Jay Jaffe’s 2021 Hall of Fame Ballot

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2021 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

By any measure, my first opportunity to cast an official Hall of Fame ballot has been a long time coming. It’s been 10 years since I was admitted to the Baseball Writers Association of America, 17 since I introduced the system that became JAWS, 19 since I first broke down a BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot (making this my 20th election covered), and 51 since I arrived on this planet, kicking and screaming. That paper ballot, the most long-awaited envelope I’ve received since I applied to college, arrived on November 18, and while I’ve mostly known whom I planned to include all along, I went through my full process, give or take a few one-and-done stragglers whom I’ll cover in early January — just as I’ve done with my virtual ballots in years past — before arriving at my final slate.

The irony in getting a ballot in this particular year is that by the standards of recent elections, it’s a dud. A total of 14 players have been elected in their first year of eligibility over the past seven cycles, but this year’s first-year crop has nobody of that caliber. And in the wake of three beloved players overcoming minimal early support to gain entry on their final tries — namely Tim Raines, Edgar Martinez, and Larry Walker — there’s much less in the way of impending drama. Which isn’t to say that from among this year’s 25 candidates there aren’t some worthy of following in that trio’s footsteps, with the voting body won over by the efforts of statheads such as myself, but the best of those are a few years away from reaching 75%. Meanwhile, the top four returning candidates are particularly polarizing, with only one really within striking distance during this cycle. We’ve had far more fun with this process in years past, and we’ll have more fun with it in the future, but this year, there’s far less sunshine and fewer lollipops to go around. How very 2020.

If there’s good news, it’s that with a record 22 candidates elected over those seven cycles, what was once a nearly unmanageable backlog has cleared up. Circa 2014, the ballot had 17 players who exceeded the JAWS standards at their respective positions, and 14 who had a JAWS of at least 50.0 (or 40.0 for catchers), thus requiring all but the most small-Hall-minded voters to perform some kind of triage to winnow the field down to 10 candidates who could fit on their ballots.

Even so, there’s still no such thing as a perfect ballot. With my annual exercise comes an acknowledgement of the numerous subjective choices that go into selecting even the most objectively-minded slate. How much leeway to grant if one is using WAR and JAWS? How much emphasis to put on postseason performance, awards, and less quantifiable considerations? Where to draw the line with performance-enhancing drugs? Should we weight the things we’ve learned about these players’ off-field lives that we can’t stomach? Perfection may be unattainable, but that’s not to say it’s not worth pursuing, and if we don’t get there… well, we do the best we can.

With that ample preamble out of the way, we turn to the actual slate. Here are the top 17 candidates on the ballot, the ones in serious consideration for those 10 precious spots (beyond the odd courtesy vote):

Top 2021 Hall of Fame Candidates by JAWS Margin
Rk YoB Standards Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS Margin
Barry Bonds 9 3 162.8 72.7 117.7 64.1
Roger Clemens 9 3 139.2 65.9 102.6 41.0
Curt Schilling 9 2 79.5 48.6 64.1 2.5
Scott Rolen 4 3 70.1 43.6 56.9 1.2
Manny Ramirez 5 2 69.3 39.9 54.6 1.0
Todd Helton 3 1 61.8 46.6 54.2 -0.6
Andruw Jones 4 1 62.7 46.4 54.6 -3.4
Sammy Sosa 9 1 58.6 43.8 51.2 -6.0
Bobby Abreu 2 0 60.2 41.6 50.9 -6.3
Gary Sheffield 7 0 60.5 38.0 49.3 -7.9
Billy Wagner 6 0 27.7 19.8 23.7 -8.9
Jeff Kent 8 0 55.4 35.8 45.6 -11.4
Tim Hudson 1 0 57.9 38.3 48.1 -13.5
Mark Buehrle 1 0 59.1 35.8 47.4 -14.2
Andy Pettitte 3 0 60.2 34.1 47.2 -14.4
Torii Hunter 1 0 50.7 30.8 40.7 -17.3
Omar Vizquel 4 0 45.6 26.8 36.2 -19.1
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
JAWS Margin = difference between individual player’s JAWS and position standard. Yellow shading = meets standard at position.

Of this year’s five candidates who exceed the JAWS standards, three top the career WAR and peak WAR standards as well (down from five last year). Two more top the career and JAWS standards but not the peak one, while three others top only the peak standards. Those tallies are represented in the “Standards” column in the table above, with the yellow squares highlighting the particular standards met. Among those who don’t meet any standards are three players I classify as “candidates of interest,” namely Abreu, Sheffield, and Wagner — players who fall shy on JAWS but about whom I remain particularly open-minded, for reasons explained below.

Three others are candidates who have garnered enough support from other voters to remain on the ballot for multiple years, but are along for the ride here as far as I’m concerned. If you want to know more about why Kent, Pettitte, and Vizquel don’t make my cut, I’ve got a few thousand words to that effect with regards to each. Likewise with regards to the three most prominent first-year candidates, Buehrle, Hudson, and Hunter.

That leaves 11 candidates competing for the 10 spots on my ballot. The easy thing to do would be to identify the one candidate I feel the least compelled to vote for and call it a day, but if you’ve been reading through the entire series, you know I’ve already singled two of them out, and have remained noncommittal on a couple of others. For the first time since I began this particular exercise in 2013, I’m not married to the idea that I need to use all 10 spots. Still, I’ll show my work.

First off, as I’ve said repeatedly throughout this series, when it comes to candidates connected to performance-enhancing drugs, I draw a line between those whose allegations date to the time when the game had no testing regimen or means of punishment (i.e., prior to 2004) and those that came afterwards. With no means of enforcing a paper ban, and with players flouting such a ban being rewarded left and right amid what was truly a complete institutional failure that implicated owners, the commissioner, and the players’ union as well as the players, I simply don’t think voters can apply a retroactive morality to say that a Bonds or a Clemens or a Sosa shouldn’t be in the Hall on that basis alone. I’ve done enough research to believe that this is a reasonable place to start, but it must be acknowledged that there’s no consensus within the electorate over how to handle the issue, and voters’ views on the topic range from “performance only” to “hang ’em high at the first hint of suspicion.” This issue alone is the biggest impediment to a perfect ballot; some of us, voter or bystander, will never agree on how to handle the problem, and no solution will please everybody.

But anyway, two spots on my ballot go to Bonds, the all-time home run leader, and Clemens, the best pitcher since World War II. As noted within my profiles of the gruesome twosome, the pair made big gains on the 2016 and ’17 ballots and surpassed the 50% mark in the latter year, but have since seen their momentum slowed, each gaining just 6.9% over the past three cycles to bring them into the 61% range. My ballot will make them 3-for-3 among first-time voters (including colleague David Laurila), but right now it appears that they’re not flipping enough “no” votes to “yes” votes to get to 75% by the end of next year’s cycle.

Based on that same line I’ve drawn, I have to cross Ramirez off my list. On a performance-only basis, he would get my vote, as he’s one of the greatest hitters of all time; his 154 OPS+ ranks 20th among players with at least 7,000 PA. Right now, I can’t get past the two failed tests, not when better players who never tested positive are being kept out.

If you read Monday’s installment of this series, you also know that I’ve crossed Schilling off of my list, a decision that did not come lightly. Yes, he’s 27th among starters in JAWS, and stands as the best postseason pitcher of his generation, with an outstanding strikeout rate and the best strikeout-to-walk ratio since the pitching distance moved to 60-foot-6. Voters have been swayed by my research, and I’ve included him on six out of eight virtual ballots, leaving him off only in 2014 and ’19 due to the limitations of space.

As I’ve painstakingly detailed, Schilling has spent the past half-decade finding ways to offend just about everybody. An abridged list: fired from his job as an ESPN analyst for “unacceptable” conduct stemming from his posting of an offensive Facebook meme about transgender bathroom laws; praised a photo showing a pro-Donald Trump t-shirt that advocated lynching (“Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.”) by tweeting, “So much awesome here”; accused Orioles outfielder Adam Jones of lying about being subjected to racist taunts at Fenway Park; kept the company of white supremacists Paul Nehlen and Steve Bannon; shared numerous conspiracy theories including one suggesting that one of the survivors of the Parkland massacre was a paid crisis actor; devoted considerable attention over the past two months to parroting Donald Trump’s thoroughly discredited claims of election fraud, as well as at least one call for the President to declare martial law; and while amplifying a debunked claim that Dr. Anthony Fauci approved hydroxychloroquine as a cure for coronaviruses in 2005, called Dr. Fauci “a war criminal,” compared him to “the pile of steaming shit uncovered at Nuremberg and exposed 9/1/46,” and fostered fears of forced vaccinations.

That litany is so far beyond the pale that I refuse to put an X next to his name now that we’re playing for keeps. This isn’t about his politics (as Schilling so often claims), this is about his using his sizable platform to spread hatred, intolerance, and disinformation. His platform will only grow if and when he’s elected — and I thoroughly expect that he will be, if not this year then soon — and I want no part of that. It’s my ballot, and my protest.

Note here that I’m not invoking the so-called character clause, which I refuse to put any stock in on the grounds that it was introduced by a commissioner who spent his entire 24-year tenure enforcing the color line. Going down that particular road on a ballot that has, by my count, five players alleged to have committed domestic abuse, another player with multiple incidents involving driving under the influence of alcohol, and one with allegations of an affair with an underaged girl — I’m not about to apply some subjective weight regarding whose conduct is worse, or whether what we know about their misdeeds is enough to offset their numbers and other accomplishments. This is all ugly stuff, but sadly not outside the realm of what Hall of Famers and other athletes have done. To say that these candidates aren’t active threats to use their platforms to promote such behavior at least distinguishes them from Schilling… well, it’s not a great rationalization, but it’s the best I’ve got at the moment.

Moving on, the easiest to include from among the rest of the candidates is Rolen, who clears all three standards and ranks 10th among third basemen in JAWS. Last year, he surged from 17.2% to 35.3%, and at this point, with 66 ballots published in Ryan Thibodaux’s Ballot Tracker, he’s polling at 56.3%. An exceptional but under-appreciated player on both sides of the ball, he combined power and patience at the plate with some of the best glove work the hot corner has ever seen. Even in a career that contained numerous injuries and ended at age 37, he ranks third at the position both in fielding runs (+175) and in Gold Gloves (eight) and, depending upon your choice of metric, belongs among the top 10 or 20 hitters for the position as well. Particularly at an underrepresented spot — there are just 15 third basemen in the Hall, compared to 27 right fielders and 19 to 21 at every other position besides catcher — he merits enshrinement.

Here are the lightning-round summaries for three more candidates who get spots, all of whom have appeared on at least two of my recent virtual ballots, and all of whom have already posted net gains of at least 10 votes from among the first 65 voters to publish theirs:

Todd Helton (15th among first basemen in JAWS, 29.2% in 2020)
With Walker, his former teammate, elected last year, the road to Cooperstown became at least somewhat more clear for denizens of Coors Field, or at least this one. An exceptional hitter who served as the face of the Rockies’ franchise, Helton put up very big numbers in the first half of his career, numbers that hold up once we adjust for his park and league scoring environment. Injuries caused him to fade away, as he had just one good season out of his last four, but it’s not out of the question that his time at altitude had something to do with that. His peak score ranks 10th among first basemen, about four wins above the standard, and his JAWS is less than a point below it. After polling at 16.5% in his first year of eligibility, he gained substantial ground last year, and is at 49.3% thus far in the Tracker.

Billy Wagner (tied for 19th among relievers in JAWS, 31.7% in 2020)
The holder of the all-time records for strikeout rate and opponent batting average, albeit at just an 800-inning threshold, Wagner is short of the admittedly slapdash standard established by the eight enshrined relievers. Since I’ve never been entirely satisfied with how JAWS handles that small group, I’ve sought alternate ways to evaluate relievers by incorporating Win Probability Added (WPA) and situational or context-neutral wins (WPA/LI), both of which paint Wagner (and before him, Trevor Hoffman, who is tied with Wagner in JAWS) in a better light than WAR. When I combine those with career WAR, averaging the three stats, Wagner ranks sixth behind Rivera, Dennis Eckersley, Hoyt Wilhelm, Rich Gossage, and Hoffman, and ahead of Lee Smith, Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers — making him the best reliever outside the Hall. After his support nearly doubled from 16.7% in 2019, he’s at 43.7% so far.

Andruw Jones (11th among center fielders in JAWS, 19.4% in 2020)
If 2018 Hall of Fame honoree Chipper Jones was the Braves dynasty’s offensive cornerstone, Andruw Jones was its defensive one, an elite flychaser who won 10 Gold Gloves and ranks first at the position in fielding runs (+236). He could hit, too, bopping 434 career homers. His career collapsed at age 31, however; he played just 435 games over his final five seasons, disappearing from the majors at age 35, and so while he’s well above the peak standard, he’s short on the career one and in JAWS. I’m not so bothered by that, given his relative ranking and the fact that the standards in center and right field are a few points higher than every other position. I’ve included him in two of the three virtual ballots he’s been eligible for, and after gaining 11.9% last year, he appears poised for another significant jump, as he’s polling at 38.6% so far.

That’s six slots filled, and the only remaining candidates I’m considering are these three right fielders:

Sammy Sosa (18th among right fielders in JAWS, 13.9% in 2019)
A towering figure in baseball’s return from the strike, and just the sixth player to reach 600 home runs, he’s nonetheless below the bar in JAWS, but above 2018 honoree Vladimir Guerrero (21st at 50.3). That matters more to me than the report that he was on the supposedly anonymous 2003 survey test, which as noted above, belongs to the “Wild West” era before the game had a coherent PED policy. What’s more, commissioner Rob Manfred basically disavowed it in the context of celebrating David Ortiz, on the grounds that some disputed results were never resolved because the threshold to implement testing had been reached. That doesn’t mean Sosa was clean, but if MLB couldn’t penalize him, I’m not going to, which isn’t to say that I’m obligated to vote for him. After six straight years of single-digit vote shares, he received more support than ever in 2020, and is currently polling at 23.9%.

Bobby Abreu (20th among right fielders in JAWS, 5.5% in 2020)
A five-tool player with dazzling speed, a sweet left-handed stroke, and enough power to win a Home Run Derby, Abreu was a stathead favorite thanks to his otherworldly plate discipline. He posted on-base percentages of .400 or higher eight times (.395 for his career) thanks to his ability to take a walk (100 or more eight years in a row). Yet despite routinely reaching traditional seasonal plateaus — a .300 batting average (six times), 20 homers (nine times), 30 steals (six times), 100 runs scored and batted in (eight times apiece) — he was ridiculously underappreciated by the mainstream, making just two All-Star teams and winning one Gold Glove, and he barely scraped by in last year’s voting with 5.5%. He’s doing better so far this year (16.9%).

Gary Sheffield (23rd in JAWS, 30.5% in 2019)
There’s no denying Shef’s skill with the stick. His total of 561 batting runs above average (the offensive component of bWAR) ranks 29th all-time, while his 140 OPS+ is tied for 48th; he’s either alongside or ahead of numerous no-doubt Hall of Famers in those categories, and to that he added an aesthetic quality of sheer menace in the batter’s box thanks to his lightning-quick reflexes and violent swing. It’s his defense (-195 runs, second-lowest all time ahead of only Jeter), not his BALCO connection or his penchant for controversy — two areas that require some digging in order to get a full and fair picture — that kept me from putting too much stock in his candidacy, as it knocks him below 50 JAWS, and nearly eight points below the position standard. Yet I’m troubled by the extent to which those outlying defensive stats, which are largely estimates from the pre-batted-ball-type era, nuke Sheffield’s value, and that goes double when they’re compared to his defensive numbers via alternative methodologies. What’s more, it’s worth noting that 65% of his plate appearances came in the NL, where he didn’t have the chance to serve as a DH. Last year, I found room for him on my virtual ballot, and so did many actual voters, as he gained nearly 18 percentage points.

Collectively this trio went 1-for-15 on my virtual ballots, largely but not entirely due to crowds on the ballot. The lone vote went to the lowest-ranked player in terms of JAWS, though Sheffield is by far the best of the three offensively in terms of both OPS+ (Abreu and Sosa finished at 128) and batting runs (both are over 200 behind Sheffield). In terms of OPS+, he’s right on par with the two right fielders elected in recent years, Guerrero (140) and Walker (141) — but he maintained that clip over nearly 2,000 more PA than the former and nearly 3,000 PA more than the latter, so he’s over 100 batting runs ahead of each. I’m more comfortable voting for Sheffield at this point than I am Abreu or Sosa, but each of the trio has his merits.

There’s no perfect answer, but in a year where I have the room on my ballot to do so, I’ve decided to include all three. That brings me to nine slots plus a very conspicuous vacancy for the 10th. This is the first time since I began this exercise in 2013 that I’ve used fewer than 10 slots, but probably not the last.

While I wish this year’s election cycle could offer a consensus candidate who wasn’t polarizing, I’m not about to let the lack of one detract from the bigger picture. I’m gratified that after doing this for so long on the outside, I finally get to cast a ballot. Mind you, mine is just one vote among a group of about 400, and I know going in that it’s less impactful than the work I’ve done over the years that has swayed actual voters and has helped the likes of Raines, Walker, Martinez, Mike Mussina and others find homes in Cooperstown. Even so, it’s also symbolic.

In casting this ballot, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants in the field of baseball analysis, people who entered this industry without going through the traditional newspaper outlets and who either were never admitted to the BBWAA or for one reason or another didn’t last long enough within it to get a chance to vote. People such as John Thorn, Bill James, Rob Neyer, Joe Sheehan, and Steven Goldman were among those who opened my eyes to different ways of viewing baseball decades ago, and their thoughts on the Hall of Fame and its processes inevitably seeped into my own views of the institution and who’s worthy of admission. Which isn’t to say that all of my influences and mentors were weeded out along the way; Christina Kahrl, trailblazer that she is — and not just in the encouragement of self-consciously named acronyms — got her ballot two years ago, making her the only one of the five Baseball Prospectus founders to do so. That boggles my mind.

Anyway, it’s with gratitude to the people above, as well as to too many others to name — though I should also single out past BBWAA presidents La Velle E. Neal III, Jose de Jesus Ortiz, Susan Slusser, and Derrick Goold, all of whom helped me and my Hall expertise find a place within the organization after lobbing so many indelicate critiques from the outside — that I cast this ballot. It’s hardly perfect, but its arrival has served me as a light at the end of the tunnel of a difficult and often miserable year, and I’m glad I made it this far.

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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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3 years ago

Great ballot, Jay.