Hall of Fame Three Base Hit — Mariano, Present Day Starters, The Reliever Era

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And it was unanimous!

As much of a traditionalist as I may be, I was completely okay with Mariano Rivera being the first unanimous selection into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. As for the rest of the selections, and incredibly poor use of ballots by the voters? Wellll…

Give me a minute on that, as I’m not sullying Mo’s moment with a rant.

I heard the complaints over the unanimity of Rivera’s selection: “Babe and Gehrig weren’t unanimous. Neither was Cy Young, so how can Mariano Rivera go in first ballot unanimously when these other baseball Gods did not?”

I won’t even default to the cop out excuse of “well, these are different times” (we’ll get to that one when we dive into the starting pitchers section of this post).

To me, the reality behind Mariano Rivera’s unanimous selection is that in the history of baseball, no one was better at the job of closer than Mariano. And it wasn’t close. He was the best pitcher on each of the Yankees’ title teams during his run, and with apologies to Derek Jeter, maybe their best player period.

(By the way, if you want to read an incredible tribute to Mariano Rivera, go to The Players Tribune site — one of these days I’ll hire an intern who can create links here — and see Derek Jeter’s piece honoring his teammate. Thanks to Copper Springs Roddy for passing along.)

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Lou Gehrig was legendary, but are we really ready to declare him the best first baseman in the history of baseball? No. In his own era you could argue for Jimmy Foxx or Bill Terry as near equals.

Ruth? Beyond legend, he changed the game and had a stadium named after him, not to mention a little league. But unequivocal best outfielder in history? That’s a tall order, even for The Bambino.

The list goes on, and you could arguably take it across the entire world of sports (stay tuned for that upcoming post). I challenge you to come up with any all-time great who dominated over an entire career (I mean, c’mon, Rivera was the best reliever in baseball in his final year in the bigs), was the key to championship teams, rising to the occasion in the most pressure-packed of moments, and was head and shoulders the best in their sport — ever — at doing whatever they did.

Unanimous indeed.

And in a fitting dose of symmetry, did anyone else happen to notice that Mariano Rivera’s induction announcement came on the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday? The last player allowed to wear Jackie Robinson’s hallowed number 42, retired in honor of the pioneer and hero who broke the MLB color barrier (could there have been a better final man to wear that jersey than Rivera?), the dignified and classy Rivera, himself a man of color, earns unanimous induction into the Hall of Fame, wearing his Yankees cap and Jackie’s 42. On MLK Day.

Perfect.

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Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s have at it.

Mike Mussina and Roy Halladay don’t belong in the Hall of Fame (for the purpose of today’s post, we’ll leave Edgar Martinez out of this, but if you read my last post on this topic, you’ll know I supported his induction). Sorry, folks, this voting travesty is a direct reflection on the “participation trophy” era of sports, with writers feeling the need to write in ten names on their ballots simply because they are given ten spaces to do so.

One more time: TEN ISN’T A REQUIREMENT, IT IS A MAXIMUM

Moose was a great pitcher (an Oriole by the way, who finished his career on some great Yankees teams that allowed him to pad stats that got him elected this year — I sure as heck hope he doesn’t go in with his Yankees cap on, but I digress…) who belongs in the company of Jim Kaat (283 wins) and Tommy John (288) — wonderful pitchers who accumulated big stats over long successful careers, but weren’t Hall-worthy.

Halladay benefitted from the sadness surrounding his recent passing, but that shouldn’t be a data point for Hall of Fame entry. Doc was tremendous. But in the years he was tremendous, did we ever step back and think “wow, aren’t we lucky to be able to watch this guy pitch,” the way we did when Pedro Martinez was at his most unhittable. Or Koufax. Or Maddux.

Sitting with Kitty, TJ and Moose in the crowd this summer cheering on Rivera (as opposed to signing autographs punctuated with “HOF”) should be Jack Morris and Bert Blyleven. Outstanding pitchers all, but never to be confused with the few elites of their respective eras.

It is not the “Hall of Very Good.”

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I’ve thought about this a lot in the last few days since The Hall announcement came out. Do we need to begin to assess starting pitchers differently when we approach Hall of Fame worthiness?  In these days of “quality” starts equating to a 4.50 ERA, and 200 innings signaling too much of a workload for all but the freaks of nature, should we be lowering, or changing, our standards?

It is highly likely we never see another 300 game winner (Justin Verlander? When I scan the list of active wins leaders, he seems the only one with a shot). Everyone keeps telling me that wins are an overrated stat anyway (although the last I checked, the team with the best overall ERA or WAR totals doesn’t get an automatic playoff bid).

Shutouts and complete games? If some stud hurler can one day talk his manager into letting him finish what he started five times in a season, he’ll take the Complete Game title by a landslide. A complete game shutout is about as common as a Big Foot sighting these days.

Yes, it’s a different time for starters, but to me that’s another cheap excuse to water down Hall of Fame entry. Looking at the list of Hall of Fame hurlers with fewer wins than Mussina (270), you run across names like Bob Gibson (251), Whitey Ford (236), Pedro (219) and Koufax (165). Hall of Fame legends all. I’m sorry, but Halladay and Mussina aren’t at that level.

And if you’re bored and have a few minutes, explain to me the Andy Pettitte thinking. Now, first of all, I don’t believe Pettitte is a HOFer either. Great pitcher on amazing Yankees teams, but never the guy I thought of ace on any of those clubs, Pettitte only garnered 9.9% of the vote this year. Was this a steroid reaction? His numbers (256 wins) come scarily close to those of Moose, plus he won more rings, threw from the left side (should that matter?), and had more 20-win seasons. But Mussina clears the 75% barrier and Andy barely moves the needle. I just don’t get it. Both of those guys belong in that gathering for really good, not great, players, just below the line to immortality.

To me, it’s not just wins, although I do still default to that (as my man Herm Edwards said, “You play to win the game!”). We give these guys “W’s” for a reason, so I choose to start there. Yet to me it’s overall dominance. When the time comes, I see Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Verlander as the most likely present day starting pitchers to be deserving HOF candidates, and each of them still needs to extend their excellence for at least a couple more seasons.

The current two winningest pitchers active in MLB are Bartolo Colon (247) and C.C. Sabathia (246). As a baseball fan, I happen to love both of these guys. I mean, Big Sexy? You bet I like him — steroid stain and all. The guy is simply a joy to watch and I hope he’s still waddling out there tossing that off speed slop when he’s 50.

And Sabathia — the “hefty lefty?” Talk about a stand up guy. A horse. An ace. Awesome teammate. Owns the inside of the plate and first guy out of the dugout if a teammate gets thrown at. A flat out badass.

I come close with C.C., but to me he falls just short also. Talk to me in his ninth or tenth year on the ballot (if the “fill in the ten blanks” ballot stuffers haven’t already inducted him by then, that is), and maybe I’ll think differently, but to me he’s just below that immortal line. This is sacred ground we are protecting here, folks!

There is still room for starting pitchers in The Hall, but not at the same pace of induction as the old days. Yes, the game has changed, and we should see that in induction patterns of the modern day starter, not by watering the selection process down to keep the flow steady.

Which brings me back to the relievers.

So the game has changed, and perhaps the slack created in dropping the number of Hall of Fame inductees from the starting pitcher ranks should be taken up from the reliever corps? We all see the importance of a strong bullpen increasing by the year.

The “opener”; middle innings guys getting All Star berths; guaranteed contracts north of $10,000,000-per going to the elite closers (money well spent if you ask me — I mean, how many games would Jake deGrom have won last year if Mo had been his closer?) — this is all new.

Until Hoyt Wilhelm got inducted in 1985, the Hall of Fame boasted zero relievers. And Wilhelm had all sorts of gimmicks going for him in addition to a deserving resume — first pitcher to appear in over 1000 games, a knuckler, homered in his first at bat in the bigs, successful spot starter (over 200 innings for the 1959 O’s), not to mention prominent figure on a World Series winner (’54 Giants).

It took another seven years for the next reliever to get in — Rollie Fingers. Only the signature reliever of the ’70’s and ’80’s as bullpens rose from the shadows to prominence (Fingers’ wax mustache taken from the silent film era didn’t hurt either).

Twenty-seven years after Fingers selection, there are only another five firemen that have graced The Hall: Goose Gossage, Trevor Hoffman (who I still struggle to understand, despite the huge save totals — if Lee Smith isn’t in, Hoffman shouldn’t be either), Bruce Sutter (he invented a pitch), Dennis Eckersley, and now Mariano (you may choose to add John Smoltz here, but I still think of him as more of a starter, but like Eck it was his successful crossover to lights out reliever that earned him his Hall nod).

Looking around the league today and trying to project out as to who will one day earn their way into The Hall (yes, another upcoming post), there are more relievers worthy of consideration in today’s game than starters.

No, there is likely never going to be another Mariano Rivera among them (and if there is, please God, don’t drop him in the Bronx during my lifetime), but consider a few of these names: Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen (is K-Rod still active?). Not to mention the countless young guys throwing gas and hitting 40 saves a year, who, should they stay healthy and sustain their early success, could warrant consideration.

And what about names like Dellin Betances? I know, he’s not a closer, but hit up his stats when you have a minute. If he tacks on another five to seven similar seasons to his career history thus far, you can’t tell me he doesn’t at least warrant a discussion. The guy’s been that dominant.

That’s my real point here. Sustained excellence and dominance at an elite level to where the entire league stops to take notice. To me, that’s the Hall of Fame.

Let the individual teams honor that next level down with their Walls of Fame, Monument Parks and Honor Guards to memorialize the Harold Baines’s, Tim Raines’s, Doc Halladays and Jim Rice’s of the world.

Save Cooperstown for the legends.

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