There’s often a bit of weirdness on the fringes of the annual BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot, and 2019 entry, unveiled on Monday, was no exception. What transpires on those fringes rarely has any bearing on who will wind up on the podium in Cooperstown next July, joyously thanking families, teammates, and coaches. But with the news of the ballot’s arrival still fresh, and with the Very Serious Business of analyzing the top candidates a task best suited for after Thanksgiving, it’s worth considering the margins for a few moments.
Because the ballot’s release is a Big Deal to yours truly, writer of more words about the Hall of Fame on an annual basis than just about anybody with a claim to sanity, I had Monday’s article, “The Big Questions About the 2019 BBWAA Hall of Fame Ballot,” ready to go in advance of the Hall’s 12 pm ET official press release, save for the final total of candidates and the list of first-timers. While the official rules make anybody who played at least 10 seasons in the majors and has been retired for five seasons eligible — anybody who’s not on baseball’s ineligible list, that is, or has not otherwise exhausted his eligibility — not everybody who meets those requirements actually lands on the ballot. That’s because there’s a stage that involves some subjective choices by the BBWAA Screening Committee, a six-member panel that puts the ballot together.
To appear on the ballot, a player must be nominated by any two of the six members of that committee. That’s a mere formality for all of the obvious candidates, but it becomes a coin toss the further down the list you go. Historically, the worst slights probably belong to three-time Gold Glove winner and two-time All-Star Willie Davis, who racked up 60.7 WAR (Baseball-Reference version, which I’m sticking with for all things ballot-related) in an 18-year career that spanned from 1960-1979 and included a 1977-1978 detour to Japan that put him out of sight and out of mind, and Negro Leagues-turned-Brooklyn Dodgers staple Jim Gilliam, who accrued 40.7 WAR from 1953-1966.
That pair is hardly alone. Among recent examples, in 2014, outfielder Shannon Stewart (24.9 WAR from 1995-2008, highlighted by a fourth-place finish in the 2003 AL MVP voting) was left off the ballot, while his former Twins teammate Jacque Jones (11.6 WAR from 1999-2008) was included. That same year, Esteban Loaiza (23.0 WAR from 1995-2008, highlighted by a second-place finish in the 2003 AL Cy Young voting) was on the outside, while Armando Benitez (17.0 WAR from 1994-2008, highlighted by a cheap shot that set off an infamous brawl between the Orioles and Yankees in 1998) was on the inside. Yes, Jones had more homers than Stewart in less playing time, and yes, Benitez had more saves than Loaiza had wins, but none of them had a chance at actually being elected. It was completely arbitrary who among them received the honor of being on the ballot.
As a bystander, one would have to try very hard to take actual offense at those 2014 choices, but that wasn’t the case in 2016, when Chan Ho Park was left off the ballot. No, his final numbers (124-98, 4.36 ERA, 18.1 WAR from 1994-2010) weren’t anything close to Hall-worthy, but Park was the first South Korea-born player in major league history, and he pitched well enough to become the country’s first All-Star representative; today he’s considered a hero in his homeland. Excluding him, and depriving him of the modest level of attention and affection afforded to any candidate on the ballot, smacked of cultural insensitivity. Likewise in 2017, when Javier Vazquez was left off. Again, not a pitcher with Cooperstown-type numbers (165-160, 4.25 ERA, 2,536 SO, 43.6 WAR), but snubbing a former All-Star who ranks as Puerto Rico’s all-time leader in wins, strikeouts, and pitching WAR wasn’t an especially good look for either the BBWAA or MLB.
In the months and even years leading up to its announcement, Baseball-Reference’s page dedicated to the 2019 ballot listed 40 names, but the final ballot contains only 35. Six potential choices did not make the cut. Two of them were catchers (Ramon Hernandez and Yorvit Torrealba) and the other four pitchers (Jose Contreras, Ryan Dempster, Octavio Dotel, and Jake Westbrook). Dempster made two All-Star teams, with Hernandez, Contreras, and Westbrook making one appearance apiece, and they all had nice careers, but it’s not hard to see why they were left off. Torrealba was a backup for most of his career. Dotel was a setup man who only spent a few full seasons as a closer. Westbrook, Dempster, and Contreras had respective career ERA+ of 98, 99, and 100, even if some of their ERAs were actually lower than those of Jon Garland and Darren Oliver, both of whom did make the ballot. The missing sextet had six of the seven lowest WARs of any of the 40 potential candidates, with Juan Pierre (17.1 WAR) the only player from that group to make the cut, thanks no doubt to all the stolen bases — 614 of ’em, good for 18th all-time.
Fair enough. The more math-conscious among you may have noted that this literally doesn’t add up. I mentioned totals of 40 potential names, 35 actual ones, and six omissions. That’s because there was a candidate that none of us really saw coming: Rick Ankiel.
I’ll have more to say about Ankiel when the time comes, but you know the outline of his story. He debuted in the majors at age 20 in late 1999, showing high-90s heat from the left side. He pitched well enough to be runner up in the NL Rookie of the Year race in 2000 (11-6, 3.50 ERA, 194 strikeouts, 175 innings), but then suddenly couldn’t throw a strike in that year’s postseason, walking 11 batters in four innings spread over three appearances. He pitched just 11 major league games over the next three years, a span during which he underwent Tommy John surgery. Beginning in 2005, he switched to the outfield, and in 2007, he returned to the majors, beginning a seven-year run that included one big season in St. Louis (.264/.337/.506, 25 HR) and took him to five other teams besides the Cardinals, generally as a reserve. With just 462 career hits and 8.9 WAR (3.6 of it as a pitcher), he’s got absolutely zero shot at the Hall, of course, but his inclusion on the ballot, which offers us the chance to retrace his journey — even the lowlights, such as his appearance in the Mitchell Report at a time when his career was on the precipice of oblivion — is a perfect example of why the margins are of interest.
On top of what he’s already done, what’s remarkable about Ankiel is that his career may not actually be over. In August, he made a pitching appearance at the Bluegrass World Series, a Louisville-based six-day tournament in which a team of former MLB players faces seven collegiate teams. The 39-year-old lefty struck out the only batter he faced, reaching 89 mph.
Former @Cardinals Rick Ankiel strikes out the only batter he faced tonight. Cool to see him back on the mound. ?
Also went 2-for-4 at the plate with 4 RBI’s. pic.twitter.com/b09gUK4Glb
— Jevin Redman (@Jevin_13) August 2, 2018
Ankiel then told Yahoo Sports’ Tim Brown that he was considering a full-blown comeback attempt, saying, “I have nothing to lose. I’m not afraid. I might as well try.” In recent years, he had been throwing regularly while spending time coaching other players who have battled the yips just as he did, and given how good his arm felt, he was willing to take the mound during the tournament, not only to give his kids a chance to watch him pitch but to prove something to himself. Mission accomplished. Alas, earlier this month, he underwent an alternative to Tommy John surgery called primary repair, which doesn’t require a full reconstruction of the ulnar collateral ligament or as much time to recover and rehab. The Cardinals are interested in signing him to a minor league deal, believing that he could be pitching in the minors by midseason.
If Ankiel were to return to the majors, he wouldn’t be the first to do so after appearing on a Hall of Fame ballot. It wasn’t uncommon in the days before the five-year waiting period was introduced in the 1950s; still-active players such as Jimmie Foxx and Bill Terry even received a smattering of votes in the first election in 1936, and players such as Dizzy Dean and Babe Herman returned to the majors after long stretches away. Dean, who battled injuries after 1936, pitched one game in 1941 and received 6.9% of the vote in 1945. After getting 54.7% in 1947, a time during which he was working as a broadcaster for the St. Louis Browns, he returned to pitch in one final big league game on September 28, when he was still just 37 years old; he was elected in 1953. Herman, after playing just 17 games in 1937, retreated to the minors and settled in with the Pacific Coast League’s Hollywood Stars, for whom he annually hit above .300 in part-time duty. He began receiving Hall of Fame votes in 1942, then at age 42 reappeared for a 37-game big league stint with the Dodgers in 1945, and resumed receiving votes from 1948-1960, though never more than 5.7%.
More recently, Minnie Miñoso — known as the Cuban Comet, a color-line pioneer hailed as “the Jackie Robinson for all Latinos” by Orlando Cepeda — disappeared from the majors after a 30-game stint with the White Sox and then — in a mistake that apparently nobody caught, with Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs as-yet-uninvented — was included on the 1969 ballot, a year earlier than the rules allowed. He received six votes, all the while continuing a career in various Mexican leagues from 1965-1973. The Five Percent rule wasn’t in place yet, but presumably didn’t return to the ballot because there was a brief stretch where players active in the minors were not considered retired; this delayed the eligibilities of Robin Roberts and Warren Spahn in the early 1970s. Miñoso then resurfaced for not one but two cameos as a late-season DH/pinch-hitter for the Bill Veeck-owned White Sox in 1976 and 1980. Not until 1986 did he reappear on a Hall of Fame ballot, in front of an electorate far less familiar with his feats than the one that would have initially considered his candidacy; though on the ballot through 1999, he never topped 21.1% of the vote.
Finally, Dominican righty Jose Rijo, who starred for the 1990 world champion Reds, made the 1994 NL All-Star team and had two top-five Cy Young finishes during the 1984-1995 phase of his career. He spent 1996-2000 outside the majors, recovering from Tommy John surgery and two subsequent elbow surgeries that were initially counted as TJs. In 2001, the same year he received a single vote on the Hall of Fame ballot, he mounted a comeback that carried him back to the majors, with 13 appearances in relief for the Reds. As Dr. Tim Kremchek said at the time when describing Rijo’s arm: “[H]e has enough arthritis in his elbow, scar tissue, changes, bone spurs that have stabilized his elbow, plus his knowledge of pitching, to make him effective.” Rijo made 31 appearances in 2003 before surgery for a bone chip knocked him out yet again, and he never returned. That he was shut out on the 2008 ballot was nothing compared to the road that he took to arrive there.
Not every candidate on the 2019 ballot wound up there after traveling the peaks and valleys Ankiel and his predecessors traced. But as we sift through the names in the coming weeks — from the locks like Mariano Rivera to the obvious just-happy-to-be-heres — it’s worth appreciating their careers and their journeys just the same, regardless of whether the check-box next to their name is worth filling in. For some of these players, that check-box is its own reward.
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.