The annual ritual of discussing the merits of recently retired baseball players is one of my favorite periods on the baseball calendar. And it’s a relatively new delight for me. I’m of the age now that I can clearly remember the entire careers of the players who are showing up on the ballot. I hardly had an opinion on Jack Morris because I don’t think I ever really watched him pitch. But I’ve followed Jim Thome since I was a kid. It’s sentimental, but it makes a difference.
The stupefying hypocrisy of the BBWAA blackballing the likes of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and all of them is a monumental shame that has had plenty of ink spilled over it at this point. I don’t wanna get into that right here (but I do want to mention it just this once to make clear yet one more time that I think it is dumb), so what I would like to do is I’d like to take a look at some of the notable newcomers to the HOF ballot and offer up my totally read-worthy thoughts on them. This exercise is neither exhausted nor objective, so keep that in mind.
Larry Wayne was a truly remarkable ballplayer. He was a career .303/.401/.529 with over 10,000 plate appearances. He was one of the top switch-hitters in baseball history, and he was only a tick worse from the right side. He came up as a can’t-miss no-doubt top-pick shortstop but completely shredded his knee and missed the entire strike season. The Braves moved him to 3B in part because they thought his mobility wasn’t the same. He turned out okay, obviously.
Chipper was probably the one player I hated the most when I was a kid. I hated the Braves because of ‘95 and he always looked like the kind of guy who would pick on nerds like me. He was tall and handsome like a underwear model and he had a douchey face and a douchey smile and a douchey haircut and he always had the big douchey wad of chaw in his mouth. That douchey face was the face of the douchey Braves. He did nothing right, as far as I was concerned.
Jim Thome, on the other hand, was endlessly lovable. He had a big aww-shucks dopey grin like Elmer Fudd and paws like Hacksaw Jim Duggan. He would carry a six-foot party sub around in a big metal lunch pail and eat it all by himself, polishing it off before the seventh-inning stretch. He was an endearing galoot at a time in baseball when enormous sluggers like him were mostly seen as cheaters and bad guys and not at all endearing.
He was a middle-of-the-order anchor for those incredible Indians’ lineups of the late ‘90s. Their top five in ‘99, when they scored 1009 runs, went Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel, Roberto Alomar, Manny Ramirez, and Thome. Their OBPs were .405, .397, .422, .442, and .426. They scored 1009 runs.
Thome hit 612 home runs in his career, good for eighth all time. He led the league only once though, in 2003, his first season in Philadelphia after leaving the Indians. He should be elected this year, his first on the ballot, which is cool.
Rolen will almost assuredly not be elected this year, and perhaps never. He had the unfortunate handicap of being a third baseman, a position that usually gets short-shrift in the HOF vote anyway, at a time when there were other third baseman (Chipper, Adrian Beltre) playing who were noticeably better than him. That kind of arbitrary context seems to matter quite a bit to the BBWAA. He won eight Gold Gloves and made seven All-Star teams, though he finished top-ten in MVP voting just once (fourth in ‘04).
He will forever be remembered by yours truly as the namesake of Scott Rolen’s Reds, the pennant-winning Reds teams of 2010 and ‘12. He couldn’t really stay healthy while he was with the Reds (in fact, he only played 130+ games in one season of his final six), but his leadership and example were widely heralded.
All that said, I still think the trade that brought him to Cincy from Toronto was a bad idea (turns quickly and runs away).
When I saw Orlando Hudson was eligible for Hall of Fame consideration this year, I wondered aloud, “Wait, was their another O-Dawg out there that I don’t remember?” It certainly couldn’t be the same guy, the Gold-Glove second baseman most notably of the Blue Jays and Diamondbacks. No way that dude has been out of baseball for five years. But yeah, here we are.
O-Dawg was always an uncanny parallel to Brandon Phillips. From 2007 to 2011, they passed the NL Gold Glove back and forth a few times. To this point (Phillips is still maybe kinda playing, though we’ll see if he signs on with anyone for next season), they are tied in career bWAR at 30.9. Hudson’s career OPS+ is 97, Phillips’ is 96.
For his career, Hudson earned $31 million. Phillips has earned $100 million.
While I hated Chipper Jones for a lot of circumstantial reasons, my hatred for Carpenter is entirely due to his reprehensible personality. When Brandon Phillips called the Cardinals “whiny little bitches,” it was understood that what he was saying was “Chris Carpenter is a whiny little bitch, and he is a representative for the entire Cardinals organization.” Of course, the ensuing Brawl was made orders of magnitude worse by whatever it is he said that so offended Scott Rolen and Dusty Baker.
My sincere hope is that Carpenter receives under 5% of the total vote and falls off the Hall of Fame ballot forever, and that he is completely forgotten to the sands of time.
Unforgettable though is Andruw Jones. He was a big figure on the very same Chipper Jones Braves that I so loathed, but The Better Jones was just so much fun to watch play baseball that I couldn’t help but like him. He won ten-straight Gold Gloves in center field and I’m fairly certain that I will never again see a defensive outfielder as good as he was. He was a pretty-good-but-not-great hitter (though he led the league in home runs once), but his glove was so galactically impressive that I think he belongs in the Hall.
He was just 19 when he debuted with the Braves in 1996 and his 20s were remarkably consistent and amazing: he hit for a 117 OPS+ and missed only 44 games that entire decade. Also, ten Gold Gloves and the best defense in center field I will ever see.
His age 30 year, his last with the Braves before hitting free agency, wasn’t great. His defense was still good, but his bat declined a few ticks. Then the Dodgers signed him for $18.1 million a year, the fifth-highest salary in baseball at the time (though it was just for two years), and he was so monumentally lousy he hit just .158/.256/.249 in 238 PAs. Then he hurt his knee and the Dodgers released him.
The story on The Better Jones is that once he turned 30 he magically became a really bad baseball player. It’s a compelling narrative, which is why it endures. But it’s not really accurate. After that miserable few months with the Dodgers, he played four more seasons with the Rangers, White Sox, and Yankees. He slashed a respectable .221/.328/.461 as a fourth outfielder. True, he wasn’t the HOF-caliber center fielder he was in his 20s, but I bet you aren’t the same person you were in your 20s, either.
Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano
In 2003, the Cubs had a young and unbeatable rotation featuring Wood, Zambrano, and Mark Prior. The three of them combined for 20.4 bWAR and their average age was just 23. Wood led the league in strikeouts and Zambrano led the league with the fewest home runs allowed per nine innings (he allowed just nine home runs (nine!) in 214 innings, the first of which was by Adam Dunn).
I remember watching that ill-fated NLCS with a Cubs friend of mine in our dorm. He was absolutely crestfallen, as you might imagine. But he cheered up a bit by reassuring himself that with such a good and young rotation, they would be back time and again. And I remember I looked him right in the eye and said, “Neither Mark Prior nor Kerry Wood will ever again win 15 games. They will get hurt and never throw again. Because the Cubs are cursed. Cursed!” Savage af.