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Former Astros in midst of Hall of Fame debate

HOUSTON - JUNE 28: Closing pitcher Billy Wagner #13 of the Houston Astros delivers a pitch against the Texas Rangers during the MLB interleague game at Minute Maid Park on June 28, 2003 in Houston, Texas. The Astros won 2-0. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

We may not have much baseball news to talk about during the ongoing lockout, but we do have plenty of debate raging anyway. It’s everyone’s favorite time of year – Hall of Fame voting season, where baseball writers (or at least the ones who choose to) steadily reveal their ballots and make their cases for why they voted for one guy but not another. It’s equal parts fascinating and frustrating, and there are several former Astros caught up in the drama.

Players on this year’s ballot who wore a Houston uniform at some point in their careers include Bobby Abreu, Roger Clemens, Jeff Kent, Andy Pettitte, Curt Schilling, and Billy Wagner. All six of these players will get votes, and I’d be surprised if none of them eventually makes it into the Hall of Fame. As much as I’d like to, I don’t have a Hall of Fame vote myself, but that doesn’t stop me from considering my hypothetical ballot anyway.

A Flawed Process

Of course there are several problems with the voting process, aside from the fact that I don’t have a vote. The 10-player maximum has caused several players, such as Lance Berkman, Kenny Lofton, Kevin Brown, and Jim Edmonds, to fall off the ballot after one year despite having cases that deserved more scrutiny. The lack of clarity on the steroid issue has caused voters to create their own standards, which vary wildly and are often devoid of logic.

To me, steroid use is a non-issue. The league looked the other way for years, and the commissioner who did so (Bud Selig) is already in the Hall. Managers who won championships with juiced up players are in the Hall. There are already players in the Hall who cheated, from steroid and other substance use to doctoring baseballs. Maybe that’s not ideal, but it’s reality. The Hall of Fame is a museum, not a Boy Scout troop.

To tell the story of the game, you need all the best players. In an era when countless players used steroids and we’ll never truly know who did and didn’t, it’s best to just let them in regardless. Besides, it’s not as if using steroids turned a bad player into a great one. Plenty of forgotten players juiced up and still weren’t any good. Whatever the moral issues are with steroid use, I don’t see it as a huge factor in a practical sense. Players who juiced were competing against other players who juiced.

Now, without further ado, here’s how the six former Astros stand up. All WAR (wins above replacement) stats used are from baseball-reference.

Billy Wagner

I’ll start with the one player who’d be likely to wear an Astros cap on his plaque. Wagner pitched nine of his 16 seasons in Houston, compiling 422 saves for his career, seven All-Star selections and a career WHIP of 0.998. It’s not easy to judge modern relievers who aren’t Mariano Rivera, but the best argument for Wagner would be to compare him to someone who’s already in the Hall: Trevor Hoffman.

Hoffman made it in on the strength of his 601 saves, but aside from that, pretty much every measurable statistic says Wagner was the better pitcher. He’s better than Hoffman in ERA (2.31 vs 2.87), WHIP (0.998 vs 1.058), adjusted ERA (187 vs 141), hits per nine innings (6.0 vs 7.0), and strikeouts per nine (11.9 vs 9.4). In fact, Wagner struck out more total batters despite pitching 186 fewer innings.

He could’ve racked up more saves if he wanted, as he retired after one of his best seasons at age 38. Still, all the numbers say Wagner was simply more dominant than Hoffman. There’s an argument that he’s the best left-handed reliever the game has seen in the modern era. He may not get in this year, but his candidacy is gaining steam. He’s made big jumps in each of the past two years, and I foresee another jump this year. With three years of eligibility left after this one, I think he makes it in eventually.

Roger Clemens

Clemens’ candidacy is tied closely to that of Barry Bonds. Both are all-time greats based on their numbers, and both were on the way to the Hall before their alleged steroid use started. Neither ever failed an official test. But the suspicion alone, however legitimate it may be, is enough to keep them off a certain percentage of ballots. Both should be in the Hall, but in this final year of their eligibility, neither will get in. It’ll take a Veterans Committee effort in the future.

Jeff Kent

Kent’s candidacy is centered around the fact that he’s arguably the best-hitting second baseman of all time. His 560 doubles, 377 homers and career .290 batting average are all good, though his career 55.5 WAR is a bit light. In his two seasons in Houston, he was exactly as advertised – a middle of the order bat who you could pencil in for 35 doubles, 25 homers and 100 RBIs. But he’s running out of time.

Last year, which was his eighth on the ballot, he still appeared on just 32.4 percent of ballots. With only one year left after this, it will take a serious push for him to have a shot. Personally, I see him as a “good but not great” type of player, even though he did win an MVP in 2000. He wasn’t a strong defender, and his numbers aren’t overly elite if you compare him to players at other positions.

Andy Pettitte

I also see Pettitte as a “good but not great” player, but he does have some numbers on his side. His 60.2 career WAR is solid for a Hall of Famer, and his 256 wins are really good for a pitcher of his era. He also has an extensive postseason resume that includes an ALCS MVP and a career 3.81 postseason ERA. He never won a Cy Young, but had five top-6 finishes and was a consistent, durable starter in an era that was difficult for pitchers.

Still, Pettitte’s career 3.85 ERA is not impressive, and his adjusted ERA (117) reflects that. He didn’t tally big strikeout totals, and he only made three All-Star teams. He’s also tied to steroids much the same way as Clemens. He only got 13.7 percent of the vote in 2021, which was his third year on the ballot. He’ll hang around a while, probably for the full 10 years, but I don’t see him reaching 75 percent.

Curt Schilling

Yes, the controversial Schilling was once an Astro, back in 1991 when he was a 24-year-old relief pitcher. The Astros traded him to Philadelphia after one season for Jason Grimsley, which worked out rather nicely for the Phillies. Schilling went on to become one of the most dominant pitchers of his era, tallying 3,116 strikeouts, a career 3.46 ERA, and a legendary postseason career that included a 2.23 ERA in 19 starts.

The numbers alone make him a clear Hall of Famer, but that’s not why he still lingers on the ballot in his 10th and final year. He’s made a number of statements and posts since he retired that have ruffled feathers, and he’s gone so far as to state he doesn’t want writers to vote for him because of it. Many are honoring that request, so it doesn’t look like he’ll get in. Personally, I don’t think any of that matters. His career belongs in the Hall on its merits.

Bobby Abreu

Here’s one the Astros would like to have back. The team declined to protect Abreu from the expansion draft following the 1997 season, instead choosing to protect Richard Hidalgo. Abreu immediately blossomed into an excellent all-around player, hitting for average and power, stealing bases and playing good defense. His 60.2 career WAR is solid, and he is one of only two players to amass 250 homers, 550 doubles, 400 stolen bases, and a career batting average better than .290. The other is Bonds.

The knock on Abreu is he was never truly a star. He had only two All-Star selections and never finished in the Top 10 of the MVP voting, and many will say he never really felt like a Hall of Famer. The all-around numbers suggest he should be, but the trophy case is awfully light. He still has seven years of eligibility after this, so there’s time for his candidacy to gain steam. But he has a long way to go.

The Best of the Rest

My hypothetical ballot would have Clemens, Schilling, and Wagner along with Bonds, Andruw Jones, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Scott Rolen, and Gary Sheffield. The cases of Bonds, Ramirez, and Rodriguez are all the same to me. Their numbers speak for themselves, and keeping them out of the Hall for steroid use is awfully hypocritical.

Jones was a generational defensive player, easily the best center fielder since Willie Mays. The fact that he hit 434 homers and totaled 62.7 WAR is enough to put him in for me. Ortiz’s status as a DH shouldn’t be a problem, especially with Edgar Martinez in the Hall. His numbers (541 homers, 632 doubles, 10 All-Star selections) and legendary postseason resume are more than enough to make him worthy.

Rolen’s all-around play helped him get to 70.1 WAR. Eight Gold Gloves, seven All-Star selections, 517 doubles and 316 homers are all good, but mainly it’s the all-around excellence he maintained for his entire career that does it for me. Sheffield managed 60.5 WAR despite being a poor defender, which speaks to how great a hitter he was. Nine All-Star selections, 509 homers, a .292 career average, more walks than strikeouts, and one of the most memorable swings we’ve ever seen. That bat belongs in Cooperstown.

The Ones Who Just Missed

The ones just missing the cut for me are Todd Helton, Abreu, Kent, and Sammy Sosa. Without the 10-vote limit, I would absolutely vote for Helton. He had a career .316 average, walked more than he struck out, had nearly 600 doubles and won three Gold Gloves. Sosa’s home run and RBI totals are great, but that’s about all that’s good on his resume, and his WAR total is a bit lighter than the others I voted for. Still, his importance to the game would be enough for me to give him the nod if I could.

I’m less sold on Abreu and Kent. I think both have interesting cases that merit further consideration, but given the 10-vote limit I wouldn’t even have spots for them anyway. This is similar to what happened to some guys who fell off the ballot too early. The process isn’t perfect and could use an overhaul, but it’s what we have, and it sure makes for interesting debate.

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