Cleaning Up The Baseball Hall Of Fame — A TSFJ Roundtable

Yesterday the National Baseball Hall of Fame inducted four new members to its ranks. While there is no true debate to the merits of Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz or Craig Biggio, the path that is undertaken to arrive at the conclusion for them being installed into Cooperstown is anything but an unblemished process.

In recent years, the politics of determining a player’s Hall worthiness has gone simply from home runs and strikeout differential to a far more complex issue of doses of morality and plausible deniability mixed in as well. The longstanding gatekeepers of the ballot box, the Baseball Writers Association of America, have been tasked with the responsibility of selecting Hall of Famers. But a mixture of agenda, loose association, voting policy and an antiquated voting body has begun to convolute the process to a point where the questions of “how” players are selected are outweighing the “why” they are.

In addition to this, the rise in social media has allowed the masses on both sides of any argument to enter the debate. There's a growing dissension among the young baseball faithful, in particular fans and bloggers, who are fed up with the sport's establishment. This new school vs. old school battle informs the annual awards races more than anything but has taken center stage when it comes to Hall of Fame debates. Players face new evaluations every year, as do the voters charged with determining their Hall-worthiness.

This all piqued the intrigue of TSFJ’s staff, who sent forward its own baseball faithful into analysis of far more than just retired ballplayers and old statistics, but rather the entire current regime of the Hall of Fame itself. Join Dillon Friday, Dalton Johnson, Joe Boland (aka Reverend Paul Revere) and Matt Whitener as they question the establishment at hand in determining the definition of MLB immortality today.

Friday: I'll open it up to TSFJ with these questions in mind:

  1. Who should cast votes for potential Hall of Famers? Should already inducted players be involved?
  2. Is the current voters' biases against proven and alleged PED users justified?
  3. Should there be a limit on how many players get in each year? Is the write-in method preferred to a yes/no box?

The Rev: What I think is clear, highlighted by Dan Le Batard's stunt last year, is that there needs to be reform. There are too many old timers with their own agendas, particularly around the steroid era, who condemn players or hold some "first-year eligible" high horse, trying to cover up for the fact that either past worthy players weren't voted in the first time around so only a few should get in the first time or they are trying to cover their own asses for not, you know, doing their jobs and reporting on PEDs when they were happening.

As for the PED users themselves — let's face it, they represent part of an important era of baseball. The sport was dying, the strike pushing it further behind football, and the McGwire/Sosa chase brought fans back. Clemens, Bonds, McGwire, Sosa — these are guys in the record books, some of the most accomplished athletes in the sport's history, and we're leaving them out because they may or may not have taken steroids, even while a lot of other players were too, and while these same voters were not reporting on the well-known practice? Give me a break. Furthermore, who are we to say who was and wasn't using steroids? I don't think Tony Gwynn or Cal Ripken used steroids … but I can't tell you definitively they didn't. Same for, oh, I don't know — ANYONE who has ever played the sport, especially those who played before testing. It's absurd. These guys should be in.

I also don't think there should be a limit on who gets in. What if eight clear HOF players retire the same year? They can't all get in the first time just because of timing? That's stupid. If you're worthy, you're worthy, plain and simple, and you should get in. Borderline guys will always be borderline guys, but players who clearly will get in — why wait? That seems unnecessary.

Dalton: Agreed on all levels. Baseball needs to realize that it has been built on important but flawed eras. Racism, greenies, betting, PEDs, they all happened and they were all important. There are plenty of terrible people in the Hall and plenty of people that "cheated" in one way or another. Get off your high horse and realize what happened, happened. Bonds should be an absolute shoe-in, same with Clemens. I totally agree on the time limit being a problem, and now this 10-year thing is ridiculous. Just like the best players should play, the best players should be recognized too. There are over 10 guys that are worthy of a Hall vote, and only four got in.

I really don't care if they have a "PED" era section in the Hall where these guys go, but then that would have to include Pedro, Randy Johnson, Maddux, Frank Thomas, etc. We don't know who did what, and when a lot of them did what they did, it was legal by the MLB drug standards. It is baseball’s own fault, and they should not try to hide from it now.

Whitener: I look at it from a different direction. I am a fan of the limited ballot. On one hand, yes it causes some difficult decisions when there are many worthwhile candidates that appear on the ballot at once. This usually happens during generational turnaround times like we are seeing now. But also it keeps from contributors giving arbitrary votes away. There should be some distinction between the Hall of Very Good and the Hall of Fame, and a limited ballot ensures that.

The Rev: I do agree the HOF standards need to remain high. Frankly, if you have to ask if a guy is worthy, unless there is a clearly overlooked aspect of his game that some people don't understand, you probably shouldn't get in.

Dalton: True, true. For the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America they do 15 votes instead of 10. What do you think about that? Too much still?

Friday: I don't think so. The players' performances should decide how many deserve to be on the ballot. Some years that could be as few as three. Some, like this year, that number is much greater. The problem you get is that players with at least a strong Hall argument like Dick Allen get buried in progressively better classes. Sometimes the year you retired matters more than the numbers you put up, which to me is a serious flaw. Joe Posnanski writes often about this.

My view on the Steroid Era aligns with all of yours. It happened. We can't change it, nor can we blindly assign blame. As Dalton alluded to, Babe Ruth hit home runs against exclusively white pitching and without the added challenge of relief specialists. Expansion diluted the talent pool in the 1960s. A raised mound and bigger strike zone gave pitchers the advantage later in that decade.

That being said, it cannot be denied that juiced players, balls or both skewed the numbers greatly. To the point that it is much more difficult to access a candidate's historical merit. Eleven of the top 25 career home run leaders, including current players, played at least a portion of their career in the steroid era. Carlos Delgado, Chipper Jones and Fred McGriff, none of whom has been tied to PEDs, are just outside. How do we judge historical greatness when so many hitters reached the Hall of Fame qualifying benchmarks? Do we accept that we just happened to witness the greatest hitters' era in history? Or should we handpick that few that rose above a statistically strong class on talent as much as juice?

Whitener: I think there is a marked difference between guys that played the game in conditions outside of their control and guys that did take it upon themselves to change their own leverage on the playing field. The differences in the pre and post integration talent pool and the one at the peak of the PED era are much different situations due to this.

Also, I do not feel there should be a limit on how many players are eligible, but I am definitely a strong proponent of limited voting. It shifts out the gold, so to speak. The Hall of Fame should be for the most historically relevant players in the game’s timeline, the undeniably dominant elite, such as Randy Johnson, or those that were great for so long that it crossed into the Hall of Fame range, like Biggio did. Sometimes that is a no-brainer, first-ballot selection; for others there is a slight delay. But it does not take 10 years to find a way to get most deserving Hall of Famers through, in my mind. If a player fades from voting relevance, it is for a reason.

There will never be 15 no-brainer Hall of Fame candidates on a single ballot without a voter stretching the terms of HOF-caliber play further than it should go. It is a stretched-out t-shirt neck at that point. Basically, making it easier to pick a HOF member is just as bad as keeping the archaic vote style and voters in play. It's just problem displacement.

The Rev: This year, Pedro and Randy were the shoe-ins. I think the home run kings need to be in — Bonds, Sosa and McGwire. I don't think fans really care about the steroid era. Just get them in.

I also think it's clear that the voting system is broken. I propose instituting term limits on Hall voters — say 15-25 years. It is still a long time, but there needs to be turnover to reflect contemporary times.

Whitener: Speaking to the point on "talent vs. juice," this is the slipperiest slope of all. We see guys that are being grouped together by time association (Bagwell, Piazza, Delgado and even Biggio) with guys that are heavily suspected (Bonds) into outright known users (McGwire, Sosa, Sheffield, Clemens).

Where does the line have to be drawn? I say at the point of usage AFTER it was a written law within the game. The morality code is nice, but if a rule was not broken then it flat out was not broken. There are more of these sorts of decisions coming up as well in cases such as David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez. In my mind, if you broke an actual rule, then you did a disservice to the game. If not, you pushed the limits of what was in place, but there was no rule to break.

In a sort of self-policing perspective as well, I have tried to not turn a complete blind eye against obvious abusers of even that context. Bonds, Clemens and McGwire were brilliant players long before the obvious changes in their games/appearance/output took place. Sosa however went from borderline to brilliant in terms of his production, overnight. That is a different issue entirely to me, and I vote in line with that. I have never considered Sosa, and I changed my approach on Rafael Palmeiro as well after instituting this, and I don't see myself going backwards on it. Looking ahead, A-Rod and Manny will present tough challenges to this view that may force me to change perspective again.

Friday: But you can't know for sure, Matt. We are going off the words of liars when they say, "I started using at this time," or what have you. There is no easy fix. I'd vote guys in based on numbers. I think morality should be shown the door when it comes to the Hall of Fame, because, well, Ty Cobb. He's not alone, though. And how about Tom Boswell's "Canseco Milkshake" guy from the 10th Inning? The point is, Cooperstown is not some baseball Camelot and shouldn't be treated as such when judging a player's performance. I'd vote Bonds in. I'd vote Clemens in. I might even vote Sheffield in. Then, I'd hope that all of them come forward and say they're not worthy of the honor. But writers, who turned blind eyes for the better part of a decade, can't make that decision for them.

Whitener: Let’s talk about one guy you singled out there (and I did as well): Gary Sheffield.

Is he not the quintessential example of the complexities of today's vote? All the numbers, even a magic one (500 homers), a batting title, etc. Essentially he's Eddie Murray in a lot of ways, just sustained production.

But then he is aligned with the Mitchell Report, but not one of the heavily weighed down upon guys (Andy Pettitte in a lot of ways) and likely won't get much more than 35% of the vote (as he wasn't very liked either).

Is it most indicative of the times that a guy like that causes little to no static when touching the ballot?

Friday: Let's also not ignore that this is the era of big-money free agency and deadline deals as much as it is steroids. Sheffield embodies that. What team does he represent if he enters the Hall? Unlike Pedro and Unit, who played for multiple clubs but had clear iconic statuses with one, Sheffield was more of a mercenary. I think he gets punished for that. How good could this guy have been if nobody kept him around? On the flip side, he raked wherever he went; no home or away splits because he had no home and he was always away.

It's all so complex, and the voters have taken a stance of ignorance rather than attempt to adjust to the times. In a way I can't blame them, because, well, we're here. In short, I think you're right. No case is more indicative of the times than Gary Sheffield's. Man was he fun to watch.

Whitener: Going back to Dillon's original questions, here are my precise answers:

1) Those that vote should have a minimum of 10 years of consecutive coverage and the only way that a vote can be guaranteed for life is if there were 30 years of consecutive coverage in a regular baseball column, either newspaper, magazine or online. I don't care if you are a sports encyclopedia, it shouldn't be a lifetime award for anybody other than the most dedicated of baseball chroniclers.

2) I do not believe the current handling of the PED situation is fair. Rather it is a mob mentality by the same mob that uplifted many of them to the awards they landed in real time. But also, part of granting a vote is granting the democracy that comes with it, and it just is what it is in current times. No signs of it shifting, even amongst the next generation of writers.

3) Both the established cap on votes per year (10) and the newly adjusted time of tenure on the ballot (10 years) assures that players are given a fair amount of time to prove they were truly a premium player in an all-time sense (which is what an HOFer should be, without long-term deliberation) and that there is enough of a squeeze on the ballot to create critical decisions still.

The Rev: Final verdict –

  1. I do not think there should be lifetime eligibility for HOF voting under any circumstance. I like Matt's idea of having a minimum number of years covering baseball regularly to get a vote, though I'd go a little shorter to five years on a beat/regular column/coverage. Frankly, I think time served covering baseball should determine how long you can vote. In fact, I think it should be equal to the number of years you covered the game. For instance, if you had a beat for five years, you get to vote for five years; 30 years, you get to vote for 30 years; etc. I understand how this could get tricky, and in essence it could lead to a lifetime vote … but I think a cap is OK too, like a maximum of 30 years of voting. Term limits, so to speak.
  2. I'm with Dillon here. The HOF should not be about morality, period. Pete Rose should be in the Hall, the players during the PED era worthy should be in the Hall, and anyone who contributed to the game in a Hall-worthy way should be in. At the very least, the men who never failed a drug test should not be withheld from the Hall, and frankly, even with PED suspensions, it doesn't take away the greatness of the player. It's the Hall of Fame — the most famous, worthy and great players ever — not the Hall of Clean Living. Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez, et al — those guys embody fame in the sport. They should be in. PEDs are irrelevant in voting, or should be. If you played, you played and accomplished what you accomplished. It's like the NCAA mentality of taking away wins or honors — um, sorry, NCAA, but the Fab 5 existed. They were awesome. You can't say those wins didn't happen, just like you can't say Bonds' HRs are null and void because of suspected PED use. Get off the high horse. This isn't a morality place.
  3. I don't think there should be a limit on who gets in or when, to be honest. I think the term limits on voting would help this. If anything, to prevent the HOF from being oversaturated or the honor being watered down, make the threshold higher in terms of votes — say 80% or something. But if 15 great players, by some odd chance, retire the same year and are clearly HOF players, they should all get in if they're worthy on the first ballot. This whole sanctity of the "First Ballot HOFers" is bullshit. As Dillon has pointed out, you aren't unworthy of being in the Hall five years after you retire but suddenly are 10 years afterward. You either are or you aren't, period. Lift the stupid limit. It would hardly affect the number of players who get in, in my opinion.

Dalton: The Hall of Fame is built for the best baseball players of all time, not the morality police Hall of Fame. I believe that too many voters are ego- and perception-driven. This goes beyond just steroid users in my mind. Jeff Kent is the greatest power-hitting second basemen ever and perhaps a better hitter than Craig Biggio, but because his biggest asset was power in the power era, voters shy away. Larry Walker has the Coors Field problem. Look at his 141 OPS+. It's the same as Chipper Jones', who is seen as a sure thing for the Hall, and it's above more than a handful of some of the greatest players in the Hall. Walker left Montreal and a terrible home field at 28 years old in the peak of his career. Of course Coors helped him, I just think it is more voter bias beyond the numbers.

Why is Schilling shunned? Not enough wins? C'mon, we have to be beyond that at this point. Edgar Martinez: Hall of Fame hitter and the greatest ever at his position. But because it is a specialty position, he is shunned out. This is not how a club of greatness should work. Do Piazza and Bagwell have Hall of Fame numbers? Yes.

This is something out of a playground full of kids speculating that little Johnny might have cooties so we have to keep him out of the club. No more guessing games. No more acting like nothing happened during this time. And no more acting like baseball didn't thrive and love every second of the steroid era when it was going on. We don't know everything about the players that are already in the Hall, and we never will. The same goes for the players currently trying to get in. Baseball has a history of flawed time periods, and this is just one of them. Get the most deserving players in, and stop playing a game of "Who Dun It."

Friday: Well thanks, guys, leaving me with nothing. I'll add a few final points:

  1. It should be "Yes, he's a Hall of Famer," or, "No, he's not." Answer for everyone on the list not just 10.
  2. It bothers me to no end that the steroid era grossly separated baseball's present from its past.
  3. Re: 2. I can't change that nor can I make guesses on what players would have done better or worse, who did or didn't use. I can only vote off what I saw and analyze the numbers in front of me. The worst part of the steroid era, for me at least, is that the greatest players are the ones who get punished most. Clemens and Bonds draw all kinds of ire, while Biggio receives more slack because he has safer numbers — just over 3000 hits. He never reached the 30-home-run plateau. A voter can get behind that without pause, because the numbers don't appear inflated and neither did Biggio. In that case, you're attributing too much credit to synthetic help and also rewarding good play over exceptional play.

It's a mess. You can want a steroid user out of the Hall of Fame. I do not think, in good conscious, you can vote him out.

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