Presenting a 2020 Hall of Fame Ballot: A Cooperstown Vote Turns Twenty

Editor’s Note: Mark Newman is the author of the No. 1 bestseller Diamonds from the Dugout and Yankee Legends, and was most recently a writer for MLB.com from 2002-18. On the occasion of his 20th Hall of Fame vote, we’re happy to host his ballot reveal column.

There were 499 total ballots submitted by baseball writers for the Hall of Fame Class of 2000. I was one of those, helping Carlton Fisk and Tony Perez into Cooperstown’s hallowed gallery of plaques that summer. It was my first such privilege after having met the required 10 consecutive years of membership in the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, a membership that began when I was covering the Giants for the San Jose Mercury News at gusty Candlestick Park.

In the 20 years since I mailed back that first ballot of check marks, 41 major league greats have been elected via the BBWAA vote, most in a record-smashing torrent of inductions since the 2013 shutout. As Mariano Rivera and Edgar Martinez symbolized last year – and as Derek Jeter and Larry Walker might replicate next summer — some of those 41 selections were no-brainers and others were add-ons in their final year of eligibility. This is the business of retrospection, and in hindsight I can see how thankful I am that Jim Rice and Andre Dawson were elected without my help, how badly we failed Kenny Lofton and Lou Whitaker, among others, how tumultuous these two decades have been thanks to PEDs and overreaction, and how much things have changed for the better in our process.

The results have always been the same: Awestruck faces gazing at a wall, heads tilted like in the Louvre at the bronze visage and text on each new plaque in an upstate New York hamlet, allowing fans who make the pilgrimage to relive the wonders of their youth while sharing heroic stories with their children as a rite of passage. Now I am commemorating my own 20th anniversary by observing some voting trends while checking the boxes of these 10 legends, in order: Barry Bonds, Derek Jeter, Roger Clemens, Larry Walker, Scott Rolen, Curt Schilling, Todd Helton, Andruw Jones, Andy Pettitte, and Billy Wagner.

Twenty years ago, you would get your ballot in the mail along with a career analog-stats paragraph for each candidate, check three or four boxes, mail it right back and maybe tell an uncle over eggnog how you voted, using the phrase “elite of the elite” to defend your tiny ballot. Hell, we all watch baseball. Voters just had a clubhouse badge. I worked for MLB.com from 2002-18, and typically our voters’ picks would be strung together alphabetically in a single catch-all post, so one comment might pertain to your ballot. We were embargoed from spilling our beans until that post-New Year’s article for breathless clicks. For most of the last two decades, there was no music to be faced, just a mystery as to why writers had this important say, especially the year my colleague Ken Gurnick mailed back a blank ballot.

Now you gather data and consult with others year-round, register with the Hall, hear from grassroots campaigners, open the occasional Joe Morgan email, read Jay Jaffe and Mike Petriello, and memorize JAWS/WAR rankings. You analyze and rank your top 20 in a column, tweet it for Ryan Thibodaux and his interns to add and share, ask your wife to take a video of you checking the boxes in order, sign your name, mail your ballot, watch another hopeless (but more warranted) impeachment process like you did in the last year you weren’t a voter, and then watch the Hall results we all know already. Indeed, the lack of suspense at announcement time is perhaps the biggest change in 20 years, so now we make a big deal out of “unanimous” as if it matters, when really it means absolutely nothing.

This piece is going to be in two parts: first, my 20th-anniversary trends, and then my checksplanations. As someone who recently moved a few blocks away from Tropicana Field to write books and escape cold New York winters, I can say that it is much easier to explain my ballot than it is to explain to Rays fans how the Yankees were allowed to sign Gerrit Cole, or why, in 2020, they should go to their horrible dome, where the front office is really smart at growing top prospects they can’t seem to afford to keep. Great beaches, though!

Trivia Question: Which two left-handers elected by the BBWAA have the longest Hall of Fame tenure among all living inductees? (Answer below.)

Ballot Trends

Bye-Bye, Ballot Bottleneck
Four of my 10 checks last year are in the Hall, Fred McGriff is someone else’s problem, and I don’t want to hear the word “bottleneck” ever again.

Jeter, who personified winning and consistency, is the key newcomer to this year’s ballot. There is a good chance he will be our solo selection this cycle, although Walker might get over the hump of the required 75% of votes in his 10th and final year of eligibility. Schilling might get in if enough voters forget that he ever has spoken or tweeted words (I still hear from peers who put words over pitches). And voters might open the floodgates once and for all for any of the proven or alleged PED cases, knowing that Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz will be eligible in 2022.

If Jeter is the only name read by new Hall of Fame President Tim Mead on January 21, that’s okay. We have broken the bottleneck. The cries that a whole generation’s heroes were not adequately represented in the Hall were valid once, but no longer. This decade ended with a record barrage of living Hall inductees, thanks in part to the eligibility of a lot of Atlanta Braves legends and advanced statistical analysis that offers a fairer interpretation of candidates. Since the 2013 shutout, BBWAA voters have elected an amazing 20 former players, more than three per year. Done, done, done. The five-year record for BBWAA picks was tied in 2018 before being broken last year. For perspective, we had selected only six from 2009-13, resulting in that bottleneck. Walker needs to join Jeter next summer, but if not, it is still a return toward normalcy.

Voters Are More Accountable Than Ever
As I said, no one knew or cared how we each voted 20 years ago. Nolan Ryan, George Brett, and Robin Yount had just been inducted – the best class since the original one — so all was well. We were still just happy to have a modem connection while waiting for “broadband.” Today, baseball fans – and candidates – turn to Ryan Thibodaux’s HOF Ballot Tracker to see how each writer voted, as well as up-to-the-minute vote percentages. Will Rolen or Pettitte get another “plus-one?” How many voters will check all 10 boxes? Who is in jeopardy of failing to get the necessary 5% of votes to remain on next year’s ballot?

Each time a voter posts their completed ballot, it comes with a link to a column like this, all there to be debated and maybe shamed on Twitter. The Hall of Fame posts the name of each voter as part of the modern registration process and gives the writer the option of having the ballot made public. This leads an accountability over the past few years that didn’t exist for most of a century, and collectively it means it is taken more seriously. I put that word in italics because I just saw that a boomer out West actually voted for Manny Ramirez but not Bonds and Clemens, which is why you will be happy to know that many younger voters will be filling in our ranks as the Hall’s weeding-out process speeds along. There were 425 ballots cast for the 2019 election, 124 fewer than in 2015, after the Hall purged the rolls of voters who were 10 or more years past actively covering baseball.

The End of an Era
Jeter’s inevitable selection will make it a record four consecutive years with at least one BBWAA electee who played his entire career with the same team. Let’s take a moment to appreciate that, because we might not see it again. Jeff Bagwell (Astros) was elected by writers in 2017, then Chipper Jones in 2018, and both Mo (Yankees) and Edgar (Mariners) last year. If you include Craig Biggio (Astros) in 2015, then that would be five out of six years. Trevor Hoffman (2018) really belongs on the list as well, because he was traded from the Florida Marlins to San Diego as a rookie, and Alan Trammell (Tigers) was an era committee electee in 2019.

The only other stretch during the free agency era with at least four consecutive Hall classes with at least one single-team player was from 1980-84: Al Kaline (Tigers) was elected in 1980, Bob Gibson (Cardinals) in ’81, Travis Jackson (New York Giants) in ’82, Brooks Robinson (Orioles) in ’83, and Dodgers Don Drysdale and Pee Wee Reese in ’84. But Jackson was chosen by the old Veterans’ Committee and played from 1922-36, making his induction unlike this current streak of fans seeing their longtime heroes enter the Hall.

It would be up to an era committee to continue this streak beyond 2020 as the BBWAA is not expected to select anyone for 2021 who played his whole career with one team. Todd Helton (Rockies) would have to make that quantum leap, which is unlikely. Ortiz is a first-ballot possibility in 2022, but remember that he played all or part of his first six seasons with Minnesota before heading for Boston. The next such BBWAA pick could be Joe Mauer (Twins) in 2024; he ranks ninth in career WAR among catchers, which likely means a quick Hall entry.

Don’t Be Afraid to Change Your Approach
Thanks to Bagwell, I overhauled my own voting strategy for the 2017 election. I had declined to check the box next to his name in his first six years on the ballot, but a key change happened over that period: WAR and JAWS. These advanced metrics told the story of Bagwell’s career better than my own eyes had done. As Baby’s father said to Johnny at the end of Dirty Dancing, “When I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong.” I regretted omitting Bagwell after I mailed in my 2016 ballot after learning he was only five voters short, so I decided to overhaul my approach for 2017, starting with him. I saw in hindsight that I was wrong about Rice and Dawson, too. Then again, I voted for Lee Smith year after year to no avail, so it was satisfying to see the Era Committee put him in last year. Times are constantly changing in BBWAA voting and you must adapt.

Who Cares if They Are Unanimous?
Accountability is one of the reasons Rivera was checked on every voter’s ballot last year. What writer wanted to be vilified and humiliated on social media — maybe even nudged out by their already cost-cutting media outlet — for being the only holdout? The more important reason was that Rivera could be defined as perfect at his position, and not only the best closer in history, but arguably the best pitcher, with the lowest ERA in history, the saves record, the rings, the unhittable cutter, and the dignified accessibility that he provided fans everywhere.

That brings us to Jeter and the overarching theme in 2020 Hall reporting about whether he can duplicate the unanimous feat of his Core Four teammate. Who cares? It doesn’t matter. Jeter was never perfect at his position, but he was perfect for baseball. He was the face of the game over most of my voting eligibility, and I could not wait to check the name beside his box, just for love of the game. But if a peer decides to leave him off because of Jeter’s shortstop range or because the voter wants to help keep a five-percenter on the ballot, then whatever. It does not make a single difference.

My main point is, “unanimous” means absolutely nothing at the Hall of Fame. It’s a dumb news peg. There is no separate gallery wall or alcove for Rivera because he was unanimously selected. Babe Ruth is the first plaque most people zoom toward on the far wall when they enter. “That’s baseball,” Rivera said in awe when he looked at the wall of the five original inductee plaques during his Hall orientation tour last February. A Hall of Famer is a Hall of Famer, whether you are selected by the skin of your teeth in year 10 or unanimously.

My 20th Anniversary Ballot

1. Barry Bonds
This is his eighth year on the ballot, so the race is on as his 10-year eligibility dwindles while the voting populace gradually is refreshed. Next year is a weak ballot, so that should be his year if any at all, because 2022 will be loaded. Bonds has risen over five consecutive years of balloting, from 34.7% in 2014 to 36.8 to 44.3 to 53.8 to 56.4 to finally 59.1 in 2019, which means voters that exclude him now find themselves in the minority. He was the product of his generation, and the commissioner during most of that time was recently inducted. Bonds won seven Most Valuable Player awards, four more than anyone else, and his 162.4 WAR and 117.6 JAWS are far beyond any left fielder. He is the Home Run King with 762, like it or not — and with Henry Aaron’s own blessing. Bonds is the all-time leader with 2,558 walks and 688 intentional walks, proof that no one ever freaked out opposing pitchers more, and that’s just the offense. Bonds earned eight Gold Gloves and… why are we still talking about Bonds?

2. Derek Jeter
Before opening my ballot package today, I re-watched Nike’s RE2PECT video from Jeter’s farewell season. I again watched everyone tipping their caps to the Captain, and I realized that this was the moment I have been waiting for. In 2007, I covered Hall of Fame Induction Weekend for MLB.com and will always consider it an almost-sacred memory within a long baseball writing career: Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn were anointed together, and every Hall attendance record was shattered. People came from everywhere to see these two legends, who each spent their careers with one team and stood for the “right” kind of way to play the game, during a summer in which Bonds was on the brink of passing Aaron. I’ve always said that the only time that record will be surpassed will be Jeter’s induction. So here we are. The face of the game spanning my voting years, the guy on the cover of my first two books, the model of consistency and access to fans, the reason there is a Hall of Fame. I don’t care if he is unanimous, as I said, but I do look forward to the crowd size. Just watch Jeter diving into the stands again against the Red Sox and that’s all, check the box, no stats needed.

3. Roger Clemens
There. I separated Bonds and Clemens. It’s easy! Clemens needs to be judged on his own merit, not as Bonds’ spiritual twin, but his ballot percentages basically equal those of Bonds, and 2021 is prime time. The Rocket was one of the most dominant starting pitchers in baseball history, one of only three on the all-time list in triple-figures for JAWS at 102.5, behind Walter Johnson at 126.6 and Cy Young at 120.6. Seven Cy Young Awards, followed by Randy Johnson with five and Steve Carlton and Greg Maddux with four. He is also third in strikeouts (4,672), behind only Ryan (5,714) and the Big Unit (4,875). Why are we still talking about Clemens?

4. Larry Walker
Ruth, Aaron, Musial, Ott, Frank, Clemente, Kaline, Reggie, Heilmann, and Walker are the top 10 of all-time right fielders by JAWS, and then come more Hall of Famers right behind them, including Gwynn and Dave Winfield. Walker (58.7) is ready to be formalized, but it is going to be close. Late ballots historically include a bunch of low-techies, so someone like Walker, whose case relies heavily on advanced metrics, has tended to see a percentage decline late in the game. Edgar was further along at this point last year. But the Denver PR machine is stoked and there’s a chance. More and more voters have shrugged off the whole Coors Field thing, because (a) it’s a major league stadium, (b) he killed it there, and (c) he had a nice .278/.370/.495 road line, comparable to Ken Griffey Jr.’s (.272/.355/.505). Walker was the NL MVP in 1997, batting .366/.452/.720 with 49 homers, 130 RBIs, 143 runs, and 409 total bases. Two years later, he led the NL with all of this: .379/.458/.710 and a 1.168 OPS. Walker won three NL batting crowns and batted an impressive .313 over 17 seasons in Montreal, Colorado, and St. Louis. He also won seven Gold Gloves. Walker is so far ahead of recent inductee Vladimir Guerrero by JAWS and WAR among right fielders that this should be a no-brainer.

5. Scott Rolen
Over a 17-year career from 1996–2012 with the Phillies, Cardinals, Blue Jays, and Reds, Rolen slashed .281/.364/.490 with 316 homers, 2077 hits, and 1,287 RBIs. He was a seven-time All-Star and eight-time NL Gold Glove winner. He helped lead the Cardinals to the 2006 world championship and is viewed by many experts as the best defensive third baseman of his era. Those numbers alone, at least in the old days of voting, would not have been enough for a plaque, but he also has a stronger case with advanced stats. Rolen ranks 10th all-time among third basemen with a 56.9 JAWS and 70.2 WAR. The average Hall third baseman has a 55.7 JAWS and 68.4 WAR. Tony La Russa, who famously feuded with Rolen during their time together in St. Louis, said he “would vote for Rolen in a heartbeat.” He said the only reason someone might omit Rolen would be his durability (or lack thereof), noting injuries that nagged him late in his career, but he compared Rolen to Brooksie defensively at third base and touted his role as a “leader” on teams like those La Russa managed.

6. Curt Schilling
It is truly one of the all-time oddities in BBWAA voting that a candidate can be poised to cruise into Cooperstown and then completely derail his own candidacy just by opening his mouth. However, the right-hander has stopped talking about “lynching journalists” long enough to regain momentum. His percentages increased from 45% in 2017 to 51.2 in 2018 to 60.9 in 2019, and like Bonds and Clemens, he is in year eight and poised for a best shot in the quiet of 2021. Schilling ranks 27th all-time among starting pitchers in JAWS at 64.1; everyone ahead of him but Clemens is in the Hall. Schilling’s strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.38 is better than any pitcher with at least 3,000 innings since 1893, when the distance from the rubber to home plate was lengthened to 60-foot-6. He finished one strikeout behind Bob Gibson and ranks 15th all-time with 3,116, plus he has three World Series rings. The Hall is filled with dunces, and Schilling ought to join their ranks.

7. Todd Helton
The Toddfather is tied with Eddie Murray for 14th on the all-time JAWS list at first base, and everyone above him is either inducted, still waiting to be eligible (Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera), or in PED lockup (Rafael Palmeiro). The only question with Helton is when. Again, it would be nice to make it five consecutive years with at least one BBWAA electee who played his entire career with the same club, and he is the only shot at that, but it would have to happen in 2021. Helton debuted on the ballot at 16.5% of the vote in 2019, and remember, no one was talking about Walker when he debuted at 20.3. Helton also has the benefit of Walker and his campaigners blasting away at the Coors Field advantage argument.

8. Andruw Jones
Mike Trout and Carlos Beltran are going to be easy Hall of Famers, so that means everyone in the top 14 of all-time center fielders by JAWS will have plaques unless something can be done about Kenny Lofton (ninth) and Andruw Jones (10th). We have gradually conceded screwing up royally on Lofton, so the Era Committee will have to fix that one. We can do something about Jones, though. Everyone else who mattered from those Braves teams of the 1990s is in the Hall of Fame — even the manager and GM — so let’s get Jones some votes. He was a defensive center fielder par none, and that also must be weighed. Jones is even better when you look at his best seven WAR seasons, ranking ninth at 46.5, ahead of Beltran. The case here flattens when you take his age-30 seasons into account and the career OPS+ shrinks to 111, and we have to be cautious not to let another Earle Combs happen, someone who rides in undeservingly on championship team’s coattails. But I learned my lesson with Lofton.

9. Andy Pettitte
This guy is still keeping the Yankees in the hunt for titles by influencing Gerrit Cole’s recent signing. That’s not on my criteria sheet in the ballot package, but everything else is. By whatever metrics you use, no one can take away the fact that Pettitte was on the mound for the big games, elevating the Bombers when it was needed, starting with his bounce-back 1996 World Series start at Atlanta, and throughout a five-ring career. He won 256 games (46th all-time) in an era when W’s were a standard of starting pitcher excellence. Then again, his 2,448 strikeouts rank 45th overall, behind some journeymen, his 3.85 ERA was hardly elite, and he is way back at 91st in JAWS, grounds for most voters’ dismissal of him here. The biggest point of contention when it comes to Pettitte is the value of postseason numbers; he had a huge advantage over most pitchers in major league history, breaking in with the Yankees after the playoff format was increased to allow more starts. But then again, what he did with that postseason stage was his calling card: 44 starts, 276.2 innings, and 19 wins (first in all), as well as 183 strikeouts (third). You can’t take that away from him. I thought Jorge Posada deserved more than one-and-done in balloting, and honestly, I voted for Pettitte last year just to make sure that didn’t happen to him. I think he still warrants debate, and the cleared bottleneck gives him space now.

10. Billy Wagner
I wrote two years ago that I probably would vote for Wagner once the bottleneck was broken, and now that it is, I am doing so for the first time. His numbers are better than those of Hoffman, who got into the Hall without me, and a shortfall of career innings means you have to analyze Wagner’s run a little differently. He was lightning on the mound and owns the record for the highest strikeout rate of any pitcher with at least 800 innings: 11.9 per nine, or one of every three batters faced. Wagner’s 0.998 WHIP beats Rivera’s 1.000 for second all-time behind dead-ball era pitcher Addie Joss (0.968); his 2.31 ERA and 187 ERA+ are the best since 1920 by any pitcher other than Rivera (2.21 and 205). According to Jay Jaffe, Wagner ranks sixth when looking at his average score among top relievers by combined WAR, WPA, and WPA/LI at 24.9, behind only Rivera (48.8), Dennis Eckersley (39.5), Hoyt Wilhelm (34.9), and Hoffman (27.1). When he debuted on the ballot for the Class of 2016, Wagner humbly said he should be “highly considered” and cited several “big” numbers that mattered to him more than saves. And he did kick in 422 saves, for what it’s worth.

The Bubble Guys

Bobby Abreu
Unfortunately, I had to go to the whiteout for Bobby Abreu’s box on my ballot after initially choosing him 10th. There are two bubble candidates from Venezuela on the ballot, and I would give more support to him over Omar Vizquel, who got more of the attention and more web gem airtime during his career. I have Lofton’s voice in the back of my head here, but I could not see using the 10th spot to ensure Abreu stays at 5% or higher. Abreu was a five-tooler with excellent plate discipline, going eight consecutive seasons with at least 100 walks and at least a .400 on-base percentage. He played 151 games or more 13 seasons in a row, showing his durability. He was often seen as too passive at the plate by Phillies fans, who rode him out of town, and his own team sometimes questioned his hustle on defense. When the creator of JAWS wrote that Abreu is “a bit short of the JAWS standard for right fielders,” it made me second-guess this pick. Nevertheless, Abreu is right there sandwiched between Winfield and Guerrero at 20th on Jay’s list. I would love to see Abreu have another year of discussion.

Manny Ramirez
I became a lot more tempted when December arrived and I read commentaries from peers about Ramirez. As I said, BBWAA voting is an evolving process and we should be open to new thought. My position has always been to ignore the PED issue except in cases where suspensions were announced after the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program was instituted. But “Manny Being Manny” didn’t cut it when it came to multiple suspensions as a result of such busts; he cost his team and his fans. But A-Rod is a-comin’, on the same ballot as Big Papi, and there are two ways a voter can go about it. Pick your spots and take the somewhat justified criticism that you are wishy-washy, or just be done with it and vote strictly on what happened on the field for everyone, period. I haven’t arrived at the latter point, at least not yet, but I do plan on voting for A-Rod at this point, and it may be tough to justify leaving off Manny when that time comes. I want to hear what the public thinks. By all other measures, Manny is a lock: eighth in WAR (69.4) and tied for ninth in JAWS (54.7), 555 homers, a 154 OPS+, nine straight 100-RBI seasons and 12 overall, 12 All-Star Games, 29 postseason homers, a fearsome leader in Cleveland during the 1990s and, most notably, World Series MVP for Boston in 2004.

Gary Sheffield
I saw the cigar video and know he can still jack, which is not surprising. Over 22 seasons, Sheff made nine All-Star teams, slugging 509 homers, driving in 1,676 runs, and finishing with a .292 average, 140 OPS+, and a 1997 ring with the Marlins. He was well-rewarded with $168 million, but he carried more baggage than Greyhound, with a steady stream of controversy from his earliest days of wanting to get out of Milwaukee. He played for eight teams in all. His WAR of 60.5 is 18th all-time among right fielders, above Abreu, Ichiro, Vlad, and Sammy Sosa, in order, but he is not going anywhere after peaking at 13.6% halfway through his eligible term.

Omar Vizquel
Vizquel was a joy to watch and the pride of Venezuela. He was part of the nucleus of a powerhouse Cleveland club that should have won at least one title in the late 90s, topping out with a 6.0 WAR and his only MVP consideration (16th) in ’99. Watching him barehand hot bouncers to shortstop and throw out runners at first, you could argue he was among the best defensive shortstops in history. The Gold Gloves support that argument. However, he is too far down the rankings I value the most, and while one should not be penalized for making it to age 45 in a major league uniform — you still have to win a job each spring — hanging onto roster spots and compiling is not exactly a Hall trademark. I wouldn’t doubt that he could be enshrined by my peers, but I just can’t see it.

Jeff Kent and Sammy Sosa merit some thought as usual, and Jason Giambi is worth a look. But we’ve squeezed enough out of this. There are going to be fewer ballots with all 10 boxes checked this time, and I can’t disagree with those who choose to do so. Jeter is likely to go in by himself, or possibly with Walker, and next year will be a weak year for new arrivals, which presents a golden opportunity for a few on this ballot. Then all hell will break loose in 2022, but that will be nothing new after 20 years of change in Hall of Fame voting.

Trivia Answer: Sandy Koufax (1972, 86.9% of the BBWAA vote) and Whitey Ford (77.8%).

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Mark Newman has been a member of the Baseball Writers' Association of America since 1990 and was national writer and enterprise editor for MLB.com from 2002-18. He has worked 25 World Series and has just authored two books, including No. 1 bestseller Diamonds from the Dugout and Yankee Legends. The National Magazine Award recipient previously covered pro sports for The Miami Herald, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and San Jose Mercury News, and spent most of the 1990s at The Sporting News, writing articles and later founding the magazine's online operation before embarking on digital ventures.

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Pepper Martin
Member
Pepper Martin

Um… Andruw Jones can’t ride championship teams’ coattails into the Hall of Fame, since he never played on a championship team. The only times he played in the World Series (’96 and ’99) the Braves lost to the Yankees. Everybody seems to forget that for all of the amazingness of those Braves teams, they only won one WS in the strike year.