Tag Archives: Baseball

Hall of Fame Analysis: 2018 Modern Baseball Era

Last week, the National Baseball Hall of Fame released the latest list of candidates who would be reviewed by the Hall’s era committees. A year ago, the Today’s Game Committee met to consider the cases of candidates who made their greatest contributions since 1988, and inducted Bud Selig and John Schuerholz. Now, the Modern Baseball Era Committee will meet to look at nine players and one executive whose biggest impact on the game came between the years 1970-1987.

Because of changes the Hall of Fame made to its Veterans Committee prior to the 2017 election, non-players and long-retired players are divided into four different eras. If you want to know more about the system and eligibility rules of these committees, you can read Jay Jaffe’s explanation of the process here.

Since it is a ten-man ballot, each of the 16 voters on the committee can select up to four players. The committees are generally made up of a combination of former players, managers, executives, and writers. Each candidate needs at least 12 votes, or 75%, in order to be inducted.

 

Steve Garvey (1B, 1969-1987; LAD, SD)

Garvey certainly has the accolades to build a strong case. Considered one of the best hitters of his time, Garvey was named to ten All-Star teams, in addition to winning two Gold Gloves and the 1974 NL MVP Award. He was a great average hitter, finishing his career at .294, while collecting 200 or more hits six times. Garvey performed even better when it mattered most, hitting a phenomenal .338 in 55 postseason games, while being named MVP of both the 1978 and 1984 NLCS. His reputation as a winning player is backed up by the fact that his teams went 7-4 in 11 postseason series, which is something that a committee of his peers will likely appreciate. Garvey was also an iron man. Outside of 1983, he missed just 16 games from 1974-1986. During that 1983 season, Garvey’s streak of 1,207 consecutive games ended, which is still a National League record.

For all the hitting Garvey did, however, his on-base percentage sits at a mediocre .329, since he only averaged 33 walks per 162 games. And while he had power (272 career home runs), it was below what is usually expected from a Hall of Fame first baseman. You could arguably make a better case for several other high-average, lower-power first baseman, such as Keith Hernandez or John Olerud.

 

Tommy John (SP, 1963-1989; CLE, CWS, LAD, NYY, CAL,  OAK)

Best known for the groundbreaking surgery that now bears his name, Tommy John’s pitching accomplishments may have become underappreciated over time. Only two pitchers outside of Cooperstown pitched more innings than John (Bobby Matthews and Roger Clemens), a testament to the left-hander’s, durability, longevity, and resiliency. When John underwent surgery on his damaged UCL in 1974, he was 31 years old with his career in jeopardy. Defying the odds, he would go on to pitch until age 46, starting more games and pitching more innings after his surgery than before it. He finished with an impressive 3.34 ERA and 288 wins over 26 seasons. Those numbers look even better if you take out the back end of his career. From 1963-1982, a twenty-year span, John compiled a 237-171 record, 3.05 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 118 ERA+. It’s not really fair to penalize him for sticking around through his mid-40s and suffering the hit to his rate statistics.

Even so, some may attribute John’s career number more to longevity than pure dominance. The early portion of his career occurred mostly in an extreme pitcher-friendly era. Using sabermetrics, his 62.0 WAR is good, but less so when considering the fact he pitched for 26 seasons. As a result, he only ranks 83rd among starting pitchers using Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system. John only made four All-Star teams during his career.

Even if John is a borderline Hall of Famer statistically, a strong argument could be made that his historical significance to the game should push him over the top. After all, it’s the Hall of Fame and not the Hall of Stats for a reason. John is a compelling enough candidate based solely on his on-field merits, but undergoing surgery on his UCL literally changed baseball and laid the groundwork for saving hundreds of players’ careers. A case can also be made for Frank Jobe, the doctor who performed John’s surgery, to be inducted as a pioneer.

 

Don Mattingly (1B, 1982-1995; NYY)

From 1984 to 1989, Mattingly was one of the best players in baseball and looked to be on track to make the Hall of Fame. He made the All-Star team in all six of those seasons, and his career slash line stood at .323/.368/.521. But then injuries began to derail his career and he retired at age 34 due to continuous back problems. Despite playing fewer than 1,800 games, Mattingly still managed to collect 2,153 hits and nine Gold Gloves. Serving as captain of the Yankees also helped him receive instant name recognition on a national scale.

Against: There is certainly precedent for electing players who had short but great careers, but Mattingly only had a six-year run of excellence in a 14-year career. As great as he was during those years, it’s debatable whether that’s enough to earn a spot in Cooperstown. If Mattingly were to ever get inducted, it could raise questions as to why a whole bunch of other players with similar career arcs aren’t in. Nomar Garciaparra, Chase Utley and David Wright are just a few examples of recent or active players who fit this description and will probably never get in, yet all had at least as many outstanding peak years as Mattingly.

 

Jack Morris (SP, 1977-1994; DET, MIN, TOR, CLE)

Morris probably has a good chance of getting inducted this winter after a strong 15-year run on the BBWAA ballot. One thing working in his favor is the lack of representation of starting pitchers during his era. There is not a single starter in the Hall of Fame whose debut season came within the 15-year span between 1970 and 1985. Morris could be seen as a solid choice because he won more games than anyone else during the decade and was often regarded as one of the best pitchers in the league. His epic performance in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series will be forever etched into baseball lore. Morris has four World Series rings, serving as a reliable workhorse for three of those teams. In fact, his durability may have been his best asset. Morris was usually among the league leaders in categories like games started, innings pitched, and complete games, rarely missing a start and pitching deep into games There is some real value in that.

While Morris’ durability was his best trait, the one number that holds him back is his 3.90 career ERA. Red Ruffing currently has the highest ERA among all Hall of Fame pitchers at 3.80. There’s no shortage of players already enshrined in the Hall who don’t belong there, so it’s fair to argue that a player who would rank dead last in such an important statistical category shouldn’t get in. Sabermetrics have not been kind to Morris’ candidacy either. Pretty much any advanced metric you use indicates that he’s a step below a bunch of pitchers who are not in the Hall of Fame and will never even be considered.

 

Dale Murphy (CF, 1976-1993; ATL, PHI, COL)

Murphy will appear on an Era Committee ballot for the first time after a 15-year run on the writer’s ballot. The former Atlanta Braves star is among an impressive group of players with multiple MVP awards, and one of only 13 to win the award in consecutive seasons. He also has some nice counting numbers to pad his case, including over 2,000 hits and nearly 400 home runs. Murphy’s power from the center field position puts him in exclusive company. In addition, his “good guy” reputation could earn him bonus points by a few members of the committee.

Despite his great peak, Murphy didn’t maintain that level of play throughout his 18-year career. He was already in a steep decline after age 31, never reaching a .250 batting average or an OPS+ over 106 for the rest of his career. The 398 home runs and five Gold Gloves look nice, but a .265 career average and .346 on base percentage could drag him down.

 

Dave Parker (RF, 1973-1991; PIT, CIN, OAK, MIL, CAL, TOR)

Dave Parker certainly fit the definition of a superstar when he played. An MVP, two batting titles, two World Series rings, and seven All-Star selections earned Parker plenty of national recognition. He put up some big career numbers, surpassing the 2,700 hit and 500 double thresholds, while hitting 339 home runs and driving in 1,493 runs. Black Ink and Gray Ink standards, which measure how often a player leads the league or falls within the top ten in major offensive categories, respectively, rank Parker right around the average for a Hall of Famer.

On the negative side, Parker didn’t walk very much, leading to an unimpressive .339 on-base percentage despite a .290 batting average. And while he was outstanding through age 28, his performance declined after that point. From 1979-1991, Parker’s slash line sat at .278/.327/.451, a far cry from the .317/.370/.521 rate he performed at prior to that point. Advanced metrics seem to indicate he wasn’t as good defensively as his reputation suggested, although the Modern Baseball Committee is more likely to be swayed by his three Gold Gloves and elite throwing arm. Of course, defensive metrics are less and less reliable the further back in time we go.

 

Ted Simmons (C, 1968-1988; STL, MIL, ATL)

Simmons may be the most overlooked catcher in baseball history. The longtime backstop ranks second among all catchers in hits, doubles, and RBI, yet fell off the Hall of Fame ballot after one year. Catcher is not a well-represented position in Cooperstown, and Simmons probably ranks inside the top 15 in baseball history, if not higher. Extremely reliable, Simmons drove in 90 or more runs eight times.

Like Tommy John, Simmons biggest detractors may credit some of his impressive counting stats to longevity rather than ever being an elite player. Despite earning eight All-Star nods, he only finished in the top ten in MVP voting three times, never higher than sixth. Catchers are difficult to evaluate, since the demands of the position limit their playing time and therefore their raw numbers. His advanced metrics don’t compare to most Hall of Famers, but among catchers, he ranks tenth in JAWS. However, receiving so little support from the BBWAA could hurt his chances of getting in through the Modern Baseball Committee. Based on his standing in history among catcher’s Simmons is among the strongest candidates on this ballot.

 

Luis Tiant (SP, 1964-1982; CLE, MIN, BOS, NYY, PIT, CAL)

Tiant has been a regular on Veterans Committee ballots in the past decade, but has never fared very well when it came time to vote. By most measures, however, Tiant is one of the better pitchers not in the Hall of Fame, finishing with a career 3.30 ERA and 1.199 WHIP across 19 seasons. That includes some truly outstanding seasons, notably 1968, 1972, and 1974. In 1968, Tiant led the AL with a ridiculous 1.60 ERA, which produced an also league-leading 186 ERA+, even in an extreme pitching year. Tiant ranks 51st among starting pitchers in JAWS, which makes him a borderline Hall of Fame candidate.

Mixed with Tiant’s excellent seasons, were several mediocre ones. It doesn’t help either that he only made three All-Star teams and received Cy Young Award votes just three times. For a player who’s been on passed over so frequently, it would be a surprise to see a big boost in support on a crowded ballot.

 

Alan Trammell (SS, 1977-1996; DET)

Trammell joins Mattingly, Morris, and Murphy as newly eligible Era Committee candidates who recently fell off the BBWAA ballot. The Tigers’ icon never came close to 75%, but gradually built up some level of support, topping out at 40.9% in 2016, his final year on the ballot. Analytics have created a large group of supporters for Trammell, but he may be the one player on this ballot who appeals to both traditional and sabermetric types of analysis. Trammell was one of the top offensive shortstops of his era and also excelled defensively. Only 13 other shortstops in history have matched all three of his slash percentages (.285/.352/.415), but many of them played in much more hitter-friendly eras than Trammell and of the group, only Honus Wagner and Derek Jeter had more plate appearances.

When taken out of the context of his position, Trammell’s offensive numbers don’t jump off the page. Aside from a superb 1987 season, he never drove in 90 runs, reached 170 hits, and only once hit more than 15 home runs. These things shouldn’t matter too much when considering Trammell’s defensive position and the era he played in, but who knows if the Modern Baseball Era Committee will put his offensive numbers into the correct context.

For what it’s worth, Trammell was considered a top-notch defensive shortstop and has four Gold Gloves to back it up. There are already plenty of shortstops in the Hall of Fame primarily for their defensive contributions and most of them weren’t half the hitter Trammell was. This should be somewhat promising for his chances of getting recognized by the committee.

 

Marvin Miller (Labor Executive, 1966-1982)

The former labor executive is the only non-player on this year’s ballot. Miller headed the MLB Player’s Association from 1966-1982, during which the average player’s salary rose from the low double figures to over $300,000. Miller backed outfielder Curt Flood in his groundbreaking challenge of baseball’s reserve clause, ultimately paving the way for free agency.

For a man who has been described by some as one of the most important figures in baseball history, it’s a bit of a mystery why he wasn’t inducted into the Hall of Fame years ago. His biggest detractors are almost certainly the team owners who he fought against. Because of Miller, the owners ended up paying their players a lot more money and giving up a great deal of control over those players due to the advent of free agency. That there are always a few owners/executives sitting on the Veterans Committee may help explain why it’s been so difficult for Miller to receive baseball’s highest honor.

There is some hope for Miller this time around. In 2011, he fell just one vote shy of induction. He didn’t fare as well in 2014, but that was a ballot on which Joe Torre, Bobby Cox, and Tony LaRussa were all voted in unanimously. As much as owners may not have liked him, Miller’s job as a union head was to back the players, and he did that as well as anyone in baseball history. It stands to reason he has a good chance of finally getting inducted this time around.

 

Lately, it’s been tough for anyone to get inducted through the Veterans or Era Committees, especially players. With voters only being allowed to choose four or fewer names, those votes could spread out enough so that many people receive support, but nobody gets to 75%. Everyone on the ballot has strengths and flaws, and the gap between the best player and the worst player on this ballot is not all that big, depending on who you ask. One could also argue that quite a few players who didn’t even make the ballot have better cases than the ones that did. It would have been nice to see players like Dwight Evans, Keith Hernandez, and Lou Whitaker get a chance, but all were passed over. Nonetheless, with a much stronger list of names than last year’s Today’s Game Era put forth, there’s still a reasonable chance that someone gets in.

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World Baseball Classic Marks a Perfect Start to Baseball Season

Each spring, baseball fans can look forward to the unofficial return to baseball that is spring training as they eagerly await Opening Day. But every four years, there is an entirely different brand of baseball going on. Some people will say it’s just exhibition, but the World Baseball Classic’s intensity and competitiveness is a drastic contrast to the more easygoing nature of spring training games.

Even though the WBC has its critics, I personally think it’s a great thing for everyone involved. It showcases the best players in the world and allows fans a chance to see the game from all over the globe, where they can get a look at international stadiums and unique local fan traditions. It’s impossible to watch a game from South Korea or Japan and not feel the energy of the ballpark even from your couch at home. Whether it’s dancing or hyping up the crowd from atop the dugout in South Korea or the emphatic celebrations of the Dominican players, the WBC has a different level of energy from even MLB regular season games. Plus, there’s nothing quite like waking up at five in the morning and tuning in to a baseball game.

Although baseball will be returning to the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020, the setup is far from ideal. The Olympics are played in conjunction with the MLB season, so there’s no reasonable way that MLB players would be able to participate. It only makes sense that one of the most widespread sports in the world has a competition where the very best players each country has to offer can go head to head. That’s what the World Baseball Classic provides.

As a baseball fan, the first week of spring training is great due to the thrill of being able to finally watch baseball again. But the middle weeks of spring baseball tend to lose some appeal, so the WBC comes at a perfect time for fans that are eager to watch some real competitive action with a lot at stake. And if you don’t think it’s competitive, then you haven’t watched it. Many of the players have explained how they take great pride in putting on the uniforms of their countries and just how much it means to them.

Bruce Chen, who pitched 17 seasons in the major leagues, is competing for Team China. Chen also competed for Panama, his home country, in two previous WBC’s, but now he’ll be playing for his country of ancestry. For Chen, putting on the Chinese uniform has a special meaning. “I can only imagine how proud my grandparents would be if they were still alive, to see me give something back to the country”, he explains.

While many top players have declined to suit up for the WBC, the same cannot be said for the Dominican Republic. The Dominican lineup is so rife with major league superstars that it’s hard to think of any stars who aren’t participating. After the team’s first round win versus Canada, Jose Bautista said, “It was great energy from our fans, from our people. When you play for your country, it cannot be compared to many things.”

Some observers have been critical of the WBC for a variety of reasons, including the risk of players suffering injuries or being overworked too early in the spring, as well as the various rule changes. However, the number of benefits can easily be forgotten. For some players, the tournament provides an opportunity to improve their standing within their own organizations. A great showing in the tournament could definitely turn some heads, especially since it is in highly competitive competition. Furthermore, the WBC could very well serve as a valuable audition for players like Justin Morneau, Jason Marquis, and Sam Fuld, all of whom are free agents looking for a place to play in 2017. Also, there’s something pretty unique about seeing former stars like Canada’s Eric Gagne make a comeback to compete against today’s brightest talent.

Players are not the only ones who are using the WBC as a showcase. The tournament can serve as a way to drum up interest in the sport for an entire nation. For global baseball powerhouses like the United States, Dominican Republic, and Japan, that might not be the case. But for countries with a much shorter track record in baseball, such as China, Italy, and Israel, the Classic can be hugely significant in growing the game nationwide.

Israel, which was one of four nations that had to play in the qualifying tournament to earn a spot, entered the tournament as heavy underdogs in Pool A. Yet, they have shocked the world by going undefeated in the first round, and have already defeated Cuba in the second round. One of the teams they beat to get there, South Korea, is considered one of the top baseball countries in the world, so many were stunned to see a much less experienced baseball nation take them down. That’s part of the beauty of the WBC. If South Korea and Israel played a seven game series, South Korea would likely win most of the time. But when you’re playing just one single game against each of your three pool opponents, anything is possible. For a short tournament like this, it’s thrilling and adds to the competitive nature. We’ve already seen a number of matchups in which teams consisting mostly of minor league and foreign talent have held their own against MLB All-Star quality rosters.

It’s understandable why some fans have been resistant to the idea of the World Baseball Classic, but it’s not too late to catch up on the action with eight teams still alive in the tournament. During a time of year when fans are typically counting down the days to the regular season, the WBC serves as baseball’s version of March Madness. It might not hold the weight of the World Series, but there’s no question that the energy and passion put forth by both the players and fans across the globe is unrivaled.

Extra Inning Rule Changes Won’t Solve Anything

Extra inning games will look a lot different in rookie ball this year. MLB announced that they will be testing out a new system in the Gulf Coast League and Arizona Fall League which will automatically place a runner on second base at the start of the tenth inning. The drastic new rule, which has the approval of Hall of Fame manager and current Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre, falls in line with Commissioner Rob Manfred’s efforts to improve baseball’s pace of play.

Only, it won’t really change the pace of play at all. MLB is missing the fact that pace of play and game length are two very different things. I’m all for quickening the pace of games, so long as it doesn’t change the actual rules of the game itself. There are plenty of little adjustments that could be made, some of which Manfred has already implemented, and I commend him for that. One of those is limiting the length of the breaks in between innings. Another good thing he did was requiring batters to stay in the dirt area behind home plate for the entirety of their at bat. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems as though this was working initially, until umpires decided to stop enforcing it after a few months.

Teams are already limited to one mound visit by a coach or manager per pitcher per inning, but I would also be in favor of limiting player mound visits to one per inning. The catcher shouldn’t be allowed to visit his pitcher for every single batter in the inning. If you can’t get on the same page, that’s just too bad. Making that a rule could shave off ten or more minutes from each game.

Implementing a pitch clock is another idea that’s been thrown around and it sounds good in theory, but I’m not sure it would work very well in practice. Again, this is something that was attempted to some degree a few years back, but it never seemed to be enforced very consistently. A better solution would be to have coaches train pitchers from a young age to get rid of the ball quickly and practice rhythm. It would actually be an advantage to the pitcher, since it would throw some batters off more by giving them less time to prepare for the next pitch. There’s no reason it can’t be done; Mark Buehrle made a career out of it, and if you look at clips from the 70s and 80s, pitchers would routinely get the ball back from the catcher and throw the next pitch within five to ten seconds. As a batter nowadays, you can take a pitch, run to the supermarket, and get back before Pedro Baez or Clay Buchholz throws the next pitch.

The rule changes that the league has been proposing this offseason badly miss the point. Earlier this month, MLB made proposals on two different rule changes, one being the raising of the strike zone and the other the elimination of the intentional walk. Raising the strike zone approximately two inches, as has been proposed, would have more of an impact on the game, presumably leading to an increase in balls in play. While I would love to see fewer strikeouts, I’m not sure if this would accomplish just that or have the adverse effect of causing a spike in walks. Jayson Stark of ESPN notes that nearly 30% of all plate appearances in today’s game result in either a walk or a strikeout, a higher percentage than any other time in MLB history. Besides, every umpire already has their own unique strike zone, so I’m skeptical that veteran umpires would change the way they’ve been calling games for decades.

Doing away with the practice of tossing four balls to the plate for an intentional walk won’t change anything significantly and for that reason, it’s a fairly curious proposal. Stark also points out that intentional walks only happen once every 2.6 games on average. That means this new rule would eliminate one whole minute every two and a half games. That’s one entire minute. Every two and a half games.

Both of these proposals will need to be approved by the player’s union, but if MLB is serious about cutting dead time out of games, this will not solve anything. Nor will tinkering with the extra inning rules. Before you panic, the extra inning modifications are not going to be implemented in the major leagues, just the lower minors. Since it will only be implemented in the minor leagues, it does not need approval from the player’s union. However, the pessimist in me knows that there’s a possibility the rule gradually works its way up the levels of the minors until MLB adopts it.

That would be a real shame. It won’t have any effect of the majority of games, but the ones that go into extra innings are usually the most interesting and most compelling to watch. Torre says that in the event of an 18-inning game, “It’s not fun to watch when you go through your whole pitching staff and wind up bringing a utility infielder in to pitch.” Well, if managers are so concerned about that, maybe they should manage their bullpen better, instead of using five different relievers to get three out in the seventh inning. True baseball fans love the intensity and strategy that extra innings provide, and to mess with that would be inconsiderate of the sport’s fan base.

Bagwell, Raines, and Pudge Reach Baseball Immortality

Congratulations to the National Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2017. The results of the always anticipated election were announced yesterday, revealing that Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Ivan Rodriguez will be inducted in Cooperstown this summer, joining former general manager John Schuerholz and former baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who were elected in early December via the Today’s Game Committee.

Bagwell finally received the great honor in his seventh year on the ballot, and it’s about time. The Houston Astros’ franchise icon ranks among the greatest first basemen in the game’s history by just about any measure. With a voter pool that is becoming much better at looking at a player’s career from multiple angles rather than relying solely on raw numbers, Bagwell was this year’s top vote getter (86.2%).

Raines was inducted on his last try, joining Red Ruffing, Joe Medwick, Ralph Kiner, and Jim Rice as the only others to be make it in their final year on the ballot. Like Bagwell, he is another player whose case has been greatly aided by the changing voter pool and by strong internet campaigns. For a stretch in the 1980s, Raines was among the best players in the game, and one of the most effective leadoff hitters ever, stealing 70 or more bases for six straight years from 1981-1986 and only getting caught 69 times during that entire period. At 86.0% of the vote, he will become the third and possibly last player to enter the Hall of Fame as a member of the Montreal Expos (depending on which cap Vladimir Guerrero chooses have on his plaque). On a side note, Raines was the first former player I met in person. I got the chance to speak with him prior to a game back when he was managing the Newark Bears of the Can-Am League and he couldn’t be any friendlier.

Finally, “Pudge” Rodriguez becomes just the second catcher ever to enter Cooperstown on his first ballot, following in the footsteps of his boyhood idol, Johnny Bench. The longtime Texas Ranger won a record 13 Gold Glove Awards as a catcher throughout his career and made 14 All-Star teams. He received 76.0% of the vote from the writers.

Coming painstakingly close to induction was Trevor Hoffman, who missed by a total of five votes out of 442 ballots cast (74.0%). First-time candidate Vladimir Guerrero missed narrowly by 15 votes (71.7%), while Edgar Martinez experienced a significant increase in percentage from last year, moving from 43.4% to 58.6%. Luckily, Hoffman and Guerrero shouldn’t have to wait too long as they both appear to be near locks for induction in 2018. Martinez has two years left on the ballot, so it’ll be interesting to see if he can gain some more momentum next year and make a push for a 2019 induction.

While a class of three certainly clears up some space on next year’s ballot, there will still be plenty of backlog, judging by who is coming onto the ballot. Chipper Jones will coast in easily and could be the first unanimous inductee, although I highly doubt it. Jim Thome has a strong chance to get in as well, so that pair will essentially replace two of Bagwell, Raines, and Rodriguez on many ballots. Also appearing for the first time will be Omar Vizquel, who undoubtedly will receive strong support, Scott Rolen and Andruw Jones, who could appeal to more sabermetrically-minded voters but have far fewer credentials based on traditional measures, and Johnny Damon and Jamie Moyer, for whom the opposite is true. Finally, there’s the possibly-still-active Johan Santana, who was great for a time but was unfortunately too limited by injuries to have much of a chance.

Although many voters will still have to make some tough cuts next year, it looks almost certain that at least three more players will get voted in, with a strong possibility of four. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for players who have been lingering in the 10%-25% range due to the backlog of great candidates and the restraints of a ten-player ballot limit. After 2018, there aren’t a ton of overwhelming candidates entering the ballot. Based on my observations, there won’t be any ballots after next year’s that include more than one first-ballot inductee for the foreseeable future. That creates a window for players like Gary Sheffield, Jeff Kent, Larry Walker, and Billy Wagner to make up some serious ground.

Last but not least, no matter how much we can argue about who gets in and who doesn’t, it’s awesome how much interest is garnered by the months leading up to the election results. It’s true when they say there’s no other Hall of Fame that is so captivating and drums up as much good conversation as this one does. Part of that is due to the excellent writing of people like Jay Jaffe, who has done a ton of research on the Hall of Fame and provides so much valuable insight. In addition, the work Ryan Thibodaux puts into his Hall of Fame Tracker is second to none. Being able to track the votes “live” makes the whole process all the more enjoyable.

Reaching the Baseball Hall of Fame is not easy. There are 317 people in the Hall of Fame which, considering there’s 146 years of history, is pretty exclusive. Only slightly more than 1.5 MLB players reach baseball’s greatest honor for each season that the sport is played. The exclusivity of the Hall is celebrated, which is why we care so much about who goes in and why it can’t be denied that any player voted in by the BBWAA is truly among the elite. Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Ivan Rodriguez deserve every bit of this incredible honor.

Ichiro’s Lasting Legacy

On this date sixteen years ago, the Mariners signed Nippon Professional Baseball superstar Ichiro Suzuki to a three-year major league contract. It was a historic move at the time, because the then 27-year old outfielder was the first position player signed by an MLB team from Japan. Ichiro’s legacy will forever be much more than that, as his quick rise to international superstardom would pave the way for an influx of talented players from Japan coming to the United States.

Although there had been some notable Japanese players in the majors before him, including Hideo Nomo and Mariners teammate Kazuhiro Sasaki, all had been pitchers. Ichiro brought a different kind of flair to the game and meteorically rose to become one of the best players in the majors, not unlike Nomo did in 1995. But Ichiro was an everyday player, which some would argue put him in the spotlight even more. It didn’t take long for his fame to spread, instantly becoming one of the game’s most beloved players in the United States, and possibly the most widely recognized in the world. He was playing for a Mariners team that would go on to tie a major league record for wins that year, with a lot of that success owed to Ichiro himself. Ichiro became just the second player to win the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in the same season, matching the feat achieved by Boston’s Fred Lynn in 1975. Three years later, he would break George Sisler’s long standing record for most hits in a single season.

You might remember that Ichiro set a couple more important milestones last season. On June 15th, he collected his 2,979th MLB hit, which combined with the 1,278 hits he accumulated in Japan, placed him one ahead of Pete Rose’s MLB total. While you can debate the validity of the record, it is an impressive feat nonetheless. Regardless, Ichiro may very well be the better all-around player of the two.

Then on August 7th, he collected his 3,000th big league hit in Colorado, solidifying his place in history as one of the greatest hitters of our generation. He is the only player in major league history to record 10 consecutive 200-hit seasons, which he accomplished in his first 10 MLB seasons (2001-2010). Throughout his career, Ichiro has also been an outstanding contributor on the baserunning and defensive sides of the game as well. He ranks 36th all-time with 508 stolen bases, while sustaining an 81% success rate. His .313 batting average is impressive on its own, but what’s remarkable is when you consider that half of his major league career has been past the age of 35. We can only guess how much better his MLB numbers would look had he started in his early 20s.

Ichiro’s a surefire Hall of Famer but, as mentioned earlier, his impact stretches far beyond his numbers. It’s an obvious challenge to be one of the first few players from your country to play in the major leagues. A different style of play and often a language barrier are some of the chief obstacles. Ichiro’s success has opened the door for many others from Japan and other Asian countries to give the major leagues a try, and many have since succeeded. Teams saw his talent and realized how great the talent pool was in Japan. In addition, Ichiro’s fame and popularity has as much to do with his personality as his baseball ability. While always a flashy player, there is a unique humbleness about the way he has always gone about his business and a deep respect for the game of baseball he possesses.

Never one to boast about his accomplishments, when Ichiro was offered the number 51 by the Mariners upon signing, he initially was reluctant to take Randy Johnson’s old number. He then made a promise to Johnson that he would not bring shame to it. It’s clear now that there is nothing to be ashamed of.

Re-signing Cespedes Will Be Key to Mets’ Success

One of the biggest names on this winter’s free agent market is the star of the Mets’ lineup, Yoenis Cespedes. On Tuesday, I discussed two of the other big free agent prizes on the market, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, and what the Blue Jays’ course of action should be regarding two of their most important players. Today’s focus shifts to the Mets, whose power hitting outfielder signed a three year deal prior to last season, but it came with an opt-out after 2016, which he has already exercised. That leaves the Mets with a big decision – a franchise-altering decision – to make on its most valuable offensive player.

When I say it’s their decision, I really mean that all of the cards are in the Mets’ favor. All indications are that Cespedes loves playing in New York and the Mets are the team he wants to be a part of. I believe it. Assuming that’s true, it would mean that the Mets wouldn’t have to offer more than any other team for his services, but just match anyone’s best offer. Cespedes had trouble finding the long-term deal he wanted last winter, but that shouldn’t be the case this year in a much weaker free agent class. He is arguably the biggest prize on the market and should have no problem getting a five or six year deal.

Whether the Mets are willing to offer that remains to be seen, but they would be foolish not to. The Mets have a lot of power in their lineup – they set a franchise record in round-trippers in 2016 – but Cespedes was the only legitimate middle-of-the-order bat on the team. The Mets are loaded with guys who hit a lot of home runs but hit about .250 or below, like Curtis Granderson, Jay Bruce, and Lucas Duda, not to mention all of those hitters are left-handed. Not counting switch hitters, the Mets do not have a single quality right-handed hitter projected to be a regular starter other than David Wright, whose long-term health remains a serious cause for concern.

One of the criticisms of Cespedes is that he is less of an elite player than he is made out to be. For example, he is only a .271 career hitter with an underwhelming .325 on-base percentage. However, the batting average is dragged down by a poor 2013 season he had with Oakland, which was just his second in the majors. As for his on-base skills, Cespedes had shown much improved plate discipline since the trade to Mets, and carries a .348 clip in a season and a half with the team. His OPS was a career best .884 last year.

Sure, the Mets are a team built around their starting pitching, but if they lose Cespedes and don’t replace him with a comparable middle-of-the-order presence (Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, etc.), it’s hard to believe they will be able to score enough to support their strong pitching. In 2016, the Mets gave up the third fewest amount of runs in the majors and still just squeaked into a wild card spot by one game. You can point to the fact that better health from the likes of Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, and Jacob deGrom will make their pitching even better, but really how much better will it be? Maybe with some luck, they can finish first instead of third in pitching, but that may not make much of a difference. The Mets’ offense was only tied for 25th in baseball even with Cespedes, so losing him could very well give the Mets one of the worst offenses in all of baseball. It also can’t be understated how much a hitter with Cespedes’ presence helps out the rest of a lineup. It’s something that statistics can’t quantify, but naturally pitchers will give the hitters in front of him better pitches to hit.

Lastly, there would be serious PR implications of letting Cespedes walk. While front offices shouldn’t make decisions based on how they think their fans will react to them, it’s safe to say that the New York fans will be infuriated if the Mets don’t make a serious attempt to re-sign Cespedes. After all, New York is the biggest sports market in the country, and it’s a little puzzling how frugal the Mets have been in free agency for the past half-decade. Ever since Jason Bay signed his contract prior to the 2010 season, the Mets have not been major players in free agency. Maybe they were scared off by what would become a disastrous contract, but the problem was that time period coincided with an inability to produce many good hitting prospects. Before signing Cespedes last year, the Mets were basically managing like a low-budget, small market team. Most importantly now, the Mets are relevant again. They’ve just made consecutive playoff appearances for the second time in franchise history and have a real chance to be a World Series contender again in 2017. What better time to go all in even if it means giving out a contract that is slightly past your comfort zone? Plus, there will come a time where the core of the Mets’ elite starting rotation will all hit free agency around the same time. They’ll probably have to choose which ones they want to keep, so they may as well go big now when their brilliant young pitchers are all still under contract.

Yoenis Cespedes has become a fan favorite in the Big Apple and he loves playing there. You could say he has turned the franchise’s fortunes around more than any player since Mike Piazza. General Manager Sandy Alderson can’t afford to blow this. Although some reports have led people to believe the Mets aren’t interested in a long term deal, that’s not necessarily true, and as Barry Bloom of MLB.com reports, Alderson is well aware of the slugger’s importance to the club and would love to have him back. “All things considered, we’d love to have him back”. Mets fans would likely love to see him back too, whatever the cost.

Blue Jays Facing Big Decisions Heading Into Offseason

The Toronto Blue Jays are facing one of the more interesting winters of any team in baseball, as two faces of their franchise for the past decade, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, are set to test free agency. They also happen to be the two best offensive players on the market, except for maybe Yoenis Cespedes. This leaves the Blue Jays with some tough decisions to make, since both players are going to command large annual salaries and the team should face plenty of competition for their services.

The Blue Jays need do everything they can to extend both Bautista and Encarnacion, which is easier said than done. The likelihood is that they will be forced to choose one or the other, with many of the opinion that both will leave Toronto. General Manager Ross Atkins and President of Baseball Operations Mark Shapiro cannot let that happen.

As good as the Blue Jays’ lineup is, losing two guys who have been right in the heart of the lineup for the better part of the past decade would be tough to overcome, not to mention the possibility of losing Michael Saunders as well, who is also a free agent. There aren’t any other free agents for Toronto to realistically go after that would be able to replace that production. Their window to win is right now, and letting both sluggers walk would create a gaping hole in the lineup.

Handing big contracts out to Encarnacion and Bautista is not without risk. Both players will be in their mid-thirties at the start of next season (Bautista will be 36 and Encarnacion, 34), and the Jays will need to pay other key players on their roster in the coming seasons. Josh Donaldson is set to hit free agency after the 2018 season, and Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman are the team’s only two starting pitchers who will still be under team control by that time. That could create a necessity to spend more on starting pitching, either by resigning some of their current starters whose contracts are set to expire or acquiring other arms on the open market. Additionally, both Bautista or Encarnacion would likely require some time at DH given their respective ages. Despite the risks, Toronto still needs to take a chance on one of their franchise icons. The question then becomes, which would be better to sign?

It’s safe to say Jose Bautista is and has been the face of the Blue Jays. He is their most outspoken player and the leader of the team. Bautista has probably been a slightly better hitter than Edwin Encarnacion over his tenure in Toronto. However, he had a down year last season and was hampered by injuries. Encarnacion, in addition to being two years younger, has been able to stay on the field more and produce more consistently over the last five years.

For these reasons, it is likely that teams will be willing to give Encarnacion more years and maybe a higher annual salary. That makes it harder for Toronto to match other teams’ offers. By signing Bautista instead, they probably wouldn’t have to commit to as much money down the road.

Ideally, the Blue Jays and their fans would love to have both players back. That could be unrealistic, but since were given a qualifying offer yesterday, Toronto will net a draft pick in case either leaves. The team has a very difficult choice to make, but it’s imperative that they don’t let both of these players leave.

Whatever happens, it could be the end of an era in Toronto. Bautista and Encarnacion are second and third on the Blue Jays’ all-time home run list, respectively, and are both among the greatest players ever to wear a Blue Jays uniform. No matter what, both players will always be remembered fondly by fans as part of the core that brought Toronto back to relevance and ending a 22-year playoff drought.

Top Athletes Excelling Past Their Prime

The remarkable story of David Ortiz’s incredible final season has gotten me thinking about other athletes who are excelling at an age far past what is normally considered an athlete’s prime. Ortiz deserved the attention he got this year in every way, because what he was able to accomplish in his final season was nothing short of historic. You are probably well aware of Big Papi’s accomplishments by now, and I will be writing another piece dedicated to Ortiz in the near future. For now, here are some other athletes who have been able to sustain a high level of performance in the latter stages of their careers.

Bartolo Colon

“Big Sexy” is the oldest active player in the major leagues, but that didn’t stop him from being named to his fourth all-star team in 2016. Despite winning the 2005 AL Cy Young Award, it can be argued that the last five seasons have constituted the best stretch of Colon’s career. The former power pitcher has reinvented himself by relying almost solely on his sub-90 MPH fastball, but with as good of command as any pitcher in baseball. And despite the Mets enviable collection of young starting pitchers, it was Colon who ended up being their most durable arm last year.

Ichiro Suzuki

He’s not close to the player he once was, but at age 42, it’s remarkable that Ichiro was able to hit .291 and provide solid value to the Marlins in a part-time role. Only Pete Rose had more hits in baseball history from age 27 onward.

Frank Gore

It may be lost because the Colts do not emphasize running the football much, or maybe because he has been so good for so long, but Frank Gore is still one of the more reliable ball carriers in the NFL. He is currently on pace to become just the fifth running back in NFL history to run for 1,00 yards at age 33 or older, and the first since 1984, when John Riggins ran for 1,239 yards with the Redskins. In fact, there have only been 47 instances where a 30 year-old player has rushed for 1,000 yards (Gore has already done it twice).

Adam Vinatieri

Yes, it’s much more common for kickers and punters to stick around a long time, but Vinatieri is truly in a class of his own. Not only is he the oldest and longest tenured player in the NFL, he is the best kicker in football, and maybe the greatest of all-time. This season, Vinatieri broke Mike Vanderjagt’s NFL record by connecting on his 43rd consecutive field goal attempt. Hopefully, being a kicker won’t stop the Hall of Fame voters from giving him the honor he is due. That might be a long ways away, since Vinatieri could probably play another 10 years if he wanted to.

Tom Brady

You wouldn’t know it from watching him play, but Brady is 39. Since coming back from his suspension, he has been as good as ever, already eclipsing 1,300 passing yards with 12 touchdowns and no interceptions through four games. His passer rating is an otherworldly 133.9. He is showing no signs of slowing down, and should still be among the NFL’s best quarterbacks for years to come.

Terrence Newman

At age 38, Newman is still a starting cornerback in the NFL, which is extremely rare considering corners need to be among the fastest players on the field. Not only that, but he starts for the NFL’s top-ranked defense, the Minnesota Vikings.

Dirk Nowitzki

The future Basketball Hall of Famer really has nothing left to prove, but he’s still going strong. Although he was not selected for the All-Star Game last year for just the second time since 2001, Dirk still dropped 18.3 points per game while grabbing 6.5 rebounds per game. With Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett all retired, Nowitzki is one of the last remaining players from the group of greats who debuted in the late 90s.

Jaromir Jagr

No list like this would be complete without Jagr, who will turn 45 this NHL season. When Jagr debuted in the NHL in 1990, many of the current active players weren’t born yet. Last season, he scored 66 points for the Panthers, and two weeks ago, joined Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky as the third NHL player to score 750 career goals in a career.

Kerri Walsh Jennings

As one of the greatest volleyball players of all-time, Walsh Jennings was able to capture another Olympic medal in Rio, this time with April Ross as her partner. Although it wasn’t the gold she is accustomed to, Walsh Jennings is still as good a player as any in beach volleyball, and she remains a dominant blocker and hitter nobody wants to go up against.

Michael Phelps

We’ve become used to Phelps winning nearly every swimming gold medal at the Olympics, so a lot of people may not have realized that before Phelps won five gold medals and one silver in Rio this summer, no swimmer as old as 31 had ever won an individual swimming gold. Phelps won two individual gold medals (although fellow American Anthony Ervin also won gold at age 35, making him now the oldest). While most simmers are done competing in their 30s, nobody really doubts that Phelps could return to the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020 and win some more if he wanted to.

Oksana Chusovitina

You may not know her name, but if you watched gymnastics in the Olympics, you’ll remember her as the 41 year-old gymnast from Uzbekistan competing against athletes less than half her age. Chusovitina has won two Olympic medals – including a silver in 2008 at age 33. In a sport where most athletes begin to decline in their early 20s, what Chusovitina is doing is truly incredible.

World Series Game 7 Set for Historic Finish

Tonight, it all comes down to one more game. There’s nothing in sports quite like a win-or-go-home game, but there’s something extra special about the seventh game of the World Series. We don’t get to see them too often – tonight will mark just the seventh Game 7 in the last 29 World Series matchups – and there’s something to be said about the uniquely long length of the baseball season coming down to one single game.

Throw in the historic significance of the Cubs and Indians currently having the longest championship droughts in baseball, and tonight’s game is truly one for the ages. We can only hope that whoever wins, it is a thrilling, well played game that can become engrained as an integral piece of baseball history. The World Series has produced many of the sport’s most iconic images – Babe Ruth’s called shot, Don Larsen’s perfect game, series-ending home runs by Bill Mazeroski and Joe Carter, the incredible comeback by the 1986 Mets – that maybe we can witness one of these kinds of moments tonight.

So whether you’re a lifelong baseball fan, just a casual fan, or even any kind of sports fan in general, take a moment to acknowledge how special tonight will be. It’s the type of moment sports were created for. And for one fan base, the result will be something they’ve waited their whole lives to see.

Postseason Redefining the Use of Relief Pitchers

One trend that’s become clear this postseason is that managers will not hesitate to use their bullpens in unconventional ways. Managers, specifically Terry Francona and Dave Roberts, have not been afraid to push their bullpen aces past their comfort zones, utilizing them for multiple inning or putting them in the game much earlier than usual.

No disrespect to Cody Allen, who is a fantastic relief pitcher, but Andrew Miller is the unquestioned best reliever the Cleveland Indians have. Traditional baseball theory says that you’re supposed to save your best reliever for the end of the game to close it out. But Francona has realized that some of the highest leverage moments his team has faced in the postseason have come earlier, such as in the sixth or seventh with men on base. The formula has been to go to Miller in those situations, let him pitch as long as he can, and have Allen, or maybe Dan Otero or Bryan Shaw, ready to back him up. The strategy has worked wonders for the Indians to this point, and Francona’s bullpen management is arguably the biggest factor as to why they won six consecutive playoff games before losing in Toronto last night.

Dave Roberts has also decided to throw traditional bullpen roles out the window. The Dodgers may not have the same depth of bullpen arms as Cleveland does, but they do have Kenley Jansen. Roberts made a statement in the epic fifth game of their NLDS series against the Nationals by pushing Jansen to his limit and having him throw 51 pitches. Jansen was effective as usual, but was put into the game so early that he didn’t even finish, instead handing the reigns over to Clayton Kershaw, who had pitched two days prior.

The must-win factor of playoff baseball obviously affects the way the games are managed, as you are both forced to, but due to the frequent off days, also able to do things you normally wouldn’t. It wouldn’t be feasible to use your best relief pitcher for two innings every single game in the middle of June. But it’s fair to wonder if going forward, we will see managers take a much different approach to their bullpen usage. The save is an overvalued stat, and whereas at one time, relievers would only land big contracts if they were closers with high save totals, teams have begun to place an increasing value on middle relievers. Nearly every team still has a single closer that’s rarely used before the ninth inning, but will we start to see managers break away from that strategy? Say you are holding on to a one run lead in the seventh, when the starter puts two men on base to start the inning. It might not be a bad idea to go with your best reliever in that spot rather than your typical “seventh-inning guy”. It’s unlikely that there will be a spot in the game of even more pressure or importance later on.

What we are also seeing more and more in the playoffs is that teams are willing to pull their starters earlier to get to their bullpens. It happened the last few years with the Royals and again this year with the Indians. Time will only tell if these trends will continue, but it will certainly make for a fascinating offseason in regards to the pitching market. The pool of top level starters is scarce, but relievers such as Jansen, Aroldis Chapman, and Mark Melancon should be lined up for huge paydays, not to mention the usual selection of quality middle relievers.