Two developments in the groupthink that has corroded Hall of Fame voting over the last decade leave me genuinely flummoxed.
The first is the slavish devotion to WAR as the primary arbiter of worthiness.
WAR is a perfectly useful tool. But relying on it to the exclusion of everything else is like judging an actor on box office and not charisma. There has to be room for subjectivity. Otherwise, we might as well just load up the 2020 ballot on Baseball Reference, sort by WAR, and call it day.
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Welcome to Cooperstown, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Larry Walker, and Scott Rolen. Sit tight, Todd Helton and Bobby Abreu. You'll get your write-in campaigns, eventually, too.
The second change is the sudden certitude that the Hall is too small, and there are too many worthy candidates, and the 10-man ballot is anachronistic, and I'D VOTE FOR 21 MEN IF I COULD, DON'T MAKE ME CHOOSE!!!! This leads to voters submitting "strategic" ballots where they leave off, say, Derek Jeter, in order to help Andruw Jones or Cliff Lee meet the minimum five percent threshold to do it all again next year.
To my fellow voters: 10 is plenty. If you consistently feel there are 12 or 15 or 18 players worthy of enshrinement, you should reevaluate your standards. It's supposed to be an exclusive club; we're not handing out Costco memberships. (That's the Veteran's committee's job, unfortunately.)
Anyway, after examining this year's ballot, I am comfortable checking five names: Bonds, Clemens, Jeter, Schilling, and Gary Sheffield. Allow me to explain each decision in capsule form.
Derek Jeter — First ballot, obvious, no need to discuss. It turns out that Nomar wasn't, in fact, better.
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens — There's a great line in the classic sitcom "Arrested Development" when a known arsonist is not so much asked as told that he burned down a storage unit.
"Oh, most definitely," he replies without hesitation, shame, or misdirection. That's how I feel about Bonds and Clemens when it comes to PEDs.
There's no reason to pretend either case is worth deliberating. But unless and until baseball removes them from the ballot, I'm not going to treat them differently than other players no more deserving of the benefit of the doubt who have nonetheless received it. They were a product of their era, which was dirtier than a dip cup, and they dominated it like no other.
If MLB doesn't want them in Cooperstown, that's not my problem.
Curt Schilling — This can't be simply about Schilling's politics, which became abhorrent somewhere between John McCain and Sarah Palin. Schilling seems like the one player who's still being judged by the old standards, because his WAR (79.5) ranks third on the ballot. Checkmarks against him include not enough wins (216), All-Star berths (6), or Cy Young Awards (0).
But Schilling is a classic example of someone whose greatness needed to be seen in real time to be appreciated.
At the height of Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Clemens, Roy Halladay, and every other contemporary great, Schilling stood above them all (my opinion) as the man you'd want on the mound in a must-win game.
He is without question the best big-game pitcher of the last 50 years — if not ever — and that 11-2, 2.23 postseason resume is no mirage. He made 19 playoff starts and allowed two runs or fewer in 16 of them while pitching in the heart of the juiced era.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: If my life depended on winning one game, I'd hand the ball to Schilling and sleep like a baby.
Gary Sheffield — Here's a player WAR hurts, because it penalizes him for deficiencies that shouldn't override his strengths.
To wit: Sheff wasn't much of a defender at third, short, left, or right. His defensive shortcomings end up hammering his lifetime WAR.
To this I say: so what? Defensive metrics remain notoriously unreliable, so why should their role in WAR be treated as unassailable? (As but one example, consider Jacoby Ellsbury, whose defensive runs saved flipped from positive in 2008 to negative in 2009. The Red Sox determined that most of the difference could be attributed to right fielder J.D. Drew's penchant for cutting in front of him to catch every lazy fly ball to right-center. Ellsbury wore each of them as a demerit, even though he was standing right there, too.)
Anyway, I'm not here to argue that WAR denies Sheffield his due as a great defender so much as it may overstate the case of other candidates — like this year's cause du jour, Larry Walker. If we toss the defensive portion of Sheffield's WAR and focus solely on offense, we're suddenly looking at a top-35 slugger, his 80.8 lifetime offensive WAR between Hall of Famers Rod Carew (81.0) and Frank Thomas (80.5). All 34 players ahead of him on the list are either in Cooperstown, still active (Albert Pujols), or named Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, or Manny Ramirez (81.8). (For those wondering, Walker ranks 79th at 62.8.)
Add defense and baserunning, and Sheffield's overall WAR drops to 60.5, which makes him much more of a borderline case. But do we judge Einstein on his writing or his science? Sheffield was an offensive monster who also managed to steal over 250 bases. Add subjective criteria — you always scanned the opposing lineup to see where he was hitting — and he's an easy yes for me.
And finally, a note on a couple of no's.
I consider Walker a great player who's nonetheless a Coors Field creation (he hit 60 points higher at home than on the road for his career).
The slugger I wrestle with the most is Ramirez. I may eventually come around to yes, but for now, I can't ignore the fact that he was busted for PEDs twice after appearing on the infamous 2003 doping list. If he didn't care about his legacy, why should I?