JAWS and the 2014 Hall of Fame Ballot: My 10 (very hard) choices
There’s no such thing as a perfect Hall of Fame ballot. That’s particularly true this year. Due to a backlog of qualified candidates — one that’s years in the making, and only partially due to the split within the electorate over how to handle those linked to performance-enhancing drugs — the 2014 BBWAA slate contains more viable enshrinees than an individual voter can fit into his or her allotted 10 slots. More than at any time since the return of annual balloting in 1966, even. Having spent weeks laying out the hard choices that the voters face, it’s time to winnow the field down to 10 for my own ballot.
Officially, I don’t have one. While I’m a member of the BBWAA, I’m still seven long years away from being allowed to vote. Thankfully, the hours I put into my annual ballot reviews has translated into voters as esteemed as Peter Gammons and Ken Rosenthal incorporating my work into their individual thought processes, and they’re hardly alone.
In any case, I can illustrate the difficulty of the task voters face by undertaking the exercises necessary to slim my virtual ballot down to fighting shape. Of the 36 candidates, 14 exceed the JAWS standard at their position. Nine top the career, peak and JAWS standards across the board, five more exceed the standard in two of those three categories, and one other does so in one category (denoted by the bold numbers below). Ranking the players by the margin between their JAWS and the standard at their position yields the following (see below for an explanation of the “Class” column):
I’m not going to rehash the individual cases; if you’ve missed any, see here. There’s no Jack Morris, Lee Smith or Jeff Kent among my bunch, since all fall shorter of the standards at their positions than any of the above.
Note that I’ve included two players in that table who don’t meet the standard in any of the three categories, Biggio and McGwire. The former, who spent significant parts of his career as a catcher and an outfielder, is within a few runs of the combined standard for up-the-middle players (65.7/42.0/53.9) and has 3,000 hits, a qualification that more or less guarantees him a spot in Cooperstown anyway. Ironically, had he not tumbled to an awful -2.1 WAR final season as he surpassed 3,000, he would top that standard on career and JAWS fronts.
McGwire is very close to the first base standard (64.9/42.2/53.5) on peak, and his JAWS score exceeds the median among enshrined first basemen, which is what’s illustrated in that far-right column labeled Class. Last year, I examined the ballot in light of a nearly-annual request from a small subset of readers that I used the median score instead of the mean; I called those players whose scores exceeded the median but not the mean Class 1, those who exceeded the mean Class 2 and those who exceeded the mean using only BBWAA selections — thus eliminating from comparative consideration any player elected via the Old Timers or Veterans Committees — Class 3.
Rather than clutter this column up with another table showing those benchmarks, I’ve posted them here. I’ll add only that the wider variation in scores from position to position is one reason why I’ve rejected this process. Among this group, McGwire is the only Class 1; meanwhile there are eight Class 2 players and six Class 3 players. In other words, that alternative way of looking at the field isn’t enough to help me pare down to 10, which means that I have to start making some hard choices.
First off, it’s quite reasonable to exclude Palmeiro, one of four players with 3,000 hits and 500 homers but the only player on the ballot suspended for failing a drug test. The alleged infractions of the other candidates connected to PEDs date to the period before Major League Baseball introduced its testing regimen, and as I’ve written several times (including at length in the Baseball Prospectus book Extra Innings), I strongly believe that’s a distinction worth making; I’m not going to penalize players when MLB did not. Note that if I were to go the “law and order” route to eliminate not only Palmeiro but also Bonds, Clemens, Sosa and McGwire, that would still leave me 12 candidates.
It’s tempting to save two spots by eliminating Bonds and Clemens, not only the ballot’s most controversial players, but two unlikely to go over the top this year given their debuts last year at 36.02 and 37.6 percent, respectively. However, the PED distinction I’ve laid out above is a principle worth standing by, particularly given the two players’ otherwise overwhelming credentials. Speaking of such credentials, I could take a game-theory approach and save myself a slot by not voting for Maddux, since he’s a lock to get in anyway, but I’m not a fan of a strategy that perverts the process so drastically.
Particularly in this crowd, it isn’t even necessary to invoke PEDs when it comes to McGwire and Sosa given where they are in relation to the JAWS standards. I can drop them from my ballot without guilt, bringing the field down to 14. The good news is that leaves me only 1,001 separate combinations of 10 candidates to weed through.
If I were to base my vote on the top 10 players according to either career WAR or peak WAR, that would eliminate Piazza, Biggio, Raines and Martinez, but Piazza’s a catcher — the best-hitting one ever, by the way — who can’t be compared to the rest of the slate without adjusting for that (a mistake one well-intentioned voter made last year). That he, Raines and Martinez still clear their respective position standards on all three fronts can’t be ignored, which is all the more reason to reject either tack. If I draw the line at the top 10 by margin, that eliminates Glavine, Martinez, Walker and Biggio, which at least accounts for a player’s standing relative to position, though it leaves out two of the most high-profile candidates, one with more than 300 wins, the other with more than 3,000 hits.
By my measures, it’s clear that despite his hit total, an outstanding career that included seven All-Star appearances and last year’s highest percentage of the vote (68.2 percent), Biggio has less justification for a vote than the others remaining. As much as I hate to exclude any of “my” 14 players, I’m starting with him.
Next — and this one is even more agonizing — comes Trammell, who in his 13th year on the ballot but has never exceeded 36.8 percent of the vote, less than half of what he needs for enshrinement. Statistically, he belongs in the class with the great ’80s shortstops who are already enshrined (Cal Ripken, Robin Yount, Ozzie Smith), and his case is the equal of 2012 enshrinee Barry Larkin, but he has no chance of gaining entry via the BBWAA before his eligibility runs out. If I’m treating this vote as real, I’d prefer to use it on one of “my” players who actually has a legitimate chance at gaining election. That such an assertion runs counter to my elimination of Biggio only points out how garbled this process has become. In any event, those cuts trim my list to 12.
Speaking of cuts, this is about as much fun as deciding which toes I’d prefer to lop off to fit into my shoes, at least if I were among the extra-digitally gifted. Come to think of it, I may have been accused of that at some point in my long history of ballot evaluations.
At this point, the logic I’ve adhered to throughout this process strongly suggests the top six players from the table above — Bonds, Clemens, Maddux, Bagwell, Piazza and Thomas — should have my vote. Not only do they clear the bar by the widest margin, they rank among the top 10 all-time at their positions. Given that Raines ranks eighth among leftfielders, and has been on the ballot the longest from among my remaining options, he gets my vote as well. So that’s seven spots spoken for, leaving me five players to consider for three spots.
Spoiler alert: it’s darts from here on out. Among the pitchers, Glavine has the wins, the two Cy Youngs and the position as a pillar in the Braves’ dynasty. Schilling has the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in modern history and the best postseason resume of any pitcher this side of Bob Gibson. Mussina has 270 wins, a top-20 strikeout total and the second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio in modern history, not to mention a strong postseason resume. The Moose may be out of the woods with regard to my original concern of him dropping off by receiving less than five percent; based upon last year’s vote total, he needs 29 to survive, and he’s already received public support from 27 voters who say they included him, that from a sample representing around 14.0 percent of the electorate.
As for the two remaining hitters, Martinez not only has a case as the best designated hitter in history but accrued enough value even given the significant DH penalty built into WAR to surpass the average enshrined third baseman. Walker was a fantastic hitter who put up eye-popping numbers and won an MVP award, though both were aided by playing in high-altitude Colorado. WAR adjusts for the scoring environment in which he played, and while he clears both the peak and JAWS bars, his shorter career and problems staying healthy, which together limited him to just 8,030 total plate appearances, make him the easiest of the remaining players to eliminate. Which isn’t saying much, particularly given that I fear that he’s in danger of missing the five percent cutoff. He has banked just nine of 80 published votes so far, though his percentage of support has been in the low 20s in his previous three years. He made my ballot by the skin of his teeth last year, but this time, he’s off.
Eliminating Walker leaves four candidates for three spots. As strong a candidate as Schilling is, the current reality is that in his second year of eligibility, he isn’t going to surge from last year’s 38.8 percent to anything close to 75 percent, nor will he disappear from the ballot. Thus he’s my final cut, leaving my ballot as follows:
On: Bagwell, Bonds, Clemens, Glavine, Maddux, Martinez, Mussina, Piazza, Raines, Thomas
Off, with sincere regrets: Biggio, Schilling, Trammell, Walker
I don’t even have an official vote, and while I’m proud of my 10 selections, it still pains me not to give the thumbs-up to four candidates whom I supported last year — or in Trammell’s case, have supported since before JAWS had a name — and have recommended without reservation this time around as well. That’s the way it crumbles, cookiewise.
I know many voters have faced similar quandaries. I can only hope that by next year, the BBWAA and the Hall of Fame have reached an agreement to expand beyond 10 spots, because with Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Gary Sheffield newly eligible, this problem isn’t going away anytime soon.