The Big Questions About the 2021 BBWAA Hall of Fame Ballot

In a welcome sign of normalcy amid the coronavirus pandemic, on Monday the Baseball Writers Association of America released its 2021 Hall of Fame ballot, featuring 25 candidates including 14 holdovers, four of whom received at least 50% last year, joined by a group of 11 newcomers headlined by Mark Buehrle, Tim Hudson, and Torii Hunter. If nobody from that trio jumps out at you as likely to join the recent flood of first-year honorees — 13 of whom have been elected on the first ballot over the past seven cycles, out of a record-setting total of 22 BBWAA-elected players in that span — you’re forgiven. This rather lean slate, the smallest since 2009, is the result of an imperfect storm, in that no obviously legendary player hung up his spikes following the 2015 season, and that after three years out of four featuring the suspense over whether a player in the final year of his eligibility would get to 75%, we don’t have that this time around. Instead, we’ve got a ballot consisting of the weakest class of first-time candidates since 2012 (sorry, guys) and a group of returnees led by three very polarizing figures, namely Curt Schilling, Roger Clemens, and Barry Bonds, all in their ninth year of eligibility.

2020 is just the gift that keeps on giving, isn’t it? I can see some of you already rolling your eyes if not scouting for the nearest exit, but I hope you’ll stick around. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the Hall of Fame’s plaque gallery. Some very good players in mid-candidacy have real opportunities to gain ground now that the spotlight is on them, even if they won’t get anywhere close to 75% this time around. And the ones with no chance at election? Their stories are worth telling, too.

Over the next seven weeks, I’ll profile all 25 candidates, either at length or in brief, examining their cases in light of my Jaffe WAR Score (JAWS) system, which I’ve used to break down Hall of Fame ballots in an annual tradition that’s now old enough to have a driver’s license. The series debuted at Baseball Prospectus (2004-12), then moved to SI.com (2013-18), which provided me an opportunity to go into greater depth on each candidate; in 2018, I brought the series to FanGraphs. 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 have been 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, that means that the newcomers last appeared in the majors in 2015. 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 last candidate grandfathered into getting the full run was Lee Smith, whose eligibility expired in 2017; five current candidates (Bonds, Clemens, Schilling, Jeff Kent and Sammy Sosa) had their tenures reduced mid-candidacy.

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 least 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 fifth since the Hall purged the rolls of voters more than 10 years removed from coverage, 397 ballots were cast, 152 fewer than in 2015, the final cycle before the cutdowns. That’s a reduction of 27.7% over five years, and it represented the first time since 1985 that fewer than 400 writers voted.

Ballots must be postmarked by December 31 (yes, the BBWAA still does this by mail). Voters may still reveal their ballots prior to the announcement, as 54% of voters 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, 82.6% of voters revealed their ballots in 2020, just a whisker below the record-setting level of 83.0% the year before.

The results will be announced on MLB Network on January 26. The hope is that any players elected can join last year’s class of BBWAA and Modern Baseball Era Committee honorees (Derek Jeter, Larry Walker, and Ted Simmons, plus some recognition of the late Marvin Miller, whose family is on record as planning to boycott), which did not get its day in the hot Cooperstown sun in 2020 due to the pandemic. Induction day is scheduled for July 25, 202; based on last year’s timing, the Hall has until late April to decide whether conditions will be safe enough to go through with the festivities. Fingers crossed.

The 25 candidates, with the newcomers in italics:

Bobby Abreu, Barry Bonds, Mark Buehrle, A.J. Burnett, Roger Clemens, Michael Cuddyer, Dan Haren, LaTroy Hawkins, Todd Helton, Tim Hudson, Torii Hunter, Andruw Jones, Jeff Kent, Andy Pettitte, Aramis Ramirez, Manny Ramirez, Scott Rolen, Curt Schilling, Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa, Nick Swisher, Shane Victorino, Omar Vizquel, Billy Wagner, and Barry Zito.

In a cool feature we added last year, you can see the career statistics of the candidates in sortable tables, one apiece for hitters and pitchers. Now, on to the big questions…

Is this group of first-time eligibles really that weak?

Alas, it’s not a strong one, but in saying that, I don’t wish to slag any of these candidates. They had long and successful careers in the majors, and among the inductees, one can certainly find players who weren’t as good as they were. Buehrle and Hudson both topped 200 wins, made multiple All-Star teams, and won World Series rings; the former pitched a perfect game and another no-hitter as well. Yet neither of them won a Cy Young award, only once did either of them lead a league in a triple crown category, and whether you’re looking at Bill James’ Hall of Fame Monitor — which gives credit for awards, league leads, postseason performance and so on — or JAWS, neither of them is in the ballpark of the average Hall of Famer, though they’re both about 80 rungs above Jack Morris in the JAWS rankings. The situation is similar regarding Hunter, despite his nine Gold Gloves; even with about 500 more hits than Jones, a 10-time winner, Hunter was nowhere near as valuable, though he outranks five Veterans Committee-elected center fielders.

Hudson (48.1 JAWS), Buehrle (47.4) and Hunter (40.4) are the only newcomers with a JAWS of at least 40; not since 2012, when Bernie Williams (43.6) led the pack, has there been a ballot without a single newcomer breaking 50. Before that, you’d have to dial back to 2000, when Willie Wilson (40.1) was the only newcomer even to reach 40 JAWS, though from that crop of newcomers, Morris (38.0) and Rich Gossage (31.7) were eventually elected.

So, do any of the holdovers have a real shot this year?

Of the four returning candidates who got at least 50% last year, Schilling is the closest to election, having received 70.0%. For any other candidate, that would be “gimme” range. During the modern voting era (since 1966, when the BBWAA returned to annual voting), 21 candidates received at least 70% but fell short of 75% and still had eligibility remaining. Of those 21, 20 — all but Jim Bunning in 1988 — were elected the next year.

Schilling, however, has proven time and again to be uniquely corrosive and off-putting with his public persona, whether we’re talking about his penchant for hoarding Nazi regalia, cozying up to white supremacists, or pretending he was joking when it comes to the various expressions of hatred — against Muslims, against trans people, against journalists — he’s spewed on social media. At this writing, he’s spouting conspiracy theories and unfounded allegations of electoral fraud pertaining to the recent presidential election. It’s not unreasonable to think that a voter might look at themselves in the mirror and decide that giving Schilling the platform that comes with Hall of Fame induction is something they want no part of. That may not have been the intent that Judge Landis had in including the “integrity, sportsmanship, and character” clause on the BBWAA ballot — which looks rather ridiculous given that Landis spent his 24-year tenure upholding the color line, something that earlier this year sparked a movement by the writers to remove his name from the annual MVP awards — but ultimately, the Hall has left voters to interpret the clause for themselves.

Beyond Schilling, there’s Clemens (61.0%) and Bonds (60.7%), both with allegations related to performance-enhancing drugs as well as some unsavory off-field stuff as well. The gruesome twosome made big advances on the 2016 and ’17 ballots, jumping from the mid-30s to the mid-50s, percentage-wise, but they’ve each gained just 6.9 points over the last three cycles, and with two years of eligibility remaining, it’s entirely possible there exists enough entrenched dissent to filibuster them. Even if that’s not the case, history says that for candidates in the 60% range, it usually takes two years to break the 75% threshold, not one; since 1966, only four out of 18 who got between 60-63% and had eligibility remaining were elected the next year, with Schilling (60.9% in 2019) among those who did not; Walker leapt from 54.6% in 2019 to 76.6% last year, but he was in his final year of eligibility.

Vizquel, the other returning candidate with at least 50% of the vote — significant, because everybody who’s reached that threshold has gotten in eventually, with the exception of Gil Hodges and the aforementioned trio — has climbed to 52.6% of the vote in his three years on the ballot on the strength of his traditional numbers and accomplishments, though his case does not measure up well via WAR and JAWS. It remains to be seen how much that will matter long-term, but particularly during an election cycle where there won’t be much pressure to use all 10 slots, he’ll continue to pick up votes. Getting to 75%, however, is almost certainly a multiyear proposition.

Besides Vizquel, who else is building momentum?

Three returning candidates each added at least 15 percentage points last year, propelling them from the 13-18% range into the 30s, namely Scott Rolen (35.3% in year three, up 18.1%), Billy Wagner (31.7% in year five, up 15.0%), and Gary Sheffield (30.5% in year six, up 16.9%). A fourth, Todd Helton, nearly did the same (29.2% in year two, up 12.7%). All of them benefited from the clearance of so much traffic from the ballot, allowing voters who might have previously viewed them as the slate’s 11th or 12th-best candidate to find room for them. In 2018, voters averaged 8.46 candidates per ballot, and 50% of them used all 10 slots; those numbers dropped to 8.01 candidates per ballot and 43% using all 10 slots in ’19, and then 6.61 candidates and 21% using all 10 slots in this past cycle. In general, surges like those of Rolen, Wagner, and Sheffield tend to get other voters to reconsider their merits. We’ll see if this year’s electorate puts that extra free space to use.

Who is this ballot’s Mark Ellis?

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 already 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 via the BBWAA Screening Committee, the six-member panel that determines the final slate; sometimes a player with a notable career but no shot at election, a player for whom just being included on the ballot is the real honor, slips through the cracks. Last year it was Ellis, the starting second baseman for four playoff teams in his 12-year career; his 33.5 career WAR was four wins better than Brian Roberts, a second baseman who did make the ballot. Ellis joined the company of players such as Shannon Stewart (2014), Chan Ho Park (’16), and Javier Vazquez (’17). This year, the dubious honor goes to Grady Sizemore, a three-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner who accumulated 27.7 WAR during an injury-riddled career that limited him to just 209 games after his age-28 season.

Aren’t you forgetting something?

It would be an exaggeration to say I’ve buried the lede, because it’s hardly the most important piece of news today, but if you’ve been following my work for any length of time, you know that after 10 years of BBWAA membership, and 19 years of covering Hall of Fame elections dating back to my days of blogging at FutilityInfielder.com, this year, I actually get to vote! I’m very excited, and I plan to write more about this particular angle once I’ve got the ballot in my hot little hands, which will be soon; according to the Hall of Fame, it wasn’t mailed until Monday morning.

Sometime just before that December 31 deadline, I’ll go through the exercise formerly known as “My Virtual Ballot,” walking readers through the hard choices there are to be made, but the difference is that this time around, I’ll stick a stamp on that thing and take it to the mailbox.

I’m not the only FanGraphs writer who has joined the electorate this year, either. David Laurila, who like me first obtained his BBWAA card as a member of Baseball Prospectus in December 2010, will get a ballot, too. We’ll talk about that on a FanGraphs Audio episode sometime soon.

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 promise.





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.

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emh1969
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emh1969

Congrats Jay! Glad that you finally have a ballot. I can count on one hand the number of people who know as much as you do about the HOF.

And your offseason HOF work is definitely THE highlight of the offseason.

JustinPBG
Member
Member
JustinPBG

I was like, “oh yay it’s started!!!”