The Hall of Fame Ballot: Freshman Class

Concerning this year’s Hall of Fame ballot for the Baseball Writers Association of America, it’s probably one of the weaker freshman ballots of recent times. Only one of the candidates shakes out as anywhere near even a borderline Hall of Famer, and he may not be that likely to cross the border just yet, if at all. Let’s look at this year’s ballot in earnest, beginning with the new kids on the block . . .

He never messed with Mr. In-Between, alas . . .

JEROMY BURNITZ–Likeable guy, solid clubhouse guy, 30+ homer guy six times. The problem: Burnitz was a one-dimensional, three-possible-outcome guy: bomb, punchout, or pass. Nothing in between, nothing else to make him able to play major league baseball. He had the patience of a piranha at mealtime at the plate, especially as his career advanced, and he was barely serviceable in the field.

Likely vote result: Not even close; not likely to survive to next year’s ballot.

VINNY CASTILLA–Unless some future Veterans’ Committee is crazy enough to think about it, Castilla isn’t going to Cooperstown except as a visiting guest. Castilla was just about the Chuck Klein of the 1990s: just as Klein posted five off-the-chart offencive seasons by taking complete advantage of microscopic Baker Bowl, while being just about unable to do much in any other park by comparison, Castilla took complete advantage of Coors Canaveral (pre-humidor years) while being just about unable to do much more in any other park by comparison.

The Chuck Klein of the 1990s . . .

Which did what for him in the end? Castilla never finished higher than sixth in his league in slugging and he had only three top ten finishes; he never finished higher than seventh in his league in OPS, and he had only two top ten finishes; and, he only ever finished in the top ten in runs created in his league once. That isn’t even Chuck Klein.

On the other hand, Castilla was actually a pretty good fielding third baseman. He led his league in putouts twice and assists twice. And he’s the greatest Mexican-born major leaguer in history. We think.

Likely vote result: You’re joking, right?

BRIAN JORDAN–You may have forgotten that he was a good player who had two seasons in which you could call him exceptional-to-borderline-great. You may also have forgotten that he was one of the better defencive outfielders of his time. But you may have remembered, too, that that isn’t anywhere near enough to get you into the Hall of Fame. Jordan is probably on the ballot only because it’s been five years since his retirement.

Likely vote result: You have to ask?

JAVY LOPEZ–Until he faded following his departure from Atlanta, Lopez looked even more like the Mike Piazza stereotype: a helluva hitter and a mediocrity, in comparison, behind the dish. He wasn’t terrible with the pads and mitt, even if Greg Maddux couldn’t stand pitching to him. (I still can’t fathom that one: Maddux actually had a 2.35 ERA when Lopez was his catcher.) But I think Lopez’s reputation in the squat has been battered by his absolute inability to throw out base stealers. How absolute? Put it this way: What Lopez couldn’t throw out was damn near what Ty Cobb stole. Lifetime.

At the plate, as opposed to behind it, Lopez compares easily enough to Carlton Fisk and Gabby Hartnett; in fact, his 2003 slugging percentage (.687) is the highest single-season slugging percentage by any catcher in major league history, by a whopping 49 percentage points over the next-highest. But Lopez is also hurt by having faded so swiftly after leaving Atlanta and retiring before he might have hung in long enough to solidify a better case with his bat, anyway.

Likely vote result: Not quite, but he may actually pick up enough support to return to the ballot next year, at least. May.

BILL MUELLER–Solid player. Probably defined “consummate professional” to the last letter. But Mueller really had only one season (2003, when he won a batting title and was a key to the Red Sox’s postseason entry) in which he resembled anything like a Hall of Famer. He did a lot of things very well–he was always good for reaching base, fielding third base capably, and spraying line drives all over the place–but “very well” isn’t a two-word synonym for “Cooperstown.”

Likely vote result: No, but he, too, won’t have to pay for his own steaks in Boston for the rest of his life after 2004.

All you need is glove . . .

TERRY MULHOLLAND–He was one of the great nomads of his time: a free agent eleven times, signing as a free agent ten times, traded six times. The best thing about Mulholland as a pitcher was probably his pickoff move; he was very hittable even with a sinker-slider repertoire. The thing he’s remembered best for, however, is probably the time he threw Keith Hernandez out by heaving his glove to first base because he couldn’t get the ball out of it.

Likely vote result: No, but you’d be hard pressed to find any other player in baseball history to provoke his first baseman to say he should have thrown the glove around the horn.

PHIL NEVIN–Two Hall-caliber seasons in a twelve-year career isn’t even close to making you a Hall of Famer. Of the two, moreover, there’s an argument that only one of those (2001) was really Cooperstown-caliber. Trivia: Nevin is the guy the Houston Astros drafted instead of Derek Jeter, whom then-scout (and Hall of Fame pitcher) Hal Newhouser practically begged the Astros to take, to no avail.

Likely vote result: No.

BRAD RADKE–The very essence of “professional.” Unfortunately, it’s not exactly the same thing as being the very essence of a Hall of Famer. Radke went out every year and did what he could with what he had, which wasn’t much beside his brains. He was only too prone to the long ball, which shouldn’t necessarily be a single disqualifier (hello, Robin Roberts), but the main reason Radke survived as long as he did was because nobody could pry a walk out of this guy. There’s something to be said for that. A Hall of Fame plaque isn’t it, though, in this case.

Likely vote result: No, but you could only admire the guy, anyway.

One of the best never to make an All-Star team . . .

TIM SALMON–He was probably blocked from a Hall of Fame career by injuries. He’s also a) number two on the list of the top five WAR men who never got to an All-Star Game; b) number one among players with the most good years (5.0+ WAR in this instance) who never got to an All-Star Game; c) a 30+ home run man five times; and, d) a .385 OBP man lifetime. The Kingfish is also the all-time bomb leader among men who were never chosen for an All-Star Game, with his up-the-freeway rival Eric Karros a close second. A Rookie of the Year (1993) and a Comeback Player of the Year (2002), Salmon will probably be remembered best for the pair of two-run bombs he hit in a wild Game Two of the 2002 World Series—both of which had David Eckstein aboard, and one of which (in the bottom of the eighth) put the Angels ahead to stay, 11-10.

Lots of Angel fans persist that Salmon is the greatest Angel of them all. Which means lots of Angel fans have performed a memory dump on Vladimir Guerrero’s years with the club.

Likely vote result: No.

Fascinating trivia: I bet even those Angel fans have forgotten Tim Salmon was the first major league batter to get a hit off Mariano Rivera. Ever.

RUBEN SIERRA–Good enough to play two decades in the Show; compared early in his career to Roberto Clemente, not unjustifiably; managed to put up 2,000+ hits and 300+ home runs; but wrecked himself with immaturity and turned himself into a journeyman who was his own worst enemy. Essentially, it comes down to: if only the Ruben Sierra of his final few seasons could have been available to the Ruben Sierra who was young, gifted, athletic, and full of himself.

The way most people remember him: He got run out of Yankee Stadium after calling manager Joe Torre a liar publicly, in a dispute over playing time; then, surprisingly, he earned a return tour in 2004 and so impressed Torre with his newfound maturity that–above and beyond his hitting 17 homers as a DH, and tying Game Four of an American League Division Series with a three-run bomb off Juan Rincon–Torre actually had Sierra manage the Yankees’ final regular-season game that year.

The stat Sierra would probably like to forget: He earned $10.1 million in the first seven years of his career while shaking out at 19.4 WAR, but he earned $33.5 million the rest of his career while shaking out at -5.8 WAR.

Likely vote result: No.

BERNIE WILLIAMS–Everyone’s saying he’s the best of a below-average freshman Hall ballot. They’re not wrong. Everyone’s saying he has the best chance of returning to next year’s ballot. They may not be wrong there, either. Most of those folks, however, are saying Williams pulls up just short enough of a Hall of Famer.

Does Cooperstown have a place for jazz guitar-playing baseball players?

By the Bill James measurements of the Hall of Fame Standards and the Hall of Fame Monitor, Williams actually shakes out as a very average Hall of Famer: He meets 49 percent of the Standards (the average Hall of Famer meets 50 percent), and he scores 149 on the Monitor. (The average Hall of Famer: 100.) What hurts him is a dubious defence jacket (he won a few Gold Gloves when he wasn’t even close to the best defencive center fielder in the league; he was an excellent fielder his first few seasons but devolved as his career went on), the fact that he often hit better early in the game than in late pressure, and the fact that he only ever led his league in one category (he won the batting title in 1998) while falling far below an average Hall of Famer on the Gray Ink Test. (Williams: 61; average Hall of Famer: 144.)

What helps him? It almost didn’t matter where Williams played, he was dead even at home and on the road when all was said and done: he has an .858 OPS in both scenarios, and he hit exactly one more home run on the road than at home. His postseason shakeout is pretty much a match for his regular seasons: an .850 OPS lifetime in the postseason. As a matter of fact, Bernie Williams’s lifetime postseason line would equal a solid if not too spectacular regular season for quite a few players: .275 BA, .371 OBP, .480 SLG, 22 home runs, 80 runs batted in.

Likely vote result: No, but he’s probably likely to make a couple of returns to the ballot.

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