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Barry Larkin was elected to the Hall of Fame in his second year on the ballot.
Truth be told, there were only a handful of difficult choices this time around: A few first-timers who were borderline candidates and a couple of near-misses from last year who deserved a second look.
In the end, I drew the same conclusions from a year ago. The guys I voted for in 2011 who remained on the ballot got my vote again. The guys who came up short last time came up short again. And none of the new guys under consideration reached the high standard of excellence it takes to merit a check mark next to his name.
Simple? No, it's never simple to hold an official ballot in your hand and make your selections. But it certainly was easier the second time around, though I suspect much of that had to do with the lack of controversial candidates on the 2012 ballot (as opposed to that once-in-a-generation group that will join the conversation in 2013).
Before I run through my ballot, a quick refresher course on how this process works...
-- There were 27 players on this year's ballot: 14 holdovers who received at least 5 percent of the vote in 2011 and have been eligible less than 15 years, and 13 first-time nominees who played at least 10 seasons in the majors and have been retired for five years.
-- You may vote for as many as 10 players per year, but you don't have to vote for any.
-- Voters, as always, are instructed to make their decisions on six criteria, and I quote directly from the official ballot's instructions: "the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played."
-- Any player who receives at least 75 percent of the vote is enshrined in Cooperstown.
OK, here we go...
JEFF BAGWELL -- YES
I didn't hesitate to vote for him last year, and I didn't hesitate to vote for him again this year. Bagwell, without question, was one of the very best players during his era and ranks right there among the greatest first basemen of all-time: 449 homers, 1,529 RBI, a .297 career average, a .408 career on-base percentage and a stellar .948 career OPS that ranks 21st in the history of baseball (and third among all first basemen who played during his time, behind only Todd Helton and Mark McGwire). He won the 1994 NL MVP and finished in the top three on two other occasions. He stole more bases (202) than any regular first baseman who has played since the 1930s. He ranks second all-time in assists by a first baseman. So how come "Bag Pipes" received less than 42 percent of the vote last year? I suppose it's because there are plenty who suspect he used performance enhancing drugs. Problem is, there has never been a shred of any evidence against Bagwell, nor has there even been a single formal accusation levied against him. He's simply a player who looks like he might have taken steroids and became a great power hitter after slugging only six total home runs in his minor-league career. Now, I won't vote for guys who either admitted taking PEDs or have been proven to have done it (more on that in a bit). But, sorry, I can't keep an otherwise slam-dunk candidate out based solely on suspicion. (Perhaps others are beginning to feel the same way, because Bagwell's vote went up to 56 percent this year.)
JEROMY BURNITZ -- NO
To his credit, Burnitz did have four really good seasons with the Brewers and one more with the Rockies. But come on, he hit .253 in his career, and his .826 OPS was matched by Dmitri Young. That's not exactly Cooperstown material.
VINNY CASTILLA -- NO
The man who launched the first home run at RFK Stadium upon baseball's return in 2005 and nearly hit for the cycle that night was a two-time All-Star, three-time Silver Slugger Award winner and had perhaps the greatest laugh in the history of the sport. He also owned a .797 OPS that made Burnitz look like an all-time great.
JUAN GONZALEZ -- NO
On the surface, "Juan Gone" appears to have Cooperstown-worthy credentials: two MVP awards, two home run titles, a .295 career average and a .904 OPS. But when you start comparing him to his contemporaries, those numbers look far less impressive. During his peak from 1991-2001, Gonzalez ranked 35th among all qualifying players in batting average and 21st in OPS. Had he put up his numbers in another era, he might well have been a Hall of Famer. But in his era, Gonzalez was merely another very good (but not great) hitter, which is why he will no longer be on the ballot after receiving only 4 percent of the vote this year.
BRIAN JORDAN -- NO
He would make the two-sport Hall of Fame, along with Deion Sanders. But Jordan never really took off as a baseball player and his career didn't last very long; he managed to play 100 or more games only seven times.
BARRY LARKIN -- YES
He deserved to go in when he first cracked the ballot two years, but he was named on only 51.6 percent of ballots. That number jumped up to 62.1 percent last year, putting him on the doorstep. And now this year, my colleagues got it right and recognized Larkin for what he was: truly one of the best all-around shortstops in baseball history (he easily earned election with 86.4 percent of the vote). Over a stellar career, he earned 11 All-Star berths (impressive considering he was up against Ozzie Smith for much of that time), won three Gold Gloves and nine Silver Sluggers. Among all qualifying shortstops who have ever played the game, Larkin ranked ninth in homers, 12th in RBI, 12th in batting average, ninth in OPS and ninth in stolen bases. And here's one for you: Among all qualifying shortstops who played during his peak (1987-2000), only Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter posted a higher OPS. Congratulations to one of the nicest and down-to-earth star players I've ever encountered on his well-deserved enshrinement in Cooperstown.
JAVY LOPEZ -- NO
He was one of the better offensive catchers in the game during the late 1990s and early 2000s, but the numbers (aside from his 43-homer campaign in 2003) weren't out-of-this world. Plus, he contributed very little behind the plate. When Greg Maddux insists on pitching to his own personal catcher instead of you ... well, that pretty much says it all.
EDGAR MARTINEZ -- NO
This was the one I agonized over the most this year. I was close to voting for Martinez last time, and I vowed to give him another thorough examination this time. And the conclusion I drew was this: Edgar was a fantastic offensive player ... for eight seasons, not quite enough to get him over the hump. He didn't enjoy his first truly great season until he was 29 (when he won the first of his AL two batting titles) and there just weren't enough prime years left for him to amass the career stats you'd like to see out of a Hall of Famer. And then there was the DH factor. I'm not opposed to putting a DH in Cooperstown, but the guy I vote for is going to have to own overwhelming offensive numbers to offset the fact he never played in the field. Martinez falls just short in my mind, but I certainly intend to give him another close look next year.
DON MATTINGLY -- NO
For a stretch of six years in the late 1980s, there was no better all-around player in baseball. From 1984-89, he posted a .910 OPS (second in the majors only to Wade Boggs). And then, it all fell apart. From 1990-95, Mattingly's OPS plummeted to .750 (45th among all qualifying batters, behind Jay Bell).
FRED McGRIFF -- NO
Had he played in a previous era, McGriff's numbers (493 homers, 1,550 RBI, .509 slugging percentage) surely would have put him through the door in Cooperstown. But when you compare to his contemporaries, those numbers don't stand out at all. Among all players with at least 3,000 plate appearances during his career, McGriff ranked 31st in slugging (behind Ryan Klesko and Shawn Green) and 29th in OPS.
MARK McGWIRE -- NO
Let's start with what should be an obvious point: Based purely on his playing performance, McGwire is a slam-dunk Hall of Famer. His credentials are impeccable, and his impact on the game was second-to-none. But the Hall and the BBWAA make it quite clear in their instructions that we aren't selecting players strictly on the merits of their on-field performance. Three of those six criteria are "integrity, sportsmanship and character." I'm sorry, but I just don't see how anyone who took performance enhancing drugs can claim to have played the game with integrity, sportsmanship and character. And McGwire has publicly admitted he took PEDs. After much soul-searching and after seeking the opinions of dozens of other voters, plus current and former players and managers, I decided I won't vote for anyone who has either acknowledged taking PEDs during their career or has otherwise been proven to have taken them. I'll reconsider that position every year moving forward, and I may ultimately change my mind once we learn more about who took what and what effect it truly had on their performances. But for now, this is the best solution I've come up with for a dilemma that has no correct answer.
JACK MORRIS -- NO
The argument for Morris is strong. He won more games than any other pitcher in the 1980s. He was the ace of three different World Series champions. He pitched perhaps the greatest game in World Series history. But the argument against Morris is even stronger. Yes, he had the most wins in baseball in the '80s. But he also had the third-most losses. And then there's that career 3.90 ERA, which would be the highest mark among any pitcher in the Hall of Fame (not to mention was worse than the MLB average during nine of his 17 full seasons). There were 49 major-league starters who amassed more than 2,000 innings between 1977-94. Morris' 3.90 ERA ranked 41st out of those 49 starters (worse than Rick Reuschel and Charlie Hough). Sorry, Jack. That's just not going to cut it, though more voters are beginning to jump on his bandwagon, bringing his total up to 66.7 percent this year. He's got two more years of eligibility.
BILL MUELLER -- NO
Well, he did win the 2003 AL batting title with the Red Sox. And accomplished very little else of consequence during his 11 big-league seasons.
TERRY MULHOLLAND -- NO
No matter how ludicrous some of these candidates' chances are, I always try to find one morsel of evidence that at least justifies every player's existence on the ballot. But it's tough to find one for Mulholland, whose career numbers included a 124-142 record, a 4.41 ERA and one full season with a sub-3.00 ERA (1998, when he was a middle reliever for the Cubs).
DALE MURPHY -- NO
Yes, Murphy was one of the best players of the 1980s, winning two NL MVP awards, five Gold Gloves and four Silver Sluggers. But his career essentially ended at age 32, after which he never again hit better than .252 or slugged more than 24 homers. And when stacked up against the other players of his era, his stats don't even look that great. Among all qualifying batters who played from 1978-91, Murphy ranked 26th in slugging percentage (behind Mike Greenwell and Leon Durham) and ranked 28th in OPS (behind Alvin Davis).
PHIL NEVIN -- NO
What's the first thing you think of when someone mentions Nevin? That he was the No. 1 pick in the country in the 1992 draft (five spots ahead of Derek Jeter) and never came close to reaching his potential. When that's the first thing you're remembered for, you're not Hall of Fame material.
RAFAEL PALMEIRO -- NO
Like McGwire, Palmeiro absolutely has the baseball resume -- 3,000 hits, 500 homers -- to warrant a plaque in Cooperstown. But he famously blew his shot at induction when he wagged his index finger at Congress and swore he had never taken steroids ... then tested positive a few months later. Raffy has always maintained his innocence, but he's yet to publicly offer a compelling explanation for the failed drug test. And unless he ever does -- or unless I change my mind about confirmed PED users -- he won't be getting my vote.
BRAD RADKE -- NO
Radke was a solid pitcher for several years who helped lead the Twins to the postseason ... while owning a career 4.22 ERA.
TIM RAINES -- YES
Is there a more under-appreciated player in baseball history? Perhaps not. In his first five years on the ballot, Raines never received more than 37.5 percent of the vote. I can't think of one legitimate reason to keep the guy out. He was, quite simply, the second-best leadoff hitter of all-time behind Rickey Henderson. Raines was a seven-time All-Star who won a batting title, an OBP title, a doubles title, a runs scored title and four stolen base titles. About those stolen bases ... he ranks fifth all-time with 808 swipes, but most impressively he was successful on a whopping 85 percent of his attempts. Do you know how good that is? It's four points better than the 81 percent career rates posted by Henderson, Ty Cobb and Vince Coleman, and it's 10 whole points better than Lou Brock's 75 percent career rate. But wait, there's more! Raines reached base 3,977 times, 38th-most in baseball history and more times than Tony Gwynn reached base. Yes, Tim Raines reached base more times than Tony Gwynn. It's high time for this guy to get serious consideration for enshrinement, and perhaps the momentum is swinging in Raines' direction. His vote total went up to 48.7 percent this year.
TIM SALMON -- NO
A very nice, consistent slugger who anchored a good Angels lineup for many years. No shame in that.
RUBEN SIERRA -- NO
As much as you think of Sierra as a feared hitter for a lot of years, the numbers don't entirely support it. His best years came from 1987-94 with the Rangers and A's, during which time he posted a .779 OPS. That's worse than Darren Daulton over the same span.
LEE SMITH -- NO
Smith is the last remaining closer of the 1980s who has kept himself on the ballot but has yet to reach the 75 percent threshold. There's a reason for that. Though he once held the all-time saves record with 478 and now ranks third behind only Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, Smith wasn't nearly as effective closing out games as those other guys were. Rivera and Hoffman each successfully converted 89 percent of their save opportunities. Smith converted only 82 percent of his save opportunities, 15th among the top 25 save leaders in history, behind Jose Mesa and Armando Benitez. Rivera and Hoffman, by the way, each had 89 percent save percentages, tops among those 25 great closers. Which is why I won't hesitate to vote for both guys when they debut on the ballot in future years.
ALAN TRAMMELL -- NO
There are a lot of passionate Trammell supporters out there, so I vowed to give the old Tigers shortstop another close look this year. In the end, I came to the same conclusion: He falls just short of the Hall of Fame in my mind. From 1978-91, Trammell ranked 47th in the majors in batting average (behind Johnny Ray and Steve Sax), 58th in OBP (behind Bill Doran and Rance Mulliniks) and 98th in slugging (behind Von Hayes and Roy Smalley). Among all shortstops in big-league history, he ranks a solid 12th in homers and 11th in RBI but only 26th in batting average and 31st in slugging percentage. Trammell backers say he stacks up favorably to Larkin. I say he falls one notch below Larkin, and that's the notch between a Hall of Famer and just a really good ballplayer.
LARRY WALKER -- YES
Along with Raines, I have a feeling Walker is going to become my pet project over the years. He received a disappointing 20.3 percent of the vote last year (his first on the ballot) and he went up only to 22.9 percent this year. I just don't understand why that number wasn't higher. Actually, I do: Because the vast majority of voters believe his numbers were inflated by the thin air at Coors Field. And indeed, Walker's career stats at Coors were outrageous: a .381 average, .462 OBP and .710 slugging percentage. But I've got multiple compelling arguments against that. First, why is it OK to penalize a guy who played a lot of games at Coors Field but not those who benefited from Fenway Park's cozy dimensions or Yankee Stadium's short porch in right field? Or even better, how come no one ever penalizes pitchers who had the good fortune to spend much of their careers in baseball's most cavernous ballparks? Do you know what Sandy Koufax's career ERA was at Dodger Stadium? 1.37. Do you know what Koufax's career ERA was away from Dodger Stadium? 3.38. Has anyone ever tried to argue his numbers were inflated from spending all those years at the best pitchers' park in baseball? No. More compelling evidence in support of Walker: He was a great player well before he ever set foot in Denver. His slugging percentage over his final four seasons in Montreal (not exactly known as a great hitter's park) was .501. That's higher than the career slugging percentages of Reggie Jackson, George Brett, Ernie Banks and Al Kaline. Think about that for a moment. More evidence: During his career from 1989-2005, Walker posted the majors' ninth-best batting average (better than Barry Bonds, Edgar Martinez, Paul Molitor, Kirby Puckett and Alex Rodriguez), the 14th-best on-base percentage (better than Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs and Chipper Jones) and the ninth-best OPS (better than Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Jeff Bagwell, Edgar Martinez, Mike Piazza and Chipper Jones). More evidence: Walker was one of the most-complete players in the game, winning seven Gold Gloves and stealing 230 bases. Have I convinced you yet?
BERNIE WILLIAMS -- NO
Williams was the best of the 13 players who made their Hall of Fame ballot debuts this year. Admittedly, this was a weak class. Bernie was a great player for a Yankees franchise that won four World Series titles in a five-year span from 1996-2000. But he simply didn't stack up to the absolute best players of his generation. Among all qualifying batters from 1991-2006, Williams ranked 47th in batting average (behind Jeff Cirillo and Frank Catalanotto), 35th in OBP (behind Chili Davis and Jason Kendall) and 71st in slugging (behind Rusty Greer and Trot Nixon).
TONY WOMACK -- NO
Won three stolen base titles and came up huge for the Diamondbacks during the 2001 postseason (producing the game-winning hit in Game 5 of the NL Division Series against the Cardinals and the game-tying hit off Mariano Rivera in Game 7 of the World Series). That's a pretty good legacy right there, even if his career stats don't come anywhere close to Hall of Fame standards.
ERIC YOUNG -- NO
A .359 on-base percentage and 465 stolen bases made for a nice career. But nothing more than that.
So there you have it, my 2012 Hall of Fame ballot. I wouldn't expect anyone out there to agree 100 percent with my selections. But I hope everyone would respect the time and effort I put into making these selections and know I gave every single player on the ballot due consideration.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to work. Less than 365 days to decide what in the world I'm going to do with all those newcomers on next year's ballot...