Nothing quite piques my curiousity during the baseball off-season like the announcement of the latest Hall of Fame ballot. The latest roster, released last week, is no less intriguing than any other year. Of the 26 names listed, 15 are on the ballot for the first time; all of these newcomers retired during or after the 2004 season, as you have to be out of the majors five full years to be eligible. Obviously, a lot of these fresh faces are filler and probably won't be considered for next year's vote. (I dare you to justify the Hall of Fame qualities of David Segui and Shane Reynolds.) From a talent standpoint, it's a more threadbare ballot than some of us are accustomed to. The rampant steroid usage of the late '90s and early '00s enabled aging stars to add about five years to their careers, resulting in a dearth of sure-fire inductees calling it quits midway through this decade, if not for several years to come. In the eyes of the most jaded and cynical baseball fans it may seem like a throughly unappetizing ballot, but there are three names that I wish would be put into serious consideration: longtime bridesmaids Bert Blyleven and Lee Smith and newcomer Barry Larkin.
Let's start with the Flying Dutchman. Granted, his career win-loss record is 287-250, and usually 300 wins is guaranteed admission. People tend to forget that Bert spent three years on a Pittsburgh team that scored in bunches in the late innings of the game, resulting in a unwieldy number of no-decisions, including a staggering 20 in 1979. That .534 career winning percentage may not look impressive, but it's better than Hall of Famers like Eppa Rixey (266-251 lifetime), Teddy Lyons (260-230), and even Nolan Ryan (324-292). Of course, wins don't tell half the story; Blyleven is 5th on the all-time strikeout list and only eight men have more career shutouts. Plus, he might've had the sweetest curveball anybody's ever seen; I'm sure there's clips on YouTube or Metacafe that'll prove my point.
No statistic has revolutionized the worth of a pitcher in the past half-century quite like the save, which makes the constant snubbing of Lee Smith a mystery of sorts. Smitty's 478 plugs were the standard until about three years ago, and the man who surpassed him (Trevor Hoffmann) looks like a borderline lock for the Hall. Bruce Sutter only had seven or eight dominant seasons out of the bullpen, yet he was inducted in 2006. Smith had arguably ten great years as a closer, finishing with 35 or more saves six times. Having a career 3.03 ERA doesn't hurt, either.
As for Larkin, he's not a first-ball Hall of Famer though I'm sure the sportswriters will come around to this guy sooner than later. A 12-time All-Star and 7-time Silver Slugger, "Lark" might've been the quintessential National League shortshop of the 1990s. Nobody would mistake him for a power hitter, though he squeezed out doubles like nobody's business and his career .371 on-base percentage was nothing to scoff at. His one weakness was durability; in 19 seasons in the majors he played at least 120 games just 10 times. Nevertheless, he was a team leader who willed the Reds to two division titles and one championship in the early-to-mid '90s, and having to toil under an owner like Marge Schott has to be worth something.
So what about everybody else? As a Royals fan, I grew up admiring Kevin Appier; he should be on Kansas City's wall of honor but his career stats won't bat any eyelashes in Cooperstown. My support for Mark McGwire has waned over the years, and his new gig as the Cardinals' hitting coach feels like a last-ditch attempt at public atonement. Andre Dawson's career on-base percentage is laughable, Alan Trammell was a sac-fly artist with an above-average glove, and Dale Murphy was little more than a power-hitting milquetoast. Freshman like Roberto Alomar, Edgar Martinez, and Fred McGriff will linger on the ballot for years, too divisive to get the necessary 75% to be inducted but too above-average to be ignored altogether. Maybe --and I mean maybe-- Don Mattingly will get the call from the Veterans Committee, but I'm totally impartial. If you're looking for marquee names, wait until 2011; after all, who's gonna get in the way of Jeff Bagwell?