Hall of Fame case for Albert Belle
On Monday, December 9, the Today’s Game committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame, which covers the years 1988-2018 — will vote on candidates for the 2019 induction class. Between now and then we will take a look at the ten candidates, one-by-one, to assess their Hall worthiness.
And yes, we did this two years ago, the last time the Today’s Game ballot was up for a vote, with most of the same candidates appearing. As such, a lot of this will be repeat material, some of it verbatim. Our view of this, however, is that if the Hall of Fame can keep recycling the same ballot, we can recycle our analysis of it to the extent it hasn’t changed.
First up: Albert Belle
The case for his induction:
An ideal Hall of Fame candidate has a clear, outstanding peak of his career and then a sufficiently decent ramp-up and decline of his career to where it can be said that he provided both greatness and longevity. Most Hall candidates who fall short do so because they lack one of these. Usually, it’s the peak of greatness they lack. We talk of them as being members of the “Hall of Very Good” or something, noting that, while above average players for many years, they weren’t dominant for a few years, and that makes all of the difference.
Albert Belle had the opposite problem. His career was cut short due to injury and he never had another plate appearance after his age-33 season. However Belle’s peak was, without question, Hall of Fame-worthy. So worthy that it makes his case a far closer one than almost anyone who only had ten full seasons and two partial seasons under his belt.
Between 1993 and 1999 — Bell’s age 26-32 seasons — he averaged a line of .308/.391/.602, 41 homers and 127 RBI. That’s an AVERAGE for seven years. And that’s with two of those years — 1994 and 1995 — being shortened due to work stoppages. Heck, his first two full seasons before that peak consisted of 28 homers and 95 RBI and 34 homers and 112 RBI, respectively. He should’ve been the unanimous MVP Award winner in 1995 but was boned out of the award, which went to Mo Vaughn, because the writers simply didnt like him. He probably should’ve won the 1998 Award too. He finished eighth, again, because he was a reviled figure, which we’ll talk about below. The players who were clearly better than Belle during his prime were Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds and probably Frank Thomas. That’s it.
Even with is early seasons and “decline,” such as it was, figured in, Belle ranks up there with Hall of Famers, at least as far as rate stats go. His career OPS+ of 144 puts him in the same range of Jim Thome, Edgar Martinez, Lance Berkman, Mike Piazza, Chipper Jones, Larry Walker and Vladimir Guerrero.
The case against his induction:
Belle played for only ten full seasons due to a degenerative hip condition that ended his career at age 33. That killed his counting stats. If healthy he would’ve likely sailed past 500 homers, 1,600 RBI and all manner of other milestones typically achieved by Hall of Famers. But if “ifs” and “buts” were candy and nuts we’d all have a happy Christmas. Which is to say: what a player might’ve done if healthy should not count in favor of his Hall of Fame case, even if it’s something to consider assessing the man more broadly. The fact was Belle did not contribute a thing beyond the year 2000 so, in terms of career aggregate value, he falls far short of a lot of players who themselves haven’t sniffed induction. And, of course, if he had played for several years beyond 2000, his rate stats I talked up above would’ve been lower due to a natural decline. All of that makes it a hard case for good old Uncle Albert.
Oh, and he wasn’t “good” old Uncle Albert. Belle had a bad reputation on and off the field during his playing career and it hasn’t improved since.
Unlike a lot of players who are portrayed as bad guys, Belle really was, and maybe still is, a bad guy. The least of his transgressions involved him being caught with a corked bat in 1994. He knocked Brewers Fernando Vina to the ground with a forearm blow that was, to most observers, unnecessary and excessive. He once chased down some kids who threw eggs at his home on Halloween . . . with his SUV, hitting one of them. He smashed things in the clubhouse, including his teammates’ possessions, buffet tables and the thermostat, which he preferred to keep at 60 degrees despite the protestations of his teammates. It goes without saying he was uncooperative and hostile to the press with many high-profile run-ins. There are some convinced that Belle’s anger — and strength — was attributable to ‘roid rage, but he was never implicated in any PED scandal and has, to this day, denied taking PEDs, simply saying that his behavior as a player was because he was “an angry black man.”
Things have not improved since the end of his playing career. In 2006 he was convicted for stalking and threatening his former girlfriend and was sentenced to 90 days in jail and five years’ supervised probation. Earlier this year he was arrested for driving under the influence and for indecent exposure, though charges were later dismissed.
Would I vote for him?
I tend to be pretty forgiving about so-called “character” issues and tend to give guys a much greater pass on such things when it comes to Hall of Fame consideration, but (a) running down kids with your car; and (b) stalking and threatening women is not exactly a gray area. If it was a close call I might say those things would tip the scale against Belle. I don’t think I need to add moral judgment to the scale here, though, because -- while I have gone back and forth on Belle over the years -- I tend to believe his career was too short to get my vote. He was an amazing player in his prime — one of the best sluggers the game has seen — but the game simply didn’t see enough of him. Not that the game is complaining.
Will the Committee vote for him?
No way on God’s green Earth. They never voted for Dick Allen because he was perceived as prickly. Belle makes Allen look like a cross between Father Christmas and Mr. Rogers. Belle never broke 8% in his two years on the BBWAA ballot, he was rejected the last time he was on the Today’s Game ballot and I predict, with near mortal certainty, that he’ll be rejected again. One hopes that the reason for that rejection will be a judgment on the brevity of his playing career, but I suppose most of it is because Belle was a horse’s hindquarters. In the end, it probably doesn’t matter.