Hall of Fame: The Less-Than-5 Percenters
Prediction: There are 16 players on this year’s Baseball Hall of Fame ballot who will not receive 5% of the vote and, as such, will be bumped off the ballot. It is possible that one or two of these players will climb above 5% — and it’s also possible that one or two more players fall below. But this is my call: Sixteen players will miss out, including some very accomplished players.
Fun facts about five of the 16 players I think will not get 5% of the vote this year:
— One of them hit 600 home runs and three times surpassed Roger Maris’ magic 61 homers in a season mark.
— One of them hit 500 home runs and created more runs in his career than Honus Wagner, George Brett or Mike Schmidt.
— One of them hit more home runs than Yaz and drove in more RBIs than Mantle.
— One of them had the highest OPS for any shortstop in baseball history.
— One of them had a .400 career on-base percentage and more batting runs than Pete Rose.
The last three players might not get 1% of the vote, much less 5% of the vote.
Let’s talk for a minute about the Selig Era. We have reached the point, now, where almost all of the big hitters from the SE are eligible for the Hall of Fame; and nobody believes in them. They are Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Arizona Cardinals. Nobody believes. Of course, the Selig Era (1994-2003) was marked by huge offensive numbers, home runs by the truck load, MLB comic books featuring preposterously muscular players as superheroes. The Selig Era was marked by an almost comical indifference by everyone to steroid use. There was no testing. There was no policing. There were no closed door manager meetings and, frankly, few anti-steroid screens in the mainstream media.
And because of this, the offensive numbers compiled during the 1990s are viewed the way Jerry Seinfeld views handicapped parking places. You’ve heard the Seinfeld bit about how those parking spots are like mirages — you drive down the lot and you see a great spot, right up front, a spot too good to be true — and you pull up and see the handicapped sign and it’s like that spot simply disappears, it never existed, it was just a mirage. So it goes with Selig Era numbers. You see a baseball player with 500 home runs, holy cow, the 500 club, that makes him one of the greatest players in baseball history and, oh, wait, it’s just Rafael Palmeiro. Like he never existed.
It seems like the BBWAA consensus has chosen a few hitters who, best anyone can tell, were clean (Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey, Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones) and will let them represent the Selig Era. In time, I suspect a few others surrounded by some whispers (Biggio, Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Ivan Rodriguez) will get in. The rest? They will have to overcome an overpowering desire to make the Selig Era disappear … even if it was a lot of fun while it was going on.
The Selig Era was not the first crazy offensive era to come along in baseball. It happened from the early 1920s to the early 1930s. That era was known more for batting average than home runs — since 1900, the top 12 batting average seasons happened between 1921 and 1936. Bill James says that there were three major factors that led to insanely high batting averages:
1. The decision to get rid of the spitballers;
2. The fatal beaning of Ray Chapman, and
3. The immense popularity of Babe Ruth.
The game subtly shifted toward using fresh and new baseballs instead of the dirty ones that had marked Deadball. There were various other factors, some which we might never know for sure. But the point is that there were some crazy batting averages put up during that time. This would have a huge impact on the Hall of Fame — but not for many, many years. Take a look at these 10 Hall of Famers:
— Chuck Klein from 1928-1933 hit .359, led the league in homers four times, won a Triple Crown. He happened to be hitting in an amazing offensive time and in a ridiculous hitters park called the Baker Bowl. Hall of Fame voters of his time were unimpressed — Klein never got even 25% of the Hall of Fame vote. He was elected into the Hall by a veteran’s committee 36 years after he retired and 22 years after his death.
— Hack Wilson was a disappointment for the Giants, got traded to Chicago in 1926 and for the next five years in cozy Wrigley Field hit .331, led the league in homers four times and in 1930 knocked in 191 runs a record that may never be broken. He was traded to Brooklyn and faded rapidly. He never got 40% of the Hall of Fame vote, but was elected by the veteran’s committee 45 years after he retired and 32 years after he died.
— Earle Combs had a lifetime .325 batting average that he gathered while playing his entire career in the high-average era (his career was from 1924-35). He was on the 1955 Hall of Fame ballot and got one vote. He stayed on the ballot for a while longer and topped out at 16% of the vote. He was elected to the Hall by the vets in 1970, 35 years after his last game, but a few years before he died.
— Heine Manush hit .330 for his career. No contemporary writer thought of him as a Hall of Famer — he received one vote in each of his first two years on the ballot. In 1964, the veteran’s committee bizarrely voted him in. Well, it wasn’t that bizarre. The Hall of Fame was dying for ANYONE new because the writers had not voted in anyone in years. The veterans elected six people, including a couple of questionable pitchers (Red Faber and Burleigh Grimes) along with Manush.
— Kiki Cuyler was a .321 hitter for his career and led the league in stolen bases four times and runs twice. He topped out at 33.8% on the Hall of Fame ballot. He was elected by the veteran’s in 1968, 30 years after he retired and almost 20 years after he died.
— Sunny Jim Bottomley hit .310 for his career, led the league in homers once and RBIs twice, he topped out at 33.1% of the BBWAA vote and was elected 15 years after he died.
— Chick Hafey hit .317 for his career — led the league in hitting once. He got almost no support from the writers for the Hall but was elected by the veteran’s committee in 1971, a couple of years before he died.
— Freddie Lindstrom hit .311 for his career — led the league in hits once. He got almost no support from the writers for the Hall but was elected by the veteran’s committee in 1974, almost 40 years after he quit.
— Earl Averill was a .318 lifetime hitter — led the league in hits once and triples once. He got almost no support … well, you know this song. Averill was elected by the vets in 1975. “Averill paid thousands of dollars out of his own pocket to bring to Cooperstown the men who had campaigned for his election, which was laudable,” Bill James wrote, “and used his inauguration speech to blast the Hall of Fame for not electing him sooner, which was regrettable.”
— Lloyd Waner hit .316 for his career, never got 25% of the vote and was elected by the veteran’s in 1967.
So there are ten players who might not belong in the Baseball Hall of Fame — they wouldn’t be in my Hall of Fame — but they are in because they put up very high batting averages when batting average was cheap and plentiful. They didn’t take PEDs as far as we know, but the conditions were advantageous just the same. There were no black players in the Major Leagues, no Latin players, all games were day games, travel was local, baseball gloves weren’t as good, pitchers didn’t throw as hard, and pitchers were still trying to adapt to a time without spitballs and with clean baseballs.
The writers were not impressed by any of them. What happened was: Those high batting averages looked gaudy after the game had changed, after batting averages had fallen. I can’t help but wonder if something like that will happen in 30 or 40 years — maybe then people will look at the crazy offensive numbers of Sammy Sosa or Gary Sheffield or Carlos Delgado or Rafael Palmeiro and decide to put them into the Hall. I don’t know.
Anyway, here are the 16 players I don’t think will get 5% of the vote this year and, for fun, I predict about how many votes that will get:
— Aaron Boone (Prediction: 0). Hit a big homer.
— Tony Clark (Prediction: 0). The current executive director of the MLBPA … he had more big years than I remembered. Clark hit 30 homers four times and hit 251 for his career. He was born in Newton, Kansas, hometown of Tom Adair, a songwriter who wrote the Frank Sinatra hit “Let’s Get Away from it All” and a script writer who was involved in “Hogan’s Heroes,” “F Troop,” “Gomer Pyle” and “Hazel.” Quite a life, both of them.
— Eddie Guardado (Prediction: 0). Everyday Eddie was part of a weird trend in the mid-1990s — thoroughly ineffective pitchers who essentially pitched every other day. Guardado set a weird record in 1996. He was the first pitcher in baseball history to make more than 75 appearances and record an ERA of 5.00 or higher. He made 83 appearances that year with a 5.25 ERA. Well, he didn’t set the record along — that same year, Mike Myers also made 83 appearances with a 5.01 ERA, Brad Clontz made 81 appearances with a 5.69 ERA, and Curt Leskanic had the misfortune of making 70 appearances for the Rockies with a 6.23 ERA. This was the Selig Era. The game was hemorrhaging runs, and managers simply didn’t have enough good pitchers to stop the bleeding. So they used mediocre but durable pitchers just to get through. In time Guardado did become more effective — he led the league in saves in 2002 and added 41 more saves in 2003. He then signed a big money deal with Seattle and had a couple more fair seasons, though age drained his durability.
— Rich Aurilia (Prediction: 0). I have suggested in the past that the Hall of Fame should take more control of its ballot — Rich Aurilia was a perfectly fine player, and he had one big season, but he’s not a Hall of Fame candidate by anyone’s definition including, I suspect, his own. Still, because he did have that one crazy season (hit .324, led the league with 206 hits, banged 37 home runs) someone might vote for him (someone might also vote Aaron Boone for his one home run) rather than one of the 20 or so qualified candidates, making a mockery of the system. People have said that they don’t want the ballot controlled by a committee because that could lead to some monkey business; what they don’t get is that the ballot is ALREADY a committee that puts together the ballot. An example: Mark Loretta was probably a better player than Boone and perhaps Aurilia, but he was left off this ballot. Don’t get me wrong: Loretta should have been left off the ballot along with seven or eight of these players … Loretta was a good player who was clearly not a Hall of Famer. Ditto for Aurilia and Boone.
— Cliff Floyd (Prediction 0). He had five seasons where he played 120 or more games, and all five were good to excellent seasons. Floyd’s best year was with the Marlins in 2001 — he hit .317/390/.578 with 44 doubles, 31 homers, 18 stolen bases, 123 runs and 103 RBIs. There are many great Hall of Famers who never had raw numbers that that good in a single season. Roberto Clemente, for instance, never slugged .578. Then this was the zaniness of the Selig Era Floyd’s .578 slugging percentage in 2001 didn’t even put him in the Top 10.
— Jason Schmidt (Prediction: 0). He was a terrific pitcher in 2003 and 2004 after eight years of relative mediocrity. Up to 2003, Schmidt had a career 4.33 ERA, a 69-62 record, and a bloated 1.419 WHIP. But he had pitched better since being traded from Pittsburgh to San Francisco, and in 2003 he had a fantastic year — he led the league in ERA (2.34), shutouts (3) and WHIP (0.953). He had 200 strikeouts for the first time in his career and a career high 4.5-to-1 strikeout to walk. He had made himself into a true ace, and though his numbers were a little bit less gaudy in 2004 he was just about as effective. He pitched well enough the next two years to get a gigantic money offer from the Dodgers, at which point he broke down.
— Tom Gordon (Prediction: 0). I don’t want to reveal my thoughts on John Smoltz just yet, but I will say that Eck and Smoltz have created a new direct path to the Hall of Fame — be a good starter and a dominant reliever (even for a short time) and glory is yours. Flash Gordon didn’t pull it off, but his career had pieces of it. He showed promise as a rookie starter; he won 17 games with a 107 ERA+. At times it seemed he would become a good starter (he won double-digits six times) but it never quite happened. Then he went to Boston, became a closer and in 1998 he led the league with 46 saves and he got some MVP votes. He never had quite that good season again, but Gordon is one of only 14 pitchers who won 100 and saved 100 — and that list includes Hall of Famers Dennis Eckersley, Hoyt Wilhelm, Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers and, soon, John Smoltz. In case you missed my earlier bit, I don’t think any of these seven players should be clumping up this ballot.
— Jermaine Dye (Prediction: 0 or 1). Now we’re beginning to see some of the crazy offensive numbers of the 1990s — Jermaine Dye hit more home runs than George Brett, Joe Morgan, Ryne Sandberg, Brooks Robinson or Robin Yount. None of those guys was famous for home runs, of course, but the point is Dye hit 325 home runs in his fine career. In 2006 hit hit .315 with 44 homers and 120 RBIs, which would have won him the National League Triple Crown in 1988. Yes 2006 for the White Sox was a lot different from the 1988 National League, but that’s the point, isn’t it? Dye won a Gold Glove in 2000, and I watched him almost every day then and thought he was a good defender. He had a great arm. As time went on, he became a defensive liability because even as a young man he couldn’t run at all. I remember Dye telling me once in 2000 that teams threw over to first a lot when he reached base because he was African American, and they just refused to believe he couldn’t run. That was a pretty reasonable explanation; after all, in 2000 he didn’t steal a single base.
— Troy Percival (Prediction: 0 to 2). He was one of the hardest throwing pitchers in baseball history, and some of my favorite memories of the 1990s are of him facing Jim Thome, power against power, the very essence of Selig Era baseball. Percival would throw 100 mph. Thome would hit the ball 500 feet. Percival is ninth all-time in saves (358), higher on the list than every Hall of Famer except Dennis Eckersley. Then, Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman have pushed the saves record over 600, dwarfing even Lee Smith, who has been languishing on the ballot for years. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Percival get a vote or two.
— Darin Erstad (Prediction: 0 to 2). Oh those Selig Era numbers. In 2000, Darin Erstad hit .355/.409/.541 with 240 hits, 39 doubles, 25 homers, 28 steals, 121 runs, 100 RBIs — I mean, seriously, for one year he was Stan Musial. He never hit .300 again, never again even managed a .355 on-base percentage, much less a .355 batting average. He never hit 20 homers again. Never managed 180 hits in a season. His career OPS+ was 93. Erstad’s 2000 season must go down as one of the great fluke years in baseball history; and it might get him a vote or two. Erstad was the first pick in the 1995 draft — taken ahead of Todd Helton and Roy Halladay — he was a superb outfielder and a hustling player. Other than 2000, though, he was a below-average hitter.
— Brian Giles (Prediction: 0 to 3). Now we’re getting to some of those amazing facts listed at the top of the story. Giles is the player with a .400 lifetime on-base percentage and more batting runs than Pete Rose. How crazy is that? Giles was an on-base machine — he walked 100-plus five times in his career. In 2002 he had a crazy year where he had a .450 on-base percentage and .622 slugging. I mean those are RIDICULOUS numbers historically. Put it this way: Before the 1994 strike, there were 18 players who managed a .450 OBP and .620 SLG in the same season and they are some of the greatest players in baseball history (Ruth, Williams, Gehrig, Hornsby, Foxx, Bonds, Mantle were the only ones to do it more than once). Since 1994, well, 12 players have done it including Giles and six other players on this year’s ballot.
Giles finished with a career .400 on-base, a career .500 slugging and 50 WAR — he had a better statistical career than dozens of Hall of Famers. But for me he’s not a Hall of Famer, not really close. He might not get a single vote.
— Carlos Delgado (Prediction: 1-4). OK, Delgado is the one who had more homers (473) than Carl Yastrzemski and more RBIs (1,512) than Mickey Mantle. He hit 30-plus homers 11 times and three times hit 40-plus homers. He led the league with 57 doubles one year and led the league with 145 RBIs one year. Delgado was a masher who certainly would have hit 500 homers had his career not abruptly ended the year he turned 37. But all the numbers of the Selig Era are viewed as an illusion and Delgado will get almost no Hall of Fame support. I’m not saying he’s a Hall of Famer; he’s below my Hall of Fame line. I am saying that if a veteran’s committee can vote in Jim Bottomley or Heinie Manush because of high batting averages, a veteran’s committee might someday be impressed by all those Delgado homers and RBIs.
— Nomar Garciaparra (Prediction: 5 or so). You probably picked Nomah out of the players listed at the time. Among shortstops with 5,000 plate appearances, the highest OPS belongs to Nomah. Yep. Higher OPS than Wagner, Jeter, Larkin, Ripken, you name it. Of course, this is largely because of the time when he played, but let’s not miss that Nomah was a fantastic hitter in the late 1990s. His 1997 through 2000 seasons would absolutely fit right into even the greatest Hall of Famers careers — combined he hit .337, averaged 28 homers, 110 runs, 105 RBIs, he slugged .577. In 2000, he hit .372 and hit the ball about as hard as anyone I’ve seen. After an injury-ruined 2001, he came back and hit 56 doubles in 2002 — it seemed like every other minute he was whacking a ball off the Green Monster. Of course, he was traded in 2004, the year the Red Sox broke the curse, and I always thought that was a shame.
Nomah was 30 when he got traded and, at that point, he was on pace for the Hall. He had a career .322 average, and about the same WAR (42.4) as his great rival Derek Jeter (44.6). But while Jeter had another decade of excellence, Nomar’s career more or less ended the day he was traded. He couldn’t stay healthy. He had one pretty good year with the Dodgers at 32 but his body had broken down. Few probably remember that Nomah ended his career in Oakland. Tom Tango has been asking the question: How many hall-of-fame seasons should a Hall of Fame player have? Nomah had six great seasons — but those six seasons essentially make up the entirety of his career. Are six great seasons enough if not supplemented with a half dozen or so good to average seasons? The voters will decisively say: “No.”
The next three players COULD get 5%, but I predict they won’t.
— Don Mattingly (less than 5%). This is Mattingly’s last year on the ballot anyway; but I don’t think he will get to 5%, which is weird because players usually get a boost their final year. Anyway, it’s probably for the best. I loved Don Mattingly. Every single person my age loved Don Mattingly. He was, as I’ve written before, the very essence of baseball cool in the 1980s. He led the league in doubles three straight years, hit .337 between 1984 and 1987, won Gold Gloves, just was everything a baseball player was supposed to be. But his Hall of Fame case has always been pretty slight — he wasn’t good enough for long enough. The Kirby Puckett comparison is often made but (1) Puckett was a borderline Hall of Fame choice AND he had a better overall career than Mattingly; (2) A better comparison is with Keith Hernandez, who was a contemporary first baseman with a similar (perhaps superior) Hall of Fame case. Hernandez faded off the ballot after nine years.
— Sammy Sosa (less than 5%). I think Sosa falls off the ballot this year. I think Mark McGwire could fall off too, but I have this feeling McGwire will survive. I don’t think Sosa will.
Sosa is the central figure in Hannibal Buress’s epic steroid bit where he imagines a father and young son going to a Cubs game, watching Sosa hit a homer in the ninth inning to win the game, jumping up and down and knowing they will remember the moment for the rest of their lives. At which point Buress says, “What I’m saying is, if you’re against steroids, you’re against family.”
It’s hard to keep up, but as of right now Sosa has never admitted using steroids — his strong denial in front of Congress still stands as his lasting statement. The New York Times reported that he was on a list of players who tested positive in 2003, an experimental year of testing where the names were supposed to be kept confidential. Someone leaked that, obviously. Anyway, even before the Times report it has long been assumed by the vast majority of baseball fans that Sosa used PEDs … the so-called evidence being that the guy bulked up and hit 66, 64 and 63 home runs in his three biggest years.
I don’t disqualify a player for using PEDs in the wild and wooly Selig Era, so I don’t know how I feel about Sosa’s Hall of Fame case. He’s not particularly close to being one of the 10 best players on this ballot in my book, so I obviously didn’t vote for him. Would I vote for him in a simple “yes or no” ballot? Close. His case is almost all home runs. Over his career, he didn’t really get on base, he wasn’t a particularly good defender, he wasn’t a very good base runner. He mashed 600 home runs, though and had four or five crazy seasons. Right on the border. But it won’t matter.
— Gary Sheffield (Prediction: Less than 5%). This is my big call — as of right now, Sheffield has 8.1% of the vote in Repoz’s brilliant Hall of Fame collecting gizmo, which puts him above the 5% threshold. I think when all the votes come in, though, he will fall off the ballot, which is kind of crazy because Sheffield was an amazing baseball player.
Sheffield is a Bill James favorite — Bill talks often about how much he loved the way Sheff played. I did too. He’s listed above as the player with 500 homers who created more runs than Brett, Schmidt or Wagner. You remember how everybody kept talking about the fearsomeness of Jim Rice? Well, Gary Sheffield was truly fearsome. I loved watch him hit. He’d waggle that bat behind him like he had just been wronged in some terrible way and he was ready to hit ANYTHING — a fastball, a slider, a passing taxi, a meteorite. I never understood how Sheffield could look so wild-eyed and out of control as the pitch came and yet he almost never struck out. He was an absolute wonder at the plate.
Defensive metrics rank him as one of the worst defenders in baseball history. Based only on offense, Sheffield has no-doubt Hall of Fame numbers — his offensive WAR is the same as Frank Thomas, ahead of Al Kaline, Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield and many other Hall of Famers. But Baseball Reference has him an almost unbelievable 28.3 wins worse than the average fielder; Fangraphs says he cost his teams 205 runs over the years. I don’t remember him being that bad defensively. I don’t remember him being good, but I don’t remember him being that bad.
On my ballot, Sheffield was simply a victim of numbers. I never could consider if Sheffield was a Hall of Fame caliber player because, for me, he wasn’t one of the 10 best players on THIS ballot. If given a yes or no vote, I’d vote yes for Sheffield. But my prediction is that because of the overcrowded ballot and because of Sheffield’s admitted PED use he won’t get the 5% and will fall off the ballot. At that point, I think he he will join Rafael Palmeiro, Sosa and maybe McGwire in that weird Selig Era limbo.