The 14 Most Qualified Players on the 2013 BallotIt is no coincidence that the 14 players who I think are the most qualified for the 2013 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot also happen to be the 14 players with the highest bWAR in the combined table above. Thus, it would be simple to merely list them in the order in which they appear in the table.
But although WAR (in whatever version) is a good quick-and-dirty sorting tool, as I explained in Part 1, I've ordered the 14 candidates below based on other factors such as positional scarcity (the idea that a player at a more-challenging defensive position such as catcher or shortstop, all other things being equal, has more value to his team than a player at a less-challenging position), the context of the player's active seasons, the magnitude of the player's accomplishments, and other considerations.
With that in mind, here, in reverse order, are the 14 presumptive Hall of Famers.
14. Sammy Sosa (first year on ballot)
A great irony of Sammy Sosa's career—detractors might call it a comeuppance—is that although Sosa is the only player in baseball history with three seasons in which he hit 60 or more home runs—in 1998 (66 homers), 1999 (63), and 2001 (64)—he never led the league in home runs in any of those years. He is one of only five hitters in baseball history to reach 60 homers in a season, and the other four all led their league—indeed the majors—in round-trippers when they reached that milestone, including Mark McGwire twice. Sosa did lead the league in homers in two other years, 2000 (50) and 2002 (49), and he was the NL MVP in 1998—the same year of the famous "home run chase that saved baseball" when McGwire set the single-season mark with 70 long flies—when he knocked in a league-leading 158 runs batted in and led his Chicago Cubs to the postseason.
Eighth in lifetime home runs with 609, Sosa is one of only eight men with 600 or more big flies, and his 1667 RBI are 27th all-time; he had eleven seasons with 30 or more homers, seven with 40 or more, and nine seasons, all consecutive, with 100 or more RBI. Sosa is also third in lifetime strikeouts with 2306, a career rate of 23.3 percent, with only 929 bases on balls in 9896 plate appearances. Sosa's career slugging percentage of .534 is within the top 50, higher than Hall of Fame sluggers Willie McCovey, Mike Schmidt, and Willie Stargell, but his career OPS+ of 128, equal to marginal Hall of Famers Goose Goslin's and Jim Rice's, challenges the effectiveness of those gaudy counting numbers, as does his wRC+ of 123. Defensively, Sosa was not terrible, costing his teams one win (a minus-1.0 defensive bWAR) over his career while saving 104 runs overall and notching 143 assists, 127 of those as a right fielder, tied for 23rd with Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, on the all-time list.
Sammy Sosa's power-hitting accomplishments have to put him into the discussion, but their impact is open to debate. Any of the other thirteen candidates deserve a ballot spot ahead of him.
13. Kenny Lofton (first year on ballot)
One player who might not have popped up on anyone's radar screen as a potential Hall of Fame candidate is center fielder Kenny Lofton, although he crossed mine a year and a half ago even if I thought then, as I do now, that the logjammed ballot will make his case even tougher than it is already. Runner-up for the 1992 AL Rookie of the Year Award to the Milwaukee Brewers' shortstop Pat Listach—yes, I had to look him up too—Lofton posted virtually identical numbers to Listach's while leading the league in stolen bases with 66, the first of five consecutive years in which Lofton led the league in that category. He swiped a total of 325 sacks during that time, more than half of his 622 career steals (15th all-time), while posting a career-high of 75 in 1996.
Alas, Lofton did this with the high-powered Cleveland Indians and was overshadowed by Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, and Omar Vizquel, among others. Too bad, because Lofton was essentially a poor-man's Tim Raines with much better defensive skills, posting many offensive numbers comparable to "the Rock" while playing in 400 fewer games and making 1000 fewer plate appearances. Lofton was practically a .300 hitter, sporting a .299/.372/.423 slash line while amassing 2428 hits, 383 doubles, 116 triples (tied for 106th all-time with Hall of Famer Jimmy Collins), and 130 home runs while scoring 1528 runs, 60th all-time.
But Raines's hurdle to overcome is being tagged as the poor-man's Rickey Henderson—so you can imagine the poverty gap Lofton has to cross being the poor-man's poor-man's Henderson. Not helping is Lofton's peripatetic path following his first nine years in Cleveland—with even that broken up by a one-year stint with the Atlanta Braves in 1997 before returning to Cleveland—as he played with nine more clubs in his last six years, including the San Francisco Giants during their 2002 World Series appearance and a curtain call with Cleveland in 2007, his final season. His career OPS+ of 107 and wRC+ of 110 make it hard to call Kenny Lofton an elite player, but he was an excellent leadoff hitter and an outstanding defender at a premium position, center field—he probably deserved more than the four Gold Gloves he did win—and he deserves serious consideration.
12. Mark McGwire (seventh year on ballot)
Apart from the PEDs issue that has defined Mark McGwire's Hall of Fame chances, the biggest knocks against "Big Mac" are that he was a one-dimensional player and that his career wasn't long enough. Like Harmon Killebrew, McGwire was known strictly for hitting home runs, and in 1874 games and 6187 at-bats, McGwire collected only 1626 hits for an unexceptional.263 lifetime batting average, although that would not be the lowest among Hall of Fame first basemen—Killebrew's .256 would still hold that dubious honor.
On the other hand, 583 of those hits were home runs and are tenth all-time, while his ratio of 10.61 at-bats per home run is tops in baseball history, more than a full at-bat better than Babe Ruth's 11.76. Moreover, as I noted last year, McGwire is a classic Three True Outcomes hitter: In addition to slugging home runs at a prodigious rate, which informed his .588 career slugging average that is bested by only seven other hitters, he either struck out—1596 times for a 20.8 percent clip—or walked: Mac drew 1317 bases on balls, with only 150 of those intentional, which puts his lofty .394 on-base percentage (81st all-time) into bold relief against his pedestrian batting average.
McGwire's long-ball prowess was demonstrated early, when he became the 1987 AL Rookie of the Year with the Oakland A's by smashing a record 49 long balls. That led to eleven years of 30 or more round-trippers, with six of those years netting 40 or more, while seven years of 100 or more RBI, including a league-leading 147 in 1999, led to 1414 for his career. His record might have been even more impressive had not foot injuries nagged him in his prime, limiting him to 74 games and 279 plate appearances total for 1993 and 1994. Qualitatively, McGwire's 163 OPS+ is 11th-best lifetime, while his 157 wRC+ is 12th-best lifetime and his weighted on-base average (wOBA) of .415 is 32nd lifetime. Defensively, Mac was a liability even at first base with a minus-12.8 defensive bWAR, costing his teams a net minus-29 runs overall. Mark McGwire might have been a one-dimensional player, which is why I have him ranked 12th out of 14, but that dimension was rather spectacular, which is why he is qualified for the Hall.
11. Edgar Martinez (fourth year on ballot)
Had Edgar Martinez become a full-time player sooner than his age-27 season, and had injuries not dogged him from the start, he might have compiled an even more auspicious batting record than he has currently, and his path to the Hall of Fame would be much smoother. Unfortunately, you have to evaluate player as he is and not how you wish he could have been, and so looking at Martinez's record requires just a little more discernment.
But not that much, because Martinez produced as much, if not more, in the 14 full years he played for the Seattle Mariners (not counting his first three seasons and his injury-plagued 1993 campaign) than have most ballplayers. I made a case for Martinez last year, and it still holds up now. What seems to be the biggest obstacle for Martinez is his status as a designated hitter. I'm a National League guy myself and admit to residual bias against the DH—which is why Martinez slides to just outside the top ten for this year—but the DH has been an official position in the AL for four decades now and is part of baseball whether we like it or not.
Moreover, the award given since 1973 (the year of the first designated hitter) to the best DH, the Outstanding Designated Hitter Award, was renamed in 2004 the Edgar Martinez Outstanding Designated Hitter Award. And why not? In the seven prime years that Martinez was the Mariners' full-time DH, from 1995 to 2001, he posted a .329/.446/.574 slash line while averaging 171 hits, 42 doubles, 28 home runs, 298 total bases, 107 walks, 100 runs scored, 110 runs batted in, a 164 OPS+, and a 5.5 bWAR—All-Star quality, as he was for five of those seven years. Martinez was the first—and remains the only—DH to win a batting title when he hit .356 in 1995; he won his first batting title in 1992 with a .343 average while starting 102 games at third base. Martinez lifetime rankings include 21st in on-base percentage with .418, 41st in OPS+ with 147, 57th in wOBA with .405, 91st in fWAR (position players only) with 69.9, and 108th in bWAR (both position players and pitchers) with 64.4. Edgar Martinez is a Hall of Fame hitter.
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