Here we go with Part 3 of my Fantasy Baseball Hall of Fame trilogy. Here’s your late pass to Part 1 and Part 2. And, if you didn’t like this series, then rejoice because next week I’ll get back to regularly scheduled programming.
Class of 2006
The 2006 class starts of strong with three inductees.
Right off the bat, we’re presented with a tough case. Orel Hershiser had an exceptional run from 1984–89. He averaged 16 wins and 167 strikeouts per year, finished in the top three in ERA in the National League four times and provided very good WHIP numbers. Over this same stretch, he led the league in innings pitched three times, including in his signature 1988 campaign. Hershiser was likely the best pitcher in fantasy baseball in 1988 (edging out David Cone) and likely the third-best fantasy pitcher in 1985 (behind Dwight Gooden and John Tudor). 1986 was a poor season for Orel, which really would have hurt owners who would have invested highly coming of ’85. But, excluding that season, Hershiser put up ERA+ numbers of 133, 170, 131, 148 and 148 in his run. Had Hershiser posted slightly better strikeout rates during this run, I would have been a lot more definitive. But I’m giving him a tentative vote of yes anyway. Unlike other peak-based starting pitcher candidates, Hershiser also can claim a handful of useful seasons outside his prime. The same can not be said for guys like Fernando Valenzuela or Dave Stewart.
As long as we’re talking about peak value, allow me to cast as emphatic a vote as possible for Albert Belle. First of all, Belle has a statistically compelling argument for the actual Hall of Fame and he was an even better fantasy player, where his surliness and defensive ineptitude don’t matter at all. Belle was simply a monster who did not miss games. His career was basically a time-machined version of Ralph Kiner’s, and he had many seasons that looked to be straight out of the 1930s. Joey Belle, take your place among the fantasy greats!
Will Clark was a very good, borderline-great player. He boasts that incredible 44 win-share 1989 season and a career line of .303/.384/.497 (137 OPS+) over almost 8,300 plate appearances. Unfortunately, he was a better real player than a fantasy player. Too infrequently did he post gaudy run, HR, RBI totals, and by the mid ’90s, he was having trouble staying healthy. It’s a shame that I can’t vote for him because Will the Thrill was a special player whom nobody really talks about anymore. Aesthetically, he also had one of the most beautiful swings you could ever imagine. Find footage of the 1989 NLCS if you don’t believe me.
Dwight Gooden’s 1985 is one of the best pitching seasons of all time. That season, Gooden notched his third loss of the season May 25 and did not pick up his fourth until Aug. 31, winning 14 straight decisions along the way. On Aug. 11, George Vescey of the New York Times wrote an article entitled “Gooden: Death and Taxes.” Unfortunately, Doctor K had only two great seasons and a handful of useful to good ones. Many still debate whether it was Gooden’s drug use or the Mets’ overuse of him (and Mel Stottlemyre’s insistence that he learn a splitter) that ultimately ruined his career. Those discussions are academic though; Doc is on the outside.
The third inductee of this class is John Wetteland. Wetteland was simply a closer who distanced himself from his peers by doing everything you want a closer to do consistently, for a good seven or eight seasons. Wetteland did not miss seasons, and routinely put up 30–45 saves, WHIPs around 1.00, strikeout rates of over a batter per inning, and very good to outstanding ERAs. Wetteland was a money in the bank top-tier closer, and while we can debate the value of closers (and related draft strategies), being one of the best at your position for an extended run is worth recognition.
Class of 2007
Cal Ripken, Jr
This puts forth another strong class, with four players earning induction and a number of honorable mentions.
Cal Ripken’s durability and power from the shortstop position before it was en vogue makes him an easy choice. Not much to see here. Although, it is worth noting that Ripken never stole any bases and hit above .275 only seven times from 1982–98. So Cal was certainly not without his shortcomings from a fantasy standpoint.
Tony Gwynn posted a lot of seasons that looked similar to what Ichiro does nowadays … except Gwynn posted them in the mid-’80s. In the context of his era, he hit more homers and drove in way more runs than Ichiro though. People also tend to forget that in Gwynn’s prime, he could really run. Once the ’90s rolled around, Gwynn had a tough time playing full seasons, but he always produced when in the line-up. In the middle of ’90s Mr. 5.5 posted some really gaudy batting averages (from 1993–97, he hit no lower than .353) and even became something of a power threat and RBI-man. Another subtle piece of Gwynn’s value is that his reluctance to walk made his batting average very heavy when he played full seasons.
No steroids discount for Big Mac. And, no explanation necessary. Dude averaged 61 homers and 135 RBIs for over a four-year stretch while actually being a batting average contributor. This was in addition to plenty of other valuable campaigns in the earlier part of his career. Why am I still talking, I said no explanation necessary.
No dice for two-time Cy Young Award winner Brett Saberhagen. The key to getting maximum value out of Saberhagen was to only draft him in odd seasons. Saberhagen followed up both Cy Young seasons with sub-.500 records. His 1985 actually capped off a six-year stretch in which American League Cy Young winners had sub-.500 records the following season. Clemens put a dramatic end to that streak after capturing the award in 1986 and going back-to-back in ‘87. Frank Viola attempted to revive the trend after winning it in 1988, and Saberhagen followed suit again in 1989. Bob Welch obliged the following year, but then Clemens played party pooper once again.
Jose Canseco was an awesome blend of power and speed and I anticipated he’d earn my vote. After looking at the records to refresh my memory, he surprisingly gets denied. 1986 and 1987 were nice power seasons for Jose. He put up those numbers while also making a contribution in runs and steals. But his batting average prevented him from being truly elite. Cansco missed most of 1989 with an injury, but ’88, ’90, and ’91 was his prime. 1988 was an all time great fantasy season: 120/124, 42/40, .308. Canseco finished out his career with a combination of useful to very good (’94, ’98) seasons. All things considered, he only spent three seasons as a first-round player, had a disjointed career and was injury plagued.
No Mile High/Coors discount for Dante Bichette in fantasy baseball, but it takes more than a four-year run during the height of the offensive boom to earn my vote. Still, Bichette’s prime was pretty damn nice.
A player who I will induct off a short prime, though, is Eric Davis. Davis went 20/20 seven times, including ridiculous back-to-back 27/80, 37/50 campaigns. Davis had that Bo Jackson quality to him that allowed him to do things athletically that left you completely in awe. Unfortunately, Davis’ career was derailed when he was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1997. Davis returned from treatment and actually hit a game-winning home run in the ALCS that season (despite going only 4-for-23 in that postseason). Davis followed in 1998 with his last impressive (and mostly full) season, fantasy or otherwise. Very few athletes, even among the best in the world, are blessed with the talent Eric Davis was. I, for one, wish we had been given the chance to see him do even more.
Class of 2008
The 2008 HOF class is a dream for any borderline candidate who had been struggling to reach that 75 percent threshold. That season, the electorate granted Bruce Sutter the honor of being a Hall of Famer. I came close to mirroring them by voting for a borderline reliever, but, in the end, I held strong.
Robb Nen almost earned my vote. At his best, Nen was similar to Wetteland, and even more valuable from a fantasy perspective. He just had one or two too many seasons that were good, but not great. But, actually, that’s not even what did him in because it’s possible that because of a better strikeout rate, his good but not great seasons were better than Wettland’s good but not great seasons. What killed Nen was that he had two seasons in the middle of that run in which he posted virtually league average ERAs. I just don’t give closers that much slack. Nen is a hero to the San Francisco Giants fan base though, and deservingly so. Nen heroically pitched through incredible pain, a torn labrum and rotator cuff, after the 2002 All-Star break. He willfully sacrificed any hope of a further career in order to not abandon his teammates, who needed him down the stretch. He spent hours and hours taking treatment just to pitch a single inning when he was needed, and then spent even more hours dealing with the excruciating pain from having done so. This ESPN article from 2005 covers the whole situation a lot better than I can in a paragraph or so, and is highly worth the read.
Chuck Knoblauch looked like he was on pace for enshrinement in the mid-’90s, but then it all fell apart when he plagiarized Steve Sax by developing a bizarre inability to throw to first base, as a second baseman. Personally, I find the Mackey Sasser iteration of this disorder even more amusing.
Class of 2009
The class of 2009 sees two players receive the golden ticket.
Rickey Henderson would be on the Mount Rushmore of the fantasy era. He had so many amazing campaigns, it’s mind-boggling. Henderson’s ’85 is in the argument for best single (offensive) fantasy season ever (.314 BA, 146 R, 24 HR, 72 RBI, 80 SB). Additional contenders include Eric Davis ’87, Larry Walker ’97, A-Rod 2007, among others. There’s really nothing to say about Rickey. In 1990, the man led the league in stolen bases and OPS; has anybody ever done that before? I don’t even know. (I do know Joe Morgan led in OPS in ’75 and ’76, and finished second in steals both years.)
What do you get when you combine an arbitrary fascination with round numbers and an irrational overvaluing of a traditional, but not very telling, indicators of production? I should have specified that we’re talking about offense here, because some of you guys said people raving about Jack Morris being the winningest pitcher of the ’80s, right? OK, limit it to offense, now what do you get? Of course, the gaggle of nimrods who think it is significant that Mark Grace has more hits in the ’90s than any other player. Congrats, Mark, over the span of 10 arbitrary selected seasons you accumulated more of a nebulously positive, but non-descriptive statistic than any other player. Cool, I guess. I mean, seriously, Mark Grace was a very good ball player (an awful broadcaster though), but can we put this piece of trivia to rest as having any actual meaning, please? Here, how about this, who had the most hits during the ’80s? See, you don’t even know. See how dumb this is! (It was Robin Yount, by the way.)
Cognizant of the fact that over the course of this exercise I haven’t seen a whole lot of starting pitchers who have really blown me away, I’m going to vote for David Cone. Cone had a better career than several pitchers who are in the Hall of Fame. He often struggled to post gaudy win totals but more than made up for it with his strikeouts. He fanned more than 200 six times, including a three-year run from 1990-92 during which he averaged 242 per season. He was solid to very good in the WHIP department and very good to elite in the ERA department. Cone had multiple seasons in which he put it all together and was awesome and many seasons outside those in which he was still a very nice asset to any fantasy team.
Matt Williams was a very good player. He had a couple of monster seasons and a lot of very good ones. No dice.
If you did not play fantasy baseball in the mid-’90s, please do me a favor. Look at Mo Vaughn’s numbers in his prime. Now, look at the leader boards over those same seasons. Those seasons really weren’t all that impressive, right? That’s how out of whack things had gotten.
Greg Vaughn hit 50 and 45 home runs in consecutive seasons. These seasons were during Mo Vaughn’s prime. See what I mean?
Class of 2010
Roberto Alomar deserves a vote for his wide-ranging skill set and his duration as a top-tier second baseman. Alomar was a true speedster in his youth, who was mainly a run scorer and batting average help. As his game evolved, he ran a little less and hit for more power. Firing on all cylinders, Alomar was a five-category stud at a middle infield position. He had his best seasons in ’93, ’96, and ’99–2001. There’s less outside of those years than one might be inclined to think, but positional depth works in Robby’s favor.
Barry Larkin was a better player than Alomar, but his game wasn’t as fantasy friendly, and he was too frequently hurt. I support Barry for the actual Hall of Fame all day, but have to take a pass here.
Martinez was an amazing hitter, but his discipline cost him true elite RBI-man status. He was a batting average deity and, at times, a prolific run scorer, but his power totals weren’t great for his era, he stole no bases, and he spent most of his prime either as util-eligible only, or util- and CI-eligible, but lacking actual first or third base eligibility, depending on your league’s specs and settings.
Ellis Burks does not get my vote, but look at his 1996 season. Seriously, this era was whacked, and when you played at Coors it was like a true video game. How many players who had a 392 total base season got two Hall of Fame votes when they appear on their first (and only) ballot?
Another testament to the era, Eric Karros was 30/100 for about six seasons, but that just made him another first baseman.
Here’s a nifty little exercise to put some things in perspective regarding how arbitrary the historical record can be sometimes. Ask people if they think Roy Oswalt is at least on a borderline Hall of Fame pace. Now tell those same people to look at the analogous portion of Kevin Appier’s career. Moral of the story, Kevin Appier was a damn good pitcher for almost a decade.
Throughout this exercise there have been players who I almost didn’t even bother to look up who surprised me as to how close they actually were to getting elected. The perception/reality dichotomy was probably never stronger than in the case of Ray Lankford. In Part 1 of this series, Kirk Gibson got my vote on a very similar career, numbers-wise. Fast forward to the offensive explosion and such a career almost goes uninvestigated. I do suspect that Ray Lankford spent a considerable length of time as a top-50 player though, and I would have had no idea.
So, let’s see where we stand right now, through 16 classes.
Number of players elected: 29
Number of players elected who have been eliminated for real HOF consideration: 11
Members by position:
SS: 1.5 (Yount is really split)
3B: 4 (including Molitor)
This exercise encompassed 16 “classes” and resulted in 29 elections; a rate of about two inductees per year seems reasonable. As I predicted, the earliest classes resulted in fewer elections because of players’ primes crossing over into pre-fantasy era seasons.
Further, the ratios of inductees by position seems reasonable. Roughly 2.5 position players to each pitcher, and 11.5 infielders to 9.5 outfielders. Some might balk at a one to one ratio of closers to starters, but frankly the ’80s lacked dominant starters, as evidenced by actual Hall of Fame balloting results, while the best of the ’90s (namely the big four, plus guys like Glavine, Schilling, Mussina, Brown, etc.) have not come up for election yet. I could see being criticized for letting too many closers in, but as of yet I don’t regret any of those votes.
As I mentioned in Part 1, this exercise was a lot harder than I expected. I thought I’d be able to just take cursory glances at players’ stats and make definitive determinations on the fly. I was wrong. I kept true to the idea of not engaging in any advanced mathematical/statistical analysis, but it would have helped for many cases. It would be wonderful to have some sort of tool that evaluates players against their peers. The dream would be some sort of model for each category that used the OPS+ scale and compared players to production averages of, say, the top 20 players at their position (maybe 60 or 70 for outfielders).
This exercise also really put into perspective the obscene inflation in offensive stats that took place over a period as short as a decade. A player like Ray Lankford was putting up seasons that, at face value, would have been first-rate 10 to 15 seasons prior. In 1982, Dale Murphy won his first of his consecutive MVPs with a season of 113/36/109/23/.281 (and also played Gold Glove centerfield). In 1998 Ray Lankford didn’t appear on a single MVP ballot or even make the All-Star team, posting 94/31/105/26/.293.