The Baseball Hall of Fame almost done dealing with steroid era players
Voting for baseball’s Hall of Fame is already challenging enough. Good luck parsing the fog of WAR without any other distractions.
Thankfully, one significant haze is about to clear.
Sixteen years ago, and just two years after his nebulous testimony before Congress slung a pathetic frame around baseball’s so-called steroid era, Mark McGwire appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot. And a process that was already complex yet defined by plenty of statistically-driven precedence became an impossibility.
Oh, we’re not just talking about the guys strongly tied to PEDs, but that’s not a bad place to start.
McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa – all would grace the Hall of Fame ballot between 2007 and 2022 and all would fall well short of the 75% required for induction. Sure, there were enough hot takes in that span to fuel a Nova Scotia winter, but they were relatively open-and-shut cases – so strongly tied to PEDs that numerous voters found their careers too compromised for Cooperstown.
From there, it’s a real headache.
There’s the kinda-maybes: A reported 2003 positive test for a PED somehow did not stop David Ortiz in the manner it did Bonds, Clemens and Sosa. He got in on the first try in 2022. And then there’s Gary Sheffield, who like Ortiz clobbered more than 500 home runs but because he worked out with Bonds and told investigators he borrowed some cream for his knees, he was suddenly a ballot pariah. In an era when the electorate is supposedly getting so much “smarter,” Ortiz in and everyone else out makes no sense.
Let’s not forget the Whispers Guys, for which there’s so much smoke that there’s at least one smoldering fire, though not enough to keep any of them out of the Hall. On the advice of counsel, we won’t get into the hubbub surrounding (Redacted), (Redacted) and (Redacted).
And perhaps most unfortunately, there’s everybody else whose careers significantly intersected with the rough timeline of 1993-2004, who have no connections to PEDs but also do not have a slam-dunk Hall case. Tuesday night, one of those guys, Scott Rolen, earned election to Cooperstown. Good for him.
There are so many more – Carlos Beltran and Bobby Abreu, Andruw Jones and Jeff Kent and even likely 2024 inductee Todd Helton, all whose bodies of work are superlative, but drawn on a distorted canvas. It’s one reason why Fred McGriff’s “mere” 493 home runs could not stack up, even though his career began in 1986 and was nothing but consistent from then on. Still, he had to earn induction via committee vote, not the ballot.
The steroid era didn’t just mess up the record books, it also screwed up metrics like WAR and adjusted OPS, which were supposed to have a leveling effect within an era and also across them.
But such measures are of little use when a large swath of players are so significantly enhanced by chemicals. And we still know so little about the steroid era with regard to who did what – the Mitchell Report was an introductory pamphlet, not a definitive tome – that we have probably venerated plenty of cheaters over the years.
In short, it’s been a damn mess. But relief is in sight.
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The 2024 ballot will bring us a slam-dunk Hall of Famer (Adrian Beltre) and another near shoo-in (Chase Utley), who both forged most of their Cooperstown cases after PED testing was instituted in 2005.
In 2025, the great Ichiro Suzuki will be enshrined, joined on the ballot by CC Sabathia, who should eventually bull his way in. Sabathia logged 251 wins, his four winningest campaigns coming after PED testing was instituted.
And here’s the thing about that 2025 ballot: Just four players – Suzuki, Sabathia, the unstoppable Edwin Jackson and the inimitable Fernando Rodney – debuted before 2005, when the first PED suspensions were levied.
There may not be another Hall of Famer in the bunch, with perhaps 2008 MVP Dustin Pedroia making it in at some point. But all of them – Felix Hernandez (debut season: 2005) and a super-fun debut class of ’06 that includes Pedroia, Adam Jones, Ian Kinsler and Russell Martin – played the entirety of their careers in the drug-testing era.
OK, time for another reality check: PED testing doesn’t equal a clean game. Another guy who debuted in 2005, Melky Cabrera, proved that much when he both tested positive for testosterone and got caught up in the Biogenesis doping scandal, a startling double-double in 2012-13.
Biogenesis ensnared plenty of stars and only deepened the chemical fraud Alex Rodriguez committed against the game, beginning in at least 2001. And it was a sobering reminder that there’s plenty of ways around drug testing, so long as you don’t fall asleep after slipping that testosterone gummy under your tongue.
Biogenesis will enter the ballot in 2026, when former MVP Ryan Braun becomes eligible, just as the Hall puts forth a class that played the entirety of their careers in the testing era.
PEDs will never be out of the game, but by all indications, they no longer define it. Soon, they will no longer define how we measure greatness, too.