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The 2015 Hall of Fame ballot: holdover candidates

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On what will be a crowded ballot for years to come, who (if any) of the holdover candidates will be selected for induction into the Hall of Fame's Class of 2015?

Just vote him in and get it over with
Just vote him in and get it over with
Jed Jacobsohn

My last post discussed the 2015 Hall of Fame ballot and focused on the four first-year candidates I believe merit serious consideration. I'll cover the rest of the deserving candidates in this one.

Any time a player with a very good career isn't elected the first year they're eligible, there's a story behind it. Sometimes it's a crowded ballot, other times a prejudice by certain voters to deny entry to any first-year candidate or other issues. Performance-enhancing substances are part of the discussion as well, with attitudes on not only how to treat these candidates, but even who they are. It doesn't make much sense to go further without addressing this.

The Mitchell Report was released in 2007 and is the primary documentation of players with ties to PEDs. Named in the report are Roger Clemens (pp167-76), Barry Bonds (pp 279-80) and Gary Sheffield (pp113, 135-37), and yet the taint remains on players like Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza. Rafael Palmeiro is no longer eligible to appear on the ballot, having failed to receive the necessary five percent last year, so the voters have already made themselves clear how they feel on the issue.

I don't care. There's a strong argument to be made that I should, but I don't. They cheated, in some cases got caught, but the problem was so widespread that it will probably be years until the true extent is known. The pronounced effect on offense was very real -- this graph shows isolated power (slugging percent - batting average) from 1901-2014:

Isolated Power

It's difficult to miss the bulge from around 1995-2007, and certainly PED use was one reason, perhaps even a major one, but don't discount two other very important factors -- a significant number of new hitter-friendly parks and two expansions that diluted pitching talent for around one or two years each. Add other items like hitters going to bat armed to defuse bombs and willing to drive outside pitches to the opposite field, and the perfect storm arose for an offensive spurt the likes of which baseball had never seen.

I don't have the righteous indignation to "keep the game clean and punish the rule breakers." This conveniently ignores the widespread use of amphetamines in the good old days and instead sets up a hierarchy of bad, some of which will be expressly punished, others winked at. I have no sympathy for this argument, and I'm firmly convinced these players will be enshrined by some future Veterans Committee. As such, I just don't see the point of denying admission now to worthy candidates.

The career numbers for the eligible players can be seen at this B-R page, and I like to add a few more to get a more complete feel for the way in which the players were viewed by their contemporaries. This table shows appearances in MVP voting and All-Star games for position players:

Player MVP Top 10 All-Star
Barry Bonds 7 13 14
Edgar Martinez 0 2 7
Craig Biggio 0 3 7
Mike Piazza 0 7 12
Tim Raines 0 3 7
Alan Trammell 0 3 6
Jeff Kent 1 4 5
Fred McGriff 0 6 5
Mark McGwire 0 5 12
Larry Walker 1 4 5
Don Mattingly 1 4 6
Jeff Bagwell 1 6 4
Sammy Sosa 1 7 7
Gary Sheffield 0 6 9

I look primarily at how often players were in the top 10 of MVP voting, a measure of how often the player was considered one of the best in the game. All-Star nominations are less important to me as the rosters expand to include just about every able-bodied player, but it's still a marker to help differentiate candidates. I look at MVP voting less for up-the-middle players since a good part of their value comes from their defense, something MVP voters tend to underplay.

Of this group, I'll go with Bonds, Biggio, Piazza, Bagwell and Kent. In my mind, Bonds was already a HOF-caliber player prior to his PED use circa 1998, so I don't lose much sleep over that one. His attitude never did him any favors, and coupled with the PED issues, he'll have a hard time getting in. Piazza and Bagwell have never been credibly accused with PED use but have been tainted with guilt-by-association claims. It doesn't mean they might not be right, but until something concrete comes forth, I'm not sure what the voters are doing.

Biggio will likely get in this year, as he missed by just one or two votes last year. I advocated for Kent last year and haven't changed my mind in the meantime. He could definitely be a victim of a crowded ballot for quite some time to come, which is probably the ultimate fates for Alan Trammell and Tim Raines as well.

This is a similar chart for pitchers:

Pitcher Cy Young Top 5 All-Star
Curt Schilling 0 4 6
Roger Clemens 7 10 11
Pedro Martinez 3 7 8
Randy Johnson 5 10 10
John Smoltz 1 5 8
Mike Mussina 0 6 5

I've substituted Cy Young Awards for MVPs, which leaves Clemens' 1986 MVP out of the picture. All of these pitchers had significant  Cy Young consideration, and in a perfect world all are worthy of enshrinement. Of the six, Schilling probably will have the toughest road, since his dominance isn't apparent until advanced measures like FIP- (4th-best since 1950) and K/9 (9th) are taken into account. Even the lovers of the win should note he's 38th since 1950. Last year around this time, Brian Kenny tweeted out his support for Schilling, to which I responded with something like "H. O. V. G." I wish I still had his response; it's priceless. He'll be happy to know I've come around to his way of thinking.

The astute reader will notice I have a numbers problem in that I now have eleven players on my ballot. I feel pretty strongly about the position players, so the person I'll remove is . . . Mike Mussina. This is strictly a numbers issue, since I think he should have been elected last year. This will continue to be a problem until the PED issue is resolved and a once-and-for-all type of decision is made regarding these players -- if their behavior was so egregious, the BBWAA should put out a statement and remove these players from the ballot and end any speculation. If they aren't willing to do that, evaluate these players on the merits, which I strongly suggest hasn't occurred, particularly with Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza.

Waiting won't solve any problems as quality candidates like Ken Griffey Jr. (2016), Ivan Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez (2017), Chipper Jones and Jim Thome (2018) become eligible for consideration. If the writers stick to the pattern of choosing only two or three candidates a year, this backlog will never end, but a trend is emerging suggesting voters are beginning to vote for more candidates. This graph shows the percent of ballots cast:

HOF Vote Percent

I don't advocate choosing ten players just because ten choices can be made, but with the crowded ballot that currently exists, it would certainly help. Even in the nadir of the 1990s and early 2000s the average voter was placing around five names per ballot, but it has increased dramatically in the past couple of years. It needs to -- in a 30-team league featuring the best talent the world has to offer, there are more deserving players than ever.

The point of the HOF is to recognize the best players ever to play. No reasonable baseball fan can state with a straight face that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens weren't among the best ever, or that this was true even before their alleged PED use. The fact that neither is a particularly pleasant person is a petty issue when judging them as baseball players. We end up holding these men to higher standards than the average person, and that's how capricious decisions are made.

I don't expect all to agree with my stance on PEDs, and I need to make clear I support any efforts to remove them from baseball. But what happened happened, and the best merely put up slightly better numbers. PEDs can't turn .200 hitters into .300/30 HR/100 RBI men, and they can't correct a pitcher's control issues. This is the ultimate reason why I'm willing to look past it and acknowledge the players I've chosen as worthy of Hall of Fame induction -- they would have been among the best in the game without their use.

. . .

All data from FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference

Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.

Play around with this Tableau data viz for more information on how players rank historically. Use the filters to reduce the number of players shown. Hover over individual data points for more information. The measures used are the Bill James Hall of Fame Standards and Monitor. I highly recommend viewing it on a tablet or computer.