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2014 Hall ballot offers slight reprieve

1/10/2013 - MLB
Getty Images, AP Photo

The candidates are coming in waves now, six of them in 2013, five coming up in 2014, and more to follow. There are Hall of Fame-caliber players everywhere you look. When the next ballot arrives in December, there will be at least 20 players with legitimate credentials for Cooperstown, and only a maximum of 10 spots on the ballot, which creates even more problems. It's a confounding combination: many candidates, many issues.

Thankfully, the best of the next wave, the first-timers on the 2014 ballot, unlike 2013, have no steroid issues of which we know. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Mike Mussina and Jeff Kent will be judged almost exclusively on their numbers, some of which are irrefutable, if not breathtaking. And maybe the voters will award extra credit points to players when they are on the same ballot as those that used, or are believed to have used, performance-enhancing drugs. We are sure of this: someone will be elected in 2014 because the next ballot is replete with several first-ballot Hall candidates.

Greg Maddux

He has the fifth-most victories (355) of any pitcher in the modern era (1900-present). He is, by any statistical measure, one of the 10 best pitchers of all time; on my completely unofficial list, he is the seventh best, slightly behind Tom Seaver. Maddux won at least 15 games for a major league record 17 straight seasons; the longest such streak by an active pitcher is four by Justin Verlander. Maddux won four Cy Young Awards. In 1994-95, at the start of the steroid era, he went 35-8 with a 1.59 ERA and 54 walks in 411 2/3 innings.

Greg Maddux

Greg Maddux

#31 Starting Pitcher

CAREER STATS

  • GS740

  • W355

  • L227

  • ERA3.16

He is maybe the smartest pitcher of all time, and he is the greatest control pitcher of his era, if not any era. He issued only 999 walks in 5,008 1/3 innings.

"He told me that he had 999 walks with a month to go in his final season, and there was no way that he was going to walk a thousand guys in his career," former Braves pitcher Derek Lowe said. "So he didn't walk anyone in his [last] three starts. Who can do that?"

Maddux averaged just three wild pitches per year. He was always around the plate, and he and his catcher were always in synch. With him on the mound from 2003-05, Braves catchers had no passed balls, which meant, for three years, he never once crossed up a catcher. Not once did he miss location by a foot and a half, like so many pitchers do, and make the catcher miss a pitch. Not once.

Bobby Cox, one of Maddux's former managers, tells the story about the time Maddux was in trouble, the bases were loaded, and Cox came to the mound to take him out. Maddux looked at Cox and said, "I've got this. The next hitter is going to pop out to the third baseman in foul territory on the first pitch." So Cox left Maddux in, and the next hitter popped out to the third baseman, who was standing a foot in fair territory. Amazing.

Maddux won 18 Gold Gloves, the most by any player at any position. "Greg never threw a pitch straight in his life, but when he threw to the bases, I've never seen a pitcher throw a ball straighter. It was a perfect feed every time," said former Braves shortstop Walt Weiss, who was a teammate of Maddux for three years, and is now the manager of the Colorado Rockies. "That's why he was so great in all things baseball. He just adjusted to any situation."

Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers hired Maddux as a special instructor in spring training after Maddux had retired after the 2008 season (at the time, Towers was the GM of the Padres). "In Greg's final season, he did something special in every ballpark he went to, knowing that it would be the last time that he ever pitched there," Towers said. "At Wrigley Field, he was throwing in the bullpen on an off day. He said he was going to throw a ball off a chair in the bullpen, ricochet it off the brick wall, and make it go over the plate. The second time he tried it, he hit the leg of a metal chair, the ball bounced off the wall, and ricocheted right over the plate."

Tom Glavine

Tom Glavine

Tom Glavine

#47 Starting Pitcher

CAREER STATS

  • GS682

  • W305

  • L203

  • ERA3.54

Glavine won 305 games -- 140 more than Sandy Koufax. Glavine has the fifth-most victories among left-handers and the sixth most victories in National League history. He made 10 All-Star teams, won two Cy Young awards, finished second in two other seasons and third in two more. His five 20-win seasons are more than Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, Cliff Lee and Mike Mussina combined. A case could be made that Glavine is the ninth-best left-hander of all time, slightly ahead of Steve Carlton and Koufax, which is some compliment.

The common denominator of the greatest pitchers of all time is durability. Glavine made at least 25 starts in 19 consecutive seasons; only Maddux, with 20, has a longer streak in baseball history. Glavine also had 14 postseason victories (and a 3.30 ERA). Only Andy Pettitte and John Smoltz won more, all time. And Glavine did all this without throwing 95 mph, though few pitchers have ever commanded a fastball better and thrown a better changeup.

Frank Thomas

Frank Thomas

Frank Thomas

#35 DH/First Baseman

CAREER STATS

  • HR521

  • OBP.419

  • OPS.974

  • AVG.301

Thomas is one of only nine players to hit 500 home runs and have a career batting average over .300, joining Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Jimmy Foxx, Ted Williams, Mel Ott, Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez. Thomas is one of 21 players to achieve the holy trinity: a .300 average, .400 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage. His career on-base percentage is the third highest ever for a right-handed hitter, trailing Rogers Hornsby and Foxx.

It has been a long time so we might forget how great Thomas was in the first 10 years of his career. In his first full season in 1991, he became the first player since Ted Williams to hit .300 with that many home runs (32), RBIs (109) and walks (138). Thomas won consecutive American League MVPs in 1993 and 1994, and finished in the top 10 in seven other seasons, four of which were in the top five.

Mike Mussina

Mike Mussina

Mike Mussina

#35 Starting Pitcher

CAREER STATS

  • GS536

  • W270

  • L153

  • ERA3.68

Mussina won 270 games and had a winning percentage of .638, joining Lefty Grove, Christy Mathewson, Roger Clemens, John Clarkson, Randy Johnson and Grover Alexander as the only pitchers in history to match those categories. And Mussina did all that while pitching his entire career in a DH league, in the formidable American League East, during the steroid era and pitched more than half of his seasons in a great ballpark for a hitter, Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Mussina never won a Cy Young, but he finished in the top five, six times. He won only 20 games once -- his final season in 2008 -- but he won at least 18 games five other times. In two strike-shortened seasons (1994 and '95), he would have won 20 games if his team had played 162 games. He is, by some statistical measures, among the top 30 pitchers ever, and ranks ahead of Hall of Famers Juan Marichal and Robin Roberts, and future Hall of Famer John Smoltz.

Jeff Kent

Jeff Kent

Jeff Kent

#12 Second Baseman

CAREER STATS

  • HR377

  • OBP.356

  • OPS.855

  • AVG.290

Kent is among the top power-hitting second basemen of all time. He hit 377 home runs, 351 of those as a second baseman, the most ever at that position. His 11 seasons with at least 20 homers are the most by a second baseman. He had eight 100-RBI seasons at the position, including six years in a row: no player has ever done that primarily as a second baseman. He has a lifetime average of .290 and a career slugging percentage of .500; Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg had a slugging percentage of .452. Kent won the National League MVP in 2000, and had three other top 10 finishes, all while playing his home games in a pitcher-friendly park. He was not a great defensive second baseman, but he was better than you think.

Maddux, Glavine, Thomas, Mussina and Kent will be added to a Hall of Fame list that includes, among others, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling, Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, Edgar Martinez, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Fred McGriff, Lee Smith and Larry Walker.

That's 21 players with at least borderline credentials for Cooperstown. What to do? This is a problem that gets bigger and more difficult every year, with no end in sight. But at least the Class of 2014 will present fewer issues for voters than the nuclear class of 2013.