A Peek Into the Mind of a Hall of Fame Voter
Jeff Peek is a columnist for the Traverse City (Michigan) Record-Eagle. He graduated from Central Michigan University with a journalism degree in 1986 -- "about 10 years after realizing the only way I was going to make the major leagues was as a writer."
Peek is a member of the Detroit chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America. He was bestowed with Hall of Fame voting privileges for the first time last year. Jeff placed Paul Molitor, Dennis Eckersley, Andre Dawson, Alan Trammell, Ryne Sandberg, Jack Morris, and Goose Gossage on his initial ballot. His "near misses" included Bert Blyleven, Jim Rice, Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith and Tommy John.
Bert Blyleven? Near miss? I sent Jeff an email with a link to Only The Lonely: The Hall of Fame Trials and Tribulations of Bert Blyleven in the hope that he would read it and reconsider his stance on the only eligible pitcher in the top 14 in both career strikeouts and shutouts not to have been enshrined in Cooperstown. Peek not only read my article but he was humble enough to send the following email back to me:
Hi, Richard: Thanks for the e-mail. I read your piece on Blyleven with great interest. Your research is outstanding, and your column is must-reading for every voting member of the BBWAA. Let's face it, I blew it on Blyleven. He'll get my vote next year.
Well, a year has passed so I thought it would be worthwhile to check back with Mr. Peek. He recently unveiled his Hall of Fame selections for 2005 in an article entitled "Boggs belongs on first ballot." In addition to Wade Boggs, Jeff once again voted for Dawson, Trammell, Sandberg, Morris, and Gossage. True to his word, he also placed Blyleven's name on his ballot for the first time. An excerpt from his article follows:
I dropped Blyleven from my ballot about 10 minutes before I mailed it last year. Two days later, his Hall of Fame worthiness became clear after a series of e-mails from baseball historian and All-Baseball.com columnist Rich Lederer. So I'm fixing my mistake.
Lederer has been called a "cybergeek" by at least one longtime member of the BBWAA -- and it wasn't meant as a compliment -- but I was fascinated by his numbers crunching. He also convinced me that even conventional stats prove Blyleven belongs in the Hall.
Blyleven, who pitched 22 seasons for five teams, is fifth on the all-time strikeouts list with 3,701 -- behind Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson and Steve Carlton, and ahead of Tom Seaver, Don Sutton, Gaylord Perry, Walter Johnson, Phil Niekro, Ferguson Jenkins and Bob Gibson. All of the Hall-eligible players on that list are already in, except for Clemens and Johnson -- who will both be elected as soon as they're on the ballot -- and Blyleven.
In addition to his impressive strikeout total, the right-handed Dutchman is ninth on the career shutout list with 60. Every other pitcher with 50 or more is in the Hall.
Blyleven also ranks 17th in Runs Saved Above Average (RSAA) -- which Lederer says represents "the number of runs that a pitcher saved his team versus what an average pitcher would have allowed, adjusted for ballpark effects." Blyleven is the only pitcher in the top 20 who is not a member of the Hall of Fame. It's easy to pooh-pooh stats like RSAA. Actually, my first reaction was, "What?" But to pass it off as nothing more than the work of a "cybergeek" would have been irresponsible. So I looked closer -- and agreed.
Simply put, a guy who finishes fifth in career strikeouts, ninth in shutouts and 24th in wins (287) -- as well as 20th in ERA versus the league average (4,000 or more innings pitched) -- deserves my vote. And Blyleven got it.
Although Peek isn't classified as a beat writer, he admits to "watching, reading, and breathing as much of this game as possible." Jeff believes his four-hour drive between Traverse City and Comerica Park is a longer commute than any other member of the BBWAA. "Baseball is my passion -- always has been, always will be. There is not a day when I step into a major league ballpark that I don't say a prayer of thanks for being fortunate enough to do this job."
Jeff agreed to discuss his Hall of Fame ballot with me in a series of email exchanges over the past ten days. I am confident that you will find his comments thoughtful and refreshing.
RL: I see from reading your article that you are voting for Wade Boggs this year.
JP: I think Boggs is an absolute no brainer. But you can bet the house that he won't get 100 percent of the vote.
RL: I put the over/under at 88% in an article I wrote in support of Boggs but, based on some of the early polls, it doesn't look like he is likely to reach that mark.
JP: I'm getting a little tired of people who refuse to vote for certain players because they don't feel they're worthy of "first ballot Hall of Famer" status. I find it amusing how some Hall voters feel they're the "keepers of the gate" and believe it is their duty to keep out the riff-raff -- or at least not let certain players in until they've waited the "proper" number of years. If Boggs is a Hall of Famer next year, he's certainly a Hall of Famer this year.
RL: Are you voting for any of the relief pitchers?
JP: Yes, Goose Gossage. Bruce Sutter and Lee Smith are popular choices, but what sets Gossage apart from them -- much like Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers -- is the number of innings he pitched. In other words, he saved a heck of a lot more runs than the other relievers.
RL: I agree with you. I would rank Gossage over Sutter and Smith as well.
JP: I haven't voted for Sutter or Smith. In the case of Sutter, I know he revolutionzed the split-fingered fastball -- but his career numbers closely parallel those of the late Dan Quisenberry, who was only dominant for a short time and is already off the ballot for lack of support. That kind of made my decision for me. As to Smith, I haven't voted for him despite the fact that he is the major league leader in career saves.
RL: Is there anyone in particular that you would like to highlight from your ballot?
JP: Trammell's lack of voter support bugs me more than any of the others -- much like Blyleven's lack of support stings you -- because I grew up watching him play.
RL: I'm obviously not as passionate about Trammell as I am Blyleven, but I believe that he is a deserving candidate, too.
JP: I think he compares favorably with Ozzie Smith. Trammell was the better hitter, Smith the better fielder -- but the defensive gap is nowhere near the size of the offensive gap. Trammell has a better career average, more hits, more home runs and more RBIs -- and those are supposedly the glamorous stats when it comes to catching a voter's eye. But Ozzie made the Hall on the first ballot and Trammell didn't even get 14 percent of vote last year. It's sick. Trammell wasn't very flashy, and flashy (obviously) sells.
RL: Speaking of Blyleven, I applaud the fact that you are making the switch this year.
JP: As I said last year, I found your research fascinating and very persuasive. To pass it off as nothing more than the work of a "cybergeek" was not only insulting to you and your fellow researchers but irresponsible, in my opinion.
RL: Well, it seems to me that you are more open-minded on this subject than many of the other voters.
JP: Why not use every tool possible when determining who deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame? The argument that "I know a Hall of Famer when I see one" -- then closing the book forever -- is like a juror voting "guilty" when three witnesses have yet to be heard. Our courts didn't always hold DNA evidence in high regard, but it sure has proven to be invaluable over the years. I think we should keep that in mind when weighing baseball evidence, as well.
RL: You're voting for Blyleven this time around but 65% of the voters didn't cast a ballot on his behalf last year. Do you have any idea why your fellow writers don't support his candidacy?
JP: It's the same old argument. If you vote for Blyleven you might as well vote for Tommy John and Jim Kaat, too. I'm guilty of using that reasoning myself last year when I voted for the first time. I decided before I cast my ballot that I would stick with the guys I voted for, every single season, no matter how many years it took. I was prepared to vote for Blyleven, but in the end I worried (wrongly) that one vote actually equalled three. I wanted to be totally sure that the guys I voted for were not only worthy last year, but this year and every year. I made a mistake in not voting for Blyleven, so I fixed it this year. I'm much more comfortable with my ballot this time around.
RL: It sounds like you now can distinguish Blyleven from John and Kaat.
JP: Close inspection of their numbers allows that. Blyleven is better across the board. John and Kaat were both great pitchers and are oh-so-close to being Hall of Famers. Blyleven deserves to be in.
RL: If Candy Cummings made the Hall of Fame as the "inventor" of the curveball, then Blyleven -- if nothing else -- should make it as the "master" of that pitch.
JP: What I remember most about Blyleven was his curveball. I grew up during Blyleven's prime, and that's all I ever heard: Bert Blyleven has the best curveball in baseball. I had an opportunity to spend an hour chatting with former major league pitcher Gene Garber last summer and he said the same thing. I told him I was a Hall of Fame voter and asked his opinon of a few candidates. Of Blyleven he said: "He's a Hall of Famer -- absolutely. Ask any player from my era who had the best curveball in baseball and they'd all answer the same: 'Blyleven.' I can't believe he isn't in already."
RL: Other than Bert's hook, what is the one image that comes to your mind when you think of him?
JP: I know Blyleven had many great years with the Twins, but whenever I picture him, he's with the Pirates -- scruffy beard and wearing one of those late 1970s caps with the horizontal stripes.
RL: Which Blyleven stat impresses you the most?
JP: The strikeouts. It's the only out that a pitcher is solely responsible for, and Blyleven got a lot of them.
RL: What would your response be to those who say, "Blyleven didn't win a Cy Young Award or finish in the top ten often enough."
JP: Whatever. If you use that reasoning, you can kick some great names out of Cooperstown (Bunning, Marichal, Ryan, Sutton, Niekro). Besides, wins, losses, strikeouts. . .they aren't subject to opinion. Cy Young awards are.
RL: How about to those who say, "Blyleven wasn't a dominant pitcher in his era."
JP: I guess it depends on what your definition of "dominant" is. If it's Cy Young awards, no he wasn't. Twenty win seasons? Nope. But a guy who strikes out 3,701 batters? He'd be the "dominant" pitcher on practically every pitching staff in baseball.
RL: Do you think Blyleven will be elected one day?
JP: I think he will. But -- and I hate to say this -- it will have to be in a "down" year when there are few clear-cut candidates. The reason that bugs me so much is, I believe a Hall of Famer is a Hall of Famer, no matter the year. So I'm going to continue to vote for the same guys every year. If Blyleven makes it in during a "down" year, that means other voters don't follow the same logic. That means they've suddently decided Blyleven is a Hall of Famer only because they have no one better to vote for. That reasoning is flawed.
RL: Which pitcher do you think Blyleven is most comparable to?
JP: I think Perry, minus the petroleum jelly.
RL: Has achieving 300 wins become a de facto Hall of Fame standard for starting pitchers?
JP: It has, but I don't think it should be. Those standards are going to eventually change because there just aren't going to be many 300-game winners anymore. With the big contracts of today, no one is going to stick around long enough to do it.
RL: Why do so many writers seem so averse to looking beyond the basic stats (i.e., batting average, number of hits, home runs, runs batted in for hitters; earned run average, number of wins, and saves for pitchers)?
JP: Beats me. Compare the Hall of Fame voting process to a courtroom trial. Would you ignore important evidence that could help solve a case just because it was new or you didn't totally understand it? I hope not. If DNA testing was tossed aside for that reason, there'd still be a lot of criminals running around -- and a lot of innocent people would be sitting in prison. You use what you have. Take advantage of technology, don't turn your back on it.
RL: Do you think voters will ever recognize any of the newer metrics such as Bill James' Win Shares; or OPS+ and Runs Created Above Average for hitters; or ERA+ and Runs Saved Above Average for pitchers?
JP: I hope so, but it will take open minded voters (which, unfortunately, I believe translates to "younger" voters). Too many current voters are under the false assumption that they know a Hall of Famer when they see one -- and that's that.
RL: It would be one thing if Blyleven didn't have the traditional stats to support the more esoteric metrics us "cybergeeks" like to quote. But he does!
JP: I'd like to close by saying, "You know, Rich, I think you've made a good case for Blyleven -- 5th in career strikeouts, 9th in shutouts, 24th in wins. That's one heckuva record. He's got my vote this year." Just like you wrote it!
RL: I appreciate that, Jeff.
JP: Continued good luck on your campaign to get Blyleven into the Hall of Fame. As you've already found, however, there are a lot of closed minds out there.
RL: I realize that it's an uphill climb. But I know of at least one open mind.
JP: Well, keep swinging.
RL: Thanks for your words of encouragement.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]