Tom takes a break from politics to assess the MLB Hall for Fame ballot for the committee looking at modern era players previously overlooked by the writers in the regular ballot.
As many readers know, apart from forecasting the outcomes of political elections, we also annual make predictions for the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with those predictions for the voting now underway for the regular ballot, to be announced on January 24, 2023.
But later today (Sunday, December 4) at 8 PM Eastern, we will hear the outcome of the Contemporary Baseball Era Committee's deliberations. This is a group comprised of eight Hall of Famers, six baseball executives, and three members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA). They are considering – or better stated, reconsidering – the candidacies of eight players from 1980 on who did not get elected in their years on the regular ballot conducted by the BWAA.
We’re not going to predict what the committee will decide, but we will give our point of view on which of the eight players are HOF-worthy. And what a collection of players! Albert Belle, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff, Dale Murphy, Rafael Palmiero and Curt Schilling – just about all of them evoke extremely strong emotions, save perhaps McGriff. Bonds and Clemens are reviled as the poster children of the Steroids Era, with their wildly inflated stats, weirdly shaped later-years' bodies and generally loathsome personalities. Palmiero, who tested positive just days after lying his way through memorable finger-wagging denials before a Congressional committee, is not far behind. Schilling and Belle, while not caught up in the performance enhancing drug (PED) scandals, are still two of the most despised players ever to don a uniform. On the other hand, Mattingly and Murphy are among the most deified players of the modern era, lifers with the Yankees and Atlanta, respectively, while McGriff, who played with distinction for six teams, is certainly highly respected. The failure of the first five to make the HOF in the regular ballot was not exactly bemoaned, whereas the exclusion of the latter three is still viewed as an injustice by their legion of fans.
Now readers of our past Hall of Fame articles know that we take a dim view of players linked with PEDs. Our position is simple. Many people incorrectly believe that steroids were legal during the now infamous “Steroids Era,” and therefore we should not punish Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and others for taking them. But that is simply false. In 1991, then Commissioner Fay Vincent banned the use of illegal substances, specifically including steroids. The problem was that baseball could not come to agreement on an enforcement mechanism until over a decade later, when a random, mandatory testing program was launched in 2003. But that does not mean the PEDs guys did nothing wrong – of course they did, they violated an outright ban.
So, we stipulate at the outset that we believe that Bonds, Clemens and Palmiero were all known PED users and should not receive a spot in the hallowed HOF. It matters not that they may have been non-users for significant portions of their careers, and even played at Hall of Fame levels in those “clean” years. For years on end, they violated a rule that sought to protect the fairness and integrity of the game, thereby achieving an advantage over rule-abiding players, and distorting the statistics that are part of the fabric of the game. Their statistics and achievements are tainted, and they disgraced the game in ways that still – obviously – resonate to this day. There is no serious discussion (which is a shame) of clawing back their awards, their championship rings, their multi-millions, or rejecting (or at least noting) their tainted stats. But we can deny them the highest honor in the game. Indeed, that would seem to be the least we can do.
Enough of them, good riddance. That said, the discussion comes down to the other five, whom we analyze below. To arrive at our conclusions, we use the following analytic methodology. We compare each player to Hall of Famers at his position across a number of key statistics, both traditional (hits, homers, RBI’s and batting average) and non-traditional (OPS+ and WAR). We show the average statistics for comparison groups, by position. So we will compare, say, Mattingly and McGriff to first basemen who are in these four groups:
· The “Top Half” of first basemen enshrined in the HOF (using WAR to guide the rankings)
· The “Average” of all HOF first basemen
· The “Lower Half” of the first basemen in the HOF
· The “Next Ten,” the ten first basemen who have the highest WARs among those who are not in the HOF.
The last two groups define “borderline” candidates. Our general feeling is that to be worthy of the HOF, a candidate must be better on most of those statistics, and at least as good on the others, than the last two groups. That is the main cut. But we also give some consideration to how many All-Star teams a player was named to, and how many times a player was in the Top 10 in MVP or Cy Young voting. And postseason play can certainly be a factor as well. We try to keep it all completely objective, not letting personalities get in the way, as, we believe has happened with players such as Jeff Kent, who was, in our view, Hall-worthy, but was and is despised by sportswriters and has yet to make it in the regular voting.
Our headline view is that McGriff and Schilling are HOF-worthy, but Belle, Mattingly and Murphy fall a bit short.
UPDATE: It was just announced that Fred McGriff was unanimously elected to the Hall of Fame by the Committee, the only player named.
Fred McGriff retired in 2004 and was on the ballot from 2010 to 2019, never achieving more than the 40% of the vote he received in this last year. He was always a tough call for us, and was one of the very few where we changed our minds over the years. We finally convinced ourselves that, on balance, he belongs in the HOF. He was a classic “compiler” with 19 years in MLB. In that time, he made only five All-Star teams, so it is hard to argue that he was among the greats of his era. But using the chart below, you can see that his home run and RBI totals make a strong case – the homers are way above those in the Top Half of first basemen in the HOF, and his RBI total is right with them. On the minus side, his WAR and OPS+ are more in line with the borderline groups, those in the bottom half of the HOF and the next 10. But postseason play is another mark in his favor, as he hit 10 homers and drove in 37 runs in 50 games, about a third of a season, and had an OPS of .917. On balance, it all tilts toward a Hall of Fame career, as you’d have to put him a cut above the borderline groups.
Don Mattingly spent 15 years on the ballot and never did better than the 28% he received in his first year, 2001. He was one of my idols. He came up to the Yankees in 1982 and quickly proved himself to be an adept line-drive hitter, albeit with little power. But in his third year, he learned how to leverage the short porch in right and finished fifth in the MVP voting. From 1984 to 1988 he was arguably the best player in the game, hitting for both power and average and rivaling fellow New Yorker Keith Hernandez as the best defensive first basemen in MLB. He won the MVP in 1985. But back injuries robbed him of the rest of his career, and he was a shell of himself from 1989 through 1995, when he retired at age 34, when the Yankees were on the cusp of another dynastic run. (I was surprised to discover, however, that he was in the Top 20 for MVP voting in both 1993 and 1994). Mattingly had one last lion’s roar in his only postseason series in 1995, going 10-24 with four doubles and a homer in a loss to a rising Mariner team. It was one to quit on. He was beloved, but was neither transcendent for long enough to make the HOF on the strength of his great years (a la Sandy Koufax), nor durable enough to compile HOF career stats over a long career (as is clear below, when he clocks in below every grouping on almost all measures). So we have to leave our beloved Donnie Baseball off of our ballot.
Dale Murphy made the ballot in 1999 and stayed on for the entire 15-year period, but he too never exceeded the 38% he received in his first year. He was a two-time MVP who played 19 years, one short of McGriff, but he did not compile offensive statistics comparable to McGriff’s. While he had strong power stats, his HOF candidacy suffers by virtue of his quite low OPS+ of 119 and WAR of 44, both below the two borderline groups, in some cases by quite a lot. Like Mattingly, he made the postseason only once in his career, in 1982, but unlike Mattingly, he did not do much with it, managing three singles in 11 at bat in a first round elimination. He was gone before Atlanta had its great run in the later 1990’s. All in all, Murphy was a fine player and one of the greats in the early 1980’s, but he is hard to support for the HOF, and we don’t.
Albert Belle was on the regular ballot for only two years, achieving 8% in his first year in 2006 and then failing to achieve the 5% threshold the next year. He had an even shorter career than Mattingly’s, though it was statistically even more impressive. Belle did have a few sensationally productive seasons, but never won an MVP award. He was terrible defensively, which hurt his WAR, which was already well below what he needs for serious HOF consideration. There are 63 outfielders NOT in the HOF who have higher WARs than Belle's 37! As we noted with Mattingly, if you are going to have a short career, it better be Koufax-esque to make the HOF, and Albert Belle, productive as he was, did not come near that standard.
Curt Schilling just came off the regular ballot, having achieved 59% of the vote last January, the highest total of his 10-year stint. He is the anti-Mattingly, in almost every way. Schilling is as odious as Mattingly is dignified; he’s perhaps my least favorite player, and I am hardly alone. I am enormously offended by his racist, transphobic and generally incendiary comments over the years, his cozying up to white supremacists, his expressed desire to “hang journalists,” his support of the January 6 insurrection and on and on. But on the field, which is what matters, Schilling sported a sterling ERA+ of 127 and his WAR is a hefty 81, both up there with the top half of HOF starting pitchers. And you also have to consider his postseason performances, which were sublime, with an 11-2 record and 2.23 ERA. Hate him or hate him (is there any other option?), Schilling merits induction to the HOF; I’m holding my nose and giving him a thumbs up.
Who knows what the committee will do! But this much is clear - their vote will continue to be a referendum on the Steroids Era, for certain. Their verdicts on Bonds and Clemens will be the big news of the day, and will carry enormous weight in the years to come.
We’ll be back by December 15 with our predictions for the regular ballot and our views of the Hall-worthiness of those on the ballot. Stay tuned!