Writing a column about my Hall of Fame ballot without a long section dedicated to Larry Walker feels very strange.
My first vote was for the class of 2017, and I did not vote for Walker. My 10th spot was basically a coin flip between Walker and Vladimir Guerrero, who actually had a shot at being elected, so I felt a vote for him carried more weight. Guerrero finished a handful of votes shy, but was easily elected the next year.
I voted for Walker each of the next three years, each time spending considerable words on the pros and cons of his resume. And I was thrilled to see that, as the ballot cleared up a bit, Walker’s vote totals rapidly improved to the point where he was elected as part of the class of 2020, in his 10th and final year on the ballot. So there is no Larry Walker section in this year’s ballot explanation. But for those of you who tolerate (maybe enjoy?) my long-winded internal discussions on how I arrive at my decisions, have no fear. This year’s edition is still nearly 7,000 words, about the nine players I voted for and eight of those I passed on.
Here are the nine, in alphabetical order by last name: Bobby Abreu, Barry Bonds, Mark Buehrle, Roger Clemens, Tim Hudson, Manny Ramirez, Scott Rolen, Curt Schilling and Gary Sheffield.
Before you go any further, as always, three quick thank-you notes: First, to FanGraphs’ Jay Jaffe for creating his JAWS system, which provides statistical context for this Hall of Fame discussion, and all the work he has done breaking down the candidates on the ballot. Invaluable resources. Second, to Baseball-Reference.com, which is eternally awesome and essential (subscribe to Stathead!). And, finally, to Ryan Thibodaux and his crew for their indispensable Hall of Fame vote tracker (referenced often in this column as “The Tracker”).
And now, my thoughts on this year’s ballot. If you’re curious, here are my previous ballot explanation columns: for the class of 2020, for the class of 2019, for the class of 2018 and for the class of 2017. You’ll see similar thoughts on players who are ballot hold-overs.
Hall of Fame votes for class of 2021
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens
Thoughts: I grouped Bonds and Clemens together in my first ballot column, and I’ve taken the same approach every year since then. Why separate them? Next year, as you know, will be the last I write about that duo in this context. Assuming they don’t get elected this year — spoiler: they won’t — the vote for the class of 2022 will be their 10th and final time on the BBWAA ballot. That ballot, of course, marks the debuts of David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez.
Yep, that’ll be interesting.
Anyway, here’s what I’ve written in the past. Nothing’s changed.
As always, I’m grouping these two together because their cases are essentially identical. On the field, they produced like few players in the history of this great sport. Bonds won the MVP award a record seven times — no other player has more than three MVP awards, which were first handed out in 1931 — and finished in the top five on five other occasions. Clemens won the Cy Young award a record seven times — no other pitcher has won more than five — and finished in the top six on five other occasions.
Their counting stats are jaw-dropping and their advanced metrics are elite. They’re also forever linked to performance-enhancing drugs. Some people think that disqualifies them from the Hall of Fame and some people don’t. I see both sides of that debate, and I had long vacillated on this issue before my first ballot.
But the Hall is full of two things: Players who displayed “character flaws” in all aspects of their lives, and players who used every possible advantage — legal or illegal — to achieve greatness. The only difference with Bonds and Clemens is that the advantages available to them were more impressive than the advantages that were available to the generation that popped greenies on game day, or the generations that scuffed and spit on the baseball. Is a spitball the same as using PEDs? Of course not, not as it impacts the game on the field. But the decision-making process that results in players choosing to use those advantages is essentially the same. I’ve voted for Bonds and Clemens all four (update: five) years I’ve had a ballot, and I’m at ease with that decision.
Thoughts: The focus of the 2022 ballot additions of A-Rod and Ortiz always seem to center around Bonds and Clemens, but the biggest impact might actually be on Ramirez’s candidacy.
He wasn’t just suspected of taking PEDs, he was actually busted and suspended by MLB twice (as was A-Rod), in 2009 and 2011. For a lot of voters, that’s the separation. Anyone officially busted after testing in 2005 is off their list. I can’t argue that. It’s logical. Honestly, with the crowded ballot of years past, it was only natural to look at negatives as reasons to eliminate players from your ballot instead of solely judging the positives of a resume. If you thought, for example, 14 people deserved to be elected but you could only vote for 10, reasons like PED suspensions work as well as anything to whittle down a list.
To me, though, Ramirez was about a month shy of his 37th birthday when the first positive test happened. Heading into that 2009 season, he already had 527 home runs, a .314 average, 1.004 OPS and 66.5 WAR. How is that different from Rafael Palmeiro, you might ask? Palmeiro already had bona fide Hall credentials when he was suspended for steroid use in 2005, his Age 40 season, and that suspension crushed his Cooperstown chances. The answer is this: Maybe it’s not very different. But I didn’t have a vote when Palmeiro was on the ballot, so I didn’t have to deal with that decision. I have to deal with Ramirez now, and it’s impossible to have watched him for his entire career and come to the conclusion that he was anything but one of the best hitters in MLB history.
And when we think of Ramirez as a hitter, it’s easy to get caught up in the counting stats of home runs and RBIs. Especially the eye-popping RBIs. He had five seasons with at least 41 homers and he had 12 seasons with at least 100 RBIs; he had at least 144 RBIs three times, including a career-high 165 in 1999. His batting averages almost get lost in the mix, but he hit at least .300 in 11 seasons, including seven of at least .321.
For historical context, only six hitters in MLB history played at least 2,000 games and produced a slash line of at least .310/.410/.575. Manny is one of the six, with a .312/.411/.585 slash line. The other five: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby and Jimmie Foxx. Yeah. Manny is the only slugger who played after 1960 in that club. Think about that. Baseball hasn’t seen a better career slash line than his in 60 years.
Manny’s resume isn’t all about traditional back-of-baseball-card stats, of course. His adjusted OPS+ of 154 is tied for 25th all time, with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. His wOBA of .418 is 28th all time. His ISO of .273 is ninth all time. The list goes on. His WAR number takes a pretty significant hit because he wasn’t very good (being kind) at playing defense and running the bases. But still, his bWAR of 69.3 is higher than the average Hall of Fame left fielder (65.6), and that speaks volumes to how good he was as a hitter.
I voted for Ramirez the first time I had a ballot (2017), but he was dropped from my ballot in 2018 because I had to find spots for Johan Santana and Scott Rolen, two players who were in danger of falling off the ballot by not reaching the necessary 5 percent of the vote (Santana didn’t reach that threshhold; Rolen barely did, at 10.2 percent, and he’s up near 60 percent in this year’s early voting). Ramirez has been on my ballot every year since.
Thoughts: I’ll be honest. I remain torn on Abreu’s candidacy. I was 100 percent certain he deserved at least a second year in the conversation, though, so I was one of 22 BBWAA members who voted for him last year. He finished at 5.5 percent, just barely over the 5-percent threshold. This year, he’s up around 17 percent in revealed ballots, a big improvement.
Let’s take another look at Abreu’s case, starting with this: There are only three players in MLB history with at least 275 career home runs, 400 stolen bases and an on-base percentage of .375 or better. Those three are Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson and Bobby Abreu. That’s pretty select company. And, yeah, maybe grouping homers, steals and on-base percentage is an odd, arbitrary trio of statistics. But those are things Abreu did well, and his skill set was unique.
He had nine seasons with at least 20 homers and 20 stolen bases, the final one in 2010, his Age 36 season with the Angels. And he had eight seasons with an on-base percentage of .405 or better. From 1998 to 2004, Abreu produced an average slash line of .308/.416/.525, with a low bWAR of 5.2 and a high of 6.6 (average of 5.9). That’s incredibly brilliant consistency. And he reached base via a hit or walk 3,979 times in 2,425 career games; Tony Gwynn reached base 3,955 times in 2,440 games. More good company.
There was a drop-off in his 30s, though not nearly as precipitous as some of the other players on this ballot (we’ll get to them in a minute). From his Age 31 to 40 seasons, Abreu averaged .278/.379/.434, with an average bWAR of 2.0. Still a productive player, but not the All-Star he was in his 20s.
Abreu falls short of the average bWAR (71.9) and JAWS (57.2) for Hall of Fame right fielders — he’s at 60.2 and 50.9 — but you also have to consider how those numbers are impacted by the totals of Babe Ruth (162.1 bWAR, 123.5 JAWS), Hank Aaron (143.1, 101.7) and Stan Musial (128.3, 96.3). Abreu is not equal to those those three players, but his numbers are very similar to BBWAA-elected right fielders Dave Winfield (64.2, 51.1) and Vladimir Guerrero (59.5, 50.3).
I’m voting for him again this year.
Thoughts: In years past, I would use what I wrote about Larry Walker as a guide to what I felt about Rolen. But as I mentioned, no Walker chapter this year (sigh). Basically, it was this: Absolutely brilliant player when healthy, wish he was healthy more often.
Rolen was unquestionably one of the greatest defensive third basemen of all time, right there in the conversation with Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt. And he was an excellent middle-of-the-lineup hitter, too, with a .903 OPS and an average of 28 homers, 102 RBIs and a 133 OPS+ from his Age 22 through 29 seasons. If he had stayed healthy, there’s zero doubt Rolen would have been a slam-dunk Hall of Famer. Instead of barely reaching 10 percent of the vote in 2017, his first on the ballot, we might have been discussing whether he was the best third baseman in MLB history.
But he didn’t always stay healthy. Not counting his rookie year — he wasn’t called up until August 1996 — Rolen played 16 seasons in the majors. In those 16 years, he played more than 142 games just five times. He played 115 or fewer six times. Those injuries hurt his traditional counting stats (home runs, RBIs, etc.) not just because he missed actual games, but because his chronic shoulder issues often zapped his power when he was at the plate.
Still, Rolen’s metrics help his Hall resume. There are 15 primary third basemen enshrined in Cooperstown, and they have an average WAR of 68.4, with an average JAWS rating of 55.7. Rolen is at 70.1 and 56.9, so he’s above the average Hall of Fame third baseman, not just above the worst Hall of Fame third baseman. I will point out, though, that veterans committee additions such as Freddie Lindstrom, George Kell and Deacon White do pull those averages down rather significantly from those at the top of the position list, Schmidt (106.5, 82.5), Eddie Mathews (96.4, 75.4) and recent addition Chipper Jones (85.2, 66.0).
Rolen played for the Phillies, Cardinals, Blue Jays and Reds; he made the NL All-Star squad with each team (seven total) and he also won at least one Gold Glove with each team (eight total). His postseason was a mixed bag. He hit .310 with three homers in the 2004 NLCS, helping the Cardinals to the World Series, but then went 0 for 15 vs. the Red Sox. But he later hit .421 in the 2006 World Series, helping St. Louis beat Detroit in five games. Overall, he hit .220 with a .678 OPS in 39 career playoff games.
I feel pretty certain that he will one day wind up in Cooperstown. Rolen wasn’t in the top 10 on my list in 2018, but I voted for him anyway, in hopes that he would hit the 5 percent needed to stay on the ballot. He did, barely, at 10.2 percent. In 2019, he was the 10th spot on my ballot, and he finished with 17.2 percent of the vote.
With the recent flurry of elections clearing up the ballot — eight players were elected in his first two years of eligibility — Rolen jumped up to 35.3 percent in 2020 and is trending north of 50 percent in early returns on the Tracker this year. It’s important to remember this: It’s not that only 10 percent of the BBWAA voters thought he was Cooperstown-worthy in 2018, it’s just that the 10-player ballot meant choices had to be made, and now that the ballot isn’t as crowded with slam-dunk future Hall of Famers, voters actually have the freedom to vote for players they think belong.
Thoughts: Like Manny Ramirez, the case for Sheffield certainly will be impacted by the impending arrival of Ortiz and Rodriguez on the ballot. Like Ortiz, Sheffield was named on the Mitchell Report. For his first five years on the ballot, it looked like that connection to PEDs crushed his Hall chances. He was between 11.1 and 13.6 percent that first half-decade. But with the uncluttering of the ballot, Sheffield jumped up to 30.5 percent in 2020 as voters like me finally found a place for him.
Sheffield was an incredible hitter, even though injuries limited him to just two seasons of more than 125 games in what should have been his first seven full seasons in the majors, through his Age 26 year. He hit better than .300 eight times and finished with 509 homers and a .907 OPS. He was a nine-time All-Star and finished in the top nine of the MVP vote six times (three times in the top three).
Let’s do some comparisons. First, Ramirez.
Sheffield: 2,576 games, .292/.393/.514, 509 HR, 1,676 RBI, 253 SB, 140 OPS+, 60.5 bWAR
Ramirez: 2,302 games, .312/.411/.585, 555 HR, 1,831 RBI, 38 SB, 154 OPS+, 69.5 bWAR
Ramirez has the edge in most categories, though Sheffield made teams pay attention to him on the base paths; he had 14 seasons with at least 10 stolen bases (a career high of 25). Neither were good defenders.
Now, let’s compare Sheffield to Vladimir Guerrero, a recently elected Hall of Famer who also primarily played right field.
Sheffield: 2,576 games, .292/.393/.514, 509 HR, 1,676 RBI, 253 SB, 140 OPS+, 60.5 bWAR
Guerrero: 2,147 games, .318/.379/.553, 449 HR, 1,496 RBI, 181 SB, 140 OPS+, 59.4 bWAR
Well, that’s interesting, isn’t it? Guerrero fell just short of election in his first year on the ballot (71.9 percent) and was elected on his second try. Guerrero, of course, has no PED ties, which is the differentiator for many voters.
Now, David Ortiz.
Sheffield: 2,576 games, .292/.393/.514, 509 HR, 1,676 RBI, 253 SB, 140 OPS+, 60.5 bWAR
Ortiz:: 2,408 games, .286/.380/.552, 541 HR, 1,768 RBI, 17 SB, 141 OPS+, 55.3 bWAR
Huh. Ortiz is generally seen as a first-ballot guy, but Sheffield’s career numbers are pretty similar. The slam-dunk part of Ortiz’s case, of course, is his INSANE postseason production, and that’s a worthy separator. Sheffield appeared in one World Series, batting .292 with a .943 OPS and five RBIs in seven games as the Marlins won the 1997 title, but his overall postseason numbers are pedestrian (.799 OPS, six homers in 44 games).
Anyway, Sheffield gets my vote this year, again.
Mark Buehrle and Tim Hudson
Thoughts: If you’ve read my Hall of Fame ballot explanation columns in the past, or happened to catch a radio/podcast interview I’ve done on the subject, my votes for Hudson and Buehrle will not surprise you. Long before I had an official ballot, I was mildly obsessed with the Hall voting/induction process, and what really stuck out to me were the guys who not only were not elected, but didn’t even stick around for a second year on the ballot. Anyone who receives less than five percent of the vote is dropped for the following year, and the list of dropped stars has long galled me.
Bruce Sutter received 38.5 percent of the vote for the class of 2000 — and eventually was elected, in 2006 — with 300 career saves, but his closing contemporary Jeff Reardon (367 saves) fell short of five percent on that same ballot? Alan Trammel was eventually elected but his double-play partner, Lou Whitaker, didn’t make it to Year 2? Ted Simmons, Kenny Lofton and Jim Edmonds were all one-and-dones? You’ve got to be kidding me.
That just didn’t sit right, especially as I saw how vote totals could grow for guys like Tim Raines, Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris the longer they stayed on the ballot. I’m not even saying those guys I mentioned absolutely deserve to be inducted, but they at least deserved to stay in the conversation, right? You can’t tell me the gap between Raines and Lofton is THAT big (I was thrilled to cast one of the votes that finally got Raines in, btw). And the final year before I reached the 10-year mark as a BBWAA member necessary to get a vote, Edmonds was five-percented in a year (class of 2016) with 10 players who are now Hall of Famers are on the ballot, and that list doesn’t include Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling. Edmonds deserved better.
My mind was made up. With my votes, I was going to do my little part to attempt to avoid these oversights. My first year with a ballot, I played it straight up. Partially because the weight of having an official ballot was intimidating, I’ll admit, but also because Jorge Posada was the only first-year borderline guy who was really under consideration. He fell short, at 3.8 percent.
My second year, for the class of 2018, Scott Rolen was hovering around 10 percent of the vote and Johan Santana was around three or four percent. I believed (and still do) that Rolen will one day be in Cooperstown, and the I couldn’t get away from the comparisons of Santana to Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Dizzy Dean, three brilliant careers shortened by injury. I voted for both. Rolen made it, Santana didn’t (I was one of only 10 people to vote for him, and I still believe I was right). The ballot has cleared a bit, and Rolen’s vote totals have skyrocketed; he’s up above 50 percent in The Tracker this year. I didn’t vote for any marginal first-timers on the 2019 ballot because I didn’t think any of the newbies deserved more years on the ballot. Last year, I was one of 22 to vote for Bobby Abreu, and he just barely made the cut, at 5.5 percent. This year, he’s at 17.3 percent, a big jump.
I believe both Hudson and Buehrle deserve to stick around in the conversation for another year. Both pitchers were consistently excellent during the course of long careers — 17 years for Hudson, 16 for Buehrle. Both retired when they were still effective big-league pitchers; Buehrle’s final-season ERA — his Age 36 season — was exactly the same as his career ERA.
In that final year, Buehrle fell four outs shy of recording his 15th consecutive season with at least 200 innings pitched, a remarkable career for a control pitcher who rarely, if ever, hit 90 mph with his fastball. He was a five-time All-Star and maybe the best fielding pitcher of the past several decades not named Greg Maddux (four Gold Gloves). He owns a perfect game AND a no-hitter. He came out of the bullpen to record the save in the 14th inning of Game 3 of the 2005 World Series, after pitching seven innings in Game 2. And he did this all as a 38th-round draft pick. That’s worth one more look, at least.
Hudson burst onto the scene with the A’s and made an immediate impact, rolling up a 3.30 ERA in his six years with the club — including a 2.98 mark for the 2002 squad featured in the book Moneyball (though he was basically left out of the movie, for some reason). From there, he spent nine years as a fixture in Atlanta’s rotation, posting a 3.56 ERA/3.88 FIP, and then he spent his final two years with the Giants, with a 3.91 ERA. Hudson made 14 appearances (13 starts) in the postseason, with a 3.69 ERA.
Let’s do a little comparison to Jack Morris, who spent 15 years on the BBWAA ballot and topped out at 67.7 percent of the vote, then was elected by a veterans committee as part of the class of 2018.
Buehrle: 59.1 bWAR, 47.4 JAWS, 3.81 ERA, 3,283 1/3 IP, 1.281 WHIP, 2.55 K/BB, 4.11 FIP
Hudson: 57.9 bWAR, 48.1 JAWS, 3.49 ERA, 3,126 2/3 IP, 1.239 WHIP, 2.27 K/BB, 3.78 FIP
Morris: 43.6 bWAR, 38.0 JAWS, 3.90 ERA, 3,824 IP, 1.296 WHIP, 1.78 K/BB, 3.94 FIP
Buehrle’s career bWAR is better than 20 starting pitchers already inducted; Hudson’s is better than 17. And again, just because Morris is in the Hall doesn’t mean I’m saying both Buehrle and Hudson definitely belong. But if Morris was around for that long on the ballot and was eventually inducted, doesn’t that mean Buehrle and Hudson — who share similar “long productive career” resumes with Morris instead of “brilliant short peak” cases — should at least make it to Year 2? I’ll answer that question: Yes, it does.
Thoughts: By the end of his Age 28 season (1995), Schilling didn’t have anything resembling a Hall of Fame resume. He’d been traded three times already and had only one good, healthy season under his belt (his 5.9 WAR year for the Phillies in 1992, when he was 25). In his 206 career games (95 starts) through 1995, Schilling had a 3.56 ERA/3.37 FIP, struck out 6.9 per nine innings and had a 2.56 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Solid, but far from exceptional. He made only a total of 30 starts in 1994-95 because of injuries (and the strike, to a lesser extent), and it was fair to wonder which direction his career was headed. Not sure anyone other than Schilling saw what was coming.
From his Age 29 season through the end of his career (Age 40 season), Schilling struck out 9.2 batters per nine innings and had a 5.31 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He had six seasons with a WAR of at least 6.0, struck out at least 293 batters four times and led his league in complete games four times. Don’t listen to anyone who says, “But he didn’t win a Cy Young award,” because that’s just silly. He finished second three times, when he had WARs of 8.8, 8.7 and 7.9. Those are amazing seasons. Problem was, Hall of Famer Randy Johnson was in his prime, too, and doing things that seemed darn near impossible. The Big Unit won the award two of those years, posting WARs of 10.0 and 10.9; Johan Santana won the award the third time, with an 8.6 WAR. You cannot hold a lack of yearly awards against Schilling for his Hall of Fame resume.
And then, of course, you have Schilling’s postseason resume, which is incredible. In 19 career playoff starts, Schilling fashioned a 2.23 ERA and went at least seven full innings 13 times. In seven World Series starts, he had a 2.03 ERA, and his team won the title three times. He’s not inner-circle Hall of Fame — Walter Johnson, Bob Gibson, Greg Maddux, etc. — but he’s better than the “average” Hall of Fame starting pitcher.
As for Schilling off the field? Let’s just say that if BBWAA voters treated Schilling the way he’s publicly treated pretty much anyone who dares to disagree with him, he wouldn’t be anywhere near the 75 percent needed to be elected. And it’s really not the politics, but the reprehensible way he treats people with utter, unrestrained and unabashed contempt. Instead, he’s right on the cusp again this year.
Other Hall of Fame considerations …
Thoughts: There are only 11 players in MLB history with at least 2,000 games and a slash line of .310/.410/.510 or better. Nine of those players are in the Hall of Fame: Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Harry Heilmann, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Jimmie Foxx and Edgar Martinez. The other two? Manny Ramirez and, yep, Todd Helton, with a career .316/.414/.539 line. That’s crazy impressive company, no doubt. Gehrig and Foxx are the only other primary first basemen on the list; Helton’s 369 career homers fall well short of Gehrig (493) and Foxx (534).
Helton played his entire career with the Rockies. I want to stop for a moment and say that I kind of hate what comes next, the standard comparison/implied critique of the career home/road splits for any player wearing a Rockies uniform. The point isn’t to criticize and tear down, but to provide context in a Hall of Fame debate. The Coors Field issue was seen as a negative for Larry Walker (I just can’t stop bringing him up, I guess), but eventually Walker was elected.
Home: 1,141 games, .345/.441/.607, 1.048 OPS, 227 homers, 859 RBIs, 2,452 total bases
Road: 1,106 games, .287/.386/.469, .855 OPS, 142 homers, 547 RBIs, 1,840 total bases
That’s a pretty big gap, though a .386 on-base percentage on the road is still really damn impressive. Tony Gwynn’s career on-base percentage was .388, folks. During his absolute peak — 1999 through 2004 — Helton hit an incredible .383 at Coors Field and a still-very-good .303 on the road.
But maybe more damaging to his Hall chances were the injuries that zapped most of his power and changed who he was as a hitter. Despite playing in Coors Field, Helton didn’t pop more than 20 home runs after his Age 30 season, and his overall production dropped off the table after his Age 33 season.
First 10 years averages: 154 games, .332/.432/.585, 1.017 OPS, 30 homers, 108 RBI, 144 OPS+, 5.5 bWAR
Last 6 years averages: 112 games, .279/.373/.430, .803 OPS, 11 homers, 53 RBI, 104 OPS+, 1.1 bWAR
He was great his first decade, but he was barely an average MLB first baseman those last six years. It’s hard to get past that point when we’re talking about a spot in Cooperstown. I think Walker’s induction helps Helton’s chances, but I also think Walker had a much better Hall of Fame resume than Helton, which is why Helton isn’t on my ballot.
Thoughts: For some superstars with obvious Cooperstown talent, the countdown begins around Year 7 or 8. “Only two years until he’s a Hall of Fame lock, even if he immediately retires after his 10th year.” That was the case with Albert Pujols during his St. Louis decade, and it’s the case with his current Angels teammate, Mike Trout. We just talked about the issues with Todd Helton’s candidacy. Want a test case on how to potentially sink a Cooperstown candidacy after the first decade? Look at Andruw Jones.
Jones had a beautiful run with the Braves, bursting on the scene as an otherworldly 19-year-old defensive center fielder and developing into a reliable bat in the middle an Atlanta lineup that regularly appeared in October. Young Andruw was truly brilliant. Watching Braves games, you held your breath when an opposing hitter smashed a baseball toward the center field wall or the power-alley gaps. Not because you were worried he would drop the ball, but because you eagerly anticipated how he would make a seemingly impossible catch instead look impossibly easy. He was, for the first several seasons of his career, one of the best defensive center fielders anyone had ever seen play the sport. He won the Gold Glove 10 years in a row and was an All-Star regular — five times by his Age 29 season. And because he was so good with the glove, it was easy to overlook his contributions at the plate.
Average Age 20-29 season: 158 games, .268/.346/.506, 34 HR, 101 RBI, 13 SB, 117 OPS+, 5.8 bWAR
His last year in Atlanta, though, Jones numbers showed signs of trouble, despite 26 homers and 94 RBIs. His OPS+ dropped to a measly 87, and he had more strikeouts (138) than hits (127) for the first time. Undaunted, the Dodgers gave him a two-year, $36.2 million free-agent deal to leave Atlanta, but that was a disaster. L.A. cut him after the first year (2008), when he played just 75 games, batting .158 with three home runs and a .505 OPS. He finished his career with stints with the Rangers, White Sox and Yankees, but he struggled with injuries, inconsistency and strikeouts. He was a shell of his former defensive self, having been forced mostly to the corner outfield spots when he wasn’t a DH.
Average Age 30-35 season: 98 games, .214/.314/.420, 15 HR, 44 RBI, 3 SB, 92 OPS+, 0.8 bWAR
It was not pretty. He played his final MLB game at 35 years old, though he did play two years in Japan, mostly as a DH or first baseman. Like Helton, when I look at his complete resume, I don’t think the first 10 years were enough to make up for the last five. With both players, I’m keeping an open mind.
Thoughts: With Trevor Hoffman’s induction in 2018, Lee Smith’s election (via committee) in 2019 and Mariano Rivera’s unanimous election by the BBWAA, Wagner’s path to Cooperstown isn’t quite so murky.
I voted for Rivera (obviously), but I didn’t vote for Hoffman, and I haven’t voted for Wagner. If I had to pick Hoffman or Wagner, I’d choose Wagner. Unlike Hoffman, who struggled through a rough final season in search of his 600th save (at 42 years old, Hoffman had a 5.89 ERA in 50 games), Wagner retired when he was still one of the game’s most dominant closers. The lefty turned 38 during the 2010 season, when he had 37 saves and a minuscule 1.43 ERA for the Braves; he averaged 13.5 strikeouts per nine, against just 4.9 hits per nine. Wagner retired with 422 career saves, though he clearly could have chased, at least, the 500-save mark. Hoffman, for example, had 119 saves from Age 39-42. Wagner decided to walk away, though. He’d missed most of the 2009 season with elbow ligament replacement surgery, and the time he spent at home with his wife and kids was powerful.
So he retired with 422 saves, which is currently sixth all-time. Hoffman kept pitching into his 40s and racked up a bunch more saves. And don’t take this as me dinging Hoffman for sticking around. Personally, I love the idea of athletes playing as long as their bodies will allow. One of my favorite things about Rickey Henderson is that he played independent baseball after his MLB career ended, just because he loved the game so much.
But Wagner was the more dominant pitcher. Let’s look at some of his percentage/rate stats among the 37 pitchers in MLB history with at least 250 career saves.
ERA: 4th (2.31)
Fielding-independent pitching: 5th (2.73)
Opponents OPS: 5th (.558)
Opponents batting average: 4th (.187)
Opponents on-base percentage: 3rd (.262)
Opponents slugging: 4th (.296)
Hits per 9 innings: 3rd (5.99)
Strikeout percentage: 4th (33.2)
Strikeout-to-walk ratio: 5th (3.99)
Any way you cut it, Wagner was an elite, elite reliever when he was on the mound.
But there’s this, too: No pitcher has been elected to the Hall of Fame (aside from Satchel Paige, who spent most of his glorious career pitching in the Negro Leagues) with fewer than 1,000 career innings in the AL/NL. Bruce Sutter is low on that list, at 1,042 innings, then Hoffman (1,089 1/3), Rivera (1,283 2/3) and Smith (1,289 1/3). Wagner threw just 903 innings in his career. That’s a huge, huge gap.
Thoughts: Vizquel was an outstanding player for a really long time, racking up lots of Gold Glove awards (11 of them), stealing lots of bases with his legs (and base hits with his glove) and peppering 2,877 hits in a career that spanned 24 seasons. You’ll find lots of smart baseball people who believe fervently that the defensive marvel belongs in the Hall of Fame, and lots of smart baseball folks who are just as adamant that he falls far short of the Cooperstown standard. I sit somewhere in the middle, leaning toward the latter.
The average Hall of Fame shortstop finished with a 67.0 bWAR and 55.0 JAWS; Vizquel finished at 45.6 and 36.2. That’s a really big gap.Only one shortstop is in the Hall of Fame with worse numbers in both statistics, and John Ward (34.3, 29.5) played his final game in 1894.
You’ll often hear the argument that goes something like this: “If Ozzie Smith — the benchmark defensive wizard/OK hitter at the position — is a Hall of Famer, so is Vizquel.” But Smith was a far superior all-around player, shown by the advance metrics. In his 24-year career, Vizquel’s bWAR topped 4.0 exactly one season. Smith topped that 4.0 number 10 times in his 19-season career, and posted an average bWAR of 5.4 for a 11-year stretch from 1982 to 1992. Smith also had 176 more stolen bases in 395 fewer games. Smith’s career bWAR was 76.9, his JAWS is 59.7. It’s not close.
But we’re not just judging Vizquel against Smith. I know that. This discovery, though, is what made up my mind about Vizquel: In those 24 seasons, Vizquel received exactly one MVP vote. Not one first-place vote, mind you. Just one vote, ever. In 1999, one writer gave Vizquel the eighth-place vote on his ballot. That’s it. He never appeared on any other MVP ballot. This isn’t like Mike Mussina or Schilling never winning a Cy Young award or Edgar Martinez never receiving an MVP award. In his entire 24-year career, only one voter ever thought Vizquel was even one of the top 10 players in his league. If you’re never considered one of the top 10 players in your league any given year, how in the world are you a Hall of Famer? And it’s not about shortstops being undervalued in MVP voting. Barry Larkin, Cal Ripken Jr., Ernie Banks, Robin Yount and Lou Boudreau won MVP awards as shortstops. Ozzie Smith (second in 1987, received votes five other years), Arky Vaughan and Luke Appling came oh-so-close to winning MVP awards. Vizquel, though, was basically never even a consideration.
Thoughts: If you’re a believer in extended excellence over peak performance, you could easily be swayed by the case for Pettitte. Players representing both schools of thought are in the Hall, and Pettitte has an interesting resume. I don’t put a ton of weight in his 256 wins over 18 years, to be honest, because it wasn’t tough collecting Ws with the lineup Pettitte often had supporting him with the Yankees.
Pettitte was Mr. Reliable for the Yankees and Astros; in his 16 seasons with at least 20 starts, the lefty had a bWAR of at least 2.1 in 14 of those years. Reliability is a wonderful characteristic in a starting pitcher. On the other hand, he had a bWAR above 3.8 in just three of those 16 seasons. That isn’t great. Pettitte was the same consistent pitcher in the postseason as he was in the regular season. In the regular season, he had a 3.85 ERA, 1.351 WHIP and 2.37 K/BB ratio; in 44 playoff starts, the numbers look very similar (3.81, 1.305, 2.41). Look, Pettitte was EXACTLY what the Yankees needed for all those years, and he earned his undeniable place in franchise glory, but I just don’t think he hits the Hall standard.
I do think, though, he’s the type of player who deserved a chance to stick around in the conversation. I did not vote for him in his first year on the ballot — it was crowded, and we only get 10 spots — and he finished at 9.9 percent, thankfully. If I had to do that one over again, with my voting philosophy cemented as it is now, I probably would have done my best to help him reach Year 2. Each year he stays on is an appreciation of his career, and that’s a good thing. I do think his only realistic shot at getting to Cooperstown, though, resides with a veterans committee.
Thoughts: There’s little doubt that Sosa took a PED-enhanced path to all those home runs. But I’ve had this one thought running through my head for a long time: If I’m going to vote for Bonds and Clemens and Ramirez (among others), how can I not vote for Sosa, a guy who finished with 609 career home runs and topped the 60-homer mark in three separate seasons? I honestly don’t have a great answer for that question.
It’s easy to forget how much of a lift that Sosa’s power — and joy on the field — gave baseball during the post-strike struggles. On the other hand, even with all those home runs, Sosa’s career WAR of 58.4 falls way, way below the standard for average Hall of Fame right fielders (it’s 71.4). In fact, only one right fielder with a lower WAR has ever been elected to the Hall by the BBWAA, Wee Willie Keeler (54.0 WAR), back in 1939.
Thoughts: Kent’s career was basically the opposite of Todd Helton and Andruw Jones, in that he was an OK player for three teams through his Age 28 season, then his career hit rock star levels from Age 29 to 37. So, more like Curt Schilling in that respect. Funny how getting to bat directly behind Barry Bonds — he was traded to the Giants before the 1997 season — coincided with his reinvention as a player.
Average Age 24-28 season: 120 games, .274/.327/.450, 107 OPS+, 16 HR, 64 RBI, 24 2B
Average Age 29-37 season: 147 games, .296/.365/.529, 132 OPS+, 28 HR, 110 RBI, 40 2B
Kent was still a productive hitter his last three years in the bigs, but not to the level of his peak years. Kent proponents will start their pitch with one fact, and it’s a doozy: No second baseman in MLB history has hit more home runs while playing the position than Kent (351).
The Hall of Fame isn’t just about one facet of a player’s game, though. As with Sosa, you have to show me more than just home runs. By career bWAR, he’s 19th among second basemen all-time. By JAWS, he’s 21st. The average bWAR for Hall of Fame second basemen is 69.5 and the average JAWS is 57.0. Kent checks in at 55.4 and 45.6, well below the average and a decent amount below recent inductee Craig Biggio (65.5, 53.7). He’s essentially tied with Ian Kinsler (55.2, 46.6).
Why are those numbers so low when he hit so many home runs? He was not great with the glove, putting it kindly, which is a big part of being a second baseman. As Jay Jaffe points out in his Kent profile, defensively Kent was 42 runs below average in his career by Baseball-Reference’s Total Zone and Defensive Runs Saved. That’s rough.
Looking at the complete profile, I’m passing on Kent.
Thoughts: Few players were as much fun to watch as Hunter, a dynamic center fielder who won nine Gold Glove awards in a row, from 2001 to 2009. He was a five-time All-Star who had a bWAR of 3.0 or above for a dozen consecutive years, from 2001 to 2012. He’s trending right about five percent on The Tracker.
So let’s compare Hunter with the two center fielders we mentioned earlier, Jim Edmonds and Kenny Lofton. Both, you’ll remember, fell off the ballot after just one season.
Hunter: 50.7 bWAR, 2,372 games, .277/.331/.461, 110 OPS+, 353 HR, 1,391 RBI, 195 SB
Lofton: 68.4 bWAR, 2,103 games, .299/.372/.423, 107 OPS+, 130 HR, 781 RBI, 622 SB
Edmonds: 60.4 bWAR, 2,011 games, .284/.376/.527, 132 OPS+, 393 HR, 1,119 RBI, 67 SB
He’s quite a bit behind those two offensively, and both Edmonds and Lofton were excellent defensive center fielders, too (Edmonds had eight GGs, Lofton had four). The average bWAR for a Hall of Fame center fielder is 71.3, almost 20 points above Hunter’s mark. The average JAWS for a HoF CF is 58.0; Hunter checks in at 40.7. That’s too much of a gap. Hell of a player, but I’m passing.