This evening was the annual announcement of the inductees for the Baseball Hall of Fame, and this year’s inductees are Tim Raines, Jeff Bagwell, and Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez. Rodriguez goes in on the first ballot, Bagwell on his seventh try, Raines on his 10th. Bagwell and Raines are long overdue selections. All are worthy choices, but as has been the case for several years now, the Hall left out a bunch of other deserving inductees.
Rodriguez and Raines are mirror images: Rodriguez was sometimes overrated during his prime for having showy skills (high batting average, strong arm behind the plate) and less-publicized weaknesses (poor plate discipline, terrible percentage base stealing, truckloads of double plays), while Raines was uncommonly strong in all the areas Rodriguez was weak, including being the best percentage base thief in history among players with a large number of attempts. Raines made 288 extra outs by double play or caught stealing, compared to 401 for Rodriguez, despite stealing 808 bases to Rodriguez’ 127.
But Rodriguez was nevertheless one of the great catchers of all time, batting .315/.357/.513 over an 11-year period from age 22-32, and averaging 562 plate appearances a year (strike-adjusted) over that period. He was in or around the ten best offensive catchers ever over the nine years of his prime, plus an amazing defensive player (probably the best ever at cutting off the running game, when you place his numbers in historical context, and his longevity records as a catcher – 2377 games caught, 9916 plate appearances and 2749 hits as a catcher – tower over every other man to play the position.
Raines, besides playing in Montreal, lacking some of the more headline-grabbing statistics, and being overshadowed in his prime by Rickey Henderson, had a rocky road to Cooperstown, abetted by youthful cocaine use. Like Rodriguez, he spent seven years as a genuinely great player, as good as almost anyone in baseball from 1981-87 (the Wins Above Replacement metric rates only Rickey, Mike Schmidt and Wade Boggs better over those years), followed by a decade as a useful role player, getting a World Series ring in the latter capacity late in the game (Pudge got one at 31 with the Marlins, Raines at 35 with the Yankees). Raines could have stolen bases with the frequency of Rickey or Vince Coleman, but he preferred to pick his spots well enough to avoid getting caught; in 1981, playing everyday for the first time, Raines stole 40 bases in 44 tries in his first 38 games, and had 50 steals when the strike hit on June 11 (by contrast, in 1983, he stole 77 bases in 86 tries from June 10 to the season’s end). It has required a sustained campaign by statistically-minded writers to get Raines recognized, and it’s a positive sign of progress in understanding the game that the campaign (like a similar one for Bert Blyleven) succeeded.
In Bagwell’s case, his eye-popping numbers even while playing in the Astrodome left no doubt of his on-field qualifications, but he languished for seven years under the cloud of suspicion that haunts most of the sluggers of his era, many of whom used performance-enhancing drugs. The fact that we will never know for sure who used steroids and who didn’t is one of multiple reasons why I think the writers should just give up on punishing the users and recognize PEDs as simply a feature of the competitive conditions of the era, like the pervasive lawlessness of the 1890s.
Right on the outside looking in are Trevor Hoffman (who missed the 75% threshold by just a handful of votes) and Vladimir Guerrero at 71.7% of the vote. Hoffman was one of the all-time greats among the modern closers; I’m skeptical of enshrining those guys (aside from Mariano Rivera, who was on another level and an enormous postseason force), but if you accept the idea, Hoffman’s consistency and longevity make him more than a respectable choice. There’s no conceivable reason for anyone to vote against Guerrero, a staggering talent who batted .325/.392/.581 with an average of 98 Runs, 112 RBI and 15 steals in 640 plate appearances per year from age 23-33 and cracked double figures in outfield assists seven times, but sometimes the writers just feel like making a guy wait.
Down the ballot we have Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, both absurdly overqualified and joined by Edgar Martinez and Mike Mussina above 50% of the vote, plus Curt Schilling at 45%. Normally, you’d predict that everyone above 50% will make it eventually, but Bonds and Clemens have their own unique baggage, as (in different ways) does Schilling. Edgar is something of a referendum on the DH. Manny Ramirez, also an overqualified candidate, debuts at 23.8% of the vote, yet another sign of the writers’ continuing ambivalence over PEDs (the same goes for Gary Sheffield and Sammy Sosa, who are never making it and for this reason alone). Jeff Kent at 16.7% of the vote is likewise an injustice to one of the best hitters ever to play second base. On the other hand, the persistent 20% or so of the vote for Fred McGriff probably ensures that the Crime Dog will eventually get put in by the Veterans’ Committee.
Perhaps the unfairest result of all is that Jorge Posada got just 4.1% of the vote and dropped off the ballot. Posada is not a slam-dunk case, but he has a very strong argument. In his prime, from age 28-35, he batted .283/.389/.492 in 574 plate appearances per year, arguably more valuable than Rodriguez’s .318/.360/.522 from age 24-32 in a higher-scoring period, and while Posada had a lot of help, he did collect four World Series rings at a position where the Hall has traditionally rewarded winners. The Yankees of that era were widely recognized as being built on a foundation of four enduring stars (Derek Jeter, Rivera, Posada, and Bernie Williams), yet two of them (Williams and now Posada) have failed to garner even modest consideration for Cooperstown.
If I had a ballot this year, I think it would have read:
That’s a tough call; Sosa and Sheffield really do belong in as well, and there are solid arguments for Edgar and Schilling as on-the-bubble candidates. But there’s only ten slots on the ballot.