Inside a Hall of Fame voter's toughest ballot decision

A month after my Baseball Hall of Fame ballot arrived in the mail, I'm barricaded in my office with a cup of Candy Cane holiday coffee and a sheet of paper with 33 names on it. I have Jay Jaffe's "Cooperstown Casebook''and the Bill James 2018 Handbookwithin reach, and I can rest easy in the knowledge that the tireless Ryan Thibodaux will keep me updated on the sentiments of my peers with his round-the-clock Hall of Fame tracker.

When I reveal my choices on Twitter, I know some observers will question my mental acuity, while others will praise me for making the "right'' calls. This is condescending in ways they can't imagine. An estimated 420 voters will weigh in this year, and they all bring unique perspectives and personal experiences to the process. There's no such thing as a "perfect'' ballot. There is merely your perception of what constitutes a perfect ballot.

I realize statistical analysis has become more sophisticated and granular to the point that some Hall watchers think it's foolproof. But if we've reached the point of tossing names in a shredder and making blanket assessments -- i.e., Alan Trammell is a lock, and Jack Morris' Hall of Fame candidacy is a "joke'' -- then this becomes more an exercise in group-think than an actual debate.

It's impossible to separate the numbers from the moments I've witnessed, the observations I've collected or the players and managers I've surveyed through the years. If I can glean an extra insight here or there on how a candidate was regarded by his teammates or from the opposing dugout, it helps ease my mind that I've made the most informed decision possible.

I'll never forget going into the visiting clubhouse at Riverfront Stadium in the early 1990s to interview Cubs outfielder Andre Dawson and seeing him emerge from the trainer's room four hours before game time with massive ice packs on both knees. That small window into Dawson's competitive will, accountability as a teammate and sacrifices made to get on the field resonated beyond his .323 career on-base percentage.

In recent years, of course, the steroid question has clouded the decision-making process, and Joe Morgan added fuel to the discussion when he sent a letter to Hall voters with some suggestions/instructions on how to navigate the issue of Cooperstown and PEDs. Morgan's email generated some negative responses from writers who felt strong-armed, but I wasn't among that group. Read between the lines, and Morgan was clearly carrying water for other Hall of Famers who don't want PED users in their midst but were afraid to say so publicly. The letter, while well-intentioned, came several years too late because it's a virtual given that some players who used PEDs are already in the Hall.

I don't feel good about rewarding players who took shortcuts while peers stayed clean and lost roster spots or money as a result. But it was a messy time, and it's an undeniable chapter in the game's history. I gave Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell and Pudge Rodriguez the benefit of the doubt amid the steroid "whispers,'' and I would be deluding myself to think I'm all-seeing and all-knowing on the subject of PEDs.

So here I am, with a 10-man maximum of choices and nine names checked on my ballot. They are listed here in relative order of comfort and certainty:

1) Chipper Jones

He was an eight-time All-Star and a staple for Atlanta teams that won year after year. He has a better career Baseball-reference.com WAR (85.0 to 83.6) than Ken Griffey Jr., and he ranks third behind Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray among switch-hitters, with 468 home runs. I immediately checked the box beside his name and thought, "Next.''

2) Jim Thome

His 612 home runs, combination of on-base ability (a .402 career OBP) and power (a .554 slugging percentage), and all-around Paul Bunyan-esque aura make him another worthy first-ballot inductee.

3) Vladimir Guerrero

He was a multi-dimensional force during his peak years and an aesthetic delight while driving bad balls to the gap and into the seats with regularity. Guerrero posted an adjusted OPS+ of 140 during his career, which ties him with Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield and Duke Snider. I voted for him last year, when he received 71.7 percent, and I'll be stunned if he falls short this time around.

4/5) Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling

Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Pedro Martinez and Bert Blyleven are the only pitchers elected through the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot exclusively as starters in this century. It's time for two more pitchers from the steroid era to join them.

As Bill James observes, "Curt Schilling is conducting a personal campaign to keep himself out of the Hall of Fame.'' But Schilling's political views and social media rants play no part in my decision-making because he hasn't thrown a pitch since 2007.

Schilling ranks 15th on baseball's career list with 3,115 strikeouts, and he's fifth in strikeout-to-walk ratio at 4.38. Three pitchers in front of him -- Chris Sale, Corey Kluber and Stephen Strasburg -- are products of the current swing-and-miss era, and the other, Tommy Bond, threw his final big-league pitch for the Worcester Ruby Legs in 1882. Factor Schilling's dominant postseason résumé into the equation, and it pushes him over the top.

Mussina's case is built more brick-by-brick than Schilling's. His 3.58 strikeout-to-walk ratio, six Gold Gloves, six top-five Cy Young finishes, 11 seasons of 200-plus innings and a 1.19 career WHIP crafted exclusively in the AL East are enough to get him to the Hall. Like Don Sutton, who made it to Cooperstown by being very good and reliable for a long time, Mussina is ready for his close-up.

6) Trevor Hoffman

Some voters are so repelled by the thought of closers in the Hall that they can't even abide the idea of voting for Mariano Rivera. I reside in another camp. I realize saves are a questionable stat, and Hoffman's 1,089 innings in bite-sized chunks don't compare to 3,000-plus innings from the game's elite starters. But even Bill James concedes that closer innings should be valued differently than starter innings. The question is, to what degree?

In 2004, Dave Smith of Retrosheetfound that team win totals held firm with a ninth-inning lead regardless of which pitcher was entrusted with recording the final three outs. That makes sense -- on paper. But isn't there value in one pitcher performing at an elite level for years on end and saving his team from the drama that inevitably ensues with uncertainty in the closer role? And doesn't it mean something that Bruce Bochy said he was "shocked'' when Hoffman failed to make it to Cooperstown a year ago and observed that "I'm still managing because of Trevor Hoffman"? It does to me.

7) Edgar Martinez

Yes, Martinez's 2,267 hits were on the light side, particularly for a DH. But the testimonials from Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Pedro Martinez help his cause, and he's one of only 14 players in history with a career slash line of at least .310/.410/.510. Nine of those hitters are in the Hall of Fame. The other four are Manny Ramirez, Todd Helton, Joey Votto and Shoeless Joe Jackson.

8/9) Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens

Bonds and Clemens are two of the most dominant players in baseball history, and they made it a lot harder on their supporters than it had to be. But I came to grips with their place in history two years ago, and there's no turning back now.

That's nine spots out of 10 accounted for, which brings me to crunch time. In a perfect world, I could say yes or no to each of the 24 candidates left on the ballot, but Hall of Fame rules limit us to 10 choices overall. When the Hall reduced the waiting period on the ballot from 15 years to 10, it created a greater sense of urgency for candidates rushing to beat the clock.

The concept of "ballot management'' is now in vogue among Hall of Fame voters. In assorted cases, I might give extra thought to supporting a player who is in danger of falling below the 5 percent threshold to stay eligible -- even if it means withholding my support from a player I think is worthier of enshrinement.

Even though I am now 90 percent finished with my ballot, I have much more than 10 percent of the work in front of me. Here are the 11 somewhat or very credible candidates in contention for my final spot:

Fred McGriff

If you can watch those old Tom Emanski videos and be anything less than a Crime Dog fan, you should have your BBWAA credentials revoked. I've voted for McGriff in the past, and I would love to stand up for him as a model of consistency and a paragon of a more innocent era. But he's in his ninth year on the ballot, and he has stalled at around 15-20 percent. I can only hope his case receives a thorough review from the Veterans Committee a few years down the road.

It's a no.

Billy Wagner

Dominant closer numbers offset by 903 career innings. With a ballot this crowded, I need to file him away for future consideration and hope he remains eligible.

It's a no.

Andruw Jones

He put up some amazing numbers and set a standard for defensive excellence from 1997 to 2006, then fell off a cliff statistically at age 31. It was a terrific peak, but it ended too abruptly for me.

It's a no.

Johan Santana

He won two Cy Young Awards, made five All-Star teams and was as dominant as it gets for seven seasons, but he was out of the game by age 33.

It's a no.

Sammy Sosa

Sosa did not flunk a test (other than the reported failure of a 2003 "survey test,'' as reported by the New York Times). But his Hall case rests almost entirely on a five-year surge from 1998 to 2002, when he averaged 58 home runs a season, and he's too much of a one-note case for me.

It's a no.

Manny Ramirez

Manny's numbers put him in the Hall, but he failed one test at age 37 and another at age 39. Maybe his biggest sin was getting caught. But if you're looking for a clear delineation between a probable steroid user and a surefire abuser, Manny made it easy to take a pass.

It's a no.

Scott Rolen

Jay Jaffe writes that Rolen could become the Bobby Grich of his position, "held back by his good-but-not-great career totals and the perpetual undervaluing of his best assets.'' The not-so-great totals include 2,077 hits and 316 homers, which put Rolen a tick ahead of Graig Nettles in Jaffe's JAWS rankings.

But a case can certainly be made for Rolen. Jayson Stark did some research and found that Rolen notched 11 seasons as a 4-win player at third base. For sake of comparison, Mike Schmidt recorded 14, Eddie Mathews 13, Wade Boggs 11 and George Brett and Brooks Robinson 10 each.

It's a no -- for this year, at least -- and Rolen will merit a longer look when the ballot thins.

Omar Vizquel

Vizquel is the new poster boy for the "eye test'' vs. the statistical formulas. Baseball-reference.com lists him as the 24th-ranked shortstop of all time, with 45.3 career Wins Above Replacement, and Jay Jaffe rates him as the 42nd-best shortstop in history, per his JAWS system.

The eye test is kinder to his candidacy. Sheldon Ocker, the long-time Indians beat writer and 2018 Spink Award winner, told me he plans to vote for Vizquel because he happens to be "as good or better than any shortstop I've ever seen, and that includes Luis Aparicio and Ozzie Smith.'' The managers and coaches who gave Vizquel 11 Gold Gloves apparently agreed.

The question is ultimately whether you admire Vizquel for making himself into a serviceable hitter and accumulating 2,877 hits, scoring 1,445 runs and stealing 404 bases or whether you consider those counting numbers hollow and conclude that he was an overrated fielder and an offensive detriment. I fall more in the first group than the second, so I'm going to keep an open mind on him in the years to come.

It's a no -- for now.

That leaves ...


Gary Sheffield

My favorite Sheffield statistical combination: He was one of five players in MLB history to amass an OPS of better than .900 with more than 1,400 walks and fewer than 1,200 strikeouts.

The other four: Ted Williams, Mel Ott, Lou Gehrig and Stan Musial.

Yes, Sheffield played for eight teams, alienated some teammates and fans with his brashness and was nobody's idea of a skilled defender. More damning, in a 2004 Sports Illustrated interview, he said he unknowingly used an illegal steroid-based cream. Sheffield's inclusion in the Mitchell report in conjunction with the BALCO investigation puts him on the outs with Joe Morgan and other Hall of Famers who are resistant to having PED users in the club.

But if I'm giving a pass to Bonds and Clemens, I need to be similarly forgiving to Sheffield for the sake of consistency. His numbers are staggering, and he's limping along at a mere 10 percent of the vote. I can achieve two objectives with a single check mark.

It's a yes.

Jeff Kent

Kent has yet to receive 17 percent of the vote in four years on the ballot, and I find that lack of support baffling. He's first all time among second basemen with 351 homers (out of 377 in his career). Among players who logged at least 50 percent of their career starts at second, Kent ranks second to Rogers Hornsby in slugging at .500 and is third behind Craig Biggio and Charlie Gehringer with 560 doubles. His career 123 OPS+ puts him on par with Roy Campanella, Ted Kluszewski and Tim Raines, among others.

Kent was no world beater defensively. But I'm skeptical of defensive metrics, especially defensive metrics applied to players who haven't taken the field in years. Kent was a rare commodity as a middle-of-the-order offensive force, and he made the routine plays well enough to stay in the lineup for teams with aspirations of contending. His bat puts him over the top for me.

It's a yes.

Larry Walker

I covered Walker for several years in Colorado, so I can attest to his all-around brilliance. Every time Walker stepped in the box, he looked like he was about to hit a rocket. He was a Gold Glove defender, an intuitive baserunner and a joy to watch as a legitimate five-tool player. As one long-time baseball man told me, "Most nights, no matter who was playing, Larry Walker was the best player on the field.''

Why have I refrained from voting for Walker to this point? My reservations have almost nothing to do with Coors Field and more to do with my belief that Walker fell short of his potential. He surpassed 140 games only four times in 17 seasons, and injuries played a part. But when I watched him day in and day out, I was left to wonder if he came to the park each day ready to be the Cooperstown-worthy star he was capable of being. I'm convinced to this day that Walker got maybe 80 percent out of his God-given ability, and that has always nagged at me.

But as Walker's time on the ballot winds down, I'm softening on his candidacy, and I'm ready to take the plunge. Is he borderline? Perhaps. But Walker's .565 career slugging percentage, seven Gold Gloves, MVP award and three batting titles make for a solid foundation. I've voted for Jim Rice, Tony Perez and other marginal candidates over the years, and Walker's résumé is strong enough to suggest that he belongs in their company.

It's a yes on Walker.

That leaves me with three names for one spot. Walker is safe with 40 percent of the vote, so I might withhold my support this time around and throw Kent or Sheffield a lifeline. If four players on this year's ballot make it, perhaps I'll have more wiggle room next December. If this year's class is smaller, and Mariano Rivera, Todd Helton and Roy Halladay go on the ballot in a year, the landscape will remain awfully crowded.

When I finally do check that box, will it be beside Sheffield's name or Walker's or Kent's? I have three days left to make the call.

I'll probably use every minute that I'm allowed.
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