My 2016 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot: Ken Griffey Jr., Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling, Tim Raines, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina. Six are holdovers from last year. Griffey is eligible for the first time.
While the ballot certainly would be gaudier with the inclusion of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, I will repeat what I wrote last year. If either is voted into Cooperstown by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, without a blaring official designation by the Hall of their use of performance-enhancing drugs, I will resign as a Hall of Fame voter.
I'm not losing any sleep over those two juicers this time around. It's the closers, Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner who have me not closing my eyes these nights.
First, to another sore point: On a week when commissioner Rob Manfred rightly decided to uphold Pete Rose's permanent ban from Major League Baseball, he also wrote, "The considerations that should drive a decision on whether an individual should be allowed to work in baseball are not the same as those that should drive a decision on Hall of Fame eligibility."
At age 74, Rose obviously wants immortality in Cooperstown more than a job as part-time hitting instructor. Yet Rose eventually admitted to Manfred that he still bets on baseball, legally. He lives in Las Vegas and sells his autograph outside a casino. He has not sought treatment for his gambling addiction. After years and years of absolute denial, Rose finally did admit in a 2004 autobiography that he bet on the Reds when he was a manager. Manfred, however, said he had received recent evidence Rose also bet as a player.
The "glory" of Rose never betting against his team — one championed by his legion of supporters — is a gray one. In a Cincinnati Enquirer piece, John Dowd said he and his two investigators uncovered evidence that Rose did bet against his own team, "although that evidence didn't reach the standard to include in [the Dowd Report]."
At the very least, it is easy to see how a manager's moves with pitchers in an attempt to ensure a victory to win a bet could adversely affect the next day's performance. And that, in turn, plays with the integrity of the game.
In his decision, Manfred wrote, "Mr. Rose has not presented credible evidence of a reconfigured life either by an honest acceptance by him of his wrongdoing … or by a rigorous, self-aware and sustained program of avoidance by him of all the circumstances that led to his permanent ineligibility in 1989."
In 1991, the Hall of Fame decided that if a player is banned from baseball, he isn't eligible for the vote. That should stand. Yes, Cooperstown is a museum. There are Rose bats, jerseys and cleats on display. Great. Yet enshrinement among the greatest players who ever lived makes the Hall of Fame something more than a museum. It is the heart of the game itself.
Yes, it's maddening for Rose zealots that juicers like Mark McGwire and Bonds have gotten jobs as hitting instructors. Yes, it smacks of hypocrisy that baseball would partner with fantasy sports entities like DraftKings, but that is no license for players to gamble on games. Should we have players play beer pong at second base because MLB has a huge deal with Anheuser-Busch? Nothing strikes at the integrity of the sport worse than players betting on their own games.
I told this story before, but it's worth repeating. In spring training of 1984, I was interviewing Rose at his locker in Clearwater, Fla. He had a bat in his hands, demonstrating how to handle a certain pitch. He was into it. He was fascinating. All of a sudden he spotted a friend, and, in mid-sentence, Charlie Hustle was gone. "Dog track," was all he said.
I loved every bit of the way the Hit King played the game. And if the Hall put him on the ballot, I also wouldn't check Rose's name … just as I won't vote for Clemens or Bonds unless the Hall makes a special designation for PED users. In trimming the BBWAA electorate, about 150 fewer ballots were sent out this year. The voters will be getting a little younger and it will be fascinating to see how much the balloting on the juicers changes.
In the meantime, Griffey is a lock in his first year. Case closed. Should be 100 percent, but no one ever is, because a few voters want to grandstand.
If not for the PED whispers, Piazza, the greatest hitting catcher in history (sorry, Johnny Bench), would have been a lock, too. After getting 69.9 percent of the votes last year, Piazza should clear the 75 percent barrier. Bagwell, who knows the same PED whispers, and Raines will be close. Bagwell was at 55.7 percent and Raines 55 percent last year. Without proof, I have come around to voting for Piazza and Bagwell the past few years. Every voter has his moral tolerance level on the PED issue. I have come to live with that.
I also have spent lots of time coming to grips with the designated hitter. After years of judging harshly, I have grown more comfortable with the DH's place in baseball. I began voting for Edgar Martinez last year. His career OPS was .933, 33rd best of all time and there are a number of advance metrics supporting him. He also only got 27 percent of the vote last year and it's not happening this year.
It also isn't going to happen for Schilling (39.2 percent last year) or Mussina (24.6). Granted, Mussina is borderline. For me, Schilling might be the greatest postseason pitcher in history.
Both are greater pitchers than Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner. First off, they pitched at least three times as many innings in their careers. And while it sounds trite, there is some real truth that relievers are failed starters who found their niche.
That certainly doesn't mean they should not get into Cooperstown. The real problem is even the best thinkers in the game, guys I study, don't have an absolute handle on how to quantify the greatness of closers. We know one thing: Mariano Rivera's the greatest ever. He'll cruise into the Hall on the first ballot. Lee Smith, by contrast, got over the 50-percent barrier in 2012, but has slipped. His save numbers were record-setting at the time, but it was obvious they would be surpassed. I have never voted for Smith.
The manner in which closers have been used over the years has changed drastically. It's fair to call Hoyt Wilhelm, who held the saves record for 16 years, a pioneer. Rollie Fingers, who then held the record for 12, too. Dennis Eckersley was a starter for much of his career. Bruce Sutter changed baseball with the splitter. It took Goose Gossage, with his incredible fastball, his persona and New York electricity, nine years to get into the Hall.
Think about this. Wilhelm pitched 2,2541/3 innings, Gossage 1,8091/3 and Fingers 1,7011/3. Hoffman pitched only 1,0891/3 and Wagner 903. The difference in the workload is vast and the five relievers who made the Hall don't get us a great road map for voting.
Hoffman, second to Mariano's record 652 saves, had 601. That's 179 more than Wagner, who's fifth all time. That's a huge difference. Hoffman's save conversion rate was better than Wagner's 89 to 86 percent. And, hell's bells, Hoffman had five more seasons of at least 30 saves than Wagner.
A major problem is few things in baseball are more overrated than the save. If you can get three outs before blowing a three-run lead, you get one. Don't get me wrong. Tramping in from the bullpen in the most pressurized situations is worthy of great respect. It's a matter of how best to quantify it. Somewhere between Mariano and Lee Smith is the answer, I just don't exactly where it is yet.
Wagner had more dominant stuff than Hoffman. He averaged 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings, compared to Hoffman's 9.4. He held hitters to a .187 average, .262 OBP and .296 slugging while Hoffman's numbers were .211/.267/.342. Wagner's ERA was 2.31. Hoffman's was 2.87. Wagner also had a better WHIP, 1.00 to 1.06. He had a better Wins Above Replacement than Hoffman, and was better in clean saves, a save without allowing a baserunner.
By the way, Hoffman and Wagner both pitched badly in the postseason.
Hoffman figures to get many more votes than Wagner this year, although not enough for induction. Critics will call him a compiler. Critics of Wagner will say he wasn't great enough for enough innings.
Hoffman figures to get into the Hall in the coming years. Wagner? Don't know. I want to see this argued out more before I check either name. In the meantime, neither should sniff Cooperstown before Schilling.