I continue my spin through the Hall of Fame ballot ...
Pretty fine ballplayers but not Hall of Famers
25. Moises Alou (39.7 WAR) -- I was surprised to see how good Alou’s final career numbers were: .303/.369/.516, 332 home runs, 1,287 RBIs, more than 2,000 hits. The dude could flat-out hit; at age 40, playing 87 games for the Mets, he hit .341 and walked nearly as much as he struck out. He hit .355/.416/.623 for the 2000 Astros, knocking in 114 runs in 126 games -- and finished 20th in the MVP voting. That helps put his numbers in a little perspective: A lot of guys put up monster numbers in those days, thus explaining (somewhat) why Alou’s career WAR isn’t higher.
Alou missed all of the 1991 season with an injury, thus delaying the start of his rookie year until he was 25. He had that horrific ankle injury in 1993 that would rob him of his speed and affect his range in the outfield. He tore his ACL in an offseason treadmill accident and missed all of 1999. All that, and we haven't even mentioned him peeing on his hands and the Bartman play.
24. Luis Gonzalez (51.5 WAR) -- From 1999 to 2003, he hit .314/.405/.564 and earned 25.0 WAR. Heck of a five-year run. But, again, everyone hit in that era. Gonzalez’s .969 OPS during that span was better than that of any National League hitter in 2013 -- yet he ranked in the top 10 in the NL in OPS just once in those five years, his 57-homer season in 2001.
23. Kenny Rogers (51.4 WAR) -- Won 131 games after the Yankees dumped him, 219 in his career. His 4.27 career ERA doesn’t look that pretty, but it came when all those big offensive numbers were on the board. For what it’s worth, he has a higher career WAR and better winning percentage than Jack Morris.
22. Don Mattingly (42.2 WAR) -- He’s managed to hang around for 14 years on the ballot, but he peaked at 28 percent his first year, fell to 20 percent in his second year and has remained under 20 ever since, a clear sign that his career doesn’t appear as impressive in the rearview mirror. And it wasn’t. The voters are making the right call here. His peak was short -- four tremendous years, two more good ones, then a string of mediocrity due to his back problems. Minus the injuries, he easily would have collected 3,000 hits and entered Cooperstown. That didn’t happen. Maybe he’ll get there as a manager.
21. Lee Smith (29.6 WAR) -- He obviously has his supporters, collecting 47.8 percent of the vote last year, more than Curt Schilling, Edgar Martinez, Alan Trammell, Larry Walker and Fred McGriff, not to mention the PED guys. I don’t get the love the Baseball Writers' Association of America has bestowed on closers, most of whom are failed starters (Smith had a 5.98 ERA in Double-A when he was converted to the bullpen), while at the same dismissing Martinez because he was primarily a DH or dismissing the all-around ability of a guy like Trammell. I mean, you don’t think David Cone would have been a great closer? Orel Hershiser? A vote for Smith is a vote for the position as much as for the value Smith actually provided in his career.
That doesn’t mean he wasn’t excellent at his job. He was the all-time saves leader when he retired and led his league four times in saves. He even finished second, fourth, fifth and ninth in Cy Young voting, although his second-place finish in 1991 (47 saves, 2.34 ERA, 70 hits and 67 strikeouts in 73 innings) looks kind of funny in retrospect, as it wasn’t really that dominant a season other than the saves total.
Was Smith ever the best reliever in the league? To me, he always seemed like a very good closer who lasted a long time. Well, let’s check. Using FanGraphs' WAR, here are Smith’s year-by-year rankings among MLB relievers:
By this method, he was never the best reliever in the league, although admittedly consistently excellent for that 10-year period from 1982 to 1991. Is that enough?
Look, most closers don’t last 14 years on the job, so give Smith credit for his durability. But a 3.03 career ERA as a reliever -- most of that spent in the pre-steroids/high-offense era -- just doesn’t blow me away. If you’re a closer, I want to be blown away if I'm voting you for the Hall of Fame.
20. Jack Morris (44.1 WAR) -- My dad has a beautiful picture hanging in his dining room. It’s him as a kid with his brother and sister, parents and grandparents, standing and sitting in front of his grandfather’s farm house in South Dakota. On the left edge of the photo is his grandfather’s 1940 Ford, a sedan with curved lines and a big front grille. On the right side of the photo is my grandfather’s old Model A, all square and rigid and looking about as comfortable as an at-bat against Nolan Ryan.
My dad laughs now: “We loved that 1940 Ford. We thought we were riding in the lap of luxury in that car compared to my dad’s Model A.”
His point: The 1940 Ford wasn’t really all that great, either.
Unlike my dad, the BBWAA is still nostalgic for that 1940 Ford, believing Morris is something more than he was. If elected, Morris will be a sentimental choice. And perhaps there's nothing wrong with that.