The Worst Bullpen of All-Time

May 28, 2011

At the beginning of the season, I picked the Minnesota Twins to win the AL Central.

In my defense, I admitted a little bit of homer-ism with that pick. I knew the Twins would take a step back. Although they didn’t lose any key players from the team that ran away with the Central title last season, a series of minor free agent slip-ups lowered expectations coming into the season. Still, of ESPN’s experts, about one-fourth picked the Twins to win the division title. So it wasn’t that much of a stretch to pick the Twins to win the Central.

Then the season started.

The Twins have hit lows that few teams in any sport have hit. Baseball is unique among American sports in that teams can hit rock bottom…and then keep going, and going, and going. The NFL season is only sixteen games long, so a team can only sink so low.* The NBA and NHL seasons are longer, but over half of each league’s teams make the playoffs, so it’s hard to fall that far off the place. In MLB, only eight of 30 teams make the playoffs. At this point, it’s a given that the Twins won’t make the playoffs – they’d have to go 65-48 from here on out just to reach .500, something that they appear to be completely incapable of doing. But they still have to play all 113 of those games, 15 of which I unfortunately have tickets to. That’s way too much time to hit rock bottom and then keep digging.

* Ironically, the 2010 Vikings set the bar for sinking lower than any team in recent memory. But even that took an extremely unique combination of a team coming off an NFC Championship Game appearance, an epic collapse, a 40-year old quarterback’s penis, and the fans completely turning on them…and you can STILL make an argument that the Twins’ season has been worse. By the way, it’s only May.

Through April, Twins fans were still optimistic. Disappointing was the operative word when the Twins raced out to a 9-12 start by April 26. The team was ugly at times, but a 9-12 start is certainly nothing to panic about.

Disappointing then turned to frustrating. The Twins lost six in a row to fall to 9-18. Quotes about it being a long season are okay in April, but as soon as that calendar turns to May those same quotes are a red flag.

Then Francisco Liriano threw a no-hitter in what is shaping up to be the highlight of the season. Sure, it was sloppy (Liriano walked six), but it was a no-hitter nonetheless. Liriano struggled so much early in the season that rumors were that he would head to the bullpen with another lackluster start. He responded in dramatic fashion. And who knew? Maybe Liriano’s no-hitter would spark the team.

The Twins won the next day…and then lost nine in a row. After a three-game winning streak, they promptly lost four more games in a row, all of which they led or were tied in the eighth inning. Twice they led by three in the eighth inning. At this point frustration turned to something else. It is an overstatement to say that Twins fans are taking a perverse joy in watching this team, but I think morbid curiosity is the right term. We know going in that the Twins will lose, but they keep finding new ways to do it. Losing is a lot easier to take if your attitude isn’t “Will we win?” but rather “How will we lose?”

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Considering how terrible the entire team has been, perhaps it is unfair to single out the bullpen in this catastrophe. I’m going to do it anyway. While the Twins as a team have been merely really bad, the bullpen has been historically awful.

I thought the bullpen hit rock bottom in Monday’s 8-7 extra inning loss to the Mariners. Carl Pavano pitched seven decent innings and the Twins went into the eighth up 7-4. The bullpen promptly gave up three runs to send the game into extra innings. For the first time ever, I left a Twins game that was tied. Anthony Swarzak and his 7.71 ERA came out to pitch the top of the tenth. The Twins were due to send up Danny Valencia (.226 BA), Drew Butera (.115 BA), Denard Span (.291 BA), and Trevor Plouffe (.212 BA). It was already 10:40 PM, I had to work the next morning, and even if Swarzak could pitch a scoreless tenth (which probably wasn’t going to happen), the Twins had no chance to win the game in the bottom of the inning with that lineup.

Sure enough, Swarzak gave up a run in the top of the tenth and the Twins went 1-2-3 in the bottom of the inning. One of the worst feelings as a fan is knowing what negative result will happen and helplessly watching as that exact scenario plays out. That’s rock bottom.

Or so we thought.

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Taking a page from Bill Simmons’ book, I decided to write a retroactive running diary of the last three innings of last night’s Twins-Angels game:

Top of the seventh: Scott Baker enters the seventh with a 4-0 lead. Baker is famous for imploding in the late innings of the game and he’s already at 90+ pitches, but what else can the Twins do? The bullpen is completely incapable of holding this lead, so Baker goes back out for the seventh.

Baker allows two sharp singles to Torii Hunter and Alberto Callaspo. Russell Branyan then grounds out for the first out, but the runners move up to second and third. Then Baker makes a great play on a Mark Trumbo smash up the middle and throws home for the second out. Somewhat predictably given the Twins’ luck this season, Baker is shook up on the play but manages to get the third out on a liner to Alexi Casilla.

Bottom of the seventh: A Casilla double (seriously! And he even had a triple earlier!) and Morneau single give the Twins a 5-0 lead. With Morneau on first and two outs, Jim Thome draws a walk. Trevor Plouffe pinch runs for him. Let me repeat that: with a 5-0 lead, two outs in the seventh, and runs on first and second, Ron Gardenhire sends a pinch runner with one career stolen base in for his most dangerous batter in a misguided attempt to get a seventh run.* This will become important later. Delmon Young grounds out to first to end the inning, although Plouffe was so lightning fast that they couldn’t have forced him out at second.

* Joe Christensen of the Star Tribune reports that Thome’s shoulder may have been bothering him. I’m a bit dubious given Gardenhire’s awful pinch running decisions throughout the season. I also have to assume that an ailing Thome with one good arm is still better than Plouffe, should the Twins need more runs later in the game (hint: they did).

Top of the eighth: Scott Baker’s night is over for the Twins. The following stats from Elias Sports Bureau are called foreshadowing:

The last starting pitcher that pitched at least seven scoreless innings, left with a five or more run lead, and still lost was the Yankees’ Hideki Irabu against the Rangers on May 14, 1998. The Twins themselves had not lost a game when leading by five or more runs in the eighth inning since a July 30, 1971 loss to the Yankees – a streak of 755 games.

And one more stat:

Even with those previous stats, approximately 0% of all Minnesotans thought the Twins had the game locked up [citation needed].

Alex Burnett came out of the bullpen for the Twins. Burnett was one of the main reasons that the Twins felt comfortable giving up Jon Rauch and Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain and Brian Fuentes in the offseason. The 23-year old was converted to the bullpen in the minors in 2009 after three average seasons as a starter. He was solid with High-A Fort Myers and Double-A New Britain in 2009 – 78 strikeouts, 26 walks, and only 16 earned runs in 77 innings.

Not content to let Burnett develop further, the Twins rushed him up to the majors in 2010. He performed admirably for two months…and then fell apart in the summer before he was sent back down to Triple-A Rochester. Including a late September call-up, he gave up 18 runs in his last 16.1 innings.

Still, the Twins saw enough in those early months to entrust him with a bullpen role this season. It has been nothing short of a disaster. His previously solid control is gone: he has seven strikeouts and ten walks in 12.2 innings this season. Coming into the game, he had allowed 24 baserunners and his ERA is now over 7.

Like the Twins, Burnett found new ways to suck this game. Peter Bourjos hit a routine grounder to first that Justin Morneau briefly bobbled. He recovered in time to get the ball to Burnett at first, but Bourjos beat the throw. Morneau was charged with an error and this seemed reasonable. At least until they showed the replay. The throw would have made it in plenty of time, but Burnett inexplicably lingered on the mound for a second before moseying over to first. The official scorer changed the ruling to a hit. Burnett then walked Macier Izturis and his night was over.

In comes lefty Dusty Hughes. This was an extremely questionable decision, mostly because Hughes sucks, but also because the next batter, Erick Aybar, is a switch hitter. Granted, Aybar has been markedly better against righties this season, but over his career his numbers as a lefty and a righty are nearly the same.

In an offseason filled with inexplicable moves, the Twins’ waiver pickup of Dusty Hughes might have been the most inexplicable. There are few universal truths in baseball, but one of them is this: If the Kansas City Royals outright waive a player making only $400,000, DO NOT sign him.

With no context, Hughes’ numbers weren’t terrible last season: 34 strikeouts, 24 walks, and a 3.83 ERA in 57 innings. Then you remember that he was a left-handed specialist and most of the batters he faced were lefties. Estimates vary, but anywhere from 400 to 600 other lefties could put up those same numbers in the majors. Of course, statistics of any kind have never been the Twins’ strong suit and they fell into the trap of egregiously small sample sizes: Hughes had posted a 2.03 ERA in ten appearances against them last season.

The season started and it quickly became clear that Hughes was not a major league pitcher. He was actually worse than his already poor track record indicated. He gave up three runs on Opening Day and never looked back. He was sent down to the minors on May 1 after giving up 24 baserunners and 12 runs in just 10.2 innings of work. Luckily for us, he was called back up three weeks later because of an injury to Jose Mijares.

Hughes’ first pitch really had to be seen to be believed. Because of MLB’s nonsensical Youtube ban, the best I can provide is this Pitch F/X chart. It was a belt-high fastball, right down the middle, that clocked in at 89.5 miles per hour. Now I’m not saying I could have hit that pitch well, but I’m convinced I could have made decent contact. I don’t get pitches that perfect in the batting cage. Anyway, Erick Aybar is a better hitter than me and he crushed the ball 401 feet to left center. This was Aybar’s ninth career home run as a righty in 1,361 plate appearances.

5-3 game. Still no outs in the eighth.

The next play reads as “Bobby Abreu singled to center,” but that’s probably not fair to Hughes. Gardenhire – who put in a pinch runner for his most dangerous batter up by five in the seventh – did not find it necessary to put in a defensive replacement for Michael Cuddyer at second base. This despite the fact that Cuddyer has started 58 career games at second base in eleven MLB seasons and that Matt Tolbert is on the bench specifically because he plays decent defense at every infield position. Cuddyer did the Ole’ move on Abreu’s grounder and Hughes was charged with the single. Because Cuddyer didn’t make contact with the ball, he wasn’t charged with an error; we’ll call that Exhibit A on how stupid the error stat is.

In comes Jim Hoey. If the waiver pickup of Hughes was the most inexplicable move of the offseason, the acquisition of Hoey might have been the dumbest. The Twins traded J.J. Hardy and Brendan Harris to the Orioles for Hoey and minor league pitcher Brett Jacobsen. Granted, it was nice to be rid of Harris, but the Twins are sorely missing Hardy at shortstop. Twins’ shortstops sport a .603 OPS (25th in the majors); Hardy’s OPS for the Orioles this season is .710.

Hoey throws the ball really hard. And really wildly. I assume that the Twins brass thought that pitching coach Rick Anderson would teach Hoey control. They were wrong. Hoey couldn’t crack the roster out of Spring Training and was sent down to Rochester.

He was called back up on April 18. In his first appearance, he recorded four key outs to preserve a victory over the Orioles. First impressions stick. Largely because of those four outs, Hoey was thrust into a high leverage, eighth inning role that he was ill-equipped to handle. Amazingly, nine appearances after he was the team’s setup man, he was back in the minors.

Like Hughes, injuries forced the Twins to call him back up; this was his first appearance back. Quite the microcosm of the Twins season: a bad trade for a pitcher; the pitcher can’t make the team out of Spring Training; three weeks later, he is called up; one appearance later, he is thrust into a high leverage role; three appearances after that, he loses the role; six appearances after that, he is back in the minors; and two weeks after that, he’s back with the Twins, pitching in the eighth inning as the Twins cling to a lead. Needless to say, fans were not optimistic.

Hunter crushes a double off the wall. Callaspo hits a grounder to second that Cuddyer again can’t field. 5-4, still no outs. Branyan hits a deep fly ball to left and Delmon Young overthrows the cutoff man, allowing Callaspo to reach second. 5-5, but at least we have an out. Mercifully, Hoey induces two ground balls and the Twins escape the inning tied 5-5. Considering that Hoey and his 10.61 ERA came out with a runner on first and no outs, that was probably a best case scenario.

Bottom of the eighth: Danny Valencia walks to start off the inning. Not a bad start. Drew Butera sacrifices to move Valencia to second. Although I’m not normally a big fan of the sacrifice, Butera can’t actually hit the ball, so sacrificing Valencia to second is by far the best result we could hope for.*

* Butera’s batting average is .120 and his on-base percentage is .156 this season. Although I know I couldn’t get on base 15 out of every 100 at-bats, I’d like to think I could draw some walks simply by not swinging. If Mario Mendoza gave us the line at which major leagues need to hit at to stay in the majors, perhaps Drew Butera can give us the line in which fatass fans think they can actually do better than a major leaguer.

The thing about the Twins this season is that they haven’t just been bad, they’ve also been unlucky. The next two plays were unlucky at its finest. Denard Span crushed a line drive to deep center that hung in the air juuuuuust long enough for the speedy Bourjos to track down. Then Casilla hit a shallow popup to right. The popup initially looked harmless, but then we saw that Bourjos and Hunter were each hustling to get there. The crowd got louder as the potential Texas Leaguer dropped. Both went for it and – I’m not making this up – each touched the ball two times before Bourjos finally grapped it out of midair. Fantastic.

Top of the ninth: Hoey trots back out. Had I been in attendance, I might have walked out. If you have read all 2,640 of my words up until now, you know that what follows is completely predictable. Bourjos hits a triple and Izturis follows with a single. 6-5 Angels. Hoey’s night is over and it’s Phil Dumatrait’s turn.

Dumatrait is an interesting story. A 29-year old reliever originally drafted in 2000, he has spent time in the minors with five organizations. He made 42 major league appearances over his career, posting a 6.87 ERA. In short, he’s not a major league pitcher. Yet as I’ve pointed out, the Twins take a pretty short view of things. Never mind that he is a pretty crappy pitcher – he posted a 1.72 ERA in 15 Triple-A appearances this season.* With all that said, Dumatrait recorded three quick outs and the Twins escaped the inning down one.

* Also never mind his 12 to 11 strikeout to walk ratio and his ridiculously low and unsustainable .209 BABIP this season.

Bottom of the ninth: At this point, the Twins were going to lose. No doubt in my mind. But the middle of the order was up, so I had to keep watching.

Kubel quickly flies out and Morneau quickly strikes out. With two outs, Cuddyer hits a sharp single (no wonder they left him in to play second!).

In steps Luke Hughes. Remember two innings ago when Hughes pinch ran for Thome up by five? Yeah…it would have been awesome to have Thome up. In all my years of being a baseball fan, I’ve never seen anything as exciting as Thome coming up in the ninth inning tied or down by one run. It’s an experience. It sure would have been nice to have that experience last night.

To Hughes’ credit, he beat out an infield single to bring Young up with runners on first and second. Strictly by the numbers, it is certainly better to have Young up with runners on first and second and two outs than have Thome up with a runner on first and two outs. But it sure didn’t feel that way. And though Young had an exciting at-bat (running the count full after falling behind 0-2), the harmless fly out to right seemed inevitable.

As Hunter caught the final out, the Twins hit rock bottom. For now.


The Unfortunate 2011 Twins Season

April 29, 2011

You’ve probably noticed a lack of baseball posts for me. This is partly because I’m working two jobs, partly because no one wants to hear about my fantasy baseball teams, but mostly because the Minnesota Twins suck.

The Twins started off the season slumping, haven’t gotten much better, and show no signs of being any good at all.

This is what it must feel like to be a fan of the New York Mets, who are perpetually terrible despite a ridiculous payroll and optimistic preseason expectations.

Before the season, most Twins fans were cautiously optimistic. Granted, they lost several contributors from last season’s team. But they returned Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, two of the best hitters in the league. And they did flat-out dominate the AL Central last year and flirted with the best record in the majors until late September, when a 2-8 finish dropped them to 94-68 on the season.

Then the 2011 season started.

In stunning fashion, every single one of the organization’s many missteps over the past year was exposed in stunning fashion.

It started at the trading deadline last year, when the Twins’ brass decided to deal catching prospect Wilson Ramos for reliever Matt Capps. This trade was stupid on many levels, none more so than the overvaluing of the save. Twins’ fans have largely come to terms with the organization’s complete shunning of advanced statistical analysis, mostly because the team still wins fairly consistently. But this situation was a different situation altogether: not only were the Twins not paying attention to valuable statistical tools, they were actively paying attention to the wrong ones. They paid $3 million and gave away one of their top prospects to get a guy who was decent at accumulating a statistic invented out of thin air by a guy named Jerome Holtzman in 1960.

Of course almost anything is defensible and you can certainly defend the trade on its merits. After all, Capps is probably the best reliever on the team this season, his 3.55 ERA and $7.15 million paycheck not withstanding.

Then you remember that Joe Mauer had offseason knee surgery and is currently dealing with bilateral leg weakness, which sounds and awful lot like one of those nebulous injury definitions that last forever.

And that Ramos (who is making $415K this season) has a beautiful looking .373/.421/.569 line this season so far.

And that the Twins also traded away one-time backup catcher Jose Morales in December for a single-A reliever.

And that Drew Butera is the worst hitting starter in the league, with a .125/.167/.175 line that makes you wonder if you couldn’t get on base in the majors 17 out of every 100 times.

And that Butera’s backup is 31-year old Steve Holm, a career minor leaguer with 53 major league games under his belt.

And that Mauer knew all of this, so hurriedly came back before he was ready. Those aren’t my words, those are his trainer’s words.

Suddenly that trade doesn’t look so hot.

Then you consider the rest of their offseason moves. For non-Twin fans that happen to be reading this, I did not make any of these terrifying details up:

They traded SS J.J. Hardy to the Orioles for minor league reliever Jim Hoey. Hoey has managed to work his way from the minors to a high leverage bullpen role to a low leverage bullpen role in just four weeks and four major league games. Seriously.

They turned the shortstop position over to Alexi Casilla, who somewhat uniquely has been below replacement level OFFENSIVELY and DEFENSIVELY over the past three years. Yes, italics and caps were completely necessary. And no, it doesn’t matter that Hardy is hurt. Hardy will eventually be healthy and Casilla will still suck.

They chose not to re-sign the always solid Orlando Hudson at second base after winning the bidding war for Japanese batting champion Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Nishioka promptly broke his leg. This sounds like a tough break, until you realize that the Twins already had Nishioka work all spring training on not getting his leg broken on breakups of double plays.

Even this wouldn’t be too bad…except that the Twins finally decided to ditch Nick Punto this offseason after paying him $4 million each of the last two seasons. Apparently the $750,000 that the Cardinals pay him was too much for the Twins to match.

The preceding four paragraphs serve as the long-winded answer to the trivia question: how do you end up with guys named Matt Tolbert, Alexi Casilla, Luke Hughes as your middle infielders? It’s probably not a good sign when none of those three guys would crack a starting lineup in a 12-team AL-only fantasy league.

There was the decision to guarantee Nick Blackburn a rotation spot in Spring Training despite a brutal 2010 season that saw him briefly get demoted to the minors. Even after a decent September, he still finished with a 5.42 ERA and an ugly 68-40 strikeout-to-walk ratio on the season.

But that pales in comparison to the team’s inexplicable handling of Francisco Liriano. Liriano was the Twins’ best pitcher last year, with a 3.62 ERA (despite having the highest BABIP in the league) and a stellar 201-58 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Of course the Twins weren’t content with this, so pitching coach Rick Anderson decided that Liriano needed to learn how to “pitch to contact.” Somewhat predictably, Liriano was shelled in two of his last three starts and is reportedly one start away from heading to the bullpen. Again, this was their best starting pitcher last season.

Middle relievers are fairly interchangeable. This is why everyone understood the Twins’ decision not to re-sign Brian Fuentes the huge paycheck that he expected to be paid as a potential closer. No one could argue with that.

Then they decided not to re-sign Matt Guerrier. And Jesse Crain. And Jon Rauch. And Pat Neshek. And Ron Mahay. And Rob Delaney.

Instead, they went with a reliever so bad that the Kansas City Royals let him go (Dusty Hughes); a guy clearly not fully recovered from Tommy John surgery (Joe Nathan); a converted crappy starter (Glen Perkins); and well…I gotta be honest, there isn’t even really a whole lot else to say about the remaining relievers. I’m not even sure what their plan was, other than just letting a bunch of below average pitchers duke it out in spring training.

All that maneuvering adds up apparently.

Twins fans were optimistic because the team returned all of the “good” players from last year’s AL Central champions. Yet the “bad” players and the unknowns contribute too. Enough of those silly moves, and you end up with box scores like this one. A whopping eight of the fifteen players the Twins played on Thursday had little or no role on last year’s squad. They lost 15-3.

Sometimes baseball sucks. Twins fans are in the rare position of being fans of a small market team expected to contend…at least until the season started and all of our worst fears came true.

At least the Royals’ fans have the minor league system in their 30-year rebuilding project. Pirate fans are happy with 70 wins. The Marlins and Rays don’t have any fans to be upset. Clevelanders are used to their bad luck; so long as Travis Hafner doesn’t sign with the Yankees in an offseason special, they’ll bend over and take what the Indians give them. And so on.

Maybe being a fan of all those teams is far worse than having unmet expectations. I have no real argument about that. I just know that I can’t handle watching this team much longer.


Meaningless Opening Week Statistics

April 11, 2011

Subtitled: Why the Red Sox and Rays should or shouldn’t panic.

Or why the Orioles should or shouldn’t be excited.

The Opening Week of the AL East inspired this post. The Red Sox and Rays both came out of the gate and immediately fell flat on their faces with 0-6 starts.  Both teams’ worst fears were realized: the Red Sox’ weak pitching gave up 38 runs in six games and the Rays’ biggest free agent signing retired six games into the season.

Meanwhile, Orioles’ fans are cautiously optimistic for the first time since the late 1960’s. The Orioles started out 6-1 and will enter April 12 in first place. Regardless of how the rest of the season plays out, the Orioles will consider the season a victory after that first week.

The general consensus is that Opening Week is meaningless. Teams have played either six or seven games of a 162-game season. It stands to reason that 4% of a season has very little baring on the rest of the season.

Or does it?

Curious, I went back and looked at the standings after the first week of each season since the league expanded to three divisions in 1994. These statistics are almost certainly meaningless, but they are fairly interesting.

As a tiebreaker, I used run differential to determine which team was in first and last place a week into the season. Not a perfect tiebreaker, but the idea is to pick which teams got off to a hot start and which got off to a cold start, so run differential will do.

Teams that were in first place after Week One:

1st place – 35
2nd place – 25 (13 wild cards)
3rd place – 18
4th place – 17
5th place or last place – 7

Teams that were in last place after Week One:

1st place – 12
2nd place – 12 (4 wild cards)
3rd place – 20
4th place – 14
5th place or last place – 44

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Starting out hot is certainly no guarantee of a playoff appearance, but it doesn’t hurt: 48 of 102 first place teams ended up making the playoffs. And the 48 isn’t limited to teams that were predicted to be good. Five examples stand out – the Marlins in 1997, when they rode a hot start to a wild card and World Series championship in only their fifth year of existence; the White Sox in 2005, when they won their first World Series since 1917 (and the Astros, the very same year, when they made their first World Series); the Tigers in 2006, when they shocked everyone to make the World Series just three years after finishing 43-119; the Brewers in 2008, when they eventually qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 1982; and the 2010 Giants, who finally won their first championship in San Francisco.

Only six teams that led after the first week ended up finishing last. Even that is a little deceptive though. The 1994 Angels (4-3), 1999 Angels (3-3), and 2002 Mets (3-3, 5-way tie for first) all happened to be leading the division after the first week despite being near .500. Only the 1997 A’s (4-2), 2001 Expos (5-1), and 2008 Orioles (4-1) fell all the way to last after solid starts.

On top of that, starting with the league’s best record is a pretty solid indicator of a playoff team, which should bode well for this year’s Rangers. In twelve of seventeen years, at least one team that had the best record after one week qualified for the playoffs.* Only the 2001 Expos (5-1) started off with the best record in the league yet finished last in their division.

* In several years, teams were tied for the best record after one week. Last year, for example, the Phillies, Giants, Tigers, and Blue Jays all started 5-1. The Phillies and Giants both went on to division titles, while the Tigers and Blue Jays missed the playoffs in emphatic fashion. In other years, like 1997, both teams that started out with the best record – the Marlins and Astros at 5-1 – both made the playoffs.

So that’s good news for this year’s first place teams. Teams that start off hot tend to at least contend for a playoff spot well into the season.

The news isn’t as bad for this year’s train wrecks. While a whopping 44 of 102 last place teams have finished fifth or worse in their division, sixteen of them have come back to make the playoffs.

Most of these teams were around .500 and just happened to be in last, but the Red Sox and Rays can take heart with several other teams. The 1995 Reds started off 0-6 before winning the NL Central by nine games in the 144-game season. The 1999 Diamondbacks won the NL West in their sophomore season by a whopping 14 games after finishing 100-62 after starting the season 1-5.

Then there is the 1998 Yankees. One of only a handful of teams in the conversation for the best team ever, the Yankees actually started the season 1-4. Lucky for them, they close well: they won 113 of their next 157 games en route to a 114-48 record. The wild card Red Sox finished 22 games back.

On the down side, only two of the 23 teams that were tied for the league’s worst record after one week managed to come back and make the playoffs: the aforementioned 1995 Reds and 1999 DBacks. A ridiculous 17 of those finished fourth or worse in their division.

Hard to tell what this means for the Red Sox and Rays (other than nothing). Most of the teams on that list were all expected to be terrible. After it turned out they actually were terrible, it is no surprise that they kept sucking. The Red Sox and Rays were not expected to be that bad, so who knows how they will react.

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The full list of teams that finished first after leading one week into the season: 1994 Reds (5-1), 1995 Red Sox (4-2), 1995 Mariners (5-1), 1995 Braves (5-1), 1996 Rangers (6-0), 1996 Padres (5-1), 1997 Orioles (4-2), 1997 Indians (4-2), 1997 Astros (5-1), 1998 Indians (6-0), 1999 Yankees (5-1), 1999 Indians (5-1), 2000 Braves (4-2), 2000 Cardinals (5-1), 2001 Indians (3-2), 2001 Mariners (4-2), 2001 Astros (4-2), 2002 Yankees (5-1), 2002 A’s (5-2), 2003 Yankees (5-1), 2003 A’s (5-1), 2003 Giants (6-0), 2004 Angels (4-2), 2004 Dodgers (4-2), 2005 White Sox (4-2), 2005 Braves (4-2), 2006 A’s (5-2), 2006 Mets (4-1), 2007 Angels (5-2), 2007 Diamondbacks (5-2), 2008 White Sox (4-2), 2008 Angels (4-3), 2009 Cardinals (5-2), 2010 Phillies (5-1), and 2010 Giants (5-1).

The full list of teams that finished last after leading one week into the season: 1994 Angels (4-3), 1997 A’s (4-2), 1999 Angels (3-3), 2001 Expos (5-1), 2002 Mets (3-3), 2008 Orioles (4-1).

The full list of Opening week first placed teams that qualified via wild card: 1994 Indians, 1994 Braves (were both in position when season canceled), 1995 Rockies, 1996 Orioles, 1997 Marlins, 1998 Cubs, 1999 Mets, 2000 Mariners, 2002 Giants, 2004 Red Sox, 2005 Astros, 2006 Tigers, 2008 Brewers.

The full list of teams that finished first after being stuck in last place after one week: 1994 Expos (3-4), 1995 Reds (0-6), 1995 Dodgers (3-4), 1997 Giants (4-2, only 1/2 game back), 1997 Mariners (2-4), 1998 Yankees (1-4), 1999 Diamondbacks (1-5), 2001 Diamondbacks (2-4), 2003 Braves (2-4), 2006 Padres (1-4), 2006 Twins (1-5), 2008 Phillies (2-4).

The full list of wild card teams in last place after one week: 2001 A’s, 2005 Red Sox, 2008 Red Sox, 2009 Red Sox (Take heart Red Sox fans!)

The full list of last placed teams that stayed in last: 1994 Padres (1-6), 1994 Tigers (2-5), 1996 Royals (2-4), 1997 Cubs (0-6), 1997 Phillies (2-5), 1997 Blue Jays (2-3), 1998 Tigers (1-5), 1998 A’s (1-4), 1998 Pirates (3-3), 1998 Diamondbacks (1-5), 1999 Marlins (2-4), 2000 Cubs (2-6), 2000 Phillies (2-4), 2000 Devil Rays (2-5), 2001 Devil Rays (1-5), 2002 Padres (1-5), 2002 Rangers (1-5), 2002 Tigers (0-6), 2003 Brewers (0-6), 2003 Rangers (2-4), 2003 Tigers (0-6), 2003 Devil Rays (2-5), 2004 Diamondbacks (2-4), 2004 Mariners (1-5), 2004 Blue Jays (1-5), 2005 Rockies (1-4), 2005 Pirates (2-4), 2005 Mariners (2-4), 2005 Royals (3-3), 2007 Giants (1-5), 2007 Rangers (2-4), 2007 Royals (2-4), 2008 Mariners (2-4), 2008 Tigers (0-6), 2009 Diamondbacks (2-4), 2009 Nationals (0-6), 2009 A’s (2-4), 2009 Indians (1-5), 2010 Royals (2-5), 2010 Orioles (1-5).


35 Future Hall of Famers

January 12, 2011

I borrowed this idea for a list from this post at Pinstripe Alley, which borrowed the idea from this post written by Nate Silver on his New York Times blog. It was such a good idea that I just couldn’t pass it up.

Basically, Silver crunches the numbers on Baseball Hall of Famers and finds that, on average, 35 Hall of Fame players are active at any given time. This includes every player that saw action in a season – from veterans in their last year to rookies getting their first at-bat. The Pinstripe Alley post takes this thought one step further and tries to breakdown who the 35 players are. That post got a lot of feedback, much of it unfortunately negative, so I figured I’d take my own shot at the list.

There are two caveats to the list that most of the Yankees fans over at Pinstripe Alley don’t seem to understand: it is obviously way too early to project stud rookies like Jason Heyward or Jay Bruce into the Hall of Fame, but that’s the fun of the list.* The list isn’t 35 who already might have arguments for the Hall of Fame – it’s what 35 active players will make the Hall of Fame. By the law of averages, two or three rookies that played this season will make the Hall of Fame. Those are the players I’m trying to pick.

* Ok another caveat: since I don’t know what rookies will start their careers in 2011, I went with players active at the end of the 2010 season. So, yes, I’m aware that Trevor Hoffman retired, but he’s still included in the list.

Second, I like sabermetrics. I think the advanced statistics are valuable tools to show just how good players are. But I’m picking who I think the writers will select to the Hall of Fame. These writers are not the most progressive of all baseball fans. So at times you will see me quote batting average instead of the far more useful on-base percentage. That’s not because I’m dense, it’s simply because that’s the number I expect voters to pay attention to. Certainly by the time many of these players retire, many young writers will have been BBWAA members long enough to earn a vote, but I think the old school voters will still make up the majority.

Here are my thirty-five players, broken down in categories from most likely to least likely to make the Hall of Fame:

A. The Locks

These players are locks to make it into the Hall of Fame, even if they suddenly retire before the 2011 season begins.

1. Derek Jeter (11-time All-Star, 5 Gold Gloves, 5 World Series rings, 1 Rookie of the Year Award, 1 World Series MVP award, 8 top ten finishes in MVP voting, 2,926 career hits, .314 batting average)

Jeter just signed a three-year guaranteed deal, with an option for a fourth year, meaning he will be on the ballot in 2018 at the earliest. I think that by the time Jeter makes it onto the ballot, the steroid issue will have died down somewhat. By 2018, Palmeiro, McGwire, Sosa, Clemens, and Bonds will all have had their test cases and the story simply won’t be as fresh as it is now.

However, if steroids are still a big issue, there is a good chance that Jeter goes in with the highest vote total in history, topping Tom Seaver’s 98.84%. There’s no question that he’s Hall of Fame-worthy and will get in on the first ballot. But many of the same people that keep the first ballot sacred are also the ones rallying against allowing any steroid user in the Hall of Fame. They’ll vote Jeter in on the first ballot based on his character alone. I could easily see Jeter going in with something very close to 100% of the vote.

If I have to lay out Jeter’s Hall of Fame case for you, it’s safe to say you haven’t been paying attention over the last 15 years. Here’s a few numbers to put Jeter’s career in perspective. Among shortstops his .314 career batting average is third (Honus Wagner and Arky Vaughan); 2,926 hits is fourth (Wagner, Cal Ripken, and Robin Yount); and 1,685 runs is second (Wagner). He is the All-Time Yankees hits leader and the most respected player of his generation. If you insist on finding a knock on his career, his defense has been overrated according to advanced defensive metrics and he probably did not deserve most of his Gold Gloves. But Hall of Fame voters aren’t usually up to speed on advanced statistics (maybe they will be by 2018), and no one will really get hung up on Jeter’s Hall of Fame case based on his defense.

2. Mariano Rivera (11-time All-Star, 5-time World Series champion, 1999 World Series MVP, 42 postseason saves, 559 regular season saves)

The only relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame are Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, and Goose Gossage. Eckersley spent half of his career as a starter and Fingers, Sutter, and Gossage pitched before the era of 1-inning closers. As the new breed of relievers appear on the Hall of Fame ballot in the coming years, voters will have to assess whether they are worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame. They are currently struggling with Lee Smith, the first great one-inning closer and baseball’s career saves leader before Trevor Hoffman broke the record. Smith received 42% of the vote on his first ballot appearance in 2003 but has not gained momentum, topping out at 47% in 2009.

Rivera won’t have to worry about any of this. You could make a persuasive case on his statistics alone – 559 regular season saves (second all-time behind Hoffman), 42 postseason saves (most all-time), 2.23 regular season ERA, an unbelievable 0.71 postseason ERA, and the best adjusted ERA+ (205) in baseball history. All that is probably enough to make him a Hall of Famer, but Rivera is a sure-thing because he transcends all that. Rivera in the ninth inning is an experience – the type of thing that you tell your grandkids about. The conversation for best closer of all-time begins and ends with Rivera. Regardless of what you think about the closer position, that type of dominance makes him a lock Hall of Famer.

3. Alex Rodriguez (13-time All-Star, 10-time Silver Slugger, 3-time AL MVP, 2-time Gold Glove winner, 1 World Series championship, .303 batting average, 613 home runs, 1,831 RBIs)

We’re only at #3 and we already have the first controversial selection on this list* – this could be tougher than I thought. A-Rod’s admission that he used steroids will certainly sway some voters, but I don’t see any way that he gets left out of the Hall. He may have to wait an election or two as the high-horse riding voters punish him for admitting his usage, but he’ll get in soon enough.

* And, painfully, the third Yankee in a row.

No eligible player with three or more MVP awards is not in the Hall of Fame; only Roger Maris, Juan Gonzalez, and Dale Murphy won two, and none of those three had anything close to the prolonged greatness that Rodriguez has had. No eligible player with at least 13 All-Star selections (other than banned Pete Rose) is not in the Hall of Fame; the only two players with 12 are Barry Larkin (likely in next year) and Mark McGwire. McGwire seems like a comparable player, but the steroid issue impacts him far more than it will impact A-Rod. Rightly or wrongly, McGwire is viewed as a one-dimensional long ball hitter. A-Rod will not have that problem – he ranks seventh among the 25 member 500-home run club in batting average and is already 11th in RBIs; McGwire ranks 23rd in batting average and last in RBIs. Additionally, A-Rod has played his career at a much tougher position (shortstop and third base) than McGwire (first base).

4. Ichiro (10-time All-Star, 10-time Gold Glove winner, 3 Silver Sluggers, 2-time batting champion, 7-time hits leader, 2001 AL MVP and Rookie of the Year, single-season hits record holder)

Few players in baseball history are truly unique. Ichiro is one of those players. He doesn’t take walks, doesn’t really hit for power, but man, can he hit the ball. In ten years in the league, he has made the All-Star game every year and led the league in hits seven times. He has at least 206 hits in each season and broke the single season hits record in 2004 with 262. He has five seasons with 224 or more hits; since he entered the league in 2001, no other player has had more than 221 in a season. In ten seasons in the league, he already has 2,244 hits. Add to that 10 gold gloves and 383 career stolen bases, and you have one of the best players in MLB in the 2000s.

Because Ichiro spent the first nine seasons of his career in Japan, his career numbers are not as impressive as many of baseball’s all-time great hitters. Still, I think the voters give Ichiro some credit for his Japan League years. He had 1,278 hits and a .353 batting average in nine seasons in Japan. Even if you get really conservative and give Ichiro only half credit for those hits, that still leaves him with 2,883 career hits. Every eligible player besides Pete Rose and Rafael Palmeiro with that many hits is in the Hall of Fame, and I expect Ichiro to join that club easily.

5. Albert Pujols (9-time All-Star, 3-time MVP, 6-time Silver Slugger, 2-time Gold Glover, 2001 NL Rookie of the Year, 1 World Series ring, .331 batting average, 408 home runs, 1,230 RBIs)

Going out on a small limb again with this pick. I think if Pujols retires right now, he’s still had a good enough career to make it into the Hall of Fame. We’ve never seen a player all-around dominate in his first ten years quite like Pujols has. Most think of Pujols as only a slugger, but he leads all active players in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. And as I mentioned with A-Rod, no eligible player with 3 or more MVP awards has been left out of the Hall of Fame.

Although I said I wouldn’t use new stats like WAR, look at this graph from Fangraphs comparing Pujols with three recent Hall of Famers with fantastic peaks and not much else (Puckett, Rice, and Dawson): http://www.fangraphs.com/graphsw.aspx?playerid2=1177&playerid3=1010897&playerid4=1010557&playerid5=1003091. It’s not even close.

Among active players, Pujols is already second in career WAR. In other words, he’s done more in his career already than Manny Ramirez, Ivan Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Vladimir Guerrero, and…well everyone besides Alex Rodriguez. I’d say that’s a pretty strong argument that Pujols is already a Hall of Famer without even considering his future production.

6. Ivan Rodriguez (14-time All-Star, 13-time Gold Glover, 7-time Silver Slugger, 1999 AL MVP, 2003 World Series winner, .298 batting average, 2,817 career hits, 1,313 RBIs)

Pudge is probably just behind Johnny Bench as the best all-around catcher of all-time. Any time you can make a legitimate case that a player is the best ever at his position, that’s a pretty good indication that that player is Hall-worthy. Since I already have the amazingly fun Fangraphs site open on my computer, here is a graph comparing Rodriguez with the last three MLB catchers elected (Bench, Fisk, and Carter): http://www.fangraphs.com/graphsw.aspx?playerid2=1275&playerid3=1000826&playerid4=1004101&playerid5=1002015.

Rodriguez already ranks first among catchers in career batting average and fourth in RBIs to go along with his stellar defensive reputation. It will be interesting to see when Pudge makes it into the Hall. First, he is one of those questionable steroid cases. Although he was never mentioned in the Mitchell Report nor did he test positive, Jose Canseco explicitly identified him as a user and he had that sudden late career weight loss that voters will surely pounce on. Second, catchers are tragically underrepresented in the Hall. Only 16 catchers are currently in the Hall, the second fewest for any position behind the 13 third basemen. Bench is the only catcher ever elected on the first ballot. Rodriguez definitely gets in, but he may have to wait for it.

B. Probably Already in, but not a Lock

The following players have probably already done enough to ensure their selection to the Hall of Fame, but they are not locks for a variety of differing reasons.

7. Jim Thome (5-time All-Star, .278 career average, 1,679 walks, 589 home runs, 1,624 RBIs)

In a different era, Thome would be a lock for the Hall of Fame. Every eligible player ahead of him on the career walk and home run lists is in the Hall. Only Rafael Palmeiro and Harold Baines are ahead of him on the career RBI list and not in the Hall (Baines is only four ahead). Thome matches up favorably with virtually every slugger from any generation. But of course, the issue is his era.

I still think he gets in for two reasons. First, the 600 Home Run Club will become the new 500 Home Run Club. Thome plans to play two more years so he surely will get 11 more home runs. If he averages 21 over those two seasons (he hit 25 this year), he will retire sixth all-time on the home run list. Importantly, he will also pass Sammy Sosa (609), placing him above all the suspected steroid users of the era, save sure-thing Hall of Famers Bonds and A-Rod.

Second, Thome is one of the most liked players in baseball. Fans, reporters, and teammates all love him. He won the Good Guy Award in 1995, Marvin Miller Man of the Year in 2001 and 2004, the Lou Gehrig Award in 2004, and was the 2002 BBWAA Man of the Year and Roberto Clemente Award winner. In the 2009 offseason, he was named the most liked MLB player by his peers in a Sports Illustrated poll. In short, everyone loves the guy. Thome will escape much of the steroid speculation simply because he is so well liked. Fair? No, but that’s just the way voters operate.

8. Trevor Hoffman (7-time All-Star selection, 2.87 career ERA, 601 saves)

Hoffman’s statistics are better than pretty much every closer in baseball history. His 601 saves are the most in MLB history and his 2.87 ERA is behind only Rivera, Tom Henke, and Bruce Sutter among closers with at least 300 saves. The only thing keeping Hoffman from being a lock is the question of how the voters are going to treat closers. Hoffman does not have Rivera’s postseason transcendence to hang his hat on; in fact, most of his 601 saves came on the relatively anonymous West Coast, three hours after East Coast viewers fell asleep.

Lee Smith and John Franco are the only pitchers with 400-plus saves that have been on the ballot. Smith, with 478 saves, started with 42 percent of the vote in 2003 but has stalled below 50 percent. Franco had 424 saves and a better career ERA than Smith. Amazingly, he did not even get enough votes to stay on the ballot after his first year. I think Hoffman eventually gets in based on his staggering statistics, but the fact that voters have never elected a modern ninth-inning closer and their treatment of Smith and Franco keeps this from being a lock.

9. Chipper Jones (6-time All-Star, 2-time Silver Slugger, 1-time MVP, .306 batting average, 436 home runs, 2,490 hits, 1,491 RBIs, third among active players in career WAR)

It is easy to forget just how good Chipper Jones has been in his career. He rarely gets mentioned in the discussion for best hitters in the league, but he’s simply one of the best all-around hitters of all-time. He is the only switch hitter in baseball history with a batting average of over .300 and more than 400 home runs – and that list includes Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray. And again, here I go with this WAR thing, but Chipper Jones ranks third among active players in career WAR – ahead of better-known contemporaries Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Ivan Rodriguez, Todd Helton, Vladimir Guerrero, and the recently retired Ken Griffey Jr.

Of course the same problem will plague Jones in the future. If it is already easy to forget how good Chipper Jones has been in his career, it won’t get any easier in the five-plus years before he gets on the ballot. His problem is that he is one of those players who isn’t great at any one thing – he’s just very good at everything. I see Chipper as one of those guys that slowly gains momentum through the voting process as his supporters point out just how good he was.

10. Omar Vizquel (3-time All-Star, 11 time Gold Glove winner, .273 career batting average, 2,799 hits, .985 career fielding percentage is the highest for a shortstop)

Hall of Fame voters are suckers for the outstanding defensive shortstop. Look no further than Ozzie Smith. Smith is undoubtedly the best defensive shortstop of all-time, but Vizquel might be the second best. His 11 Gold Gloves trail only Smith’s 13 among shortstops. Smith gets a lot of credit for turning himself into a solid hitter after hanging around the league for his first several years based on his defensive prowess. Vizquel did the same thing, perhaps even more effectively than Smith. He tops the Oz in batting average (.273 to .262), hits (2,799 to 2,460), and OPS (.692 to .666)

Twenty-three shortstops have made it in the Hall of Fame, the second most of any position behind the twenty-five center fielders. I put Vizquel on the probably already in column because it would not surprise me if he didn’t make it in. But with 23 shortstops already in, I just don’t see Vizquel getting left out.

C. The Steroid User

11. Manny Ramirez (12-time All-Star, 9-time Silver Slugger, 2 World Series championships, 1 World Series MVP, .313 career batting average, 555 home runs, 1,830 RBIs)

Ah, what to do about Manny? He gets his own category because there is really no debate about his Hall credentials. He finished in the AL top ten in MVP voting eight times, home runs nine times, total bases eight times, and RBIs eight times. He won the 2002 American League batting crown, and led the league in OPS three times and on-base percentage three times. Ramirez is just a great all-around hitter and a no-doubt Hall of Famer in any another era.

But Manny has not one, but two, knocks on him. First, there’s that whole “Manny being Manny” thing – the perhaps undeserved reputation that he is not a team player and a terrible defender. More importantly, he has the 50-game drug suspension. A fair amount of voters will never vote for him because of the suspension. However, I have a hunch that he gets in eventually. Assuming Manny does not latch on with a team this offseason, he will first become eligible for induction in 2015. That gives him until 2030 to make it in. Keeping with my theory that the steroid anger will eventually die down, I think Manny makes it in.

D. Close, but not there quite yet

These players are really close to already being solid Hall candidates, but probably need one to three more solid seasons to solidify their candidacy.

12. Vladimir Guerrero (9-time All-Star, 8-time Silver Slugger, 1 MVP, .318 batting average, .946 OPS, 2,605 hits, 436 home runs, 1,548 RBIs)

You could make a strong argument that Guerrero is already a Hall of Famer. Here’s the same graph I used for Albert Pujols, with Guerrero plugged in instead of Pujols: http://www.fangraphs.com/graphsw.aspx?playerid2=778&playerid3=1010897&playerid4=1010557&playerid5=1003091. He is one of the most exciting hitters of his generation and his numbers compare favorably with Rice, Dawson, and Puckett.

Still, I think Guerrero probably needs a couple more solid years because of his era. Rice, Dawson, and Puckett all came from more pitcher-friendly eras. With three more strong seasons, he will pass the 3,000-hit mark, 500-home run mark, and 1,800-RBI mark. If he passes even one of these marks, I think Guerrero moves into lock status.

13. Roy Halladay (7-time All-Star, 2-time Cy Young Award winner, 1 perfect game, 1 postseason no-hitter, 169-86 record, 3.32 ERA, 1,714 strikeouts)*

* Finally we get to a starting pitcher. This list would have gone a lot smoother had I done it two years ago, when Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, John Smoltz, and Roger Clemens were still pitching. What happened to pitchers born in the ten-year gap between this crew and Halladay, Santana, Sabathia, and the like?

Like Guerrero, you could make a strong case that Halladay is already a borderline Hall of Famer. After his postseason no-hitter, I think he is knocking on the door, but probably needs a couple more solid seasons. His 169 wins would be the third lowest all-time for a starting pitcher in the Hall, ahead of only Sandy Koufax and Dizzy Dean. Still, only sixteen pitchers have won multiple Cy Young Awards. Only two of those pitchers are eligible for the Hall of Fame and not in – Denny McLain and Bret Saberhagen, both of whom had shorter careers than Halladay already has, and neither of whom had two legendary big-game performances like Halladay.

If Halladay gets to 200 wins or wins a third Cy Young, we can safely move him into the lock category. That shouldn’t be a problem with him pitching in the National League for the Phillies.

#14. Andy Pettitte (3-time All-Star, 5-time World Series champion, 240-138, 3.88 ERA, 2,251 strikeouts, MLB-record 19 postseason wins)

If this seems like a weird place to put Pettitte, that’s because it is. Pettitte is currently a free agent and is undecided on coming back for next season. I have a hunch that Pettitte ends up in the Hall even if he retires now, but he needs another season or two to seal his case.

Jack Morris is sort of a test case for Pettitte. His stats are very similar: 254-186, 3.90 ERA, and 2,478 strikeouts. Like Pettitte, he was known as a big-game pitcher, mostly on the heels of his 1991 World Series Game 7 performance. Morris seems to be on track for the Hall – he was up to 53.5% this year and still has four years left on the ballot. If Morris slips in, I think Pettitte does too. If not, Pettitte probably needs another season or two to make it in.

#15. Scott Rolen (6-time All Star, 8-time Gold Glover, 1 Silver Slugger, 1 World Series ring, .284 batting average, 1,945 hits, 303 home runs)

Here we go, yet another WAR graph: http://www.fangraphs.com/graphsw.aspx?playerid2=970&playerid3=1011586&playerid4=1011055&playerid5=. This compares Rolen with Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt, two great defensive third basemen. Rolen was on pace with the two third basemen all the way through the 2005 season, when he turned 30 and battled injuries for the better part of two seasons. Still, he has remained fairly close to those two first-ballot Hall of Famers. Rolen is 35 now, and if he can be halfway decent until he is 38 or 39, I think he gets in.

Third basemen are a little hit or miss when it comes to the Hall of Fame. Only 13 third basemen are in the Hall, and only seven of those were elected by the BBWAA. Yet a whopping five of those seven – Robinson, Schmidt, George Brett, Paul Molitor, and Wade Boggs – were elected on the first ballot. Apparently when the voters like a third baseman, they really like a third baseman. I have a feeling that eventually there will be a backlash against the lack of third basemen and that will help Rolen get in. The backlash may have already started: after only eight third basemen made the Hall between 1936 and 1994, five have made it since 1995.

E. Way ahead of pace, but still a few years away

The players in this section are way ahead of pace to make it to the Hall of Fame. Some of these players are still very young – even younger than those in the next section that are merely on pace to make the Hall. These players have a head start on making the Hall because their careers have started out so fantastically. They can afford either several more average seasons or a few more outstanding seasons to make the Hall.

#16. Joe Mauer (4-time All-Star, 3-time AL Batting champion, 3-time Gold Glover, 1 MVP, .327 career batting average)

Still in the early years of his career, Mauer is well on his way to redefining the catcher position. Not only is he one of the best defensive catchers in the league, he is one of the top sluggers at any position. In 2006, only his second full season as a major leaguer, he became the first catcher to lead MLB in batting average. He has gone on to win two more batting titles and in his 2009 MVP season he had the best season for a catcher in history, become the first catcher ever to lead the American League in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.

Mauer still has many years to go, but if he can stay healthy and merely be adequate, he is a certain Hall of Famer.

#17. Johan Santana (4-time All-Star, 2-time Cy Young Award winner, 1 Gold Glove, 3 strikeout titles, 3 ERA titles, 133 wins, 3.10 career ERA, and 1,877 strikeouts)

Santana has been pushed to the backburner playing for a crappy Mets team the last couple of years, so it is easy to forget just how dominant he has been. He is the active ERA leader among starting pitchers. At only 31 years old, he has the sixth most strikeouts among active pitchers and only CC Sabathia is younger than him in the top 20.

Santana gets knocked slightly below Mauer because of injury concerns. His season has ended early with injuries each of the last three seasons. Still, he finished the 2010 season with an 11-9 record and a 2.98 ERA…and many called it the worst season of his career. If a pitcher is 31 and is coming off a “career-worst” season with a 2.98 ERA, he is ahead of Hall of Fame pace.

#18. David Wright (5-time All-Star, 2-time Gold Glove winner, 2-time Silver Slugger, .305 batting average, 1,138 hits, 169 home runs, 664 RBIs, 138 stolen bases)

Wright was SO good in his first four full seasons that people have started to write him off when he had two merely above average seasons. He already had four and a half seasons under his belt by the time he turned 25, and his career WAR ranked him above Mike Schmidt, George Brett, and Wade Boggs: http://www.fangraphs.com/graphsw.aspx?playerid2=3787&playerid3=1011586&playerid4=1001400&playerid5=1001124. Even with two off-years, he is still ahead of Boggs and is right behind Schmidt and Brett.

Here’s how underrated Wright is: in my first draft of this list, I had Wright in the next category at #24. Then I realized that his statistics are uncannily similar to Chase Utley’s statistics. Their birthdays are three days apart in December. The only difference? Utley turned 32. Wright turned 28. Welcome to the ahead-of-pace group, Mr. Wright.

#19a. Tim Lincecum (3-time All-Star, 2-time Cy Young Award winner, 1 World Series ring, led NL in strikeouts between 2008 and 2010)

“The Freak” has only been a full-time starter for three years. He has made the All-Star team all three years and won the Cy Young Award twice. That’s what they call dominance. In his first ever postseason start this year, he went out and threw 14 strikeouts. If he keeps up his staggering strikeout pace, he could hit 3,000 strikeouts in his 12th season. It took Nolan Ryan until his 13th season to get 3,000. I’d call that ahead of the pace.

The pitchers who have won two Cy Young Awards show just how hard it is to project ahead for pitchers: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, Gaylord Perry, Bret Saberhagen, Tom Glavine, Johan Santana, Tim Lincecum, and Roy Halladay. That’s two Hall of Famers (Gibson and Perry), one future Hall of Famer (Glavine), two that seem well on their way (Santana and Halladay), and two flameouts (McLain and Saberhagen). Still, not bad company to be in for a guy with only three years as a starter under his belt.

#19b. Felix Hernandez (1-time All-Star, 1-time Cy Young Award winner, 1 ERA title, 71 wins, and 1,042 strikeouts)

I originally had Lincecum one spot ahead of Hernandez because of the World Series ring and the second Cy Young Award. Then I noticed something: Hernandez is only 24. Lincecum is 26. That barely seems possible; it feels like Hernandez has been around forever. Because of the age difference, I ended up moving Hernandez up a spot in a tie for 18th with Lincecum.

At age 24, Hernandez became the fourth youngest pitcher to strike out 1,000 batters after Bob Feller, Bert Blyleven, and Dwight Gooden. Again not bad company, assuming he can stay away from the crack. Pretty much everything else that can be said about Lincecum can be said about Hernandez.

#21a. Troy Tulowitzki (1 All-Star selection, 1 Gold Glove, 1 Silver Slugger, .290 batting average, 608 hits, 92 home runs, 338 RBIs)

Back to back ties, but these two shortstops go hand-in-hand just like young pitching studs Lincecum and Hernandez. Tulowitzki gets lost in the shuffle playing in relative anonymity in Colorado, but he is already a standout offensive and defensive shortstop. Tulo is a former first round draft pick and seems to be improving each year. In 2010, he added to an already impressive start with his first All-Star selection, Gold Glove, and Silver Slugger awards.

#21b. Hanley Ramirez (3-time All-Star. 2-time Silver Slugger, Rookie of the Year, 1 batting title, .311 batting average, 119 home runs, 373 RBIs, 176 stolen bases)

Ramirez is in virtually the same boat as Tulowitzki. He is a better offensive shortstop but does not have the defensive prowess that Tulowitzki does. I have a feeling that only one of these guys will end up making the Hall of Fame, mostly because these rivalries never pan out as well as we expect them too. After all, there was a time when we thought Nomar Garciaparra was a better shortstop than Derek Jeter. Still, I’ll hedge my bets and pick both of them.

As an aside, how spoiled were we by the mid 1990s shortstops (Jeter, Garciaparra, Miguel Tejada, and the like) that guys like Tulo and Hanley don’t even phase us any more? Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith and probable Hall of Famer Omar Vizquel are lucky they retired when they did. Had they come along 10 to 15 years later, they might have even lasted in the league, let alone made the Hall of Fame.

#23. C.C. Sabathia (4-time All-Star, 1 Cy Young Award, 1 World Series championship, 157-88, 3.57 ERA, 1,787 strikeouts)

Sabathia has remarkably similar stats to Halladay in three less seasons. However, unlike Halladay, you could not make a legitimate argument that Sabathia is already a Hall of Famer. He has 1 less Cy Young and does not have the two memorable games to stake his case on.*

* And if you don’t think one game makes a difference, look at how far Jack Morris’s candidacy has come based basically on one game in the 1991 World Series.

Sabathia is still well on his way to the Hall of Fame. In an evolving era, 250 wins will become the new benchmarks for pitchers. Although he has not been as consistently dominant as Santana and Lincecum, he is eighth among active players in strikeouts – the only pitcher in the top 20 younger than 30. At his current rate, Sabathia will get to 250 wins and 3,000 strikeouts in five or six years, which should make him Hall-worthy.

F. On pace, but need to maintain current pace for several more years

This next group is made up of players that have put together the beginnings of a Hall of Fame career. Unlike the players in the previous group, these players are on pace but need to maintain that pace for several more years to merit Hall consideration.

#24. Carl Crawford (4-time All-Star, 1 Gold Glove, 1 Silver Slugger, 4 stolen base titles, 1,480 hits, 765 runs, 409 stolen bases)

Crawford narrowly misses the previous group. He is a very similar player to Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines. Henderson easily qualified on the first ballot while Raines has bizarrely received almost no support. If Raines receives more support, that bodes well for Crawford. Until then, Crawford will have to settle for merely being on pace to make the Hall. If he keeps up his current pace, he will have 3,000 hits and 800 stolen bases by the time he turns 38. Only three other players can claim those numbers – first-ballot Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, Lou Brock, and Rickey Henderson.

#25. Roy Oswalt (3-time All-Star, 150 wins, 3.18 ERA, 1,666 strikeouts)

Oswalt gets overshadowed by other more dominant pitchers, but he has been consistently very good for a long time. The most surprising stat about Oswalt? He ranks behind only Johan Santana among active starters – ahead of Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez, and C.C. Sabathia, among others. He has started 30 or more games in eight of his ten MLB seasons. Only once did he finish a season with higher than a 3.54 ERA and less than 10 wins. Because Oswalt does not really wow anybody, he will need to pitch for another seven or eight years to get to the Hall. I think he turns into this generation’s Tom Glavine and gets there.

#26. Carlos Beltran (5-time All-Star, 3-time Gold Glover, 2-time Silver Slugger, Rookie of the Year, .280 batting average, 280 home runs, 1,062 RBIs, 289 stolen bases)

Beltran has it easier than most in this category. Hall voters love center fielders: more center fielders have been elected than any other position. Beltran will come out in an era with a dearth of center fielders.* Beltran is like a poor man’s Ken Griffey Jr. He has been merely solid for so many years with the Mets that it’s easy to forget just how good he is.

* I considered Jim Edmonds for this reason, but I think Edmonds comes up just short.

A few statistics to remind you of Beltran’s greatness: 100 RBIs eight times, 100 runs seven times, 25 stolen bases seven times, 20 home runs nine times. Beltran is probably not quite a Hall of Famer quite yet but a few more solid seasons will get him there.

#27. Evan Longoria (3-time All-Star, Rookie of the Year, 2 Gold Gloves, .361 on-base percentage, 82 home runs)

Longoria was called up in 2008 and has had three spectacular seasons for the Rays. Here’s a good statistic to put in perspective both Longoria’s rapid ascent and how hard this is to predict – in their first seasons, both at age 23:

Longoria – 448 ABs, 122 hits, 27 home runs, .272 BA, .343 OBP, .874 OPS

Mike Schmidt – 367 ABs, 72 hits, 18 home runs, .196 BA, .324 OBP, .697 OPS

Schmidt got off to an awful start, but any time you’re a third baseman and get a chance to compare yourself with Mike Schmidt, you have to take that. Longoria gets the edge over fellow young slugger Ryan Braun because he is two years younger and is a defensive stud at a tougher position than Braun’s left field.

#28. Chase Utley (5-time All-Star, 4-time Silver Slugger, 1 World Series ring, .293 batting average, 173 home runs, 637 RBIs)

Utley has slowed down over the past couple seasons, but his first few seasons in the league were among the best any second baseman has ever had. He has made the All-Star Game in each of his first five years and averaged over .300, 110 runs, 100 RBIs, 25 home runs between 2005 and 2009.

Utley is downgraded a little bit because of his late start – he was not a full-time regular until halfway through his age 26 season. Yet even with that late start, he still compares favorably with Hall of Fame second basemen Roberto Alomar and Ryne Sandberg through age 31: http://www.fangraphs.com/graphsw.aspx?playerid2=1679&playerid3=860&playerid4=1009179&playerid5=1011411. He turned 32 this offseason and his body will need to hold up for another five or six very good seasons to have a chance at the Hall.

#29a. Ryan Braun (3-time All-Star, 3-time Silver Slugger, 1 Rookie of the Year, 1 slugging title, 1 hits title, .304 batting average, 128 home runs, 397 runs, 420 RBIs)

Braun is in the same boat as Utley. He has been flat-out incredible in his first four seasons in the league. In addition to averaging over 30 home runs, 100 runs, and 100 RBIs per season, he is one of the best left fielders in the league according to both advanced defensive metrics and standard fielding percentage. But like Utley, Braun got a late start on his career. In 2011, he will begin his fifth season in the majors, but he is already 27 years old. If he was younger, he could afford a couple off years but at 27, he doesn’t have that luxury – he needs to keep producing to eventually make the Hall of Fame.

#29b. Dustin Pedroia (3-time All-Star, 1 MVP, Rookie of the Year, .305 BA, .369 OBP, 377 runs, 253 RBIs)

Another cop-out tie, but Braun and Pedroia are too similar to separate. Both are 27. Braun has better statistics, but Pedroia has the MVP award and a tougher defensive position. Pedroia is a tough guy. He played several games on a broken foot this season so he seems like a solid bet to have a long career playing through various injuries.

#31. Carlos Zambrano (3-time All-Star, 116-74, 3.50 ERA, 1,441 strikeouts, 1 no-hitter)

This one is a bit of an off-the-wall selection coming off Zambrano’s strange 2010 season in which he was sent to the bullpen partly for having no control but mostly for being Big Z. Zambrano is another one of those guys who feels like he has been around forever, but he is only 29 years old. He differs from most in this category in that he has never really been considered one of the best at his position, but his numbers are not bad by any means. He is very durable, starting 28 or more games in each of the past eight seasons. I just have a hunch that he will pitch consistently for another ten or so years like a Tom Glavine or Gaylord Perry and finish with statistics that voters will not be able to ignore.

G. The Way too Early to Tell Guys

These are the players that are obviously not anywhere close to the Hall of Fame. They have all played three seasons or less – not even enough to project them as on pace to make the Hall. Yet if 35 Hall of Famers are active at any given time, a few of them will necessarily be in their first seasons as a professional.

#32. David Price (1 All-Star start, 29-13 record, 3.31 ERA, 302 strikeouts)

Among players that have three years or less experience in the big leagues, Price seems as good a bet as any to make the Hall of Fame. He was the first overall draft pick in 2007, so he clearly has the natural talent. In his second big league season, he established himself as a #1 starter. He started the All-Star game and went on to finish second in the league in wins (19) and third in ERA (2.72). Not a bad start to a career.

#33. Clayton Kershaw (26-23 record, 3.17 ERA, 497 strikeouts)

Kershaw’s innings have been tightly controlled, but he is still off to an outrageous statistical start. He is only 22-years old but is a strikeout machine – his 497 total strikeouts have come over 483 career innings. Last season, his first without a cap on his innings, he went 13-10 with a 2.91 ERA and 212 strikeouts in 204 innings. He does struggle with his control, so it would not at all be surprising if he flames out early, but for now he is amazing to watch.

#34a. Jason Heyward (1 All-Star selection, .277 batting average, 18 home runs, 72 RBIs)

#34b. Buster Posey (2010 NL Rookie of the Year, 1 World Series ring, .305 batting average, 18 home runs, 67 RBIs)

Posey edged out Heyward for the NL Rookie of the Year this season but both were worthy of the award. Really, they should have made Heyward an honorary AL rookie so he could have won an award also. Both of these guys are studs. Johnny Bench considers himself a Buster Posey fan. This article found that Jason Heyard’s rookie season really had no comparison. Good enough for me.


Alomar and Blyleven in; Bagwell out

January 5, 2011

After missing by only a few votes last year, Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame today. Alomar got in with 90 percent of the vote – the highest total ever for a player who wasn’t elected in his first year. Blyleven finally got in after an excruciatingly long 14 year wait. Both of these waits bothered me a little bit for different reasons. And Jeff Bagwell’s vote total bothered me a lot.

Roberto Alomar

There was no doubt that Alomar would be elected this year. He was a surefire Hall of Famer: depending on who you talk to, he was somewhere in the top five second basemen of all-time and certainly in the discussion for best second baseman ever. I couldn’t find anyone anywhere who doesn’t think that Alomar isn’t one of the ten best second basemen of all-time and he was unquestionably the best of his generation. There are nineteen second basemen in the Hall of Fame, so most thought his election last year would be a slam dunk. Yet in a shocker, Alomar came up eight votes short of election in his first year on the ballot.

So it was pretty much a given that this was his year. But the vote totals were astounding. Alomar picked up 123 votes (397 to 520). Let me repeat that – 123 writers that didn’t think Alomar was a Hall of Famer last year thought he was good enough this year. Now of course baseball fans know the real reason behind this: to many writers, election on the first ballot is symbolic and reserved only for the greatest of the great baseball players. Those 123 voters made Alomar wait a year to be elected either because a) they thought he was definitely a Hall of Famer, but not one of the best of all-time or b) they were punishing him for being a jerk, spitting on an umpire, allegedly giving HIV to various women after he retired, or a combination of the three.

This is nonsensical to me. First, I think if you’re a Hall of Famer, you’re a Hall of Famer. Making someone wait for election is just silly – if you’re good enough to be in the Hall of Fame, you should be good enough to go in when you’re eligible. And historically, how long someone waits to be elected bears no relation with how great the player is. Look at this conveniently cherry-picked list that nevertheless illustrates my point:

Players elected the first year they were eligible: Robin Yount, Dave Winfield, Dennis Eckersley, Paul Molitor

Players that had to wait three or more years to be elected: Harmon Killebrew (4), Hank Greenberg (9), Joe DiMaggio (3), Jimmie Foxx (6)

My first observation is obviously that we vote with a lot less dickish attitude than the voters did in the 1950s and 1960s. More importantly, this shows that the whole first ballot ship sailed already because those old baseball writers were way too stingy – if Joe DiMaggio took three ballots to get in, it’s pretty easy to make an argument that no one should get in on the first ballot. And furthermore, how smart do those voters look now? Is there anyone out there that would argue making DiMaggio wait three years was a good idea? Of course not. So what good does it do to make someone like Alomar wait a year?

Interesting tidbit from my research: on his second year on the ballot, Jimmie Foxx – one of the greatest first basemen of all-time – got 10 votes (6.2%). Only 10 of the 161 voters deemed Foxx worthy. Today, a player needs five percent of the vote to stay on the ballot for the next year. If that were today, Foxx would have only made it to the next year’s ballot by two votes.

That leads me to my second point about the 120 voters that made Alomar wait. These guys simply jumped on their moral high horse and told Roberto that he’d have to wait a year. But here’s the thing: what if everyone else jumped up on their moral high horse and did the same thing? He wouldn’t have made the ballot for the second year and baseball fans would have to wait at least twenty years for the Veterans Committee to elect one of the five best second basemen ever to the Hall of Fame. Basically, these writers are putting their own individual egos ahead of the good of the game. They knew full well that Alomar was a Hall of Famer but they relied on their voting colleagues to give him enough votes until the next season when he would suddenly become Hall worthy.

Why would voters do this? I’d assume every voter hasn’t a slightly different reason but I think the majority could be grouped in with power. Power goes to a voter’s head. They know that there’s a pretty slim chance that Alomar would get less than five percent of the vote so there won’t be any real repercussions to not voting for him in the first year and thereby preserving the “sanctity of the first ballot.” They know there’d be hell to pay if Alomar happened to get less than 5% of the vote, but that’s not a realistic possibility. And so the voters put individual egos ahead of the good of the game, if only for one year.

Bert Blyleven

I’m exceedingly happy that Twins broadcaster Bert Blyleven got elected in his 14th year. Of course, if I was upset that it took a year to elect Alomar, you know I’m upset that it took 14 years to elect Blyleven. As I said above, if you’re a Hall of Famer, you’re a Hall of Famer.

Mostly, however, I’m just glad that voters finally appreciated Blyleven. I never understood why this took so long. Blyleven’s candidacy really took off in the past few years (he had only 47.7% of the vote as late as 2007) because of the increased prevalence of advanced metrics. Smarter people than I have done way more in-depth looks into these stats, but the basic idea is that pitchers can only control so much (strikeouts, walks, HBP, and home runs) while everything else is pretty much pure chance. For most of his career, Blyleven was the best in the league at the stuff he can control (he gave up a lot of home runs in later years when his curve bull started hanging more). Still, it was hard for me to understand why we even needed to look past the regular statistics that most of these older writers are more comfortable with. Among eligible pitchers not in the Hall of Fame, he was second in wins (287 to Tommy John’s 288, who pitched four years longer) and was first by far in strikeouts (3,701, 888 more than second place Mickey Lolich). Seemed like a pretty clear case to me – it’s just a shame it took the voters so long to figure that out.

Jeff Bagwell

The most disappointing total on the ballot for me was Jeff Bagwell’s 41.2% of the vote.* There’s no point in me recounting Bagwell’s statistics other than to say there are 21 first basemen in the Hall of Fame and in 2001 the great Bill James broke the numbers down and named Bagwell the fourth best of all-time. There’s no question that Bagwell is Hall of Fame-caliber. Sure, some of these voters might be making Bagwell wait because of the first ballot issue I discussed earlier, but I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of the 58.8% of writers that didn’t vote for Bagwell did so because of the steroid issue.

* I also think Larry Walker, Edgar Martinez, Alan Trammell, Mark McGwire, Dale Murphy, and Rafael Palmeiro should be in the Hall of Fame but, unlike Bagwell, I can actually understand the arguments against these players candidacies.

Now my problem isn’t with voting for steroid users. I happen to disagree with the voters who’ve taken a blanket stand against admitted users like McGwire and Palmeiro because I think the Hall of Fame should showcase baseball history. Steroid users, like it or not, are a part of baseball history. At the same time, I understand not voting for them. I understand not voting for them if you think steroids give you an unfair advantage. I understand not voting them if you think using steroids is cheating. I disagree, but I get it.

But I don’t understand not voting for Jeff Bagwell. Bagwell was not mentioned as a steroid user in the Mitchell report, never tested positive, and as far as I know, no one ever mentioned him as a user at any point. Bagwell’s only crime? Getting bigger and stronger as he got older. I’ve seen multiple articles this week comparing Bagwell’s rookie card with later years. Big surprise: he got stronger. I’m 26 and I recently saw a picture of myself on vacation when I was 20 – I’m way bigger and I barely work out and certainly haven’t used steroids. Now of course that doesn’t mean that Bagwell didn’t use, but if the two cards are your best “evidence,” I’m not sold.

Earlier this week Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Pearlman said that steroids should be held against Bagwell because, even if he didn’t use steroids, he didn’t speak out against them. Seriously. Now, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but that leads to my biggest problem with the Hall of Fame balloting.

At its heart, Hall of Fame voting is about kids. Cliche, sure. But the one thing that every single one of these baseball writers has in common is that they spent their childhood studying the backs of baseball cards, playing Strat-O-Matic, pouring over newspaper box scores, and listening to baseball on the radio or watching it on TV. None of these writers suddenly started caring about baseball statistics and the history of the game when they became adults – it all happened when they were kids. That’s the reason why people care about the Baseball Hall of Fame way more than other sports’ Hall of Fames. People don’t argue for hours on end about football, basketball, or hockey hall of famers because they didn’t spend their childhood pouring over the stats of these sports.

I’m no different. I learned to love baseball by studying the weekly statistics in the USA Today every Tuesday and Wednesday while computing the results of my dad’s fantasy baseball league. Jeff Bagwell was one of the best sluggers of my youth and he should be in the Hall of Fame. But not a single one of the voters come from my generation. It bothers me that a bunch of writers not from my generation get to jump on their moral high horse and keep one of the best players from my youth out of the Hall based entirely on speculation. I have not been to Cooperstown but it’s definitely on my bucket list. Sure, I’ll enjoy going to see the transcendent players’ busts like Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, and Hank Aaron. But I want players like Bagwell there too because those are the players I grew up with. Bagwell, McGwire, Bonds, and Palmeiro all resonate with me far more than Gary Carter, Goose Gossage, and Jim Rice (to name a few of the inductees of the last few years).

Blyleven was elected this year on his 14th try in no small part because of the kids that grew up playing Strat-O-Matic while he was pitching got older and became voters themselves. Inevitably, the same thing will happen with some of the players of the steroid era. I just hope enough of the current voters keep these players on the ballot long enough for my generation to earn their own BBWAA votes and vote them in.