Next week the Baseball Hall of Fame will announce the results of a veterans committee election that considers 12 candidates from the Expansion Era. It’s the first election in the new Hall of Fame balloting process that has the voting separated into three ballots based on era: Expansion (1973-present), Golden (1947-1972), and Pre-Integration (1871-1946). Every year one of the ballots will be addressed. A small group (16) will vote in seclusion during the winter meetings. Any candidate receiving 12 votes will be elected.
The new process is an interesting idea, and no doubt it’s been constructed because the Hall of Fame wants to see people (living people, preferably) elected to the Hall of Fame. For the most part, previous incarnations of the veterans committee have resulted in very few inductees. Following Bill Mazeroski’s controversial selection in 2001, the veterans committee failed to elect anyone for six years. From 2008-2010, after the Hall tinkered with the committee process for the umpteenth time, the committee elected eight people. However, only one was a player and only half of them were living. Obviously, something had to be done to spice things up a bit.
The HOF wants the veterans committee to elect worthy candidates who are appealing to the masses. It helps a lot if they’re also breathing. That way, fans will trek to Cooperstown to see them get their plaques. Suffice to say, Barney Dreyfuss didn’t attract a crowd when he was elected in 2008.
Of the 12 former players, managers, and executives on the Expansion Era ballot, 10 are alive. Let’s look at each of them and rate their chances for Hall of Fame election.
A southpaw with a heavy fastball and a knee-buckling curve, Blue accomplished a lot in his career: he was the ace (or one of the aces) of three World Series championship teams (one of baseball’s most colorful clubs), he struck out 300 batters in a season, he pitched a no-hitter when he was 21 years old, he won an MVP and Cy Young Award, and he won 20 games three times. But those feats all occurred before he turned 27 years old. After the age of 26, Blue was basically a .500 pitcher (99-94 with a 3.72 ERA). His 209-161 career mark is pedestrian by HOF standards. Like Dwight Gooden in the 1980s, Blue seemed like a Hall of Fame talent when he was a young fireballer, but he took a detour on the way to Cooperstown. The lefty really doesn’t have chance to be elected.
He was a nine-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner in an era when shortstops were expected to field every ball in their region and maybe hit .275 with 10 homers if they could muster it. Some will say Concepcion didn’t hit enough even for a shortstop, and they may be right, but Ozzie Smith got in with pretty miserable offensive numbers, ditto Rabbit Maranville. The question of his candidacy comes down to whether or not his defense was great enough to offset his offensive deficiencies. According to a stat called Defensive Wins Above Replacement (dWAR), which is widely accepted to be the best measurement of defensive play, Concepcion gets a mark of 1.1, or about one game above replacement level for his entire career. Ozzie’s dWAR was 21.6, and several contemporaries of Concepcion had a better number. Luis Aparicio, a light-hitting Venezuelan shortstop like Concepcion, had a dWAR of 11.5 and his offense was boosted quite a bit by his ability to steal bases. To his credit, Concepcion hit about .350 in five NL Playoff Series, and he won an All-Star Game MVP, but his overall resume just doesn’t scream Cooperstown, though he does rank nicely on our list of all-time shortstops. His career OPS+ was 88, or 12% below an average offensive player. His highest OPS+ in any season was 116. Ozzie’s career OPS+ was a meager 87, but he stoled 250 more bases than Davey. Concepcion was a decent shortstop for a long time on a very good team. That’s his legacy, but it doesn’t mean he’s a HOFer. Having said that, he’ll probably get a few votes from this committee, which includes former teammates Johnny Bench and Tony Perez. But Concepcion should fall shy because when the voters look at those offensive numbers they have to admit his shortcomings. If he somehow manages to get elected he’ll be the worst shortstop in the Hall of Fame, by quite a big margin, and supporters of Maury Wills and Alan Trammell will have a lot to scream about.
The rise of Sabermetric theory may have done more to hurt Steve Garvey’s HOF chances than any other player of his generation. A generation of fans and writers now view Garvey’s career numbers as empty .300 seasons with modest RBI numbers. In some sense they are correct, given his opportunities in the middle of the lineups he played on, Garvey didn’t drive in that many runs. Had Garvey been able to squeeze out three seasons at the end of his career with 150 or so hits per, he’d have erased any debate about his candidacy by reaching 3,000 hits. But he fell off a steep cliff at the end and stopped at 2,599 hits. He has some gaudy credentials though: MVP votes in eight straight seasons, 10 All-Star nods, a long consecutive games played streak, and a .338 average with 11 homers in five post-seasons. His negatives include dismal defense and a poor (to say the least) reputation off the field. The longtime Geritol spokesman garnered 40% support or more from the baseball writers three times, and I’d bet that will help his chances with this smaller committee. Garvey will be a strong candidate, and if he’s elected, he won’t be the worst first baseman in Cooperstown. See Jim Bottomley for that distinction.
It can be difficult to determine which executives belong in the Hall of Fame. Gillick was at the center of the success that Toronto enjoyed when they established themselves as one of the best franchises in the game in the mid-1980s and into the 1990s. It’s easy to forget how bad the Blue Jays were in the beginning. Gillick was there for that, too. But back then expansion teams didn’t have the same advantages that later expansion teams did. The Jays and Mariners were the ugly step-sisters to the rest of the American League. Gillick took his lumps for five years, but by then he had stocked his farm system with loads of talent, most of it from Latin America. After those first five seasons with the Blue Jays when he was building from scratch, Gillick’s teams posted 20 winning seasons in 22 years, with at least 89 victories 15 times! Pretty damn good. Having said that, I don’t think this committee will reward Gillick with election. Most of the executives in Cooperstown worked for the Yankees or Dodgers for a long time, and though Gillick earned a paycheck from the Yanks as a scout for a couple of years, that’s not enough.
Late start, short career, left-handed. Those factors demand comparison to Sandy Koufax, which seriously hurts the case for Ron Guidry as a Hall of Famer. The skinny southpaw was a winner: 154-67 (.697) during his peak nine-year stretch. Guidry’s best season was better than any of Koufax’s best seasons. In 1978, Guidry posted a 208 ERA+, but he never approached that number again, and unlike Koufax, Guidry did not retire from an injury, he retired after losing his effectiveness. He was 4-0 in the 1977 and 1978 post-seasons, but his resume isn’t quite long enough. At his peak, he was as good as probably 15-20 pitchers in the Hall of Fame, but his cumulative numbers aren’t great enough. Still, “Gator” ranks among the 100 greatest pitchers of all-time.
The opposite of Guidry, John was good or very good long enough to win 288 games. But he was rarely ever considered the best pitcher on his team nor was he seriously ever mentioned as a dominant starter. The lefty relied on precision, guile, and stamina to forge a lengthy career while pitching for several winning teams. He really had three careers: (1) quality pitcher with the White Sox, (2) excellent starter for the Dodgers who suffered an infamous arm injury and won lots of games for great teams, and (3) bionic-armed veteran who caught on with the Angels and Yanks and chewed up innings while pitching okay when he was healthy. For the last eight years of his career he was 74-80 with a 4.13 ERA!
He really has George Steinbrenner to thank for reaching 288 wins. George gave John a roster spot for four seasons at the very end, otherwise John would have about 260 wins and probably wouldn’t be on this ballot. The baseball writers never gave John more than 31% of the vote. He won’t get in via the veterans committee either. If he does, Cooperstown would have to usher in Jamie Moyer, Frank Tanana, and Jim Kaat, each of whom was better than John.
To those of us who grew up watching baseball in the 1970s and early 1980s, it may seem odd to think of Billy Martin as a Hall of Fame manager. That’s because most of what we heard of Martin involved bar fights, obscenities, and hirings/firings. Martin was volatile, to say the least, but he did possess a burning desire to win. He injected that will to win into every clubhouse he managed, even though it eventually proved cancerous and led to his being fired. When he first rode into a new town, he turned things around almost immediately. In his first managerial season with Minnesota in 1969, he guided a team that had finished seventh the previous year to 97 wins and a division title. In Detroit he goaded an aging team of veterans to a division title. In New York he won two pennants and a World Series title before George fired him (the first time) and asked him back (the first time). Billy was always involved in some sort of controversy, like the time he induced George Brett to have a tantrum.
In Oakland, Billy schooled a small group of talented young players into a division winner in 1981. Only in Texas did he fail to finish in first place, but even there he improved the Rangers by 27 wins in his first season, a phenomenal turnaround. He was exiled from Texas after he pissed off the front office with the force of his personality and the disturbing flaws in his personal behavior. That was ultimately the story everywhere he went. Martin deserves a lot of credit for his ability to rally a team around his diamond philosophies (stealing bases and complete games). But his two pennants in 16 seasons aren’t enough to get him into Cooperstown.
Without this man the history of baseball would be quite different. Free agency, long-term contracts, arbitration, all of these off-the-field developments were a direct result of Miller’s influence. Miller’s impact is at least as important as the contributions of other pioneers in the Hall of Fame. Miller’s visionary leadership of the Players’ Union shaped the game we watch today. For that, he should be honored in Cooperstown, and he’ll probably get that honor this year. He’s one of the strongest candidates on the ballot.
Oliver is a member of what might be called the “Hall of the Nearly Great Enough.” These players, which include contemporaries Rusty Staub, Bill Buckner, Dave Parker, Vada Pinson, and Steve Garvey, and later stars like Harold Baines and Gary Sheffield, were very good for a long time, but failed to reach important milestones that traditionally signify automatic HOF election. Oliver is one of the best of this group. He won a batting title. He was an outstanding defensive player for much of his career, both in the outfield and later at first base. He was a strong baserunner in his prime, and he could hit. Man, could he hit. One former player who faced Oliver in the National League said that Oliver hit the ball harder more consistently than any other batter in the game. Oliver had the reputation for leading the league in “hard outs” nearly every year. Like others in his group, Oliver had more than 2,700 hits and then he tailed off, unable to reach the 3,000-hit plateau. Mid-career he seemed a good bet to make it. He certainly wouldn’t be the worst outfielder inducted into the HOF, but given that he didn’t do ONE THING really well he doesn’t stand out like a home run slugger or base stealer would. For that reason, Oliver won’t make it. He was really good, though, and he deserves to be remembered.
Ted Simmons scored more runs than all but four Hall of Fame catchers. He drove in more runs than every HOF catcher except Yogi Berra, and he collected more hits than any other catcher in the Hall of Fame (2,472). And it’s not like he accumulated a bunch of those numbers at another position: Simmons played essentially two seasons as a DH and a season and a half as a first basemen. Not that different than Johnny Bench, his contemporary in the National League during his prime. The problem is that Simmons suffers in comparison to Bench, which isn’t fair. That would be like keeping Roberto Clemente out of the Hall because he wasn’t Hank Aaron. Both were great players to different degrees. Simmons was a great catcher in his prime which lasted a LONG time. From 1971-1980 his OPS+ was 131, which is better than any peak stretch of similar length by a HOF catcher other than Bench, Cochrane, and Dickey. Simmons wasn’t as bad a defensive catcher as his reputation, and he compares favorably to Gary Carter who has already earned election. Simmons deserves induction and probably will make it if the committee really does their homework. But don’t count on that.
If there was a Hall of Fame for gentlemen, Staub would be in it. Similarly, if it was the Hall of Popularity, “Le Grand Orange” would have gone in on the first ballot. He was loved everywhere he played, and for good reason: he could hit. He’s still the only player to collect as many as 500 hits for four different franchises (Houston, Montreal, Mets, Detroit). He was one of the better pinch-hitters in the history of the game and he made a living at driving in runs from third base with less than two outs. Staub’s candidacy is hurt by two important factors: (1) he played for teams that rarely if ever got to the post-season, and (2) he never had a monster season in the triple crown categories. Staub just hit year after year after year. Here are his OPS+ marks for his 10-year peak from 1967-1976: 153, 132, 166, 139, 147, 137, 118, 112, 131, 137. His OPS+ for that decade was 131, ranking in the top ten in baseball. He ended up in the 2,700-hit zone like Oliver and thus he stands outside the HOF on that test. His career OPS+ of 124 is better than that of Tony Perez, who played on teams where he had far more RBI opportunities and who won multiple World Series rings. It’s also higher than that of Pete Rose. Staub was really good. He won’t get elected, but he deserves to be on this ballot.
Few owners gained as much attention as Stienbrenner, which is funny because when he bought the Yankees for the bargain price of $8.8 million in 1973 he was quoted as saying that he intended to be a “hands-off owner.” George was anything but hands-off in his 37 years as owner of the Yankees. In his first 22 years he changed managers 20 times! Steinbrenner employed 11 general managers over the years, and frequently undermined their authority by dealing with player contract negotiations personally. But the personal touch paid off, as “The Boss” won seven World Series titles and 11 pennants. His aggressive signing of free agents helped push salaries up while also encouraging other team owners to put more resources into their franchises. The result was good for baseball. If there were a Mt. Rushmore of baseball owners, Steinbrenner’s face would be one of the four faces on it, along with Branch Rickey, Walter O’Malley, and Bill Veeck. He should receive enough votes to earn election.