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Cardinals cases for the 2017 Hall of Fame class

Five former Cardinals are eligible for the 2017 class of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Which of the longshots have the strongest cases?

Mets v Cardinals Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Eleven months ago, I wrote an article called “The Baseball Hall of Fame is not worth your time or energy”. This was in anticipation of the announcement of Cooperstown’s Class of 2016 with the expectation that former Cardinals center fielder Jim Edmonds, whose 60.3 career Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement would rank him around the median of Hall of Fame center fielders (10th of 18), would fall well short of the 75% of votes needed to make the Hall of Fame. Indeed, Edmonds received just 2.5% of the vote, half the amount needed to stay on the ballot.

Anyway, while I stand by the assertion that you should not care about the Hall of Fame, an institution that annually insists on blocking the greatest hitter and the greatest pitcher of the post-World War II era, I don’t blame those of you who do care. I care. I can’t help but care. Against my better judgment, the Hall of Fame should matter, and thus in spite of itself, an institution universally accepted as the standard-bearer of baseball greatness is so inherently appealing that the Hall of Fame does matter.

This year, 34 players will appear on the Hall of Fame ballot, and five of them are former St. Louis Cardinals. All of them are considered long shots to actually make the Hall, and several will drop off the ballot for 2018, but some of these players have respectable cases for Cooperstown immortality.

Arthur Rhodes

With 15.4 bWAR, 14.1 WAR7 (a combination of a player’s seven best seasons by WAR, a shorthanded way of evaluating a player’s peak), and 14.8 JAWS (Jay Jaffe’s Hall of Fame evaluation metric which compares players to current Hall of Famers), Arthur Rhodes is the second least deserving Hall of Famer on the 2017 ballot, behind only zero-time All-Star Matt Stairs. He has almost no chance of making the Hall of Fame, and with just 8 23 innings pitched for the Cardinals (albeit over 19 games for the much-loved 2011 team), it is unlikely many tears will be shed in St. Louis over Rhodes’s non-election.

While Rhodes does not belong in the Hall of Fame, his case is arguably stronger than his WAR suggests. At his peak, Arthur Rhodes was a strong situational lefty, and his peak came with the early 2000s Seattle Mariners, including a 2.5 WAR, 1.85 ERA season with the 2001 team which won a record-tying 116 games. During his playing career, from 1991 through 2011, Rhodes produced 13.939 WPA (win probability added), ahead of Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro.

But again, Rhodes is nowhere near a Hall of Fame level player, and the ballot is too loaded to merit throwing a symbolic vote in his direction.

Lee Smith

Lee Smith will not appear on next year’s Hall of Fame ballot—this is his 15th year on the ballot, and he will be ineligible to appear again. Last year, Smith was named on 34.1% of ballots, enough to remain a candidate but not nearly enough to actually make the Hall of Fame.

At 29.6 WAR, Lee Smith is not near the top of any WAR leaderboards, but as a closer, his WAR does not necessarily reflect his worthiness in reality or in theory—the greatest closer in MLB history, Mariano Rivera, has fewer career Wins Above Replacement than Chuck Finley or Mark Buehrle, and voters will not and should not have any qualms about putting Rivera in the Hall before the latter two.

In fact, Lee Smith has more career WAR than Trevor Hoffman, who nearly doubled Smith’s 2016 Hall of Fame vote share. Hoffman seemingly won favor with voters by eclipsing Lee Smith’s career saves lead (a lead since eclipsed by Rivera), and this embodies why Smith, who had his three greatest save accumulation seasons in his three seasons in St. Louis, will likely miss out on Cooperstown—he doesn’t have the WAR to make the Hall on its own merits, nor does he have a save total to compensate for his WAR shortcomings.

J.D. Drew

It’s hard to be a much better player than J.D. Drew while having something of a reputation as a disappointment. The hype around Drew, exacerbated by his 1997 holdout from the Philadelphia Phillies, was tremendous, and following an injury-plagued Cardinals career that ended with being dealt to the Atlanta Braves in what became known as the Adam Wainwright trade (though, to be fair, Drew’s 2004 season was great), it can be particularly easy for Cardinals fans to lose sight of what a productive career J.D. Drew had.

J.D. Drew was worth 44.9 career WAR, ranking higher than such outfielders as Ryan Braun, Matt Holliday, and Curtis Granderson. But ultimately, his Hall case is fairly generic, lacking exciting bullet points or major historic accomplishments, and his production simply isn’t high enough to merit serious consideration. He may receive a vote or two, and worse players have received more consideration, but expect Drew absent from the 2018 ballot.

Edgar Renteria

Although overshadowed by the likes of Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, Edgar Renteria was a very good shortstop at his peak, and while his career WAR of 32.1 falls substantially short of the upper reaches of the 2017 Hall of Fame ballot, Renteria has a few highlights in his career which embolden his case—Bill Mazeroski has one of the weaker careers in the Hall of Fame, but on the strength of a World Series-winning walk-off hit (which Edgar Renteria also has, with the 1997 Florida Marlins), he made it to Cooperstown.

Additionally, Renteria had a World Series-winning home run in 2010, in which he won series MVP as a member of the San Francisco Giants. He is one of four players with multiple World Series-winning hits; the other three are Hall of Famers Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Yogi Berra. Unfortunately for Renteria, these three Yankees legends (and to a lesser extent Bill Mazeroski) all had much better careers, and the player who ranks 22nd in career WAR on a ballot with a ten-player maximum does not stand a fighting chance.

Larry Walker

Among players on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, Larry Walker ranks 6th by career WAR and by JAWS, and he ranks 5th by WAR7. By all three measures, he ranks ahead of fellow corner outfielder and sentimental favorite (and deserving candidate) Tim Raines. Walker ranks #2 in Colorado Rockies history and #8 in Montreal Expos history (#10 if also counting Washington Nationals players) by WAR, and he is second only to Fergie Jenkins in career WAR among players born in Canada. Of the 62 outfielders currently in the Hall of Fame, just 19 have more WAR than Walker.

Walker’s 15.5% vote total last season was a slight improvement from the previous election, but he is still miles away from making the Hall. While he had a nice couple seasons in St. Louis, his case is largely built around prominent seasons in two overlooked baseball markets (and most attention in Montreal goes to Tim Raines, though prominent Raines-for-HOF supporter Jonah Keri has also advocated for Larry Walker).

The odds that a former Cardinal makes the Hall of Fame this season are very slim, though Larry Walker is both the most deserving candidate and the one most likely to have the tide eventually turn in his favor.