There are 14 players on the 2011 Hall of Fame ballot who are return candidates from 2010: Roberto Alomar, Harold Baines, Bert Blyleven, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez, Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff, Mark McGwire, Jack Morris, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker, Tim Raines, Lee Smith and Alan Trammell. This exceptionally strong group of returning players, particularly given the relatively weak pool of first time players on the ballot, suggests that at least some of them will be elected in 2011.
There are several possible ways to break down the ballot. One is to divide the players into three categories: players who were very good for a long time or who’s peaks were too short but not quite good enough, players who are very deserving of the Hall of Fame but who have been overlooked, and the borderline cases. Harold Baines, Don Mattingly, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker and Lee Smith were all very good players who either had relatively short peaks-Murphy, Parker and Mattingly or had long careers without ever having a strong peak-Baines and Smith.
Don Mattingly, in some respects, had two careers. Between 1982 and 1989, he posted an OPS+ of 144 in just over 4,400 plate appearances while winning five gold gloves. Mattingly’s peak was impressive, but not sufficiently so to outweigh the rest of his career. Through age 28, Mattingly was one of the 25 or so best hitters in baseball history as his OPS+ until age 28 ties him with Alex Rodriguez, Darryl Strawberry and Harry Heilmann among players with 4,000 or more plate appearances by that age. Mattingly clearly had half a Hall of Fame career, but that was all he had. For his last six years and almost 3,000 plate appearances, Mattingly posted an OPS+ of 104 and was of little value to his team.
Dave Parker and Dale Murphy had similar, but less dramatic career paths with strong peaks followed by long and at best inconsistent post-peak careers. The strongest argument for these players is that in recent years both Jim Rice and Andre Dawson, neither of whom were clearly superior to these or several other players have been elected to the Hall of Fame. This is simply not a good enough reason, particularly given the other more deserving returning candidates on the ballot in 2011.
Lee Smith and Harold Baines were similar players in that they were both very good for many years, but never really broke through as major stars. Baines managed to accumulate almost 2,900 hits and 400 home runs while only leading the league in one offensive category, slugging percentage in 1984, while accumulating a career OPS+ of only 120. Smith was one of the game’s best relievers between the end of the Dan Quisenberry, Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage years and the emergence of Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman. However, even during those years he was never as good as Dennis Eckersley or other dominant relievers. Holding the all time record for saves before Hoffman and Rivera is more a reflection of the quirky history of the closer role than of Smith’s true position among baseball’s all time greats.
The three clear choices for the Hall of Fame are Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven and Tim Raines. Alomar received 73.7% of the votes in 2010 and will almost certainly reach the 75% threshold this year. Alomar’s ten Gold Gloves and decade of dominance at second base between 1992 and 2001 during which he hit .315/.393/.482 averaging 30 stolen bases and 16 home runs place him among the greatest at his position since Joe Morgan.
Blyleven’s statistics have remained unchanged since he retired after the 1992 season, but better understandings of context, advanced pitching metrics and the real value of gaudy win loss record have helped Blyleven who received 74.2% of the vote in 2010 and is also very likely to be elected this year. Blyleven’s election will be a real victory for the SABRmetric community and further evidence that many baseball fans, pundits and writers are able to think about the game differently than they did a generation ago.
This only makes the lack of support given to Tim Raines, who received 30.4% of the votes in 2010, even more puzzling. Like Blyleven, Raines is a favorite of many statistics minded fans. His .385 OBP, 808 stolen bases at an 85% success rate, strong peak between 1984 and 1987 and ability to be a valuable player into the late 1990s are all impressive credentials. Unlike Blyleven, Raines was a recognized star when he played whose lack of support in Hall of Fame voting is even more puzzling. Raines is the second best leadoff hitter of the modern era, while clearly not as great as Rickey Henderson, Raines is clearly better than Lou Brock who trailed Raines in OBP by .042 and OPS+ by .014, but was nonetheless easily elected to the Hall of Fame.
The borderline candidates are Larkin, Martinez, McGriff, McGwire, Morris, and Trammell. Trammell and Larkin were two of the greatest shortstops in history. They were also similar players, very good defenders who were able to get on base, hit with some power and steal a few bases. They were not sluggers in the Miguel Tejada or A-Rod mold or slick fielders, who did not always contribute much at the plate like Ozzie Smith, but somewhere in between. Trammell and Larkin were, in some respects, comparable to Derek Jeter but with considerably better defense and not quite as much hitting. Trammell and Larkin were among the most complete shortstops of the 20th century and only two of five players to play 2,000 or more games at shortstop while posting an OPS+ of 110 or better. Trammell and Larkin were overshadowed by the great shortstops like Jeter and A-Rod who emerged in the late 1990s, but as time goes by and those players either leave the position, get hurt or stop fielding, Trammell and Larkin look even more impressive and deserving of enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.
Trammell’s longtime teammate Jack Morris is something of the anti-Blyleven who’s good, if not quite Hall of Fame, numbers are bolstered by alleged intangibles like “knowing how to win” and the great game seven he pitched in the 1991 World Series. Morris was a valuable inning eater type pitcher who played on some good teams, but an ERA+ of 105 simply is too low for a starting pitcher to get into the Hall of Fame.
The remaining three sluggers all raise different questions for Hall of Fame voters. McGwire is, of course, still enmeshed in the steroid issue with regards to his Hall of Fame candidacy. This will get more attention as Rafael Palmeiro joins him on the ballot this year. This year, McGwire would not get my vote because unlike other known steroid users like Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens, the time when McGwire started using remains unclear making it more difficult to judge his pre-steroid accomplishments.
Voting against Edgar Martinez because he was primarily a designated hitter is not entirely logical given how many first baseman and outfielders are in the Hall of Fame despite contributing little or nothing with the glove. Martinez’s extraordinary offensive numbers, and deceptively long career make him a good, if unconventional candidate who would get my vote. He was a far better hitter than Rice, Dawson or many other recent inductees. Unlike Parker or Mattingly whose candidacies can be argued because they were about as good as these two Hall of Famers, Martinez was clearly better. Posting a .019 higher OPS+ in 900 fewer at bats than Rice and a .018 higher OPS+ 2,000 fewer plate appearances than Dawson. Even if only Dawson’s peak years are included, Martinez still was a significantly better hitter.
Fred McGriff is one of the most intriguing Hall of Fame candidates. He is something of a Palmeiro without steroids, a Baines with more power or Mattingly without the sharp decline or extreme peak. McGriff might be the last great pre-steroids era Hall of Fame candidate. Ironically, his candidacy is also affected by steroids because it is only viable if McGriff is assumed to be clean. If he was clean, than he should get a lot of credit for continuing to post good numbers as the power hitting competition got tougher. McGriff gets my vote, but not by much. If there was a stronger class of first time candidates, he would be left off my ballot.
It is unlikely that all seven of the players I would support, Alomar, Blyleven, Larkin, Martinez, McGriff, Raines and Trammell, will get elected to the Hall of Fame, but they are all deserving of the honor, and clearing the backlog a bit would be good for the Hall of Fame. This is a good year to do that.