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.