Henning: These five players deserve the Baseball Hall of Fame nod

Detroit News

That last full week of November always means …

… The best of all holidays, Thanksgiving, because it doesn’t require a shopping spree to help celebrate blessings temporal as well as spiritual.

… And, for those privileged to hold a vote, the arrival of Baseball Hall of Fame ballots for the upcoming Cooperstown class.

About that last item. This year’s is a different experience for a guy who’s been voting since 1989. Two players who earlier missed, very narrowly, being included on a personal ballot have been added to the 2023 class.

They are Billy Wagner and Gary Sheffield. They are part of a five-man thumbs-up given also to Scott Rolen, Todd Helton, and Alex Rodriguez.

Why the spontaneous shift in making Wagner and Sheffield plaque-worthy when even a year ago they were judged to be a tad thin?

That, in this book, is the beauty to what can be a long and deliberative Hall of Fame process. Each passing year offers perspective on MLB careers and how they stack up historically. Each year is an invitation to further research and ponder a player’s merits and demerits.

It was better when candidacies lasted 15 years, but even the 10-year eligibility that now comes for players who in their first year get at least 5% of the Baseball Writers Association of America’s vote, is helpful when not every player is a slam dunk.

That’s right: The idea a player is, or isn’t, an automatic Hall of Famer doesn’t work here. And that’s because at the outset of their candidacies, players can be razor-thin in making, or missing, a personal threshold that voters (the vast majority) take super-seriously. This also is carried out knowing there are going to be fights galore over who one might or might not deem worthy of a hallowed home at Cooperstown.

An explanation for how this plays out in the cases of Wagner and Sheffield:

▶ Wagner: He always has been a close call, personally, and obviously for voters at-large, as last year’s ballot confirmed. He got 51% of the vote when 75% is needed for induction.

What has held him back, here, and with others? Being a relief pitcher has hurt, for sure, when bullpen wizards historically haven’t had the same workloads and often have lacked the quality innings and longevity starting pitchers and everyday players have brought to their candidacies.

That has been Wagner’s basic problem. In his 16-year MLB career, he pitched in 903 innings spanning 853 games. Those are way beneath the numbers (1,035 and 1,089.1) rolled up by a reliever who didn’t make the cut here but who won a Cooperstown plaque in 2018: Trevor Hoffman.

The difference, as finally was concluded this autumn — by an eyelash — was the quality of those years and innings Wagner piled up: a marvelous strikeout rate of 11.9 batters per nine innings; a career WHIP of 0.998. In his final year, 2010 with the Braves, Wagner at age 39 was still blowing that onetime, 100-mph fastball past batters: 13.8 strikeouts per nine, and an 0.86 WHIP in 71 games.

Hoffman, by comparison, struck out 9.4 batters per nine and had a career WHIP of 1.058.

Great work, for sure, for nearly two decades. But on the sheer dynamism of his innings spanning significant years, Wagner earns a slight edge — just enough to make him a winner here after years of reflection.

▶ Sheffield: Tough call. Not because of his offense, which might as well have earned him a plaque the day he retired: 509 home runs, .292 career batting average, .393 on-base percentage, .907 OPS, and 140 OPS+. His bat was at the heart of a career WAR of 60.5.

A huge counterpoint was his defense, which often was bad and often offset whatever he was doing during a particular game within his 22-year career.

That made him a no-show here for nine years. There was also suspicion, negligible at best, that he had a bit of complicity in performance-enhancers, which the BALCO investigation at least technically confirmed.

But any deep study of Sheffield’s dabbling there simply doesn’t justify a no-vote. If that’s a main criterion for rebuking him, the evidence simply isn’t compelling.

So, what changed this year? What made him a Hall of Fame choice when on nine previous ballots he missed?

Keep in mind this: Many HOF candidacies throughout the years have been cliff-hangers for all voters. A pebble sliding either way can change the balance of making or missing election as you digest years of numbers, some of which can plunge deep into baseball’s metrics lab.

Digging into Sheffield’s defensive stats, they are certifiably bad, but not disqualifying. Baseball Prospectus has him at a career minus-89 on its Fielding Runs Above Average scale, which is lousy, but, again, not sufficient to subvert those amazing hitting numbers.

Post script there: Sheffield averaged 50 strikeouts a season for his 22 years. He had 304 more career walks than whiffs. Outstanding for a hitter whose swings had the fury of artillery fire.

So, after much, much thought and a final tip of the scales, Sheffield makes it.

That leaves three others who have appeared before for convincing reasons:

▶ Rolen: 17 years at third base, 70.1 WAR, eight Gold Gloves, .855 OPS, 316 home runs. Rolen’s numbers are not overly imposing, but his combination of exceptional defense and steady offense has made him an easy choice.

▶ Helton: Much the same case as Rolen: 17 seasons, multiple Gold Gloves at first base, .316 career batting average, and a stunning .414 on-base percentage. Helton, here, has been a steady “yes.”

▶ Rodriguez: PEDs, the critics argue — correctly. Why did A-Rod, of all people, need enhancers when he was nothing less than Hercules at the plate, one of the very best in MLB annals?

It’s the blackest of black marks, in a competitive context. But his recklessness during the lawless PED era was not the basis for 696 home runs and 3,115 hits. As with all players who shamefully doctored during the PED heyday — Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, etc. — and who still belong in Cooperstown based on their performances outside an odious era, A-Rod again is an automatic pick here.

The player who just missed again this year, in the fashion that Wagner and Sheffield failed to meet earlier approval, is Andruw Jones.

It’s a bothersome omission, for sure, considering his glamorous defense in center field and his early years when Jones’ offense was nearly as good.

But it’s those years after his 20s that really don’t measure up and don’t permit a good-conscience vote ahead of 2023.

The rest of the close-but-no-cigar cast — Jeff Kent, Bobby Abreu, Carlos Beltran, Andy Pettitte, Manny Ramirez, and a few others — remain just that. Either the numbers just miss, for now, or PEDs (Ramirez) perhaps had too much of an effect to ignore. In each case, they fall short.

It’s tough making Baseball’s Hall of Fame. And that’s what helps make it the best of all such shrines, and the most respected. It’s tough to crack, as anyone completing a ballot each year will probably affirm.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.

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