Before I reveal my Super Important Imaginary Hall of Fame Ballot, let me say something that seems almost radical these days: I think the Hall of Fame should be where the greatest baseball players are memorialized.
But it's called the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Statistics!
Yeah. Thanks. Believe it or not, you're not the first person to think of that. The problem with your argument, Imaginary Reader Who Annoys Me, is that it's never really been applied by the voters. Yes, there a very few exceptions. Dizzy Dean and Catfish Hunter don't really have Hall of Fame numbers, but were exceptionally famous. Maybe you could say the same about famous relief pitchers Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter. But just about everybody else had the numbers. Maybe not the numbers you and I care about. But their cases were numbers-based, at least in the minds of the voters. If the Hall were really about fame, Steve Garvey and Dale Murphy and Don Mattingly would have done a lot better than they have.
It's also, in actual practice, not the Hall of Good Guys. The so-called "integrity clause" notwithstanding, it's difficult to think of a single Hall of Famer whose personality played a significant role in his election. If integrity really mattered to the voters, Dale Murphy would have been elected a long time ago.
So please don't tell me it's not about numbers. It's always been about numbers.
The question is which numbers. I think everything counts, but you have to start somewhere and I'm perfectly happy to start with Wins Above Replacement. I certainly don't think a voter should just start at the top of the list and vote for the first 10 guys ... although come to think of it, a lot of voters could do (and have done) a lot worse.
Again, though, everything counts. Everything includes (but isn't necessarily limited to) Wins Above Replacement, contributions to championship seasons, postseason performance, big MVP- and Cy Young-caliber seasons, and general good guy-ness. I would also hope to vote for candidates who at least maintain the standards of the Hall of Fame; in practice, that means voting for players who rank in the top dozen or so at their position (with pitchers, it's a bit trickier but the principle applies).
Drugs? Yes, there's room for consideration of drugs, too. As I wrote earlier this week, when a ballot's got 15-20 legitimate candidates and you can vote for only 10, there's no good reason to completely ignore drugs (or anything else). If you've got two candidates for the last slot on the ballot with similar résumés but you're 90-percent sure that one used drugs and the other didn't ... I don't know that you shouldn't let those opinions inform your decision. Along with all the rest of your opinions. Also, facts are cool.
With all that in mind, here's what my ballot would look like. In order:
1. Barry Bonds (162 Wins Above Replacement)
He was the most devastating hitter since Ted Williams or Babe Ruth, and possibly the best ever. Early in his career, before he started setting home-run records -- and according to most reports, before he started using the serious drugs -- Bonds was a brilliant all-around player, with only a weak throwing arm keeping him from perfection. On the field, that is. By most accounts, he was a lousy teammate. That counts. The drugs can count, too. So let's say we knock him down a few pegs. Make him the fifth-greatest left fielder instead of the greatest. Still no way to keep him off the ballot.
2. Roger Clemens (140)
Barry Bonds, Part 2. Except for maybe the lousy teammate part. I haven't done the research on that one. Because his numbers are so incredible that I don't need to.
3. Greg Maddux (107)
So far, nobody's arguing about Maddux. Sure, he'll lose a couple of votes because some voters simply refuse to vote for anyone who ever appeared in the same set of baseball cards with Barry Bonds. He'll lose a couple more because a few voters aren't actually of sound mind, and won't recognize Maddux's name on the ballot. But he's the only sure thing this year.
4. Curt Schilling (80)
If the Hall of Fame were really about fame, Schilling would have fared better last year, his first on the ballot. Okay, so quantitatively he doesn't match up well with some of the competition; he won only 216 regular-season games, and finished with way fewer innings than Tom Glavine. Qualitatively, though? His ERA+ is closer to Maddux's than Glavine's. And then there's October; Schilling is arguably the greatest pitcher in postseason history, going 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA. When you've got a guy with Schilling's regular-season numbers, how much extra credit does he need?
5. Mike Mussina (83)
It's one of those wonderful little accidents of baseball history that Mike Mussina, who pitched so wonderfully for so long, didn't win 20 games in a season until he was 38. But it wasn't an accident at all when he retired after that season. He wasn't, as far as I know, hurt. That wasn't his best season, but it's easily placed among his better seasons, and he had plenty left in the tank. It seems sort of bizarre that Mussina's going to get very little support from the Hall of Fame voters, when he retired with 270 wins and just 153 losses and would quite likely have reached 300 wins if he'd just hung around for a few more years, like most pitchers always have.
Why have I ranked him ahead of the next guy on my ballot, who did win 300 games? Because Mussina spent his entire career in what was probably baseball's toughest division in most of those years.
6. Tom Glavine (81)
Fantastic pitcher for a number of years, and a good one for a number of more.
7. Frank Thomas (74)
8. Jeff Bagwell (79)
As you probably know, Bagwell and Thomas were born on the same day in May of 1968: Monday the 27th. So it's just another coincidence that Bagwell ranks seventh in Wins Above Replacement and Thomas ranks eighth on this year's ballot. Why do I have them reversed? I'm slightly more confident that Thomas was drug-free in his career than Bagwell, which counts for a little. And Bagwell was awful in October, which also counts for a little. Oh, and Thomas might have faced slightly better pitching. But yes, Bagwell was the far better fielder and baserunner.
9. Alan Trammell (70)
Trammell, as I've written many, many, many times, too many times, has been terribly neglected by the BBWAA voters. First he was terribly neglected in 1987, when the BBWAA gave the Most Valuable Player Award to George Bell because the writers are (or were) fixated on RBI instead of all-around play. And now they've been giving Trammell the shaft in Hall of Fame balloting for ... well, this is going to make 13 years in a row, as he's never received even 37 percent support. But a shortstop who could hit like the dickens, deservedly won multiple Gold Gloves, and played in the majors forever ... that's a Hall of Famer, friends. It's not Trammell's fault that Cal Ripken was in the league at the same time.
10. Mike Piazza (59)
This wasn't an easy choice. For one thing, Piazza's 59 Wins Above Replacement are not particularly impressive in the universe of baseball superstars. In the galaxy of catchers, though? Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Carlton Fisk, and Ivan Rodriguez stand out. But after those four -- all of them playing their whole careers in the last half-century, by the way -- Piazza fits squarely in a group with Hall of Famers Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey. Of course, Piazza's not in the same class with any of these guys as a defender ... but of course he trumps them all as a hitter.
Yes, the issue of drugs has been brought up. As I've written, I think it's fair to at least consider the possibility that drugs played a significant role in a player's career. But with Piazza, all we've got is some loose talk and guilt by association. I'm not saying he wasn't on something. I'm saying he was such a great player that the tiebreaker doesn't come into play here.
So there's my fake ballot. I'm pretty sure about every slot but the last. If I had a real ballot, I probably would have spent a lot more time thinking about that last one, and I'll admit roughly a 50/50 chance that I would have gone with somebody else there. Among the great candidates:
- Larry Walker - still don't know how much Coors Field should count against him (if at all);
- Rafael Palmeiro - so many first basemen already, and his late-career numbers are a little fishy;
- Tim Raines - only a few truly great years, and there are so many great modern outfielders who've been ignored;
- Edgar Martinez - has to get in line behind all the other big hitters, and Jim Thome's going to be along eventually;
- Craig Biggio - fares surprisingly poorly in the composite qualitative metrics, in same neighborhood as Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker; on the other hand, same can be said of Roberto Alomar, and he sailed in. On the other hand, Biggio was terrible in October.
Okay, since you put it like that, I'll rank those guys too:
But I don't think I'd go that deep, if given the chance. I suspect I would stop after Biggio. Or Walker. Either way, I would agonize over the decisions. I know I complain a lot. But I suspect I'm happier with just my imaginary ballot.