Posted by Jonah Gardner on January 26, 2017
While the National Baseball Hall of Fame voters didn't agree that there were at least 12 candidates worthy of election this year, they did go ahead and vote in three very deserving candidates. It will be beyond thrilling to watch Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Ivan Rodriguez, three of the greatest to ever play the game, take their rightful places in Cooperstown this summer.
However, time marches onward and, with this year's voting in the books, it seems like a good time for an early peek at what lies ahead for voters. In short, it looks like the 2018 Hall of Fame Ballot is going to be as exciting, unpredictable, and infuriating as the 2017 voting. I don't envy the voters who face another agonizing year of paring a list of many worthy candidates down to just ten or fewer.
The Likely Inductees
If you're a Montreal Expos fan who's already planning the trip to Cooperstown this summer, you might want to check with your hotel and see if you can get a frequent customer rate in 2018. And if you're a fan of the San Diego Padres, or just really love closers, you might want to start setting aside some money for airfare to New York. That's because, after this year's round of voting, it looks like a near certainty that Vladimir Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman will be headlining the 2018 Hall of Fame Class.
At 74.0% in this year's round of voting, Hoffman only needs to change a few voters' minds in order to be inducted. The order is slightly taller for Vlad, who received 71.7% of the vote, but failure to get in after breaking 70% in his first year on the ballot would be unprecedented. More to the point, once players reach the level of support that Guerrero and Hoffman have, they usually don't have to wait much longer to make the trip to upstate New York.
In fact, the last seven players to break 70% on a ballot, without breaking 75%, were inducted the following year. The player who breaks that streak, Orlando Cepeda, didn't break 70% until his final year on the ballot. He received 73.5% of the vote that year, and was elected by the Veterans' Committee five years later.
So history is very much on Hoffman and Guerrero's side for 2018. You'd also think they will benefit from a somewhat cleared-up ballot, given that three players were voted in this year, and nine have gone in over the last three, but unfortunately that may not be the case.
The New Faces
That's because there's going to be plenty of new faces, many of whom are deserving of induction in their own right. Here's every first-year player who appears on Baseball-Reference's projected 2018 ballot (meaning they retired following the 2012 season with ten or more seasons in MLB and scored at least a ten in the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor):
As a reminder, a score of 100 or better means that the Monitor ranks the player as likely to reach the Hall of Fame, although in recent years, that hasn't always been the case. Still, I feel relatively confident predicting that at least three players from this group will be inducted at some point.
There's not much point in wasting a lot of time on Chipper Jones: he has an MVP, a batting title, a World Series title, and the only career .300/.400/.500 line by a switch hitter. Mickey Mantle is the only switch hitter in MLB history with a better career than Chipper, according to WAR. He's in.
I'd imagine Jim Thome will eventually be elected as well, although it's getting increasingly difficult to guess how the voters will handle players who hit from power from 1990-2010. Still, there's no evidence of any PED shenanigans on Thome's part, and, while the Jake rated as somewhat hitter-friendly in the 1990s and early 2000s, it's hardly the bandbox that Coors Field was, and thus can't be used to discredit Thome's power numbers the way many have argued against Larry Walker's.
The biggest obstacle to Thome's induction is that, despite the fact that he hit like one of the very best sluggers in the world for the majority of his career, no one really seemed to appreciate it in the moment. Despite a whopping eight seasons with an adjusted OPS+ over 150, as many as Frank Thomas and more than Jeff Bagwell, Thome never finished better than fourth in MVP voting and only has five MLB All-Star Game appearances to his name. If 600 home runs no longer means automatic induction, Thome could be looking at a couple of years of campaigning. Still, I suspect that, as a player who's top 50 in OPS+ all-time and just misses it for WAR among position players, it's only a matter of time.
I said I expect three players to get in, but that was kind of a cheat, because while I expect at least one of Omar Vizquel, Andruw Jones, and Scott Rolen to get in, I'm honestly not sure which one I'd give the best odds to. Of the three, Scott Rolen had the best career WAR. His 70.0 Wins Above Replacement place his career comfortably above that of the average Hall of Fame third basemen (67.5 WAR). Only nine 3B boast a better career WAR than Rolen; seven are in the Hall of Fame, the eighth is Chipper, and the ninth is Adrian Beltre.
If seeing Beltre in the Top 5 all-time among third basemen in both WAR and Jay Jaffe's JAWS system is surprising to you, then you can understand why Rolen is facing an uphill battle. While Thome may have been slightly underrated in his prime, Rolen was almost criminally ignored, only finishing in the Top 20 in MVP voting twice, despite four years in the top 10 in WAR for the National League.
That's because Rolen was one of the best defensive players of his era, but he did it at a position where defense isn't usually valued. From 1990-2015, only two players had more fielding runs (the defensive component of WAR) than Rolen:
But because he played 3B, Rolen's case among more traditional-minded voters looks weaker than Omar Vizquel's. Vizquel is going to make for a fascinating divide between old-school and new-school voters. Vizquel is an 11-time Gold Glove winner at shortstop, one of the most important defensive positions on the field. Although he never won a title, Vizquel reached two World Series and cultivated a reputation as one of the era's most accomplished defenders. Already, the Ozzie Smith comparisons are forming.
And yet, it's not entirely clear that Vizquel was even on Rolen's level as a defensive contributor, let alone Ozzie's. In that same 1990-2015 fielding runs leaderboard excerpted above, Vizquel ranks 16th, below players, like Jack Wilson and Mark Ellis, who won't be getting anywhere near the Hall of Fame.
Fielding runs doesn't adjust for position; it's just a question of how many runs a player saved with his glove. But defensive WAR does and, by that measure, Vizquel grades out better than Rolen. However, the gap may not be as large as you think:
So Vizquel has the second highest dWAR of his era, behind only one player who's already going into the Hall. But, that 8-win advantage in the field over Rolen is more than completely erased when you factor in their offensive WAR (and, again, keep in mind that Vizquel gets extra credit for playing a position where the bat doesn't matter as much):
In other words, even though Vizquel contributed more in the field than Rolen, it's not enough to make up the massive gap in hitting performance.
Still, we haven't even gotten to the player who I'd argue has the best case out of the three. I'm looking forward to spending the next ten years online as an unabashed Stan for Andruw Jones' Hall of Fame case. Andruw was one of my absolute favorite players growing up and, in my opinion, he is absolutely a Hall of Famer.
For starters, here's the five players on the 2018 ballot with the best peak seven-year WAR:
You might notice that players who received over 50% of the vote this year like Mike Mussina and Edgar Martinez are missing from that list (not to mention the duo I've already identified as the most likely additions to Cooperstown). At his peak, Jones was a better player than everyone on this ballot except the two best players of the 1990s, the crazy-underrated Curt Schilling, and a clear first-ballot Hall-of-Famer in Chipper. As the fielding chart in the Rolen section showed, Jones saved more runs with his glove than any player from 1990-2015, and he did it mostly as a centerfielder.
But Jones could also get it done with his bat. He led the NL in home runs in 2005, becoming one of just 27 people to hit 50 or more HRs in a season, and while his rough hitting towards the end of his career dragged down his overall OPS+ to 111, which would be extremely low for a Hall of Fame Centerfielder, he had more seasons at CF with an OPS+ of 125 or better than Hall of Famers like Richie Ashburn and Al Kaline (and only one fewer than Kirby Puckett, who got in on the first ballot).
Andruw Jones' career admittedly burned briefly, but while it did, it was extremely bright. He had as many 7-WAR seasons as Johnny Bench or Robin Yount, as many 6-WAR seasons as Ernie Banks or Jeff Bagwell, and a higher JAWS score than all but nine CFs. My argument is that the Hall of Fame should celebrate the most memorable and exciting players, not just the ones who reach an arbitrary minimum number of hits, homers, or runs batted in. For several years, Andruw Jones was a top 5-10 player in all of baseball and, for a few, he may have even been the best.
Fighting to Stay on the Ballot
The sad fact is that I can imagine Jones falling below 5% next year more easily than I can picture him getting in. The crowded ballot has made for some surprising early exits, like Kenny Lofton (perhaps one of the biggest voting mistakes of this decade, if you trust WAR) and Jorge Posada (whose HoF Monitor score of 98 indicated that he should have polled more like a player on the fringes of eventually being inducted).
But, when two of the top 10 players of all time in WAR can't get in, it tends to crowd out other players with cases that are interesting, if flawed. In addition to Jones, two players who will likely be sweating next year's voting are Johan Santana and Johnny Damon.
Santana's case is similar to Jones' in that he ranks right behind Andruw in 6th place on next year's ballot in peak WAR, thanks to a brief stretch of mind-blowing dominance. From 2004-08, Santana won two Cy Young Awards, registered three more top-five finishes, and racked up 35.4 WAR. Those were Santana's age 25-29 seasons; since 1901, only 11 pitchers have done better from age 25-29 and I'm going to paste the list below because seeing Santana's name alongside these guys is pretty stunning:
Yeah. The problem, for Santana, is that those five years are basically his entire case. While he had a couple more good years with the New York Mets, his career was basically over by age-32. It would be virtually unprecedented for a non-reliever to get into the Hall with 2,025.2 career innings pitched or *heavy sigh* 139 wins. Even Santana's 1,988 strikeouts grade out somewhat below average for a Hall of Fame pitcher.
As for Damon, he has more of a long career/accumulation kind of case. His 56.0 career WAR ranks ahead of players like Jeff Kent and Fred McGriff, who got around 15-20% in this year's balloting. However, he ranks 20th in peak WAR, behind other potential first-timers like Jamie Moyer and Carlos Zambrano. Damon has no top-10 MVP finishes to his name, just two All-Star appearances, and no real passionate constituency, given the residual bad blood surrounding his exit in Boston and the fact that he didn't really come into his own as a player until his final couple of years in Kansas City. If a New York Yankees' legend with a higher Monitor score and great numbers at catcher couldn't get a second year on the ballot, I don't see how Damon will.
This year's voting brought very good news for three players who've been hanging around the ballot for a while. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Mike Mussina all cleared 50% for the first time. 2017 was the fifth year for Bonds and Clemens and the fourth for Mussina and the good news for all three is that they're running ahead of where Raines was in his fifth year (48.7%). And while there's certainly examples of players breaking 50% and stalling (Lee Smith, for example, was at 50.6% in 2012 with five years left to go), all three of Bonds, Clemens, and Mussina have stronger cases that seem to be trending in the right direction with the voters.
One guy who definitely isn't trending in the right direction is Curt Schilling. Schilling fell a whopping seven points from the 2016 Hall of Fame voting and it's basically impossible to predict where his vote total will go from here. Was this year a one-time confluence of factors that will be forgotten by the time the next round of voting rolls around? Or did his behavior during the election cross some kind of character clause line for voters that he won't be able to uncross. A lot of it may depend on which side Schilling picks in the most important debate of our time: Never Tweet or Keep Posting.
The Next Raines
Finally, I'll close with a question I've been thinking a lot about in the wake of the 2017 voting: Who will be the next Tim Raines? It's easy to forget now, but for many years, Raines seemed like a long-shot for Cooperstown. Only through an intense lobbying effort, led by Jonah Keri, did Raines finally make it in. Who is the next player that non-voting baseball writers and fans should be rallying around? I'd like to put forth two extremely-worthy candidates, who both need immediate help.
One is Larry Walker. Walker will be in his eighth year on the ballot, which means time is running out for the voters to acknowledge one of the very best hitters in baseball history. Walker's shortcomings are well-known, but the Coors factor tends to be overblown by those arguing against him. By park-adjusted stats like OPS+, Walker still grades out as one of the very best hitters of the 1990s. He'd be just the sixth hitter, not counting Pete Rose or players who are still on the ballot, to break 70 WAR for his career and fail to get in.
But with just 21.9% this year, Larry Walker's chances of induction are pretty remote. And since he has three more chances at it, there's actually another on-the-bubble player whose case is even more pressing than Walker's. That would be Edgar Martinez. The Seattle Mariners DH was one of 2017's most impressive risers, shooting to 58.6% in his eighth year on the ballot. However, he's only going to have two more shots at election.
On the numbers, Edgar sure seems like a Hall of Famer. He ranks ahead of Vlad in career WAR and ahead of Raines and Mussina on the Bill James Monitor. But, of course, there's one major roadblock that's been thwarting Edgar for years: his position.
For many voters, it takes nothing short of Frank Thomas-sized numbers to vote for a career DH. That's fine if you're an extremely small-Hall person, but otherwise, you should take a closer look. As I argued in the post on the 2017 ballot, while his raw counting stats like HRs, RBIs, and hits are borderline for someone who didn't play the field, those numbers are far too dependent on context to hold against Martinez. He was a .300/.400/.500 hitter for his career and he did so with plenty of room to spare. He also excelled at the single most important skill that any hitter, even a DH, can perform: getting on-base. Edgar had a jaw-dropping seven seasons with an OBP of .420 or higher (min. 450 PAs), which puts him on par with players like Mickey Mantle and Wade Boggs. Martinez is 21st all-time in on-base percentage and most of the players ahead of him are already in the Hall of Fame or on their way.
In a way, Martinez makes a nice counterpoint to the discussions we've been having about Raines the last few years. While Raines was a speedy leadoff hitter, Martinez was a power-hitting masher in the cleanup. While Raines is most well-known for his time in the National League on a team with some of the most memorable design schemes of the 1980s, Martinez played the ultimate American League position for one of the ultimate 1990s teams. But both players were slightly under-appreciated in their time, both had career that keep looking better and better the more we learn about how baseball works, and, ultimately, both deserve to be Hall of Famers.