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My Hall of Fame Ballot–Part I

About a month ago, I partook in the 2001 STATLG-L Internet Hall Of Fame vote, an online poll which simulates the portion of the Cooperstown process determined by the Baseball Writers of America. It’s open to anyone and everyone who wishes to cast their own electronic ballot, and just like the real thing, one can check off ten names worthy of enshrinement.

Giving exactly half of a lunch break and half an ass worth of effort to consider the matter, I checked off my ten (listed here alphabetically): Bert Blyleven, Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Rich Gossage, Tommy John, Jim Kaat, Jack Morris, Ozzie Smith, Bruce Sutter, and Alan Trammell. Not a list I’m ashamed of, but one which probably could have withstood a more rigorous analysis. So, with the Hall of Fame voting results to be announced Tuesday, I’ll take this opportunity to re-examine my choices.

Before I do, a few caveats. The Hall of Fame is a deeply flawed institution which has been particularly sullied by dubious choices on the part of the Veterans Committee, especially when it comes to the hitter-happy 1930s. So I’m not of the opinion that arguing that so-and-so was better than this or that dubious choice makes one a Hall of Famer. Having said that, my tastes in the Hall of Fame tend to run towards the inclusive, rather than the exclusive, especially among players whose careers I’ve seen. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a good thing, but it is a bias of mine. Hand in hand with that bias, I tend to place more weight on career value than peak value–I do think that longevity counts for something. Finally, my choices are guided by several tools invented by Bill James, but I don’t promise any rigidly consistent methodology in the choices I’ve made.

With all that, I’m still willing to bet I’ve put more thought into this than many of the writers who actually get to vote.

Starting Pitchers

Twenty men have won 300 games in the big leagues and every single one of them is in the Hall of Fame. On the career wins list, of the next group of 21 pitchers (including a tie), going down to 253 wins, eleven are in, two (Maddux and Clemens) are mortal locks, and four are nineteenth-century freaks of nature whose pitching stats bespeak a much different ballgame. This leaves four pitchers from that group sitting outside the Hall. Three of them are fairly similar in terms of their basic career statistics and their careers overlap considerably: Bert Blyleven, Jim Kaat, and Tommy John. The fourth pitcher is Jack Morris.

           W    L   ERA+  HOFS   HOFM   WS   Top 3    Top 5    AVG
Blyleven  287  250  118    50   113.5  339  29,23,23   114    26.36
John      288  231  111    44   100.0  289  23,19,19    86    23.73
Kaat      283  237  107    44   120.5  268  26,22,22    88    22.64
Morris    254  186  105    39   108.5

Wins and losses you’re familiar with. ERA+ is the ratio of the pitcher’s ERA to a park-adjusted league average, multiplied by 100. A 100 denotes a league-average performance (adjusted for park), a 120 represents a performance 20 percent better than league average. HOFS is short for Hall of Fame Standards, a metric Bill James invented which awards points to players based on their career accomplishments (“One point for each 150 hits above 1500, limit 10,” etc.). One hundred is the maximum score; 50 is an average Hall of Famer. HOFM is short for Hall of Fame Monitor, another Jamesian metric which attempts to assess how likely an active player is to make the Hall. Like the Standards system, it awards points based on accomplishments. A score of 100 means a good possiblity of enshrinement, a 130 is a lock. Baseball-reference.com computes scores in both of these systems for every player, and lists the criteria here.

The next four columns relate to Bill James’s new metric, Win Shares, which he introduced recently in his New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. I’m not about to go into detail here about Win Shares (the full methodology behind it hasn’t even been published yet) except to summarize that it boils down the value of a player’s season (based on runs created or allowed, plus defense, and their context) to a simple integer. A score of 30 represents an MVP-candidate season.

Win Shares is a promising new system, but until the methods behind it are published, all we have to go on is what’s in the new Abstract, which is why Morris’s numbers aren’t included above–he didn’t rate in James’s top 100 pitchers, while Blyleven (39th), John (63rd) and Kaat (65th) did. Using Win Shares right now is like calling up a hot prospect in the middle of a pennant race–maybe he can help you here or there, but he’s not ready for prime time. Until the methods see the light of day and can be picked apart from the master’s own idiosyncracies, they remain somewhat suspect. That said, I do think we should take a look at what he’s made available thus far. So… WS is the player’s career total in Win Shares; the Top 3 are his top 3 seasons, the Top 5 is a total of his five best consecutive seasons, and the AVG is projected to 43 starts per season (a high total given all of these pitchers spent most of their careers in 5-man rotations).

Of Blyleven, John, and Kaat, none are overwhelming on the basis of their career peaks; Kaat and John each had three 20-win seasons, Blyleven just one. But all had extremely long careers, John at 26 years, Kaat at 25, and Blyleven the baby of the bunch at 22. All of them come from a time period which is somewhat over-represented in the Hall; six 300-game winners (Carlton, Ryan, Sutton, Niekro, Perry, and Seaver), plus Hall of Famers Fergie Jenkins (285-226, 115 ERA+, seven 20-win seasons in an eight-year span), Jim Palmer (268-152, 125 ERA+, eight 20-win seasons in a nine-year span), and Catfish Hunter (224-166, 104 ERA+, five straight 20-win seasons). Those three all had longer (and higher) sustained peaks than our three, not to mention hardware in the shape of Cy Young Awards (three for Palmer, one each for Jenkins and Hunter), while our fair trio won none.

So these three are not clearly better than the bottom ranks of the enshrined from their era. But each of them has their additional merits which I feel should be enough to vault them into the ranks of the Hall.

Blyleven ranks number four on the career strikeout list, having been passed by Roger Clemens near the end of the 2001 season. He is also in the top 10 in shutouts (#9, with 60). He came up big in the postseason (5-1, 2.47 ERA , with World Series wins for champions Pittsburgh in ’79 and Minnesota in ’87). And his curveball had the reputation as being the best in the game. He spent most of his career with some mediocre (but not horrible) Minnesota and Cleveland teams, and rarely outperformed them by significant margins in the Won-Loss columns–he was an inning-eating horse who stuck around for the decision most of the time. But his ERAs relative to the league were excellent, as was his consistency–outperforming the league average by 15 percent or more (that is, an ERA+ of 115 or better) for the first nine years of his career and fourteen times overall. He won in double figures seventeen times, and won 17 or more games seven times. He gets my vote.

John was a much different type of pitcher than Blyleven–a finesse pitcher who relied on ground balls rather than strikeouts and gave up more than his share of hits. A prototype, in fact, of certain breed of successful left-handers. He had a fairly concentrated peak, winning 80 games over a four-year span from 1977-80 and reaching the World Series three times. What’s amazing is that span started when he was 34 years old and had overcome an unprecedented surgical elbow-reconstruction procedure which now bears his name. He did very well in the postseason (6-3, 2.65 ERA) and was subjected to one of the most questionable pitching moves in World Series history, being pinch-hit for in the fourth inning of a 1-1 Game 6 (at a time when his ERA on the series was 0.69). The next two Yankee relievers allowed seven runs in two innings, allowing Tommy Lasorda’s Dodgers to finally best the Yanks in the Fall Classic. He had an ERA+ of 115 or better eleven times. He won in double digits 17 times. His case isn’t as strong as Blyleven’s, but it’s strong enough to get my vote.

Kaat was a remarkably consistent performer for the Minnesota Twins for a 12-year span, a teammate of Blyleven’s for the better part of four seasons (their 1970 division-winning rotation also included Jim Perry and Luis Tiant–a foursome with at least 215 career wins apiece). Had the Cy Young Award been given in both leagues instead of just one overall, he likely would have won in 1966, when he went 25-13, 2.75 ERA, and he would have been in the mix in ’65, with an 18-11, 2.83 for a pennant-winner. Until David Cone won 20 games in 1998, Kaat held the record for the longest drought between 20-win seasons (eight years). He won in double digits 15 times (he lost in double-digits 16 times), won 17+ games six times, but had a 115 ERA+ or better only six times. A lefty, he tacked on a successful second career as a middle reliever, which enabled him to set a record for the longest gap between World Series appearances (1965-1982). Oh, and he also won 16 straight Gold Gloves, though a look at his raw fielding stats suggests several somebodys weren’t paying attention–five times in that span his Fielding Percentage was below .930, though his range factors were always 50-100 percent higher than the league average at the position. If I had to pick one of the three to leave off, it would be Kaat, but I still think he should be in.

Morris had a shorter career than that trio (“only” 18 years), but his peaks were fairly high. He was the ace on three World Champions–the ’84 Tigers, the ’91 Twins, and the ’92 Blue Jays, and he put up some stellar performances in the postseason (7-4, 3.80), most notably a 10-inning 1-0 complete game in Game 7 of the ’91 Series–a performance which, in my mind, rates as high as any no-hitter I ever saw (and as a matter of fact, I did watch Morris’s no-no, on April 7, 1984 against the White Sox). He won 20 or more games 3 times, topped 17 victories eight times, and was in double-digits 14 times. He had an ERA+ of 115 or better seven times. And unlike the above three pitchers, he had a very clearly identifiable peak in terms of W-L and ERA+ that lasted awhile. From 1983-87 he was 94-54 with an ERA+ of 120. But… Morris’s career ERA and ERA+ are nothing to write home about, and they especially took a hit during the last two years of his career, raising his overall ERA from 3.73 to 3.90. And he got tagged pretty hard in the 1992 postseason, though the Jays won it all.

I could see voting for Morris (he was on my initial list), and I have argued vehemently in his favor in the past. Guys who win 254 games in their career don’t grow on trees (after Clemens and Maddux, who’ve surpassed that mark, the next closest active players are Tom Glavine at 224 and Randy Johnson at 200). He’s not a horrible choice, though his raw ERA would be the highest of any Hall of Famer–higher than Burleigh Grimes (3.53 ERA, 107 ERA+), Waite Hoyt (3.59 ERA, 111 ERA+), Herb Pennock (3.60 ERA, 106 ERA+), Jess Haines (3.64 ERA, 108 ERA+), Ted Lyons (3.67 ERA, 118 ERA+), Red Ruffing (3.80 ERA, 109 ERA+). With the exception of Grimes and Ruffing, those guys don’t do very well on James’s older metrics–in the low 30s on the HOFS and the 70s or lower on the HOFM (which is NOT to say that those were bad pitchers). Morris wouldn’t be the worst Hall of Famer by any stretch. I’m going to leave him off my ballot for now, because I believe he’s less deserving than the other three. But I might be willing to vote for him at a later date upon further review.

A couple of others I thought about: Ron Guidry is a popular candidate among Yankees fans, and he’s not far off the pack above when it comes to the James scales (38 HOFS, 98.5 HOFM). He ranks 66th in the NBJHA (though the actual methodology of how James arrived at those rankings from his raw Win Shares totals has already started too many catfights over at Baseball Primer to take seriously). His overall record (171-91, 3.29 ERA and 120 ERA+) is very good, but in my eyes, he lacks the longevity of the others. And like I said, I’m a career guy. Luis Tiant (229-172, 3.30 ERA, 114 ERA+) is probably worth a longer look than I’m prepared to give him here. He’s a little short on the James scales (41 HOFS, 91 HOFM), but he does well in the Win Shares (putting him in the chart above, we have 256 total, Top 3 of 29, 28, 22, a top 5 of 108, and an average of 27.43). James places him 52nd, and argues that he was a better pitcher over the course of his career than Catfish Hunter (224-166, 3.26 ERA, 104 ERA+). With more time to study the issue, I could be convinced.

Relief Pitching

There are exactly two relievers in the Hall of Fame: Hoyt Wilhelm and Rollie Fingers. While the modern-day closer (and its ever-shifting definition) has evolved into a unique and somewhat overrated species of pitcher, this underrepresentation in the Hall simply shouldn’t exist. There are any number of excellent relievers who should be in, and the line, in my opinion, starts with Goose Gossage. Gossage saved 20+ games 11 times, back when that figure meant something–he led the league three times and was in the top 5 eight times. And he had an amazingly long peak. Over a 12-season stretch from 1975 to 1987 (excluding an ill-spent season as a starter in ’76), he posted a 2.25 ERA, while striking out 8.5 per nine innings and allowing only 1.1 baserunners per inning. Oh, and he made the All-Star team nine times in that span.

Gossage came into ballgames to put The Fear into the hitter, and he simply blew them away with his heat. And he wasn’t just waltzing in for a one-inning save–over that stretch he averaged 1.7 innings per appearance. He was good in the postseason (2-1, 2.87 ERA, 8 saves), though he did give up a couple of famous homers–George Brett’s 1980 ALCS shot which finally killed the Yankees, Kirk Gibson’s clincher in the 1984 World Series. Like the Arizona Diamondbacks’ jubilation at beating Mariano Rivera, you knew that if you beat Gossage, you were beating the best. Goose remained a useful reliever long after his peak, lasting until 1994. James placed him 37th on his list, though his details about Win Shares for relievers are largely absent. Still, I’m as sure he belongs in the Hall of Fame as I am of anybody this year.

Bruce Sutter has the reputation of being a one-inning save man, but he averaged 1.6 innings per appearance over the course of his career. He was a pioneer of the split-fingered fastball, though he didn’t invent it. He had seven great seasons in an eight-year stretch for Chicago and St. Louis, leading the league in saves five times and placing no lower than fourth in that span. For that stretch, he posted a 2.52 ERA, striking out 7.6 per 9 and allowing 1.1 baserunners per inning. Also, during that stretch he was being used more heavily than Gossage–nine appearances and ten innings more per year, which may help to explain their relative extremes in career length–Sutter fell apart in the three years after that stretch in Atlanta and was cooked at 35, while Gossage stuck around until he was 42. James places Sutter 57th, with slightly higher peak but only about 2/3 of the career value as Gossage. I do think he should be in, but I’m willing to wait a year to get a better look at him via Win Shares.

I also think that will tell us more than we know right now about several other relievers who may or may not be worthy of the Hall–Sparky Lyle, the late, lamented Dan Quisenberry, Kent Tekulve, and the off-the-ballot Tom Henke (who failed to garner the 5% required to stay on), to name a few. Not to mention the wave of big-save-total relievers to come: Lee Smith, Dennis Eckersley, John Franco, Randy Myers and others, none of them eligible yet (hell, Franco’s still active). Let’s face it: between Fingers being elected and Mariano Rivera getting in someday (and I’m pretty damn sure he will), some of these other guys are worthy of enshrinement and the construction of a standard for what constitutes a Hall of Fame relief pitcher.

So, to summarize thus far… I listed six pitchers on my original ballot, and upon further review, I’m keeping four of them: Blyleven, John, Kaat, and Gossage. I’m tabling the decisions on Morris and Sutter for the moment. I’ll evaluate the hitters in my next piece.

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