by Lincoln Mitchell
There are fourteen players who remain on the Hall of Fame ballot from last year.
One way to look at these fourteen players is by breaking them into groups including: 1) fine players who were not Hall of Famers; 2) relievers for whom interesting cases can be made; 3) left-handed pitchers: 4) the shortstops; 5) excellent hitters in the gray area; and 6) the PED guys.
Only one player is firmly in the first category. Torii Hunter had enough power to hit 353 home runs and enough speed to steal 195 bases while playing a solid centerfield. He was a very good player, but never an elite hitter. His career OPS+ of 110 demonstrates that. Hunter was also a bigot and a homophobe, so even if he had a stronger statistical case, I would oppose his candidacy.
The two relief pitchers who are back on the ballot raise some intriguing questions and interesting comparisons. Last year, Francisco Rodriguez got 10.8% of the vote while Billy Wagner received 68.1% of the vote. Wagner will likely win election to the Hall of Fame this year, but in some respects the two are very comparable.
Rodriguez pitched in 95 more games and 73 more innings while saving 15 more games, so had a slightly longer career than Wagner. However, Wagner’s ERA was half a point lower. He also struck out more batters and walked fewer than Rodriguez did. There is no question that Wagner was the better pitcher, but the disparity in votes is still striking.
Wagner also reflects the difficulty of understanding the Hall of Fame candidacies of relief pitchers. Currently, there are only eight relievers in the Hall of Fame. Three, Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and Dennis Eckersley were from the one-inning closer era, and four, Goose Gossage, Hoyt Wilhelm, Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers from we might call the fireman era. Eckersley had a solid career as a starter that bolstered his Hall of Fame case. Lee Smith’s career straddled the two eras.
My hesitation about Wagner is that there are several pitchers from the fireman era whose Hall of Fame is about as strong as Wagner’s, but because they have the same gaudy save totals, they have been overlooked entirely. It is also difficult to compare these two very similar kinds of relievers because closers pitch fewer innings so generally have lower ERAs which contribute to potentially accumulating more WAR, but fireman often provided more real value because they could pitch more than one inning at a time.
Three firemen stand out as great pitchers, colorful players and important parts of championship teams. Enshrining Wagner in Cooperstown rather than Sparky Lyle, Dan Quisenberry or Kent Tekulve would be a questionable decision. The table below shows the comparison on several key measures. Francisco Rodriguez is also included in the table.
The evidence from the table strongly suggests that while Wagner’s Hall of Fame case is slightly better than that of Rodriguez, there is no such clear distinction between Wagner and the firemen. Quisenberry threw about 150 more innings, about two full years worth of innings for Wagner, but his ERA+ was the best of the three firemen. Lyle and Tekulve were not as dominant as Quiz, but the length of their careers is a strong argument that they had more overall value than Wagner. Additionally, Wagner’s slight lead in WAR is not so relevant here. All five pitchers are separated only 4.5 WAR. A small career difference like that, particularly when comparing across careers and eras, is essentially negligible.
The left-handed pitchers in category three are Andy Pettitte and Mark Buehrle. Pettitte, primarily due to his post-season record, was the better pitcher, but neither are quite Hall of Famers. Both were very good, but they combined for zero Cy Young awards, six top ten finishes in Cy Young balloting and eight All-Star Games. Those would be strong numbers for one pitcher, but given those are combined numbers, demonstrate that both Buehrle and Pettitte are not quite up to Cooperstown standards.
There are two shortstops on the ballot who have received some consideration. Omar Vizquel was a wonderful fielding shortstop who contributed little with the bat. He was kind of a poor man’s Ozzie Smith. Jimmy Rollins was also a fine defender at shortstop, but was a better hitter. Rollins best year was 2009 when he was the NL MVP. That season Rollins slashed .296/.344/.531 while stealing 41 base and hitting thirty home runs. In 2009 Rollins became the seventh player in baseball history, and only the second since 1980, to hit more than twenty doubles, triples and home runs in a season.