I offer my apologies in advance: These five choices are blindingly obvious to baseball fans; however, I want to list them first as a preface to a more challenging proposition I will explore in the second part of this series: Five future Hall of Fame candidates who might not be such obvious choices but who should be enshrined in baseball's monument to lasting greatness.
Making this an intriguing proposition is the inescapable reality of the Hall of Fame ballots for the next several years: There are already several worthy candidates currently eligible for the Hall (Jeff Bagwell, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell, Larry Walker), and in upcoming years there will be added to this already-rich assortment an avalanche of statistically qualified players. I say "statistically qualified" because accompanying the parade of candidates is the ugly, unsettling specter of steroids that taints the last fifteen years of baseball and thus the careers of players currently eligible, or who will soon be eligible, for the Hall. For instance, on numbers alone both Mark McGwire and certainly Rafael Palmeiro would most likely have been elected during their first year of eligibility; but neither has been elected so far, with their associations with performance-enhancing drugs (PED) being the presumptive reason for this.
Steroids or no steroids, the list of players becoming eligible for the Hall in the next few years is almost staggering. True, next year, 2012, does not offer any clear-cut candidates; only Bernie Williams, who had an excellent, if not quite Hall of Fame, career, stands out among the likes of Vinny Castilla, Carl Everett, Terry Mulholland, Brad Radke, and Tim Salmon.
However, the Class of 2013 tells a different story: Craig Biggio, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Kenny Lofton, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling, and Sammy Sosa lead the candidates that also include Steve Finley, Julio Franco, Reggie Sanders, and David Wells. Leading the Class of 2014 are Tom Glavine, Jeff Kent, Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina, and Frank Thomas, with Moises Alou, Ray Durham, Jim Edmonds, Luis Gonzalez, Hideo Nomo, and Kenny Rogers following behind them. In 2015, add the following to an already bursting ballot: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz, while Carlos Delgado, Jermaine Dye, Nomar Garciaparra, and Gary Sheffield will all generate some discussion. By 2016, the only serious new contender is Ken Griffey, Jr., although also eligible for the first time are Trevor Hoffman, Andy Pettitte, and Billy Wagner.
Needless to say, the next five or six years offer challenges to the Baseball Writers Association of America, which casts its ballots in support of the candidates, both in terms of the number of qualified candidates and whether players associated with PEDs—explicitly or implicitly—will continue to be blackballed from the Hall. Keep in mind that a player must receive at least 75 percent of the vote in order to be elected to the Hall of Fame; a player must receive at least 5 percent of the vote each year in order to remain on the ballot; and a player can remain on the ballot, provided he has earned at least 5 percent each year, for a maximum of 15 years if he is not elected in a previous year.
Given that, and the plethora of potential Hall of Famers on the ballot now and on upcoming ballots, perhaps there are no no-brainer candidates after all? We'll see; I think there are, for reasons I will discuss below. Suffice to say that, for baseball fans who follow keenly the Hall of Fame discussion—and baseball, among all other sports, seems to imbue especial cachet to those to whom it chooses to bestow the golden recognition of Hall of Fame enshrinement—the next few years promise to hold lively discussions indeed.
The first aspect to notice about my five no-brainer picks is that they are all pitchers. This is noteworthy because they all played during an era of increased offensive production, fueled in part by the presumption that PEDs contributed to the offensive surge, and thus shutdown pitching is all the more conspicuous by its mere presence.
The second aspect to notice is that three of the five pitchers all won 300 or more games. Only 24 men in the history of baseball, going back to the 19th century, have won at least 300 games, and all but four are in the Hall. Moreover, we are unlikely to see another 300-game winner for quite a while unless Jamie Moyer receives a bionic arm that enables him to win the 33 games he needs to get to 300, or Tim Wakefield manages to keep his knuckleball dancing until he is Medicare-eligible.
True, both Roy Halladay (178 wins at age 34) and, more likely, C.C. Sabathia (165 wins at age 30) have outside chances to approach 300. But pitching philosophy and strategy have changed radically in the last 30 years. The starting pitcher no longer battles it out over the course of an entire game, determined to be a factor in the eventual outcome. A series of relief pitchers now enters the game, and it is more prevalent now that the ultimate outcome of the game occurs once the starting pitcher is no longer a factor in the decision; thus, the "win" might go to a reliever who happened to be the "pitcher of record" when the outcome was finally decided.
Partly because of this, the perception that a win is an effective measure of a pitcher's true value—or that a win even measures a pitcher's effectiveness at all—is also changing. The Mariners' Felix Hernandez won the 2010 American League Cy Young Award not only with just 13 wins—Sabathia led the League with 21 wins, and Hernandez didn't even crack the top ten—but with 12 losses as well. This reflected the shift toward evaluating a pitcher's effectiveness through other statistical measures.
In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, three of those four pitchers who have won 300 or more games in their careers but who are not yet in the Hall will be elected to the Hall. The exception is Roger Clemens. Clemens won 354 games, ninth all-time; he is, statistically speaking, one of the most dominant pitchers in the history of the game and would thus be a shoo-in to Cooperstown were he not, along with Barry Bonds, a poster child for the entire PEDs debate. Whether the stance toward PEDs-associated players softens by 2013, when Clemens (and Bonds) becomes eligible for the Hall, or whether that stance hardens into convention remains to be seen. Perhaps the degree of support McGwire and Palmeiro receives next year will hint at the trend.
The third aspect, then, concerning my choices is that none of them have been associated with performance-enhancing drugs. Indeed, a mere glance toward at least four of the five would be sufficient to confirm that they have not appeared to have taken any substance designed to increase their physical bulk. (And this certainly does not cast doubt on the fifth, who maintained the same physical appearance throughout his deservedly Hall of Fame-caliber career.)
With all that now out of the way, here are the five no-brain picks for the Hall of Fame in upcoming years, in order of no-brainer-estness.
1. Greg Maddux (eligible in 2014)
It's tempting to list my number two pick here because of his sheer overpowering presence while in his prime, but crafty right-hander Greg Maddux will prove, if he has not already proved it, to be one of the greatest all-around pitchers in the history of this sport.
Let's get the knocks out of the way first: One, Maddux pitched exclusively in the National League, widely regarded as the weaker of the two Major Leagues. (Never mind that Maddux went 19–13 with a 3.88 ERA and 5 shutouts in 43 interleague starts.) Two, he spent about half of his career with the Atlanta Braves, which reached the postseason in every year he pitched for them except in 1994—which was a strike-shortened season with no postseason for anyone. (Never mind that Maddux was a big reason why the Braves had sustained success year after year.) Three, Maddux wound up posting a losing record overall as a postseason pitcher, 11–14 in 35 games (including 30 starts) with a 3.27 earned run average, including a 2–3 record with a 2.09 ERA in five World Series starts. (Never mind that Maddux is in the top ten all-time for postseason wins, innings pitched, strikeouts, appearances, and games started.)
Now for the good news. Maddux established a record of consistency, durability, and excellence that places him among the best pitchers ever to take the mound. The counting numbers bear this out: 355 wins (8th all-time), including an unprecedented streak of 17 consecutive seasons with 15 or more wins; 740 games started (4th all-time); and 5008 innings pitched (13th all-time)—all remarkable accomplishments in our modern era. Maddux ranks 10th in lifetime strikeouts with 3371, doubly impressive because Maddux was never a power pitcher but pitched by guile and location, which earned him the nickname "The Professor" for his cerebral approach to pitching. Even more impressive was his outstanding control: Maddux owns a lifetime strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.37, meaning that he struck out more than three times as many batters as he walked; in his prime, such as in 1997, Maddux posted an amazing 8.85 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the 8th-best seasonal mark in history; that year, Maddux walked a miserly 20 batters—6 of those intentional—in just over 232 innings while notching 177 strikeouts.
As an indication of his pitching dominance, Maddux was the first pitcher ever to win four consecutive Cy Young Awards (1992–1995), posting earned run averages under 2 in two of those years. Granted, one of those years, 1994, was strike-shortened, although Maddux had already reached 200 innings pitched, in 25 starts, before the work stoppage ended the season. His other sub-2 ERA year was 1995, the year the Braves won the World Series; Maddux posted a 1.63 ERA (and an adjusted ERA of 262) while winning 19 games and losing only 2 for an amazing .905 winning percentage. For his career, Maddux posted an ERA of 3.16. Qualitatively, Maddux's win probability added (WPA) of 59.94 is 2nd all-time, his adjusted pitching wins of 57.88 is 5th all-time; his adjusted pitching runs of 532 is 6th all-time; his wins above replacement (WAR; Baseball Reference version) of 96.8 is 8th all-time; and his adjusted ERA of 132 is 30th all-time—just ahead of Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, and Tom Seaver, whom Maddux considers to be the greatest pitchers of the live-ball era.
Furthermore, Maddux won 18 Gold Glove Awards as the best-fielding pitcher in the National League in every season from 1990 to 2008 except for 2003. (In 2003, Atlanta teammate Mike Hampton won the NL Gold Glove for pitchers—maybe they mistook Hampton for Maddux?) He is first in lifetime putouts (546) as a pitcher, and he is 11th in lifetime assists (1194) as a pitcher—the only pitcher who played after World War Two to rank in the top twenty. As a hitter, not a premium skill for a pitcher, Maddux still amassed 272 hits (including 35 doubles, 2 triples, and 5 home runs), 103 runs scored, 84 runs batted in, and 180 sacrifice hits. In addition to his pitching brilliance, Maddux helped his cause with his glove and his bat, making him one of the greatest all-around pitchers in baseball history.
In 2014, Greg Maddux will waltz into Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility. You can take that to the bank.
2. Randy Johnson (eligible in 2015)
While Greg Maddux quietly established his airtight Hall of Fame credentials throughout his career, flame-throwing left-hander Randy Johnson seemed to scream his. After all, this is the man who once pulverized a dove in mid-flight with a fastball that was regularly clocked in triple digits, complementing that ungodly heat with an equally devastating slider. (Adding to the intimidation factor, Johnson is fifth all-time in hit batsmen with 190.)
It's no surprise that Johnson ranks second only to Nolan Ryan in lifetime strikeouts (4875), and he is first in strikeouts per nine innings with 10.6, having notched six seasons with 300 or more strikeouts. After leading the American League in walks three years in a row early in his career, Johnson might have given Ryan a run for his money in lifetime bases on balls until Ryan himself corrected Johnson's mechanics, allowing the six-foot, ten-inch "Big Unit" to develop more control (although Johnson does rank 13th all-time with 1497 walks). Lowering his walk count and his earned run average, Johnson increased his winning percentage—particularly in 1995, when he won 18 games and lost only 2 for an eye-popping .900 winning percentage—eventually reaching the 300-win mark to finish with 303 wins, 22nd all-time, while his career ERA is 3.29.
Johnson pitched two no-hitters, nearly fourteen years apart, with the second being a perfect game. He earned five Cy Young Awards, four of them consecutively, a feat he shares with Maddux, while he is one of only five pitchers to have won a Cy Young in both leagues. Qualitatively, Johnson ranks 5th in win probability added (53.58), 8th in both adjusted pitching runs (503) and adjusted pitching wins (52.99), 12th in lifetime WAR for pitchers (91.8), and 20th in adjusted ERA (136).
Although Johnson's overall postseason record is 7–9 with a 3.50 ERA, much of that reflects his mediocre showing in divisional series in both the American and National Leagues, with a combined 2–8 record and 4.87 ERA. Johnson got better as his team advanced to the next round. In combined championship series play, Johnson won 2 and lost 1 with a composite ERA of 1.74. In the 2001 World Series, which saw the Arizona Diamondbacks beat the New York Yankees in a thrilling seven-game series, Johnson was masterful. He won three of Arizona's four games in two starts, one a three-hit shutout in which he struck out 11 while walking only one, and one celebrated relief appearance, coming in from the bullpen in Game Seven. For the Series, he posted a paltry, Christy Mathewson-like 1.04 ERA and an equally stingy WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) of 0.69. No wonder that Johnson shared World Series Most Valuable Player honors with fellow starting pitcher Curt Schilling.
Randy Johnson's career record of pitching dominance, capped by his equally potent World Series legacy, will usher him into Cooperstown in a surge of support.
3. Pedro Martinez (eligible in 2015)
In terms of quantity, right-hander Pedro Martinez won "only" 219 games in his career, a respectable number historically (76th all-time) and even an impressive number in the current era. Yet those 219 wins are balanced against only 100 losses, giving Martinez a winning percentage of .687, which is 6th-best all-time and is second only to Whitey Ford among post-World War Two pitchers.
That winning excellence is only the most obvious—if not the most accurate—measure of how effective Martinez really was. Simply put, Martinez was probably the most dominant pitcher of his era—and that era, a 12-year period from 1994 to 2005, is marked by an offensive explosion fueled in large measure by performance-enhancing drugs. Not to wax melodramatic, but to see the slight-of-build Martinez emerge victorious against a bevy of pumped-up sluggers was akin to seeing David slay a lineup of Goliaths with an array of pitches: a blazing fastball in his prime, and when his velocity waned he could disguise it with the other pitches he'd always had in his arsenal: a cut fastball, a curveball, and a changeup, all of which he could throw to get a batter out. In an age of inflated run production, Martinez finished with an ERA of 2.93—outstanding for the live-ball era.
Even more devastating was Martinez's superb control, which yielded 3154 strikeouts (13th all-time) against only 760 walks for an incredible 4.15 strikeout-to-walk ratio—3rd-best all-time; his 10.0 strikeouts per nine innings is also 3rd-best all-time. Not surprisingly, Martinez is also 5th all-time in WHIP with a career mark of 1.05; he also established the single-season mark of 0.74 in 2000.
In a seven-year period, from 1997 to 2003—an offensive-rich period that saw Major League batters hit 50 or more home runs in a single season 15 times, and 60 or more home runs six times—Martinez established an outstanding pitching record even more remarkable because he was injured in 2001 and made only 18 starts that year. For this seven-year period, Martinez won 118 games against only 36 losses for a .766 winning percentage. His ERA over that period was 2.20, with a 2.89 ERA in 1998 his highest (his first year as a Red Sox pitching in hitter-friendly Fenway Park), while he posted ERAs under 2 in 1997 (1.90) and 2000 (1.74).
Despite not pitching a full season in 2001, he still averaged 201 innings pitched per year over this seven-year period, with 251 strikeouts against only 45 walks for a sublime 5.59 strikeouts-to-walks ratio; in each of two seasons, he struck out 300 or more batters—305 strikeouts in 1997 and 313 in 1999. Meanwhile, as balls were flying out of the park, Martinez allowed just 93 home runs across all seven years, for a seasonal average of 0.6 home runs per nine innings pitched. Not surprisingly, Martinez won the National League Cy Young Award in 1997 and the American League Cy Young twice, in 1999 and 2000, while coming in second twice and third once.
In the postseason, Martinez posted a 6–4 record and a 3.46 ERA in 16 games including 14 starts, although two postseason moments will no doubt be associated with him for years to come: His dramatic six-inning, no-hit relief appearance in Game Five of the 1999 AL Division Series against the Cleveland Indians, and his infamous "two too many Yankees" eighth inning in Game Seven of the 2003 AL Championship Series against New York, which saw the Boston lead slip away in one of the toughest postseason losses for a Boston franchise that has had a few storied postseason heartbreaks. Martinez's World Series win against the St. Louis Cardinals the following year mitigated the previous year's sting, although his comeback with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2009 put the cap on his career as he lost two games in the World Series, fittingly, it seems, against the Yankees.
Qualitatively, does Martinez stack up? You bet he does: His adjusted ERA of 154 is 2nd all-time; in win probability added he is 4th all-time with 54.12; in both adjusted wins and adjusted runs he is 9th all-time with 51.06 and 487, respectively; and in WAR for pitchers he ranks 23rd all-time with 75.9. As the most dominant pitcher of his time, Pedro Martinez is a first-ballot lock for Cooperstown.
4. John Smoltz (eligible in 2015)
As a right-hander who served in both a starting and a closing role at various times throughout his career, John Smoltz might seem to have jeopardized his chances for the Hall. After all, his move to the bullpen in 2001, following Tommy John surgery the previous year, cost him wins as a starter; he might have finished with 250 wins or more instead of the 213 in the books now. And although he had three dominant years as a relief pitcher, notching 144 saves in his three full years as a closer (he has 154 career saves all told), he wasn't in that role long enough to establish himself as one of the game's greatest relief pitchers.
Fortunately, a guy named Dennis Eckersley had already blazed that trail, albeit under different circumstances. A starter who later became a closer, Eckersley had done well enough combining both roles to earn his place in Cooperstown, so with the precedent established, Smoltz will be assured his place in the Hall as one of the game's greatest pitchers. Along with Eckersley, Smoltz is the only other pitcher in Major League history with at least 150 wins and at least 150 saves, a rare combination that speaks to his versatility.
Just to be sure, let's revisit that record again. A power pitcher with a slider and a splitter to augment his fastball, Smoltz started for 11 full years before undergoing surgery and returning from that surgery as a reliever. In his first stint as a starter, Smoltz amassed 157 wins while pitching 200 or more innings seven times and compiling an ERA under 3 four times while compiling an adjusted ERA above 100 in all 11 years, meaning that he was better than a league-average pitcher in each year. Smoltz won the NL Cy Young Award in 1996 with a 24–8 record—which included a run of 14 wins in a row—and 2.94 ERA while leading the League in innings pitched (253.2) and strikeouts (276), with his resulting strikeouts-per-nine-innings of 9.8 also leading the league.
When his 2001 return from surgery found him struggling as a starter, Smoltz volunteered for the bullpen, becoming the Braves' full-time closer in 2002. That year, he set the NL single-season record for saves with 55 while striking out 85 in 80.1 innings. In 2003, Smoltz was arguably even better: While on his way to saving 45 games, he posted a tiny 1.12 ERA and an astonishing 385 adjusted ERA—remember, this is during a period of high-powered offenses—as in 64.1 innings he struck out 73 and walked only 8, yielding a stingy 0.87 WHIP. Keep in mind that Smoltz entered this unfamiliar closer role after arm surgery and at age 35 following a career as a front-line starting pitcher. After another fine year, 2004, as a reliever, he returned as a starter, maintaining his effectiveness for another three seasons, even leading the League in wins (16) in 2006, before age caught up with him.
In the postseason, Smoltz amassed a stellar record of 15–4 with a 2.67 ERA and four saves in 41 total games, including 27 starts. He is among the all-time leaders in strikeouts (199; 1st), wins (2nd), innings pitched (209; 3rd), games started (5th), appearances (6th), and winning percentage (.789; 9th). He was undefeated in divisional series, going 7–0 with a 2.59 ERA.
Qualitatively, Smoltz admittedly lacks the transcendent qualities of Maddux, Johnson, and Martinez, but he was still a much better pitcher than most of his contemporaries—and he is more qualified for the Hall than a number of pitchers who have already made it into Cooperstown. Smoltz is 10th all-time in win probability added (40.84), 21st all-time in adjusted runs (330), 22nd all-time in adjusted wins (34.25), 38th all-time in pitcher WAR (63.9), and 68th all-time in adjusted ERA (125). In addition, Smoltz did make it to the 3000-strikeout plateau, with 3084, even more impressive given that he had five years of limited innings pitched because of injury and his closer role.
Given the crowded Hall of Fame ballots over the next few years, John Smoltz might not be voted into Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility, but his established record of excellence, particularly in the postseason, and versatility will earn him a place soon enough.
5. Tom Glavine (eligible in 2014)
In some ways the left-handed version of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine did not have the assured command of Maddux nor the scorching power of Randy Johnson, yet he demonstrated remarkable resiliency while appearing consistently in the postseason. A finesse pitcher who succeeded through guile and deception, Glavine steadily won his way to 300 career victories, which is the primary reason why he is such a strong candidate for the Hall of Fame.
Or is he? It's true that every 300-game winner who has been eligible for the Hall has been elected. This includes Gus Wynn, who battled his way to 300 wins while losing 244 games, compiling a relatively high, for his era, ERA of 3.54, which, coincidentally, is also Glavine's career ERA. Glavine flashed a better winning percentage, winning 60 percent of his games while on his way to 305 wins, which is as much an indication of the quality of the teams he played for as it is an indication of Glavine's prowess.
Given the shift in evaluating the effectiveness of pitchers in recent years, Glavine's 300-plus wins might not be the automatic Hall pass it once was. Bert Blyleven's case might be indicative. Just 13 wins shy of 300 while ranking 5th all-time in strikeouts, Blyleven sweated until his final year of eligibility before Cooperstown beckoned him in—and that owed its occurrence to statheads who made the qualitative case for Blyleven (WAR, WPA, adjusted ERA, etc.) and not just simply his counting numbers.
In terms of counting numbers and more traditional measures, Glavine looks like a shoo-in: Five seasons of 20 or more wins, leading the League in each of those years; two Cy Young Awards, with two second-place and two third-place finishes; 17 years of 30 or more starts, leading the League six times in that category; 14 years of 200 or more innings pitched; and he led the League in complete games and shutouts once each. Glavine is 13th all-time in games started (682), and 30th all-time in innings pitched (4413.1). Not known primarily as a strikeout pitcher, Glavine is nevertheless 24th all-time with 2607 strikeouts.
In the postseason, over the course of 12 years, Glavine amassed a 14–16 record with a 3.30 ERA, although in five World Series Glavine went 4–3 with an excellent 2.16 ERA, completing three of his eight starts and compiling a measly 0.91 WHIP over 58.1 innings. Glavine shone in the 1995 World Series: Against the Cleveland Indians, he won both of his starts, scattering four hits and two earned runs over 14 innings, good enough for a 1.29 ERA and 0.71 WHIP as he was named the Series Most Valuable Player. All-time in the postseason, Glavine ranks 2nd in games started (35; good for 10th in appearances as well) and in innings pitched (218.1), 3rd in wins, and 5th in strikeouts (143).
Qualitatively, though, does Glavine measure up? Yes, he does, even though he is not as transcendent a pitcher as Maddux, Johnson, and Martinez. In fairness, few are—that's why they are transcendent. But Glavine is as qualified for the Hall of Fame as any pitcher already enshrined—and more qualified than some. Glavine's win probability added of 36.06 is 16th all-time, his adjusted runs of 312 is 25th all-time, his adjusted wins of 32.63 is 26th all-time, and his WAR for pitchers of 67.0 is 29th all-time.
And although Glavine's adjusted ERA of 118 is 146th all-time, he is tied in that category with Blyleven, who deservedly made the Hall of Fame—if only by the skin of his teeth. Glavine's 305 wins and two Cy Young Awards, along with his postseason plaudits, will combine with his qualitative bona fides to grant him entrance to Cooperstown.
Well . . . given the crowded Hall of Fame ballots over the next several years, even a couple of the so-called no-brainer picks listed here might not seem like such locks for Cooperstown after all. I do think, though, that all five—Maddux, Johnson, Martinez, Smoltz, and Glavine—will be elected to the Hall of Fame in upcoming years.
That should make the evaluation of the eligible players whose records do not make them obvious picks for the Hall even more entertaining. But that will have to wait for my next column . . .
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