The 2016 Hall of Fame ballot went out this week. And I know a lot of you think that filling it out ought to be as easy as making out a grocery list.
Oh, really? Well, here's the part that's easy:
But now it's time for a 21st-century reflection on what's not so easy. What does a Hall of Fame relief pitcher look like? What does a Hall of Fame designated hitter look like?
Does anybody know? Does anybody even think about trying to define these things? No? Well, we'd better start figuring it out.
We'd better start figuring it out because, otherwise, Edgar Martinez's eligibility is going to be up before our esteemed electorate notices he was one of the great hitters of his generation.
And we'd better start figuring it out because the game keeps evolving. So we, as voters, need to evolve with it, or else the social media world will have every right to keep tweeting about what a bunch of mixed up Neanderthals we are. (And come to think of it, I'd almost take a tweet like that as a compliment these days.)
So here's a new way to look at this. Suppose there was a separate Hall of Fame for every position on the field. When election day rolled around for the Designated Hitter Hall of Fame, would you vote for Martinez? C'mon. Of course you would. If he isn't the greatest DH in history, he's at least on the Mount Rushmore.
And suppose there was also a Relief Pitcher Hall of Fame. When that ballot arrived, how many seconds would it take you to check Hoffman's name and Wagner's name? If the answer is a number greater than 30, you're clearly one of those people who believes there's nothing in the game more overrated than relief pitchers -- until the guys in your team's bullpen all stink.
OK, even if you don't agree with any of that, humor me. Here's where I'm going with this:
Best we can tell, relief pitchers are going to continue to be employed for at least the next several centuries. And apparently, DHs will continue to roam the baseball earth for the rest of our lives, not to mention the rest of David Ortiz's great-grandchildren's lives. And the men who do those jobs play real positions, appear in actual box scores, often have long careers.
In other words they exist! So why do so many Hall of Fame voters act as if they don't?
If they exist, and if they're going to persist in existence, here's the deal. Don't we need to start hanging their plaques in Cooperstown one of these decades?
The Hall of Fame is a place to honor the best of the best, not just the best of the positions we feel like recognizing. So that answer is yes. Maybe even hell, yes. And if we're going to start honoring these people, then let's go back to the questions we started this conversation with.
What does a Hall of Fame relief pitcher look like? What does a Hall of Fame DH look like? Here's what:
I made the mistake Monday of comparing, on Twitter, one entry on Wagner's stat sheet to Mariano Rivera's entry in the same category. Sorry! Didn't take long before several trillion tweeters had decided that was pure sacrilege. Little did they know, it made me think.
Take a look at these numbers, gang. They're the numbers of three prominent members of the 400-save club. I've removed names and save totals. Do you know which is which?
Before I identify them, look at those stat lines again. Is it clear, from looking at them, which of those three relievers was the greatest of all time? It may be to those of you who play really close attention. But the point is, they're closer than you think.
So here goes: Reliever A is Hoffman. Reliever B is Rivera. Reliever C is Wagner. Now, it's true Wagner doesn't have nearly as many saves as the others, and it's obviously even more true that Mariano's postseason record separates him from the other two -- and from everyone else who has ever attempted to get a 27th out.
But we can argue about that part some other time. What we should really be judging, when we fill out our Hall of Fame ballots, is a player's total body of work. It's my job to make sure you recognize that all three of those guys were awesome and dominant at what they were asked to do, in real games, playing real positions. So feel free to refer back to this when their Hall of Fame voting experiences turn out to be dramatically different.
Meanwhile, there's Martinez, the man who makes us ask, What does a Hall of Fame DH look like?
We can't really use Paul Molitor or Frank Thomas as guideposts because they whiled away too much time wearing a glove. Molitor spent just 44 percent of his career at DH. Thomas spent 57 percent as a DH. But Martinez was close to 70 percent. So those sorts of disparities make it tough to use counting numbers, or even wins above replacement, to make this call.
What we're stuck with, then, is just trying to measure total offensive impact. So here is a look at how three high-profile hitters fared during Martinez's heyday -- the 13 seasons from 1991 to 2003. One is a Hall of Famer. One is a likely Hall of Famer. The other? He has never gotten more than 36.5 percent of the vote. (Yep, that would be Edgar). So which is which?
Player A is Thomas. He's in. Player C is Jeff Bagwell. He's gotten at least 54 percent in four straight elections. And Player B? That's Martinez, as elite and productive a bat as there was in the whole sport over a long, long period of time.
But voters continue to hold his lack of leatherworking (and home run trots) against him, even though his full complement of numbers makes it clear he was one of the five best hitters alive -- during a period of sheer offensive insanity, I might add. Is that fair? Ha. If DH is going to keep being an actual job, then no, it's not close to fair.
So this would be the voting philosophy I'd propose: If a guy was one of the best players in his sport at his position, in his era or any era, then he should meet our definition of "Hall of Famer." Period.
That holds true for DHs. That holds true for relief pitchers. It should hold true for everyone except the bat boys. But does it? Nope. Because there are still voters in our midst who aren't sure relievers and DHs deserve full credit on this exam, even though their positions are vital parts of the sport -- and will be pretty much forever.
So let's fix that, OK? It's Hoffman's first year on the ballot, it's Wagner's first year, too, and Martinez's eligibility runs out after 2019. If you don't want to vote for them, that's fine. Just don't base that decision on the position they played. The game has changed. So should we, the voters.