The Hall of Fame Ballots-The First Time Candidates

The sixteen players on the Hall of Fame ballot include several players, such asDavid Segui or Todd Zeile who are clearly not Hall of Famers, several more such as Andres Galarraga or Robin Ventura for whom a Hall of Fame argument could be made and who would not be the worst player in the Hall of Fame but who would not be good choices and have no chance of betting elected, and a handful of candidates who should get elected.

If I were voting, the new players for whom I would vote would be: Roberto AlomarBarry LarkinEdgar Martinez and Fred McGriff.  None of these are likely to get elected with the overwhelming numbers of a Rickey Henderson or Cal Ripken Jr., but they were all great players who had Hall of Fame careers.  Interestingly, they can easily be divided into two groups: middle infielders who contribute with their gloves, bats or speed and sluggers who had very little value when not at the plate.

Roberto Alomar’s candidacy is marred by the spitting incident and his rapid decline as he did not have a good year after the age of 33 and was not able to play regularly after 35.  The former incident shocked the baseball world and was clearly the nadir of Alomar’s career, but does not seem in itself worthy of keeping Alomar out of the Hall of Fame.  The sharp decline was a distressing thing to witness, but it seems strange to vote against a candidate who played the fourth most games at second base of anybody since 1900, behind only Eddie Collins, Joe Morgan and Lou Whitaker, on the grounds that he had a short career.

Alomar’s 10 gold gloves, 12 All Star selections and five top ten finishes in MVP balloting give a good sense of how he was viewed when he was playing.  His 116 OPS+, 210 home runs, 474 stolen bases-with only 114 times being caught stealing and more than 2,700 hits are clearly Hall of Fame numbers for a good fielding second baseman.

Barry Larkin was the best shortstop in the National League during an era dominated by American League shortstops including Cal Ripken Jr. and later Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter.  Larkin, while not quite as good as Alomar , at his peak, was more consistent and did not really have an off year until he was 37.  The two players, in fact, were quite similar.  Both were star middle infielders who stole bases, hit with some power and played excellent defense.  They ended with the same career OPS+ and the same number of All Star selections.  Larkin had fewer gold gloves and slightly less impressive counting numbers.  Nonetheless strong case can be made that Barry Larkin, a durable player who was a standout with his bat and glove was, other than Honus Wagner, the greatest shortstop in NL history.

Edgar Martinez’ candidacy has generated some debate about how to evaluate the career of a full time designated hitter.  Rather than raise philosophical questions about whether a DH should be in the Hall of Fame or how much less defensive value Martinez had than a bad fielding first baseman, it is more useful to look at Martinez relative to other Hall of Famers who had very little defensive value.  The question about Martinez’ candidacy should be whether a poor fielding first baseman or corner outfielder with the same numbers a Martinez would be elected to the Hall of Fame.

There is no doubt that Martinez was a great hitter, but because he played in a hitter’s era, his numbers are somewhat harder to evaluate.  At first glance his career totals, 309 home runs, 2247 hits, 1261 RBIs are not very impressive for a player whose best years were in the middle and late 1990s.  However, upon closer look, Martinez numbers look much better.  He was in the top ten in OBP in the AL 11 times and led the league thrice.  He was also in the top ten in slugging six times and batting average eight times, leading the league twice.

His career OPS+ is 147, tied for 39th all time with, among others, Alex Rodriguez, Mike Schmidt, Willie Stargell and Willie McCovey.  His career got off to a late start, but Martinez enjoyed a long peak from 1993-2003, during which he only had one real off year, an injury riddled 1993.  Although he was never the highest profile player in the game, or for much of his career on his team, and offered very little defensive value, Martinez was too good of a hitter to keep out of the Hall of Fame.

Fred McGriff is perhaps the most intriguing player on the ballot.  McGriff’s candidacy is, like that of Mark McGwire’s, largely framed by the issue of steroid use, but in an entirely different way.  McGriff’s candidacy rests on two assumptions-that during the second half of his career steroid use was rampant, and that McGriff was never a user.  If those two things are true, than McGriff’s numbers, ten seasons with more than 30 home runs, 493 career home runs and a .377 on base percentage would earn McGriff entrance into the Hall of Fame as somebody who was very good for a very long time, like a Don Sutton of hitters.  McGriff, however, had a better peak than Sutton.  During the first part of his career, before the steroid era, from 1988-1993, McGriff was one of the best players in baseball leading his league in home runs twice while hitting over 30 every year, topping .500 in slugging percentage five times, while never having on base percentage of less than .375.

The dramatic changes in power hitting after 1993 make McGriff’s career look less impressive.  From 1987-1993, McGriff’s first seven years in the Major Leagues, a player hit 50 or more home runs in a season exactly once.  From 1995-2004, when McGriff retired, that number was eclipsed 18 times.  The home run game changed, but McGriff didn’t.  The question of how much of this is attributable to steroids is central to McGriff’s candidacy, but so are the first seven years of McGriff’s career.  During those seven years, he was a truly great player who then tacked on about another decade of playing at not quite the same level while being free of the suspicion of steroid use which dogged so many players.

The extent to which McGriff’s career is bifurcated can be looking at the lines for three of his contemporaries from the beginning of their careers to the age of 29 which was in 1993 for three of them and 1994 for the fourth.  All four were primarily first baseman during these years.  The player’s overall career OPS+ is listed in parentheses at the end of their line.

Player 1 1034G 228HRs .281/.389/.531 153 OPS+ 1ASG 6 Top Ten MVP (134)
Player 21160G 176 HRs .299/.373/.499 145 OPS+ 5ASG 4 Top Ten (all top five) 1GG (137)
Player 3 943G 229 HRs .249/.359/.509 143 OPS+ 6ASG 2 Top Ten MVP 1GG (162)
Player 4 1157G 132 HRs .296/.360/.472 130 OPS+ 2ASG 1 Top Ten (132)

The fourth player clearly lags behind the rest, while the first player, by a smaller margin, is the best.  The first player seems like the most well rounded player while the second player seems more durable, but not quite as powerful an offensive force.  Player number three’s line indicates something of a one dimensional slugger.

The career totals for these four players tell a very different story, one in which the role of steroids is hard to ignore.  Player three, Mark McGwire, had extraordinary numbers during the second half of his career.  Player two, Rafael Palmeiro, managed to hit better after the age of 29, but Fred McGriff and Will Clark, players one and two respectively, had more typical career paths as their numbers declined after their late 20s.  Clark, who was also never connected to steroid use, although a great player declined too precipitously for the Hall of Fame, but McGriff’s numbers during the second half of a presumably steroid free career are just good enough.

Alomar and Larkin were among the very best ever at their positions and, petty biases regarding first time inductees aside, should take their rightful place in Cooperstown.  McGriff and Martinez are more complicated candidates, and raise some interesting questions, but also deserve to be elected.