Why you should care
Because baseball has “made men” too.
The 2017 Baseball Hall of Fame inductees will be announced on January 18, picked from a patch of potential snubs and immortalized long shots. Last year saw only two legends — Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza — enter the hall. This time around, OZY believes a larger group will get the call to Cooperstown.
For the first time, voters appear to be softening their once-firm stance that no player suspected of performance-enhancing drugs will ever gain entry. One alleged steroid user is nearly a sure thing for induction, while two confirmed cheats are close behind. Another nominee, former Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Lee Smith, whose MLB record for career saves was broken by fellow nominee Trevor Hoffman, is hoping to crack the code in his 15th and final year of eligibility. And there are plenty of fresh faces too: Nineteen first-year nominees seek 75 percent voter approval, ideally sooner than Smith.
The best bets for induction in 2017 have been edging their way up ballots for years. Houston Astros lifer Jeff Bagwell was the highest vote-getter (71 percent) to miss out last year. His seven-year wait relates to pesky PED concerns that plague most 1990s power hitters (no concrete evidence ever surfaced). His stats are rock solid, and voters finally seem to be rethinking their system of punishment. Bags is in.
This year, his 10th, is Tim Raines’ last chance. In 2015, Cooperstown changed its rules, lowering the ballot eligibility from 15 years to 10 (Smith was grandfathered in). As recently as last week, based on voter responses made public on Ryan Thibodaux’s vote-tracking website, Baines tested at a 91 percent rate. Baines gets the nod.
One first ballot nominee with a strong chance is Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez. Jose Canseco’s claims in Juiced that he injected Rodriguez with steroids won’t help the cause, but, similar to Bagwell, Pudge was never caught. Rodriguez’s records for most hits as a catcher (2,749) and most games caught (2,377), his American League MVP Award, World Series MVP Award and 13 Gold Gloves should be enough for a home run.
Close the Deal
Based on the numbers (601 saves, a 1.06 WHIP and 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings) and his voting trajectory (67.3 percent of ballots in 2016), former Padres closer Trevor Hoffman should be a cinch. We expect this will be very close, though, due to a weird reluctance by voters to glorify relief pitchers. If any relief pitcher can set voters straight, it’s Hoffman. His devastating change-up led to an MLB record 15-straight, 20-save seasons, matched only by Yankees legend Mariano Rivera.
First Ballot Surprises
Few probably think of Vladimir Guerrero as “first ballot Hall of Famer” material, but we believe Super Vlad will again smash expectations. On paper, Guerrero looks a lot like another former Expo and MVP Andre Dawson, who needed nine chances to get in. But Vlad’s .318 career batting average is elite (37th all time), and his career home run (449) and hit (2,590) totals are impressive. As for intangibles, Guerrero’s free-swinging plate approach, larger-than-life personality and rocket arm captivated fans for nearly two decades. The man who rose from daunting poverty in the Dominican Republic to become one of his era’s best is a terrific baseball ambassador. Plus, he was the seemingly “clean” slugger that baseball craved post–Steroid Era.
Arguably the greatest designated hitter in baseball history, Edgar Martinez (43.4 percent of ballots in 2016) belongs in the HOF, but his position has slowed him down thus far. Martinez is in his eighth year on the ballot; if he doesn’t get in soon, his momentum will slow. In any case, the induction of fellow DHs Frank Thomas (2014) and Paul Molitor (2004), plus younger, analytically minded voters, could be enough to vault Edgar into Cooperstown. But owing to a strong crop of first-year talent, his phone will likely remain silent until next year.
Red Sox World Series hero Curt Schilling has performed better among HOF voters so far (52.3 percent of ballots in 2016), but his off-the-field antics may postpone induction. Schilling has acknowledged as much but vows not to change his ways. In fact, he tends to lash out, both on Breitbart and his blog. From his political beliefs and crass statements to his Rhode Island bankruptcy debacle, Schilling’s postretirement train wreck has influenced voters. If voters base decisions solely on performance, Schilling is a shoo-in. But if voters take a softer stance on PED use, they’ll need a new whipping boy. Watch for Schilling to peak at about 55 percent of ballots and fade from there.
Not the Crime Dog
Fred McGriff — no relation to McGruff, the crime-fighting bloodhound — has had a hard time convincing voters of his worth. Despite huge home run (493) and RBI (1,550) totals that trail only four of the five confirmed PED users on the ballot, plus 2,490 hits, the first player to lead each league in home runs since the dead-ball era has never commanded as much attention as his steroid-using counterparts, fellow first basemen Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro. I doubt his eighth try will prove the charm, but at least these legendary Tom Emanski infomercials still exist.
Bonds Breaks Down the PED Barrier
The induction of Bagwell and Rodriguez this year (both suspected PED users), should provide another nudge on the slippery slope toward induction of guilty offenders like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Gary Sheffield. I think the Home Run King’s recent boost in likability — largely due to his improved media treatment while coaching the Miami Marlins last season — puts him over the edge. Bonds’ 2017 induction and a surge of younger voters mean all bets are off. In other words, look for Clemens and Manny Ramirez in 2018.