The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2019 Hall of Fame ballot. It draws upon work originally written for previous elections at SI.com, and has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research. 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.
The venue has changed but the song remains the same: there’s no such thing as a perfect Hall of Fame ballot. Even with the BBWAA electing a record-setting 16 players over the past five years, the backlog on the ballot is such that there are more plausible candidates than will fit within a voter’s 10 allotted spots.
In an ideal world, a voter could fill out his or her ballot entirely according to merit, selecting every candidate who meets the Hall of Fame standards by his or her own reckoning. This is the so-called “binary ballot,” as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s Derrick Goold christened it several years ago. In reality, any voter who identifies more than 10 candidates worthy of the honor is required to perform a kind of triage — weighing some tough questions before selecting his or her top 10 candidates while hoping the traffic abates enough to allow consideration of those who just missed the cut next year. Beyond simply worrying that they’ll catch hell from the public for supporting Player X, or will miss an opportunity to support the low-polling Player Y, voters have to deal with thorny issues such as candidates linked to performance-enhancing drugs and the (mis)application of the so-called “character clause.”
The notion that there may be more than 10 candidates at a time worthy of the game’s highest honor might raise some eyebrows, but study the history of the Hall of Fame and its denizens and you’ll quickly be reminded that they can’t all be Willie Mays. While voting for everyone better than Bad Choice Player Q based on a lowest common denominator standard isn’t the right answer, the writers and the institution have failed to keep pace in terms of electing modern players, not just those who played in the 1990s and 2000s, but further back as well. Limiting the field to those elected by the BBWAA, and calling upon research I compiled for The Cooperstown Casebook, here’s a breakdown of the average number of Hall of Famers per team per season for select periods:
I’ve omitted the World War II years, when several future Hall of Famers entered the service, and placed other cutoffs right at the point of two rounds of expansion (from 20 teams to 24 in 1969, and from 26 to 28 in 1993). My point is that the level of representation is below 1.0 from 1997 onward, and has been higher than 0.63 just once since 1999. All of which is to say that relative to long-term historical norms, we’re missing about 15-20 Hall of Famers from the post-strike era. Some of that, and the ballot’s backlog, owes to the split in the electorate regarding the handing of candidates linked to PEDs, with the Hall’s ham-fisted attempts to interject — from their unilateral 2014 decision to truncate the eligibility window from 15 years to 10 to last year’s plea from Joe Morgan — only exacerbating the problem.
Despite the work I put into my annual series and into Hall of Fame research in general, I do not yet have a ballot of my own. Under BBWAA rules, I am two years away from that privilege. Nonetheless, every year I create my virtual ballot to illustrate the hard choices a voter faces, and do so by the ballot submission deadline (December 31). As always, I am guided by my JAWS system, but not bound by it, for there are considerations that a Wins Above Replacement-based methodology — which can account for the widespread variations in scoring from era to era and ballpark to ballpark (producing the occasional double-take) — can’t capture, including pennant race and postseason contributions, awards and honors, and historical importance.
Over the past six weeks, I’ve analyzed the top 21 candidates on the ballot, the ones who are in serious consideration for those 10 precious spots (beyond the odd courtesy vote). I’ll get back to the remaining 14 “one-and-done” guys — who between them have gathered a grand total of four votes from among the 135 published ballots thus far — later this week, as they’re fun to write about without fixating upon how short of Hall standards they are. But now, it’s time to fish or cut bait.
Of those top 21 candidates on this year’s ballot, nine exceed the JAWS standard — the average of the enshrined players — at their position. Six of those nine top the career WAR, peak WAR, and JAWS standards across the board, while the other three from among that group are short only on peak. Separately, four other candidates exceed the peak standard. Beyond that is one “candidate of interest,” a player who falls shy on JAWS but about whom I remain particularly open-minded, for reasons explained below. That’s 14 players; the other seven are mainly guys whom other voters are considering, but are just along for the ride here as far as I’m concerned. I’ll include them for illustrative purposes…
|Player||YoB||Career WAR||Peak WAR||JAWS||Margin|
…And then bid them adieu. If you want to know more about why Berkman, Kent, McGriff, Oswalt, Pettitte, Sheffield, and Vizquel don’t make my cut, I’ve got a few thousand words to that effect on to each, which you can access by using the navigator widget atop this article
As I’ve said repeatedly throughout this series, when it comes to candidates connected to PEDs, I draw a line between those whose allegations date back 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 should be disqualified 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.”
Thus, 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 2017 ballots, surpassing the 50% mark in the latter year, but saw their momentum slow in 2018, with Clemens receiving 57.3% and Bonds 56.4%. They won’t be elected this year, but with three years of eligibility remaining beyond this one, they still have reasonable shots, needing to pick up about five percentage points per year.
By that same rule of thumb, I’m crossing Ramirez off the 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. But I simply can’t get past the two failed tests, not when better players who never tested positive are being kept out over more nebulous PED allegations.
That leaves 11 players for eight spots. Easily making the cut, with my lightning-round summaries of their cases, are the following six:
- Rivera (2nd among relievers in JAWS): The greatest closer of all time in terms of both saves and win probability added, and a player with an unequaled body of postseason work — a 0.70 ERA in 141 innings, with 31 saves of four outs or more, and four times on the mound for the final out of the World Series — as well.
- Halladay (43rd among starters in JAWS): No, he’s not above the JAWS standard, but he’s at the vanguard of a wave of pitchers who probably won’t get to that point due to workload constraints, with a magnificent, above-standard peak that surpasses every pitcher on this ballot except Clemens. Despite qualifying for the ERA title just eight times, he had seven top-five finishes in that category, and eight in WAR. It’s a tragedy that he didn’t live to see his election, but he’s worthy of this honor.
- Mussina (29th among starters in JAWS, 63.5%% in 2018): Despite his lack of a Cy Young, championship ring or major milestone (300 wins or 3,000 strikeouts), his long-term success at run prevention and his outstanding strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio make him eminently worthy of Cooperstown. With three years of big gains in a row, his election is a matter of when, not if.
- Rolen (10th among third basemen in JAWS, 10.2% in 2018): An exceptional but underappreciated two-way player, Rolen 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 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 14 third basemen in the Hall, compared to 26 right fielders and 19 to 21 of every other position besides catcher — he merits enshrinement. His candidacy is off to a slow start, but he’s picked up some support and several voters have mentioned adding him in the future.
- Martinez (11th among third basemen in JAWS, 70.4% in 2018): With apologies to David Ortiz, Martinez is not just the best designated hitter of all time but one of the best hitters ever, ranking 14th in OBP and tied for 30th in OPS+ (7,000 PA minimum), with 500-plus average-ish games at third base bolstering his value. As of 2015, his candidacy looked like a lost cause, with just 27.0% of the vote and his remaining time on the ballot having shrunk from nine years to four, but three straight years of double-digit gains has put him within reach of completing a Tim Raines-like ascension to Cooperstown this year, his final one on the ballot.
- Walker (10th among right fielders in JAWS, 34.1% in 2018): A legitimate five-tool player, Walker was outstanding at defense and base running as well as hitting. Even after adjusting for the time he spent at high altitude, he’s tied for 43rd all-time in OPS+. His injury-shortened career has provoked some resistance among voters, but they are finally coming around; in his second-to-last year on the ballot, he’s received 65.2% of the vote from those published at @NotMrTibbs’ Ballot Tracker thus far, a remarkable surge that should at least get the attention of the Today’s Game committee if he falls short next year.
That’s eight spots filled, leaving five players vying for the final two:
- Schilling (27th among starters in JAWS, 51.2% in 2018): He was 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. And contrary to his conspiracy theory — no, not the Qanon one — he was trending towards election in spite of his abrasive public persona and political views, at least until his November 2016 praise of a pro-lynching tweet stopped his momentum, costing him 7.3 percentage points relative to 2016; he regained most of that ground last year.
Thus far I’m six-for-six in including Schilling on my virtual ballots, despite my increasing distaste for that persona. Garden-variety political differences I can abide, and his politics had no bearing on his playing career; it’s a mistake to connect Schilling’s words to the “integrity, sportsmanship, character” portion of the Hall’s voting instructions. That said, I will freely admit that I can’t stomach the lynching tweet, his sharing of a transphobic meme, or his alignment with a white supremacist congressional candidate that even the alt-right Breitbart site backed away from. (Belatedly, after the horse was out of the barn, so did Schilling.)
Though he’s polling at 72.6% in the Tracker, Schilling is no real threat to come close to 75% this year; he received votes on just 32.4% of the unpublished ballots last year. All of which means we’re going to have to rehash the litany again next year. For all of the above — the stuff that crosses lines beyond politics, and the sheer agita he causes us all in this process — I’m skipping him this year. This isn’t a character clause matter, it’s a ballot-management one.
- Jones (11th among center fielders in JAWS, 7.3% in 2018): If 2018 Hall of Fame honoree Chipper Jones was the Braves dynasty’s offensive cornerstone, Andruw Jones was its defensive one, an elite fly-chaser who won 10 Gold Gloves and ranks first 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. 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 standard in center field and right field are a few points higher than every other position.
- Sosa (18th among right fielders in JAWS, 7.8% in 2017): 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. 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 — though it still doesn’t mean I’m obligated to vote for him.
- Helton (15th among first basemen in JAWS): An exceptional hitter who served as the face of the Rockies franchise, he 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 accelerated his physical decline. And anyway, his peak ranks 10th among first basemen, about four wins above the standard, and his JAWS is less than a point below it.
- Wagner (tied for 20th among relievers in JAWS, 11.1% in 2017): The holder of the all-time record for strikeout rate and opponent batting average, albeit at just an 800-inning threshold. He’s short of the admittedly slapdash standard established by the seven enshrined relievers, but since I’ve never been entirely satisfied with how JAWS handles relievers, I’ve remained open-minded, seeking alternate ways to evaluate them using advanced stats, namely Win Probability Added (WPA) and situational or context-neutral wins (WPA/LI), both of which paint the pair in question in a better light than WAR. When I combine those with career WAR, averaging the three stats, he’s sixth behind Rivera, Dennis Eckersley, Hoyt Wilhelm, Rich Gossage, and Hoffman, ahead of Smith, Bruce Sutter, and Rollie Fingers.
At this point, I feel like a vote for Sosa is a wasted one, as he’s clearly going nowhere on the writers’ ballot. Jones is down there, too, at 8.1% in the tracker, but he’s in just the second year of his candidacy, so I’d be more inclined to vote for him simply to keep him on the ballot; he’s the only one from this quartet who made mine last year. Wagner (14.8%) and Helton (18.5%) are probably safe from being dropped.
None of this, not even bumping Schilling aside for a year, is easy. But Helton’s the closest on JAWS of the remaining four, and that’s good enough for me. And since I’ve wanted to include Wagner for the past two years but haven’t been able to find room, I’m going to use my 10th spot this time for him instead of Jones.
Bonds, Clemens, Halladay, Helton, Martinez, Mussina, Rivera, Rolen, Wagner, Walker — there it is, input into our crowd-sourcing ballot project under the wire (if you’re a registered FanGraphs user, you can do the same).
Of the 135 ballots input into the Tracker as of Sunday night, exactly one of them matches. When I saw whose it was, I nearly fell out of my chair: 2005 Spink Award winner Tracy Ringolsby, whose BBWAA badge number is 20 — a fancy way of saying that they don’t get much more venerable.
Once upon a time, at my first Winter Meetings in 2003, a few of my Baseball Prospectus colleagues and I — none of us credentialed, mind you — spent three days trying to avoid feeling starstruck while watching the swarm of baseball executives, agents, and writers milling around the lobby of the lobby of the New Orleans Marriott. Ringolsby, who had been vocal in his criticism of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball (published earlier that year), was as recognizable as anyone in the room thanks to his signature black cowboy hat and oversized belt buckle — the subject of giggles from us chipmunks. But times change; Ringolsby came around on Bert Blyleven’s Hall of Fame candidacy before most of his peers, and in recent years, he’s cited JAWS in connection to Larry Walker’s case. At the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas, I found myself sitting next to him in the media room and thanked him for the Walker citation, the start of an enjoyable 20-minute conversation on Hall of Fame stuff.
Yes, Hall of Fame voting, even of the virtual variety, can make for strange bedfellows. Tracy Ringolsby covered the Messersmith-McNally decision in 1975, helped found Baseball America in 1981, and has spent four decades as a beat reporter. I haven’t done any of those things, haven’t even gotten my first official Hall vote, and yet we’ve come to the same conclusions about this year’s ballot. Our ballots may not be perfect, but this particular full-circle moment feels like a perfect one.
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.