Hall of Fame Predictions: 2008

Jim Vail checks in with his yearly Baseball Hall-of-Fame vote predictions. The banquet may feature Goose served with Rice and a huge side dish of steroids. Mark McGwire will likely be served another piece of humble pie.

When baseball Hall of Famers gather at Cooperstown, New York for their annual post-induction banquet next summer, the most appropriate entrée for the menu will be goose with wild rice -- that is, a really large, muscular goose, fattened by a combination of steroid injections and growth hormone.

 

Such a menu will be dictated because, although the results of the 2008 Cooperstown voting by the Baseball Writers Association of America (to be announced at 2:00 P.M. Eastern time on Tuesday, January 8) should confirm the elections of relief pitcher Goose Gossage and outfielder Jim Rice, the outcome will be overshadowed by the fact that the Hall of Fame process itself will be mired ever more deeply than before in baseball's current performance-enhancement debacle.

 

Gossage, who likely will receive the most votes on this year's ballot, and Rice -- both of whom were integral to the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry of the mid 1970s through early 1980s -- appear to be the only men with a legitimate shot at election among a list of 25 names which, due mainly to the group of newcomers on the ballot, is perhaps the weakest set of candidates in the last decade or more. 

 

In his ninth year on the ballot, Gossage will, if elected, become only the fifth relief-pitching specialist chosen for Cooperstown, joining Hoyt Wilhelm (chosen in 1985), Rollie Fingers (1992), Dennis Eckersley (2004) and Bruce Sutter (2006).  Gossage's election seems almost assured, but Rice's enshrinement is less-certain and he seems likely to fall just above or below the cusp of the 75-percent support required.  If Rice fails election this time, 2009 will mark his fifteenth and final year of BBWAA eligibility.

 

But, regardless of the outcome for either man, the most imposing aspect of this year's voting -- one which seems destined to plague the Hall of Fame selection process for at least two decades to come -- is the degree to which the Cooperstown process has become prisoner to, and tainted by baseball's ongoing performance-enhancement scandal.  As a result, the signal numbers in this year's results, which should prove far more historically significant to subsequent HOF voting than Gossage and/or Rice's election, will involve whether first baseman Mark McGwire improves or declines dramatically from his dismal 23.5-percent support of 2007, and whether or not second baseman Chuck Knoblauch and outfielder David Justice -- two ballot newcomers implicated in the steroids scandal by the recent Mitchell Report -- receive any votes at all.

Under normal circumstances, McGwire's 583 home runs would have guaranteed his first-ballot election in 2007.  But the stigma of his admitted use of androstenedione in 1998, his apparent "outing" as a steroid user by former teammate Jose Canseco, and his evasive testimony before Congress in 2005 caused him to fall far short of election.  As for Knoblauch and Justice, while neither man was ever in danger of being elected to Cooperstown, they both enjoyed the kind of careers that usually draw a few token votes -- perhaps just enough to remain on the ballot for a second time in a year of weak candidates.  So, if McGwire's support percentage declines and neither Knoblauch nor Justice receives any votes at all, it will be indicative that the BBWAA is drawing a hard-line standard with regard to real or suspected steroid/HGH use.  Any other outcome -- McGwire's support increasing and/or Knoblauch and Justice receiving the token support they could have expected without their steroid linkage -- will probably be evidence that the BBWAA membership lacks any firm consensus about how to deal with the issue.

 

The ballot for 2008 includes 14 holdovers from previous voting, 10 men in their first year eligible and one man who was on the ballot in 2001 but has not been since.  The 2008 holdovers include first basemen McGwire and Don Mattingly, shortstops Dave Concepcion and Alan Trammell, outfielders Rice, Andre Dawson, Dale Murphy and Dave Parker, designated hitter Harold Baines, starting pitchers Bert Blyleven, Tommy John and Jack Morris, plus closers Gossage and Lee Smith.  Concepcion, the acrobatic shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds of the 1970s, is in his fifteenth and final year of BBWAA eligibility.

 

Among the weakest group of ballot newcomers in recent memory are second baseman Knoblauch, shortstop Shawon Dunston, third sacker Travis Fryman, outfielders Justice, Brady Anderson (another player suspected of steroid use by some) and Tim Raines, starting pitchers Chuck Finley and Todd Stottlemyre, plus relief pitchers Rod Beck and Robb Nen.  Beck, who retired after the 2004 season, was not due to appear on the ballot until 2010, but was added to this year's list after his premature, apparently cocaine-related death of 2007.  Among the newcomers, Raines is the only man likely to receive at least the 5-percent support required to remain on the ballot in 2009.

 

Starting pitcher Jose Rijo, most valuable player of the 1990 World Series, returns to the HOF ballot in 2008, five years after making a brief major-league comeback (2001-02) following his initial retirement in 1995.  In his first-ever appearance on the ballot in 2001, Rijo's 116-91 (.560) record earned him just one vote for 0.2-percent support, and he was immediately dropped from future ballots for failure to earn 5-percent support.  Rijo is destined for another one-time-and-out result in 2008.

 

In general, however, most ballot holdovers should enjoy increased vote and support-percentage numbers from their 2007 performances.  Beyond the weak field of newcomers, there are two other reasons for that prediction.  First, this year's 25-man ballot involves the smallest list of candidates in the modern (since 1960) era of Cooperstown voting.  Although only 24 men received votes in 2002, there were 28 names on that year's ballot (with four receiving no votes at all).  Prior to this year, the smallest ballot of the modern era was 1987, when just 26 names were listed.  With BBWAA voters averaging five to six names per ballot in recent years, the short list of candidates improves the chance that each holdover will receive increased support over 2007.

 

Perhaps more encouraging to the holdovers is the fact that, except for Mark McGwire, this year's ballot lacks any de facto qualifiers (i.e., men with career totals of at least 500 home runs, 3,000 hits or 300 pitching victories).  Prior to McGwire's rejection last year, the most recent de facto candidate to fail first-ballot election was pitcher Don Sutton, who first appeared on the ballot in 1994 but was not elected until 1998.  In the intervening years prior to McGwire, each of nine de facto candidates was elected in their first year eligible (Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Robin Yount in 1999, Dave Winfield in 2001, Eddie Murray in 2003, Paul Molitor in 2004, Wade Boggs in 2005, plus Cal Ripken, Jr. and Tony Gwynn in 2007).

 

That bodes well for the 2008 ballot holdovers because the presence of de facto candidates usually equates to reduced support for virtually everyone else on the ballot, while their absence tends to produce almost across-the-board increase in support for ballot veterans.  As shown in the table below, in the period since Sutton's election in 1998, there have been only three occasions when there was no de facto candidate on the BBWAA ballot (2000, 2002 and 2006, each boldfaced below). 

 

The table data includes the number of men on each ballot (MoB), the number of holdovers from the previous year (Hold), the number of candidates elected that year (Elect), the number of de facto candidates on each ballot (DFC), plus the number of holdover candidates whose support percentages increased (Inc) or decreased (Dec) in each election.  The last three columns give the individual High and Low extremes and the overall average (Avg) shift in support percentage (among all holdover candidates, combined) for each election.

 

 

Effects of De Facto Candidates on BBWAA Vote Support (1998-2007)

Year

MoB

Hold

Elect

DFC

Inc

Dec

High

Low

Avg

1998

26

17

1

1

15

2

8.4

-1.7

3.2

1999

28

17

3

3

0

17

0.7

-13.4

-5.4

2000

30

16

2

0

15

1

22.1

-1.2

7.6

2001

32

15

2

1

9

6

15.2

-5.1

2.1

2002

28

17

1

0

5

12

15.7

-7.9

-0.9

2003

33

16

2

1

6

10

13.1

-6.6

0.3

2004

32

17

2

1

8

9

17.6

-5.7

0.6

2005

27

14

2

1

11

3

18.3

-3.8

3.4

2006

29

13

1

0

13

0

12.4

0.3

5.2

2007

32

15

2

2

2

13

6.6

-6.8

-3.1

Note above that two of the boldfaced years without de facto candidates -- 2000 and 2006 -- posted the highest average increases in support among any of the ten years listed (7.6 percent in 2000, 5.2 percent in 2006), as well as the most lopsided ratios of individual increased-v-decreased support percentage (15-to-1 favoring increase in 2000, 13-to-0 for 2006).  Note also that the only two elections which involved multiple de facto candidates (1999, when Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Robin Yount were elected and 2007, when Cal Ripken, Jr. and Tony Gwynn were chosen while McGwire was rejected) also reflect the most lopsided increase-v-decrease disadvantages to holdover candidates during the same period (0 increases and 17 declines in 1999, two up and 13 down in 2007).  Overall, the three ballots without de facto candidates averaged an individual support percentage increase of 3.7 percent while the same outcome for the seven ballots with de facto qualifiers was just 0.1 percent.

 

All of this would seem to imply that most, perhaps all, of the 14 holdover candidates from 2007 will receive higher support percentages in the 2008 voting, and, without question, Gossage should be the prime beneficiary.  Goose received 388 of a possible 545 votes (for 71.2-percent support) in last year's voting (up from 64.6-percent in 2006).  The 545 ballots cast represented the largest total in HOF-vote history.  In November, Cooperstown officials announced that "more than 575" ballots had been mailed to prospective electors.  So, if a new record 575 ballots (or thereabouts) are turned in, Gossage would need approximately 432 votes -- an increase of 44 votes over his 2007 total -- to gain election.

 

Last year Rice received 346 votes for 63.5-percent support.  The figure represented a higher vote total (346-to-337), but lower support percentage (63.5-to-64.8) than he earned in 2006.  But it seems fair to argue that his slight decline in support percentage was entirely attributable to the presence of three de facto candidates on the 2006 ballot, two of whom were elected (Ripken with 98.5-percent support, Gwynn with 97.6).  As a result, and given the relative weakness of this year's newcomers, I'm going out on a limb to predict that Rice will gain election this time by just a vote or two.  If he fails, his task will be more difficult next year, when de facto candidate Rickey Henderson joins the ballot.

 

Relatively close, but no cigar is likely to be the story for two other candidates, outfielder Andre Dawson and starting pitcher Bert Blyleven.  In 2007 Dawson received 309 votes, for 56.7-percent support (down marginally from 317 and 61.0 in 2006), while Blyleven earned 260 votes and 47.7-percent support (down a bit more dramatically from 277 and 53.3-percent the year before).  I look for both of these men to make significant gains in 2008, but don't expect either to close within five percent of election.

 

The other holdovers on this year's ballot all scored below 40-percent support in 2006, and despite their likely increased support this time, none of them is destined to approach election.  Again, the most curious and meaningful score will be that of McGwire.  I look for his support percentage to rise very slightly -- a minor benefit of the weak field -- but his percentage increase to be less than that of any other holdover who earned 10-percent or more support in 2007 (hence, an indication of no clear consensus among the BBWAA about how to deal with the steroid problem).

 

Among the newcomers, Tim Raines is clearly the best candidate, and the only one truly deserving to remain on the ballot for future elections.  With 2605 career hits, 1571 runs scored, and 808 stolen bases, and absent his contemporary Rickey Henderson, Raines would possibly be recognized as the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history.  Alas, I fear the BBWAA has little appreciation for his subtle, relatively homer-less (170 career dingers) credentials, and expect him to post a support score below 20 percent.

 

The table below gives my numerical predictions for this year's voting.  The data columns include each man's number of years on the ballot (YoB), his support percentages received in the last three BBWAA elections (2005, 2006 and 2007), the up, down or nonexistent (none) trend implied by those results (at least two consecutive years of an increase or decline in support are required for an "up" or "down" designation), and the support percentage I expect each man to receive in this year's voting.  The latter number is a central-figure estimate representing a plus-or-minus range of three percent (hence, a prediction of 60 percent implies an expectation that the player will fall somewhere between 57- and 63-percent support).  Ballot newcomers are listed in italics.

 

For what little it's worth, if I were voting my ballot would include (in alphabetical order): Bert Blyleven, Andre Dawson, Goose Gossage, Tommy John, Mark McGwire, Jack Morris, Dale Murphy, Tim Raines, Jim Rice and Lee Smith.

 

Player Pos YoB 2005 2006 2007 Trend Pred
Goose Gossage rp 9 59.5 64.8 71.2 up 79
Jim Rice of 14 55.2 64.6 63.5 none 75
Andre Dawson of 7 52.3 61 56.7 none 68
Bert Blyleven sp 11 40.9 53.3 47.7 none 59
Lee Smith rp 6 38.8 45 39.8 none 46
Jack Morris sp 9 33.3 41.2 37.1 none 44
Tommy John sp 14 23.8 29.6 22.9 none 28
Mark McGwire 1b 2 -- -- 23.5 none 25
Tom Raines of 1 -- -- -- none 19
Dave Concepcion ss 15 10.7 12.5 13.6 up 18
Alan Trammell ss 7 16.9 17.7 13.4 down 17
Dave Parker of 12 12.6 14.6 11.4 none 16
Don Mattingly 1b 8 11.4 12.3 9.9 none 15
Dale Murphy of 10 10.5 10.8 9.2 none 14
Harold Baines dh 2 -- -- 5.3 none 9
Chuck Finley sp 1 -- -- -- none 3
David Justice of 1 -- -- -- none 2
Travis Fryman 3b 1 -- -- -- none 2
Shawon Dunston ss 1 -- -- -- none 1
Chuck Knoblauch 2b 1 -- -- -- none 1
Todd Stottlemyre sp 1 -- -- -- none 1
Brady Anderson of 1 -- -- -- none <1.0
Jose Rijo sp 1 -- -- -- none <1.0
Robb Nen rp 1 -- -- -- none <1.0
Rod Beck rp 1 -- -- -- none <1.0

Note: Although not a final decision, this may be my last-ever HOF-vote prediction.  Having written two books about the Hall of Fame whose combined intent was to suggest methods by which the selection process might correct past injustices and improve upon the future prospects of elective fairness for every eligible candidate, I must admit that the steroid debacle has convinced me that the Cooperstown process, already long sullied by pre-steroid errors of election and omission, is now permanently tainted and beyond any possible hope of repair.

 

It's my impression that the baseball establishment at large (the commissioner, management, players' union and baseball writers, combined) is predictably, necessarily and fatally conflicted by the steroid problem.  Despite recent evidence of an emerging hard line (prompted almost entirely by fears of Congressional reprisal), the commissioner and owners are nonetheless torn between their urge to whitewash the entire affair so as not to threaten future revenues (and/or to avoid acknowledging their obvious culpability in the problem) and a half-hearted desire to clean up the game.  The players and their union are understandably self-defensive, torn between a legitimate wish to protect player privacy (and union solidarity) while preserving their image and hard-earned leverage against management.  The hypocritical media, no stranger to substance-abuse problems of its own, wants to act as a moral arbiter based on spotty, incomplete evidence and a ton of innuendo.

 

In that light it is also evident that, even if the baseball establishment spent another $20 million apiece on a half-dozen more Mitchell-style reports culled from different sources and leading to all-new lists of suspected users, we would still never know for certain who did what performance-enhancing drugs when, and for how long, or -- due to the degree to which the chemistry involved is far ahead of the detection options -- whether players continue to use them undetected in the future.  Absent such specific detail and knowledge, the future holds no prospect of elective justice for any candidate, whether an actual steroid user, one suspected of such use, one tainted by false allegations, or one who never took any performance-enhancing substance at all.

 

In that light, and absent any specific prohibitions against performance-enhancer use prior to 2003, it seems to me that the only "fair and just" approach to Cooperstown voting in the future must be to ignore the issue entirely, as if it never occurred.  But, of course, such an approach must unavoidably reward the "cheaters" and ignore the degree to which baseball's most cherished records are now permanently tainted and rendered forever meaningless.

 

Amid all of that, the amount of inconsistent and hypocritical punishment likely to be meted out in the future by the Hall of Fame's pompous and unjustifiably self-righteous primary body of voters must and will inevitably exacerbate the injustices already inherent in the Cooperstown selection process.  The poor saps who have or do get "caught" will suffer in the Cooperstown process, while others -- perhaps some who were bigger users in the long run -- will avoid detection and punishment of any kind.

 

Will Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens be denied a place in baseball's Valhalla?  Will men like Ivan Rodriguez skate through to Cooperstown unscathed?  I am rapidly reaching a point where it no longer matters to me, and at which the entire selection process has been rendered as theater of the absurd.  In such a climate, and given that mindset, it seems at the moment that any future effort to make good-faith predictions on the outcome of these elections can be nothing more than a surreal joke and a waste of my own time and energy.

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