Ripken & Gwynn, Si. Mac, No, but How Far Off?

Jim Vail checks in with his yearly Hall-of-Fame vote predictions. Obviously, 2007 holds some unique intrigue.

Will Cal Ripken, Jr. become the first player ever elected unanimously to the Hall of Fame?  Will Mark McGwire, who was a lock for 2007 election as recently as two years ago, receive as much as 25-percent support from the voting baseball writers?  Those two questions dominate anticipation about the outcome of this year's Cooperstown voting by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), results of which will be announced at 2:00 p.m. EST on Tuesday, January 9.


From this observer's perspective, the answers are "no" regarding Ripken, and "yes, but not much more" with respect to McGwire.


There is clearly no doubt that Ripken will be elected, along with fellow first-time eligible Tony Gwynn.  Both men surpassed one of Cooperstown's unofficial but de facto standards for automatic election (Ripken had 3,184 hits, Gwynn 3,141).  In recent years, the de facto achievements -- 3,000 hits, 500 home runs or 300 pitching victories -- have been a virtual guarantee of first-ballot enshrinement: no de facto qualifier has failed to gain first-year election since 324-game winner Don Sutton was passed over by the writers in 1997; and Sutton and fellow 300-game winner Phil Niekro are the only men with de facto credentials to fail first-ballot election since 1991.  In that period, twelve other de facto qualifiers -- Rod Carew, Tom Seaver, Reggie Jackson, Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Robin Yount, Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, Paul Molitor and Wade Boggs -- were elected in their first Hall of Fame try.


Ripken has several other very impressive credentials, including two American League MVP awards (1983 and 1991, the first with a World Series winner, the second, perhaps dubious one with a sixth-place team that was 14 games below .500 and 24 games behind its division winner), 18 consecutive all-star game selections, 431 career home runs (including the most ever, 345, by a shortstop at the time Ripken retired), 1,695 runs batted in (the 20th-best career total, all-time), and 603 doubles (tied for 12th-best).  Beyond that, and looming even larger, he also has that ironman record of 2,632 consecutive games played, 502 more than the 2,130 by Lou Gehrig that was long considered unsurpassable.


All of that fuels legitimate speculation whether Ripken, who made no obvious enemies in the game and was widely perceived as a quintessential role model for kids, surpasses all of Cooperstown's vague subjective standards for on-field achievement, moral fiber and contributions to the sport by a margin that merits unanimous election.


It's difficult, probably specious, to argue against that premise.  But few, if any, would assert that Ripken was baseball's greatest player ever, and none of the greats who came before him and might have a legitimate claim to that title -- neither Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Willie Mays nor Hank Aaron, who are paramount among several others -- was ever elected unanimously (they were chosen with 95.1, 93.4, 94.7 and 98.1-percent support, respectively).  The closest anyone has come to unanimous election to date is the rounded 98.8-percent support given to pitchers Tom Seaver (425 of a possible 430 votes, or 98.84 percent, in 1992) and Nolan Ryan (491 of 497 possible, or 98.79 percent, in 1999).


Given that, it's virtually guaranteed that two, three or as many as a half-dozen among the BBWAA's 525-odd voters will find some justification to omit Ripken from their ballots -- be it perverse adherence to a seven-decade-old tradition, or a perhaps legitimate concern as to whether Ripken's fixation on the consecutive-games streak often placed himself above his team.  But it does seem likely that Ripken has an excellent chance to surpass the high-percent record shared by Seaver and Ryan, and I look for him to become the first player ever to equal or exceed 99-percent support (for example, 520 out of 525 would be 99.05 percent).


As for Mark McGwire, it's both typical and predictable that the cloud which has hung over baseball since the steroids scandal broke and now dominates his once-certain prospects for Hall of Fame election has obscured more positive speculation about Ripken's chances for unanimous election.  We all know the story.  McGwire and Sammy Sosa both surpass Roger Maris' single-season home-run record in 1998, then repeat the feat in 1999, bringing fans back to ballparks in droves and twin-handedly erasing the final negative vestiges of the 1994 players' strike.  But, late in 1998, McGwire admits to using androstenedione, at the time a legal dietary supplement.  In 2001, Barry Bonds shatters Big Mac's "record for the ages," suddenly making homers by men older than 35 seem -- unnaturally, and contrary to all past history -- like child's play.  By early 2004, and almost simultaneously, the BALCO scandal appears to taint Bonds, and Jose Canseco publishes his tell-all book, claiming he personally and repeatedly injected McGwire with steroids, beginning in the late 1980s.  That same spring, MLB is called on the carpet by an angry U. S. Congress, where McGwire -- either from bad legal advice, sheer stupidity, or both -- evades answering questions about his past, sounding far more like some disingenuous Mafioso pleading the Fifth Amendment than a hero worthy of Cooperstown.


Since then, McGwire has been effectively convicted without trial.  As a de facto qualifier, with 583 career home runs (seventh-best on the all-time list), under normal conditions Big Mac should -- like Ripken and Gwynn -- be a lock for first-year election in the 2007 voting.  But one recent poll of approximately one-fourth of this year's HOF electors showed that only 25-percent or so intended to vote for him, and his first-year candidacy on this year's ballot is widely being perceived as a precedent-setting event to signal how baseball's scribes will deal with proven and/or suspected steroid or human growth hormone (HGH) users in the future.


Whether all of that is just is debatable.  Beyond his admitted use of the now-banned andro (which Canseco speculates was an intentional decoy on McGwire's part), Big Mac has been convicted of nothing in any court beyond the one of public opinion.  Of course, anyone who believes that the presumption of innocence is still alive in America in the (now) second decade after OJ's murder trial need only watch five minutes of commentary on Court TV to have their perceptions corrected.


But, fair or not, it's now a given that McGwire's real or suspected steroid use has torpedoed his prospects for first-ballot election to Cooperstown.  Whether his rejection in 2007 proves to be a temporary or permanent punishment remains to be seen.  My own guess is that, barring future emergence of any hard-core proof of his steroid use, the weight of his de facto credential will eventually carry him to HOF enshrinement -- perhaps four or five years down the line.  All the same, he is doomed to disappointment in this year's election, and I look for him to earn no more than around 30-percent support from the scribes.


Tony Gwynn, the third de facto newcomer to this year's ballot, is -- like Ripken -- virtually assured of election.  Gwynn ended his career with a .338 batting average, the best among players in his generation.  If his candidacy has a drawback, it's the fact that he rates among the wimpiest "great-hitting" outfielders ever, power-wise.  Gwynn accumulated 3,141 hits, 2,378 (or 75.7 percent) of which were singles.  Among outfielders whose careers began after 1900, there are only three in Cooperstown with a higher percentage of singles (i.e., lack of extra-base power).  Two of those -- Lloyd Waner (2,033 singles in 2,459 hits, or 82.7 percent) and Max Carey (2,017 of 2,665, or 75.7 percent) -- had to be elected by the old Veterans Committee.  The third, and most recent analogous flychaser was Lou Brock (2,687 of 3,023, for 88.9 percent), who earned 79.5 percent support in his first-ballot election of 1985.


But, neither Waner, Carey nor Brock led his league in hits on seven occasions, nor won eight batting titles.  In that vein, the most similar player elected in recent years was third sacker Wade Boggs, with five batting championships and 74.9-percent singles (2,253 of 3,010), who cruised into Cooperstown with 91.9-percent support in 2005.  As a result, it's fair to expect that Gwynn will earn a support percentage about equal to Boggs, perhaps a tad higher.


Without doubt, Ripken, Gwynn and McGwire are the best among a formidable crop of 17 newcomers on this year's ballot.  The other first timers for 2007 include first baseman Wally Joyner, shortstop Tony Fernandez, third sackers Bobby Bonilla, Scott Brosius and Ken Caminiti, outfielders Dante Bichette, Jay Buhner, Jose Canseco, Eric Davis, Paul O'Neill and Devon White, designated hitter Harold Baines and starting pitchers Bret Saberhagen and Bobby Witt.  Several of these men have one or two mildly impressive credentials: Caminiti and Canseco both have MVP trophies (the latter with 462 career homers); Saberhagen earned two Cy Young awards; Baines has 2,866 career hits, 384 homers and 1,628 RBI; Fernandez has 2,276 hits (a substantial amount for a middle infielder); O'Neill has a National League batting title, plus five World Series rings.  But none of them has the kind of credentials that belong to a first-ballot Hall of Famer and, given recent voting trends, it's doubtful that most of them will earn the five-percent support required to remain on the BBWAA ballot for 2008.  My own prediction is that, in addition to Ripken, Gwynn and McGwire, the only three who will earn above five-percent are Baines, O'Neill and Saberhagen, and the latter two just barely (so it could easily just be Baines).  Absent the steroids scandal, Canseco is clearly someone who would merit much higher first-ballot support, and would likely remain on the ballot for most, if not all of the 15 possible elections.  But I expect that his role in the recent debacle assures him a rapid ticket to Cooperstown Palookaville from the scribes.


There are 15 ballot holdovers from the 2006 voting, including -- in descending order of their 2006 voting performances -- Jim Rice (64.8-percent support last time), Goose Gossage (64.6), Andre Dawson (61.0), Bert Blyleven (53.3), Lee Smith (45.0), Jack Morris (41.2), Tommy John (29.6), Steve Garvey (26.0), Alan Trammell (17.7), Dave Parker (14.6), Dave Concepcion (12.5), Don Mattingly (12.3), Orel Hershiser (11.2), Dale Murphy (10.8) and Albert Belle (7.7).  Hershiser and Belle were ballot first timers in 2006, but the other thirteen candidates all saw their support percentages rise last year over the 2005 voting, with the most impressive increases posted by Blyleven (a 12.4 percent jump from 40.9) and Gossage (up 9.4 percent from 55.2).


In that light, I look for Gossage -- whose relief-pitching credentials have gained added scrutiny and recognition following last year's election of Bruce Sutter -- to move ahead of Rice (whose recent support increases have been less impressive) into third-place among this year's final pecking order.  In the only other change I anticipate, and a very minor one at that, I think Orel Hershiser will climb marginally, to a spot ahead of Don Mattingly (and perhaps Dave Concepcion), with the rest of the descending sequence remaining the same.


However, I do not expect Gossage to gain election this time, and look for the support percentages for him and most of this year's holdovers to be slightly lower than the ones they received in 2006.  The reason for that is the 1999 election, which was the last ballot that included as many as three de facto candidates.  That year, absent any steroid scandal, all three first-time de facto candidates were elected -- Nolan Ryan (324 career wins, 98.8 percent support), George Brett (3,154 hits, 98.2 percent) and Robin Yount (3,142 hits, 77.5 percent) -- and, at the same time, the support percentage for every holdover on that ballot declined from the previous year's voting.  With three more de facto newcomers in 2007, their credentials will once again dominate the voters' attentions, making everyone else seem proportionately less-qualified as result.  Beyond that, it seems a given that, if the voters cannot rationalize support for someone with McGwire's numbers, Rice, Dawson and the other non-pitchers on this year's ballot are likely to get relatively short shrift as well.


So, absent anyone being elected in this year's Veterans Committee voting, it's my prediction that Ripken and Gwynn will be alone on the Cooperstown podium during this year's induction ceremony on the last Sunday in July.  Gossage will have to wait at least another year to gain HOF entry, and everyone else will be treading water.  The prediction is especially bad news for Steve Garvey, for whom the 2007 voting marks his fifteenth and final year of BBWAA eligibility (Dave Concepcion is on the ballot for the fourteenth time, with Jim Rice and Tommy John at thirteen each).


The table below gives my predictions for this year's Cooperstown voting.  Included among the data is the number of years each man has appeared on the BBWAA ballot (YoB), plus the support percentage each received in the 2004-06 elections.  The "Trend" column indicates whether or not a man's support has risen steadily over that period ("up"), or fluctuated up and down ("none").  Note that none of the holdovers' percentages have declined steadily in the last three elections.  Finally, the prediction (Pred) column is my estimate of the support percentage each candidate will receive.  Each number in that column represents my "best-guess" center point of a probably range of ± 3.0 percent from the number predicted.  Men I expect to be elected as shown in boldface, newcomers to this year's ballot in italics.



2007 BBWAA Voting Forecast

Player Pos YoB 2004 2005 2006 Trend Pred
Cal Ripken, Jr. SS 1 -- -- -- none 99
Tony Gwynn OF 1 -- -- -- none 92
Goose Gossage RP 8 40.7 55.2 64.6 up 65
Jim Rice OF 13 54.5 59.5 64.8 up 62
Andre Dawson OF 6 50 52.3 61 up 57
Bert Blyleven SP 10 35.4 40.9 53.3 up 54
Lee Smith RP 5 36.6 38.8 45 up 43
Jack Morris SP 8 26.3 33.3 41.2 up 39
Mark McGwire 1B 1 -- -- -- none 31
Tommy John SP 13 21.9 23.8 29.6 up 28
Steve Garvey 1B 15 24.3 20.5 26 none 26
Alan Trammell SS 6 13.8 16.9 17.7 up 15
Harold Baines DH 1 -- -- -- none 14
Dave Parker OF 11 10.5 12.6 14.6 up 12
Dave Concepcion SS 14 11.3 10.7 12.5 none 11
Orel Hershiser SP 2 -- -- 11.2 none 11
Don Mattingly 1B 7 12.8 11.4 12.3 none 9
Dale Murphy OF 9 8.5 10.5 10.8 up 8
Paul O'Neill OF 1 -- -- -- none 7
Bret Saberhagen SP 1 -- -- -- none 7
Jose Canseco OF 1 -- -- -- none 4
Albert Belle OF 2 -- -- 7.7 none 4
Bobby Bonilla 3B 1 -- -- -- none 3
Dante Bichette OF 1 -- -- -- none 2
Eric Davis OF 1 -- -- -- none 2
Wally Joyner 1B 1 -- -- -- none 2
Tony Fernandez SS 1 -- -- -- none 2
Ken Caminiti 3B 1 -- -- -- none 1
Devon White OF 1 -- -- -- none 1
Jay Buhner OF 1 -- -- -- none <1.0
Bobby Witt SP 1 -- -- -- none <1.0
Scott Brosius 3B 1 -- -- -- none <1.0

The Cardinal Nation Top Stories