Three Yankees for the Hall of Fame

Six one time Yankees are on the Hall of Fame ballot this year. The six Yankees are: Roger Clemens, Johnny Damon, Andruw Jones, Hideki Matsui, Mike Mussina and Gary Sheffield. A seventh, Fred McGriff, was traded to the Blue Jays for a journeyman pitcher named Dale Murray while still in the minors. That remains one of the worst trades in Yankee history. The six Yankees include one very good player, Mastui, who despite his heroics in the 2009 World Series, is not a serious candidate and will likely get little support. Another candidate, Roger Clemens, has unequivocal Hall of Fame credentials as the best pitcher of his generation, but has been associated with PED use. The debate around Clemens is essentially a steroids debate about which pretty much everybody has already made up their mind. My position is that If I had a vote, I would vote for Clemens and Barry Bonds, but the remaining five candidates on the ballot are all more interesting from a purely baseball perspective.

The only candidate of the remaining four who has an unambiguous Hall of Fame resume is Mike Mussina, the wonderful right handed pitcher who won 123 games during his eight years in pinstripes after first spending a decade with the Orioles. Over the course of an 18 year career from 1991-2008, a period that included some very high offense years Mussina won 270 games, finished in the top ten in Cy Young Award voting eight times and had a career ERA of 3.68. Despite those impressive career numbers, for many Mussina has never felt like a Hall of Famer. Mussina was never the best pitcher in his league. He played at a time when four great pitchers, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux and was alway a cut or two below them.

 MIke Mussina's Hall of Fame credentials are very strong. Photo: cc/Willie Zhang

MIke Mussina's Hall of Fame credentials are very strong. Photo: cc/Willie Zhang

Mussina was not just a very good pitcher for a long time, but a very good pitcher who for a few years was truly excellent. Seven times over the course of his career he was in the top five in the AL in WAR for pitchers, finishing first in that category in 2001. Mussina’s career numbers are also pretty clearly Hall of Fame worthy. He was one of only 15 pitchers to pitch more than 3,500 innings with an ERA+ of 120 or higher. Roger Clemens is in that group as well, but the other 13 are all in the Hall of Fame. Mussina has the 23rd most WAR ever among starting pitchers and is ranked 28th in the JAWS system that seeks to create a measure that includes both peak and career value to estimate Hall of Fame worthiness. JAWS ranks Mussina ahead of such Hall of Famers as Tom Glavine, Nolan Ryan, Carl Hubbell and Juan Marichal. The biggest negative on Mussina is that he somehow didn’t seem like a Hall of Famer. He never won a Cy Young Award, only won twenty games once, never led the league in anything significant and, despite some great games, had no one defining moment in his career. Those minor negatives are outweighed by the fact that Mussina played when he did for 18 years and was never accused of using PEDs, had no other scandals over the course of his career and is, by most accounts, a thoughtful and decent man.

The three outfielders, Damon, Jones and Sheffield share some similarities. They all had their best day before coming to the Yankees, but were nonetheless valuable players during their years in the Bronx. They are also all very much on the Hall of Fame borderline. Damon is the easiest of the three as it his Hall of Fame case comes up a bit short. Damon has neither the peak performance or the career value needed for the Hall of Fame. In his best years, 2000 with the Royals, he only had 6.1 WAR. He only  made one All Star Game and never finished higher than 13th in MVP balloting. Damon retired 231shy of 3000 hits, a magic number that all but guarantees Hall of Fame admission. The argument for Damon is that he had a long career and almost got 3000 hits. However, 231 is a lot of hits for an aging ballplayer with no real defensive value. By the time he retired following the 2012 season, no big league team was convinced that Damon was good enough to take up a roster spot, so he never got to 3000 hits. Had he reached that hallmark, he probably would have made it in, but he also would have been a different, and better, ballplayer. The career of the real Johnny Damon doesn’t quite meet the Hall of Fame standards.

The remaining two outfielders, Gary Sheffield and Andruw Jones, are both very unlikely to make it into the Hall of Fame, but are much stronger candidates than they appear at first glance. Sheffield seems like a pretty good ballplayer who should get a longer look because he managed, barely, to get 500 home runs. He also might be perceived as a bit of a journeyman because he played on eight teams over the course of his 22 year career, was always a very good player, but only occasionally a great one. 

Sheffield’s Hall of Fame candidacy should not rest on his 509 career home runs, but on his status as one of the game’s truly elite hitters. The simplest way to understand this is that in the history of the game, there have only been 36 players with an OPS+ of 135 or more over a the course of a career that included 9000 or more plate appearances. These are the players who could sustain essentially consistently all-star lever hitting numbers over a long major league career. Of those 36, 10 are either active, on the ballot, not yet eligible for the HoF or suspected to be PED users. The remaining 26 are all in the Hall of Fame. This is not a question of selective endpoints because with an OPS+ of 140 and almost 11,000 plate appearances, Sheffield clears both these thresholds easily. In fact only 11 players ever had more plate appearances and an OPS+ equal to or better than Sheffield’s.

Sheffield’s offense clearly easily exceeds what is necessary for the Hall of Fame, but there are some real negatives about his candidacy as well. Sheffield contributed nothing defensively. He played shortstop, third base, the outfield and even first base, but was pretty bad at all of those positions. He also was one of many sluggers of his era who were associated with PED abuse. On balance, Sheffield would not get my vote because on a very crowded ballot the poor defense and PED use push him to about 11th or 12th place on a list that only has ten spots.

 Andruw Jones was one of the greatest defensive centerfielders ever and was a dangerous power hitter. Photo: cc/Keith Allison

Andruw Jones was one of the greatest defensive centerfielders ever and was a dangerous power hitter. Photo: cc/Keith Allison

Andruw Jones is an unusual candidate because he was an outfielder whose Hall of Fame candidacy rests largely on his defense. There are several players from the postwar era including Brooks Robinson, Bill Mazeroski and Ozzie Smith who are won election to Cooperstown almost entirely because of their defense. Another, Omar Vizquel, is on the ballot and receiving some attention this year as well. Smith and Robinson were among the greatest ever at their position, but Jones was an unambiguously better and more valuable player than Vizquel or Mazeroski.

Jones was a truly spectacular centerfielder, winning ten gold gloves in a row from 1998-2007. His 24.1 defensive WAR is the most by any outfielder in baseball history. The question of who is the greatest defensive centerfielder ever is subjective and may never be definitively answered, but Jones is clearly in that mix. Jones was a also a solid and occasionally very good hitter. His career OPS+ of 111 was buoyed by his 434 career home runs. JAWS ranks Jones 11th among centerfielders, behind only seven Hall of Famers. The majority of Hall of Fame centerfielders were not, when offense and defense is taken into consideration, as good as Jones. Jones is perhaps the greatest defender ever at his position and a pretty good hitter too. For me, that makes the Hall of Fame cut.

Determining which former Yankees should or should not be elected to the Hall of Fame occurs in the context of the odd Hall of Fame voting system that allows voters to choose up to ten candidates. Without knowing who else I support, my opinions on the Yankees are less useful. Accordingly, here are the ten people I would vote for if I had a Hall of Fame ballot. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Andrew Jones, Chipper Jones, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Scott Rolen, Curt Schilling, Jim Thome and Larry Walker.

Photo: ccc/Keith Allison