5. Tim Raines (sixth year on ballot)
Another player whom I endorsed in my very first column and again last year, Tim Raines actually showed up on my radar screen in 2001, when the speedy left fielder was winding up his career. I was taking a course on writing up various kinds of reports including feasibility studies, or the evaluation of various options with the eventual recommendation of one of those options.
As it was summer and as I'm a baseball fan, I concocted an exercise in which I was writing on behalf of a fictitious "Underdog Committee" recommending potential Hall of Fame candidates among players who would be retiring soon and who were likely to be undervalued or overlooked in the upcoming years. (Recall that Wade Boggs, Tony Gywnn, and Cal Ripken, Jr., were expected to be elected in those upcoming years.) I chose four players, examined their records, and made my recommendation.
Barely sabermetrics-aware at the time, I did stick mostly to traditional qualitative and quantitative statistics, although I did use on-base percentage and positional scarcity. (Also, I could not assume that my intended audience—my course instructor—was a baseball fan.) The four players I chose were—don't laugh at the first one—Andres Galarraga (hey, he looked fairly impressive at the time), Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff, and Tim Raines. Going into the exercise, my assumption was that Martinez would emerge as the best-qualified of the four. However, after crunching the numbers, my recommendation was for . . . Tim Raines.
Even with my rudimentary analytical skills, I realized that Raines was the poor man's Rickey Henderson—what really pushed me over was that Raines is fifth in stolen bases, with 808. Subsequent examination shows that Raines's success rate—he was thrown out only 146 times—was an outstanding 84.7 percent. And in a decade, the 1980s, that predated the offensive explosion of the Steroids Era, Raines posted a consistently excellent record.
For a fifteen-year period, from 1981 to 1995, Raines established a .296/.386/.429 slash line with seasonal averages of 153 hits, 25 doubles, 7 triples, 10 home runs, 221 total bases, 75 walks (including 9 intentional walks), 51 stolen bases against only 9 failed attempts, 91 runs scored, and 55 RBI, generating a 126 OPS+ and 4.2 bWAR. As a leadoff hitter in 1415 games (of 2502 total) and 6514 plate appearances (of 10,359 total), Raines's slash line of .294/.385/.427 is virtually identical to his lifetime line while yielding 99 home runs, 1011 runs scored, and 584 stolen bases. Interestingly, for a leadoff-type hitter, Raines was walked intentionally 148 times, 48th all-time, two ahead of Mike Piazza and two behind Mark McGwire; by contrast, Rickey Henderson was walked intentionally only 61 times.
Raines led the league in stolen bases for four consecutive years and had six consecutive years of at least 70 thefts including a career-high of 90 in 1983, the 35th-highest single-season total in baseball history with 21 of those seasonal highs coming in the much-looser 19th century. But unlike, say, Vince Coleman, Raines was hardly one-dimensional, leading the league in both batting average and on-base percentage in 1986 while, as a full-time player, hitting .300 or better six times and reaching base at a .400 or better clip four times.
Even a basic examination, such as the one I did more than a decade ago, of Tim Raines will tell you that he is a Hall of Famer.
4. Curt Schilling (first year on ballot)
Even more so than Craig Biggio, Curt Schilling stands to benefit from the expected backlash against PEDs-associated players with respect to his Hall of Fame chances. The more PEDs players the voters ignore (disregard, snub, punish—choose your favorite verb), the more attractive a Schilling vote becomes. This is not to say that Schilling isn't a qualified candidate—I picked him as one my "tough sells" a year and a half ago—but throughout his career he has found himself in the shadow of other pitchers.
Never a Cy Young Award winner, Schilling was runner-up three times, two of them, in 2001 and 2002, to his Arizona Diamondbacks teammate Randy Johnson, who just happened to establish himself as one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, and he certainly showed it in both of those years as both his ERA+ and bWAR topped Schilling and everybody else. But in 2001 Schilling actually led the NL in wins with 22, one more than Johnson, against only 6 losses (a .786 winning percentage), and in innings pitched (256.2) while posting an ERA a notch under 3 (2.98) and piling up just under 300 strikeouts (293); and with only 39 walks, Schilling also led the league in strikeouts-to-walks ratio with a superlative 7.51. In 2002, Schilling picked up one more win from 2001 (23–7, .767), pitched a shade more innings (259.1), and exceeded 300 strikeouts (316)—and still took a back seat to the Big Unit. Yet because Schilling walked a measly 33 batters, he led the league not only in WHIP with 0.968 and in walks per nine innings with 1.1, but also in strikeouts-to-walks with an incredible 9.58, the fifth-best single-season mark in baseball history (and two of those marks are held by 19th-century pitcher Jim Whitney, playing in an entirely different environment from Schilling).
Even in the American League in 2004, Schilling took a back seat to the Minnesota Twins' Johan Santana although Schilling led the league in wins and winning percentage (21–6, .778), and with only 35 walks against 203 strikeouts, he again posted a league-leading strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 5.80, human but still excellent.
But Schilling shone on the big stage of the postseason, taking a back seat to no-one since Christy Mathewson. He even engendered some modern-day mythology with the famous "bloody sock" of Game Six of the 2004 American League Championship Series, a seven-game series that saw the New York Yankees win the first three games, including the opener against a hobbled Schilling, only to watch the Boston Red Sox battle back to win the last four games—the only time in a baseball seven-game series that the feat has ever occurred. In Yankee Stadium for Game Six, Schilling, pitching atop a hastily-repaired ankle that soon began to bleed through his sock, went seven innings, giving up only four hits and one run while striking out four as the Red Sox beat the Yankees and forced a Game Seven.
Schilling had helped to defeat the Yankees on the bigger stage of the World Series in 2001, as his Diamondbacks won the Series in seven games, and Schilling was named co-MVP of the Series, out of the shadow of and instead alongside co-winner Randy Johnson. We might forget that Schilling, although he lost Game One of the 1993 World Series to the Toronto Blue Jays while pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies, pitched a superb five-hit shutout in Game Five of that Series to keep the Phillies' chances alive after being down three games to one.
There are only 16 men who have struck out 3000 or more batters in their big-league careers; Schilling's 3116 ranks 15th. Every one of those pitchers eligible for the Hall of Fame has been inducted. Not that the 3000 punch-outs are a lock—Bert Blyleven, fifth on the list, had to wait 14 years before getting the call. But among active pitchers, only C.C. Sabathia has a realistic chance of reaching this milestone in the next few years while younger hurlers Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, and Justin Verlander have a lot of ground to cover before they can get close. And with just 711 walks issued in 3261 innings, Schilling owns a career strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 4.38, topped only by 19th-century pitcher Tommy Bond, meaning that Schilling's is the best mark of the much tougher modern era.
Over his career, Curt Schilling might have been overshadowed a few times in the regular season, but it was very difficult to top him in the postseason, and his overall record points only to one conclusion: He is a Hall of Famer.
3. Jeff Bagwell (third year on ballot)
The first baseman for the Houston Astros for his entire career, Jeff Bagwell has been long on my list of worthy Hall of Fame candidates, from the very beginning to my ballot assessment last year. As with Larry Walker and Tim Raines, I begin to sound like a broken record (or a sticking disc for any younger readers) making the case for the closest thing to a five-tool first baseman we have seen for a long time.
Well, maybe not a true five-tool first baseman. Bagwell's defensive capabilities have been downgraded recently—he now sports a minus-7.9 defensive bWAR, meaning that he cost his team nearly eight wins over the course of his career because of his defensive play, along with a bit more positive 12 career defensive runs saved and 31 career Total Zone runs above average. He did win a Gold Glove in his MVP year of 1994 (a strike-shortened season), but as the old saying goes, he hit well enough to earn that Gold Glove.
Bagwell is the only first baseman with at least 400 home runs and at least 200 stolen bases. He had six years with a batting average of .300 or better and finished with a .297/.408/.540 slash line. He had eight years with 30 or more home runs, and three years with 40 or more. His highest total was 47, in 2000, which coincided with the Astros' first year in Enron Field (now Minute Maid Park), a much more hitter-friendly park than their previous park, the cavernous Astrodome, in which Bagwell had played for the first nine years of his career. In 2000, 28 of those homers were hit in Enron Field. Bagwell did hit 43 home runs in 1997, with 22 of those coming in Houston, and he did hit 42 homers in 1999, although a mere 12 were hit in his last year in the Astrodome.
What we're getting at are the intimations, the insinuations, that Jeff Bagwell used PEDs at any time during his career. If he did, he was a very smart, very discreet player because he never exploded for an eye-catching number of home runs at any time during his career. In fact, he never led the league in home runs, and in the 14 full seasons in which he played, he averaged 32 home runs a season. A knock on Bagwell from another angle is that in nearly 8000 at-bats he didn't reach 500 home runs. In 1994, his fourth season and his age-26 season, Bagwell hit 39 home runs as he began his peak years; by 2004, he had dropped to 27 homers in his age-36 season (and 18 of those were hit at the friendly confines of Minute Maid Park) as age and injuries slowed him; he limped through the 2005 season, long enough to make his only World Series appearance, before retiring.
Unless evidence emerges that can identify Jeff Bagwell as having used PEDs at any time during his career, his exclusion from the Hall of Fame exemplifies the witch-hunt mentality that has engulfed baseball, as I detailed in Part 1 of this series. Lacking that evidence, not voting Jeff Bagwell into the Hall of Fame is an embarrassment to say the least. And I will say only the least.
2. Roger Clemens (first year on ballot)
The other side of the steroids coin from Jeff Bagwell is Roger Clemens, whose name was splashed all over the Mitchell Report as a PEDs user (while making trainer Brian McNamee's name a near-household one); who came off as surly, defensive, and unconvincing in a 2008 60 Minutes interview; and who faced prosecution no less than twice by no less than the federal government as its first attempt ended in a 2011 mistrial (because of prosecutorial misconduct), and the second with Clemens's 2012 acquittal on six counts of lying to Congress about his PEDs usage.
So much for the "integrity, sportsmanship, and character" terms of Rule Five of the Baseball Writers' Association of America's (BBWAA) election rules for Hall of Fame voting, right? Well, what about his playing record?
Similar to attempts with Barry Bonds's record to split the "clean" player from the "PEDs" player, trying to determine what—and even whether any—part of Clemens's playing record is issue-free could be like trying to split the atom: It will wind up being explosive with radioactive fallout in any case. Cut loose at the end of the 1996 season by the Boston Red Sox after enduring only one of two losing seasons in his 24-year career, a 1013 win-loss record with a 3.63 ERA, Clemens regrouped with the Toronto Blue Jays. (In 1993, Clemens was 11–14 with a 4.46 ERA, and in his final season, 2007, he went 6–6 with a 4.18 ERA.)
In his age-34 season, Clemens clinched the AL pitching Triple Crown with 21 wins (against only 7 losses for a .750 winning percentage), a 2.05 ERA, and 292 strikeouts; he also posted a rarefied 222 ERA+ and otherworldly 11.6 bWAR. Clemens merely repeated the feat in 1998, leading the AL with 20 wins (against only 6 losses for a .769 winning percentage), a 2.65 ERA, and 271 strikeouts, generating a more mortal, though no less impressive, 174 ERA+ and 7.8 bWAR. Needless to say, he walked away with the Cy Young Award in both seasons, his fourth and at-the-time record-breaking fifth awards. (We should note that both Randy Johnson, in 1997, and Pedro Martinez, in 1998, were close on Clemens's heels in performance if not in votes.)
Was 1997 when Clemens began taking PEDs, if in fact he did? Certainly, the record of his last 11 seasons, from 1997 to 2007, his age-34 to age-44 seasons, when he pitched for the Blue Jays, the New York Yankees, and the Houston Astros, is proportionally identical to the record of his first 13 seasons, from 1984 to 1996, all with Boston, as this table illustrates.
|Roger Clemens's Career Record, by Seasonal Grouping
GS = Games started; IP = Innings pitched; SO = Strikeouts
In those last 11 seasons, Clemens won the Cy Young Award four times, adding to the three times in his first 13 seasons.
Nolan Ryan was a freak of nature, a legendarily hard thrower who pitched until he was 46. In his age-34 season, Ryan too won an ERA title and posted an ERA+ of 195, the highest rating of his 27-year career. Yet in the succeeding 12 seasons, Ryan established an ERA+ of 140 or above only twice, and he was a near- or below-league-average pitcher, meaning an ERA+ of 110 or lower, seven times despite winning another ERA title and leading the league in strikeouts for four consecutive seasons, including 301 in 239.1 innings in 1989 at the age of 42.
By contrast, Clemens posted a near-league-average ERA+ only three times following his age-34 season but generated an ERA+ of 140 or higher four times during that period, including a career-high 226 in 2005, when he led the majors in ERA with 1.87, and a 194 ERA+ the following year when he posted a 2.30 ERA, albeit in just 113.1 innings.
Had Roger Clemens called it quits after the 1996 season, he would have had conceivably a Hall of Fame career. His win total, eight shy of 200, might not have looked impressive, ranking 136th instead of his being ninth among the 24 members of the 300-win club. His bWAR of 77.7 would have ranked 21st all-time among pitchers, just ahead of Hall of Famers Bob Gibson, Ferguson Jenkins, and Nolan Ryan, and just below Hall of Famer Pud Galvin, the 19th-century pitcher who was reputedly among the earliest PEDs users. He would still be tenth in ERA+ with 144, while he would have to settle for 26th on the all-time strikeouts list instead of his spot as the man with the third-highest number of career strikeouts in baseball history.
But he didn't call it quits, and he and Barry Bonds, the most dominant hitter of the last 30 years as Clemens was one of the most dominant pitchers of the last 30 years—unlike Bonds, who has no equal, Clemens faced competition from Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, and, at least for a stretch, Pedro Martinez as the era's greatest pitcher—epitomize the sorry, squalid state that Major League Baseball now finds itself in, officiously trying to enforce morality in a morally ambiguous environment, like Captain Renault in Rick's Café Americain, declaring that he is "shocked, shocked, to find that gambling is going on in here!"—even as he pockets his own winnings from the gambling tables in Casablanca.
Hell, Roger Clemens just as a Red Sox is a better pitcher than Catfish Hunter, Herb Pennock, or Early Wynn, pitchers the writers have voted to enshrine in the Hall in previous decades. He is a better pitcher than Jack Morris, whom the writers seem likely to enshrine this year in part because he is not Roger Clemens. But Clemens should be enshrined all the same, although I will be "shocked, shocked" if he is this year or even the next.
1. Barry Bonds (first year on ballot)
Should Barry Bonds not be elected to the Hall of Fame, either this year or in subsequent years, there would be a perverse symmetry in that the all-time leader in home runs joins the all-time leader in hits, Pete Rose, on the curb outside Cooperstown, looking in. And that both situations reflect both personal and institutional failings.
In Pete Rose's case, it might seem hard to blame institutional failing for his lifetime ban from baseball. The proscriptions and the penalties for gambling were explicit and unambiguous when he decided to begin betting on baseball games while still an active player; he was caught, and has remained ineligible for the Hall of Fame ever since. By contrast, the proscriptions and penalties for using PEDs were not explicit and unambiguous, at least not until they were defined by 2005, and that has put Barry Bonds and all other PEDs users, or suspected users, into a legal and moral No Man's Land; furthermore, while it might ultimately have remained a personal failing for Bonds and any other player to have chosen to use PEDs, that adds up to a lot of personal failings—and at what point does that become a reflection on the institution itself?
Because that institution, Major League Baseball, could very well find itself without its all-time hits leader and all-time home run leader represented in its own shrine to legacy excellence, the Hall of Fame. (Or its only seven-time Cy Young Award winner, Roger Clemens, and other notable individuals described above.) Regardless of personal failing, that is also an institutional failing. Does the sport attract "bad apples," ones who nevertheless rise to the top of the profession, and are tolerated, or at least unrecognized, until they transgress? Or does the sport foster the environment in which "good apples" can nevertheless be tempted to go bad? Perhaps that reflects the fact that men can be paid millions of dollars a year for excelling at a child's game while the teams that employ them can compel municipalities to subsidize the considerable cost of building the ballparks in which they play—that's called welfare—and then charge admission to everyone in those municipalities who wants to see them play.
We are drifting off into an area that starts to fall outside the scope of this article and of this website, but it does underlie the entire rationale of professional sports. For our purposes, it does highlight the institutional nature of the PEDs problem. Time and again, players have noted that their decision to use PEDs, or at least the temptation to use them, stemmed from the intense competition and the knowledge that they could be easily replaced, either by players who are better or who are willing to take PEDs to become better. That speaks to the conditions inherent in the workplace—in other words, institutional factors. (And, yes, skeptics will wonder, who forced these men to have to play baseball for a living?)
Furthermore, it also speaks to the question of "integrity" that Chad Murphy, Dale Murphy's son, has broached with his plea to reward his father and other like players for, in essence, being nice guys who played fair, were actively involved in community and charitable affairs, were ambassadors for the game of baseball, and who otherwise also fulfilled the other two "morals" terms of Rule Five of the BBWAA's election rules: "sportsmanship" and "character." Were those terms earnestly applied to every inductee in the Hall, that Hall would empty in a hurry, taking Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Gaylord Perry, and who knows how many more players with them.
(It is intriguing to note that this year the Pre-Integration Era Committee inducted one player among the three inductees it chose: James "Deacon" White, an excellent barehanded catcher who in the 19th century also stood apart from his rough-and-tumble contemporaries as a churchgoing teetotaler—hence the nickname "Deacon." Without putting too fine a point on it, White's closest player competition on the ballot was "Bad Bill" Dahlen—you could hardly find a better example of "good versus evil" nicknames, if not actual character; ironically, Dahlen's nickname derived from his arguing style with umpires when, near the end of his playing days, he managed for four years, the first two as a player-manager; otherwise, Dahlen was regarded as a quiet ballplayer who kept to himself. Meanwhile, Deacon White reputedly believed that the earth was flat; nowhere in the rules does it say anything about intelligence or gullibility.)
In one sense, this all seems to boil down to the hoary platitude that professional athletes are supposed to be "role models." One would have thought that the squalid saga of O.J. Simpson, and more recently (and more appropriately) that of Lance Armstrong, would have put paid to that idea. And as Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson once put it so incisively, "Why do I have to be an example for your kid? You be an example for your own kid." But as the overarching theme of this two-part series emphasizes, this year's Hall of Fame vote is indeed a referendum on PEDs users, and that ultimately means a referendum on cheating.
In case you think we have drifted away from the evaluation of Barry Bonds, we haven't. Divorced from how his career statistics were derived, Bonds is ridiculously qualified for the Hall of Fame, and you don't need me to elaborate. (And exercises such as determining whether the "clean" Bonds had Hall-worthy credentials before the "steroids" Bonds appeared are laudable if pointless ones—as we saw with Roger Clemens, voters are not going to elect half a player.) Moreover, as I pointed out in Part 1 of this series, the BBWAA has already made its pronouncement of Bonds (and to an extent Clemens), and it is unambiguously positive: The BBWAA named Bonds the National League's Most Valuable Player in four consecutive years—and those years, 2001 to 2004, were right when the entire PEDs issue was heating to a boil. This is after the BBWAA had named Bonds the MVP in three previous seasons, giving Bonds an unprecedented seven MVP Awards.
Coupled with Clemens's unprecedented seven Cy Young Awards, including those awarded in 2001 and in 2004, this is also why this year's ballot is a referendum on performance-enhancing drugs: Bonds was the most dominant hitter of his era, and Clemens was one of the most dominant pitchers of his era. Period. Their career numbers place them among the best players ever to have played baseball. Period. However, their use of PEDs—alleged, accused, denied, partially proved and partially disproved on narrowly technical grounds (much like O.J. Simpson's murder charge)—and the backlash, the moral dudgeon, against PEDs usage will prevent them from being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, at least this year. Period.
To which I say: bunk. You evaluate the baseball you have, not the baseball you wish you had. Had I a ballot for this year's election, these would be my top ten votes, followed by the four I would vote for were there the ability to do so.
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