Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Who Belongs in the Hall? (Part III--Shortstops)

There are currently 22 plaques honoring shortstops in the Gallery at Cooperstown. Aside from the four players who hit their stride in the 1980's (Robin Yount, Ozzie Smith, Cal Ripken Jr. and Barry Larkin) all of the honorees began their careers in the 1950's or earlier. Offensively, Pittsburgh's Honus Wagner was in a class all by himself, leading his Hall of Fame comrades in 5 major categories: Batting average (.327), Hits (3,415), RBI's (1,732), Runs scored (1,736) and stolen bases (722). ((No wonder his baseball card is worth so much!)) Ernie Banks is the power-hitter of the bunch with 512 career homers and a .500 slugging percentage. Arky Vaughan, long-time Dodger shortstop, leads the pack with a .406 on-base percentage.

For  many years, the position of shortstop was known primarily as a defensive post. That explains why the doors of Cooperstown have opened to so many light-hitting candidates. Of the 22 shortstops in the Hall, 9 of them compiled a career batting average of .275 or lower (for the record that's 41%). Rabbit Maranville, a flamboyant little sparkplug from the Deadball Era, has the lowest BA of the group at .258. Ozzie Smith, Luis Aparicio and Joe Tinker all hit .262 for their careers, giving hope to those who were heavy on the leather and light on the stick.

Two candidates I personally believe will be enshrined one day are Derek Jeter and Omar Vizquel. Jeter has scored more runs than Honus Wagner and, assuming he returns from his current injury, should outpace "The Flying Dutchman" in hits as well. In addition to 13 All-Star selections, 5 Gold Gloves and 5 Silver sluger Awards, the Yankee captain has helped the club to 5 World Series titles. Vizquel's career accomplishments aren't quite as lofty, though voters won't be able to ignore his impressive defensive stats. When he retired after the 2012 slate, Vizquel had the second highest career fielding percentage of all-time at .985. Additionally, he turned more double plays than any shortstop in the history of the game while ranking third in assists. He was honored with 11 Gold Gloves--just one short of the mark set by Ozzie Smith. Not known for his offense, Vizquel still managed to collect 2,877 hits and steal 404 bases. As I said before, voters would be crazy to ignore him. 

Some other candidates I feel deserve honorable mention:
Alan Trammell:
Trammell's name always surfaces in Hall of Fame discussions. His career numbers are impressive, but he played in an era that was dominated by shortstops and I believe he will ultimately remain overshadowed by his Cooperstown contemporaries--Yount, Smith, Ripken and Larkin. Then again, there's always the Veteran's Committee.

Dave Concepcion:
In an earlier post, I blundered and listed Concepcion as a second baseman (Duh--I have since corrected the error). Concepcion was an indispensible member of "The Big Red Machine" of the 1970's, a 9-time All-Star and 5-time Gold Glove recipient. Like Trammell, he was outshined by the people around him. Concepcion played with Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez and Pete Rose. His accomplishments pale in comparison.

Larry Bowa:
Bowa was one of the premier NL shortstops of the 1970's with 5 all-Star selections and 2 Gold Gloves. He ranks among the top 10 in fielding percentage and assists. But his .260 career batting average would put him second lowest in the Hall just ahead of Rabbit Maranville. In 16 seasons, Bowa landed himself on the top 100 list of "outs made." Imagine if he had stuck around a few more years.

Bert Campaneris:
"Campy" proved how versatile he was during one of Charlie Finley's crazy promotions, playing all nine positions during a game one night. He led the AL in stolen bases 6 times and finished with a total of 649, giving him a career rank of #14. He also helped the A's to 3 straight World Championships.  But he averaged only 157 hits per year and retired with a meager .259 career BA. His defensive accomplishments cannot erase this. 

Maury Wills:
Wills led the NL in stolen bases for 6 straight seasons and set the single season mark (104)--later broken by the less than humble Rickey Henderson. Wills was a 5-time All-Star and a very good hitter at .281. He was also a member of 3 championship Dodger clubs. Trouble is, he just didn't stick around long enough. Despite playing in only 14 seasons, he still managed to secure over 40% of the Hall of Fame vote in 1981.    

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Who Belongs in the Hall? (Part II--Second Basemen)

There are currently 19 second basemen enshrined at Cooperstown. Most of the big names are old-timers. Offensively, the bar was set quite high by guys like Rogers Hornsby, whose lifetime .358 batting average is second only to Ty Cobb. Napolean Lajoie, who spent many years swinging a stick at lopsided, spit-covered baseballs in the Deadball Era, managed a .338 batting average while driving in 1,599 runs. Eddie Collins (another Deadball Star) leads Hall of Fame second basemen in three major categories: Runs scored (1,821), Stolen Bases (744) and Hits (3,315). 

In recent times, Hall of Fame voters seem to be cleaning up the category of second sackers. Bill Mazeroski of the Pirates was elected in 2001. Ryne Sanberg of the Cubs was enshrined in 2005. Yankee great Joe Gordon was elected via the Veteran's Committee in 2009. And Roberto Alomar was among the 2011 class. So who's left? Well, not too many viable candidates in my opinion. Of the remaining hopefuls, I personally am endorsing only two.

Craig Biggio: 
I raved about Biggio in an earlier post. He got 68% of the vote last year on a ballot stuffed with controversial names. He should get the nod this year with his 7 All-Star selections, 4 Gold Gloves and 5 Silver Slugger Awards. Biggio spent his entire career with Houston and if Ernie Banks is "Mr. Cub" then Biggio is "Mr. Astro." In addition to reaching the 3,000-hit mark, his 668 career doubles are fifth on the all-time list. His 1,844 runs scored are in the top 20. Another strange claim to fame, Biggio is second all-time in being hit-by-pitches, getting plunked 285 times. The guy would do anything to get on base and when he did, he had some speed, swiping 414 bags.

 Jeff Kent: 
Yeah, okay--so Kent was a kind of prickly guy who didn't always get along well with teammates. But some of the other Hall of Famers weren't so sweet either. Hornsby? Forget about it.  Jeff Kent smashed 377 career homers--more than any second baseman in the history of the game. End of story--open the doors of Cooperstown. That's 76 more than his nearest HOF competitor (the ornery Hornsby). If that doesn't sway voters then maybe his 5 All-Star selections and 4 Silver Slugger Awards will. He averaged 22 homers and 89 RBI's per year during his 17-year career. Defensively, his career totals place him among the top 20 of all-time in Putouts, Double plays and Assists. He also finished among the top 5 in fielding percentage 5 times. I rest my case.

The rest of the contenders are long shots at best. Lou Whitaker's name always seems to surface, but Whitaker's 162-game average included 17 homers and 73 RBI's per year--decent, but by no means jaw-dropping. One could argue that he wasn't expected to hit for power and drive-in runs since he was mostly a leadoff or second slot hitter, but his .276 career batting average won't win him any votes at the top of the order either. When he did hit in clutch situations, he was mediocre--compiling a .256 lifetime average with runners in scoring position, If Whitaker gets in, it will be on the strength of his superb defense, which earned him 4 Gold Gloves.

Beyond Whitaker, there aren't many big names. Yankee great Gil McDougald played in 8 World Series, but stuck around the majors for only 10 years. Jim Gilliam got into 7 Fall Classics with the Dodgers, but didn't accomplish enough in his 14-year big league run. Willie Randolph and Davey Lopes were both very good and maybe even great for a short period of time, but their numbers do not match up with the second baseman in the Hall of Fame.
In 2014, I will really be pulling for Biggio.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Who Belongs in the Hall? (Part I--First Basemen)

First base is one of the toughest positions to play if you're interested in getting a plaque at Cooperstown. There are currently only 18 first-sackers enshrined and the names include such legendary greats as Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg--pretty elite company. The last first baseman to reach the Hall was Eddie Murray back in 2003. He was well deserving of the honor with his 3,255 hits, 504 homers and 1,917 RBI's.

Of active first baseman, Albert Pujols probably stands the greatest chance of enshrinement. Entering the 2013 season, Pujols was a 9-time All-Star and a 3-time MVP. He also captured Rookie of the Year honors in 2001, setting new NL freshman marks for RBI's (130) and extra-base hits (83). Over the course of his first ten seasons, he established the all-time record for most consecutive 30 homer/100 RBI campaigns from the start of a major league career. Traded from the Cardinals to the Angels in 2012, Pujols continues to demonstrate power while driving in runs.

Another lock for the Hall of Fame is Jim Thome, who retired after the 2012 season. Thome smashed more homers than any first baseman in history (612) and did it without the benefit of steroids. A 5-time All-Star, he finished among the top ten in MVP voting 4 times and currently ranks #24 on the all-time list in RBI's (1,699) and slugging percentage (.554).

So what other first basemen deserve to be in the Hall?

Well, there are a number of players who have been overlooked--some with good reason. From a numbers standpoint, both Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire measure up well against the competition. McGwire's 583 homers are tenth on the all-time list. A dramatic illustration of his power, he averaged 1 long ball for every 10.6 at-bats. That's better than Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth. Palmeiro collected 3,020 hits, 569 homers and 1,835 ribbies. He was pretty handy with the leather, too, winning 3 Gold Gloves. Had either of these two men not been collared for using steroids, their plaques would be hanging in the gallery at Cooperstown even as we speak.

Two first basemen I would personally like to see enshrined are Jeff Bagwell and Gil Hodges. I endorsed Jeff Bagwell in an earlier post, commenting how he belongs to an elite group of players who have scored 1,500 runs while driving in as many. An overlooked fact, Bagwell actually had excellent speed, stealing over 200 career bases while becoming a 30/30 man twice in his career. There aren't many first basemen who can make that claim. Hodges was a 9-time All-Star, 3-time Gold Glove recipient and an indispensable member of 7 pennant-winning Dodger teams. He was a lifetime .267 hitter in World Series play with 5 homers and 21 ribbies. Perhaps it's because he played with so many iconic greats (Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider among them) that he has been left out. One can hope that in time he will get the nod from the Veteran's Committee.

Some other first baseman I believe deserve honorable mention (though I don't think they'll make it):

Dick Allen:
Allen played 15 seasons and accrued a 162-game average of 33 homers and 104 ribbies. He was named Rookie of the Year in '64 and MVP in '72. However, Allen was a controversial figure and a toxic clubhouse presence, especially in Philadelphia.

Steve Garvey:
Garvey reached the 200-hit threshold 6 times between '74 and '80 while helping the Dodgers to 4 World Series appearances. Garvey excelled in October with a .338 lifetime postseason average. Despite 10 All-Star selections and 4 Gold Gloves, Garvey had a fairly weak throwing arm and compiled mediocre slugging percentages. He also lacked patience at the plate, once referring to himself as "a contact hitter."
A series of paternity suits tarnished his public image.

Will Clark:
Clark's numbers are solid but not jaw-dropping. In 15 seasons, he hit .303 and played on 6 All-Star teams. He was a .333 lifetime postseason hitter. A Gold Glove winner in '91, he led the league 5 times in double plays and 4 times in putouts.

Fred McGriff:
"Crime Dog" received 5 All-Star nods and won 3 Silver Slugger awards. A sign of respect, he was intentionally walked 171 times in his career--among the top 30 totals of all-time. His 493 homers are also among the top 30. McGriff was no stranger to postseason play and was a major contributor, hitting .303 with 10 homers and 37 RBI's.

Mark Grace:
A fixture in Chicago for 13 seasons, Grace hit .290 or better 11 times between 1988 and 2000. He was one of the smoothest fielders in the NL with 4 Gold Gloves to his credit. His sabermetric scores compare him favorably to Hall of Famer Enos Slaughter--without all the World Series rings of course. (Slaughter played on 4 championship squads while Grace played on 1.)

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Baseball Card Bloopers

There have been plenty of baseball card snafus over the years. Billy Martin once posed with his middle finger extended along the bat he was holding. Angels' infielder Aurelio Rodriguez was represented on his Topps card by the team's bat boy one year. But nothing comes close to the Billy Ripken mishap of 1989. When the Fleer set was released that year, company representatives had a lot of explaining to do after collectors got a gander at card #616, which was Cal's little brother Billy.  Printed in black marker on the knob of Ripken's bat and clearly visible were the words "F--K FACE." Producers went to great lengths to block out the vulgar phrase, experimenting with everything from Wite-Out to a black square. In the end, nearly a dozen versions surfaced  in subsequent printings, some selling for as much as several hundred dollars at the height of the card's popularity. 

Ripken at first claimed to be the victim of a prank, telling Tim Kurkijan of the Baltimore Sun: "I know I"m kind of a jerk at times. I know I'm a little off, but this is going too far." The story was widely accepted until 2008, when the journeyman infielder admitted to marking the bat himself so it could be easily located for batting practice. To this day, Ripken believes that the Fleer Company deliberately enhanced the card to boost sales.Although the craze has died down, the card still books in the five to ten dollar range.  

Monday, August 5, 2013

Who Will Win the Next NL Triple Crown?

To capture baseball's Triple Crown, a player must demonstrate the ability to hit for both power and average while consistently delivering in the clutch. That's a pretty tall order as evidenced by the scarcity of Triple Crown winners--especially in the last 40 years or so. When Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers led the AL in homers, RBI's and batting average in 2012, no one had turned the trick since Carl Yastrzemski did it in 1967.

In the modern era, the feat has been accomplished a total of fourteen times by twelve different players. Ted Williams did it twice in 1942 and 1947 as did Rogers Hornsby in '22 ad '25. Incredibly, Hornsby was over the .400 mark on both occasions. The feat is much rarer in the National League, having been done just four times since 1922. Joe Medwick of the Cardinals was the last senior circuit player to pull it off in 1937. That's an awful long time to wait!

So who will be the next NL Triple Crown winner? Just for fun, I came up with a handful of viable candidates:

Carlos Gonzalez--Outfield--Colorado Rockies:
The 27 year-old Gonzalez already won a batting title in 2010 with a .336 mark. He drove-in 117 runs that year. As of this post, he was leading the NL in slugging percentage and OPS. Gonzalez has some power and plays in a hitter friendly park. With his average at .302 as of August 3rd, he may not win a Triple Crown this year, but he has all the essentials to have a monster season at some point in the future.

Joey Votto--First Base--Cincinnati Reds:
The Reds had so much confidence in Votto that they signed him for 13 years. He had his highest home run/ RBI output during his MVP season of 2010 with 37 and 113 respectively. His 2012 season was shortened by a knee injury, but he has come back strong. As of this post, he was hitting .321 while leading the league in OBP (.439). If anyone has the potential to put up Triple Crown numbers, it's Votto.

  Bryce Harper--Outfield--Washington Nationals:
Rookie of the Year in 2012, Harper is only 20 years old and has not been around long enough to show what he can do yet. In his first 211 major league games, he smashed 38 homers and collected 96 RBI's while hitting mostly out of the second spot in the batting order. The kid has both power and speed, but definitely needs to cut down on his strikeouts (He whiffed 120 times last year). He has made some progress in that regard this season and continued work should bring his batting average up from the .270's, where it has hovered since he made his debut.

Hanley Ramirez--Infield--Los Angeles Dodgers:
Ramirez has never combined all the Triple Crown elements in the same season. He reached a career-high of 33 homers in 2008. He drove-in over 100 runs in 2009--the same year he captured a batting title with a .342 mark. He is relatively new to the cleanup spot and if he stays there, the RBI's will come.

Friday, August 2, 2013

When Umps Go Bad

Throughout its history, major league baseball has relied on umpires to keep the game honest. Unfortunately, not all arbiters have been especially honest themselves. Al Clark worked in the American League from 1976 to 1999 then served in both leagues over the next two seasons. During his long tenure, he called more than 3,000 games, including 2 World Series, 2 All-Star Games and 5 American League Championship Series. In 2001, Clark got himself into hot water when he downgraded his first class airline tickets to economy class and pocketed the funds for unapproved personal travel. When Commissioner Bud Selig got wind of the scam, he served Clark with walking papers.

Three years later, the plot thickened as Clark pleaded guilty in US district Court to a mail fraud charge. Between 1995 and 1998, Clark had conspired with memorabilia dealer Richard Graessle Jr. to sell baseballs allegedly used in historic games. "Rubbed up" by the hucksters to give them a weathered appearance, very few had actually seen major league action. Among the games included in the scam were Dwight Gooden's 1996 no-hitter, Nolan Ryan's 300th victory and the 1978 AL East tie-breaker between the Yankees and Red Sox. Each ball came with a bogus certificate of authenticity signed by Clark himself. Several carried a price tag as high as $2,000. The 56 year-old Clark was sentenced to four months in prison and four months house arrest.

"There is something sacrosanct in this country about baseball and the special place in history some of its players hold," prosecuting attorney Christopher J. Christie said. "Mr. Clark knew that when he committed his fraud. Now a different umpire was making the call and Mr. Clark has been called out on strikes."