Again this year, I’ll spare you from a long lead-in for this year’s Hall of Fame ballot explanation column. Voting an honor, and I hope you’ll see I give my ballot the research and consideration it deserves, even when you disagree with my conclusions (which I’m sure many will).
Let’s just jump in: Here are the six players I voted for, in alphabetical order by last name: Bobby Abreu, Carlos Beltran, Mark Buehrle, Manny Ramirez, Scott Rolen and Gary Sheffield.
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For the players who are ballot hold-overs — the ones I did and did not vote for — you’ll see a lot of similar thoughts from previous columns, which are here: for the class of 2022, for the class of 2021, for the class of 2020, for the class of 2019, for the class of 2018 and for the class of 2017.
Here are thoughts on those six players, and a lot more on the outstanding players I did not vote for this year.
Thoughts: This is his first year on the ballot, and he’s the only position player from this debut class who has a realistic chance of ever reaching Cooperstown. Relevant to Beltran specifically, I don’t believe in using the BBWAA Hall of Fame vote as a way to dole out temporary punishments. Carlos Beltran participated in the Astros’ infamous sign-stealing cheating scandal. And he didn’t just participate, he was heavily involved, to the point that he was the only player who was mentioned in MLB’s final report on the scandal.
If a BBWAA voter thinks that disqualifies him from Cooperstown, I get it. His resume is solid, but not a slam dunk, and a cheating scandal of that magnitude certainly can be easily interpreted to violate the character clause (literally anything could be made to fit under that vague heading). But what I don’t get is not voting for him this year with the intention of voting for him next year, in an effort to keep him from being a “first-ballot Hall of Famer.” I’m not interested in doling out wrist slaps, wagging a finger and saying, “I hope you feel sorry about what you’ve done.”
I’m voting for Carlos Beltran, this year and for as many years as it takes before he’s elected to Cooperstown. He’s not an inner-circle Hall of Famer, but his all-around resume is Hall-worthy. He played an elite center field his first decade in the bigs. He was always a dangerous bat — 435 career homers — and did a lot of damage with his legs — 312 stolen bases — and his career bWAR of 70.1 checks in just below the average Hall of Fame center fielder, which is 71.6 and massively weighted by Willie Mays (156.1) and Ty Cobb (151.4).
He didn’t win a World Series title until that year with Houston, but his team’s failures certainly weren’t of his doing. In 65 career postseason games, Beltran hit .307 with a 1.021 OPS, with 16 homers, 42 RBIs and 11 stolen bases.
Thoughts: I have often compared Scott Rolen’s candidacy to Larry Walker’s candidacy: Absolutely brilliant player when healthy, really 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 year on the ballot, we might have been discussing whether the first-ballot lock 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, playing at less than 100 percent.
Still, Rolen’s overall 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 Chipper Jones (85.2, 66.0).
Rolen played for the Phillies, Cardinals, Blue Jays and Reds; he made the All-Star squad with each of the NL teams (seven total) and he also won at least one Gold Glove with each NL team (eight total). His postseason was a mixed bag. He hit .310 with three homers in the 2004 NLCS, helping the Cardinals reach the World Series, but then went 0-for-15 vs. the Red Sox. But he later hit .421 in the 2006 World Series (and probably should have won MVP honors), helping St. Louis beat Detroit in five games. Overall, he hit .220 with a .678 OPS in 39 playoff games.
It’s a little bit crazy that he might be elected as part of the class of 2023, considering that he was in legitimate danger of falling off the ballot as part of the class of 2018. Rolen wasn’t in the top 10 on my list that year, 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. For 2019, he was the 10th spot on my ballot, and he finished with 17.2 percent of the vote. For the 2020 vote, Rolen jumped way up to 35.2 percent. Why’s that? The ballot cleared up; eight players were elected in his first two years of eligibility, and even though Rolen hadn’t made voters’ top 10 in his first two years, many clearly thought he had a Hall of Fame resume.
For the class of 2021, he was at 52.9 percent, and last year he clocked in at 63.2 percent. More evidence that the 10-vote limit needs to go, though the urgency is not what it was for most of the past few decades.
Thoughts: I thought the arrival of Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz on last year’s ballot might have some kind of impact on the vote totals for Ramirez. That, um, did not happen. He had received an identical 28.2 percent of the vote for the classes of 2020 and 2021, and last year he checked in at 28.9 percent.
Ramirez is more A-Rod than Ortiz, of course, with the known positive PED tests. Now, my wonder is whether the departure of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens has any impact on the vote totals of Ramirez. Will some of the voters who checked their names use one of those two spots — both were north of 65 percent last year — for Ramirez? Maybe, but I can’t imagine it will actually matter. This is Ramirez’s seventh year on the ballot, and there does not seem to be any indication that a Larry Walker/Edgar Martinez movement is on the horizon. He seems destined for a veterans committee fate, and that, well, doesn’t look promising.
I will continue to vote for him, though, as I have every year I’ve had a vote (with the exception of 2018, when he was bumped off for 10-vote space limitations in an attempt to get Johan Santana and Scott Rolen above the 5 percent threshold). I understand why Ramirez has failed to gain much traction. He wasn’t just suspected of taking PEDs, he was actually busted and suspended by MLB twice, in 2009 and 2011. For a lot of voters, that’s the separation. Anyone officially busted after testing was officially implemented in 2005 is off their list. I can’t argue that. It’s logical.
To me, though, Ramirez was about a month shy of his 37th birthday when the first positive test happened, in 2009. That alone makes him much different from A-Rod, who admitted to starting to take PEDs in his Age 25 season. Heading into that 2009 season, Ramirez 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 make that decision. I have to consider 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. Not that speculating is a smart idea, but nothing about watching Ramirez in his prime gave any sort of hint that he was using PEDs, right? He was a natural power hitter from the very start.
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 full-career slash line than his in more than 60 years. Even Mike Trout, as great as he is, is “only” at .303/.415/.587 through 1,407 career games.
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.
Thoughts: Abreu is not a no-doubt Hall of Famer. And if the Hall of Fame was only comprised of no-doubters — the Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Babe Ruth types — I would not vote for him. But, folks, the Hall is not small, and I’ve voted for Abreu every year, though I understand why others have not. For the class of 2020 ballot, I was 100 percent certain he deserved at least a second year in the conversation, so I was one of 22 BBWAA members who voted for him in his debut year. He finished at 5.5 percent, just barely over the 5 percent threshold. After much debate and research, I voted for him again in his second year and he finished at 8.7 percent (35 votes). Last year, he was at 8.6 percent (34 votes).
Let’s start out looking at Abreu’s case 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: 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 helpful.
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 very 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, of course, but his numbers are very similar to BBWAA-elected right fielders Dave Winfield (64.2, 51.1) and Vladimir Guerrero (59.5, 50.3).
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Thoughts: Sheffield’s rise hit a snag last year. He was between 11.1 and 13.6 percent in his first five years on the ballot — he never tested positive for PEDs but was named in the Mitchell Report — but after the ballot logjam started to clear, his totals rose to 30.5 percent for 2020 and 40.6 for 2021. Last year, though, he received an identical 40.6 percent. Does the induction of David Ortiz and the dropping off of Bonds and Clemens impact his totals for 2023?
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 was a good defender.
Now, let’s compare Sheffield with Vladimir Guerrero, a 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 was elected in his first year on the ballot, and 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 again.
Thoughts: If you’ve read my ballot columns in the past, you know I’m a big believer in using my vote to help first-time candidates stick around on the ballot if I feel their resumes are worthy of longer consideration and a possible eventual spot in the Cooperstown plaque gallery. In the past, I’ve voted for Rolen, Santana and Abreu for that exact reason, and for the class of 2021, I voted for Mark Buehrle and Tim Hudson using that principle. Both Buehrle and Hudson survived — Hudson by literally a single vote; one fewer vote and he would have have finished at 4.987531 percent, and the Hall does not round up.
In Year 2, the question shifts: Does the player stay on my ballot going forward?
I did not vote for Hudson last year, and he did not reach the necessary 5 percent to stick around (he missed by more than my vote, by the way). I did vote for Buehrle again last year, and will again this year. As with Abreu, if the Hall was the “Small Hall” some wish it was, he would not make that cut. But he does, in my eyes, clear the bar of the Actual Hall.
Buehrle’s final-season ERA of 3.81 — his Age 36 season — was exactly the same as his career ERA, which speaks volumes about the consistency of his career. In that final year (2015), Buehrle fell four outs shy of recording his 15th consecutive season with at least 200 innings pitched, a remarkable feat for a control pitcher who rarely, if ever, hit 90 mph with his fastball. Only four pitchers in MLB history ever reached 15 consecutive seasons with at least 200 innings, and all four — Cy Young, Warren Spahn, Don Sutton and Gaylord Perry — are in the Hall of Fame. Oh, and in those 15 seasons with at least 198 innings, Buehrle never walked more than 61 hitters in a season.
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 was a workhorse in an era of fading workhorses who finished with 3,283 1/3 innings in his career; only one pitcher who made his debut after 1998 has more (future Hall of Famer CC Sabathia, at 3,577 1/3).
His career bWAR of 59.1 is better than 21 pitchers already enshrined in the Hall — a list that includes Catfish Hunter, Jack Morris, Dizzy Dean, Sandy Koufax, Jim Kaat, Whitey Ford and Three-Finger Brown, to name a few. His ability to control the opponents’ running game was historically elite. Here are two examples: He’s second in MLB history in pickoffs, with 100 (Steve Carlton is first, at 146) and think about this: Since 1910, only two players have thrown at least 3,000 innings and allowed fewer stolen bases than the 59 swiped with Buehrle on the mound: Whitey Ford (30 in 3,170 1/3 IP) and Billy Pierce (53 in 3,306 2/3 IP. And it’s worth noting that Ford threw 92 percent of his innings to catchers Yogi Berra (career caught stealing percentage of 49 percent) and Elston Howard (44 percent), but Buehrle threw at least 100 innings to 10 different catchers over the course of his career and more than 525 to only A.J. Pierzynski (1,049 2/3), whose career caught-stealing percentage was just 24 percent. Yep.
Oh, and he’s the only player in MLB history to face the minimum 27 batters in a game three times in his career: his 2009 perfect game (obviously) and his 2007 no-hitter — he walked Sammy Sosa in the fifth and immediately picked him off first, of course. In a 2004 game in Cleveland, after six no-hit innings, he allowed singles in the seventh and eighth, but both runners were retired on double plays. The only other players with even two complete games with the minimum 27 batters: Sandy Koufax, Walter Johnson, Cy Young and Frank Hiller. And there are lots of little things, such as this note: 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.
On the other hand, his 3.81 ERA is higher than any Hall of Famer other than Jack Morris — let’s be very clear here: Buehrle’s Hall resume is superior to Morris in many, many ways — and just ahead of Red Ruffing (3.80) and Mike Mussina (3.68). And his 4.11 FIP would be the highest of anyone in Cooperstown; currently “tops” on that list are Tom Glavine (3.95) and Morris (3.94). While we’re looking at “where he’d fit” stats, here are a few more: His career K/BB ratio of 2.55 would be 30th of the 76 Hall of Fame pitchers with at least 1,000 innings (excluding Negro Leagues stars), his 2.01 BB/9 ratio would be tied with Mariano Rivera for 17th of the 76, but his H/9 of 9.50 would be tied with Burleigh Grimes for 71st.
The knock against Buehrle’s Hall resume mostly amounts to this: He never had a long stretch of overpowering dominance. And, sure, maybe that’s true. He finished fifth in the Cy Young vote once — his fWAR (5.9) was actually much better than winner Bartolo Colon’s (4.1) in 2005 — and Buehrle’s career never had what you would call a true peak, but that’s because his career was basically just one long plateau of All-Star quality production. By definition, a “peak” is surrounded by contrasting valleys, and his career didn’t have those. He was a 21-year-old rookie reliever (who had a 2.62 ERA in his final 23 appearances in August/September for a playoff team), then he was an outstanding starter for 15 years and then he retired.
By FanGraphs’ formula, Buehrle had a 4.0 WAR his first full season and a 3.7 his 14th (with six more seasons in between higher than 3.7). His approach was never about dominating hitters and missing bats like Randy Johnson or Pedro Martinez. He was about throwing strikes, working quickly and inducing weak contact, and he excelled at that approach in ways few other pitchers ever have. He stays.
Now, thoughts on those I’m not voting for.
Thoughts: Alex Rodriguez isn’t the only player on this ballot with PED connections, obviously. But he is unique. He’s the only player to admit that he took PEDs at two different points during the prime of his career — from 2001 to 2003, and again starting in 2010 — and he was handed the longest PED suspension in baseball history.
So the question attached to A-Rod for voters (like me) who have voted for Bonds and Clemens and Ramirez, etc., is this: Is there any line for players with unquestionable on-field qualifications? For some, the line is 2005, when MLB started its official testing/punishment program. Anything before that, when baseball basically turned a blind eye, isn’t a disqualification, but any positive test after that is an automatic “no.” I’ve voted for Ramirez because his positive tests came at the very end of his career.
But Alex Rodriguez? Even if you allow for the admitted three years of PEDs from 2001 to 2003 — before the 2005 testing was implemented — his relationship with Biogenesis started in 2010, when he was 34 years old and just two years removed from his third MVP award. So voters basically have two options: 1. Take a “if he’s on the ballot, he’s eligible” approach and vote for A-Rod, or 2. Not vote for A-Rod.
I’m not voting for A-Rod.
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, but eventually Walker was elected. I voted for Walker.
Here are Helton’s splits …
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 six years averages: 112 games, .279/.373/.430, .803 OPS, 11 homers, 53 RBI, 104 OPS+, 1.1 bWAR
He was great his first decade, no doubt about that, but he was barely an average MLB first baseman those last six years. And if we’re solely looking at the power/production output, in his final nine seasons in the majors, he averaged only 13 home runs and 63 RBIs per season, on an average of 124 games, playing his home contests in Coors Field. He was basically a singles/doubles hitter playing what should be a potent power spot on the diamond (first base).
It’s hard to get past that point when we’re talking about a spot in Cooperstown. I think Walker’s induction has helped Helton’s chances — he’s gone from 16.5 percent his first year (on a very crowded ballot) to 52.0 percent last year — but I also think Walker had a much better overall Hall of Fame resume than Helton, which is why Helton isn’t on my ballot.
Also, injuries suck.
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 when Mike Trout hit 10 years with the Angels, he was a lock. But that club is really, really small. 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.
But, yeah, he was good there, too.
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’ game showed signs of trouble, despite 26 homers and 94 RBIs. His OPS+ dropped to 87 — 13 percent below league average — 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 — by bWAR, Helton was at 50.2 in that span and Jones was at 57.9, compared to 74.3 for Trout or 81.4 for Pujols — 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, and Wagner jumping over the 50 percent hurdle (he received 51.0 percent of the vote), his path to Cooperstown seems much brighter. Almost illuminated, even.
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. He was a more dominant closer for most of his career, right up until the very end: the lefty had a 1.43 ERA with 37 saves and a 13.5 K/9 ratio in his final season in the bigs. Hoffman (601 career saves) had 119 saves from his Age 39 to 42 seasons; Wagner (422) retired after his Age 38 season in 2010. Clearly, he could have chased at least the 500-career save plateau. 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.
The bigger dilemma for me is how relief pitchers fit into the Hall picture.
No pitcher (aside from stars who spent all/most of their careers in the Negro Leagues) has been elected to the Hall of Fame — by the BBWAA or a veteran’s committee — with fewer than 1,000 career innings. 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.
Closers pitch important innings, no doubt. But they don’t pitch many innings. Pick literally any five years of Buehrle’s career (aside from his short rookie campaign) and he threw at least 1,000 innings. Hell, Johan Santana dropped off the ballot in his lone year of eligibility despite brilliant numbers because of a lack of innings and a career that was deemed too short.
Santana threw 2,025 2/3 innings — more than twice as many as Wagner — and won TWO AL Cy Young awards, plus had three more top-five finishes — and his resume was tossed aside because it was deemed too thin.
I’ll be happy for Wagner if — when? — he gets inducted, but until I hear a more compelling argument for non-Rivera type closers in the Hall, I’m a no.
Thoughts: Might as well talk about K-Rod, the other elite closer on the ballot, now. If/when Wagner winds up in the Hall of Fame, Rodriguez probably won’t be far behind. K-Rod has more saves than Wagner (437 to 422), and his ERA and ERA+ numbers are similar to Hoffman (2.87 and 148 to 2.86 and 141). K-Rod led the AL in saves three times, including his record-breaking 62 saves in 2008. He has three top-four Cy Young finishes, too.
In fact, let’s compare K-Rod with Wagner and two Hall of Famers, Hoffman and Lee Smith.
Rodriguez: 437 saves, 2.86 ERA, 10.5 K/9, 24.2 bWAR, 3.31 FIP, 976 IP
Hoffman: 601 saves, 2.87 ERA, 9.4 K/9, 28.1 bWAR, 2.93 FIP, 903 IP
Smith: 478 saves, 3.03 ERA, 8.7 K/9, 24.2 bWAR, 3.08 FIP, 1,089 1/3 IP
Wagner: 422 saves, 2.31 ERA, 11.9 K/9, 27.8 bWAR, 2.73 FIP, 1,289 1/3 IP
I’m a no.
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 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: 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 of 3.8 or above in just four 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.
The line between Buehrle and Pettitte is thin. Both had similar long, productive careers. Pettitte had bigger postseason numbers and more career Ws, but those were both so heavily impacted by the loaded Yankees teams he played with most of his career. Buehrle — who had 10 seasons with a bWAR of 3.8 or higher, compared with Pettitte’s four — sneaks over the line, Pettitte just falls below it. Each year he stays on the ballot, though, 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 (same with Buehrle).
Thoughts: Let’s start with a list. Here’s the list of every player in AL/NL history with at least 230 home runs and 470 stolen bases in his career:
Jimmy Rollins: 231 HR, 470 SB
Paul Molitor: 234 HR, 504 SB
Joe Morgan: 268 HR, 689 SB
Rickey Henderson: 297 HR, 1,406 SB
Barry Bonds: 762 HR, 514 SB
Molitor, Morgan and Henderson were all elected to the Hall of Fame — with at least 85 percent of the vote — in their first year on the BBWAA ballot. Bonds, well, ya know. Rollins is the only shortstop on the list.
And here’s the list of every player — at any position — with at least 30 homers, 30 doubles, 20 triples and 40 stolen bases in a season:
Rollins, 2007: 30 HR, 38 2B, 20 3B, 41 SB
That’s it. Take away the stolen base qualifier completely and Hall of Famer Jim Bottomley is the only one who joins Rollins, with his MVP season in 1928: 31 homers, 42 doubles and 20 triples. He had 10 stolen bases that year, for what it’s worth. Heck, take away the doubles stat and Rollins is still the only one with at least 30 homers, 20 triples and 40 stolen bases in a season.
But the Hall can’t be about just one season, of course. Otherwise Roger Maris would have been in long ago and every pitcher with one Cy Young would have a shot. So where does Rollins stack up among other shortstops in AL/NL history?
The average Hall of Fame shortstop has a career 67.7 bWAR and 55.5 JAWS; Rollins checks in at 47.6 and 40.1. That’s a big gap. His career bWAR is above just five Hall of Famers; four of those five were elected by a veterans’ committee and all five were done playing by 1956. How does he compare with shortstops elected in the 2000s? Derek Jeter (2020) had a 71.3 bWAR, Barry Larkin (2012) was at 70.5, Cal Ripken Jr. (2007) was at 95.9 and Ozzie Smith (2002) finished at 76.9.
All pretty far above Rollins. And not that on-base percentage or OPS+ are everything, but if the strength of Rollins’ case rests with his offense, it’s not great that his on-base percentage is double-digit points below Ozzie (.324 to .337) and his OPS+ is just a shade higher (95 to 87).
I’m very glad Rollins is on the ballot for a second year.
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: No second baseman in MLB history has hit more home runs while playing the position than Kent (351).
Truth is, I don’t see “but he was a second baseman” as a huge factor. Kent was not an elite defensive second baseman who was also a very good hitter. He was a very good hitter who played a mildly competent second base because it was the best fit for his defensive skills, or lack thereof. I’m not voting for Scott Rolen because third base, as a position, is underrepresented in Cooperstown (though it is), I’m voting for Rolen because I believes he deserves to be inducted, and he just happened to be an incredible all-around third baseman.
Also, the Hall of Fame isn’t just about one facet of a player’s game. As with Sammy 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. 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. Last year was his first on the BBWAA ballot, and he barely survived, coming in at 5.3 percent. I was happy to see the final vote total favor one of the good guys in the sport.
But let’s compare Hunter with two center fielders who fell off the ballot after just one season (criminally so), Jim Edmonds and Kenny Lofton.
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.
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