With the baseball Hall of Fame, one and done truly means that

Following the death of former Baltimore Orioles pitcher Mike Cuellar on Friday, I reviewed his stats and saw he appeared on just one Hall of Fame ballot. Current rules state that any player who receives less than five percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) is dropped from future ballots but can be considered after twenty years of retirement by the Veterans Committee. The one year Cuellar was on the ballot, 1983, he received no votes despite going 185-130 lifetime and winning at least 20 games four times. It may have been a tough year, as a dozen future Hall of Famers were on the ballot, plus several All Stars who have yet to make it including Gil Hodges, Maury Wills and Thurman Munson. Still, I think Cuellar deserved at least a vote.

Other good players besides Cuellar fell off the Hall of Fame ballot after one appearance. After reading a couple of good articles today, which I’ll reference in a minute, I made a list. As should be obvious, most of these players probably are not strong Cooperstown candidates, though I could lobby for a few. More on that momentarily. First, here are some notable One-and-Done players:

  • Bill Buckner (2.1 percent, 1996)
  • Ken Caminiti (0.4 percent, 2007)
  • Jose Canseco (1.1 percent, 2007)
  • Joe Carter (3.8 percent, 2004)
  • Norm Cash (1.6 percent, 1980)
  • Cesar Cedeno (0.5 percent, 1992)
  • Ron Cey (1.9 percent, 1993)
  • Will Clark (4.4 percent, 2006)
  • David Cone (3.9 percent, 2009
  • Cecil Cooper (0 percent, 1993)
  • Mike Cuellar (0 percent, 1983)
  • Darrell Evans (1.7 percent, 1995)
  • Tony Fernandez (0.7 percent, 2007)
  • Kirk Gibson (2.5 percent, 2001)
  • Dwight Gooden (3.3 percent, 2006)
  • Bobby Grich (2.6 percent, 1992)
  • Pedro Guerrero (1.3 percent, 1998)
  • Tom Henke (1.2 percent, 2001)
  • Frank Howard (1.4 percent, 1979)
  • Jimmy Key (0.6 percent , 2004)
  • Carney Lansford (0.6 percent, 1998)
  • Bill Madlock (4.5 percent, 1993)
  • Bobby Murcer (0.7 percent, 1989)
  • Milt Pappas (1.2 percent, 1979)
  • Boog Powell (1.3 percent, 1983)
  • Dan Quisenberry (3.8 percent, 1996)
  • Willie Randolph (1.1 percent, 1998)
  • Rick Reuschel (0.4 percent, 1997)
  • J.R. Richard (1.6 percent, 1986)
  • Bret Saberhagen (1.3 percent, 2007)
  • Ted Simmons (3.7 percent, 1994)
  • Dave Stieb (1.4 percent, 2004)
  • Dizzy Trout (0.5 percent, 1964)
  • Virgil Trucks (2 percent, 1964)
  • Bob Welch (0.2 percent, 2000)
  • Lou Whitaker (2.9 percent, 2001)
  • Frank White (3.8 percent, 1996)

There are many more I could list.

Looking over the names, I think two are destined for Cooperstown: Simmons and Whitaker. Both were mentioned in a Joe Posnanski piece for SI.com in December, detailing notable one-and-done players. Posnanski wrote about how Whitaker’s number one competitor at second base from his era, Ryne Sandberg, easily made the Hall of Fame; he also noted that Bill James ranked Simmons in the New Historical Abstract as the tenth best catcher of all-time. I’ve read a couple stories over the last year or two that suggest Whitaker got shorted by the writers, while the Times piece said other great catchers in Simmons’s era overshadowed him. The Veterans Committee exists to select players overlooked by the writers, and I think Whitaker and Simmons both fall into this category, strongly.

I could also make cases for Clark, Grich, Gooden, Madlock and Saberhagen, though I don’t think they’ll get into Cooperstown. Before I spell out why that is, let me offer credentials for each player, briefly. A 2008 New York Times piece makes a pitch for Grich, a power-hitting second baseman who also won four Gold Gloves. Clark and Madlock were among the best pure hitters of their respective generations with each man hitting over .300 lifetime with more than 2,000 hits; as the Times piece noted, Madlock also is the only non-Hall of Famer to win four batting titles.

Meanwhile, Saberhagen went 167-117 lifetime, won two Cy Young awards, and has the third-best career WHIP, 1.1406, among modern-era pitchers not in the Hall of Fame, not counting four active players. And I think Gooden would be a Hall of Famer had his career derailed due to injuries, like Dizzy Dean or Sandy Koufax, rather than cocaine abuse, or if he’d been like Rube Waddell and made people laugh while destroying his life. As it stands, Gooden has more career wins than any of those three.

I ranked Gooden last May among the ten best players not in the Hall of Fame and wrote a post in November predicting Grich would be among ten future Veterans Committee picks. However, they and most of the men named above have slim chances, at best. Since 1980, the Veterans Committee has enshrined 23 former big league players. Three of the honorees played before the modern era and never appeared on any writers ballots, seemingly forgotten by history. However, out of the remaining 20 honorees, all but two appeared on at least ten writer ballots. Seven men exhausted their fifteen years of eligibility.

The knock on the Veterans Committee has long been that it rewards cronies. However, looking over the players it tabbed in the past three decades, many fell just shy of being elected by the writers, including Nellie Fox and Jim Bunning who came within one percent of the 75 percent of votes needed for enshrinement. All of these players were thoroughly vetted by the writers, and this gave them time, I think, to build their future cases with the Veterans Committee.

Interestingly, ten of the Veterans Committee picks since 1980 received less than five percent of the writer vote their first time on the ballot after they retired. These men are:

  • Richie Ashburn
  • Bobby Doerr
  • Rick Ferrell
  • Joe Gordon
  • Travis Jackson
  • Chuck Klein
  • Tony Lazzeri
  • Ernie Lombardi
  • Hal Newhouser
  • Arky Vaughan

Due to Hall of Fame rules at the respective times, each man was allowed to remain on future ballots. In fact, eight of them went on to appear at least eleven times before their eventual recognition by the Veterans Committee. The one-and-dones could only wish these rules were still in effect. It’s better than the stretch in the mid-1990s to 2001 when any player with less than five percent of the vote was ruled permanently ineligible, before this was reversed. Still, I don’t think it’s better by much.

Mike Cuellar: A Hall of Famer in a different universe

I saw that former Baltimore Orioles pitcher Mike Cuellar died Friday at 72 and felt motivated to look at his career numbers once again. What I saw surprised me. Cuellar didn’t have a full season in the major leagues until he was 29. In spite of this, he still proceeded to go 185-130 lifetime, winning at least 20 games four times and sharing the 1969 American League Cy Young Award with Denny McLain. His WHIP* of 1.1966 is better than Hall of Fame pitchers Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton and Dizzy Dean, and in some parallel universe, I like to think Cuellar had a full career and is in Cooperstown too.

Cuellar falls into an interesting category, pitchers who didn’t get started until later in life. I know about a few of the success stories, including two I consider among the best left-handed pitchers of all-time, Randy Johnson and Warren Spahn, as well as Dazzy Vance and even Curt Schilling who looked like a lost cause his first four years in the majors until he hit his stride at 25 with the Philadelphia Phillies (there’s a great Sports Illustrated story about Orioles manager Frank Robinson meeting with a young punk version of Schilling, years before his emergence with the Phillies and asking him, “What’s wrong with you son?”)

Aside from the well-known success tales, what I would be interested to know is how many other pitchers like Cuellar could have been Hall of Fame-worthy with even two or three more solid seasons. Cuellar’s win total is close to Jim Bunning, Rube Waddell and Vance, and he has more victories than Dean or Sandy Koufax. I’m sure there are others like him.

Cuellar has close to identical lifetime numbers to one of his teammates, Dave McNally, and interestingly, the two have inverse career trajectories. While Cuellar was just getting started at 32, McNally’s career ended ingloriously at that age, the same year he and another pitcher, Andy Messersmith, helped end the reserve clause in baseball by insisting on their right to free agency. All things considered, Cuellar and McNally are probably somewhere near who I consider to be the best players not in the Hall of Fame.


*This marks the first time I’ve referred to WHIP in this blog. Until tonight I wasn’t even sure what it meant, but I learned it’s a metric measuring walks plus hits per inning pitched. That sounds like a decent statistic, even if it’s deceptive for a guy like Carlton, the master of throwing a 12-hit shutout. No amount of statistical nonsense would inspire me to take Cuellar over him.

I could write a post about how I get annoyed reading baseball writing that uses a bunch of stats to make a point as I think obscure metrics are often used today in place of logic without adequate explanation for unsophisticated readers. I prefer a strong narrative to a shitload of metrics. Still, using them seems equivalent to reading Harry Potter: Everybody’s doing it so I might as well too. Come to think of it, I really should read those books at some point.