The 2011 Hall of Fame Ballot-The New Candidates

There are nineteen new players on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot: Carlos Baerga, Jeff Bagwell, Brett Boone, Kevin Brown, John Franco, Juan Gonzalez, Marquis Grissom, Lenny Harris, Bobby Higginson, Charles Johnson, Al Leiter, Tino Martinez, Raul Mondesi, John Olerud, Rafael Palmeiro, Kirk Reuter, Benito Santiago, B.J. Surhoff and Larry Walker. There are no new candidates this year that can be expected to easily get elected. The closest to this is Jeff Bagwell, who is deserving of the Hall of Fame, but is not viewed as a sure thing. There are, however, several players on the ballot who, while being good players, in some cases for many years, are clearly not Hall of Famers. This group includes Baerga, Boone, Grissom, Harris, Higginson, Johnson, Leiter, Martinez, Mondesi, Reuter, Santiago and Surhoff. That leaves a diverse group of seven players including Bagwell, Brown, Franco, Gonzalez, Olerud, Palmeiro and Walker whose candidacies should at least be seriously considered.

There are no great shortstops or leadoff hitters in this group as these players were all ace starting pitchers-Brown, great relievers-Franco or players corner outfielder-first baseman types who, although in some cases such as Olerud, being fine defenders, have earned consideration based on their hitting.

Both pitchers are intriguing candidates. John Franco may not seem like a Hall of Famer at first glance, but his numbers demonstrate the difficulties involved in evaluating relief pitchers. Franco had a long career, pitching from 1984-2005. His statistics, are quite strong. Franco is one of only nine relievers to pitch more than 1,000 innings with an ERA+ of at least 120 and 300 saves. Franco pitched 1245.2 innings, saving 424 games with an ERA+ of 138. Two of these pitchers, Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage, are Hall of Famers. Two more, Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera are almost certain to get in. The others include people like Roberto Hernandez, Doug Jones and Jeff Reardon who will not get in to the Hall of Fame, but who significantly trail Franco in ERA+ and saves. A good argument can be made that since the modern closer era began, Franco, along with probably Lee Smith, put up the best career numbers of players other than Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hoffman.

The problem with Franco’s candidacy is that he was not one of the truly dominant closers of his era, comparable to contemporaries Dennis Eckersley in the middle years of Franco’s career or Rivera and Hoffman during the last eight years or so of his career. Franco was one, and only one, level down from those types of players for most of his career. He pitched in only four All Star Games and finished in the top ten in Cy Young Award voting only once, seventh in 1994. This suggests a level of dominance that is too low for the Hall of Fame. Franco was one of the best relievers of his generation, but he was far from one of the best players of his generation. Few relief pitchers play at a level for many years where they are as valuable as good position players; and Franco was not one of these pitchers. For this reason, Franco would not get my vote for the Hall of Fame. However, if he were elected it would certainly not be the biggest mistake Hall of Fame voters have ever made.

Kevin Brown’s career overlapped almost entirely with the years when major league pitching was dominated by four extraordinary pitchers, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez. The only thing that will keep all four of those pitchers from being easily elected in their respective first years of eligibility will be Clemens’ steroid use. Therefore, the argument that Brown should be in the Hall of Fame rests on two points, first, whether electing more than four pitchers from one era is too many, and second, whether Brown is at the top of the second tier of great pitchers from that era. The best starting pitchers of the twenty in year period beginning the mid-1980s, and ending between 2005 and 2008, other than the Hall of Fame four include: Brown, Tom Glavine, David Cone, Mike Mussina, John Smoltz and Curt Schilling. Glavine’s 300 wins will guarantee his election into the Hall of Fame; and Cone’s career was probably just a little too short, but sorting out the remaining four players, including Brown, is not easy. They all pitched between 3250 and 3560 innings, with ERA+ between 123 and 128. Mussina and Schilling struck out more batters while walking fewer, and were probably better, and certainly more durable pitchers. The question is not whether or not Mussina and Schilling deserve to be in the Hall of Fame more than Brown, but whether the Hall of Fame is big enough for all three of them. Given that Brown played most of his career during a time when there were either 28 or 30 teams, it seems reasonable that more players should be elected from that period than previous periods. For this reason, Brown would get my vote, but by a very small margin.

The five hitters on the ballot all need to be viewed in the context of the steroid era. Palmeiro’s candidacy is heavily shaded by his steroid use. Olerud’s candidacy, on the other hand, rests entirely on the assumption that he never used steroid. Bagwell and Gonzalez are the two easiest candidates. Gonzalez was a great hitter for about five seasons 1993, 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2001, and a good hitter for a few more seasons, but his career was too short, his defensive value too limited and his overall offensive numbers insufficiently impressive. Sluggers who amass OPS+ of 132 in 7155 plate appearances occasionally get into the Hall of Fame, but they rarely deserve it. These numbers place Gonzalez in a category of players like Joe Medwick, Greg Luzinski and Boog Powell. All were good players; none are getting into the Hall of Fame. Gonzalez case is further weakened by his limited defensive value and suspicions of steroid use.

Jeff Bagwell was one of the best hitters of his generation, averaging .309/.433/.593 with 37 home runs and twenty stolen bases with an OPS+ of 166 during a seven year peak from 1994-2000. This was only the peak of a career in which Bagwell hit .297/.408/.540 with 449 home runs. Bagwell benefitted from playing in a hitter friendly home field in Houston for many years, but still managed to post a road OPS of .919 during his entire career. Bagwell was a great hitter who should be the elected to the Hall of Fame.

Olerud, Palmeiro and Walker are all intriguing candidates for different reasons. It is easy to dismiss Walker as a product of an extreme hitter’s park because he played in Coors Field for much of his career. His career .313/.400/.565 are very impressive even by the standards of his time. Walker’s road numbers are good .278/.370/.495 with 168 home runs, but if that home run number is doubled to 336 the career numbers would still be just a little short of Hall of Fame quality. Walker was not a one-dimensional slugger. He stole 210 bases in his career and was an excellent fielder. This combined with a 140 career OPS+ was enough to convince me that Walker deserves election, but by a very narrow margine. Had he sustained these numbers over a slightly longer career or stayed healthier, thus driving up the counting numbers, it would have been an easier choice.

John Olerud was an interesting player. He was a good fielding first baseman who also contributed a lot with his bat, but was never really a slugger. His season high 24 homeruns in 1993 is far less than many slugging first basemen hit each year. Not hitting enough home runs is, of course, not a reason to keep somebody out of the Hall of Fame. However, Olerud candidacy suffers from the presence of several other comparable recent players, who were about the same or a little better and have been consistently rejected by Hall of Fame voters. Will Clark, Keith Hernandez and Don Mattingly all put up comparable, or in the case of Clark, significantly better, numbers but are not in the Hall of Fame. While an argument can be made for all three of these players, they are all, at best, borderline candidates. Putting Olerud in ahead of these players, most notably Clark, would be a mistake.

Rafael Palmeiro is one of the most difficult candidacies to evaluate, but for many the major issue is steroids. We know that Palmeiro took steroids and lied about it. This seems reason to keep him out of the Hall of Fame for some, but I do not believe in a blanket exclusion for known steroid uses, largely because the investigations have been so shoddy that we don’t know for certain that anybody from that era was clean. Without the steroids, Palmeiro’s 569 home runs and 3020 hits would make him all but guaranteed election to the Hall of Fame. However, perhaps Palmeiro’s steroid use, while not enough to exclude him from the Hall of Fame, means we should look at these numbers differently.

Palmeiro accumulated these impressive counting statistics during a career when he was rarely a dominant player. He never led the league in anything other than runs, hits and doubles, which he did once each, and finished in the top five in OPS only twice. Nonetheless, he had a very strong peak between 1995-2002 where he hit .288/.382/.562 with an average of 42 home runs a year. These numbers need to be seen in context because Palmeiro’s best years coincided with a very offense heavy environment. Will Clark, a contemporary and college teammate of Palmeiro peaked a little earlier hitting a less impressive .301/.376/.505 from 1987-1993. However, Clark’s OPS+ for those years was 148, nine points higher than Palmeiro’s during his peak. During Palmeiro’s peak 14 players had at least 4,500 plate appearances with and better OPS+ than Palmeiro.

Palmeiro’s candidacy rests on counting statistics, but his rate statistics are weak for a Hall of Fame first baseman. His 132 OPS+, for example, places him behind eight of the fifteen Hall of Fame first baseman. The seven with weaker OPS+, however, include two players, Ernie Banks and Rod Carew who played large parts of their career shortstop and second base respectively, and several questionable selections such as Jim Bottomley, George Sisler and High Pockets Kelly. Palmeiro without steroids, or with a better peak, would get my vote, but this Rafael Palmeiro does not.

Bagwell, Brown and Walker are the only first time candidates, who would get my vote, but Walker and Franco miss by a very narrow margin. Bagwell and Brown would join returning candidates Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff, Tim Raines and Alan Trammell on my hypothetical ballot to bring my total to ten.