A Hall of Fame Game, Part Two

As you might have already heard, the 2014 Hall of Fame results are now in. The Baseball Writers have spoken. In the end, three players—out of the 36 on the ballot—received the requisite 75% of votes and will be inducted into the Hall this summer. The winners are: Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, and Greg Maddux. I agree with all three choices (you’ll read about Thomas and Maddux below), but I think the result is woefully inadequate. This year’s ballot, as I’ve argued, contained many more worthy candidates that deserve to be in the Hall of Fame.

So it goes. I’m going to go ahead and finish out my Top Seven, not because I’m trying to persuade anybody (honestly, who am I kidding?), but simply because I want to write about these players, and it’s our blog, and no one can stop me. I’ll also include at the end my eight through fourteen picks, along with their actual voting results. Here we go.

(Part One is here.) Here is Part Two:

7. Jeff Bagwell

Before we get to the stats, do you remember Jeff Bagwell’s batting stance? It was maybe the coolest thing about him:

Photo courtesy of nationalsarmrace.com

Photo courtesy of nationalsarmrace.com

I mimicked this stance endlessly as a kid. It seemed absurd that someone could thrive with such an awkward-looking stance.

And thrive Bagwell did. A first basemen who played his entire career with the Houston Astros, Bagwell was one of the great and underrated players of his era. Of course, his era happened to be the steroid era, and there are people who will forever speculate about the legitimacy of his accomplishments (despite there being no evidence upon which to base such doubts). But make no mistake: Bagwell was great. For eleven straight seasons, from 1991 through 2001, he was never worth less than 4.7 WAR (a run of excellence comparable to the early career of Ken Griffey Junior, a superstar who during his prime was one of the most prolific home run hitters in baseball history).

Bagwell won the MVP award in 1994, when—in a strike-shortened season that lasted just 110 games—he hit .368 with a .451 on base percentage, hit 39 home runs, drove in 116 RBIs, and scored 104 runs (heaven knows what he’d have come up with had he played a full 162 game season). Bagwell his at least 30 homers nine times; drove in over 100 runs eight times, and scored more than 100 runs nine times. His career on base percentage was a superb .408—good for 40th all-time. His OPS (on base average plus slugging percentage) of .948—21st among all major leaguers—was even better. Bagwell’s excellence wasn’t confined to the plate, either: he was also reputedly a solid defensive first baseman (although numbers like defensive WAR don’t bear that out), and, quite improbably, he was a very good base stealer.

Bagwell received only 54.3% of the vote, which puts him in a decent position to improve next year (for a rundown on how the Hall of Fame voting works, which I probably should have included in the first post, go here). It’s likely he will eventually get there.

6. Craig Biggio

Craig Biggio, at the moment, is a heartbreaking story. He received an agonizing 74.8% of the votes, falling exactly two votes shy of being elected into the Hall of Fame. He’ll stay on the ballot next year, and may well get elected (as I mentioned with Bagwell, many current Hall members saw their vote totals steadily increase over several years before finally reaching the required 75%). But considering that Biggio’s Hall of Fame case literally came down to a couple of jackass writers (see Ken Gurnick) who threw sanity to the winds when filling out their ballots, this year’s result is a crying shame.

Biggio—who, like Bagwell, spent his entire career with the Houston Astros—is famous in baseball circles for his bizarre ability to get hit by pitches—he was beaned 285 times in his career, to be precise, which is second all-time. But his more conventional accomplishments are much more impressive.

If you were to craft a one-sentence Hall of Fame pitch for Craig Biggio, it would probably involve the fact that Biggio is the only player in baseball history to amass 3,000 hits, 250 home runs, 600 doubles, and 400 steals. What these numbers don’t reflect, however, is that Biggio was much more than just a “compiler”; he was, at his peak, a spectacular player. In 1998, he hit .325 with a .403 on base percentage, smacked 20 homers and 51 doubles, scored 123 runs, and stole 50 bases (and was only caught stealing eight times). And that probably wasn’t even his best year (that was the year before, when Biggio’s 9.4 WAR was second only to MVP award-winner Larry Walker’s 9.8 WAR; for context, no National Leaguer achieved higher than 8.4 WAR during the 2013 season). From 1994 to 1999, Biggio’s average season was as follows: .306 batting average, .401 on base percentage, 17 homers, 75 RBIs, 40 doubles, 119 runs scored, and 37 stolen bases. He struggled mightily in the late stages of his career, hurting his career averages, but that should not obstruct the fact that he was an amazingly talented player for a long, long time.

5. Roger Clemens

I’ve already touched on the steroid issue in my piece about Mark McGwire, so I won’t rehash it here. I’ve put Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds side by side on this list (spoiler alert! Bonds is up next) for two reasons. First, because both men were—at least according to their statistics and awards—among the top ten or twenty greatest baseball players who have ever lived. Second, because both will forever be linked to performance-enhancing drugs.

For his part, Clemens’ career 140.3 WAR is third best among all pitchers. His 354 wins are ninth. He is third all-time in strikeouts. He led the league in ERA seven times. He won—are you ready for this?—SEVEN Cy Young awards, including awards at age 23 (when he also won MVP) and age 41. He was a monster who would rip your heart out at the plate. Without PEDs, he’s a first-ballot, no-doubt Hall of Famer. But there, of course, is the rub. As it happened, he garnered a mere 35.4%.

4. Barry Bonds

Barry Bonds, like Clemens, was nearly unparalleled as a baseball player. Consider his four-year stretch from 2001 to 2004 (when, oh by the way, Bonds was in his late thirties). It seems impossible to believe now. From age 36 to 39, he averaged a .559 on base percentage (yes, he got on base more than 55% of the time, this in a game where a 35% mark is considered stellar), 52 home runs (including the record-setting 73 he hit in 2001), and 189 walks (yep, that many), all in a mere 410 at-bats per season. And speaking of all those walks. In 2004, when Bonds was THIRTY-NINE years old, pitchers intentionally walked him 120 times (they unintentionally walked him another 112 times). That season, Bonds struck out just 41 times.

Even if he had retired before that absurd four-year streak, Bonds would still have been a singular baseball player, and probably a surefire Hall of Famer. But those four years, during which Bonds broke the game of baseball, emblazoned him into our memories. For a myriad of reasons, we’ll probably never forgive him for it. Bonds came in just under Clemens in the vote totals, with 34.7%.

3. Mike Piazza

Being an everyday catcher in the Major Leagues is a Herculean task. It’s hell on the body (especially the knees); it gets hot in the summers (imagine wearing all that equipment for nine innings on a July day in Atlanta); and it requires intense mental concentration (because catchers are the captains the pitching staff). The sheer brute length of a baseball season takes a huge toll. This is why catchers are generally not asked to be particularly good hitters.

Mike Piazza was arguably the greatest hitting catcher of all time. His 427 career home runs are 51 more than any other catcher (Carlton Fisk is next with 376). In Piazza’s best year, he hit an astounding .362 with 40 home runs and 124 RBIs (for his career his hit a superb .308 with a .377 on base percentage). Twice he led the league in offensive WAR—an achievement made more remarkable, again, by the fact that Piazza was busy wearing out his knees behind the plate. His career WAR mark of 59.2 is virtually identical to Yogi Berra, the most famous catcher of all time (his was 59.3). An average team considers itself lucky if its catchers are even mediocre offensively. Piazza was one of the greatest hitters of his time, period. This should earn him a trip to the Hall, and almost surely will eventually. Unfortunately, this was not his year: Piazza earned 62.2% of the vote.

2. Frank Thomas

Frank Thomas’ nickname was the Big Hurt, which is just such a fantastic nickname. Going solely by appearances, see if you think it fits:

I mean look at those arms! Yes, Thomas was huge—6’ 5”, 240 (he played football at Auburn). But his size masked his artistry at the plate, for he was also one of the great right-handed hitters of all time. I’ve talked a lot here about on base percentage. It’s one of the most important stats in baseball because, quite logically, it is the necessary first step in an offense’s most important task: scoring runs. Thomas’ career OBP was .419, 20th in history (and third among right-handers). At the height of his powers—Thomas won back-to-back MVP awards in 1993 and 1994—he was a holy terror, crushing homers and getting on base while barely striking out (in ’93, his first MVP season, he struck out only 54 times despite playing almost a full season. He also walked 112 times that year—a rare combination of patience, power, and sheer hand-eye coordination). Thomas led the league in OBP four times, and five times hit over 40 home runs (he finished with 521 for his career). His skills faded rapidly after he turned 32—as is the case with many players; it just happens that way—but he did have a renaissance year for the A’s in 2006, when he hit 39 home runs. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Thomas was never tarnished with even a rumor of steroid use.

Frank Thomas was one of the three players to be inducted into the Hall of Fame two days ago. The Big Hurt got what he deserved. He was elected with 83.7% of the vote.

1. Greg Maddux

Greg Maddux, to me (and, as it turned out, to the voters) the most deserving candidate in an incredible group of nominees, was utterly beguiling. It’s been a running joke about Maddux for a long time that he looks like a fifth grade math teacher. It’s true:

Maddux

When you get past the human joy of contemplating that a guy who looks like that can succeed in professional sports, there are the stats. Maddux pitched, and dominated, during the height of the steroid era. Before then, in the early 1990s, he was nigh unhittable. He won four consecutive Cy Young awards, from ’92 through ‘95. In ‘95, the year Maddux’s Braves won the World Series, Maddux went 19-2 and walked 23 batters in 209 2/3 innings. Two years later, he walked 20 in 232 2/3 innings. His control was legendary; he famously adjusted his throwing angle so that every one of his pitches—fastball, slider, change up—looked exactly the same when he threw it. The reason for this, as the famed Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell explained, came down to Maddux’s crucial innovation as a pitcher. He recognized that without some tip-off as to what pitch was coming (a tell-tale aberration in the pitcher’s motion; a noticeable difference in spin), hitters would have to guess at what was coming, for no player could judge a change of speed:

Because of this inherent ineradicable flaw in hitters, Maddux’s main goal was to ‘make all of my pitches look like a column of milk coming toward home plate.’ Every pitch should look as close to every other as possible, all part of that ‘column of milk.’ He honed the same release point, the same look, to all his pitches, so there was less way to know its speed — like fastball 92 mph, slider 84, change-up 76.

Maddux didn’t have an overpowering arm. His curveball didn’t snap like Barry Zito’s in his prime, and his slider wasn’t devastating the way Randy Johnson’s was. But Maddux’s control, his precision, his dedication to perfection, made him great. (He was also perhaps the greatest defensive pitcher who has ever lived.)

And then there was his mind. There have been a lot of Maddux stories circulating since he was elected two days ago. So far, this is probably my favorite:

Early in the 2000 season, Maddux was asked by sportswriter Bob Nightengale what had been the most memorable at-bat of his pitching career. Maddux said it was striking out Dave Martinez to end a regular season game. Nightengale was surprised Maddux hadn’t picked a postseason game, or a more famous player. Maddux explained: “I remember that one because he got a hit off me in the same situation (full count, bases loaded, two out in the 9th inning) seven years earlier. I told myself if I ever got in the same situation again, I’ll pitch him differently. It took me seven years, but I got him.”

Maddux was elected with 97.2% of the votes. What those 2.8% were thinking, I’ll never know.

* * *

How the Rest Fared

14. Tim Raines (46.1%)
13. Tom Glavine – ELECTED (91.9%)
12. Mark McGwire (11.0%)
11. Edgar Martinez (25.2%)
10. Curt Schilling (29.2%)
9. Larry Walker (10.2%)
8. Mike Mussina (20.3%)

Notable Names I Left Off My (Purely Hypothetical) Ballot

Jack Morris (61.5%)
Lee Smith (29.9%)
Jeff Kent (15.2%)
Fred McGriff (11.7%)
Don Mattingly (8.2%)
Sammy Sosa (7.2%)
Rafael Palmeiro (4.4%)
Luis Gonzalez (0.9%)

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2 Responses to A Hall of Fame Game, Part Two

  1. Pingback: A Hall of Fame Game | Moderately Charmed Beginnings

  2. Pingback: The Sorry State of the Baseball Hall of Fame | Moderately Charmed Beginnings

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