My Hall of Fame ballot: Jeff Bagwell, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Mussina, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling, Alan Trammell and Larry Walker. (Only Griffey and Piazza were elected.) Feel free to disagree, but know this: There was a method to this process that wasn’t always present in years past, and this was my 22nd year of voting.
True confession: I’d never really had a method. I mostly hunted and pecked, picked and chose. Oh, I compared the basic numbers — isn’t the Baseball Hall of Fame just a repository of numbers? — and I used them (or didn’t) as justification. But I was never satisfied with that. I knew I wasn’t being clinical enough.
Take the issue of familiarity, or the lack of same. I never saw Trammell play in person. I saw Fred McGriff quite a lot. That’s the nature of this particular job. I’ve seen LeBron James lots more than I have Kobe Bryant. I work in Atlanta.
I also had a bit of a positional bias: I liked closers. But the more I’ve dipped my toes into the sabermetric pond — and I stipulate that I still don’t consider myself a sabermetrician — the more I’ve been swayed by the argument that most closers are overrated. (Mariano Rivera being the exception that proves the rule.) You’ve got three outs to get and your team is already ahead and, in most instances, there’s nobody on base. That’s not an easy job, but sometimes it’s not all that hard.
Know how many 20-game winners there were in the majors last season? (Yes, yes. Sabermetricians hate the concept of “wins,” too. I use this advisedly.) Two, and both won Cy Young awards. Know how many 30-save men there were? Twenty-one. Two of every three teams had a guy who saved 30 games. So how hard is it? Brad Boxberger of Tampa Bay had 43 saves with a WHIP of 1.37 and an ERA of 3.71. He also blew six saves; no reliever blew more than seven. Was Boxberger a great closer?
This year I voted for no closers, not even Trevor Hoffman, who finished with 601 saves. (Only Rivera has more.) I didn’t vote for Lee Smith, who has 478, or Billy Wagner, who has 422. If we go by Baseball Reference’s WAR values, those three relievers were 21st (Smith), 24th (Hoffmann) and 25th (Wagner) among eligible players this year, and you’re allowed to vote for only 10.
This, see, was the year I stopped trying to decide if McGriff’s .284 batting average with 493 homers and 1,550 RBIs over 8,757 at-bats trumped Walker’s .313 with 383 and 1,311 over 6,907. For argument’s sake, let’s give McGriff the nod there. But then we note Walker’s superiority in on-base percentage (.400 to .377) and OPS (.965 to .886), and we note also that he won a MVP award and six Gold Gloves as a right fielder while the Crime Dog won no MVPs (finished in the top 10 six times, though) and no Gold Gloves at first base. And then we get into the Mile High thing — Walker played 10 of his 17 seasons in Colorado — and ask: How much does altitude figure into his numbers?
But wait! There’s a number for that, too! According to OPS+, which factors in the player’s ballpark, Walker still wins. His career OPS+ per 162 games was 141; McGriff’s was 134. And that’s just two guys. We could do similar exercises with every name on the ballot in the effort to choose between players of the same era who manned different positions, or …
We could use WAR.
Some people hate the concept of wins above replacement. Not many understand it. But WAR is mighty useful when it comes to comparing and contrasting, and here it wasn’t close. Walker beat McGriff 72.6 to 52.4. Of eligible players, Walker’s WAR value ranked seventh; McGriff’s was 17th.
If you click on the Baseball Reference link highlighted above and then on the “WAR” column, you’ll find that I voted for the top nine. I didn’t vote for No. 10 — Edgar Martinez — because I opted instead for No. 14 Piazza, the greatest hitter among catchers. (I’m not constitutionally opposed to the concept of DH’ing, but Martinez did play the field in only 592 of his 2,055 games.)
So: I didn’t go straight WAR, but I came close. I’m not entirely satisfied with that, either, seeing as how WAR always lowballs closers. (Even Rivera, whose career WAR value is 56.6; Jim Edmonds’ is 60.3.) But I’ll cross that bridge when Mo becomes eligible, and I won’t have to sweat Chipper Jones two winters hence. His WAR is 85.0, which would have been third to Bonds and Clemens on this year’s ballot. He’s a Year 1 lock.
As for Bonds and Clemens (and perhaps Bagwell and Piazza): I had no hesitation in voting for them — I’ve done so before and will again — and if Mark McGwire’s WAR score had been a hair higher, I’d have voted for him, too. So long as MLB allows the records of the Steroids Era to stand, I will vote on those records. You tell me: How many more homers did Bonds hit because of PEDs? Fifty? A hundred? Three hundred? How many more strikeouts did Clemens record? I don’t know, and you don’t, either.
(Just for fun, I checked to see if Bonds ever hit a PED-on-PED home run off Clemens. He didn’t, but he did hit eight apiece off Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, first-ballot Hall of Famers. Just FYI.)
Maybe you think I removed the human element from Hall of Fame voting by relying on WAR. Sure, I could have picked McGriff or Gary Sheffield because I covered them as Braves, or I could have bumped up McGwire, who was nice to me in St. Louis during the Great Home Run Chase of 1998, or I could have opted for Hoffmann, whose entrance to “Hell’s Bells” in San Diego in Game 3 of the 1998 NLCS was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. But that’s way too much Human Element for my liking.
I thought about this at length, and I concluded that WAR and suchlike numbers exist for a reason. They measure that which cannot be measured by the naked eye. With the exception of Larry Walker himself, no living person saw every Larry Walker at-bat, but such is the nature of baseball that almost everything can be counted and collated. How many four-seam fastballs did Julio Teheran throw last season? Why, 1,382 — or 106 more than in 2014. Brooks Baseball tells us so.
Maybe next year I’ll go with something different. (BABIP, perhaps?) This time around, though, WAR was the answer.