Posted by Jonah Gardner on January 12, 2017
Welcome to Part Two of our look at the Hall of Fame Ballot! If you missed Part One, detailing 13 players on this year's ballot who were easy Nos, click here to read it.
For today's post, I get to do something a lot more fun: talk about four people who ruled at baseball. If, when all is said and done, these people aren't in the Baseball Hall of Fame, we should probably change the name to something else. And yet, all of them have been on the ballot for multiple years. In fact, part of the reason this year's Hall of Fame ballot is so loaded is that these four are still hanging around.
So, without further ado, here are the four players who would absolutely, no-doubt get a vote from me if I had one to give.
Part Two: Hall of Fame Locks
There are only five first basemen who are ahead of Jeff Bagwell in Jay Jaffe's JAWS stat. One is Albert Pujols and the other four are Hall of Famers. In fact, of the eleven players who've been inducted since Bagwell first appeared on the ballot, only five ranked ahead of Bagwell in JAWS.
So, the only reason Bagwell isn't in the Hall of Fame already is because he was big and hit for power at a time when that was an inherently suspicious way to be and thing to do. Even adjusting his bonkers offensive stats for everything else that was going on in that era, Bagwell was still a better hitter than Mike Schmidt or Willie McCovey (147 OPS+ for them vs 149 for Bagwell). He was also the best base-stealing first baseman of the modern era and the only one since 1913 to swipe over 200 bags.
I'm not here to rehash the steroid debate for the 11,000,000th time. You've probably decided long ago what side of the fence you're on and a blogger in 2017 saying "You've got to understand the era" is not going to change your mind.
Sure, I could argue that there's no evidence that Bonds used PEDs until well into his career, after the point at which he had basically locked up a Hall slot. I could argue that, in the context of an era with widespread steroid usage, what Bonds did compared to his peers is still incredible. I could tell you that I believe the vast, vast majority of the blame for the excesses of the 1990s should fall on ownership and the commissioner, and that the players deserve very little blame for behaving like human beings in a time when immense financial incentives for elite performance were combined with confusing, inconsistent, or downright non-existent restrictions on PED use. And I could even admit that I see the nuance of this issue and would hesitate to vote for a otherwise borderline player who was a PED-user.
But Bonds isn't a borderline case. He's one of the best, if not the very best, to ever play the game. In my life, I've never been more scared to see my team face a hitter than I was when Bonds stepped into the batters box. And you know who agrees with me? Buck Showalter
That highlight alone is a stronger resume than anything that any other player can put forward this year. As someone who's under 30, a Hall of Fame without Bonds is as incomprehensible to me as one without Ruth would be to someone born in 1913.
As a reward for sitting through my little rant, how about some bonkers Bonds stats? Barry Bonds had 6 seasons with an OPS+ over 200, meaning his On-Base Plus Slugging was twice what you'd expect from a league average hitter in his ballpark and league six times in his career. Only Babe Ruth had more 200 OPS+ seasons. Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays combined had fewer 200 OPS+ seasons than Barry.
Bonds wasn't just a great hitter, he was also a clutch one, leading the NL in Win Probability Added an eye-popping 10 times in his career. Since 1913, he ranks second in two-homer games (one behind Ruth), first in two-walk games, and first in games with a home run and a stolen base.
Lastly, I want to give a little bit of credit to Kevin Jarvis. In 2000-04, when Bonds was putting up his most insane, admittedly PED-fueled numbers, Jarvis faced Bonds 25 times and gave up just one HR and three hits total, good for a .158 batting average. And that includes a 2000 game that was played in Coors Field where Jarvis held Bonds to no hits. Jarvis won't be making it into the Hall of Fame, but he can always say that he was only pitcher to stare into the void and live to tell the tale.
Everything I said about Bonds applies here. Perhaps doubly so, since, unlike Bonds, I never really cared for Clemens. He was obnoxious and prickly and dominated my team in the World Series.
But there's no doubt that Clemens deserves a Hall of Fame spot. Even if you just take the Boston years, he had 81.3 WAR, 2,590 strikeouts, and 100 complete games. Even if he retired in 1992, he'd have as many Cy Young Awards and MVPs as Sandy Koufax.
Clemens doesn't get as much credit for being a finesse pitcher as someone like Greg Maddux, but despite the nickname, the Rocket relied on a lot more than just raw power. From 1993-94, he got 42.6% of his strikeouts looking. In contrast, the MLB average is just 27% and this year's leader in that stat, Bartolo Colon, was at 41.4%.
(None of this is to undersell Maddux, by the way. The Professor had seven seasons with a strikeout looking percentage over 40, four years with a better mark than Clemens' career best of 42.7%, and, in 2008 at age-42, he cracked 50% for the year!)
I get it. Bonds and Clemens aren't the most likeable people. And for many, the defining image of 2000s baseball is the two of them in dress shirts, sitting in front of Congress. But keeping them out of the Hall of Fame only further serves to etch that image in stone. It reduces an entire decade of baseball to a hollow morality play written by people who can't honestly know for sure that they wouldn't have made the same choice. In an era where Bonds and Clemens were hardly the only two players taking shortcuts, they still excelled. You can argue that they weren't the GOATs that their numbers make them seem to be (I prefer Willie Mays in that particular argument), but you can't argue they weren't the best players of their era.
So my proposal is this: if you're thinking of applying the character clause to vote against somebody, would they be the worst person in the Hall if they got in? If not, you'd better have a very good reason to keep them out for purely off-the-field issues.
I may be coming off like a strident absolutist, but I am willing to make some concessions to the reality of the ballot process. So, while there are other players with better numbers than Tim Raines who are not in this tier, Raines is my last lock for one simple reason: he's a Hall of Famer and this is the last chance to make him one without having to resort to the Veteran's Committee.
The good news is that it looks like it's going to happen. And, as someone who's been arguing online about this forever, I think a Raines induction would be a remarkable moment in the evolution of baseball discussion. Think about where the conversation was in January 2008, Raines' first year on the ballot. FJM was still actively publishing, while Joe Morgan himself was still doing weekly chats on ESPN accusing Billy Beane of having written Moneyball.
But stat heads like myself don't really have room to gloat either. In 2007, many of us were still arguing for didactic oversimplifications like defense being overrated and pitchers having absolutely no control over balls in play. Over time, the temperature on this debate has turned down, and instead of yelling at each other, it seems like we've all kind of realized that everyone has something to contribute.
And that brings us back to Raines, a player who was both a throwback and ahead of his time. He was the kind of speed and effort player that old-school baseball fans adored and scouts insisted a team needed to win. But he excelled in ways that baseball fans were only beginning to appreciate in the 1980s. Raines had as many seasons with a .390-or-better OBP as Pete Rose and, while he's fifth all-time in stolen bases, he has the best stolen base percentage since the 1920s by anyone with over 350 steals. Raines would be as at home on the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals teams of the last couple of years as he was on the Expos teams of the 1980s.
And in that time, he's gone from a dark horse, garnering just 24.3% (which was just one percent better than Mark McGwire that year) to being on the edge of induction. And the Hall will be a richer building for it.
So that's all for part two, but there are still 17 players with very strong cases left. Tomorrow, I'll take at the remaining players and reveal my final (hypothetical) ballot.