BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
From the moment a young man makes it his aspiration to become a professional baseball player, he dreams of two things: 1) Win the World Series, and 2) Earn enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. The vast majority of kids who are fortunate enough to make it to pro ball never reach the major leagues, and thus don’t have a chance to play for a championship.
For the elite few who are talented enough to play Major League Baseball, the team they find themselves employed by might have as much to do with their chances of holding the trophy at season’s end as their raw ability. For the greatest players of their generations, the true superstars of the game, however, the road to immortality- and a plaque in Cooperstown -is governed by the sportswriters who cover the sport.
In July of 2021, the Hall of Fame will officially commemorate the induction of the 2020 class, which included Derek Jeter and Larry Walker. The ceremony was cancelled last summer due to the pandemic, allowing for the opportunity to have the class expand based on the results of next month’s voting results.
New to the 2021 ballot are Mark Buehrle, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Torii Hunter, each of whom were remarkable players who enjoyed stellar careers, but whose candidacy for enshrinement will probably fall short. Hudson went 222-133 over his career with a 3.49 ERA, which was 20% better than his peers. His 57.9 career wins over replacement (WAR) is well short of the 73.3 level the average Hall of Fame pitcher feature, but he certainly should merit consideration by the writers. Buehrle should also draw votes, having gone 214-160 with a 3.81 ERA (17% better than the league average) during his career, with a 59.1 WAR. He also authored both a no-hitter and a perfect game, and was known for his quick work on the mound. Torii Hunter played a defensively strong CF, and eventually developed into a capable batsman, amassing 2452 hits, and a .277/.331/.461 line to go with 353 HR’s and nine Gold Gloves. His career performance levels fall short of the average Hall of Fame center field group, but Hunter’s legacy, like his fellow debutants on the ballot, is worthy of recognition as one of the game’s best talents.
There is a backlog of holdover candidates on the ballot who will likely merit more discussion than those who are seeking election for the first time. We’ll be hearing a lot of discussion on players like Curt Schilling (70% of the vote in 2020), Roger Clemens (61%) and Barry Bonds (60.7%), each of whom may finally crest the 75% threshold for election in 2021. Omar Vizquel (52.6%), Scott Rolen (35.3%), Billy Wagner (31.7%) and Gary Sheffield (30.5%) also hope to gain support in their quests to be elected. Luminaries such as Todd Helton, Manny Ramirez, Jeff Kent, Andruw Jones, Sammy Sosa and Andy Pettitte, none of whom garnered more than 30% of the vote in 2020, are unlikely to join Jeter and Walker on the podium during next summer’s event.
On January 22nd, 2020, Derek Jeter and Larry Walker got the news that they were the latest members of perhaps the most hallowed and venerable sports institution in existence. They had reached the pinnacle of their sport, and were recognized for their greatness. Jeter, in his first year of eligibility, received 396 of 397 votes, 99.7%, the second highest total ever (his teammate, reliever Mariano Rivera, received the only unanimous election to the Hall of Fame ever in 2019). Walker, in his tenth and final year on the ballot, received 304 votes, 76.6%, and will join Jeter in Cooperstown.
It may surprise some to learn that Larry Walker amassed 72.7 career Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in his 17 major league seasons, slightly more than the 72.4 Jeter compiled during his 20 year run with the Yankees. Why did it take Walker ten full years of voting to be recognized as a Hall of Fame player, while Jeter just received the second highest vote percentage in the history of balloting ?
There are many examples of head-scratching practices when it comes to the logic of Hall of Fame balloting. Perhaps Jeter, among the most popular and charismatic players in the game, who plied his trade brilliantly for the sport’s signature franchise in the country’s largest city, earned additional merit in the eyes of the writers who vote compared to Walker, a Canadian who toiled in smaller markets (Montreal, Denver, St. Louis) than New York. Jeter was also involved in 15 postseasons, winning five championships, while Walker only earned three trips to the postseason during his career, never winning a title. Surely those considerations should factor into the valuation of the players, but are they sufficient to explain the vast disparity in their voting results despite a nearly equivalent career value ?
By any statistical measure, players like Bonds and Clemens qualify as sure fire Hall of Fame players. It is not hyperbole to suggest that Barry Bonds is one of the greatest hitters to ever play the game. He is the all-time leader in HR’s with 762, and has accrued a total of 163 WAR in his 22-year career, good for fourth in the history of the game, behind only Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson and Cy Young. Roger Clemens sits eighth on the same list at 140 WAR, and third overall among starting pitchers, and is considered by many as the greatest pitcher of the modern (post-integration) era. Neither Bonds nor Clemens has been elected to the Hall of Fame by those who vote for the honor despite both having been eligible for the past nine years. How can these Goliath’s of the game be ignored when it comes to awarding them the highest honor of their professions ? Because it is alleged that they both used steroids.
A number of studies have attempted to find statistical evidence to show that steroid use improves performance on the baseball field. Perhaps surprisingly, none have succeeded. An article on The Ringer by Ben Lindberg in 2018 took a thoughtful look at the topic entitled “How Much of a Role Did Steroids Play in the Steroids Era ?” Eric Walker may have done the most thorough examination of the issue here.
Based on well-sourced research and statistical analysis, neither found compelling evidence that steroids improved player performance. Despite the lack of supporting data, the narrative that steroids created enormous advantages for the players who took them persists. A large contingent of BBWAA writers have planted their flags and declared that steroid use is unholy, and that any player caught using them-or even those who were rumored to have done so-will never receive a Hall of Fame checkmark on their ballot. This is the only way to explain the exclusion of players such as Bonds and Clemens from the ranks of baseball immortals, and while their vote totals have climbed in recent years, both fell well short (Clemens-61% Bonds-60.7%) of election in the 2020 class.
In 2018, the New York Yankees set the all time record by hitting 267 HR’s, breaking the record set 21 years before by the 1997 Seattle Mariners. In 2019 alone, four teams broke that record, and the Minnesota Twins set the all time HR record by a team by hitting 307. The Yankees, Astros and Dodgers also eclipsed the 267 mark set by New York just a season earlier. In fact, fifteen franchises set team HR records in 2019, a feat never before approached in a single season.
Ask yourself this: How many stories did you read in 2019 about steroid use by players hitting all those HR’s ? Surely, such lofty dinger totals had to be the result of illegal PED use, fueling muscle bound sluggers to bash baseballs harder and further than they ever had before. Nary a word was spoken about the potential impact that illegal steroid use may have had on the phenomenon we witnessed that season. Why was that ? A new narrative had emerged, one that was supported by scientific evidence and high level experimenting that concluded that there were fundamental changes in the composition of the baseball, and that those changes allowed the ball to be hit further.
Baseballs were hacked open, dissected and subject to a litany of technological exams by experts in physics who made their discoveries public. In response to the studies, MLB Senior Vice President Morgan Sword said, “one of the things we’re going to have to do is accept the fact that the baseball is going to vary. The baseball has varied in its performance probably for the entire history of our sport.”
Is it possible, or even probable, that the spike in power that was attributed to the use of PEDs in the 1990’s and early 2000’s was actually the result in subtle changes to the composition and production of the baseball ? The power shown in the past two years and the resultant HR totals dwarf anything achieved by teams during the so-called “Steroid Era.” Based on the new information, and the statistical data that suggests that steroid use had a marginal, if any, meaningful impact on player performance, should the narrative that surrounds the candidacy of those players be seen in a new light ? Will BBWAA writers assimilate the new information to allow a different paradigm to help bring the proper context to the performance of the great players from that era ? I believe they should.
There is nothing ignoble about a writer trying to uphold the standards spelled out by the Hall of Fame regarding their voting process. Words like integrity and character are virtues that represent the best aspects of competitive sport, and should be the underpinning of any institution that seeks to celebrate the best to play their game. The spirit of competition and the purity of striving to excel at it are ethics that encourage greatness. Athletes stretch the limits of their physical and mental capacities to perform at high levels, and those efforts should be applauded and recognized by those who chronicle them.
The Hall of Fame entrusts the process of voting for enshrinement to a group of people (the BBWAA member writers) who are as uniquely qualified to perform that duty as any on the planet. Asking that collective to become the conscience of Major League Baseball as gatekeepers of its Valhalla in Cooperstown has proven to be wildly inconsistent and certainly illogical. Each writer must establish his/her own standard of morality to apply to players’ candidacies, and weigh their perception of that player’s character, integrity and sportsmanship against a non-existent absolute.
The primary issue clouding modern ballot hopefuls such as Bonds, Clemens and Alex Rodriguez is their alleged use of steroids and PED’s. Many writers in the BBWAA have taken a firm stance on the issue, and refuse to vote for anyone convicted or even suspected of having used them during their playing career. Some argue that even if steroids didn’t help the players on the field performance, they were still trying to cheat and break league rules to gain an unfair advantage over their fellow players, and that puts them on the wrong side of the character/integrity/sportsmanship argument. That position seems reasonable.
But what about the fact that there are already cheaters, rule breakers and racists in the Hall of Fame ? Some writers posit that their responsibility to protect the game should not change or be impacted because errors in judgment by past voting members admitted candidates of lesser moral construction. Letting Bonds and Clemens in the Hall would only compound those errors, and would send the wrong message to the fans of the game, they would argue.
In many ways, the writers are the representatives of the collective fandom of baseball, and their platform allows them to help shape the history of the sport, including deciding on which players are worthy of our admiration. They can choose to portray a player in a positive or negative light during articles or interviews with those players that get published for fans to consume. That influence extends to their voting responsibilities for the Hall of Fame, and it may be time to recognize that their personal interpretation of inclusion standards should be recalibrated as new information comes to light, or as baseball policy evolves.
Viewed through the prism of history, players like Bonds and Clemens were the best of their generation, and among the best to ever play the game. Their place among the pantheon of baseball immortals should not be subject to the ever-shifting standard of baseball morality as interpreted by the writers who vote for the Hall of Fame.
If the lessons of voting results over the past 80 years tell us anything, it’s that BBWAA writers, despite their genuine and honest efforts, have done a very inconsistent job of applying the character, integrity and sportsmanship standards to candidates. Perhaps it is finally time for those rules to be amended to provide more objective guidelines that would be easier to adhere to, or to remove it completely.
After all, sportswriters are fallible human beings, just like the athletes they are paid to chronicle.