Of the thirty-five men who made the ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame, six played for the St. Louis Cardinals. And all did for at least a season, at that–there are no John Smoltz scenarios here where you have to squint to the find the Cardinals tenure on his Baseball Reference page. And while first-timers Mariano Rivera and Roy Halladay, as well as inner-circle talents Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, will rightfully received the preponderance of attention, this is a Cardinals blog, and I feel like writing some words about the Cardinals.
The case: No player since Babe Ruth had transitioned so successfully from MLB pitcher to MLB hitter. Obviously, Ankiel was no Ruth by talent, but he was an electrifying young pitcher for the Cardinals before a years-long transformation into a serviceable MLB outfielder. Play Index doesn’t allow me to search for guys who could hit 100 on a radar gun while also hitting 25 home runs in a season in his career, but the list is assuredly low. It may stand at one.
The comp: Rick Ankiel isn’t Babe Ruth, but he isn’t Brooks Kieschnick either. He also isn’t Shohei Ohtani, as Ankiel didn’t have the two facets of his career simultaneously. The only way one could make a case for Ankiel is his uniqueness–he wasn’t close to good enough as an outfielder, and while he showed legitimate superstar promise early in his career as a pitcher, this lasted far too briefly to extrapolate much beyond what we actually saw.
The verdict: Rick Ankiel will get zero Hall of Fame votes. If somehow he did make it to Cooperstown, he would be the worst player in it by Wins Above Replacement, with only one player (Tommy McCarthy) with less than double Ankiel’s career mark. That Ankiel was primarily a Cardinal, both by workload and production, and hasn’t so much as made the ballot for the team‘s Hall of Fame says all you need to know about how serious of a candidate Rick Ankiel is.
The case: Mostly a Houston Astros star, Berkman spent two memorable seasons (well, one memorable season and an additional season) in St. Louis late in his career, having a resurgent, All-Star season for the Cardinals in 2011. It marked the sixth time that Berkman cracked the top ten in National League MVP voting. On the whole, Berkman was a 52.1 WAR (by Baseball Reference, which I prefer in viewing Hall of Fame cases because it is the more popular version and thus I suspect more relevant in predicting perceptions from others) player and was a six-time All-Star. More than anything, Berkman was a paragon of consistency–in his nine full seasons in Houston, Berkman’s worst season was worth 3.3 WAR.
The comp: Berkman falls somewhere between two other former Cardinals–Dick Allen and Matt Holliday. He was a slightly worse hitter than Allen and a slightly better one than Holliday. Berkman didn’t play a premium defensive position (except for in 2002, when he played center field, albeit poorly) and was at best passable in the field. His value came at the plate.
The verdict: Dick Allen has a better Hall of Fame case than Lance Berkman, and he topped out at 18.9% of votes received. I suspect Berkman will receive some votes, but not close to enough to make it to Cooperstown. And I agree with that verdict–while I tend to be a “Big Hall” guy, we don’t need to put every good-not-elite hitter with little defensive value in it. Unless they played in Boston.
The case: Oliver didn’t have much of a peak, but he did transition from intermittently successful starting pitcher to good left-handed reliever, and the ease with which John Smoltz was elected compared to many of his peers suggests that Hall of Fame voters regard being a successful starter and reliever as something akin to versatility. While Oliver is probably best remembered by Cardinals fans for allowing two hits in the bottom of the tenth inning in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, to Daniel Descalso and Jon Jay, he was arguably the team’s best starting pitcher in 1999, his only full season in St. Louis (he was acquired from the Texas Rangers in 1998).
The comp: Darren Oliver’s top similar player on Baseball Reference is strikingly similar. This is a slightly older player who also played briefly with the Cardinals, who also started as a lefty starter before moving to the bullpen, who posted just a smidge more WAR for his long career. That player is Jeff Fassero, who didn’t make the Hall of Fame ballot, despite having pretty easily the best season between the two (1996, when Fassero received Cy Young votes).
The verdict: Although he is the better player by WAR, Darren Oliver may have even less of a Hall of Fame case than Rick Ankiel. He was never an All-Star and at no point captured the imagination of the general public.
The case: Polanco, for a variety of reasons, never quite got the respect he deserved for being a really solid Major League Baseball player. A multi-purpose infielder who played primarily at second and third base, Polanco also played shortstop for the Cardinals, where he spent parts of his first five seasons. Placido Polanco was a two-time All-Star, a Silver Slugger and ALCS MVP winner, and once he moved full time to third base, he was one of the sport’s top fielders at it, winning three Gold Gloves in five seasons in his age 31, 33, and 35 seaseons.
The comp: Although they came about it in slightly different ways, with Polanco being the superior fielder and inferior hitter, Polanco was similarly valuable to fellow Tony LaRussa toolsy infielder Carney Lansford. Lansford received 0.6% of votes in his first and only occasion on the ballot.
The verdict: I think Polanco would probably be lucky to get any votes. Yes, Lansford got one, but he also had more obvious offensive numbers and wasn’t on as loaded of a ballot as the ones we’ve seen in the 2010s.
The case: The Cardinals acquired two months of Scott Rolen for Mike Timlin, Bud Smith, and fellow Hall of Fame ballot participant Placido Polanco. That may seem like a lot, but nobody really complains about this one, because Scott Rolen was definitively the best player in this trade. Rolen was conservatively a top ten, probably a top five, defensive third baseman of all-time, and was well above-average offensively. The seven-time All-Star and eight-time Gold Glove winner received 10.2% of votes last year.
The comp: Separated from Rolen by 0.3 WAR and 3 points of OPS+, Chicago Cubs legend Ron Santo is an apt comparison. Like Rolen, Santo received somewhat limited support in his early years of Hall of Fame consideration. Sadly, Ron Santo did not live to see his Hall of Fame induction–after receiving no more than 43.1% of votes in his lifetime, he was elected posthumously in 2012.
The verdict: Another good player comparison to Ron Santo is Graig Nettles, a similarly good-bat-great-glove third baseman (who himself got the benefit of being a prominent player on multiple New York Yankees World Series champions). Nettles topped out at 8.3% in his four years on the ballot before dropping off. Scott Rolen deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, but for whatever reason, Cooperstown has an abnormally high threshold for third basemen. Rolen won’t make it, though I am hopeful that he will receive more votes than in 2018–a slightly less logjammed ballot should help Rolen, who will likely receive most of his support from people who use their entire ten-person ballot.
The case: Of the 35 players on the ballot, Larry Walker ranks fifth in WAR, seventh in WAR7 (combined WAR for the player’s seven best seasons), and his JAWS score, a hybrid of WAR and WAR7, figures that he would be an above-average Hall of Famer among corner outfielders currently in Cooperstown. He won an MVP award, three batting titles, was a five-time All-Star, and won seven Gold Gloves, coming to his highest prominence with the Colorado Rockies before capping his career with a year-plus in St. Louis.
The comp: This is not my favorite comparison, but I will compare Larry Walker with a player listed in his most comparable batters. This player was worth 13.3 WAR fewer and was a slightly worse hitter by OPS+, while not being nearly the fielder that Walker was (this player won zero Gold Gloves and was a minus defender for his career). This player is Vladimir Guerrero, who received 92.9% of the vote when he was elected to the Hall of Fame last year. Larry Walker received 34.1% of the vote.
The verdict: Last year was Larry Walker’s eighth year on the Hall of Fame ballot, and thus he will only be eligible for two more elections. While he jumped 12.2% from Year Seven to Year Eight, he needs a massive 40.9% leap to make it, and I don’t think he has it this year. But he may have a chance in 2020. Tim Raines recently benefited from the final year bump, and Edgar Martinez figures to do so this year–I suspect many of the Martinez voters will, whether Martinez makes it or not, defect to Team Larry Walker next season. Larry Walker deserves it. He should be in the Hall of Fame.