2017 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot

I’m writing this on Christmas Day, with the Colorado wind rattling my windows. This is my penance. Granted, penance is an amorphous concept for an atheist. But lots of people — even as a lifelong journalist with much evidence to the contrary, I would say most people — are trying to do the right thing most of the time. The trick, as somebody famous once said, is figuring out what the right thing is.

This will be my last ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame. It has been a privilege to participate in this ritual for the last few years. I qualified in 2010, so it hasn’t been that long. I was term-limited anyway because I left my last job as a newspaper sportswriter in 2012, although I continued covering the Rockies for a radio station’s website for a few years after that. Much of that coverage ended up on this blog.

Under the Hall’s recent rule revision, I would have been done as a voter in 2021. So I don’t want to imply my departure has any great significance for anyone but me. But I do want to explain why I’m cutting out a few years early, no doubt with characteristic longwindedness, because when I first got the vote I thought it was about the coolest thing in the world. Much of this will be personal stuff that readers interested only in this year’s ballot will find boring or useless or self-indulgent or all three. So, please, if that’s you, just scroll to the bottom for the ballot. I am over the charm of internet snark, so don’t waste the effort.

I did not think having a Hall of Fame vote was cool because I share with many of my fellow voters a reverence for the museum in Cooperstown. I took the obligatory trip one summer with my son when he was young. I got to show him video of Luis Aparacio, which was cool. You can do that now on YouTube. I got the obligatory speeding ticket on our way there, which I gather is one of the revenue sources used to prop up local government in those parts. But my son and I agreed that watching actual big league ballgames in different cities was more fun than walking around a museum, even a cool one, so that’s what we did with our summertime trips thereafter.

Furthermore — and here I am in a small minority of humans, I think — our various attempts as a species to  achieve immortality have always seemed to me doomed and delusional. I think the most likely outcome is an abrupt end to our little science experiment, and even the great Greek philosophers will be lost, let alone the best outfielders measured by wins above replacement. Besides, why baseball and not medicine or rocket science or something? So it was never the Hall that I revered. But I did revere baseball itself, and still do.

My father grew up in Newark, N.J., where his parents took him to see the Newark Bears, the Yankees’ top farm club at the time. Most of the Yankee greats of that era passed through. My paternal grandmother was the first devoted baseball fan I knew. She told stories of the great DiMaggio. Until I was 8, we lived outside New York and my father would take me and my two brothers to the old Yankee Stadium. The summer before JFK was assassinated, we moved to Chicago, where, despite living on the south side, my father fell in love with Wrigley Field, home to daytime baseball and Ernie Banks. Many years later, long after my father died, I took my son to Wrigley on one of our summer ballpark trips from Denver, and we sat in about the same spot where my father and I sat. For a nomadic family like mine, there are not that many opportunities for this sort of continuity.

I sort of remember picking my first favorite team. When you get to be my age (62), most of your older memories are actually memories of memories — you remember how you have told the story over the years, not the event itself. The story I have told, which I can only hope is grounded in the actual event, is sitting in the back seat of my mother’s tan DeSoto — a tank with tires — with my older brother waiting for my mother to return from some store. He is leafing through a baseball magazine — Street & Smith’s, I presume, because that’s the only one I remember from those days. He has a favorite team and now I must pick one so we can root against each other. I look through the black-and-white pictures and I pick the Orioles because of the bird on the cap. Still my favorite baseball cap. Of course, when they had the full bird on the cap, they sucked. Then they went to the cartoon head of a bird and got really good. Then they followed the nostalgia movement and went back to the full bird and sucked again. Then they went back to the cartoon head and got good again. So.

When I was a kid, you could pick up WBAL after dark all over the eastern half of the country and I would listen to Chuck Thompson and Bill O’Donnell call the games. When the Orioles were on the west coast, I would fall asleep with a transistor radio at my ear. That sort of stuff. The 1966 World Series came just after my 12th birthday. It was the event that taught me miracles could happen. Many years later, when I was unemployed for a few months following the demise of the Rocky Mountain News and brief, unremarkable stints at two subsequent employers, I wrote a letter to Jim Palmer proposing a book for the 50th anniversary of the ’66 team. Never heard back. Palmer was eight days shy of his 21st birthday when he threw a four-hit, complete-game shutout at the Dodgers in Game 2 of the ’66 Series. Sandy Koufax was the losing pitcher. Wally Bunker was three months shy of his 22nd birthday when he followed up with a six-hit, complete-game shutout in Game 3. Those were miracles.

When big league baseball came to Colorado in 1993, I bought season tickets. I couldn’t really afford them, they weren’t very good seats and I didn’t use them most of the time, but that was how big an event it was to me. My son was 3 when I took him to the first Rockies home game. Eighty thousand people showed up at Mile High Stadium. Eric Young led off the bottom of the first — the first home at-bat by a big league player in Colorado — with a home run. The pennant proclaiming that he was there still hangs on the wall in my son’s room at my house.

Baseball and cars were the safe subjects I could talk about with my father. As I was growing up, there were also the options of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but we stuck pretty much to baseball and cars. I like to think my son and I have a broader menu than that, but there is something to be said for continuity.

So anyway. It felt like a privilege to be invited into an electorate charged with curating and cultivating a real-time celebration of a history that had come to mean so much to me. I was not your typical Hall voter. I had never covered baseball as a beat guy. I started my career in news, covering local politics and government, got hired by the Rocky as a City Hall reporter, then moved to sports and covered the NFL and NBA as a beat writer before getting a column and a baseball writer’s card in 2000. I got to work with Tracy Ringolsby and Jack Etkin, a couple of veteran baseball writers who were extremely kind to and tolerant of a newbie who came in writing opinions, as columnists do, knowing far less than they did about the immediate subject matter.

But I also had a distance that was helpful journalistically. As I learned in my own career, there is an ongoing tension in journalism between experience and sympathy. Let’s say you’re an editor. You’re hiring someone to cover a beat. You want someone aggressive, someone smart, someone who will be more than a stenographer; someone who will dig beneath the surface and the public relations and tell your readers what is really going on. You want someone fearless, and yet personable enough to develop the sources one needs to do such a job well. Over time, as that person becomes more experienced, she comes to understand better and better the reasons the people she covers do the things they do. Maybe they’re good reasons and maybe they’re not, but as she gets to know them she comes to understand why those reasons make sense to them and she endeavors to explain this to her readers, which inevitably sounds like justifying and rationalizing to a reader without any of the personal sympathy. So the debate among newsroom managers was always how long to leave someone on a particular beat. Some papers had institutional rotation programs; everybody switched assignments after a certain period of time. Some papers let beat people stay on their beats indefinitely, cultivating “experts” in the field, which became more and more useful as the era of sportswriters on television dawned.

So, yes, finally, I am coming around to this year’s Hall of Fame ballot. During my days as an NFL beat writer, Pete Rozelle was the commissioner. During my days as an NBA beat writer, David Stern was the commissioner. Everybody knew these guys were hired by and operated at the pleasure of the club owners, but they both managed to rise to a level higher than that. Each became the face of his sport. Their highest calling did not seem to be making their employers rich, although they certainly did. Their calling seemed to be guiding their sport through all the treacherous waters of modern-day American life, into which each of these sports will inevitably wade, employing young people from every social, economic, ethnic and racial segment of life, as they do.  These two did a pretty good job of it. Any close observer can point to individual mistakes, but they left their sports in better shape than they found them, and not just financially.

My immediate impression upon beginning coverage as a columnist of post-season baseball was that most of the baseball beat writers were apologists for Bud Selig. And I could see why. He was very good to them. He treated them the way politicians used to treat political writers — as part of an association, their common bond being knowledge and understanding of a complex subject most other people knew less about. As a journalist, you get used to being treated as an outsider most of the time, which is fine, because that’s what you are. But, contrary to common perception, journalists are people, too. They like to be liked; they like to be respected. Bud respected the writers and they protected him.

When you read the litany of Bud’s accomplishments as commissioner, they’re all about money. He made everybody rich. So, good for him. He was a car salesman, and a really good one. Everybody has known a great sales person. They’re ebullient, they’re infectious, they make you want to come along. Bud sold baseball.

By the time I started covering it, baseball’s steroid era was in full bloom. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa had just had their memorable home run battle of 1998, obliterating the previous record, held by Roger Maris for 37 years. Maris had exceeded by one home run the previous record, held by Babe Ruth for 34 years, and he had an extra eight games on the schedule in which to do it. That was what passed for controversy at the time. Bud gushed over the ’98 race. It was the greatest thing ever, mainly because baseball had been struggling to right itself after a labor dispute washed out the 1994 World Series. Good times were here again. Everybody was making money. Suspicions about the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs were nothing new. The NFL had instituted its first steroid ban 11 years earlier. Bud was having none of it. These were baseball’s glory days and anyone who said otherwise was a nattering nabob of negativity.

It was, as many have said, an institutional failure all the way around. Between Bud and Donald Fehr, the head of the players’ union, Fehr is perhaps the more reprehensible character because he’s smarter and there’s a greater likelihood he knew exactly what he was doing. Gene Upshaw had famously pioneered rules against steroid use in football as a union man because, as a former player, he thought he was protecting the health of his members. Still, Fehr was doing his job as he saw it, which was akin to being a defense attorney. Your guy may have done it, but it’s your job to argue convincingly that he didn’t because the process requires somebody to do that. You are purely a partisan; what is right, what is true, doesn’t necessarily matter because that’s somebody else’s job to figure out.

In baseball, of course, it was nobody’s job. Bud was doing his job as he saw it, too — to sell the game of baseball. There are only two ways to explain how he could have taken so long to arrive at his come-to-Jesus moment in which he morphed into a vengeful steroid hunter so late in the day: He was a liar, or he was an idiot.

Up until three weeks ago, I thought I understood where the Hall of Fame was on the steroid business. True, it had never said anything explicit. And, true, the public conversation, especially as it moved to the internet and social media, has consistently moved against trying to impose “moral judgments” on the Hall by penalizing candidates with steroid use on their resumes. But the Hall clearly made a decision to leave its statement of voting criteria the way it was:

Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

I knew it had left “integrity, sportsmanship, character” in there on purpose because the Hall has been on the case recently with respect to revising and updating its rules. It has reduced the period of a player’s consideration by the 400 or so voters from 15 years to 10. It has instituted a code of conduct for voters. It has revoked lifetime voting privileges. Over the years, these three words in the voting directive have been examined as if they were forensic evidence. And two of the game’s most accomplished stars, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, have been denied admittance to the Hall through their first few years on the ballot for no other reason. The Hall chose to make no change in rules that clearly had a part in that outcome.

So I thought the Hall management was reflecting the will of the players already enshrined, many of whom have expressed the view that they would be disappointed or angered or both if known steroid users were to be admitted. Some have even said they would not return for the annual induction ceremony. There will come a time when the powers that be figure out a solution. I think it was my former Rocky colleague Derrick Goold, now of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and finishing up a term as president of the Baseball Writers, who suggested including obvious transgressions on the player’s Hall plaque. That’s a good journalist’s solution — this is part of the story, too; you decide. On the other hand, historians may marvel at the fact that Lance Armstrong was thoroughly disgraced for cheating through chemistry in cycling, stripped of his titles, forced to surrender sponsorship money received in bad faith, a complete fall from grace, while baseball players who did the same thing suffered only a short delay in their deification.

Three weeks ago, the Hall’s latest iteration of a side-door committee — panels charged with reviewing players no longer eligible in the general voting as well as non-players associated with the game — elected Bud Selig not two years after his long-awaited and merciful retirement as commissioner. So that’s the Hall talking, too. Somehow, Bud isn’t stained with the era he enabled. Talk about a sales job.

I don’t know if these side-door committees are given the same voting rules as the writers, but if they are, you can justify shoving Bud in at the first available opportunity by resolving the previous question — liar or idiot — in favor of the latter. Over time, I’ve come to that position myself. “Useful idiot” is the phrase that comes to mind. Going back to those days in the late ‘90s and early aughts, it was a time when nobody in baseball wanted to know nuthin’. It reminds me a little of the college football coach who doesn’t want to know about the methods used in recruiting. Or, to get more sinister, higher-ups in the Catholic Church during the period before the pedophilia scandal finally broke. Willful ignorance is not the same thing as knowingly hiding damaging information, but it’s pretty close. Baseball was enjoying commercial success of a sort it had never known, and few people inside the game wanted it to stop. Everybody was getting paid. They looked only when they had to, when prosecutors and Congress and mostly non-baseball writers began to investigate what had become an open secret. The use of steroids without a prescription, after all, had been a federal crime since 1991. All this was against the law, if not baseball’s rules. It was only after Congress called Selig and Fehr in and berated them publicly that Bud converted. Like many converts, he became more sanctimonious than anybody about the things he had ignored for so long.

A lot has been written already about Bud’s election to the Hall. Some voters who had withheld votes for the obvious steroid guys switched as a result. If he’s going in then they should go in. That sounds rational to me, and yet I see an important distinction in the mechanism used to slip him in. Had Bud appeared on the main ballot, would he have been elected in his first year? Uh, no. Too many of the writers withholding votes from Bonds and Clemens would have withheld their votes from Bud, too. And rightfully so, in my opinion.

So the guy who made everybody rich gets a special dispensation. Shockaroo, there.

The two columns I’ve read on this with which I identified the most were by Wallace Matthews of New York Sports Day and Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Like them, I don’t look forward to Hall of Fame voting anymore, which is probably why I procrastinate this way. It also doesn’t make sense to me anymore. I now view the Hall as a hypocrite, so being one of its instruments now seems more like being a stooge.

Matthews gave up his vote immediately and Schultz made this his last ballot, only because he’d already sent it in when he made the decision.

I have a different reason for casting one last ballot: I have a dream where I don’t vote — I’ve got only six days left and have received two reminders from the Hall already — and Tim Raines fails to be elected by one vote in his last year of eligibility. It’s unlikely, sure, but in an electorate of roughly 400, it’s possible.  So the little kid in me casts one more ballot so as not to be haunted for the rest of my life by an event with an infinitesimal chance of occurring.

On the bright side, removing the fun from this also spares you last year’s unusually obsessive determination to write about every freaking player on the ballot, which might, frightfully, have turned into an obsessive-compulsive annual ritual. I’ve expressed my thoughts on pretty much everyone I’m voting for this year in previous ballot posts, other than the first-year guys, which anyone interested can probably deduce from the longwinded previous discussions.

Except for Gary Sheffield. I made Sheffield my 10th vote last year and took a fair amount of grief for hypocrisy myself. Here was a voter with “obvious cheaters” as a category refusing to vote for Bonds or Clemens or McGwire or Sosa, voting for a guy named in the Mitchell Report. I have two excuses for not explaining this at the time. One is it was late on a Sunday, late in last year’s Hall of Fame voting season (in fact, past the Hall of Fame voting season, although before the results were announced), and the post explaining my ballot was already absurdly long. The other is my brain had long ago decided what it thought about Sheffield and steroids, and the distinction between him and those “obvious cheaters” seemed so obvious to me, it went without saying. It became obvious to me shortly thereafter that I was completely wrong about this.

So let’s start with that mental blind spot because I’m doing it again. Throughout my career as a reporter and columnist, generally speaking, when people were ashamed of something they’d done, or, even if they weren’t ashamed, if they knew other people would think it was a bad thing, they found ways to avoid admitting it. Maybe by refusing to comment. Maybe by changing the subject. Maybe by resorting to a line of bullshit designed to filibuster until the time for questions had expired. The methods they used to avoid admitting what had in some cases been authoritatively documented were generally not that hard to spot. It’s basically nothing more than having a working bullshit detector.

This was mostly what we saw from the people I now label “obvious cheaters,” those who engaged in concerted, prolonged programs of ingesting performance-enhancing drugs. McGwire didn’t want to talk about the past. Sosa forgot how to speak English. Bonds thought it was flaxseed oil.

Sheffield is a different kind of cat. He is one of those people who has no apparent filter between his brain and his mouth. From pretty much the moment he showed up as a young big league player, Sheffield was a fountain of opinion and feeling. It got him in trouble, too, on a pretty regular basis, throughout an exceptional career. He talked about race. He talked about money. He talked about his resentment over these things, about what seemed his chronic feeling of being disrespected. Often, these comments were not particularly well thought out. But they were unfiltered Gary. He could have spared himself a lot of grief if he’d had a filter going, but he didn’t.

So when Sheffield talked to Sports Illustrated in 2004, a year before the congressional hearings where McGwire and Sosa would play dumb, when he appeared before the BALCO grand jury, when he wrote his own book, published in the spring of 2007, when he appeared on HBO’s Real Sports in the summer of 2007, before the Mitchell Report was issued the following December, he did pretty much the opposite of what McGwire and Sosa did before that congressional committee. And if you knew anything about Sheffield, if you’d followed his career, it didn’t surprise you at all. Gary Sheffield was not going to go with a no-comment, and he wasn’t going to change the subject.

So he told his story. He’d gone out to California during the height of the steroid era, the off-season after Bonds set the single-season home run record in 2001, to train with Bonds. I’d covered the NBA during the Michael Jordan era, so this was a familiar phenomenon. A young trainer named Tim Grover had pitched Jordan after the Bulls star was beaten up and beaten down by the Bad Boys of Detroit. Grover’s pitch was Jordan needed to get stronger. It began a famous 15-year relationship that made Jordan one of the strongest players in the game and a six-time champion. So other really good players who wanted to reach the highest level would go to Chicago to train with Jordan and Grover. They wanted what he had.

That’s what Sheffield did. The tale he told Andrea Kremer on Real Sports was told in exactly the same way Sheffield gave every other interview. The words came tumbling out of his mouth. He wanted to train with Bonds. Bonds told him his lab could provide vitamins uniquely suited to his body’s needs. They came in the form of a cream. Sheffield thought steroids were administered with a needle to the butt. After a little while, Sheffield grew resentful of Bonds’ controlling personality, got fed up and booked. BALCO, Bonds’ lab, followed up with a bill for the cream. Ultimately, Sheffield had his wife write a check. That’s why he’s called before the BALCO grand jury. That’s how he ends up in the Mitchell Report.

If Sheffield knows the cream contains steroids, which it does, maybe he figures out a slightly less incriminating way of paying for it than a check. If he wants to make himself look heroic, maybe he claims he booked because he discovered, to his shock, that Bonds was giving him steroids and he wanted no part of it. He did neither of these things. He told his tale the way he always did. He didn’t avoid questions, he didn’t deny anything except knowledge of what was in the cream.

I believed him. That was based on watching him earnestly express himself throughout his career. My bullshit detector didn’t go off. He didn’t hide from the press like Bonds. He didn’t clam up like McGwire. He didn’t pretend not to understand English like Sosa, although, granted, that would have been a harder route for a native of Tampa.

There is no allegation that I know of connecting Sheffield and PEDs other than his time with Bonds before the 2002 season. That season just happened to be his least productive between 1999 and 2005, so it doesn’t look to me like he got any competitive advantage out of it. Cheating requires willfulness. I didn’t see any.

Could I be wrong about all of this? Of course. We are in the murkiest area of the steroid debate, the area where those who want to let them all in have the strongest argument. I am making distinctions based on feelings and suppositions. The spectrum runs from those who have been the subject of rumor or innuendo to those whose deeds have been documented in books or courtrooms or both. So each voter is on his or her own to draw lines in this swamp in an attempt to abide by the Hall’s stated voting criteria. I have always argued that we never have perfect information in journalism; we do the best with what we have. But, admittedly, in this case, in the area closest to the line, wherever we draw it, we are doing little more than guessing.

Ivan Rodriguez, for example, on the ballot for the first time this year, is not named in the Mitchell Report. But he’s named by Jose Canseco as part of the steroid crew in Texas. For all the grief Canseco has taken as a clown, there’s a pattern to those guys he named: They all deny it and, one by one, those denials crumble. McGwire and Jason Giambi eventually admitted using steroids. When tests were finally implemented, Rafael Palmeiro tested positive. That leaves only Juan Gonzales and Rodriguez among the high-profile teammates Canseco named in his book, “Juiced.” Rodriguez has adroitly avoided the subject all these years, except once, when he was asked if he was among those who tested positive in major league baseball’s first, anonymous testing, as names began to leak in 2003. “Only God knows,” he said.

So my opinion, my guess really, is that Canseco was telling the truth about the deal in Texas, including Pudge. I don’t know that, but I suspect it, and Rodriguez has behaved in a way consistent with those who did steroids and didn’t want to admit it, so I’m not voting for him in his first year on the ballot, even though I probably would otherwise.

I get that a lot of people will find these distinctions untenable. And they are. Although I would note for the record that the religion that has grown up around the Mitchell Report is a little funny. Give Bud credit: When it finally came time to cover his ass, he got one of the most respected men in America to front for him. George Mitchell’s panel had no subpoena power and few people with a potential of legal jeopardy were willing to talk voluntarily, so he was basically going through the same thin public record as everybody else.

As Schultz wrote, Bud’s election gives a pretty good indication of what’s coming around the bend. Make it all about the numbers, that other stuff is too hard. And that’s fine. If the Hall had said that to start with we could have avoided all this, although it might have had an insurrection on its hands from existing members. During my years as a voter, I thought I was helping the Hall be whatever it wants to be, which felt like an honor. Now I think the Hall and Bud are pretty much alike, seeing exactly what they want to see.

My 2017 ballot had 11 names on it, which is one too many and happens surprisingly often to me, so I removed Curt Schilling just for being a dickhead. This isn’t a good reason; the Hall has no prohibition against dickheads and is already home to several, as has been well-documented in defense of the obvious cheaters. I probably wouldn’t have gone with that as a reason if this weren’t my last year, but hey, I’ve already admitted I’m making purely subjective judgments, and maybe Schilling will hesitate the next time he is moved to share the comedic appeal of lynching people. Then again, he’s Curt Schilling, so maybe not.

My 2017 ballot (ballot no. 238):

Jeff Bagwell

Vladimir Guerrero

Trevor Hoffman

Jeff Kent

Edgar Martinez

Mike Mussina

Tim Raines

Gary Sheffield

Billy Wagner

Larry Walker


2016 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot

It occurred to me as I was putting this together that I have never given appropriate  credit to the anonymous gnomes of the internet who take pleasure each year in making fun of the no-hopers on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. They inspired me to write at least something about every name — 32 this year — on the ballot. So they deserve credit for that.

In fact, it probably turns out I write more about those I’m not voting for than those I am. This is partly because there are more of them and partly because most of my votes are repeats and it’s boring making the same arguments over and over. So, for a block of seven candidates I’m voting for again, I’ll refer you to past posts for particulars, if you’re interested. What follows is a stream of consciousness about some of the people and issues that came up this year. As usual, if you’d prefer to skip the verbiage and just harvest the ballot, you can scroll to the bottom.

For the edification of the gnomes, the screening committee of baseball writers that sets the ballot each year errs purposefully on the side of inclusion, and here’s why:

Of nearly half a million high school baseball players in the U.S. each year, less than 6 percent wind up playing on a college team. Of those, about 10 percent will be drafted by a big league team. Of those, about 10 percent will actually make it to the majors. Of those, according to one voluminous study of 20th century players, about one in five position players will play 10 big league seasons, the minimum to be eligible for the Hall. So, roughly speaking, about 0.01 percent of high school players, or one in 10,000, will achieve eligibility for the Hall of Fame. Considering how many players now come from outside the U.S. feeder system, it’s probably fewer than that. For most of them, appearing on the ballot is the only recognition of this achievement they will receive.

Here are the players who accomplished that feat and were included on the 2016 ballot but have roughly the same percentage chance of being elected as they did as young players of becoming eligible. For our purposes, the cutoff is a deficit of 12 or more in Jay Jaffe’s JAWS metric (average of career wins above replacement and seven best WAR seasons) to the average score of existing Hall of Famers at the player’s position.

No-hopers

Garret Anderson

In Anderson’s rookie season with the Angels, 1995, he batted .321 with 16 home runs and 69 RBI in 400 plate appearances. He was edged out for rookie of the year by Marty Cordova, who would play nine seasons. Andy Pettitte finished third.

Anderson played 17 seasons, all but the last two for the Angels, who drafted him out of high school in 1990. He batted cleanup in all seven games of the 2002 World Series, driving in the winning runs in Game 7 with a third-inning, bases-loaded double off the Giants’ Livan Hernandez. He finished fourth in American League MVP voting that year (behind Miguel Tejada, Alex Rodriguez and Alfonso Soriano) and was a three-time All-Star. His career slash was .293/.324/.461 with 287 homers and 1,365 RBI.

His JAWS score of 24.2 ranks 86th all-time among left fielders and 29.1 points below the average score (53.3) of the 19 left fielders already in the Hall.

Brad Ausmus

Rarer even than Hall-of-Famers are Ivy League graduates active in the major leagues, which Ausmus was throughout his 18-year career after mixing terms at Dartmouth with seasons in the minor leagues and sacrificing his collegiate eligibility in the process. He was a terrific defensive catcher, winning three gold gloves and finishing 10th all-time in fielding percentage. He was an American League All-Star in 1999. His defensive wins above replacement (18.3) were more than double his offensive WAR (8.6).

His JAWS score (15.7) ranks 99th among catchers and 27.4 points below the average (43.1) of the 13 catchers in the Hall.

Luis Castillo

A three-time All-Star, three-time gold glove winner and two-time league stolen base leader, Castillo was the only player on the roster of both Marlins championship teams (1997, 2003) who did not get traded in between, although he did not appear in the ’97 World Series. He finished with a career slash of .290/.368/.351. His 370 stolen bases rank 93rd all-time. He was a key member of the ’03 champions.

His JAWS score (26.4) ranks 69th among second basemen and 30.5 points below the average (56.9) of 20 second basemen in the Hall.

David Eckstein

The 5-foot-6-inch “X factor” joined the Angels as a 26-year-old rookie in 2001, batting .285, stealing 29 bases and finishing fourth in rookie-of-the-year voting. He was a two-time All-Star and one of the few shortstops to win World Series in both leagues, with the Angels in 2002 and Cardinals in 2006. He was named most valuable player of the ’06 Series, batting .364 in the five-game victory over the Tigers.

His JAWS score (19.9) ranks 112th among shortstops and 34.8 points below the average (54.7) of the 21 shortstops in the Hall.

Troy Glaus

When baseball executives do the regression studies that demonstrate their tendency to overpay veteran free agents, Glaus is one of the cautionary tales. The year he turned 24, his third season with the Angels, he led the American league in home runs with 47 and made the first of his four All-Star games. Of his career WAR of 37.9, accumulated over 13 seasons, more than half, 20.4, came in seasons two through five, culminating in his World Series MVP in 2002, when he batted .385 with three home runs in the Angels’ seven-game victory over the Giants. His career slash was .254/.358/.489, with 320 homers and 950 RBI.

His JAWS score (35.3) ranks him 37th among third basemen and 19.7 below the average (55.0) of 13 third basemen in the Hall.

Mark Grudzielanek

A regional Skee ball champion in Texas at age 16, Grudzielanek was unofficially the most misspelled name on television graphics of his generation. Vin Scully turned it lyrical, pronouncing it Grass-a-lonic. An above-average defender on either side of second base, he accumulated offensive WAR of 23.4 and defensive WAR of 8.9 over a 15-season career with five teams. Grudzielanek made his only All-Star appearance in his second season, 1996, when he batted .306 and stole 33 bases for the Expos. He won his only gold glove in 2006, at the age of 36, for the Royals.

His JAWS score (23.4) ranks 76th among second basemen and 33.5 below the average (56.9) of the 20 second basemen in the Hall.

Mike Hampton

No one will ever know if Hampton’s career trajectory would have changed materially had he not succumbed to the Rockies’ seduction in 2001, signing an eight-year, $121 million contract to pitch half his games at Coors Field. After dominating the National League with his power sinker in 1999 for the Astros, going 22-4 and finishing second to Randy Johnson in Cy Young balloting, Hampton was traded, enjoyed a good year for the Mets (15-10, 3.14), and then became the centerpiece (with Denny Neagle) of Colorado’s attempt to prove it was not a pitcher’s graveyard.

On June 10, 2001, after the Rockies beat the Cardinals 12-3 at Coors Field, Hampton’s record was 9-2, his ERA 2.98. From there, the experiment unraveled in a hurry. By the end of the season, those numbers were 14-13, 5.41. The next season, his last there, they were 7-15, 6.15. He got back on track with a couple of solid seasons in Atlanta before injuries derailed his career. There is no way to know what if any contribution those two years at elevation made, but the tendency of Rockies pitchers to break down — physically, mentally or both — is what led to some of the club’s odder experiments later on.

Hampton called it quits after 16 years with a record of 148-115 and an ERA of 4.06.  Remove the two years in Colorado and those numbers are 127-87, 3.72. He was one of the best-hitting pitchers of his era, winning five silver slugger awards. He took full advantage of his time in Colorado in this respect, winning silver sluggers both years and putting up a career-best seven home runs in 2001. His career batting average was .246 with 16 home runs — 10 in his two years with the Rockies — and 79 RBI.

His JAWS score (27.3) ranks 301st all-time among starting pitchers and 33.5 points below the average (62.1) of 62 starting pitchers in the Hall.

Mike Lowell

On one level, there are few awards in baseball as prestigious as World Series MVP. If your definition of greatness includes rising to the occasion when it matters most, this is the award that attempts to capture that quality. Unfortunately, because it rewards performance in such a small window, the result often seems random. Lowell won it in 2007 when his nice, round .400 batting average made him the selection after Boston’s four-game sweep of the overmatched Rockies, a series in which an MVP wasn’t really required.

Overall, Lowell was a .252 postseason hitter for Florida and Boston and a .279 career hitter overall. His power numbers were OK — 223 career homers, 952 RBI, 108 OPS+ — but not extraordinary. The same could be said of his defense at third base. He became a fan favorite in Boston, but his career didn’t last long enough to take advantage of the WAR career adding machine. He was a four-time All-Star whose best year was ’07, when he batted .324 with 21 homers and 120 RBI, finishing fifth in regular-season MVP voting.

His JAWS score (24.1) ranks 84th among third basemen and 30.9 points below the average (55.0) of 13 third basemen in the Hall.

Mike Sweeney

A three-time player of the year for the Royals, Sweeney was a natural hitter who batted over .300 five times and barely missed it as a career average (.297). He started as a catcher, where he struggled defensively, moved to first base, and ultimately to designated hitter. In the five seasons from 1999 through 2003, he accumulated 18.6 wins above replacement, more than three-quarters of his career total. He appeared in the postseason only once, getting a single at-bat for the Phillies in 2010 at age 36. He singled.

His JAWS score (23.2) ranks 102nd among first basemen and 31.0 points below the average (54.2) of the 19 first basemen in the Hall.

Randy Winn

An impressive athlete who could hit from both sides of the plate, run and play defense, Winn was drafted in the third round by Florida in 1995. While he had a nice 13-year career, playing for five teams, he never quite lived up to the athletic promise. He was named to just one All-Star Game, in 2002, for Tampa Bay. Statistically, he was roughly average, both offensively and defensively, with a career OPS+ of 99. His career slash was .284/.343/.416.

His JAWS score (26.1) ranks 95th among center fielders and 31.1 points below the average (57.2) of the 18 center fielders in the Hall.

***

These exclusions pare the original ballot from 32 to 22 names. Here they are, listed in order of their JAWS rankings relative to the average of players at their positions already in the Hall:

  • Barry Bonds +64.3
  • Roger Clemens +41.2
  • Ken Griffey Jr. +11.6
  • Jeff Bagwell +9.7
  • Mike Piazza +8.1
  • Alan Trammell +2.8
  • Curt Schilling +2.4
  • Tim Raines +2.3
  • Mike Mussina +1.7
  • Edgar Martinez +1.0
  • Larry Walker +0.5
  • Mark McGwire -2.3
  • Jim Edmonds -5.8
  • Sammy Sosa -7.1
  • Jason Kendall -7.2
  • Gary Sheffield -9.0
  • Lee Smith -9.0
  • Fred McGriff -10.1
  • Trevor Hoffman -10.4
  • Billy Wagner -10.4
  • Nomar Garciaparra -11.1
  • Jeff Kent -11.5

***

Obvious cheaters

This category remains controversial, and will, no doubt, for the foreseeable future. I explained my rationale at some length two years ago and you should refer to that post if you want a more verbose explanation than I provide here. With something like 100 honorary voters coming off the rolls as a result of this year’s change in voting qualifications, it will be interesting to see the effect on the percentages these players receive. I would expect them to rise on the assumption that the older voters bumped from the rolls were more likely to penalize them for using performance-enhancing drugs than the younger voters who now make up a larger proportion of the total.

The willingness to shrug off obvious cheating with the usual rationales — everybody was doing it; who knows who was doing it; modern chemistry is a part of sports, like it or not — still baffles me. Some of it comes from veteran baseball writers protective of former commissioner Bud Selig, who botched the steroid era quite spectacularly but treated beat writers well and was rewarded with their loyalty. Minimizing the cheating minimizes his mistake. Some of it comes from a moral relativism that derives from a devotion to sabermetrics — the numbers are really all that matter; the numbers would have been good enough without the cheating. And some of it comes from a related dependence on quantifiable certitude — the view that if we can’t know with certainty who did and who didn’t, we shouldn’t attempt to make any distinctions at all. As a lifelong journalist and the son of a historian, this seems to me either hopelessly naive or purposefully impossible. We are always doing the best we can with the knowledge we have. That’s life.

For those attached to one or more of these rationalizations, or to another rationale entirely, I urge a viewing of the 2014 documentary Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story, currently playing on Showtime. Is there any good reason Armstrong should be vilified and lose everything in his sport while baseball players who did exactly the same thing stand for election to be glorified and immortalized in theirs, other than the fact that baseball, like cycling, was asleep at the switch at the time but, unlike cycling, had no outside entity like the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to clean up afterward?

One recent development is also worth mentioning in light of claims that the “morals clause” in Hall of Fame voting represents the antiquated remains of a bygone era and should properly be excised if anybody ever gets around to modernizing the rules. The Hall of Fame has quite noticeably taken charge of this process over the past couple of years. It has taken the voting logistics from the Baseball Writers Association of America and given them to an accounting firm. It has reduced the time a player may remain on the ballot. It has reduced the time a voter may continue participating after he or she stops covering the game. Amid all these reforms, it has not changed this language in our instructions at all:

Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

The Hall knows what this means in 2016 and it has elected to leave it in. If you have heard players already in the Hall talk about this, you know why.

My imperfect standard remains the same. Where there is evidence of cheating I find convincing, I’m not voting for the guy. Where there is mainly suspicion and rumor, I am, if he’s qualified. On that basis, I disqualify these players from consideration this year, as I have in the past:

Barry Bonds

Roger Clemens

Mark McGwire

Sammy Sosa

***

This leaves me with 18:

  • Ken Griffey Jr. +11.6
  • Jeff Bagwell +9.7
  • Mike Piazza +8.1
  • Alan Trammell +2.8
  • Curt Schilling +2.4
  • Tim Raines +2.3
  • Mike Mussina +1.7
  • Edgar Martinez +1.0
  • Larry Walker +0.5
  • Jim Edmonds -5.8
  • Jason Kendall -7.2
  • Gary Sheffield -9.0
  • Lee Smith -9.0
  • Fred McGriff -10.1
  • Trevor Hoffman -10.4
  • Billy Wagner -10.4
  • Nomar Garciaparra -11.1
  • Jeff Kent -11.5

***

To this point, the process has been reasonably straightforward. I rely on Jaffe’s quantitative sorting metric unless and until I disagree based on my own qualitative judgment — the “eye test.”

Now it gets less straightforward. I like Jaffe’s formulation that players added to the Hall of Fame should be at least as good as those already there — the impulse not to dilute the quality of the place. Still, the effort to compare performances across many generations, during which the game has changed so much, is approximate at best. For example, in 1970 the Veterans Committee elected a Cardinals pitcher from the 1920s and ’30s by the name of Jesse Haines. He won 20 three times, 210 overall, career ERA of 3.64. His JAWS score (27.3) is exactly the same as Mike Hampton’s.

So when these quantitative assessments reach the relatively small differences among our 18 remaining candidates, the decisions get more subjective.

Unfortunately, both qualitative and quantitative measures struggle mightily in the same area  — the specialist, baseball’s closer. It is an issue this year because three of our 18 — Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner — are closers.

For most of baseball history, relief pitchers were the guys who weren’t good enough to be starters. By definition, they were not good enough to be in the Hall of Fame. That is still true of most relief pitchers — all but the ones designated to finish games. Of 310 elected members of the Hall, only five were elected as relief pitchers.

Based on Jaffe’s attempt to quantify this judgment, two of the five — Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers — don’t belong. Their JAWS scores are well below those of the other three — Dennis Eckersley, Hoyt Wilhelm and Goose Gossage. In fact, the Relief Pitchers JAWS Leaders page over at baseballreference.com is a mess. It makes Greg Swindell and Turk Farrell two of the top 12 relievers of all time, ahead of Smith, Sutter, Wagner, Hoffman, Dan Quisenberry and so on.

Why? Well, because they were once starters and earned a bunch of WAR in that role, then hauled them over to the relievers’ page. The best reliever never to have started a major league game, according to Jaffe’s model, is Sutter, who ranks 17th. So if the closer has a value anywhere near what the modern general manager is willing to pay for one, JAWS has yet to illuminate it.

What would be the key metrics? Being old school, or maybe just old, I start with earned-run average. If the idea is to hold a lead, you want to give up as few runs as possible.

  • Billy Wagner: 2.31
  • Hoyt Wilhelm: 2.52
  • Bruce Sutter: 2.83
  • Trevor Hoffman: 2.87
  • Rollie Fingers: 2.90
  • Goose Gossage: 3.01
  • Lee Smith: 3.03
  • Dennis Eckersely: 3.50

Or maybe ERA+, which adjusts for ballparks and makes the league average 100:

  • Billy Wagner: 187
  • Hoyt Wilhelm: 147
  • Trevor Hoffman: 141
  • Bruce Sutter: 136
  • Lee Smith: 132
  • Goose Gossage: 126
  • Rollie Fingers: 120
  • Dennis Eckersley: 116

How about saves? There is something arbitrary about this volume number, depending as it does on the quality of your team — how often it is ahead late — and, in days of yore, before it became automatic, your manager’s inclination to bring you into such situations.

  • Trevor Hoffman: 601
  • Lee Smith: 478
  • Billy Wagner: 422
  • Dennis Eckersley: 390
  • Rollie Fingers: 341
  • Goose Gossage: 310
  • Bruce Sutter: 300
  • Hoyt Wilhelm: 228

The more modern the player, the more likely that player is to pile up saves because the degree of specialization has increased over time. One would expect to find an inverse correlation between saves and innings pitched per appearance. Eckersley spent half his career as a starter; older relievers pitched more innings per appearance. Moe Drabowsky famously replaced Dave McNally in the third inning of Game 1 of the 1966 World Series and pitched the rest of the game. What, exactly, is the value of the modern specialist who comes in only at the very end, to pitch one-ninth or less of a game, usually when his team is ahead?

The sabermetricians appear to have decided that a team leading late will go on to win so much of the time randomly that even elite closers deserve credit for only a handful, or fewer, of their saves each year. I discussed this at some length last year with respect to John Smoltz, whose career WAR suffered noticeably — and made him a sub-par HOF candidate as a starting pitcher, according to JAWS — because of his years as an elite closer. The fact the Braves chose to use him in that role during those years demonstrates that they estimated the value of the position quite differently from the way the WAR numbers do. To make matters worse, the average JAWS score of the five relievers already in the Hall — which becomes the standard for aspiring candidates — is inflated by Eckersley’s WAR numbers, the majority of which — 45.6 of 62.5 — he earned as a starter.

Over the course of his 18-year career, Hoffman accumulated a total of 28 wins above replacement, according to baseballreference.com, or an average of 1.6 per season. Simple subtraction tells us that according to this metric, which Jaffe uses to determine Hall of Fame worthiness, an average replacement relief pitcher would have piled up 573 saves in the circumstances in which Hoffman accumulated 601. Assuming this average replacement player had Hoffman’s durability, he would finish his career with the second-most saves in history, same as Hoffman.

Does anybody believe this? If so, why do the people entrusted with running big league teams pay closers what they pay them these days?

So WAR and JAWS don’t help much, if at all, when it comes to relievers, except possibly as a relative measurement among them, since it might be wrong about all of them in the same ways.

For example, JAWS gives Hoffman and Wagner exactly the same score (24.0). Hoffman has a slightly better career WAR; Wagner a slightly better prime WAR. They even out. So, when Hoffman partisans start quoting his stats, they often insert a minimum requirement of 1,000 innings pitched. That leaves him first in baserunners allowed (1.058 WHIP), an impressive marker. As it happens, Wagner’s number is better (0.998), which might explain why Hoffman partisans put in the innings minimum. Were it not for the round number, the difference between Hoffman’s 1,089 innings and Wagner’s 903 wouldn’t matter much. After all, Smith pitched 1,289, and that hasn’t helped him in 13 years on the ballot.

Complicating all this is the general consensus that Mariano Rivera will be elected to the Hall as soon as he becomes eligible. So there is a certain level of dominance that bypasses the positional problem. Even JAWS approves of Rivera, although he still trails Eckersley. There are Hoffman partisans who believe he should hold the same trump card Rivera holds. But unlike Rivera, Hoffman never got a chance to shine on the big stage. He made only one World Series appearance, giving up two earned runs in two innings. His career postseason ERA is 3.46.

In a way, closers in baseball are like kickers in football. They play a crucial role at certain critical moments, but for the vast majority of the time, they watch from the sidelines or the bullpen, as the case may be. The small cohort of voters for the Pro Football Hall of Fame has similar difficulty comparing them favorably to the guys on the field most of the time. Only three have made it — George Blanda, Lou Groza and Jan Stenerud — and two of those played other positions as well.

Not to bring Ray Guy into the conversation, but I’m punting. The traffic jam of worthy candidates allows me to take more time to think about this and wait for the ballot to open up enough that devoting a spot to a specialist doesn’t require taking one from a deserving everyday player. I’ve got 11 non-relievers I’d like to vote for this year, and when I ask myself whether I would take one of the closers over one of them if I were building a team, the answer is no.

Which gets me down to 15:

  • Ken Griffey Jr. +11.6
  • Jeff Bagwell +9.7
  • Mike Piazza +8.1
  • Alan Trammell +2.8
  • Curt Schilling +2.4
  • Tim Raines +2.3
  • Mike Mussina +1.7
  • Edgar Martinez +1.0
  • Larry Walker +0.5
  • Jim Edmonds -5.8
  • Jason Kendall -7.2
  • Gary Sheffield -9.0
  • Fred McGriff -10.1
  • Nomar Garciaparra -11.1
  • Jeff Kent -11.5

***

Ken Griffey Jr.

Let’s get the easy one out of the way. Early on, Junior’s long, picturesque swing from the left side earned him “The Natural” nickname, in memory of the Bernard Malamud character. Steeped in baseball as a kid in the clubhouse of the Big Red Machine — his father played right field — he was ready to roll almost from the moment the Mariners made him the first overall pick of the 1987 draft at age 17.

Two years later, he was a big league starter. Three years later, at 20, he was an All-Star, the first of 11 consecutive selections and 13 overall. He received MVP votes after 10 seasons, winning the award in 1997, when he led the American League with 56 homers, 147 RBI, 125 runs scored, 393 total bases, 23 intentional walks and a slugging percentage of .646.

He won nine gold gloves along the way, all of them before age 30. The vast majority of his career WAR also came in his 20s. His JAWS score (68.8) makes him the only center fielder not (yet) in the Hall of Fame with a better score than the average of the 18 center fielders already there. He trails only Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Mickey Mantle. He leads Joe DiMaggio and Duke Snider.

***

Here is the group of seven candidates I voted for last year that I am voting for again, and for the same reasons. Check last year’s post to explain my votes for Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, Alan Trammell, Curt Schilling, Tim Raines, Mike Mussina and Larry Walker. You will find a particularly long-winded rant on behalf of Walker, which I am likely to repeat at some point before his eligibility (not to mention mine) expires, because quantitative analysis suggests his modest HOF vote totals are the result of irrational prejudice.

I refer you to the same post to explain my vote this year for Edgar Martinez. I wanted to vote for him last year, as I wrote at the time, but he was No. 11 on my list. Luckily, three of the guys I voted for won, so a spot opened up. I would only mention here a mesmerizing career OPS of .933 and OPS+ of 147. The man could hit.

***

A word or two about Trammell, on the ballot for the last time this year, and Raines, who gets one more shot after this one if he needs it.

On the JAWS list at shortstop, Trammell sits just ahead of Derek Jeter, who will be elected in his first year of eligibility and serenaded to Cooperstown by the New York Philharmonic, and Barry Larkin, who was elected in 2012 with 86.4 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, Trammell is about to fall off the ballot after 15 years, never having achieved 40 percent of the vote.

About the only logical explanation is that voters don’t put much value on defense at arguably the most important defensive position, which doesn’t say much for voters. Trammell has the best defensive WAR of the three, but his offensive numbers were also excellent for a middle infielder. Put them together and they surpass the work of his more popular fellow shortstops, according to the quants, but it doesn’t matter. His partner in that long-lived Tigers double-play combination, Lou Whitaker, received even less respect from the national voters. Who knows, maybe Trammell is paying for the unfortunate accident of playing shortstop in the American League in the era of Cal Ripken.

Whatever the explanation, it’s hard to reconcile an educated voting body giving such disparate treatment to players whose skills and achievements were so comparable.

Raines was caught by the Hall’s reduction in player eligibility from 15 to 10 years. Now in his ninth year on the ballot, he suddenly has one more instead of the six he would have had under the old rules. At the rate he was building support, it could matter. Starting at 24.3 percent of the vote in 2008, he rose to 55.0 percent last year. Here’s hoping logic and urgency turbocharge his push to 75.

Quantitatively, he should be a shoo-in. JAWS makes him the eighth-best left fielder of all time, ahead of Manny Ramirez, Billy Williams, Willie Stargell and many others. His 55.6 JAWS score is 2.3 points better than the average of 19 left fielders already in the Hall.

His 808 stolen bases are fifth all time and the four above him — Rickey Henderson, Lou Brock, Billy Hamilton and Ty Cobb — are in the Hall already. His success rate when he took off — 85 percent — was higher than any of the four above him on the volume list. He was an OBP guy before OBP was cool in front offices, putting up a career .385, contributing to an .810 OPS for a player who never hit 20 homers in a season. If Trammell suffered by comparison to Ripken, perhaps Raines suffered by comparison to Henderson. Advanced metrics make it clear both of these guys belong.

***

Having settled on Griffey, Martinez and the seven unsuccessful candidates I voted for last year, I had one vote remaining and two more candidates I wanted to vote for. Because the JAWS numbers relative to their positions are similar for the remaining six, I began with the eye test.

Nomar Garciaparra sure looked like a Hall of Famer through his 20s, but injuries sabotaged the remainder of his career so thoroughly that the volume offensive numbers he seemed certain to produce never materialized. His rookie-of-the-year award and seven top-13 MVP finishes show how good he was when young and healthy, but except for one year his 30s were a wasteland and never allowed WAR’s longevity bias to work for him. Troy Tulowitzki’s career WAR should pass Nomar’s next year, and Tulo is not exactly an ironman either.

Jim Edmonds did not strike me as a Hall of Famer while I was watching him play. He was a very good player, and his numbers reflect it. Maybe I’m spoiled. I did see Mays and Mantle live as a kid. So Griffey qualifies and Edmonds doesn’t. Good batting averages, but not great. Good power numbers, but not great. Terrific fielder; eight gold gloves.

His similarity scores on baseballreference.com go to guys like Lance Berkman and Ellis  Burks, Dale Murphy and Fred Lynn. He never started an All-Star Game while playing for the Angels because Griffey or Kenny Lofton always did. In the National League, he alternated with guys like Berkman and Andruw Jones. He ended up with four All-Star appearances, which seems a bit low for a player with his numbers and suggests how many other outfielders were putting up numbers like that, too.

Jason Kendall was a nice hitter, particularly early in his career, when he batted .300 or better in four of his first five seasons. He did it twice in his remaining 10. He was an All-Star in three of his first five seasons, and then never again. He never won a gold glove. During his years with the Pirates they were going to Charles Johnson, Ausmus and Mike Matheny, and Mike Lieberthal one year.

He had unusual speed for a catcher, but he never had much power, which is pretty much a requirement for a catcher who wants to be in the Hall of Fame. Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Ivan Rodriguez, Carlton Fisk, Mike Piazza, Yogi Berra — the top six JAWS scores at the position — each had more than 300 career homers. Kendall had 75. Early in his career, his similarity scores go to Mickey Cochrane, who had the fewest homers (119) of catchers above the JAWS average for Hall of Famers at the position. By the end, his closest comparable was Dick Bartell, a journeyman infielder of the 1930s and ’40s.

Like Edmonds, Fred McGriff put up big numbers for much of his career and yet did not consistently rise above his contemporaries. From 1988-90, he received MVP votes every year as a member of the Blue Jays, but the first basemen making the American League All-Star team were guys like Mark McGwire, George Brett, Don Mattingly and Cecil Fielder.

He was traded to the Padres following the 1990 season (with Tony Fernandez, for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter) and found himself in an All-Star mix with Will Clark, John Kruk, Gregg Jefferies and the emerging Bagwell. Three years later, he was traded again, this time for Melvin Nieves and Donnie Elliott. He continued to crank out the home runs, but after Atlanta he was a journeyman, going from the Rays to the Cubs to the Dodgers back to the Rays. He had five All-Star appearances in 19 seasons.

McGriff is a close call. His offensive numbers are very good, and so are his comparables (David Ortiz, Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell, Paul Konerko). But there are guys above him on the JAWS list at first base who have gotten less consideration. He did not dominate the competition at his position in either league. I thought of him as a very good player, but not a great one.

I want to vote for Jeff Kent. To my mind, JAWS underestimates the value of his power and production from a defensive position that so seldom provides them at anything like his level. His 377 career homers rank first all-time among second basemen, ahead of Rogers Hornsby, Craig Biggio, Joe Morgan and all the rest. His 1,518 RBI rank third, behind Hornsby and Nap Lajoie, who played in a different era and considerably longer. Granted, Kent played in an offensive era, but his numbers were still impressive, especially in 2000, the year he won the National League MVP award by batting .334 with 33 homers and 125 RBI. You know how many second basemen have won that award in the last 50 years? Three: Morgan, Ryne Sandberg and Kent.

Like McGriff, he was a five-time All-Star. Unlike McGriff, he was often beaten out by a Hall-of-Famer in Biggio. In 1997 and ’98, he was in the top 10 of National League MVP voting and Biggio was the All-Star. The closest McGriff came to an MVP award was a fourth-place finish in 1993.

My final vote came down to a battle between Kent and Gary Sheffield. Knowing Sheffield would not make my final cut in last year’s traffic jam, I eliminated him early. But I kept thinking about it afterward because as a fan who was usually rooting against the teams he played for, he scared the hell out of me — that menacing bat-wave, the explosive pop when he crushed the ball. It flew off his bat like a missile. The relentless danger he posed at the plate reminded me a little of an old favorite, Eddie Murray, a Hall of Famer often overshadowed by a more celebrated teammate and yet a fearsome competitor and consistent producer. Our brains make the connections they make, so, just for grins, I put their numbers side by side.

The main difference is durability. Murray played 3,026 games in 21 seasons; Sheffield, 2,576 in 22. Still, in 15 percent fewer games, Sheffield managed, like Murray, to exceed 500 home runs, and slightly exceed Murray’s All-Star appearances (nine to eight). When it comes to overall offensive production adjusted for ballparks, Sheffield’s career OPS+ was 140, compared to Murray’s 129. Playing different positions, both ended up with negative defensive WARs, although Sheffield’s was worse. Still, as with Kent, watching the guy play it seemed obvious that his defensive deficiencies were a small price to pay for that bat.

Both passed my eye test. By a whisker, I gave my final vote to Sheffield.

So here’s my 2016 ballot:

  • Jeff Bagwell
  • Ken Griffey Jr.
  • Edgar Martinez
  • Mike Mussina
  • Mike Piazza
  • Tim Raines
  • Curt Schilling
  • Gary Sheffield
  • Alan Trammell
  • Larry Walker

Happy new year.

 


New Baseball Hall of Fame voting rules, Part deux

Scan

A year ago, the Baseball Hall of Fame instituted changes to its voting rules, the most important of which reduced an eligible player’s time on the ballot from 15 to 10 years. The Hall also moved to take control of the voting process from the Baseball Writers Association of America after Dan Le Betard of the Miami Herald gave his vote away to an internet site (Deadspin.com) to protest the Hall’s exclusion of known steroid users. Administration of the voting process was moved from the BBWAA to the accounting firm Ernst & Young, and voters were required to sign a code of conduct promising, among other things, not to give their votes away to ineligible voters.

This year, the Hall has instituted another change, which it disclosed to voters in the August letter reproduced above. This change addresses complaints about the lifetime voting rights granted those who were active members of the BBWAA for 10 years or more. Critics of this practice have argued it is principally these old fogies, out of touch with modern baseball and overly moralistic about the use of performance-enhancing drugs, who have kept stars of the steroid era such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens out of the Hall.

In response, the Hall has established a 10-year term limit on veteran members of the BBWAA once their membership ceases to be “active.” Being an “active” member of the BBWAA is somewhat arbitrary — when I moved from the Denver Post to KOA radio in 2012, I ceased to be an “active” member, even though I covered the Rockies with about the same frequency I had covered them as a columnist for the Post. But the hybrid roles of the modern media — I wrote about the Rockies and baseball on this blog while at KOA — did not exist when the rules restricting eligibility to accredited newspapers were instituted.

What this means in practice is that, barring yet another quirky change in my quirky career path, my last year as a Hall of Fame voter will be 2020, for the Hall of Fame class of 2021. It’s a wonderful privilege which I feel extremely fortunate to have had. I wrote something like 9,000 words (here and here) explaining my votes last year. Oddly, now that I no longer cover the Rockies, I see a wider array of teams with more frequency than I used to, thanks to DirecTV.

Nevertheless, I support this change in the rules. The lifetime voting privilege has produced an arrogance in some voters that prompted the criticism that prompted the change. The process is still not transparent enough. I’d like to see all ballots made public so that voters can be held accountable for their votes. If you send in a blank ballot, thereby making it more difficult for all candidates to achieve the necessary 75 percent threshold, you should have to explain why you think no eligible candidate is deserving. As of now, making a ballot public is at the voter’s discretion, so those who take the process seriously tend to do it and those with their own agendas tend not to.

In any case, the new procedures require each voter who is no longer an active member of the BBWAA to be re-certified each year as an eligible voter. The only way to be certified if your active membership ended more than 10 years ago is to demonstrate that you covered “the game in a meaningful way in the previous year.” In my current incarnation as editorial page editor of the Boulder (Colorado) Daily Camera, I no longer cover the game in either a meaningful or meaningless way. I did manage to get Jacob deGrom into an editorial on a recent Republican presidential debate, but, alas, that probably doesn’t qualify.

So, if my math is correct, assuming I continue to be re-certified on an annual basis, I will be able to vote for another six years, having last been an active member of the BBWAA as a columnist for the Denver Post in 2011. I am enormously grateful to the Hall and to the BBWAA for this privilege and I will continue to make my votes public and explain them here for as long as I am able. Ballots for the class of 2016 will be sent out in the next week or two and must be returned (by snail mail!) no later than Dec. 21. Here’s a look at this year’s eligible players, courtesy of Baseball Reference.


2015 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, Part 2

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When I left you hanging in the manner of the Hardy Boys at the end of Part 1, you had suffered through a 4,000-word post just to eliminate the flotsam from this year’s Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. I had crossed out 19 of the 34 names, which still left 15 to share the 10 votes I’m allowed. So I’ve provided the shortcut above for those who just want the bottom line and aren’t up for another 5,000 words. If that’s you, there you go, and see you around. For the rest of you, masochists that you are, here we go.

The 15 names that remained after Part 1:

Starting pitcher: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling.

Hybrid pitcher: John Smoltz.

Relief pitcher: Tom Gordon, Lee Smith.

Catcher: Mike Piazza.

First base: Jeff Bagwell.

Second base: Craig Biggio, Jeff Kent.

Shortstop: Alan Trammell.

Third base: Edgar Martinez. (Right. I know. But that’s how they do it.)

Left fielder: Tim Raines.

Center fielder: None.

Right fielder: Larry Walker.

I began, as I did in Part 1, with Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system to get a feel for what the quants would say. The 15 candidates are listed in order, from best to worst, based on their premium or deficit to the average JAWS score of players at their position already enshrined in the Hall of Fame. As a reminder, JAWS is the average of a player’s career wins above replacement and that player’s “peak” WAR — the total of his best seven seasons.  The theory, and I stress the word theory, is the perfect blend of longevity and awesomeness. Presumably, if you believed the JAWS method delivered on this theory, you would vote for the first 10 names on this list and be done with it, especially because the first 10, conveniently, are above the average of the players at their position already in the Hall, and the next five are below. The idea behind JAWS is to prevent dilution of the quality of players in the Hall by inducting only players equal or superior to the existing residents.

  1. Randy Johnson (+20.2)
  2. Jeff Bagwell (+9.7)
  3. Pedro Martinez (+9.3)
  4. Mike Piazza (+8.1)
  5. Alan Trammell (+2.8)
  6. Curt Schilling (+2.7)
  7. Tim Raines (+2.3)
  8. Mike Mussina (+2.0)
  9. Edgar Martinez (+1.0)
  10. Larry Walker (+0.5)
  11. Craig Biggio (-3.6)
  12. Tom Gordon (-5.1)
  13. John Smoltz (-7.6)
  14. Lee Smith (-9.0)
  15. Jeff Kent (-11.6)

In Part 1, I wrote a bit about the difference between quantitative and qualitative analysis. In this case, I am using JAWS to represent quantitative analysis and my own subjective “eye test” — did the dude look like a Hall of Famer to me — to represent the qualitative. (If you want to know why Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, whose JAWS scores are off the charts, are not on this list, you need to go back and read Part 1, where they are listed under the category “Obvious cheaters,” and this will refer you back to my post on last year’s ballot, where I described at length my thought process on the PED issue as it relates to the Hall of Fame.)

Appraising the quantitatively-derived list with my subjective, qualitative eye, several anomalies jump out.

Anomaly No. 1: Craig Biggio.

Considered by most observers a lock for the Hall since the day he retired, Biggio, according to JAWS, was an inferior player to the average second baseman now in the Hall. He was the top vote-getter in his first year on the ballot, 2013, the year nobody was inducted, receiving 68.2 percent of the vote.  Last year, leapfrogged by first-timers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas, he received 427 votes from the 571 voters, or 74.8 percent. Had he received two more votes, he would have joined Maddux, Glavine and Thomas in the class of 2014.

Significantly, Biggio’s JAWS score is inferior to that of Lou Whitaker, the under-appreciated longtime Tigers second baseman who failed to receive the minimum 5 percent required to stay on the ballot in his sole appearance in 2001. That, of course, is a crime against nature and baseball, as is the continuing under-appreciation of his teammate and double-play partner, Alan Trammell, on the ballot this year for the 14th time. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

How is it possible that Whitaker, the second-best second baseman in history not to be inducted (Bobby Grich is the first) according to JAWS, would get 2.9 percent of the vote on his first try and Biggio, his inferior by quantitative analysis, would get 68.2? Well, as the old lady in the church says at the end of The Birdcage when asked to identify the mother of the groom, whose parents are Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, “I just don’t know.”

Prone as I am to stirring up trouble, and knowing the howls of outrage this would trigger among veteran members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, I might hypothesize that race had something to do with it — Whitaker is black, Biggio is white — and order up a quantitative analysis of voting on comparable players by race, and a parallel analysis of the racial makeup of the voting population. I don’t know what such a study might find on the first question, although I would note that Tony Gwynn and Frank Thomas sailed in a lot faster than some white comparables, and Jim Rice got in with a JAWS score lower than Minnie Minoso, Lance Berkman and Jose Cruz. On the second, my guess is the racial makeup of the voting population looks something like the racial makeup of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, which is why the hypothesis must be considered.

Another hypothesis would be that the absence of a significant sabermetric influence in 2001 revealed an embarrassing blind spot in qualitative analysis. Whitaker’s offensive numbers in the traditional, non-sabermetric categories — .276/.363/.426, 244 homers, 1,084 RBI — while above average for a second baseman, were nowhere near the numbers generally required of hitters who played the corner positions or the outfield. And while he was known as a smooth fielder, few voters were probably aware this would translate into 15.4 defensive WAR.

Given what’s happened to Trammell, who has been treated slightly better but has earned nowhere near the level of support the quantitative analysis would suggest, maybe it’s some strange prejudice against Detroit.

In any case, this is one of the more remarkable divergences between quantitative and qualitative analysis in the history of the Hall, and I admit to being totally on the quants’ side on this one. Whitaker was a wonderful player who belongs in the Hall and with any luck will be installed by some iteration of the veterans committee. But it is not his absence that is outrageous; it is the failure of the BBWAA to consider him even worthy of consideration.

Let’s return for a moment to our discussion in Part 1 of the bias of WAR for longevity. The career stat, as I mentioned, is basically an adding machine. A vastly complicated series of calculations and adjustments reduces everything to a single number per season — let’s say these inscrutable calculations produce four wins above your average replacement player for our guy in a particular season. And let’s say his number is somewhere around there for much of his career. His total WAR will be largely a function of how many years he plays.

JAWS attempts to mitigate the longevity bias by averaging the career WAR total with the seven-year peak WAR total, but the poor standing of Sandy Koufax in the JAWS rankings demonstrates that peak WAR’s mitigation of the longevity bias is insufficient. So let’s try something else. Let’s eliminate longevity as a factor altogether and see what happens. It’s easy enough to do. Take a player’s career WAR total and divide it by the number of years he played, yielding his average single-season WAR. And let’s establish a minimum 10 seasons, since that’s required for consideration for the Hall.

Here are the top 20 second basemen in history based on JAWS, the number in parentheses representing the average of that player’s career WAR and peak WAR:

  1. Rogers Hornsby (100.2)
  2. Eddie Collins (94.1)
  3. Nap Lajoie (83.8)
  4. Joe Morgan (79.7)
  5. Charlie Gehringer (65.6)
  6. Rod Carew (65.4)
  7. Bobby Grich (58.6)
  8. Frankie Frisch (57.4)
  9. Ryne Sandberg (57.2)
  10. Jackie Robinson (56.8)
  11. Lou Whitaker (56.4)
  12. Chase Utley (55.3)
  13. Roberto Alomar (54.8)
  14. Craig Biggio (53.4)
  15. Joe Gordon (51.4)
  16. Willie Randolph (50.8)
  17. Robinson Cano (49.4)
  18. Jeff Kent (45.4)
  19. Billy Herman (45.1)
  20. Bobby Doerr (43.8)

Now let’s see how that list changes if we order the players by annual WAR average:

  1. Jackie Robinson (6.2)
  2. Rogers Hornsby (5.5)
  3. Joe Gordon (5.2)
  4. Robinson Cano (5.2)
  5. Chase Utley (5.1)
  6. Nap Lajoie (5.1)
  7. Eddie Collins (5.0)
  8. Dustin Pedroia (4.8)
  9. Joe Morgan (4.6)
  10. Rod Carew (4.3)
  11. Charlie Gehringer (4.2)
  12. Ryne Sandberg (4.2)
  13. Bobby Grich (4.2)
  14. Lou Whitaker (3.9)
  15. Roberto Alomar (3.9)
  16. Frankie Frisch (3.7)
  17. Bobby Doerr (3.7)
  18. Billy Herman (3.6)
  19. Willie Randolph (3.6)
  20. Tony Lazzeri (3.6)
  21. Craig Biggio (3.3)
  22. Jeff Kent (3.2)

This list is quite different. In effect, we have gone from asking “Who was responsible for the most career wins,” a volume stat, to “Who was responsible for the most wins per year,” a pure performance stat.

Suddenly, all the best second basemen in history didn’t play 100 years ago. Why is that? Well, the guys who played 100 years ago played longer and benefited more from WAR’s longevity bias. Hornsby played 23 seasons; Collins, 25; Lajoie, 21. The principal reason Morgan gets up there with these golden oldies is that he played 22. By failing to adequately mitigate this bias, JAWS reinforces  it.

You will note that Biggio and Kent both benefit from the longevity bias. Their per-year averages drop them from 14th to 20th and 18th to 21st, respectively. Whitaker is a better player than both by both measures.

A key factor here is defense, where both Biggio and Kent are rated below average. That’s a pretty important fact to know about a second baseman. Whitaker’s career defensive WAR, as mentioned, is 15.4. Kent’s is -0.7, Biggio’s -3.9.

The result of this analysis is that I changed my mind about both Biggio and Kent. I voted for Biggio in each of his first two years on the ballot. I wanted to vote for Kent last year, his first, but, like this year, ran into the problem of more worthy candidates than votes, so I didn’t. This year, I won’t be voting for either, which reduces my list of candidates to 13.

That doesn’t mean I won’t go back to voting for them at some point in the future when the ballot backlog clears. This year, having more worthy candidates than votes, I don’t have to reach the ultimate question of whether they belong. I only have to reach the conclusion that there are 10 candidates more deserving of my votes.

Anomaly No. 2: John Smoltz.

With a 7.6 deficit to the average JAWS score of starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame, Smoltz would be eliminated from consideration fairly quickly if you accept this result. So I go back to my litmus test for this tool as it applies to starting pitchers. Koufax has a deficit of 14.3 to the average JAWS score of starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame. This fact by itself is enough to marginalize JAWS for me in the examination of pitchers.

Koufax suffers, of course, from the longevity bias in both WAR and JAWS. He pitched only 12 seasons, and half of those were unremarkable. Kevin Appier, who pitched 16, is 13 places ahead of Koufax in the JAWS rankings. If I had been Jaffe while he was developing this system, I would have looked at this result alone and seen that I was failing to adequately mitigate WAR’s longevity bias. But quantitatively-oriented minds may simply see Koufax as an outlier who cannot be accounted for by any formula.

Even when you eliminate longevity as a factor, the result in Koufax’s case is puzzling. He has a career WAR of 49, which gives him an average for each of his 12 seasons of 4.1. Forget all the categories in the WAR formula, forget all the math, and just ask yourself: If you put Joe Blow average pitcher out there every fourth day in Koufax’s place, he’d win four fewer games over the course of a season? Really?

Well, yes, because Koufax doesn’t begin to assemble WAR of any kind until his career is half over. We forget that he was a quite forgettable young hurler in the late 1950s. Koufax’s peak, among the most brilliant in the history of the game, was only six years long. He was an all-star in all six after never having been one before. He won three Cy Young awards and finished third for a fourth. He received MVP votes after all six campaigns, winning it once and finishing second twice.

Now get this: Koufax loses 4.2 career WAR — or the equivalent of a full season — because he was a lousy hitter. Seriously. But even eliminating that silliness, he accumulated 88 percent of his career WAR over the final six seasons of a 12-year stay in the big leagues. If you calculate his average annual WAR over those six seasons, it’s 7.8, which is more like it, although I’m still not sure the formula is adequately valuing him. In 1963, when he wins both the Cy Young award and the MVP, he’s 25-5 with an ERA of 1.88. His WAR that year is 10.7. So if the Dodgers had sent Joe Blow average pitcher out there in his place that year, Joe Blow wins 14 games? Really? Jim O’Toole and Bob Friend tied for ninth winningest pitcher in the National League that year with 17. Fourteen wins is a pretty good year for Joe Blow.

Anyway, when you take the skepticism for JAWS you have learned from the Koufax case and apply it to Smoltz, you see quite quickly why the formula values him so much lower than it values his former teammates, Maddux and Glavine. Smoltz had a five-year stretch right in the middle of his career in which he started only five games. He missed all of the 2000 season following Tommy John surgery and returned in 2001 as a reliever, although he got all five of his starts between 2000 and 2004 that year. In 2002, he saved a league-leading 55 games and finished third in Cy Young voting and eighth in MVP voting. His WAR that year was 1.2. So presumably Joe Blow saves 54 of those games.

I tell you one thing I’m learning here: I’m grabbing Joe Blow in the Rule 5 draft at the first opportunity.

Because of his unusual double as one of the best starters and one of the best closers of his time, Smoltz really has only one comparable, and that’s Dennis Eckersley. Eck spent about half his career in each role. He was a pretty good starter, getting double-figure wins 10 times and winning 20 once, but not as good as Smoltz. He was a better closer by volume because he did it so much longer, but it’s hard to beat what Smoltz did in those three seasons on a qualitative basis. Eck, who is in the Hall as a closer, trails Smoltz in career WAR, 66.5-62.5. Smoltz is the only player in baseball history to amass at least 200 wins (213) and 150 saves (154). Eckersley fell three wins short of 200. I have not done exhaustive research on this, but so far as I can tell, Smoltz is the only player in history to have led his league in both wins (twice) and saves (once).

For the 11 seasons before his injury, Smoltz averaged 3.95 WAR per year, including 7.3 in 1996, when he won the Cy Young award and went 24-8. So presumably Joe Blow wins 17 that year; I totally want to sign this guy. Smoltz’s annual WAR as one of the best closers around are 1.2, 3.3 and 2.2. If you bump these up to the average he’d established prior to that, he jumps up the JAWS rankings to the Bob Feller, Roy Halladay neighborhood, and now he’s a serious candidate even by JAWS standards, although he still has a deficit to the average JAWS score of pitching Hall-of-Famers. When he returned to starting at the age of 38, he put up consecutive annual WARs of 4.9, 5.9 and 4.6. If you give him that annual average during his three years as a closer — 5.1 — he improves his standing further. At some point, you get lost in this hypothetical math, so I’m going to stop.

Bottom line: In my opinion, WAR and JAWS are inadequate to account for an anomaly like Smoltz. To my subjective eye, he was every bit Glavine’s equal, if not quite Maddux’s, and held his own very nicely in that select company for many years. He was a wonderful starter, a wonderful reliever and a superb postseason competitor (15-4, 2.67). I’m voting for him.

Anomaly No. 3: Larry Walker.

I admit I bring a clear bias to this part of the conversation, but I contend that my bias is largely a reaction to the bias of most baseball writers and analysts not located in the Rocky Mountains — meaning all but about a dozen of them — against performances put up at Coors Field. Everybody knows it is the park that produces the biggest offensive numbers most of the time, therefore those numbers have to be discounted.

Which is where all these advanced metrics come in, right? They do that. They adjust for ballparks. So that should take care of it. According to JAWS, Walker is the 10th best right fielder in baseball history. The nine ahead of him are all in the Hall of Fame. Three of the four immediately behind him are in the Hall. If he were inducted tomorrow, his JAWS score would be slightly above the average of his new peer group. And yet, he’s getting barely cursory consideration from Hall voters. Last year, he finished 19th of 36 candidates. One in 10 voters checked him off.

I’ll be honest: I don’t know how to compensate for the effects of Coors Field. I’m not that into the mathematics of baseball. So I accept the ballpark adjustments the sabermetricians make. I don’t know exactly what they are, but this is what they do, right? They take the above-average offensive output at Coors and they multiply performances there by some factor to normalize them. I assume this is what they do.

So once Walker’s traditional stats have been put through these various wringers to produce his WAR and JAWS numbers, why don’t they count? Why don’t most of the voters take him as seriously as his JAWS score suggests they should?

Having spent quite a bit of time in press boxes during my days as an active BBWAA member, I would say this is because of a sort of sneering, smirking prejudice against Coors Field and Colorado and anything done here — yes, I’m writing from elevation, and no, I can’t seem to throw a breaking ball — on the part of most baseball writers. A lot of them honestly don’t think, even after 22 years, that Denver is a suitable place for big league baseball. The game is too weird here, not real, not legit.

If you cheer for the Rockies, you may feel the same way. Based on that 22-year data set, there are statistical anomalies here that are really discouraging with respect to the home team’s chances of sustained success. Pitchers blow out here, both physically and mentally. No good pitcher in his right mind wants to pitch half his games here. The few pitchers who experience success here can’t sustain it. No pitcher has won 100 games in a Rockies uniform. No pitcher has won 80. So elevation is a big issue in terms of the team’s ability to compete.

But if the math can adjust for the outsized numbers put up here, why should a player of Walker’s quality be penalized for playing much of his career in a place the snobs of baseball don’t take seriously? Here’s something the discounters don’t pay enough attention to know: Rockies hitters traditionally struggle when they head out on the road after a homestand because they have to readjust to the sharper bite of breaking balls and sinkers again. So while it is true that their offensive output at home is exaggerated by the Coors Field effect, their offensive output on the road is also depressed by it; hence the dramatic home/road splits that critics attribute entirely to the magnification at home. The road numbers are the “real” numbers, they say. They consistently fail to acknowledge the established phenomenon of the destructive effect each and every time hitters return to sea level. Back in the day, Dante Bichette brought a “curve ball machine” on the road with him in an attempt to reacclimate. An inventor in Greeley, Colorado has proposed a pressurized batting cage in which the Rocks could work against pitching in normal (read: sea level) atmospheric conditions in preparation for each road trip. There is no adjustment for this phenomenon in the advanced metrics that I know of. Walker’s numbers at Dodger Stadium would be adjusted for the park in the same way as everybody else’s, even if he’s coming from a mile-high elevation and experiencing a phenomenon that only his teammates face.

Walker got MVP votes after eight seasons, winning the award in 1997. He batted .384 at Coors that year, but he also batted .346 on the road. He hit 29 of his 49 homers on the road. In “late and close” situations, baseball’s measurement for clutch, he hit .352. Heck, he batted .322 in 1994 playing his home games in Montreal’s ghastly Olympic Stadium. He was a marvelous outfielder with a terrific arm and one of the best baserunners of his generation. He played an all-out style that produced various injuries that hurt his volume numbers, but he still overcomes the longevity bias of both WAR and JAWS. He and Harry Heilmann played the fewest seasons (17) of anyone in JAWS’s top 10 right fielders. His JAWS score is better than that of Hall-of-Famers Paul Waner, Sam Crawford, Tony Gwynn, Dave Winfield and a bunch of old-timers you may not have heard of. Gwynn, you may recall, was elected to the Hall on his first try, with 97.6 percent of the vote.

According to the eye test, Walker was an obvious Hall-of-Famer when healthy, a five-tool player who simply played the game at a higher level than everybody else. But there was always that sneaking suspicion about the enhancing effect of Coors Field on his numbers, that those three batting championships, that incredible run of six seasons — .366, .363, .379, .309, .350, .338 — was some sort of mirage. I voted for him his first two years on the ballot based on my subjective view of his talent, but I left him off my ballot last year when there were so many deserving candidates.

I’m grateful for the sabermetrics here because I didn’t know how to adjust for the Coors Field factor and they do, or at least they think they do. The quantitative analysis says Walker was one of the best right fielders ever to play the game. And here’s the important point: The quant analysis says he is the best right fielder in history who is not in the Hall of Fame.

The privilege of watching him every day produced the same conclusion from the eye test. In this case, it seems to me, the quantitative analysis finds a great player and the qualitative analysis of most writers is buried in prejudice and ignorance about Colorado and Coors Field. With my subjective view reinforced by the quants, I will not only vote for Walker this year, I will reserve one of my votes for him for as long as he is on the ballot and I have the privilege of voting.

These are the most interesting and/or difficult issues I wrestled with this year. According to JAWS, neither Tom Gordon nor Lee Smith meets the standard of an average Hall of Fame relief pitcher, and subjectively, I agree. As we’ve seen in Smoltz’s case, advanced metrics have difficulty valuing closers. It’s ridiculous, in my opinion, to suggest that a top closer means only one or two wins a year over an average closer, but I sympathize with the difficulty of the task. It’s such a specialty, it’s a little like a kicker in football, and those guys don’t generally make the Hall of Fame, either.

Eliminating Biggio, Kent, Gordon and Smith gets me down to 11, and there I’m stuck. I would vote for all remaining 11 if I could. And who knows, if I had more votes I might vote for Biggio, Kent and Gary Sheffield, too. As I mentioned earlier, I never reached that point because I knew I didn’t have enough votes.

Because of the logjam when Maddux, Glavine and Thomas hit the ballot last year, I didn’t vote for either Curt Schilling or Mike Mussina, having voted for Schilling the year before. But after studying their numbers, both advanced and basic, my subjective view that they are qualified was confirmed, Schilling, frankly, more so than Mussina because of the unbelievable postseason record. But, in examining my eye test on these guys, I had to admit to a personal bias against Mussina because he left the Orioles as a mercenary and signed with the Yankees. I hate players who do that within a division because it makes the smaller market team look like part of a feeder system to the bigger market team and undermines the illusion of competitive balance.

Mussina went for the money and the improved chances of a championship on a team willing to field the best players money could buy. Do you believe in karma? The Yankees won a championship the year before he arrived, in 2000, and the year after he retired, in 2009. But not during the eight years he was there. As Mel Allen used to say, how ’bout that. Still, he gave the O’s 10 good years and they had losing records his last three seasons there. I still don’t forgive him for the treachery of signing with the Yankees. He could have gone anywhere else without seeming to throw over his girlfriend to go date the richest girl in school. I still haven’t forgiven Reggie Jackson, either, and he spent only one season with the Birds, biding his time until free agency. If anyone was ever meant to play in New York, it was Jackson, but I still have the SI cover with him in an Orioles uniform. He looked good. But I digress. I will vote for Mussina and his 270 wins and 3.68 ERA and JAWS score slightly above average for Hall of Fame pitchers.

Schilling, of course, was obtained by the Orioles in a great trade — from the Red Sox, who drafted him, along with Brady Anderson, for Mike Boddicker — and then shipped out in one of the worst trades of all time — with Steve Finley and Pete Harnisch, for Glenn Davis. This is not relevant to the discussion in any way; just thought I’d mention it. Davis played 185 games over the next three seasons and retired. Schilling, Finley and Harnisch all went on to have long, productive careers. JAWS says Schilling is better than the average pitcher now in the Hall, and I know he was better in the postseason, when he went 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA. In the World Series, he was 4-1, 2.06.

Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez are no-brainers I won’t dwell on. Johnson is one of 24 pitchers in history to win at least 300 games (303). He led the league in strikeouts nine times, won five Cy Young awards and finished second for three more. He had records like 18-2 in 1995 and 20-4 in 1997 for the Mariners, 21-6 in 2001 and 24-5 in 2002 for the Diamondbacks. At 6-10, the Big Unit and his unwinding windup were unique.

Martinez won three Cy Young awards, finished second for two more and won five ERA titles with these numbers: 1.90 (Montreal, 1997), 2.07 (Boston, 1999), 1.74 (Boston, 2000), 2.26 (Boston, 2002) and 2.22 (Boston, 2003). That year in between titles in Boston? He sagged to 2.39. From 1997 to 2000, there was nobody better, not even Johnson.

I’m voting for Piazza and Bagwell on the same basis I voted for them last year — their numbers obviously qualify them and I don’t have enough evidence of cheating, despite the rumors that followed them, to disqualify them on that basis. Piazza is the fifth-best catcher in history, according to JAWS, better than Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey and Mickey Cochrane. The only catchers who score better are Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Ivan Rodriguez and Carlton Fisk. Bagwell is the sixth-best first baseman of all time, JAWS says, better than Frank Thomas, elected on his first try last year, Eddie Murray and Willie McCovey, Hall-of-Famers all.

I’m voting for Raines and Trammell, as I have consistently, in declining hope that advanced metrics will make more voters wake up to how good these guys were. The persistent and determined undervaluation of Trammell and Whitaker remains a mystery to me. Maybe it’s a Detroit thing. Been a while since Al Kaline and Sparky Anderson. Trammell has a better JAWS score than Derek Freaking Jeter, who will be serenaded into the Hall on a bed of rose petals at the first opportunity. Trammell was not as good an offensive player, although a lifetime average of .285 with 185 homers ain’t too shabby for a shortstop, but he was a much better defensive player at arguably the most difficult defensive position in the game. Trammell’s career defensive WAR is +22. Jeter’s is -9.7.

Raines’s JAWS score justifies his election, too. He’s the eighth-best left fielder in history, according to JAWS, and the only ones above him not in the Hall are Bonds and Pete Rose. He was also the best base-stealer I ever saw. He finished fifth all time with 808, but the amazing part was his percentage. He was successful 85.7 percent of the time. Only Carlos Beltran, who tried less than half as often, has a better rate. As with Trammell, I am encouraged that advanced metrics bolster Raines’s case, but doubtful that my colleagues in the BBWAA will see the light in time. The new rule allowing candidates to remain on the ballot only 10 years instead of 15 will hurt Raines more than anyone else. He has three years left instead of eight, in the midst of the current wave of superstars becoming eligible. Trammell was grandfathered into the 15-year stay, but has only two of them remaining. The both deserve inclusion, as the advanced metrics confirm, but they will have to rely on the kindness of the veterans committee.

So that leaves Edgar Martinez as the odd man out. I wish I could vote for him. I voted for him last year. He was a lifetime .312 hitter, a two-time batting champion, one of those guys who was born to hit a baseball. Unfortunately, there is also a major weakness to his game, which is defense. He was a sub-par defender when he played third for the Mariners and then he played no defense at all in 68 percent of his games, which is not an insult but a fact. He became a designated hitter. That didn’t keep me from voting for him last year, and it won’t in the future when the logjam clears, but it’s the distinguishing factor among worthies that takes him off my ballot this year.

In the end, even with the criticisms I’ve expressed about JAWS, I end up with only one change from the JAWS top 10 of this year’s class of eligibles after my exclusions for obvious cheating. I remove Edgar Martinez and add John Smoltz.

My 2015 ballot:

1B Jeff Bagwell

P   Randy Johnson

P   Pedro Martinez

P   Mike Mussina

C   Mike Piazza

LF Tim Raines

P   Curt Schilling

P   John Smoltz

SS Alan Trammell

RF Larry Walker

Happy new year.


2015 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, Part 1

This makes two years in a row, consecutively, that the U.S. Postal Service has delivered my Baseball Hall of Fame ballot to the correct box and not inserted it into a 300-page holiday catalog. That’s a good sign for 2015 and appropriate celebratory measures were taken.

Any year now I’m confident the Hall will transition to electronic voting, but this is baseball, so one step at a time. This year’s innovation: For the first time, they will confirm receipt of ballots.

Before the ballot arrived, I knew I would want to vote for more candidates than the maximum of 10 the Hall permits. My first scan of the ballot, with no benefit of statistical analysis or divine wisdom, produced 14 players that would get my vote. So this year’s consideration was less about the usual issue — Hall worthiness — and more about distinguishing among worthies to cull the list to 10.

Cutting is something newspaper people know about, and we don’t like it. It simplifies, it misleads, it sometimes make you look like an idiot. So I decided to protect myself. For the first time, I used sabermetrician Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system (the humble acronym for Jaffe WAR Score) as my initial screen to get down to the difficult qualitative choices.

In previous years, I looked at lots of numbers to confirm or dispute my impressions, but mostly I relied on the eye test, my totally subjective judgment of whether a player looked like a Hall of Famer. This year, it turned out there wasn’t that much difference between the two, and there were areas of agreement that I found encouraging, not so much for the reliability of my vision as for the chances of certain players I’ve been supporting to no avail up until now.

This happy coincidence is not always the case. For example, when I did my JAWS work last year, I found Jack Morris down so low among the starting pitchers I had to add memory to my laptop to find him. His deficit to the JAWS average of starting pitchers already in the Hall of Fame was massive. So I looked at some of the names above his and asked myself if I would rather have them start a big game. Guys like Mel Stottlemyre, Bartolo Colon, Camilo Pascual, Brad Radke, Jamie Moyer, Carlos Zambrano, Jimmy Key, and so on. The answer in all those cases was no.

The calculation of wins above replacement (WAR), whichever version you subscribe to, is too complex to permit easy diagnostics of the anomalies, but in Morris’s case, I imagined earned-run average was a major culprit. He ranks No. 394 at 3.90, putting him between Joe Nuxhall and Ben McDonald.

On the other hand, if you sort the list by wins, he bounds up to No. 44 all-time with 256. His neighbors here are Red Faber and Carl Hubbell, Hall of Famers both. Now, wins have become a deeply unfashionable stat for pitchers, owing to the many extraneous factors that affect them, but this is also slightly ironic because wins are what WAR allegedly measures.

Anyway, I’m not trying to re-litigate the Morris matter. His eligibility expired last year after he received 351 votes out of 571 ballots cast, or 61.5 percent. I think he has a pretty good shot to make it eventually through some iteration of the veterans committee because he was a horse and a hell of a competitor and for a while there, the dominant pitcher of the 1980s. But again, I digress. He’s a good example of the difference between quantitative and qualitative analytical methods in certain cases.

Let’s back up and explain the basics of the quantitative screen I used this year to get down to the serious calls. Here’s a link to the Baseball Reference explanation of JAWS; here’s one to the BR explanation of its version of WAR.

If you’re reading a 4,000-word post on this year’s Baseball Hall of Fame ballot marked “Part 1,” you probably know that WAR is a complicated formula — so complicated that it’s effectively impenetrable for non-math geeks — that attempts to boil down to a single number the overall value of a baseball player. It speaks to the combination of two human needs — certainty and simplicity. So long as the evaluation of players is based on many different categories, as it was for generations, it is messy, and the emphasis any one judge puts on each of those various categories can and often does change the outcome of the inquiry. That’s neither certain nor simple.

WAR’s many calculations and adjustments introduce subjectivity themselves — BR recently changed its definition of an “average” replacement player — or contribute subjectivity in the weight they are accorded in the overall formula. Since most fans like the sport a lot more than they like equations, especially complicated equations, they stop paying attention to the details pretty quickly. Like the passer rating in football, it’s a nice, simple number that many fans use and few can explain in detail. We have two main versions of WAR at present, which make slightly different subjective judgments along the way, and produce slightly different results.

At its most basic, WAR is an adding machine. Player A was X amount better than the average guy at his position, plug that into a formula and you get 2.4 extra wins for his team that year. Then you add up all those little premiums over the course of his career. Even though its modifications and adjustments are considered ameliorating factors, it rewards longevity in a big way — the more years of little numbers like that, the bigger the career total is going to be.

So, for example, Sandy Koufax, one of the best starting pitchers of all time according to pretty much anyone paying attention to the game when he was pitching, ranks No. 85 in the JAWS system, with a considerable deficit to the average JAWS score of starting pitchers already in the Hall of Fame. He’s down around a bunch of guys who aren’t in the Hall and aren’t likely to get there — Kevin Appier, Chuck Finley, Orel Hershiser, Tommy John, Frank Tanana, Wilbur Wood, et al. The JAWS system attempts to compensate for the longevity bias of WAR by averaging a player’s career WAR with his “peak” WAR — the seven highest annual scores of his career.  This is supposed to cover for players like Koufax, who were brilliant, but whose careers were cut short.

But, clearly, it doesn’t. Koufax’s peak WAR is higher than any of the guys I mentioned in the previous paragraph, but not by enough to make much difference in the overall calculation. Luckily, there was no WAR when Koufax became eligible for the first time in 1972 and he was elected on the first ballot with 87 percent of the vote, leading a class that also included Yogi Berra and Early Wynn.

I bring this up because it also contributes to this year’s biggest anomaly when using the JAWS system, which is John Smoltz. The former Braves hurler is on the ballot for the first time, following by one year former teammates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, both of whom were elected on the first try. The voters and JAWS agreed on Maddux. Not so much on Glavine. Maddux ranks 10th all time on the JAWS meter, ahead of immortals like Bob Gibson and Warren Spahn, and pending immortals like Pedro Martinez. Glavine ranks 30th, behind all those guys, and behind a couple more on this year’s ballot — Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina. JAWS counts Maddux as way above the average Hall of Famer at his position, Glavine as barely above average.

Smoltz ranks 58th, well below average for the Hall of Fame, down around guys like Jim Bunning and David Cone. This is mostly because he quit starting for a while to help his team. From 2002-04, Smoltz registered 144 saves with ERAs of 3.25, 1.12 and 2.76. He received MVP votes four times in his career, and three of them were after those three remarkable years as a closer. The Braves made the playoffs in all three seasons. He’s credited with 6.7 wins above replacement for those three seasons combined. He got more than that (7.3) in 1996 alone, his Cy Young year as a starter.

So Smoltz fares poorly in the JAWS Hall of Fame analysis, in part because he’s listed with the starters and no allowance is made for all the starts he gave up to become one of the best closers in the game. For those of us not yet willing to sacrifice our own observations entirely to the gods of quantitative analysis, Smoltz requires an eye-test adjustment this year, which we will get to in Part 2. For the purpose of culling the field of 34 down to a more manageable number, JAWS was quite useful in quantifying the eye test results.

The no-hopers

1. 3B Aaron Boone

He’ll always have 2003, a moment seared into the memories of Red Sox fans who would not slay the beast for another year. Boone’s walkoff home run leading off the bottom of the 11th in Game 7 of the ALCS made him a Yankee hero, even though he played only 54 of his 1152 career games in Yankee pinstripes. His best days were in Cincinnati. He is ranked the 150th-best third baseman in big league history by his JAWS average (14.3). His deficit from the JAWS average for Hall of Famers at his position (40.7) is the greatest in this year’s class. The top comparable to him on Baseball Reference is Scott Brosius.

Every year, there are fans who squawk, “Why is he on the ballot?” I have known members of the screening committee and I agree with their bias toward inclusion. If you meet the basic requirements — a career of at least 10 seasons in the designated time period — I believe you ought to get your minimum one appearance on the ballot. A 10-year major league career is a big deal in any context other than this one. Appearing on the ballot once seems to me an appropriate reward. Boone won’t be back, and neither will the rest of the guys in this category.

2. 1B Tony Clark

Clark had a nice 15-year career with Tigers, Diamondbacks, Mets, Red Sox and Padres. He hit 251 homers with a lifetime .262 batting average and a career OPS of .824. The JAWS average for first basemen now in the Hall is 54.2. Clark’s is 14.2. That deficit (40.0) barely lost out to Boone’s for the title of No-hoper of the Year. His top comparable is Adam LaRoche.

3. SS Rich Aurilia

Aurilia played 15 seasons, mostly for the Giants, finishing with a long goodbye tour through Cincinnati, San Diego and Seattle. He was mostly a shortstop, but he played triple-figure games at each of the other infield positions as well. He had good power for an infielder, hitting double-figure home runs eight times, including an eyebrow-raising 37 in 2001, the year Barry Bonds hit 73 and a number of players looked like Popeye after the spinach. His JAWS deficit to Hall of Famers at his position is 37.3. No. 1 comparable: Brandon Phillips.

4. RF Jermaine Dye

Dye had some serious pop, hitting 44 homers for the White Sox, batting over .300 for the only time in his career and finishing fifth in MVP voting in 2006. He spent 14 years in the big leagues almost equally divided among the Royals, White Sox and A’s, with a nightcap in Atlanta. His deficit to the JAWS average of right fielders in the Hall is 36.4.

5. SP Jason Schmidt

Schmidt was an average starter for most of the first decade of his career, never pitching to an ERA under 4.00 until arriving in San Francisco in the latter part of the 2001 season. Quite suddenly, at the age of 30, he became an elite pitcher for the Giants, going 17-5 with a National League-leading ERA of 2.34. He finished second in Cy Young voting that year and fourth the following year, when he went 18-7 with a 3.20 ERA. As a result of this renaissance in San Francisco, the Dodgers gave him a big free-agent deal in 2007 — three years, $47 million. Alas, Schmidt blew out his shoulder and pitched just 43 mostly ineffective innings over two seasons for L.A. before calling it quits. He comes in at No. 284 on the starting pitchers’ JAWS list. His deficit to existing Hall of Famers is 33.4.

6. LF Cliff Floyd

Floyd was the 14th overall pick of the 1991 draft, and while he had a 17-year stay in the majors, he never became the star that early comparisons to Willie McCovey seemed to promise. He drove in more than 100 runs only once and hit as many as 30 homers twice. He was bedeviled by injuries and ended up playing for seven teams. Still, he finished with a career OPS of .840. His top comparable on Baseball Reference is Aubrey Huff. His JAWS Hall of Fame deficit is 27.9.

7. CF Darin Erstad

Erstad was a marvelous athlete whom the Angels made the first pick of the 1995 draft out of Nebraska. He was the punter for Tom Osborne’s ’94 Cornhuskers’ national championship team. Erstad arrived in the majors a year later and finished sixth in rookie-of-the-year voting despite playing only 57 games. He was an all-star at 24 and again at 26, receiving MVP votes both years. He was a five-tool player on the brink of stardom. After batting an astonishing .355 with a league-leading 240 hits in 2000, he never hit .300 again. After putting up double-figure home run totals in five of his first seven seasons, he never hit more than seven after the age of 28. His hustling style and proclivity for leaving his feet produced chronic issues with his shoulders, hamstrings and ankles. For most of the latter part of his career, he was battling one injury or another. His JAWS deficit to center fielders in the Hall is 26.7. On the bright side, he went back to Nebraska as a volunteer assistant for the baseball team in 2011 and Osborne, then the athletic director, named him head coach a year later. His top comparable at 23 was Jeff Bagwell. Ten years later, it was Mark Kotsay.

8. RP Eddie Guardado

Guardado would be a long way from Hall consideration anyway, but the fact that he’s a relief pitcher makes it impossible. He was a decent piece out of the pen for the Twins for years who suddenly became a closer, and a good one, for a four-year stretch from 2002-05. He was an all-star in ’02 and ’03, putting up a league-leading 45 saves in ’02 and following it with 41 the next year. The result was a nice free-agent deal with the Mariners and two more good years before he ran out of fuel. He’s No. 53 in career saves with 187. His JAWS deficit is 22.1. In the history of baseball, five relief pitchers have been inducted, so if you’re Eddie Guardado, you have no shot.

9. RP Troy Percival

Percival was a stud closer for a long time, so you’d think he’d have a chance, but keep in mind he’s way behind Lee Smith in the JAWS rankings and Smith got only 30 percent of the vote in his 12th season of eligibility last year. Percival is in the top 10 in career saves — No. 9 with 358. But again, the standard is the five incumbents — Dennis Eckersley, Hoyt Wilhelm, Rich Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers. Mariano Rivera will make it six when he’s eligible. Percival ranks behind them all, and behind Smith, too. In fact, his JAWS average is worse than those of Steve Reed, Dick Drago and Dave Giusti. It’s just not happening. His deficit to the Hall average at his position is 18.1

My kingdom for 5 percent

1. RF Sammy Sosa

You wouldn’t think that one of only two players in major league history to hit more than 60 homers in a season twice, one of only eight to hit more than 600 in a career, would be in any danger of falling off the ballot in just his third season of eligibility, but Sosa treated his entire career like an SNL skit. Like Bonds, he used performance-enhancing drugs to such excess that he became a massive, hulking, comic book parody of his former self, then pretended he didn’t understand English when hauled before Congress to explain this amazing transformation. He got 12.5 percent of the vote in his first year and 7.2 percent last year. Half as great a loss of support this year would send him on his way. Even if he’d done it honestly, his JAWS average of 51 wouldn’t justify his election. The average of the right fielders already in the Hall is 58.1. Even through the eyes of a Cubs fan, Sammy doesn’t pass the eye test.

2. 1B Don Mattingly

It doesn’t seem fair that you could drop off the ballot for lack of support the day you’re dropping off anyway by virtue of having been there 15 years without getting elected, but that is a possibility for Donnie Baseball. His election return of 8.2 percent of the vote last year was his lowest total in 14 years of eligibility. He hasn’t been above 20 percent since his second year on the ballot. For a stretch in the 1980s, he was as good as it got, but back trouble limited him to just four years of WAR of 5 or more, and that’s nowhere near enough. He also faces competition from a bunch of other first basemen who aren’t going to make it but have better numbers than he does. On the JAWS list, he ranks behind Norm Cash, Gil Hodges, John Olerud and Will Clark, none of whom are in the Hall. He also ranks behind Carlos Delgado and Fred McGriff, who are on the current ballot and also have little or no shot. His JAWS deficit to the Hall average first sacker is 15.3.

3. 1B Carlos Delgado

Delgado isn’t a close call according to JAWS — he’s 14.8 average WAR behind the existing Hall standard at first — but he was a very productive power hitter for a long time, so you wouldn’t think he’d be in any danger of missing the minimum to remain on the ballot. He has a career OPS of .940 and drove in at least 87 runs in 13 consecutive seasons. Nevertheless, it’s a very strong ballot and Delgado’s JAWS average ranks below McGriff’s. McGriff fell to 11.7 percent of the vote last year, losing half the support he got just two years before. If there’s an argument to be made that Delgado is one of the top 10 players on this year’s ballot, I’m not sure what it is.

4. RF Brian Giles

I’m also not sure why Giles does better on the JAWS tote board than Delgado. I’d take Delgado every time, although Giles was certainly a nice offensive player. Delgado had way more homers and RBI, a slightly better OPS+ and trailed in batting average by 10 points. It is true he also struck out a lot more than Giles, but that’s the price of that power (1512 RBI to 1078; 473 homers to 278). Both were below-average defenders, but Delgado somewhat further below average. Giles is a classic very good player who is nevertheless significantly short of the Hall standard by both quantitative and qualitative analysis. Like Delgado, you would expect him to exceed the minimum necessary to stay on for another year if the ballot weren’t so loaded. And he still should. His JAWS deficit among right fielders already in the Hall is 14.0.

Obvious cheaters

1. 1B Mark McGwire

The only thing that saves Sosa from appearing here, where he belongs, is the fact that he might fall off the ballot altogether, earning him a spot in the previous category. McGwire, the only player other than Sosa to hit more than 60 homers in a season twice, comes dangerously close to joining him there. But Mac managed 11 percent of the vote last year, so I’m guessing he survives again, although his number has come down from 23.7 percent in 2010. I realize there is a fair amount of sentiment among sabermetricians that there is no such thing as right and wrong, or we’re not worthy to assess it, or only numbers matter, or something along those lines. If you’re interested in why I don’t agree with this, I went into some depth about it in my post on last year’s ballot. McGwire, by the way, has a small deficit — 2.3 — to the average JAWS score of first basemen now in the Hall.

2. SP Roger Clemens

Clemens’ numbers are ridiculous, which, in his case, is not just an expression. At the age of 42, suddenly he was as good as he had ever been. In fact, he won the ERA title with the best mark of his career (1.87). In court, personal trainer Brian McNamee laid out his doping program in gruesome detail. Clemens’ able defense team got him off perjury charges, but that’s not the same as being innocent. According to JAWS, he’s the third-best pitcher of all time, behind Walter Johnson and Cy Young. His surplus to the average starter in the Hall is 41.5, which would be the highest on the ballot if it weren’t for . . .

3. LF Barry Bonds

Clemens redux. Thanks to the journalists Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, and their book Game of Shadows, we know pretty much exactly what Bonds took and why. Like Clemens, he had a chronology-defying, chemistry-enabled, Greek God-like renaissance very late in his career, winning four consecutive MVP awards at the ages of 36, 37, 38 and 39. We had never seen anything like it before and, assuming Rob Manfred is slightly more on the ball than Bud Selig — a low bar — we will never see anything like it again. Like Clemens, as many have pointed out, he was probably a Hall of Famer before he started cheating, but those sportsmanship and integrity criteria established by the Hall don’t have the luxury of time travel. His surplus to the average JAWS score of Hall of Fame left fielders is 64.3, a number almost as big as his body in those days.

Just wide

1. Nomar Garciaparra

Nomar was a stud shortstop in a very impressive generation. Imagine a three-year stretch in which rookies named Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra enter the league playing the same position. The Red Sox made Nomar a first-round pick, the 12th overall, in 1994. Three years later, he was rookie of the year, an all-star and eighth in MVP voting. At the age of 23, he hit .306 with 30 home runs and 98 RBI. The next year was even better — .323, 35, 122 — and he finished second in the MVP voting to Juan Gonzalez. He won the batting title each of the next two years, at .357 and .372. If this was not the runup to a Hall of Fame career, it was hard to imagine why not. But it probably wasn’t. Injuries would turn Nomar old before his time and his 30s were nothing like his 20s. The average of his career WAR and peak WAR — 43.6 — is 11.1 below the average of shortstops already in the Hall. You can certainly make an argument for him. His JAWS rating puts him between Luis Aparicio and Joe Tinker, both of whom are in. The improvement in the offensive output at the position since then has changed the calculus.

2. 1B Fred McGriff

You look at those career numbers and it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t belong. Seven homers shy of 500. Twenty-one consecutive seasons of double-digit homers. An OPS just short of .900. MVP votes following eight different seasons. And yet, when you add them all up, he’s a full 10 wins over replacement short of the average for first basemen already in the Hall. In fact, he ranks behind Keith Hernandez, John Olerud and Will Clark, none of whom are enshrined. Of 20 first basemen in Cooperstown, McGriff’s JAWS average is better than four, worse than 16. He’d been getting about 20 percent of the vote in his first four years on the ballot, then fell to 11.7 percent last year as the ballot strengthened. Probably won’t do a lot better this year.

3. RF Gary Sheffield

Sheff had such a long, productive career, one is tempted to think of him as the Don Sutton of hitters, a guy who eventually makes it on sheer volume. It could happen, but advanced metrics don’t help him. He accumulated surprisingly modest wins above replacement value during his career and his JAWS average of 49 falls 9.1 short of the average of right fielders already inducted. Sheff’s average is worse than those of Bobby (not Barry) Bonds, Reggie Smith and Dwight Evans, none of whom is in. With more than 500 home runs, a career batting average over .290 and an OPS over .900, Sheff passes the eye test, at least for me. He might begin to build support after the current wave of stars passes. For now, he just has to hang around.

Coming in Part 2: The final fifteen


American history 101

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As you may know, I lost my job in June. For the first time in 39 years, pajamas were an all-day option. I was about to turn 60 and knew my demographic profile was a recruiter’s dream — old white male with a work history in a dying industry. What more could an HR department want?

Despite this enticing profile, I put off the LinkedIn recruiters eager to enlist new insurance sales people. Earning a paycheck — which, technically, they weren’t offering — was no longer my only consideration. Requiring only Wheat Thins, DirecTV and the aforementioned pajamas really reduced my expenses. Sixty being the new thirty, I figured I couldn’t afford to screw up the coming decade. It’s too promising as it is. I can schedule a dental appointment anytime I want, for just one example.

A friend and former neighbor in North Denver told me that she trusts her instincts about such things, and I should too. Then she sold her house and flew to India. I wondered if she meant I should trust her instincts and fly to India too. I’m a former sportswriter, so I don’t really know what to do if there’s no Marriott. Most of the interesting places in India don’t seem to have one.

So, while I was waiting for inspiration, I went out and blew my last paycheck on a boatload of American history books. This is what my instincts told me to do. Don’t ask me why. I suddenly wanted to know how we got here.

Not like how my immigrant ancestors got here. How we got here. Another election cycle has come around and I can’t even watch the baseball playoffs without hearing Cory Gardner insulted and then Mark Udall insulted and then Bob Beauprez insulted and then John Hickenlooper insulted and then some stuff insulted I don’t even know what it is.

How did we get here?

Is this the worst it’s ever been? I try to ignore politics at this point in the cycle and even I know everything I hear on these TV ads is a lie. If you know anything about the issues these insults refer to, you know both sides are twisting them with pretzel logic to make the other guy look like a creep. This is familiar to me because it’s kinda like sports: Do anything to win. I’m expecting steroids to come into play at some point.

As I began to study how we got here, I figured out a temporary solution. Digital TV has certain advantages. I learned if I hit rewind and watch an early half-inning over again, I can fast-forward through the rest of the commercial breaks. If I catch up to real time in the seventh, I rewind a little more. That’s just between us.

Anyway, I thought I’d start at the beginning, with fresh looks at three of the most celebrated founders: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson (2003), Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow (2010) and Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham (2012).

The first thing you realize when you read these books is our partisan political divide is nothing new. Any undergraduate student of American history could tell you that, but it’s been so long since I was an undergraduate that I remember almost nothing about it. Besides, I was too busy working on the school newspaper to go to class. I did know that newspapers went all the way back to Ben Franklin. They certainly weren’t going anywhere.

Back in the day, these guys were brutal. Here’s a dispassionate analysis of Franklin by John Adams, our second president, not an opponent but a colleague in Paris negotiating the peace treaty with Britain that ended the Revolutionary War:

“If this gentleman and the marble Mercury in the garden of Versailles were in nomination for an embassy, I would not hesitate to give my vote for the statue, upon the principle that it would do no harm.”

The rift between Federalists and Republicans that emerged out of the constitutional convention of 1787 and persisted through the terms of at least the first three presidents makes today’s partisan sniping look like a game of touch football. The crux of the debate was basically the same big government/small government divide that exists today. So, yeah, people have been arguing about the same stuff for at least 227 years. The difference is America had no experience with either at the time, so it was not only possible to conjure apocalyptic consequences from the other guy’s ideas, it was possible you were right.

The paranoia and nasty partisan media that accompany each side in our current federal gridlock are pale derivatives of their counterparts back in the day. Consider that Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, was arrested under the Alien and Sedition Acts for what he said about the Adams administration in a newspaper. Adams, famously, could dish it out a lot better than he could take it. Bache might have gone to prison for something he wrote if he hadn’t died of yellow fever first.

Federalists, including Adams, were so paranoid Jefferson would dismantle the new government in the name of individual liberty that they demanded assurances he wouldn’t before allowing him to assume the presidency (they had the opportunity to do this because Jefferson’s first election was thrown into the House of Representatives when his running mate, Aaron Burr, got as many votes as he did, an outcome the original electoral college, oddly, did not imagine).

Republicans like Jefferson, on the other hand, saw the threat of monarchy in every federal power, which is why the original Articles of Confederation gave the Congress — the sole federal branch of government at the time — virtually no power at all. It’s also why some high-profile American rebels, including Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams, declined to attend the constitutional convention, wanting to leave the federal government powerless.

In long-lensed hindsight, each side’s paranoia has a certain logic. After all, the whole self-government thing was a grand experiment. Nobody really knew which design would work and which wouldn’t.

From the Republicans’ point of view, monarchy was the default governmental system in the civilized world and America had just fought a long war to get out from under one. They feared a strong central government would inevitably lead to an American monarch. For many of them, Washington’s main appeal as the first president was the fact that he didn’t have an heir.

From the Federalists’ point of view, the risk of monarchy came mainly from the possibility of anarchy, which they saw as the likely outcome of 13 sovereign states in constant conflict with one another and a federal government powerless to referee. Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts was fresh in their minds as an anarchist warning shot.

So who bridged this familiar ideological gap back in the day? Mainly, Washington and Franklin, the two most venerated leaders of the time. Their ability to cross the partisan divide came from very different experiences but a common determination to put the good of their new country ahead of whatever ideological biases they might have held personally.

At the age of 81, Franklin closed the constitutional convention in his hometown with a passionate defense of all the compromises in the document that would be instructive to many of today’s partisans:

I confess that I do not entirely approve this Constitution at present; but sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it: For, having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that, the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and pay more respect to the judgment of others.

Most men, indeed as well as most sects in religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them, it is so far error. Steele, a Protestant, tells the Pope that the only difference between our two churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrine is, the Romish Church is infallible, and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But, though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain French lady, who, in a little dispute with her sister said: “I don’t know how it happens, sister, but I meet with nobody but myself that is always in the right.”

In these sentiments, sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults — if they are such — because I think a general government necessary for us. . . . I doubt, too, whether any other convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution; for, when you assemble a number of men, to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?

It therefore astonishes me, sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the builders of Babel, and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats. Thus I consent, sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.

We have a tendency after all this time to lump the grand roster of founders together — all wonderful, all visionary, you know the honorifics. But given what appear to be intractable ideological divisions today, it seems worth noticing that Franklin and Washington were pretty much the only major players who were able to rise above partisanship. Republicans would cast Washington as a partisan Federalist during his second term, but in fact he was always a pragmatist, his belief in a strong executive fueled by the inability of Congress to help him or his army during the Revolutionary War. Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, two other revered and important founders, were as partisan as they could be. They were both in Washington’s first cabinet and grew to despise each other.

It is not so well remembered that Washington, who solicited advice from his generals and later his cabinet on every big issue, grew so angry with Jefferson’s duplicity by the end of his second term that he pulled a Godfather. By the time he left office, Jefferson was dead to him.

And while Jefferson was America’s foremost political philosopher and a grand writer, he could also be . . . how to put this . . . an egotistical, duplicitous hypocrite, if that reminds you of anyone seeking office this season.

In April of 1796, the last year of Washington’s presidency, long after Jefferson had quit the cabinet and returned to Monticello, allegedly to retire from politics, he wrote a letter to an Italian friend named Philip Mazzei. In it, Jefferson ripped Washington, alleging he was leading a monarchical party “whose avowed object is to draw over us the substance, as they have already done the forms, of the British government,” according to Chernow’s account.

Jefferson had engineered similar attacks on Washington before, but he had never put his name to one. Instead, he had arranged for these attacks to be delivered by partisan newspapers. At the same time, he had written a letter to Washington after leaving his administration denying any responsibility for these scurrilous charges.

But this time, Mazzei chose to publish Jefferson’s letter in Italy, and it soon found its way into British and American newspapers as well. His duplicity exposed, Jefferson didn’t know what to do. “Think for me on this occasion,” he pleaded with his friend James Madison, “and advise me what to do.”

To suggest that Washington, who had stepped down voluntarily as commander in chief following the Revolutionary War and was about to step down voluntarily as president, wanted himself or anybody else to be king, was insulting and absurd, and there is no record that Washington ever spoke to his fellow Virginian again. “I never saw him afterwards,” Jefferson would say later.

At this stage of his life, federal power was still anathema to Jefferson, representing a slippery slope away from liberty and toward monarchy. Sovereignty, he and other Republicans believed, should reside with the individual colonies. But when he was in charge of the largest colony as governor of Virginia 15 years earlier, Jefferson dithered for two days after being warned that the traitor Benedict Arnold, by then a British general, was coming to attack Richmond. By the time Jefferson finally called up the state militia, it was too late. The Redcoats swept in, unabated to the quarterback, you might say, forcing state officials to flee the capital. A few months later, they came to arrest Jefferson at Monticello and he was forced to flee his home in the most embarrassing episode of his public life. His response was to pen a plea to General Washington to bring the Continental Army to Virginia’s defense.

This practical experience had no apparent effect on Jefferson’s thinking about the shape of the new government. He seems to have been worried chiefly about the effect on his reputation. He stepped down as governor shortly thereafter.

Years later, when Jefferson became president, he agreed to the Louisiana Purchase, his most famous accomplishment, without consulting Congress, almost certainly the greatest unilateral use of executive power in American history to that point. It proved to be a wise move, but it expanded the executive power that Jefferson had always claimed was too great to begin with. If Washington had done such a thing, there is little doubt Jefferson would have skewered him for adopting the powers of a monarch. (An exasperated Washington would say during his second term that while Jefferson and his allies saw a monarchist behind every tree, he didn’t believe there were a dozen men in the country who actually favored an American monarchy.)

Meacham, an unabashed Jefferson fan, says the Louisiana Purchase shows his “flexibility.” That’s one way to look at it. Another would be that Jefferson’s idealistic ideology proved impractical and he refused to admit it, even when forced to abandon it in order to run the country.

Jefferson, of course, was far from the only partisan ideologue around. The Federalists lost control of the government two years after Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. At that point, Republican fears of a tyrannical central government seemed plenty real. When Adams sought a second term, Jefferson (and Burr) defeated him handily.

About the only thing that kept the hostility between Federalists and Republicans from tearing the young country apart was Washington, a military hero greeted as a celebrity everywhere he went after the war. Washington assiduously cultivated alliances on both sides, well aware that keeping the country from fracturing was his most important responsibility.

Washington’s ability to understand both sides of the partisan divide came largely from the war, the transformative experience of his life. He had been an aspiring aristocrat as a younger man, lobbying incessantly for a commission in the Royal British Army and for land grants to expand his wealth and holdings. It was the British refusal to give him the former and condescending method of adjudicating the latter that initially alienated him from the empire.

But during his eight years as commander in chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, he grew so attached and so loyal to his men, who came from every walk of life, that he developed egalitarian values uncommon among plantation owners at the time.

Franklin came by his political moderation a different way. As a 17-year-old runaway landing in Philadelphia long before anyone thought of revolution, he was an aspiring leather-aproned tradesman, a printer. Through his prolific writing, much of it satiric, he became America’s first champion of the middle class. He believed in hard work as the path to success and was suspicious of welfare programs for the poor, believing them an invitation to indolence.

On the other hand, he had a natural rebellious streak that made him skeptical of authority, particularly authority based on birthrights rather than virtues or talents. He viewed hereditary titles and wealth with disdain, believing the rich had no more right than the poor to unearned bounty. He was equally suspicious of the aristocracy and the great unwashed. He most admired the tradesmen and shopkeepers he saw as the backbone of the new world.

Some of Franklin’s ability to play the conciliator at the constitutional convention was a function of his reputation and age, but a lot of it was a function of his personality. He was a great storyteller who managed to make the most ardent partisans laugh at various moments of tension. (My favorite example of his off-the-wall sense of humor is an essay he wrote while in Paris urging the Royal Society of Brussels, which had solicited ideas for scientific experiments, to study whether consuming certain foods might improve the aroma of farts. Perhaps sensing this was a bridge too far even for him, Franklin printed the satire but did not distribute it.)

Washington and Franklin were diametrically different personalities, but they shared two key traits — pragmatism and a belief in behaving virtuously for its own sake. It was pragmatism that convinced Washington the federal government needed more power than Jefferson and the Republicans believed. As commander in chief, he was continually thwarted by a Congress powerless to raise money or do much of anything else. He watched his soldiers die by the hundreds for want of adequate clothing and supplies, then visited Philadelphia and found the privileged enjoying grand balls and feasts. Liberty from tyrannical authority was the point of the exercise, but if the colonies were to become a country, they would need a government that could raise and outfit an army for its defense, and that would require a federal authority to tax, among other things.

Coming at the debate from a different angle, Franklin was all about practical applications in his scientific experiments. He was far less interested in the why than the how. From bifocals to the lightning rod to the Franklin stove, his investigations were always geared to solving practical problems. He had more of a natural Republican bent than Washington, writing a constitution for Pennsylvania that called for proportional representation in a single legislative body, and he proposed the same solution for the national constitution (it was rejected in a compromise with smaller states, which demanded equal representation in at least one house of Congress, just one of many defeats at the convention he accepted with equanimity). But Franklin, too, saw the practical need for federal power to run a country, particularly with respect to finances.

Due mainly to its intractable partisanship, Congress today is less popular than root canals, colonoscopies and the rock band Nickelback. (It does beat out telemarketers and gonorrhea.) So the obvious question is this:

Where is the Franklin of today? Where is the Washington? These were great men who spent most of their lives serving their country, compromising and cajoling to get things done. Surely great men and women will always be rare, but these two were produced by a population less than 1 percent the size of today’s. There must be 21st century men and women with similar inclinations toward moderation, with similar abilities to see both sides of the partisan divide and work toward compromise for the good of the country.

Right?

The modern day examples that come immediately to mind are few and far between. Among them would be Alan Simpson, the Republican former senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, the Democrat and former Clinton chief of staff from North Carolina. The Simpson-Bowles Commission drafted a long-term plan to address the federal budget deficit. Both men ended up endorsing provisions they disliked in order to forge a compromise that might be acceptable to all sides. In our current environment, of course, it was acceptable to no one and was dead on arrival in Washington, the capital named for the original moderate.

When I was younger, there were lots of politicians who tried to occupy the center of the spectrum. I spent part of my childhood in Illinois, where Charles Percy was the rare politician who succeeded without the help of the corrupt Democratic Party machine. He was what they called a “liberal Republican” at the time, and nationally he was not alone. Similarly, there were politicians called “conservative Democrats,” which included southern segregationists, but also northerners such as Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington, who was as hawkish on foreign affairs as any Republican. Today, there is little or no overlap.

So here’s one conclusion I’ve drawn from my new hobby: Political partisanship is nothing new. Politically partisan media are nothing new. The only thing we seem to lack today is the great leaders willing and able to bridge the gap.


New Baseball Hall of Fame voting rules

Baseball HOF letter 9.9.14

In my snail mail this week was a letter from the Baseball Hall of Fame dated Sept. 9, reproduced above, in which it outlined changes in voting procedures beginning with this fall’s balloting for the class of 2015.

The two biggest changes are the length of time a player may remain on the ballot (down to 10 years from 15) and administration of the voting, which is being moved from the Baseball Writers Association of America to the accounting firm Ernst & Young.

Three players already beyond their tenth year on the ballot have been grandfathered in and will remain on the ballot for 15 years, assuming they aren’t elected prior to that — Lee Smith, Alan Trammell and Don Mattingly. The one quibble I have with this transition is the effect it has on players nearing the new 10-year limit, namely Mark McGwire and Tim Raines. McGwire, in his ninth year on the ballot, will actually be kicked off before Smith, in his 13th. That doesn’t seem right.

The timing of the changes is especially unfortunate for Raines, who was making steady progress, from 24 percent of the vote in 2008 to 52 percent in 2013. In a four-year period, from 2013 through 2016, an unusually star-studded wave of newly-eligible players came along — Craig Biggio, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling and Sammy Sosa in 2013; Tom Glavine, Jeff Kent, Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina and Frank Thomas in 2014; Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Gary Sheffield and John Smoltz in 2015. The wave culminates with Ken Griffey Jr. in 2016.

Under the old rules, Raines might have ridden out this wave and then resumed his assault on a Bert Blyleven-like renaissance near or at the end of his eligibility. Cutting his remaining eligibility in one fell swoop from eight years to three dramatically reduces the possibility of his being elected. As a Raines voter, I can only hope some version of the veterans committee rights this wrong in the future.

The rest of the procedural changes are mainly to bring more seriousness to the voting process after last year’s instance of an eligible voter offloading his vote to ineligible voters. Whatever you think of the voting bloc, it is to be expected that the Hall would want to control who gets to vote. Commitment to a code of conduct will now accompany voter registration.

The process is brought into the electronic age with online registration and research materials but remains in the Pony Express days with actual submission of ballots by snail mail. The Heisman Trophy has had electronic voting for some time now, so I assume Ernst & Young will ultimately employ this innovation as well. But not yet.

From the standpoint of voters, the new procedure offers the innovation of confirming receipt, never before available because the BBWAA didn’t open ballots until it was time to count them, by which time it would be too late to replace a ballot lost in the mail anyway.

There is no change to the much-discussed limit of 10 votes per voter. Many voters expressed regret that they could not vote for more than 10 last year. I was one of them. I left Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina off my 2014 ballot because I was not willing to abandon candidates I had supported longer — including Raines, Trammell and Jack Morris.

The 10-year eligibility limit will turn over the names more quickly, reducing this ballot congestion problem to some extent, but off the top of my head I can name more than 10 players I’d like to vote for this year.

Here’s a look, courtesy of Baseball Reference, at 2015 eligibles.