Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Another Hall of Fame vote, another round of questions

Unlike last year, this year's Hall of Fame vote almost certainly will result in new players on the steps of Cooperstown. Even in these times, it is impossible to deny Greg Maddux. He might even have company in the Class of 2014.


New blood will enter the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum this year (Beyond My Ken/GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2).

By BILL PETERSON
Big Leagues in Los Angeles

The Hall of Fame vote, which has always been enjoyable and never easy, now is quite less enjoyable and more difficult than ever, owing to the well known controversies arising from performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Last year's ballot of the Base Ball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) produced no new inductees, striking many fans and writers with the force of moral disaster.

This corner of the Internet doesn't share those worries. It's supposed to be hard to get into the Hall of Fame, and it is. And if PED backlash costs a generation of players its proportion of baseball immortals, there shall be no hand wringing about it from here. The burden belongs to the players of that generation. They're the guys who knew it first, they're the guys who knew the most, and they're the guys who didn't say anything. This is what happens.

It remains astounding that anyone should rationalize PED use among baseball players.  Some will tell us, for example, that if PED use is the issue, then generations of players who used speed also should be excluded. But amphetamines simply don't force the same difficult choices upon players who would rather not use them. Long and grinding as the season is, players can stay awake and alert by getting their rest and eating right, maybe mixing in a cup of coffee. Don't stay out all night having drinks and chasing women. It's not that hard. A lot of us work 300 days per year, and we do it without amphetamines.

But steroids and HGH confer benefits upon players that are available in no non-invasive way. When steroids and HGH are unchecked, then players who do not want to take that risk with their bodies know they will fall way behind if they don't do it. Thus, players, especially those on the margins, are all but forced to use them if they want to maintain that earning power, and we certainly don't want people believing they must harm themselves if they wish to compete in baseball.

Now that we have some kind of testing and enforcement, players who wish to stay clean can hope for some kind of justice. Of course, the system remains imperfect, mostly because the clubs aren't held accountable, so players still profit from juicing. But there is getting caught now, and it is stigmatizing, as it should be. It will cost you the high opinion of your public, and it might cost you the Hall of Fame.

I hold baseball to a challenging standard. Guilty as charged. Football, basketball and pornography are freak shows, and those people can do what they want, so far as I'm concerned. I'm not saying I dislike freak shows, but I detest freak-show baseball. I want baseball in human proportions. Perhaps it's a question of personal taste. That's mine. And I am not moralizing one bit more than you are when you say you're fine with PEDs in baseball. You just have different morals, if that's even the right way to think about it.

Happily, the ballot this year includes an open-and-shut case or two, so new players will enter the gates of Cooperstown this summer, along with the three great managers -- Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre -- who have been selected by the veteran's committee.

It remains that the backlog of players on the ballot makes it very crowded. In the past, a voter could conscientiously vote for well fewer than 10 players, due to a limited number of solid cases. Now, the strain comes from the opposite direction, as many more than 10 players can argue for those votes. I would have been happy to vote for 12 this time.

None of those 12 would have been Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens. However, this process, year after year, is rife with second and third thoughts. That's always been the case with borderline players, and now it applies to players who have produced like no one else in the game's history. This voter is always cheerfully disposed to revise his beliefs in the light of compelling new evidence, so he shall never say "Never." About these players on future ballots, I'm going to say things like, "I doubt it," "We'll see," and "I don't know." But definitely, "Not now."

Herewith is this year's roster of players named on my ballot, along with a few little notes and anecdotes. The players are listed in order of conviction. All statistics are from, or are extrapolated from, baseball-reference.com.

Greg Maddux: What made Maddux the best and most intriguing pitcher of his time? The incongruity between his bookish appearance and his athletic dominance? The eye-popping numbers? The sharp mental approach? The idea that, in many respects, he appeared to be indistinguishable from the ordinary run of pitchers?

One night, way back when, a friend and I were watching a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, Scott Service, a pretty ordinary guy, if that, by the results. From the center-field camera angle, Service was electric. His pitches dipped, dived, curled, zoomed, rose and fell. And he threw strikes with that stuff. We remarked that he looked a little like Greg Maddux out there. But about every 20 pitches or so, Service would throw a clunker, and it would get smashed. And we noted what made Maddux different.

It happens with pitchers, now and then, that they just don't get the right finger pressure, the right arm angle, the right stride. Maybe his arm trails his body and he flies open. Something goes wrong and he throws a pitch with nothing on it, or it's in a poor location, his curve ball is straight or his fastball is up and dizzy, and it is just begging to be destroyed. And unless the batter is completely helpless, it gets destroyed.

Not to celebrate the vulgarism, but my friend and I called that pitch a "turd." We thusly determined that if we really wanted one statistic by which to gauge a pitcher's effectiveness, or his chances of being effective, it would be a measure of how many pitches a man could throw without lobbing up a turd. PPT: Pitches per Turd.

It is, granted, an unknowable statistic, broadly speaking. We could go back to the start of this century, or a little before then, when 99.9944 percent of all big league games have been videoed at least for scoreboard replays, pick out which pitches are turds, divide that amount by the total number of pitches and come up with a PPT for every pitcher. But we can't go back and watch most of the games pitched by Sandy Koufax or Sal Maglie, and we can't go back and watch any of the games pitched by Christy Mathewson or Walter Johnson. So, PPT isn't happening.

But the concept of PPT is useful for assessing pitchers. The line between throwing a turd every 40 pitches instead of every 45 pitches is the line between escaping a two-out jam or giving up a few runs. And it does happen, a lot. Nobody is perfect. Turds are a part of the game.

Except when Maddux pitched. He went entire games without throwing a turd. That separates Maddux from almost everyone else. He almost never threw a pitch on which the other guys could beat him. Everything he threw had some action, some well conceived location or some mystifying tempo.

Maddux won 355 games with a career ERA of 3.16. From 1988 through 2004, he won 15 or more games every year. During his peak, 1992 through 1998, his ERA finished higher than 2.22 only twice, never higher than 2.72. He won four Cy Young Awards and five other times finished in the top five. He won 13 straight Gold Gloves and 20 in 21 seasons.

His PPT? Don't know. But he is a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Tom Glavine: The day after you face Maddux, you're facing Glavine. That's how it worked against the Atlanta Braves. Glavine worked perfectly with his coy style between Maddux and the power game of John Smoltz, who was generally Atlanta's third starter and will absolutely get this vote when his time comes next year.

A left-hander, Glavine based his game on establishing a wide strike zone against right-handed hitters. If he could consistently hit his spot a couple of inches off the outer black against the right-handed hitter, the umpire would give it to him. At that point, Glavine had the game right where he wanted it, because he was a master of hitting his spot and changing speeds. As the game progressed, he might push that strike zone a little bit wider.

Glavine put up with some base runners because he would walk a few. His career WHIP of 1.314 isn't stunning. But he didn't allow batters to punish him for it very often. During his career, right-handed batters slugged .380 against him, and left-handed hitters slugged .368.

Glavine surpassed 300 career victories (finishing at 305), which is automatically going to put him into the Hall of Fame so long as other questions don't arise. Glavine also won two Cy Young Awards, finished second twice and finished third twice.

Jack Morris: Much as been said about this, and much more could be said. Morris is the most controversial borderline case to come along since I began making this vote in 2000. Call me a softy, but I have a tendency to vote for the borderline cases.

Morris calls up a facet of the competition that is gone and all but forgotten now, the absolute differentiation between the American and National Leagues. After Morris missed again last year, I went through the ballots of BBWAA members who had made their votes public and noted the names of voters from my days of daily or quasi-daily baseball reporting, which would be the 1980s and 1990s (I differentiate reporting from writing, which is what I attempt to do now). Among the American League voters from those days, Morris received about 80 percent support. Among the National League voters, it was right around one-third.

Morris was a unique creature of a unique window in one league's history, a 14-team AL breaking in the designated hitter before interleague play came along. In the AL of those days, pitching was an endurance test, and many excellent pitchers came into the league who did not endure. Morris did. I have pretty consistently voted for Morris through the years, and I cast one more for him this time, his last year on the ballot. I can see why many voters and fans, especially younger fans, might not see the point. But he definitely has my support as a Hall of Famer.

I do have one challenge, which I have never seen addressed anywhere, for those who denigrate the Morris case because of his rate stats, which have done him no favors in 15 years of debating his Hall of Fame candidacy. It has become quite common, in fact, to point out that Morris's 3.90 career ERA would be the highest in the Hall of Fame. But we shouldn't blow off the fact that Morris pitched a lot of innings at the rates that he produced, particularly for his time and place, because there is real value in those innings.

Just to illustrate: During the 1980s, Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan produced a 3.14 ERA, and Morris produced a 3.66 ERA. We'll ignore the fact that Ryan worked all but 1989 in the NL, where scoring was lower without the DH, and that he worked in the run-stingy Astrodome on top of it. For the sake of argument, we'll just say that Ryan pitched at a much better rate. In fact, Ryan has an ERA-plus of 111, compared with 109 for Morris during the 1980s.

But Morris pitched 2,443 2/3 innings during the 1980s, compared with 2,094 innings for Ryan. Thus, Morris pitched 350 innings more than Ryan during the 1980s. And here's the question: Who pitched those 350 innings for Ryan's teams while Morris was pitching those innings for the Detroit Tigers? How likely is it that Ryan's teams received anywhere near the same value during those innings that Morris produced for the Tigers?

The point here isn't to say that Morris should be in the Hall of Fame and Ryan shouldn't, but to pose a challenge for those who privilege rate statistics and make out as if volume of innings for a pitcher of Morris's quality shouldn't be seriously taken into consideration. Those who argue that way must answer the burden of accounting for those 350 innings, because one thing the rate stats do tell us is that there is real value in those 350 innings that Morris pitched and Ryan didn't. Chances are, those innings on Ryan's team went to the 10th or 11th pitcher on the staff. Chances are, they went to various flavors of relievers and  spot starters. Would you rather have the innings from that guy, or would you rather have them from Morris at 3.66?

Jeff Bagwell/Craig Biggio: I'm putting these guys together, conceding a measure of hometown sympathy after living in Texas for 13 years and developing very high regard for Houston Astros fans, who, as often as not, consider these players in tandem. I won't add to what I already said about Bagwell when discussing my Hall of Fame votes two years ago.

As to Biggio, like Bagwell, he'll get my vote every time. Forget about Biggio's 3,060 hits. Well, don't. They matter. Statistics are important, of course. They give us measures of performance and productivity. But baseball doesn't begin and end with statistics. The game is much too wide and much too deep for that. The bottom line on Biggio was that he did whatever that franchise needed him to do, and he did it all well, or, at least, well enough. I'm saying he did it at a Hall of Fame level. Along with all that, Biggio catalyzed the Houston offense from the top of the order for all those years. He and Bagwell also ran a professional clubhouse that defused difficult personalities, quite ably assisted during many of those years by catcher Brad Ausmus, the new Detroit Tigers manager.

It's difficult to quantify Biggio's contributions to the Astros. He came up full-time to the Astros in 1989 as a catcher, and he wasn't absolutely great behind the plate, but he did make an All-Star team from there in 1991 for his offensive contributions. Because he could hit some and run some, the Astros didn't want him getting too beaten up, so they moved him to second base in 1992. During his first seven years as a second baseman, he made six All-Star teams while winning four Gold Gloves and four Silver Sluggers.

In 2003, the Astros brought in Jeff Kent, a second baseman who happens to be on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year. So, the Astros put Biggio, in his age 37 season, in center field, where he had last played a handful of games a dozen years earlier. He wasn't great out there, but he didn't kill them, either. For a 37-year-old guy basically new to one of the most athletically demanding positions on the field, not at all bad.

Two years later, Kent left and the Astros put Biggio back at second base. By then, he was 39. That was 2005, the year the Astros finally went to the World Series. For 10 years before then, the Astros were always pretty good. From 1997 through 2001, they were better than that, winning four divisions in those five years. As it happened, three of those teams were bounced from the first round of playoffs by the Braves of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz. Could have happened to anyone.

Tim Raines: Bill James once wrote something to the effect that you could cut Rickey Henderson in half and come out of it with two Hall of Famers. If so, one of them would be Tim Raines.

Raines came up as a full-time player to the Montreal Expos in 1981. From 1981 through 1989, Raines slashed .304/.392/.443/.835 for an OPS-plus of 133. Henderson slashed .290/.401/.440/.842 for an OPS-plus of 137 during those same years. Raines knocked out 1,466 hits and Henderson knocked out 1,328. Raines had 2,141 total bases and Henderson totaled 2,018 bases. Raines stole 578 bases in 668 attempts (86.5 percent) and Henderson stole 738 bases in 902 attempts (81.8 percent). Raines walked 699 times and struck out 517 times. Henderson walked 845 times and struck out 643 times.

Each was the pre-eminent leadoff hitter in his league at the time. Raines kept playing through 2002 and was reasonably productive. Henderson kept playing through 2003 and was even better. Henderson's raw career numbers ended up much higher -- about 700 more runs, 600 more steals and 400 more hits. Per 162 games over the course of his career, however, Raines slashed .294/.385/.425/.810 with 52 steals in 61 attempts (85.2 percent) and a 123 OPS-plus, while Henderson slashed .279/.401/.419/.820 with 74 steals in 92 attempts (80.4 percent) and a 127 OPS-plus.

Once again, I'd say James had it right.

Curt Schilling: Here's where my votes begin to get a little shaky and I start saying things like, "Maybe I could have left this guy off and voted for someone who I didn't pick." But it's too hard to forget what Schilling was for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001 and for the Boston Red Sox in 2004.

Schilling never won a Cy Young Award and he claimed only 216 victories during his 20-year career. Yet, he gives the impression of being a big winner because, for about four years, he was as big of a winner as you could find -- 22-6 for Arizona in 2001, 23-7 for Arizona in 2002 and 21-6 for Boston in 2004. He was an extraordinary control pitcher with 4.38 strikeouts for every walk, the best such ratio for any pitcher since Tommy Bond, who retired in 1884. And he won World Series starts for World Championship clubs in 2001, 2004 and 2007, which isn't even to mention that he was instrumental in getting the Philadelphia Phillies to the 1993 World Series, during which he won a start.

As a postseason pitcher, Schilling was 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA in 19 starts, compiling a 0.968 WHIP in 133 1/3 innings. That's what he did with the lights on against top competition. Not saying I can't be talked out of voting for Schilling in the future, but he really made an impression. I almost wouldn't even care if the bloody sock game was a fraud. If that's what it was, then Schilling put on a hell of a show in, probably, the most historically significant start of this century. Without it, the Curse of the Bambino might still be alive today. Who can tell?

Mike Piazza: If I should ever leave Piazza off of a ballot, it probably wouldn't be because I suspect steroids. It would be because he wasn't a very good catcher. Perhaps I couldn't steal a base against him, but my grandma could, and she's been dead for 46 years. Ten times during his career, Piazza allowed more stolen bases than any other catcher in the National League.

But who didn't love watching him hit? That's what put him on a dozen All-Star teams. From 1993 through 2001, Piazza never batted lower than .300, never had an OPS-plus lower than 135, he produced 42 homers per 162 games and he never struck out 100 times. He produced so much offensively that you could live with his deficiencies as a backstop, and this is coming from a guy who is defense first behind the plate all the way. Well, apparently not all the way. Let's say most of the way.

Lee Smith: This big reliever always receives about 45-50 percent of the vote and never moves up from there. Now comes his 12th year on the ballot, and, because he makes no progress and these ballots keep getting more crowded, it's really looking like he won't ever make it.

Here's my discussion about Smith from a couple of years ago, so we can move on to another discussion about him. It goes back to the early 1990s, when Smith anchored the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen. The Cardinals went into Cincinnati to play the Reds, whose ace reliever, Rob Dibble, was known to be a big fan of his. So, I asked Smith about Dibble, who was, to say the least, a distinctive personality. Dibble also wielded a distinctive fastball, and he loved to show it off.

In a rather knowing, mature and well humored way, Smith pointed out that the younger Reds reliever might want to dial it back a bit in the bullpen, maybe to save his arm from a little wear and tear. At the same time, Smith understood what Dibble was doing.

"He likes to pop the mitt down there more than he needs to," Smith said with a smile, "because he knows the kids are watching. I used to be like that. I get it. You learn to take some off down there and have it for when you need it, maybe so you can hang around a little longer. But he likes to pop the mitt for the kids."

It's one of those little episodes that made you remember why you liked being around baseball. Just the idea that a big leaguer with millions at stake in his arm would "pop the mitt" for little other reason than to make the kids go ooh and ahh.

Mike Mussina: Maybe Frank Thomas played a little more designated hitter than I'd like for a Hall of Fame vote, but there is no doubt about the numbers and I shall be more than happy if he makes it in this year without me. If he doesn't, then I definitely owe him a vote next year. I also maintain much love for Fred McGriff, who I have picked in the past. There's a part of me that's always wanted to vote for Larry Walker and has never gotten around to it. And back when this vote was a little more fun and games, I often enjoyed throwing one to a guy who had absolutely no chance of making it, but who I thought made the game a better place. That would have been Sean Casey this time.

I gave the last vote to Mussina because I'm a little worried that he won't get to the five percent he needs to remain on future ballots, and he really should receive some consideration. Again, pitchers who spend their entire careers in the American League against the DH aren't going to make the benchmark Hall of Fame numbers. None has. The best chance right now is Morris. All the rest either wore out or moved over and spent significant portions of their careers in the National League, where they don't have to deal with that extra hitter.

Mussina won 270 games in his career, which puts him ahead of Morris (254). Unlike Morris, though, Mussina doesn't have a World Championship, whereas Morris anchored three World Championship pitching staffs and, of course, had Game 7 in 1991. I'm not calling Mussina a Hall of Famer. I'm just saying it's a discussion worth having some time.

I'm thinking that about a year from now would be a good time for that discussion. And for more discussion about Bonds and Clemens. And for discussion about next year's first timers, who will include Smoltz, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson and -- why not? -- Everyday Eddie Guardado.

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