Peter Gammons: The Hall of Fame Debate; Who belongs in Cooperstown?

greg maddux

When the Hall of Fame balloting is announced January 8 on MLB Network, someone will ask, “who in the world did not vote for Greg Maddux.” Really. He certainly is one of the ten greatest pitchers, ever, whether you care for the 355 wins or being in the top ten in strikeouts or that in the heart of the roaring Nineties his earned run average was two-and-a-half runs better than the National League average.

And one can argue that day that of all the pitchers who have ever appeared on the ballot, Roger Clemens is the best pitcher not in Cooperstown. That side argument, which will carry to several other players of the last quarter century, will continue to rage.

But what will be of greater news impact that day will be those who did make it, as well as those who come close. This is Jack Morris’s last dance, the last opportunity for the hyperbole on each column of the Baseball Reference pages to be bookmarked. Craig Biggio, who got 68.2 percent of the vote last year, could well get his due for a career that beyond 3000 hits and enormous leadoff skills produced a WAR greater than that of Willie McCovey and started all-star games at catcher and second base.

Frank Thomas would seem to be a strong first ballot candidate, a great, patient offensive force who won two MVP awards and ranks in the top 22 all-time in on-base percentage, slugging, OPS, OPS+ and hit 521 homers without a suggestion of cheating.

Tim Raines, one of the handful of greatest leadoff hitters, seems edging closer to the reality he deserves. Some of us cling to the belief that Alan Trammell belongs in Cooperstown, a model shortstop, astounding consistent fielder and thrower, one of the dozen best all-around players at a critical position whose WAR is bettered only by Cal Ripken, Arky Vaughan, Derek Jeter and Ozzie Smith.

Jeff Bagwell, by most analytical figures one of the six best all-time at first base (6th by JAWS), a great defender because of his soccer footwork and a baserunner Brad Ausmus calls “the best I’ve ever seen,” may get closer; yes, his WAR is actually greater than those of Pete Rose, Joe DiMaggio and Thomas. And Mike Piazza likely will creep closer, one of the greatest offensive catchers (who really cared about his relationship with his pitchers), whose total numbers as a catcher trail only Johnny Bench, Gary Carter and, barely, Yogi Berra.

We may well have undervalued and done a disservice to Edgar Martinez. Ditto Larry Walker, a great all-around player whose place in history may have been clouded by where he played most of his home career. It may take a couple of years for Jeff Kent to creep up the vote percentage ladder, but he deserves serious consideration; he hit more homers than Ralph Kiner and is in the top dozen second basemen in games played and double plays turned at the position.

Putting the Clemens debate aside, for now, what is remarkable is that what is most remembered from the era of these players now on the ballot. Maddux is a certainty. Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling and Tom Glavine should be, and soon we will have Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez in front of us, as well as the underappreciated Kevin Brown. If one were to take Pitchers’ WAR, Maddux is the 8th best starting pitcher of all-time. Johnson is 9th. Pedro is 17th. Mussina is 24th. Schilling is 26th. Glavine is 28th. Kevin Brown is 31st.

The Steroids Era, we seem to have forgotten, is also a golden era for great pitchers, and the thought of Pedro Martinez taking the podium on that glorious stage, looking out at the rolling Woodstock setting and imaging what he will say is worth the anticipatory wait.

Maddux is the winningest pitcher in the era of the five man rotation. He won 18 gold gloves, two more than Jim Kaat, pitched five seasons in which he didn’t make an error. He won four Cy Young Awards.

On a July weekend when three of the game’s great managerial figures—Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, Joe Torre—are enshrined, Maddux likely will be the shining star, as busloads after busloads wind from Atlanta and Chicago wind around Lake Otesaga to honor him. His moonshadow may deflect attention away from Glavine, despite the hopes of so many that this stoic, distinguished rock will go into The Hall with Maddux; we only wish John Smoltz were also eligible, and John Schuerholz and Chipper Jones, will all be in sports’ greatest museum.

Even those who do not consider wins a significant category likely will concede that 305 is remarkable, especially in the era when the ladies loved the long ball. In the five man rotation era, Glavine stands only behind Maddux and Clemens, in front of Johnson and Mussina.

Schilling won 216 games, partially the result of several arm injuries, which is as many career wins as Charlie Hough. But Schilling is a HOF pitcher with the second best strikeout-walk ratio and post-season resume beyond approach: 11-2, 2.23, 120-25 K-BB, a key figure in three World Series championships in seven years, and in each one of those World Series runs he won games in all division, league and World Series. He was the master of preparation and creativity, and helping pitch the 2007 Red Sox to that title when throwing 85-88 MPH on many nights was master painting similar to Maddux.

It doesn’t matter that some feel that the similarity name next to Schill should be Newt Gingrich. The man was a great pitcher at his best at the worst of times. In fact, one could argue that after the Phillies lost the 15-14 nightmare in Game Four of the 1993 World Series that his Game Five shutout that took the series back to Toronto for Joe Carter was his greatest big game.

But the pitcher who seems most under the historical radar is Mussina. Some point out that he never won a Cy Young, won 20 games once. Or that the 3.68 career earned run average is, well, blah. Blah? Mussina pitched his entire career in Baltimore and Yankee Stadium, the American League East, in two great hitters’ parks. He still is 19th on the all-time strikeout list, his post-season 3.42 ERA compiled in the AL East compares to Maddux (3.28), betters Morris (3.80) and Andy Pettite (3.81). He threw 200 innings nine straight years in that divisional grind, won eight gold gloves and in seven full seasons did not commit an error.

My colleagues David Schoenfield and Mark Simon have done yeoman’s work making Mussina’s case. Simon pointed out if one begins with the first expansion in 1961 (and the expansion from the 154 to 162 game schedule), among pitchers who made their debuts Mussina’s WAR ranks 10th; Steve Carlton is 9th, Ferguson Jenkins and Nolan Ryan tied for 11th, Bob Gibson 14th.

Simon further went back to the beginning of the lively ball era, 1920. Mussina ranks 12th.

Did he win a World Series ring? No. Either did Ted Williams. But in 1997, not only did he twice beat Randy Johnson in the ALDS, but he pitched two brilliant games against the Indians in the ALCS, a 16 strikeout dandy in Cleveland, and an eight inning one-hitter which was lost 1-0 because Tony Fernandez homered off Armando Benitez in the 12th inning and Charles Nagy battled and got the Indians to the point where Mussina had to be taken out.

Oh yes. In Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS, after the Red Sox knocked out Roger Clemens for Pedro Martinez, Mussina, who had one career relief appearance, came out of the bullpen to get out of a bases-loaded jam, got nine outs and allowed the Yankees to reach the seventh inning down only 4-1.

Mike Flanagan used to talk about how most pitchers have one dominant side of the plate off which they work, where Mussina was dominant on both sides. He had the great knuckle curve. He was a fifth infielder, like Maddux, and like Maddux (and Schilling) clearly had thought behind everything he threw.

Mike Mussina eventually is going to be inducted in The Hall of Fame. Why not when he most deserves it, right now.

What makes the Baseball Hall of Fame is that it matters so much that we get so passionate about it. I was very sad that Ron Santo wasn’t alive for his induction, I have never understood why Ted Simmons and Luis Tiant have never made it, just as I feel the same way about Trammell.

I once asked Ted Williams to name the best lefthanded pitcher he ever faced, and he replied “Herb Score.” A man once robbed of a place in Cooperstown by a line drive that struck his eye, the classic example of what unfair is really all about.

  • Kilgore Rickberger Trout

    Shilling is a fraud and a felon. Give back the 10’s of millions he stole from Rhode Island and I would possibly consider voting for him.

  • zhrime

    Mussina’s WHIP, era+, and winning percentage are all better than Glavine’s. Massively under-appreciated pitcher.