By Jeff Kallman
Baseball and controversy today are a marriage almost as sacrosanct as that between hot dogs and beer in Babe Ruth’s digestive tract. Then comes the annual Hall of Fame voting period.
When I sat down to write, the IBWAA had yet to send its membership the annual Hall ballot. Those players for whom I’d vote if I had an actual Hall ballot haven’t yet joined the IBWAA’s Hall of Fame roll. Some entered the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot for the first time. Some just haven’t made it after time served on the ballot already.
But if I had a BBWAA vote, as well, these would be my choices this year, as they will be on the forthcoming IBWAA ballot:
Adrián Beltré—It’s rare when you get to vote for one of baseball’s Fun Guys who just so happens to be a deserving Hall of Famer while you’re at it. (Bartolo Colon, on his first BBWAA ballot, was nothing if not one of the Fun Guys. But if you even think about electing him to the Hall, I’m going to have to throw things at you.)
It’s even more rare when you get to vote for a Fun Guy who just so happens to be the No. 4 all-around third baseman of all time. That’s according to Baseball Reference. I’m inclined to lift Beltré a little higher. He wasn’t just a slugging machine at the plate: he’s the second most run-preventive third baseman ever. His +168 total zone runs at third are second—behind only some guy named Robinson.
Think about that. Beltré was a great slugger and one of the game’s greatest characters. But I bet more people than you might think didn’t catch on that he was that good at third base. Well, here’s one hint: Beltré has more defensive wins above replacement-level player (dWAR) than every third baseman ever (27.0)—again, except for Hoover (39.1). He was the complete package at third base, almost the equal of Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt as an all-around hot corner man.
Todd Helton—He never had the chance to show what he could do in a home park other than Coors Canaveral. But Helton actually hit respectably enough away from home that—however wide his home/road split—you might have trouble convincing people he was merely a product of his home environment.
The Toddfather was also that rare bird who walked more than he struck out. His .414 on-base percentage, his being deadlier at the plate with men in scoring position than with the bases empty, and his above-average first base defense, also spell Hall of Famer.
Andruw Jones—You want to keep holding his staggering decline against him? Be my guest. I prefer to focus on that staggering age 19-29 peak, when he was a great enough hitter and an even better defensive center fielder. In fact, his decline still didn’t keep him from retiring as the single most run-preventive center fielder who ever played, even ahead of Willie Mays.
Jones’s +254 defensive zone runs are also second most of any position player, behind Brooks Robinson (and +76 ahead of Mays.) He was also a Cooperstown-level hitter before his health began betraying him in his final Atlanta season. But if defense is getting second and third looks in the Hall now, Jones deserves his plaque even more.
Joe Mauer—Ignore the meatheads who ignore the real reason his career took a long dive starting a couple of years after he signed that yummy contract extension: concussions in the line of duty, folks. He still shook out as the all-time No. 7 catcher, and it wasn’t just because of his gaudy batting averages.
Mauer knew what he was doing behind the plate before concussion No. 1 forced him out from there a couple of years into the extension. Says +65 defensive runs, says handling his pitching staffs to an ERA that was 13 points below the league ERA when he was behind the plate, and says a caught-stealing percentage five points above his league average. Marry that to his hitting as a backstop (three batting crowns), and he belongs.
Gary Sheffield—Leave alone every controversial thing you remember about Sheffield. Now, consider: (1) his counting stats make a solid Hall case; (2) playing in a high-offense era, mostly, he spent most of his career in home ballparks that usually killed or neutralized right-handed hitters; (3) he dealt with more rounds of nagging-style injuries than one player should have to handle.
Yes, Sheffield could be his own worst enemy. He nuked bridges rather than burn them; he was also accused falsely of tanking plays and may well have been tricked into dabbling with actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances during the so-called Wild West Era. He’s on his final BBWAA ballot and may have to wait for an Eras Committee to reconsider his case. But there are far worse people than Sheffield (509 home runs) in the Hall already.
Chase Utley—His lack of black ink might be blinding. But once he reached base he was a run machine. Baseball Reference and FanGraphs together portray a player worth 45 runs as a base-runner and another 25 thanks to his ability to avoid double plays. He was also practically the same hitter on the road as he was at home, and that’s saying something considering his career long habitat (except his rookie season) in hitting haven Citizens Bank Park.
Utley was the No. 4 second baseman of all time for run prevention. His +141 runs saved above league average at the position are behind only Hall of Fame second basemen Bill Mazeroski, Joe Gordon, and Bid McPhee, in descending order. His Hall case is more a peak value than career value case. But peak value Hall of Famers didn’t begin with Dizzy Dean, they didn’t end with Sandy Koufax, and they won’t end with Jones, Mauer, or Utley, either.
Billy Wagner—In his next-to-last BBWAA ballot round, he may still be the most underrated relief pitcher of his and most times. Nobody could hit this pint-sized, whip-armed left-hander—the lifetime batting average against him is .187. Among Hall of Fame relievers, the next-lowest (.211) is held by two men: Trevor Hoffman and The Mariano. Those two plus Wagner pitched in one of the most hitting-friendly eras in baseball history, too.
He finished his career with a 2.73 fielding-independent pitching rate (kind of your ERA with the defense behind you removed from the equation) and a 0.99 walks/hits per inning pitched rate. Forget how impossible he was to hit overall—when you did get a hit off him it wasn’t that likely to be a big blast: his lifetime home runs surrendered per nine was 0.8.
Wagner may need an Eras Committee to re-evaluate him, too, after all, but Billy the Kid does deserve a plaque in Cooperstown.
Whaddabout these guys? Carlos Beltrán—Soiled himself as a co-mastermind of Astrogate. He may wait a good while before voters acquit him over that final season as a player. Manny Ramírez—Nailed twice for actual/alleged PEDs after testing began. Sharp as a bag of mushrooms. Álex Rodríguez—Not only nailed in the testing era, but he thought loud and hard about suing his way out of the consequences. Making A-Rod equal to the baseball government shenanigans that might have tainted the Biogenesis probe itself.
You are now free to thank, insult, praise, or throw things at me.
(Some portions of the preceding essay have been published elsewhere previously.)
Jeff Kallman is an IBWAA Life Member who writes Throneberry Fields Forever. He has written for the Society for American Baseball Research, The Hardball Times, Sports-Central, and other publications. He has lived in Las Vegas since 2007, where he plays the guitar and writes music when not writing baseball. He remains a Mets fan since the day they were born.