As I stared at my Hall of Fame ballot last week, just before I sealed the envelope and headed for the post office, I was struck -- and saddened -- by this thought:
The Hall of Fame is broken.
Isn't it obvious?
Think about it. A man who won more Cy Youngs than any pitcher who ever lived -- Roger Clemens -- has no shot at being elected on Wednesday. None.
A guy who hit 609 home runs ( Sammy Sosa) might not even collect enough votes to stay on the ballot. Ditto for a once-proud member of the 3,000-Hit, 500-Homer Club ( Rafael Palmeiro).
Look, I get why that is. We all get it. But even if we understand the reasons the Hall of Fame finds itself in this mess, it's still a sad commentary on the sport these men played -- and on the beautiful museum that was built to celebrate it.
At least we know that, unlike last year, the writers who cast these votes will elect somebody this time around. Phew. Greg Maddux ought to be unanimous (but won't be, for no sane reason). Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas ought to be first-ballot locks.
Craig Biggio's time, after 3,060 hits, should finally come. It's possible that Jack Morris is about to become the third player ever elected in his 15th (and final) year on the ballot -- although I wouldn't bet my '91 World Series DVD on it.
But beyond Maddux, there's no reason to feel confident about the fate of any of those men. Just take one look at the list of luminaries who weren't elected last year. That will tell you all you need to know about how confused voters seem to be these days about what a Hall of Famer is supposed to look like.
I've been a Hall of Fame voter for 25 years now. For most of those years, I looked at that as a privilege, as an exhilarating and enlightening experience, as an opportunity to plunge into an energizing debate about where the greatest players of modern times fit into the fabric of baseball history.
Anybody out there still remember that debate? Yeah, I thought so. Good times.
Yes, once, Hall of Fame time really did involve an actual baseball conversation. Then it became a PED conversation. And now, it's just a flat-out train wreck.
I used to pride myself on my consistency as a voter. I didn't change my mind from year to year, or play favorites, or try to orchestrate who got in when. All I aspired to do was look at the names on the ballot and decide: Was this player a Hall of Famer or not?
And if I decided he was, I was going to vote for him every year -- because he either was or wasn't. Any other philosophy on how to vote felt like game-playing, or agenda-building. And that wasn't for me.
But now, we live in an age where -- in the eyes of Jay Jaffe, one of America's great Hall of Fame historians -- the number of qualified candidates on this ballot has swelled "beyond anything seen in the previous 25 years." Beyond 10 names. Beyond 15 names. To the point where some voters now have 20 players they'd like to vote for.
And how did we get to this point? Because we keep forgetting to elect most of those "qualified candidates" anymore. That's how. Only four electees in the past four years. Just seven in the past six years.
So now, because of the pointless rule that says we can vote for only 10 players, it's no longer possible for someone like me to vote the way I've always voted. Which meant that, from the start, I resigned myself to the fact that, no matter how I filled out this ballot, I was going to boil over in frustration at the look of it and the feel of it.
But I've always believed in being as honest, as open and as transparent about my ballot as I can be. So here's a look at the 10 players I voted for, how I got there and how frustrating a process this became. I don't expect you to agree with all of these choices. All I can pledge is that I spent many painful days and weeks contemplating what turned out to be an impossible challenge.
But then came all the first-year players with enough Hall of Fame credentials to merit a long, serious look -- especially Maddux, Glavine, Thomas, Mussina and Kent. So that got me, potentially, to 19 names for 10 spots. Nineteen.
You should know that I don't believe in dismissing any first-year candidate. But as I took my customary long look at players like Luis Gonzalez and Moises Alou, I actually started feeling sorry for them.
Alou had a .516 career slugging percentage and an .875 OPS (amazingly close to Willie McCovey's .515/.889). Gonzalez got 2,591 hits and finished a 19-year career with an .846 OPS (an almost exact match for Reggie Jackson's 2,584/.846). And those two men were going to be lucky to get five votes apiece on a ballot this overcrowded.
So how was I going to find a reason not to vote for as many as nine players who I thought were Hall of Famers? If you have a good answer to that question, let me know.
I tried ranking them -- by wins above replacement, by Jaffe's invaluable JAWS computations, by OPS-plus and ERA-plus, and by my own personal standards, which have long blended numbers with a small, but perfectly legal, dose of gut feelings. But when I looked over all of those top-10 lists, none of them felt right.
The WAR top 10 included Bonds, Clemens, Larry Walker and Palmeiro. The ERA-plus rankings placed Lee Smith above Glavine and Schilling. The OPS-plus top 10 included McGwire, Fred McGriff, Palmeiro and Sosa. So were those lists guiding me or confusing me further? Or maybe a little of both?
Other than Smith, every one of those players passed my Hall of Fame litmus test. And yes, that includes a bunch of players with assorted PED stains. If you'd like to know more about why I vote the way I vote on the PED crowd, here's last year's column.
(We interrupt this discussion for this brief message: Can we all please acknowledge that the Hall needs to be a history museum, not some sort of sacred cathedral? It's too late for those bells to chime in total purity. Way too late. Thank you for listening. Now back to our 2014 ballot programming.)
But the more I considered voting according to any top-10 list I could come up with, the more I felt that many of those votes were going to be "wasted," on players who couldn't possibly get elected.
So in the end, the ballot I cast was based on this premise: I evaluated all the first-year candidates the way I always have -- by asking the question: Was this player a Hall of Famer, or not? The answer, for me, was yes -- on Maddux, Glavine, Thomas, Mussina and Kent.
Then, with the five open slots I had left, I ranked my list based on electability, not WAR or any other number. Every one of my remaining votes went to a player whom I've voted for in the past, a player who had a realistic chance of being elected this year and a player who, as it turned out, got more than 50 percent of the votes cast last year.
It was an incredibly frustrating way to vote. It meant not voting for players like Curt Schilling and Edgar Martinez, who absolutely, positively had Hall of Fame careers. It meant leaving off the names of Bonds and Clemens, two of the most dominant players of modern times. It meant leaving myself open to way too many critics who have every right to say I didn't vote for the best players on the ballot.
But I resigned myself, in the end, to the reality that a broken system forced me into voting the way I did.
I pretty much know, from past elections, how this electorate is going to vote on Bonds, Clemens, Schilling, Martinez, McGwire, etc. They're stuck in limbo now. They'll still be stuck in the same quicksand next year. But I had no idea what these voters would make of Mussina or Kent. And this system forced me to factor that uncertainty into my thinking.
So once I decided they rose above my HOF threshold, I thought it was more important to make a statement about their Hall credentials than it was to rank them or compare them to the other names on my list. I also thought I had no choice but to do what I could to make sure they were around for consideration in future elections.
And that's how I came to fill out the ballot I lugged to the post office last week. It's tormented me ever since. But that was my thinking. Sorry if you disagree with it. I can't say I blame you, to be honest. But here's how I looked at the 10 players I voted for:
One of only two pitchers in history to win four Cy Youngs in a row. (Randy Johnson was the other.) … Seven appearances in the top three of Cy Young voting, and nine in the top five. … Seven finishes in the top two in his league in ERA. … Nine straight seasons in the top three in WHIP. … 18 Gold Gloves (most by any player at any position). … And then there's this: a 3.16 career ERA at a time when the average pitcher's ERA was 4.11. The only other pitcher in history with a differential that large and at least 5,000 innings pitched, according to Lee Sinins' Complete Baseball Encyclopedia, was some dude named Walter Johnson. I could go on, but you get the idea.
Did you know there has never been a year where two pitchers who were longtime teammates were elected to the Hall of Fame together? But if Glavine and Maddux don't rewrite that line of the Cooperstown history books, these voters must be even more confused than I ever suspected. Consider Glavine's credentials:
Two Cy Youngs and six top-three finishes. … A 1995 World Series MVP award, punctuated by an eight-inning, one-hit, no-run masterpiece in the deciding game of the only World Series his Braves teams ever won. … Five 20-win seasons (if you're into that), second only to Steve Carlton among left-handers in the past half-century. … And No. 6 all-time among left-handers in both WAR and JAWS. The only five ahead of him: Lefty Grove, Randy Johnson, Warren Spahn, Eddie Plank and Carlton. End of argument.
Is there really a serious chance that Thomas won't glide into Cooperstown in his first year on the ballot? Really? How? Why? Who cares how little impact he made with a glove on his hand. As Dave Schoenfield wrote the other day, he's one of the 20 greatest hitters of all time. Take a look:
Only player in history with seven straight seasons of 20 HR/.300 AVG./100 BB/100 RBIs. … First man since Mickey Mantle to lead the AL in OPS four times. … First player since Stan Musial, and the first AL hitter since Lou Gehrig, to run off seven straight seasons with a .300/.400/.500 slash line. … Back-to-back MVP awards. … And one of just three men in history to finish a career with 10,000 plate appearances and a slash line of .300/.400/.550. The other two: Musial and Babe Ruth. Yikes!
Mike Mussina never won a Cy Young Award. Had only one full season with an ERA under 3.00. Never led his league in ERA or strikeouts. Retired while he was still 30 wins away from 300. But if those are the kind of numbers you're using to conclude this man was not a Hall of Famer, you're not looking closely enough, because Mussina's 18 years of sustained, consistent excellence rank him alongside the best pitchers of his time:
Finished in the top six in the AL in ERA 10 times, despite spending his whole career pitching in hitters' parks in the AL East. … Was awesome in 21 postseason starts (3.42 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 4.4-to-1 K/BB ratio). … A .638 winning percentage that ranks sixth all-time among members of the 250-Win Club. … And the clincher is this: nine seasons with an adjusted ERA-plus of 130 or better (and at least 24 starts). The only pitchers since 1900 with more seasons like that: Clemens, Walter Johnson, Grove, Christy Mathewson and Greg Maddux. And the group tied with Mussina at nine consists of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. Feel free to read that last nugget again. It has "Hall of Fame" written all over it.
It's going to take 27 to 30 votes (i.e., 5 percent) for Jeff Kent to survive to see a second year on the ballot. In ordinary times, I wouldn't have spent 10 seconds worrying whether that would be an issue. But you never know in these times. I acknowledge that Kent is far from a slam-dunk Hall of Famer. But if you measure him against other second basemen, he has selling points I couldn't ignore. Such as:
Finished his career with the highest slugging percentage (.500) by any second baseman since (gulp) Rogers Hornsby. … Hit more home runs as a second baseman (357) than anyone in history. Yeah, anyone. … Had more extra-base hits as a second baseman (914) than any player in history. Yeah, anyone. … Was the only second baseman who ever reeled off nine straight seasons with 60 extra-base hits or six straight with 100 RBIs. … Won an MVP award while playing on a team (the 2000 Giants) with Barry Bonds on it, and finished in the top 10 four times. … And got rave reviews from former teammates, who used terms like "winner," "fierce" and "clean" to describe him. … In short, Kent was a player with a historically significant career at his position, who has been too easily dismissed by other voters.
No matter how this turns out, Morris is about to make history. He got 67.7 percent of the votes cast last year. No player has ever gotten that high a percentage and not gone on to get himself elected. But it sure looks as if Morris is about to become the first, because that other 32.3 percent just doesn't see it.
Over these past 14 years, I've made every argument for why I vote for this man that I could possibly make. If you're looking just at the numbers beneath his name, I don't expect you to agree with any of them. But I've voted for Morris for a decade and a half, because I see the other side of an argument so heated that many people don't even believe there is another side.
Is there any other explanation for why three different managers picked this guy to start three All-Star Games? Or why he started on Opening Day 14 years in a row (for three different teams)? Or why he always got the ball in Game 1, in all but one of the seven postseason series he participated in -- again, with three different teams?
And as Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci has meticulously documented, doesn't it mean something that Morris totally embraced the responsibilities of acehood in a way we haven't seen since, by taking the baseball and refusing to give it up?
And that wasn't just in one unforgettable World Series game in 1991. It was in start after start, for 18 seasons. These are Verducci's numbers, not mine -- but I refuse to ignore the fact that, from 1979 to 1992, Morris racked up 18 percent more innings than any other pitcher in his sport. And made it through the eighth inning 45 percent more often than any other pitcher in his sport.
So let me say this one last time: I understand why so many voters wouldn't ever vote for Jack Morris. But there were elements of greatness in him that, for me, aren't adequately reflected by his ERA, his WHIP or his ERA-plus. And I'm allowed to believe in those elements. I'm allowed to factor them into this decision. And, above all, I'm allowed to vote for him one final time -- especially after voting for him 14 years in a row.
More doubles (668) than any right-handed hitter who ever lived. No kidding. … The only player in the past 100 years who can say he had a 50-double, 50-steal season. No kidding. … One of just three players in history who got 3,000 hits and spent most of his career at second base -- and neither of the other two (Eddie Collins, Nap Lajoie) has shown up in a box score for more than 80 years. … Made a gigantic impact as a power/speed/leadoff force at three premium positions (catcher/second base/center field). Still hard to believe he didn't get elected last year. But this time for sure. Right?
Whatever reasons people are finding not to vote for this guy, they obviously have nothing to do with the amazing career he had. Bagwell is still the only first baseman in the 400-Homer, 200-Steal Club. (And nobody else since World War II is even in the 400-100 Club.) … He's one of two first basemen in history to run off 12 straight seasons with an OPS-plus of 130 or better. The other? How 'bout Lou Gehrig. … And have you noticed he won pretty much every award you can win, other than maybe a Grammy? Owns an MVP, rookie of the year, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger and Sporting News player of the year. So Jeff Bagwell, my friends, is one of the four greatest first basemen of the live ball era. But he's still tainted, apparently, by suspicions of something or other.
OK, so the man couldn't exactly control the running game like Yadier Molina. And he's smaller now than when he played. But even the morality police have a tough time dredging up any sort of concrete case for withholding a vote for a player of this magnitude.
I've said this a thousand times. I'll say it again. Playing this PED guessing game is a fruitless, hopeless, impossible task, in an era where hundreds of players were taking whatever, for all sorts of reasons -- and the sport never stopped them, or has done anything since to keep them off this ballot. So you know what the chances are that we can keep all those dastardly "cheaters" out of the Hall of Fame? Zero, friends. Zero. So a guessing-game voting boycott of Piazza, or anyone else, is the ultimate empty gesture.
I spent years describing Raines as "the most criminally unsupported Hall of Fame candidate alive." But the word must be getting out, because that isn't true anymore. Last year, while just about everyone else's vote totals were shrinking, Raines' votes actually went up (by 18). So he's finally ascended to 52.2 percent, after adding 175 votes in the past four elections. In other words, there's now hope for a man who was very possibly the greatest leadoff hitter of all time who wasn't named Rickey Henderson.
I never get tired of these two compelling little tidbits: (A) Raines reached base more times (3,977) than Tony Gwynn, Honus Wagner, Lou Brock, Roberto Clemente or Richie Ashburn. And (B) not one eligible player who reached base as many times as Raines did, and had as high an on-base percentage as he had (.385), is not in the Hall of Fame. So … sold yet?