From the Bleachers: Notes Around Baseball

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Here at Bleeding Royal Blue,  I spend a lot of time discussing my favorite team, the Kansas City Royals. But being a baseball fan in general means from time to time a little discussion around both leagues can do some good. So with that said, let’s kickoff the debut column, From the Bleachers!

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A Tight Race

Before the season started, most analysts picked the Cleveland Indians to runaway with the American League Central, with the Tigers, Royals, Twins and White Sox either floundering or fighting for a Wild Card spot. I even figured Kansas City and (maybe) Detroit would give them some competition. Instead, Minnesota still sits atop the Central (yes, I noticed, Pete!) with the White Sox holding up the rear, only six games behind. You read that correctly, only six games separate the top and bottom of the division. Minnesota should get some major props for their performance so far, as they improved their two main weaknesses from last year, the defense and bullpen, while getting All-Star contributions from Ervin Santana and Miguel Sano. The Indians sit 2.5 games back, Detroit 3.5 back and the Royals at 5.5 back. Will Cleveland eventually perform closer to their 2016 model and decide they’ve had enough of these silly games? Will Detroit decide if they are contenders or needing to rebuild? Will the Royals wake from their slumber and make one final run with their core group that led them to a championship? If we are basing this off of what has happened to this point, I don’t know if any of that will happen. If I had to use one word to describe this division to this point, the word ‘mediocre’ would seem fair; ‘eh’ would work as well. Maybe this pattern will continue over the next four months and my friends up in Minnesota will be super happy. No matter the result, it’s hard not to feel underwhelmed by the Central over the last couple of months.

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The Machine and 600

This past week, Albert Pujols clubbed his 600th career home run, an achievement only nine players have reached in MLB history. The Pujols we have seen the last five seasons pales in comparison to the one who was probably the best player in baseball in his first decade in the league. Despite that, Pujols is still a productive hitter, one who has averaged an OPS+ of 111 during that span. Injuries have taken its toll on him, and it’s easy to forget just how dominate Pujols was in his prime. According to the website Hall of Stats (which I highly recommend when determining a player’s value, especially when the Hall of Fame voting comes around), Pujols has a Hall rating of 211, which ranks him as the 30th best player (statistically) all-time and the 3rd best first baseman. Yes, we are seeing his regression right now, which should be expected in his late 30’s. But there are still some major goals he could reach before he retires, as he still has four years left on his contract after the current season. Pujols is 122 hits away from 3,000 and 140 RBI’s away from 2,000 for his career. Let’s enjoy the last few years of his career, because we are nearing the end of a Hall of Fame career.

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Have a Day, Scooter

On Tuesday, Scooter Gennett of the Cincinnati Reds joined some elite company, hitting four home runs in one game, going 5-5 while driving in 10 runs. This, from a guy who before the season had hit 38 home runs in five big league seasons. Scooter doesn’t fit the profile of a guy who would club four in a game, not like the last guy to do it, Josh Hamilton. In fact, Gennett is only the 17th career player to reach this feat, a list that includes Hall of Famers like Mike Schmidt, Willie Mays and Lou Gehrig. This list also includes the like of Mark Whiten, Bob Horner and the infamous Bobby Lowe, he of 71 career homers. Safe to say Scooter will never have another night like this ever again, so I hope he soaks in all the adulation and enjoys his moment. His name alone will be a fun trivia question to bring up for many years to come.

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Scherzer Meets Kershaw

As the season is unfolding, an interesting occurrence has developed that few probably saw coming: Max Scherzer is making a run at being the best pitcher in baseball. Clayton Kershaw has held that title for close to five years now and while Scherzer has compiled two Cy Young Award’s in that time-span, he still has not performed close enough to even have that conversation. But so far in 2017, Kershaw has put up an ERA+ (which is adjusted to the pitcher’s ballpark) of 185, which leads the league. Scherzer is right on his tail at 181 while leading the league in strike outs, WHIP and hits per 9. On Tuesday, Scherzer was dominate, striking out 14, walking 2 and allowing 1 run (unearned) in his 7 innings of work. In fact, Scherzer has three straight starts of 10+ strike outs, 7+ innings and 1 run or less. It’s going to be interesting to see if Scherzer can keep this up (which I believe he is capable of) and if he can continue to go toe to toe with Kershaw. I love watching Kershaw pitch, but I am always up for some healthy competition between two elite pitchers at the top of their game.

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McCutchen Has a Pulse

Over the last two seasons, there has been a lot of discussion about the decline of Andrew McCutchen. Hitters normally start seeing a regression when they reach their early 30’s, but McCutchen didn’t turn 30 until last October and while injuries have been popping up for him the last couple seasons, it was hard to fathom that his decline would hit this badly, this early. Myself, like many other analysts, felt that McCutchen would bounce back this year and produce at a pace closer to his best years than his lackluster 2016. Instead, Cutch stumbled out the gate this year and as late as May 23 saw his batting average sitting at .200. But over the last 10 games, he has looked like the Cutch of old:

If McCutchen has finally found his groove, that is great timing for him and the Pirates. I am a big fan of not only McCutchen the player but also McCutchen the person. Baseball is stronger with him locked in.

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The Elbow and the Damage Done

Finally, another alarming Tommy John  Surgery stat came out this week worth noting:

I’ve spoken many times on this blog about the dreaded Tommy John Surgery and it amazes me that there isn’t more pressure to figure out a more worthwhile solution to this problem. While the new surgery that was done on Seth Maness cut his time out of action down considerably (down to 7 1/2 months), I still feel there should be more research done on a solution, not just a quicker remedy. If you are a believer that a pitcher’s arm has only so many bullets in it, it can’t help that many youngsters are throwing more pitches while their arm is still developing than ever before. If you are of the Nolan Ryan school of thought, you believe pitchers need to throw more, not less. An excerpt from a Ryan interview done in 2014:

 

Ryan said that in September of 1988 with Houston, he began experiencing pain in his elbow and paid a visit to Jobe in Los Angeles, who advised him to shut it down for the last couple of weeks of the season and resume throwing in December.

“There was a partial tear there,” he said. “It still hurt in December, but when I got to spring training, the pain began to dissipate until it was gone. Dr. Jobe said it had scarred over and that helped protect the elbow. I pitched with that tear the rest of my career.”

Ryan had two more 200-inning seasons and led the NL in strikeouts with 301 in ‘89 and 232 in ‘90.

While Tommy John agrees with Ryan, he also feels like I do, that kids today are throwing way too much, especially year round:

“First of all, one of the biggest reasons for all the arm injuries in baseball today is the way young kids are handled by their coaches in grade school and high school, pitching them year-round,” said John by phone from his home in Syracuse. “They’re told if they want to make it, they have to play travel ball — and that results in the over-use of their arms when they’re body is not fully developed. Travel ball has taken over the entire country and parents need to be educated about what this does to these kids’ arms.”

“I absolutely agree with Nolan that more is better,” John said. “Years ago, I’d have gone along with the thinking that there’s only so many bullets in your arm. But we’ve ‘dumbed down’ our thinking today to believing that pitch counts and innings limitations are the way to go to preserve arms. Starting in 1975 with the White Sox, when Johnny Sain was my pitching coach, I would throw six days a week out of seven and it was the best my arm ever felt. For the next 13 years, I never missed a start, except once when I had the flu. Sain believed in throwing between starts and it’s no coincidence that one of his disciples, Leo Mazzone, subscribed to that same philosophy, practicing and throwing every day, as pitching coach for the Braves. The Braves had the best pitching staffs in baseball in the ’90s and all guys like (Greg) Maddux and (Tom) Glavine did was pitch and win and never got hurt.”

So is the answer pitching less in your youth and more once your body has developed? And if that is the answer, how long will it take before travel league or high school coaches actually worry less about winning and more about their kid’s future health? I don’t know if this is completely the solution to the problem, but it doesn’t appear to be a bad place to start.

 

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My 2017 Hall of Fame Ballot

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There is no greater honor in any sport than getting a plaque in the baseball Hall of Fame. I’m sure someone who believes the NFL or NBA is a greater honor will debate me on this, but there is never the sort of debate toward their hall’s as there is in baseball. That debate has grown into a fervor amongst baseball fans, writers and even players, as every one seems to have an opinion on this topic. What has made it even more intense is what we should do with players who were “suspected” of enhancement thanks to steroids and other performance enhancement drugs, and whether or not they deserve a spot in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown or left on the outside looking in. In some ways, the people who vote on this honor are the judge, jury and executioner, as testing was not done during this period so for many of the players of that era there is no definite of what they did or did not do. As a member of the IBWAA, this will be my third year of voting for ‘the Hall’ and as I have said in years past, I have no issue voting for anyone suspected for PED use, since I feel those players played within the parameters of the rules allowed at that time. I’ve long considered the Hall of Fame a museum of the game, not a church, and because of this I vote based on performance alone. Now, there are a few differences between us in the IBWAA & our brethren in the BBWAA, one of which is the players we have already inducted. Last year we inducted Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez, and in years past we had already voted in Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines, so none of those players showed up on our ballots this year. Also, we are allowed to vote for up to 15 players, where as the BBWAA can only vote for 10. Before we get to my actual votes, you can read my previous votes: Here is 20142015, and 2016. Also, follow Ryan Thibodaux on Twitter. That way you can follow how the voting is going before the big announcement on January 18th. Without further ado, here are my votes for the 2017 Hall of Fame ballot.

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Barry Bonds

I have voted for Bonds every year and will continue to until he is finally elected. In my eyes, this is a no-brainer, as Bonds is one of the greatest baseball players ever, not just of his era. I could rattle off all the numbers that show how great he was, but I think the best way to explain it is this way: before there was any whispers about suspected steroid use, Bonds was a 5 tool player who could literally do anything on the baseball field…and then he became an offensive juggernaut that could not be contained. The all-time home run king took that whole era to another level and it wasn’t even close. You might not like him or what he had to do to elevate his game, but I am not concerned about any of that when it comes to voting. To me, Bonds is a slam dunk pick and should already be in the Hall of Fame.

 

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Roger Clemens

Like Bonds, Clemens is an easy pick, the greatest pitcher of his era and one of the greatest pitchers of all-time. Clemens won the Cy Young Award 7 times throughout his career, and is on top of a plethora of statistics that garner him near the top of almost all pitching leaderboards. Both Bonds and Clemens seem to be garnering more support, as the election of former Commissioner Bud Selig to the Hall seems to have allowed some voters to start putting an ‘x’ in the box next to their names. At one time it appeared both men would have to wait until they showed up on the Veteran’s Committee ballot before they would get elected; now we could see that wall busted through in the next couple of years.

 

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Vladimir Guerrero

Guerrero is the first debut on my ballot this year and appears on the surface to be a borderline pick for the Hall, but digging deeper shows you a guy who should be more of an easy pick for voters. Most will remember Guerrero as a hitter who never saw a pitch he didn’t like (as he was a notorious bad-ball hitter), but he was also a very good hitter, which those two things normally clash if put together. Instead, Guerrero posted a career .318/.379/.553 line with 449 home runs and 2,590 hits during his 16 year career, with a career contact rate of 79.9%. The accolades are there with this guy: 2004 AL MVP, 9 time All-Star, 8 time Silver Slugger award winner and 2010 Edgar Martinez award winner. All that should entice a voter’s view of Vlad, but what really takes the cake is his place in history when it comes to his offensive stats. Guerrero’s all-time rank is staggering: 56th all-time in batting average, 24th in slugging percentage, 34th in OPS, 49th in total bases, 85th in doubles, 38th in home runs, 57th in RBI’s, 79th in OPS+, 64th in runs created, 56th in adjusted batting runs, 61st in adjusted batting wins, 45th in extra base hits, 5th all time in intentional bases on balls, 45th in power-speed #, 59th in RE24, and 50th in Win Probability Added. Most people could tell you that he was a really good player, but it isn’t until the numbers slap you in the face that you see just how great he was, not just really good. The cherry on top of his offensive numbers is this fun little fact that Graham Womack found: Guerrero’s career batting average, home runs and hits are only topped in baseball history by five players. Those five? Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Stan Musial and Lou Gehrig. Yes, all five are Hall of Famers and yes, Vladimir Guerrero should be as well. If not this year, hopefully Vlad will get in the Hall in the very near future.

 

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Trevor Hoffman

For the second consecutive season, I voted for Trevor Hoffman. There has been plenty of debate on whether or not closers should be judged on a different criteria than most other positions and to a small degree I get some of the trepidation. Closers today don’t always face the strongest part of the lineup and it seems odd to have your best bullpen arm only throw an inning or less an outing. The thing to remember though is that “the closer” is still a position and if you excel at it for 16 seasons, you should be rewarded justly. In some ways, the Hoffman argument is very similar to Tim Raines; Raines was the second best leadoff hitter of his time, behind another Hall of Famer in Rickey Henderson. Hoffman was the second best closer of his, behind future Hall honoree Mariano Rivera. Hoffman not only shouldn’t be punished for not being Rivera, but was about as consistent as one can be. During his career, Hoffman posted 15 consecutive seasons of 20+ saves (and I hate the save stat, but this is still very impressive) and had an 88.8% save conversion rate, which within itself is almost insane when you consider the amount of save opportunities he received in his career.Throw in his lethal change-up that was almost as deadly as Rivera’s cutter, and you have a one of the best relievers of all-time. He might be no Mariano Rivera, but then again who is? What Hoffman is though is a Hall of Fame closer.

 

Mike Mussina

Mike Mussina

When thinking about Mike Mussina, what is the first thing that springs to mind? Is it his start in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS? Or maybe his use of the knuckle-curve, which was his out pitch? Or does nothing specific pop into your mind when hearing Mussina’s name? I sometimes wonder if those of us on the Mussina bandwagon would have to praise his career if he had been even just a tad bit flashier.What I end up realizing is that part of what made him so great was that he wasn’t flashy and just went out for 18 seasons and performed as a top of the rotation starter in that span. There are no Cy Young awards on his mantle, but there are numbers that back up his greatness. Mussina has the 24th best bWAR for pitchers, 19th in strikeouts, 22nd best strikeout to walk ratio, 17th best adjusted pitching runs, 21st best adjusted pitching wins, 9th best RE24, and 10th best Win Probability Added. Mussina was that guy who you could count on for a big win or just to go out and save the bullpen from being overused. Mussina jumped up to 43% of the ballots in 2016 and one can only hope he inches closer to the 75% he needs to reach the Hall. One of the pitchers that Mussina’s stats are comparable to is another former Oriole, Jim Palmer. While Palmer might have the accolades that Mussina does not have, the one thing in common is that both pitchers deserve to be in the baseball Hall of Fame.

 

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Manny Ramirez

Manny makes his debut on the Hall of Fame ballot and with that comes a bee-hive of debate. Many voters have said the difference to them between Bonds or a Clemens and Palmeiro or Ramirez is that the latter tested positive for performance enhancing drugs and was justly suspended. In fact, when I started filling out my ballot, I paused on Ramirez and had to really stop and think of which direction I wanted to go. Like I have said, my voting is performance based but an actual suspension (and for Manny it was multiple suspensions) muddies the water a bit. After much contemplation, I went ahead and voted for Manny since he had put up Hall of Fame numbers before the suspensions. While Ramirez wasn’t a stellar defender (and that is evidenced by his career bWAR of 69.2), offensively he was a juggernaut. Manny posted a career line of .312/.411/.585 with 555 career home runs, and an OPS+ of 154. I firmly believe he could hit blindfolded and still produce league average numbers, as he was that good of a hitter. Manny also contributed during the playoffs, where he hit .285/.394/.544 with 29 home runs and 78 RBI’s over 111 postseason games, all fairly on pace to his regular season averages. The awards are all there for him as he was a 12 time All-Star, 2 time Hank Aaron award winner, 2002 AL batting title, 2004 World Series MVP, and 9 time Silver Slugger award winner. If that isn’t impressive enough, the numbers are quite gaudy: 32nd all-time in oWAR, 32nd in On-Base Percentage, 8th in Slugging Percentage, 8th in OPS, 29th in total bases, 31st in doubles, 15th in home runs, 18th in RBI’s, 28th in OPS+, 21st in runs created, 17th in Adjusted Batting Runs, 20th in Adjusted Batting Wins, 16th in extra base hits, 11th in RE24,  and 23rd in Win Probability Added. Those are Hall of Fame numbers and most of that accumulated before he tested positive for anything. Would I hold it against anyone for not voting for him because of the suspensions? Nope. I get it.But for me, Ramirez has long been a Hall of Famer; the only thing those suspensions did was tarnish the perception of him, which is unfortunate. Instead of people remembering Manny for his child-like antics or immense hitting, he will be branded a cheater. He has no one else to blame for that, but I still felt like he had earned my vote, scarlet letter and all.

 

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Ivan Rodriguez

This will be “Pudge’s” first time on the ballot and for most accounts should be an easy, first ballot inductee. The problem is that like many of that era, he has been rumored to have used PED’s, as former teammate Jose Canseco (a bastion of trust) said he shot Rodriguez up during their time together on the Rangers. Since it just speculation at this point, he got my vote, as he is easily one of the best catchers in baseball history. Over a 21 year career, Pudge would hit .296/.334/.464 with 311 career home runs, 1,332 RBI’s, an OPS+ of 106 and a bWAR of 68.4. Rodriguez was the 1999 AL MVP, 2003 NL NLCS MVP, 13 time Gold Glove winner, 7 time Silver Slugger award winner,  and 14 time All-Star, including this little honor he gets all to himself:

His numbers are somewhat mind-boggling for a catcher, a position that has been very hard for most to excel on both offense and defense. Rodriguez is 9th all-time in career defensive WAR, 48th in hits, 54th in total bases, 26th in doubles, 97th in RBI’s, 58th in extra base hits, 13th in Total Zone Runs, 1st in defensive games as a catcher, 1st in career putouts as a catcher, 23rd in assists at catcher, 5th in double plays turned at catcher, 78th in caught stealing percentage, and 1st in Total Zone Runs as a catcher. In some ways, Rodriguez re-invented the catcher position, as he was a hybrid of speed, guile, power, and  nimble defense with a cannon of an arm. According to JAWS (which is a ranking system created by Jay Jaffe that is of great use to help determine Hall of Fame worthiness),  is the third best catcher of all-time, just behind Johnny Bench and Gary Carter. When you factor in his comparable players (Carlton Fisk, Ted Simmons, Carter and Yogi Berra) it is easy to see why Rodriguez should be a first ballot HOFer. So far, he is polling at 79.9% of the ballots, which is probably a good sign that he will either get in this year or come up just short, which would be a good sign for 2018. In my eyes, there is no debate here: Pudge is one the greats of the game.

 

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Curt Schilling

There might not be a bigger lightning rod on the Hall of Fame ballot than Schilling, who has caught quite a bit of scorn for his behavior on social media within the last year. While I might not agree with his politics, I do realize it has nothing to do with his candidacy in the Hall and justly had no qualms in voting for him yet again this year. Schilling’s numbers speak of a top notch starter: 26th all-time in pitchers bWAR, 15th in strikeouts, 3rd best strikeout to walk ratio, 18th best Win Probability Added and 46th best ERA+. Those are just his regular season numbers; toss in the postseason and you have a surefire Hall of Famer. Schilling has rubbed many a writer the wrong way (and by no means do I feel sorry for Curt; he would probably be better off learning when to keep quiet) and because of that his vote totals have gone down this year, but so far he is polling exactly where he finished last year, at 52%. I might not like Schilling the person, but the baseball player was one hell of a pitcher out on the diamond. For that, he has my vote.

 

Hall of Fame Baseball

Billy Wagner

This year is the first that I voted for Wagner, although I came very (very) close to voting for him in 2016. Since I was so close last year to marking an ‘X’ next to his name, I decided to dig deeper into his numbers and compare them to some of his peers. Wagner was a 7 time All-Star, twice was in the top ten of the NL Cy Young award and took home the 1999 NL Rolaids Relief Award. While he sits in 6th place all-time in saves, that doesn’t mean as much to me as his 86% conversion rate, which is close to Trevor Hoffman’s 88.8%. What does interest me is some of the deeper numbers when compared to fellow relievers. Wagner is 5th all-time for relievers in ERA+, 14th for relievers in bWAR (in fact, just under Hoffman), 4th in strikeouts for a reliever, 86th in Adjusted Pitching Runs, 93rd in Adjusted Pitching Wins, 55th in RE24, and 36th in Win Probability Added. All this was done in less than 1,000 innings, which for some is a hindrance rather than a positive. I get that relievers today aren’t used in the same scenarios as their forefathers, and because of that their innings totals will seem meek in comparison. But that is also what the role calls for nowadays and there is something to be said for compiling numbers like this in a much shorter amount of time. For Wagner, it was more about the efficiency than the longevity; Wagner came in, shut down the opposing team and was done. In some ways, Wagner and Hoffman are linked in that they both pitched about the same amount of time, in the same period and were very equally efficient. Both were top of the food chain for their position and in my eyes, both should be in Cooperstown.

 

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Larry Walker

Much like Wagner, this was the first year I voted for Walker and my take on him seemed to be a bit different than a lot of folks. For many, the fact that Walker played a large chunk of his home games in Coors Field (Walker was a Rockie from 1995 to 2004) seemed to deter voters from placing a vote for him; I had no issue with that, since I knew he hit on the road almost as well as he did  at home. No, my issue with him was injuries, as he had 7 seasons of less than 130 games, 12 of less than 140. Walker’s issue wasn’t the ‘Rocky Mountain High’s’ as much as the ability to stay on the field and play. The numbers speak volumes: .313/.400/.565 career slash line, 141 career OPS+, 5 time All-Star, 1997 NL MVP, 3 batting titles, and 7 time Gold Glove winner. So what changed for me when it comes to Walker? His place in history. According to JAWS, Walker is the 10th best right fielder of all-time. All-Time! Just seeing who he is better than sounds like a who’s-who of right fielders: Shoeless Joe Jackson, Tony Gwynn, Ichiro Suzuki, Dwight Evans, Dave Winfield, Vladimir Guerrero, Willie Keeler, Paul Waner and Enos Slaughter, just to name a few. Walker is 86th all-time in bWAR, 56th in bWAR for position players, 55th in on base percentage, 12th in slugging percentage, 14th in OPS, 31st in power-speed #, 38th in RE24, and 36th in Win Probability Added. Those numbers are just a sliver of what he could do; there are 7 other categories where Walker is in the Top 100 of all-time. What makes me curious is the voting for Walker during the first six years on the ballot; He peaked in 2012 at 22% and last year bumped up a bit to 15%. One has to wonder if the voters viewpoint of him would change if he hadn’t played so many games in Colorado. It took me awhile to recognize it, but Walker deserves to be with the other elite right fielders in Cooperstown.

 

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So those were my picks for this year’s class of the Hall of Fame. There are always those players we struggle with, the ones that we hem and haw about before deciding yay or nay. Here are a few of those and why I didn’t vote them:

Jeff Kent-While being one of the best offensive second baseman of all-time, his defense hurts him a ton. 19th all-time in bWAR for second sackers, 27th in WAR (which factors in a players best 7 seasons). Even just factoring in hitting, he is 18th amongst his position in OPS+. Close, but not quite.

Fred McGriff-Also close, but just misses the cut for me. Number-wise he is in the “very good but not quite great” category.

Gary Sheffield-I go back and forth on him every year, mainly because I love his offensive numbers and where they stand in baseball history. But his defense…he has a career bWAR of 60.3; just imagine if he was even just an average defender? Sheff is a close call for me and could very well win me over next year.

Lee Smith-Longevity seems to be his main catch but nothing much really stands out for me. Nice strikeout ratio and ERA+, but outside of that he would seem to fit in the “good not great” category.

Sammy Sosa-Sosa always felt like a one-dimensional player: home runs and not much more. In fact, when you consider he hit over 600 home runs, you would think his bWAR would be higher than just 58.4.Below average defender, struck out a lot, and only cracks the Top 100 of all-time in six offensive categories. Not a Hall of Famer in my eyes.

I always love writing these Hall of Fame articles, as there is a ton of research to gloss over. Every year I feel like I receive a greater perception of the bigger picture and every year I feel like I left someone off that maybe deserved a deeper look into their case. Some of these you will agree with, some you won’t, as each person’s definition of a Hall of Famer seems to be different. What I can say that in my eyes these are the best of the best and earned the honor.

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