There should be two, mostly connected though sometimes completely unrelated, goals of every Hall of Fame voter.
First, the voter should attempt to come up with their most objective balance between compiled stats and on the field productivity. Many useful systems, like Jay Jaffe’s JAWS try to put a number on this. By my count, using this method, there are about 12 Hall of Famers on this year’s ballot with three or four just outside, meaning they may well be Hall of Famers and I wouldn’t be upset to see them get in. Using this idea, here’s how I would vote:
*Note: I personally don’t see steroids as something to hold against someone for the Hall of Fame. To me, a player uses every method possible to gain an advantage. If punishments are in place then that’s the player’s price for committing such a crime. Manny, for instance, suffered the consequences of cheating based on the rules of the game. Bonds and Clemens didn’t because they didn’t even break any rules. As such, all three are Hall of Famers. This is the only fair way to assess what players have and have not done to gain unfair advantages. If someone cheated to the degree that their entire career should be tarnished by it then they would have, by current rules, been kicked out of the game before amassing careers worthy of the Hall of Fame. Any other method of choosing Hall of Famers is, in my eyes, purely self-righteous.
In the second approach, the one that is more difficult to defend but one which has been used by most voters throughout history is the “Eyeball Test” or the ‘He felt like a Hall of Famer” method. This one, while more dubious, is actually perfectly valid because baseball is as much a narrative, a part of the fabric of American culture and a myth as it is a statistic-compiling game. If you remove the lure of the game you lose at least 50% of why anybody would want to experience it. The eyeball test is often mocked by modern baseball writers who see the game as something quantifiable, but I think they do so at the risk of being reductive. Using the eyeball test, this is how I would vote:
As you can see, four players make both lists. To me, those are the surefire Hall of Famers that should get in on every ballot. Not surprisingly, they won’t because they all are clouded by controversy. You can also see that using this method I would only take nine players. Typically, when old school voters vote they use the eyeball test and they pick less guys. They are often called “Small Hall” but really if you are only choosing players that “look like Hall of Famers” your number will always go down. Three of the four crossovers shouldn’t even be on this ballot anymore so the number should actually be closer to five or six total.
Now combining these two methods is where it gets tricky. Never once in their careers could somebody in their right mind trade Trevor Hoffman for Larry Walker. Walker’s dynamism, all-around play and monster numbers were the stuff of video games, while Hoffman played primarily one inning a game, three times a week. So how then can somebody pick Hoffman over Walker for the Hall, even when you consider the not insubstantial but greatly exaggerated park effects helping the right fielder? The only reasonable answer is that Hoffman was an event. He was part of a narrative that was more exciting than anything Walker accomplished. As much as I love Walker, I agree with this.
Hoffman revitlized, if not saved, San Diego baseball. He was the the first guy to 600 saves, becoming one of two preeminent one inning closers in the era of one inning closers. He came out to a kickass theme song that rocked his home stadium virtually every night. He also led his team to their only World Series. Hoffman looked like a Hall of Famer, which is why he will get in.
Two years ago, John Smoltz got into the Hall of Fame almost entirely because he had the narrative. And he absolutely deserved it. Yes, Smoltz was a good pitcher. He was even great at times. He also was a starter then a very, very good closer. That said, he wasn’t as good as Schilling or Mussina by any serious measure. Smoltz got in because the Atlanta Braves of the 90s were one of the best teams in the history of baseball and they were led by an unheard core of three starting pitchers: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and… John Smoltz. You can’t have two without the third. Smoltz had to go in because he was part of the fabric of a story. If he was the same pitcher on the Oakland A’s he may never be a Hall of Famer. But he wasn’t, he was a Brave so he was first ballot. He got there as much because Glavine and Maddux spent their speeches talking about how he would follow them in as anything. If you accept Smoltz as a Hall of Famer then you have to accept Hoffman .
I would make similar arguments for Posada, who anchored four world champions by being a unique switch hitting catcher in the sport’s biggest market. Similarly, Jeff Kent was a competitive personality on good teams, who played a premium position. He was the ying to Barry Bonds’ yang and nobody commanded attention like Bonds. That Kent was a substantial wingman (think Pippen and Worthy) always made him feel like a Hall of Famer to me. Sammy Sosa hit over 60 home runs in three seasons (three!) and was part of the most historic chase in baseball history, he’s an easy one. Guerrero looked more like a Hall of Famer than perhaps any player in the past 15 years. Stories of him hitting balls off his shoe tops and throwing out runners from the warning track were seemingly a nightly occurrence. He was always in the batting race, home run race and RBI chase. He was the kind of player you paid to see.
So how do you adequately mesh the feel of the game with the fact of the game if you decide that both are of equal importance? For me, there was only one way. Go through every viable candidate and pit them against every other candidate one by one, asking a simple question: Who would I have taken when accounting for everything from WAR to the spectacle of entrance music? Here’s where I landed:
When I started this exercise I never imagined leaving Ivan Rodriguez or Edgar Martinez off and including two guys that I didn’t even consider fringe candidates like Sosa and Hoffman. But alas, when factoring in narrative, I couldn’t say with a straight face that I would take the former over the latter. I swapped in Walker, Bagwell and Raines because I believe they were close to the best at their positions for years and also, for a time, had strong narratives.
Manny Ramirez is one of the most colorful players in history. He was also the best hitter on two of the best teams from the late 90s into the 2000s, leading the Indians to the brink of a title and breaking the curse with the BoSox in 2004. Yes, he has the steroid shadow. It’s part of his story. It’s part of our baseball story. He’s a Hall of Famer.
If I had a ballot those are my ten.
As of this writing, roughly 50% of the ballots are known on Ryan Thibodaux’s tracker and the percentages are as follows:
For the sake of clearing ballot glut, we have to hope four or five guys get elected this year. That isn’t happening. The worst case is that only Raines and Bagwell get in, which wouldn’t be so bad. If I had to guess, Hoffman will also get in, seeing as private ballot/”small hall” guys tend to like his narrative and closers in general (as I explained).
Vladimir Guerrero is a bit of a wild card. His total is strong so far and he has no real knocks against his candidacy such as steroid suspicion, ballpark effects or defensive inadequacies. It’s possible Vlad sneaks in, but I doubt it. I would be shocked if I-Rod got in this year. The unaccounted for voters are more likely to hold steroid suspicions against him and catchers have a notoriously difficult time getting into the hall. Only Bench has gotten in on first ballot in the last fifty years. I-Rod might finish in the high 60s and still wait a few more years.
Come announcement day, look for Bagwell, Raines and Hoffman to be on their way to Cooperstown.