Try as I might, Harold Baines continues to haunt me.
And I really hate making this about Harold Baines, who I’m sure is rightfully thrilled over his election into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. No, this is about the voters who have watered down this process to the point where enshrinement into Cooperstown runs the risk of losing the special meaning of immortality reserved for the Ruths, Cobbs and Riveras of the world.
So rather than continue to rail about the current day HOF voters who seem committed to putting ten names on their annual ballots because…(well, because there are ten slots available to them, that’s why!), I decided to put my keyboard where my mouth is and grant myself a ballot to induct a new class of Hall of Famers, with a couple of caveats:
- They must be active major league players in 2019 (for example, Ichiro won’t be brought up again in this column, as number one, he’s a lock, and number two, he’s not really on an active roster today despite any gimmicks the Mariners might have planned for Opening Day)
- Like those with an annual vote on Cooperstown induction, my ballot has ten spaces to potentially cast a vote for a player deemed worthy (however — key point here — you don’t have to use all ten, or even one, if not one player strikes the voter as warranting induction)
- Statistics used for consideration run through 2018, with no projecting forward, so names like Mike Trout won’t be among the inductees simply because, despite his undeniable greatness, he has not yet accumulated a body of work that is Hall of Fame worthy (add names like Buster Posey, Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado and even Jose Altuve — who’s steadily climbing into the territory of “in a few more years on his current trajectory”). The rationale behind this decision could be called the Joe Mauer Factor, meaning shit happens along the way to a Hall of Fame career that sometimes none of us can anticipate. One day you see a likely Cooperstown-bound catcher, and then the next he becomes a light-hitting first baseman who receives a justifiably warm sendoff from the Minnesota faithful on the final day of a great, but not Hall-worthy, career.
With these ground rules in place, we’ve arranged our most closely considered candidates from present-day MLB into the following three categories:
THE LOCKS: Nothing more needed. They are in, perhaps even on the first ballot, and now it’s simply a matter of seeing where the final statistical numbers total out when their eventual retirement comes along.
THE CLOSE BUT NOT LOCKS: Easily the toughest category to assess, as this gets into that murky area that torments voters, where we are forced to decide between “really good” and “all-time great.”
THE LOCKS WITH A FEW MORE GOOD YEARS: These players may be superior in the present day game to THE CLOSE BUT NOT LOCKS, except for the fact that their accumulated numbers don’t get them across the Cooperstown threshold just yet. However, it would be a surprise if they don’t find themselves in the lock category two to three years from now if they are able to maintain their excellence.
What will not appear in this post is the much lengthier list of Hall of Very Good candidates. Those present day stars who should never be enshrined anywhere beyond their home team’s “circle of honor”-styled recognition museums. These are the players littering the ballots of today’s voters in their annual exercise to “get to ten.”
Nope, today we are sticking with a filter that strives to define baseball immortality. Ten ballots and somewhere in the neighborhood of 800-900 eligible and active major leaguers. Only the best of the best need be considered. Here’s my ballot:
THE LOCKS: There are only two active players worthy today from my admittedly biased vantage point — Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera.
Pujols would even garner first ballot inclusion on this list, given his fundamentally flawless resume of 3000+ hits, 600+ HR’s and a lifetime .302 batting average. For the stat heads we can throw in his .936 lifetime OPS and remind everyone of all the accolades heaped upon him over his 18-year career, beginning with his Rookie of the Year honor in 2001 as a Cardinal third baseman. Add in three MVP’s, six Silver Sluggers and two Gold Gloves, and this one is a no brainer. But he also throws in a World Series title (three-home run game anyone?) and an NLCS MVP. Nuff said.
Cabrera (who also played his share of third base before settling in as a first baseman) is a lock as well, only the most feared hitter of his time, who actually managed to beat out Trout as MVP in 2012 and 2013. Cabrera boasts a .316 lifetime average (and .946 lifetime OPS), with 465 dingers, 556 doubles and 1635 RBI’s. In a vacuum these are staggering numbers, but will pale a bit next to Pujols’ superhuman totals. No matter, Miggy is a lock, although I wouldn’t put him in first ballot, even with those two MVP’s and seven Silver Sluggers. First ballot selections need to remain the rarified air of Hall of Fame inclusion.
By the way, if Adrian Beltre had remained active he’d be on this list, too, but his retirement takes him out of today’s consideration. However, it’s worth noting his amazing glove, 3000+ hits, 477 round trippers, 636 two-base hits and unique pet peeve surrounding never wanting anyone to touch his head, makes him a lock, too, when his time rolls around.
CLOSE BUT NOT LOCKS: Cue the controversy. Here’s where I throw out the gauntlet to those participation-trophy, “10 slots/10 names on my ballot” wankers who are slowly watering down The Hall, threatening to turn the shrine into an unrecognizable, mundane Hall of Very Good.
We’ll start with the two pitchers, C.C. Sabathia and Justin Verlander. Are these two Hall of Famers, or just outstanding pitchers who have accumulated terrific stats over their respective careers? Should they remain on the outside looking in alongside the likes of Tommy John and Kitty Kaat, or lock arms next to the bronze busts of Whitey Ford and Old Pete Alexander?
I do have to tip my hat here to one of the innate challenges voters face in their selection process — how do you reconcile objectivity around players you happen to really like? That’s my Sabathia dilemma. The Hefty Lefty enters 2019 with 246 wins and a lifetime ERA of 3.70. He’s signed for the year and backed by a loaded offensive squad that almost surely will allow him to cross the round number milestones of 250 wins and 3000 strikeouts before this year’s All Star break, health permitting (he sits at 2996 K’s as pitchers and catchers begin to report).
Sabathia boasts a World Series ring and an ALCS MVP from 2009, and a Cy Young in 2007. Naysayers would point to his abandonment of his teammates to address his alcohol issues on the eve of the 2015 Wild Card game as a reason to keep him out, although others might give him a pass here, for putting family and his life and health first. Should that matter? Well, if steroids play a role in the voter decision-making process (stay tuned for that one in a couple of paragraphs), it says here that being a stand up guy should also matter. For this voter, it goes in the plus column (sorry, Geno).
Verdict: C.C. doesn’t make this ballot, but here’s betting all the tea in China the actual voters add him to their watered down submissions when the time comes.
If we are keeping C.C. out, does that help or hurt Verlander’s candidacy? Well, both, sort of. While Verlander hasn’t approached the accumulation level of Sabathia’s career stats, you could argue his level of excellence has exceeded the big lefty’s.
Currently, Verlander sits at “only” 204-123 on his career. He has a lifetime ERA of 3.39 and just north of 2700 K’s. For comparison sake, I offer that Roy Halladay (who should NOT have been inducted — totally a Hall of Very Good selection — but is a relevant stat marker here nonetheless) compiled a lifetime record of 203-105 with a 3.38 ERA and 2117 K’s.
Doc’s stats look an awful lot like Verlander’s numbers today, plus you can add in that Kate Upton’s better half also has a Rookie of the Year in 2006 to his credit, plus the double-whammy MVP/Cy Young year of 2011 going for him. Add in his World Series title where he essentially was the difference-maker in getting the Astros over the top in 2017 (we can’t forget his dominant ALCS that year that garnered him series MVP), and yes, this guy is so close.
Verdict: Verlander doesn’t make this ballot either, as I just can’t get there with his current career stats (reminding me too much of Doc H., who’s sentiment-driven induction wasn’t warranted by his underlying numbers). In Verlander’s case, though, I expect him to fully deserve future induction, as I see him putting up a few more strong years that will make him an easy “yes” when his time comes. Just not today.
On the position player side of things, I only identify two more current stars worthy of the “close” label — Robinson Cano and Yadier Molina.
Just like I found the Sabathia candidacy challenging for me due to the fact that I’m a fan and appreciator of all he brings to the ballpark every day, I’m equally challenged on the other side of the pendulum by Cano. In Robbie’s case, I’m not a fan. Yes, part of this is the whole Pinstripes stigma (which shows just how much I do like C.C., as I’m able to even overlook that in his case), which when coupled with his long history of not running hard to first base and his steroid suspension last season, forces him to face an uphill climb on this ballot.
But the guy has posted some serious numbers. North of 300 HR’s and 500 doubles as an above-average defensive second-baseman (two Gold Gloves) goes way beyond Hall of Fame table stakes for consideration. His 2470 hits, five Silver Sluggers and lifetime batting average of .304 (.848 OPS) places him among the elite second basemen in history (think Joe Morgan and Ryne Sandberg for comparison markers).
Verdict: Cano doesn’t get my vote. Despite my desire to maintain objectivity, I simply don’t care for him and his ‘roid suspension is still too fresh (and validates a lot of the whispers about his pumped up numbers and A-Rod friendship during his days in the Bronx). However, in Cano’s case, he has five years left on his contract, and even allowing for the inevitable Mets-related decline that so many have suffered before him, he’s even odds to get to 3000 hits before hanging up the cleats, which will be enough for certain induction when the time comes.
In Molina’s case, we are forced to invoke the “catcher qualification” asterisk as we consider his merits. That means what may normally appear pedestrian numbers, such as a lifetime .282 average and .740 OPS, to go with 146 HR’s and 1850 hits, must be viewed differently when remembering all he did behind the plate while compiling those offensive stats.
Molina is the best defensive catcher of his era, boasting nine Gold Gloves to accompany being the spiritual leader on two World Series winners. Add to that a 2018 Roberto Clemente award and his clutch, NLCS-clinching HR that broke the hearts of Mets fans everywhere back in 2006, and Molina’s candidacy is legit right now.
Verdict: Yadier gets my vote. Even if he doesn’t play another game. Not a first ballot guy by any means, but he goes in as the best of his era at the most physically challenging of positions, and a winner and clutch leader along the way. And he’s not done. One day we’ll see Yadier Molina on the “Lock” list.
Bottom line on the “Close” category is that “close” doesn’t mean “in.” A valuable lesson for those feeling the need to populate their ballot with ten names annually come hell or high water. Just ask Dwight Evans (appropriately on the outside looking in from the land of “Close”) about this one (that one’s for you, too, Geno).
LOCKS WITH A FEW MORE GOOD YEARS: When I think about the candidates that populate this category, it is actually more star-studded than the “Close” roster. But sustained success is a critical part of my criteria, and as a result these stars still have to continue producing at elite levels just a bit more to earn a vote on my ballot.
You have to start with Clayton Kershaw here. To begin with, let’s drop the statistical comparisons to Sandy Koufax as justification that CK is already Hall-worthy. True, Koufax was 165-87 with 2396 K’s and a lifetime 2.76 ERA when arm troubled ended his career prematurely. Not the accumulation-type of stats most look for when thinking about Hall of Fame candidates. But he was Koufax. Easily the most dominant starter, regular season and postseason, of his time, and an all-time, Mount Rushmore-kind of great.
Kershaw compares similarly to Sandy’s career numbers, with his 153-69 record, 2275 K’s and 2.39 lifetime ERA. He even replicated Verlander’s double-whammy MVP/Cy Young season in 2017, not to mention two other Cy’s, one Gold Glove and a Clemente Award to boot. Compelling for sure, but not there yet in this voter’s estimation.
Plus there’s the whole postseason thing…I hate to bring it up, as Kershaw is another player I really enjoy rooting for, but the reality is he hasn’t put his team on his back in the postseason when they’ve needed him most. And that matters.
We need to see two to three more years of outstanding numbers, helped along by one studly postseason appearance (a ring would sure go a long way here). Don’t put him in just yet, voters…please.
If we are leaving out Kershaw and asking for more, that spells doom for “Mad” Max Scherzer. Another stud with numbers eerily similar to CK’s and a statistical head of steam that actually gives me greater confidence that when all is said and done his candidacy will be stronger than the Dodger lefty’s.
Currently Scherzer is 159-82 with 2449 K’s and a 3.22 lifetime ERA. Add to that three Cy Young Awards plus a near-miss in 2018, when he hit the 300-strikeout mark, and Scherzer’s on a collision course with The Hall. But not yet. Give him five more years, with three of them at his current level of supreme dominance and he joins the ranks of the Locks. But not today.
Lastly, in this age of closers earning contracts north of $10 million a year and riding the giddy wave of Mariano Rivera’s historic, unanimous induction last month, where does that leave the current best in the biz (and unemployed), Craig Kimbrel? He offers sustained dominance, incredible stats, a World Series ring and that funky arm hang thing of his (for the record, I hate that, but it is memorable).
Kimbrel’s candidacy starts with being the most dominant closer of the post-Rivera era. His lifetime average stat line includes 42 saves and a 1.91 ERA over a nine-year run. His 333 total saves are impressive, as is his .91 ratio of walks/hits per innings pitched. But I need to see him keep it going for a few more years. Get him to 400 saves and I put him in the “close” category. I believe it is important to remember that we are at the front end of establishing what all-time great stats for closers looks like, and we need special here. Kimbrel’s still a few years away.
(SportsAttic Note: Two names that came soclose to landing in this category were Zack Greinke and Jon Lester. Both appear destined to end up in the “Close” column, but for now I’ve decided to keep them as examples of those who are best identified with the Hall of Very Good. Stay tuned for the upcoming post.)
And there it is, my present day, active player ballot will include only three names, despite the temptation of ten ballot slots calling out their alluring siren’s song to unsuspecting voters. If this vote happened today, I vote in:
*Albert Pujols — first ballot
*Miguel Cabrera — likely in year two or three of his eligibility
*Yadier Molina — more like year four or five
But they are all in — Hall of Famers and all-time greats. As it should be if one is going to keep the company of the Babe, Hank and the Big Train.