Thrill of Victory

Rating baseball's Hall of Fame candidates

Today is one of a true baseball fan’s favorite days: the unveiling of the new class of baseball’s Hall of Famers. At 1:00 p.m. Central, the Baseball Writers’ Association will announce the names of the players who’ll join the 243 players already there, including Deacon White, the 1800s star who the Veteran’s Committee elected in December.

Thirty-seven players are on the ballot this time; the names range from some of the biggest stars in baseball history like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, to 24 first-time candidates (some of whom were all-stars for just a season or two), to former Atlanta Braves superstar Dale Murphy, who’s in his 15th (and last) year on the ballot.

This election will be one of the most interesting in Hall history, mostly to see how voters react to players who used steroids. Bonds, Clemens and Sammy Sosa – all of whom used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) – are on the ballot for the first time. So are Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza and Curt Schilling, none of whom were ever proven to use.

Rule No. 5 on the ballot states this: “Voting shall be based on the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” For that reason, I don’t know how you could mark Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, or a couple of previous users in Mark McGwire or Rafael Palmiero. There are all sorts of arguments in favor of each, ranging from “everybody used then,” to, “we’ve let cheaters of other sorts in before,” but that’s a debate for a different blog.

The other difficulty in voting for the Hall is defining who belongs. Should we have a “small Hall,” where only the elite of the elite – the Babe Ruths, Christy Mathewsons and Johnny Benchs – get in? Or should we have a “big Hall,” where lesser players like Jim Rice, Andre Dawson and Bruce Sutter – all of whom have been recently elected – also get in?That, too, is a debate for another day.

What I’m going to do today is work within the Hall’s stated ethical restrictions, and give you my list of 10 best players on the ballot for this season.

1. Jeff Bagwell (1991-2005)
Bagwell played at a time when offensive numbers started to take off, but what people don’t often take into consideration is that he also played the first nine years of his career in the Astrodome, which greatly suppressed offensive numbers. Bagwell smacked 449 career home runs, had 1,529 RBIs, had a .408 career on-base percentage, and slugged .540. There were 14 players I took a closer look at for Hall-worthiness through the lens of FanGraphs.com’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which measures how much value a player delivers over a “replacement player,” whether that be someone from the bench or called up from the minors. This calculation includes both base-running and defensive contributions.

Among hitters on the ballot, Bagwell ranked first in career WAR, and if you took his numbers for best three-, five-, seven- and 10-year periods, he ranked No 1 in each of those as well. The only legitimate objection to Bagwell’s induction is whether he used steroids (there’s never been a direct connection, though that era threw a cloud of suspicion on everyone who played then), but this morning, I heard noted baseball writer Peter Gammons talk about seeing Bagwell before he made the majors, and how big and strong he was then.

Advanced statistical metrics like WAR are great because they put things like ballparks and high-run environment into context, and only 39 hitters in baseball history delivered better WAR numbers than Bagwell. In fact, he’s sandwiched between Ken Griffey, Jr. and Johnny Bench on the list; does anyone question them as worthy Hall of Famers?Unless a voter is taking a wait-and-see attitude on the Steroid Era to see who was guilty and who wasn’t, there’s absolutely no excuse for leaving Bagwell out of the Hall.

2. Mike Piazza (1992-2007)
Piazza wasn’t much of a defender, but was generally regarded as the best-hitting catcher in MLB history. He hit .308 for a career, smacked 427 homers, slugged .545, and had a career .377 on-base percentage. Along with Bagwell, the “did he use?” objection is often brought up as some suspected him of it, but neither the Mitchell Report or anything else ever connected him to PEDs as far as I am aware.

Piazza ranked only behind Bagwell in the first three WAR measures, and was third among hitters in 10-year WAR numbers on my list. Only Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, Yogi Berra and Gary Carter delivered more WAR than Piazza for his career among catchers, so there’s no justification for leaving him out based on performance.

3. Craig Biggio (1988-2007)
Biggio was one of the most underrated players in baseball for most of his career until he earned respect from the larger baseball world the old fashioned way: hanging around far past his prime and racking up career numbers (3,060 hits) that people could no longer ignore. Biggio accumulated some of his value any way he could, adorning body armor and getting hit by an MLB-record 285 pitches. He may be the only player in MLB history to start at catcher, second base and in center field at various points in his career for any meaningful length of time

4. Curt Schilling (1988-2007)
Among the 14 players I examined on the ballot, I was shocked to see Schilling lead in WAR not only over each of the four periods, but for his career as well. Only 18 pitchers in baseball history had more career WAR than did Schilling – pretty impressive for a guy who didn’t really establish himself as a legitimate big-league pitcher until he was 25. It’s hard to believe he never won the Cy Young Award, but he did make six All-Star games and pitch for three world champions.

5. Larry Walker (1989-2005)
Walker never could stay healthy for long, playing 143 games in a season twice, and only more than that just once (1997; he played 153 and won the MVP that year by hitting .366, with 49 homers, 143 RBIs and 33 steals). But man, was he fantastic when he played. In many seasons, he walked more than he struck out, had a cannon of an arm (which helped him win seven Gold Gloves) and stole a remarkable 230 bases, even though he weighed 235 pounds.

6. Alan Trammell (1977-1996)
Trammell was overshadowed by Cal Ripken by virtue of being his American League contemporary for most of his career, but when you can start at shortstop for about 16 years running, hit .285 and win four Gold Gloves, you’ve done something. WAR underscores Trammell’s real value; he’s fifth on the list for his best five-year period and sixth on the other three lists.

7. Tim Raines (1978-2002)
Raines was the National League’s best leadoff man of the 1980s. His 1,571 runs rank 53rd all-time and his 808 steals rank fifth. Of players on this list, he had the seventh-best WAR over a three-, seven- and 10-year period. He was an excellent defensive outfielder and might have put up better numbers had he stayed off cocaine earlier in his career.

8. Dale Murphy (1976-93)
Murphy may have been the NL’s most-feared hitter of the mid-1980s. Blessed with power, speed and grace, Murphy hit 398 career homers and won five Gold Gloves in center field after moving from catcher, then to first, then to the outfield. “The Murph” had impeccable character and was as good a representative that the game of baseball ever had; if you want to vote for a guy and rest assured that he never used PEDs, he’d the guy.

9. Edgar Martinez (1997-2004)
There are some people who won’t vote for Martinez solely for the reason that he was a DH his entire career; that’s unfair because the DH is part of the game and Martinez was maybe as good a hitter as the game had in the 1990s. Martinez had a career .418 on-base percentage and slugged .515 and had the third-best 10-year WAR score even though he didn’t have much opportunity to boost his ranking through defense.

10. Kenny Lofton (1991-2007)
Lofton led his league in steals five times, and won four Golden Gloves while manning centerfield for a bunch of teams, most notably the Indians. A smart player who hung on until age 40, Lofton had a career .372 on-base percentage and ranked between eighth and 10th on all four of my WAR lists.

What about?
Fred McGriff? (He was more of a star who put up good numbers over a long period, rather than a superstar of the level of those ahead of him)

Lee Smith? (Relievers are overrated because they generally don’t pitch enough; had just 29 WAR and never more than 3.0 for any one season. Nobody on the list had a WAR score under 7.3 for his best season.)

Jack Morris? (His WAR scores ranked 14th among the 14 candidates I examined, across the board.)