- With every candidate profiled and the ballot deadline fast approaching, it's time to winnow down this year's Hall of Fame class to a final 10. But who makes the Cooperstown cut?
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2017 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.
I said it for every Hall of Fame election cycle from 2014 through '16, and I'll say it again: There's no such thing as a perfect ballot. Even with the backlog of qualified candidates abating somewhat via the BBWAA’s election of nine players over those three years—a bounty unseen since 1954–56—there are still more plausible candidates from among this year's crop of 34 than will fit within the ballot's 10 spots.
In an ideal world, a voter can fill out his or her ballot entirely according to merit, selecting every candidate who meets the Hall of Fame standards by his or her own reckoning. This is the so-called "binary ballot," as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold—whose term as BBWAA president ended earlier this month—christened it. In reality, any voter who identifies more than 10 candidates worthy of the honor is required to perform a kind of triage—selecting his or her top 10 candidates, hoping that the traffic abates enough to allow consideration of those who just missed the cut next year and weighing some tough questions.
But there's more to it than simply worrying that they'll catch hell from the public for supporting Player X or that they'll miss an opportunity to support the low-polling Player Y. Voters have more to chew on than ever with regards to the so-called "character clause" thanks both to this year's election of former commissioner Bud Selig, who presided over the game as the use of performance-enhancing drugs proliferated, and to the performance art of Curt Schilling, whose long run of increasingly inflammatory statements via social media has come to overshadow his on-field credentials.
More than 10 candidates at a time worthy of the game's highest honor? Study the history of the Hall of Fame and its honorees and you'll quickly be reminded that they can't all be Willie Mays. While voting for everyone better than Bad Choice Player Q based on a lowest common denominator standard isn't the right answer, the writers and the institution have failed to keep pace in terms of electing modern players—not just those who played in the 1990s and 2000s, but also in the '70s and '80s. Limiting the field to those elected by the BBWAA, my research shows that the average number of active Hall of Fame players per team per season from 1923 through '41 is 1.5. From 1946 through '88, that level falls to 1.34; it's been below 1.0 since '94 and below 0.5 since '99. All of which is to say that we're missing 15–20 Hall of Famers from the post-strike era. Some of that (and the ballot's backlog) owes to the split in the electorate regarding how to how to handle candidates linked to performance-enhancing drugs, with little direction from the institution itself save for the Hall's unilateral 2014 decision to truncate the eligibility window from 15 years to 10, thus decreasing the volume of debate surrounding the most controversial candidates.
Despite the work I put into my annual series and into Hall of Fame research in general in the service of my forthcoming book, The Cooperstown Casebook, I lack a ballot of my own; under BBWAA rules, I am four years away from that privilege. Nonetheless, every year I create my virtual ballot to illustrate the hard choices a voter faces, and do so by the ballot submission deadline (Dec. 31). As always, I am guided by my JAWS system but not enslaved by it, for there are considerations that a Wins Above Replacement-based methodology—which can account for the widespread variations in scoring from era to era and ballpark to ballpark (producing the occasional double-take)—can't capture, including postseason contributions, awards and honors and historical importance.
Of this year’s 34 candidates, 10 exceed the JAWS standard, the average of the enshrined players at their position. Seven of them top the career WAR, peak WAR and JAWS standards across the board; the other three fall short only on peak. Yet another candidate exceeds the standard on peak alone. Three others are what I will call "candidates of interest," players who fall shy on JAWS but about whom I remain particularly open-minded, for reasons explained below. That leaves 14 players for the first-cut list, with those who exceed the standards in bold.
The last column is the margin by which each player exceeds or falls short of the JAWS standard. For space considerations, I'm not going to rehash why I have no Fred McGriff, Gary Sheffield, Jeff Kent or Lee Smith here; you can read their cases elsewhere.
To repeat what I’ve written elsewhere: When it comes to considering players connected to PEDs, I draw a line between those whose allegations date to the time when the game had no testing regimen or means of punishment (i.e., prior to 2004) and those that came afterward. The proliferation of the drugs within the game was part of a complete institutional failure that was a byproduct of a decades-long war between labor and management. It implicated owners, the commissioner and the players' union as well as the players. Everyone profited, and I simply don't think voters can apply a retroactive morality to say that the likes of Bonds or Clemens or Sosa shouldn't be in the Hall on that basis alone. I've done enough research to believe that this is a reasonable place to start, but that view isn’t necessarily reflective of a consensus within the electorate. Voters' views on the topic range from "performance only" to "hang 'em high at the first hint of suspicion," though the distribution of such views along the spectrum may be changing.
By my reckoning, that means both Bonds, the all-time home run leader, and Clemens, the best pitcher since World War II, get spots on my ballot. As noted within my profiles of the gruesome twosome, between the culling of the voting body to exclude inactive voters and the election of Selig, both are now polling above 70% through the 136 public ballots shared at Ryan Thibodaux's Ballot Tracker. With four more years of eligibility remaining, their eventual election appears likely; flee to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where everyone is as pure as the driven snow, if you must.
Also easily making the cut, with my lightning-round summaries of their cases:
• Bagwell, who ranks sixth among first basemen in JAWS and is second only to Albert Pujols among those since World War II. After receiving 71.6% of the vote last year, his eventual election is inevitable, and with 93.4% of the public vote so far, 2017 is likely his year.
• Raines, who's eighth among leftfielders in JAWS and in his final year of eligibility. After receiving 69.8% in 2016, he's polling at 90.4% thus far. Knock on wood, but things are looking good for him, too.
• Rodriguez, who's third among catchers in JAWS and currently poling at 85.3%. I don't think that it's a given he'll be elected this year, because candidates connected to PEDs—as Rodriguez has been via Jose Canseco's Juiced—receive less support on non-public ballots, but in the long run, he's looking good.
• Mussina, who's 28th among starters in JAWS and jumped to 43.0% support last year. Voters are finally gaining greater appreciation for his long-term success at run prevention within a high-scoring era as well as his outstanding strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio. I had to leave him off my virtual ballot two years ago due to the crowd, but he's now among the stronger candidates. He was the ballot's big gainer in the last cycle, adding 18.4%, and right now, he's polling at 62.5%, which clearly points to eventual election.
• Martinez, who's 11th among third basemen in JAWS and jumped to 43.4% support last year. He's not just the best DH of all time (sorry, David Ortiz) but also one of the best hitters of all time, ranking 14th in on-base percentage and 30th in OPS+ (7,000 PA minimum), with 500-plus average-ish games at third base bolstering his value. Currently polling at 69.1%, he might just pull off a Raines-like ascension over his last two years of eligibility.
• Walker, who's 10th among rightfielders in JAWS and now in his eighth year of eligibility. He was outstanding at defense and base running as well as hitting, and even after adjusting for altitude, he's tied for 43rd all-time in OPS+. I had to leave him off my virtual ballot last year, and many voters saw it the same way, as he received just 15.5%; currently, he's polling at 26.5%, which is a small step in the right direction.
That's eight spots filled, with the other six candidates vying for my final two spots. On a performance-only basis, Ramirez, who's above the JAWS standard in leftfield, would get my vote, but for all of my conviction that he's one of the greatest hitters of all time—his 154 OPS+ ranks 20th—I can't get past the two failed tests, not when better players who never tested positive are being kept out over more nebulous PED allegations. That leaves me with five candidates for two spots. Again to the lightning round.
• Schilling (27th among starters in JAWS, 52.3% in 2016): He was the best postseason pitcher of his generation, with an outstanding strikeout rate and the best strikeout-to-walk ratio since the pitching distance moved to 60'6". On a performance-only basis, I'd have no hesitation, but like many actual voters, I'm having a very hard time getting past his pro-lynching tweet (that it was journalists targeted in the lynching is immaterial; it would be no more acceptable if he had advocated the lynching of tax cheats).
• Sosa (18th among rightfielders in JAWS, 7.0% in 2016): A towering figure in baseball's return from the strike and just the sixth player to reach 600 home runs, he's nonetheless below the bar in JAWS. That matters more to me than the report that he was on the supposedly anonymous 2003 survey test, which commissioner Rob Manfred basically disavowed in the context of celebrating Ortiz on the grounds that some disputed results were never resolved because the threshold to implement testing had been reached. That doesn't mean Sosa was clean, but if MLB couldn't penalize him, I'm not going to.
• Guerrero (21st among rightifelders in JAWS): A spectacularly unrefined five-tool player, he's much stronger on the traditional merits—no eligible hitter with a lifetime average of .318 in at least 7,000 plate appearances is outside the Hall—than in JAWS, where he's surprisingly short due in part to modest value outside the batter's box.
• Hoffman and Wagner (tied for 20th among relievers in JAWS): The former once held the all-time record for saves, the latter still does for strikeout rate and opponent batting average, albeit at just an 800-inning threshold. Neither measures up to the admittedly slapdash standard established by the five enshrined relievers, who all spent some time as starters and threw significantly more innings than this pair in their careers. Nor do they measure up to Mariano Rivera, the best reliever of his era and a sure bet for first-ballot election in 2019. But since I've never been entirely satisfied with how JAWS handles relievers, I've remained open-minded on both, seeking alternate ways to evaluate them using advanced stats, namely Win Probability Added (WPA) and situational or context-neutral wins (WPA/LI), both of which paint the pair in question in a better light than WAR. When I combine those with career WAR, averaging the three stats, I get this.
|Hall avg. with Eck||40.8||25.8||19.1||28.6|
|Hall avg. without Eck||35.4||24.6||17.4||25.8|
While I've had a hard time disconnecting the two and remain more impressed by Wagner's sheer dominance, that suite of stats shows some separation to tilt the balance towards Hoffman.
This isn't easy. If I'm going with personal favorites from the remaining five, I'd pick Guerrero and Wagner, JAWS be damned. If I'm voting strategically, I'd throw my support to Wagner and Sosa to help ensure they remain on the ballot; both are polling at 11.1% and will probably make it to next year but need a spar to ignite their candidacies. If I'm going with the strongest cases by my methodology (or methodologies), it's Schilling and Hoffman. Since the point of going through this process is to illustrate where the methodology takes me, that’s the tack I’m choosing.
When I revised Schilling's profile for this cycle, I noted that while I stand behind the objective arguments in his favor, his words—pertaining to his support of the "Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required" t-shirt—were beyond the pale in condoning violence. His weak claim of “sarcasm” in response to the outrage he generated holds no water, as he has shown no remorse for setting off such a firestorm. I still feel that way; his contribution to the public discourse has become increasingly corrosive. However, I'm just not comfortable invoking the the character clause, particularly after reflecting upon its validity in the wake of the Today's Game Era Committee's election of Selig. If there's some definition of "integrity, sportsmanship and character" that can be applied in a positive manner to a commissioner who colluded against free agents and turned a blind eye to the proliferation of PEDs, then the clause is even flimsier and more meaningless than I had previously considered it. This isn't a time to invest more importance in it.
(Side note to the sudden "experts" who tried to make a Ty Cobb comparison: The clause was introduced in 1944, eight years after the election of the Georgia Peach, so it was never applied to him.)
Schilling gets the ninth spot on my ballot, and a charity that I'm certain he would detest gets my donation in his "honor."
As for Hoffman, the strength of his WPA-related metrics—he's second only to Rivera in raw WPA, fourth in the leverage-adjusted version—makes me feel more comfortable about voting for him than JAWS does, and the reality is that with 67.3% received on the first ballot, his election is an eventuality anyway. With or without my support, he'll be part of the standard by which future relievers are measured. It's a small enough group that I don't think we can clearly say he doesn't belong, so he's No. 10 on my ballot.
Given that I've had to leave several worthy candidates off in the last few years, this rates as an improvement, though I still believe that the Hall would do well to expand the available number of ballot slots beyond 10, as a BBWAA committee I was involved with tried to do last year. With Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Jim Thome and Scott Rolen reaching eligibility next year and Rivera, Roy Halladay and Todd Helton the year after, the process will remain overcrowded even with two or three candidates elected every year. I'm heartened that the electorate as a whole is coming around to the candidates on whom JAWS has thrown a spotlight, but some of them continue to slip through the cracks. The small-committee processes haven't elected a living player since 2001, so it's up to the BBWAA to get it right.
As the election results won't be announced until Jan. 18, I will have additional Hall of Fame-related content in the next couple of weeks. Until then, thank you, readers, for following along in 2016, and best wishes for a happy and healthy '17.