My 2018 Hall of Fame ballot

You can call the system flawed, you can argue whether steroids users should be in or out, you can debate whether it’s more important to have been a consistent performer for 15 years or an elite performer for eight years, you can complain about who gets a vote and who doesn’t get a vote.

Here’s what you can’t argue, though: The Baseball Hall of Fame matters.

It matters to so many people, from the players themselves to those who work in the game to those who are entrusted to submit ballots to those who simply are lifelong fans and love to get wrapped up in this annual exercise. No other Hall of Fame in any other sport can match baseball’s Hall in terms of history, passion or significance. That’s what makes it so special.

nats-nationals-park-overhead.jpgAnd that’s what makes the task of voting so daunting. This was the eighth year I’ve been eligible to vote - you need to have been a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association for 10 consecutive years - and it never gets any easier. There are the simple decisions of choosing players based on playing performance (which actually aren’t that simple). There are the complex decisions of choosing how to treat players with varying degrees of connections to performance enhancing drugs. There are, for many, decisions about how to pare down the list to 10 (the maximum number allowed by the Hall of Fame to appear on any single ballot).

And there is the always complicated interpretation of the six criteria that were first supplied by the Hall of Fame eight decades ago: “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”

Good luck getting more than 400 sportswriters to find consensus on how to interpret that 23-word sentence.

As difficult as it all is, somehow we always find a way to induct the very best of the best. We’re not perfect, but we get it right way more than we get it wrong. It’s hard to get into the Hall of Fame; a player needs to be named on at least 75 percent of all ballots submitted. And it should be hard. This isn’t an honor to be given lightly.

So it was especially encouraging to learn this evening that four of the greatest to ever play this game earned election in 2018: Chipper Jones, Vladimir Guerrero, Jim Thome and Trevor Hoffman. It’s a large class that will be joined in Cooperstown by Jack Morris and Alan Trammell (elected last month by the Modern Baseball Era committee) in July for should be a spectacular induction ceremony. You can view the full voting results here.

As always, it’s a privilege to be able to participate in this process. And as always, it’s important for voters to be accountable for their decisions. So here you go: My thought process and decision on all 33 players who appeared on this year’s ballot ...

I guess there’s no easing into this exercise this year, no token first-timer or other boring player whose last name starts with A or B to break the ice before we get into the meaty discussion. So, here we go ... Of course Bonds had a Hall of Fame career. He’s the all-time home run champ. (And yes, I do consider him the holder of that title. No matter how he hit 762 home runs, you can’t dispute the fact that he did actually hit 762 home runs.) He’s the all-time leader in walks. He’s fourth all-time in OPS and total bases, fifth all-time in RBIs. In the history of the game, only Pete Rose has reached base more times. Bonds won seven MVPs. Alas, he also took PEDs. This is not up for reasonable debate. No, he never failed a drug test. But he did admit to a grand jury he took “the cream” and “the clear” (though he claimed he didn’t know they were PEDs) and the reporting on him in the book “Game of Shadows” is extensive and convincing. He knowingly cheated and broke U.S. law in a selfish attempt to enhance his own career, earning potential and fame. He knew it was wrong. If he didn’t know it was wrong, he would’ve had no trouble admitting to it all this time. The Hall of Fame instructs us to consider - in addition to a player’s on-field performance - his “integrity, sportsmanship, character.” Whether you believe that should be part of the criteria is a different debate. Fact is, it is part of the criteria. And I choose to adhere to the Hall of Fame’s wishes. I cannot in good conscience argue that Bonds displayed “integrity, sportsmanship, character” in his playing of the game. And so he continues to not receive my vote, and he remains well shy of induction, receiving 56.4 percent support this year.

A late-bloomer in Toronto (49-50, 4.83 ERA in 152 games), Carpenter morphed into a legitimate ace in St. Louis (95-44, 3.07 ERA in 198 games). He might’ve even built a legitimate case for Cooperstown if not for back-to-back, injury-plagued seasons in 2007-08, just as he was reaching his peak. Even so, he enjoyed a fine career and was instrumental in helping the Cardinals win two World Series titles.

It’s impossible not to link Bonds and Clemens together, because they present nearly identical Hall of Fame cases. Both had already amassed Cooperstown-worthy careers before they reportedly began taking PEDs. Both elevated themselves to the status of “Greatest Ever” after reportedly beginning to take PEDs, dominating through their late 30s and even into their 40s. So it’s not surprising that both have received nearly identical vote percentages over the years, slowly rising together in the last few years as more older writers lose their voting privileges and more younger writers join the mix. My position on Clemens remains the same as it’s been throughout his six years on the ballot: The Mitchell Report and Andy Pettitte’s undisputed testimony provided convincing evidence Clemens took PEDs. It doesn’t matter what kind of pitcher he still would have been without taking them. It does matter that he took them in the first place, and in doing so threatened the integrity of the game. Bonds and Clemens are getting closer to Cooperstown, and maybe in a few more years they’ll finally get there. I just can’t help but wonder who exactly out there really wants to celebrate them. For now, not nearly enough do, as evidenced by Clemens’ 57.3 percent support.

A very good player on some very good teams, Damon racked up 2,769 hits, 522 doubles, 235 homers, 1,668 runs and 408 stolen bases. Very good. But his .284 career batting average ranked 100th among all major leaguers during his career and his .352 on-base percentage ranked 139th. For a guy with that many hits and doubles in his career, you may be surprised to learn he only had 200 hits in a season once, and he only had 40 doubles in a season once. Yes, Damon was a very good player on some very good teams. But he did not reach the next level of greatness required to earn a place in Cooperstown.

It was disappointing to many when Guerrero (71.7 percent) came up just short of election last year, but on the bright side that all but guaranteed his election this year. (He coasted in at 92.9 percent). And why wouldn’t you want this guy in Cooperstown? He’s one of only six players in history to bat at least .318 with at least 449 homers, joining a who’s who of Hall of Famers: Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial and Jimmie Foxx. Vlady was a legitimate five-tool player, possessing one of the greatest arms in right field the game has ever seen. Perhaps he lost some of those defensive and baserunning skills during the second half of his career in Anaheim, but he remained a fantastic hitter right through the end. In 15 full major league seasons, he topped the .300 mark 13 times. And the two times he didn’t? He batted .290 and .295. What a player.

If you’ve read me over the years, you know I forever have the softest of spots for this guy. There’s no question Hernandez is my favorite player I’ve ever covered. Why? Because he was always interesting, both as a pitcher and as a person. No two starts of his were ever the same. No two interviews of his were ever the same. No, a 178-177 record and 4.44 ERA doesn’t merit even a second of consideration for Cooperstown, but that’s OK. Livo, you’ll always be special to a lot of fans and media members alike.

It’s really hard for relievers to get into the Hall of Fame, and that’s fine. It should be hard. But there absolutely should be a place in Cooperstown for the very best relievers, especially given their growing significance in the sport over the last two decades. And during that time, Hoffman was undoubtedly the second-best reliever in the game, surpassed only by the greatest of all-time (Mariano Rivera). So it’s especially encouraging to see enough voters get Hoffman over the 75 percent threshold this time, recognizing that his 601 saves and 88.8 percent save percentage made him among the very best ever at his position. (He got 79.9 percent.) And that’s really what the Hall of Fame is supposed to recognize, right? The very best ever at their position. Hoffman meets that qualification.

Hey, remember when the Nationals seemed to be hot after this guy for several winters in a row? It’s probably best the second baseman never wound up in D.C., because his career fizzled quickly after a solid, four-year run with the Diamondbacks and Dodgers. Hudson hit just .204 with a .572 OPS in 2012 with the Padres and White Sox and wound up retiring at 34.

After toiling away for a decade playing for bad Tampa Bay and Baltimore clubs, Huff suddenly became a cult hero in San Francisco in 2010, helping lead the Giants to their first World Series title in 56 years. He regressed considerably after that but still won a second ring with the Giants two years later before retiring.

One of three members of the colossal bust of Mets pitching prospects of the mid-90s known as “Generation K,” Isringhausen did still put together a very productive career as a quality reliever with the A’s and Cardinals. He finished with 300 saves, plus 11 more in the postseason. Paul Wilson and Bill Pulsipher? History wasn’t nearly as kind to them.

How many years does a player need to play at an elite level to merit induction into the Hall of Fame? Seven? Ten? Thirteen? More? I honestly don’t know if there’s a correct answer to this question. Here’s what I do know: For nine years, Jones played at an elite level that put him on track for Hall of Fame induction. He was a brilliant center fielder who won 10 Gold Glove Awards and a slugger who topped 35 homers five times. He was only 29 at the time, with plenty of career left in front of him. And then ... he disappeared. Jones played six more seasons but in that time hit .214 with a .734 OPS and diminished defensive skills. His career was over at 35. And so, alas, he falls into that unfortunate group of players that also includes Don Mattingly and Dale Murphy. They were on track for the Hall of Fame, but they just couldn’t sustain it long enough.

Where to begin? How about with this stat: Only seven players in baseball history produced a .300/.400/.500 offensive slash line over 10,000 or more plate appearances. They are George Herman Ruth, Stanley Frank Musial, Frank Edward Thomas, Melvin Thomas Ott, Tyrus Raymond Cobb, Tristam E. Speaker and Larry Wayne Jones. That’s quite a list (and not simply because of those amazing birth names). Chipper consistently was one of the best hitters in the game and retired as one of the three best switch-hitters of all-time (joining Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray). It’s no surprise, then, that he cruised in his first year on the ballot - 97.2 percent support - and will be enshrined in Cooperstown this summer.

I get the argument for him, I really do. No second baseman ever hit more homers than he did. Only Rogers Hornsby had a higher slugging percentage. Here’s the problem: While he was the best-hitting second baseman of his time, he wasn’t even close to being among the best hitters of his time. Everybody hit for power during Kent’s career, which is why he actually ranked 49th among all major leaguers in slugging percentage from 1992-2008, behind Carlos Lee and J.D. Drew. And given how little else he brought to the table - he didn’t hit for average, he didn’t run the bases well, he didn’t play a decent second base - that one big skill of his isn’t enough for me.

Speaking of “El Caballo” ... he was no slouch at the plate. Over an 11-year stretch, he averaged 29 homers, 101 RBIs and a .289 batting average. His lack of defensive skills made him a one-trick pony. But that one trick was still pretty good.

Lidge had three absolutely brilliant seasons closing for the Astros (2004-05) and Phillies (2008) and got to experience the thrill of recording a World Series-clinching strikeout. But his career featured so many highs and lows, and then came to a screeching halt after he posted a 9.64 ERA in 11 games for the 2012 Nationals. It’s a good reminder just how tough it is to sustain elite success as a major league reliever. Which only underscores just how great Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner were, in my humble opinion.

If you believe he didn’t play enough - only 8,674 plate appearances - to merit a spot, OK. I disagree, but OK. But if you believe he doesn’t merit a spot because he was a designated hitter, I’m not OK with that. Look, I’m a lifelong National League guy, but guess what? The DH has been in the American League for 44 years now and it’s not going away anytime soon. The Hall of Fame is supposed to recognize the very best ever at each position. And there’s no question Martinez was one of the very best ever at his position. Would he have been a more complete player had he started more than 562 games in the field? Yes. But just as we’ve come to respect the importance of relievers in the modern game - even though they pitch dramatically fewer innings than starters - it’s time to respect the DH as well. The voters aren’t there quite yet; Martinez got 70.4 percent support. But that puts him in very good position for election next year.

Matsui came over to the majors in 2003 as one of the first Japanese sluggers, and received all kinds of fanfare for it. And he lived up to the hype for several years, averaging 21 homers, 92 RBIs and an .856 OPS through his first five seasons with the Yankees. Alas, because he didn’t debut in America until he was 28, he already was well into his 30s by the second half of what proved to be only a 10-year big league career. has a formula that calculates the “most similar” players to any one individual, based on similar career trajectories. The most similar to Matsui? Kevin Millar, Adam Lind, Jacque Jones and Dmitri Young. I just felt like that was a list worth sharing.

I struggle with this one every year, because I admit the Crime Dog keeps getting a raw deal. He put up numbers worthy of serious Hall of Fame consideration (493 homers, 1,550 RBIs, .509 slugging percentage), but gets lost in the shuffle because he had the misfortune of playing at a time when so many other sluggers put up bigger numbers, some of them with the aid of PEDs. Shouldn’t McGriff, whose name has never even been whispered in connection with steroids, be rewarded while the cheaters of his era are punished? Well, no, I just can’t go that far. As I’ve said many times, no matter what any of those other guys took, they still hit all those homers and drove in all those runs. You can’t take that away from them. You can choose not to honor them because of their cheating. But you can’t say all those guys still didn’t put up better numbers than McGriff did. I feel for him, and for his supporters, though. I genuinely do.

Overshadowed by the trio of Hall of Famers that joined him in the Braves rotation in the late ’90s and early ’00s, Millwood was no slouch. He wasn’t elite, but he was a workhorse who made 28 or more starts 12 times and maintained a slightly better than league average ERA.

Only knuckleballer Phil Neikro made more starts and was credited with more wins in his 40s than Moyer, who incredibly made 251 starts and won 105 games after he was already over the hill. Only one of those seasons (2003 with Seattle) was particularly good, but the lefty’s extraordinary longevity will forever make him remembered fondly.

My toughest decision every year, and with each passing year I’m moving more into the minority on this one. The argument for Mussina is that he was a consistently excellent pitcher for 18 seasons, he was a successful pitcher at the height of the steroids era and he had the deck stacked against him because he pitched in the brutal American League East his entire career. OK, I get it. But here’s why I still can’t push him over the hump. First, while he was consistently very good, he rarely was great. He finished in the top six in Cy Young Award voting eight times, but only once finished in the top three. He finished in the top six in ERA 10 times, but only once finished higher than third. He’s 20th all-time in strikeouts, but only once finished higher than third in the AL. As for the “brutal AL East” argument, it honestly isn’t supported by stats. From 1991-2000, the Yankees ranked second in the AL in team OPS, with the Orioles (who Mussina never faced because he pitched for them) ranking fifth, the Red Sox ranking seventh, the Blue Jays eighth and the Devil Rays 15th (they only existed for the final three seasons). From 2001-08, the Red Sox ranked first in the AL in team OPS, with the Yankees (who Mussina never faced because he pitched for them) ranking second, the Blue Jays sixth, the Orioles 12th and the Rays 13th. So if we consider that to be eight different division opponents (four apiece while pitching for each of his teams), Mussina wound up facing only two consistently great lineups, three average ones and three bad ones in his career. In short, he didn’t really have it any tougher than any of his contemporaries. In the end, I think it’s accurate to say that Mussina was somewhere between the eighth- and 10th-best pitchers of his time. That’s something to be proud of, but it’s not enough to get into Cooperstown, in my opinion. The way things are trending - 63.5 percent support this year - it looks like he’s going to get there sometime in the next few years. And if he does, I’ll take no issue with it. I just haven’t been convinced yet he’s earned my vote.

There’s no debating his stats. Shoot, he might have been the best right-handed hitter in 75 years. You have to go all the way back to Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg and Rogers Hornsby to find a right-handed batter with an OPS higher than Ramirez’s .996 mark. Alas, Manny threw it all away by not once but twice getting suspended for a positive drug test. Even voters who support Bonds and Clemens draw the line here, accounting for Ramirez’s vastly lower percentage every year he’s been on the ballot.

I’m not sure I expected Rolen to be among the most-debated names on this year’s ballot, but it’s clear he was. The reason for the debate: He falls into that dicey category of a player whose traditional stats are good but whose advanced metrics are great. Much of the argument for Rolen is his defense at third base, which was spectacular. Combine that with his steady offensive production and he ends up with Hall of Fame WAR numbers. (From 1996-2012, Rolen trailed only Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Barry Bonds, Chipper Jones and Derek Jeter in WAR.) That’s impressive. Why, though, was Rolen not recognized as one of the game’s elite all-around players at the time? I’m not saying MVP votes are critical to a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy, but it certainly struck me as noteworthy that Rolen only received MVP votes four times and only finished better than 14th once. I also thought it was interesting that when ranking players of his time in Defensive WAR, Rolen ranked fifth, just behind Jack Wilson and just ahead of Placido Polanco. I get the argument for him, but I think we need to be careful about putting so much weight on WAR and defensive metrics, the creators of which even admit are flawed. I will definitely reconsider his case next year and beyond, but for now I still view him as something short of a Hall of Famer.

The Andruw Jones of pitchers. If you asked me in December 2010 whether Santana was going to be a Hall of Famer, I would have said yes without thinking twice. He was the best pitcher in baseball over the previous seven seasons, going 110-57 with a 2.87 ERA, a 1.063 WHIP, two Cy Young Awards and two more third-place finishes. But then the lefty’s shoulder gave out, and his career basically came to an abrupt halt. He missed all of 2011, returned to the Mets in 2012 but had a 4.85 ERA in 21 starts (one of them a 134-pitch no-hitter) and never pitched again. If only he could have continued on a bit longer and been effective. Sadly, we’ll forever be left wondering what if when it comes to one of the most promising left-handers of modern times. (For what it’s worth:’s formula lists Max Scherzer as the pitcher most similar to Santana. We’ve heard a lot in the last few months about how Scherzer is now on a Hall of Fame track. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have some work to do.)

I wrote this last year, but I feel the need to write it again: Schilling has said, written, tweeted and re-tweeted offensive, demeaning and bigoted things in the last few years, and I denounce all of it and have no respect for him as a result of him conveying those thoughts. But I continue to vote for him because I believe his pitching performance over a standout career merits it. Though his career was erratic, his peaks were plentiful and secured his place as one of a handful of the best pitchers in baseball at the time. His 4.38 strikeout-to-walk ratio is the best in baseball history for anyone who pitched more than 10 seasons. And his performance in the postseason - 11-2, 2.23 ERA in 19 starts - elevates him into an even loftier place in the sport’s history. What about the Hall’s “character clause,” you ask? Well, I choose to interpret that as pertaining only to a player’s character, integrity and sportsmanship within the confines of the game itself. Taking PEDs threatened the integrity of the game and showed poor character and sportsmanship on the field. Expressing horribly offensive beliefs off the field (and especially post-retirement) did not have any impact on the game being played. I think Curt Schilling, the player, deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. But if it ever happens, I will not be celebrating Curt Schilling, the man.

I have to admit, I’m always surprised by those who vehemently argue for the inclusion of PED users in the Hall of Fame yet don’t vote for Sheffield. Have they forgotten just how great a hitter he was? Let’s refresh their memory: 509 homers, a .292 batting average, .393 on-base percentage and .514 slugging percentage. He’s one of only nine players in history to boast those numbers, and the only others on that list who aren’t in the Hall of Fame are named Bonds and Ramirez. Now, Sheffield disqualifies himself in my book because he admitted in 2004 to taking a testosterone-based steroid supplied by BALCO. But let’s not try to suggest he wasn’t a great hitter nonetheless.

Speaking of great hitters who don’t get the same credit other PED users do ... again, I don’t believe Sosa deserves to be in the Hall of Fame because - according to a New York Times report that has never been questioned - he tested positive for PEDs in 2003. But if you’re OK with steroid users in Cooperstown, then Sosa absolutely needs to be enshrined. He was an iconic slugger who was one of the faces of baseball for nearly a decade, No. 9 on the all-time home run list. (Though the whole corked bat thing doesn’t help his case, either.)

Given how many tough decisions there were on this year’s ballot, it was nice to have a simple decision like this one. Of course, Thome is a Hall of Famer. His 612 home runs rank eighth all-time. His .956 OPS ranks 18th all-time. He’s one of only 14 players in history with a .400 on-base percentage and a .550 slugging percentage. (The only non-Hall of Famers on that list: Barry Bonds, Manny Ramirez, Mike Trout and Larry Walker.) And Thome was no compiler of stats; he consistently put up big-time offensive numbers throughout his career, all without ever raising suspicion about what he was putting into his body. Congrats to the big guy on his worthy election; he was named on 89.8 percent of ballots.

I knew from the outset this one was going to be tough. Because there’s just no good, empirical way to evaluate Vizquel’s career. His case - that he was the best defensive player of his generation and one of the best of all-time - can’t easily be supported by stats. It’s built on the eyes and words of those who played alongside him and those who watched him day-in and day-out over a remarkable, 24-year career. I respect those first-hand opinions, but I also believe there should be some statistical evidence to support them. And so I did some digging. And what I found was that, based on the limited defensive metrics we have at this point, Vizquel was an elite defensive player but not on the short list of the very best defensive players. Vizquel ranks 10th all-time in Defensive WAR, a stat with a top three of Ozzie Smith, Mark Belanger and Brooks Robinson. Vizquel ranked in the top five in Defensive WAR only four times in his career, ranking in the top-two only twice. Smith, for comparison’s sake, was No. 1 in Defensive WAR six times during his career, No. 2 three times and No. 3 three more times. Vizquel totaled 28.4 dWAR in 24 big league seasons, an average of 1.2. Smith totaled 43.4 dWAR in 19 seasons, an average of 2.3. Luis Aparicio totaled 31.6 dWAR in 18 seasons, an average of 1.8. Vizquel never led his league in assists, something Smith did eight times. Vizquel is baseball’s all-time leader in double plays, but he only led his league once, something Smith did five times. Look, I’m not saying Omar Vizquel needed to be Ozzie Smith’s equal in the field to make it to Cooperstown. But I do think the gap shouldn’t be nearly as large as it is. It’s really, really, really hard to get into the Hall of Fame based almost entirely on defense. Only a handful ever have. Vizquel’s case doesn’t quite measure up to the others.

My argument in support of Wagner has remained consistent through each of his three years on the ballot: He was every bit as great of a reliever as Hoffman, in some cases even better. The only pitcher since 1933 to own an ERA better than Wagner’s 2.31 career mark is Mariano Rivera. No pitcher who threw at least 500 innings in the majors had a lower WHIP than Wagner’s 0.998 mark. If there’s a knock on Wagner, it’s that he didn’t quite match the longevity of Rivera or Hoffman. Even so, he pitched 16 seasons in the big leagues, the final 14 of them as an elite closer. Yes, he had a 1.43 ERA and 37 saves in his final season (2010 with the Braves). While it’s great that Hoffman is now heading to Cooperstown, it’s too bad more voters don’t believe Wagner deserves to join him there.

You never know who’s going to be the next player who starts out receiving only modest Hall of Fame support but then starts getting promoted by those who vote for him, only to create a growing bandwagon. It happened to Bert Blyleven. It happened to Tim Raines. And it’s now happening to Walker. For the record, I’ve voted for him each of the eight years he’s been on the ballot. I’m glad to see more voters recognizing his greatness. How great? Well, let’s start with a stat I mentioned earlier: Walker is one of only 14 players in history with a .400 on-base percentage and .550 slugging percentage. The only non-Hall of Famers on that list, now that Thome has been elected: Barry Bonds, Manny Ramirez and Mike Trout. Walker was a three-time batting champ, but he also won seven Gold Glove Awards and stole 230 bases. Were his numbers boosted by calling Coors Field home? Yes, but not as much as you might think. In his career away from Coors, Walker still hit .282/.372/.500. That’s a .500 slugging percentage away from the thin Colorado air, equivalent to Ernie Banks’ career slugging percentage. We like to penalize players for hitting so well at Coors Field, yet we don’t ever penalize players for pitching so well in huge ballparks. (I’ve used this before, but Sandy Koufax had a 1.37 ERA at Dodger Stadium, a 3.38 ERA everywhere else.) Walker was a great all-around player, both before, during and after he played for the Rockies. And he deserves to be recognized as such.

I was a senior at Northwestern in the spring of 1998 when a phenom rookie right-hander made his major league debut for the Cubs and set the world on fire. I vividly remember watching his 20-strikeout game against the Astros - in only his fifth career start! - and then watching as every one of his starts after that became a major event in Chicago, with walk-up ticket sales through the roof. Twelve years later, I covered Stephen Strasburg’s electric debut and thought to myself: “Every fifth day now is going to be an event like it was for Kerry Wood.” It was ... until Strasburg (like Wood) blew out his elbow at 21. Strasburg has been fortunate enough to avoid more major injuries since. Wood wasn’t so fortunate, denying the world the opportunity to watch a phenom develop into a Hall of Famer.

The guy could hit, I’ll give him that. Unfortunately, he made his living as a pitcher.

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