Making Sense of the Hall of Fame Vote
By Bob Toth
There were undoubtedly some surprises that stemmed from the announcement Wednesday afternoon that no players from the ballot would be voted in as part of the 2013 National Baseball Hall of Fame induction class. It was the eighth election by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America that failed to produce a new member to the Hall, and the first such election since 1996.
This vote, unlike many others in recent history, came with its fair share of controversy. This year’s ballot marked the first appearances of tainted legends Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Sammy Sosa. Additionally, several other former stars, including Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, have pasts linked to performance enhancers as well.
This ballot became quite possibly the most criticized ballot of players in the history of baseball. Maybe even the most criticized in the history of sports.
It would appear on the surface as though the baseball writers in the country opted to send a strong statement to those players who dare to take shortcuts in the game of baseball today. Some players, presumed innocent throughout their careers, may have taken the fall in the meantime, even if just temporarily.
As it stands, the incoming class to Cooperstown will be just three, selected by the Veterans Committee: player Deacon White, umpire Hank O’Day, and former New York Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert. All three have long since passed away, making this season’s ceremonies the first since the 1960s to lack a living inductee.
Around the league, the biggest disappointment seemed to be in the exclusion of Craig Biggio from this year’s Hall class. A first-time nominee, Biggio led the voting with 68.2% of the vote, falling 39 ballots short of the 75% vote necessary for entry. It would be reasonable to believe that the lifelong Houston Astros player will one day find his plaque in Cooperstown. A .281 career hitter, he accumulated 3,060 career hits and made seven All-Star game appearances. He was a versatile member of the Astros throughout his 20-year career, playing catcher, second base, and outfield.
Biggio made his first All-Star team in his third full season in the big leagues as a catcher. He was converted to a second baseman the following season and again made an All-Star appearance. He spent several of his latter seasons bouncing back and forth between left and center field and second base. His willingness to switch positions and his ability to do so successfully and seamlessly is almost unheard of. His loyalty to one ballclub in the era of big contracts and free agency is honorable, putting him into rare air with Hall of Famers from his era, including Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn, and Kirby Puckett.
In the mid-90′s, his power began to develop more consistently. In 12 of his final 13 seasons, he reached double-digit figures in home runs and drove in at least 50 runs. Only once in his career did he topple the 200-hit mark in a season (210 in 1998), but his durability over his 20 seasons in Houston allowed him to join the 3,000-hit club.
He was never flashy nor considered amongst the greats of the game, but he played the game the right way and led by example.
On the all-time list, Biggio ranks 21st in career hits. Only two players with more hits are not in the Hall of Fame – all-time hits leader Pete Rose (4,256) and active shortstop Derek Jeter (3,304). The only other players in the top 40 in career hits not in the Hall are either not yet eligible (Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Omar Vizquel) or have tainted reputations (Palmeiro and Bonds).
Biggio will get in eventually, likely within the next few seasons. Players who have drawn a similarly high percentage of the votes in their first year have made it in quickly in the years that followed.
Barry Larkin, the lone player honored by the baseball writers in 2012, was voted in during his third year eligible, garnering 86.4% of the vote. He had received 62.1% of the vote the previous year and 51.6% of the vote in 2010 in his first year of eligibility.
Roberto Alomar received 73.7% of the vote, just eight short of induction, during his first year of eligibility in 2010. He won his spot in the Hall of Fame the following year with 90% of the vote.
Rickey Henderson was the last first-ballot Hall of Famer inducted, as part of the 2009 class. He received 94.8% of the vote in what was considered to be a poor class overall. Ripken (98.5%) and Gwynn (97.6%) entered the Hall together in 2007 as first-timers. Wade Boggs, Paul Molitor, Dennis Eckersley, Eddie Murray, Ozzie Smith, Dave Winfield, and Puckett are other players voted in during their first year of eligibility since 2000.
Say what you will about Biggio, but he does not quite compare to these players during their playing time. He is still Hall worthy, but for voters who have a strong opinion on what makes a “first ballot Hall of Famer”, Biggio does not quite fit the bill.
He will, though, get his day in Cooperstown.
Biggio’s longtime teammate in Houston, Jeff Bagwell, may have also been hurt by the influx of performance enhancers on this season’s ballot and for having played during the heart of the steroid epidemic. In his third year eligible, Bagwell’s votes improved to a personal-best 59.6% (339 votes), but it was just a slight improvement of 3.6% from his 2012 tally of 56% of the vote (321 votes). He was sixth in the voting in his first year eligible with a percentage of 41.7.
Bagwell, a .297 career hitter with 449 home runs, spent his entire major league career in Houston after being acquired in a trade from the Boston Red Sox in 1990 for pitcher Larry Andersen. While Bagwell was never directly linked to PEDs, there were those who suspected his involvement, especially after being teammates with pitchers Clemens and Andy Pettitte, but no one has substantiated the speculation.
Mike Piazza received a healthy 57.8% of the vote in his first year on the ballot. A 62nd round draft pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988, he defied logic and expectation to have a successful 16-year major league career. He made ten consecutive All-Star Game appearances and 12 in a 13-year span. He was the 1993 NL Rookie of the Year, hitting 35 home runs, driving in 112 runs, and batting .318 in his first full season.
He ended his career with 427 home runs and a career .308 batting average. He holds the all-time mark for home runs by a catcher. As his name continues to be kept distant from those of purported or confirmed users of PEDs, Piazza may find his plaque in Cooperstown as well.
Other players from this year’s ballot will not be as lucky.
A message was certainly established to those players linked to performance enhancement. Clemens received 37.6% of the vote, acquiring just one vote more than half of the total necessary to gain entry into the Hall. Bonds fared no better, receiving votes on just 36.2% of the total ballots. Like the all-time hit king, there is a chance the all-time home run king and the ninth-winningest pitcher all-time and seven-time Cy Young Award winner will fail to join the ranks of the most honored players in the history of the game of baseball.
Sosa fared even worse. He received just 71 votes, or 12.5% of the total needed. An alleged user of PEDs in the time prior to suspensions, he hit 609 home runs while batting .273 over an 18-year career. He was voted to seven All-Star teams with the Chicago Cubs and won the NL MVP in 1998.
Regardless of what side you stand on regarding the Steroid Era, the message from the voters seems to still be loud and clear. Years of omitting an admitted user in McGwire, whose numbers have dropped from 19.8% in 2011 to 19.5% in 2012 to 16.9% this year, would seem to seal the fate for anyone even suspected of engaging in cheating the system.
One of the other surprising revelations from this year’s ballot was the exclusion of Kenny Lofton from any future voting. The longtime speedster, made popular from his years of success with the Cleveland Indians, received just 18 votes for Hall of Fame induction (3.2%), short of the 5% needed to remain on the ballot for next year.
What makes the decision so hard to digest is the similarity that Lofton had to a player who, on his sixth ballot, received 52.2% of the vote and played a very comparable style of baseball.
Player A – 18-year career; .299 career batting average; .372 on-base percentage; 2,428 hits; .984 fielding percentage; 622 stolen bases; five straight seasons leading his league in stolen bases; four Gold Glove Awards; six consecutive All-Star game appearances; 2nd in Rookie of the Year voting; career WAR of 64.9; single-season best WAR of 7.3.
Player B – 23-year career; .294 career batting average, .385 on-base percentage; 2,605 hits; .987 fielding percentage; 808 stolen bases; four straight seasons leading his league in stolen bases; one Silver Slugger Award; seven consecutive All-Star game appearances; 2nd in Rookie of the Year voting; career WAR of 66.2; single-season best WAR of 7.3.
The extended playing career of Player B, Tim “Rock” Raines, helped to accumulate higher totals in many of the categories that he led Player A, Lofton. Despite those similarities in numbers, Raines received 297 votes while Lofton received 18. Raines will remain on the ballot for a seventh season in 2014, while Lofton, 49% of the vote fewer than Raines, will no longer be eligible.
Lofton actually had slightly better numbers than Raines when averaged out over a 162-game season. Lofton led Raines in hits, doubles, triples, batting average, and WAR per season and was within four stolen bases. Had Lofton played as many seasons as Raines, he would have surpassed many of Raines’ career totals. It would appear Raines is recognized more for his longevity.
Lofton also led Raines in the number of teams he played for, which may have negatively affected his perception amongst the voters. Lofton spent nine of his first eleven seasons in Cleveland, with one-year stops in Houston and Atlanta. Raines spent each of his first twelve seasons in Montreal with the Expos. After leaving Cleveland for the second time, Lofton spent his final six seasons playing no more than one year with any of the following teams – the Chicago White Sox, San Francisco Giants, Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Texas Rangers, before returning to Cleveland one last time at the end of the 2007 season. Raines spent his final eleven seasons between the White Sox (five years), the Yankees (three years), the A’s (one year), the Expos (almost one year), the Orioles (four games at the end of 2001), and the Marlins (one year).
While Lofton might not have been a Hall of Famer, it is strange that a player so comparable is still earning more than half of the votes. What makes Raines such a better option for the Hall than Lofton? Was it really his prolonged career? Was it the stability he showed early in his career while remaining in Montreal for twelve seasons? Is it that he is one of the last reasonable candidates eligible who played for the now-defunct Expos franchise? Were Lofton’s flashy play, attitude, and journeyman treatment over the last one-third of his career held against him, despite consistent numbers (and playoff appearances) along the way?
Lofton received just two more votes than former teammate Sandy Alomar, Jr., who despite a nice career, was not a player expected to receive any serious consideration for Cooperstown, especially after losing so much time in his career to stints on the disabled list. In addition to Lofton and Alomar, former Indians infielder Julio Franco (1.1%), closer Jose Mesa (no votes), and reliever Roberto Hernandez (no votes) were removed from future ballots.
The lone remaining ex-Indians player standing is Jack Morris. In his 14th year on the ballot, Morris was 42 votes (7.3%) short of induction. He was 48 votes short the previous year and will have one final opportunity next year to gain admittance to the Hall.
In one season with the Tribe in the strike-shortened 1994 season, he went 10-6 with a 5.60 ERA, just two years removed from 21-6 mark with the World Series Champion Toronto Blue Jays. His one season with Cleveland was the last of his career. He won 254 games over his 18-year career. He won three championship rings while earning a 4-2 career record in the World Series while holding the opposition with a 2.96 ERA. He threw three complete games in the World Series, including a 10-inning complete game shut out of the Atlanta Braves in Game Seven of the 1991 World Series to clinch the series for the Minnesota Twins, earning him World Series MVP honors.
Is the voting system flawed? Sure it is. It always has been. Any time you use a subjective voting process, a risk is run that the voting will be unfair. As you add more voters into the process, it helps to eliminate some of the personal opinions from skewing the real results. But the problem still remains.
Need more proof of the problem? The following players have received votes on ballots for the Hall of Fame in the last five years: Aaron Sele (one vote in 2013 – 148 wins and a 4.61 ERA); Eric Young (one vote in 2012 – 465 stolen bases and a 16.7 career WAR); Brad Radke (two votes in 2012 – 148 wins and a 4.22 ERA); Bill Mueller (four votes in 2012 – .291 hitter with 85 homers); David Segui (one vote in 2010 – 139 homers and a 7.8 WAR); Pat Hentgen (one vote in 2010 – 131 wins); Eric Karros (two votes in 2010 – 7.7 WAR); and Jesse Orosco (one vote in 2009 – 24-year journeyman with nine teams).
If the writers cannot take this process seriously, then it is reasonable to state that the process might be broken.
Baseball’s exclusion of Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson for their off-the-field exploits that may have affected the product on the field established years ago that the feats of the player may not be enough to merit admission to baseball’s hallowed territory. But with both men, their banishment from the Hall came from previous commissioners of the league and not from the writers of America.
There are hurt feelings regarding steroid and other performance-enhancing users. It tarnished the national game just years after the game was at a collective high point while fans tuned in glued to the pursuit of the single-season home run record by both McGwire and Sosa back in 1998. Allegations surrounding both of them quickly moved to some of the most prolific sluggers of the era and even some of the most dominant arms on the mound.
Within the current system, nothing is going to get these players with suspect character issues into the Hall of Fame. Is the Hall a museum? Or is it a shrine to what the game of baseball should be? How many other players in the history of baseball, some already in the Hall, found shortcuts to gain strength, energy, quicker healing time, or better focus? It is nearly impossible to determine beyond sheer speculation and accusation. Until the game of baseball makes clear how to handle the allegations of the tarnished stars of this Steroid Era, the Hall of Fame voting will continue to be unclear and murky.
Photo: Getty Images