Explaining my Hall of Fame ballot
Longtime Reds star Barry Larkin is the only no-doubt Hall of Famer on the ballot
Tim Raines, Fred McGriff and Jeff Bagwell also got 'yes' votes this year
Jack Morris is a borderline candidate but his case goes beyond advanced stats
With the Hall of Fame voting results scheduled for 3 p.m. Monday, here is a Cooperstown edition of Three Strikes. I divided my ballot into three parts: the player I voted for who I believe will get the necessary 75 percent support from the baseball writers electorate to get enshrined, three others I voted for who will add to their support but likely remain short of election, and the one guy I left off my ballot who is most likely to get my vote next time.
The shortstop position evolved to another level with the all-around skills of Barry Larkin. The former Reds star in 1991 became the first shortstop to hit five homers in two games and in 1996 became the first shortstop to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in the same season. In his 13-year prime (1988-2000), Larkin was named to 11 All-Star teams; won nine Silver Sluggers, three Gold Gloves (none in the three seasons he led the league in Range Factor), an MVP Award and a World Series; hit .338 in the postseason; stole 25 bases a year with an 84 percent success rate; posted an .846 OPS and a 125 OPS+; and flossed his teeth very well every day and drove the team bus with a perfect safety record.
Larkin did everything well. He was an elite baserunner and fielder who was such a good hitter that he hit third more often than any other spot in the lineup. One nugget I like about his offensive game: There was no more than a six-point variance among his career averages vs. righties (.293), lefties (.299), home (.297), away (.293), first half (.293), second half (.297), runners in scoring position (.298) and overall (.295).
And here's what I like about his historical value: His combination of elite speed and pop while playing shortstop is extremely rare, especially for someone who never had to move off the position. There have been 50 shortstops since 1900 that stole at least 150 bases. Here is how they rank according to OPS+:
Consider that Rodriguez soon will have played more games at third base than shortstop, that Ramirez already has been moved to third base and that Yount made only 55 percent of his starts at shortstop, and you see how rare Larkin is among pure shortstops.
Larkin is among the 10 best shortstops in history (Bill James has had him sixth) and certainly one of the best of his era. It's hard to understand why it will take him three ballots to be enshrined (he debuted at 51.6 percent), but that won't matter much on Monday when he should rightfully earn his place in Cooperstown.
The good news is I think Raines will take enough of a major jump forward from his 37.5 percent support last year that eventual enshrinement will look possible.
Raines was a ferocious offensive player for much more than a decade -- the kind of rare player who was a game-changer without having to hit the ball out of the park. In the 13 seasons from 1981 through 1993, Raines received MVP votes seven times, was named to seven All-Star teams, scored more runs and stole more bases than everybody except inner-circle Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson and reached base more times than everybody except Wade Boggs and Henderson.
In those 13 seasons Raines hit .299 with a .388 OBP and averaged 57 steals with an 85 percent success rate. Over his 23-year career, Raines reached base more times than Hall of Famers Tony Gwynn, Lou Brock or Roberto Alomar.
I understand he might be a borderline Hall of Famer, with some voters bothered by a lack of a signature season or team. (He played for six teams, none more than five seasons.) But it's mind-boggling that McGriff not only gets such paltry support but also that it went down last year (to 17.9 percent from 21.5 percent in '10).
McGriff has been penalized by the 1994-95 strike -- he lost at least the seven homers that would have given him a voter-friendly 500 -- and by steroids. For the decade beginning with 1988, McGriff hit more homers than anybody except Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, and he reached base more times than anybody except Bonds, Paul Molitor and Boggs.
But when the Steroid Era exploded, McGriff was forgotten, even though he kept right on rolling along as a legit middle of the order threat. This is a guy who finished among the top four home run hitters seven times with totals ranging from 31 to 37, but when he smashed 32 homers in the steroid-happy year of 1998 (while also hitting .310 with 104 RBIs) he finished 17th! Half of the players ahead of him that year have been connected to steroids.
When McGriff retired in 2004, his career OPS of .886 ranked 17th among all players who retired with at least 8,000 at-bats. All 16 others are Hall of Famers, most of them inner-circle icons.
Need more? McGriff has the most 20-homer seasons of any first baseman (14), played the third-most games at the position, has better on-base and slugging percentages and more 100-RBI seasons than Eddie Murray, and posted a .303 average and .917 OPS in 50 postseason games.
McGriff was a consummate cleanup hitter (he hit fourth in 77 percent of his career starts) and a two-time home run champion who was a centerpiece of two blockbuster trades. I never have voted for a player who was not eventually elected to the Hall of Fame, but I fear McGriff, the forgotten slugger, might be the first.
Here's my issue with steroid users: They willingly cheated the game and its competitive spirit. We're talking a decade or more after the huge Ben Johnson scandal, when everybody knew full well steroids were illegal and created such an unfair competitive advantage that to this day almost every steroid user refuses to admit usage. Alex Rodriguez still hasn't spoken the s-word, Barry Bonds committed an obstruction of justice felony rather than admit it and Mark McGwire could not bring himself to answer questions about steroids under oath in front of Congress.
Sport loses its essence if you even suspect the competition is unfair. And I talked to too many clean players back in the Steroid Era -- and please stop this sloppy nonsense that "everybody" was doing it so let 'em all in -- not to know that steroid users corrupted the basic fairness of the game. I know one clean player who lost a starting job three times on three different teams -- all to steroid users. That's my issue: It's not a "moral" one, it's a performance issue. The only "character" issues that matter to me in Hall of Fame voting regard how somebody played the game.
I agree with Hank Aaron, who said about steroid users, "There's no place in the Hall of Fame for people who cheat." I agree with Joe Torre, who said, "It's like letting some guys use metal bats and other guys have to use wood." I agree with Andre Dawson, who in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech recognized the willful harm steroid users caused the game, saying, "Individuals have chosen the wrong road, and they're choosing that as their legacy. Those mistakes have hurt the game and taken a toll on all of us."
And I agree with pitcher Matt Herges, who was named in the Mitchell Report, who said, "We didn't have drug testing anyways. But it was still wrong."
(It's always worth recalling the riveting quotes from Herges about how steroids created an uneven field: "I know what steroids did for me. It made me superhuman. It made me an android, basically. Your body shuts down, and the stuff takes over. You had guys throwing harder than 95 mph when they had barely touched 90 mph their whole life. It wasn't just that but the strength, the confidence it did for you. The confidence, the feel, the results, is mentally addictive. It's habit-forming to say the least.")
So why did I vote for Bagwell? The mere suspicion of steroid use is not enough to hold against a guy with Hall of Fame numbers. Suspicion about many players is understandable, given the era and circumstantial evidence. Bagwell, for instance, was a 185-pound player with "no pop. None" when Houston acquired him from Boston in 1990, according to former Astros coach Matt Galante. Over the next 13 seasons -- the last 13 without steroid testing with penalties -- Bagwell ranked among the seven greatest home run hitters in baseball, keeping company in the heart of the Steroid Era with five guys linked to steroids (Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire and Juan Gonzalez) and a born power hitter, Ken Griffey Jr.
Bagwell instructed a trainer to make him as big as he could possibly be (he did get freakishly big), took the steroid precursor andro and gave the hackneyed disclaimer that andro didn't help him hit home runs but only helped him work out. In four years Bagwell transformed his body and went from a prospect with no pop to posting the highest slugging percentage in baseball history other than ones by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Rogers Hornsby.
Circumstantial evidence, however, is not enough to condemn a career. It was not preventing me from voting for Bagwell in 2010, but a development gave me pause just as I was filling out my ballot in his first year of eligibility: a perplexing interview in which Bagwell condoned steroid use and attributed his bulk to "eating 30 pounds of meat every single day and . . . working out," making no mention of the andro, the beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate, the zinc tabs, creatine and whatever else. I needed more time, didn't have it, and so, knowing Bagwell would remain the ballot, I considered the 2010 ballot as a deferral on his candidacy.
A year later, without new, first-hand information to establish a reasonable degree of certitude in my mind, I voted for Bagwell. I don't think he'll jump from 41.7 percent to 75 percent in one year, but the good news for Bagwell is that I think he'll start to generate momentum with this ballot and follow the paths of others who began with similar support and wound up in the Hall, such as Gary Carter (sixth ballot after a 42.3 percent start), Andre Dawson (nine ballots, 45.3) and Ryne Sandberg (three ballots, 49.2).
Once again I did not vote for Morris, and almost immediately I felt some regret about it.
Often with repeat borderline candidates I will go back and start an entirely new research project on a guy to gain a fresh perspective. What am I missing? Will a new angle lead to a different conclusion? I did this with Morris, and when I crunched the numbers again they still didn't add up to a Hall of Famer.
I kept getting hung up on this: Morris pitched 18 seasons and not once was he among the four best pitchers in his league according to WAR or ERA. Only once did he rank among the top four in WHIP or strikeout to walk rate. Then I compared him to Dennis Martinez -- Morris and Martinez were born two days apart and were the league leaders in wins in 1981 -- and the comparison did not flatter Morris:
Martinez dropped off the ballot after just one year in which only 16 writers voted for him.
Now, to be fair, Martinez posted his numbers over five more seasons and never won more than 16 games, which Morris did eight times. If you had them on the same staff Morris would have been your number one starter, no questions asked.
The point is that Morris lacked signature seasons or even a monster peak. If you throw out the beginning and end of his career and just take his great run from 1979 through 1992, Morris posted an OPS+ of 109 -- which ranks tied for 17th in that period among all starters with 1,500 innings. The advanced numbers just didn't work.
After I sent my ballot, however, I wondered if I was not being fair to Morris by looking too hard at the numbers. Don't get more wrong. The numbers are extremely useful and important, but was I missing the essence of his candidacy? After all, I had covered Morris for most of his career and knew his value among players, managers, coaches and executives.
(This perspective -- not mine, but inside-industry people who make value judgments for a living -- is an important one to me with all candidates. Would he front a rotation? Would it take a blockbuster deal to trade for him? How did opposing hitters view him? Was he among the highest paid players at his position? Tricky stuff, I know, but important to consider.)
Back in 1985, Hal McRae, the Kansas City DH, said, "If you gave baseball people their choice among Dan Petry, Jack Morris and [Bert] Blyleven, Blyleven would probably be third." And that was during the second straight year Blyleven finished third in Cy Young Award balloting -- the only times he finished that high. Blyleven was elected to the Hall last year. Morris started a record 14 straight Opening Day games and was the highest paid pitcher in the league four times over a seven-year span.
What the advanced numbers don't show is that the baseball community regarded Morris as a prototypical ace. He thrived on carrying the responsibility of being a staff leader -- and not just a nominal ace because somebody has to start Opening Day for every team. I'm talking about the rare cat who could talk the talk and walk the walk of being a true ace.
This ground-level definition of an ace is what shapes Morris' candidacy. It's not about his ERA+ and it's not even about Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, which has been overblown as defining his candidacy. It's not that Morris threw 10 shutout innings and refused to come out in Game 7; it was that such an effort was totally within his established profile.
Okay, now some less advanced numbers. Go back to his peak window of 1979-82. Morris won 20 percent more games than everybody else and threw 18 percent more innings than everybody else. He was among the most reliable pitchers in baseball and he did it not just as some Livan Hernandez innings-eater, but as a big-time ace who had the trust of his manager and the respect of opposing hitters.
No, the advanced numbers don't make Morris a Hall of Famer. But the comparison to Martinez indicates the danger in trusting only those numbers. What if Morris' one great skill that was so valued by baseball people -- pitching as a true ace for 14 years with more wins and more innings than anybody else -- was so extraordinary, like the glove of Ozzie Smith or the bat control of Rod Carew, as to make him a Hall of Famer? Can that skill define him as a Hall of Famer even without a great ERA?
To consider that question, try digesting this: Here are the pitchers with the most seasons of at least 15 wins and 235 innings since 1901, with Hall of Famers in bold:
1. Warren Spahn 16
2. Pete Alexander, Walter Johnson 15
3. Gaylord Perry, Eddie Plank, Christy Mathewson 13
4. Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver 12
5. Jack Morris 11
6. Bert Blyleven, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro, Lefty Grove 10
Here you find Morris in the company of nothing but Hall of Famers. Too simple? Perhaps. But if there is a Cooperstown to be found in Morris it is in the simplicity of his reliability as an ace. I'm already looking forward to the next ballot.