe he’ll actually become a good pitcher? Actually, I’m not sure if that’s an old saying or not, but it seems to be the mantra they’ve taken with Piniero, a one-time Mariners prospect whose ERAs have been increasing with age. In 2002, at 23, Piniero had a 3.24 ERA, earning him note as one of the best young pitchers in the league. Since that time, his ERA has increased in seemingly regular increments, to 3.78, 4.67, 5.62, and peaking with a 6.36 last season. Meanwhile, his strikeout rate dropped from the high 6’s/low 7’s into the 4’s. His walk rate has climbed into the mid 3’s. In spite of all this evidence that Piniero is slipping, the Red Sox not only signed him, but have seemingly made him the front runner to be their relief ace.

The Sox are high on Piniero on the advice of advance scout Allard Baird, former GM of the Kansas City Royals. Baird thinks Piniero was misused as a starter, and has the makeup and quality stuff to make a great closer. With all due respect to Baird, if he has the power to identify misused starters who can become bullpen aces, he certainly didn’t display it as Royal GM. The Red Sox need to get Piniero pitching well before putting him into high leverage situations, instead of hoping that the high-leverage situations will bring out the best in him. He may begin the season as the closer, but I’m not convinced that it shouldn’t be as the closer in Pawtucket, quite honestly. Putting a player in a major role without a recent history of success does not make any sense, regardless of how his spring training ERA turns out. This isn’t to say that Piniero definitely can’t become a closer—just let him prove himself first.

Brendan Donnelly – Like Piniero, Donnelly’s ERA has been steadily rising for four years now. Unlike Piniero, it’s still within the range of what is acceptable for a major league pitcher. In 2006, Donnelly had the worst season of his major league career, posting a 3.94 ERA over 62 appearances, a stat that shows just how effective Donnelly has been since the Angels plucked him off the scrap heap in 2002. His best season came in 2003, when he sported a 1.58 ERA, struck out 79 batters in 74 innings and was named to the All-Star team. He hasn’t matched that success since, but he has remained an effective part of the Angels bullpen, striking out close to a batter per inning. His control was a bit of an issue last season, but it’s to say how relevant that is when dealing with only 64 innings. He’s been an effective reliever, and all signs seem to indicate that he’ll continue to be an effective reliever. He’s not likely to be a shut down guy, but he’s a couple good bounces away from a 2.50 ERA/ 30+ save season. The Sox could do much worse at the back of their bullpen. And they may. Among this group, he’d be my choice, if only by default.

J.C. Romero – The Red Sox other offseason acquisition from the Angels, Romero got roughed up in a big way last season. Romero’s positives are essentially that he still keeps the ball in the ballpark. Other than that, everything else seems to have dropped off significantly from his glory days with the Twins. His strikeout rates have been dropping, and walk rates rising, to the point where they were nearly 1:1 in 2006. Lefties still had trouble with him, hitting only .202, but he couldn’t throw strikes to them either, walking 13 and striking out 13 against only 89 AB’s. Your lefty-one-out-guy can’t be walking lefties. He seems to be considered a real long shot for the closer role, and it seems likely that if he wanders into it, he won’t be there long.

Mike Timlin – Timlin is coming into his 5th season with Boston, a period of time unheard of by today’s standards for middle relievers. Middle relievers are often seen as replaceable parts. In some ways they are, but identifying relievers who can be effective on a yearly basis can be difficult. Timlin had a rough season last year, missing a month with a right shoulder strain, and having trouble missing bats, a big deal in front of Boston’s highly overrated defense. The 2.24 ERA from 2005 was a bit of a fluke, based on the fact he allowed only two homers all season, a stinginess he’d never exhibited in the past and didn’t replicate last year. Timlin isn’t a stopper, but he’s likely to be a solid middle of the bullpen guy if he stays healthy, a good sized if for a guy turning 41 on Saturday. Timlin is 39 appearances from the 1000th of his career, and 41 from tying Goose Gossage for 10th on the all time list.

Hideki Okajima – He’s the wild card in the closer race. It seems unlikely that he’ll be in the closer role to start the season, but if he pitches well early in the season, and the closer situation still isn’t sorted, it’s very likely he’ll be given a chance. Okajima, a lefty, features an overhand curve as his best pitch. He may actually be best suited coming in in the 7th and 8th innings, following the flamethrower starters. He had a 2.12 ERA for Bob Costas’s favorite Japanese team, the Nippon Ham Fighters. While Japanese statistics don’t always transfer, the level of play there is somewhere higher than Triple A baseball in the states, and a 2.12 ERA is impressive in any language. Here’s to hoping he doesn’t get stuck with lefty-one-out-guy duties. At $2.5M over the next two seasons, he could turn out to be one of the bargains of this crazy offseason.

Manny Delcarmen – Delcarmen will not be the closer when the Red Sox break camp, but don’t be too surprised if he’s one of the Red Sox more effective relievers in 2007. That 5.06 ERA from 2006 is not indicative of the quality pitcher Delcarmen was. He, more than anyone else, was let down in a big way by the Red Sox bad defense in the second half. His BABIP of .368 was the second lowest in the AL among pitchers with over 50 innings, behind only Kris Benson, who was pitching in front of a league-worst Oriole defense. Sometimes pitchers have a high BABIP because they’re bad, and get the ball hit hard off of them. Other times, it’s because they’re unlucky. With Delcarmen, it appears to be the latter. If he was just bad, and was prone to giving up rockets all over the field that fielders can’t get to, it would also seem likely that he’s prone to giving up hits that go out of the park. That was far from the case with Delcarmen, who gave up only two homers to 243 batters faced, the third best rate in the AL with pitchers of 50+ innings.

There were 14 pitchers in the AL who gave up a homer fewer than once every 70 batters—7 of them had ERAs of .3.00 or lower, and the highest after Delcarmen’s was Ruddy Lugo’s 3.81. Seven of the guys in this category had 30+ saves: Mariano Rivera, B.J. Ryan, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, Akinori Otsuka, JJ Putz, and Huston Street. Fairly strong company. I wouldn’t give him the closing job straight off, myself. Hey, maybe he IS a guy who is just always going to be prone to giving up a high number of hits on balls batted in play. However, Delcarmen should absolutely be on the opening day roster.

Julian Tavarez – What a season that was. I’m not going to sit here and predict what Julian Tavarez is going to do this season, because nobody has any clue, not even Julian. He could be the best reliever on the team, he could be released in June, he could end up suspended for kicking someone in the face. It’s a total mystery. He was a lot of fun to watch in September, though, with the highlight being the one-hit complete game win against Toronto. As far as handling the pressure of Boston, he’s perfect for it, since he’s completely insane. I wouldn’t trust him as my closer or housesitter, but he could be a valuable member of the bullpen.

Craig Hansen – Hailed as the bullpen stud of the future coming into the season, the Red Sox didn’t seem willing to wait for the future when it came to Hansen, despite the fact that he’d seen mixed results at Triple A Pawtucket. There were some positives in Hansen’s season—I like any 22 year old who can come into the majors with less than a year of minor league experience and strike out 30 guys against 15 walks in only 38 innings—but it was pretty apparent that Hansen wasn’t quite ready for the majors. In a couple of the paragraphs above, I talked about pitchers needing to experience success before being put into a major role. Hansen may have been an example of the opposite—a guy coming to the majors who had never really experienced failure. He had been the best closer in college baseball, was a first round draft pick in 2005, was given a major league contract on signing, tore through the minors up to Double A without giving up a run, and made his major league debut within three months of being drafted. When he got hit hard with Boston, he didn’t seem to really know how to make adjustments, and it compounded his problems. By the end of the year, his ERA was 6.63.

The Red Sox use of Hansen in 2006 was really a mistake. First, they started him in Double A Portland, despite the fact that he’d been dominant at that level in 2005. Once they brought him to Pawtucket, they decided they were going to use him as a starter to strengthen his arm and get some innings under him. That lasted four starts, until the Red Sox decided they needed him in the majors, despite some high walk rates. Their interest was understandable. Hansen’s ERA was below 3.00, he was highly touted, and the Sox had success throwing Papelbon into the fire.

From there on, he was terribly inconsistent, and usually downright bad at Fenway, where his ERA was 8.70. Hansen’s biggest problem was his first pitch. When he throw a first pitch strike, the OBP against him was .268, against a .488 OBP when he threw a first pitch ball. There’s almost always a difference there, but rarely is it so profound. There’s little shame in having a bad season in the majors at Age 22. Hopefully he’s a strong enough kid to overcome it. He needs to start the season in Pawtucket though, and stay there through June. With any luck, he’ll be the closer in 2008.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Hall of Fame picks

My Hall of Fame ballot:

Well, sort of. They don’t actually let me vote, even though I’ve made at least a dozen posts on the internet. But this isn’t the time to go into detail about the fascist rules for gaining a Hall of Fame vote. It’s time for the rundown of who I’m pretend voting for.

Cal Ripken – Tough call, huh? The Streak got most of the press during Ripken’s career, which is unfortunate. Ripken was much, much more than that. A 19 time all-star and two-time Most Valuable Player, Ripken redefined the shortstop position, bringing it out of the era of short defensive aces who provided little power. Ripken, at 6’4”, paved the way for the power hitting stars of the late ‘90’s. Ripken’s defense was no slouch either. He was one of the hardest working guys in the league, especially when it came to positioning and knowing hitters tendencies. He wasn’t as flashy as some of his contemporaries, but nobody else had as many balls hit directly at him.

Tony Gwynn – Another slam-dunk. Batting average may be a bit overrated as a statistic, but when someone can hit the ball as frequently and consistently as Gwynn did, that’s something special. In 1982, Gwynn broke in with a .289 average in 190 at-bats. From there on, in 19 seasons, he hit below .317 only twice: .309 in both 1983 and 1990. His career .338 average is second best of anyone who played after World War 2, behind only Ted Williams. His most impressive stretch was from 1994 to 1997, where he hit an astounding .371.

Mark McGwire – The steroids issue is preposterous, and it’s been done to death, and I’m generally just sick of talking about it. I’m going to address the most relevant issue, that McGwire was a “one-dimensional player.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration anyway, but even if it were true, he’s a one-dimensional player in the same way Tony Gwynn is. We’re not talking about Tony Batista or Pedro Feliz here, who have enough power to make managers forget that they offer absolutely nothing else of positive value. Mark McGwire led his league in slugging four times, is 10th all time in SLG, and for his career, he homered more frequently, per at-bat, than any other player, ever. On top of that, though, he twice led his league in OBP. I’m no doctor, but I’ve never read anything about steroids being able to improve your ability to not swing at bad pitches. McGwire will get into the Hall of Fame someday. It won’t be this year, though.

Goose Gossage – He was a borderline candidate for a number of years, but one that I thought should have made it. With Sutter’s induction, though, Gossage absolutely should be Hall-worthy. Gossage was a better player at his peak, and a guy who was effective for a much, much longer time. Sutter had one season with an ERA under 4.00 season after age 29. Gossage had eight, including six under 3.00. This led to Gossage pitching 800 more innings in his career, and pitch in three more all star games (nine, to Sutter’s six.) My guess is that Gossage will be short this year, but make it in on next years weaker ballot.

Burt Blyleven – The center of the Blyleven argument is the value of a Hall of Famer being very good over a long time, or great over a shorter time. Blyleven was rarely truly great. He never won a Cy Young, only went to two all-star teams, and his career ERA+ is 118. Then you realize that that 118 was accumulated over 4,970 career innings, thirteenth all-time. You realize that in those innings, he had 3,701 strikeouts, fifth all-time (and he was third all-time when he retired), behind only Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson and Steve Carlton. Ahead of Tom Seaver, Walter Johnson, and several other greats. Sutton is probably the best comparison for Blyleven. He was another who was rarely the very best in the league, but was very good for a very, very long time. The main difference is that Sutton played on some much better teams, notably the Dodgers of the late 70’s and early 80’s, allowing him to reach 324 wins, while Blyleven usually played for below average teams, and it left him with 289 wins. Blyleven had 10 seasons where he was in the top ten in the league in ERA, and 15 where he finished in the top 10 in strikeouts, but only four times finished in the top-10 in Cy Young voting, a fact that shows the Cy Young voter’s attraction to wins. Now, years later, the same voters who didn’t appreciate him during his playing days are using the lack of awards he won as a major strike against him. Some guys just can’t win.

Jim Rice – I’ve gone back and forth on Rice over the years, but in the past, I don’t think I gave him enough credit for how long he was good. It’s often said his career ended early, which is true—his last effective season was at age 33. He was a bit surly with the media, and was completely worthless on defense. But man, could he hit. His career .502 SLG may not seem so impressive after the past 10 years of that kind of number not getting people into the top 10, but in Rice’s day, that meant something. He led the league in slugging twice, and finished second three more times. A knock against him seems to be his patience. He walked only 670 times in his career, a number Barry Bonds would’ve called “a slow May” at his peak. Barry Bonds isn’t the standard for your regular Hall of Famer, though. Rice finished with a career .298 batting average. One wonders if he’d retired with a .300 career average before 1989, when it was clear his skills had eroded completely, if he’d have gotten more support. Those two points don’t mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, but when some voters see something like “.300 batting average” they think of how nice it would look on someone’s plaque.

Albert Belle – Probably the least popular of anyone I’ll pick amongst the voters, and I can’t say I’ll be shedding a tear for him when he isn’t elected. But, when talking about what he was as a baseball player, he was like Jim Rice on steroids (likely literally). He was meaner than Rice, worse defensively than Rice, worse with the media than Rice, even more feared in the lineup than Rice, and his career ended even more abruptly. His .569 SLG ranks him 19th all-time, ahead of Stan Musial, Ken Griffey,Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle. Say what you will about the steroids/small parks era, that’s an impressive group. For what it’s worth, Belle was also becoming a more selective, patient hitter when his hip started to degenerate, walking a career high 101 times in 1999, his last full season.

Anyway, it’d be nice to think people aren’t voting for him because his career lacked longevity, rather than because he wasn’t a very nice guy, but I’m not so na├»ve. It’s the baseball Hall of Fame, not the nice guy Hall of Fame. If Ty Cobb, a racist who overtly tried to hurt other players was a member of the Hall’s introductory class, then Belle, who was essentially just prone to the occasional roid rage here and there, meets the personality standard.

Dale Murphy – Murphy’s lack of support is more evidnce of players who finish their careers strong after slow starts getting more votes than players who start fast and do not age especially well. In the 1980’s, Murphy was a better player than Rice in the late 70’s and Belle in the mid-90’s. He didn’t hit for the power that Belle and Rice did, or for the average, but he was a much more patient hitter. The big difference, though, is the defense. Rice and Belle are among the two worst defensive players of all-time. Rice was sheltered by the wall in Fenway, but he was a born DH. Belle was even worse, combining a lack of range with a lack of caring. Murphy was a legitimate Gold Glover, winning five awards, and being regarded by many as the best defensive centerfielder of his day. He won two MVP awards, more than Rice and Belle combined. Unfortunately, Murphy really only had one quality season after age 30. Does the fact that he aged so badly make everyone forget that he may have been baseball’s best player from 1980 to 1985? It’s a shame that he couldn’t have held on enough to get two more homers, giving him an even 400 for his career, but looking back, he should feel fortunate he got as many chances at the end of his career as he did. Like Rice and Belle, the issue here is longevity.

Guys who are just missing the cut:

I’ve supported Alan Trammell and Andre Dawson before, but looking back, I think I have to reconsider. Dawson was one of my favorites growing up, a striking personality who played great defense and could hit the ball out of the park at any moment. He was a lot like Vlad Guerrero, in that he had a big, violent looking swing that could produce some ugly swings-and-misses, but when he hit the ball, watch out. Also, like Vlad, he was a brilliant bad-ball hitter. Few hit balls out of the strike zone like those two. And, it seems that knee problems are going to play a huge role in the rest of Vlad’s career, much the way they did for Dawson as he got older. The problem with Dawson is that he just made too many outs. That .323 OBP just doesn’t cut it, even for a guy who played defense as well as Andre.

As far as Trammell goes, I’ve already debated truly great for a short time against being very good for a very long time. Trammell was merely very good for an average amount of time. People remember him playing with the Tigers late into his 30’s, but in reality, he was a part timer for too long, only getting over 400 AB’s once after age 32. That would be fine if someone were a dominant player like Belle or Rice or Murphy, but Trammell never was. He was one of the better shortstops in the league, and a great guy, but not a Hall of Famer. One wonders if some of the sentiment for him comes from the fact that he played his entire career for the Tigers. I have no problem with a voter using loyalty like that as the extra nudge someone gets—we all love a player who is immediately identifiable with his team, the way Trammell, Ripken and Gwynn are. The Trammell/Whitaker double play combo was beloved by anyone who watched baseball in the 1980’s. That doesn’t earn a plaque in Cooperstown, though.

Also, I’d be wrong not to at least mention Eric Davis. He’s not a Hall of Famer, but he was a great example of everything that we love about baseball. Davis came up in the mid-80’s, one of the most talented of a generation that included Darryl Strawberry, Jose Canseco, Dwight Gooden, and other famous flamouts. Eric Davis should never be remembered as a bust. We talk about wanting players to leave everything they have on the field. That’s description fits Davis perfectly. Davis played so hard that he often wouldn’t be healthy enough to make his way onto the field. It seemed he came back from every injury there was, from knee problems, to groin problems, to the time he lacerated his kidney in the 1990 World Series, to his heroic comeback from colon cancer in 1999, Davis was everything that baseball should be about.