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'Roids taint adds to tangle of debate, but HOF is really about impact

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The first shortstop to go 30-30, HOF hopeful Barry Larkin was also a 12-time All-Star. (Getty Images)  
The first shortstop to go 30-30, HOF hopeful Barry Larkin was also a 12-time All-Star. (Getty Images)  

Another year, another ballot, more impossible decisions.

You can make a case that we longtime baseball writers deserve these many annual Hall of Fame ballot conundrums because we weren't vigilant enough for years as all the 'roided-up behemoths put up 40-homer seasons, won MVPs and in some cases set all-time records. So we get what we deserve, I guess.

In any case, that doesn't make it any easier. The ballots we get now contain not only the usual many borderline cases but also great and near-great players with a variety of steroid taints attached to their names. Some may have failed a test, others pleaded the Fifth when under oath, other may have been accused in a book. Others still may only possess the taint of whispers (though some whispers are louder than others).

In navigating this ridiculous morass, I consider two things: 1) This isn't a court of law, so the standard needn't be "beyond a shadow of a doubt," or even "a preponderance of evidence," as steroid associations are judged. No one is getting convicted of anything here, and no one is going to jail. The Hall of Fame is a privilege, not a right. And 2) the steroid taint doesn't automatically eliminate anyone from my ballot. It's all a judgment call, and if in my judgment I still believe a player would have fashioned a Hall of Fame career without his artificial help, I reserve the right to vote for him. If someone else wants to automatically vote no on all the players with taint, that's fine. I just am going to have a hard time with a Hall of Fame without Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens or Alex Rodriguez.

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OK, enough about performance enhancing drugs. Let's get to the actual performers.

The biggest thing I look for is impact. That means impact on the game, and on the games. While I do look closely at the numbers, and I certainly consider them all, some numbers seem more meaningful than others. In any case, it's not the Hall of Numbers, the Hall of Stats or the Hall of Sabremetrics. The game is played by people, and the judges are people too, not computers. Until that changes, I'll consider somewhat murkier criteria than only the hard stats.

Without further ado, here's this year's scorecard.

The Worthy

1. Jack Morris: Sadly, it looks like that unsightly 3.90 ERA is going to continue to haunt him. This guy is one who's much better if you were around to witness it. The back of his baseball card just doesn't do him any justice. Morris had great games, great seasons (seven times he received Cy Young votes) and a great decade. He was the ace of three different World Series-winning teams and he started 14 Opening Days. Some will argue that's a meaningless statistic, and while it certainly does depend on circumstance, the only others who've started as many are Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Randy Johnson, Walter Johnson and Cy Young, a quintet of all-time greats.

2. Barry Larkin: He's a 12-time All-Star. That's twelve times. Some might say that's a matter of circumstance too. But considering how he overlapped the Ozzie Smith era, the circumstances weren't always all that great for him. He also was the first shortstop to go 30-30; he won nine Silver Sluggers, three Gold Gloves, an MVP, batted .338 in the postseason, stole 379 bases and had more walks than strikeouts. For good measure, he is one heckuva a good person (he was a winner of the Roberto Clemente and Lou Gehrig awards).

3. Tim Raines: One issue is, he seemed to have had two careers -- one in which he was a superstar for seven years; the other when he was just a good player for a very long time. Taken all together, he makes it for me, though. While I don't tend to favor compilers, he was a seven-time All-Star and did finish in the top 20 in MVP balloting seven times. Doesn't hurt either that he's fifth all-time with 808 steals, or that his steal percentage of 84.7 is second best all-time for those with 300 attempts.

4. Don Mattingly: Some will argue this is geographic bias. But if anything, it's greatness bias. I like players who were great for a little while a lot more than those who were merely very good forever. He didn't last forever because of a bad back I suspect was earned twisting his 185-pound body into a power hitter. Some of his total numbers aren't overwhelming, but they look a lot like those of Kirby Puckett, an obvious Hall of Famer. Was maybe the best player in the game for three straight years (he won the Sporting News Player of the Year 1984-86) and also was one of the two greatest fielding first basemen of all time. A lot of greatness there.

5. Dale Murphy: He was great for a while (two straight MVPs), but is also known as one of the greatest guys to ever play the game. He did a lot of things right (he won five Gold Gloves and stole 161 bases), and he did them every day (he played 162 games four straight years). His refusal to take a day off (not to mention his clean living) may have led to a steeper, quicker decline. But he still represented a whole era of Braves baseball.

The Almosts

6. Fred McGriff: I feel a little guilty about this one. He's 26th in both home runs and RBI, a consistent and pure power hitter. He didn't quite make 500 home runs; he had 493. But that shouldn't be the barometer. He ranked among the top five in OPS for seven years. Not bad. But alas, it feels like something's missing. It's not really fair, but his Q rating is low and his totals aren't flattered by the steroid set. Another clean liver (according to all anecdotal evidence and someone I knew who was close to him), and I will be sure to take a very close look year after year.

7. Jeff Bagwell: The percentages (.540 slugging, .408 on-base) are worthy, and that he won only one Gold Glove and one MVP may have been a matter of timing and the era. Also gets points for uniqueness; not many huge first basemen could run like him (202 stolen bases, 100 runs in eight seasons). Still thinking about it.

8. Bernie Williams: Tremendous hitter who benefited by being in the right place at the right time. He is first all-time in postseason RBI and second in home runs. A lot of hardware, and some unreal moments. Very close.

9. Juan Gonzalez: He may be the greatest player only to receive 5 percent of the vote in any year, as he did last year to barely stay on the ballot. Had a .561 career slugging percentage and was two-time MVP. Just can't quite do it.

10. Alan Trammell: You probably had to be there to even understand why he's close to worthy. But he is. The argument that the Tigers never would have traded him straight-up for Ozzie Smith (which I believe) is close to a compelling one. Close.

11. Edgar Martinez: Maybe this is a little low as a reaction to the campaign on his behalf, but I don't think so. His percentages were great (.515 slugging and .418 on-base) and I'm not going to hold it against him that he was the fourth-best player on a team that never reached the World Series (I did vote for Ron Santo eventually). But he was a DH. And he only finished in the top 10 in MVP voting twice. (Some will say that's repeating an injustice, but I don't think so.) A great hitter, yes, but in my estimation he didn't leave a mark that was quite great enough.

12. Lee Smith: A very consistent closer for eight teams. One always to be counted on, as evidenced by his third-best save total (478).

13. Larry Walker: Terrific talent whose .565 slugging percentage is 13th all-time and who won seven Gold Gloves and stole 230 bases. On the numbers, a case could be made. Feels like Coors helped a little too much, though.

Very good but not great

14. Tim Salmon: Nice career. Really nice. But not a Hall of Famer.

15. Javy Lopez: His .491 slugging percentage for a catcher ain't bad.

16. Ruben Sierra: Had some really nice years before he started squabbling with Joe Torre.

17. Vinny Castilla: Very good hitter made to look even better in Colorado.

18. Brian Jordan: Tremendous all-around athlete and one extremely nice man.

19. Brad Radke: Very competent pitcher, but wasn't good enough for long enough and was never great.

20. Jeromy Burnitz: He did hit 30 home runs four years in a row, even if no one remembers.

Ballot busters (not sure why they made the ballot)

21. Bill Mueller: Did win a batting title, and you can't take that away from him.

22. Terry Mulholland: Did start an All-Star Game, and you can't take that away from him, either.

23. Phil Nevin: Was the No. 1 overall pick in the Derek Jeter draft. Also seemed to have a very good time being a major-league ballplayer.

24. Tony Womack: Had huge hit to help the Diamondbacks win the 2001 World Series. But I'm going to guess the .317 on-base percentage and .356 slugging percentage work against him.

25. Eric Young Sr.: A better player than Womack.

Woulda made it, but ...

26. Mark McGwire: On accomplishment alone, he would be the top guy on my ballot. Just can't do it. The 70 home runs were a mirage.

27. Rafael Palmeiro: I will never vote for him, period. I don't know how to say it more clearly than that. Never.

For more MLB news and rumors from Jon Heyman, follow @JonHeymanCBS.

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