Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa don't belong in Cooperstown, but they can have spots on the all-time "very good" team.
Getting into the Baseball Hall of Fame isn't a simple matter of pushing a button. There are just a couple hundred players enshrined in Cooperstown, and only seven more have been added since 2008.
Ever has it been, so shall it ever be. The Hall of Fame is an exclusive club, not a high school party.
One thing we all have to realize, though, is that it doesn't necessarily take a place in the Hall of Fame to validate a career. There are plenty of players who aren't, and who likely never will be in the Hall of Fame, who can claim to have been "very good," even if they weren't "great."
If we were to put together an all-time Hall of "Very Good" players, it would look something like this...
Note: Statistics in this piece are courtesy of both Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs. The one thing you have to be particularly mindful of is that "rWAR" refers to B/R.com's calculation of WAR, and "fWAR" refers to FanGraphs' calculation of WAR.
Jorge Posada won't appear on the Hall of Fame ballot until 2017, but I may as well go ahead and jump the gun and say that he doesn't have a Cooperstown-worthy resume.
Posada retired with a career rWAR of 39, which places him just ahead of Jason Kendall on the all-time list for catchers. His fWAR checks in at 46.7, which makes him only slightly more valuable than Kendall.
The issue with Posada is that he was only an above-average player when he had a bat in his hands. Defensively, he was no Ivan Rodriguez. In fact, he rates as one of the bigger defensive liabilities to ever come along.
Defensive shortcomings likely won't keep Mike Piazza from getting into the Hall of Fame, but only because he's the best power hitter to ever play catcher. For his part, Posada is short on claims to fame offensively, as he doesn't rank among the 10 greatest catchers ever in OPS+, wOBA or wRC+.
The argument for Posada to be in the Hall of Fame will invariably come down to his postseason heroics, as he won four rings and played in a total of 125 postseason games during his career with the Yankees. For some voters, Posada's October track record is going to be a big deal.
My issue is that championships are team accomplishments more than individual accomplishments, and Posada only managed a relatively mediocre .745 OPS for his career in postseason play. He was always there, but he wasn't always a difference maker.
Still, there's a limit to how much Posada's career accomplishments can be downplayed. He gets my vote as the most underappreciated Yankee of the last two decades, and you always have to take your hat off to a catcher who can last as long as he did.
To boot, he was still playing at a high level when he was approaching 40. That's not easy to do after so many years in the crouch.
Take context out of the equation, and it's downright tragic that a guy with 583 career home runs hasn't been voted into Cooperstown yet after five years on the ballot.
Put context back into the equation, however, and it makes total sense that Mark McGwire is not in the Hall of Fame.
By his own admission, McGwire used steroids on and off in the 1990s, a decade that eventually saw him rack up 245 home runs in only four years between 1996 and 1999.
As I pointed out in a recent article about McGwire's Hall of Fame chances, he likely would not have ended up with more than 500 career home runs had he not gone on a chemically charged rampage in those four seasons. He hit one home run every 10.4 plate appearances in those four years, whereas he hit one every 16 plate appearances in the nine seasons prior.
Outside of his power numbers, McGwire doesn't have much to warrant a ticket into the Hall of Fame. He was not an elite defensive first baseman, nor was he a well-rounded hitter or a threat on the basepaths. As a player, he was not as valuable as Jeff Bagwell, who certainly should be in the Hall of Fame.
McGwire only got 19.5 percent of the vote in 2012, whereas Bagwell got an even 56 percent. At the rate the two of them are going, it won't be long before McGwire will officially be the most notable first baseman who isn't in the Hall of Fame.
If it comes to that, I'll also refer to McGwire as the best first baseman who isn't in the Hall of Fame. It's easy to pick apart his accomplishments and scold him for his juicing, but PEDs didn't make him a great power hitter. They merely made him a freakish power hitter.
In the realm of the all-time great second basemen to ever play the game, Willie Randolph is criminally underrated.
Randolph retired with an rWAR of 63, which is good for 10th all-time among second basemen. The guy directly behind him on the list is none other than Roberto Alomar, who was a nearly unanimous selection for the Hall of Fame in 2011.
FanGraphs has Randolph ranked 12th all-time in fWAR, just behind Alomar on the list for second basemen. The difference between the two of them, however, is as small as can be. Alomar accumulated an fWAR of 67.9. Randolph accumulated an fWAR of 67.8.
It makes sense that Alomar and Randolph rank so closely together in the eyes of WAR. Alomar was a better hitter during his playing days, but Randolph was a very valuable baserunner and, surprisingly, a far superior defensive player.
Yeah, that's actually true. Alomar's numbers don't even come close to matching his reputation as a glove man, whereas Randolph rates as one of the all-time great defensive second basemen.
Granted, we can't exactly take Alomar out of the Hall of Fame, and I'm not about to argue that Randolph should be in just because Alomar is in. Randolph may be underrated, but he wasn't a truly special player in his time. The best he ever managed was an .834 OPS, and he ceased to be a major threat on the basepaths after 1980.
After that season, the best things Randolph had going for him were his patience and his defense. These are great skills to have, but it takes a lot more to be slam-dunk Hall of Fame material.
The great Joe Posnanski wrote a couple years ago that third base is easily the "most undervalued position" among those who do the voting.
He's not wrong, but I'd say that third base is also the trickiest position for the voters to consider. There haven't been that many truly great third basemen throughout major league history, but there have been a lot of very good ones. Picking and choosing which of them should be in Cooperstown is like picking and choosing which jelly beans taste the best.
One of the guys on the outside looking in is Buddy Bell, and my guess is that he's going to remain on the outside looking in until doomsday (which is in less than two weeks, apparently). He never managed an OPS over .900 in a season, and the most homers he ever hit in a year was 20. He was much more of a steady presence at the hot corner than he was a star.
Here's the funny thing about Bell, though: He ranks 10th on the all-time list among third basemen in rWAR, right in between borderline Hall of Famer Craig Nettles and future Hall of Famer (yup) Adrian Beltre.
Bell's high career value was thanks largely to his glove, as the only third baseman in history who rates as a better fielding third baseman than him is none other than Brooks Robinson. He had some great years at the plate, but Bell actually has him beat in OPS+, wOBA and wRC+.
The only thing really separating Bell from Robinson is longevity, as Robinson played five more years in the majors than Bell did while racking up nearly 2,000 more plate appearances.
Take the extra playing time away, and Bell and Robinson may be on the same level. That's no small compliment.
This is where things may get heated. Alan Trammel has more than his fair share of supporters, and the only thing that equals their loyalty is their passion.
To be fair, those who want Trammel enshrined in Cooperstown have legit gripes. He was a very good hitter and fielder during his prime in the 1980s, and he just so happens to have the exact same rWAR as 2012 inductee Barry Larkin.
However, there's a limit to how much Trammel can be praised. He didn't really become a star player until his age-25 season in 1983, and things started to get rocky just a few years later in 1990. Relatively speaking, he wasn't in his prime all that long.
Plus, while Trammel was a good hitter and fielder during his peak years, he doesn't rate as one of the best hitting or fielding shortstops of all time. He doesn't even rank among the top 40 fielding shortstops in the eyes of FanGraphs, and he ranks outside the top 15 shortstops in OPS+, wOBA and wRC+.
What Trammel's Hall of Fame resume really needs are more years like the season he enjoyed in 1987, when he posted a .953 OPS with 28 home runs and 21 stolen bases to finish second in the MVP voting. But while that season certainly stands out, the problem is that it stands out as a pretty obvious outlier.
Trammel was great for that one season, but only very good for the rest of his career. While that doesn't make him Hall of Fame material, it certainly makes him a no-brainer for this list.
The history of Hall of Fame selections for left fielders is all over the place. Some guys who deserve to be in are out, while some guys who probably should be out are in.
For example, despite having the fifth-best rWAR among left fielders, Tim Raines is still not in Cooperstown. Yet Jim Rice, 18th on that list, finally got in three years ago. That may be a sign that Raines is going to have to wait for a while, and the same is likely to be true for Barry Bonds and, eventually, Manny Ramirez.
One guy who probably has no chance of getting in is Jose Cruz, so he'll do for a selection for the all-time "very good" team. His career was more solid than people realize, but still well short of great.
In his 19-year major league career, Cruz accumulated an rWAR of 51 that's good for 14th among left fielders. Most of his value came from his bat, which produced six seasons in which he hit at least .300 and four full seasons in which he posted an OPS of at least .835.
Cruz also had five seasons in which he stole at least 30 bases, and retired with a grand total of 317 thefts. This total obviously places him well below Rickey Henderson, but Henderson doesn't exactly rank miles above Cruz as a hitter. Cruz's career OPS+ of 120 isn't that far off from Henderson's career OPS+ of 127.
This is not to suggest that Cruz's career is on par with Henderson's in terms of quality. It isn't. Not even close.
But anybody who can be fairly placed in the same sentence as Henderson clearly did something right.
Everyone knows that Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio and Curt Schilling are on the ballot for the first time, but Kenny Lofton is also on there for the first time.
Lofton's candidacy for the Hall of Fame is easy to overlook and even easier to downplay. I'm going to take a wild guess that he's not going to get in, but he has a stronger case to be in the Hall of Fame than people seem to realize.
That's good company to keep, and it makes sense that Lofton keeps it. He was one of the game's great defensive center fielders when he first broke into the majors in the 1990s, and he hit .311/.387/.432 between 1992 and 1999.
That, however, was about the extent of Lofton's prime. He started to decline as an offensive force in 2000, and he spent the final seven years of his career as something of a hired gun. He was a useful player for a lot of teams, but not the game changer that he used to be.
Lofton does rank pretty highly on the all-time stolen base list, but his 622 stolen bases aren't quite good enough in and of themselves to get him into Cooperstown. He ranks just below Tom Brown and Bert Campaneris, and neither of them is in the Hall of Fame.
Still, you have to hand it to Lofton. He played in an age where every other hitter was clubbing 30 home runs and racking up 100 RBI, but he became an All-Star with his legs and his glove. He was totally out of place, yet he found a way to fit right in.
Sammy Sosa is one of only eight players in major league history to hit as many as 600 home runs, retiring after the 2007 season with a grand total of 609.
But like with Mark McGwire, we know that many of Sosa's home runs did not come naturally. He hasn't owned up to juicing like McGwire has, but The New York Times reported back in 2009 that Sosa had tested positive for PEDs in 2003.
But it's the years 1998-2001 in Sosa's career that require particularly close examination. He was nearly as prolific as McGwire was in 1996-1999, hitting a grand total of 243 home runs in only 637 games. He launched a home run every 11.7 plate appearances.
In the five seasons prior to 1998, Sosa averaged a homer every 17.4 plate appearances. Something strange was clearly going on between 1998 and 2001, and you don't need to be a rocket scientist to deduce what it was.
The main difference between McGwire and Sosa is that Sosa doesn't rank as one of the all-time great right fielders, even with his power taken into consideration. He only has the 16th-highest rWAR of all time among right fielders, and the 20th-highest fWAR.
Since he's not even one of the game's great right fielders, even despite his connections to PEDs, Sosa has no business being voted into Cooperstown. He'll have to be content to join his old buddy on the all-time Hall of "Very Good" team.
I'm only picking one starting pitcher for this team, and the choice ultimately came down to Jack Morris and Curt Schilling.
Between the two, Morris eventually emerged as the clear pick. Schilling may be a borderline Hall of Famer, but his case for entry is a heck of a lot stronger than Morris' case.
By rWAR, Schilling is the 16th-best right-handed pitcher in major league history. He actually has a better rWAR than Cy Young, and he's not far off from Nolan Ryan. He can thank his all-time record 4.38 K/BB ratio for that, as well as his years of success against Steroid Era hitters.
Morris, by comparison, is tied for 75th all time among right-handed pitchers in rWAR with Tom Candiotti. He retired with a career ERA+ of 105, which is barely good enough to place him among the top 200 among right-handers.
What that tells us is that Morris was actually very close to being a league-average pitcher for the bulk of his career. He certainly won a lot of games and pitched a lot of innings, but these things alone don't make for a Hall of Fame career.
Also, his postseason heroics tend to be greatly overvalued. Morris is billed as one of the greatest playoff pitchers ever, but that's largely due to his epic duel with John Smoltz in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Even with that game factored in, Morris finished his career with an ERA of 3.80 in postseason play that looks highly similar to the 3.90 ERA he compiled in regular-season play.
That highlights the truth of Morris' career: He was more occasionally brilliant than he was consistently brilliant.
Lee Smith is third on the all-time list with 478 saves. He led the league in saves four times, and saved at least 30 games 10 times.
To which I say, "So?"
The voters need to be very, very strict when it comes to putting relievers in the Hall of Fame, especially in regard to closers. Since the save is a decidedly silly statistic that tells us little about how good a given reliever really is, a potential Hall of Famer better have more than just a ton of saves on his resume.
And beyond his 478 career saves, Smith doesn't have much. His 3.03 career ERA isn't elite for a reliever by any stretch of the imagination, and he has the same career ERA+ as John Axford.
Elsewhere, Jose Valverde has a higher career K/BB ratio than Smith, and he has a worse career WHIP than Bobby Jenks.
Mariano Rivera has been, and may be again, a truly dominant closer. Trevor Hoffman was dominant for the majority of his career. Dennis Eckersley turned his career around by morphing into a dominant closer.
Much like Morris, Lee's dominance was more occasional than it was consistent. They belong together on the all-time Hall of "Very Good" team.
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