18 Dec
Not in Hall of Fame


You know how hard it is to get into the Baseball Hall of Fame? In 2013, with a ballot brimming with qualified candidates, not one player received the 75 percent of the votes needed for admission. (I identified 14 likely Hall of Famers on the 2013 ballot.)

Granted, 2013 was the first year of eligibility for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, both poster boys for performance-enhancing drugs (PED), bringing to a head the contentious debate about "cheaters" and their admission into the Hall. But there were certainly several "clean" players on that ballot, and a few of those, such as 3000-hit-club member Craig Biggio, would have been uncontroversial picks in any previous year.

And although 2014 saw the election of three players—Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and Frank Thomas—it was merely the tip of a talent-heavy iceberg (I identified 18 likely Hall of Famers for that ballot), while providing a burn to Biggio yet again as not only did he miss election by one vote (he garnered 74.8 percent of the vote), but three first-time candidates leapfrogged him into Cooperstown.

Making It Harder to Be Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame

No one is begrudging the election of Glavine, Maddux, and Thomas—and for Maddux, one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, not to have been elected on his first ballot would have indicated a fundamental problem with the election process—but it did little to alleviate the logjam of qualified candidates not just on the current ballot but on ballots for upcoming years.

That is why, in an effort to alleviate that logjam, the Hall of Fame announced in July 2014 that the term of eligibility for a player on the ballot has been reduced from 15 years to 10 years, provided that the player receives at least five percent of the vote in any given year to remain on the ballot. (Candidates currently at or beyond that ten-year limit are grandfathered and will leave the ballot only if they are elected, cannot maintain at least five percent of the vote, or reach their 15th year without election.)

Thus, it will be even harder for a player to get into the Hall of Fame: There is already a surfeit of qualified players on the ballot, and in the age of talent compression baseball has been in for the last two decades—there have been many outstanding players, making it difficult for most players to be truly dominant and stand out as being Hall of Famers—more will be added to that overstuffed ballot in upcoming years. And now, once on that ballot, the annual opportunity to be elected to the Hall of Fame has been reduced by one-third.

Feeling that restriction even more keenly are those players "on the bubble," the ones whose legacies are on the cusp of immortality, at least as determined by the voters of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), whose votes elect the candidates to the Hall, and whose names, starting with the next ballot, will be made public even if their votes will not. (Individual voters may voluntarily divulge that information, and in fact many have been doing so for quite some time.) Those borderline players may find their fate is in the hands of the Expansion Era Committee once their time on the ballot is through.

But it is those players "on the bubble" that are of real interest, as they form that threshold between players defined as one of the greatest who ever played—those in the Baseball Hall of Fame—and all the other players, and that is our focus here: examining players eligible for the Hall in the next five years, many of whom were high-profile players, some of whom seem as if they could be Hall of Fame-caliber players, and some of whom may actually be Hall of Fame-caliber players.

Locks and Lock-outs: Players Not under Detailed Discussion Here

So, we will not be discussing the following players expected to appear on ballots between 2015 and 2019 as they are almost certainly going to be elected to the Hall of Fame during their tenure on the ballot:

2015: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz

2016: Ken Griffey, Jr.

2018: Chipper Jones, Jim Thome

2019: Roy Halladay, Mariano Rivera

Way back in 2011, I identified Johnson, Martinez, and Smoltz as "no brainers" with respect to their being elected to the Hall of Fame. Similarly, two members of the 600-home run club, Griffey, Jr., and Thome, earned their distinction "the right way," and Griffey, Jr., elected in 1999 to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team (only one of four active players to be elected), is particularly likely to be a first-ballot inductee; Thome, though, may not have the same cachet, as I noted in 2011 as he was approaching the 600-homer milestone with a relative lack of fanfare. Jones is the greatest switch-hitter in baseball history not named Mickey Mantle or Pete Rose, and is certainly the greatest switch-hitting third baseman of all time. Rivera, universally regarded as the greatest relief pitcher of all time, is another candidate practically guaranteed to be elected on his first ballot, and while Halladay's record may not have the standout numbers of Johnson or Martinez, for his time he was one of the most dominant starting pitchers and will most likely receive sufficient attention to be elected without much contention. (I made the case for Halladay in 2013 in an examination of pitching wins and the Baseball Hall of Fame.)

We are also not discussing, at least in great detail, Manny Ramirez, putatively eligible in 2017. On his batting record alone, Ramirez may be the greatest right-handed hitter of his era—sorry, Frank Thomas—and is one of the greatest hitters of all time, with a .312/.411/.585 slash line (batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage), yielding a .996 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) and a 154 OPS+ (OPS league- and park-adjusted and indexed to 100, with 100 being league-average; Ramirez ranks 25th all-time in this category). In 2302 games and 9774 plate appearances, Ramirez banged out 2574 hits and slugged 547 doubles (28th all-time) and 555 home runs (14th all-time) while scoring 1544 runs and driving in 1831 (18th all-time). He helped lead the Cleveland Indians to two World Series (1995 and 1997), and he helped lead the Boston Red Sox to World Championships twice, first in 2004, in which he was named the Series' Most Valuable Player, and again in 2007.

But Ramirez is another poster child for PEDs. His name was alleged to have been in the Mitchell Report, the findings of the committee headed by former Senator George Mitchell that investigated the issue of PEDs in baseball, and although Ramirez's name ultimately did not appear in the report, two subsequent incidents have tarnished—perhaps irrevocably—Ramirez's image: In 2009, he endured a 50-game suspension after testing positive for taking a women's fertility drug, human chorionic gondatrophin (hCG), reputed to be used to restart testosterone production following a steroids cycle. The 50-game suspension was the first punishment in Major League Baseball's then-current drug policy of "three strikes and you're out," in which the third violation meant a permanent ban from the sport. The punishment for the second violation was a 100-game suspension, which Ramirez incurred in 2011 when he failed another drug test—but instead of serving the suspension, Ramirez abruptly retired. Months later, wishing to be reinstated, he agreed to a negotiated 50-game suspension, and he even signed with the Oakland Athletics in 2012 although he did not play with them before being released.

Since then, Ramirez has tried to return to baseball, possibly clouding when he may actually be eligible for the Hall of Fame ballot. However, considering that his drug violations followed the "Wild Wild West" ambiguities of the sport's attitude toward doping in the late 1990s and early 2000s and occurred when there was a definite policy structure in place, Ramirez seems certain to face considerable opprobrium for some time to come. Manny Ramirez's only hope may lie with an Expansion Era Committee many years hence.

Also not under detailed discussion is Ivan Rodriguez, although his case is hardly as egregious as Ramirez's. Getting the ugly part out of the way, Jose Canseco, in his 2005 notorious tell-all book Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big, identifies Rodriguez as getting anabolic steroids injections from Canseco himself. Asked about the allegations, Rodriguez replied that he was "in shock," and when, four years later, he was asked whether his name would appear in the Mitchell Report, Rodriguez replied, "Only God knows."

Not exactly vociferous denials, but on the other hand, no other allegations, let alone evidence, have yet emerged to implicate Rodriguez with PEDs. So, when he becomes eligible in 2017, if the PEDs allegations don't sully his chances, there is little else to keep him from the Hall of Fame.

Both offensively and defensively, Ivan Rodriguez is one of the greatest catchers in the game's history, on a par with Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, and very few others; Jay Jaffe's JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score system) rating, which uses Baseball Reference's version of Wins Above Replacement (WAR) to rank players against existing Hall of Famers, places Rodriguez third, behind only Bench and Gary Carter. In 2543 games and 10,270 plate appearances, he racked up 2844 hits including 572 doubles and 311 home runs for a .296/.334/.464 slash line, generating a .798 OPS and a 106 OPS+; he scored 1354 runs while driving in 1332, and he managed to steal 127 bases.

Although Rodriguez established an outstanding batting record, it was his defensive ability that truly distinguished his career as a catcher. He is the lifetime leader in games started as a catcher (2346) and in putouts for a catcher (14,864), and he is fifth in double plays turned as a catcher (158), 23rd in career assists (1227), and 39th in base runners caught stealing (661), while his caught-stealing percentage of 45.68 is the best of all catchers during his playing career. Not surprisingly, Rodriguez ranks eighth in defensive WAR with 28.7, leading all catchers.

In sum, Ivan Rodriguez is the proverbial "first-ballot Hall of Famer," not only one of the best players at his position during his playing career but one of the very best ever to play that position. Only the PEDs taint could prevent "Pudge" from sailing into the Hall of Fame.

Hall Voting As a Referendum on PEDs

And at this point, it should be crystal-clear that Hall of Fame voting is a de facto referendum on performance-enhancing drugs, as underscored by the votes in 2013 and 2014. In 2013, voters allocated only a fraction of their votes to Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, each of whom on numbers alone ranks as the very best at his respective position. If other candidates with PEDs associations—Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and others—were not elected, arguments about not including them that did not involve PEDs (at least directly) had some credibility. Not so with Clemens and especially with Bonds.

The 2014 vote did elect three players—and each of whom were repudiations of the PEDs era. Glavine and Maddux were both pitchers who worked by guile; neither was a power pitcher, although Maddux did surpass the 3000-strikeout milestone. And as finesse pitchers who battled the bulked-up hitters of the Steroids Era, they both reinforced the David Versus Goliath imagery of the time. And although Thomas, a tight end at Auburn, looked like a Goliath, the "Big Hurt" was actually one of the most vociferous advocates for drug testing, and not only did he decry those players who used PEDs, he insisted that his career was played "the right way"—cleanly, with no chemical or biological help.

It is significant that all three, exemplars of PEDs cleanliness, leapt over all the existing candidates on the ballot and into Cooperstown ahead of them. Even more significantly, Rafael Palmeiro in 2014 fell off the ballot in only his fourth year on it. In 2005, Palmeiro denied while under oath to a Congressional hearing on PEDs that he had ever taken any PEDs—only to test positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol months later and be suspended for 10 days.

Palmeiro is only the fourth hitter in Major League history to collect at least 3000 hits and at least 500 home runs in his career. The other three were Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Eddie Murray, and all three were elected in their first year of Hall eligibility. Palmeiro's best showing was in 2012, his second year on the ballot, when he scraped together 12.6 percent of the ballot. It's not as if the novelty of being a member of the exclusive 3000-hit, 500-homer club has worn off—it's Palmeiro's fatal association with PEDs that has doomed him.

Indeed, a candidate needs only have the presumption of having used PEDs to sully his chances. Jeff Bagwell has never been tied to any evidence that he used illegal substances, but he has struggled to reach the 75-percent threshold since his first appearance on the ballot in 2011. And it has been suggested that Craig Biggio's failure to be elected in two tries on the ballot may be tied to his being Bagwell's Houston Astros teammate from 1991 to 2005—a case of guilt by association following guilt by presumption.

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Last modified on Thursday, 14 January 2016 00:56

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