We are making the selection of Hall of Famers way too complicated
NEW YORK — The Baseball Writers’ Association election of Scott Rolen to the Hall of Fame this week created a goodly share of controversy and consternation among the baseball populace, and once again it got me to wonder why it’s become so complicated.
Call me a “small Hall” or “exclusivity” guy if you will, but in voting on the Hall of Fame since 1977, I have always had two very simple criteria: (1) The “see test” no-brainers — players who played the game clean and had the magic numbers like 3,000 hits, 300 wins (which we will never see again) and a lot of “denotes led league” boldface in their record; players I considered Hall of Famers just by watching them for 15-20 years.
(2) Absent those historic numbers, players who dominated the game at their position.
Using that second criteria in particular, it was my opinion there was only one player on this latest ballot I didn’t even have to think about and that was Jeff Kent, who had more homers and RBIs than any other second baseman in history. He did a lot of other things too, like driving in 100 or more runs eight times, finishing in the top 10 MVP voting four times including a win in 2000 with the Giants when he hit .334 with 33 homers and 125 RBI, but it’s safe to say Kent dominated the game at his position.
So why did Kent flame out with 46.5% of the vote on his final year on the ballot? The answer to that is the same reason Rolen was elected with 76.3%, despite offensive numbers vastly inferior to Kent’s despite playing at a power
position, third base: The analytics mob (or the WAR-mongers as I prefer to call them) got him. It has long been their conclusion that Kent was a below-average defensive second baseman, even though that assessment was clearly not shared by any of his managers (including Cito Gaston, Dusty Baker and Joe Torre) who never sought to move him off second base in 17 years in the majors and 49 postseason games.
At the same time, using all the new age defensive metrics, Rolen’s supporters were able to convince enough voters that he was one of the greatest — if not THE greatest — defensive third baseman in history, and there are plenty of highlight films to help
support that. In terms of defensive brilliance, Rolen did pass the eye test for me and in seven of his first 12 years you could make the argument he was best third baseman in baseball.
Unfortunately, there was way too much injurydown time bunched in those first 12 years and overall Rolen played 150 or more games only five times in his career — which partly accounted for his having only one top-10 MVP finish, a fourth in 2004 with the Cardinals, and barely (2,077) 2,000 hits. But he’s in now and that will no doubt only further embolden the WAR-mongers’ continuing case for Andruw Jones, who jumped from 41.4% in
2022 to 58.1% and who many of them have hailed as the greatest defensive center fielder ever. I suppose they can find some metrics to support that, although when it comes to the eye test I would nominate Gary Pettis and Paul Blair, to name two, as good as defensive center fielders I ever saw — including Jones. (Oh, and Willie Mays wasn’t too shabby either.)
The point is, we shouldn’t be delving into algorithms to find ways to make players Hall of Famers. IT’S NOT THAT COMPLICATED! Either he is, or he isn’t, based on his entire resume. And Andruw Jones, who didn’t even have 2,000 hits, batted .254 lifetime and had the lowest OPS
(.823) of any of the top eight position players on the ballot, is not a Hall of Famer.
Which brings us to Gary Sheffield.
Throwing out A-Rod, Manny Ramirez and Sammy Sosa, the serial steroids cheats, there was no one on this ballot with anywhere near the stats of Sheffield’s 509 homers, 1,676 RBI and 1,636 runs. Todd Helton out-hit him .316-.292 and had a slightly higher OPS (.953 to .907), but Sheffield’s offensive dominance on the ballot was undeniable, and as I looked at that, I asked myself why haven’t I voted for this guy his first eight years on the ballot?
First off, it was NOT because of his association with steroids, having been named in the Mitchell Report along with his admission that he had in fact ordered and taken “the cream” and “the clear” from BALCO founder Victor Conte before and during the 2002 season after Barry Bonds had told him it would help in healing injuries. When Sheffield insisted he did not know they were PEDs, I believe him. Because if there is one thing about Sheffield it’s that he’s honest to a fault. Just ask any of his managers, even his favorite Jimmy Leyland, who, to a man, he was able to alienate with his constant bellyaching and outrageous comments.
But throughout his career, Sheffield didn’t undergo any noticeable body changes. He just kept hitting, and hitting, and hitting. So why didn’t I vote for him all those years? The reason I came up with was that he didn’t quite meet up with my two criteria. He didn’t have the 3,000 hits or the prolific boldface numbers throughout his record, and he didn’t dominate the game at his position as a third baseman-turnedcorner outfielder. He was also not the greatest of defensive outfielders, but like Kent, he was more than adequate and rarely if ever cost his team a big game with his defense.
Sheffield jumped from 40.6% to 55% in the voting this year but with only one more year on the ballot, and two no-brainers in Adrian Beltre and Joe Mauer coming on next year, it’s going to be very difficult for him to make the Hall through the Baseball Writers. But unlike Rolen, as I have concluded, you don’t need to rely on analytics and WAR to make the case for Sheffield.
With Sheffield, it was all right in front of us. For over 20 years he was a dominant force in baseball as perhaps the scariest hitter in the game. If only he hadn’t shot his damn mouth off so much.