Over the last few years, the Hall of Fame voting process has gone from the greatest honor and privilege of my professional life, a difficult exercise that brought me such great joy, to … the greatest honor and privilege of my professional life, an excruciatingly difficult exercise that has brought me great consternation -- a maddening process that is in need of clarity and repair, a test for which there are a lot more guesses than correct answers.
And soon it's going to get even harder, at least in one respect. The 2015 Hall of Fame class includes Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Gary Sheffield -- two of the best pitchers ever, another bona fide Hall of Fame pitcher and a 500-home run hitter.
On this year's ballot, I felt that 21 players had legitimate credentials for the Hall of Fame. Of those 21, I had voted for 15 of them at times (not counting the five newcomers to the ballot this year, all of whom I believe are Hall of Famers), but had to leave some of them off at times because I was limited to voting for 10. Now that Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas have been elected, and adding the four new guys for 2015, there will be 20 players (Jack Morris will be off the ballot as will Rafael Palmeiro because he didn't receive the requisite 5 percent of the vote despite being one of only four players with 3,000 hits and 500 home runs) that I think deserve consideration for Cooperstown, but with only 10 spots, a dilemma for which I want, or deserve, no sympathy.
The voting limit should be changed from 10 to unlimited. I felt terrible leaving Edgar Martinez, Alan Trammell and Curt Schilling off my ballot -- guys I had voted for every year they were eligible -- to make room for the three first-ballot players I voted for this year: Maddux, Glavine and Thomas. I also felt terrible leaving first-ballot guys Mike Mussina and Jeff Kent off this year. And, given the group that is coming up in 2015, I know I'm going to be feel terrible again next year if the 10-player-rule isn't changed between now and then.
Here are the four leading candidates for 2015.
Randy Johnson: He is, at worst, one of the 10 best pitchers ever. He is, by some statistical measures, one of the top six. A strong case can be made that, after Lefty Grove, Johnson is the best left-handed pitcher ever. He won 303 games and lost 166; he is one of 14 pitchers in history to win 300 games with a winning percentage of .600. He won five Cy Young Awards (second most ever), had three second-place finishes and a third-place finish. He has the second-most strikeouts in history, and he led his league in K's nine times. He had a pitching WAR of 104.3, which is ninth best ever among pitchers, and he led all pitchers in WAR six times. He was the most dominant pitcher of his era, one of the most dominant of any era. His slider might be the best ever and has to be in the top five pitches anyone has ever thrown.
Jeff Huson, a former infielder, said years ago of Johnson's frightening stuff, menacing demeanor and 6-foot-10 frame that made it seem as if he was 40 feet away on release: "Really, what's the worst thing Michael Jordan can do to you? He can dunk on you and embarrass you. What's the worst thing Randy Johnson can do? He can kill you."
Pedro Martinez: He is, by some statistical measures, among the top 20 pitchers ever, maybe top 15. He won three Cy Young Awards and finished in the top five in four other seasons. In 1999 he finished second in the MVP voting to Pudge Rodriguez, and in hindsight, should have won the award that year.
Martinez won 219 games with a winning percentage of .687; he and Whitey Ford are the only pitchers in history to win that many games with a winning percentage that high. Martinez won five ERA titles. His 1999 and 2000 seasons might be the greatest back-to-back years any pitcher has ever had: He went 41-10, struck out 597 and walked 69 in 430 1/3 innings with an ERA of 1.90; the American League ERA combined for those two seasons was 4.90, a staggering, historic gap of 3.00. In those years, Martinez might have had the best fastball, curveball and changeup in the game; it's our guess that no pitcher has ever had the three best pitches in the game at any one time. Martinez's arm was a gift; he told me when he weighed 138 pounds, he was throwing 93 mph.
"The first time I met him in a major league uniform, I thought he was the ball boy," said former major leaguer Orestes Destrade. "Then I faced him, and said, Whoa, what is that?!!!"
John Smoltz: He's a Hall of Famer. And by a slim margin, he compares to Curt Schilling. Smoltz won a Cy Young and finished in the top five two other times. He made eight All-Star teams. He won 213 games with a 3.33 ERA. He saved 154 games. He is the only pitcher to win as many as 200 games and save as many as 100. His postseason numbers are stunningly good: a 15-4 record and a 2.67 ERA. And the advanced metrics place him just ahead of Nolan Ryan and just behind Bob Gibson.
"John is the most competitive person I've ever met," former teammate Tom Glavine once said. "He always wins at everything. He used to run our football pools and NCAA pools. I would give him my money and say: 'John, it's just a donation. I know you will win.'"
Gary Sheffield: He wasn't a plus defender and never led his league in any Triple Crown category, but he hit more than 500 home runs and had a career batting average of .292 -- only 12 other players in history can say that. His career slugging percentage of .514 is higher than that of several sluggers in the Hall of Fame, including Reggie Jackson. And his OPS of .907 is the same as that of Ken Griffey Jr. and higher than that of Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell. And his WAR is the same as that of Harmon Killebrew.
(And at least a mention here for Nomar Garciaparra, who will also be on the ballot next year. His career fizzled rather abruptly -- finishing with 1,747 hits -- but he had a .313 lifetime batting average, won a Rookie of the Year Award, finished second in an MVP race and won two batting titles).
So here's the best of the 2015 ballot, with distinctions, some of them subjective.
Barry Bonds: He has the most MVPs and home runs ever.
Roger Clemens: Most Cy Youngs, ninth-most wins.
Randy Johnson: Top 10 pitcher ever, five Cy Youngs, second-most K's.
Pedro Martinez: Top 20 pitcher ever, 219 wins, .687 winning percentage.
Mike Piazza: Greatest-hitting catcher ever.
Jeff Bagwell: A top 10 first baseman ever, maybe even top five.
Tim Raines: Closest thing to Rickey Henderson in the NL for 10 years.
Craig Biggio: 3,000 hits, more extra-base hits than Mickey Mantle.
Mike Mussina: 270 wins, a top 30 pitcher ever.
Curt Schilling: 216 wins, 11-2, 2.23 ERA in the postseason.
John Smoltz: Only pitcher with 200 wins and 100 saves.
Jeff Kent: Most homers and second-highest slugging percentage for a second baseman.
Sammy Sosa: 609 home runs, eighth on career list.
Edgar Martinez: His batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage are matched by only five other players in history.
Alan Trammell: His .776 OPS is top 10 for shortstops.
Larry Walker: One of only 18 players ever to finish a career with a .300 BA, .400 OBP and a .500 SLG.
Gary Sheffield: 509 homers, same slugging percentage as Ken Griffey Jr.
Lee Smith: 438 saves, third most on career list.
Fred McGriff: 493 homers, higher OPS than Eddie Mathews.
That's it, that's my 2015 ballot: 20 players for 10 spots. It was a difficult vote this year. And next year's vote will be even harder.