Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Who Belongs in the Hall? (Part VII--Right Field)

Right field is one of the most celebrated positions in baseball. 23 players who patrolled that vicinity made it to the Hall of Fame, including several of the most prolific sluggers in history. Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Mel Ott, Reggie Jackson--all of them played right field.
 And that's only a small sampling!
So, who will join their ranks? 
Hmm--Tough question.
In my opinion, there is only one shoe-in candidate. 

Ichiro Suzuki
Ichiro's impact has been immense during his 13 seasons in the majors. He was rookie of the year and MVP in 2001. A ten-time All-Star, he has gathered more than 4,000 hits in his professional career. This includes his 9-year stint with the Orix Blue Wave club of the Japanese Pacific League. He compiled a lifetime .353 batting average in Japan before transporting his wares overseas. He then proceeded to reset the all-time mark for hits in a season (262--accomplished in 2004). Aside from the 2 batting crowns and ten straight 200-hit campaigns (also a record), he's a heck of an outfielder. Through the 2012 slate, he had captured 10 Gold Gloves while leading the American League in putouts 8 times. He has also appeared on multiple highlight reels climbing the outfield walls with cat-like agility to rob opposing batsmen of homers. In my mind, there is no doubt that he will one day become the first Japanese player to grace the Halls of Cooperstown.

The rest of our right field hopefuls vary from definite maybe's to outright longshots. I'll allow you to decide which category they fall under.

 Sammy Sosa
A New York Times report citing an anonymous source accused Sosa of having failed a steroid test in 2003. This has cast a shadow over his Hall of Fame candidacy. If the doors of Cooperstown ever open to members of the Steroid Club (and let's face it--most of the great sluggers of the '90's and 2000's were using them), Sosa will almost certainly find his way in. He was a 7-time All-Star and 6-time Silver Slugger Award recipient. He led the league in runs scored 3times, Homers twice and RBI's twice. His 1,667 ribbies are among the top 30 totals of all-time. His 609 homers rank eighth. From 1998 (the year he staged a dramatic home run race with Mark McGuire) through 2002, he hit .306 and smashed 292 long balls--an incredible 5-year run! Suspended for 8 games after getting caught using a corked bat in 2003, all of his other bats (76 of them to be exact) came up clean. Sosa was a high-energy player who often sprinted into right field from the dugout (but then again, maybe that was just the steroids).

Gary Sheffield
A 9-time All-Star, Sheffield finished among the top 5 in MVP voting 3 times during his 22-year career. His 509 homers rank among the top 25 totals of all-time. While this was presumably a steroid-free accomplishment, that number would have meant much more in an earlier era. Nowadays, the 500-home run club seems to be growing at an alarming rate. Sheffield had 8 seasons with 30 or more homers and 100 RBI's. He scored more than 1,600 runs while driving-in a roughly equal total. But he was also kind of a prickly guy who was known to make controversial statements from time to time. Then again, you don't have to be warm and fuzzy to have a plaque in the Gallery at Cooperstown.

 Vladimir Guerrero
Guerrero was a lifetime .318 hitter who collected 2,590 hits in a career that ended somewhat abruptly after 16 seasons. He chose to retire in 2012 instead of hanging around too long and "chasing the dragon" (the dragon being the elusive 3,000-hit club). Did his sudden departure harm his candidacy? Maybe so, but he deserves consideration nevertheless. He had 8 seasons with 30 or more homers and his .553 slugging percentage landed him among the top 25 of all-time in that category. A 9-time All-Star, he captured an MVP Award in 2004. He also helped two different clubs find their way to the postseason.

Bobby Abreu
Abreu flew under the radar throughout his career. With just 2 All-Star selections to his credit, he collected 100 RBI's every year from 2003-2009. He led the National League in doubles with 50 during the 2002 slate. He paced the loop with 11 triples in 1999. He had surprising speed for a big guy, swiping 399 bases while twice joining the 30/30 club (in 2001 and 2004). He scored 90 or more runs in 11 straight seasons from '99-2009 and his 565 doubles rank among the top 25 totals of all-time. Additionally, he had a rifle for an arm, leading players at his position twice in assists. His lifetime total of 130 currently places him at #21. So how did this guy only make the All-Star team twice? There's something wrong with that picture. 

Larry Walker
Critics complain that Walker was helped by the hitter-friendly conditions in Colorado. That might be true to an extent, but Walker was already a star by time he joined the Rockies. And he won 7 Gold Glove Awards on top of his accomplishments at the plate. A 5-time All-Star, Walker captured 3 batting titles and finished his career with a .313 average in 17 seasons. Despite being slowed by injuries throughout his career, he became the only Canadian-born player to collect 2,000 hits, 300 homers and a 1,000 RBI's. His career .565 slugging percentage is among the top 20 totals of all-time.

Players from the distant past I feel were somewhat overlooked include the following (though at this point I think the ship to Cooperstown has already sailed for them):

Bobby Bonds
There's been a lot of talk about his son entering the Hall, but Bobby was a superstar in his own right. During his era of dominance, which stretched from 1969-1979, the elder Bonds hit 312 homers and stole 421 bases. He was a 30/30 man on five occasions. A leadoff hitter with prodigious power, he clubbed 25 or more long balls 9 times. He also won 3 Gold Gloves while finishing among the top 5 in assists during seven seasons.  He led the league in putouts on 3 occasions.

Dwight Evans
Seriously injured by a beanball early in his career, Evans was always tinkering with his mechanics at the plate, earning him the nickname: "The Man of a Thousand Stances." He spent 19 years with the Red Sox and is arguably the greatest right fielder the city has ever seen. He captured 8 Gold Gloves and led the league in fielding percentage 3 times. He ranks #3 all-time in putouts, #13 in assists and #8 in double plays turned as a right fielder. He was pretty handy with a bat, too, blasting 385 homers while collecting 90 or more ribbies on 5 occasions. 

Reggie Smith
One of Smith's Los Angeles teammates commented that Steve Garvey got most of the attention while Smith was the real team leader. In a career that stretched from 1966 to 1982, Smith was named to 7 All-Star teams and was an important member of 4 pennant-winning squads (1 in Boston and 3 in L.A.). He led the league twice in homers and doubles, reaching the 20-homer threshold 8 times. He was excellent in the clutch, collecting 87 or more ribbies 5 times and hitting .288 with men on base. What may have hurt his candidacy is the fact that he was never more than average defensively. That and the fact that he was surrounded by even bigger stars during his prime years with the Dodgers.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Who Belongs in the Hall? (Part VI--Pitchers)

Pitching is among the most glorified positions at Cooperstown. There are currently 61 hurlers in the Hall of Fame. With so many men having been honored, the bar has been raised extremely high. In today's era of pitch counts and five-man rotations, it seems likely that Cy Young's record for lifetime wins will stand forever at 511. Ed Walsh's ERA of 1.82 in 430 career appearances (mostly for the White Sox in the Deadball Era) will be hard to beat as well. Strikeouts are a category that has been challenged many times in the modern era with flamethrower Nolan Ryan leading the pack at 5,714.

You don't have to have a crystal ball to predict which pitchers are most likely to be enshrined within the next several years. They include the following:
Greg Maddux:
Maddux retired in 2008 with 335 wins, 4 Cy Young Awards and 18 Gold Gloves. He set an all-time record for most consecutive seasons by a pitcher with at least 15 victories (17) and became the all-time leader in putouts. His induction is a foregone conclusion.
Randy Johnson:
Johnson retired in 2009, finishing with 305 career wins and  5 Cy Young Awards. While playing for Arizona in 2002, he won a triple crown with a 24-5 record, 2.32 ERA and 334 strikeouts. He is second on the all-time list to Nolan Ryan with 4,875K's. In his prime, no one was more dominant on the hill.
Tom Glavine
Glavine quietly reached the 300-win threshold, winning at least 15 games ten times while notching 20 victories on five occasions. A ten-time All-Star, he garnered 2 Cy Young Awards. He helped Atlanta to the postseason a slew of times, getting his only World Series ring in 1995.
Mariano Rivera
Many people feel that Mariano Rivera is the greatest relief pitcher ever. It's hard to disagree. Currently playing in his last season, Mariano has racked up more saves than any fireman in history--650 and counting. Presently, he is in the midst of his ninth season with at least 40 saves. He excelled in the postseason over the years, saving 42 games while posting a ridiculous 0.72 ERA. He certainly has my vote for the Hall.    

After these four worthy gentlemen are enshrined, there might be room for a few more pitchers in the gallery. In my opinion, the following three deserve serious consideration:

Pedro Martinez
Martinez was a force to be reckoned with for more than a decade. He finished with a .687 winning percentage and a 2.93 ERA in 476 appearances. His 3,154 strikeouts rank 13th all-time. His strikeouts per innings pitched rank third. He won a triple  crown in '99 with a 23-4 record, 2.07 ERA and 313 strikeouts. An 8-time All-Star, he captured 3 Cy Young Awards.  
John Smoltz:
Smoltz was a Cy Young Award winner in '96 with a 24-8 mark, 2.94 ERA and 276 K's. He won at least 14 games 10 times. An arm injury in 2001 prompted him to become one of the top relievers in the majors for 3 full seasons. He bounced back to become an effective starter again. He is the only player in history with at least 200 wins and 150 saves. He is also the Braves' all-time leader in strikeouts.
Mike Mussina:
Mussina was dazzling defensively with 7 Gold Gloves to his credit. He won at least 15 games 11 times while notching a total of 270 career victories. He closed out his career with a 20-win season for the Yankees. Mussina's 2,813 strikeouts are among the top 20 totals of all-time and his sabermetric scores compare him favorably to Juan Marichal, Jim Palmer, Carl Hubbell and Jim Bunning--Hall of Famers all.    

Players from the past I feel were overlooked to an extent include:
Luis Tiant: 
"El Tiante" won 229 games between 1964 and 1982 (an average of 15 wins per year), finishing with a highly respectable 3.30 ERA. He was a colorful character on the mound and a positive presence in the clubhouse for the Indians, Red Sox and Yankees. He collected at least 20 victories 4 times. He was 3-0 for the Red Sox in the '75 postseason.
Pierce was one of the most dominant pitchers of the '50's with a lifetime record of 211-169. He won at least 14 games 10 times for White Sox teams that were often mediocre. A 7-time All-Star, he might have been Hall-worthy had he played for a powerhouse team like the Yankees instead of toiling in relative anonymity.
Jim Kaat:
 Kaat won 283 games for teams that contended only sporadically over the course of his career. He captured sixteen Gold Gloves consecutively from 1962 through 1977. His Hall of Fame support peaked in 1998 when he got more than 27% of the vote. If he gets in, it will be via the Veteran's Committee.
Tommy John
John was baseball's first bionic man, recovering from the surgery that was named after him. In 26 seasons, he racked up 288 wins (an average of 13 per year). He was a 4-time all-star who compiled a perfect fielding percentage on five occasions. He is ranked #21 on the all-time list for assists and #26 in shutouts.   

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Who Belongs in the Hall? (Part V--Catchers)

To date, the doors of Cooperstown have opened to 13 catchers. Gary Carter, Carlton Fisk and Johnny Bench are the only Hall of Famers who played a portion of their careers beyond the 1970's. Bench leads the pack in homers with 389. Fisk has more hits and runs scored than anyone on the list. Yogi Berra gathered more ribbies than any of his fellow inductees while Mickey Cochrane posted the highest batting average at .320. Voters have been influenced by defensive greatness over the years as evidenced by the presence of three light-hitting Deadball receivers--Roger Bresnahan, Rick Ferrell and Ray Schalk. Many have argued that Ferrell and Schalk were so offensively challenged that they don't even belong on the list.

There is a good chance that the list will grow to 14 at some point in the future as Mike Piazza becomes eligible this year. Though he joins a ballot stuffed with viable holdovers from last year, the position of catcher has been largely overlooked in the past and Piazza was arguably the greatest offensive backstop in history. He holds the positional record for homers  (396) and his 146 intentional walks are an indication of the respect he was afforded at the plate. Rookie of the Year in 1993, Piazza went on to make 12 All-Star appearances while capturing 10 Silver Slugger Awards. He helped 3 different clubs to a total of 5 playoff appearances. Factors that may impede his candidacy include a somewhat weak arm and penchant for committing errors. He led the league in muffs 4 times, but topped the circuit in putouts the same number of times. Despite his defensive shortcomings, I believe that Mike Piazza belongs in the Hall of Fame and he'll get there later if not sooner.

Another catcher who should make it on the first ballot is Ivan Rodriguez, though he won't become eligible for several more years. Rodriguez, who retired in 2011, was a model of defensive excellence, capturing 13 Gold Gloves and establishing the all-time career mark for putouts by a backstop. Extremely durable, he hung around for 21 seasons, making 14 All-Star appearances and capturing an MVP award in 1999. He won a World Series with the Marlins and helped turn the Tigers around in 2006, guiding the club to a Fall Classic appearance that year. Overall, he has a pretty impressive career offensive line with a .296 BA, 311 homers, 1,332 RBI's and 2,844 hits, which included 572 doubles (earning him a rank of #22 on the all-time list). With those credentials, his entry into the Hall is inevitable. 

Catchers I believe have been overlooked in the past include Ted Simmons and Joe Torre. Simmons played 21 seasons, enjoying his peak years between 1971 and 1983. He hung around the majors for about 5 seasons too long. Had he retired at the top of his game in '83, he would have finished a 17-year career with a .292 batting average (which would give him a rank of #6 among Hall of Fame catchers), 222 homers (placing him at #7) and 1,195 RBI's (6th best in the Hall). Simmons was a slightly above average fielder, but he had a weak arm like Piazza. Still, he finished among the all-time top 30 in putouts and double plays turned. Sabermetric scores compare him favorably to inductees Yogi Berra and Carlton Fisk. Torre spent 18 seasons in the majors, hitting .297 with 252 long balls and 1,185 ribbies. He was a 9-time All-Star and an MVP in 1971. His 230 hits, 137 RBI's and .363 batting average were tops in the NL that year. Defensively, Torre was solid, capturing a Gold Glove in 1965 and leading the league in fielding percentage twice. It's a safe bet that Torre will end up with a plaque someday, but it will likely be as a manager. His 4,329 career wins, 6 pennants and 4 World Series championships are too good to ignore.  

Catchers of Cooperstown caliber nowadays are few and far between. Buster Posey of the Giants is off to a good start, having captured Rookie of the Year honors in 2010 and an MVP award in 2012. Currently playing in his fifth season, the 26 year-old was hitting above .300 at the time of this post. Another standout who may get the call someday if he can stay healthy and productive is Joe Mauer of the Twins. 30 years-old and playing in his tenth big league campaign, Mauer has 3 batting titles to his credit along with 3 Gold Gloves, 4 Silver Slugger Awards and 6 All-Star appearances. He was MVP in 2009 and currently owns a .323 lifetime batting average. But catching is a demanding position and Mauer has had his share of injuries. Time will tell.  


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Who Belongs In the Hall? (Part IV--Third Basemen)

Third base is the most overlooked position in the Hall of Fame. Before 1980, there were only six hot corner guardians enshrined at Cooperstown. Since then, five more were added to the mix: Brooks Robinson (1983), Mike Schmidt (1995), George Brett (1999), Wade Boggs (2005) and Ron Santo (2012). Of these five recently added players, four are statistical leaders at their position. Robinson holds the record for most Gold Gloves with 16 (more than any infielder in history). Brett collected 1,596 career RBI's--one more than Schmidt. Schmidt hit more homers than anyone in the group with 548. Boggs leads the pack with a .328 career batting average and .415 on-base percentage.

In examining the list of current candidates, it's a pretty safe bet that we will not see another third baseman in the Hall in the immediate future. There are two players I believe deserve serious consideration when they become eligible down the road:

Scott Rolen
Rolen was Rookie of the Year in 1997. He captured 8 Gold Gloves and was named to 7 All-Star teams. He played in 2 World Series with the Cardinals, coming out on the winning end in 2006. He currently ranks among the top 10 all-time in assists and the top 20 in fielding percentage. Factors that may negatively affect his candidacy include a ton of strikeouts (one per every 5 AB's) and a tendency to get hurt. In 17 seasons, Rolen got into 150 or more games just 5 times.

Chipper Jones
Jones was one of the greatest switch-hitters of all-time. He holds two NL marks among players who swung from both sides of the plate: Most HR's in a single season (45) and most career homers (468). In 19 seasons, he hit .303 and drove in over 1,600 runs while scoring more than 1,600 times. He remained productive even in his later years, capturing a batting title in 2008 at the age of 36. He played for Atlanta throughout his career (an accomplishment in itself) and helped guide the Braves to 3 World Series appearances. He was an 8-time All-Star and MVP winner in '99. In my personal opinion, Jones is the most viable candidate despite his run of the mill defensive work.

Of third basemen currently in the majors, there are several worth mentioning.

Adrian Beltre
Beltre was only 19 years-old when he started in 1998. Today, he is only 34. He has become a more disciplined hitter over the years, topping the .300 mark in 2 of his last 3 campaigns. At the time of this post, he was hitting .326. Beltre led the NL in homers with 48 in 2004. He paced the loop in doubles (49) during the 2010 slate. To date, he has won 4 Gold Gloves and is approaching the 400-homer threshold. He also has more than 2,400 hits. If he can remain productive to the age of 40, he might hit the magic 3,000 mark. We'll see--history has dictated that the last 500 hits are the most difficult to attain.

Aramis Ramirez
Ramirez started the same year as Beltre and is only a year older. He has similar offensive stats, but no Gold Gloves. Arguably, he should have captured the honor in 2006 and 2012, when he led NL third basemen in fielding percentage. As of the present, Ramirez has more than 800 extra-base hits. He has reached the 100 RBI threshold on 7 occasions while topping the .300 mark at the plate the same number of times. Ramirez is currently having a down season due to a knee injury that kept him out of action through most of July. Time will tell if he can regain his old form. 

Miguel Cabrera
Though it's still a bit early to have his plaque cast in bronze, Cabrera is in the midst of a storied career. The first triple crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski, Cabrera has driven in 100 or more runs every year since 2004. In that span, he has clubbed no less than 26 homers per year. He is an 8-time All-Star and 4-time Silver Slugger recipient. He was AL MVP in 2012. At the time of this post, he was leading the league with a torrid .358 batting mark. Barring major injuries or a shockingly sudden decline, this guy is more than halfway to Cooperstown.

Other current players of note include David Wright, Hanley Ramirez and Evan Longoria, though the jury is still out on all three. Players from yesteryear that deserve honorable mention include Graig Nettles (390 career HR's/ 2GG), Darrel Evans (414 career HR's) and Matt Williams (378 career HR's/ 4GG). While I'm at it, I should toss Ron Cey into the fray as well. He was a 6-time All-Star who played on 4 pennant winning squads.