Jay has the Hall of Fame pretty well locked down around these parts with his outstanding JAWS system, which almost invariably supports the opinion I already held about a player's Hall-worthiness. Still, in this dead period between year-end holidays, with many actual voters writing about their ballots or patrolling twitter and blogs for additional arguments, I thought I'd offer my take on this year's ballot.
Rather than offer my yeahs or nays, which matter not as I don't have an actual vote, I thought I'd try to rank the candidates, not necessarily in order of the strength of their cases, but in a sort of linear logic tree that allows each of you reading this to decide where your cut-off for the Hall would be this year. The idea behind the following list is that a vote for a given player on the list would, by my logic, necessitate a vote for every player above that player on the list.
That's fairly clear-cut, but it still requires a bit of a preamble in that I wasn't entirely sure how to treat two types of players: steroid users and closers. Among the former, this ballot includes Rafael Palmeiro, who tested positive for stanozolol in 2005, Mark McGwire, who admitted earlier this year that he took steroids during a large portion of his career, Kevin Brown, who connected to human growth hormone and Deca-Durabolin in Mitchell Report, and Benito Santiago, whom the FBI identified during the BALCO investigation as a recipient of anabolic steroids. Also on this ballot are Juan Gonzalez and Bret Boone, whom Jose Canseco accused of using steroids in his book Juiced (Gonzalez was also named in the Mitchell Report, albeit without any meaningful evidence), and Jeff Bagwell, who has never been formally connected with performance enhancing drugs but nonetheless has drawn suspicion due solely to his appearance and performance.
As it stands, I penalized only McGwire and Palmeiro, the only two with official confessions/convictions (Palmeiro was suspended for ten days following his positive test) and did so only slightly, diminishing their candidacies rather than disqualifying them. My general take on the subject is that steroid use was so prevalent in the game that ruling out the players who have been outed is no more fair than weighing their performance equally with that of non-users (as if any player could be definitively proven to have never used). That said, your mileage may vary. While I may feel that a vote for Roberto Alomar necessitates a vote for Barry Larkin, I won't argue that a vote for a player ranked below McGwire necessitates a vote for McGwire if that is against your beliefs about how admitted dopers should be handled.
Closers are another matter entirely. One argument against penalizing designated hitters for their lack of defensive contributions is that DH is a position that has to be filled and it's no more fair to rule out designated hitters than it is to rule out left fielders. The same cannot be said for closers. "Closer" is a role, not a position. The Hall of Fame has no more need for a representative sample of closers than it does for a representative sample of pinch-hitters, set-up men, or defensive replacements, three roles which are completely unrepresented in the 293-member Hall. Though there are five relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame, each of whom served as his era's version of today's closer (and one of whom, Dennis Eckersley, set the modern standard), I've chosen to treat the two closers on this years ballot, Lee Smith and John Franco, relatively harshly, ranking them according to their raw value rather than giving them special treatment for excelling in their specific roles.
With that out of the way, here's my list:
Among the saber-friendly, I'm probably one of the least enthusiastic Blyleven supporters, and that has entirely to do with how I regarded Blyleven as a kid looking at the back of baseball cards rather than how I regard him as an adult and a professional baseball writer and analyst. That said, there's no particularly strong argument for keeping Blyleven out beyond such subjective evaluations as "the sniff test" and "feel" or a total misinterpretation of his career numbers. I don't think Blyleven is the top candidate for the Hall on this year's ballot, but I do think he's the one guy you can vote for without voting for anyone else without appearing hypocritical.
To me, these three are all deserving Hall of Famers for the same reasons. All three combined speed, defense, and production at the plate to rank among the very best at their respective middle-infield positions. There's nothing than any of them are missing. All three won Gold Gloves, world championships, and had MVP-quality seasons (Larkin won in 1995, Trammell should have won in 1987, when he finished second, and would have been deserving in the Tigers' championship season of 1984, when he finished ninth, and Alomar finished in the top-four in the voting in two of his three years with Cleveland). Trammell suffers some for having lost out on that 1987 MVP and having played in the same league as a young Cal Ripken and Robin Yount, but he ranks second out of the three in career WAR, according to Baseball-Reference, and Fangraph's WAR produces these charts, showing how closely matched the careers of all three players were. A vote for one, in my opinion, necessitates a vote for the other two. I've thus ranked them in reverse order of their 2010 vote totals as a way of telling all of those Alomar supporters that they need to vote for Larkin and Trammell as well.
Bagwell only played 15 years, but he hit the ground running with a .294/.387/.437 line in 650 plate appearances as a rookie in 1991 and only played one year in which he failed to qualify for the batting title or post an OPS+ above league average, that being his final, injury-shortened campaign in 2005. His lack of those off-peak partial seasons that typically bookend a career likely cost him the 51 home runs that would have given him 500 and made him more of a lock. Some will mark him down for being a slugging first baseman in an offense-heavy era full of them, but he not only was an outstanding all-around player who won a Gold Glove and stole 202 bases at a solid clip, but also played his home games at the pitching-friendly Astrodome for nine of his 14 full seasons.
I have to admit, I'm shocked at how little support Raines has received. In direct contrast to Blyleven, who admittedly did his best pitching before I was paying attention, Raines always seemed like a lock for the Hall to me both as a kid and an adult. Jay said it best in his recent look at the ex-Yankees on the ballot:
The combination of his ability to get on base (.385 career OBP) with his skills and smarts as a baserunner (an MLB-best 84.7 percent success rate in stolen bases) made him a valuable and criminally underappreciated player throughout his career. Had he reached 3,000 hits, he’d be a lock; as it is, he collected 2,605 of them while walking another 1330 times, enough to reach base more often and gain more bases than 3,000 Hit Club member Tony Gwynn, a direct contemporary. Raines ranks fifth all-time [in JAWS] among left fielders behind Barry Bonds, Stan Musial, Ted Williams and Rickey Henderson, and he absolutely should be in the Hall of Fame.
Which, by my logic here, means that Blyleven, Bagwell, Alomar, Larkin, and Trammell absolutely should be in as well.
This is the "yes, but" group. Walker was great, but he played at Coors Field. Martinez was great, but he was a DH. Palmeiro put up great numbers, but had a positive steroid test and doesn't pass the sniff-test. McGwire was great, but spent most of his career on steroids and is a symbolic player for that aspect of his era. I look at it this way, take away the steroids, and McGwire's career is clearly that of a Hall of Famer, and if you forgive McGwire the steroids, you have to forgive Palmeiro, and, sniff test or no, I just can't find a way to discount 569 home runs and 3,020 hits. Palmeiro wasn't a typical slugger of the era. He only struck out 100 times once and walked more than he struck out on his career. He never had a mind-blowing season, but he was tremendously consistent at a very high level, not unlike Eddie Murray (or Harold Baines on steroids if you prefer a more cynical comparison). I'm not forgiving either for their drug use here, which is why they rank below Martinez and Walker, who lack the impressive career numbers of those toxic twins.
In 1992, before the post-strike offensive explosion, Edgar Martinez hit .343/.404/.544, won the batting title, and started 102 games at third base. That was his third and final season as an insanely productive third baseman. His best seasons thereafter came as a DH, but what seasons! From 1995 to 2001, a span of seven seasons, he hit .329/.446/.574. Compare that to the best seven-year stretch of Bagwell's career, when he hit .309/.433/.593 from 1994 to 2000. Deduct from Edgar's case for the fact that he didn't play the field during those seasons, or for the fact that a late start and the injuries that pushed him to DH limited his career totals, but don't deny that he had a Hall of Fame bat.
Of course, if you vote for Edgar despite his position and modest career totals (309 homers, though he was really more of a doubles hitter, and 2,247 hits), you have to vote for Walker (383 homers, 2,160 hits), who proved as an Expo and Cardinal that he was more than a mile-high phenomenon, and who was also a fine baserunner (230 steals at a 75 percent success rate), and an outstanding fielder (seven Gold Gloves), but also struggled with injuries during his career.
Depending on the day and my mood, I draw my line somewhere in or around the previous group of four, that puts McGriff and Brown at the top of my "not-quite" list. McGriff was very good for a long time and is somewhat underrated because he did his best work before the post-strike homer explosion, but he also hit nearly half of his 493 career homers after the strike. On my most generous days, when I think about the impact he had with the Braves in 1993, I can see voting for him, but those days are few and far between. Brown is a similar case with a stronger peak, but a less consistent overall career, in part due to injuries, in part due to being a late-bloomer. In his 1996 to 2003 peak (six full seasons and two partial ones from ages 31 to 38), Brown went 109-58 (.653) with a 2.60 ERA (158 ERA+), a 1.08 WHIP, and a 3.79 K/BB, and in the modern era in which wins have less effect on the Cy Young voting, he would have earned significantly more votes, though perhaps still fallen short of an actual award.
A greatly underrated player, Olerud had two out-of-his-mind seasons amid a strong career as a slick-fielding, doubles-hitting first baseman who walked 259 times more than he struck out in his career and posted a career .398 on-base percentage. Olerud also drew 157 career intentional walks, which is damn impressive for a hitter with just 255 career home runs. In fact, here's the list of IBB leaders among players with fewer than 300 career homers:
1. Tony Gwynn (203)
2. Rusty Staub (193)
3. Ted Simmons (188)
4. Wade Boggs (180)
5. Pete Rose (167)
6. Roberto Clemente (167)
7. John Olerud (157)
8. Ichiro Suzuki (155)
9. Will Clark (155)
10. Tim Raines (148)
These three are similar in that all three were great in their best seasons, but their careers fall off significantly from that peak for a variety of reasons, Mattingly's back and Parker's recreational drug use being the most famous. Murphy was the most consistent of the bunch, Parker experienced the sharpest drop-off from his top six seasons (as per this FanGraphs graph). Don Mattingly supporters, note that it's virtually impossible to promote Mattingly for the Hall without also doing so for Murphy, Olerud, and McGriff, etc.
Baines and Morris were consistently above average and good for a long time, but neither was ever great for a full season. Morris never posted a single-season ERA below 3.00, a WHIP below 1.10, or a K/BB above 3.00. His best season was 1986, when he went 21-8 with a 3.27 ERA (127 ERA+), 223 strikeouts against 82 walks (7.5 K/9, 2.76 K/BB), finished 15 games and pitched a major-league best six shutouts. The only category he ever led the league in more than twice was wild pitches. Baines never hit 30 home runs or had an OPS above 1.000 and he only led his league in one major statistical category once, doing so with a .541 slugging percentage in 1984. Selecting Baines' best season is extremely difficult to do given just how consistently-very-good-yet-never-great he was, but a common candidate was his 1991 season for the pennant-winning A's in which he hit .295/.383/.473 with 20 homers and 90 RBIs. Baines hit .324/.378/.510 in the postseason. Morris went 7-4 with a 3.80 ERA, though he was at 7-2 with a 2.60 ERA before his poor final postseason in 1992 with the Blue Jays. I put Baines above Morris here because he was more consistently very good for longer.
Gonzalez was a suspected steroid user who played in a offense-friendly park in an offense-friendly era, was of little use outside of the batter's box, and was finished as a full-time player at the age of 32. He also didn't get on base nearly as much as he needed to to be a truly elite run producer. Gonzalez never drew as many as 45 unintentional walks in a season and his top on-base percentage was .378. His career mark of .343 wasn't crippling, in large part because Gonzalez did hit for solid averages (.295 career, five times at .310 or above), but coming from an offense-only right fielder and DH, it significantly undermines a career that didn't need to be further undermined.
Leiter's career didn't really get going until he was 29, which makes it darn impressive that he's this high on this list. From 1995 to 2004, Leiter went 133-99 with a 3.46 ERA (123 ERA+), made a couple of All-Star teams, picked up a few stray Cy Young votes, threw a no-hitter, and pitched some memorable playoff games, including a two-hit shutout of the Reds in a one-game playoff for the 1999 NL Wild Card and his 142-pitch magnum opus in a losing effort against the Yankees in the final game of the 2000 World Series.
With the staggering exception of Mariano Rivera, closers simply can't measure up to starting pitchers or everyday players in terms of raw value. Consider that among all pitchers since 1980, all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman ranks 56th in Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement, between Jose Rijo and Sid Fernandez, a pair of pitchers who, combined, received three Hall of Fame votes, which seems like a lot given that two of them were for Fernandez. Hoffman, meanwhile, seems like a shoo-in.
Smith follows El Sid on that WAR list, a spot above Andy Benes. Franco ranks another 23 spots lower, between Jarrod Washburn and Ramon Martinez (Leiter, by comparison, is 35th, Kevin Brown is eighth). Smith, the man whose career saves record Hoffman broke, is likely overrated, but Franco is actually a bit underrated. Not only is he fourth on the all-time saves list, but he pitched through the steroid era and emerged with a career ERA of 2.89. That puts him 18th on the all-time ERA+ list in a tie with Cy Young, of all people, at 138. Of course, Young threw nearly six times as many innings, I certainly don't mean to draw any real comparison there, but limiting the career ERA+ leaders to qualified relievers only (minimum 1,000 innings pitched) gives you this list:
1. Mariano Rivera (205)
t5. Dan Quisenberry (147)
t5. Hoyt Wilhelm (147)
14. Trevor Hoffman (141)
t17. John Franco (138)
t19. Bruce Sutter (136)
t26. John Hiller (134)
t31. Lee Smith (132)
t31. Kent Tekulve (132)
These are all first-time candidates who are long-shots to even survive to next year's ballot. I've put them in order (a vote for Tino does necessitate a vote for Grissom), but I'll spare you any further analysis. If you really, really want to know why I put Carlos Baerga above Bobby Higginson, feel free to pipe up in comments, via email, or on twitter, but I can't imagine the answer is worth the effort.