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Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013

Baseball Hall of Fame: A Pair of Tens

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With the Packers' fate unknown until Sunday, the Observers tackled one of their favorite December tasks: Judging who deserves election to baseball's Hall of Fame. Frank has a vote as a retired member of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Artie's lifelong love of baseball makes him an equal expert.

The 2014 voting will be announced Jan. 8...

 

Frank: First, the basics. Players with at least 10 years in the majors become eligible five years after retirement. They need 5% support to stay on the ballot for a maximum of 15 years; last year there were 569 BBWAA voters. Election requires 75%; players not elected after 15 years go into consideration by the veterans committee, which includes Hall members, executives and media people.

Artie: How many names are on the 2014 writers' ballot?

F: Thirty-six, including 19 first-timers. Most won't get 5%, although several would make what you call “The Hall of the Very, Very Good.” For me the one-and-dones are Moises Alou, Armando Benitez, Sean Casey, Ray Durham, Eric Gagne, Luis Gonzalez, Jacque Jones, Todd Jones, Paul Lo Duca, Hideo Nomo, Kenny Rogers, Richie Sexson, J.T. Snow and Mike Timlin.

A: That leaves five first-timers: Tom Glavine, Jeff Kent, Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina and Frank Thomas.

F: Maddux and Glavine stand a good chance right away. Maddux had 355 wins, Glavine 305, and they were the backbone of terrific Atlanta teams of the '90s.

A: With the veterans committee just electing Bobby Cox, it would be fitting if the two pitchers go in with their manager.

F: I'm also voting for Thomas, although he spent much of his career as a designated hitter and I've never voted for DH-legend Edgar Martinez. I think Thomas' superior power numbers and consecutive MVP awards in 1993-'94 make a difference.

A: I'm with you on Thomas, and I'd also vote for Mussina, who was 270-153 with a 3.68 ERA.

F: I'm passing on Mussina this time because he doesn't quite compare to Maddux and Glavine, but I'll reconsider next year. Every ballot presents a new context. As for Kent, he's the all-time leader in home runs by a second baseman—351 of his overall 377. But I never considered him a dominant player, so I'm skipping him.

A: I would too. Now we have 17 holdover names, including Jack Morris, who's on his final ballot, and Alan Trammell, on his 13th.

F: Morris got 67.7% last year, second to Craig Biggio's 68.2% in a rare year when the BBWAA didn't pick anyone. Morris was 42 votes short, a lot to gain in one shot.

A: Trammell got only 33.6%, so things don’t look so good for him.

F: I haven't been voting for Morris because I think his 254-186 record and 3.90 ERA only reach that “very, very good” level.

A: He sure doesn't measure up to, say, Bert Blyleven...

F: Your special favorite, who won election three years ago on his 14th try. Your lobbying for him helped win me over. Anyway, I'm continuing to vote for Trammell because he's comparable to Barry Larkin, a shortstop elected on his third try.

A: I agree with that. Among the other holdovers, I'm backing Biggio and his 3,000-plus hits...

F: And his all-star status at both catcher and second base. I'm also sticking with Lee Smith and his 478 saves...

A: Me too. Am I right that you can vote for a maximum of 10 guys?

F: Correct. There's some "buzz” among columnists that it should rise to, say, 15 because there are so many more players in the expansion era.

A: I'm for that! On this ballot I see lots of others worth considering. Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza and Tim Raines all got better than 50% last year, and then there are Curt Schilling (38.8%), Martinez (35.9%), Larry Walker (21.6%), Fred McGriff (20.9%) and Don Mattingly (13.2%).

F: Then there are the “drug guys,” admitted or suspected: Roger Clemens (37.6%), Barry Bonds (36.2%), Mark McGwire (16.9%), Sammy Sosa (12.5%) and Rafael Palmeiro (8.8%).

A: I've also read columns saying there's at least some “smoke” surrounding Piazza and Bagwell.

F: I've voted for the tainted players for reasons I've explained before. But with this influx of worthy newcomers, I'm limiting my “drug” votes to Clemens and Bonds, who arguably compiled Hall-worthy stats before they “used.”

A: That may be true, but I can't go for anyone with strong evidence of chemical assistance. But as you know I'm a Raines backer, and to make sure I max out at 10 names I'll add Walker and McGriff.

F: I'll do likewise on those last two because I think it's worth making a point on raising the limit. But I'm just not a Raines backer. So here are my 10, alphabetically: Biggio, Bonds, Clemens, Glavine, Maddux, McGriff, Smith, Thomas, Trammell and Walker.

A: Mine are Biggio, Glavine, Maddux, McGriff, Mussina, Raines, Smith, Thomas, Trammell and Walker.

F: There's plenty more about the Hall voting to discuss, so we invite folks to follow us to expressmilwaukee.com.

 

HOW TO FIGURE THE FIGURES?

A: To reinforce the argument that the voting limit should be raised, I'll just rattle off the seven names that I didn't even have to think about: Biggio, Raines, Smith, Trammell, Maddux, Thomas, Glavine. Those were right off the bat, so to speak.

F: Out of the 36 total names I marked 21 about whom I thought, “Well, there is a discussion about this guy.” And that wasn't even including Mattingly. As a Yankee fan I love him, but I've never voted for him because I just think his body broke down too soon. He's in his next-to-last year on the ballot and got only 13.2% last year.

A: In the past I've thought the same of Walker, but I remember last year reading a couple of columns about him that changed my mind. Even with the injuries that shortened his career, consider this: His on-base percentage was an even .400; his career batting average was .313; he hit 383 homers. Plus he was a great outfielder with a hell of an arm. But it's only his fourth year on the ballot, so he's got some time.

F: That's also the way I feel about guys like Schilling, Bagwell and Mussina. That's certainly a factor; sometimes things just need to percolate for a guy. That's what happened with your man Blyleven; for a while it looked like he wouldn't get there, but as his years on the ballot got into double digits more voters moved his way. That sure happened with me, thanks in part to your lobbying. His 287 wins and 3.31 ERA got more appreciation.

A: I'm sure that will happen for Mussina. For me, he's definitely in a different category than, say, Morris. Much higher winning percentage, lower ERA, and look at the WHIPs: 1.296 for Morris and 1.192 for Mussina.

F: I have a little more to say about comparing Thomas and Martinez. Am I correct that Thomas won his MVPs in '93 and '94 when he was still mostly playing first base?

A: That's right.

F: I did some checking on baseball-reference.com. Thomas played in 2,322 games and 971 of them were at first base, about 42%. Martinez played in 2,055 games and 592 of them were at third or first, about 29%. Besides that, Thomas was a lifetime .301 hitter with 521 homers, more than 1,700 RBIs and almost 1,500 runs.

A: And an on-base percentage of .419.

F: Martinez was .312 with 309 homers, 1,269 RBIs, about 1,200 runs and an OBP of .418. But Thomas played much more in the field, so I don't have a problem with giving him an edge. And he was a better than average fielder, especially for his size. Unlike another large guy who used to play first, sort of, at Miller Park.

F: Besides, I do think of Thomas as someone who was genuinely feared when he hit. Much the way Jim Rice was thought of, and that helped get Rice into the Hall although his career stats were stunted by injuries.

A: They didn't call Thomas “The Big Hurt” for nothin'.

F: There are often pairs of candidates who make voters do a lot of comparing. Rice and Andre Dawson were like that for me. Or Dave Parker and Dale Murphy. Among pitchers there was a lot of debate over Morris, Blyleven, Tommy John, Jim Kaat—guys who have pretty similar stats and longevity. Are they all worthy, and if not, who's really the most worthy?

A: Right now I'd say that debate applies to Walker, McGriff, Bagwell, Piazza and Kent. Good power numbers at varied positions. Take McGriff: 493 homers with not a whiff of suspicion about being a drug guy. Bagwell, on the other hand, had 449 homers but almost as many RBIs as McGriff (1,529 to 1,550) in almost 1,000 fewer at-bats (7,797 to 8,757). And Bagwell even had 202 stolen bases! But, as I say, there's a little “smoke” of drug suspicion, at least among some writers.

F: OK, let's look at Walker. He was a .313 hitter (to Bagwell's .297 and McGriff's .284), with 383 homers and 1,311 RBIs and an on-base percentage of .400 (to Bagwell's .408 and McGriff's .377). And his 6,907 at-bats were almost 900 fewer than Bagwell and more than 1,800 fewer than McGriff.

A: Piazza's numbers are pretty comparable to Walker's: 6,911 at-bats, a .307 average, 427 homers, 1,335 RBIs.

F: And most of that done while taking the punishment of playing behind the plate.

A: But Piazza wasn't known as a good defensive catcher, while Walker won seven Gold Gloves in the outfield.

F: Decisions, decisions... If only there were a single stat that could be used as a comprehensive point of comparison between players at each position.

A: There are those who think there is such a thing—the mysterious stat called WAR, wins above replacement.

F: I know that's a hot item, but I have only a vague notion of what goes into the stat. In fact, I recently read a piece from ESPN The Magazine that included this sentence: “No one but a mathematician with a cloud full of MLB data can calculate WAR...” And the article said there are slight differences among baseball websites in calculating WAR. But apparently WAR incorporates data for offense and defense, with adjustments for position.

A: And I guess what results is a single figure for how many wins a player gives a team above what an average bench player or called-up minor-leaguer would. The higher the number, the better the player.

F: I see that baseball-reference.com gives a career WAR figure for each player on the Hall of Fame ballot. Of course longevity is a factor there. But the website also includes something called JAWS...

A: What, Ron Jaworski is a baseball expert too?

F: This is something called the Jaffe WAR Scoring System, developed by Jay Jaffe. It combines WAR data for a player's career and his seven best seasons. Then in something called "Jpos," Jaffe calculates the average JAWS score for all the Hall of Famers at his position. I have no idea how complex it is, but if baseball-reference.com thinks it's valid, that counts for a lot.

A: Let's get a look at some of those numbers... Wow, Bonds and Clemens are out of sight! Bonds has a JAWS number of 117.6 compared to a Jpos of 53.2 for Hall of Famers at his position. Clemens is at 103.3 compared to an average of 61.4.

F: But how much are their numbers drug-enhanced? They'll never be free of that question.

A: Here are some other JAWS numbers: Biggio, 53.3 compared to a Hall of Fame average of 57.0; Bagwell, 63.8 and 54.0; Piazza, 51.1 and 43.8; Raines, 55.6 and 53.2; Trammell, 57.5 and 54.7; Walker, 58.6 and 58.1; McGriff, 44.3 and 54.0; McGwire, 52.0 and 54.0; Sosa, 51.1 and 58.1; Thomas, 59.5 and 54.0; Kent, 45.4 and 54.0.

F: And for the pitchers, the JAWS numbers are Maddux 81.6, Glavine 62.9, Mussina 63.8 and Schilling 64.4, all compared to a Hall of Fame average of 61.4, and Smith 25.4 compared to an average of 34.4.

 

SHOULD THE LIMIT RISE?

A: Let's get back to the voting limit of 10 names. Doesn't that go back to the original voting in the 1930s?

F: That's right.

A: In those days there were 16 teams. But expansion began in the early '60s—more than 50 years ago—and we've had 30 teams since 1998.

F: So instead of 400 major-league players each season— 25 times 16 teams—we now have 750. And it stands to reason that from a much bigger pool of players there will be more who deserve consideration for the Hall.

A: The voting limit really needs to go up to 15. Or even 12; I'll take that as a compromise.

F: Well, I just received word from the BBWAA that a new committee was established last week "to discuss possible changes to HOF voting," as well as a message board for BBWAA members to "make their suggestions."

A: Excellent!

F: But I wonder; even with a bigger pool the number of worthy candidates will vary. It might be a legitimate argument that right now the ballot is “loaded,” but perhaps in a few years there'll be a lot fewer top-notch candidates. Then again, having a maximum of 12 or 15 doesn't mean anyone is required to vote for that many. Very few voters go as high as 10 right now, trying to limit their picks to the absolute best.

A: I remember another argument for raising the limit—that it helps keep certain “on the fence” guys on the ballot for the whole 15 years. Among this year's newcomers, perhaps a higher limit would help people like Kent, McGriff and Walker from dropping off.

F: As it is, Trammell is running out of time. It's his 13th year and he only got 33.6% last year. He needs a real spike to get to 75%.

A: But then there are guys like Blyleven or Rice who started out with relatively low percentages but worked their way up to election.

F: That means lots of voters can be swayed from year to year. I know I've changed my thinking on lots of guys. People might say that's being inconsistent, but as we said before, there are always changes from ballot to ballot because the pool of candidates is always different. New guys always bring in new points of comparison.

A: And from year to year you might read more about certain people, a column or two raising certain things or numbers you hadn't noticed before.

 

COMING: A “STEROID WING”?

F: All right, let's get back to the “drug guys,” admitted or suspected. Last year I voted for Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Sosa and Palmeiro. As I've explained over the years, I don't think Major League Baseball should have the BBWAA do its dirty work in terms of making moral judgments. If MLB wants to take anyone off the ballot, like Pete Rose, fine. But I've always said that if they're on the ballot and the numbers are there, I'll vote for them.

A: I completely agree that the writers shouldn't have to be MLB's disciplinarians, but I still wouldn't be able to vote for the drug guys myself.

F: But with the 10-vote limit I had to drop some of the drug guys to accommodate guys like Maddux, Glavine and Thomas. I have a feeling this ballot will “solve” the Palmeiro issue by dropping him below 5%. He only had 8.8% last year.

A: With Bonds and Clemens I guess I can buy your argument that they probably had Hall credentials before they became users—IF you can establish the years when that change took place.

F: I think with Bonds there's a pretty good idea when that was. The book Game of Shadows, a comprehensive look at Bonds and the scandal involving the BALCO lab, gives a time line in which Bonds saw McGwire and Sosa reaping all the acclaim in '98 and decided, “I'll show everyone who's the best player.” Bonds had won three MVPs already, then added four in 2001-'04.

A: As for Clemens, he won three of his seven Cy Young awards before the mid-'90s, where a lot of people mark the start of the “steroid era.”

F: Part of the reason I've always held out for McGwire is that I think he was, and is, basically a good guy. He handled the '98 record-breaking very well, bringing Roger Maris' family into it all.

A: Whereas Bonds and Clemens and Sosa aren't at all popular among media people or even their former teammates.

F: Another reason I've voted for drug guys is that I want everyone in baseball—MLB, the players' union, media, fans—to confront the fact that we were all complicit in the steroid era. I doubt any of these guys will get voted into the Hall, so there's very little chance for this catharsis to happen at an induction ceremony. But I still think that at some point, maybe when all their eligibility has ended, MLB and the Hall should open a major, permanent exhibit dedicated to the steroid era, with all the names and numbers displayed.

A: The “steroid wing” we've talked about before.

F: And I want the exhibit to make clear that we all were “enablers.” I was talking recently to someone who said she lived in St. Louis in '98, and she recalled how it was the greatest summer, everyone was so happy and excited... Exactly! Everyone had a great time, everyone made a lot of money except for the fans—and nobody was expressing any doubts or suspicions.

A: Bud Selig wasn't out there saying, “Well, I don't know if this homer binge is legitimate.”

F: Everybody was grooving on it because the game was finally recovering from the strike that wiped out the '94 World Series.

A: Let the good times roll and let the money roll into our coffers.

F: To imply that, “If the union didn't hamstring me I would have been all over this,” well, I'm not so sure.

A: By the way, “summer” and “St. Louis” and “greatest” can't be put together. That heat and humidity? Ugh! But one other point: How can we be sure that the “steroid era” is over?

F: There's a guy playing in this town who proved that people are still trying to cheat. Until last year you could say “Ryan Braun” and follow it with “future Hall of Famer.” But now...?

A: And some of the other guys suspended this year are pretty big, like Jhonny Peralta, Nelson Cruz and of course A-Rod. And that's just from the Biogenesis mess. Who knows how many guys are dealing with someone who knows how to keep his mouth shut better than Tony Bosch?

 

Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek's idea of heaven was the right-field extension at County Stadium.

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