On Monday, the Baseball Writers Association of America released its 2019 Hall of Fame ballot, with 15 holdovers — led by Edgar Martinez, who received 70.4% of the vote last year — joined by 20 newcomers including the late Roy Halladay, Todd Helton, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera. In all likelihood, this will be the sixth year in a row the writers elect multiple candidates, something that hasn’t happened since their run of six straight years from 1951-1956. Already, the 16 players elected from the past five cycles exceeds the record of 13 elected in either of the two overlapping five-year spans within that earlier stretch. And once again, this will be a fairly top-heavy ballot; the five holdovers who have received at least 50% of the vote could prevent some of the candidates further down the ballot from gaining momentum.
Over the next six weeks, I’ll profile all 35 candidates, either at length or more in brief, examining their cases in light of my Jaffe WAR Score (JAWS) system, which I’ll be using to break down Hall of Fame ballots in an annual tradition that’s on the verge of earning its drivers’ license. The series debuted at Baseball Prospectus (2004-2012), then moved to SI.com (2013-2018), and now I’m excited to bring it here to FanGraphs. The candidate profiles will begin next week; today I’ll offer a quick look at the biggest questions attached to this year’s election cycle.
First, it’s worth reviewing the basics. To be eligible for election to the Hall of Fame via the BBWAA ballot, a candidate must have played in the majors for parts of 10 years (one game is sufficient to be counted as a year in this context), have been out of the majors for five years (the minors or foreign leagues don’t count), and then be nominated by two members of the BBWAA’s six-member screening committee. Since the balloting is titled with respect to induction year, not the year of release, the current slate of players will have last appeared in the majors in 2013. Each new candidate has 10 years of eligibility on the ballot, a reduction from the 15-year period that was in effect for several decades; the 2017 ballot marked the final one for Lee Smith, the last candidate grandfathered into a longer run. To be elected, a candidate must receive at least 75% of the ballots cast, and in this case, they don’t round up; 74.9% won’t cut it. Likewise, candidates who don’t receive at leasts 5% of the vote fall off the ballot and can then only be considered for election by the Today’s Game Committee, an entirely separate process — but not until what would have been their 10-year run of eligibility expires.
The voters, each of whom has been an active BBWAA member for 10 years and is no more than 10 years removed from active coverage, can list as many as 10 candidates on their ballots, a number that’s become a point of contention in recent years given the high volume of qualified candidates. In 2015, the Hall tabled a BBWAA proposal to expand to 12 slots (I was on the committee that recommended the change). Last year, the third since the Hall purged the rolls of voters more than 10 years removed from coverage, 422 ballots were cast, 20 fewer than the year before and 127 fewer than in 2015.
Last year, acting on a motion its membership voted to accept in December 2016 by an overwhelming 80-to-9 margin, the BBWAA planned to begin publishing every voter’s ballot, similar to what the organization does with its annual awards. Only when the ballots were mailed did voters and the general public discover that the Hall’s board of directors had rejected the proposal. Voters may still reveal their ballots prior the announcement, as 57.6% did last year; you can track the reported ballots via Ryan Thibodaux’s Ballot Tracker if you want. Voters can also check a box on the ballot to authorize the publication of their choices via the BBWAA’s website two weeks after the election results are revealed. Ballots must be postmarked by December 31, with the results to be announced on MLB Network on January 22, and inductions to take place next July 21 in Cooperstown, New York.
The 35 candidates, with the newcomers in italics:
Rick Ankiel, Jason Bay, Lance Berkman, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Freddy Garcia, Jon Garland, Travis Hafner, Roy Halladay, Todd Helton, Andruw Jones, Jeff Kent, Ted Lilly, Derek Lowe, Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff, Mike Mussina, Darren Oliver, Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte, Juan Pierre, Placido Polanco, Manny Ramirez, Mariano Rivera, Scott Rolen, Curt Schilling. Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa, Miguel Tejada, Omar Vizquel, Billy Wagner, Larry Walker, Vernon Wells, Kevin Youkilis, Michael Young
In a cool new feature we’ve added, you can see the career statistics of the candidates in sortable tables, one apiece for hitters and pitchers. And yes, Ankiel — who spent as an outfielder after wildness ended his pitching career — is in both. He’s the most surprising inclusion on the ballot, particularly as he’s been reportedly mulling a comeback. That’s a story for another day, though.
Now, on to the big questions…
Will Rivera be the first unanimously-elected candidate?
Probably not. Even outside of our current, ultra-polarized political scene, getting hundreds of baseball scribes of all shapes and sizes to agree on any player has proven to be an impossible task. In the 71 times the BBWAA has voted (excluding special elections, more on which momentarily), there’s never been a unanimous selection — not for Babe Ruth (95.1% in 1936), Willie Mays (94.7% in 1979), Hank Aaron (97.8% in 1982), or Greg Maddux (97.2% 2015). The highest share of the vote came in 2016, when Ken Griffey Jr. received 99.3%; all but three of the 440 voters included him on their ballots.
None of those three voters published their ballots or came forward to explain their reasoning, likely because they didn’t want to face the resultant firestorm of criticism. To understand why, one need only go back a few years to see the blistering responses received by Dodgers beat writer Ken Gurnick of MLB.com in 2014 for only voting for Jack Morris, and refusing to vote for Maddux or any candidate “who played during the period of PED use,” or by Twins beat writer Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press in 2015 for leaving Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez off — both were locks anyway — to find room for Walker and Alan Trammell. As in so much else in life, the public doesn’t reward nonconformity, even or especially when it’s a matter of conscience.
Some observers, including this scribe, thought that if the Hall allowed the BBWAA to follow through with its plan to publish every ballot, it might increase the chances of a player running the table, with Rivera a strong possibility given his accomplishments as the all-time saves leader, as an incredible postseason performer who closed out four World Series, and as a public figure with a sterling reputation. But with naysayers still able to cloak themselves in anonymity, unanimity seems less likely, and that’s on top of the fact that some voters may be philosophically opposed to including relievers in the Hall — even the best in baseball history.
Will Halladay’s death lead to his election?
Before his tragic death in a plane crash in November 2017, Halladay appeared to have a solid but not overwhelming case for Cooperstown. Perhaps not a player who would be elected on the first ballot, but one with a very good chance of getting there eventually. On the one hand are the modest wins (203), strikeouts (2,117), and innings (2,749.1) totals, and on the other the eight All-Star selections and two Cy Youngs, a perfect game, and the second postseason no-hitter in history. From a JAWS standpoint, his 64.3 career WAR (the Baseball-Reference version, which I’ll use throughout this series) is a bit short of the standard for pitchers (73.4), but his 50.6 peak WAR is bit above (50.1) — and higher than holdovers Mussina (44.6) and Schilling (48.7), both of whom had longer careers (with higher JAWS), topped 50% last year, and appear to be on the pathway to eventual election.
As anyone who has studied the history of the Hall of Fame in depth can tell you, one uncomfortable reality about the collision between human mortality and baseball immortality is that death may work in a candidate’s favor. Apart from Roberto Clemente, who was elected when the BBWAA took a special vote in March 1973, just two months after he died in a plane crash, several other players have been elected in the short period after their demise, including Roger Bresnahan and Jimmy Collins (both elected in 1945), Herb Pennock (1948), Three-Finger Brown (1949), Harry Heilmann (1952) and Ron Santo (2012). My educated guess — and really, this is still just a guess — is that on a ballot that already has enough darkness, voters will focus on the positives surrounding Halladay and elect him in short order.
Is this finally the year for Martinez and Mussina?
Back in 2015, Martinez (27.0% in his sixth year) and Mussina (24.6% in his second year) were both a far cry from election, but with five holdovers elected in that timespan since (along with four newcomers), the pair are now the top returnees. Martinez, who has posted double-digit gains in each of the past three cycles, fell just 20 votes short of election last year. Mussina, with two years of double-digit gains out of three, received 63.5%.
The situation is rather urgent for Martinez, who’s in his 10th and final year of eligibility, but does appear to have a good chance to join Red Ruffing (1967), Ralph Kiner (1975), Jim Rice (2009), and Tim Raines (2017) as candidates elected in their last go-round; in fact, he’s 0.6% ahead of Raines’ “pace.” Since the voters returned to annual balloting in 1966, 19 out of 20 candidates who received at least 70% of the vote and had eligibility remaining were elected the following year, with Jim Bunning the exception; he received 70.0% in 1987 (his 11th year of eligibility), then 74.2% in 1988 before slipping to 63.3% in 1989. He couldn’t get back to 75.0% via the writers, but the Veterans Committee elected him. For what it’s worth, the VC also came to the rescue of two other candidates who made bigger jumps into the 70-something range but fell short in their final year, namely Nellie Fox (74.7% in 1985) and Orlando Cepeda (73.5% in 1994). Still, it would be a great thing to see Martinez, the most potent DH in history (and an adequate third baseman before that) gain entry via the writers, particularly as the Hall’s 2015 rule change unilaterally reduced his remaining eligibility from nine years to four.
As for Mussina, in the big picture, he’s clearly trending towards election, but historically speaking, it might not be imminent. Since 1966, just one of the three previous candidates with a percentage within five points of Mussina’s in year five, Luis Aparicio (67.4% in 1983), was elected the following year; both Andre Dawson (61.0% in 2006) and Tony Perez (65.7% in 1996) needed four more years. What’s more, of the 19 times a candidate received somewhere between 58.5% and 68.5% — again, within five points of the Moose — at any point from year three to year seven, just four times was that candidate elected in the next year, with Aparicio, Eddie Mathews (from 62.4% in 1977 to 79.4% in 1978) and 300-game winners Early Wynn (from 66.7% in 1971 to 76.0% in 1972) and Phil Niekro (from 68.3% in 1996 to 80.3% in 1997) the only ones getting in. The average gain of those 19 was just 4.2 percentage points; six actually lost ground. That said, all of this took place during the period when candidates had 15 years on the ballot and voters were generally filling in far fewer names, so progress was slower. Still, it seems more likely that Mussina falls short of 75.0% this time around.
And how about those ultra-polarizing candidates, Bonds, Clemens, and Schilling?
Speaking of darkness on the ballot, I wrote over 400 words about this trio, all of whom are in their seventh year of eligibility. But you know what? The debates surrounding them — which concern connections to performance-enhancing drugs for Bonds and Clemens, and the post-career conduct of Schilling — will suck up much of the oxygen in the coming weeks while making everybody surly. So while I promise that I’ll fully explain what’s happening with this trio down the road, today, I’m going to skip the tea leaves and instead mention a few other noteworthy newcomers. You’re welcome.
And those newcomers?
From a traditional standpoint, the one who stands out is Pettitte, with his 256 wins, five World Series rings and several postseason records. With last year’s Modern Baseball Era Committee election of Jack Morris, owner of a career 3.90 ERA, Pettitte’s 3.85 mark would no longer be the Hall’s highest, though of course he stands up much better relative to his league’s averages, with a 117 ERA+ to Morris’ 105. That said, Pettitte ranks just 91st in JAWS (47.2), well below the standard for pitchers (61.8), not to mention the aforementioned trio of Schilling (64.1), Mussina (63.8) or Halladay (57.5), and he’s got the additional burden of having been mentioned in the Mitchell Report for using HGH. No candidate has overcome that yet.
From an advanced statistical standpoint, the newcomer who stands out the most is Helton, who’s ranked 15th at first base in JAWS (61.2 career WAR/46.5 peak WAR/53.7 JAWS, versus the average Hall first baseman’s 66.8/42.7/53.9). While WAR contains adjustments for park and league that bring his Coors Field-inflated numbers back down to earth, that hasn’t been enough for Walker, who’s 10th among right fielders. And where Walker won three batting titles and an MVP award, Helton won just one batting title and was never MVP. While I think he’s worthy of a spot in Cooperstown, he’ll face an uphill climb.
Who stands out further down the ballot?
It will be very interesting to see which direction the support of Vizquel goes. The 11-time Gold Glove winner, whose comparisons to Ozzie Smith simply aren’t supported by the advanced stats on either side of the ball, received 37.0% in his debut. Of the 10 modern (post-1966) candidates within five points of him on either side, four are still on the ballot (Bonds, Clemens, Martinez, and Schilling), while five were elected (Jeff Bagwell, Hoyt Wilhelm, Gossage, and Mathews by the writers, Bunning by the VC). Only Steve Garvey, who received 41.6% in his 1993 debut, remains outside, as does the just-out-of-range Smith (42.3% in 2003), to these eyes the top candidate on the Today’s Game ballot.
Two other 2018 debutantes, the JAWS-supported Andrew Jones (7.3%) and Scott Rolen (10.2%), need to get out of no-man’s land quickly lest they become afterthoughts or worse, slide off the ballot. And at this point, the returns for Walker (34.1% in his eighth year) and Fred McGriff (23.2% in his ninth) are more about setting themselves up for a better outcome via the Today’s Game committee down the road, as Trammell — who didn’t top 37% until his 15th year on the ballot (40.9%) — did before being elected by the Modern Baseball committee last year.
Do you get to vote yet?
Alas, no. I’m about to begin my ninth year of BBWAA membership, which means that I’m two years away from getting an official ballot. As with previous years, after cycling through profiles of all of the candidates, I’ll fill out my virtual ballot to illustrate the hard choices voters must make. And, in a new wrinkle at FanGraphs, so will you, via a cool, crowd-sourced feature we’re cooking up behind the scenes.
Obviously, there’s a whole lot more to be said about all of these candidates, the burning questions that surround them, and the ones I’ve dodged. We’ll get to those all in due time, I swear.
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.