Over, Under, Sideways, Down
Writing in his annual BASEBALL BOOK after the '94 strike, Bill James iden- tified four players whose Hall of Fame chances he felt had been most adversely affected by the shortened season: David Cone, Jimmy Key, Will Clark, and Gregg Jeffries. His reasoning was that they were all marginal candidates in the midst of career years (or, in Clark's case, a return to form), and that by season's end they would have positioned themselves as having a credible shot at Cooperstown. Even at the time, I thought he was wrong about Cone. The strike actually helped Cone, I thought, by stopping the season at a point where it was hard to make a logical case for anyone other than him winning the Cy Young. The vote was probably closer than it should have been--Cone edged Key 108-96--but he did win, and who knows whether he would have been overtaken by either Key or Randy Johnson had the season been played out. So even though the strike did cost Cone a few career wins and a 20-win season, the Cy Young that it guaranteed him was a better-than-even tradeoff in terms of his HOF resume. With the benefit of hindsight, I imagine James would agree that in the end, the strike didn't much affect the chances of the other three, either. Key and Clark remain borderline candidates after their retirement--Key better than borderline, Clark a lot less--and whatever they would have done for the remain- der of '94 wouldn't have made much difference either way, including a Cy Young for Key. Jeffries declined rapidly after '94, and he was out of baseball by the time he turned 33. The timing of Jeffries' deterioration makes it tempting to wonder if the strike had some deeper cataclysmic affect on him that went beyond the 60 lost games, but I don't know what that would have been. Ever since James's comments, I've gotten into the habit of looking at each season as a kind of market indicator on various players' HOF chances. (If you've ever been silly enough to get caught up in card collecting, a world in which a player's entire being eventually rests on whether or not he makes it into Cooperstown, you'll appreciate that "market indicator" is meant in the literal sense.) By July, as I scan the newspaper's stats page every Tuesday, I'm guided by an awareness of which players have solidified their HOF candida- cies, who's in trouble, who's on cruise control, who's barely hanging on, and who may be warranting a serious look for the first time. It's like each name is shadowed by little arrow in the margin, pointing up, down, or sideways. Some thoughts on the 2001 season: WHO HAS IMPROVED HIS HOF CHANCES THE MOST THIS YEAR? Jim Thome. Statisti- cally, Thome had the foundation of a HOF career going into 2001--233 HR at age 30, four 100-run and 100-RBI seasons each, excellent career SA and OBA, and a surviving mainstay on one of the three best teams of his era--but it had all been accomplished in the shadow of Belle, Ramirez, and the rest of the Indians' revolving big-name cast. But he's going to come out of 2001 with a) an excel- lent chance at 500 HR (somewhere around 285 at age 31), b) a 50-HR season (not the benchmark that it was 10 years ago, granted, but still a formidable plateau), c) a possible MVP (though I'm pulling for Alomar myself), and d) a career OPS (on-base + slugging) that was already in the Top 20 of all time and now moves into the Top 15. If he can continue playing well for another seven or eight years, I'd say his HOF prospects are very good. I don't think anyone else has broken through as convincingly as Thome, although I can see a few cases where 2001 has gotten some players back on track. Juan Gonzalez seemingly had room to spare on his HOF resume going into this season, and to that extent his bid for a third MVP is just another excla- mation mark to a career that was already a lock. But after his desultory year in Detroit--similar to his falloff in '94, the key difference being he was 30 last year instead of 25--I sensed he was at a potentially critical juncture; if he had not come back healthy this year, or if he had struggled through another off-year, I could see where it might have been the beginning of a slow drift into Canseco-like instability. Barring catastrophe, though, Gonzalez again looks like a first-ballot cinch. Craig Biggio has rebounded well from his shortened 2000 season, and it again appears that he'll get some overdue attention with induction into Coo- perstown. He's doing most everything he was doing year-in and year-out before last year's injury: he's going to finish the year with a .300 average, 100+ runs, and 20 HR, and the Astros look to be going to the postseason. He's not hitting as many doubles as he used to, and he doesn't run anymore, but he's probably about 85-90% of the way back. If he can keep going for another two seasons at this level, he should be fine. Edgar Martinez and Rafael Palmeiro have strengthened what were fairly solid HOF bids already. Statistically speaking, both are having subpar years by their own standards: Edgar will likely finish with his lowest batting average since '94, while Palmeiro's season will join '97 as his least productive in the past decade. But just in terms of bulk numbers, they both keep piling it on: another .300/20 HR/100 RBI season for Edgar, another 40 HR and 100 RBI for Palmeiro. Maybe even more important to Martinez is the fact that, Ichiro not- withstanding, he is finally the Mariners' resident superstar, and in a season where it just happens that they're going to win 110 games. If Seattle continues their dominance in the postseason, Martinez's candidacy will be that much stronger. Mariano Rivera is starting to look more and more credible. He'll finish this year with 210 saves before he turns 32, giving him a pretty good shot at 400 if his arm holds up (with a pitcher, a little like saying if he continues to jump out into traffic without getting run over). His career E.R.A. may drop below 2.60. But impressive stats are commonplace with relievers--statistically, you could probably make almost as good a case for Rob Nenn (exactly one day older than Rivera), who has a higher E.R.A. but an extra 50 saves. Rivera's edge is that I keep thinking they're going to have to induct at least a couple of core Yankees from the late '90s dynasty, and past Jeter, Rivera's emerging as the next best candidate. I'm still not sure how history will view Bernie Williams, who held his ground this year; coming out of the era of gargantuan offensive numbers, Williams will probably suffer in the end for being too well-rounded and not eye-catching enough in any one of the big Triple Crown stats. I've seen Pettitte's name put forth by New York-based writers, but his surprising staying power aside, I just don't see a Hall of Fame career taking shape. Fred McGriff and Jose Canseco may have done the bare minimum to revive their fading chances, which is essentially to buy themselves the two more years they each need for a shot at 500 HR. McGriff was having a very good season in Tampa Bay, but he's struggled since joining the Cubs; for the year he should end up somewhere around .285/25/90, leaving him with 440 HR at age 37. I'd be surprised if there's another 60 HR left in him, but if he's playing full-time somewhere next year, he's still got a shot. Canseco, meanwhile, has been play- ing well across town; he'll finish with 460 HR with a year's jump on McGriff, so his chance of reaching 500 would seem somewhat better if he can hook up with somebody for next year. I'm not sure it matters, though; Canseco could very well end up being the first guy to hit 500 HR and not get elected anyway. If it happens, he won't be the last. WHO HAS HURT HIS HOF CHANCES THE MOST THIS YEAR? In the space of a year, I think it's easier to help your chances than hurt them. Anyone who goes into the season as a decent-or-better HOF candidate is already putting together a career that should be able to withstand an off-year. Especially with players in mid- career or earlier, there's always time to bounce back--again, Gonzalez's 2000 and 1994 seasons being good examples. So I wouldn't make too much of Frank Thomas's write-off season at 33; he did so much so early in his career, he just needs to get back in the lineup in 2002 and put in another four or five reason- ably productive seasons. (Thomas is managing to turn a ten-lap lead into a photo finish. At the time, I didn't think his two MVPs would ultimately have much bearing on his future stroll into the HOF, not when it looked like he'd be going in as competition for Ruth and Williams as the most statistically impos- ing hitter ever; it now looks like those two MVPs might actually save his candidacy in the end.) Having said that, I think there are three or four guys who took a hit this year. The most obvious--though you may have forgotten about him already, not having played a game in 2001--is Albert Belle, whose chances for the HOF went from probably 90% to something approaching nil. Coincidentally, in the year of Kirby Puckett's induction, Belle was forced into retirement at a point virtually identical to Puckett. If you compare the two, their batting lines give a huge advantage to Belle. But the '90s weren't the '80s in terms of offensive levels, Albert surely wasn't Kirby in the public relations depart- ment, and Belle will instead join Joe Jackson as the greatest hitter not in Cooperstown. Mo Vaughn and Harold Baines, who were pretty marginal candidates anyway, are both close to officially dead. Vaughn will presumably be back next year, but he'll be 34 and still sitting at 299 HR. He's got a decent shot at 400-450, but that won't be worth anything down the road. Harold won't be back, so he'll finish about 100 hits shy of the 3,000 that, as with Canseco, might not have put him in anyway. Among guys who actually played this year, I sense that Mike Mussina took a step backwards. He's pitched pretty well: his numbers aren't all that different from Clemens'--better SO/BB ratio, comparable E.R.A. and H/9--but Roger has gotten all the run support, giving him a 17-1 record as opposed to Mussina's 12-10. And that's the point: in signing with the Yankees, I thought that it would have been Mussina having the flashy season where his W-L record exceeded his (generally excellent) peripheral stats, that it would have been him going 22-4 and finally winning a Cy Young. He's not out of the running yet--he'll go into 2002 with 160 wins at age 33, and a career winning pct. still close to .650--but he's going to need a couple of those flashy seasons soon; he hasn't won 20 even once. WHO'S ON CRUISE CONTROL AT THE MOMENT? Everybody else, I guess. Cruise control is a good thing. Griffey, Piazza, Bagwell, and Pudge all had varying degrees of subpar years, but they're in anyway, so I can't see that 2001 will make any difference. Ditto, to a lesser extent, Glavine. I'm sure some people would go with Alomar over Thome as this year's breakthrough candidate, but only if you haven't been paying attention. Alomar's been a leading HOF candidate for years, and the biggest question remaining with him at this point is how high he'll end up on the all-time hits list; eighth, I'd say, behind Yaz but ahead of Molitor. (Alomar also has a reasonable chance to become the first second baseman ever to total 5,000 career bases; he rates a 28% chance using James's "Favorite Toy" formula, and a 47% chance of eclipsing Hornsby's current record of 4,712.) Luis Gonzalez, Curt Schilling, Moises Alou, Shawn Green, and Jason Giambi have all been terrific this year, but I still don't see any of them as even longshots yet--Giambi, maybe. As for the two Colorado guys, Walker and Helton, I'm sidestepping them altogether. I just don't know how much weight future HOF voters are going to give to the freakshow aspect of Coors Field. 2300 AB into his career, Todd Helton is sitting on the fourth-highest slugging average in history, behind only Ruth, Williams, and Gehrig; at home he's like an even better version of Ruth, on the road his career stats are close to Fred McGriff's. So I don't know what standard a player who spends a substantial part of his career in Coors will be held to--Galarraga will be the first test case a few years from now. Mind you, if you spend half your career as Babe Ruth and half as Fred McGriff, obviously you're in. In THE POLITICS OF GLORY (1994), James compiled a year-by-year chart of how many future Hall of Famers were then active; from 1946 through 1968, the normal figure was about 30 players in any given year. Using that as a barom- eter, here are my 30 from this year's pool: PITCHERS -- Clemens, Maddux, Johnson, P. Martinez, Glavine, Rivera; POSITION PLAYERS -- Piazza, I. Rodriguez, McGwire, Bagwell, Palmeiro, Thomas, Thome, Helton, Alomar, Biggio, Ripken, Larkin, Jeter, A. Rodriguez, Garciaparra, C. Jones, Henderson, Gwynn, Bonds, Griffey, Sosa, Gonzalez, Ramirez, Guerrero. HITTER -- E. Martinez. I cheated--I've got 31. I'm deferring to the widespread assumption that Larkin's as good as in. I've always thought that the large amount of time he's lost to injuries will make his case shakier than suspected, and I might be in- clined to reserve that spot for someone out there just starting to make a case for himself: Albert Pujols, Tim Hudson, somebody like that. One of the monthly card magazines recently ran their own projections and had John Franco as a sure thing...huh? 400 saves or not, has Franco ever been included on anyone's short- list of the game's premier pitchers? If Franco gets in, I'm personally going to lock myself to the front gate at Cooperstown (they don't actually have a front gate, but work with me here) until they also make room for Tom Henke.