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Hall of Fame Dilemma

Updated on May 2, 2017

With the recent announcement of the 2017 hall of fame class, the conversation of steroids in baseball has been brought to the forefront once again. In their fifth year on the ballot, both Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds failed to be elected but saw an uptick in votes. Though the two players have numbers that speak to them being first ballot hall of famers, they are finding it rather difficult to get the necessary amount of votes. Clemens gained 54.1% of the vote, up from 45.2% in 2016, and 37.5% in 2015. Bonds was at 53.8%, up from 44.3% in 2016 and 36.8% in 2015. It is required that you get 75% of the votes to be elected into the hall of fame. This means they need to gain a little over 20% in the next 5 years before their names are removed from the ballot. With their current trend in votes, it seems possible that their names will be called in the next 2-3 years, much to the surprise of many.

The reason these two all-time greats struggle with votes is because of PEDs. These two have been front and center in the discussion of steroids in baseball over the past decade. Based on the numbers, these two are shoe-ins. Bonds was a 14-time all-star, 7-time National League MVP, 8-time Gold Glove winner, the all-time leader in walks and home runs, the only member of the career 500 home run and 500 stolen base club, as well as the second all-time in Wins-Above-Replacement behind Babe Ruth. Clemens, who ranks third on the all-time strikeout list, was an 11-time all-star, an American League MVP, and a record-breaking 7-time Cy Young award winner. A case could be made that they are the greatest of all-time at their respective positions, let alone hall of famers. However, their past makes those assessments extremely questionable.

These two are products of an era where steroids ran rampant in the major leagues. Performance enhancing drugs were generally acknowledged and accepted in MLB locker rooms. Though a contributing factor, steroids weren't the only cause for the offensive boom of the 1990s and 2000s. Shrinking ballparks played a role. The average outfield wall was 5 feet closer than they were in the 70s. Philosophies changed as many teams adopted a money ball approach, popularized by Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane. A change in training also impacted offensive numbers. The Oakland Athletics were the first team to hire a full-time strength coach, Bob Alejo, in 1993. Prior to this, organizations felt that too much weight training would hinder players performance. It took until 1999 for even half of MLB teams to have a full-time strength and conditioning coach.

Expansion may have had the biggest impact though. Historically, expansions have seen offensive numbers go up for as long as 10 years. Expansions in 1993 and 1998 saw the addition of four teams.

MLB Offensive Numbers in the Year of Expansion, After Five Years, and After 10 Years

Runs per Game
1961: +0.22, 1966: -0.32, 1971: -0.42
1969: +0.65, 1974: +0.7, 1979: +1.14
1977: +0.48, 1982: +0.31, 1987: +0.73
1993: +0.48, 1998: +0.67, 2003: +0.62
1998: +0.02, 2003: -0.04, 2008: -0.12

Home Runs per Game
1961: +0.09, 1966: -0.01, 1971: -0.22
1969: +0.19, 1974: +0.07, 1979: +0.11
1977: +0.29, 1982: +0.22, 1987: +0.48
1993: +0.17, 1998: +0.32, 2003: +0.35
1998: +0.02, 2003: +0.05, 2008: -0.02

Batting Average
1961: +.003, 1966: -.006, 1971: -.006
1969: +.011, 1974: +.020, 1979: +.028
1977: +.009, 1982: +.006, 1987: +.008
1993: +.009, 1998: +.010, 2003: +.008
1998: -.001, 2003: -.003, 2008: -.003

On Base Percentage
1961: +.004, 1966: -.014, 1971: -.007
1969: +.021, 1974: +.025, 1979: +.031
1977: +.009, 1982: +.004, 1987: +.011
1993: +.010, 1998: +.013, 2003: +.011
1998: -.002, 2003: -.004, 2008: -.004

Slugging Percentage
1961: +.011, 1966: -.012, 1971: -.023
1969: +.029, 1974: +.039, 1979: +.057
1977: +.040, 1982: +.028, 1987: +.054
1993: +.026, 1998: +.043, 2003: +.045
1998: +.001, 2003: +.003, 2008: -.003

Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth‘s record in 1961, an expansion year. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa had their record-breaking season in the 1998 expansion year. Baseball offensive numbers ebb and flow. From 1943 to 1950, teams scored an average of 4.85 runs per game. From 1993-2008, there was only 6 seasons that hit those numbers. Many people would believe that the advancements in PED testing over the last 10 years is the cause of the offensive decline. I think it is just because we are 20 years removed from the last expansion. That era also saw a growth in attendance and popularity. All of these factors may have had the most impact on the numbers in baseball but the easiest, and maybe laziest, explanation was the steroids.

After a while, the fans and media started to question the validity of the numbers that were being put up. Reports and books about the steroid epidemic in baseball were being published and the MLB decided to take action. Since the more advanced tests were initiated in 2006, over 50 players have been suspended for use of PEDs. Neither Bonds or Clemens were affected since they both retired in 2007. The low number of suspensions prove that steroids either weren't as rampant or that players are just good at passing tests. Of the players that were suspended, maybe 5 or 6 have hall of fame-worthy numbers. This proves that steroids aren't a magic pill or shot that turns a bad or average player to an all-time great. There is no debate on whether or not Jason Grimsley, Alex Sanchez, or David Rollins, all of who have tested positive for PEDs, are hall of fame-worthy. Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds are special cases. Very few players were able to accomplish what what they did in the history of baseball.

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To me, they both deserve to be in. These two had great numbers before they allegedly started using steroids. By many accounts, these two aren't the greatest human beings but Cooperstown has never been a place of moral high ground. Amphetamine users, cocaine users, racists, Ku Klux Klan members, prohibition era alcoholics, spitballers, and sign-stealers have all been inducted. How are steroids any worse? Many would say that they weren't testing for it in the MLB but they were still illegal in the country. By that reasoning, a player who has used cocaine or bought alcohol during the prohibition era should also not be inducted. You might say those don't enhance a players performance the way steroids does. What about amphetamine users or spitballers? Spitballs allow a pitcher to throw the ball unnaturally. Amphetamines have given players an extra boost and have clearly had an effect on everyday players who may need a little help on those weekday games. They help mask fatigue and increase alertness and reaction time, all of which are beneficial in baseball and other sports. Some players also claim to see the ball better, which may be because of the increased alertness. In 2006, the MLB banned the use of amphetamines over 40 years after they were introduced into the game. There are dozens of admitted amphetamine users in the hall of fame.

In my opinion, steroids aren't the main reason for the numbers of the last 20 years. If players on both sides have access and are using them to give them an advantage, is it not an even playing field? At one point many of the best players in the world were not allowed to play. Should all the numbers before 1947 be invalid because the level of competition was metered? Should pitching and batting stats be looked at differently since the mound height was regulated in 1969? With baseball, there are too many variables and rule changes. What is accepted and not accepted changes based on the era. I think any player that puts up elite numbers should be in the hall of fame. Maybe to appease everybody, they could divide the hall into eras. The dead-ball era, the World War II era, the pre-integration era, the lowered mound era, the amphetamines era, and the steroids era. Bonds and Clemens were two of the best in their era doing something that the MLB had no policy to stop and I don't believe they should be penalized for the negligence of the league.

Are Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens Hall of Famers?

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    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 6 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      You've made many reasonable points here. But I keep coming back to this: greatness is what you do when no one is watching. No. They don't have it.