Friday, January 9, 2015

Four Greats Enter the Hall

The Hall of Fame voting process has been under heavy scrutiny in recent years due to the lack of players elected and PED concerns. Just two years ago, the BBWAA failed to nominate a single candidate. Last year, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas were elected from a crowded ballot. Along with many deserving candidates returning, there were several new candidates for the 2015 ballot. First time candidates Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz were elected. Holdover Craig Biggio was also elected after falling two votes shy last year.

Tuesday's HOF election was a historic one. Only three other times in history have the writers elected four or more candidates in a single election. It hasn't happened since 1955, when Mickey Cochrane, Gabby Hartnett, Ted Lyons, and Joe DiMaggio were elected. The ballot has cleared up some, but there are still many Hall worthy candidates left. We'll get to that later. I have bitched about the writers being too picky in the past, but I can't argue with them this year. At least four deserving candidates made it in.

Randy Johnson won 303 games and 5 Cy Young Awards during his 22 year career. Control problems plagued Johnson throughout his 20's. The Montreal Expos drafted Johnson in the second round in the 1985 draft. Four years later, Montreal traded Johnson to Seattle for Mark Langston. Johnson showed glimpses of greatness during his first three seasons on the Mariners, but it wasn't until after a talk with Nolan Ryan that Johnson put it all together.

Johnson finished second and third in the 1993 and 1994 CYA voting. In 1995, he played a major role in helping the Mariners reach their first postseason berth. Seattle rallied from behind to tie the Angels for the division lead and forced a tiebreaker playoff game. Johnson faced Langston (who he was once traded for), and struck out 12 Angels in a complete game victory. Many credit that game for saving baseball in Seattle. Johnson would win his first Cy Young in 1995, and helped the Mariners again make the postseason in 1997.

The Mariners and Johnson were unable to agree to a contract extension before the 1998 season. Seattle slumped in 1998, and dealt Johnson to the Astros at the trading deadline. Johnson had struggled with Seattle, but went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA in Houston. Johnson would lose two games to San Diego in the NLDS, including one to Kevin Brown. That offseason, both Brown and Johnson were free agents. The Dodgers decided to pass on Johnson, and signed Brown to baseball's first $100 million contract. The Dodgers were worried about Johnson's back, and he went on the sign with division rival Arizona. It was an offseason that would have long term effects on both franchises.

The Diamondbacks wound up in the postseason in only their second year of existence, while the Dodgers never made the playoffs with Brown. Johnson would win the Cy Young Award in 1999, giving him one in each league. He would go on to win the next three CYA's. The Diamondbacks again lost in the Division Series, dropping Johnson's playoff record to 2-6. Like Clayton Kershaw today, Johnson had gained a reputation as someone who couldn't win in the playoffs.

In 2001, Johnson would change that perception. He started the All Star Game in Seattle, and had a career high 372 strikeouts. Arizona won the NL West, and the combo of Johnson and Curt Schilling would be tough for any team to overcome in a short series. Johnson won 5 games in that postseason, including the decisive Game 7. Johnson and Schilling were named co-World Series MVP's in 2001.

2001 would be a high point in Johnson's career. He won his final CYA in 2002, although he came close again in 2004. Johnson also pitched a perfect game in 2004. After a disastrous 111 loss season, Arizona dealt Johnson to the Yankees. Johnson wasn't the same pitcher in New York, and would be traded back to Arizona before the 2007 season. He finished up his career with the Giants in 2009, and won his 300th game there. Johnson ranks up with Lefty Grove, Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, and Steve Carlton as one of the best left handed pitchers of all time. The big question is will he go in as a Mariner or a Diamondback?

Pedro Martinez was a farmhand with the Dodgers when his older brother Ramon was an All Star pitcher. Pedro would join his brother during the 1993 season as a reliever, and the Dodgers thought he was too smallish to be a starter.  After the season, the Dodgers traded him to Montreal for DeLino DeShields, one of the worst trades in Dodgers history.  Montreal would put him into the rotation intermediately. Martinez pitched well in 1994, and the Expos had the majors best record at the time the strike ended the season.

The 1994 strike and cancellation of the World Series was a turning point for the worse for the Expos. The team would never recover, and moved to Washington ten years later. The Expos dealt away many star players from the 1994 team coming into the new season. Martinez would make his first All Star team in 1996, and would take his game to an elite level the following season. During the 1997 campaign, Martinez compiled a 1.90 ERA, won 17 games, struck out 305 batters, and won his first Cy Young.

The small market Expos couldn't afford to keep Martinez, so they decided to deal him before he left as a free agent. Soon after the trade, the Red Sox signed Martinez to a six year extension. Martinez finished second to Roger Clemens in the CYA race in 1998, and the Red Sox won the wild card. The next two seasons were among the greatest in baseball history. During the 1999 All Star Game at Fenway Park, Martinez struck out five straight batters. He won the pitching Triple Crown in 1999, his second CYA, and nearly the MVP. The Red Sox upset the Indians in the ALDS, and faced their archrival Yankees in the ALCS. Martinez outdueled Clemens in Game 3, but Boston lost the series.

Martinez was miles better than the competition in the heart of the steroid era. During the 2000 season, Martinez led the AL with a 1.74 ERA and a 0.73 WHIP. Martinez's ERA was almost two runs lower than Roger Clemens 3.70, which was second in the AL that year. Only 3 other pitchers who qualified for the AL ERA title had a ERA under 4 in 2000.

In the 2001 season, Martinez was limited to 18 starts due to injury. Martinez was still dominant, but would pitch 200 innings or more only two more times. The Yankees were still a roadblock, and Martinez famously referred to New York as "his daddy." The Red Sox took the Yankees to seven games in the 2003 ALCS, but lost in a wild Game 7. Manager Grady Little was criticized for leaving in Martinez too long (he allowed the tying run), and would be fired. Imagine the criticism Little would of got if he took out Martinez earlier, and the bullpen blew it.

The Red Sox would trade for Curt Schilling, attempt to waive Manny Ramirez, and named Terry Francona manager in a turbulent offseason. The Red Sox were entering year 86 without a World Series title. They had came close many times, only to fall short. Martinez was entering the final year of his contract, and long time shortstop Nomar Garciaparra was traded during a trading deadline shakeup. Martinez wasn't as sharp during 2004, and his ERA ballooned to 3.90.

Expectations were sky high in Boston, and many thought this would finally be the year they reversed the curse. The Garciaparra trade was drastic, but the moves paid off. The team finished hot, and and swept the Angels in the ALDS. They faced a familiar foe in the ALCS, the Yankees. New York took a 3-0 series advantage, but the Red Sox beat the odds and came back to win the series. Boston went on to dispatch the Cardinals in the World Series, and ended their long stretch of futility. Martinez pitched 7 scoreless innings in a Game 3 win.

2004 would be Martinez' last season in Boston. The Red Sox decided to pass on re-signing Martinez, and signed a four year deal with the Mets. Martinez would have one more big season in 2005 for the Mets, but that would be his last injury free season with New York. Martinez then pitched his final season with the Phillies in 2009.

The Phillies were the defending World Series champions, and were looking to defend their crown. Martinez was no longer the pitcher he used to be, but he helped the Phillies out down the stretch. He pitched 7 scoreless innings in a win vs. his former team the Dodgers in the NLCS. The Phillies would go on to face the Yankees in the World Series. Martinez would face his old foe, but lost two starts to the Yankees, and the Phillies lost the series in six games. Despite that, Martinez is one of the best pitchers of his era, or any era. His seven year stretch from 1997 to 2003 matches up with anybody.

John Smoltz was the third wheel along with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine in the Braves great rotation of the 1990's. Smoltz joins the other two in the Hall of Fame, after they were both inducted last year. This marks one of the few times in baseball history where a team had three Hall of Fame starters. Smoltz was actually drafted by his hometown Detroit Tigers, but was traded away to Atlanta during a 1987 midseason deal for Doyle Alexander. Smoltz would make his major league debut in 1988, and pitch the next 21 years with the Braves.

Early on in his career, Smoltz struggled with wildness; leading the National League in wild pitches three straight years from 1990-92. He also showed signs of dominance, making his first All Star team in first full season in 1989. In 1991, the Braves went from last place to first place. Smoltz and 1991 Cy Young winner Glavine were a big reason why. Smoltz would pitch in his first of many postseasons, and had a career 15-4 record with a 2.67 ERA in October. Smoltz also drew the Game 7 of the 1991 World Series start vs. Jack Morris. Smoltz pitched 7.1 innings of scoreless ball, but left with a no-decision. The Braves wound up losing in the 10th inning, and fell short of a championship.

In 1992, the Braves returned to the World Series to face the Blue Jays. Smoltz had just the NLCS MVP after going 2-0 with a 2.66 ERA in three starts. Atlanta again fell short in the World Series, losing their second in a row. After the season, Atlanta signed Maddux, giving Atlanta the best trio in baseball at the time (and maybe ever). However, this did not change the Braves luck in the postseason for 1993. They would lose to the Phillies in the NLCS that year.

Smoltz had slumped in 1994, posting an ERA over 4 in that strike shortened year. He rebounded in 1995, lowering his ERA by a run. 1995 would also mark a high point in the Braves run of 14 straight division titles. This team finally was able to get it done in October. The beat the Indians to win their first World Series since 1957, and first in Atlanta. Glavine took the World Series MVP honors. By this point of his career, Smoltz had been overshadowed by his two Cy Young Award winning teammates.

Smoltz would have his finest season in 1996. He won 24 games, had a 2.94 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 276 strikeouts, and led the NL in innings pitched. Smoltz would go on to win the Cy Young Award, giving the Braves three pitchers who had won the award. The Braves went back to the World Series that year, but were upset by the Yankees. He was a free agent at the season's end, but signed a five year deal to remain in Atlanta.

In 1997, Smoltz again lead the NL in innings pitched, proving to be one of the game's most durable pitchers. He wouldn't be so lucky in coming years. Smoltz failed to reach 200 innings the next two seasons, but got some really bad news in 2000. He needed Tommy John surgery. Smoltz would be out the entire 2000 season, and miss part of 2001.

When he came back from injury, Smoltz was inserted into the bullpen. In 2002, he finished third in the Cy Young voting after finishing with 55 saves. He had 45 saves in 2003 with a microscopic 1.12 ERA. After the 2004 season, Smoltz moved back to the rotation. He had done a great job as a closer, saving 154 games in 3 plus seasons.

There had been a few pitchers who moved from starter to closer(Dennis Eckersley comes to mind), but it was very rare for a closer to become a starter. Especially someone who was in there late 30's. Smoltz was up to the challenge, and actually made two All Star teams in his second stint as a starter. In 2006, he tied for the lead in wins for the NL. The 2008 season was cut short due to injury, and would be Smoltz's last season in Atlanta. He signed with Boston, but was released after 15 starts. He wound up finishing his career with the Cardinals for the last two months of 2009.

Craig Biggio spent his entire 20 year career with the Astros, and played several different positions. He was drafted by Houston with their first pick in 1987, and was up in the majors a year later. While thought of as a second baseman, Biggio actually was a catcher his first few seasons. He actually caught Nolan Ryan at one point in time. During his rookie season of 1989, he won the Silver Slugger Award as a catcher. Biggio was a rare catcher with speed, stealing over 20 bases twice as a catcher.

In 1991, Biggio made his first All Star team. 1991 marked the arrival of Jeff Bagwell, who along with Biggio, would be the face of the franchise for the next 15 years. With his speed and bat, the Astros decided to change Biggio's  position for the 1992 season. He was moved to second base, but was kept in the leadoff spot. Biggio also made the All Star team again in 1992 as a second baseman. In 1994, he led the NL in stolen bases and had his finest season to date. 1994 would also be Biggio's first Gold Glove season. He would win the next four Gold Gloves at second.

By the mid-90's, Biggio had been regarded with Roberto Alomar, as one of the game's best second baseman. He was known for his pine tar helmet, and his knack for getting hit by pitches. Biggio was hit by 285 pitches during his career, second most all time. In 1997, Biggio finished 4th in NL MVP voting, after leading the league with 146 runs scored. The Astros would win the NL Central division that year, marking Biggio's first playoff appearance. It would be a quick one, as the Braves swept them out of the playoffs.

Biggio had another outstanding season in 1998, and the Astros won 102 games that year. They had acquired Moises Alou before the season, and had made a midseason trade for fellow HOFer Johnson. Expectations were high for the Astros, but they lost to the Padres in the first round. The Astros won their third straight division crown in 1999, but were again dispatched in the first round. Biggio missed 61 games to injury in 2000, and missed the playoffs that year. They returned to the playoffs in 2001, only to be swept by the Braves in the Division Series.

After the 2002 season, the Astros signed Jeff Kent as a free agent. Kent was also a second baseman, and this required another position change for Biggio. He played 2003 and part of 2004 as a center fielder, before moving to left when Carlos Beltran was acquired. In 2004, the team picked up Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens. Along with Roy Oswalt, this gave Houston a dominant rotation. They started off slow, but rallied late in the year to win the wild card. They would face their postseason nemesis Atlanta again in the Division Series. This time, the Astros won in five games. They took the 105 win Cardinals to seven games in the NLCS, but fell short.

Kent left after two seasons, and Biggio returned to second base for the 2005 season. This was another up and down year, but the Astros again rallied from behind to win the wild card. They beat the Braves again in the Division Series, and had a rematch with the Cardinals in the NLCS. The Astros would go on to defeat the Cardinals to reach their first World Series. Biggio had finally got a chance to play in the Fall Classic. Houston's opponent would be the Chicago White Sox, who hadn't played in the World Series since 1959. The Astros were slightly favored, but the White Sox won the World Series in a sweep.

Biggio played two more seasons after the 2005 World Series loss, but was no longer the same player. In 2007, he notched his 3000th hit. This would be his final season, and he retired at the end of the season. Biggio holds many club records, including hits, runs, and stolen bases. Unlike the three pitchers elected, it took Biggio three tries to make Cooperstown. That isn't unusual though, it also took Ryne Sandberg three tries to get in. Biggio will be the first player to wear an Astros cap on his Hall of Fame plaque.

Mike Piazza was the next closest, getting 69.9 percent of the vote. Piazza is considered to be the best offensive catcher in baseball history, and will probably get in soon. There is no proof of any PED use, but it's obvious that some writers have some suspicion on Piazza. The same can be said about Jeff Bagwell, who finished sixth in the voting this year. Bagwell needs another 20 percent to get in. Bagwell is the only first baseman in history to hit over 400 home runs and have over 200 stolen bases.

While Piazza and Bagwell are losing votes due to a crowded ballot and perceptions of steroid use, other candidates are in worse shape. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens gained a few votes, but both are hovering around the mid-30 percent on voting. Other PED suspected or admitted players such as Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Gary Sheffield barely stayed on the ballot this year. I've said before we don't know who all used, and it's very possible that there are player(s) who dabbled in PED's that are already in the Hall. It's hard to look back at an era where there was no testing, and make judgments 15 years later.

Tim Raines is another deserving candidate who hasn't gotten his due yet. Raines finished with 55 percent, which is 9 percent higher than last year. Raines was an on base machine who stole 808 bases in his career. There are no PED concerns with Raines, but the crowded ballot is hurting him. Also hurting him is that Raines had his best years in Montreal under the radar. Other candidates who have a good case are Fred McGriff, Alan Trammell, Edgar Martinez, Jeff Kent, and even Larry Walker.

With the election of Smoltz, there should be some momentum for Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina in future ballots. Schilling has just as good of career numbers as Smoltz, and was also dominating in the postseason. Mussina had a underrated career, but never won a Cy Young Award or a World Series. Mussina might end up being a Bert Blyleven type who gets in at the end of his eligibility.

As for 2016 newcomers, Ken Griffey Jr. leads the pack. He will most certainly get in next year. Trevor Hoffman, Billy Wagner, and Jim Edmonds will also be eligible for the first time next year. Hoffman will probably get the most support out of those three, but Wagner was more dominating than Hoffman. Wagner didn't pitch as long, and has 179 less saves than Hoffman. Wagner's ERA and WHIP are better, though. Edmonds deserves serious consideration, but some think he will struggle to stay on the ballot. I think that Griffey and Piazza will probably make it next year, with a possible third candidate sneaking in.

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