Bill Madden: Making the Hall of Fame case for (Omar Vizquel & Jeff Kent) and against (Dick Allen)

NEW YORK — With baseball’s signing season in a bit of a deep freeze as owners and agents face off over just how much money there really is to spend, now is as good a time as any to direct our attention to the Hall of Fame — both the upcoming 2021 election by the Baseball Writers Association, and also the postponed Golden Era Veterans Committee election that was supposed to have taken place recently.

Starting with the writers’ ballot, which is one of the leanest ever in terms of surefire Hall of Fame newcomers (there are none), off his 70% runner-up finish last year, it would appear Curt Schilling is a cinch to get the additional 5% needed for election. Now if only he would agree not to show up to deliver an induction speech. Assuming Schilling is elected, the question is will anyone else on this ballot be joining last summer’s holdover class — Derek Jeter, Larry Walker and Ted Simmons — at the inductions in Cooperstown next July?

This is the time of year when writers and pundits like to formulate their Hall of Fame cases for various candidates, often employing various metrics and algorithms to support them — to which I ask: Should it really be this hard? My criteria is much more simple — the “see” test and the “dominance” test. The former is the easiest. Watching a player for 10 or more years — Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Chipper Jones, Ken Griffey Jr., Cal Ripken, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Tony Gwynn immediately come to mind — was I able to conclude unequivocally that I was looking at a Hall of Famer? The latter test is a little more complex: Did this man dominate the game at his position?

Two players I have been voting for every year, both of whom have been regularly vilified by the analytics crowd — or the WARmongers as I call them — are Omar Vizquel and Jeff Kent.

Vizquel, for me, falls into the first category. The more I saw him performing his defensive excellence across over two decades, mostly with the Indians, the more I was convinced I was watching not only a Hall of Famer, but the best defensive shortstop of my lifetime. One of only seven position players to win at least 11 Gold Gloves, Vizquel had three seasons in which he played at least 140 games and had fewer than five errors, and his streak of 95 games without an error is the second longest in history. It also didn’t hurt that he stayed around long enough to accumulate 2,877 hits. The only players with more hits who are not in the Hall of Fame are either not eligible yet (Miguel Cabrera, Ichiro Suzuki, Adrian Beltre, Albert Pujols) or tainted by steroids (Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez), or banned for life (Pete Rose). Vizquel, who has been gaining steadily in the Hall balloting, finished sixth last year with 52.6%. Last year, Walker made the biggest one-year jump to election in history, from 54.6% to 76.6%, so it is not inconceivable Vizquel could do the same this year, especially with a weak ballot.

On the other hand, Kent, who received only 27.5% last year, is probably never going to be elected on the writers ballot, and I’ve never quite understood why he gets so little respect, other than the fact the WARmongers, with all their formulas, relentlessly disparage his defense. An yet, in 17 seasons he was never moved off second base and was instrumental in four different teams making the postseason seven times. More importantly, he was, without question, the dominant second baseman of his time. His 351 homers are the most ever by a second baseman and will probably stand as the record for a good while now that Robinson Cano’s career is likely over. Only one other Hall of Fame second baseman, Charlie Gehringer, has more RBIs (1,408-1,389) than Kent. In his career, Kent had eight seasons of 100 or more RBIs, was a five-time All-Star, the National League Most Valuable Player with the Giants in 2000 and had three other top-10 MVP finishes. Yes, he was a prickly interview at times for the writers, but unlike his truly surly Giants teammate Bonds, in the height of the steroids era, Kent played the game clean. I don’t know what else the guy was supposed to do to prove himself a Hall of Famer.

Now on to the Golden Era Veterans Committee ballot, postponed this year by the Hall of Fame because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the case of Dick Allen, who along with Tony Oliva, missed by one vote in the last Golden Era election in 2014. When the Hall made its decision to put off the Golden Era election for another year, supporters of Allen were livid, especially since it was common knowledge he was in bad health and might not make it another year. He didn’t. He died last Monday of lung cancer, at age 76, the day after the Golden Era vote would have been announced.

Sad as that may have been, the Hall made the right call. As someone who once served on a Veterans Committee, I can attest that, holding a vote virtually would have been highly unsatisfactory. These vote meetings are a lot more than 16 people sitting around a table discussing 10 candidates. There are breaks in the meeting when the voting members have private discussions, and the dinner the night before when everyone talks informally about the candidates, providing further insight among themselves. And as I tried to tell Allen’s outraged supporters, there was no guarantee he was going to get that one more vote he needed for election, especially since it would have likely been an entirely different committee.

Nevertheless, the outcry over the Golden Era vote postponement in light of Allen’s death was astonishing — as if it was assumed he was going to be elected and the Hall of Fame deprived him of seeing it while he was still alive. I was particularly struck by the fact that in almost all the Allen obituaries and columns written about him, the particular emphasis was on the wounds of racial hatred he incurred from the Philadelphia fans in his first seven seasons from 1963-69. It was almost as if that alone should have been cause to vote him into the Hall of Fame. One columnist in Philadelphia declared the Baseball Writers should be embarrassed today for Allen having gotten so little support (a peak total of 18.9%) in 14 years on their ballot.

To that I can only say, Allen was a helluva hitter — “the scariest hitter I ever saw and I include Mays, McCovey, Aaron and Musial,” former National League president and Allen’s Phillies teammate Bill White told me recently — and in 1972 with the White Sox Allen had one of the greatest seasons ever when he led the AL in homers, RBIs, OBP, slugging, OPS and won the MVP award. White Sox GM Roland Hemond said after the season, “Dick Allen saved the franchise for Chicago.”

The problem was, Allen simply didn’t have enough of those Hall of Fame seasons and that’s why he was relegated to the Veterans Committee as a borderline Hall of Fame candidate. He played more than 125 games in only seven of his 15 seasons and didn’t have 2,000 hits (1,848), which has traditionally been the Hall of Fame bench mark for non-catchers. As White Sox board chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said at the time: “Dick Allen had kind of a checkered career. He had only six really good years. If I was on the committee, I wouldn’t have voted for him and he had his best years for us.” At the same time, Oliva, who was also one vote shy in the last Golden Era balloting and reached a high of 47.3% in 15 years on the writers ballot, likewise had less than 2,000 hits (1,917) but won three batting titles and led the AL in hits five times.

It was for that reason — great hitters whose careers were short because of injuries — I didn’t vote for either Allen or Oliva when they were on the ballot. But I’m certainly not embarrassed for it.