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The best and worst of the 2018 Baseball Hall of Fame

Progress was made on the logjam of deserving Hall of Famers, but there could have been more.

Atlanta Braves v San Diego Padres Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

It’s that time of the year when everybody has Hall of Fame opinions. This is not to be confused for the other time of year, next week, when you feel ashamed for having Hall of Fame opinions. The offseason does some weird things to a person’s brain.

But I have Hall of Fame opinions. They are strong Hall of Fame opinions. Edgar Martinez is not in the Hall of Fame. Chipper Jones, Vladimir Guerrero, Jim Thome, and Trevor Hoffman are. If you were conflicted about Johan Santana, well, too late, he’s gone. The greatest hitter and pitcher of the last 50 years, at least, are not in. They might never get in.

This is the story of the good, bad, and ugly of the Hall of Fame.

The good

The logjam is relaxing. With Hoffman and Guerrero getting in after previous attempts and Jones and Thome going in on the first ballot, there are fewer deserving players left out. The logjam is still there, and it still smells like an order of french fries left in the car on a hot summer’s day. But it’s getting better.

Let’s tally up the players on next year’s ballot who are at least worth debating, if not inducting.

  • Edgar Martinez
  • Roger Clemens
  • Barry Bonds
  • Mike Mussina
  • Curt Schilling
  • Manny Ramirez
  • Larry Walker
  • Jeff Kent
  • Fred McGriff
  • Gary Sheffield
  • Billy Wagner
  • Sammy Sosa
  • Mariano Rivera
  • Roy Halladay
  • Todd Helton
  • Andruw Jones
  • Lance Berkman
  • Roy Oswalt
  • Andy Pettitte
  • Scott Rolen
  • Omar Vizquel

That’s a cool 21 players whom I would at least discuss earnestly with anyone who was passionate about the subject. I would probably vote for 15 of them right now, but that’s subject to my whims and flights of fancy. That means a fake ballot of mine would leave just five players off, some of whom I’m not entirely convinced of.

That’s progress. Sad, sad progress.

And if we’re going to talk about deserving players, Jones, Thome, and Guerrero are unambiguously qualified in my mind. There’s no good section without noting that these three players were INCREDIBLY fun to watch play baseball. So was Hoffman, but ... we’ll get to him.

As long as we’re here, I’m very much into Alan Trammell getting into the Hall of Fame. My only regret is that Lou Whitaker doesn’t get to wear the back half of a horsey costume as they make their way to the stage, and I’m not bothered by Jack Morris getting in, really.

I’m a pretty Big Hall fellow, which means that it’s hard to sniff too much at a class with four new elected members, six total. I’m unambiguously in favor of four of these new members, undecided on one, and not really concerned about the other.

Fine, great, grand. Let them all in, and let’s focus on the rest.

While we’re in the good section, it’s a good thing that Scott Rolen and Andruw Jones didn’t fall off the ballot. I have a sneaking suspicion that Rolen is going to languish in the Darrell Evans hole for the rest of eternity, while Jones will be in the Dale Murphy hole for his, but they deserved better than an unceremonious exit.

If they want some hope, note that Bill Mazeroski didn’t fare much better in his early voting totals, either. While Mazeroski was the combination of Adam Kennedy and Joe Carter and probably shouldn’t be in, this is good news for Rolen and Jones.

Assuming they hit a World Series-winning home run.

Let me check, and ... aw, dang it.

The bad

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t vote for Santana, but I would like to direct you to a comparison between him and Sandy Koufax. If there is a better heir to the nickname of “The Left Arm of God,” I’d like to see it.

Santana is proof of concept of the song “Rock of Ages.” When Joe Elliott screams, “It’s better to burn out ... than fade awaaaaay,” do you believe him? Because, holy crap, did Santana burrrrrrn when he was at his best. For seven seasons, he was just about the best pitcher in baseball, if not the best.

He got as many votes as Jamie Moyer, quite possibly his perfect reciprocal player, and dropped off the ballot.

It’s hard to get that mad about a player who probably doesn’t deserve to go in — damn you, shoulder gremlins, damn you to h — but I wanted more time to consider him.

And here’s where we get to Trevor Hoffman. Don’t send that email yet, Padres fans! I’m still conflicted!

But when contemplating his case (and Billy Wagner’s) last year, I came up with this:

Neither of them pitched more major league innings than Madison Bumgarner did before he turned 26. Neither of them accrued more wins above replacement than Vernon Wells, Edgardo Alfonzo, or Von Hayes.

I’m willing to carve out a special slot for a contrived position that baseball people have told us is important, and I’m trying to be open-minded. But here’s what I did: I took the closers for the Padres since Hoffman left, and I compared them to the career averages for Hoffman.

Trevor Hoffman, averages with the Padres
60 IP, 37 saves, 2.67 ERA, 1.7 WAR

Composite of the closers who replaced him, 2009-2017
49.8 IP, 29 saves, 2.15 ERA, 1.4 WAR

The longevity and consistency is important. And I understand that Hoffman played in a goofier era with more performance-enhancing drugs. And I love that he did it with different changeups, rewriting the code of baseball to suit his needs. He’s a part of baseball’s story that I want to tell.

But when a Hall of Famer leaves his team, shouldn’t his team think, “HOLY CRAP, WHAT DO WE DO WITHOUT THIS HALL OF FAMER?” Think of the Reds without Barry Larkin. Think of the Mariners without Edgar Martinez. Those teams were considerably worse without their Hall of Famers.

The Padres kept doin’ their thing.

This isn’t to say that I’m an eternal no on Hoffman, just that I would have wanted him to twist for another few years. I’m not sure if we have a proper handle on how to evaluate closers in a historical context. I’m not sure if we ever will.

I’m pretty sure Santana was a brighter baseball meteor than Hoffman, though, and I just wish we had more time to debate that.

Mostly, though, this is in the bad section not because of a distaste for Hoffman, but because I think the bar for inductions for closers has been set. Stay healthy. Rack up saves. That seems lazy, and while it’s not Hoffman’s fault, I’m pretty sure it’s going to trickle down to future votes.

The ugly

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens aren’t in. They both took performance-enhancing drugs in an era when the entire world was slobbering over Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, but they’re being evaluated in an era when everyone gets to ignore the context and draw binary good/evil conclusions.

Both of them were Hall of Famers, and then they saw what happened to people who took PEDs. They got money to license their image for crap like this:

Does that mean it was right for everybody to take PEDs? No! Does that mean PEDs weren’t an ethical disaster that snowballed into something horrible? No! Players who were willing to risk physical harm to improve benefited because other players weren’t willing to risk physical harm to improve. That’s a big deal.

At the same time, this isn’t binary. This isn’t good and evil. This is something that requires context, loads of it, and I’m pretty sure that when it’s all hashed out, Bonds and Clemens were two of the best baseball players the world has ever seen, with as much or as little context as you want to add.

Their decision to use came in a very, very, very different time, when reporters were nationally chastised for talking about androstenedione and Bud Selig was unequivocally thrilled that an armada of big, beefy baseball boys was helping people forget about the strike owners caused.

Doesn’t make it right. But it certainly doesn’t make it evil, either.

And while we’re in the ugly section, let’s talk about the pass Chipper Jones got for PEDs. I wrote an entire column about it. It included this photo comparison:

If I wanted to be a disingenuous putz, I could pretend that comparison meant something (as if the bodies of a high schooler and a grown-ass professional athlete wouldn’t be markedly different), and I could point out that Jones sure had a noticeable dip in production when he turned 32 and then suddenly got much better (as if that kind of variance doesn’t happen in baseball all the freaking time). It would be roughly as persuasive as the allegations Jose Canseco made against Pudge Rodriguez, the back acne seen on the back of Mike Piazza by a dingus with a typewriter, or the stray whispers that people worried about with Jeff Bagwell.

What’s ugly isn’t that Jones is in, considering any evidence against him would be nothing but dumb speculation. What’s ugly is that there’s this weird, unspoken, automatic pass for certain players and not others. Jeff Kent is never suspected. Why? Fred McGriff is always presented as the kind of player who is certifiably clean. Why?

It’s all incredibly arbitrary and dumb. The only answer is to save those suspicions for the players who clearly had something going on, like Bonds, Clemens, and Rafael Palmeiro, and leave everybody else the hell alone, just like the world did with Jones.

In other words, the pass that Jones and McGriff get isn’t the ugly thing. That’s a good thing. That’s a great thing. They deserve nothing less. It’s the pass that their peers don’t get that’s ugly.

Also, I’m still pissed off that Whitaker and Kevin Brown fell off the first ballot years ago, and I’m going to stop writing because I could go on for another few thousand words. Thank you.

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