Save for the actual inductions of this year’s six honorees — the late Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, and Mr Unanimity, Mariano Rivera, elected by the BBWAA last week and Harold Baines and Lee Smith by the Today’s Game Era Committee last month — the Hall of Fame circus is leaving town, at least until the July 19-22 induction weekend in Cooperstown. Before it departs, however, it’s time engage in my sixth annual attempt to gaze into the crystal ball to see what the next five elections will hold.
Admittedly, this is an exercise requiring some amount of imagination and speculation, though it is grounded in my research into the candidates and the history and mechanics of the voting. Having said that, the past half-decade of changes to the process raises the question of how valuable that history is, at least as a road map. As a response to the logjam of qualified candidates, the Hall’s own truncation of candidacies from 15 years to 10 — less to clean up the ballots than to move the intractable debate over PED-related candidates out of the spotlight — and its rejection of any variation from the long-standing 10-slot rule, the writers have responded by setting and breaking records for slots used per ballot, and for ballots filled to the max. As a result, the BBWAA has elected 20 players over the last six years, five more than in any other six-year stretch in voting history. We’ve had three quartets elected over the past five years, compared to two (plus the original 1936 quintet) over the previous 78 years.
What’s more, the current millennium has seen more candidates recover from slow starts than any other time in modern voting history. From 1966-2005, only three candidates recovered from debuts below 25% and eventually reached 75%: Duke Snider (17.0% in 1970, elected in 1981), Don Drysdale (21.0% in 1975, elected in 1984) and Billy Williams (23.4% in 1982, elected in 1987). Since then, we’ve seen four players elected despite such slow starts, including two in the past three 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 2017), and Mussina (20.3% in 2014, elected this year). We also saw Martinez recover from a fifth-year dive to 25.2%, compounded by the mid-candidacy loss of five years of eligibility, to gain entry, and next year, if all goes right, Larry Walker will get to 75% despite not only a first-year showing of 20.3% in 2011, but a low of 10.2% in 2014, and just 21.9% in 2017 before back-to-back big gains carried him to 54.6% this year. Suddenly, just about anything seems possible.
Because of that, I’ve had to revisit my long-term forecasts annually, as 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 how my view of the 2018 election and its quartet of honorees evolved over the years. In 2014, just a year removed from the BBWAA’s first shutout since 1996, I predicted that Chipper Jones and Raines, in his 11th year, would be elected in 2018, but later that summer came the aforementioned rule change. Meanwhile, I envisioned Jim Thome being elected in 2019, the final year of that window, with Vladimir Guerrero in the 45-55% range, Trevor 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 2018 yielded Jones and Thome, with Raines having fallen off in 2017, and Guerrero and Hoffman possibly above 60% by 2020, setting themselves up for 2021. Circa 2016, my view of 2018 had Hoffman going in alongside Jones and Thome, with Raines elected in 2017 and Guerrero in 2020. In 2017, I finally got 2018 right, naming the aforementioned fab four. 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. You may want to hold off wagering the baby’s freshman year tuition on my 2024 predictions.
For the sake of this exercise, I am assuming 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.
Top newcomers (listed in order of JAWS): Derek Jeter, Bobby Abreu, Jason Giambi, Cliff Lee, Alfonso Soriano
Top holdovers (listed by estimated percentage): Curt Schilling, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Larry Walker, Omar Vizquel
Most likely to be elected: Jeter, Walker
Falling off: None, assuming Walker’s election
With his 3,465 hits (sixth all-time), 14 All-Star appearances, and five championship rings, Jeter isn’t just a lock for Cooperstown, he’s got a decent chance to match Rivera’s unanimous showing even with his defensive shortcomings, particularly with the rockiness of his early tenure as part-owner of the Marlins now receding into the background. At worst, he’ll wind up with a top-10 share of the vote, which is to say, upwards of 97.3%.
He’ll be the only first-ballot guy this year, but isn’t the only newcomer. The criminally underrated Abreu — a career .291/.395/.475 (128 OPS+) hitter who hit 288 homers, stole 400 bases, but somehow made just two All-Star teams — has the second-highest JAWS among the newcomers (50.8), and while that’s nestled between Hall of Famers Dave Winfield and Guerrero in the JAWS rankings, where Abreu is 20th, he’s significantly below the bar. I’m not yet convinced he belongs, but Bill James and MLB Network’s Brian Kenny are already stumping for him, so perhaps I need to take a closer look; in any event, let us hope he sticks around the ballot.
The first-timers won’t lack for power: Adam Dunn hit 462 homers, Giambi 440, Paul Konerko 439, and Soriano 412. Yet of that group only Giambi has an OPS+ above 130 (139) or a JAWS above 30.0 (50.5/42.2/46.4), and his prominent position in BALCO probably consigns him to a fate not unlike that of Gary Sheffield; the rest will make even less of a dent on the ballot. Lee, with just 143 career wins and the 124th-highest JAWS among starting pitchers, will go one-and-done just as Johan Santana and Roy Oswalt did.
In last year’s edition of this, I had Mussina as a 2020 honoree, and never dreamed that Walker would have a shot at election; I was merely hoping the latter would get to 50% to give himself a shot on the 2022 Today’s Game Era Committee ballot. Now he needs almost to replicate this year’s 20.5% jump to get from 54.6% to 75%; in doing so, he would surpass Ralph Kiner (58.9% in 1974) for the lowest penultimate percentage of any honoree. Having seen the way electorates closed ranks around Raines and Martinez in their final years of eligibility, I’m hopeful that the same will be true for Walker, particularly at a time when voters will be less crunched for ballot space. Schilling, the top returning candidate with 60.9% could make the jump as well — sparing me the need to ponder voting for him when I get my own first ballot in 2021 — but somehow I don’t think I’ll get quite that lucky. Vizquel, who polled at 42.8% this year, could cross the 50% threshold; by now it’s clear that despite the resistance of statheads, he’s on a path to election.
Bonds and Clemens will finally break 60%, but aren’t likely to move much more quickly than they have the past two cycles, over which they’ve gained 5.3% and 5.4%, respectively. Without such a crunch, down-ballot guys such as third-year candidates Scott Rolen and Andruw Jones, second-year candidates Todd Helton and Andy Pettitte, and longer-lingering holdovers such as Jeff Kent (seventh year), Gary Sheffield (sixth year), Billy Wagner (fifth year), and Manny Ramirez (fourth year) should all see substantial gains.
The first year I’ll have a ballot will be the weakest one for newcomers since 2012, as none is anywhere close to the JAWS standard at his position or has a notable milestone that will fuel his candidacy. Note that there won’t be a single candidate in his 10th year, as nobody from 2012 even made it onto the 2014 ballot.
Hudson won 222 games and finished with a 120 ERA+, but he ranks just 81st in JAWS, far below Schilling, Mussina, and Halladay (27th, 29th, and 43rd, respectively). Buehrle, with his 214 wins and 116 ERA+, ranks 88th, 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 33rd among center fielders in JAWS, nowhere near as good as the Kenny Lofton/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 by the defensive metrics, leaving him just 60th in JAWS among third basemen.
All of which suggests that this will be another year for holdovers such as Kent, Sheffield, Rolen, Helton and Jones to step forward, though the top candidates by this point are likely to be the controversial trio of Bonds, Clemens, and Schilling. Two years ago I believed this would be the Gruesome Twosome’s opening, with Schilling a year behind, but if the latter falls short in 2020, he’s got a golden opportunity here, if he can avoid alienating people during an election year, something he was unable to do in 2016. 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.
Top newcomers: Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz, Mark Teixeira, Jimmy Rollins, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon
Top holdovers: Bonds, Clemens, Vizquel, Rolen, Helton, Kent, Wagner
Most likely to be elected: 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. Right now, their chances don’t look so hot, as it appears that there’s a large enough bloc to filibuster them, but two more years of voter turnover will keep them inching towards 75% nonetheless. This ballot, which will introduce the candidacies of Rodriguez and Ortiz, will place the conversation about PEDs front and center, and you can expect a fairly heated election cycle. Buckle up.
Despite his 696 home runs and 117.8 WAR, Rodriguez will almost certainly be consigned to down-ballot purgatory due to his full-year suspension for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal, ahead of twice-suspended Ramirez (who has maxed out at 23.8%) but not by much. Both Rodriguez and Ortiz (and Ramirez, for that matter) reportedly failed the 2003 survey test, which commissioner Rob Manfred basically disavowed during the latter’s retirement tour, on the basis of “issues and ambiguities” that were never resolved, so voters can’t hold that episode 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 — including andro, BALCO, and much of what wound up in the Mitchell Report — and what happened after, so if MLB couldn’t discipline Ortiz, or Bonds or Clemens, or Sosa (who will age off the ballot this year 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 2004-2013. On the other hand, there’s the stigma of his having spent 88% of his career at designated hitter, accumulating a respectable but hardly spectacular 55.3 WAR. But just as his retirement tour gave Martinez (72% of his career at DH, 68.4 WAR) a significant boost towards election, his election in turn will persuade many that the only other competitor for the position’s greatest practitioner belongs in Cooperstown as well. Still, it’s going to look quite strange if voters tab him while turning their noses up at the much more complete and dominant Bonds (162.8 WAR) and Clemens (139.6 WAR), when the league had no means of disciplining any of them. Good times.
Beyond Ortiz and Rodriguez, it’s difficult to see any other newcomer making a dent. Rollins will have his adherents, but he only made 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 (the Rule of 2,000). Neither Nathan (377 saves in 923.1 innings) nor Papelbon (368 saves in 725 innings) can match Wagner or Hoffman in the most traditional yardsticks for relievers; 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-choking videos for laughs.
The modest crop will leave a lot of room for holdovers, though by this point, we shouldn’t expect the kind of fervor that has greeted ballots over the past six years, during which voters have included at least 7.95 names per ballot, breaking the modern record three times. Still, Vizquel could be pushing 60% by this point, even with a whole lot of analytically-minded voters less than convinced of his merits. On the flip side, analytical favorites such as Rolen and Helton could be picking up steam, perhaps in the 40%-50% range. Or maybe it’s Kent, in his ninth year, benefiting from the dearth of non-PED-linked players with impressive career totals. By this point, I’m throwing darts.
Top newcomers: Carlos Beltran, John Lackey, Jered Weaver, Jhonny Peralta, Francisco Rodriguez
Top holdovers: Vizquel, Rolen, Helton, Kent, Wagner, Alex Rodriguez, Jones
Most likely to be elected: Ortiz, Beltran
Falling off: Kent
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 eight ranking among center fielders in JAWS, Beltran should break through where Lofton, Edmonds, Jones, and Hunter have come up short. His October prowess will make for a fitting Cooperstown companionship with Ortiz, particularly given the 10th anniversary of the year the pair squared off in the World Series.
The rest of the ballot is slim pickings. Lackey, whose 33.5 JAWS is second among the incoming class of candidates, ranks 213th among starting pitchers, and again, 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 off-field concerns 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.
By this point, I expect Kent to have climbed his way into similar territory as Alan Trammell and Fred McGriff did in order to set themselves up for Era Committees (the Crime Dog could even be in by this point, as he’ll be eligible for the 2022 Today’s Game slate). Vizquel will be above 60%, and I expect Rolen to be as well. Wagner, Helton, and Jones should be in the vicinity of 50%.
Top newcomers: Adrian Beltre, Ichiro Suzuki, Chase Utley, Joe Mauer, Wright
Top holdovers: Vizquel, Rolen, Helton, Kent, Wagner, Alex Rodriguez, Jones
Most likely to be elected: Beltre, Suzuki, Mauer
Falling off: Sheffield
We close out this five-year look with the players who hung up their spikes after the 2018 season, starting with Beltre. With 3,166 hits, 477 homers, the number two ranking in fielding runs at the hot corner and the number four ranking there in JAWS, he’ll not only waltz into Cooperstown, he may well be one who flirts with unanimity. That’s 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.
Speaking of players with over 3,000 hits, time spent in Seattle, and a chance at unanimity, Suzuki has a shot as well. That said, the former MVP, 10-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove winner, who turned 45 in October, just signed a minor-league deal with the Mariners, with the intent of playing again; whether it’s just for the team’s season-opening two-game series in Japan or longer, such a stint would delay his Hall eligibility by a year. Until that happens, he’s slotted here.
Mauer, a six-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner, three-time batting champion (the only catcher who can claim that distinction) and former MVP winner himself, ranks seventh 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. A hometown success story and the rare overall number one pick who lived up to his billing, he’s a player likely to get an extra bump in the character department, which is sure to stir up the faction of Twins fans still mad online about his salary. See you in Cooperstown.
Less likely to wind up there, at least on the 2024 ballot, is Utley. Despite the fact that he never drew 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, as he finished with just 1,885 hits. 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 to that point — Wright was on a path that conceivably could have carried him to Cooperstown, but spinal stenosis and shoulder injuries derailed him, finally forcing 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 at all surprised if he sticks around on what will be a much less crowded ballot than more recent candidates such as Santana, Oswalt, and Lance Berkman faced.
As for the holdovers, I’m not yet convinced any of them will knocking on the 75% door by this point, though Vizquel and Rolen could be close. That leaves me with an estimate of just 10 players elected by the writers over the next five years, nine if Suzuki plays in 2019, seven if Bonds and Clemens fail to get over the hump, and six if Walker can’t quite get to 75% next year.
That’s a drastic change from the past six years, and it certainly leaves room for some candidates to fill the void. Perhaps the candidacies of Wagner, Rolen, and Helton will pick up momentum with the speed of those of Raines, Martinez, and Walker. But even if they do, it’s obvious that the times are a-changing from what we’ve come to expect in recent years. The ballot crunch will have lessened, 10-candidate slates will become more rare, and after Bonds and Clemens clear the ballot one way or another in 2022, the battles over who belongs in Cooperstown might not be quite so heated. That isn’t a bad thing at all.
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.