It's the first stage of Hall of Fame season: The announcement of the Today's Game Era ballot.
This ballot includes 10 names -- six players, three managers and one executive -- who made their most significant impact from 1988 to the present. An overview committee screened potential candidates to arrive at the final ballot and a 16-person committee that includes Hall of Fame players, plus writers and current or former executives, will vote at the winter meetings on Dec. 9. A candidate must receive 12 of 16 votes to get elected. Last year, the Modern Era committee elected Alan Trammell and Jack Morris.
My question: Where is the third member of those Tigers teams? Lou Whitaker's career straddled that 1988 cutoff date, but he wasn't on this year's ballot even though his career WAR was higher than the combined totals of Lee Smith, Joe Carter and Harold Baines, who are on the ballot. I reached out to the Hall of Fame and it turns out Whitaker was placed in the Modern Era, for players who made their largest impact from 1970 to 1987. Except Whitaker wasn't on last year's ballot either. The Modern Era will be voted on again at the 2019 winter meetings, so let's hope Whitaker finally gets on that ballot.
Lee Smith: The seven-time All-Star is on this ballot for the first time after spending 15 years on the Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot. He peaked at 50 percent of the vote in 2012, although he fell off to 34 percent on his final time on that ballot in 2017. Smith retired as the all-time saves leader and still ranks third behind Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, after leading his league four times. Personally, I'm not a big advocate of putting relievers in Cooperstown and my biggest question with Smith has always been: Was he ever the best reliever in his league? Let's use Win Probability Added to answer that. He ranked in the top 10 in his league among pitchers five times:
1983: 4th (second among relievers behind Jesse Orosco)
1984: 4th (second among relievers behind Bruce Sutter)
1985: 8th (sixth among relievers)
1990: 10th (fourth among relievers)
1991: 3rd (first among relievers)
So, he was the best for one season. You can argue he was the best in the NL over 1983 and 1984. Mostly though, he was good more than dominant, and he lasted a long time. From 1993 to 1995, for example, he racked up 116 saves in just 145⅔ innings with a 3.58 ERA. He's short for me, but given his past support on the BBWAA ballot, Smith has a good chance to get in.
George Steinbrenner: Love him or hate him, if you're ranking the most famous people associated with the game over the past five decades, Steinbrenner may top the list. That alone doesn't make him a Hall of Famer, but the Yankees did win seven World Series under his ownership (the first six when he was still an active participant in the decision-making process). Of course, some would argue that he often got in the way more than he helped and the 1996-2000 team that won four titles in five years was rebuilt, in large part, when Steinbrenner was suspended from the game and unable to interfere. Steinbrenner was on this ballot in 2016 and received fewer than five votes, so maybe as we get further away from his death (he passed away in 2010), his election becomes less likely.
Lou Piniella: One of the game's great characters, Piniella received seven votes on this ballot in 2016, so he had a fair amount of support back then. He won a World Series with the Reds in 1990 and he's 16th on the all-time wins list. The only managers ahead of him on that list and not in the Hall of Fame are Bruce Bochy (still active), Gene Mauch and Dusty Baker (hasn't appeared on a ballot yet). Was he a great manager? Put it this way: I think there's another name on this ballot who was clearly a better manager, but probably will receive less support.
Will Clark: Will the Thrill was a great player and then suddenly became vastly underrated in retirement. He appeared on just one BBWAA ballot and failed to receive 5 percent of the vote, so he was booted off. He hit .303/.384/.497 in his career, but it's the 284 home runs that stand out -- or fail to stand out. That number doesn't impress for a first baseman, especially factoring in that Clark retired in 2000, in the heart of the steroid era when everybody was mashing 40-plus home runs. Oh, Clark hit .319/.418/.546 his final season. He had plenty of good baseball in him if he had wanted to stick around.
Even accounting for that early retirement, Clark's career WAR of 56.5 makes him a borderline Hall of Famer -- although not a slam dunk by any means. One way I like to look at a candidate: Is he the best player at his position not in the Hall of Fame? Here are the career WAR totals for some retired first basemen not in Cooperstown:
Rafael Palmeiro: 71.9
Mark McGwire: 62.2
Todd Helton: 61.2
Keith Hernandez: 60.4
John Olerud: 58.2
Will Clark: 56.5
Fred McGriff: 52.6
Palmeiro and McGwire are special cases who otherwise would have been elected by now (interesting to note that McGwire was on this ballot in 2016, but left off this year.) Clark is in that mix with Helton, Hernandez, Olerud and McGriff (Helton is on the BBWAA ballot for the first time this year while McGriff is a carryover). I'd love to see more players from Clark's era enshrined and since I'm more of a peak value guy than career value, I might lean slightly to putting him in, although I'd probably rank him behind Hernandez on my personal list. Clark wasn't exactly popular among other players and since the voting committee consists of six current Hall of Fame players, he's going to have a hard time getting those 12 votes.
Orel Hershiser: I was always surprised Hershiser fell off the BBWAA ballot after just two votes. Yes, he won just 204 games, but his 1988 season when he won the Cy Young Award, set the record for consecutive scoreless innings and then led the Dodgers to the World Series title with a Herculean postseason is worth a ton of extra credit -- much more, in my opinion, than Morris' Game 7 gem in 1991. In fact, just to compare:
Hershiser: 204-150, 3.48 ERA, 112 ERA+, 3,130 innings, 51.6 WAR, 24.9 Wins Above Average
Morris: 254-186, 3.90 ERA, 105 ERA+, 3,824 innings, 44.0 WAR, 9.7 Wins Above Average
Morris won more games and pitched more innings, but Hershiser was better and had a lot more peak value (as indicated by WAA). Being better than Jack Morris doesn't make you a Hall of Famer, but the Modern Era committee elected Morris last year, and that has to help Hershiser's chances.
Davey Johnson: Like Piniella, he's returning to the ballot, although Johnson received fewer than five votes in 2016. Johnson didn't manage as long as Piniella, but had a much higher winning percentage: .562 to .517. That winning percentage is impressive; of the 30 managers ahead of him on the wins list, only five have a higher winning percentage and the only one of those five to manage past 1970 was Earl Weaver. Johnson managed the Mets, Reds, Orioles, Dodgers and Nationals and won division titles with four of those teams. If he'd won a second World Series title, he'd be a slam dunk.
Albert Belle: Belle had an even shorter career than Clark, as a hip condition forced him into retirement at age 33 after just 1,539 games. He hit .295/.369/.564 with 381 home runs and three RBI titles and his 50-50 season in 1995 -- 52 doubles, 50 home runs in just 143 games -- is the stuff of legends, but he put up video-game numbers in an era when a lot of guys put up video-game numbers. He was really an elite player for only five seasons and his career WAR of 40.1 falls well short of Hall standards.
Joe Carter: He hit one of the most famous home runs of all time and he knocked in 100 runs 10 times. A generation ago, maybe that would have fooled enough voters to make him a strong Hall of Fame candidate, but Carter also made a ton of outs -- he hit .259 in his career with a .309 OBP and his career adjusted OPS of 105 is only a few ticks above average. That eats into his value and helps explain why his career WAR is just 19.6 and his career Wins Above Average is minus-10.8.
Harold Baines: Nice career, played forever. Hit .312 and drove in 103 runs at age 40 -- which, holy cow. But he wasn't really a great player with just one season above 4.0 WAR in his career. He was on the ballot before and I'd suggest getting somebody new on it next time around.
Charlie Manuel: He's a little bit of a strange choice for the ballot since he managed just 12 seasons (two of those partial seasons) and won just one World Series. His career winning percentage is impressive at .548, however, and he was a popular figure in the game as first a hitting coach and then the manager of the Indians and Phillies. He's a clear third among the managers on this ballot. How about putting two-time World Series winner Tom Kelly on here next time around?
Prediction: I think the committee spins a shutout in December, with Smith and Steinbrenner both falling a vote or two short.