Why do we care so much about the Baseball Hall of Fame? I don't really know. The same passion doesn't exist with the Basketball Hall of Fame or Pro Football Hall of Fame. I mean, when's the last time you read a 3,000-word diatribe about Jack Sikma not yet getting elected to Springfield? Do we even know how players are elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame? But with baseball, we argue, scream, follow the names of voters (and tweet angrily if they don't vote for our guys) and get so worked up that we all turn into 11-year-olds arguing about Reggie Jackson versus Steve Garvey.
Not that there's anything wrong with that; we have plenty of other hours in the day to act like adults. But with the Hall of Fame ... let loose. It's good to clear the blood.
So this will be the first of a series of posts about all 36 players on this year's ballot -- probably three, maybe four posts. Depends on how it goes and how much time I have. I do not own a Hall of Fame vote, but if I did ... well, I'm kind of glad I don't because I'd have trouble narrowing my ballot down to just 10 names. There are probably 22 players on this ballot for whom you can make some sort of legitimate Hall of Fame case, but voters can vote for only 10. Some will vote for none. Many don't vote for the players tied to performance-enhancing drugs. Some don't vote for first-ballot guys unless they were super-duper-stars. One voter sold his ballot to Deadspin. One has said he may turn in a blank ballot because he's upset about all the criticism he receives.
Yes, it's a bit nasty, this Hall of Fame electing stuff.
Before we start, a few reminders, things I've written about before that you may recognize if you read this blog regularly.
1. The Hall of Fame is pretty big ... bigger than the typical sports fan realizes. For example, guess how many of the following are Hall of Famers: Ron Santo, Pat Gillick, Jim Rice, Barney Dreyfuss, Billy Southworth, Bruce Sutter, Andy Cooper, Pete Hill, Effa Manley, Ben Taylor, Bill Mazeroski, Tony Perez, Orlando Cepeda, Nellie Fox, Richie Ashburn, Vic Willis, Phil Rizzuto, Bill Veeck, Enos Slaughter, Luis Aparicio, Travis Jackson, Tom Yawkey, Cal Hubbard, Bob Lemon, George Kelly, Ross Youngs, Earle Combs, Stan Coveleski, Heinie Manush, Rabbit Maranville, Joe Tinker, King Kelly, Roger Bresnahan, Babe Ruth.
Answer: All of them. (But you knew that, right?)
To me, this history means the Hall of Fame isn't just about electing the elite of the elite. That's easy. If the Hall of Fame were just about electing Willie Mays and Cal Ripken and Greg Maddux, it wouldn't be as fun nor as interesting. The level of a Hall of Famer is somewhere below those guys.
2. The Baseball Writers' Association of America has high standards -- it has elected just 14 players in the past 10 years -- but not impossible standards (unless you are alleged or believed to have used PEDs). Those 14 players, with their career wins above replacement via Baseball-Reference.com:
The average career WAR for those 14 is 70.2; the mean is at 68. You get to that level and you have a very good Hall of Fame case. Below that, and the arguments have to become more emotional and less analytical the further you get from 70. I'm not saying emotion doesn't matter -- it's not the Hall of Statistics -- but in the end, the voters are trying to elect the best players (except those who may have used PEDs). The players with lower WARs whom the BBWAA has elected in recent years -- Rice, Gossage, Sutter, Kirby Puckett, Tony Perez -- usually have some undefinable intangible going for them. For the most part, I stick to the numbers, but we can't always completely dismiss something that may not show up in the stats.
3. I'm OK with the PED guys. I view them as a product of their era. For the most part, I won't be discussing PEDs here. I'm evaluating the players on what happened on the field.
4. I'm more of a peak value guy. I like players who dominate rather than just compile. Now, compilers can end up with impressive Hall of Fame credentials -- Don Sutton, for example, won 324 games but had only three seasons with a WAR above 5.0. He was very good more than he was great. Still, 324 wins ... hard to say that's not a Hall of Famer. The problem with compilers is that we tend to reward round numbers -- 300 wins, 3,000 hits, 500 home runs. Craig Biggio isn't a strong candidate because he hung around to get 3,000 hits; he's a strong candidate because he was a great player.
OK, let's get started ...
36. Jacque Jones (11.5 WAR) -- Had a big 5.1-WAR season in 2002. That was the year the Twins broke through and won the first of four division titles in five seasons. Jones started on the first three of those teams, and I'm sure Twins fans remember him fondly.
35. Todd Jones (10.9 WAR) -- He's 16th on the all-time saves list -- he has more saves than Gossage or Sutter -- which kind of goes to show that once you become a closer, all you have to do is remain semicompetent to hold the job. With a 3.97 ERA, Jones was hardly a dominant reliever even for his era.
34. Mike Timlin (19.6 WAR) -- Lasted until he was 42, pitched in four World Series, and his team won all four (two with Toronto, two with Boston), which counts for something. He recorded the final out of the 1992 World Series when Otis Nixon tried to bunt his way on, with Timlin making a nice play to throw him out. The Blue Jays had scored two runs in the top of the 11th, but Jimmy Key allowed a run to score on a groundout, moving John Smoltz, pinch-running for Damon Berryhill, to third base with two outs. Cito Gaston brought in Timlin to face Nixon and turn him around to the left side. Why? Even though that meant the speedy Nixon was a step closer to first base, he'd hit .343 from the right side that year, .263 left-handed. Of course, Gaston probably never imagined Nixon would bunt. (By the way, that was a great game; Nixon had tied the game in the bottom of the ninth with a two-out, 0-2 single off Tom Henke.)
33. Eric Gagne (11.9 WAR) -- Didn't last long but had that awesome three-year run, and his 2003 Cy Young season is arguably the greatest ever for a relief pitcher in the less-than-100-innings era.
32. J.T. Snow (11.0 WAR) -- Won six Gold Gloves, twice knocked in 100 runs and once saved Dusty Baker's kid from possible death in a World Series game.
31. Sean Casey (16.3 WAR) -- A .302 career hitter, Casey looked like he might be a big star when he hit .332 with 25 home runs in his first full season, but he never really improved from there and his power went up and down.
30. Paul Lo Duca (17.9 WAR) -- He was a four-time All-Star -- who knew? -- and that doesn't even include his best season in 2001, when he hit .320 with 25 home runs. Lo Duca didn't become a regular until he was 29, rarely struck out (since 2000, he has the sixth-lowest strikeout rate), married (and divorced) a Playboy model, was named in the Mitchell report and later admitted to using PEDs, and then become a horse racing analyst for TVG after his baseball career. Maybe he's not a Hall of Fame player, but that's a lot of stuff to put on a plaque.
29. Armando Benitez (17.7 WAR) -- From 1999 to 2004 he saved 207 games with a 2.47 ERA, allowing just 279 hits in 440 1/3 innings while averaging more than 11 K's per nine, dominant numbers for that era. But his legacy will be his postseason futility; I'm not sure any pitcher has served up more big postseason home runs than Benitez: 1996 ALDS (Albert Belle grand slam with game tied); 1996 ALCS (Derek Jeter home run to tie the game, the Jeffrey Maier home run); 1997 ALCS (up 4-2, three-run homer to Marquis Grissom); 1997 ALCS (Tony Fernandez homers in 11th to break 0-0 tie); 2000 NLDS (three-run homer to Snow in ninth to tie the game). Ouch.
28. Richie Sexson (17.9 WAR) -- One of 30 players to have at least three seasons with at least 39 home runs and 120 RBIs. Twelve are in the Hall of Fame. All the others played in the 1990s or 2000s.
27. Hideo Nomo (21.1 WAR) -- If you weren't following baseball in 1995, or even if you were, it's easy to forget how big of a deal Nomo was. Maybe not quite Fernando-mania level, but close. Baseball was coming off the strike, everyone was ticked off about the late start to the season, and then Nomo, in his first season from Japan, exploded on to the scene with that herky-jerky windup that left batters completely befuddled. He didn't win a game in May but then took off: one run and two hits to beat the Mets; one run against the Expos; 16 strikeouts to beat the Pirates; two runs to beat the Cardinals; a two-hit, 13-strikeout shutout against the Giants followed by another shutout. He allowed one run against the Braves to lower his ERA to 1.99, and he started the All-Star Game. By mid-August his ERA was still 1.91. He tired a bit down the stretch but finished with a 2.54 ERA and 236 strikeouts in 191 1/3 innings. He was still great in 1996 (fourth in the Cy Young vote), but then he lost a little velocity and hitters were no longer confused by his motion, and he had a lot of trouble throwing strikes. He had some decent years -- he led the AL in strikeouts one year with Boston -- but it's the summer of 1995 that I'll always remember.
26. Ray Durham (33.7 WAR) -- Seemed like a very underrated player while active -- had a little power, got on base, stole some bases, OK with the glove. Finished in the top 10 in his league five times in runs scored, as high as second, which speaks to his on-base ability and speed.