Five lessons learned from the Baseball Hall of Fame voting
Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar were elected to the Hall of Fame Wednesday
The steroid issue continues to be cause voting discrepancies and inconsistencies
Kevin Brown got a shockingly low total for a pitcher with such good credentials
On Wednesday, two players, second baseman Roberto Alomar and starting pitcher Bert Blyleven, were elected to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. by the Baseball Writers Association of America. Here are five things we learned from the voting:
1. One's tenure on the ballot allows for reinterpretation of a career
Blyleven debuted on the Hall ballot in 1998 with just 17.5 percent of the vote but on Wednesday was elected with 79.1 percent of the vote -- a nearly five-fold jump.
While some mock the concept that a player can grow more or less worthy of induction with each passing year -- after all, everyone up for election has been retired for at least five years and so Blyleven hasn't added to his 287 career wins since 1992 -- new research and insight can shape how a player's career is considered.
For Blyleven, much of that support came from Rich Lederer, an investment manager who has never met the pitcher, but whose prolific Internet writing was a driving force in generating steam for Blyleven's candidacy, particularly on the strength of his wins (287, 17th most since 1900), strikeouts (3,701, fifth highest of all-time) and 60 shutouts (ninth) -- according to one such article on baseballanalysts.com in 2006.
Blyleven's longevity -- both in the macro sense of his 22-year career and the micro sense of his 242 complete games -- is increasingly absent in today's game, so with each year on the ballot appreciation grew for what he accomplished in the sport.
2. The character clause matters
Only in baseball does the phrase "first-ballot" carry additional weight and significance, but election to the Hall of Fame in one's initial year of eligibility has often been reserved for only the sport's greatest -- its Holy of Holies.
Alomar's career as a stellar defender, talented baserunner and exceptional hitter who combined average and power from both sides of the plate -- 2,724 hits, 210 home runs, 474 stolen bases, 1,508 runs, a career .300/.371/.443 batting line and 10 Gold Gloves -- ought to have placed him in the conversation for greatest second basemen of alltime. Yet in 2010 he missed a ticket to Cooperstown by just eight votes, thereby denying him the privilege of joining the inner sanctum of first-ballot Hall of Famers.
The standard dictated to every Hall voter is as follows: "Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played." And so it seems many writers held against Alomar the regrettable 1996 incident in which he angrily spat in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck.
But this year Alomar shot not only past the 75 percent threshold for election but past Blyleven as the top vote getter while being named on 90.0 percent of the ballots. No fringe candidate gets such resounding support, and surely Alomar never was anywhere near that fringe as a player.
3. Steroid precedent is slowly being set
Players who flunked a drug test or admitted use aren't headed to Cooperstown -- that's the inference that can be made from Rafael Palmeiro's poor debut on the ballot and Mark McGwire's dip in support.
The numerical merits of Palmeiro -- one of only four players alltime with 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, a group that also includes Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray -- are undoubtedly Cooperstown-worthy, but he failed a drug test five years ago and received just 11.0 percent of the vote this year. That total is 64 percent shy of what's needed for election and just six percent above the minimum needed to remain on the writers' ballot.
McGwire, meanwhile, who ranks 10th alltime with 583 home runs, saw his vote total go down from 23.7 percent last year to 19.8 percent this year after he admitted steroid use a year ago before accepting a job as Cardinals hitting coach. Perhaps four percent of voters were previously willing to give him the benefit of the doubt before his admission or perhaps some of the voters who changed their mind on him instead were offended by his insistence that steroids didn't help him hit more home runs. After all McGwire was primarily a one-trick pony whose Hall credentials rested solely on his power hitting, which most believe can, in fact, be enhanced by performance-enhancing drugs.
Similarly, Juan Gonzalez, a two-time AL MVP winner who hit 434 home runs, received only 5.2 percent of the vote in his first year on the ballot. His numbers fall short of most Hall benchmarks anyway, but that he was named in the Mitchell Report appears to have sunk all hope he may have once had of reaching the Hall.
4. Confusion remains on how to handle players only rumored to have been taken steroids
The murkiest area of the ballot belongs to players who produced prolific power numbers in the middle of the Steroid Era but who admitted nothing and were never proven to have taken any banned substance. This primarily fits the bill of Jeff Bagwell, a terrific hitter with 449 career home runs, a .297 average, .408 on-base percentage and .540 slugging percentage over 15 seasons in which he also stole 202 bases. But Bagwell has been plagued by unsubstantiated rumors and received only 41.7 percent of the vote -- a solid showing but barely halfway to election.
And so Bagwell will toil in Hall of Fame purgatory until his name is exonerated -- a virtual impossibility to prove -- or there is a greater consensus from voters on how to handle similar cases. Some sort of verdict will come in 2013 when the ballot loads up on allegedly tainted careers, such as those belonging to Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa.
5. Kevin Brown makes a surprisingly quick exit from the ballot
The six-time All-Star righthander won 211 games and had a 3.28 career ERA and 1.22 WHIP and five finishes in the top six in Cy Young voting. That ERA figure is particularly impressive given that he pitched in the heart of the Steroids ERA.
Yet Brown received just 12 Hall votes (2.1 percent), far short of the necessary five percent needed to remain eligible. This is not an endorsement of his Hall-worthiness but an exercise in noting an odd voting discrepancy when compared with another pitcher, Jack Morris.
Morris received 311 votes (53.5 percent) for his career in which he won 254 games but with a 3.90 ERA and 1.30 WHIP over 18 seasons that mostly pre-dated the Steroid Era. He made five All-Star teams and had five finishes in the top-six in Cy Young voting (and seven finishes in the top nine). Admittedly, his postseason heroics (4-2 with a 2.96 ERA in seven World Series starts) dwarf Brown's failures in the Fall Classic (0-3 with a 6.04 ERA in four World Series starts). Morris also had 175 complete games to Brown's 72.
But by the Bill James creation of Hall of Fame Standards -- a statistic "measuring the overall quality of a player's career" -- Brown actually fares a nudge better than Morris. The average Hall of Famer rates a score of 50, while Brown has a 41 and Morris a 39.
By a strict interpretation, neither is deserving of enshrinement but it illustrates the difference in career narratives. Brown struggled in the World Series and by most accounts had a surly personality while Morris was a postseason hero and was generally more amiable, clearly shaping their reputations in the minds of the writers with Hall votes. Morris' durability helped too, but it's hard to see how these two careers can be seen as so dissimilar that one righthanded starting pitcher received 299 more Hall votes than the other.