The Big Questions About the 2020 BBWAA Hall of Fame Ballot

On Monday, the Baseball Writers Association of America released its 2020 Hall of Fame ballot, with 14 holdovers, four of whom received at least 50% last year, joined by a group of 18 newcomers headlined by Derek Jeter. Lately, the writers have been working through a massive backlog of candidates, producing an unprecedented flood of 20 honorees in the past six cycles, including four apiece in each of the past two years. The flood is about to begin receding, however. If not for Jeter, this would rate as the weakest ballot for first-time candidates since 2012, when Bernie Williams was the only first-year candidate who even broke 5%. This year’s two top returnees, Curt Schilling (60.9%) and Larry Walker (54.6%), the latter in his final year of eligibility, are hardly slam dunks for immediate election.

Over the next six weeks, I’ll profile all 32 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 began at Baseball Prospectus (2004-12), then moved to (2013-18), which gave me an opportunity to go into greater depth on each candidate; last year, I brought the series to FanGraphs. The candidate profiles will begin later this week, after I complete my series covering the Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot. Today I’ll offer a quick look at the biggest questions attached to this year’s election cycle.

First, a review of 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), been out of the majors for five years (the minors or foreign leagues don’t count), and then been nominated by two members of the BBWAA’s six-member screening committee, which is usually a formality but can create some head scratching omissions down the ballot. 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 2014. Each new candidate has 10 years of eligibility, a reduction from the 15-year period that was in effect from 1936-2014. The last candidate grandfathered into the full run was Lee Smith, whose eligibility expired in 2017; six current candidates (Walker, Schilling, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Jeff Kent, and Sammy Sosa) had their tenures unilaterally reduced mid-candidacy by the Hall.

To be elected, candidates 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 least 5% 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 fourth since the Hall purged the rolls of voters more than 10 years removed from coverage, 425 ballots were cast, 124 fewer than in 2015.

Ballots must be postmarked by December 31 (yes, the BBWAA still does this by mail). Voters may reveal their ballots prior to the announcement, as 54% 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; between that outlet and the Tracker, a record 83% of voters revealed their ballots last year. The results will be announced on MLB Network at 6 pm ET on January 21. Elected players will be inducted alongside anyone elected via the Modern Baseball ballot next July 26 in Cooperstown, New York.

The 32 candidates, with the newcomers in italics:

Bobby Abreu, Josh Beckett, Heath Bell, Barry Bonds, Eric Chávez, Roger Clemens, Adam Dunn, Chone Figgins, Rafael Furcal, Jason Giambi, Todd Helton, Raúl Ibañez, Derek Jeter, Andruw Jones, Jeff Kent, Paul Konerko, Cliff Lee, Carlos Peña, Brad Penny, Andy Pettitte, J.J. Putz, Manny Ramírez, Brian Roberts, Scott Rolen, Curt Schilling, Gary Sheffield, Alfonso Soriano, Sammy Sosa, José Valverde, Omar Vizquel, Billy Wagner, Larry Walker.

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 more Hall-related features are on the way (note the check box here). Now, on to the big questions…

Will Jeter follow fellow “Core Four” member Mariano Rivera and become the second unanimously-elected candidate?

Last year, Mariano Rivera became the first player ever elected unanimously, thus ending a dumb 82-year-old tradition that began when four voters left Ty Cobb off their ballots in 1936, and 11 did the same regarding Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner. If nobody could agree on them, the logic went, then how could such an honor be bestowed on even Ted Williams (93.4% in 1966), Willie Mays (94.7% in 1979), Hank Aaron (97.8% in 1982), or Greg Maddux (97.2% 2015)? It feels absurd even to type that sentence, but getting hundreds of baseball scribes of all shapes and sizes to agree on anything besides Marriott points was thought to be impossible. Even in an age of increased voter transparency, three fun-hating writers (all of them still unidentified) left Ken Griffey Jr. off their ballots in 2016.

As I wrote in January, Rivera benefited from a perfect storm of voter accountability, transparency, consensus on his status as the best ever within his niche, and universal respect throughout the industry as a player one who lived up to the responsibility of being the last to wear Jackie Robinson’s otherwise-retired number 42. With all due re2pect, Jeter, who along with Rivera helped the Yankees win five World Series and seven pennants, can’t claim best-ever status at shortstop. He was guarded and intentionally bland with the media, and did not have a connection with fans that transcended the pinstripes as Rivera did. That said, with 3,465 hits (sixth all-time), 14 All-Star appearances, and five rings, he’s a no-doubt Hall of Famer, one whose playing career was free of scandal; no, the gift baskets don’t count, and neither do his poor fielding metrics. While his tenure as Marlins CEO is off to a rocky start, it’s difficult to imagine any voter going on record to hold that against him. Perhaps an anonymous voter or three is laying in the weeds, but like Rivera and countless players before him, he should be unanimous. At the end of the day, though, it doesn’t really matter so long as he gets to 75%.

Is this finally the year for Walker?

Like Tim Raines in 2017 and Edgar Martinez last year, Walker is hoping to gain entry in his 10th year, having rallied from meager early support as well as the loss of five years of eligibility. As recently as the 2017 ballot, seven years into his candidacy, he received 21.9%; it was his first time in four years above 20% and just one percentage point below his high-water mark, set in 2012. With back-to-back gains of 12.2% and 20.5%, he’s in much better shape. Not only was he the ballot’s biggest gainer last year, he’s got the fourth-largest two-year gain (32.7%) and fifth-largest three-year gain (39.1%) in modern voting history (since 1966). His clearing 50% is itself noteworthy, in that aside from current candidates, only Gil Hodges reached that threshold and never gained entry.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that Walker needs to replicate last year’s jump in order to get to 75%. Doing that would make for the third-largest leap over the finish line in modern voting history after Barry Larkin (+24.3% in 2012), and Vladimir Guerrero (+21.2% in ’18). However, only one candidate has climbed from below 60% to above 75%: Ralph Kiner, who went from 58.9% in 1974 to 75.4% in ’75, his final year of eligibility. That’s more than a four-point head start on Walker.

So that’s a tall order. He should benefit from the tendency of voters to close ranks around candidates in their final turn — which helped Raines, Martinez, Kiner, and Jim Rice (2009) — as well as others as they approach 75%, such as Mussina, who jumped from 63.5% to 76.7% last year. Less clear is the extent to which turnover within the electorate will help him. Last year, Walker had the ballot’s largest split between published ballots (59.7%) and unpublished ones (27.9%); the latter group is a proxy for the demographic of older voters, who for one reason or another are both less inclined to reveal their ballots and to vote for sabermetric darlings such as Walker. Their ranks are dwindling as more become 10 years removed from active coverage with every year, a trend that would help Walker if incoming voters were more supportive. In both 2017 and ’19, new voters gave Walker a higher share than his overall mark (46.7% versus 21.9%, and then 60 % versus 54.6%), but in ’18 they were well behind (15.4% versus 34.1%). As we’re talking about small samples (totals of 15, 13, and 10 new ballots), it’s not hard to understand the fluctuation, but neither is it something Walker can count on in the same way that Bonds and Clemens can (new voters have supported the pair with 84.2% and 86.8%, respectively, over the past three years).

Speaking of that pair, what do their chances look like, and while we’re at it, what about Schilling?

Well, the short version is that they all finished within one point of 60% last year, their seventh on the ballot. The long version is that the candidacies of Bonds and Clemens are stagnating; they’ve only gained a little over five points in the past two cycles after adding about 17 points within the two cycles before that, aided by the 2016 sunsetting of inactive voters and the 2017 election of Bud Selig, commissioner of the steroid era. While both have done well with newcomers, they haven’t changed many minds lately; via the Tracker, their net increases among returning voters were three (Clemens) and four (Bonds). A post-2019 election survey by ESPN’s Jeff Passan, who asked 60 voters who left both off their ballots whether they might ever change their minds, received just 18 responses, of which 15 said no. Whether or not that group constitutes a representative sample of the electorate is an open question, but suffice it to say the math doesn’t look good given the slow turnover rate of the electorate.

As for Schilling, he probably would have beaten Mussina — on whom he had a one-year head start and as of 2016 a 9.3% lead — to Cooperstown if not for his noxious public persona. The reprehensible things he’s said on social media and the radio, the cozying to white supremacists, and the conspiracy theories have all cost him votes. With a 9.7% gain last year, he’s restored momentum and moved within striking distance, particularly as the top returning vote-getter, but those who make the leap from low-60s to 75% in one fell swoop tend to be early in their candidacies, such as Larkin (who was elected in his third year) or Ryne Sandberg (from 61.1% in year two to 76.2% in year three). Of the four candidates since 1966 who received 55-65% of the vote in year seven, none gained entry in the next year, but two (Andre Dawson and Rich Gossage) were elected two years later and a third (Don Drysdale) three years later. Ordinarily, the move to a 10-year window of eligibility would speed that up, but when you combine Schilling’s capacity for self-sabotage with the current political climate, all bets are off.

How about the newcomers?

Beyond Jeter there is a shortage of viable candidates. Abreu is the best one in terms of JAWS (50.8, 6.0 below the right field standard), a tremendous hitter (.291/.395/.475, 128 OPS+) who had a pair of 30 homer, 30-steal seasons. He’s a stathead favorite but also a player who made just two All-Star appearances and won a single Gold Glove, so I suspect voters will generally greet him with a shrug. Giambi is a former MVP winner who clubbed 440 home runs, and at times was a whole lot of fun, but given his BALCO connections, there’s no reason to think he’ll avoid the fate of other PED-linked candidates. Lee won a Cy Young award and was one of the game’s elite pitchers for about half a decade, but only threw 2,156 and two-thirds major league innings. If Johan Santana and his two Cy Youngs went one and done, there’s little reason to think Lee won’t. Everybody else on the ballot had their moments and deserves their valedictories, but relievers aside, all are at least 20 points below the JAWS standards, and won’t be heading to Cooperstown.

Who stands out further down the ballot?

Vizquel is well short on JAWS (36.2, 18.8 points below the standard), but after gaining 5.8% last year to reach 42.8%, he’s in good shape electorally. Only one modern candidate has polled above 40% in his second year and failed to gain entry via the writers, namely Hodges. Among returnees, it’s a steep drop to Ramirez (22.8%), who ain’t goin’ nowhere with two PED suspensions. The thinning out of the ballot traffic should help somebody or -bodies among the group who received anywhere from 9.9% (Pettitte) to 18.1% (Kent) last year, namely Sheffield, Helton, Rolen, and Wagner — all of whom have pretty decent cases via my analysis, but it’s tough to say which of them will resonate enough to gain real traction.

Do you get to vote yet?

Not yet, but I’m about to begin my 10th year of BBWAA membership, which means that at this time next year, I’ll be receiving my 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 as with last year, we will do a crowd-sourced version of the ballot as well, through which registered FanGraphs users will be able to vote, though I’m afraid the results are non-binding, which is bad news for Bonds, Clemens, and Walker, all of whom were “elected” last year in addition to the quartet tabbed by the BBWAA (Martinez, Mussina, Rivera, and Roy Halladay).

Obviously, there’s a whole lot more to be said about each candidate, the burning questions that surround them, and the ones I’ve dodged. We’ll dig in soon.

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

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Psychic... Powerless...
4 years ago

This series is always a highlight of the offseason. Looking forward to it!