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Do Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Other Suspected PED Users Belong in the Hall of Fame?
It’s about to begin. It starts up every year right around now, but never quite like this. Last week, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown released the BBWAA ballot for the class of 2013. Already, some sportswriters have written columns about it. So far, so normal.
But this ballot is anything but normal. Sure, there is the typical list of backloggers trying to get in yet again—Jack Morris, Tim Raines, Lee Smith, etc.—but the real focus lays with the newcomers. There are some names you may have heard of.
Barry Bonds. Roger Clemens. Sammy Sosa. And that’s just naming the most high-profile players.
You can see why this year is unlike any other for Hall voting, right? Yes I know, this isn’t the first time anyone has been caught up in the PED whirligig. Rafael Palmeiro has been in the mix since 2011, and Mark McGwire has been through a half-dozen votes and counting.
But as gaudy as Palmeiro’s career stats were, and as big a name as Mark McGwire was, there’s Bonds and Clemens, and then there’s everyone else. Bonds in particular has become the clear central focus of the entire controversy. As a result, we can look forward to an entire December of commentary about Bonds and steroids and Clemens and PEDs and all of those issues.
For many, “look forward to” is hardly the way to describe it, though. Ultimately, a lot of people are fans of baseball because, well, because they’re fans of baseball. Normally, the Hall of Fame discussions are a nice time to look back at a player’s career and look at what he did. This year, the talk on Bonds et. al. won’t focus so much on the whats as the whys and hows. It will be a month of steroids scandal statements, but not much on baseball
Let’s pause and think what might have been, how this year’s Cooperstown conversations would’ve gone if there were no PED talk. This approach is partially inspired by a piece Joe Posnanski wrote for The 2009 Hardball Times Baseball Annual where he argued the 2013 group might be the greatest class of all. We're reprinting that article here on the Hardball Times site in three parts this week. (And, as long as I’m here, please note that The 2013 Hardball Times Baseball Annual has recently come out and available for purchase.)
It isn’t just Bonds, Clemens, and Sosa. Also reaching the ballot for the first time are Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling, and Kenny Lofton, just to name the most important names.
Calling this the greatest crop of first-time ballot candidates is an understatement. In the last half-century, the greatest crop of ballot rookies was 1999, when Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Robin Yount, Carlton Fisk, and Dale Murphy all showed up. That’s four Hall of Famers and a fifth guy who has hung around on the ballot every year since. That 1999 group of newbies averaged 3.62 names per ballot.
Only one other time in the last 50 years did another bunch of first-timers average more than three names per ballot: 1989, when Carl Yastrzemski, Johnny Bench, Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins, and Jim Kaat all showed up. They averaged 3.35 names per ballot. The next best rookie crop is 2007, way back at 2.32 names/ballot.
Yeah, 2013 would smoke those classes. Heck, 2013 might still smoke those classes. Let’s look at what the upcoming election might have looked like if not for the steroids scandals.
Well, this one is easy. He hit 762 career homers, created the 500-500 homer-steals club, won seven MVP awards—and that’s just the most obvious achievements. The question isn’t would Bonds get in, but would he set a new record for best showing in the vote total? The current record is 98.84 percent, held by Tom Seaver. Bonds would probably fall short of it, as a few voters would hold his prickly personality against him, but he’d go in with at least 97 percent of the vote.
Then again, if we’re looking at what people would have said if there was no steroids scandal, then maybe we should look at what would’ve happened on the field if there was no reason to think Bonds did anything unethical. The general storyline is that Bonds began juicing after 1998.
Well, he’d already hit over 400 homers and was averaging nearly 40 a year from 1993 to 1998. (If you adjust for the games lost in 1994-95, he was over 40 per 162 games). Bonds already had won three MVPs in four seasons and come in second place one other year. No matter how you slice it, Bonds would be a clear and easy first-ballot guy. The talent is just too tremendous.
Like Bonds, this one is rather obvious. Many have called him a jerk, but no one ever doubted his talent. 354 wins and seven Cy Youngs are nice little achievements to have. Like Bonds, he’d approach 100 percent of the vote but ultimately fall short. In 1999, both Ryan and Brett topped 98 percent, and Clemens and Bonds likely would do likewise.
If you want to erase his late-career bump due to PED allegations, Clemens still has well over 300 wins and a shelf full of Cy Young Awards. In fact, if you negate the late-career bumps for Bonds and Clemens, then Clemens probably does better in the BBWAA voting. When Bonds went through his initial prime, he was underrated. Too much of his value was tied up into the often-overlooked base on balls category, and he never had the charisma of Ken Griffey Jr. Clemens with his fastball and his ability to strike out 20 batters in a game was always given his proper due.
Remember when everyone loved Sosa? Along with McGwire, all kinds of sports pundits credited him with “saving baseball” back in 1998. While McGwire was the bigger name, Sosa was the more media-friendly of the two, by far. He had the little hop after he connected with a homer, and he always loved the camera.
Oh, and he had some pretty impressive numbers, too. That 66-home run season of his in 1998 was the first of four consecutive 50-plus homer campaigns. The game’s biggest stars are always sluggers, and Cooperstown does love them. When Sosa erupted in 1998, only two men with over 400 homers had been passed up by Cooperstown. Sosa retired with over 600. Though appearing on the ballot in Bonds’ shadow would diminish Sosa, he’d still easily gain election.
Actually, there might have been some controversy about Sosa had it not been for the PED controversy that ate the world. Sosa probably would’ve been a sabermetric whipping boy in Hall of Fame conversations.
WAR, which has become the favorite default metric for the statistically inclined, gives Sosa just 54.8 career wins. That’s the lowest among all members of the 500-homer club, which is rather impressive given that Sosa has over 600 homers. While 54.8 WAR is a fine total, it ranks 14th among players on the ballot. Let’s not overstate things; Sosa still would have his defenders on purely statistical grounds. His prime was outstanding, but outside of that he wasn’t as good. Sosa would go into Cooperstown, but the debate would be very different.
As for allegations of Sosa taking steroids, in 2009 the New York Times said Sosa was on a list of people who’d tested positive in 2003. This news confirmed a suspicion many had long previously held. I don’t want to get sidetracked into a debate on the merits of that suspicion, but more than Bonds or Clemens, Sosa has the reputation as a pure chemistry creation. He’s a guy who didn’t have much power for several years, then had some decent power, and then surged to world-class power.
I’ve always had some difficulty with the standard story line on Sosa, though, because of the memories of young Sosa in Chicago as a White Sox player. He came to Chicago because then-GM Larry Himes specifically targeted him. Himes, please note, had just drafted Jack McDowell, Alex Fernandez, Robin Ventura, and Frank Thomas with four consecutive first-round draft picks, so he knew a few things about spotting young talent.
And Himes wouldn’t stop raving about the potential of this minor leaguer named Sammy Sosa. In fact, Himes traded away maybe the most popular player on the team, Harold Baines, to get Sosa. Okay, the Sox got Wilson Alvarez in the trade, as well, but Sosa was clearly the main attraction. Himes told reporters that Sosa had huge raw talent and who knew what he can do.
Flash forward a little bit. Now Sosa is the regular White Sox right fielder. He’s raw, and his numbers are terrible, but he looks fantastic out there. I remember seeing a game in Comiskey Park in late 1990. Sosa comes to the plate and the crowd goes wild, then you look at the scoreboard and see he’s hitting .230 with 10 homers. The production wasn’t there, but people did recognize the potential.
But Sosa just sputtered. The cheers died down as he went backwards instead of forwards. Himes still believed in Sosa, but he was no longer the Sox GM, so the club traded him to the Cubs—where Himes now was the GM. Yeah, Himes still believed that Sosa’s raw talent meant anything was possible. Besides, Sosa was still 23 years old when the Sox traded him.
Sure enough, Sosa did start to emerge, hitting 33 homers in his first season with the Cubs. Then he hit 25 homers in barely over 100 games while batting .300 at age 24. Frankly, that’s the sort of things Himes had prophesized.
Sosa was an extremely frustrating player to watch. He was extremely talented, but he never quite did as well as you’d think he could. My main memory was his arm. He had a cannon for an arm in those days, but the accuracy of a whiffle ball. It looked like he was just throwing it in the general direction of the infield, but it sure went fast when he threw it.
In the mid-1990s, Sosa hit 35-40 homers a year for several years but with almost no walks, a middling batting average, and declining speed. Even then, there was a sign of the power barrage to come. Sosa missed the last six weeks of the 1996 season after suffering an injury but still had 40 homers in just 124 games played. Even then, he was on pace for over 50 long balls in a season.
The public has a clearly-agreed-on point for when Bonds began going with PEDs, but it’s never been as clear with Sosa. For now, let’s just note his mid-1990s power fit with Larry Himes’ bold belief in him. And even then he showed the ability to hit 50 homers in 162 games. I’m not saying there was no help going on, but enhancement alone doesn’t get a person as many homers as Sosa had. The backlash on him goes too far.
If there was no PED scandal, he probably wouldn’t go in this year. That sounds bizarre, because the man had over 3,000 career hits, but he would’ve been overshadowed by the three men above, especially Bonds and Clemens.
In the last 30 years, every 3,000-hit player not named Rafael Palmerio has made it into Cooperstown on the first ballot. Yeah, but can guess the 3,000 hitter who made it in with the least support? It was Robin Yount.
Really? Yount? Shouldn’t it be Paul Molitor? Or maybe Dave Winfield? Or anyone who just seemed like a really good compiler who lasted a long time? Yount was a two-time MVP who also had 3,000 hits, but he got 77.5 percent of the vote while Molitor and Winfield both received 85 percent.
Yount’s problem was simple: timing. Brett and Ryan overshadowed him in 1999, and compared to them Yount didn’t look as impressive. Almost every BBWAA member had room on his or her ballot to add Yount’s name, but some guys don’t like filling up the ballot, thinking it cheapens the award.
Had it not been for the steroids scandal, Biggio would’ve looked like the fourth-most impressive guy. Bonds and Clemens are clearly the top of the class, and Sosa had a better peak. Biggio was underrated in his playing day and might not have made it into Cooperstown if he hadn’t made it to 3,000 hits. He was more like Molitor than Yount in popular perception. On a normal ballot, Yount probably tops 90 percent, but instead he barely skated in. Biggio wouldn’t start off as high in his support and is in a more crowded ballot. Now, Biggio has the best chance on the ballot to enter Cooperstown.
It would be nice for Biggio to go in because he is underrated. He could hit, obviously. He stole over 400 bases with a nearly 80-percent success rate. He belted over 600 doubles and nearly 300 homers. And he achieved all this while playing his prime in the Astrodome, the greatest pitchers park of the era. (The Juice Box didn’t open until Biggio was 36 years old). Oh, and he also did it while playing a key defensive position.
If Craig Biggio would be the Robin Yount of a non-tainted 2012 ballot, then Mike Piazza is its Carlton Fisk. Though a clear Hall of Famer, Fisk had to wait until his second try because of the bigger names debuting alongside him.
That’s the fate that would be in store of Piazza. Never mind the fact that Piazza is arguably the greatest hitting catcher in baseball history. He’d be debuting with the all-time home run king, a 600-homer guy, a 350-win guy, and a 3,000-hit guy. Piazza doesn’t have a hook to compare with any of that.
Actually, there is even the world’s lamest steroids accusation floating around about Piazza. There are two prongs I’ve seen brought up over the years. First, he sure did improve immensely for someone who was such an ultra-late-round pick. Second, he had a back acne problem, and that’s a symptom of steroid usage.
Let’s tackle the second one first. Yeah, back acne can be caused by steroids, or it can just happen. More to the point, some people who knew Piazza in high school said he had the same problem then. That goes against the narrative of his taking steroids, which supposedly helped his massive performance jump after high school.
As for the impressiveness of Piazza’s improvements after getting drafted, that happens. While he’s the latest-round draft pick to build such an impressive Cooperstown case, he’s far from unique in exceeding expectations.
A little history more can be added to this as well. Sabermetric godfather Craig Wright wrote an excellent piece on Piazza’s development for the 2009 Hardball Times Annual. Wright knows this topic better than any other commentator because he actually worked for the Dodgers when Piazza was coming up. Wright doesn’t bring up PEDs, but does go step-by-step through Piazza’s develop as a catcher and as a prospect, and how he overcame problems scouts initially had.
Can it be proven Piazza didn’t do steroids? No, but then again, you can’t prove anyone didn’t. The case against him is really weak, though.
Schilling is the best big-game pitcher of his generation, but if there were no steroids, he would be absolutely buried in this class. He’d be the sixth-most prominent newbie and second-most prominent new pitcher. Oh, and the top vote getter in the backlog is Morris, another pitcher whose reputation largely comes from what he did in October.
Schilling was a great pitcher, but he had trouble standing out. Yes, he won 20 games three times, but he ended his career with just 216 wins. Three times he was the runner-up in Cy Young voting, but he never claimed that prize. Schilling would get some votes and support, but he’d be far down the ballot.
If Yount and Fisk are 1999’s comps for Biggio and Piazza, than the best comp for Schilling is Murphy. Also a newbie on the 1999 ballot, Murphy appeared on just one-fifth of all the ballots. Schilling is a better candidate than Murphy, but then again, Murphy had only four fellow ballot rookies ahead of him: Ryan, Brett, Yount, and Fisk.
The steroids controversy should help Schilling. He’s never been associated with PEDs or convicted in the court of public opinion. That said, even though many voters won’t support half the guys listed above, it’s still too crowded a ballot for Schilling to get in.
He’s not going in, and under no circumstances would he get in, though in a normal situation, there would be some commentary about how underrated Lofton is.
In general, center fielders get hosed by Cooperstown and by public opinion, in general. We lump all outfielders together in one category, and thus, for a center fielder to distinguish himself, he has to hit as well as the best corner outfielders. That’s tough to do, as the corner outfielders are typically the best hitters on a team. Meanwhile, center fielders rarely, if ever, get any credit for their greater defensive contributions. Sure, people recognize that up-the-middle defense matters more, but most just look at all outfielders as one lumped grouping.
Lofton hit .299 for his career with over 600 stolen bases with very few caught stealings. He had a very nice prime and then hung around for several more years as a quality player. In his post-prime he was good enough to be a quality starter, though never great. Offensively, Lofton is a poor man’s Raines.
Defensively, Lofton had a great reputation, winning four Gold Gloves. WAR agrees, crediting him with 14.7 wins above replacement earned with his glove, one of the best totals by any center fielder. Heck, WAR gives Lofton more overall value (64.9 WAR) than Sosa, Biggio, or Piazza. No one is saying you have to agree with that (or even that I agree with that), but that’s mighty impressive, especially for a guy who has virtually no chance of getting five percent of the vote.
Maybe if Lofton debuted on a normal ballot he’d top five percent. But with this crowd, PEDs or not, Lofton will have an extremely hard time topping the cutoff that keeps a man on the ballot for another year.
The 2013 crop would've been the best since the 1936 inaugural vote. Despite all the controversy, it'll still be one of the three top vote-getters in the last 50 years.
References and Resources
I got BBWAA voting information from the Hall of Fame's own website several years ago. It's now also available at Baseball-Reference.com. All stats come from B-ref, as well.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail.
Read more great baseball stuff at The Hardball Times.