Monday, February 13, 2012

Another Hall of Fame vote for Larkin, Bagwell, others

From this corner, the votes in the annual election for the National Baseball Hall of Fame go out to former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin, who is likely to be selected, and former Houston Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell, among others. This post originally appeared on The Expo Line ( and is re-posted here because this is where it belongs.

Big Leagues in Los Angeles

The annual vote for the National Baseball Hall of Fame is just about all in now. Dec. 31 is the deadline. For the first time ever, I faxed in my vote before Christmas. I used to always wait until New Year's Eve, but the final day of last year went crazy on me and I missed it. Pulled my hair out over it. Learned my lesson.

I am a lifetime member of the Base Ball Writers Association of America due to a previous life as a baseball writer at The Cincinnati Post, which folded four years ago. The Hall of Fame vote is a fascinating exercise that has become a holiday tradition in my life, a time warp between last year and next year in which the game's history becomes its present. I'm very pleased to have it. There are remarkably few obvious votes. Of course, you're going to vote for Nolan Ryan, and, of course, you're not going to vote for Kirk Rueter, just to pick one name from the air.

The in-between players are the struggle. The voters are making decisions for the ages, but what they have to go on is images framed by data, images framed by memory and images framed by their tastes for the game. Every year, you look at the ballot, check the data, jog the memory, hold the players up to the light, turn them over, listen to the arguments and make your calls. This year, I went with the four top returning vote recipients from last year's ballot — Barry Larkin, Jack Morris, Lee Smith and Jeff Bagwell. I also tossed in votes for Dale Murphy and Fred McGriff, neither of whom, I suspect, will ever make it.

Following is some discussion about the specific votes. All of the numbers below are from, except for Jack Morris’s wins and complete games during the 1980s, which come from Baseball Digest.

Jeff Bagwell — The era of steroid innocence has given way to an era of steroid suspicion, and I'm not alone in believing the new era really damaged Bagwell in his maiden voyage on the ballot last year. Bagwell bagged only 242 votes, appearing on 41.7 percent of the ballots. We know steroids were all over baseball, particularly in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Then you look at Bagwell, who is not a large man, but he hit 449 career homers. He becomes a suspect.

However, I do not recall Bagwell being implicated in any steroid talk, and people I know in Houston's baseball culture swear he had nothing to do with steroids. The truth is that we don't know about him or a good many other people. I'm giving him the benefit of my doubt.

Not only was Bagwell a monster hitter, but he also, along with Craig Biggio, was an exemplary team leader. Bagwell and Biggio set such a calm, positive tone in those Houston Astros clubhouses that they even kept Carl Everett in check. The Astros didn't win a pennant, though, until 2005, as Bagwell hung on to the tail end of his career fighting injuries.

I believe Bagwell and Biggio will be inducted in the Hall of Fame at the very same time, some year down the road. In the minds of Astros fans, those two are joined at the hip.

About Bagwell not winning, it's worth noting this: The Astros started a rebuilding program in 1991 with Bagwell and Biggio as the cornerstones. That 1991 Astros club also included Ken Caminiti, Luis Gonzalez, Steve Finley, Kenny Lofton, Pete Harnisch, Mark Portugal, Darryl Kile and Curt Schilling. Caminiti, Gonzalez, Finley, Lofton and Schilling all became pennant winning stars elsewhere within a few years, but the Astros didn't win a pennant until 2005. Until the Astros brought in Gerry Hunsicker as general manager at the end of the 1995 season, they were susceptible to robbery on the trade market. During the winter meetings in 1991, the Astros traded Lofton and Dave Rohde to Cleveland for Willie Blair and Eddie Taubensee. Right before the 1992 season, the Astros traded Schilling to Philadelphia for Jason Grimsley, who spent the entire year in the minors before the Astros released him. The Astros general manager was Bill Wood. The Astros would have won a lot faster if they had received equal value for Schilling and Lofton -- or just kept them.

Regardless, the Bagwell-Biggio Astros were outstanding clubs that went to the postseason six times and just couldn't get over the hump until 2005. From 1994 through 2005, the Astros won four divisions and finished second seven times. In their 15 years together (1991-2005), Bagwell and Biggio had two losing seasons -- 1991, when the whole club was 24 years old, and 2000, when the Astros moved to their new park and their pitchers couldn't figure out how to keep the ball in the yard.

Bagwell played most of his career in the Astrodome, which was notorious for favoring pitchers. As a result, Bagwell is a little short of Hall of Fame black ink, but he has a ton of gray ink. His career OPS-plus of 149 is better than any active player except Albert Pujols. It's not quite Hank Aaron, Willie Mays or Joe DiMaggio, who are all 155, but it is ahead of such Hall of Famers as Mike Schmidt, Hack Wilson and Harmon Killebrew.

On Aug. 12, 1994, when the players went on strike, Bagwell had 39 homers, 116 RBI and a 1.201 OPS. He won the MVP, but who cared? It's sort of typical of Bagwell's career, as is the lack of support he received on his first Hall of Fame ballot.

Barry Larkin — In the years that I covered the Cincinnati Reds, 1986-1998, I never saw a better player. Hal McCoy, the Hall of Fame baseball writer from Dayton, has covered the Reds for about 40 years, including the Big Red Machine clubs that included Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez, as well as hit king Pete Rose. McCoy once told me that he had never seen a better player than Larkin.

Larkin's brilliance does not show up on the stat sheet. He has no black ink for leading the league in some category, and he has very little grey ink for finishing in the top ten. He won a World Series in 1990 and an MVP in 1995. In 1996, when it meant something, he went 30-30 as a shortstop, also winning the Gold Glove and the Silver Slugger. He won three Gold Gloves, starting at age 30. Before then, Ozzie Smith was the automatic winner every year. Larkin also won nine Silver Sluggers.

Larkin was the master of the little things. No player matched Larkin's presence of mind, whatever the situation. He always took good at-bats, unnerved opponents with his base running, moved the runner from first to third with singles to right field, made fantastic relay throws to nail the lead runner, produced miraculous plays on balls hit through the middle and was as good on balls hit to the hole at third base.

Yes, he was a bit of an office politician, pressuring the front office to make moves that he thought would improve the club. That's not the same as being a clubhouse politician. Inside that clubhouse, Larkin was the undisputed leader. Bill James was correct to call Larkin the best complete player in the game.

Larkin probably played three or four years too long, which killed his rate stats. In 2000, under pressure from the fans, Reds ownership signed Larkin to a three-year deal for $27 million. Before then, Larkin had played for years in Cincinnati at a hometown discount.

Based on early indications, Larkin has the best chance of any player on the ballot to enter the Hall of Fame this year. Comparing Larkin with Robbie Alomar, a second baseman who made the Hall last year, per 162 games:


Fred McGriff — Personal favorite of mine. Crime Dog. I just love him. I have absolutely no expectation that he will ever make it into the Hall of Fame. He doesn't have the black ink, the gray ink or the MVPs. But he was a solid slugger and, I thought, a damned good guy to have around. So, I cast a vote for Fred McGriff, a salute from me to him. If you want to call it a bad vote, I will not argue strenuously. If you like the vote, I like it, too.

Sometimes, you vote like this, just to keep a man on the ballot or to register approval, knowing full well that the man will never get into Cooperstown without a ticket. I've done this before with Albert Belle and Eric Davis, both of whom have since fallen off the ballot. No harm done.

I remember in 2000, my first year with a vote, I went back and forth about Jeff Reardon, who was on the ballot for the first time following an excellent career. Reardon was the all-time saves leader through the 1992 season. Lee Smith blew past him the next year, but Reardon was still second on the list when he retired in 1994 and he was third on the list as of the 2000 vote. Anyway, I didn't vote for Reardon and he finished one vote short of the five percent needed to stay on the ballot. Now, I'm not saying Reardon is a Hall of Famer, but he shouldn't have been knocked off the ballot after just one year, either. I've always wished I had voted for him.

Some people will say that would be the wrong way to vote, that you're not taking the vote seriously unless you vote for players who are Hall of Famers and don't vote for players who aren't Hall of Famers. I disagree. Pete Rose has said that a player who doesn't get in on the first ballot really isn't a Hall of Famer, since the player didn't get any better after the first year on the ballot. There is something to what the hit king is saying, but I also think his point misunderstands the nature of fame. These are related questions, but I will address only the former. I will spare you an essay about why I disagree with the hit king, but I will not spare you a couple paragraphs about why it's fine to vote for players who aren't slam dunk Hall of Famers.

Implicit in the Hall of Fame voting results are several tiers of recognition. The first ballot inductees are a breed apart from the rest, followed by players who need to be considered for a few years, then your borderline guys who either make it or don't make it on their 15th and final ballot, then your players who get dropped off the ballot at some point by receiving less than the five percent of the vote needed to stay eligible.

The reality is that there simply is no danger that a person who isn't a Hall of Famer will become one simply because you vote for him. The threshold is for a player to be named on 75 percent of the ballots. That threshold is so high that no one is going to cross it capriciously. To override a presidential veto, each house of Congress must reach a two-thirds majority. That's to establish the laws of the land. We're just deciding which baseball players belong in the Hall of Fame, and that takes a three-fourths majority. It is a daunting super-majority. Any political consultant will agree that a 75 percent majority in a two-way race is all but impossible. If you have two candidates on the ballot, and one of them is God and the other one is poop, poop will receive 20 percent of the vote. That's just how it goes with elections.

There are 27 players on this year's Hall of Fame ballot. The vote is, in essence, 27 votes in which there are two choices — yes and no — though that choice is constrained by a limit of ten "yes" votes per ballot. It is remarkable that players reach 75 percent on the yes side as often as they do.

Thus, your one little vote for a player doesn't and can't say that the player is a Hall of Famer. It only says the player is worthy of a vote for the Hall of Fame, and that he is worthy of remaining on the ballot. Last year, for example, Tino Martinez received six votes and B.J. Surhoff received two. I would bet that not one of those voters believes Tino Martinez or B.J. Surhoff is a Hall of Famer. But I understand the spirit of those votes, and I am with it. On the flip side, not voting for a player who you know will never make it is saying that the player is not worthy of that little nod. On this year's ballot, I would put Bill Mueller, Phil Nevin, Tony Womack and Eric Young, among others, in that category. All of these men were successful players who lasted in the big leagues for at least ten years. Simply being on the ballot in this first year of their eligibility says all that should be said about them. I will eat my hat if any of them lasts for a second turn on the ballot.

McGriff was a terrific player who finished seven career home runs short of 500. He led each league in homers once and won the World Series with Atlanta in 1995. He received 21.5 percent of the vote on the 2010 ballot and 17.9 percent last year. I would be surprised if he rises very far this time, even with a weak first-year class.

Jack Morris — I'm guessing that no one on this year's ballot has caused more consternation for voters than Jack Morris. The evidence works against him. The memory works for him. After this year, Morris has two more years on the ballot, and the memory might prevail in the end, but it's hard to tell. He has picked up support in recent years, but that trend must accelerate for Morris to be inducted.

The numbers don't call Morris a Hall of Famer. He finished with 254 wins in 18 seasons and a lot of his black ink is in the wild pitch column. But if you're picking the best starting pitcher in the American League during the 1980s, you're picking between Morris, Dave Steib and Roger Clemens. Not a good omen. Clemens came along for the back half of the decade and dominated as Morris and Steib never did, but the steroid issue will work hard against him. Steib was right there with Morris from the front of the '80s to the back. But when Steib went on the ballot in 2004, the voters tossed him off like a bag of garbage, producing only 1.4 percent affirmation. Yet, Morris is on the ballot for the 13th time this year. Morris notched more wins (162) and complete games (133) than any other pitcher in the 1980s.

What Morris really has going for him over Steib is 1991 and 1992. In 1991, Morris pitched his hometown club, the Minnesota Twins, to the World Championship, winning 18 games during the regular season, then winning twice each during the playoffs and World Series to win the World Series MVP. In 1992, Morris went to Toronto and led the AL in wins with 21, taking the Blue Jays towards the World Series, which they won. Before all that, he was the workhorse ace of the Detroit Tigers, winning two games in the 1984 World Series as the Tigers finished off San Diego in five games.

So, Morris was huge for three American League clubs. But he's a tough call. I've voted pretty consistently for Morris, but there's no knockdown argument for or against him. The argument can be made that he was the league's best pitcher during his time, and an argument can be made that that isn't saying he's a Hall of Famer.

Dale Murphy — There was a time during the history of this world when there was no better player than Dale Murphy, and it was for a legitimate stretch of time, call it 1982-1987. In 1982 and 1983, Murphy led the National League in RBI and won the league's MVP award both times for the Atlanta Braves. In 1984 and 1985, Murphy led the league in homers. In all of those seasons, he was a Gold Glove center fielder. He fell to 29 homers in 1986, but still won a Gold Glove. In 1987, the Braves moved Murphy to right field and he reached a career high with 44 homers.

It just wasn't enough. Generally, a Hall of Famer is a great player for 10 years or more. Murphy was the best player by acclamation for two years, he was arguably the best player for two or three other years, and he was otherwise an average major league everyday outfielder. After age 31, he sunk fast. Even during his best times, Murphy struck out a ton.

Most Hall of Famers become such in their 30s. The one exception that comes immediately to mind is Ken Griffey, Jr. When he goes to the Hall of Fame, it will be due to his 20s.

Murphy will be on the ballot for the last time next year. He never has received more than 23.2 percent of the vote. For the last nine years, he's been around 10 percent. Some believe Murphy's numbers pale in comparison with the steroid-fueled numbers produced by later players, but the simple fact is that he just didn't last long enough as a great player. By every account, though, he is an excellent man. This vote is just a nod, nothing more.

Lee Smith — There seems to be a core of voters, about 40 percent, who always line up with this gigantic relief pitcher. Smith became the all-time saves leader in 1993 and wasn't surpassed by Trevor Hoffman until 2006. Another core of voters, about 50 percent, never votes for Smith. The other ten percent can go either way from year to year.

Smith led his league in saves four times and totaled 30 or more saves 10 times. But his life would be a lot different right now if he responded better on the big stage. Pitching for the Chicago Cubs, he gave up a two-run homer to Steve Garvey in the eighth inning of Game 4 in the 1984 NLCS, breaking a 5-5 tie into a 7-5 San Diego win. The Padres won the deciding game the next day. Smith was highly ineffective in two appearances for Boston against Oakland in the 1988 ALCS. None of Smith's postseason failures came in closing situations, but that‘s beside the point, considering that he allowed five earned runs in 5 1/3 postseason innings.

The relief closer's role evolved during Smith's career to the point at which he worked only the ninth inning with the lead on the road, or the ninth inning with the lead or a tie at home. Early in his career, with the Cubs, it wasn't uncommon for Smith to work two or three innings for a save, but most of those clubs were pretty bad and the pickings were slim.

When Smith went to St. Louis, Joe Torre used him as a one-inning closer, and he came up nicely. In 1991, the Cardinals won 84 games and Smith saved 47 of them. The next year, the Cardinals won 83 games and Smith saved 43 of them. In 1993, the Cardinals won 87 games and Smith saved 43 of them, despite being traded to the Yankees on Aug. 31. Smith saved three games for the Yankees in September. From 1991 through 1993, then, Smith saved 136 games, 45 and change per year. Smith had a long, productive career. He finished first or second in his league in saves eight times.

How one feels about Smith's candidacy depends largely on how one feels about the one-inning closer. I lean towards saying one-inning closers are over-valued and the institutionalization of the role absolves the manager of responsibility for what happens in the ninth inning. But I also respect that people who make their living trying to win baseball games believe the last three outs of the game are the toughest outs to get. During his time, Smith was as good as there was at getting those three outs.

Of the remaining candidates on the ballot, I'm most sympathetic to Tim Raines, Larry Walker and Bernie Williams. Plenty of time remains to consider all of those players. I'm not ruling out any of them.

Don Mattingly and Alan Trammell are nearing the end of the line, and I just don't quite see either one of them. I would expect people to make the same arguments for Trammell that I've made for Larkin. Trammell wasn't quite as productive as Larkin, and he never won an MVP, but he had some remarkable high points, including his 1984 World Series and his 1987 season. I wouldn't argue against anyone's vote for him. On this ballot, Mattingly is the American League version of Dale Murphy, except with a shorter, more intense peak span (1984-1986) and an earlier decline. Mattingly was such a popular professional that even George Steinbrenner didn't mess with him too much. And I'm more impressed than ever with Mattingly after he managed that terrible Los Angeles Dodgers club to a winning season in 2011. His guys were over-matched and they never quit on him. Of course, that's not a consideration on whether to vote for him as a player.

Then, we come to the steroid guys. Mark McGwire now is an admitted steroid user. I can't see ever changing my mind about him. Rafael Palmeiro reached 3,000 hits and 500 homers, waved his finger at Congress saying he never used steroids, then got busted by a steroid test. I can't do it. Juan Gonzalez has been accused of steroid use and there is some evidence. I love the production, but I'm going to pass.

As far as Edgar Martinez goes, he only picked up a glove 35 times during the second half of his career. A designated hitter, no matter how good, is only half of a player. That said, Martinez was the best at it. It's stunning how few AL clubs to this day realize anything like that production from the DH.

So much for this year’s considerations. I suspect that all the players here named will be back on next year’s ballot except for Larkin, who is likely to be elected this time, and Gonzalez, who could be lopped off the ballot. Joining the holdover cast will be such great steroid stars as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Should be some kind of a discussion.

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