To be a Hall of Famer — the 2008 ballots (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this 3-part series, I took a look at the candidates from the ballot for players who began play in 1942 or earlier.  In this post, I’m going to discuss the ballot for players who began play in 1943 or later (and who have been retired for at least 21 years).  Part 3 will concern the BBWAA ballot.

In the case of this ballot, it’s very important to understand the process of selecting (or not selecting) players for enshrinement.  The reason the procedures were changed (for the umpteenth time) after the last Veterans Committee election was due to the fact that no one was getting elected.    The powers that be at the Hall weren’t happy about that, so the process was streamlined.  Only Hall of Fame players and managers will vote for the players on this ballot (previously, Spink and Frick winners also voted).  That cuts the list of potential voters down to 64 (from 80+).

To be elected, a candidate has to be named on 75% of the returned ballots.  Assuming all 64 ballots were submitted, that would mean a candidate would have to be listed on 48 ballots.

The good news for candidates this year is that that the final ballot has been cut to 10.  In the last election, for example, voters had to choose from among 27 players.  This time a winnowing-out process by a pair of different committees reduced the field of candidates to 21, and from there the living Hall of Famers submitted preliminary ballots, resulting in further reducing that number to 10.  It would seem easier for the voters to develop a consensus resulting in at least one player being elected when the number of candidates is limited.

There is one catch, though, and it’s a significant one.

Voters can vote for up to four candidates.  They can’t vote for more than four.  That strikes me as potentially disastrous, if the goal is to elect somebody.  In last year’s election, when no candidate got 75% of the vote, the average ballot contained 5.96 names.

Let’s say, for example, that in the last election a voter cast a ballot listing Tony Oliva, Dick Allen, Jim Kaat, Maury Wills, Gil Hodges, Joe Torre, Vada Pinson, and Ron Santo.  Well, this time around all eight of those guys are on the ballot again, but the voter would only be able to vote for four of them.  If he decides that his “top four” are Oliva, Allen, Kaat, and Wills, that’s one less vote for the other four (including Santo, who came closest to election last time).  The elector’s vote would essentially count against the Hodges-Torre-Pinson-Santo group.

Ron Santo got 57 votes in the last election (out of a possible 82).  There is no guarantee that all 57 of those voters considered him to be one of their top four candidates.  The same is true for the other candidates, of course, including the three other players to receive greater than 50% of the vote in the last election (Kaat, Hodges, and Oliva).

I think by limiting the electors to four choices, the Hall risks another shutout.

All ten of the nominees appeared on the ballot for the prior election.  In fact, the top six vote-getters in that election are on this ballot, along with the 8th-place finisher (Pinson), 11th-place finisher (Tiant), 13th-place finisher (Al Oliver), and 17th-place finisher (Allen).  The most surprising omission may be Don Newcombe, who did not even make the list of 21 candidates on the preliminary ballot (Newcombe finished 7th in the last election, with just over 20% of the vote).  Other players from the ballot for the last election who did not make the “semi-finals” despite being eligible were Curt Flood, Sparky Lyle, and Bobby Bonds.

Roger Maris, Minnie Minoso, Ken Boyer, Mickey Lolich, Thurman Munson, and Rocky Colavito were on last year’s ballot and made this year’s preliminary ballot, but did not make the final 10.  The players who were on the preliminary ballot who did not appear on the ballot for the last election were Steve Garvey, Bert Campaneris, Mike Cuellar, Ted Kluszewski, and Lee May.

Okay, on to the ten candidates.  I’m going to start by stating that there is one guy on this list who absolutely should be in the Hall of Fame, more so than any of the other players, and I think the electors should draw some criticism for not already electing him.  I’m talking, of course, about Joe Torre.

Maybe you thought I was going to say Ron Santo, and I’ll get to him (he belongs in the Hall too)  — but to me, the one guy who you just have to vote for if you are an elector is Torre.  Let’s go to the rules for election for the post-1943 candidates.  Rule number 6-B, to be precise:

Those whose careers entailed involvement as both players and managers/executives/umpires will be considered for their overall contribution to the game of Baseball…

So when the electors are considering Torre, they are to take into account his complete contribution to the game, which includes his borderline Hall of Fame career as a player AND his no-questions-asked Hall of Fame career as a manager.  If the electors are supposed to vote based on his entire career in baseball, is there any doubt that they should be voting for him?

Of course, that was also true in the last election, and in the last election Joe Torre received less than 32% of the vote.  Basically, two out of every three voters disregarded his managerial career.  (For all I know, all of them did, and the guys who voted for him did so because they thought just as a player he was Hall-worthy.)

I realize there might be some hesitation from some of the voters who are unsure whether to consider his managerial career (particularly when he’s still active).  I would tell them that from a practical standpoint, it doesn’t matter if Torre goes into the Hall classified as a “player” or a “manager” — there is no real distinction, a point proven by the fact that both managers and players are voting in this election.  This is something that Joe Morgan or one of the other leaders among the Hall of Famers probably needs to emphasize to his fellow voters.

What is a bit contradictory to this is the possibility that the voters are applying managerial credit to Gil Hodges and not Torre.  At least, that could be the explanation for the continuing support for Hodges’ candidacy (61% in the last election).  It probably isn’t the full explanation, however.

Hodges is most likely getting credit as a player/manager/icon.  As a player, he is similar to a raft of non-Famer first basemen, like Boog Powell and Norm Cash (or Tino Martinez, perhaps an apt modern comparison).  The difference is Hodges’ status as a beloved symbol of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  After all, nobody ever wrote a book called Praying for Roy Sievers.

I would like to support Hodges’ candidacy.  I respect the consistent support he received from a large portion of the BBWAA during his time on that ballot (in his final year, he received 63.4% of the vote).  He was obviously an impressive man.  The facts are, though, that his playing career doesn’t measure up, and his managerial career, tragically, isn’t long enough to compensate.

Ron Santo is (at worst) one of the seven greatest third basemen of all time.  You could argue he’s as high as fifth-best.  If you go by the rankings in Bill James’ New Historical Baseball Abstract (which ranks him sixth), the seventh-best second baseman of all time is Ryne Sandberg.  The seventh-best shortstop is Ozzie Smith.  The seventh-best first baseman is Harmon Killebrew.The seventh-best catcher is Bill Dickey.  The seventh-best center fielder is Junior Griffey.  You get the idea…

Now, that doesn’t mean that the position of third base is as strong historically (in terms of number of great players) as those other positions.  Maybe it isn’t.  It’s certainly an undervalued position as far as Hall of Famers go.  Despite the relative paucity of players at that position in the Hall, however, Santo would rank in the upper half of third basemen so honored.  However, in his final year on the BBWAA ballot, Santo only received 43.1% of the vote.

He hasn’t been elected because of the era in which he played (depressing offensive stats across the board), general confusion over how to evaluate third basemen, and the fact that the Cubs never made postseason play during his career, despite having three current Hall of Famers on the roster with Santo for much of that time.  As far as the too-many-Famers-already argument, I think it’s inherently lame.  It’s not like there is a quota on how many Hall of Famers can be on a team at any given time.  The fact the Cubs could not get over the hump during that period (or any other over the last 100 years) is just a testament to the fact that having a collection of great players isn’t enough.  You generally have to be solid across the board to be a championship team.  The strength-of-the-chain-is-only-its-weakest-link concept applies in baseball, because in 162 games, that weak link is going to eventually be exploited.

Santo also played his entire career with Type 1 diabetes, which even today would be very impressive.  Perhaps he should get some consideration for that as well.  His case doesn’t really need it, though.

Vada Pinson is a guy who doesn’t really compare to any other player, which in a way is a point in his favor.  His similarity scores list Steve Finley as his best comp, but Pinson was better than Finley.  Bill James wrote in one of his books that Pinson was as a player essentially at the halfway point between Roberto Clemente and Willie Davis (who are both in his similarity score list as well).  James reported in the New Historical Abstract that Pinson was actually two years older than was believed (he was 23 in 1959, not 21).  This in part explains why he never rose to the heights expected of him after his first three seasons in the National League.  He still managed to fashion an outstanding career.  I’m not quite sure he has Hall of Fame numbers, but you could make a very good case for him.  It should be pointed out that for about two-thirds of his career, he was a center fielder.  Pinson spent 15 years on the BBWAA ballot; he never received more than 15.7% of the vote.

Pinson was probably a better player than Al Oliver, though.  Oliver could hit (.303 lifetime average) but didn’t walk much.  Oliver played centerfield for about a third of his career, first base for about a third, and left field/DH for the remainder.  He compares to Steve Garvey; Oliver was a better hitter and maybe a better all-around player (it depends on how good a fielder you think Garvey was).  Oliver was only on the BBWAA ballot once, in 1991.  He received 19 votes (4.9%) and was dropped from future ballots.

Dick Allen never received more than 18.9% of the vote from the BBWAA electorate, despite very fine career batting totals (career OPS+:  156), albeit in a relatively short career.

Of course, that doesn’t begin to tell the Dick Allen story.  I don’t think any player’s Hall of Fame case is quite as polarizing as that of Allen.  His numbers are generally outstanding, but he never seemed to improve his teams, short-term or long-term.  Despite his hitting prowess, he got traded frequently, almost always for lesser players (including Jim Essian twice).  He missed a lot of games during the heart of his career due to injuries, was suspended for following the ponies at the expense of a doubleheader in 1969, and walked out on the White Sox with two weeks to play in 1974, when Chicago was still involved in a pennant race.  He was, in short, disruptive.

My sense is that people who don’t remember Allen (the majority of baseball fans) are more supportive of Allen’s candidacy than people who were on the scene, so to speak (although there are exceptions).  Allen received 11 votes (13.4%) in the most recent Veterans Committee election.  I’m guessing that he gets a similar percentage this time.

Maury Wills isn’t the most popular guy around, either.  Wills finished fifth in the last Veterans Committee election (receiving 40.2% of the vote).  That’s a similar percentage to what Wills got in the 1981 BBWAA vote.  The next year, his vote total dropped by almost half (163 votes to 91); he never approached his high-water mark in votes again.

Wills stole 104 bases in 1962 — you may have read about it — and his Hall of Fame candidacy has fed off that one year.  That’s about all it can feed on, because once you get past 104, you’re left with a leadoff hitter who didn’t walk and had no power, and who was a decent but not great defensive shortstop.  Plus, if Gil Hodges and Joe Torre are getting credit for their managerial careers, surely Wills has to get negative credit for his.

There are two pitchers on the ballot.  Jim Kaat won 16 Gold Gloves and 283 games in a long career that was extended several years by his conversion into a reliever.  He later became a respected broadcaster.  Kaat was a very good pitcher for a long time, but here I think the expression “compiler” does apply somewhat.  I’ve seen other players saddled with that unfairly (Bert Blyleven, for example), but Kaat does seem to fit the bill.  Kaat never received as much as 30% of the vote in 15 BBWAA elections, but he received a surprising 63.4% of the vote in the last Veterans Committee election, suggesting that he may indeed have a Cooperstown plaque in his future.  If that happens, it won’t be a tragedy.  Kaat is quite close to the border, and a case could be made he crosses over it.

Luis Tiant received just over 18.3% of the vote in that particular election, in line with the vote in his final BBWAA ballot.  Tiant actually got over 30% of the BBWAA vote in his first go-round, in 1988, but the ballot was swamped with distinctly better pitchers the next year, and Tiant’s vote total crashed, never to recover to its initial level.

Tiant had a career ERA+ of 114 in just under 3500 innings.  His closest Similarity Scores comp is Catfish Hunter, only you could make a good argument that Tiant was better than Hunter.  That’s something for Tiant backers to emphasize, since Hunter was actually elected by the BBWAA, and not the Veterans Committee.  Very rarely has the BBWAA elected a borderline candidate (most of those get put in the Hall by the VC).  However, Jim Hunter is one of the exceptions to the rule.

He’s yet another guy who is quite close.  I think he’s just on the wrong side of the line, but the line is really hazy.  Being somewhat famous will help El Tiante’s cause.

Tony Oliva, on the other hand, isn’t famous.  That probably has hurt his cause a bit.  For whatever reason, I get the impression he may be the least known (to the general public and/or casual baseball fan) of the ten nominees; it’s either him or Pinson.  That’s too bad, because he was quite a player.  In his rookie season he led the league in hits; in his second season he was the runner-up for league MVP.  He was named to the All-Star team in his first eight seasons.  He led the league in batting three times, in slugging once, in doubles four times, and added another runner-up finish in the MVP voting in 1970.  For eight years, he was on a no-doubter Hall of Fame track.

He had bad knees, though, and his career went downhill after 1971.  He played in only 10 games in 1972, and finished his career as a DH.  In that role, however, he was not nearly as productive as he had been as a regular position player.  Oliva basically had eight great seasons and three other seasons as a league-average batting DH.  That’s not enough for a lot of people, including the majority of BBWAA voters (his vote totals peaked at 47.3% in 1988).  Interestingly, he seems to have a solid base of support from the Hall of Famers.  Oliva got 57.3% of the vote in the last VC election.  I have a sneaking suspicion that he could be surprisingly close to election this time around.

If I were voting, Torre and Santo would get my vote.  I would seriously consider Kaat, Tiant, Pinson, and Oliva.  As to what I think will actually happen, I think there is a decent chance that no one is elected again.  If anyone is elected, it’s going to be Santo.  We’ll find out on December 8.

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