Barry's year? Peering into the Hall of Fame Crystal Ball

CHICAGO - FILE: Barry Larkin #11 of the Cincinnati Reds overthrows first base early during a game against the Chicago Cubs on July 21, 2004 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. It was reported that former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame January 9, 2012. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Barry Larkin is the top returning candidate on this year's Hall of Fame ballot. The writers have elected at least one player in every year since 1996. So this must mean that Larkin's getting elected, right?

Well, I hope so. Larkin appeared on 62.1% of the ballots last year, up from 51.5% in his 2010 debut. Getting another 13% is certainly attainable and perhaps even likely, but it's far from certain. Here's what's going in his favor:

  • He's incredibly well-qualified. You probably agree if you're reading this blog, but if you're looking for a robust, objective analysis, JinAZ made a strong case here.
  • He was recognized as a great player during his career. Some players are diamonds in the rough who generate interesting HOF discussions because they were much more valuable than their lack of All-Star Game appearances and postseason hardware suggest (see Tim Raines). Larkin is not one of those cases. He made the All-Star Game twelve times, won nine Silver Sluggers, three Gold Gloves, and an MVP. That's a pretty good indication that he was correctly recognized as among the best for a very long time. Interestingly, no eligible player picked for at least 12 NL all-star teams has failed to make the HOF.
  • Much of the HOF dialogue should focus on Larkin because he is the top returning candidate and the only one with a puncher's chance of enshrinement this ballot cycle. This is key for Larkin, since he did many things well but nothing that screamed "Hall of Famer" (like Tony Gwynn's batting average, or Ozzie Smith's defense). Last year, Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe wrote that he changed his vote to a "yes" for Larkin, an "acquired taste for me because he is not the kind of player you automatically ascribe Hall of Fame status to. Some voters believe that if you have to think about it, the player isn't worthy. But we owe it to the process to think about it.... From 1986-2004, Larkin was pretty much the most productive shortstop in all of baseball. That's a long time at a premium position." Hopefully other writers give it some thought and reach the inevitable conclusion that Larkin, among the ten best Shortstops in the game's history, is a no-brainer.
  • The writers' HOF ballot this year is particularly weak. After Larkin, the top returning candidate is Jack Morris with 53.5%. I don't see much growth for Morris because he seems to be a litmus test on pitcher clutchiness, the kind of guy people have a strong opinion about one way or the other. The top debut on the ballot is Bernie Williams, a very good outfielder before he fell off a cliff in his early 30s. You might think he'll get a bump as a True Yankee, but that sure hasn't helped Don Mattingly. As I mentioned above, the writers are known for agreeing on at least one guy. They haven't pitched a shutout since 1996, when Phil Niekro topped the balloting with 68%.

    Given all of the above, it certainly looks favorable for Larkin. As I've written before, Larkin's candidacy resembles that of another middle infielder from the middle west, Ryne Sandberg. Sandberg gained induction on his third try after tallying 49% and 61% of the writers' vote in his first two years. So far, Larkin is riding on the same path. Additionally, voting analyst Bill Deane predicts that Larkin makes it this year with 79% of the vote. I concur, though I can't help repeating my disagreement with Deane's predictions last year that that Larkin would not "mak[e] a dramatic leap into the high 50s or low 60s" and that Bert Blyleven would not gain the handful of votes he needed for induction.

    It may look favorable for Larkin, but nothing should be taken for granted given the number of extra votes he needs. Last year, Blyleven and Roberto Alomar were elected but had much less ground to cover. Each had received over 73% of the vote in the 2010 ballot. Larkin still needs an additional 13% out of 500 plus voters. The Reds' PR department has previously mailed promotional materials to eligible voters. I hope they've done so again this year.

    The BBWAA has already mailed out the ballots and will announce the results on January 9 at 2:00 EST. For his part, Larkin is understandably not trying to get worked up about all of this: "Honestly, I don't think about it much. When it comes to [this month], it'll be on my mind, for sure. There are some things you can control and others that you can't. So I try not to dwell so much on the ones that you can't. I'm excited about the opportunity, but it's not on the forefront of my mind." Here's hoping that it won't be on his mind again next December.

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