In a typical year, Hall of Fame voting leaves a little to be desired – as far as excitement is concerned. The real megastars come along rarely, and there is never any doubt as to whether they will make the cut. We endlessly debate the relative merits of the other guys (like Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker & Jack Morris) who had good careers and will get some votes. But… they tend to miss out, at least for years and years, and they were frankly not of the same stature as the first-ballot guys during their playing days.
This year is different. This year – for one thing – features multiple first-ballot-type guys and a raft of other potential HoFers. Those first-ballot guys are, in addition, by no means assured of getting the nod. Barry Bonds is on the ballot. Roger Clemens is only ballot. Among the second-tier guys (the ones who compare not unfavorably to many players already in the HoF but are not among the game’s true elite) we have Curt Schilling, Mike Piazza, Kenny Lofton, Craig Biggio and Sammy Sosa.
In the past few years we have seen a number of players – and here I am referring primarily to power hitters – that have not been chosen despite career numbers that would have almost certainly gotten them in had they played in other eras. In some cases, this is because those specific players have had their legacies damaged by PED tests and PED allegations (like Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire). In other cases we have batters with very good numbers who – it seems – have been tarred by the same brush for playing in the high-octane steroid era despite no evidence of PED use (like Larry Walker, Edgar Martinez, Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell and others). The PED era raised voters expectations regarding offensive output and I don’t think that will be going away for a long, long time. This does not bode well for the Hall chances – at least in the short term – for a guy like Sammy Sosa despite his 609 career home runs.
I don’t think that voters are being entirely fair – at least as far as guys like Bagwell or Trammell are concerned. It is true that offensive numbers have to be “deflated” for a lot of modern stars, but stats like WAR do that already since every player is held up against a moving benchmark (replacement level) defined relative to league average at their position that year. Bagwell put up 76.7 BR WAR over his career and there is (almost) nobody in the history of baseball with a higher WAR total who has not been elected to the Hall. If the only reason you’re keeping Bagwell out is the high-powered area in which he played, he needs to get your vote. Guys with WAR totals in the 60s probably ought to be in, but there is room for debate.
Again, though, that isn’t really what makes this interesting. Rafael Palmeiro probably deserves to get in on numbers alone – but he isn’t a shoo-in in terms of career WAR (66.1 BR WAR). Mark McGwire is even more of a borderline case – measured on numbers-relative-to-era – but I’d say he ought to get in, all else equal, largely as a historical figure in baseball. These two guys are known PED users (whereas Bagwell has long been suspected with no evidence) and this likely has hurt their vote totals. But again… they’re not shoo-ins. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were fingered in the Mitchell Report, and those two ARE shoo-ins.
If we go by Fangraphs WAR calculations (which, again, already correct for the era in which the player played), Barry Bonds was good for 168 WAR over his career – second only to Babe Ruth. That means that – relative to his contemporaries – Barry Bonds was better than Willie Mays, better than Hank Aaron, better than Ty Cobb. Jeff Bagwell has the highest total among eligible players (since Pete Rose is not eligible) not in the Hall with 83.9 Fangraphs WAR. Bonds doubled him up. DOUBLED HIM UP! Roger Clemens is second in career WAR among pitchers according to FanGraphs with 145.5 – ahead of Nolan Ryan and Walter Johnson and Tom Seaver behind only Cy Young himself. There is no reason whatsoever to vote against Bonds or Clemens other than PEDs, any more than you would vote against Babe Ruth. But there will undoubtedly be at least some HoF voters who will vote “nay” solely on PED grounds – so this year will be the true litmus test. These are the two best players of the steroid era – and among the most tainted of any of that era’s stars. They were both tremendous players when they were young, but then (if we are to believe the popular narrative – there is no “data” out there about this) juiced in order to forestall the effects of age – and remained extremely effective into their 40s.
To me, both Bonds and Clemens unquestionably deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. They did “cheat”, but the Hall is full of cheaters – including a guy who published a book about how he cheated. Our beloved Tiger Norm Cash (though he is not in the Hall, I concede) admitted to corking his bat, as have many others. Babe Ruth is – anecdotally – supposed to have attempted to give himself testosterone injections. First ballot Hall-of-Famers Mike Schmidt and Willie Mays are, among others, rumored to have used amphetamines. The penalty for cheating of various types, in the rare cases when players are caught, tends to be something like an 8-game suspension, and (for non PED offenses) doesn’t seem to tarnish a player’s legacy. Steroids do make for an uneven playing field when comparing modern players to those in the 1930s, but this is also true of countless innovations that are not considered cheating. Tommy John surgery, for example, or modern physical therapy. If my understanding of baseball history is correct, Babe Ruth never had to hit a slider because the pitch hadn’t been invented yet. This is why we compare players to those of their era – who in Bonds’ & Clemens’ cases were often also juicing. Steroids were officially against the rules as of 1991, but there was no testing (and hence absolutely no possibility of punishment) until 2005.
You’ll also hear people making the case that steroid scandals did damage to the reputation of the sport and PED users ought to be punished by any means available. I’d scoff at that. Baseball is doing just fine today and fans certainly enjoyed the fireworks during the steroid era (chicks do dig the long ball). If you are of this opinion – I would suggest taking a closer look at a couple of Hall of Fame stalwarts who really have done damage to the image of the game. Cap Anson – whose principled stand against “coloreds” and leadership on the matter got the game segregated to begin with. Or how about Tiger great Ty Cobb – known for assaulting players on the field and fans in the stands. If it came to light that the guy who put Brian Stow in the hospital was actually Matt Kemp – that I would consider a good reason to keep a guy out of the Hall. Throwing games also discredits the sport as a whole – justifying the lingering ban of the Black Sox. So… the question is, as far as the image of the sport is concerned, is using steroids more like scuffing balls or more like taking a suitcase of cash to throw the World Series? I’d say it’s far, far more like scuffing the ball.
I should state – for the record – that I don’t even think that the Black Sox scandal (the quintessential scandal and the best ever reason to ban a player) should be grounds to keep a guy out of the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame is the repository of baseball history – and any player with a place in the history of the sport should have a place in the Hall. If anything, Shoeless Joe Jackson should be in the Hall today because he is a symbol of that legendary event. Of course, he deserves it on “merit” as well – with 66 career WAR despite being banned at age 31 and as the only non Hall-of-Famer to hit .400. For Pete Rose – who, I have to say, broke a legitimate rule but probably didn’t do any damage to the sport – his lifetime ban from the sport itself makes a heck of a lot more sense than his ban from the Hall. Rose has more hits than Ty Cobb or anybody else ever to play the game, he’s a baseball legend and ought to have plaque.