Explaining my Hall of Fame ballot

I think Mike Mussina is a Hall of Famer. But I didn't vote for him in the 2015 Hall of Fame election.

I think Edgar Martinez is a Hall of Famer. I didn't vote for him, either.

Once upon a time, in other Hall of Fame elections, I've voted for Jeff Kent and Larry Walker and Fred McGriff. I'd love to be able to say I just voted for all three of them, too. But I didn't. Not this year. Not in this election.

I didn't because the Hall of Fame won't let me. I just want you to know that. And I want those players to know that when the results of the 2015 election are announced Tuesday and they're wondering why they never came close.

I can't comprehend why the Hall of Fame allows me -- and all of us -- to vote only for no more than 10 players. What a ridiculous rule. What an illogical concept. What an arbitrary number.

All the Hall should want me to do, as a voter who takes this responsibility as seriously as every player on this ballot took his career, is to answer one question:

Was this player a Hall of Famer or not? Was Mike Mussina? Was Edgar Martinez? Was Gary Sheffield? Was Carlos Delgado?

And if I think the answer is yes, I should be permitted to vote for him. Right? Is there something complicated or dangerous about that philosophy that I'm missing?

I used to vote that way. I actually took pride in voting that way. I never looked at Hall of Fame voting as my chance to manipulate the process, or to take care of players I liked dealing with, or to punish players I didn't like dealing with.

For two decades, all I did was ask myself the only question that mattered: Was this guy a Hall of Famer or not?

And if I decided he was, I voted for that player every single year. Period.

I didn't skip a year because I wanted the great Joe Schmo, the beloved 300-game winner, to go in alone. I didn't believe a player was a Hall of Famer one year but not the next. I shook my head at voters who I felt were playing games with their vote or trying to orchestrate the process. I never, ever wanted to be that guy.

And now I can't vote that way. Why? Because the Hall of Fame won't let me. Sorry, Fred. Sorry, Edgar. Tell your friends to complain to Cooperstown, not to me.

And you should know that those of us who vote, the members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, want to change this rule -- the Rule of 10. So it isn't our fault, either.

The BBWAA formed an excellent, diverse, thoughtful committee a year ago to examine the voting process. But when that committee reported its conclusions last month, the committee members told the rest of us they were given the distinct impression, from the people who run the Hall, that there was "no way in hell" they'd agree to a rule that said we could vote for all of the players we felt were worthy.

So it's possible that, down the road, the Rule of 10 could become a Rule of 12. But the idea that we could just be allowed to consider all the players on the ballot, ask ourselves whether they were deserving Hall of Famers and then do something crazy like vote for them? That's off the table, apparently. Hey, great.

This is a rule that has no serious impact on guys such as Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez, who are going to breeze on into Cooperstown on Tuesday, as they should. But just so the Hall is aware of this, it is going to hurt their vote percentages because some voters, such as my friend Mike Berardino in Minnesota, were forced into doing stuff like this.

The real impact, though, is the toll this rule is taking on players such as McGriff, Edgar Martinez and Alan Trammell, who are running out of time on this ballot. Those three guys lost a combined 183 votes last year. Right, 183. Without playing a single game. I'm guessing something like 180 of those lost votes can be chalked up just to voters who ran out of room on their ballots.

And why did they run out of room? Because of a rule that makes about as much sense as that law in Illinois (which I ran across on legalzoom.com) that says you can't give your dog a lighted cigar.

Once again, that Rule of 10 forced me to send in a ballot this year that I knew I wouldn't feel good about. But I've long believed in being as open and honest about my Hall votes as I can possibly be. So here's my annual look at the 10 players I voted for and the reasoning behind it. I hold no illusions you'll agree with all 10. But I can promise that I agonized over the names I checked for way too many days and weeks.

My 2015 Hall of Fame ballot

Let's kick off this discussion with the 10 names I voted for (in the order we'll discuss them): Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. I'm guessing you've heard of them. Now here's how I came up with those 10.

How I got there

I'm not sure what your refrigerator looks like over the holidays. But here's the deal with mine: You open the door in the morning and something that got stuffed in there the night before falls on your shoes because there's no good way to make everything fit.

Well, that was my Hall ballot. I had 14 holdover candidates I'd voted for in the past. I had six first-timers I took an especially long look at -- Johnson, Martinez and Smoltz, plus Sheffield, Delgado and Nomar Garciaparra. And then there was Trammell, always my toughest call, now in his 14th year on the ballot.

That came to 21 players who commanded serious attention. And they all had to fit on a 10-name ballot. Made me wish I'd spent more time working on my Rubik's Cube skills as a kid.

Some of those 10 names were easier than others, fortunately. If you don't think Pedro and the Unit were Hall of Famers, why are you voting? So that was two. And it's embarrassing that Biggio, Bagwell, Raines and Piazza aren't in the Hall already. So that got me up to six no-doubt votes in a hurry.

But then what?

I had 11 players remaining on my list. Seven of them were going to get left off this ballot. The ugliness was beginning.

I never wanted to be in this position -- looking at the names of great players and trying to find reasons not to vote for them. It's supposed to be the other way around. But thanks to the Rule of 10 and one of the most Hall-worthy group of candidates on any ballot in history, that can't happen anymore.

So there was no good way to do this. A year ago, after a lot of thought (and Tylenol), I pared my list down to 10 with an approach I described as "ballot management." But I never felt good about it, even after I'd cast my votes.

The first part of that approach last year involved perusing all the first-year candidates the way I always had. I decided five of them met my "He's a Hall of Famer" standards (Mussina and Kent, plus the three who got elected: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas). So those five made up half of my ballot.

Then I used the other five votes on players I'd voted for in the past who I decided had the best chance of being elected. That was Biggio, Bagwell, Piazza, Raines and Jack Morris. They'd all gotten at least 50 percent of the vote the year before. So my reasoning was that at least I was making those five votes count.

But almost from the moment I sent in that ballot, I was overpowered by the sentiment that I didn't feel comfortable voting that way. So this year, I didn't.

After playing around with a bunch of different lists of 10, I decided in the end I was going to vote for who I thought were the 10 best players on this ballot, regardless of previous vote totals or PED plot lines that we've all bashed around a zillion times now.

That meant casting a vote for two of the greatest players who ever lived, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Sorry if that troubles you. But if you'd like a more detailed explanation of why the Hall of Fame is treading on shaky ground if it doesn't include players of that stature, I encourage you to read this column from 2013.

It also meant voting for Smoltz and Schilling over Mussina. Which was excruciating, when you consider how difficult it is to separate them. And it meant not voting for Edgar, a guy I first called a Hall of Famer eight years ago and a candidate whose vote total has unjustly shrunk from 209 to 144 over the past two elections.

It also meant there was no room for underappreciated McGriff, incredibly talented Walker or one of the greatest offensive second baseman of all time, Kent. And it left me with no possible way of squeezing Sheffield onto this ballot, even though he's one of only 13 players in history with 500 homers and at least 2,600 hits.

That was an incredibly frustrating way to vote. But I had to get down to 10 names somehow. I don't expect you to agree with all 10 of those names or agree with the rationale. I'm just honestly explaining how I sifted it all in my brain.

And at least that brings me to the 10 all-time greats who did make my cut. Why are they Hall of Famers? Here's why, in my mind:

The first-timers

Randy Johnson Johnson

Randy Johnson: The question isn't whether Johnson belongs in the Hall of Fame. The question is how close he is to being considered the greatest left-handed pitcher of modern times.

Among all left-handers in the live-ball era who pitched at least 3,500 innings, Johnson ranks first in strikeouts (4,875), strikeout ratio (10.61 per 9 IP) and fewest hits allowed per nine innings (7.28). He's second only to Lefty Grove in adjusted ERA-plus (135) and winning percentage (303-166, .646). And he trails just Carl Hubbell in WHIP (1.17). So kick that around for a moment.

And then kick this around: The Unit had eight top-two Cy Young finishes. (Only he and Clemens pulled that off.) And nine strikeout titles. (Only Nolan Ryan and Walter Johnson ever matched or beat that.) And six seasons of at least 300 strikeouts. (Sandy Koufax, with three, is the only left-hander who had even half that many.) So why wouldn't this guy cruise into the Hall unanimously again? Oh, right. The Rule of 10.

Pedro Martinez Martinez

Pedro Martinez: And then there's Pedro, a 5-foot-11, 170-pound package of genius, charisma, swagger and stuff who could embarrass the best hitters on earth with three unhittable pitches. And did. Among my favorite Pedro numbers:

The most seasons with an adjusted ERA-plus of 200 or better of any starting pitcher in history -- with five, one more than Walter Johnson. ... The fifth-greatest WHIP of all time (1.05). ... The sixth-best winning percentage ever (219-100, .687). ... A seven-year peak, as computed by the great Hall of Fame historian Jay Jaffe, that tops Maddux, Bob Feller or Koufax and ranks sixth in the entire live-ball era, behind only Clemens, Grove, Johnson, Bob Gibson and Tom Seaver. ... And, finally, there's this amazing stat, delivered by Lee Sinins' Complete Baseball Encyclopedia: Pedro's career ERA, over his 18 seasons from 1992 to 2009, was an unbelievable 2.93, at a time when the ERA of the average starter in the same period was 4.49. So that computes to an ERA that was more than a run and a half lower than the league average. And how many other pitchers in history, who pitched as many innings as he pitched, have ever had a larger differential? Yessir. Nobody.

John Smoltz Smoltz

John Smoltz: What a unique career this guy had. Won a Cy Young as a starter. Led his league in saves as a closer. And was one of the great October dominators of modern times (15-4, 2.67 ERA), in both roles. So he'll be an automatic vote for many, many of those who cast a ballot.

But if you use modern metrics to break down his career, Schilling and Mussina would rank above him, based on numbers alone. And that made voting for him but not Mussina a quandary I wrestled with for more than a week. But I decided Smoltz's unusual career path meant he had to be evaluated on a slightly different level than your average starter. And if you look at his big picture, you notice something:

This man made All-Star teams, and ranked among the league leaders (in categories such as WHIP, ERA-plus and strikeout ratio), 18 years apart (1989-2007). And if a guy was one of the best and most dominating pitchers in his league over nearly two decades, that's what plaques in Cooperstown are made of.

The rest of my ballot

Craig Biggio Biggio

Craig Biggio: This man got 3,060 hits and missed getting elected by a mere two votes last year, in his second time on the ballot. So you'd think the third time ought to get him to Induction Day, right? Well, if there's still any doubt Biggio belongs, consider this:

He's one of only three players in history who spent most of their career at second base and wound up with over 3,000 hits. Eddie Collins and Nap Lajoie were the other two. And don't cue the videotape because neither has played a game in more than eight decades. ... Biggio also thumped more doubles (668) than any other right-handed hitter in the history of baseball. Yeah, really. ... And he's the only player in the past 102 seasons who ever had a 50-double, 50-steal season. Yeah, really. ... OK, so he grades out better in the counting stats than the slash lines. But how do you ignore his power/speed/leadoff talents in a career in which he bounced through three premium positions (catcher/second base/center field), mostly because his team needed him to do that bouncing? I sure can't.

Jeff Bagwell Bagwell

Jeff Bagwell: This is Year 5 for Bagwell on this ballot. He made a steady climb, from 41.7 to 56.0 to 59.6 percent in his first three years, then got swallowed up by the overloaded 2014 ballot and took a 29-vote dive last year to 54.3 percent. I don't know whether that means his candidacy is in some sort of danger. I just know this man was one of the four greatest first basemen of the live-ball era.

Only he and Lou Gehrig ever ripped off a dozen consecutive seasons with an OPS-plus of 130 or better at first base, you know. And if you're a fan of hardware, shouldn't this guy be should doing True Value commercials? Over the years, he collected an MVP, rookie of the year, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger and Sporting News player of the year. So what award did he miss? A Pulitzer Prize, maybe? No need to run through the rest of his Hall of Fame credentials. We all know the only thing keeping him off the podium is those pesky suspicions of contracting acne or something.

Mike Piazza Piazza

Mike Piazza: Only two players on the entire 2014 ballot saw their vote totals actually go up from 2013. One was Biggio (plus-39). The other was Piazza (plus-26). That's the good news. The bad news is he still needs to find another 74 votes to get elected. And Piazza, too, has already been found guilty, by the PED vigilantes, of being Too Suspicious To Vote For.

But let me give my annual speech on stuff like that: Piazza played in an era in which hundreds of players were taking something or other, for a thousand different reasons. He's been proved to have taken None Of The Above. So playing the Who Did What guessing game is a pointless, impossible enterprise. And it's time we gave that up and let the Hall of Fame decide how it wants to deal with those fun times.

In the meantime, what sense does it make for the Hall of Fame not to honor the greatest offensive catcher in the history of baseball? Best slugging percentage (.545) of any catcher in history. Best OPS (.922). Best adjusted OPS-plus (143). Most home runs (427). Yada, yada, yada. Why do we even need to document that he had a Hall of Fame career? Does that have anything to do with those 74 missing votes at this point?

Tim Raines Raines

Tim Raines: It's time for those of us who care to start pounding the biggest drum we can find. And then we need to keep pounding it for the next two years, until the rest of our clearly confused voting group finally sees the light and casts a vote for Raines. We need to begin this pounding right now, friends, because Raines' candidacy is in major jeopardy.

Between 2009 and 2013, his vote total more than doubled, from 22.6 percent to 52.2. Then, in the past year, he saw two ominous developments. First, he watched 36 votes disappear, and he dropped back below 50 percent, to 46.1. Second, he got caught up in a Hall of Fame-voting rule change that cut players' time on the ballot from 15 years to 10. That change wasn't aimed at him, but it did reduce his window to make it into the Hall from eight more elections to three.

He'll have only two shots left after this year. So let's remind those still paying attention that Raines was the greatest leadoff man of his era who wasn't named Rickey Henderson. I never get tired of repeating these two head-turning facts: This man reached base more times (3,977) than Tony Gwynn, Honus Wagner, Lou Brock or Roberto Clemente. And every eligible player who reached base as many times as Raines did and had as high an on-base percentage as he had (.385) is already in the Hall of Fame. So that sound you hear is us Tim Raines voters, pounding our drums.

Curt Schilling Schilling

Curt Schilling: Of all the players on the ballot last year, Schilling's vote total took one of the five biggest hits -- a 54-vote plummet (to 167) that leaves him more than 260 votes from election. But why is this so hard for people to see? Schilling was a Hall of Famer.

He should have won three Cy Young awards, finishing second only because he had the bad timing to have his greatest years at the same time Randy Johnson (in 2000 and 2001) and Johan Santana (in 2004) were having historic seasons. But let's forget the almosts. How 'bout this:

Schilling had nine seasons with an ERA-plus of 130 or above. That's two more than Pedro, and tied for the fourth most in the expansion era (1961 to present), behind only Clemens (15), Johnson (10) and Maddux (10). ... Also finished in the top five in his league in wins above replacement eight times. ... And compiled the greatest strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.38-1) of any starting pitcher since 1900. (Pedro is second, by the way.) ... And owned October like no one else, going an amazing 11-2, 2.23, with a WHIP under 1.00 (0.97). ... Oh, by the way, Schilling also made five starts in postseason elimination games. His teams went 5-0. Not a coincidence.

So if your standard for Cooperstown admission is domination in the biggest moments, over a really long period of time, Schilling is as criminally undersupported as any player on this ballot.

Roger Clemens Clemens

Barry Bonds Bonds

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens: I'm going to say this one more time. What is the point of even having a Hall of Fame if it's going to pretend that players like this never played baseball?

Bonds hit more home runs than any other player who ever swung a baseball bat. Clemens won more Cy Youngs than any other pitcher who ever smoothed the dirt on a pitcher's mound. None of their achievements has ever been wiped out of any box score or any record book. They all count. They all happened. It's not possible -- and it's not our job -- to create some sort of fantasy world in which they didn't happen.

So I'd rather have the Hall of Fame figure out how to explain what happened in the PED era than figure out how any of us, as voters, are supposed to guess who did what, in a time when the planet was populated by hundreds and hundreds of players who took PEDs -- since what we know about them is overwhelmed by what we don't know.

But the Hall doesn't want to figure it out. It doesn't want to explain any of this. What it does want to do is perpetuate this mess we face, with overstuffed ballots and outdated rules, that helps assure that we, the voters, don't elect men like this. By subtly shortening players' time on the ballot from 15 years to 10. And by opposing the elimination of the Rule of 10, to increase the degree of difficulty for anybody to get 75 percent.

Which brings us right back to where we began. I never believed in voting agendas. Not in simple times. Not in more complicated and controversial times like these.

So I may not be allowed to vote for all the players I believe are Hall of Famers. But I am allowed to vote for the 10 best players -- even if that means voting for men the Hall would like to pretend never existed. I still love the Hall of Fame, as much as I ever did. I just wish I loved the honor of voting for it as much as I did once upon a time.