My Imaginary (yet Equally Subjective) 2015 Hall of Fame Ballot

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The 2015 Hall of Fame class will be revealed tomorrow. Over the past month or so, the BBWAA members have been filling out their ballots and submitting their picks for this year’s HOF.

The Hall of Fame vote is the definition of subjectivity. A whole bunch of sportswriters cast their votes on who should and should not be enshrined in Cooperstown for eternity. Each one has different opinions. None are wrong. None are right. It’s just one giant opinion.

Even when we try our best to break things down into purely stats, we’re forced into subjectivity when we decide which stats are most important to consider when awarding a ballplayer with immortality. Is a pitcher’s earned run average more important than another’s strikeout rate? Is postseason performance more important than long term success in the league? How do stolen bases compare with home runs or on base percentage? It’s a nightmare, really.

But that’s not even half of the struggle. In the post-steroid era of baseball, even the statistics can’t tell us everything we want to know. How does one compare an admitted PED user with someone with worse statistics who may have used but we aren’t totally sure? Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are arguably the two most dominant ballplayers of their generation whose accomplishments land significantly higher than their peers on the 2015 HOF Ballot. Others – Jeff Bagwell, for example – has never been linked to steroids use, but the population cannot help but speculate due to his size and the era he played.

And then there’s the case of Mark McGwire, who admitted to the use of an over-the-counter supplement, but who (along with Sammy Sosa) managed to resurrect the game of baseball with the home run race of 1998. The two created a buzz surrounding the game in a time that desperately needed them. That race is going to be talked about in baseball history books forever. Anyone who “saved” the game of baseball ought to be considered for the Hall of Fame, right? That sort of thing transcends stats.

See what I mean? Way too subjective.

A quick caveat here: I make fun of other sports a lot – football and basketball in particular – because of how subjective they are. The referee can throw a flag or blow the whistle on literally every play if they want. It’s all their opinion. There’s no arguing with the matter. Even with instant replay being used a half dozen times per football game, NFL officials continue to bicker over the “correct” call on the field. The official will make a call – let’s say, a fumble recovered by the defense – and they’ll go to the monitors to review it. Meanwhile, the FOX/CBS guys will talk to their network referee in the booth and he’ll say that “the officials got the call right on the field, and this should stand as called.” Then they cut back to the field and the lead ref declares that the “ruling on the field is overturned and it’s not a fumble after all.” The game cannot escape subjectivity.

Which is another reason I love baseball so much. It is virtually void of subjectivity. And even the primary aspect that isn’t – the umpire calling balls/strikes – is embraced as the “human element” of the game. Sure, it’s subjective, but that’s part of the game and one of the reasons I love it. (I could go on a rant about how much I hate the new catcher rules for this very reason, but I’m already on a giant rabbit trail as it is…caveat over.)

All that to say, Hall of Fame balloting is super subjective and it feels somewhat foreign to the game of baseball. Football and basketball are games created with inherent subjectivity as part of the game. Baseball is not.

The HOF vote is also a broken system. Two rules in particular are extremely frustrating for voters this year. First: the problem of years of eligibility on the ballot. Second, and the larger issue of the two this year: the problem of limiting the number of votes.

It used to be that players were eligible for 15 years. That number has recently been reduced to 10 years as a way of pushing out players who have been linked to PEDs in recent years. Typically, if a player managed to hang around on the ballot for a handful of years, he’ll slowly receive more and more shares of votes the longer he remains. A player must get at least 75% of the vote to be elected and if they receive less than 5% of the vote, their name is removed from the ballot. Bert Blyleven, for example, only got 17.5% of the votes in his first year on the ballot. By his 14th year, he received 79.7%. By reducing the number of years, the committee has made it less likely that players like Bonds and Clemens will slowly increase their odds in the eyes of the public as their case slowly marinates over the years.

Unfortunately, that means that guys like Jeff Bagwell or Mike Mussina – both Hall of Famers, in my opinion – might get pushed off the ballot before their stock can rise enough to get them in. Obviously this will take longer to play out, and as time goes on we’ll learn more about how this affects the votes of the BBWAA.

The other issue has immediate ramifications. The HOF voters can only select 10 names, and this year, the ballot is jam packed with deserving names. Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez are on the ballot for the first time and both are locks. According to the Baseball Think Factory, John Smoltz (1st ballot) and Craig Biggio (3rd) are looking like locks as well (although, I feel differently about one of those two this year, more on that in a minute).

Then there’s Bonds and Clemens, who in my opinion are Hall of Famers despite their obvious red flags. They’re in a class of their own.

From there, the ballot only gets more convoluted. Voters are forced to pick 4-6 names out of a list of 10-12 deserving candidates. I could easily pick 12 names this year and I would still leave off some very deserving candidates.

Tim Raines, Lee Smith, Edgar Martinez, Alan Trammell, Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, Larry Walker, Don Mattingly, Gary Sheffield, Fred McGriff and Jeff Kent. McGwire and Sosa too. Regardless of how you slice it, voters are guaranteed to leave off names that arguably deserve the HOF.

So let’s get subjective.

This is who I would vote for if I had a HOF ballot…

  • Randy Johnson
  • Pedro Martinez
  • Roger Clemens
  • Barry Bonds
  • Tim Raines
  • Craig Biggio
  • Mike Piazza
  • Curt Schilling
  • Mike Mussina
  • Jeff Bagwell

I’d also vote for John Smoltz and Lee Smith. And probably Alan Trammell. Maybe even Edgar Martinez and Mark McGwire if I could. And I’d even consider Larry Walker. Oh, Gary Sheffield too.

See what I mean? It’s impossible to limit it to 10 deserving names this year. The limit should be lifted or amended moving forward because this is ridiculous.

Some voters are even intentionally leaving Johnson or Martinez off the ballot so they can give votes to guys like Mattingly (15th and final year on ballot), Walker (5th), Raines (8th), Trammell (14th), Smith (13th), or others who may need a hike up in percentage. Sure, that means Pedro and Randy won’t be unanimous, but at least the other guys who deserve it are getting a slight boost for future years.

Okay. Here’s how I made my decisions…

Johnson and Martinez need no explanation. Bonds and Clemens are the greatest players of their generation and I believe they’re deserving with or without PEDs.

Jonah Keri convinced me that Tim Raines deserves my vote in a sidebar from his book, Up, Up and Away.

Biggio just barely missed by two votes last year and he deserves it again this year. Mike Piazza is probably the best offensive catchers to ever play the game. Jeff Bagwell was a beast and is the best first baseman not named Gehrig or Foxx or Pujols.

Which brings me to 8 votes down, and three deserving pitchers to choose from: Schilling, Mussina and Smoltz.

I’m not totally understanding why Smoltz is such a lock for the HOF in his 1st year on the ballot while Schilling and Mussina – in their 3rd and 2nd years respectively – are not. Every stat I look at points to Schilling getting in before the other two. Yet as of this post, of all votes made public, Smoltz has received as many as the other two combined. I’m stumped.

I guess I can come up with a few reasons why people might be favoring Smoltz. First, are people lumping John Smoltz in with last year’s first ballot elections of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine? The three were teammates in Atlanta for years in the midst of their 14 consecutive NL East titles, and I wonder if people are saying, “well, if the other two got in, then I guess we have to vote for #3 as well…”

Second, I wonder if Smoltz’s consistent postseason presence is pushing him up higher than the other two. Smoltz went 15-4 with a 2.67 ERA. He pitched in forty-one postseason games. But it’s not like the other two didn’t have a lot of postseason success too: Mussina has 23 appearances and Schilling has 19. All three of them have storied postseason careers, but when the team you play for makes it to the playoffs that many times, you’re going to have a lager body of work.

Finally, and this is the biggest one: John Smoltz won the Cy Young in his best year, 1996. But that seems unfair based on his competition at the height of his career. Smoltz’s only NL competition that year was Kevin Brown. Schilling’s first great year was the next one, 1997.

  • Smoltz 1996: 2.94 ERA, 276 K, Won CY
  • Schilling 1997: 2.97 ERA, 319 K, 4th CY
  • Schilling 2001: 2.95 ERA, 293 K, 2nd CY
  • Schilling 2002: 3.23 ERA, 316 K, 2nd CY
  • Schilling 2004: 3.26 ERA, 203 K 2nd CY

Schilling finished second in the Cy Young voting three different times – 2001, 2001, and 2004 – and 4th once, losing to his teammate Randy Johnson in 01/02 and to Johan Santana in 04 (I originally wrote Clemens here, but he was the Cy winner in the AL, my apologies). Craziest stat I saw on Schilling: he led the league in K/BB rate in 5 of 6 consecutive years from 2001-2006. His strikeout to walk rate of 4.38 is the highest of any pitcher in this century – better than even Pedro Martinez and Mariano Rivera. Insane.

John Smoltz had a better peak of his career in 1996 maybe, but Schilling was obviously better in my opinion and for longer. Smoltz converted to closer during the second half of his career, a la Dennis Eckersly, so maybe that’s the appeal – only guy with 200 wins and 150 saves, if you’re into those sorts of stats. To me, Mussina played a high level longer than Smoltz did too, and was also a better defender winning 5 Gold Gloves. His defense is likely what makes Mussina’s career WAR significantly higher than Smoltz’s as well – 82.7 versus 66.5, and Mussina compiled it in 3 fewer seasons.

All 3 players deserve to be in the HOF, and all will be elected to Cooperstown someday, I think. Ultimately, it was a toss up between those two for me, and I probably would choose Mussina over Smoltz for two not-so-great reasons. 1. I just finished Buster Olney’s book The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty which talks at length about both Schilling and Mussina in the 2001 World Series between the Yankees and Diamondbacks. Probably influenced my decision. 2. I went with who I thought would need a vote more this year and in future years. They both deserve it almost equally, but Mussina needs the push with votes coming in the way they are.

Although, I’m considering changing my mind if “Mussina” gets autocorrected to “musician” one more time. Infuriating.

So there you go. My apologies to the rest of the crew. Better luck next year…except you Donnie Baseball, you’ve had your chance.

If you’re still here, thanks for reading about this completely subjective post about my HOF vote that doesn’t actually exist. Cheers.

-apc.

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