It's December, which means that it's the most wonderful time of the year: Hall of Fame season. No joke, this is actually probably my favorite time to write about baseball, at least based on the number of ideas I always seem to come up with around now each year. And in that fine tradition, I again have a whole bunch of ideas lined up; hopefully I'll get through all of them. For the time being, let's start with the one most relevant to this week, the Veterans Committee results.
Let's just clear something up right now before going any further: despite their recent reforms to the process, the Veterans Committee has a whole bunch of issues still. Most notably, the math of the group doesn’t work out. You know how everyone always gives the BBWAA ballot a hard time for being structured in a way that forces voters to leave off players that they think are deserving? The Veterans Committee is that on steroids (pun intended).
For those who don’t know, the committee right now is 16 people, 12 of whom have to support a player in order to induct them. They each get a ballot of 10 names, and can name up to 4 names. That means there are up to 64 votes going around, so up to 5 names can make the cut (64/12=5 remainder 4). But that’s assuming voters are allocated to get everyone to only 12 votes; in real life, the VC still has unanimous inductees, like John Schuerholz this year. One unanimous choice immediately cuts our pool of votes down to 48, so that’s all of our “remainder” ballots. Hopefully everyone is in total agreement over the other four names that merit induction, or else we have no chance at maximizing inductees.
And in real life, we can get more than one unanimous choice. It almost happened this year, with Bud Selig falling a vote short. Two unanimous choices leave the other eight candidates to fight over 32 votes, making it hard for anyone to build up a following, and impossible for more than two more inductees to make it. We’ve even had three unanimous choices as recently as 2014! (Tony La Russa, Joe Torre, and Bobby Cox, all of whom I think we can agree were more than deserving). You can clearly run out of spaces very quickly.
You’ll note that all of those names aren’t players, which makes sense. The names going on a Veterans Committee ballot couldn’t make it on the BBWAA ballot, so they probably won’t get a unanimous vote here. Meanwhile, all executives and managers are inducted exclusively here, from the best of the best to the ones that people will look at in ten years and ask “who?”. Those best-of-the-best types, though, will always be picking up votes first and squeezing the players out, which seems to defeat the entire purpose of the VC.
But I’d argue this year that it went even further; even the managers were getting squeezed out of ballot slots. Because this year's "executive" category was like that "La Russa/Cox/Torre" manager class from 2014. John Schuerholz was unanimous for a reason; he played a major role in building the 1980s Royals, a powerhouse of a system, and then went on to build the 1990s Braves, who you may have heard had a couple of playoff appearances.
And then there’s Bud Selig. I think Craig Calcaterra lays out a pretty good case for why he didn’t deserve induction, and I think that I wouldn’t have voted for him if I had a say, since it was such a crowded ballot. Of course, I also probably wouldn’t have gotten a ballot with that stance, but let’s ignore that for a minute. Just speaking objectively, Selig was getting inducted. Baseball commissioners have been pretty…not great, overall, so he’s at the very least near the top of the rankings in that category. And the Hall has made it clear that they’ll vote for any commissioner with a moderate-length tenure or more; they even inducted Bowie Kuhn, who’s most notable achievement was getting steamrolled as he tried to hold back the advancing tide of free agency. There was no way Selig wasn’t getting in, and probably with more than the minimum twelve votes.
As mentioned, that leaves us ~32 votes to play around with, and we haven’t even discussed anyone with hard stats (we also haven’t discussed owner George Steinbrenner, who was a much weaker candidate than Selig or Schuerholz, but had a decent case all the same). Manager stats aren’t anywhere near as comprehensive or accurate a view as player stats, but we can at least look at wins, championships, playoff titles, awards, winning percentage, and so on. So now we’re left trying to compare not just Lou Piniella to Davey Johnson or Mark McGwire to Will Clark, Albert Belle, Orel Hershiser, and Harold Baines, but all of those against each other (with Steinbrenner still in the mix). That is a very diverse group that can make it hard to pick stand-outs. How do you allocate those ~32 votes left among such a group?
So that’s why I think Piniella and Johnson saw almost shockingly-low levels of support. On my ideal ballot, I think I would have included both of them, plus McGwire (who I’ve written about in the past in a Hall of Fame context) and Schuerholz, with Selig on the outside looking in.
I don’t think I need to defend Schueholz’s candidacy, nor do I feel like rehashing yet again why I support Mark McGwire for Cooperstown (he’s a yearly fixture on my “50 Best Players Not in the Hall of Fame” lists, if you want a starting place of where to look for those), so I might as well hash out my cases for the managers.
Let’s just get this out of the way right off the bat: no, neither of them are on the level of Joe Torre or Bobby Cox or Tony La Russa. But, much like the Hall of Fame standard for the players isn’t Willie Mays or Babe Ruth, those three are not the standard for Hall of Fame standard for managers. For example, every manager with 2000 career wins is in the Hall, but that set only represents half of the 22 inductees. Every manager with three or more World Series titles is in, but that’s only nine individuals; meanwhile, eight only managed their way to a single title in their careers.
Basically, this is even more fluid than electing players. There are some automatic figures, but also a lot of subjective arguments. So let’s start with Davey Johnson, because I think he has the stronger objective arguments.
Johnson managed the 1986 Mets to a World Series, and generally speaking, the only hard and fast requirement for managers so far seems to be that they must have one championship, so we’ve got that out of the way. Additionally, Davey Johnson is the most games over .500 for any manager in history to not be in Cooperstown. At a .562 winning percentage, he’s 301 games over; the other 18 names with 279 or more are all in the Hall, although some of them are inducted more for their times as players or executives. Still, it’s a strong argument.
Coincidentally, the second highest games over .500 mark for a non-inducted manager is Billy Martin, and I think both should be in for similar reasons. Not only were they successful, their success seemed to follow them. Martin is best known for his time with the Yankees, but he managed in a lot of other places too. The Twins went from 79 wins in 1969 to 97 and an ALCS appearance the following year when he took over. He left after that season, and the Twins would post one more similar season before returning to mediocrity. Same with the Tigers, who jumped up 12 games when he joined in 1971 and fell 13 when he left. The Rangers were similar as well. We’ll never be able to run seasons twice with different managers as controls, but seeing him win across so many teams, with several of them sliding back when he left…maybe it’s not a definite sign that he was skilled as a manager, but that sounds like what we would be looking for if we wanted to make that argument.
Johnson seems the same. The Mets won 90 games in his first season after seven straight of under 70. The year after he left, they fell back to 77 wins after winning 87 or more every year he was there. The Reds went from fifth place to two straight first place finishes with winning percentages of .579 and .590 with him, and right back to third place and a .500 finish without him. The Orioles’ only playoff appearances, not to mention winning seasons, between 1994 and 2012 came with him at the helm. The Nationals had their first good season in Washington under his watch, a 98-win season which they haven’t matched even going back to their Montreal days, and which broke them out of a decade and a half of mediocrity. Like I said about Martin: after a certain point, winning in so many circumstances, while others can’t quite measure up to your success…that all seems to indicate that there was something special about that manager, even if we can’t quite quantify it yet.
And then, there’s Lou Piniella. Again, he had a single title to his name, meaning he meets that requirement. He didn’t quite get to 2000 wins, but he got close at 1835. The only manager with more wins than him and no plaque in Cooperstown is Gene Mauch…but that’s not really a great comparison. Mauch had a losing record with a career .483 winning percentage (to Piniella’s .517), and for as much as people make at time’s about his lack of postseason success given the strength of his teams, at least Lou has a title, unlike Mauch. And even if it isn’t as good as a title, I think Piniella deserves some extra credit for his miraculous 116-win season with the 2001 Mariners.
Actually, let’s look at those Mariners more closely for a second. I feel like he gets grief for not winning more with them. After all, look at all the great players they had: Ken Griffey, Jr.! Alex Rodriguez! Randy Johnson! Ichiro Suzuki! Edgar Martinez! And so on. How do you not win with talent like that?
Well, I think it is worth mentioning a couple of things. First, even with the lack of a title, it’s the most postseason success Seattle has ever seen. No non-Piniella manager has ever taken the Mariners to the postseason, let alone three ALCS matchups.
But more importantly, those teams weren't quite as good as memory would lead us to believe. Let’s set aside the four years where Seattle made the postseason and lost, as I think chance plays a little bit too big a role in the playoffs to definitively say that all of those failures are Piniella’s fault. But what about the other six years?*
*For those wondering, that would be 1993, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2002, and 1994, when there were no playoffs but the Mariners weren’t positioned to make them had there been. Although it’s also worth pointing out that not all of those were bad years. Most notably, they won 93 games in 2002 but still missed the playoffs, as the 103-win A’s and 99-win Angels finished ahead of them. In another division, the Mariners probably make it a fifth time.
Well...the short story is that, even with all those big names, the Mariners weren’t as deep as you’d remember. They weren’t super teams, despite the star power, as the stars didn’t perfectly overlap. A-Rod didn’t debut until 1996, and Ichiro didn’t debut until 2001. Griffey left after 1999. Edgar Martinez missed most of 1993 and 1994 with injuries. Jay Buhner probably wasn’t as good as you remember. It was good, but also not exactly Murderer’s Row.
On top of that, the rotation was frequently shaky after Johnson, which was devastating when he was injured in 1996 and left Sterling Hitchcock as the staff ace (at least until they finally picked up Jamie Moyer at the deadline). A lot of the rotations looked like this year’s Orioles, and let me tell you, that was not a fun rotation to watch. Without the bullpen, things would have been even worse…speaking of which, Piniella wasn’t working with a relief corps nearly as good as Buck Showalter. Results varied from “okay” to “very much not okay” The Mariners finally sorted the rotation issues out towards the end…after Johnson, Rodriguez, and Griffey had all left and as Buhner was wrapping up his career. Nothing seemed to line up exactly like they needed it to.
How much of that lack of depth is Piniella’s fault? Maybe some of it, but it’s not enough for me to think his tenure in Seattle was a disappointment in the end. He wasn’t a guy squandering superteams, he was just a guy doing pretty decently with very top-heavy rosters. And in the end, he’s still the most successful skipper the team has ever seen, even if they didn’t win him a second trophy.
Anyway, this piece has gone on for much longer than I anticipated, so I should probably start wrapping things up. In the end, until the Hall of Fame decides to change up the process by which the Veterans Committee functions (yet again), we’ll probably be stuck seeing manager- and executive-heavy classes of inductees and not many players, which is a shame. And until they remove the per-ballot vote cap, we’re going to continue to see deserving candidates like McGwire and Piniella and Johnson squeezed out in favor of higher-profile candidates. Considering that the VC was intended to help exactly those sorts of cases, this seems like a massive design flaw.