Thursday, January 10, 2013

Baseball Hall of Fame elects no players for first time since 1996

Before steroids came along and made baseball's Hall of Fame voting even messier, the selection process was always too subjective and most voters were badly informed as to what criteria should be used to measure a player's on-field performance over the course of a career. Based on what writers have said about how they determine their votes, it's clear most have a poor understanding of baseball metrics and some seem to be influenced by their personal relationships with the players.

Using sabermetrics, such as Wins Above Replacement (WAR), it's not hard to decide who had a Hall of Fame caliber career and who did not. There still is some room for subjectivity--just where you draw the line. More than 100 WAR is HOF--less than 100 is not? Or more than 60 WAR is in, under is out?

Wherever the bar is set, using WAR is a good way to remove most of the subjectivity. It allows a voter to honestly compare the players on his ballot with everyone who has played the game and everyone already inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Yesterday, with one of the richest ballots in the history of the baseball Hall of Fame, a ballot which included the greatest hitter since Babe Ruth and the greatest pitcher since Walter Johnson, no players were voted in. Not one. Of the 100 greatest players of all time, 8 were on this ballot. All 8 were turned away.

For the first time since 1996, the baseball writers elected no one to the Hall. Among those rejected were Sammy Sosa, the slugger who sits eighth on the all-time home run list and who joined Clemens and Bonds on the ballot for the first time. Mark McGwire, who sits 10th on the all-time home run list, failed again, receiving his lowest percentage in seven years of eligibility.

The common theme in this year's rejections is that writers either know the player used steroids (such as Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds) or writers believe they did. It does not seem to matter to the anti-steroid Puritans that the pitchers Bonds hit home runs off of were juiced; or that the batters Roger Clemens struck out were also taking steroids.

The steroids subjectivity is even worse than the personality subjectivity. Mike Piazza, the greatest hitting catcher in the history of baseball is out, because many believe he won his power with the aid of steroids, regardless of the fact that there is no proof of that. Cal Ripken, who was voted in a few years back and who played about half of his career at a high level in what most people think was the steroid era--frankly, no one knows how long ago the steroid era began; in the NFL, steroid use was reportedly widespread in the 1970s--gets a complete steroid pass because no one has accused Ripken of juicing. But no one really knows.

Another aspect of the performance enhancing drugs question is just what counts as a PED and whether all PEDs deserve equal reprobation. Many hold up Willie Mays as the greatest player of all time in baseball. But Mays played in an era when almost all players used illegal amphetamines to improve their performance. According to multiple accounts, including his own statements, Mays regularly took "red juice" or "greenies." Baseball never tested for these drugs and only recently banned their use. But they were illegal at the time Mays and Mickey Mantle and greats of that era were using those PEDs. Yet you never hear today's anti-steroid Puritans calling for Mays or Mantle to be removed from Cooperstown.

While I am in favor of testing for steroids and other illicit drugs, in order to allow players to compete at the highest level without harming their long-term health, I am not a Puritan. I don't believe it is at all fair to go back and punish Barry Bonds or Mike Piazza because they played in an era in which steroids were not tested for and almost everyone in the game was using them or some other PED. If a player is caught using a banned substance, he should be punished. But whatever a player accomplishes on the field of play should count.

Hopefully, before too long, the best players on yesterday's Hall of Fame ballot will be inducted. We don't need a witch-hunt. We need the best players in the Hall.

Here is a list of the 100 greatest players in the history of baseball in order by WAR. Those 8 who were on the ballot but not selected yesterday are in bold type. Another 15 greats who are not yet eligible but will soon crowd an overly crowded ballot are in green:

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