The Veterans Committee Has Another Hall of Fame Mess on Its Hands
The Baseball Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee will convene next month to consider the Hall-worthiness of eight players from the Contemporary Baseball Era, which is to say guys who played mostly after 1980. Getting a second chance at baseball immortality are Albert Belle, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff, Dale Murphy, Rafael Palmeiro and Curt Schilling, and if that seems like a weird group, you’re not alone. A whole lot of the talk around the cyber cooler is that the ballot seems almost perfectly designed to make sure no one gets elected, as it’s all but guaranteed to split the votes of the Performance Enhancing Drugs (PED) scolds and the PED shruggers.
Setting aside politics, steroids or whatever other kink keeps you up at night, three of these guys—Bonds, Clemens and Schilling—are slam dunk no-doubters. No serious person disputes this, so let’s not waste any time litigating their cases, and instead move on the to the other five nominees, taking them in alphabetical order.
From 1993 to 1996, Albert “Joey” Belle was the third-most destructive offensive force in baseball, behind only Bonds and Ken Griffey, Jr. Over those four seasons with the Cleveland Indians, two of them shortened by strikes, Belle averaged 107 runs, 40 doubles, 43 homers, 126 runs batted in and a slash line of .315/.402/.638. In 1995, he became the first man since Stan Musial to compile 100+ extra base hits in a season. But Belle was a subpar defender in left and hit into 67 double plays, fifth most over that span. Outside of that, however, he had just one transcendent year, played just 12 seasons, and posted just 40.1 Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Also, what he did to Fernando Vina was totally inexcusable, though having Jason Grimsley steal his corked bat back from the umpires’ locker room was pretty funny.
Like Belle, Don “Donnie Baseball” Mattingly put together one four-year stretch of eye-popping greatness, and another decade or so of not-bad to pretty good. But where Belle was a surly Indian, Mattingly was a beloved Yankee, and so is remembered as an all-time great despite being the poster boy for the Hall of the Very Good. From 1984 to 1987, Mattingly averaged 102 runs, 210 hits, 46 doubles, 30 homers, 121 RBI, and a .337/.381/.560 slash line, while winning an MVP and three Gold Gloves. Mattingly’s legacy also gets a big boost from him absolutely raking in the 1995 American League Division Series, putting up a 1.148 OPS over five games, but that was the only playoff appearance of his career, and the Yankees lost to the Mariners in 5. Among first basemen, Mattingly’s career WAR of 42.4 ranks 45th, his WAR7 (the total of his seven best seasons) ranks 33rd, and his 3.8 WAR per 162 games, which one might hope would benefit from his relative brief career, is 38th, behind such luminaries as Jose Abreu, Mark Teixeira, Anthony Rizzo, and Max Muncy. He was excellent for a short time, the greatest Yankee of all time among Yankees who never won a World Series, but that’s it.
From 1988 to 2002, Fred “Crime Dog” McGriff calmly went about the business of mashing dingers, hitting 30+ ten times, including a stretch of seven years in a row. He was a stud in October, slashing .303/.385/.532 with 10 homers and 36 runs in 50 postseason games, and was particularly good in 1995, when he helped the Braves win it all. Everybody liked McGriff, he felt like a Hall of Famer, had a great nickname, but he never dropped a “fuck you” season, there was never that definitive moment that made you sit up and take notice. If McGriff got in, no one would be angry, he wouldn’t seriously lower the standards of the Hall, and people would, on the whole, be happy for him. But he wasn’t quite a Hall-of-Fame caliber player.
From 1980 to 1988 Dale Murphy played more games than anyone in the bigs and was seventh in WAR with 45.5, an average of 5 per year, which is pretty good. The problem is that that stretch represents the entirety of Murphy’s case. He had been a late bloomer, going from -0.8 WAR in his first 292 games to posting 6.6 WAR at the age of 24. And after 1988, he fell off a cliff, never again reaching 2 WAR—in fact he totaled just 1.8 WAR over his last 505 games. Yeah, he won back-to-back MVPs, though in 1982 both Gary Carter and Mike Schmidt were clearly better. Maybe if he hadn’t had those two off years in 1981 and 1986 he’d have a case, but he just didn’t do quite enough. There is no shortage of centerfielders better than Murphy who aren’t in the Hall.
Rafael Palmeiro’s Hall of Fame case is one that can make any stat nerd hate themselves. There’s just no way to look at his body of work and come to any conclusion other than the fact the Palmeiro belongs in Cooperstown. Yes, he was a compiler and no, he never had anything like an MVP season, but he compiled so much, becoming one of only seven players in history to clear 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. Nobody liked him, there’s no fanbase that really embraces him (he made just four All Star teams), there were no postseason heroics, he won a Gold Glove for playing 28 games at first (not his fault, but still…), he was Will Clark’s sworn enemy, he was Eddie Murray without the cool sideburns or World Series ring, and there was the whole finger-wagging at Congress thing. But the dude raked for so long that to ignore him is to completely rewrite the standards for Cooperstown.
In all, that's three unequivocal yesses, one "yes, with a held nose," one "sure, whatever," and three GTFOs.
What makes this slate of players even more vexing is the names that aren’t on it. Where’s Kenny Lofton? Lou Whitaker? Dwight Evans? Willie Randolph? Keith Hernandez? Buddy Bell? Chet Lemon? Jim Edmonds? John Olerud? Will Clark? Robin Ventura? Not all of those dudes are Hall-of-Famers, but half of them probably are, and they’re all at least worthy of interesting conversations.
The latest iteration of the Veterans Committee considers three different groups of candidates: Contemporary Baseball Era players, which includes “players no longer eligible for election by the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA) whose greatest contributions to the game were realized from the 1980 to present era”; the Contemporary Baseball Era Non-Players Committee, which “considers retired managers, umpires and executives whose greatest contributions to the game were realized from the 1980-present era”, and the Classic Baseball Era, which looks at everyone whose contributions to the sport occurred before 1980. Each group will be considered on a rotating basis, so any of this year’s eight nominees who fall short will have to wait at least three more years for another shot, no matter how qualified they are. Sixteen voters will consider the nominees, with support from 12 of them required for enshrinement. The results will be announced December 4.
Someday the Hall of Fame might get out of its own way and just let people vote for whomever they want whenever they want and let the chips fall where they may. In the meantime, legitimately great players like Kenny Lofton will fall off the ballot after one round of voting and then have to wait patiently for second chances, hoping they don’t end up like Ron Santo, who was elected only after dying. And men like Tony La Russa will be able to cow a small room of voters into enshrining the woefully under-qualified Harold Baines.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference