Baseball Hall: Nine that are tough to top

Atlanta Braves starter John Smoltz delivers to a Milwaukee Brewers batter during the first inning Sept. 22, 2007, at Turner Field in Atlanta.
Atlanta Braves starter John Smoltz delivers to a Milwaukee Brewers batter during the first inning Sept. 22, 2007, at Turner Field in Atlanta. Associated Press

Baseball’s Hall of Fame class of 2015 will be announced Tuesday.

Let’s take on the tough stuff first. Sort of like eating your veggies before dessert.

I voted for nine players. Mike Piazza was not one of them.

The numbers say he is the game’s best hitting catcher and should be headed to Cooperstown.

Piazza had 427 career home runs before leaving the game in 2007. He had 396 of those while catching – most in major-league history.

There are more numbers to back up his seemingly sterling Hall credentials. How can you not vote for a guy with a .308 career batting average, a .545 career slugging percentage, more than 100 RBIs in six seasons and a 12-time All-Star.

And what an inductee into the Hall of Fame Piazza would make.

The Los Angeles Dodgers drafted him in the 62nd round in 1988. And that reportedly only happened because legendary Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda grew up in the same Norristown, Pa., neighborhood as Piazza’s father and recommended L.A. draft the kid.

Except as a voting member of the Baseball Writers Association of America – the group that votes annually on Hall of Fame candidates – I didn’t put a checkmark by Piazza’s name.

There is circumstantial evidence that Piazza used performance enhancing drugs during his career.

I don’t vote for players I’m pretty sure used PEDs. I haven’t and never will.

Do I know for sure Piazza used PEDs? Of course not. Piazza has denied using banned substances, though he admitted using androstendione and Ephedra before they were banned by MLB.

But there is evidence that’s the case. Piazza had the tell-tale acne on his back – or bacne.

At least he did until 2004, which also happens to be the year Major League Baseball finally began testing players for PEDs. His back was suddenly clear of acne.

I could also point to his homers per at-bat ratio.

From 2004 through 2007, he hit 69 homers in 1,561 at-bats — one every 23 at-bats. For the rest of his career, he was homering nearly every 15 at-bats.

But I’m reluctant to use that stat. Obvious reason. He was on the tail end of his career, turning 39 in his final season.

In making my call on this vote, I also look to respected colleagues who covered Piazza when he was with the New York Mets. They have also strong suspicions he was using PEDs.

Of course, there are some writers who ignore the whole drug thing and vote strictly on the numbers only.

One writer boasted of casting a ballot that included Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire and Piazza.

A tracker of writers who make their ballot public before the announcement is official noted he has counted eight first-time voters who included Piazza on their ballots.

Piazza does have a good shot of making it. Now in his third year on the ballot, he drew 57.8 percent of the votes in his first year and 62.2 percent last year. It takes 75 percent to be elected.

Picking a Hall of Famer isn’t all about the numbers. At least not in baseball. Character counts.

And I’m not talking about taking points off for Ty Cobb’s rough ways and high-flying spikes. Or even Babe Ruth’s reported carousing.

Those things didn’t detract from their ability to play the game. In Ruth’s case, it might have hurt him.

But doing things like using PEDs – just to get an edge in a game – is a no-no in my book.

Until this year, players nominated by a special committee to be on the ballot could stay on for 15 years, as long as they he received at least 5 percent of the votes.

Starting this year, the duration was cut back to 10 years. Three players – Don Mattingly (15th year), Alan Trammell (14th) and Lee Smith (13th) – are grandfathered into the previous rule.

Josh Wood, one of my Eagle colleagues and a keen observer of the process, thinks the Hall of Fame reduced the stay to 10 years so baseball could move away from the controversial PEDs period quicker. He may be right.

An eligible writer can vote for a maximum of 10 players. Here’s a brief rundown of my nine picks, in alphabetical order with number of years on the ballot.

Jeff Bagwell (5th): First baseman and catcher who played all 15 years with the Houston Astros. Career numbers of .294 batting average, 449 home runs (38th best all-time), 1,529 RBIs (49th), .540 slugging percentage (32nd).… Unanimously named National League MVP in 1994.… Hit over .300 six seasons.… His weak spot is a .226 batting average in 129 postseason at-bats.

Craig Biggio (3rd): Yes, there also has been talk that the longtime Astro used PEDs. He denies it. Of course, they all do. Difference for me is I believe him. This is a subjective process, after all.… A five-time All-Star, he came within two votes of being elected to the HOF last year..… Played all 20 years for the Astros. Career numbers include 3,060 hits (21st all-time), 668 doubles (5th), 1,844 runs (15th) and .281. Four Gold Gloves as a second baseman.… Biggio, Pete Rose, Derek Jeter and Rafael Palmeiro are only ones to get 3,000 hits who aren’t in the HOF. Jeter will be when he’s eligible in 2019.

Randy Johnson (1st): Big Unit. Enough said. The 6-foot-10 left-hander could freeze a hitter just by his presence on the mound.… His career strikeouts of 4,875 rank second.… Struck out more than 300 in a season six times.… 303 career victories with a .646 winning percentage.… Threw 57 shutouts, two no-hitters and one perfect game over his 22 seasons.… Struck out 132 in 121 postseason innings.… Went 3-0 in leading Arizona to the 2001 World Series title.… Won five Cy Young Awards.… League-leader in strikeouts nine times, ranking third all-time behind Walter Johnson (12) and Nolan Ryan (11).

Pedro Martinez (1st): Another lock this year. Three-time Cy Young winner over 18 seasons.… Won a pitcher’s equivalent to the triple crown by leading the American League in 1999 in wins (23), ERA (2.07) and strikeouts (313).… 219-100 for career. Winning percentage of .687 is sixth-best all-time.… One of four pitchers with at least 3,000 strikeouts (3,154) and less than 1,000 walks (760).… Postseason record of 6-4 with a 3.46 ERA in 16 appearances.

Tim Raines (8th): The switch-hitting outfielder, whose best years were with Montreal, was known as the “Rock” for good reason. He brought a spark that could turn a game around. He was a dominant leadoff hitter, though he was overshadowed in that role at the time by Rickey Henderson.… Career .294 batting average. Hit .300 or better in seven full seasons. Won National League batting title in 1986 at .334.… Had 808 stolen bases (fifth-best all-time). Efficient base stealer, recording success 84.7 percent of the time for eighth-best among players who attempted at least 100 steals. Ranks second behind Carlos Beltran among those who attempted at least 300 steals. Between 1981 and 1986, he averaged nearly 76 stolen bases.… Negative side: Part of baseball’s cocaine scandal in 1985. Admitted to using the drug. Not a PED.… Received 46.1 percent of votes last year.

Curt Schilling (3rd): Here’s proof I don’t let a player’s difficult personality with the media stand in the way of getting my vote.… Like Martinez, he’s one of four players with 3,000 strikeouts (3,116) and less than 1,000 walks (711).… Won more than 20 games three times.… Career 216-146 (.597) with an ERA of 3.46.… Sparkling postseason with 2.23 ERA and a 11-2 record. Winning percentage of .846 (third-best all-time).

Lee Smith (13th): I voted for him ever since he became eligible. Why not? The dominating, 6-foot-5, 220-pound right-hander was the game’s career saves leader (478) when he retired. Still ranks third.… Averaged 45.5 saves from 1991-93.… Had a 3.03 ERA for his 18-season career, spread over eight teams.… Had 1,251 strikeouts in just under 1,290 innings.

John Smoltz (1st): Only pitcher to have more than 200 victories and 150 saves.… One of the dominant pieces during the Atlanta Braves’ successful postseason run of the 1990s.… An ace starter for the Braves until he missed the 2000 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Came back as a reliever in 2001. Had 144 saves in 2002-04, the only three seasons he was the Braves’ closer.… Returned to starting in 2005 and won 44 games over next three seasons.… Career 213-155 with a 3.33 ERA.… He and Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley are the only ones with 20-win and 50-save seasons.… Career 3,084 strikeouts in 3,473 innings. Only 1,010 career walks.

Alan Trammell (14th): If Raines was the “Rock” for the Expos, Trammell was Detroit’s “Granite.” Spent all 20 seasons as a Tiger. Won four Gold Gloves as shortstop.… MVP of the 1984 World Series.… Seven seasons of hitting at least .300. Finished at .285 for career.… Career slugging percentage of .415 with 185 home runs.… Six-time All-Star.… Best value was his defense, which is slow to grab many voters’ attention. Best ballot year was receiving 36.8 percent in 2012.

Rick Plumlee, who retired from The Eagle last week after more than 39 years, covered the Royals for the paper from 1980 through 2008. He is a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America and has been a Hall of Fame voter since 1990.