Friday, December 31, 2004

The Hall of Fame and Chicago politics 

Things are very slow right now, in terms of Rangers news, but the Hall of Fame balloting is a popular topic right now, so I thought I'd take a look at the Chicago Tribune's piece on how each of their folks voted. It is an interesting look at the mindset of the folks who vote, for better or for worse.

Bill Adee, sports editor for the Tribune, shows the hometown bias at work, voting for Wade Boggs, Ryne Sandberg, Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage, Lee Smith, and Andre Dawson. Sandberg, Sutter, Dawson and Smith all spent much or all of their careers with the Cubs, Gossage spent several seasons with the Cubs and White Sox, and Boggs is the "no brainer" vote this year. Sutter, in particular, is a questionable choice, despite his popularity with the Chicago media...yes, he helped redefine the "closer" in the late-70s and early-80s, but he really was only a top reliever during a 10 year span, and only cracked the 150 mark in ERA+ three times. His career was too short, and not dominant enough during those years, to be a HOFer.

Mike Downey, a writer for the Tribune, voted for just Sandberg, Dawson, and the overrated Jim Rice. What is more notable is the players he didn't vote for -- Boggs, who he admits will probably make it in, but whom he is not voting for, "if only as a nod to Santo and Sandberg", lifetime Cubs players who haven't yet gotten in. Downey's mindset appears to be, Boggs isn't so much better than Santo and Sandberg that he deserves to get in on the first ballot, which is odd, but is also how the HOF voting has devolved over the years...now it isn't a matter of whether a player is a HOFer (which Boggs, one of the greatest 3B ever, clearly is), but whether he is a "first ballot" HOFer, or whether he deserves to be a unanimous HOFer.

Downey also says that, for the first time, he's not voting for Steve Garvey, a player whose HOF credentials are incredibly puny, and yet who has garnered a little bit of support year-in and year-out. You'd think that a first baseman who never cracked the top 10 in OBP, who was in the top 10 of OPS just once and slugging only twice, and who really wasn't much of a home run hitter wouldn't even get consideration for the Hall of Fame, but the votes he continues to get are proof that some writers still think that hits, RBIs, and leadership are what make a player great.

Crusty oldtimer Philip Hersh confesses to easing up on his standards in his old age, voting for seven players: Boggs, Sandberg, Smith, Gossage, Sutter, Don Mattingly, and Alan Trammell. Trammell is a worthy choice, a guy who seems to have carried on the tradition of earlier Tiger stars like Al Kaline and Hank Greenberg, players who were great, even dominant, but who seem to have slipped from our collective memories as time goes on. Trammell has the misfortune of coming into the American League at shortstop around the same time Robin Yount and Cal Ripken, Jr., were raising the standards for the position, and finishing his career just as Nomar, ARod and Jeter were arriving to take production from the position to another level. But in the meantime, Trammell was someone who just did everything well -- very good glove, hit for average, drew walks, hit for power, was a good basestealer. Trammell's problem, as with other players of his ilk such as Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker, is that there's no one great strength or stat you can point to...didn't get 3000 hits or 300 homers, never won an MVP or a batting title, and although he was the MVP of the 1984 World Series, more people remember Kirk Gibson or Jack Morris from that team than Trammell. Trammell was just a guy who did everything very well, and is overlooked as a result...20 years from now, I wouldn't be surprised if we were having this same discussion about Bobby Abreu.

Dan McGrath doesn't like Boggs, because he was selfish and didn't drive in runs, but is holding his nose and voting for him, along with Sandberg, Sutter, Dawson, and Rice. McGrath claims that Dawson deserves to be in because"he was the best player in the game until the unforgiving turf at Montreal's Olympic Stadium ravaged his knees." Regardless of what Olympic Stadium did to his knees, calling him the best player in the game before then simply is wrong. Dawson had a terrific combination of power and speed, and was a great defensive centerfielder, but he couldn't draw a walk to save his life, and his power numbers never quite measured up to others of his era. Looking at his best years, in the early-80s, he was a notch behind Dale Murphy, Mike Schmidt, Tim Raines, Rickey Henderson...really, he wasn't even the best player on his Expos teams. Gary Carter was. And the MVP award he won in 1987 was one of the all-time examples of egregious voting. Dawson was a very, very good player...think of Vernon Wells, if Wells ends up being as good as we think he'll be. But it isn't the Hall of very good...and Dawson, quite simply falls short.

Strangely, McGrath claims that Phil Rogers almost talked him into voting for Jack Morris and Bert Blyleven, but he ultimately decided against it. Why? Because "neither of them ever won a Cy Young Award, and I think you need to be able to say you were the best pitcher in the league in at least one year to be a Hall of Famer." I guess McGrath didn't vote for Nolan Ryan, then...and I guess, if Dawson hadn't won that bogus MVP award in 1987, then McGrath would be passing on him, as well...

Fred Mitchell voted for 10, the maximum allowed -- Sandberg, Boggs, Smith, Sutter, Dawson, Rice, Bert Blyleven, Tommy John, Dave Parker, and Dale Murphy. Murphy and Parker are similar cases...both were greats for a while, but weren't great enough for long enough to make it into the Hall. Blyleven is a worthy selection, maintaining a level of pitching excellence for two decades with mostly mediocre teams. As I've said before, Blyleven is as good as, or better than, contemporary HOFers Gaylord Perry, Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton, Steve Carlton, Phil Neikro, and Fergie Jenkins. He deserves to be in. John is a close call, but is one of those guys who comes just short...he was very good for a long time, but didn't quite reach the level of greatness needed, although he'll be remembered for generations for giving his name to the eponymous Tommy John surgery pitchers so often undergo.

Phil Rogers picked 9: Boggs, Sandberg, Sutter, Dawson, Gossage, Blyleven, Smith, Jack Morris, Trammell. Darryl Strawberry, it appears, would have been Rogers 10th, although Strawberry clearly didn't have a HOF career. Neither, for that matter, did Jack Morris, who seems to be the pitching version of Steve Garvey...a guy who was good, sometimes very good, but not great -- he ended his career with an ERA+ of just 105. But he was the #1 starter for some very good teams, and as Rogers noted, started game 1 of the World Series for three different teams, making him the bellwether selection for the "wins and intangibles" crowd.

Paul Sullivan, a baseball writer for the Tribune, voted for the same six as Adee -- Boggs, Sandberg, Sutter, Gossage, Smith and Dawson. He also laments the injustice of Bruce Sutter not getting voted in, and suggests that Dennis Eckersley's first ballot entry last year should help Sutter. What Sullivan ignores, however, is that Eckersley's career was twice as long as Sutter's; that Eckersley was a dominant reliever for 12 years, to Sutter's 10, and was better in his best year's than Sutter was in his best; and that Eckersley was a great starting pitcher well before he converted to a closer.

Special correspondent Dave van Dyck nominates Boggs, Dawson, Gossage, John, Sandberg, Smith and Sutter, plus writes in a vote for the banned Pete Rose. Curiously, he calls his vote for Boggs a "reluctant" vote, claiming that Boggs was never a "superstar", then turns around and heralds the "dominance" of Andre Dawson. It seems to have become fashionable to dismiss Boggs as a lightweight, a singles hitter who is getting in to the Hall just because he hung on long enough to collect 3000 hits. And some of the more unsavory things surrounding him -- the Margo Adams fiasco, the fact that he basically auctioned off his HOF hat rights to the Devil Rays -- no doubt contribute to that attitude.

But Wade Boggs was a legitimate great player -- more "dominant" than Andre Dawson, no doubt. He was an on base machine, hitting in the mid-.300s consistently while piling up the walks, finishing first in the league in OBP six times, along with a second, third and fourth place finish. He ended his career 26th all time in OBP, and is behind only five players who began their career in the last forty years. Plus, he had doubles power, and played a pretty decent third base, as well. He never got much respect in the MVP balloting, but then, in the 80s, folks were a lot more interested in RBI totals than in OBP. Boggs was a legitimately great player, one of the five best third basemen of all time, and a worthy first ballot Hall of Famer.

Finally, Bob Verdi selects Boggs, Sandberg, Rice, Dawson, Sutter, Smith, and Gossage. The fascination with Jim Rice is interesting...I remember, growing up in the 70s and 80s, the fear that Jim Rice struck in me when the BoSox came to town. I understand the emotional pull he has. But I can also go back and look at his career...only 12 years of being an elite player, and those while playing left field, one of the least challenging defensive positions, and while playing in the best hitter's park in the A.L. in those days, Fenway Park. He didn't walk much, and so, despite being a career .298 hitter, he cracked the top 10 in OBP only twice, never finishing higher than ninth. And while he was a feared slugger working with a short left field fence in his home park, his slugging percentages were rarely overwhelming -- he finished in the top 10 just 8 times in his career, and first only twice. He was a mediocre baserunner, an indifferent fielder, and he hit into a ton of double plays -- including a whopping 102 over one three year stretch.

Some suggest Rice is hurt because he didn't choose to "hang on" towards the end of his career, but the reality is he didn't have much choice. He posted EQAs of .274, .271, and .235 in his age 34-36 seasons, with his power rapidly disappearing. For a guy with no defensive value, no speed, and unimpressive on base skills, who was also known for being something of a jackass, diminished power meant his career was over. And his relatively early end means that he finished up with only 382 homers, a very small amount for a guy whose credentials are almost exclusively based on his power.

Jim Rice was a very good player in his day...but the modern players he is comparable to are guys like Moises Alou and Raul Mondesi, very good players who aren't Hall of Famers. Rice's reputation is the direct result of his posting terrific triple crown stats on a very good team in a prominent media market. He's not a Hall of Famer.

If I had a vote, I'd pick Boggs, Trammell, Gossage, and Blyleven. But, alas, I don't...so my votes have to be cast out into the cyberwind, I'm afraid...

As long as you are casting votes to the cyberwind, only Boggs seems worthy. Trammell, Dawson, and other classmates just don't have HoF career numbers.

-Chris, casting my vote from the Jewel of the Coastal Bend
I have to disagree on Trammell. One of the 10 best shortstops ever to play the game. That, to me, is a Hall of Famer.
I would not include Trammell, but admit that it is a debatable choice. I based my opinion on stats from Baseball Reference, where he is below HoF standards but is a good possibility for HoF. Of course, these comparisons, just like Top 10 lists, have subjectivity problems.

Trammel compared to other top SS's (in random order): Smith has lower batting numbers, but was a more likely candidate (13 GGs compared to Trammel's 4); Yount (SS 10 years, 1 MVP & GG while SS) has higher numbers; Aparicio has lower batting numbers but was also a more likely candidate (9 GGs); Banks (SS 9 yrs) has higher numbers and is a more likely candidate (2 MVPs and GG while SS); Wagner is off the charts; Cronin's numbers are also much better than his. Vaughan is closer but still has higher batting numbers. I am probably leaving out a few.

Bottom line - if Trammel is in the Top 10 for his position, he would be at or near the bottom 10. That makes HoF for him debatable, as I would hesitate to include someone merely because he might be in the Top 10 or 15 players at his primary position.

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