Johnson, Martinez and Smoltz could all be elected on first ballot
By Barry M. Bloom
NEW YORK -- Anticipation about the Class of 2015 is very high, and for the second consecutive year, it's possible a large new group of players will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Electees from the Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot are set to be announced today at 2 p.m. ET, with induction scheduled for July 26.
A year after Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas joined managers Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Tony La Russa to form one of the most venerable classes in history, the prospective group is just as stellar.
This year's ballot boasts newcomers Randy Johnson, a 303-game winner; Pedro Martinez, whose .687 career winning percentage is sixth best in Major League history and is by far the tops of his era; John Smoltz, the right-hander who had 213 wins and 154 saves in 21 seasons; Gary Sheffield, who hit 509 home runs and drove in 100 or more runs nine times; and six-time All-Star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra.
Add Craig Biggio, the multi-positioned star who had 3,060 hits in 20 seasons -- all with the Astros -- and the stage is set for another impressive induction class next summer in Cooperstown, N.Y.
"It would mean everything, not for myself, but for the organization, the fans and for my family," said Biggio, in his third year on the ballot after barely missing by two scant votes last year when Maddux, Glavine and Thomas were elected in their first years by eligible members of the BBWAA. The managers were elected by the Expansion Era Committee.
This year, the BBWAA inductees will stand alone on the podium behind the Clark Sports Center, because the 16-member Golden Era Committee didn't elect anyone last month from its 10-man ballot that included nine players and one executive whose careers were prominent during the period from 1947-72.
In Biggio's favor is the fact that no candidate has been unable to make up that kind of slim margin in the following election. Save for Pete Rose, who is serving a lifetime suspension for betting on baseball and is not eligible for the Hall, and Rafael Palmeiro, once suspended for performance-enhancing drugs and no longer on the ballot after receiving fewer than five percent of the votes in 2014, Biggio is the only player with 3,000 or more hits who has not yet been elected.
Candidates on any Hall of Fame ballot need 75 percent of the vote to be elected.
Last year, Biggio finished with 74.8 percent of the vote. He was followed by Mike Piazza at 62.2 percent, Jack Morris at 61.5 percent and former Astros teammate Jeff Bagwell at 54.3 percent. The vote fell off precipitously after that, as stars tainted or implicated by performance-enhancing drugs remained at a low ebb of acceptance. Roger Clemens, who won 354 games, finished ninth, slipping slightly to 35.4 percent; Barry Bonds, the all-time leader with 762 career homers and 73 in a single season, dipped to 34.7 percent; and Sammy Sosa, who smacked 609 homers, hung on at 7.2 percent. All are back for a third time.
Johnson would seem to be a certain first-ballot selection. His 4,875 whiffs are the most by a left-hander and rank second behind Nolan Ryan's all-time record of 5,714. He played for six teams, winning his 300th game for the Giants in 2009, pitching a perfect game for the D-backs in '04 against the Braves and sharing the '01 World Series MVP Award with teammate Curt Schilling, as Arizona beat the Yankees. He won five Cy Young Awards, one in the American League for Seattle in 1995 and four in a row in the National League for Arizona from 1999-2002.
Despite all this and more, Johnson was his own worst critic.
"Obviously in the moment I would dwell on bad games," Johnson said. "I felt like I let the fans and the team down because obviously I still had the responsibility and everybody was assuming that there was going to be a certain type of game pitched -- whether it was a dominant game or not, it was going to be a victory. That was what came along with what I established in my career."
Martinez also appears to be a likely first-ballot selection, while Smoltz can definitely stake a claim.
Martinez pitched for five teams in 18 seasons, but his claim to fame centers on the seven years -- 1998-2004 -- he pitched for the Red Sox, for whom he had a remarkable 117-37 record. His career record was 219-100. He won the Cy Young Award three times, twice while with Boston, including 1999, when he took the AL's pitching Triple Crown with a career-high 23 wins, 2.07 ERA and 313 strikeouts. With it all, Martinez may have punched his ticket to Cooperstown.
"I'm looking forward to that," Martinez said. "There's only so much I can do. As of now, I'm just like you, hoping and waiting to get a chance to make it. I think I should have a shot, but it's not up to me. Like I said, it's not up to me. I can only hope and wait."
Smoltz would join Maddux and Glavine in the Hall. The trio of pitchers played together on the Braves under Cox's tutelage for 10 seasons. Smoltz had the longest consecutive tenure. The right-hander played 20 seasons for an Atlanta team that went to the playoffs in 14 consecutive seasons from 1991-2005, won five NL pennants and the 1995 World Series. Smoltz was a huge part of all that wining, posting a 15-4 mark in the postseason, four wins fewer than Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte, who holds the playoff record with 19 victories.
"To Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux -- and I have to mention the third member of the Big Three, John Smoltz -- I can honestly say I would not be standing here today if it weren't for you guys," Cox said during his Hall of Fame acceptance speech this past July 27. "Together, these guys won six Cy Young Awards by wearing a Braves uniform."
Smoltz made his transition to relieving after undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery and missing the entire 2000 season. He saved 144 games from 2002-04, then returned to starting, going 44-24 from 2005-07. It should be noted that 210 of his wins and all 154 of his saves came for the Braves.
"When I was playing, I wanted to win more than anything," Smoltz said. "I never really even contemplated any of those decisions when I changed direction [and roles] in my career for the risk or reward of the Hall of Fame. That never even entered my mind."