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On April 22, 2022, the Baseball Hall of Fame revised their rules so that this process will include players from 1980-onward, which they call the “Contemporary Era”. This article analyzes players under the previous model for Veterans’ Committee inductions.
This Fall, the Today’s Game committee will meet to review players for induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame who have previously fallen off the BBWAA ballot, and accrued most of their stats after the 1988 season. In my opinion, based off this letter signed by Hall of Famer Joe Morgan that insinuates the Hall does not want to admit any more alleged steroid users, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, and all other alleged steroid users will not be inducted until the makeup of the veterans committee gets younger, much like how younger writers voted for the alleged steroid users in increasing amounts over recent years. There won’t be anyone associated with steroids voted in this Fall.
However, there are clean players that deserve to be enshrined, and I want to make their cases. It goes without saying that I am not going to review any players within a whisper of steroid usage, but I’m also not bringing up any players who have outstanding character issues. These are players that retired when I was too young to watch them. I’ve never met them, and I can’t predict how the veteran’s committee will vote based on their personalities.
We’ll look at six players, three hitters and three pitchers, that for some reason or another fell off the writer’s ballot, but merit a second look. Some of these players may be considered “worse” than others who are also up for this committee, but these guys all have legitimate cases for and against their candidacy. Finally, let’s remember that baseball has the most exclusive Hall of Fame in North America, so the doors might need to be propped open a bit more for these fringe players.
Jim Edmonds – Center Fielder – St. Louis Cardinals
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Of the players in the Hall of Fame that played in center field for 75% of their career, Jim Edmonds ranks sixth out of 13 in bWAR. Four of those players are inner-circle Hall of Famers: Mays, Speaker, Griffey, and DiMaggio. Former Phillie Richie Ashburn, who only had 29 career homers, is 5th.
All of the Hall of Fame center fielders that rank below Edmonds in WAR played before integration, except for Kirby Puckett and Larry Doby. Edmonds separates himself from the prototypical center fielders with an incredible 393 home run count. For a player that ranks below some of the best players of all time, he is still unique when compared to the other players at his position.
A barrier to Edmonds’ entry is that he only has 1,949 career hits, however Larry Doby recorded 1,687, and Edmonds’ 132 OPS+ also keeps pace with Doby’s 140. Including Puckett and Ashburn in comparison with Doby, Edmonds ranks first in dWAR, first in doubles, first in home runs by a margin of 120, first in RBI, and second in walks behind Ashburn.
Evidenced by his eight Gold Gloves, Edmonds was a superior defender for the majority of his career, which lasted 17 seasons, while remaining a preeminent slugger. Jim Edmonds won a World Series in St. Louis in 2006, and with a .874 playoff OPS in 64 games, he helped his teams through deep playoff runs. It’s a travesty that Jim Edmonds fell off the writer’s ballot after only one season.
John Olerud – First Baseman – Toronto Blue Jays
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Gil Hodges’ induction through the Veterans Committee in 2021 legitimizes John Olerud’s Hall of Fame candidacy. Although part of Hodges’ appeal was his championship winning managerial career, as a player he still ranks far below Olerud’s comparables in virtually every rate and value metric. Willie McCovey was a superstar first basemen compared to Olerud, but Olerud’s accomplishments can still put up a fight.
While McCovey’s Win Probability Added total is almost 40 points higher than Olerud’s, it’s also that much higher than other Hall of Fame first basemen Orlando Cepeda and Hank Greenberg, however Olerud bests McCovey in career hits. Olerud’s -1.4 dWAR looks much more palatable than McCovey’s -21.6 as well.
When leaving McCovey out, Olerud still stacks up very well against the previously mentioned Hodges, Cepeda, and Greenberg. Olerud was the best defender of that group. He had the lowest strikeout percentage with the highest walk percentage.
For counting stats, Olerud ranks behind Cepeda in hits and total bases, given his consistent longevity in MLB, and ranks first in doubles. Olerud was a fine playoff hitter at an .801 OPS in 66 games, and he won two World Series titles. Finally, and most notably, Olerud’s 58.2 WAR is the best out of that group, and it still only trails Willie McCovey’s 64.5.
The Hall of Fame’s first basemen are a crowded group, but most of those men played before the live-ball era, John Olerud would still rank 11th out of 21 in bWAR out of all Hall of Fame first basemen. Even with a career .170 ISO at a power position, his impressive defense and longevity, while being a unique, fun player with playoff success, should warrant Olerud’s inclusion in the Hall of Fame.
Jason Kendall – Catcher – Pittsburgh Pirates
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Jason Kendall is the only player in MLB history to record more than 2,000 hits and a career on-base percentage of above .350 at catcher. He represents unprecedented longevity at a position that puts incredible stress on the mind and body. Of catchers not already in the Hall of Fame, or not currently eligible that played over 85% of their games at the position, Kendall ranks 4th in bWAR behind Thurman Munson, Bill Freehan, and Jorge Posada. Those are all superstar names, and it’s surprising they don’t already have plaques. Especially when there have only been five catchers inducted with a rookie year after 1965: Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Ivan Rodriguez, Mike Piazza, and Carlton Fisk.
In terms of how his numbers stack up against those players, Kendall has more career hits than three of the six post-integration catchers, which includes Yogi Berra. He has more stolen bases than any Hall of Fame catcher. When you look at the bulk of Kendall’s production from his first nine seasons in Pittsburgh, he matches many of the post-1965 greats’ first nine years.
He’s first in hits, triples, and stolen bases. He showcases great vision and control around the plate being last in strikeouts and first in walks, while also being an HBP merchant, leading the pack by 137 beanballs. Framing metrics have recently painted Kendall’s defense in a positive light, but for the sake of a level playing field, he’s only slightly better than Mike Piazza in dWAR.
For how the committee should view him this fall, Jason Kendall has at least 400 more hits than any other catcher up for review. Some may argue that Kendall has more than 3,000 more plate appearances than someone like Roy Campanella, and about 1,000 more than the other fringe catchers, but that just shows Kendall’s knees were made of steel.
Even with his low slugging percentage, he still ended up with nearly as many total bases as Posada, with more doubles, and the lowest strikeout rate between the fringe guys. Kendall stepped up defensively later in his career as well, finishing with less dWAR than only Jim Sundberg and Lance Parrish.
Jason Kendall will be looked at by the committee this fall to begin to repair the underrepresentation of modern catchers. Kendall compares well to current Hall of Famers in some cases, but really shines when you take a look at his contemporaries.
Johan Santana – Starting Pitcher – Minnesota Twins
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Johan Santana is the statistical Sandy Koufax of his time. The lefty flamethrowers are inextricably linked by their similar statistics and wholly unlucky injury histories. However while Koufax was lauded as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, Santana had only one year on the ballot. Nearly all of their surface-level stats are identical. Koufax has the edge on some counting stats by virtue of 300 more innings pitched, but Santana bests him in rate stats like ERA+ and his strikeout-to-walk-ratio. Santana’s WAR and WPA follow closely behind Koufax’s as well.
As someone who was just a kid when Santana was the most dominant pitcher in baseball, I don’t know if I can appreciate him as much as I should. From 2004 to 2006, Santana was the best pitcher in baseball. He averaged 250 strikeouts a season, had a winning percentage of 74%, and he had a WHIP below one.
He allowed 146 walks to only 212 earned runs during that stretch. Of pitchers that pitched over 300 innings during that stretch, Santana had the highest strikeout rate and a top 20 walk rate, he had the most wins, second best ERA and FIP, and his opponent batter OPS+ was a measly 53.
The elephant in the room is Sandy Koufax’s non-sabermetric appeal; his accolades, postseason success, and overall notoriety for his dominance during the golden years of America’s pastime. Santana was similarly dominant during his apex, winning two Cy Young awards and an ERA crown with four All-Star Game appearances.
Those are dwarfed by Koufax’s gildings, but a deeper dive shows that Santana should have won the 2005 Cy Young against Bartolo Colon and become the first AL pitcher to win the award three consecutive seasons.
Santana underperformed in the postseason opportunities he had early in his career, and by the time he had reached his supernatural form, the Twins and Mets let him down. I’m not saying these two careers should be treated the same, but they are similar, and Johan Santana’s unprecedented peak in the post-steroid era should warrant more than 2.8 percent of BBWAA writers thinking he’s a Hall of Famer.
Bret Saberhagen – Starting Pitcher – Kansas City Royals
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Some of Saberhagen’s best seasons come before 1988, and that may be a sticking point for the Today’s Game Committee, but he has to be considered somehow. For the first ten years of his career, the two-time Cy Young winner was only outpaced by Roger Clemens in bWAR. For the entire span of his career from 1984 and 1999, only Greg Maddux and David Cone have more bWAR.
When it looked like he had flamed out in the mid-90s, he returned at the height of the steroid era in 1998 and 1999 with a HR/9 rate of around one; worse than his career average, but more than respectable in that era.
Bret Saberhagen was a master of limiting walks and inducing ground balls. With his pitching profile and injury history, he was not able to rack up counting stats like strikeouts, but his rate metrics are solid.
Saberhagen was an inconsistent pitcher, but he had the ability to put up three of the top 200 single-season pitching performances by bWAR since integration. Those incredible peaks buoy some dips below superstardom in the years in between, but Saberhagen still averaged a bit less than five bWAR per year during his ten-year prime.
To add to his accumulated statistical success, Saberhagen made it to the All-Star Game three times, earned a Gold Glove, and won an ERA crown. Saberhagen had mixed postseason success other than his age-21 season in which he took home World Series MVP after the Royals’ first title in 1985.
Given the stance the veteran’s committee has on steroid users, Saberhagen’s case should be boosted. With the exception of Maddux, many of Saberhagen’s contemporaries are considered cheaters. Roger Clemens and Kevin Brown were both named in the Mitchell Report, while Orel Hershiser and David Cone have had controversies of their own. If committee voting is consistent with the statements made, Bret Saberhagen should be seriously considered for the Hall of Fame as an inner-circle pitcher of the 1980s and 90s.
Jonathan Papelbon – Relief Pitcher – Boston Red Sox
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The fact that Bruce Sutter is a Hall of Famer means there should be more relief pitchers that have made it in. Joe Nathan (and Francisco Rodriguez who is not yet eligible) is someone that should eventually earn a plaque if Billy Wagner is inducted, but some of the other guys are underrated. Troy Percival, John Franco, and John Wetteland were all masters in the art of the save, but their achievements pale in comparison to a player that sits in between Hall of Fame candidacy and obscurity, Jonathan Papelbon.
Compared to the aforementioned relievers besides Nathan, Papelbon had the greatest peak, but lacked longevity. His three true outcome metrics are split just the way you would want them to be. He has the highest SO-BB% and lowest HR/FB%, and his career ERA+ is nearly 30 points higher than Wetteland or Rodriguez. He was a six time All-Star, however he was never named the best reliever in MLB.
Papelbon didn’t allow a run in the postseason in 25 of 27 career innings and won a World Series with Boston. His career was a bit short, but his rate stats beat out his contemporaries and other candidates, he wouldn’t be an outlier when compared to Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter, and now that relievers have become so ubiquitous in our game, their induction rate should begin to rise. Jonathan Papelbon deserves another look.