Thursday, January 15, 2009

These Hallowed Halls

Jim Rice and Rickey Henderson

Rickey Henderson (on his first ballot) and Jim Rice (on his final ballot) were elected by the BBWAA to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. There has been plenty of talk about the intriguing duality of the election - first vs. last, always looking for a camera vs. standoffishness in front of them, prototypical leadoff hitter vs. prototypical middle of the order power threat - but again, much of the debate revolves around those not elected.

If you read this MLB article, you'd think that Rice was a lock, despite borderline numbers1 and 14 unsuccessful years on the ballot, but the truth was, it was mostly something of mea culpa on behalf of the people that didn't vote him in over all those years. It's a strange thing to think that the same people voting (or not voting) for players year after year could suddenly change their minds, and a certain amount of sheepishness must be present once a player is elected after a prolonged wait2.

Now that Rice is in, the most fervent "Should he be?"3 debate should revolve around Bert Blyleven, as he attempts to gain election into Cooperstown on elections 13, 14, or 15. Only four men in the history of the game have sat more players down on strikes than Blyleven. He's in the top-30 in career wins with 287, and when you subtract out the players that played the majority of their careers before World War II, he's in the top-20. His ERA is 3.31, and he managed to throw 60shutouts, better than all but eight (8) major leaguers ever. He struck out 2.8 batters for each one he walked, which places him ahead of other pitchers such as Tom Seaver, Gaylord Perry, Nolan Ryan, and Steve Carlton.

Blyleven is simply the most glaring omission at this point in time. Andre Dawson (see below) finished third in the voting, falling eight percentage points shy of induction.

Jack Morris, a man with four World Series rings4, and 254 wins which included only three losing seasons. He got 237 votes, good for 44.0%.

Mark McGwire - and yes, I know what a lot of the difficulty with him involves - hit five hundred and eighty-three homeruns. That was a homerun once in just over three games. Basically, if you bought tickets to a Friday-Sunday homestand, chances were, Mark McGwire would hit a homerun. However, the various scandals in which he was involved hurt him to the tune of just 118 votes, fewer than last year.

In fact, some pretty solid players will never see their names on the ballot again - Mark Grace (2,445 hits, .303 AVG and .383 OBP), David Cone (194 wins, 2,668 strikeouts, perfection) - as they failed to garner 5% of the vote (27 votes).

All in all, the system is probably flawed. The committee is made up of sports writers who, just like the rest of us, probably hold grudges, judge players on personal experience, and assign more value to someone that plays in, say, New York or Boston as opposed to Montreal or Arizona. All in all, the Halo Effect, I believe, plays a very large part in these selections.

However, much like democracy, it's not perfect, but it's the best system we have. I was having a discussion about this at work with someone, and he mentioned the LPGA's system, which is based on a points system (you win a lot, you earn more "points", you earn your spot). That's fine for something individual like golf, but it simply doesn't work in a team sport5. Fans simply wouldn't stand for a cold, calculating system that penalized a player for playing under a coach batting him out of the seven spot instead of the three spot for much of his career. Just because he wasn't called up until he was 27 shouldn't mean he has to work that much harder than someone who was called up at 22.

All things considered, the Baseball Hall of Fame is the most exclusive hall in sports for a reason - they don't often elect the emotional, heartfelt, borderline choice6. There's no doubt that a few players who probably deserve to get in will be looked over in superstar-heavy years, or as the years have worn on the memory, but, hey, at least more than three players are allowed to get in at once!

1 - Andre Dawson, for example, who is approaching election himself as his name was featured on 67.0% of the ballots, hit 56 more homeruns than Rice and also drove in 140 more runs, had nearly 300 more stolen bases, had 300 more hits, won an MVP and played about 600 more games, despite dreadfully deteriorated knees. He played, unfortunately for him, in Montreal for 11 seasons, so many of the writers voting in these elections weren't as privy to his exploits

2 - The Rickey, for the record, is absolutely a first ballot Hall of Famer

3 - For a good part of that debate, here's a good interview with Bill Lee by Richard Griffin

4 - Not that that is a particularly good method of electing Hall members. In that case, Luis Sojo is more Hall-worthy than Ken Griffey, Jr.

5 - It kinda sucks that stats are such an incredibly important part in the process. Guys like Curt Flood didn't make it in on the power of his stats, but he (along with Andy Messersmith) helped make baseball the way it is (for all the flaws that includes)

6 - That's the Veteran's Committee's job

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