Bert Blyleven would have signed a $150 million contract had he played today. Over 22 seasons in the big leagues he pitched to a 3.31 career ERA (118 ERA+), a 1.198 WHIP, striking out 3,701 batters and accumulating 60 shutouts in the process (SIXTY!). He was also a phenomenal innings eater, pitching at least 270 innings in eight different seasons. Baseball Reference estimates that over his entire career he was worth 90.1 bWAR, good for 13th all time -- better than Bob Gibson, Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton, just to name a few.
The problem is not that Blyleven was elected to the Hall of Fame. The problem is that a player who may have been one of the ten to fifteen best pitchers ever had to wait fourteen seasons to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Fourteen! The dude threw 60 shutouts, good for ninth all time, and it took fourteen years for him to make it to the Hall of Fame. Peruse the all-time shutout leaders. Of the top 25, only two were not in the Hall of Fame yesterday. Blyleven, and Luis Tiant. All the others are in the museum.
As far as anyone can tell, the only reason Blyleven wasn't elected to the Hall of Fame years ago is because he won "only" 287 games. There is no need for me to explain why this is nuts when Fire Joe Morgan can do it for me:
"I just can't bring myself to do this again. Look at Blyleven's best ERA+ and WHIP seasons, his Ks, his shutout totals, his 15 seasons of 200+ Ks (Morris had 3), his postseason record, whatever you want. Then consider that if the teams he played for, or their bullpens, were just very slightly better, like 1% better, he would have won 300 games instead of 287 and no one would ever for one second consider not voting for him. Do you realize that? If he had won 300 games, he would have been a first-ballot guy. People would have said, "300 wins, 5th all-time in Ks, 13th in innings, awesome postseason pitcher -- he's a lock!" Instead, he has 287 wins and people fall all over themselves telling you why he is not in any way a HOFer. It's insane."My sentiments exactly. It is a crying shame that it took fourteen years for the Hall to honor this guy.
Which, of course, brings us to Roberto Alomar. (One of the real pleasures of this year's ballot is that it offers brilliant examples of each of the different critical flaws with how people are enshrined.) Along with Blyleven, Alomar is also an obvious Hall-of-Famer. By all measures his defense as a second baseman was excellent (no, the ten Gold Gloves mean nothing to me) while accumulating a 116 OPS+ and a .371 career OBP at a position where offense is at a premium. His resume isn't as strong as Blyleven's, but it is solid. Of course he was elected in his second season with 90% of the vote, compared to Blyleven's 80%.
That injustice isn't the problem with Alomar's election. The change in vote totals that he got between his first and second season is. Last year Alomar just missed getting into the Hall with 73.7% of the vote (75% earns enshrinement). This year his vote totals jumped up tremendously. Who are these people who changed their minds about him in just one season, and why are they allowed to vote on the Hall of Fame?
It would be one thing if Alomar went from 74% of the vote to 77% of the vote. That would suggest that he had a high floor of support, and the year of additional consideration was enough to sway the few marginal voters that he needed to earn election. His jump to 90%, however, just demonstrates how unprincipled the voting is. It says that a large, large proportion of voters were certain all along that he belonged in the Hall of Fame, just not on the first ballot. This makes sense ... how? A lot happened in the last 365 days, probably a lot happened to Roberto Alomar. None of it took place on the baseball diamond.
Finally, Jeff Bagwell got only 41.7% of the vote, in his first year of eligibility. Now personally I can't stand Bagwell. I never could. There is no reason for this. There are just some players I don't like and others I do. I divulge this only so it is clear that in my opinion as a student of baseball Jeff Bagwell is an obvious Hall of Famer. In playing time limited due to injury he amassed a 149 OPS+ (Alex Rodriguez? 145), 449 home runs, a career .408 OBP and 79.9 bWAR, better than Pete Rose, Reggie Jackson and Paul Molitor. Once again, this guy is an obvious Hall-of-Famer, never mind a player who deserved well more than 50% of the vote.
Bagwell's failure to get a sizable number of Hall of Fame votes, however, is different from the other examples for the unfortunate precedent it sets. Unlike Blyleven, who wasn't elected right away because writers are idiots, or Alomar, who wasn't elected in his first year of eligibility because he is an idiot, as far as anyone can tell Bagwell got few votes because he is rumored to have taken steroids.
Unlike Mark McGwire or Rafael Palmeiro, both of whom were also kept out of the Hall of Fame despite their achievements, Bagwell never admitted to taking steroids nor did he fail a test. The Mitchell Report didn't out him either. Bagwell's inclusion in the steroids scandal is entirely hearsay. There is virtually no evidence suggesting he took steroids, let alone proving it, apart from his physical appearance and the era in which he played.
Bagwell's omission from the Hall of Fame (and, yes, his career was first-ballot quality) suggests that many deserving players from the so-called "Steroids Era" will be kept out of the Hall only due to the era in which they played. At best they will be made to wait, the way Blyleven was. This is bad for baseball. Throughout its history baseball has forgiven myriad truly horrible sins. By comparison to some other misdeeds than have received clemency, steroid abuse is mild.
Baseball needs to address its head-in-the-sand unwritten policy regarding steroids. The alternative is the gradual march toward irrelevance for its highest honor. There is a predictable, nearby future when players greater than Bagwell will not be in the Hall of Fame, including Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez. Fans such as myself won't forget how great these players were. I hope one day to share my passion for this game with my children. If many of the greatest players I grew up watching are not in the Hall of Fame why should I teach them that the honor is important?