MLB Hall of Fame: In or Out, an in-Depth Look at the Top 20 Candidates
Jeff Bagwell belongs in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. There should be no doubt. He deserved to be a first-ballot entrant. The brevity of his career cut into his counting numbers a bit, but based on rates, Bagwell was 49 percent better than the average batter of his time. Only spurious suspicion about PED use has kept him on the outside looking in thus far.
That's a shame, too, because there are some perfectly good debates to be had about Hall of Fame candidates this season, and the lunacy of steroid Salemites has forced us to have this stupid one instead. Tim Raines, Larry Walker, Edgar Martinez, Barry Larkin, Alan Trammell, Dale Murphy, Don Mattingly and Bernie Williams all present opportunities for much more enjoyable arguments than Bagwell does.
Let's have them. Here is a breakdown of the candidacy of each of the top 20 players vying for enshrinement this winter, with verdicts on each man. Is he in, or out?
20. Vinny Castilla
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The Case in Favor: Six times in his career, Castilla belted more than 30 home runs in a season. That included three 40-homer campaigns. From 1995-99, he averaged .302/.348/.545, 38 home runs and 112 RBI per year. By reputation, he was also a fine defensive third baseman.
The Case Against: For one thing, Castilla never walked enough. He averaged fewer than 40 walks per year's work at the plate, and that led to an unimpressive .321 lifetime on-base percentage. For another, he had all his productive seasons with the Colorado Rockies in the 1990s, when a line of, say, .319/.362/.589 with 46 home runs and 144 driven in (his 1998 season) was good, but not great.
There's a bit of bad luck here from Castilla's perspective: He was a late bloomer, and by the time he left Colorado, his prime years were spent. Had he been 29 when the Rockies dealt him to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, he might have had a fine few seasons outside of Denver and had a more impressive resume. He was 32 when the trade actually happened, though, and he never hit as well away from Coors Field.
Verdict: Out. Way out.
19. Javy Lopez
The Case In Favor: From 1996 to 2000, Lopez was a top-tier offensive catcher. He had 20-homer pop, contact skills and a solid batting average during that peak. He collected 13 hits and 24 total bases in 28 plate appearances during the seven-game NLCS in 1996.
In a later phase of his career, Lopez also put together one of the great offensive seasons by a catcher. He batted .328/.378/.687 with 43 home runs in 2003, at age 32.
The Case Against: Lopez's peak was short and insufficiently stellar to merit serious Cooperstown consideration. His .337 OBP turned no heads during the era in which he played. He had several fine seasons, but he finished about 11 percent better for his career than the average batter. That's a valuable catcher, but not a Hall of Famer.
18. Lee Smith
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The Case in Favor: Smith once held the all-time saves record. He was a dominant closer in the 1980s, especially from 1982-90. Over that span, his ERA was 40 percent better than league average, he averaged roughly 30 saves per year, he struck out more than a batter per inning and he issued fewer than a third as many unintentional walks.
It's important, when examining Smith, to differentiate between his total walks and his unintentional totals. During those nine key years, he took orders from the dugout to issue 67 intentional free passes. That made up over 20 percent of his walks overall, which obviously inflated his rates. It also likely inflated his ERA, since that many intentional passes couldn't possibly have been the correct choice.
Based on Win Probability Added, which accounts for a batter's and a pitcher's contributions to winning games for their teams and considers the impact of each plate appearance, Smith was better than Hall of Fame closers Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter.
The Case Against: The best argument in Smith's favor was a record that now stands utterly in ruin. It has been broken by both Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera, and each has something like 30 percent more career saves than had Smith.
The writers have always been firmly lukewarm on Smith; he has garnered at least 36.6 percent of the vote in all nine of his years on the ballot but never more than 47.5 percent. That's not totally unfair. Smith was great, and if Sutter and Fingers and Dennis Eckersley are in, perhaps he should be, too. Then again, I would not have voted for any of those hurlers.
Verdict: Out, if barely.
17. Brian Jordan
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The Case in Favor: Until he hit it rich in the big leagues, Jordan had a second job to help pay the bills. He played defensive back for the Atlanta Falcons. He actually piled up five interceptions and four sacks as an NFL rover in the three partial seasons before he signed a baseball-only mega-deal.
That demonstrates the sort of superior athlete Jordan was. He had only a handful of great offensive seasons, and he finished his career only about five percent better than a league-average batter. He had 25-homer power and some speed, but his physical gifts played best in the outfield. At his peak, from 1995-2002, he averaged 18 runs saved above average in right field, according to the total zone system.
The Case Against: No player has been enshrined in Cooperstown for their defense of a non-premium position since the early days of the Hall's existence, and rightfully so. If Jordan had had a more sustained peak, had stayed healthy and/or had had even a single true breakout season, he could make this interesting, but in virtually every way, he falls short.
16. Juan Gonzalez
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The Case in Favor: Gonzalez won two AL MVP awards, hit 434 career home runs and drove in over 1,400 runs. He finished with a batting line of .295/.343/.561, something like 30 percent above average even after factoring out his home park and league. He put up monstrous numbers at the plate.
The Case Against: Juan Gonzalez and Brian Jordan have the same career WAR, according to Baseball-Reference. That's how bad a defender Gonzalez was. He also didn't walk much, and therefore had a .343 OBP over a career during which the average OBP was .341. Few players in MLB history have had as much success despite being so totally one-dimensional, but that doesn't mean he was so good as to merit induction into the Hall.
Verdict: Out, by more than you might think.
15. Tim Salmon
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The Case in Favor: Salmon had an eight-year peak from 1993-2000, during which he averaged 28 home runs and batted .294/.396/.532. He was a solid defensive center fielder and—it had better not be a primary consideration, but it does matter—an excellent leader. He wasn't dubbed "Mr. Angel" for nothing.
The Case Against: Injuries derailed Salmon early. At his peak, he was very good, but good in a good era for offense. His sparkling eight-year stretch was only 37 percent better than the league average. For context, Larry Walker's bat was worth 40 percent more than that of the average hitter for his whole career. Between lacking longevity and a non-elite peak, Salmon comes up shy.
14. Jack Morris
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The Case in Favor: He won 254 games, and he had some very memorable World Series performances.
The Case Against: Morris failed to even strike out twice as many batters as he faced, despite pitching into the 1990s. His peak came between 1979 and 1987, during which time he still posted a 3.51 ERA and 1.23 WHIP. He threw a great many wild pitches and was more or less a mid-rotation innings eater.
Morris had some great postseason performances, and for many people, that changes things. Not for me. He doesn't deserve half the consideration he seems to get every year.
Verdict: Out as Hell.
13. Don Mattingly
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The Case in Favor: For peak performance and positive contributions through off-field grace and gravitas, Mattingly is a legitimate candidate. He won an MVP award, three Silver Sluggers and nine Gold Gloves. From 1984-89, Mattingly batted .327/.372/.530 and averaged 43 doubles, 27 homers and 114 RBI.
The Case Against: He was a first baseman, which should be taken into account. He never had elite power or elite patience, though, his blend of skills did make him the best all-around batter in the American League in 1984 and 1986.
Mattingly also had zero staying power. He played six seasons past that six-season prime, and during that final phase, he was barely a league-average batter. His power evaporated, and the holes in his game became apparent.
12. Brad Radke
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The Case in Favor: As underrated as Morris was overrated, Radke went virtually unnoticed over a solid 12-year career. He was good his entire career, just never great. His career 4.22 ERA was 13 percent better than average, given the park and league in which Radke achieved it. That's a meaningfully better mark than Morris', which was only five percent better than par.
Radke also had an elite skill. He did not walk batters. Since World War II, in fact, only Bob Tewksbury and Dan Quisenberry walked fewer batters per nine innings pitched. That helped him post a 3.30 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which is excellent.
The Case Against: Radke pitched only 12 seasons. He retired at age 33 due to, basically, a shredded shoulder. He was one of the top three pitchers in the AL just three times, one of the top six just four. He never had an ERA better than 3.48 in a single season. He deserves broader acknowledgement, but not from the Hall.
Verdict: Out, though, it's close.
11. Dale Murphy
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The Case in Favor: Dale Murphy might have been the best outfielder in baseball from 1982-87. He had an OPS 45 percent better than league average over those six seasons, won two NL MVP awards, hit 218 home runs, averaged 90 walks per year and collected five Gold Glove awards in center field.
The Case Against: Murphy did not merely fizzle after his exceptional stretch in his prime. He absolutely self-destructed. From 1988 onward, he was a below-average batter. Crumbling defense forced him to right field. He went from a potential future first-ballot Hall of Famer to a fringe candidate at best.
One other consideration: Murphy was at his best during an era that was a bit of a vacuum for elite players, particularly in the outfield. Cal Ripken, Ryne Sandberg, Robin Yount and Mike Schmidt all were shining stars at the time, but they all played the infield. He didn't ever outperform those paragons, and in the long run, he was outdone even by players whom he was better than at his peak, like Tony Gwynn and Dave Winfield.
10. Bernie Williams
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The Case in Favor: Bernie Williams had eight consecutive great seasons for the New York Yankees from 1995-2002. During that span, he batted .321/.406/.531, averaging over 60 extra-base hits and 100 RBI per campaign. He won a batting title and was on four World Series championship teams.
The Case Against: Those eight seasons were basically the only great ones of Williams' career. He was an overrated fielder and a terrible baserunner. He peaked high and had a very real case as of 2002, but his final four seasons actively hurt his case.
Verdict: Out, though, we're getting there.
9. Fred McGriff
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The Case in Favor: As a lithe, young slugger, McGriff had a seven-year run that set him squarely on the path to greatness. From 1988-94, he had an OPS 55 percent better than average, after adjusting for his home park and league factors.
In my book, he gets extra praise for his ability to carry elite production around with him. He played for three different teams in those seven seasons. For the record, he averaged .288/.390/.545 with 35 homers per year over that stretch.
The batters who had populated the ballot to this point would have stopped right there, but not the Crime Dog. He rises even further on the chart by virtue of having remained consistent for the better part of a decade after his prime phase ended. McGriff hit .284/.367/.482 (19 percent better than average) for four teams in those 10 seasons.
The Case Against: McGriff falls just short of some of the key numbers one hopes to see from a power-oriented first baseman whose case is built on longevity. He fell seven bombs shy of 500, and 10 hits short of 2,500. He didn't win an MVP, and doesn't really have a beef there. McGriff's production was awesome, but it would have been more obviously Hall-worthy at a more futile position.
Verdict: Out, by the absolute narrowest of margins.
8. Mark McGwire
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The Case in Favor: He hit 583 home runs, drew over 1,300 walks and had an OPS 62 percent better than average for his parks and leagues. McGwire was unquestionably the preeminent home run hitter of his era, a four-time home run champion and brief holder of the single-season home run record.
The Case Against: Oh, hey steroids. I was wondering when you'd show up. Yes, McGwire used, and yes, his era was so fraught with use that even the numbers he put up while using were less impressive than they would have been in the average league, historically.
I don't care. There's no evidence that steroids improve hand-eye coordination substantially, and that is the driving force behind most big improvements on the diamond anyway. McGwire probably got more return on his investment in contact lenses than he did on his purchase of steroids and/or HGH.
It's not invalid to argue that players who used should be excluded from Cooperstown, but it's not demonstrably and objectively true, either. I refuse to have sullied an entire era of the game because of the particular substances players used at the time. Babe Ruth never faced an African-American pitcher, traveled coast-to-coast or worried about the media cornering him. As far as I'm concerned, a player should always be compared to his contemporaries, then have his achievements in that arena weighed against history. McGwire passes all my tests.
Verdict: IN, without a blink.
7. Tim Raines
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The Case in Favor: I have a confession to make. I don't know why they called Tim Raines "Rock." They did, though, and that counts for something.
Here's a guess as to why they did so. Raines was solid as a rock, consistent to the core. He had a .400-plus OBP six times, and beat .390 11 times. He stole 808 bases, but he was caught less than a fifth of the time. He finished with a .385 career OBP in two decades' worth of work, during which the average OBP was .331.
The Case Against: Raines was never the best player in his league in a single season, or even over a stretch of a few seasons. That's not really what his candidacy is about, of course, but never having been the very best counts for something—or rather, discounts something.
It would also help if Raines had played more center field, or if he had been a more elite left fielder. The Rickey Henderson/Tony Gwynn argument should help him, but then, those two men each had better peaks and (at one stretch or another) better gloves than those of Raines'.
Verdict: IN, though, after a good deal of hesitation.
6. Rafael Palmeiro
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The Case in Favor: All the boxes on the old-timer laundry list are checked here. Palmeiro hit 569 homers, had 3,020 hits, collected over 1,800 RBI, walked 1,353 times and struck out five times fewer. He finished with a .288/.371/.515 career line.
Palmeiro had a full decade of peak performance at a very high level. He averaged .288/.380/.555 from 1993-2003. Taking out the strike-shortened season of 1994, Palmeiro's homer totals for that time period read thusly: 37, 39, 39, 38, 43, 47, 39, 47, 43, 38. That's consistency.
The Case Against: For one thing, steroids, but as you know, that will not disqualify him for me.
There are other things to examine here, though, and they don't favor Palmeiro. That aforementioned peak decade was impressive, but perhaps it's better described as a "plateau." After all, he certainly never had anything close to a signature season. At his absolute best in 1999, he was not as far ahead of his competition as Mark McGwire was for his entire career.
Palmeiro was also limited to first base and DH, where that peak 138 OPS-plus and 132 career figure don't play all that well. He made good contact for a slugger of his vintage, but he also walked less than would have been ideal. Longevity should not supersede excellence, though, the former is of course meaningless in these debates absent the latter.
Verdict: Out, and a smidgen behind McGriff, even if I went soft.
5. Alan Trammell
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The Case in Favor: Trammell was unpredictable, and his career batting line reads that way. That probably hurt him over the years, as the writers have always responded to neat numbers.
Those writers like when great seasons are bunched together. It's that peak emphasis, the decade of dominance and similar ideas. They also like to see steady improvement, then peak, then decline. It makes the game feel controlled and sensible to them.
Trammell bucked that, and the inability to cluster his best offensive seasons made it too hard for many to process him as a solid, above-average batsman at shortstop. He played sensational defense there, too, and his best years were those (like 1987) in which he put it all together.
The Case Against: Trammell was not an offensive star per se, though, he certainly had an elite bat for the position he played. Still, it's tough to look at a career 110 OPS-plus and see a shoo-in to Cooperstown. One needs to buy into the value of Trammell's defense, and because he played before TV ruled the game so pervasively, there is a problem of probative evidence.
Verdict: If Larkin, then Trammell. IN.
4. Edgar Martinez
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The Case in Favor: Getting on base 42.6 percent of the time for 14 years has value. That's the primary premise of Martinez's Hall of Fame argument. To those who believe a DH must be especially excellent to reach Cooperstown, Martinez can confidently reply that from 1990-2003 he had a .426 OBP and batted .317. His OPS-plus was 153 for 14 years. That should meet the standard, even as a DH.
The Case Against: It is hard to mean as much to one's team if one does not play the field well, and harder still if they don't play the field at all. Martinez loses a bit through that argument, but he loses more through comparisons to some of his contemporaries. That era was about home runs, after all, and Martinez was predominantly a doubles hitter. His .515 career slugging average is a bit weak for a player with his Hall profile. On-base machines came into vogue, in truth, just as he was winding down into his twilight.
That said, I didn't struggle with this one.
3. Larry Walker
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The Case in Favor: Walker won an NL MVP award, although he probably did not quite deserve it. He reached base at a .437 clip from 1997-2004, and not all of that is Coors Field-related. In fact, even after factoring out home park and league biases, Walker was 52 percent better than the average hitter. He stole bases efficiently, played a very good right field defensively and was headed for stardom even before joining the Rockies in 1995.
The Case Against: No one seems to know quite how to account for a career so fueled by success at elevation. Walker got about a 41 percent boost from playing there, according to OPS. He played the majority of his career there, and therefore had few chances to prove he was not its product.
Walker also struggled with injuries, which kept him from reaching some key milestones. He hit only 383 career homers, for instance, and had 2,160 hits. A healthy Walker probably cruises into the Hall, regardless of era or park-based reservations, but that guy never materialized for more than a year or two at a time.
2. Barry Larkin
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The Case in Favor: Eight seasons is a Hall of Fame peak, but it needs to be a strong eight years if that's all it is. Larkin did it.
From 1991-98, Larkin batted .304/.392/.486. He won five Silver Slugger and three Gold Glove awards, made six All-Star teams and won the 1995 NL MVP. Those totals all reflect only this eight-year period. During that span, Larkin also averaged 26 stolen bases at a success rate near 90 percent.
It's not only about those years, either. Larkin put together a fine 19-year career, and he produced at a high level both shortly before and shortly after that perfect peak.
The Case Against: Larkin did not rack up 200 home runs, 400 stolen bases or 2,500 hits. He missed a lot of time due to injury the last five years of his career and, even before that, he had occasionally been sidelined for long stretches. He belongs in Cooperstown, but his numbers do not jump out that way. Partially, that is because misfortune stole good time from Larkin.
Verdict: IN, easily.
1. Jeff Bagwell
The Case in Favor: Jeff Bagwell was a freak. He was one of the best hitters of his generation, certainly in league with Edgar Martinez. He hit only 449 home runs but had 520 doubles and triples. Bagwell's career .408 OBP is stellar, but it pales next to the sheer greatness that was his single-season batting line circa 1994:
All that in 110 games. He ran away with the MVP, and well he ought to have.
It goes far beyond that year, of course. From 1994-2000, Bagwell hit .309/.433/.593. He averaged 37 homers, 20 stolen bases and 110 walks. He was the superstar the Astros used to vault themselves to the top of the NL Central so often in the latter part of his career.
The Case Against:
I quote an excellent tweet you should all check out:
"Jeff Bagwell doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame because cheesecake walla walla waterslide baboon."
It's the most cogent argument I've seen so far.
Verdict: IN. So in. So in it has rekindled the fire of my sabermetric demagoguery. So in I can hardly see straight when I think about the morons keeping him out. Please, folks, write to your Congressmen. Write to your newspapers. Get Jeff Bagwell justice.