Hershiser’s Hall Hopes Ride on Today’s Game Era Committee
Bob Toth | On 06, Dec 2018
Despite a 200-win career over 18 seasons, a Cy Young Award, and a World Series MVP Award, Orel Hershiser did not last long on the Hall of Fame ballot, exiting the process after just two years back in 2007.
This weekend, he will get a second shot, post-BBWAA, as part of the Today’s Game Era balloting, set to be announced from the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Sunday, December 9.
Hershiser’s candidacy is once again up for debate as he finds himself on the Today’s Game Era ballot for the second time in three years. He was previously considered in December of 2016, when he was joined by Harold Baines, Albert Belle, Will Clark, Davey Johnson, Mark McGwire, Lou Piniella, John Schuerholz, Allan H. “Bud” Selig and George Steinbrenner. Schuerholz and Selig were selected as part of the Class of 2017. Baines, Belle, Clark, Johnson, Piniella, and Steinbrenner join Hershiser on this year’s ten-man ballot, with Joe Carter, Lee Smith, and Charlie Manuel joining them. McGwire did not return for this year’s vote.
The Bulldog was one of the more feared competitors in the National League during the 1980s, when he helped guide the Los Angeles Dodgers back into the postseason with appearances in 1985 and 1988. Hershiser was at the center of the action in the latter campaign, when he went 3-0 in six postseason appearances against the New York Mets in the NLCS and the Oakland Athletics in the World Series, throwing three complete games, two shutouts, and even earning a save as the Dodgers claimed what remains their last championship.
Hershiser entered the pro game in 1979 when he was selected by the Dodgers in the 17th round of the draft out of Bowling Green State University. He was a September call-up in 1983, working eight times in relief, and the following season (split between the rotation in 20 starts and the bullpen in 25 appearances) he finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. He was the NL’s best at throwing shutouts, blanking four different opponents on the year.
By 1985, he had caught the eyes of the baseball world, posting an impressive 19-3 record with a 2.03 ERA. He finished third in the NL Cy Young race and even picked up MVP votes. He pitched .500 baseball over the next two seasons for LA (14-14 and 16-16), but the latter season earned him his first trip to the Midsummer Classic, an honor he would receive in three straight seasons. He led the NL in innings pitched in all three of those years, but he was at his best in 1988. He led all of baseball with 15 complete games and eight shutouts and led the NL with 23 wins and a career-high 267 innings pitched. He added a 2.26 ERA for the season and had a record setting stretch beginning in late August that saw Hershiser throw 59 1/3 scoreless innings for manager Tommy Lasorda. His dominant season on the mound carried all the way through the Fall Classic as he took his Dodgers to the crown.
Hershiser put up another .500 season in 1989, going 15-15 while leading the NL in losses, but it was hardly a reflection on his efforts as he posted a 2.31 ERA for the year and threw eight more complete games and four more shutouts.
The first half of the 1990s proved to be much different for Hershiser as he began the back half of his career. He made just four starts in 1990 before right shoulder stiffness was addressed by reconstructive surgery that kept him out until the following May. He was 7-2 in 21 starts in 1991 on a tight innings and pitch count, but he remained healthy and on the mound for the Dodgers in 1992, throwing more than 200 innings for the first time since 1989. He once again led the NL in losses with 15.
Hershiser received a different sort of honor in 1993, when he went 12-14 with a 3.59 ERA while topping 200 innings again, but it was his work at the plate that brought him the Silver Slugger Award. In 34 games, he hit an unbelievable .356 in 83 plate appearances with four doubles and six RBI.
He hit free agency after the strike-shortened 1994 season and left his home of 12 years in Los Angeles to return closer to an old home, bringing him to the Cleveland Indians organization on a three-year contract. In a new league for the first time, he flourished as he provided the Indians with a veteran, playoff-tested pitcher for their young, but power-packed, lineup. He breezed to a 16-6 mark in 26 games as the Indians ripped off 100 wins in the shortened 144-game schedule. He remained phenomenal in the postseason, throwing seven and one-third shutout innings in a win in the ALDS against Boston. He won both of his starts against Seattle in the ALCS, earning the ALCS MVP award for his efforts. In the World Series against the Atlanta Braves, he split his two outings as the Tribe fell in six. His World Series loss came only after relievers allowed a pair of inherited runners to come around to score.
Hershiser was good again in 1996 (15-9, 4.24 ERA), but the Indians could not replicate the previous year’s success as they were knocked out in the ALDS against the Baltimore Orioles. He remained durable through 1997, going 14-6 with a 4.47 ERA. The Indians fought their way back to the World Series, overcoming a deficit against the New York Yankees in the ALDS before advancing to the Fall Classic with a dramatic 12th inning win over the Orioles.
Hershiser was unable to replicate his previous career postseason marks in the ’97 World Series. Entering with an 8-1 record lifetime with a 1.93 ERA, he was the losing pitcher in Game 1 and Game 5 against the Florida Marlins, giving up 13 runs on 15 hits in ten innings. The Tribe fell in seven in what would be the final two postseason starts of Hershiser’s otherwise impressive playoff showing.
“We should have a world championship ring in Cleveland if I would have pitched better in either one of those World Series,” said Hershiser to The Plain Dealer on October 21, 2015, on the 20th anniversary of his Game 1 loss in the ’95 series.
The Indians and Hershiser parted ways following the season and he returned to the west coast, signing a one-year deal with the San Francisco Giants. He made 34 starts and threw 202 innings while going 11-10, then packed up and rejoined the Indians during spring training. A month later, he was a late camp cut and he signed on with the New York Mets and entered their starting rotation. He went 13-12 in 32 starts and was a part of the team’s bullpen in the playoffs, making three scoreless appearances over five and one-third innings. The Mets defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLDS, but they fell to the Braves in the NLCS.
A free agent again in the offseason, Hershiser returned home to Los Angeles at the age of 41. He made six starts and four relief appearances before he was cut loose midseason, marking an end to his 18 seasons in the Major Leagues. He finished with a 204-150 record with a 3.48 ERA in 510 games. He threw 68 complete games, 25 shutouts, and saved five games.
Hershiser’s chances for induction will rely primarily on his performance in the back half of the 1980s, with his later career success with the Indians providing only a little extra boost (pitching for an offensive juggernaut in an offensive-minded landscape at the time bloated his overall statistical contributions). His case his borderline at best, as his overall numbers lack some of the dominant figures needed to be considered a Hall of Famer. He will have to rely on his run in the ’80s, when he was arguably one of the best pitchers in all of baseball and was one of the best postseason pitchers in recent memory. Such a resume helped a pitcher on last year’s Modern Era ballot, when Jack Morris and his postseason heroics earned a spot in Cooperstown. [to his credit, Morris won 254 games, was a five-time All-Star, and won three World Series rings in 1984, 1991, and 1992 in his 18-year career].
Hershiser was as dominant as they came in his peak years of destruction, but pitching 18 years in total and having several light years at the beginning, middle, and end of his career may have diminished some of his lasting legacy. He became an average to slightly above average, yet durable, pitcher at best through much of the latter half of his career. But, if looking solely at his contributions in the ’80s, he was one of the best of the era, and only four players to debut that decade have been honored with selection to the Hall of Fame (Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz). Other comparables from Hershiser’s era – David Cone, Chuck Finley, Dwight Gooden, or Bret Saberhagen – will have a tough time making it in, although there could be a decent case made for Cone, and one of the finer pitchers in MLB history who also debuted in the ‘80’s, Roger Clemens, will struggle to ever overcome the PED ghost haunting his house.
The fact that Hershiser has been considered twice for the special ballot is a tip of the cap from his colleagues and others around the game for his contributions on the mound, but it still may not be enough to earn him that plaque in Cooperstown. He had a decent 11.2% showing in his first year on the BBWAA ballot, but dropped to 4.4% in his second year of eligibility and was eliminated from future ballots. When he came up on the veteran committee ballot two years ago, he received no more than four votes at most.
Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images