Until Tuesday, longtime Orioles and Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina held an interesting distinction: With a career WAR of 83.0, Mussina was the all-time leader in the stat (by a fairly wide margin) among players who were unassociated with performance-enhancing drugs, eligible for the Hall of Fame, and not yet enshrined.
No one is here to tell you that Wins Above Replacement is a perfect stat, but one big point in its favor is how closely it correlates with historic perceptions of greatness: Babe Ruth sits atop the all-time leaderboard, Cy Young tops all pitchers, and everyone with more than 100 in the stat is someone you’d consider an inner-circle Hall of Famer based on his career production in MLB.
By both WAR and this author’s stubborn opinion, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens remain the players most egregiously excluded from Cooperstown. But obviously I know why Bonds and Clemens aren’t in. Of all those unsullied by accusations of crimes against baseball — either steroid use or gambling — 83 of the 90 eligible players who cleared 70 WAR in their careers, or 92.2%, are Hall of Famers.
Leaving out Bonds, Clemens, Pete Rose and Rafael Palmeiro, plus the four not-yet-eligible players above the 70-WAR threshold — Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Adrian Beltre and Derek Jeter — means there are only seven players to reach the 70-WAR threshold without receiving a plaque in Cooperstown. Here they are:
Still on the ballot
1. Curt Schilling: At the risk of riling up Curt Schilling’s army of social-media stans, I will note only that Schilling’s exclusion almost certainly has more to do with the things he has said and done and shared online after his playing career ended than the things he did on the field in the Majors. Voters have said as much. Is that fair? Maybe! But his 79.6 career WAR are now the highest of any non-Hall of Fame player without PED or gambling taint, and he was one of the best postseason performers of all time. He got 60.9% of votes in the 2019 cycle, his sixth year on the ballot.
2. Larry Walker: Walker, whose 72.7 career WAR compares favorably to Derek Jeter’s, saw a huge bump in the 2019 balloting. After finishing with 34.1% of votes last time around, Walker appeared on 54.6% of ballots this year. The biggest knock against him is that his offensive numbers were inflated because he spent his best seasons in Colorado, but Walker was an elite hitter in stints in Montreal and St. Louis on either side of his Rockies tenure, and even park-adjusted stats paint him as a deserving Hall of Famer. Next year will be his last on the general ballot, and the guess here is that he finally gets in.
3. Scott Rolen: Rolen only barely clears the 70-WAR cutoff with a career 70.2 mark. After finishing with 17.2% of the vote in his second year of eligibility, he’s likely years away from induction, but he seems like another guy who — like Walker — will see his case pick up steam in his final years on the ballot. Injuries that kept him off the field during several of his prime seasons cost him a shot at being a shoo-in, but third base is traditionally underrepresented in Cooperstown and Rolen ranks 10th all time at the position in WAR. The counting stats aren’t there and Rolen was never the best player in his league, but he was a seven-time All-Star who won eight Gold Gloves and played a big part in the Cardinals’ 2006 World Series win over the Tigers.
The dead and unappreciated
4. Bill Dahlen: It’s hard to put a ton of faith in the best defensive stats grading current players, so it’s really hard to put a ton of faith in the best defensive stats grading dudes from the Deadball Era. Known as “Bad Bill,” Dahlen was reputed as a good defensive shortstop at a time in which a guy reputed as a good defensive shortstop might still make 86 errors in a single season, as Dahlen did in 1895. Equipment in the 1890s didn’t really lend itself to sure-handed fielding, it turns out. Dahlen finished with 75.4 WAR about a century before the stat was even invented.
5. Jim McCormick: A Scottish-born mustache hero and progenitor of the curveball, McCormick averaged 462 innings a season from 1879-1887 before leaving baseball to manage his saloon and raise his children when his wife fell ill with an ultimately deadly case of tuberculosis. Almost inarguably the best pitcher in the one-year history of the Union Association thanks to his stellar stint with the 1884 Cincinnati Outlaw Reds. Finished with 76 career WAR including the Union Association numbers.
Hoping for help
6. Lou Whitaker With 75.1, Whitaker is the WAR leader among position players who’ve never be suspected of steroid use and aren’t in the Hall. He was pretty good for a very long time, but rarely ranked among the elite players in his league. He was a five-time All-Star and a three-time Gold Glover at second base, but he earned MVP votes only once in his 19-year career. His career numbers stack up well against many of the Hall of Famers at second base, but his peak numbers do not. He fell off the ballot after only one year, receiving just 2.9% of votes in 2001. He will need a veteran’s committee nomination and election to get him in.
7. Bobby Grich: Like Whitaker, Grich was a second baseman who was pretty good at a lot of things and exceptionally good at few them. He played in a generally lousy era for offense, but his adjusted numbers compare favorable to Ryne Sandberg and a bunch of lesser Hall of Fame second basemen, and his 71.1 WAR is better than 15 of the 21 Hall of Famers at the position. Grich’s career corresponds almost exactly with the window covered by the Modern Era committee, which will convene this year to elect candidates for 2020 induction.
Mussina’s 84.0 career WAR topped unenshrined players unassociated with steroids or gambling.