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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Hall of Fame Questions

Craig Biggio, Sammy Sosa, and Mike Piazza have officially announced their retirements.  Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds have been forced into exile.  John Smoltz, Ken Griffey Jr., Tom Glavine, and Greg Maddux have expiring contracts and have been dropping occasional hints.  The heroes of my early teens will soon become managers, pitching coaches, bad broadcasters, and semi-anonymous multi-millionaires, so it seems like a good time to discuss the inevitable questions of Hall of Fame credentials.  

First of all, in my opinion, it is a given that all of the players mentioned above are shoo-in first ballot players.  As should be Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro.  It may be "The Steroid Era," and some of these guys may have benefitted for performance-enhancing drugs, but most, if not all, of them would've been enshrined regardless and I don't think there is anything more shameful about this "era" than "The Segregation Era," "The Anti-Semetism Era," "The Spitball Era," and "The Collusion Era" (has it ended?).  Unlike Bud Selig and the MLB marketing department, I am not attracted to baseball history by any illusion of Disney World purity.  Any good historian knows, accuracy is almost always more entertaining than myth.  

I would like to consider the cases of a few borderline players who are entering the twilight of their careers.

Derek Jeter - SS - New York Yankees

I am a board-certified Jeter-hater, as most of you know, but I am not so prejudiced as to be incapable of looking at him rationally.  If he gets to 3,000 hits, which seems a foregone conclusion, he deserves to get into the Hall.  Jeter is great contact hitter, I have never disputed that.  He is a postseason God, there can be no doubt.  What makes me think that he's dramatically overrated is his putrid defense and the fact that the infamous captain doesn't seem to have all that much positive sway in a clubhouse which is constantly in turmoil.  I also think that the fawning of commentators over his potential run at 4,000 hits is ridiculous.  Jeter is 34.  He would need more than 7 seasons of 200+ hits to get to 4,000.  He has only gotten to 200 hits in six of his first twelve full seasons.  Jeter's power is dramatically declining (fewer homers in each of the last four seasons), as is his speed (only 16 for 24 in stolen bases the last two years).  He will, naturally, be less of an iron-man as he ages, as demonstrated by a trip to the D.L. already this season (the first since 2003).  Jeter's future is uncertain in many ways.  His massive contract will expire after 2010.  One would expect he will remain a Yankee, though at a significant discount, but his role will have to be determined.  I think even Yankee fans and management are near to the realization that he won't be a shortstop for much longer.  His range and fielding percentage have declined every season since 2005.  He was arguably the worst in the AL in 2007 (last in Range Factor, last in Zone Rating, 6th in Fielding Percentage).  However, he doesn't profile as the kind of hitter the Yankees expect for their corner outfield positions.  They just signed a pretty good player to be their third baseman for the next decade.  So, are the Yankees going to let excellent young players like Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera become free agents so that they can free up space for a declining singles-hitting captain who may not be particularly good at second or in center.  We'll have to wait and see.

Chipper Jones - 3B - Atlanta Braves

The long-time face of the evil Braves isn't exactly my favorite player, but I have to agree with Rob Neyer's article arguing for Jones' inevitable enshrinement.  Like Jeter, Jones has led many of his teams to postseason appearances and performed well when there (13 HR and 870 OPS in 92 games).  Unlike Jeter, he hasn't exactly been indestructible.  He hasn't played upwards of 140 games since 2003.  However, when he's been in the lineup, there's been no sign of decline.  He doesn't steal bases anymore, but he hasn't since he turned 30 (he's 36 now), and he actually seems to be getting better as a hitter.  His OPS has improved every year since 2004.  So, it seems safe to say he will improve on numbers which are already pretty noteworthy.  Among third baseman, only Mike Schmidt and Eddie Matthews have hit more home runs, and if he hits 25+ for four more years (not impossible), he might catch Matthews.  His career OPS is the best ever (for 3B).  He'll certainly reach 1500 RBI (moving him into the top 50 all-time) and has an outside shot at 3,000 hits.  Chipper won't get any assistance from his defense, but he shouldn't need it.  And, it goes without saying, this discussion isn't even necessary if he hits .400 this season.

Jason Varitek - C - Boston Red Sox

Varitek is a great example of the kind of player who might be overlooked in an era of offensive production.  However, he is the first Red Sox catcher to capture two World Championships since Pinch Thomas (1915 & 1916) and his newsworthy record of being behind the plate for four no-hitters might help him garner some voter attention.  Varitek's talent behind the plate has been underestimated because he's played most of his career in the shadow of Pudge Rodriguez.  His only Gold Glove came in 2005.  His offensive numbers are nothing to be ashamed of.  Among players who have spent 90% of their careers behind the plate, Varitek is 8th in OPS.  Of the seven players in front of him, only Chris Hoiles has no shot at the Hall (4 are already in, Rodriguez is a shoo-in, and, speaking of catchers with handfuls of rings, Jorge Posada is another borderline selection).  If he were eligible tomorrow, I don't think I'd vote for him, but that doesn't mean a couple more BoSox championships wouldn't persuade me otherwise.

Mike Mussina - SP - New York Yankees

Moose hasn't been very good for the last few years, I know.  He's never won 20 games in a season or a Cy Young and a run at 300 wins isn't looking likely.  But he's got more strikeouts than Tom Glavine and only two players (Mickey Lolich & Frank Tanana) with as many strikeouts as the Moose are not in the Hall (or headed there).  He's got more wins than Curt Schilling and a better winning percentage than Schilling, Glavine, Smoltz, and Greg Maddux (!), all players from the same era who played for good teams and seem certainly headed for Cooperstown.  However, only one player (Red Ruffing) with an ERA as high as Mussina on his career (3.71) is in the Hall.  Mussina could be in the position to change the standards.  Baseball pundits seem confident that the 300 win plateau is going to be unrealistic for this generation's pitchers.  The 3.50 career ERA might be a similarly high expectation, considering the AL average in the last decade has been well above 4.50.  I'd say no to Mussina, but I bet a significant number of baseball writers will feel otherwise.

Trevor Hoffman - RP - San Diego Padres

I know, the game's all-time leader in saves should be a sure thing, right?  Well, it didn't work out that way for Lee Smith and he had more wins, more strikeouts, more innings pitched, and more All-Star appearances than Hoffman, with a similarly good career ERA (3.03 compared to 2.76) and several downright dominating seasons.  Like Smith, Hoffman never won a World Series and he only got there once.  More importantly, when Smith became eligible in 2002, he was still the reigning saves king, which would've seemed to help his case.  By the time Hoffman's name gets on the ballot, he probably will have been surpassed by Mariano Rivera, whose credentials are, frankly, much, much more impressive.  He already leads Hoffman in wins, ERA, innings, and All-Star appearances, not to mention that ridiculous postseason line: 8-1, 34 SV, 0.77 ERA, 91 K, 16 BB, 117 IP.  There are only four full-time relievers in the Hall, none of them with upwards of 400 saves.  They will be setting a new precedent when they enshrine a career closer.  Something tells me that Mo Rivera is destined to be that precedent (though Hoffman may follow him).   

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