Hot Stove Blast: An Unofficial Ballot for the Hall of Fame Class of 2015

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The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Put it on your bucket list!

Welcome to 2015 and what I hope will be a fairly regular series on sports. I’m a baseball fan first and a basketball fan somewhere after curling and badminton, tied with soccer, so that will give you some idea what to expect.

This time of year, with snow blowing outside my window, makes me long for baseball season. Hot stove league discussions keep warm thoughts of summer days with that perfect bouquet of stadium scents helping me to forget about the notorious St. Louis humidity. It’s also the time of year where the Baseball Writers Association of America, the self-appointed arbiters of enshrinement in baseball’s Hall of Fame in bucolic Cooperstown, NY, holds their annual elections. Lately, these votes have left me cold.

Baseball is the one sport where personal conduct is part of the equation. Some may argue that off-field shenanigans shouldn’t matter. The original class of inductees included Ty Cobb, after all, and he was a world class jerk.  Ask yourself this: if you were voting for the NFL Hall of Fame and you were asked to consider O.J. Simpson, a gifted running back and suspected murder, now, how would you vote? So with that in mind, I’ll play along with the Hall’s “pick 10” voting procedure. I don’t agree with it—if there are 14 deserving candidates why can’t I vote for all of them? Some voters will deliberately not vote for an obvious Hall of Famer because no one has ever been a unanimous selection. Some will try to drive their personal morality crusades by voting for Aaron Sele instead or Craig Biggio, for example. Yes, Sele got a vote in 2013, a year in which no one got elected to Cooperstown. That’s inexcusable. Morality isn’t completely interchangeable with personal conduct. I wouldn’t vote for a murderer, but I won’t vote for known steroid users either. I will, however, vote for suspected but never proved players and for 10 very deserving boys of summer. Just for the record, I’m not a member of the BBWAA so my ballot is 100% unofficial.

Here we go, in no particular order:

Randy Johnson (5 Cy Young Awards, 10 All Star Games): This couldn’t be more obvious. Johnson, the gangly 6’10” lefty who once made John Kruk soil himself (not literally…as far as I know) in an All-Star Game, is #2 behind Nolan Ryan with 4875 strikeouts. That’s slightly more than half of the total batters faced by Aaron Sele in his illustrious career.  Johnson was simply the most dominant pitcher of the past two decades. He won four of his five Cy Young Awards from the ages of 35 to 39, and you can take one look at his Ichabod Crane frame and know he wasn’t juiced. He also once exploded a dove with a fastball. That’s the stuff of legend, and legends belong in the Hall.

John Smoltz (1 Cy Young Award, 8 All Star Games, 1992 NLCS MVP): I think when you say “Dennis Eckersley” people automatically think, “tall, lean closer for the Oakland A’s who gave up Kirk Gibson’s famous homerun in the World Series.” What people often forget is that Eck was heck of starter in his early days with the Red Sox. John Smoltz was a heck of a starter who reinvented himself as the Atlanta Braves closer after undergoing Tommy John surgery (Tommy John should probably be in the Hall too just for being the guinea pig for this career-saving medical procedure). He and Eckersley are the only pitchers in history with more than 150 wins and 150 saves. Smoltz even went back to starting and led the league in wins at age 39. With teammates Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux already enshrined last year along with manager Bobby Cox, the heart of the Braves will be a deserving addition to the shrine of America’s Favorite Pastime.   

Tim Raines (7 All Star Games): His nickname was “The Rock,” and  you would have smelled what he was cookin’ if you followed the Montreal Expos in the 1980s and if he wasn’t the best leadoff hitter of his time not named Rickey Henderson. Unfortunately, Raines was overshadowed by the more demonstrative Henderson and Montreal isn’t New York, Boston, or Los Angeles. 808 steals against 146 times getting caught, 430 doubles, 364 more walks than strikeouts, and while still in his prime he began to suffer the effects of lupus but played several more years as an effective pinch hitter and fourth outfielder. I often hear “experts” dismiss a guy like Raines as not being great for long enough. Most people would agree that Sandy Koufax was great, but he also only played 12 seasons and was only really great for seven of them. It’s time for the BBWAA to get off their high horses and honor a guy who didn’t get many breaks in his career but persevered through it all.

Craig Biggio (7 All Star Games, Gold Gloves, 5 Silver Sluggers): I can’t believe Biggio isn’t already in the Hall of Fame. What more does he have to do? He was voted as an All Star at both catcher and second base, and played the outfield later in his career as well. 668 doubles, 414 steals, 291 homeruns during a career where power from second base wasn’t particularly common among his peers. Some might wrinkle a nose at his .281 lifetime batting average, but I guarantee that there’s not a manager in baseball who wouldn’t take a .281 hitter with speed and pop who could play second base, catcher or the outfield. While his fellow “Killer B” Jeff Bagwell has some stigma of unproven steroid use, Biggio is considered to be as clean as one can get in this era. The voters who didn’t elect anyone in 2013 should have had their voting rights revoked—if anyone on that ballot was deserving of enshrinement, it was Craig Biggio.

Larry Walker (1 MVP, 5 All Star Games, 6 Gold gloves, 3 Silver Sluggers): “Wait…what?” I hear you say. Yep, Larry Walker, product of Canada, gets my vote. Look, in an era where guys were injecting themselves with steroids, rubbing “cream and clear” all over themselves, and hitting prodigious homers in terrible hitters’ ballparks at middle age, Larry is only guilty of spending the peak of his career in the peaks of the Rocky Mountains at Coors Field. I don’t hold that against him. In fact, I believe the “Coors Effect” is highly overblown. If the thin air of Denver allowed the Rockies to club homeruns with reckless abandon, shouldn’t it also work for their opponents? Why don’t the Rockies’ home games always look like football scores? Walker was a budding star in his first 6 years in Montreal, and he only ever lead the league in homers once while playing in Colorado. He did lead the league in hitting three times though, with marks of .363, .379, and .350. Is that due to thin air, or a gift for putting good wood on the ball, both at Coors and on the road? He failed to win batting titles with marks of .366 and .338 in other seasons and he ended his career with a .313 lifetime batting average. He has been barely hanging on to Hall of Fame eligibility for a couple years now, but he really should be given greater consideration. I fear he’ll slip below the cutoff threshold as a crop of guys Ken Griffey Jr. and the logjam of quality hopefuls already on the ballot hold him down.  

Curt Schilling (6 All Star Games, 3-time runner-up for the Cy Young): For a period in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Curt Shilling was probably the best pitcher in the game, other than his teammate, Randy Johnson, who hogged all the Cy Young Awards. Schilling’s numbers may not look all that pretty at first glance, but sometimes greatness isn’t perfectly represented in the numbers. He started his career with a few sips of coffee in Baltimore and Houston before finally getting traction with the Philadelphia. He was instrumental in the Phillies success in the early 1990s, but really put it together at age 30 when he struck out 319. He turned in 3 such seasons and missed a fourth by just 7 strikeouts. He was a three-time twenty game winner, the first time at age 34. His career ERA is 3.46, which in his era is pretty darn good. Curt Schilling was something of a late bloomer, but he was a fierce competitor who famously pitched the Red Sox to a curse-breaking World Series title while an ankle injury bled through his sock. As a St. Louisian whose Cardinals were on the losing end of that battle, I’m still inclined to believe it was ketchup. Whether it was legit or a psyche job there’s no questioning his ability to put hitters away at a very high rate.

Lee Smith (7 All Star Games): Get out your old baseball cards, Lee Smith is still on the ballot. He doesn’t have many chances left. There are five closers in the Hall of Fame currently: Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Dennis Eckersley. Of those, only Rollie Fingers was ever the career leader in Saves. Fingers retired with 341 Saves, Lee Smith retired with 478. He was the All Time Saves king from 1993 until 2006 when Trevor Hoffman surpassed him.  Not only that, Big Lee was often asked to work two or more innings. He is what I call a “true” closer, the guy you bring in when you absolutely, positively need to get a guy out. Yankee fans will someday beseech the Vatican to beatify Mariano Rivera, but how many times did Joe Torre call for him with the bases loaded and two outs in the 7th inning? I have a lot of respect for “Holds” guys, those unsung heroes who hand the anointed closer a safe lead to start the ninth with nobody on. Lee Smith didn’t always have that luxury. He worked for his saves. He shouldn’t have to work for Hall of Fame respect.  

Pedro Martinez (3 Cy Young Awards, 8 All Star Games): You’d think no-brainer, but I really struggle with Pedro as a Hall of Famer. Wins are underrated but he only managed 219 out of 409 starts. He only won 20 or more games twice. He struck out 3154, which is pretty great, but that’s only 38 more than Curt Schilling who gets much less Hall of Fame love from the pundits. That’s why he’s on my ballot—he’s a completely different person than Schilling, and they achieved their numbers quite differently, but in the end his numbers are fairly comparable. If Schilling is a Hall of Famer in my eyes then so is Pedro. Additionally, Pedro led the league in ERA 5 times, including a couple of season with ERAs below 2.00. That’s awfully good, especially in the juiced ball/juiced hitter era.

Jeff Bagwell (1991 Rookie of the Year, 1 MVP Award, 4 All Star Games, 1 Gold Glove, 2 Silver Sluggers): Hard to leave off because there’s no proof that he did steroids, but there’s a lot of similarities between Bagwell and Mark McGwire in terms of how quick their bodies broke down at similar ages.  That aside, Bagwell put up some very strong numbers and was very consistent for a good 10 years. 488 doubles, 449 homers, 1529 RBI, a very tidy .297 batting average, and amazingly 202 stolen bases. I have looked back at that stat about a half-dozen times now. When I think of Bagwell I think of a guy built like a sequoia slugging bombs out of both the cavernous Astrodome and the quirky Minute Maid Park. The Astros current home is notorious for its short left field porch, but the right side of the park plays pretty fair and centerfield is just straight-up weird, with a hill and a flag pole in play. I don’t think the right-handed slugger unduly benefitted from playing his later seasons in Minute Maid any more than Larry Walker may have from Coors, but you don’t hear as much about that. I guess it may be a bit hypocritical of me to pick a guy who has at least a specter of steroids over him, but again, there’s not been any proof that I’ve ever heard of. There are also those crazy 202 stolen bases. He must have played against Mike Piazza often.    

Fred McGriff (5 All Star Games, 3 Silver Sluggers): I was about to leave him off, but then I looked at his numbers. They’re not gaudy, but they’re very good. He topped the league in homers twice, turned in 8 100+ RBI seasons, and hit a career .284 batting average. Some might argue that a Hall of Fame hitter should hit over .300 and/or hit over 500 homeruns, but there are already players in the Hall that don’t match that criteria. Some of those were superior defenders, like Ozzie Smith. McGriff never won a Gold Glove. He’s a borderline Hall of Famer, but given the rest of the candidates he makes my top ten.

“Whoa! What about…?” Got you covered:

Mike Piazza: More homeruns then by any other catcher, but even the slow-of-foot Molina brothers could steal 100 bases against him. He’s also reportedly admitted, off the record, to using steroids.

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens: Two of the best players all time, statically, and two of the biggest jerks in my lifetime of watching baseball. I could have forgiven Clemens as just being a fiery competitor if not for his cheating the game. Barry Bonds is a pathetic fraud. Peter Gammons proclaimed him a Hall of Fame lock before Bonds retired based on his career in Pittsburgh alone. He goes to San Francisco, plays in whirling vortex of Candlestick Park and the pitching-generous AT&T Park, and hits a ton of homeruns while his head grows several sizes? Friends, honest ballplayers’ skulls don’t grow like that, nor does the ability to slam baseballs through the elements. Cheaters never win. Ask Barry to show you his World Series rings. Oh, that’s right! My bad…no, actually, the bad was all his.

Edgar Martinez: Lead the league in hitting twice and led the league in hits never. He was primarily a Designated Hitter, which is a stupid experiment left over from 1973. Hey baseball, the mouse has found the cheese. Can we put this experiment out of its misery already? If you aren’t good enough to play an actual position, you aren’t good enough to be in the Hall of Fame.

Alan Trammell: I recently heard someone make the same argument for Trammell that I made for Tim Raines—that he was the best shortstop in the American League in his era not named Cal Ripken Jr. That may be, but he only ever led the league in any statistical category twice: sacrifice hits, aka sacrifice bunts (the abbreviation SB was already taken by stolen bases, thus the silly notion of getting a hit while sacrificing the out), both times. Ripken didn’t lead the league in any category a whole lot more than that—except for consecutive games played, obviously—but he was statistically better than Trammell across the board. If there was a Hall of Very Good, Trammell and his double play partner Lou Whitaker, would be easy picks, along with guys like Dale Murphy, Jack Morris and Jeff Reardon. He falls just short of Cooperstown to me.

Jeff Kent: Trammell-like career, in that his two times leading the league in anything were both sacrifice flies. He won an MVP without leading the league in anything, which speaks volumes about baseball’s continued reliance on sportswriters for determining awards. He also has curious power in curious places at a curious stage of his career, and he bounced around from team to team due to quickly wearing out his welcome. Hall of Very Good, I suppose so, but Hall of Fame? Not on my ballot.  

Everyone Else: No. Many of them are worth more consideration than Aaron Sele, but no.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment or visit our Facebook page. I’m always happy to talk baseball!