<
>

Explaining my Hall of Fame ballot

It would be easy for me just to write one of those columns that many people write this time of year, laying out my 2016 Hall of Fame ballot. But first, I feel I owe you something. Namely, an explanation.

Once upon a time, back when the world was a less complicated place, I was a man with a Hall of Fame voting philosophy that was about as uncomplicated as a 3-and-0 fastball.

C'mon. This was simple, right? Get out your ballot. Give every player his due. Then ask yourself one question: Was this player a Hall of Famer or not? Period. That's it. End of story.

That's all I ever wanted to do. Vote yes. Or vote no. And then stick to it. Forever.

If a man is a Hall of Famer one year, he's a Hall of Famer every year. That's how I saw it. And that's how I voted. No games. No agendas. No zigs. No zags. No years where I told myself, "I know I voted for this guy last year, but not this year, because I want Cooperstown Jones, the beloved superduperstar, to go in all by himself."

Other people could vote that way. But not me. I might not be right about everybody or everything. But I was going to be the most consistent voter in the history of voting. I prided myself on that. Every year. Until ...

Unfortunately, the Hall of Fame voting police then stepped in and informed me: "Sorry, pal. You can't vote that way. Not anymore."

OK, obviously, that's not exactly what happened. Nobody with a badge ever knocked on my door, handed me back my ballot and said: "Rip this up and try again." But in practice, that's precisely what the Hall of Fame's board of directors is telling voters like me, by imposing, and then standing firmly behind, the ridiculous Rule of 10, which limits us to only 10 votes.

It's not my place to tell anyone else how to vote for the Hall of Fame. Why should it be the Hall's place to tell me how to vote? If there are voters out there who want to vote for only one player on this ballot, or two, or three, that's cool with me. It's their vote, not mine.

But if I vote differently than they vote, if I think differently than they think, why do they have such a massive problem with that? If I want to vote for more than 10 players, for sincere and well thought-out reasons, why should the Hall be telling me I'm out of line?

I don't want to cheapen the Hall of Fame by electing 15 players a year. That would never happen. It's the 75 percent threshold that guards against it ever happening, not the Rule of 10.

In an era in which more than half the voters are now using up all 10 spots on their ballot, that rule is having an impact it was never intended to have. Check out the year-to-year votes for players like Edgar Martinez, Alan Trammell, Fred McGriff and Larry Walker. Between 2013 and 2015, they lost a combined 211 votes and averaged close to a 9 percent drop in their vote percentage. Without playing a single game. Absurd.

I can't think of a single logical explanation for why players that good would see that many votes disappear -- except this one: Hundreds of voters just ran out of spots on their ballot.

The stubborn, myopic members of the board of directors don't seem really interested, though. Not in their problem. Not in my problem. And not in the problem of many, many voters who wish they weren't in this mess. So I'm going to help them understand this one more time.

We don't want to kill the Rule of 10 to cheapen their otherwise awesome Hall of Fame. We just want to vote the way you would think they'd like to see everyone vote. By asking ourselves that one fundamental question:

Was this player a Hall of Famer or not? Yes or no?

But they won't let us vote that way. Not anymore. So once again, as I filled out my 2016 ballot, I was forced, by this thoroughly illogical rule, to look for reasons not to vote for men like Trammell and Mike Mussina, instead of the other way around. Sad. Unjust. Unnecessary.

So remember that as you read this column and examine the ballot I'm about to explain, with as much honesty and transparency as I can muster. I don't expect you to agree with every vote. Just know how much thought and time I put into an incredibly difficult process.

My ballot

Let's begin with the 10 players I voted for: Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Edgar Martinez, Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner. You know them well. Now here comes the part where I walk you through the journey that helped me settle on those names.

How I got there

Over my desk, I have a bulletin board. At least I'm pretty sure there's a bulletin board under there someplace. But it's hard to tell, because every inch of it is covered with some sort of card, photo, note, ticket stub, list, reminder, clipping or yellowing piece of personal Stark-ian memorabilia. In all, it's one impressive, out-of-control monstrosity. And I'm proud of it.

"It's not my place to tell anyone else how to vote for the Hall of Fame. Why should it be the Hall's place to tell me how to vote? If there are voters out there who only want to vote for one player on this ballot, or two, or three, that's cool with me. It's their vote, not mine. But if I vote differently than they vote, if I think differently than they think, why do they have such a massive problem with that? And if I want to vote for more than 10 players, for sincere and well thought-out reasons, why should the Hall be telling me I'm out of line?"

I only mention it because, as I was filling out my Hall ballot last month, I found myself staring at that bulletin board and laughing at one of my dopiest thoughts ever: Suppose I had to pare down the board to only the 10 items I cared about most. Would that even be possible?

Well, that's kind of what Hall of Fame voting has turned into for people like me. I take every name on that ballot seriously. I try to give every career the respect it has earned. That means I have way more than 10 names I've thought about diligently before I cast my vote.

So this year, I found myself with a preliminary list of 20 players I seriously considered. There were the 10 players I voted for. Then came six more whose names I've checked in the past (Mussina, Walker, McGriff, Jeff Kent, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa). There was also Trammell, long one of my toughest omissions and now in his final year. There was Jim Edmonds, a first-year candidate who deserves a long run on the ballot but who could conceivably be another unfortunate one-and-done victim of the Rule of 10. Finally, there were Gary Sheffield and Nomar Garciaparra, two guys I looked at extensively last year.

There's no perfect system for taking a list like that and basically dividing it in half -- the 10 votes on one side, the 10 no-votes on the other. Here's how I did it:

First, I ranked those 20 players in a bunch of different categories, in order of career greatness. When I was finished with that part of the process, I had six players I knew I was going to vote for: Griffey, Piazza, Bagwell, Raines and those two world-famous lightning rods, Bonds and Clemens. More on those two later.

Meanwhile, on the other side of that divide, were six players I knew I was going to have an almost impossible time squeezing into my top 10, even though I could easily make a case for them: Sheffield, Walker, McGriff, Kent, Garciaparra and Sosa. So that left me with eight names -- but only four spots on the ballot. I can't tell you how frustrating it is to find yourself staring at those names and knowing half of them have to go.

I always believe in taking an extra long look at players in their final year on the ballot. So I did that with McGwire and Trammell. I remind you that McGwire owns the greatest home run ratio in the history of this sport, but even if he gets five times as many votes as he got last year, he'd still need another 25 percent to get elected. That ain't happening. So given my ballot squeeze, how could I justify voting for a man with zero shot at election?

Then there was Trammell. I'd love to vote for him. I just couldn't get there. When I look at his career, I see one great season (1987) and five very good seasons. I also see 10 years when his adjusted OPS-plus was under 100, meaning he was a below-average offensive player when measured against his peers. So even though I see why others vote for him, I just couldn't elevate him into my top 10. Sorry.

I also believe players in their first year deserve a thorough, serious look. The more I looked at Edmonds, the more I worried about the possibility he could get lopped off this ballot for failing to make the 5 percent survival cut. Edmonds won eight Gold Gloves and had a .903 career OPS. Here's the complete list of all other outfielders who could make that claim: Willie Mays, Griffey, Bonds and that's a wrap. Hard as I tried, I couldn't fit him into my top 10, either.

That left me with five names for four slots -- two of the best starters of their time (Schilling and Mussina), two of the greatest relievers of all time (Hoffman and Wagner) and maybe the greatest DH who ever lived, Martinez.

Earlier in this offseason, I wrote a piece in which I pretty much committed to voting for Edgar. So he was in. In the same piece, I also laid out the reasons that it made no sense to vote for Hoffman but not Wagner.

Then again, it's not real sensible to vote for Schilling and not Mussina. The Rule of 10 was going to force me to make a choice I didn't want to make. I could vote for both starters or both relievers, but I had no room to do both. What a nightmare.

I spent the next week feeling miserable about having to make that choice. Then it was time to send in my ballot. So the tiebreaker, in the end, was ballot survival. I felt confident Mussina would live on to see another ballot. If the Ryan Thibodaux exit polling was any indication, I couldn't be sure Wagner would.

So he got my 10th and final vote. I know many of you reading this won't agree with that vote or with this ballot. I promised I'd lay out the thought process that led me there as honestly and as thoroughly as I could. I've tried my best. Now that I've done that, let's look at the 10 men I did vote for -- and the reasons they should walk with the all-time greats:

The first unanimous Hall of Famer?

Has there ever been an easier vote to cast? Ken Griffey Jr. is one of the greatest center fielders who ever lived. Luckily, it's times like this when we get to contemplate just how great.

If Griffey ever shows up for a meeting of the 600-Homer, 10-Gold Glove Club, it'll be just him and Willie Mays in attendance. If he'd rather invite the other center fielders in the 1,100-Extra Base Hit Club over for dinner, he'd find only Mays, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker joining him. If he'd like to know the only center fielders who rank ahead of him on Jay Jaffe's JAWS computations of the greatest of all time, that would be only Mays, Cobb, Speaker and Mickey Mantle (with Joe DiMaggio, Duke Snider and 11 other Hall of Famers in the rear-view mirror).

Griffey was the first American Leaguer to win three straight home run titles since some guy named Babe Ruth. He was elected to start more All-Star Games (13) than any outfielder who ever appeared on a punch card. He won a unanimous MVP award and racked up five top-five MVP finishes in six years. We could gush about him all day. There will be plenty of time for that. He's a man potentially headed for the highest election percentage in history. The only question is whether that percentage turns out to be 100.

Piazza and Bagwell

Eleven months ago, I asked the new commissioner of baseball, Rob Manfred, if he had any advice for his favorite Hall of Fame voters on how we should handle the PED era. Unlike our friends in Cooperstown, he actually gave a clear, focused answer -- and one that voters just might have heeded in this election.

"The only piece of advice that I'm comfortable giving," he said, "is that I think that everyone should keep in mind the difference between players who tested positive and were disciplined on the one hand, and players where somebody has surmised that they did something on the other. ... I think it's unfair for people to surmise that Player A did X, Y or Z, absent a positive test, or proof that we produced in an investigation, or whatever. I just think it runs contrary to a very fundamental notion in our society, that you're innocent until somebody proves you're guilty."

Manfred didn't mention Mike Piazza or Jeff Bagwell by name. And I'm glad he didn't. Let's just say: Message received. Piazza is the greatest offensive catcher who ever squatted behind the dish. It's a farce to have a Hall of Fame that doesn't include him. Especially if we vote according to the principles laid out by the commissioner.

It's just as crazy that it has taken Bagwell six elections to reach the precipice of Cooperstown. We're talking about one of the five best first basemen of the live-ball era. A man who can say that only he and Lou Gehrig ever ripped off 12 straight seasons at first with an adjusted OPS of 130 or better. A man who joins just Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx as the only first basemen in the 400-homer, .400-OBP Club. The only first baseman who has ever entered the 400-homer, 200-steal club. Feel free to look that up.

Why have we never elected these men again? Oh, that's right. Too many voters with acne conspiracy theories or something. Well, go back and re-read the words of the commissioner. We. Just. Can't. Vote. That. Way.

The relievers

It wasn't one of my goals in life to be That Guy Who Defends Relief Pitchers. Somehow, I've turned into that guy. Go figure.

No offense to all the folks who have written interesting, thoughtful pieces recently that explain why all relief pitchers not named Mariano Rivera are overrated. I never got that Hall of Fame voter memorandum that said: "Never, ever vote for a reliever unless (A) he also won a couple of hundred games as a starter, (B) his name starts with 'Mariano' or (C) you can't find anybody else to vote for." So I cast votes for both Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner. I'm not embarrassed by either of those votes.

There's a reason the award for best NL reliever is named the Trevor Hoffman Award. There's a reason the only relievers to ever finish in the top six of four Cy Young elections are Hoffman, Rivera, the vastly underappreciated Dan Quisenberry and three Hall of Famers (Goose Gossage, Dennis Eckersley and Bruce Sutter).

While we all agree saves are one of the most misleading stats in the stat-osphere, well, not in Hoffman's case. He and Rivera have virtually identical save-conversion percentages (89 percent) and opponent batting averages (.211) -- and Hoffman blows him away in strikeout rate (9.4 per 9 innings to 8.2). So if it's clear Hoffman was one of the greatest closers ever, why are we not allowed to vote for him again?

As I mentioned earlier, I'm shocked by how many of my fellow voters seem to be voting for Hoffman but ignoring Wagner. Have they actually taken the time to look at Wagner's career? If they haven't, there's one word that best describes it: Historic.

Among all pitchers in the live-ball era with 900 or more innings pitched, you know who has the lowest WHIP? Yup. Wagner (0.998). And you know who has the best strikeout rate? Right. Wagner (11.92 per 9 innings). And among all left-handed pitchers, you know who owns the No. 1 ERA? You've got it. Wagner. So I don't care if he did that by getting three outs a month, three outs a night or 50 outs a night. If you rank No. 1 in those three departments, you're officially one of the most dominant pitchers ever -- and a Hall of Famer.

The rest of my ballot

Tim Raines: I've given this Raines-for-the-Hall speech so many times, I should just play it on a continuous loop. What gives it a special sense of urgency is, he's running out of time. If he doesn't make it this year -- and I'm guessing he won't -- next year is his last shot. It's time to remind the non-believers why Raines was the greatest leadoff man of his era who wasn't named Rickey.

Raines reached base more times (3,977) than Tony Gwynn, Honus Wagner, Lou Brock or Roberto Clemente. He owns the greatest stolen-base success rate (84.7 percent) of all time (among players with 400 or more attempts). He was the only player in history to steal 70-plus bases six seasons in a row (1981-86). He was so talented at reaching base pretty much every way possible, he had a seven-year stretch (1982-88) where he led the NL in walks, singles, doubles and triples. He made a big leap in the voting last year, up to 55 percent. That final 20 percent is the toughest -- especially when the clock is ticking.

Edgar Martinez: If you'd like the long version of this argument, go back and read my blog. If you'd like the short version, here it comes.

It's an irrefutable fact Martinez was one of the five most dominant hitters of his era. When you consider when that era took place, that's essentially another way of saying he was one of the greatest hitters who ever swung a Louisville Slugger.

Edgar's adjusted OPS was 147. That's over his entire career. All 18 seasons of it. Ready for just a partial list of active hitters who have never even had one qualifying season with an adjusted OPS that high? Here goes: Ichiro Suzuki, Troy Tulowitzki, Chase Utley, Justin Upton, Adam Jones, Evan Longoria and, well, you get the idea. I understand this man gets no glove points, OK? If his job was to thump his way to Cooperstown, looks to me as if he did that.

Curt Schilling: I'm not sure what your definition of a Hall of Fame starter is. Mine starts with one word: Domination. Now take a look at Schilling's career. Once he became a starting pitcher, was there a single healthy season anywhere in there when he wasn't a dominator? Correct answer: Not a one.

He racked up nine seasons with an ERA-plus of 130 or better. The only other pitchers in the expansion era who were that good in that many seasons were Clemens (15), Randy Johnson (10) and Greg Maddux (10). Got it? Now let's keep going.

Schilling owns the No. 1 strikeout-walk ratio (4.38 to 1) of any starting pitcher in the modern era. He finished in the top five in his league in WAR eight times. Even his detractors would admit he was one of the special October pitchers in history: 11-2, a 2.23 ERA, an incredible 0.97 WHIP, two earned runs or fewer in 16 of his 19 postseason starts. Finally, there's this: He started five elimination games. His teams' record: 5-0. He loved the moment. He owned the moment. He dominated the moment. That's what Hall of Famers do.

Bonds and Clemens

It's Barry Bonds' fourth year on the ballot. It's Roger Clemens' fourth year on the ballot. The greatness of their careers needs no explanation. The reason they've never even gotten 40 percent of the votes in any Hall of Fame election also needs no explanation.

So rather than debate their Cooperstown credentials, let's debate this instead: What kind of Hall of Fame do we want this to be?

If it's a place that's going to accurately reflect the history of baseball, how can it not include the man who made more home run trots than anyone who ever played and the pitcher who won more Cy Youngs than anyone who ever threw a pitch? That's the Hall of Fame I want to exist.

If you're one of those people who wants this to be a Hall of Purity, I respect why you think that. Just recognize that means it's time to start pulling plaques off the wall and throwing people out. Immediately. The ball scuffers. The bat corkers. The racists. The amphetamine poppers. The guys we've undoubtedly already elected who used some sort of PED.

You think it would be awkward to attend Bonds' and Clemens' induction day? It wouldn't be anywhere near as awkward as the day we started ripping plaques out of the gallery. I know what Hall of Fame I'd like to see. I know what kind of Hall of Fame voter I'd like to be. I just hope I live to see the day when one of those visions actually turns real.