Commentary

Hall of Fame ballot getting tougher

Powers in Cooperstown need to fix the process instead of making votes so hard to cast

Updated: January 4, 2011, 4:39 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

There's a Cooperstown crisis coming. Nobody seems to want to acknowledge it. Nobody seems to want to deal with it. But it's coming, all right, whether the Hall of Fame is ready or not.

For me, though, that crisis already has arrived. It arrived the moment my 2011 Hall of Fame ballot showed up in the mailbox.

I've been a Hall of Fame voter for two decades. Early on, I settled on a voting philosophy I never thought I'd be forced to abandon -- until now.

That philosophy was simple. With every name on the ballot, I would do my best to answer the question: "Was this player a Hall of Famer or not?" That question, after all, is the essence of our job as voters -- right?

And if that answer was yes, I pledged to vote for that player every year. Period.

No bouncing around, checking and unchecking names from year to year because I wanted a Rickey Henderson or a Cal Ripken Jr. to go in alone. No game-playing. No special, self-serving agendas.

I was going to be consistent. If a guy was a Hall of Famer in Year 1 on the ballot, he was going to be a Hall of Famer in Years 2, 3, 8, 12 and 15 -- if it came to that.

Until now.

Now, the performance-enhancing-drug disaster has officially crashed into the laps of those of us who vote this way. We live in an age when nobody who has been connected with, or even suspected of, PED use is getting elected. And if my fellow voters want to take that stand, that's their right.

But if the people in Cooperstown, the people who run the Hall of Fame, want to continue to sit back and avoid taking any stand on this issue for the rest of time, they'd better understand what that means.

Are they fans of empty podiums? Are they worried about holding induction days with no inductees to honor? Are they prepared to start throwing players out of the Hall of Fame -- players who may be linked to PED use after they've gotten elected?

All those possibilities hover over Hall of Fame voting for the next quarter century unless the folks in Cooperstown figure out how they want to deal with the mess that the steroids era is about to make of their heretofore-hallowed institution.

I hope they're wise enough to see where this is leading. I hope they're enlightened enough to take some sort of stand. But in the meantime, for voters like me, the PED nightmare is only making a mess of my ballot.

For two decades, that instructional line on the ballot informing me not to vote for more than 10 candidates has never been a problem. But it is now.

For the first time ever, 10 slots weren't enough for me to vote for all the players who fit my definition of a Hall of Famer. For the first time ever, I had to leave off the names of players I've voted for in the past -- not because I'd changed my mind, but because that 10-player limit got in the way.

Because I wanted to vote for three first-timers -- Jeff Bagwell, Rafael Palmeiro and Larry Walker -- I had 12 names for 10 spots. So after agonizing for two weeks about how to deal with that challenge, I decided the fairest way was to rank them from 1 to 12.

That meant eliminating, with a case of massive heartburn, the two guys I ranked 11th and 12th -- Fred McGriff and Dale Murphy. And so, because I'd voted for them in the past, that meant abandoning a voting philosophy I believe in. That truly stunk. But it also meant penalizing two players I firmly believe were clean, in large part because the Hall of Fame has no idea how to handle the guys who weren't. That stunk even more.

So this is more than just a column explaining my ballot. It's a plea for the Hall of Fame to deal with this crisis, to figure out whether there's a place for the stars of this era in the Hall and to stop asking voters like me to sign up for the morality police force and sort it all out for them.

I never volunteered for that job. And this year's ballot was the most powerful reminder yet of how impossible that job really is. So now that I've gotten that rant off my chest, here are the 10 players I voted for:

THE FIRST-TIMERS

Jeff Bagwell

A few years ago, when I was working on my ever-popular book, "The Stark Truth," I rated Bagwell as the third-most underrated first baseman in history. Why do I have a feeling that, after I check out the voting results Wednesday, I may have to move him up to No. 1?

[+] EnlargeJeff Bagwell
Al Bello/Getty ImagesA lot of voters seem to be overlooking Jeff Bagwell. It's hard to see how.

I've read a bunch of columns by other Hall of Fame voters this winter. I'm confused by how many have casually left Bagwell off their ballot or quickly blown off his credentials. Ridiculous. So let me tick those credentials off for you:

• If Bagwell wasn't the greatest player in the history of the Astros, he ties for "co-greatest" with his tag-team partner, Craig Biggio. That franchise is about to play its 50th season, by the way. So that distinction alone puts this guy into the conversation.

• Bagwell was also way more than just a masher. You know how many other first basemen he'll find hanging out with him at meetings of the 400-Homer, 200-Steal Club? Not a one, of course.

• We're also talking about a man with a prolonged period of consistent greatness. Bagwell kicked off his career with 12 straight seasons with an adjusted OPS+ of 130 or better. The only first baseman since 1900 with a longer streak, according to Baseball-Reference.com: Lou Gehrig (13).

• Or if you're into more traditional stats, Bagwell also ripped off six consecutive seasons with 30 homers, 100 RBIs and 100 runs scored. Just two other first basemen did that: Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx.

• And one more: How many other first basemen since 1900 have scored and driven in more than 1,500 runs, without any significant DH-aided stat-padding? It's those same two legendary names again -- Gehrig and Foxx.

But again, there was so much more to Bagwell's Hall of Fame aura than just his numbers. He was a rookie of the year … and an MVP … and a Gold Glove winner … and the undisputed leader on a team that went to the postseason six times.

So what, exactly, are the reasons not to vote for him? A suspicion, supported by no evidence whatsoever, that he maybe, possibly, theoretically, might have used some sort of PEDs? Just that sentence alone illustrates why this issue threatens to contaminate Hall of Fame voting for about the next thousand years.

Rafael Palmeiro

I've been dreading this. For five years. Dreading it. Since the moment Palmeiro tested positive, I knew this day was coming.

[+] EnlargeRafael Palmeiro
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesUntil the Hall of Fame steps in and sets true guidelines, deciding on players like Rafael Palmeiro will be virtually impossible.

I knew his name was going to land on a Hall of Fame ballot delivered to my door. I knew I'd wind up checking the box next to that name. And I knew how uncomfortable that would make me feel.

But I checked it anyway last week. And let me try again to explain why I did.

This won't be a baseball conversation. No need for that. Palmeiro had a Hall of Fame career. That debate ends with one recitation of the names in the 3,000-Hit, 500-Homer Club: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Eddie Murray and Palmeiro. End of story. If you need any more perspective, my buddy Tim Kurkjian can explain it to you.

But there's still that other world-famous question hanging over Palmeiro's candidacy: How do any of us justify voting for a guy who was idiotic enough to test positive for steroids?

Not a simple question.

But as I've been saying and writing for years, all of us who vote need to come to grips with the truth: We can't keep everyone who used PEDs out of the Hall of Fame. Can't … be … done.

Hundreds of players got mixed up in this debacle. Hundreds. And how many of their names do we have -- courtesy of Jose Canseco, George Mitchell, the BALCO crew and Rafael Palmeiro's urine analyst? Whatever the number is, it's a minuscule percentage. Minuscule.

So yeah, we could play to the crowd and take our stand and keep that dastardly Rafael Palmeiro out. Yeah, we could easily say he's different from all those other names, because he was the one knucklehead who tested positive.

But let me remind you how Hall of Fame voters have treated every other form of "cheating" through the years from greenies to greaseballs: by ignoring it. That's how.

That noted Vaseline-ball king, Gaylord Perry, got caught "cheating," too, you know. And got suspended for it. And how did the voters punish him? By electing him to the Hall of Fame. How else?

So for the most part, barring extreme circumstances, I'm going to keep voting for the players of Palmeiro's generation based on what they did on the field. And if any of them gets elected, I'd lobby to inscribe his PED story right there on his Hall of Fame plaque:

"Rafael Palmeiro: Hit 569 home runs. Got 3,020 hits. Won three Gold Gloves. And tested positive for steroids. So make of those numbers whatever you choose."

Honesty and transparency are the only solution here. Trying to keep the Hall clean and pure based on a leaked name here and a failed test there? Can't … be … done.

Larry Walker

Maybe I spend way too much time looking at every name on this ballot, but here's another first-timer whom many of my peers seem to be zipping past way too easily.

[+] EnlargeLarry Walker
David Seelig/Icon SMIEven with the Coors Factor, Larry Walker's numbers are good enough for Cooperstown.

For me, the question wasn't whether Walker had a Hall of Fame career. Heck, he was a three-time batting champ, a seven-time Gold Glove winner, a five-time All-Star and a man who ranks No. 28 all time on Baseball-Reference.com's win probability added list. On Bill James' Hall of Fame monitor, an average Hall of Famer gets a score of 100. Walker graded out at 147.

So if he'd done all that in a vacuum, he'd be a clear Hall of Famer. Correct? But what makes this tricky is that Walker didn't play in a vacuum. He played half his career in Colorado. Which means he's the first Hall of Fame candidate in history to cause us to seriously examine the Coors Factor.

Luckily, we live in a time when we have tools to help us look past the staggering fact that Walker batted .381 in his career with a .710 slugging percentage at Coors Field -- and .282 with a .501 slugging percentage everywhere else.

So the first thing I did was look at adjusted OPS+, which compensates for both ballpark and era. And what did I find? That Walker racked up an OPS+ of 150 or higher (meaning he was at least 50 percent more productive than your average hitter) in six different seasons of at least 400 plate appearances. That's as many as A-Rod!

But Baseball-Reference.com also has a "stat neutralizer" that allows us to see what Walker's numbers would have looked like, theoretically, in a "neutral" park while playing in an "average" lineup.

I bet the Coors haters would be shocked to learn that even with all those games he logged at Coors, he would have lost only 14 points off his career batting average, 16 points off his on-base percentage and 26 points off his slugging percentage if Coors had never entered his life.

In other words, Walker was a Hall of Famer. So he got this vote.

MOST LIKELY TO GET ELECTED

Bert Blyleven

Bert Blyleven
Blyleven

Holy schmoly. After all these years, his time has finally come.

Blyleven missed getting elected by five votes last year. No player in history has come that close one year and not gotten in thereafter. So this looks like The Year, finally. In his 14th try.

As I wrote last week, no candidate in the history of the universe has benefited more from the invention of sabermetrics than Blyleven. Now that we have sources like Baseball-Reference.com to tell us that Blyleven ranks 13th among all pitchers in history in wins above replacement (ahead of Christy Mathewson and Bob Gibson), those nay votes get pretty much impossible to justify.

So a man who was still getting just 70 votes as recently as 1999 is about to become the first full-time starting pitcher to get elected to the Hall of Fame in a dozen years. I wonder whether he'll thank modern mathematics in his speech.

Roberto Alomar

Roberto Alomar
Alomar

No first-time candidate has ever come closer to getting elected than the eight votes and 1.3 percent that Alomar missed by last year. But now that he's been duly punished by the voters for the regrettable John Hirschbeck Spitgate episode and by the New York voters for his failure to become a beloved Met, it's time to recognize Robbie Alomar for what he was: one of the greatest second basemen who ever turned a double play.

Twelve straight All-Star teams … more Gold Gloves (10) than any second baseman in history … 2,724 career hits … seven seasons with a .300 average/.800 OPS (the fifth-most seasons like that by any second baseman ever) … and a human-highlight flair for making plays on a baseball field that no one had ever witnessed before.

Yet 142 voters somehow persuaded themselves not to vote for him last year? How nuts is that? So if he doesn't make it this year, it might be time to turn this voting over to a saner group -- like the beer vendors.

THE REST OF MY BALLOT

Tim Raines

Tim Raines
Raines

It was encouraging to see Raines jump by 42 votes last year in his third year on the ballot. But that still left him 241 votes from glory. So he remains the runaway winner of my highly uncoveted Most Criminally Unsupported Candidate award.

I'm still looking into rumors that all evidence of Raines' greatness, back in his days as a Montreal Expo, was confiscated by customs agents at the Canadian border. But while that investigation continues, let me pass along my two personal favorite Raines stats:

1. This guy reached base more times (3,977) than Tony Gwynn, Honus Wagner, Lou Brock, Roberto Clemente or Richie Ashburn -- and not one eligible player who reached base as many times as Raines did and had as high an on-base percentage (.385) is not in the Hall of Fame.

2. In his seven most dominating seven seasons at the top of the Expos' lineup, from 1982 to '88, Raines led his league in reaching base pretty much every way he could reach it -- in singles … and doubles … and triples … and walks. How incredible is that?

So one of these days, you've gotta hope voters figure out that Raines remains the greatest leadoff hitter in history who isn't in the Hall of Fame. But first, we've got to get Canadian customs to release that evidence.

Barry Larkin

Barry Larkin
Larkin

In that "Stark Truth" book I mentioned earlier, guess who got the prestigious nomination as the most underrated shortstop of all time? Right you are. That would be Larkin. Well, nothing has changed since that book hit the stores.

For a longer discussion of Larkin's glittering credentials, check out the column I wrote on that topic last year at this time. But here's the short version:

Barry Larkin won nine Silver Sluggers. The only infielder in history who ever won more is A-Rod (with 10). Larkin also made 12 All-Star teams. The only shortstops who ever made more were Ripken and Ozzie Smith.

There's no telling how many Gold Gloves Larkin might have won if he'd played in a league without Ozzie in it. But remember, Larkin still won three Gold Gloves in a row while the Wizard was still doing his Cirque du Soleil act.

And if you need any reminding of what an imposing offensive force Larkin was, Lee Sinins' "Complete Baseball Encyclopedia" tells us that he created 488 more runs than the average shortstop of his time. How big is that number? The biggest of any National League shortstop whose career started after World War II. How 'bout that?

Larkin collected more votes last year (278), in his first year on the ballot, than any position player except Alomar and Andre Dawson. So if he cracks the 300-vote barrier this year, he'll be pretty much a lock to get elected one of these years.

Edgar Martinez

Edgar Martinez
Martinez

Yeah, he was "only" a DH. So you won't find any Gold Gloves in Edgar Martinez's trophy room. But if we're going to have a sport in which designated hitters roam the planet, shouldn't the greatest DH of all time be a Hall of Famer?

Here's all you need to know: Martinez's adjusted OPS+ for his career was 147. The Hall of Famer who ranks as the second-greatest DH in history, Paul Molitor, had an OPS+ that good in only two of his 21 seasons. So … any more questions?

Jack Morris

Jack Morris
Morris

I know the sabermetrics crowd hates this vote. Sorry.

I'm as grateful for the invention of WAR, WPA and VORP as anyone else in my profession. But I still believe we're allowed to consider more than just raw numbers when we evaluate what a Hall of Famer is, or isn't.

And if we look back on Morris' career, it sure looks as though the teams he pitched for, and the people he played with and against, were trying to tell us something.

This man started on Opening Day 14 years in a row (1980 to 1993) -- for three different teams. The only pitcher to start more openers than that since World War II was Tom Seaver (16). Just real aces are allowed to do that. Don't you think?

Morris also started three All-Star Games. The only pitchers in the division-play era to start more were Jim Palmer and Randy Johnson. One thing I've noticed throughout the years: They don't run just any old stumblebum out there to start an All-Star Game -- let alone three of them.

Then there's October. Of the seven postseason series that Morris' teams played in, he started Game 1 in six of them -- again, for three different teams.

And his teams brought him back to start on short rest five times -- always in a Game 4 or 7 -- in those postseasons. There must have been some reason they liked the idea of trotting him out there when their seasons were hanging in the balance.

So I understand why Morris' 3.90 ERA gives people the shakes. But for all the reasons I've just laid out, it obviously wasn't just a couple of hundred misguided voters who looked at this man and thought: "Ace."

Mark McGwire

Mark McGwire
McGwire

I'm going to do us all a favor and skip the same-old-same-old portion of the McGwire debate we've been having for the previous four years. Been there. Argued that.

What's interesting about this Hall of Fame election is that it's the first since McGwire stared into the eyes of Bob Costas last winter and did his big mea culpa.

So what effect will confession and contrition have on his vote totals, which are still treading water at 23.7 percent? No idea. And will Tony La Russa's master plan, to get Big Mac back in uniform and allow voters to see him in a different context, have any impact whatsoever on his Hall of Fame prospects? No way to know.

The best guess is still that this guy will never stand at that podium. But this is the first time a Hall of Fame candidate has ever confessed to this rap in the middle of his candidacy. So the drama this week isn't whether McGwire makes a run at getting elected. It's whether the events of the past year have moved his meter even a little.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com