Tuesday, January 13, 2009 Updated: January 14, 11:25 AM ET
Alomar has best shot in 2010
By Rob Neyer ESPN.com
With Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice safely ensconced in the Hall of Fame, we can turn our attention to 2010, and what promises to be an interesting and contentious election. We know that Andre Dawson and Bert Blyleven will be back for another go, and both are likely to improve upon their 2009 showings. In addition, we'll have four first-timers on the ballot with compelling cases.
Roberto Alomar was a 12-time All-Star in 17 major league seasons.
Roberto Alomar's case doesn't rely on reputation, or the opinions of baseball writers 20 years ago, or consideration for only the best eight or nine years of his career. In Alomar's case, the most basic statistics should suffice. Among all second basemen, Alomar ranks sixth in hits, seventh in runs and 10th in RBIs. Not enough? I suppose some voters will wonder if Alomar's career was perhaps a bit short for a Hall of Famer; after all, he was just 36 when he played his last game. But if a player piles up Hall of Fame numbers, should it matter how old he is when he does it?
If those hitting stats aren't enough, though, Alomar has a couple of aces up his sleeve. First, with 474 steals, he's fourth all-time among second basemen. And second, he won 10 Gold Gloves, tops among second basemen. It's foolish to try to predict what the Hall of Fame voters will do, but it's hard to imagine a Hall of Fame without Roberto Alomar.
I'm afraid the case for Barry Larkin is a bit more subtle. Among shortstops, Larkin ranks 12th in hits, ninth in runs and 12th in RBIs. He can't match Alomar's steals or Gold Gloves, either. In fact, in all these categories except RBI, Larkin actually trails Omar Vizquel.
Among shortstops with at least 5,000 career plate appearances, Larkin's 116 OPS+ ranks ninth. This is what separates Larkin from Vizquel, and by a lot, as Vizquel's OPS+ is 64th best. That's a massive difference, and it simply isn't balanced by Vizquel's durability and his marginal edge with the glove (notwithstanding all his Gold Gloves). And the list of eight players ahead of Larkin on that list includes Alex Rodriguez (who will wind up playing more games at third base than shortstop), Nomar Garciaparra (whose career sputtered early), along with Lou Boudreau and Vern Stephens (both of whom did much of their best work during World War II, when most of the best pitchers were serving their country). In fact, Larkin might be one of the five best-hitting shortstops ever, in a group that includes Honus Wagner, Cal Ripken, Derek Jeter, Joe Cronin and Arky Vaughn -- all of whom are in the Hall of Fame (or, in the case of Jeter, will be).
Unfortunately, it's easy to miss Larkin's greatness, because he didn't do any one thing brilliantly, and also because he had problems staying in the lineup. Though Larkin was still playing (and playing well) when he was 40, he didn't pile up massive numbers because he managed to play in 150 or more games in only four seasons. Larkin spent time on the disabled list -- often significant time -- in 10 different seasons. If Larkin hadn't been injured so often, he'd be one of the five greatest shortstops who ever lived. But even with all the injuries, he's in the top 10.
I believe Alomar and Larkin will draw the most support among the first-time candidates, and I believe they're the only first-time candidates with even a shadow of a chance of being elected next year. There are, however, two other first-timers who will draw passionate support (and with good reason).
Officially, there are exactly a dozen first basemen in the Hall of Fame. Only five of them drove in more runs than Fred McGriff, only four hit more home runs, and only three scored more runs. Mostly, we're talking about Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Willie McCovey and Eddie Murray. If we'd been having this conversation about a player 15 or 20 years ago, that would just about seal the Cooperstown case already. But we're not. We're having this conversation right now, and right now McGriff also trails the likes of Rafael Palmeiro, Jeff Bagwell, Jim Thome and Mark McGwire in some of those categories. All of these fine players were to some degree McGriff's contemporaries, and all (for various reasons) have less-than-clear paths to Cooperstown.
McGriff's supporters will argue that he doesn't belong in a group with those guys (or at least not all of them) because there's never been even a scintilla of suspicion that McGriff needed andro or HGH or any of those other concoctions to hit his 493 home runs. Maybe they're right. But that argument isn't likely to carry the day.
The argument for Edgar Martinez -- and I can hear it right now because I've already heard it -- goes something like this: "Edgar Martinez was the greatest DH ever. And you can't discriminate against him just because he was a DH."
There are only a couple of problems with that argument: He was not the greatest DH ever, and I can discriminate against whomever I choose.
There have been six players with long careers who played at least 50 percent of their career games as the DH. Yes, I cherry-picked that 50 percent; if I made it 60 percent, there would be only three players. But 50 percent is an elegantly simple cutoff, and it also gets us what we really want: a list of players with long careers and very little defensive value. We could, of course, extend the list to poor-fielding first basemen and corner outfielders, but that wouldn't do Edgar Martinez any favors. So we'll stick with these six: Harold Baines, Frank Thomas, Don Baylor, Edgar Martinez, Hal McRae and David Ortiz.
Is Martinez the most impressive hitter in this group? Clearly, he is not. He's third in hits and times on base, and fourth in home runs, runs scored and RBIs. Quantitatively, he's nothing special. Qualitatively, though? That's where Edgar shines. His .418 career on-base percentage is second-best, just a hair behind Thomas. And his .515 slugging percentage trails only Thomas and Ortiz (and, of course, Ortiz's decline phase is still ahead of him). I don't have any qualms about describing Martinez as the second-greatest DH in American League history.
Does that make him a Hall of Famer? I suspect not. He was a great hitter, one of the best of the past 20 years, comparable to Bagwell and Thome. But because Martinez got a late start and had problems staying healthy, he didn't pile up the career numbers those players did (and Thome continues to do). Edgar's lack of defensive value is a problem, but perhaps a bigger problem is the fact that during his career a lot of guys were piling up numbers and there's little to set him apart from his peers.
Prediction: Next year, both Alomar and Andre Dawson will be elected. In 2011, Blyleven and perhaps Larkin, with a great deal of talk about (but not enough votes for) Bagwell and Palmeiro. In 2012, none of the first-timers will get (or deserve) more than token support, perhaps leaving the door open for Larkin, Bagwell or -- in his last year of eligibility -- Blyleven. And in 2013, things should really be interesting as steroids era poster boys Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa all become eligible for the first time, accompanied by Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza. That's going to be one crowded ballot.
Rob Neyer writes for ESPN Insider and regularly updates his blog for ESPN.com. You can reach him via firstname.lastname@example.org.