Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Best Players Not In the Hall of Fame By Position-Part 1: Fred McGriff and Ron Santo Highlight the Infield

Over the years I have come across many articles about who is the best player at each position not in the Hall of Fame. Usually those articles only include a sentence or two about the players chosen.  I decided to take a more in depth look at the players I chose, what may have kept them from being elected to the Hall of Fame, and their chances in the future.  I chose to separate my article into two parts, the first of which centers on the infielders, catcher, and the starting pitcher.  I did not consider Jeff Bagwell, Barry Larkin, or Jack Morris--three players who one could argue belong in this article--since they are still on the Hall of Fame ballot and have a pretty good shot at accumulating the necessary 75% of the vote to be elected in the next couple of years.  Instead I included players who have been or are currently overlooked by the BBWAA Hall of Fame voters.  You also won't see any accused or proven PED users at any of these positions since many of the players I have chosen to include have had their careers overshadowed by PED users' tarnished achievements.

1st Base:  Fred McGriff ('86-'04) 2460G 2490H 1349R 493HR 1550RBI  .284BA .377OBP 134OPS+ Highest HOF vote 21.5%-2010 Yrs on ballot-2

Fred McGriff 1989 Topps
As I stated in a previous article, taking the high road and not using PEDs during the Steroid Era hasn't helped Fred McGriff with the Hall of Fame voters thus far.  From 1988 to 1994, McGriff dominated pitching, launching between 31 to 37 home runs before starting his natural decline just as his PED-using peers found the syringes, pills, and creams that would make a mockery of the home run and the era as a whole.  There is no way to know how much steroids and other PEDs benefited the sluggers of the Steroid Era, but if we eliminate accused and proven PED users, that leaves Ken Griffey Jr. (630 HRs), Jim Thome (589 HRs at the end of 2010), Frank Thomas (521), and McGriff (493) as the top home run hitters of their generation.  Regardless of the PED use by McGriff's peers, it is true that the slugger spent the greater part of his career playing in a hitter's era. However, most of McGriff's career peak came in the five years prior to the 1993 expansion draft that ushered in the dawn of the hitter's era that would evolve into the Steroid Era.  Moreover, during those five years no one hit more home runs in all of baseball than McGriff.   

While it was not surprising to see McGriff fall short of Hall of Fame election in his first year, his meager 21.5% debut was certainly underwhelming.  Even more disappointing was seeing "Crime Dog's" support actually drop to 17.9% in his second year.  It has become clear that McGriff faces an uphill, but not insurmountable (see Bert Blyleven) climb to be elected to the Hall of Fame.  Furthermore, over the next several years the rest of the home run hitting sluggers of the Steroid Era will be joining McGriff on the Hall of Fame ballot.  These sluggers will include untarnished likely first ballot Hall of Famers (Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas) in addition to accused and proven PED users (Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez, and Gary Sheffield).

Fred McGriff 1994 Bowman

With so many home run hitting sluggers set to crowd an already full ballot, "Crime Dog" is in danger of joining the likes of Dave Kingman and Darrell Evans as the only players not accused of PED use with 400 or more home runs to fail to be elected into the Hall of Fame.  However, where Kingman was a one-dimensional home run hitter who rarely drew walks and barely hit his weight, McGriff hit for both a comfortable batting average (.284 career BA) and drew a large number of walks (.377 career OBP) while still finishing with 493 home runs compared to Kingman's 442.  As for Evans, he was an underrated hitter (.361 career OBP), fielding most of his career at an often underrated position (3rd base), but despite his 414 career home runs, he failed to draw adequate Hall of Fame support, mostly due to his .248 career batting average.

At the end of McGriff's career, he sat just seven home runs shy of 500, a total the slugger almost certainly would have surpassed had it not been for the 1994-95 baseball strike.   However, because of the Steroid Era, 500 home runs itself had become a devalued milestone.  In previous eras, 400 home runs, except in the rare cases of Kingman and Evans, was an eventual ticket to
Cooperstown.  Had he played in any other era, McGriff likely would have eclipsed 400 home runs and been immortalized in the Hall of Fame.   Unfortunately for "Crime Dog", his career achievements have been overshadowed by his PED-using peers and their unnatural home run totals.  As McGriff struggles to gain votes on a Hall of Fame ballot crowded with PED users, the unfortunate reality is that his career may never be able to step out of the shadow of the era he played in and the slugger may become the real victim of the Steroid Era.

2nd Base:  Lou Whitaker ('77-'95) 2390G 2369H 1386R 244HR 1084RBI .276BA .363OBP 116OPS+ Highest HOF vote 2.9%-2001 Yrs on ballot-1

Shortstop:  Alan Trammell ('77-'96) 2293G 2365H 1231R 185HR 1003RBI .285BA .352OBP 110OPS+ Highest HOF vote 24.3%-2011 Yrs on ballot-10

From the final weeks of the 1977 season all the way through the 1995 season, Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell formed the longest running keystone combination in baseball history, leading the Detroit Tigers through both good times (104 wins and a championship in 1984) and bad (103 losses in 1989).  Despite being somewhat overshadowed by future Hall of Fame middle infielders Ryne Sandberg, Ozzie Smith, and Cal Ripken Jr., both Whitaker and Trammell were generally regarded as future Hall of Famers during their playing careers.  However, when the 2001 Hall of Fame votes were tallied, Whitaker shockingly only gained 2.9% of the vote, falling short of the 5% required to remain on the ballot for future elections.  The following year, Trammell debuted at just 15.7% and nearly a decade later his vote totals still have yet to surpass 25%.  With only a few years left on the ballot it is unlikely he will come anywhere close to getting voted in by the writers.

Alan Trammell and Ryne Sandberg 1986 Topps
Nevertheless, in the coming years Whitaker and his double play partner Trammell should make for a good Hall of Fame argument for the Veterans Committee.  Indeed, both Whitaker and Trammell's career hitting and fielding statistics compare very favorably with current Veterans Committee voter Ryne Sandberg's.  During their playing careers, Sandberg was more appreciated by the fans and the press and also fared better in All-Star and season-ending awards voting than Whitaker and Trammell.  In their primes, Sandberg was the most dominant player of the three, although Whitaker and Trammell each won the World Series ring that would remain elusive to Sandberg, with Trammell picking up the World Series MVP in 1984.  However, Whitaker and Trammell both outperform Sandberg in offensive and defensive career WAR.  In fact, of retired players no longer on the BBWAA ballot, Whitaker trails only Bill Dahlen, Pete Rose, and Bob Caruthers in career WAR.  Yet, in contrast to Whitaker and Trammell, Sandberg had little trouble being voted into the Hall of Fame, collecting 49.2% of the vote in his 2003 debut on the ballot before being voted in two years later.
Lou Whitaker 1982 Topps

While Whitaker and Trammell may have only played the twilight of their careers in the Steroid Era, the era itself--with middle infielders regularly hitting 30 home runs--helped doom Whitaker's candidacy and certainly complicated Trammell's chances by making their impressive 15-20 home run seasons look pedestrian in comparison.  In addition, Whitaker and Trammell both lost playing time during the 1981 and 1994-1995 baseball strikes. While Whitaker and Trammell's candidacies may find renewed life in the Veterans Committee, that ever changing body has had trouble agreeing on anything in the past decade...which brings us to our next player.

3rd Base:  Ron Santo ('60-'74) 2243G 2254H 1138R 342HR 1331RBI .277BA .362OBP 125OPS+ Highest HOF vote 43.1%-1998 Yrs on ballot-15

Often regarded as the best (non-banned for life) player not in the Hall of Fame, the much celebrated Cubs player and broadcaster Ron Santo sadly passed away last December from bladder cancer.  Despite an All-Star and Gold Glove filled 15-year career, Santo managed only 3.9% of the vote in his first year of eligibility and fell off the Hall of Fame ballot before being re-added five years later, along with Vada Pinson, Ken Boyer, and several other players who had received less than 5%.  Once he was back on the ballot Santo received moderate support, topping out at 43.1% in his fifteenth and final year on the BBWAA ballot in 1998.

Five years later, Santo became eligible to appear on the newly revamped Veterans Committee ballot which had been changed, in part, as a reaction to cries of cronyism in the elections of Phil Rizzuto and Bill Mazeroski.  Not surprisingly, Santo drew strong support and finished a close third, just behind Gil Hodges and Tony Oliva, with 56.8% of the vote.  Unfortunately, in a rare occurrence, the Veterans Committee failed to elect any former players to the Hall of Fame.  In the ensuing years, the Veterans Committee continued to elect managers, umpires, and executives but in the separate elections for former players, no one accumulated the 75% vote needed for election.  Moreover, Santo was the top vote getter in these bi-annual, continually restructured Veterans Committee player elections with 65% in 2005, 69.5% in 2007, and 60.9% in 2009.  After the 2009 election, the Hall of Fame decided to once again overhaul the Veterans Committee election process, making Santo eligible as part of the newly established Golden Era Committee which will vote later this Fall.

Ron Santo 1971 Topps
One argument against Santo was that the late '60s/early '70s Cubs teams he starred on included Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Ferguson Jenkins but were still unable to win a pennant.  What is often overlooked in that viewpoint is that Banks was well past his prime during those years.  Santo's critics also point out that his career was relatively short for a Hall of Famer and that he played most of his home games at Wrigley Field, a hitter's park.  While it is true that Santo's career may not have been long in length, he could be counted on to stay in the line up, appearing in 154 or more games each year from 1961 to 1971.  In addition, only seven men played more games at 3rd than Santo, who suffered with diabetes throughout his career and eventually lost both legs to the disease.  Without a doubt, Santo's home/road splits prove he benefited from playing most of his home games at Wrigley but, on the other hand, the Cubs legend also played the bulk of his career in an era that strongly favored pitchers.  It is these arguments and counter-arguments that the Golden Era Veterans Committee will weigh when Santo is considered for the Hall of Fame for the twentieth time this Fall.

Catcher:  Ted Simmons ('68-'88) 2456G 2472H 1074R 248HR 1389RBI .285BA .348OBP 117OPS+ Highest HOF vote 3.7%-1994 Yrs on ballot-1

Considered a weak defender at a position that places a lot of emphasis on defense, Ted Simmons is arguably the best hitting catcher not in the Hall of Fame.  Undoubtedly, almost all of "Simba's" Hall of Fame case is built upon being one of the finest hitting catchers in baseball history.  Despite spending many years playing opposite future Hall of Fame catchers Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, and Carlton Fisk, Simmons managed to finish his career with more hits, doubles, and RBI than each of the three.  In addition, his career batting average and OBP were higher and he was intentionally walked more than each of the three as well.  Simmons was also one of the toughest hitters to strikeout, never fanning more than 57 times in a season.  In fact, over the course of "Simba's" career, his strikeout percentage per plate appearance was only about half of the major league average.

Ted Simmons 1975 Topps

Unfortunately for Simmons, he fell off the Hall of Fame ballot after collecting only 3.7% of the vote in his first year of eligibility.  Three factors seriously hindered "Simba's" Hall of Fame chances:  1. He was traded from the eventual World Series winning Cardinals to the Brewers team they beat to win the championship.  2. The main reason he was traded from the Cardinals was because manager Whitey Herzog wanted to move a reluctant Simmons from catcher to a different position and this drew more attention to his defensive shortcomings.  3. He hung around too long, adding only 102 hits in his final three seasons as a part-time player with the Braves, leaving voters with the image of him as a fading veteran, struggling to hold on, rather than the All-Star he had been.  Simmons recently appeared on the Expansion Era Veterans Committee ballot but the former Cardinal didn't get anywhere near the 75% needed for election.  In an ironic twist, Herzog was one of the 16-man panel of Veterans Committee voters.  I wonder if the "White Rat" voted for "Simba?"

Starting Pitcher:  David Cone ('86-'03) 194-126 .606W% 3.46ERA 419GS 2898.2IP 2668K 121ERA+ Highest HOF vote 3.9%-2009 Yrs on ballot-1

David Cone 2000 Upper Deck Ovation
On July 18, 1999, David Cone hurled the sixteenth perfect game in baseball history on Yogi Berra Day at Yankees Stadium in front of Berra and his perfect game battery-mate Don Larsen.  When Cone dropped to his knees in disbelief after 3rd baseman Scott Brosius caught the final out, the Yankee pitcher appeared well on his way to a Hall of Fame career.  Unfortunately, after he pitched his perfect game, Cone's career seemed to fall apart.  Following his perfect game, Cone's career record stood at 178-97 with 2,340 strikeouts and a 3.15 ERA.  The Yankees pitcher appeared to be a lock for 200 plus wins and 3,000 plus strikeouts.  However, for the remainder of his career Cone slumped horribly, going 16-29 with an abysmal 5.55 ERA.  Cone's late career decline included a 2-5 slump after his perfect game, a disastrous 2000 campaign where he went 4-14 with a 6.91 ERA, one forgettable season in Boston, and a short lived, injury riddled comeback with the 2003 Mets following a one year sabbatical from the game.      

Unfortunately for Cone, he was "one and done" on the Hall of Fame ballot, picking up only 3.9% of the vote in his first year of eligibility.  Cone's lack of support was surprising considering that the articulate right-hander was always a favorite of sportswriters and he spent the greater part of his career playing in the country's biggest media market for the Mets and the Yankees.  In addition, Cone finished his career with a fistful of World Series rings (one with the Blue Jays and four with the Yankees), went 8-3 in the postseason, and was considered a clubhouse leader on the late 90's Yankees dynasty.   Cone also made five All-Star teams, won the 1994 Cy Young for his hometown Kansas City Royals, and finished at or near the top of the league in strikeouts throughout his career.  Cone's career numbers are also more impressive when you consider he spent a good portion of his career pitching in the powerhouse AL East during the hitter friendly Steroid Era.

David Cone 1987 Topps Traded

Cone suffered the misfortune of having the 1994-95 baseball strike cut short his 1994 16-5 Cy Young Award winning season and also shorten his 1995 campaign where he went 18-8.  Had it not been for the strike it is possible that Cone, a 20-game winner in 1988 and 1998, would have been a four-time 20-game winner.  It is also likely that Cone would have crossed the 200 win threshold if not for the strike.  Cone's quick exit from the ballot can be attributed, in part, due to his inability to reach 200 wins and 3,000 strikeouts.   Historically, BBWAA Hall of Fame voters have given little support to pitchers who fail to reach one or both of those career milestones.  In fact, the only non-relief pitchers with less than 200 wins voted in by the BBWAA were Dizzy Dean, Dazzy Vance, and Sandy Koufax, with Koufax being the latest all the way back in 1972.  All other non-relief pitchers to make it in the Hall of Fame with less than 200 wins did so through the Veterans Committee.  Cone himself will have to wait until at least 2023--twenty years after pitching in his last game--to be eligible to appear on the Veterans Committee ballot.

When Cone inevitably appears on the Veterans Committee ballot, he may draw support from comparison to another Yankees hurler, Allie Reynolds.  Reynolds, nicknamed "Superchief," starred for the Yankees dynasty that won a record five World Series in a row from 1949 to 1953.  Like Cone, Reynolds was one of the top strikeout pitchers of his time and provided veteran leadership to a
Bronx dynasty.  Both had many memorable wins, with Reynolds performing a rare feat similar to Cone's perfect game by spinning two no-hitters during the 1951 season.  On the 2008 Veterans Committee vote for players who started their careers prior to 1943, Reynolds came just one vote shy of the nine votes needed for election by the 12-man panel.  After coming so close in 2008, there is a decent chance the Veterans Committee may elect Reynolds to the Hall of Fame by the time Cone is eligible again.  This bodes well for Cone whose career win/loss record (194-126 for Cone, 182-107 for Reynolds) and postseason resume (8-3 record with 5 World Series rings for Cone, 7-2 record with 6 World Series rings for Reynolds) are very similar to Reynolds'.