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The Steroids Era Hall of Fame Matrix

An approach to frame consideration of steroids era players for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I believe that one key reason writers charged with selecting the new members of the Baseball Hall of Fame are having such a big struggle with determining how to deal with the steroids era is that in their vote, they are being forced to oversimplify a complex problem, reducing it to a single outcome – “yes” or “no”.

Given the current trajectory, it seems most unlikely that large numbers of voters will ever cast their ballots for players from the steroid era based solely on the numbers. If one assumes the steroid question will always remain, the issue moves to what to do about it.

While there is no way everyone’s value system will ever align completely, I think it would help matters greatly if a common measurement system was used as a base. Again, I am not so idealistic to expect all voters will see matters identically, but context is badly needed around a subject where there is considerable disagreement and confusion.

In approaching this particular problem, I see three major variables. They are level of suspicion as to steroids use, level of admission by the player and the extent that steroids use may have enhanced the player’s stats.

My proposal is to generate discussion about how much each of those variables should reduce a prospective Hall member’s appeal. Understand that even of you disagree as to whether any one of the variables should be considered at all, you could nullify it by assigning it a zero value.

Let’s start with a tabular representation of the concept.

Suspicion
level
High High High Medium Low None
Caught Caught Caught Appearance Appearance
No apology Half apology Accepted apology
Career results
High affect A B C D x x
Moderate effect E F G H x x
Little to no effect x x x x x x

The horizontal axis represents the level of suspicion about a player’s steroid use, starting with whether they were caught, suspected based on appearance or circumstantial data or not considered to have used. The next level for those caught is how they dealt with it. Did they out and out lie, did they immediately fess up or did they do something in between?

The vertical axis represents the perception of how much steroid use may have affected the results of the player on the field, high, medium or low.

While there are 18 possible cells in the table, only eight are really worth discussing. They are the ones in the gray area, both figuratively and literally, labeled “A” through “H” above.

My hope is that voters could agree on this basic framework. The next challenge would be to try to decide which players fit in each. They could then begin to separate players into those more likely and less likely to get into the Hall. Even better would be to gain agreement on the penalties for players that land in a particular cell.

I am going to stop here for a moment. My primary objective in introducing this topic is complete. I do not want what follows, which is obviously very subjective, to cause people to throw out the whole concept if they disagree with my personal assessment below. Yet I think it is necessary to take the next step to fully illustrate what I mean.

How the matrix might be applied

We will start by assuming all players begin on level ground, with nothing artificially holding them back from Hall consideration – at 100 percent. We then introduce a scale to lower their appeal based on the previously-stated variables.

Again, these percentages are a starting point. Some may think they should be higher; others might want them lower or to be zero. That is fine. The whole idea is to establish a discussion framework which will then generate considerable discussion and even negotiation, perhaps.

We’ll begin with suspicion level. If a player is suspected of having used, even if he has never been caught, he receives a 10 percent penalty in this example. Right off the bat, I know some will accuse me of being un-American as the accused are innocent until proven guilty. I understand that, but reality is something else.

The reality is that a player suspected of use is never going to get as many votes as one who was never suspected. The formula simply takes that into account. It does no good coming up with a model that some would discard out of hand, yet if some wanted to assign 0 percent to those suspected, they could. At least the discussion would be on the issue.

The players who were caught are assessed a greater penalty here than those who were only suspected or apparently did not use. Some may believe the penalty should be the same no matter what, with others likely in support of a zero value. OK, but in this example, I assessed a greater penalty for those who clearly evaded the truth and exacted the highest penalty from those who thumbed their noses at their accusers and the public.

Suspicion level Penalty
Low/no suspicion 0 percent
Medium appearance -10 percent
Caught-apology accepted -20 percent
Caught-1/2 apologized -30 percent
Caught-no apology -40 percent

Next is the impact on a player’s stats of their use or suspected use. Certain Hall candidates were more one-dimensional than others. Some were suspected of using for a long time, including during their peak period of productivity, while others may have used just for a short period or may have done so later in their career.

Like everything else here, this scale is subjective. In my example, a low penalty is exacted from those considered to have put together Hall-worthy stats even without steroids with a high penalty assigned when numbers are viewed to have been significantly enhanced by the player having been enhanced.

Career results Penalty
No effect 0 percent
Moderate effect -10 percent
High effect -40 percent

Put it together and subtract from 100 leaves you with the following view. The color coding of the cells are a grouping. Those in the red cells, from 0-30 percent, are considered to have almost no chance of becoming a Hall of Famer, the yellow in the 40-60 percent range may eventually have a chance and the green population, 70 percent or better, should have a good chance of induction.

Suspicion
level
High High High Medium
Caught Caught Caught Appearance
No apology Half apology Accepted apology
Career results
High affect A 20% B 30% C 40% D 50%
Moderate effect E 50% F 60% G 70% H 80%

The final step is to assign example names to the eight cells, an action that may generate as much or more debate than setting the percentages. Again, the names are simply examples to help illustrate my point.

Suspicion
level
High High High Medium
Caught Caught Caught Appearance
No apology Half apology Accepted apology
Career results
High affect Palmeiro, Sosa McGwire Giambi Bagwell
Moderate effect Clemens, Bonds Ramirez A-Rod Pujols era

A. 20%. These players were caught using, but despite that, insisted they were clean. Their use is viewed to have greatly affected their numbers. As such, their Hall appeal is the most limited. Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa are my examples.

B. 30%. These players were also caught, but may have lied until forced to come clean. In the case of my example, Mark McGwire, his eventual admission was further clouded by an unconvincing stance that his numbers were not improved by his steroid use.

C. 40%. These players fessed up and their apology was generally accepted without reservation, yet like in A and B, their numbers are still viewed to have been significantly enhanced. Jason Giambi is the best example I could come up with. I think McGwire also could have been here had he simply made the common-sense acknowledgement that steroid use helped his results.

D. 50%. These players were never caught using anything, but have been suspected of use. Again, I am not debating right or wrong, but reflecting reality. Like A-C, these players’ numbers are thought to perhaps not been Hall-worthy had they not been suspected of using. Jeff Bagwell seems a good example.

Bagwell and McGwire

Let me step aside again to make a point. Some writers have used the McGwire vote total to suggest that even if Bagwell used, he should never admit it. I disagree, not with the bottom line, but with the comparison.

McGwire and Bagwell started in different cells. Like it or not, Big Mac was already squarely in the red area. His 2010 admission was made to allow him to work in MLB as the Cardinals hitting coach, not to fix his Hall problem. If you follow this model, the best he could have done was move into cell “C”, likely not good enough, anyway.

On the other hand, even a believable admission from Bagwell would bump him down from “D” to “C” on this scale, a ground-losing proposition in voters’ eyes. Of course, best for him would be ironclad proof that he never used, but that is impossible to secure.

Along with the general passing of time, a release of more confidential lists and positive test results without his name on them would help Bagwell and others from his era potentially unfairly cast in cell “D”.

Suspicion
level
High High High Medium
Caught Caught Caught Appearance
No apology Half apology Accepted apology
Career results
High affect Palmeiro, Sosa McGwire Giambi Bagwell
Moderate effect Clemens, Bonds Ramirez A-Rod Pujols era

E. 50%. Like the players in A, these players have been caught using but would not admit it, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. What makes this group different is that their numbers may have been Hall-worthy even before their suspected steroid use began. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are among those who seem to fit here.

F. 60%. These players were caught and came clean, sort of. There is some concern their use impacted their career numbers, but perhaps not excessively. Suspended late in his career, Manny Ramirez may be a good example.

G. 70%. This is another group of players proven to have used steroids, but set apart in that their admission seems generally accepted and their career results may be good enough to stand on their own. Alex Rodriguez is my example.

H. 80%. The final group is pretty much everyone else in baseball that has excelled on the field since more rigorous testing began. I use Albert Pujols as a placeholder. The superstar never having failed a test doesn’t stop some from whispering and wondering. Is it fair? It doesn’t matter. It happens out there in the real world, so it needs to be accounted for.

In closing

I understand the limitations of this model. One of them is that the actual result of the Hall of Fame voting is the summation of several hundreds of individual “yes” or “no” votes. One person cannot vote 60 percent “yes”, for example.

Yet over time, I can see how some players in the 40-60 percent “yellow” area could receive enough support to reach the necessary 75 percent for induction. Others may have to wait for a future Veterans Committee to consider their case. Other players may move between cells as more information about the past comes to light, whether positive or negative.

Still, whatever values you believe in and wherever you might place these players in the grid, I believe that by using a framework now to assess players from the steroid era, everyone may better come to grips with the fundamental problem.

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