Maddux, Glavine, Thomas highlight 2014 Hall of Fame ballot
In the wake of Wednesday’s Hall of Fame shutout, many people — including writers in the BBWAA — have called for changes to the voting process. Whether they’re asking for clear direction from the institution and Major League Baseball about how to handle candidates linked to performance-enhancing drugs, elimination of the character clause, additional room on the ballot to list more than 10 candidates, more leeway for first-year candidates who don’t meet the 5.0 percent minimum threshold, or changes to the voting body, there are no shortage of ideas out there, many of them good ones.
Thus far, the institution itself sounds disinclined to change the process. Said Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson in the wake of the BBWAA’s failure to elect a candidate, “Obviously, no one in Cooperstown was rooting for a shutout, but we have a great respect for the process. . . . We remain very confident and very comfortable with the electorate, as well as the guidelines we give [them].”
One year without a new honoree may be considered a statement about an era rife with PED use or simply an historical aberration (it hasn’t happened since 1996, and the last time before that was 1971). Continued logjams would increase the likelihood of the Hall taking action, as it did in the past decade, when the Veterans Committee pitched three straight shutouts and then added just one more old-time player over the next two cycles. Any change to the voting body — to include broadcasters, MLB.com writers, historians, BBWAA members with less than 10 years — is bound to encounter tremendous resistance, whether from outside the BBWAA or within.
The most likely change may be in stripping the voting privileges from writers who haven’t covered baseball in a long time; once a voter reaches 10 years of consecutive service with a BBWAA-affiliated outfit, he or she is allowed to vote even after moving on to cover another sport or retire to an armchair. Another idea less likely to encounter fierce resistance is the limit of 10 votes per candidate, which is completely arbitrary and connected to an era when Major League Baseball had about half as many players.
Meanwhile, the ballot will only grow more crowded. Of the 37 candidates on this year’s slate, 18 received more than 5.0 percent of the vote, and 17 of those 18 — all but Dale Murphy — still have at least a year of eligibility left. Joining that group will be a class of newcomers nearly as distinguished as this year’s crop, though perhaps less polarizing and certainly with fewer connections to performance-enhancing drugs. No fewer than 28 players are eligible to be nominated based upon the basic criteria (10 years in the majors with at least one game played, five years since last appearing in the majors), though some of them will not survive the initial process to reach the ballot (Jose Vidro? Joe Borowski? Shawn Estes?). A quick rundown of the top candidates:
• Greg Maddux (101.6 career WAR/54.7 peak WAR/78.2 JAWS) Maddux has been called “the Smartest Pitcher Who Ever Lived,” a four-time Cy Young award winner who racked up 355 wins, the most of any right-handed pitcher since World War II. Maddux didn’t overpower hitters in the manner of Roger Clemens, but he did have impeccable control, posting the league’s lowest walk rate nine times. He led the league in ERA four times, threw at least 199 1/3 innings for 17 straight seasons (1988-2006) even with the 1994-1995 players’ strike, and helped the Cubs, Braves and Dodgers to 13 postseason appearances, three pennants and one world championship. With a JAWS that ranks ninth among all starting pitchers (average 67.9/47.7/57.8) and third among those since World War II behind Clemens and Tom Seaver, he should sail into the Hall easily.
• Tom Glavine (76.8/42.6/59.7) Maddux’s teammate with the Braves for a decade was the prototypical crafty lefty, a pitcher who didn’t dominate but could spot his fastball wherever he pleased, and expand the umpire’s strike zone to an impressive (or maddening, depending upon your point of view) degree. He racked up 305 wins, reaching 20 in a season five times, and took home two Cy Young awards while helping the Braves reach 11 consecutive postseasons (1991-2002, interrupted by the 1994 strike), five pennants and one championship. His peak wasn’t all that high — it’s actually five wins below the standard for Hall starters — but he was exceptionally durable, and his JAWS exceeds the standard; he ranks 32nd among all starting pitchers, 17th among postwar ones. He won’t be an automatic choice, given that voters have deferred on 300 game winners in the past, but it’s quite possible that the writers will elect him so he can go in alongside his longtime teammate.
• Mike Mussina (78.2/42.4/60.3) The Moose is two spots above Glavine in the JAWS rankings, with a similar above-career/below-peak shape to his line. In an 18-year career split between the Orioles and Yankees, he notched 270 wins, including 20 in his final season, and helped his teams to nine postseason appearances and two pennants. He’ll have a tougher road to Cooperstown than the Braves’ pair given “only” five All-Star appearances and the lack of a Cy Young award; he finished second to Pedro Martinez in 1999, but in the top five six times. Mussina’s trajectory could parallel that of the Cy-less Curt Schilling, who debuted with 38.8 percent of the ballot this year, setting him up for a long, slow climb to 75 percent.
• Frank Thomas (69.7/43.7/56.7) A two-time MVP who inspired so much fear in opposing pitchers that he drew over 100 walks 10 times, “The Big Hurt” was one of the best hitters of the era. He won two MVPs, one batting title, led his league in on-base percentage four times and in slugging percentage once and finished his career with a .301/.419/.555 line and 521 homers. Even after adjusting for his hitter-friendly surroundings, that comes out to a .331 True Average, good for 13th among hitters with at least 9,000 plate appearances, a cutoff that still includes Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle. While his oversized body and gaudy numbers will cause at least a few whispers about PED use, Thomas is the one player who willingly spoke to Senator George Mitchell for the 2007 Mitchell Report. He did spent more of his time as a designated hitter than as a first baseman, but he’ll be compared to the latter group, among whom he ranks ninth, well above the Hall standards across the board (62.3/40.7/51.5).
• Jeff Kent (51.9/34.1/43.0) A five-time All-Star who won NL MVP honors in 2000, Kent got a bit of a late start to his career; he didn’t debut in the majors until age 24, didn’t reach 500 plate appearances in a season until age 25, and didn’t begin to shine until he was traded three times and landed with the Giants at age 29. He provided considerable pop for a middle infielder, batting .290/.356/.500 with 377 homers, including a record 351 as a second baseman. He helped his team reach the playoffs seven times, and hit .276/.340/.500 with nine homers in October. For all of that, Kent’s merits are stronger in the traditional sense than in the sabermetric one due to subpar defense, which weighs down his WAR totals; he ranks just 18th among second basemen, well behind ballot-mate Craig Biggio (13th) as well as fellow contemporary Roberto Alomar (12th). He’ll persist on the ballot for a long time, and could eventually get voted into Cooperstown, but he’s no automatic choice.
Beyond that quintet are a couple of outfielders who bopped over 300 homers in Luis Gonzalez and Moises Alou, as well as another pitcher who stuck around long enough to win 219 games and enjoy a late-career rebirth in Kenny Rogers. Even so, none of the remaining candidates comes close enough in terms of either traditional or sabermetric merits to garner too much support from voters.
The holdovers who will suffer — or benefit — the most are those who played the same position as the above five, inviting easy comparisons. Biggio’s chances of being elected should be helped by the direct comparison to Kent, while the bids of Schilling and Jack Morris (who’s in his final year of eligibility) could be hurt by the presence of Maddux and Glavine, or even the crowding by Mussina. Given his home run totals and PED-free reputation, Thomas could make things harder for birthday twin Jeff Bagwell as well as fellow designated masher Edgar Martinez, who outhit him substantially in the DH role. The sheer presence of more strong candidates will make it harder for Mike Piazza and Tim Raines, both of whom received more than 50 percent of the vote, though the first-ballot squeamishness holding Piazza back should dissipate.
With Clemens and Barry Bonds still on the ballot, interested parties will still make a great deal of noise regarding PEDs, but the volume should be lower than during the most recent cycle. Hopefully, a bit more distance from a messy era will put things in better perspective, but deep divides remain within the electorate, and there will be no shortage of debate.