Ron Guidry was a great pitcher, but the arguments against putting him in the Hall of Fame are clear. He had a short career and was only an impact player from 1977-1985. Other than 1978, he was never the best pitcher in the American League. He has much fewer wins that most Hall of Fame starting pitchers. On balance, I would not place Guidry on the top of my list of players who have been overlooked by Cooperstown, but the problem with selecting somebody who is so clearly under qualified as Jack Morris is that it makes it easy to make arguments for people like Guidry, and yes Tommy John, Rich Reuschel and Luis Tiant as well. Morris’s election was more of a statement by the Hall of Fame than a true recognition of greatness, but it was a very strange statement.
The Cooperstown case for John is based on having had a long and very good, if never quite great, career and for the larger impact he had on baseball. For Tiant, his very impressive peak, relative longevity, including 229 wins and just short of 3,500 innings pitched, are a big part of his case, but there is more to Tiant than that. He was a reliable big game pitcher and one of the first great Cuban stars to make it to the big leagues. Starting pitchers are not well represented in Cooperstown. Tiant and John are among the best of their era who are not in yet, so electing them would begin to rectify that and perhaps open the door to even more qualified pitchers, like longtime Yankee Mike Mussina, from later eras. And, for what its worth, both were better pitchers than Jack Morris who may just get in on some kind of strange sympathy vote this year.
At best these debates are fun, challenging and seemingly important. Hall of Fame and Award related discussions feel important because they have direct bearing on how the game and its history are remembered. One of the annual baseball debates that meets none of these criteria surrounds the All Star Game. These debates begin around this time of year and usually take the form of whether some genuinely underrated very good player, a famous and clearly great player having an off-year or a not well known player having a good first half should start the All Star Game, or make the team. This year Josh Donaldson, Derek Jeter and Seth Smith are good examples of each category.
Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas's election to the Hall of Fame represents one of the best years for Hall of Fame selection in a long time. Although there were numerous other deserving candidates including those tainted by steroids, like Barry Bonds and those with no steroid association, like Craig Biggio and Mike Mussina, it is still a good sign that three players, the most since 2003, were elected by the BBWAA. Biggio missed by an agonizing 0.2% and is in strong position to get elected next year.
This year, due to the quality of players on the ballot, the question of which players get less than 5% of the vote and fall off the ballot is almost as interesting as who will get elected. It is very possible that players with clear Hall of Fame credentials will not meet this 5% threshold and thus not get future consideration by the BBWAA. In this regard former Oriole and Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina is one of the most interesting candidates. He is not as well known as many of the other players on the ballot, but his career numbers compare favorably to many Hall of Famers. Mussina falling off the ballot is a real possibility, but is made more notable by the likelihood that an inferior pitcher, Jack Morris will be elected.
The current system allows voters to list up to ten players on their ballot. Players listed on 75 percent or more of the ballots win election to the Hall of Fame. Those who do not make 75 percent, but who get more than 5 percent, are kept on the ballot for another year, and can remain on the ballot for up to 15 years. Players who receive less than 5 percent of the vote are dropped from the ballot for good, although they can become eligible for the veteran's committee special ballot after several more years. One major problem with this system is that once it gets backlogged, as it is now, it is very hard to change that. In the next few years, due to this back log, there will be more than ten very strong candidates on the ballot, forcing voters to make tough choices. More significantly, this may also lead to mid-range candidates being dropped from the ballot after only one appearance. This is what happened to Kenny Lofton this year.
Last week when Gary Carter, the Hall of Fame catcher and catalyst of probably the most famous rally in baseball history, died at only 57 years old, the baseball world mourned the passing of a great and beloved ballplayer. I found myself more saddened than I might have expected by his death. This is partially due to the arc of Carter’s career and life dovetailing so well with my life as a baseball fan. Carter was one of the few, maybe only, Hall of Fame players whose first baseball card came out the year I started collecting. His best years, from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s corresponded with my most youthful and intense period of being a baseball fan. He was not a fully formed star like Johnny Bench or Reggie Jackson when I first became aware of baseball, but he began his career at a time when my infatuation with baseball could still be described as childlike wonder.
Therefore, what is at stake in Hall of Fame voting is how the game’s history gets passed down from one generation to another. This is further complicated by the vague and differing definitions of what makes a Hall of Famer, specifically the relationship between narrative and numbers in evaluating players. Jim Rice, for example, got an increase in support because of his great 1978 season and the false, but broadly accepted narrative that he was the most feared hitter of his generation.
If I had a vote for the Hall of Fame, I would drop Walker from my ballot, but would not add Murphy, so the returning players who would get my vote are Bagwell, Larkin, Martinez, McGriff, Raines and Trammell, as well as first time candidate Bernie Williams.
There are specific situations where the score will change what pitchers do. With a big lead, pitchers may be less afraid to challenge hitters, a strategy which often results in more strikeouts and hits, but fewer walks. Similarly, in close games pitchers may be reluctant to throw the ball down the middle of the plate, a strategy which would result in fewer home runs, but possibly more walks. Even if we accept this at face value and assume that all pitchers have a sufficient breadth of approaches and sufficient command to implement these strategies, the impact of these approaches over the course of a season or even a career is probably somewhat limited.
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 is another issue which should be part of that discussion as well which is the question of the central definition and role of the Hall of Fame. According to theHall of Fame’s mission statement the Hall of Fame seeks to “Honor(ing), by enshrinement, those individuals who had exceptional careers, and recognizing others for their significant achievements.” This sounds pretty straightforward, but there is an implicit, if at first glance insignificant, conflict between this definition and the name of the institution. It is, after all, the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Excellence. This suggests that fame should also be an important consideration for considering election to the Hall of Fame. It is this notion of fame that often makes Hall of Fame voting more complicated. It seems pretty clear to many that, for example, Dwight Evans was a more valuable player than his longtime teammate Jim Rice, but the latter was certainly more famous which helps explain why Rice is in and Evans is out.