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Wednesday, December 11, 2002

And now for Part Two of my review of the 2003 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. Total list of candidates can be found here. Stat links courtesy of Baseball Reference.

The Pitchers:

Bert Blyleven (6th Year on ballot) – I’m a supporter of Bleyleven’s candidacy, not surprising considering his cause is popular in the sabermetric community. Blyleven’s is fifth all-time in career strikeouts with 3701, trailing only Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, and future inductees Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson. The next eight people behind Blyleven on the list are all in the Hall of Fame. His career 287 wins would be the highest among non-indcutees, if not for a still-active Clemens, a 19th century hurler named Bobby Matthews, and, by one win, Tommy John. (More on John below.) Of the ten pitchers judged most similar to Blyleven, eight (Don Sutton, Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins, Robin Roberts, Tom Seaver, Early Wynn, Phil Niekro, and Carlton) are in the Hall, and the other two (John and Jim Kaat) are strong candidates. The case against him: He somehow only appeared on two All-Star teams. He never won a Cy Young - but had years (particularly 1973 and 1984) where he could have had he pitched for a better team. No one ever talked much about him being among the best pitchers in the game. He only won 20 games once in an era when 20 game winners were more common, his career winning percentage was an umimpressive .534 and his “average” season comes out to 14-12. Most of this, however, comes down to spending most of his career on playing for weak Minnesota and Cleveland teams – when given the opportunity (with the Pirates and Twins) to perform in the postseason, he did well – and playing in a small markets his entire career, except for three late career seasons with the second-tier Angels. Yes, there’s a value to having a reputation as being among the best, but sometimes conventional wisdom is flawed. I vote for Blyleven.

Rich Gossage (4th year on ballot) – We’re still largely in the dark on the Hall of Fame standard for relief pitchers. You of course can’t compare their counting stats with those of pitchers who were primarily starters. It’s even hard to compare the numbers of a first-generation ace like Goose with the pitchers whose primes came in this current age of increasing pitcher specialization; after all, Gossage never saved more than 33 in any season, a total that would barely get him on the leader board some years today. Goose also hurt himself by bouncing around the league, mostly ineffectively, late in his career. So he’s my case for Gossage. His list of most similar pitchers is headed by the only two relievers in the Hall of Fame, Rollie Fingers and Hoyt Wilhelm. For many years, Goose and Fingers were the gold standard by which other closers were measured. Nobody wanted to face the Goose with the game on the line. Goose had the superior career ERA+ (a sabermetrician’s tool evaluating a pitcher’s park- and league- adjusted value) plus 200 more strikeouts and 10 more wins. Fingers’ lower ERA stemmed in part from pitching in Oakland and in part from retiring at an earlier age. Fingers was a little better, but there’s room for more than one relief ace from the 70s and early 80s in the Hall, and Gossage should be first in line for the second slot. I vote for Gossage.

Tommy John (9th Year On Ballot) - His ten most similar list has seven Hall of Famers, two ballot mates (Blyleven and Jim Kaat) and a 19th century pitcher (Tony Mullane) who’s a reasonable Veterans’ Committee candidate. I think most of those pitchers were better than John. He has some numbers that compare with those of Blyleven. John had several solid seasons, winning 20 three times, though he never won a Cy Young. His control was even better than Blyleven’s although with far fewer strikeouts. John, however, recorded only one more win despite playing five more seasons for generally better teams than Blyleven. No one ever thought of John as among the best pitchers in the game, and he wasn’t nearly as underrated as Blyleven. John and Jim Kaat both epitomize the argument first posited by critics of Phil Niekro and Don Sutton, wondering how much weight to put on long pitching careers. Still, he’s close enough for a tiebreaker, and he’s got a “history of the game” argument that allows me to vote for him. He was the first man to have his career extended by a revolutionary surgical procedure that extended his career and the careers of many other pitchers. And while he neither conceived of nor performed the surgery, he was truly a pioneer. I vote for John.

Jim Kaat (15th Year On Ballot)- It’s Jim Kaat’s last year on the ballot, and there’s little indication the voters are going to change their minds about him. Kaat has a few things going for him that Blyleven and John do not. There was the one monster season in 1966 (25-13, 2.75 ERA, 205 Ks and 271 hits in nearly 305 innings) that neither Blyleven nor John could ever put together. (It did not get him a Cy Young award since ’66 was the last season before each league had their own Cy Young winner, and the award that year went to Sandy Koufax.) Kaat also won 16 Gold Gloves. And, much like Blyleven, Kaat spent most of his career away from big markets and strong teams. His “most similar” list is very similar to that of Tommy John ; each one’s list is headed by the other, both include Blyleven and Hall inductees Robin Roberts, Eppa Rixley, Early Wynn, Burleigh Grimes, and Red Ruffing. But…(of course there’s a but) his career ERA of 3.45 (only 0.24 better than adjusted league norms) is nothing special for a hurler of the 60s and 70s. It certainly doesn’t scream Hall of Famer, and neither does a .544 winning percentage. The line has to be drawn somewhere, and between a pitcher who had a pivotal role in revolutionizing sports medicine and a very similar pitcher who had no such role is as good a place as any to draw that line. I wouldn’t object to his eventually getting in (with bonus points for broadcasting), but I don’t vote for Kaat.

Darryl Kile (1st Year On Ballot) – By all accounts, he was well loved by family and teammates alike. Obviously, Kile’s death was both shocking and tragic. But a sad and sudden death does not a Hall of Famer make. Otherwise, Ray Chapman would be in the Hall of Fame. So would Tony Conigliaro. If he were inducted, his record would stick out like a sore thumb, and not in a good way. He’d have fewer career wins than any other starting pitcher in the Hall. He’d have the highest ERA (4.12) of any pitcher in the Hall, and that’s without a career “decline phase.” (Yes, he was victimized by two seasons of Coors Field and a homer-happy era, but there’s a long list of active pitchers with better numbers than Kile, many of whom are contending with tough climates for pitching themselves.) None of the pitchers on his “most similar” list, many of them his contemporaries, have even the slightest chance at Hall induction. I don’t vote for Kile.

Jack Morris (4th year on ballot) – He was the winningest pitcher of the 80s, racking up 245 victories (including 28 shutouts) in 18 seasons. He struck out 2,478 on his way to 5 All-Star appearances, finished top 10 in Cy Young balloting 8 times, and has a World Series MVP award. Everyone remembers his famous Game 7 performance in the 1991 World Series with his hometown Twins. (On the other hand, he’d rather forget his post-season performance the next year, where Toronto won despite Morris rather than because of him.) But there’s that pesky little number in his record that his defenders can’t explain away. 3.90 No Hall of Fame pitcher has an ERA that high. Now perhaps we might be able to look past that number if there were strong extenuating circumstances. But the 80s of Jack’s heyday were not as offense-happy as the 90s. And Tiger Stadium may have been known as a hitters’ park, but its reputation as such was overrated. Short down the lines, but massive in center field, Tiger Stadium did not inflate offense all that much. The adjusted league average ERA during Morris’ career was 4.08, leaving him only 0.18 runs above the average pitcher. Morris was a below average pitcher in 7 of his 18 seasons. That’s not a Hall of Famer. I don’t vote for Morris.

Lee Smith (1st Year On Ballot) – The all-time career leader in saves with 478, he virtually defined what it meant to be a relief ace most of his career. With 1251 strikeouts in 1289 innings, a strong 3.03 ERA, and 7 All-Star appearances, his case is as solid as that of any relief pitcher. It’s popular among sabermetrics types to say that closers are overrated, and some prefer they essentially be categorically excluded from Cooperstown. However, there are already two of them in the Hall, and while we should be careful not to be too easily impressed by relievers or their value, there is room for at least a few relievers. The standards for relief excellence are still being written, but Lee Smith is as good a place to start as anywhere. I vote for Smith.

Bruce Sutter (10th year on the ballot) - Sutter has something that Lee Smith and Goose Gossage lack – a Cy Young Award (1979). He also left his mark in another major way – as a pioneer in an important new pitch, the split-fingered fastball. Sutter led the NL in saves five times and his career ERA ranks high among closers of that era. His biggest negative is that he lost his effectiveness early and played only 12 major league seasons, which prevented him from racking up career inning, save, and strikeout totals near those of Smith or Gossage. Already there are 15 pitchers with more saves than Sutter, although some of that is due to a change in usage patterns. I’m not a supporter of Sutter’s candidacy. He barely qualifies as having pitched enough for eligibility, as a reliever didn’t pitch many innings in even those years, and his career still had room for four relatively ineffective seasons. Plus, voting Sutter down blocks the door; we won’t have to listen to “more saves than Sutter” arguments from future advocates of players like Rick Aguilera and Roberto Hernandez. I don’t vote for Sutter.

Fernando Valenzuela (1st Year On Ballot) – Valenzuela had a career ERA of 3.54, despite the fact that he pitched mostly in Dodger Stadium and didn’t pitch much once the 1990s offensive explosion kicked into high gear. People remember “Fernandomania” and his outstanding 1981 and 1985 campaigns, and are fuzzier on how mediocre he was after 1986. His “most similar list” is ten guys who aren’t in the Hall and aren’t going. Easily one of the most overrated pitchers of all time. The extra points you might want to give him for being a pioneer for Mexican players still leaves him far short. For those who demand a pitcher whose peak coincided with the 1980s, Jack Morris and Dave Stieb (on the ballot next year) make better cases. I don’t vote for Valenzuela.

So, my ballot would look like this, in rough order of merit…
1. Eddie Murray
2. Bert Blyleven
3. Lee Smith
4. Gary Carter
5. Ryne Sandberg
6. Rich Gossage
7. Jim Rice
8. Alan Trammell
9. Tommy John

(If I had to name a tenth, it’d be Jim Kaat.)


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