Big Battles Looming: the Next Five Years of BBWAA Hall of Fame Elections

Derek Jeter and Larry Walker have punched their tickets to Cooperstown, and this year’s Hall of Fame election is in the books, but before the circus leaves town, it’s time engage in my seventh annual attempt to gaze into the crystal ball to see what the next five elections will hold. As I note annually, this exercise requires some amount of imagination and speculation, and while it’s grounded in my research into the candidates and the history and mechanics of the voting, the changes to the process that have occurred during the time I’ve been conducting this exercise raise the question of how valuable that history is from a prognostication standpoint. It’s tough to get a fix on the horizon when the earth keeps shaking.

Make no mistake: when it comes to the BBWAA’s voting patterns and process over the past seven years, the earth has moved. The writers’ streak of electing multiple candidates for seven consecutive years is unprecedented, as is the surge of 22 honorees in that span. We’ve had three quartets elected over the past six years, compared to two (plus the original quintet) over the previous 78 years. All of this has happened amid changes to both the terrain and the rules. A logjam of qualified candidates unprecedented in modern voting history contributed to the Hall unilaterally truncating candidacies from 15 years to 10 via a 2014 rule change, less to clean up the ballots than to move the intractable debate over PED-related candidates out of the spotlight. With the BBWAA’s subsequent proposals to adjust the longstanding 10-slot rule and to publish every ballot both rejected by the Hall’s board of directors, voters have responded by setting and breaking records for slots used per ballot, percentage of ballots filled to the max, percentage of ballots revealed to the public either before or after the election, and the highest share of the votes for a given candidate. It’s been a wild ride.

Below the surface, and expanding the time horizon a bit, the current millennium has seen more candidates recover from slow starts than at any other time in modern voting history, which for our purposes dates back to 1966, when the voters returned to casting ballots annually. From 1966-2005, only three candidates recovered from debuts below 25% and eventually reached 75%: Duke Snider (17.0% in 1970, elected in ’81), Don Drysdale (21.0% in 1975, elected in ’84) and Billy Williams (23.4% in 1982, elected in ’87). Since then, we’ve seen five players elected despite such slow starts, including three in the past four years: Bruce Sutter (23.9% in 1994, elected in 2006), Bert Blyleven (17.5% in 1998, elected in 2011), Tim Raines (24.3% in 2008, elected in ’17), Mike Mussina (20.3% in 2014, elected in ’19), and Walker (20.3% in 2011). In 2014, the year that the Hall truncated eligibility windows, Walker even nosedived to 10.2%, the second-lowest mark received by any BBWAA-elected candidate in the modern voting era, and that same year, Edgar Martinez scraped bottom at 25.2% at what became the halfway point of his candidacy. Given such recoveries, just about anything seems possible.

Because of that, I’ve annually had to revisit my long-term forecasts, because any given year’s incorrect assumptions wind up creating a ripple effect, so it’s back to the drawing board each time. For example, consider my view of the 2018 election and its quartet of honorees (Vladimir Guerrero, Trevor Hoffman, Chipper Jones, and Jim Thome). In 2014, just a year removed from the BBWAA’s first shutout since 1996, I predicted Raines, in his 11th year, would join the first-ballot Jones in ’18, but later that summer came the aforementioned rule change. Meanwhile, I envisioned Thome being elected in 2019, the final year of that window, with Guerrero in the 45-55% range, Hoffman in the 30% range, and 11 players elected over the five year span; instead, with voters breaking the slots-per-ballot record three times, we got 16, the largest five-year surge in Hall history.

In 2015, my forecast for ’18 yielded Jones and Thome, with Raines having fallen off in ’17, and Guerrero and Hoffman possibly above 60% by ’20, setting themselves up for ’21. Circa 2016, I had Hoffman going in alongside Jones and Thome, with Raines elected in ’17 and Guerrero in ’20. In 2017 I finally got ’18 right. It was the first time I had even gotten the next year’s entire slate right since my 2015 forecast for Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza in ’16. So hold off wagering the baby’s freshman year tuition on my 2024 predictions.

For what it’s worth, I got 2020 right from the vantage of ’19. Within the context of this exercise, it never took any imagination to predict Jeter’s election, but my prediction for the companions alongside did change: in 2015, I predicted he’d be joined by Ivan Rodriguez (instead elected in 2017); in ’16 it was Guerrero (elected in ’18), and in ’17 and ’18, it was Mussina.

For the sake of this exercise, I am assuming that the Hall will keep the 10 votes per ballot system in place, with a 5% minimum to avoid falling off and 10 years of eligibility for new candidates. Note that each ballot’s year refers to the year of induction; that ballot is released in November of the previous year, with ballots due on December 31. To be eligible, a candidate must not have played in the majors for five full seasons, but his eligibility year will actually be six years after his last appearance.

2021

Top newcomers (listed in order of JAWS): Tim Hudson, Mark Buehrle, Torii Hunter, Dan Haren, Barry Zito, Aramis Ramirez
Top holdovers (listed in order of voting percentage): Curt Schilling, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Omar Vizquel
Most likely to be elected: Schilling
Falling off: None

If you thought this year’s crop of 18 newcomers — of whom only Jeter and one other holdover, Bobby Abreu cleared 5% — was comparatively thin, wait ’til next year. The first year that I’ll have a ballot will be the weakest one for newcomers since 2012, as none of them are anywhere close to the JAWS standard at their positions or have notable milestones that will fuel their candidacies. Note that there won’t be a single candidate in his 10th year, as nobody from 2012 even made it onto the ’14 ballot. Given that voters used just 6.61 slots per ballot this year (down from 8.01 last year and a modern record of 8.46 the year before) and just 21% went to 10 slots (down from 43% last year and 50% the year before), it’s reasonable to assume that we won’t see a rebound.

Hudson won 222 games and finished with a 120 ERA+, but ranks just 83rd in JAWS, far below Schilling as well as Mussina and his fellow 2019 honoree, the late Roy Halladay (27th, 29th, and 46th, respectively). Buehrle, with his 214 wins and 116 ERA+, ranks 89th, and Pettitte 90th, while Haren is more than 100 notches below that (though if Schilling’s Twitter feed can hinder his candidacy, maybe Haren’s can help his). Hunter has 2,452 hits, 353 homers and nine Gold Gloves, but he’s 34th among centerfielders in JAWS, nowhere near as good as the Kenny Lofton/Andruw Jones/Jim Edmonds cluster from 10th to 15th — and two of those three were done in by the Five Percent Rule. Ramirez had some thump (386 homers and a .492 slugging percentage) but is 84 runs below average via the defensive metrics, leaving him just 60th in JAWS among third basemen.

All of which suggests that as with 2020, mid-ballot candidates such as Scott Rolen, Billy Wagner, Gary Sheffield, Todd Helton, and Jones — all of whom gained at least 10 points from 2018 to ’19, and all but the last of whom finished in the 29% to 36% range — will continue to step forward. Vizquel, who gained 9.8% and crossed the all-important 50% threshold, and Jeff Kent, who gained 9.4% but was leapfrogged by the 10-point gainers except Jones, should see increases as well, and there’s certainly room for Abreu, who scraped by with 5.5%, to improve.

Closer to the top, Schilling, who received 70.0% this year, is a near-lock to get to 75%, albeit less of one given his unrivaled power of self-sabotage. He could be standing on a very lonely stage, however. Three years ago, I believed that this year would be the opening for the Gruesome Twosome of Bonds and Clemens, but each has gained just 6.9% in the three cycles since, and the math now looks difficult for them to get to 75% before their time on the ballot runs out, let alone a year earlier. Cooperstown better root hard for somebody to break through on the Era Committee ballots, specifically the Golden Days and Early Baseball ones — Dick Allen and Tony Oliva missed by one vote last time, Jim Kaat by two — to help draw people to an induction day that might otherwise be as appealing as a jar of mayonnaise left in the sun.

2022

Top newcomers: Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz, Mark Teixeira, Jimmy Rollins, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon
Top holdovers: Bonds, Clemens, Vizquel, Rolen, Helton, Wagner, Sheffield
Most likely to be elected (which isn’t to say that they will be): Bonds, Clemens
Falling off: Sosa

This, the 10th year of their candidacy, is obviously the last and probably the best chance for Bonds and Clemens to finally gain entry. Given that their momentum has ground to a halt, right now it appears that there may be a large enough bloc to filibuster them; while new voters have supported Clemens at a 90% clip over the past three cycles (and Bonds at 87%), they’ve each posted net gains of just seven votes from returning voters — changing a no to a yes — in that span, which is to say that very few minds are changing. Their candidacies need another shake-up on par with the ones that helped the pair gain 19-20 points from 2015 to ’17, namely the sunsetting of inactive voters and the Era Committee election of commissioner Bud Selig, who presided over the very mire into which the pair sank. Perhaps the ongoing discussion of illegal sign-stealing will serve as a reminder that no era is pure. Or perhaps the arrivals of candidates Rodriguez and Ortiz will lead to a more nuanced discussion of PEDs and the whole messy era. Yeah, right.

Despite his 696 home runs and 117.8 WAR, Rodriguez will likely be consigned to down-ballot purgatory due to his full-year suspension for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal, ahead of twice-suspended Manny Ramirez (who has maxed out at 28.2% in his fourth year) but not by much. Rodriguez, Ortiz, and Ramirez all reportedly failed the 2003 survey test, which commissioner Rob Manfred basically disavowed during Big Papi’s retirement tour, on the basis of “issues and ambiguities” that were never resolved, so voters can’t additionally hold that against A-Rod while suggesting that Ortiz is as pure as the driven snow. Which isn’t to say that I’m advocating voters hold the survey test against any player; I draw the line between what happened prior to the advent of testing and suspensions in 2004, and what happened after, and so if MLB couldn’t discipline Ortiz, or Bonds or Clemens, or Sosa (who will age off the ballot here if he hasn’t already slipped below 5%) or Mark McGwire, then I don’t think it’s the voters’ place to do so.

Instead, Ortiz’s candidacy should be considered on the merits. On the one hand are his 541 career home runs and great postseason numbers (.289/404/.543 with 17 homers) while serving as the centerpiece of the Red Sox’s three championships from 2004-13. On the other hand, there’s the stigma of his spending 88% of his career at designated hitter, accumulating a respectable but hardly spectacular 54.8 WAR. But just as Ortiz’s retirement tour gave Martinez (72% of his career at DH, 68.4 WAR) a significant boost towards his eventual election, Martinez’s presence in Cooperstown will persuade many that the only rival for the top DH of all time belongs there as well. Still, it’s going to look quite strange if voters tab him while turning their noses up at Bonds (162.8 WAR) and Clemens (139.2 WAR), when the league had no means of disciplining any of them. I’d expect a strong debut but not instant anointment.

Beyond Ortiz and Rodriguez, it’s difficult to see any other newcomers making a dent. Rollins will have his adherents, but he made only three All-Star appearances and ranks just 32nd among shortstops in JAWS, ahead of only two Hall of Famers, Phil Rizzuto and Rabbit Maranville (not to mention Vizquel). Teixeira didn’t even reached 2,000 hits, and voters haven’t elected any player from the post-1960 expansion era who failed to do so. Neither Nathan (377 saves in 923.1 innings) nor Papelbon (368 saves in 725 innings) can match Wagner or the enshrined relievers in the most traditional yardsticks for the role; Nathan is slightly ahead of Hoffman and Wagner in JAWS, and just below the pair in my WAR-WPA-WPA/LI hybrid stat, with Papelbon ninth there. I don’t see either getting as much support as Wagner could have by this time, though we’ll get to dust off Papelbon’s crotch-grabbing and Bryce Harper confrontation videos for laughs.

By this point, Vizquel could be in the 60-65% range, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Rolen were over 50%, with Sheffield, Helton, and Wagner approaching the mark. But if Bonds and Clemens don’t get to 75%, it could be a completely dry year for Cooperstown unless the 2022 Today’s Game Era Committee tabs a warm body such as first-time eligibles Bruce Bochy and Fred McGriff, or 2019 near-miss Lou Piniella.

2023

Top newcomers: Carlos Beltrán, John Lackey, Jered Weaver, Jhonny Peralta, Francisco Rodríguez
Top holdovers: Vizquel, Rolen, Helton, Kent, Wagner, Alex Rodriguez, Jones
Most likely to be elected: Ortiz
Falling off: Kent

My own reservations about Ortiz aside, I do think the consensus will be large enough to push him over the top rather quickly, particularly if the writers don’t elect anybody in 2022. A year ago, I believed that he’d be joined by Carlos Beltrán, who would quickly break through where Lofton, Edmonds, Jones, and Hunter had come up short. He’s got a Hall-caliber resumé, with nine All-Star appearances, three Gold Gloves, 2,725 hits, 435 homers, outstanding postseason numbers (.307/.412/.609 with 16 homers), and the number nine ranking among center fielders in JAWS. However, the recent report of Beltrán’s central role in the Astros’ 2017 illegal sign-stealing saga, which cost him his managerial job with the Mets before he’d even set foot in the dugout, is obviously a setback. Right now we don’t know the extent to which voters will hold it against him, in part because we haven’t seen if this scandal will expand. Even if it doesn’t, will his participation be regarded as a Rafael Palmeiro-level offense, from his final playing year but nonetheless viewed as disqualifying? Or will it be more like the Roberto Alomar spitting incident, a rare lapse that merely delays the celebration by a year? Nobody knows right now, but it’s unlikely he breezes in on the first ballot. Right now, I’d guess he’s more likely to start in the 40-50% range, then make slow but steady gains towards election.

As far as the newcomers go, the rest of the ballot is slim pickings. Lackey is 214th in JAWS among starting pitchers, and he’s the best of the bunch. Rodriguez, despite his 437 career saves in 976 innings, is 35th in JAWS among relievers, and 12th in my hybrid stat, and he comes with some significant baggage regarding multiple criminal charges, including a guilty plea to third-degree assault for attacking his girlfriend’s father in 2010 and a 2012 arrest for a domestic abuse charge. He’s not getting elected.

Kent, whose lack of traction with voters has always surprised me even given his underwhelming WAR and JAWS, will be in his final year. While he won’t be close to election, I expect him to have climbed into the 40% range, setting himself up well for an Era Committee vote, as Alan Trammell did and as I expect McGriff to do. Vizquel will be in the high 60s, and I expect Rolen to be above 60% tool. The Wagner/Helton/Sheffield group should be in the vicinity of 50%, with at least one having crossed the mark.

2024

Top newcomers: Adrián Beltré, Chase Utley, Joe Mauer, David Wright, Bartolo Colon
Top holdovers: Vizquel, Rolen, Helton, Wagner, Beltrán, Alex Rodriguez, Jones
Most likely to be elected: Beltré, Mauer
Falling off: Sheffield

At least in terms of newcomers, this ballot will harken back to the period we’ve just experienced thanks to the high-profile newcomers, a class that would have included Ichiro Suzuki as well if not for his two-game cameo at the start of the 2019 season. No matter. The top-shelf talent starts with Beltré, whose 3,166 hits, 477 homers, number two ranking in fielding runs at the hot corner and the number four ranking in JAWS will set up an easy waltz into Cooperstown — a remarkable turn of events given that when he left Seattle after the 2009 season, he had never made an All-Star team and his inability to live up to his big 2004 walk year made him something of a disappointment.

Mauer, a six-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner, three-time batting champion (the only catcher who can claim that) and former MVP winner himself, ranks eighth in JAWS among catchers. Forced off the position due to post-concussion problems, he spent the last five seasons of his career as a more or less league average first baseman, but even with that handicap, and with just 921 games caught, his seven-year peak — all from his years behind the plate — ranks fifth, behind only Gary Carter, Johnny Bench, Mike Piazza, and Ivan Rodriguez. The hometown success story and overall number one pick who lived up to his billing, he’s likely to get an extra bump in the character department, which is sure to stir up the faction of Twins fans still mad about his salary. See you in Cooperstown.

Less likely to wind up there, at least on this ballot, is Utley. Despite not drawing more than 300 plate appearances in a season until age 26, he ranks 11th in JAWS among second baseman (and ninth in peak) thanks to the tremendous impact of his fielding and baserunning. Alas, if voters’ failure to recognize him in the MVP races and Gold Glove awards didn’t already make it apparent that he’s facing an uphill battle, I fear that he’ll become a victim of the Rule of 2,000. Nobody from the post-1960 expansion era who finished with fewer than 2,000 hits has been elected by the writers or the small committees, and due to injuries and his acceptance of a part-time role in his final years, Utley finished with just 1,885. That said, five years down the line, with an electorate sophisticated enough not to rely solely on career totals as a yardstick, he’ll receive substantial support, and we can hope he eventually gets his plaque.

With seven All-Star appearances and 50.1 WAR through his age-31 season (2014) — 11th among third basemen — Wright was on a path that conceivably could have carried him to Cooperstown, but spinal stenosis and other injuries derailed him and finally forced him into retirement this past fall. His 40.2 WAR peak score is short of the Hall standard (43.0), and his 1,777 hits leave him well short of 2,000, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he sticks around a much less crowded ballot than more recent short-career candidates such as Johan Santana, Roy Oswalt, and Lance Berkman faced.

[Update: As one reader pointed out, I neglected to include Colon here, a consequence of the lack of clarity over whether he had retired after going jobless following the 2018 season. The rotund righty spent 21 years in the majors and won 247 games thanks in large part to one of the great third acts in baseball history. After tearing his rotator cuff in the 2005 postseason, just after putting together a campaign that won him the Cy Young award, he spent four years coming and going from various rosters and was out of baseball completely in 2010 before re-emerging with the Yankees following a radical stem cell treatment. He put together some big seasons for the A’s and Mets, earning All-Star honors twice after age 40 and became an unlikely fan favorite despite getting pinched for PEDs in 2012. Sticking around past his 45th birthday and tipping the scales in the 285-pound range, “Big Sexy” racked up 247 wins, and while his 40.8 JAWS merely ranks him 143rd among starters, he’ll probably get a bit of token support as a nod towards the fun he brought to the game in the age of social media, never moreso than when he hit one of history’s most unlikely home runs on May 7, 2016.]

As for the holdovers, even as Vizquel edges closer to 75%, this ballot probably won’t be his opening, and likewise for Rolen, who’s Hallworthy but not the automatic choice that Beltré is. Helton and Wagner should be over 50% by this point, and Sheffield will surge past the mark if he hasn’t already gotten there, making his case an interesting one for an Era Committee to consider.

2025

Top newcomers: CC Sabathia, Ichiro Suzuki, Ian Kinsler, Brian McCann
Top holdovers: Vizquel, Rolen, Beltran, Helton, Wagner, Alex Rodriguez, Utley
Most likely to be elected: Suzuki, Vizquel, Rolen
Falling off: Wagner

The debate surrounding electoral unanimity is silly — a Hall of Famer is a Hall of Famer, and they don’t put a brownie button or even a mention of getting 100% of the vote on the plaque — but if any upcoming candidate has a shot, it’s Ichiro, who racked up 3,089 hits stateside despite not debuting until age 27. The former MVP, two-time batting champ, 10-time All-Star, 10-time Gold Glove winner, and international ambassador of baseball would have turned the 2024 class into an embarrassment of riches, but his season-opening two-game cameo in Japan last year pushed his eligibility back a year. Whether or not he runs the table among BBWAA voters, he’ll be a first-ballot honoree. “There are few players in the history of organized baseball who have brought this joy to more people — spanning continents, crossing decades — than Ichiro,” wrote colleague Rachael McDaniel last year. That’s the kind of impact that propelled Rivera and Jeter towards unanimity, and it will do the same for Suzuki.

Such a discussion, I think, will also help to push Vizquel over the 75% threshold after a long and polarizing battle; many a voter has already justified their voting for the slick shortstop on grounds that have more to do with aesthetics and intangibles than raw or advanced statistics. The good news is that a conversation about what defensive metrics do tell us will get Rolen to the finish line as well.

Sabathia has a strong pair of traditional milestones — 250 wins and 3,000 strikeouts — to go with his Cy Young award (plus five other top-five finishes in the voting) and his championship ring. He’s a little light on JAWS (51.2, 69th all-time), but the second act of his career, which saw him confront his alcoholism and remake himself as a finesse pitcher after his mid-90s fastball had faded, makes for a compelling narrative that will appeal to voters. Note that there were a considerable amount of “future Hall of Famer” tributes in his final season. I think he’ll be elected, but not on the first ballot unless a bit of traffic — specifically Vizquel and Rolen — clears up ahead of him.

Kinsler, who retired with 1,999 hits(!!!), ranks a very respectable 18th in JAWS. He isn’t quite the equal of Utley, at the plate (107 OPS+ to 117), on the bases, or in the field (118 DRS to 141, in more playing time), though, and given a shortish career, I don’t see him making electoral headway. Likewise for McCann, who caught for eight playoff-bound teams in his 15-year career, bashed 282 homers, and rated as one of the era’s top pitch framers but wore down significantly after age 32, playing in just 245 games over his final three seasons.

With Vizquel and Rolen out of the way, Helton and Beltrán, by this point, should be positioned next in line, with Wagner lined up to follow Lee Smith into Cooperstown via a future Today’s Game vote. All of that’s beyond my 2025 window, which means that I’m estimating only nine honorees, the lowest total I’ve predicted at any point of doing this exercise — and that’s with the big ifs of Bonds and Clemens gaining entry in 2022. The times have changed, and while last year I suggested that the lessening of the ballot crunch and the clearance of its most polarizing candidates could make future debates less heated, the controversy around sign stealing, and specifically Beltrán, could provide new fuel for the fire. At least it will feel like old times.

We hoped you liked reading Big Battles Looming: the Next Five Years of BBWAA Hall of Fame Elections by Jay Jaffe!

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Anon
Member
Anon

He’s not yet officially retired, but unless somebody picks him up this year Bartolo Colon would appear on that 2024 ballot since he didn’t pitch at all last year.

With Beltran and Beltre retiring the last couple years, Colon is also the last chance at a 4-decade guy for the 2020’s (ie, played in the 90’s, 00’s, 10’s and 20’s). If he doesn’t play this year, it’ll be the 1st decade since the 1940’s without a 4-decade guy (though the 70’s only qualifies due to the Minnie Minoso stunt appearance in 1976)

TKDC
Member
Member
TKDC

You’re overlooking the possibility of another Rick Ankiel comeback.

The Duke
Member
The Duke

Colon might get into the Omar vizquel/Harold Baines wing of the hall. Good forever but never great.

Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

Except the whole concept of a “4-decade guy” is flawed, since the decade doesn’t technically end until the end of 2020.

(There is no Year 0 on the Julian and Gregorian calendars, so the 1st Century is from 1 to 100, while the 21st Century is from 2001 to 2100. Likewise, the division of decades should follow the same rule.)