The newly elected class of the National Baseball Hall of Fame will be revealed at 6 tonight on MLB Network.
I’m always honored to be among those members of the Baseball Writers Association of America who have a say in the annual election.
Honored, and also frustrated, overwhelmed and a little confused.
It’s a heck of a responsibility, and I’d say the vast majority of BBWAA voters take it extremely seriously. I know I do. I read stories, crunch numbers and discuss it with other voters.
I also talk with friends who aren’t in the sportswriting business. So many people like to engage in baseball’s Hall of Fame debate, and I get a few calls each December from friends outside of the business who feel it’s important for me to hear their impassioned pleas. And I happily listen.
Ultimately, though, this is my ballot. I have to live with my decisions. And, as much as I seek external information, sometimes I simply listen to my gut. Who do I think is a Hall of Famer and why? Each year, I go through the list in mid-December as if I’ve never reviewed the information before, and then I make my selections.
Once again, I feel there are more Hall of Fame-worthy candidates than there are spots on my ballot, a situation created by the logjam of “steroid users” that otherwise would have been enshrined by now coupled with the Hall’s mandate to vote for no more than 10 each year.
Here’s my take on the Steroid Era: It happened. It was part of the game; a black mark, for sure, but part of it nonetheless. I’m not going to act like it never occurred and I’m not going to penalize everyone who wore a uniform at that time.
What I’ve decided to do is lessen the impact of the power numbers of everyone who played in the Steroid Era – homers and slugging percentage for hitters, strikeouts for pitchers – and look more at the player’s overall game. I put an increased emphasis on defense and baserunning and the ability to hit, and I won’t allow myself to get wowed solely by incredible power.
That’s the reason, for instance, that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa have never been on my completed ballot but Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro have. All things being equal, steroid involvement or suspicion hurts a candidacy, in my opinion. But doesn’t destroy it.
It’s a fine line and not a fool-proof way to make decisions. I understand the hard stance Hall of Famer Joe Morgan and others have taken, imploring the electorate to skip the players who have been connected to performance-enhancers.
My problem is I don’t know, with complete certainty, who cheated and who didn’t. So, instead of playing judge, jury and detective, I’m weighing the information I have and pairing it with my personal wrinkle of dumbing-down the power.
What’s harder for me to defend right now is why certain players who I feel should be Hall of Famers are not on my ballot.
The big omission for me this year is former Oriole pitcher Curt Schilling, who I have voted for in the past but left off in 2018. It has nothing to do with Schilling’s controversial comments about, well, whatever, over the years.
As I wrote last year in this space, I’m not hiring him to teach a journalism class; I’m deciding whether his career was worthy of Cooperstown induction.
I think it is, but in ranking these players, he was in a cluster in the bottom bubble of my 10 with Larry Walker and Omar Vizquel. I’ve been a staunch Walker supporter since he has been on the ballot and I’m not wavering now.
I feel almost as fervently about Vizquel, a first-year candidate whose defense was exceptional, baserunning was formidable and offense underrated.
It’s really difficult to choose between a defensive standout shortstop and a big-game pitcher. Really difficult. Ultimately, I wasn’t sure how Vizquel would do in balloting before I turned mine in – he’s not exactly a darling of the advanced metrics community — and I wanted to do my part to keep him on the ballot for further consideration in 2019. Schilling wasn’t in danger of failing to receive the required five percent to stay on the ballot and I assume he’s not close enough to get 75 percent for induction. So, with all things being apples and oranges, I felt Vizquel needed my vote more than Schilling in 2018.
Therefore, I left Schilling off — with the intention of putting him back on next year, assuming the math works and the logjam subsides some.
It’s unfortunate I have to make a non-baseball call about a very-baseball decision, but that’s what the 10-vote limit does. Frankly, I could make a solid case for 16 players’ inductions and sleep easy at night. Instead, here are my 10, with a comment on each.
Chipper Jones — If I had one vote for 2018, it likely would be Jones. This guy was the model of consistency, posting career slash marks over .300/.400/.500. From the point when he won his NL MVP in 1999, it just seemed like he was headed to the Hall so long as he stayed healthy.
Jim Thome — I covered him on a daily basis in Baltimore for only three months at the very end of his career. His reputation held. One of the nicest, most professional players I’ve ever encountered. Oh, and he hit the junk out of the ball, a .554 career slugging percentage and 612 homers. A slam dunk in his first year.
Vladimir Guerrero — Another guy I covered on a daily basis in the last season of a splendid career. Guerrero was no longer the same player in 2011 with the Orioles that he had been with the Montreal Expos and Los Angeles Angels. But I’ve never seen such plate coverage – even hitting a bouncing ball for a hit against the Orioles in one at-bat as a visitor at Camden Yards.
Trevor Hoffman — I understand the argument about closers and their place in the Hall of Fame. I’m partial, though, to guys who were consistently among the best at what they did. He was the top closer in the National League for most of his career. Good enough for me.
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens — I’m grouping them together: Performance-enhancing drug users who were the best players of their generation. I don’t have to feel good about voting for them. I respect the opposite opinion. But I think it is untrue to the history of the game to keep out the most deserving; though I’d have no problem mentioning their indiscretions on their plaques. For the record, if Pete Rose were allowed to be on the BBWAA ballot – he never was – I’d vote for him, too.
Mike Mussina — Strangely, I never covered Mussina in an Orioles’ uniform; he went to the New York Yankees in the same offseason, 2000-01, when I was hired to write about the Orioles. But I didn’t need to be around him every day to understand just how great (and consistent) he was throughout his career in the AL East and while pitching in the Steroid Era. And, yes, I have him rated above Schilling.
Edgar Martinez — It goes back to the argument with Hoffman. Martinez was the best at the role he filled. Last I looked, designated hitter was a position in the American League. That works for me. I’ve checked off Martinez each year I’ve been able to vote.
Larry Walker — I know, his numbers outside of Coors Field weren’t as good as they were in the home run haven he called home for 10 seasons. That gives me some pause. But this guy was a terrific all-around athlete – a seven-time Gold Glover — who was overshadowed playing his first six years in Montreal. Besides the Coors Field argument, his Hall of Fame argument is rock solid.
Omar Vizquel – I probably need a full column to defend Vizquel’s candidacy and not just a long paragraph. His offensive game had some warts, but he still “collected” 2,877 hits and batted .272 with a .336 on-base percentage while stealing 404 bases with a 71 percent success rate. An 11-time Gold Glover, advanced defensive metrics make a case that Vizquel wasn’t as dominant in the field as the narrative suggests. Well, I absolutely distrust defensive metrics. And the narrative? I once asked Vizquel’s AL counterpart all those years at shortstop, Mike Bordick, if he thought Vizquel was Hall of Fame worthy. I thought Bordick was going to slap me he was so passionate about the issue. Vizquel probably cost the sure-handed Bordick multiple Gold Glove awards, but Bordick didn’t care. He said Vizquel had no defensive equal for a decade at the toughest spot on the diamond. And he was also a tough out who could make things happen on the basepaths. In this instance, I’m more about my own eyes and “the narrative,” than purely the analytics.