Which MLB Steroid Users* Deserve to Be in the Baseball Hall of Fame?
As we wrap up Steroid Week at B/R, the only question left is the biggest of them all.
Whether they're currently on the ballot or not, which, if any, "tainted" superstars from Major League Baseball's Steroid Era deserve to be in the Hall of Fame?
Those quotation marks are necessary because there are variations in players' links to performance-enhancing drugs. Whereas some have tested positive or admitted using, others have been tied to PEDs only through the testimony of others. There's also a question of whether some even knew what they were using.
Regardless, we recognize that many hold the position that zero players with ties to PEDs should be allowed into Cooperstown. As Joe Morgan relayed in an open letter in 2017, this is the official position of players who are already in the Hall of Fame: "We hope the day never comes when known steroid users are voted into the Hall of Fame. They cheated. Steroid users don't belong here."
However, allow us to begin with a two-part explanation for why we favor a case-by-case approach.
Why a Blanket 'None of Them' Policy Doesn't Cut It
There's no doubting the sincerity of those who believe Cooperstown is no place for juicers. Rather, the issue with that notion is one of naivete.
Per George Mitchell's 2007 report on PEDs in baseball, steroids had infiltrated MLB at least a decade before Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased down Roger Maris' single-season home run record in 1998. Heck, one former major leaguer has claimed steroids were in the game as far back as the 1960s.
Granted, MLB officially banned steroids in 1991. But sans testing procedures, baseball was basically invoking the honor system. Moreover, the original policy reserved lifetime bans only for repeat offenders who failed to respond to treatment and rehabilitation. So for players, it was all reward and basically no risk.
Given how PED usage is seen as more of a nuisance than an unforgivable transgression in other sports, it's also fair to wonder if the Steroid Era would be so reviled in retrospect if no home run records had fallen during it. As for why those records did fall, it likely has as much to do with a juiced ball as juiced players.
Lastly, there's the Bud Selig conundrum. If the commissioner can be in the Hall of Fame despite his failings during the Steroid Era, the same standard should be applied to players who defined the era.
On the Hall of Fame's 'Character Clause'
Ah, but does PED usage nonetheless run afoul of the Hall of Fame's insistence that voters consider the "integrity, sportsmanship, [and] character" of players?
Even still, there should be a distinction between those who broke the rules between 1991 and 2004 and those who broke them after testing and policing procedures went into effect in 2005.
Before then, there was was no system to cheat. After, anyone who dared to use knew full well what they were risking. The damage would be not only to their own reputation and finances, but also to their teams and, by extension, their teammates.
Further, the Hall of Fame also urges voters to consider players' "record, playing ability...and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played." Because there's no explicit stipulation stating otherwise, there's room for interpretation that credits in these categories can make up for debits in the other categories.
Hence our preference for going on a case-by-case basis. So without further ado, let's begin with the least deserving candidates and make our way to the most deserving candidates.
Thanks but No Thanks: Jose Canseco, Jason Giambi and Eric Gagne
Before we get on with more complicated cases, let's begin with three simple ones.
He literally wrote the book on juicing in baseball, and in retrospect, his whistle-blowing helped change baseball for the better.
Even still, Canseco's own steroid usage isn't even the best reason why he doesn't belong in Cooperstown. Though he achieved some impressive things—including the first-ever 40-40 season—between 1985 and 2001, neither his offensive production (i.e. his 132 OPS+ and 462 HR) nor his overall performance (i.e. his 42.5 WAR) screams "Hall of Famer."
At his best, Giambi won an MVP and averaged a 176 OPS+ and 41 home runs per year between 2000 and 2003. But like with Canseco, his final 139 OPS+, 440 homers and 50.5 WAR would fall short of Cooperstown standards even if he weren't tied to PEDs.
Albeit at the end of his career, he admitted to using HGH during a three-year portion of his decade in the major leagues.
Gagne's biggest claims to fame are his National League Cy Young Award from 2003 and his record-setting 84 straight saves from 2003 to 2004. But the standards for Cooperstown-caliber relievers are pretty high, and his 11.7 WAR isn't even half of what Bruce Sutter has on the low end.
Trouble is, it didn't stop there. Ramirez also tested positive and was banned for 50 games in 2009. Two years later, he abruptly retired when he was facing a 100-game suspension after a second positive test.
Otherwise, Ramirez is one of only four right-handed hitters to rack up a .300/.400/.500 batting line over at least 9,000 plate appearances in the majors. He clubbed 555 home runs in the regular season, plus a record 29 in the postseason. He was also a 12-time All-Star and two-time World Series champion.
But no thanks to his terrible defense, Ramirez doesn't even outrank fellow left fielder Tim Raines with his 69.3 career WAR. And in addition to his multiple failed PED tests, some of the less pleasant aspects of Ramirez's "Manny Being Manny" persona form another strike against his character.
Frankly, it's surprising that Ramirez has even 28.2 percent of the voters' support after four years on the ballot. It's not as if his connections to PEDs are disputable. And because of what happened in 2011, nobody can even argue that he's already served his time.
Our Verdict: Hard no
Based on his numbers and accolades, Alex Rodriguez is an all-time great and a no-brainer for Cooperstown.
In a 22-year career that spanned 1994 and 2016, A-Rod compiled a 140 OPS+, 696 home runs (fourth all-time) and 117.5 WAR (12th all-time). He was a 14-time All-Star, a 10-time Silver Slugger, a two-time Gold Glover and a three-time MVP.
Though Rodriguez collected only one World Series ring, he truly earned it. Without his 1.308 OPS and six home runs throughout the playoffs, the New York Yankees might not have won it all in 2009.
Rodriguez's ties to PEDs, however, are as troubling as they are indisputable. In response to a report of a positive test from 2003, he admitted in 2009 to using steroids between 2001 and 2003. Years later, he was caught up in the Biogenesis scandal and eventually suspended for the entire 2014 season.
One can argue that Rodriguez's achievements outweigh his misdeeds with PEDs, for which he's already paid dearly and which have clearly changed him for the better. But at the least, said misdeeds are enough to keep him from being an immediate addition to Cooperstown when he gets on the ballot in 2022.
Our Verdict: Hard no
Even though nobody took it seriously at the time, there was an early tipoff that Mark McGwire was using PEDs amid his trek to a then-record 70 home runs in 1998.
Cut to 12 years later in 2010 and McGwire confessed to the Associated Press that he used steroids not just in '98, but on and off throughout nearly a decade of his 16-year career between 1986 and 2001.
Sans all of this, McGwire would look like a shoo-in for Cooperstown. His 163 OPS+ and 583 home runs put him in a very small group of elite sluggers. By WAR, he's also one of the 12 best first basemen in history. Next come his accolades, which include a Rookie of the Year, 12 All-Star nods and a World Series ring.
There is, however, no separating any of this from McGwire's confession that PEDs were not a bug during his career, but a feature. That leaves very little (if any) room to wonder if he would have achieved his obviously Cooperstown-worthy numbers if he'd juiced only occasionally or not at all.
McGwire is already off the Hall of Fame ballot, having bowed out with 12.3 percent of the vote in 2016. Even four years later, it's hard to fault the voters for that one.
Our Verdict: Hard no
In getting just 13.9 percent of the vote in 2020, Sammy Sosa is still receiving McGwire-level support after eight years on the ballot. That makes some sense as his legacy is inextricably tied to McGwire's.
For what it's worth, Sosa still denies having ever used PEDs. And setting aside Jose Canseco's testimony and a vaguely incriminating encounter with Sports Illustrated scribe Rick Reilly in 2002, the strongest evidence that Sosa used is a positive test from the survey testing in 2003 that was, once again, imperfect.
As far as what Sosa does have going for him, his 609 home runs make him one of only nine members of the 600 Home Run Club. He hit 292 of those in a five-year span between 1998 and 2002 when he became the only player ever to rack up three seasons of at least 60 home runs.
On either side of those five seasons, however, Sosa was a good but not great player. That's ultimately felt in his overall career numbers, which include a modest 128 OPS+ and 58.6 career WAR. The latter barely ranks in the top 20 among right fielders.
So though Sosa has more plausible deniability than McGwire with regard to PEDs, it's not enough to overcome the disparity between his suspiciously extraordinary prime and his oddly ordinary career.
Our Verdict: Soft no
Rafael Palmeiro first appeared on the ballot in 2011 and was quickly ousted in 2014 when his 4.4 percent of the vote failed to meet the minimum threshold of 5 percent.
Clearly, memories of 2005 were still fresh. Palmeiro was implicated as a juicer by Jose Canseco in February of that year. He vehemently denied ever using before congress a few weeks later, but whatever benefit of the doubt he had vanished when he tested positive and was suspended in August.
In 2017, Palmeiro opened up about how he was blindsided by his positive test—and also about how he produced three negative tests during an arbitration hearing over his positive test. Though he was suspended anyway, such things do give him a degree of plausible deniability in retrospect.
Performance-wise, Palmeiro was rarely great but consistently very good in a 20-year career that spanned 1986 to 2005. He's notably one of only six players with at least 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, and his 71.9 career WAR ranks eighth among first basemen.
Compared to when Palmeiro was on the ballot, tensions about the Steroid Era have eased a bit in recent years. He would almost certainly have more support in this environment, and it would be well deserved.
Our Verdict: Soft yes
But as he explained, he used HGH for just two days and only because he was trying to heal an elbow injury. Though he admitted it was an "error in judgment," his case points to a fair question as to whether there's a line between performance-enhancing and performance-allowing.
If there's a knock against Pettitte that has nothing to do with PEDs, it's that he was never the best pitcher in baseball during his 18-year career. To wit, he never won a Cy Young Award, and he made only three All-Star teams.
But in his postseason resume alone, Pettitte has a compelling case for entry into Cooperstown. He's the all-time leader for playoff wins and innings, and he won five of the eight World Series in which he played.
And while certainly unspectacular, Pettitte's regular-season body of work isn't entirely free of merit. He racked up a safely above-average 117 ERA+ over 3,316 innings, and his 60.7 WAR ranks 12th among left-handers.
After two seasons on the ballot, Pettitte has only risen to 11.3 percent of the vote. He deserves better.
Our Verdict: Soft yes
In 2004, Gary Sheffield admitted to using a steroid known as "the cream" while training with Barry Bonds during the 2001-02 offseason.
But as Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated recounted in 2014, Sheffield was proactive in being honest about his usage. He claimed that he didn't know what he was using and that he wasn't happy when he found out: "I was mad. I want everybody to be on an even playing field."
More so than PEDs, perhaps the biggest issue with Sheffield's Hall of Fame resume is his historically awful defense. Fielding runs, for example, rates him as the second-worst fielder ever after only Derek Jeter.
Yet Sheffield still boasts more career WAR (60.5) than fellow right fielder Vladimir Guerrero (59.5), who got into the Hall of Fame on his first ballot in 2018. That points to the 22-year veteran's offensive might, as he's one of only 21 players with more than 500 home runs and at least a 140 OPS+.
Because Sheffield was also a nine-time All-Star and a World Series champion, his case for entry into Cooperstown should be strong enough to overcome his relatively sympathetic story with steroids. At the least, he should get a bump on the 30.5 percent of the vote he got in his sixth year on the ballot.
Our Verdict: Soft yes
David Ortiz's one and only connection to steroids is a failed test from the 2003 survey that even Commissioner Rob Manfred warned everyone not to take at face value.
"Even if your name was on that list," Manfred told Bob Nightengale of USA Today in 2016, "it’s entirely possible that you were not a positive."
Ultimately, "Big Papi" played about 70 percent of his games in the post-2005 era of testing and punishments for PEDs. And he surely wasn't spared, as he told Verducci in 2019: "Let me tell you, there's not one player in baseball, not one player, that has been drug-tested more than David Ortiz. I guarantee you that."
Altogether, Ortiz racked up a 141 OPS+ and 541 home runs throughout his 20-year career. Those are absolutely Hall of Fame-caliber numbers, and they don't even count his .947 OPS and 17 homers in the postseason. He notably hit .455/.576/.795 in three World Series, all of which he won.
Mind you, Ortiz did all this almost entirely as a designated hitter. The recent inductions of Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez have somewhat eased the Hall's bias against the position, but neither they nor anyone else has ever been as much of a DH as Ortiz. His 2,027 games at the position are by far a record.
But even if he didn't have any other jobs, Ortiz is nonetheless one of the best regular-season and postseason hitters in history. His appearance on the 2022 ballot should be both his first and his last.
Our Verdict: Hard yes
If judged solely by what he did on the mound, Roger Clemens is perhaps the greatest pitcher in history.
In 24 seasons between 1984 and 2007, "The Rocket" put himself in exceedingly special company by racking up a 143 ERA+ over 4,916.2 innings. He also ranks third all-time in strikeouts (4,672) and WAR (138.7).
Among Clemens' individual prizes are 11 All-Star nods, seven Cy Young Awards, an MVP and two World Series rings. He's also known for pitching some of the most dominant games in history, including two 20-strikeout starts and arguably the greatest of all postseason starts.
Clemens' connection to PEDs, meanwhile, is entirely circumstantial.
He was a key figure in the Mitchell Report, yet he never tested positive and he was ultimately acquitted of perjury in 2012 after denying using PEDs to a congressional panel in 2008. By 2012, even Jose Canseco was skeptical that Clemens had ever used.
Despite the lack of actual fire, that Clemens has garnered only 61.0 percent support after eight years on the ballot shows that many voters believe there's enough smoke to keep him out of Cooperstown. It's not an altogether unfair position, but we ultimately lean the other way.
Our Verdict: Hard yes
Devoid of context, Barry Bonds is the greatest player in baseball history.
He was a seven-time MVP and 14-time All-Star who holds the single-season (73) and career (762) home run records as well as the all-time marks for walks (2,558) and intentional walks (688). His 182 OPS+ is bettered only by Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, and neither they nor anyone else can touch his 162.8 WAR.
However, Bonds did admit in 2004 to using steroids provided by his personal trainer, Greg Anderson. Like Sheffield, Bonds' concession was that he didn't know what he was using. But given that he was surely closer to Anderson than Sheffield, his claim of ignorance doesn't work quite as well.
Character-wise, there's also the reality that Bonds was notoriously unpleasant. Though he neither has nor necessarily must apologize for that, he did tell Terence Moore of Sports on Earth in 2016 that his reputation was his fault. "I'm to blame for the way I was [portrayed], because I was a dumbass."
But if merely being insufferable was enough to keep a guy out of the Hall of Fame, Cooperstown would surely have a smaller population. And while Bonds' juicing is a difficult thing to reckon with, there's some comfort that he didn't turn to PEDs until later in his career. It's likewise comforting that he didn't fail any tests once MLB sharpened its PED policy in 2005.
At 60.7 percent, Bonds is getting about as much support as Clemens after eight years on the ballot. It's no sure thing that he'll get to 75 percent in the next two years, but our belief is that he should.
Our Verdict: Hard yes
Catch Up on B/R's Steroid Week:
Fri: Which Steroid Users* Should Be in HOF?
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.