The Ballot: Lance Berkman
Hitting: 449 points
Baserunning: –10 points
Fielding: –85 points
Bonus leader points: 15 (twice led league in doubles, once in RBIs)
World Series excellence: 15 points
Coaches a high school baseball team now: 5 points
Was called “Fat Elvis” AND “Big Puma:” 5 points
One of the 10 or 11 best switch-hitters in baseball history: 5 points
Hall of Fame Race to 400: 399 points
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Hey, it’s Christmas, so here’s my Christmas present to you: I’m going to give you my updated Willie Mays Hall of Fame.
I have joked about this before — you might remember my original Willie Mays Hall of Fame post — but here’s what I believe: There are roughly 100 players in baseball history who are more or less accepted by everyone as true Hall of Famers. For some people, it’s only 50 players, for some it’s just 10 or so, for some (as the joke originally goes), it’s only Willie Mays (and Babe Ruth, I guess).
You will ask what this has to do with Lance Berkman?
You have to get to the bottom for that part.
So what is the Willie Mays Hall of Fame? Let's be clear about this: These are not the 100 greatest players in baseball history. (You know all about THAT list, which picks up in earnest as we move out of Hall of Fame season.) These are the 100 players who are widely accepted by baseball fans as being Hall of Famers. You can call it the Willie Mays Hall of Fame like I do, but it's probably more commonly known as "the True Hall of Fame" or "the Inner Circle Hall of Fame" or “the Gut Hall of Fame” or “the You know a Hall of Famer when you see one Hall of Fame” or something like that. You might not agree that every single player on this list belongs in the Willie Mays Hall of Fame, but you will probably agree with the vast majority of them.
You'll probably also think that numerous other players belong on this list. I make no excuses, but just know that I have not left them off because of my own baseball views, but because I don’t think they have built the Willie Mays Hall of Fame consensus. For instance, I’ll tell you up front that Bert Blyleven is not on this list. Blyleven was, in my view, better than some of the pitchers who ARE on the list. But I don’t think the vast majority of baseball fans think of Blyleven as a Hall of Famer. Maybe I’m wrong. I’m often wrong.
One more quick point before we get to the players: I've tried to leave PED users off this list, not because I think they don't belong -- as anyone who reads this blog knows, I vote for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, etc. -- but because I don't think any known PED user, at this moment, can build the kind of consensus we're talking about here. That said, there are a handful of players on this list that you or I might suspect of being PED users. I put them on here because there's no active proof that they used. It's a weird line to draw in the sand, but nothing much about the way we've gone about judging the pre-testing era makes much sense.
OK, enough prelude: Here’s the Willie Mays 100 as I see it:
Catcher (10): Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey, Roy Campanella, Ivan Rodriguez, Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, Mickey Cochrane, Gabby Hartnett and Mike Piazza.
— Cochrane and Hartnett would not necessarily be seen as consensus Hall of Famers had they come along later, but they were the best of their time and are grandfathered in.
First base (10): Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Frank Thomas, Hank Greenberg, Willie McCovey, Harmon Killebrew, Jeff Bagwell, Johnny Mize, Eddie Murray, Jim Thome.
— Mize is a questionable one, because he got very little support from the BBWAA. But I think time has shown him to be a great player, especially when you consider that he missed three prime years for World War II. I'm thrilled to be able to put Thome on here; I was sure that he would be viewed by some as too one-dimensional to be a Willie Mays Hall of Famer. But 90% of the vote as a first-ballot electee gets him in for sure.
Second base (9): Rogers Hornsby, Joe Morgan, Eddie Collins, Nap Lajoie, Jackie Robinson, Charlie Gehringer, Frankie Frisch, Robbie Alomar, Ryne Sandberg.
— Sandberg and Craig Biggio were close calls. I could only find a way to get one in, but I wasn’t sure which one, so I put up a poll. Sandberg won pretty convincingly. I think Biggio, despite 3,000 hits, is widely viewed more as a compiler and less as a great player.
[caption id="attachment_23883" align="aligncenter" width="480"] Berkman is the perfect borderline Hall of Fame candidate.[/caption]
Shortstop (10): Honus Wagner, Cal Ripken Jr., Ozzie Smith, Ernie Banks, Robin Yount, Lou Boudreau, Luke Appling, Arky Vaughan, Barry Larkin, Alan Trammell.
— Arky Vaughan is (I don’t think there’s any question about this), the most underrated and under-appreciated player in the Hall of Fame. Many fans who would consider themselves baseball experts have never even heard of him. But he was a hitting dynamo (in the Race to 400 points, he would get 60 points just from categories, when he led the league in hitting). … I went back and forth on Larkin and Trammell. But in a poll, Trammell ran away from Aparicio and Ron Santo, two others whom I was seriously considering. So Trammell gets in, and if Trammell’s in, then Larkin's in for sure.
Third base (8): Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Eddie Mathews, Chipper Jones, Wade Boggs, Brooks Robinson, Home Run Baker, Pie Traynor.
— Pie Traynor was the toughest one for me: He doesn’t belong on this list. His Hall of Fame résumé doesn’t stand up well to scrutiny. Ron Santo was a significantly better player. But for years, the writers didn't put ANY third basemen in the Hall, and finally it got so ridiculous that they decided they couldn't just IGNORE the position forever. So they put in Traynor because he was widely regarded as the best third baseman of the first half of the 20th century. Because of that, I'm putting Traynor in here.
Left Field (7): Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Rickey Henderson, Carl Yastrzemski, Al Simmons, Willie Stargell, Lou Brock.
— There is, in various circles, a backlash against Brock as a Hall of Famer. His career WAR (45.3) is among the lowest of Hall of Famers; I believe it’s 99th on this list, ahead of only Traynor. This is mainly because Brock didn’t walk, and he was a defensive liability. But 3,000 hits and 900 steals still carries a lot of weight in the perception game, plus Brock was a titan in the World Series. ... You noticed, no doubt, that Barry Bonds is not on this list. See the PED stipulation at the top.
Center field (8): Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr., Joe DiMaggio, Tris Speaker; Duke Snider, Larry Doby.
— The last two are somewhat controversial — Snider had a long and ugly Hall of Fame election process, and the BBWAA didn’t even come close to voting in Doby. But I think time has been good to both of them — Snider for his connection to the Boys of Summer and the Golden Era of New York baseball, and Doby for the hugely important role he played in desegregating the game.
Right field (11): Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson, Mel Ott, Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline, Reggie Jackson, Tony Gwynn, Harry Heilmann, Paul Waner, Dave Winfield.
— Winfield has his detractors, but again, he was elected comfortably on the first ballot after getting to 3,000 hits and winning 12 Gold Gloves, and so on. ... As I look over this list, I suspect few will stand up for old-time players like Heilmann and Waner and Simmons. And I think their place on this kind of list is critical. If people want to believe that Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner belong in the Top 10 of all-time players, you can't they say a guy like Waner wasn't great too.
Right-handed pitchers (15): Walter Johnson, Pete Alexander, Cy Young, Tom Seaver, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Christy Mathewson, Bob Feller, Bob Gibson, Nolan Ryan, Phil Niekro, Juan Marichal, Jim Palmer, Robin Roberts, Dazzy Vance.
— No Bert Blyleven? No Gaylord Perry? No Ferguson Jenkins? No John Smoltz, Don Sutton, Early Wynn or Bob Lemon? I think the one that will tick off people the most, surprisingly, is Smoltz — he ran away in a Twitter poll I did against three pitchers I think were CLEARLY superior, Jim Palmer, Bert Blyleven and Gaylord Perry. I think this is in part because of the halo that comes with being on those 1990s Braves teams, in part because of his fine postseason record and in part because Smoltz has earned a lot of fame for being on television. I don’t see any viable argument that he had more of a Hall of Fame career than, say, Mike Mussina or Curt Schilling, much less guys like Perry, Blyleven, Sutton and others who are already in the Hall.
You will also notice no Roger Clemens, for the same reason as no Barry Bonds.
Left-handed pitchers (9): Lefty Grove, Randy Johnson, Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, Steve Carlton, Carl Hubbell, Tom Glavine, Rube Waddell, Whitey Ford.
— Glavine’s 300 victories puts him here. Waddell had a very short career, but he was widely viewed as an all-time great in his time.
Relievers (2): Mariano Rivera, Hoyt Wilhelm.
— I’m sure Trevor Hoffman fans would scream bloody murder (plus Goose Gossage fans, Dennis Eckersley fans, etc.), but I think with relievers, it’s just those two.
DH (1): Paul Molitor.
— This was a tough one. I honestly believe that Edgar Martinez was a better hitter. Molitor was a great base runner, and he played more and better defense than Martinez in his younger days, and he lasted a lot longer. But Martinez had three or four (or even five) offensive seasons that were better than any of Molitor’s. Still, I’d say that Molitor (probably because of 3,000 hits and that great base running) is viewed by more people as a Hall of Famer than Edgar.
And that’s 100. Like I say, you can move a few players around on the edges (and I’ll glance at the comments to see if I forgot anyone). But I think that’s the Willie Mays Hall of Fame as of this moment.
Which brings us to … Lance Berkman.
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Lance Berkman is the perfect borderline Hall of Fame candidate. You can make some powerful arguments for him. You can make some powerful arguments against him. There are some (a smaller group) who think that it shouldn’t even be a question: OF COURSE he’s a Hall of Famer; I mean, compare him to any number of other Hall of Famers.
And there are those who not only think that he isn’t a Hall of Famer, they think the idea of him being a Hall of Famer is LAUGHABLE and LUDICROUS and INFURIATING and IT’S NOT THE HALL OF VERY GOOD and so on. If you look at Ryan Thibodaux's Hall of Fame tracker, you see that Berkman is getting almost zero support.
The point here, though, is that Lance Berkman is obviously not in the Willie Mays Hall of Fame. He’s not even close to the Willie Mays Hall of Fame. And the truth is, when you look at it that way — look at how people perceive players — nobody that we talk about as an overlooked Hall of Fame candidate belongs in the Willie Mays Hall of Fame.
Lou Whitaker? Dwight Evans? Ted Simmons? Dale Murphy? Steve Garvey? Kevin Brown? Kenny Lofton? No. None of them are even candidates for this list. Heck, Pete Rose isn’t a candidate for this list.
This isn’t to say that these players aren’t as GOOD as some of the Mays 100. It’s to say that when you put together all of the pieces — the stats, the awards, the perceptions, the memorable moments, the postseason performances, the fame, the authenticity and the way they carried themselves — those players simply aren't as persuasive as Hall of Famers.
If they WERE that persuasive, they would have been in the Hall of Fame a long time ago.
So when we talk about guys like Lance Berkman, we're not talking about Willie Mays Hall of Famers. We're talking about the other 55 or so percent of the big leaguers in the Hall of Fame. And I can’t help but think that every argument about guys like Todd Helton or Lance Berkman, Larry Walker or Billy Wagner, is more an argument about THAT 55% than it is about the players themselves.
As in: Should that 55% exist? Should there be all of these players in the Hall of Fame who are relatively unknown or whose careers are not easily picked out of a lineup of similar players? Is the Hall of Fame too big?
It's not fair to ask Lance Berkman to shoulder this argument. He was a hitting marvel who walked a ton, hit with power, twice led the league in doubles and three times had an OPS of better than 1.000. He probably never deserved to win the MVP, but he was a legitimate candidate four or five times. I probably could give you two dozen players who are in the Hall of Fame for their bats but weren't as good hitters as Lance Berkman.
But, and this is the point, that argument falls flat if the person you’re arguing with doesn’t think that any of those two dozen should be in the Hall of Fame either.