MLB Hall of Fame Voting: The 10 Best Candidates On This Year's Ballot

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Happy New Year, everybody!  Now that the calendar has turned, we are only days away from the announcement of the results of this year’s Hall of Fame voting for Major League Baseball. 

Seems like as good a time as any to make the case for my list of candidates.

I must be clear on this:  I do not have an official ballot for the MLB Hall of Fame, and that is unlikely to change for a very long time.  This is merely a look at how exactly I would vote, and why I would select each candidate.  I am going by the current rules, meaning that I can vote for only ten players and will only select from players currently on the ballot.

Before I continue, I must point out which candidates just missed the list: 

1.  Sammy Sosa

2.  Rafael Palmeiro

3.  Kenny Lofton

4.  Mark McGwire

Most years, all four of these players would be easy selections for my HOF ballot.  But this year presents an unusually high number of worthy candidates, and the rules state that only ten names are allowed on the ballot per year.  In particular, it really pains me to leave off Lofton, one of the most underappreciated players of his generation and perhaps the biggest risk for falling off the ballot after one year. 

To make it clear, PED usage is only a minor factor in three of these players not cracking the top ten.  I have actually been a vocal supporter of both McGwire and Palmeiro over the years, and I probably would have done so for Sosa had he been on the ballot last year.  But the 2012 ballot is so loaded that I do not feel that any of those three are among the ten best eligible players.  It’s a delightfully old-fashioned way of looking at the ballot, and it holds up surprisingly well today.

I wish I could include them all, but rules are rules.  Here are the ten who did make the cut: 

Barry Bonds

Roger Clemens

I lump these two together because the arguments for and against both players are nearly identical

And let’s be honest:  there is only one reason that anybody can come up with against either player’s candidacy. 

Does this reason outweigh the fact that both players rank among the ten most valuable ever to play the game?  Frankly, I have a hard time believing any PED is capable of the kind of performance enhancement people allege for Bonds and Clemens, particularly when everybody acknowledges that both were the best in the game prior to the alleged start of their PED usage. 

Still, there are some out there who believe that PED usage should be treated the same as gambling and therefore users should be held out of the Hall.  The problem is that the Hall of Fame didn’t actually make examples out of accused gamblers.  Otherwise, names like Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker (the Bonds and Clemens of gambling) never would have been among the first ten players inducted.

For these reasons, I would not think twice about voting Bonds and Clemens in on the first ballot.  

Jeff Bagwell

One of the great tragedies of recent Hall of Fame votings is that Jeff Bagwell – a top-five first basemen by any statistical measure – has had to wait to be inducted due to suspicions of steroid usage without a shred of evidence to support that stance.

Seriously, Bagwell never submitted a positive test; was not named in the Mitchell Report; and has never been accused of juicing by a fellow player.  About the only thing people can come up with is that Bagwell had teammates who used steroids during their careers, making Bagwell guilty by association.

The fact that this argument also applies to Hank Aaron (among others) is apparently lost on most voters.

About the only positive for Bagwell being held out of the past two ballots is that he now gets the opportunity to be inducted alongside longtime teammate Craig Biggio.  Speaking of which…

Craig Biggio

Stat guru Rob Neyer once described Biggio as one of the most unique players in the history of the game.  As far as he can tell, no other player has successfully made the transition from catcher to second base.  Biggio not only did that, but earned an All-Star nod at both positions.  He would also prove to be a competent centerfielder after moving to the position late in his career.

Offensively, Biggio rates alongside Kenny Lofton as the best leadoff hitter of his generation, getting on-base at a solid .363 clip and ranking 2nd all-time in times hit-by-pitch.  He also ranks 5th in doubles and crossed the magic 3000-hit threshold in his final season.

Like Bagwell, Biggio spent his entire career with one organization – a trait that has long been prized by Hall of Fame voters.  Putting him in the fourth spot next to his longtime teammate was an easy decision.

Tim Raines

Many of the statheads who spent years campaigning for Bert Blyleven’s Hall of Fame candidacy have now turned their attention toward the overlooked Raines, whose sabermetric profile lists him as arguably the best NL player of the 1980s and one of the top leadoff hitters ever to play the game.   

Historically, Raines has two things working against him:  he spent his best years tucked away in Montreal, and his most direct contemporary is one of the ten best players in MLB history and overshadowed him at practically every stage of his career. 

So Raines was not Rickey Henderson; neither was anybody else.  But Raines was a fantastic leadoff hitter in his own right, putting up an astounding .385 on-base percentage in his career and ranking fifth all-time with 808 stolen bases.

Raines also has a case for being the most valuable base stealer ever to play the game – Henderson included.  Nobody who ran as often as Raines came close to his 84.7% stolen base efficiency, while none of the ten players ahead of him on the all-time list I even halfway to Raines’ career stolen base total. 

I have supported Raines in each of his five years on the ballot.  I see no reason to make a change.

Mike Piazza

Piazza is another player who is likely to suffer from the Bagwell Effect, as a significant number of voters suspect him of steroid usage even though there isn’t a shred of evidence to suggest he juiced aside from unconfirmed rumors of bacne

On the other hand, Piazza is the best-hitting catcher ever to play the game, holding numerous offensive records among players at the position.  Piazza’s defense prevented him from being the best all-around catcher of his generation, but nobody is debating the value he brought to a club.

Not bad for a former 62nd-round pick who was only drafted because his father counts Tommy Lasorda as a longtime friend.  It’s safe to say that no pick in the history of the MLB draft has ever exceeded expected value.

Alan Trammell

Another favorite of statheads everywhere, Trammell has suffered historically because he was not as flashy as direct contemporaries Ozzie Smith and Cal Ripken.  It also did not help that the game was flooded with offensive shortstops right after his retirement, making his numbers look inferior by comparison. 

But this problem is nothing new for Trammell, and not only because this is his 12th year on the Hall of Fame ballot.  Trammell spent his entire career in Detroit, never getting the credit he deserved for those great Tigers squads that put together eleven consecutive winning seasons and won the World Series in 1984.  The most glaring example of this was in 1987, when Trammell lost out on the MVP Award largely because George Bell got a ridiculous number of opportunities to drive in runs. 

Trammell’s game lacked any significant weaknesses, allowing him to rack up the 11th-highest WAR of any shortstop in MLB history.  Voters are starting to notice, as Trammell finally hit the halfway point of needed support in his eleventh year on the ballot. 

Here’s hoping that voters who insist on punishing steroid users continue to take a close look at Trammell’s candidacy.  He does not deserve to suffer the same fate as longtime double-play partner Lou Whitaker, who has to wait for consideration by the Veterans Committee despite an equally-strong resume.

Curt Schilling

To be honest, I did not consider Schilling a Hall of Fame talent until I took a closer look at his numbers. 

Schilling’s main argument centers around his fantastic performance in the postseason, and there is something to be said about a pitcher who goes 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA as a frontline starter for three different franchises that reached the World Series.  And this is before talking about the grittiness he displayed in the famous Bloody Sock Game

But it is Schilling’s regular season performance that really hammers it home.  Schilling was long known as a workhorse fireballer, but he was also one of the best control pitchers of his generation.  Schilling struck out 4.38 hitters for every walk issued in his career, which is the best margin of any pitcher since the formation of the American League in 1900.  The fact that he is one of only 16 pitchers with 3000 strikeouts in his career makes it all the more impressive.

The only real knock on Schilling is that he spent a good portion of his career playing for inferior Phillies squads, who provided terrible run support and prevented him from approaching 300 wins in his career.  But Schilling was a dominant pitcher in the stats that he could actually control and one of the best aces of his generation.

Edgar Martinez

As a longtime Seattle Mariner fan, getting Edgar Martinez (the original Papi) into the Hall of Fame is something of a pet cause. 

Simply put, Edgar Martinez is one of the best righthanded hitters ever to swing a bat.  Blessed with phenomenal bat control but inferior speed, Martinez had the ability to hit line drives down either foul line like few players ever to play the game.  The Double is often credited as the reason that Seattle still has a baseball team, and his career .418 on-base percentage is the second-highest of any player on the ballot behind Bonds.

There’s a very good reason why MLB named the award for the best designated hitter in baseball after Edgar Martinez.

That, however, is the argument against him:  he was only a DH for the majority of his career, and many view players who serve as the DH as incomplete players because they do not have to play in the field. 

This is where a stat like WAR comes into play, as it values a player’s total contributions instead of just offense or pitching numbers.  Edgar’s career WAR of 64.4 ranks 108th all-time and well within the normal Hall of Fame parameters – even without defensive numbers to help increase the total.

In other words, Edgar Martinez was overwhelmingly productive at the plate during his career.

Some may point out that his raw totals are not where they could be, largely due to the fact that the Mariners completely mishandled him early in his career and refused to give him a fulltime role until he was 26.  But for a good 14 seasons, Edgar Martinez was among the best all-around hitters in the game.

Larry Walker

Surprised?

I sure was when I decided to give Larry Walker a second look. 

Truth be told, I never really thought that highly of Larry Walker during his playing days.  He always seemed to have trouble staying healthy, and his numbers were always easy to dismiss as a function of playing half of his home games in the thin air of Colorado. 

But then I saw Baseball Reference’s listing of this year’s candidates and noticed a rather startling stat:  Walker’s 69.7 WAR is the fifth-highest of any player on the ballot and third among position players.  Since WAR is a park-neutral stat, this would be the case even if he had not spent nine-plus years playing in the funhouse known as Coors Field.

This led me to take another glance at Walker’s home-road splits, which are actually much closer than people realize:  .348/.431/.637 at home, .278/.370/.495 on the road.  While Walker clearly benefited from playing a third of his career games at Coors, his career .865 OPS on the road would rank tenth among players on this year’s HOF ballot. 

In other word, Colorado is not what made Larry Walker.  Rather, he was a great hitter who happened to play about 30% of his career at Coors Field. 

Walker would hardly be the first Hall of Famer who took advantage of a favorable home park, and there are not many players who combine Walker’s bat with the kind of defense that won seven Gold Gloves.  This all-around value has convinced me that Walker is one of the ten best players on the ballot, regardless of home park.