Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Giving the Baseball Hall of Fame a Little Juice

Now that the NFL regular season has come and gone, it's time to get into baseball mode a little bit more.  However, there is still a bit of time before pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training (believe me, you would have heard my mom cheering if that time had passed), so the only really timely news on the baseball front is the naming of the 2011 Hall of Fame class.

Now, players in the 2011 class must have retired in 2006 or earlier, which means that they would have played most of their careers in the 90's or earlier.  I'm not gonna lie here, I didn't pay too much attention to the general baseball world at that point, and was not alive for many of the players up for nomination.  Therefore, I'm not too concerned with Bert Blyleven or Roberto Alomar getting in.  I'm more concerned with what happens over the next several years with the "juicers," those players that have been connected with steroid use during the productive years of their careers (e.g. McGwire, Sosa, Bonds) and thus have huge but questionably earned numbers.

First of all, I guess it's important to make clear that the Baseball Hall of Fame votes players into their fraternity mostly through the votes of baseball writers with at least ten years of experience, and a player must earn 75% of the vote to be selected for the Hall.

This year, acclaimed steroid abusers Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro were up for election (McGwire for the fifth year) and received 19.8% and 11.0% of the vote, respectively.  McGwire had hovered at around 23% until this year.

Are Hall of Fame voters dogging these sluggers and punishing them for accusations (or admissions) of cheating the game?

Let's just take a look at the numbers here for a moment.

Mark McGwire:  583 home runs (10.6 AB per HR, 1st all-time), 12-time All-Star, 3-time top-5 MVP votegetter, 63.1 Wins Above Replacement (WAR, 91st all-time among position players), 8th all-time in slugging percentage.

Rafael Palmeiro: 569 home runs (18.4 AB per HR, 78th all-time), 3020 hits (24th all-time), 1835 RBIs (15th all-time), 4-time All-Star, 66 WAR (79th among position players)

The power numbers are all-time good, as no one in the 500 home-run club has been excluded from the Hall of Fame until recently.  McGwire's stats scream steroid use since his big numbers come in power categories (HR, slugging), whereas Palmeiro has a more balanced resume which includes being one of only four players to record 3000 hits and 500 home runs in a career, and his longevity at the position is more impressive.  The first basemen in the Hall of Fame already have significantly less impressive power numbers than one would expect given the power that the position is associated with these days, so these two guys definitely have numbers that would warrant inclusion into the Hall.

It of course comes as no surprise, then, that there's some uncertainty and suspicion involved with voting for a guy based on statistics that are not created based on his god-given talent alone.  In my opinion, the key distinction here is to what degree you think the person could have done what he did without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs.  McGwire's low batting average and high output in a short period of time seem to indicate that he would not have been able to produce nearly those kinds of numbers in a normal set of circumstances.  Palmeiro, however, has a slightly more befuddling case, as his longevity and consistent production could give a voter pause as to the validity of his career performance.

If we project Hall voting into the next couple years, the appearance of Barry Bonds presents an intriguing case, because despite the fact that he hit 317 home runs after age 35, which is absurd, he was on pace for 500 home runs through his first seven years in Pittsburgh, where he hit .312 and won two MVP awards.  Despite the huge cloud that Bonds has over him with the lengthy scandal that he has dealt with and the fact that he broke one of the most sacred records in sports, the all-time home run record, you have to consider that Bonds' career would have been at least close to Hall of Fame worthy without the needles and stuff.

The Jist of It
Unfortunately, we don't really have enough access to the drug history of every player ever to make these sorts of distinctions, do we?  A lot of sports writers are going to make blanket judgments about everyone who was accused of using steroids during their careers, possibly preventing people who really didn't get much help from steroids at all from achieving the greatest honor in the sport.  Not only that, three of the greatest players of this generation, Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Alex Rodriguez, have had steroid confessions hurt their image and the potential validity of their impressive performances.  What do you do when what appears to be one of the top-ten players of all-time may not actually be so?

I think that, in the absence of damning evidence from the majority of a player's career, it would be hard for me to vote against a guy who has the numbers to easily make the Hall.  Marginal guys who just seem to have power numbers (McGwire) should receive less consideration because the supposed benefits from steroids would have a greater impact on his specialty.  Guys who have transcendant numbers should get in because they have ridiculous totals that, even if they were helped by steroids, may have gotten them in anyway.  However, I am a big fan of withholding votes for a few years as punishment and to give the person's transgressions extra time to air out and possibly be brought to greater light.

And we're not going to get into the Pete Rose thing.  If a guy who used steroids gets into the Hall of Fame, Pete Rose should be immediately entered.  Seriously?

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