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Baby boomers are killing the Hall of Fame industry

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Inconsistent standards for induction are keeping a generation disproportionately shut out from Cooperstown and rendering it obsolete

NLCS: Astros v Cardinals Game 1 Photo By Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

By Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement, former center fielder Andruw Jones, most notably of the Atlanta Braves, is the 12th best center fielder in Major League Baseball history. By FanGraphs WAR, he ranks 10th. Only one player who leads him in both metrics, the not-yet-eligible Carlos Beltran, is not enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Jones was a strong hitter, most notably in 2005 when he hit 51 home runs, but he is most heralded for his defense—he won ten consecutive Gold Glove awards and is, by Defensive Runs Above Average, the best defensive center fielder of all-time.

Andruw Jones is appearing on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this season, and he will almost certainly not make the cut. While the previously cited numbers may make this sound like an egregious oversight on the part of Hall voters, Jones ranks 11th by Baseball Reference WAR among those on the ballot. By JAWS, Jay Jaffe’s system of ranking Hall of Fame candidates by averaging their career WAR and the sum of their seven best seasons, Jones ranks tied for 10th. There are only ten spots available on each ballot, and while Andruw Jones meets the standards the Hall has previously used for induction, if all voters voted exactly as WAR suggested they should, he would fall off the ballot altogether.

This was the fate met by Jim Edmonds, a slightly worse player by WAR than Andruw Jones (2.5 bWAR and 2.6 fWAR less for their careers), two years ago. Edmonds had a more successful career by bWAR than eight of the seventeen Hall of Famers who played a majority of their career games in center field, but Edmonds tied for 12th in bWAR and ranked 12th outright by JAWS among players on the 2016 ballot. In a vacuum, Edmonds deserved a better shot, but in the context of the ballot, excluding him made sense. The 10th best player on that year’s ballot, Edgar Martinez, was a full 8 bWAR better for his career—WAR is just one statistic, yes, but it shows that Edmonds may have been less a victim of being underrated and more a victim of impossible standards.

Five ex-Cardinals are on the 2018 Hall of Fame ballot: Jason Isringhausen and Jamie Moyer (hey, did you know Jamie Moyer used to be on the Cardinals? This is a fun fact I once knew but completely forgot until I wrote this) are long shots to even stay on the ballot, and as much as it pains me to admit it, fellow first-timer Chris Carpenter may have a worse shot at staying on the ballot than Moyer. But two more ex-Cardinals should make some noise in balloting—8th year ballot presence Larry Walker and first-timer Scott Rolen.

Larry Walker is the 21st best outfielder in MLB history by bWAR, and of the twenty players ahead of him, only one (Barry Bonds) is not in the Hall of Fame. The right fielder, who spent a productive season-plus with the St. Louis Cardinals at the end of a career spent mostly with the Montreal Expos and Colorado Rockies, was a well-rounded star. He was a dynamic hitter (his counting statistics are somewhat inflated by virtue of the extremely hitter-friendly conditions of turn-of-the-century Coors Field, but his park-adjusted career wRC+ of 140 equals that of David Ortiz and exceeds that of Reggie Jackson, among many others). He was a great fielder, winning seven Gold Gloves. He also stole 230 bases while he was caught 76 times and was a net positive as a base runner. And despite a distinguished career, Walker has not yet garnered more than 22.9% of Hall of Fame votes during one balloting period.

Third basemen are notoriously underrepresented in Cooperstown, with only twelve currently enshrined. And Scott Rolen, who played for four teams but spent much of his prime, including his best season of 2004, in St. Louis, would rank as the median of the group. Of the 153 position players in the Hall of Fame, Rolen ranks between 52 and 53 by bWAR. But while the 2018 Hall of Fame class will likely be the first to include a third baseman who played in the 21st century (the most contemporary one in the Hall is Wade Boggs), the honor will go to Chipper Jones, himself a worthy member. Rolen, like Walker, is considered a long shot for induction.

While both Walker and Rolen are among the ten best position players by bWAR on the ballot, they are somewhat lost in the shuffle of the names surrounding them. There are six players ahead of the duo on the ballot: two first-timers (Chipper Jones and Jim Thome), Mike Mussina (on his fifth ballot), and three players on their sixth ballot (Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Curt Schilling). And this is the central problem with Hall of Fame voting.

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are baseball’s best position player and best pitcher, respectively, post-World War II. The raw statistics have the two as easily being Hall of Famers (each player’s seven year WAR peak exceeds the career WAR total of the average Hall of Famer at his position, and Bonds and Clemens were players with long peaks), but because the two were thoroughly dogged by PED rumors, their vote totals are far behind what one might expect just looking at the numbers. While I don’t necessarily agree with keeping steroid users out of the Hall of Fame, I understand the logic of it.

The problem is the ensuing ripple effect by which the peers of the “steroid guys” are also excluded. Curt Schilling is a unique case, as his Hall of Fame odds have decreased by virtue of his, for lack of a better term, being personally annoying, but Mike Mussina epitomizes the issue at hand. Mussina would be in the top third of Hall of Fame pitchers by career bWAR if inducted, and by the most traditional of traditional pitching stats, wins, he holds up—his 270 wins are 19 more than the total posted by the man just behind Moose in WAR, undisputed Hall of Famer Bob Gibson.

Where Mussina falls short is a fairly pedestrian career ERA of 3.68 and lack of hardware—he only finished in the top three of Cy Young voting once, finishing 2nd in 1999. But both of these shortcomings are a reflection of his era—his run suppression is much more impressive considering the offensive environment in which he played. But he deserves a further bump in credibility if we are going to exclude the dominant players in his generation that used performance-enhancing drugs. If a player who took steroids should be downgraded for it, shouldn’t clean players (there is little to no evidence that Mike Mussina used steroids) whose performance was relative to those steroid users receive a boost?

The same problem applies to Larry Walker and Scott Rolen, neither of whom have significant steroid suspicions attributed to them. If Walker’s right field contemporaries such as Gary Sheffield and Sammy Sosa are being excluded from Cooperstown because their rise in baseball was aided by steroids, shouldn’t Walker receive more credit for his accomplishments? Shouldn’t Scott Rolen, one of the greatest players of his generation, get a mental WAR boost based on the assumption that if others had been clean, Rolen would have appeared more dominant?

Baseball advertises itself more on history than any other sport, but the only reason this works is because members of the recent past can act as a bridge to them. Ignoring recent history does not elevate those who came before it, but rather renders the latter group increasingly irrelevant. It implies that baseball history is already decided.

By the standards established over its history, Larry Walker and Scott Rolen belong in the Hall of Fame.