WASHINGTON, December 26, 2012 — The 2013 Baseball Hall of Fame (HOF) includes twenty-four first-time candidates and the first humongous batch of Steroid Era stars. Two more are greats who had their glory years in the 1980’s; one is almost assured of induction this year or next; the other is ready to roll off the ballot after this season.
Mid-ballot is populated by players with flaws that loom large, like Edgar Martinez, trying to be the first designated hitter elected, and small, like Tim Raines, the greatest base-stealer and leadoff-hitter of all-time not named Rickey Henderson. This HOF election will be a landmark one, setting the course for which players from the seemingly tainted 1990’s will possibly enshrined someday.
Nearly two-thirds this year’s ballots are first-timers, and after discarding the filler — Todd Walker, Jose Mesa, Jeff Conine, Royce Clayton, Aaron Sele, and their ilk — the crop of Steroid Era stars is reached. This group is headed by three of the most enduring and ubiquitous faces of in sports: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa. All three also fall into the same category of alleged performance-enhancing drug users, none ever admitting purposeful use, although Bonds was convicted of perjury regarding the BALCO scandal but not for steroid use. Clemens was cleared of perjury allegations regarding his testimony to Congress in 2005, and Sosa continually declares his innocence.
Though all three are first-timers to the list, there are very few new things to say beyond the tired analyses that have propagated since they retired five years ago. And there will be few new things to say as they progress along the ballot, which they are sure to do, barring a major about-face in voting habits from the BBWAA.
The real interesting group of first-timers is the one that sits just below the top three in career accomplishments, conspicuousness, general dislike, and even PED suspicions: Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio, Curt Schilling. Piazza is the catcher with a slugging-percentage 45 points higher and 38 more homeruns than the current leaders among Hall of Fame backstops.
Biggio was a dependable .280/.380/.450 player day in and day out for 20 years, turning to second base when he could no longer play behind the plate and to center field when his team became a loaded championship contender. Schilling was a fire-balling right-hander, who spent the majority of his career racking up strikeouts and taking hard-luck losses for the bottom-dwelling Philadelphia Phillies before lifting the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks and 2004 Boston Red Sox to historic world titles.
All three have their mainstream claims to make it into the Hall. Piazza was a defensive abomination behind the plate, but at the plate he was a top slugger during his 1996-2001 peak. Biggio hit the 3000 hit plateau in his final year. Schilling made the 3000 strikeout club in 2006, and on the other side of the coin sports a 4.38 K/BB rate, the best mark in the modern era for a starter or reliever, even when including the control problems from his years in Baltimore.
The criticism on all three is understandable for Piazza and irrelevant for Biggio and Schilling. Critics rightly say that had Piazza played any other position, first base for instance, he would have had much less relative value, a point that is hard to argue with. Biggio is hit for not standing out in any one category and for not being the best pure hitter on his own team. (That honor goes to first baseman Jeff Bagwell, entering his third year on the ballot, three-fourths of the way to the votes he needs for election.)
Schilling is tarred by the focus on wins, of which he possesses “only” 216, thanks to his nine years with the downtrodden Phillies. (A more poignant statistic is that in his time with the Phillies, Schilling accounted for over 18% of their wins, a figure that would give 6-7 additional wins for each 28-point improvement in win percentage by the 1992-2000 Phillies, which had a cumulative win percentage of .472.)
This small segment of the ballot is priceless because Piazza, Biggio, and Schilling are each borderline and each overwhelmingly deserving in their own way. They have all escaped accusations of PED use. They are, in short, examples of players who would have stood at or near the top of their eras in different times. Biggio and Schilling are certainly hall-worthy, with Piazza less so. And unlike the headline-stealers they each hold a genuine chance of going in on their first ballot.
On Thursday be sure to check out analysis of the HOF credentials and chances of the returnees from Bernie Williams, the sole 2012 first-year to have made the cut, to Dale Murphy, facing his final chance in his fifteenth year on the ballot.
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