Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Scott Rolen, Andruw Jones, Johan Santana, Johnny Damon, Omar Vizquel,
Hoffman, Guerrero, Martinez, Clemens, Bonds, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling
Most Likely To Be Elected
Chipper Jones, Thome, Hoffman and Guerrero
If you thought the election of three candidates in 2017—and of 12 over the past four cycles, something unseen since the first four Hall of Fame classes from 1936 to '39—meant that the ballot traffic was abating, think again. Judged simply on JAWS, next year's ballot will introduce as many newcomers who are above the standards at their positions (three) as were just elected.
But wait, there's more. Six candidates who received at least 50% are returning: the aforementioned quintet of Hoffman, Guerrero, Martinez, Clemens and Bonds, plus Mussina. Not since 1952 have we seen a ballot with half a dozen such holdovers; that year, only the top two holdovers from '51—Harry Heilmann and Paul Waner—were elected. We've seen five candidates with at least 50% return to the ballots in 1978, '82 and '84; a grand total of four such holdovers were elected in those years, with a pair of first-ballot line-cutters named Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson going in as well.
All of which is to say that even with the BBWAA moving to mandatory transparency—every ballot will be published a week after election, which won't preclude voters from sharing them beforehand—there aren't going to be enough votes available to make everybody happy. But right now, it does look possible for the writers to produce just the fourth four-man class ever and the second in four cycles; in 2015, the previous year's near-miss Craig Biggio joined first-ballot locks Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz.
Historically speaking, candidates who receive at least 70% but less than 75% tend to get in the next year. Since the writers returned to voting annually in 1966, 17 out of 18 candidates in that position with eligibility remaining—the exception being Jim Bunning, not once but twice—were elected the next year. That’s good news for Hoffman (74.0% in 2017, missed by five votes) and Guerrero (71.7%, missed by 15 votes).
As for the newcomers in 2018, Chipper Jones is a lock to waltz into Cooperstown. In recent years, the voters have shown a deep respect for the Braves' decade-and-a-half run as a National League powerhouse, and Jones's credentials (2,726 hits, 468 homers, eight All-Star appearances, an MVP award, the No. 6 ranking at the position in JAWS) and single-team status will be more than enough for him to join longtime teammates Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Smoltz and manager Bobby Cox in the Hall. Thome, whose 612 career homers and a lack of PED connections are his top selling points, may not be universally viewed as an automatic first-ballot vote, given that he never won an MVP award or a championship, was mediocre in the postseason and had just five All-Star appearances, but his prodigious power and good-guy reputation should carry the day.
With the crowds up top and in the middle, Rolen and Andruw Jones will likely wind up facing fates similar to that of Larry Walker: viewed by sabermetrics-friendly voters as the ballot's 11th or 12th-best candidate but dismissed by those suspicious of defensive metrics and more fixated on their modest counting stats. Rolen, the owner of eight Gold Gloves and the 10th-highest JAWS at the hot corner, played his last game at age 37 and finished with "only" 2,077 hits and 316 homers. Jones won 10 Gold Gloves, ranks 10th in JAWS among centerfielders and hit 434 homers, but he finished with just 1,933 hits and didn't have a decent season as a regular after age 30. As I've pointed out numerous times, no player from the post-1960 expansion era has been elected with fewer than 2,000 hits. What's more, in the past four cycles, the voters dismissed both Kenny Lofton (ninth in JAWS) and Jim Edmonds (14th in JAWS and with 393 homers and 1,949 hits) after a single ballot; in other words, Jones risks falling short of the 5% minimum needed to remain eligible. Damon, despite 2,769 career hits and two World Series rings, had none of that credibility defensively and will go one and done.
Then there's Vizquel, a fielding whiz who will have the mainstream attention on the basis of his 11 Gold Gloves and the all-time record for games played at shortstop (2,709). His supporters paint him as the second coming of Ozzie Smith on the basis of the two players’ defensive wizardry and superficially similar batting lines (.262/.337/.328 for Smith, .272/.336/.352 for Vizquel), but adjustment for their eras' differing offensive contexts and their peripheral skills makes the separation clear. Smith hit for an 87 OPS+ and was 117 runs below average with the bat, but he was 102 runs above average on the base paths and in double play avoidance. Vizquel hit for an 82 OPS+, was 244 runs below average with the bat and just eight above average with baserunning and double plays. As strong as his defense was according to Total Zone and Defensive Runs Saved (+128 runs), it's not enough to catch Smith (+239) or even to bring Vizquel (45.3 career WAR and 36.0 JAWS) anywhere near the shortstop standard (57.5 JAWS). His candidacy could be titled Jack Morris II: Shortstop Boogaloo; he’ll get some support, but I don't see him reaching 75% anytime soon.
As for the top holdovers: Martinez, in his ninth year of eligibility, should get into the high 60s and within striking distance for a final-year election; Bonds and Clemens should creep into the low 60s in their sixth year on the ballot; Mussina figures to land into the high 50s in his fifth; and Schilling, who received 52.3% in 2016 and then sank back to 45.0% in the wake of his social media self-immolation, ought to regain most of the ground he lost this year.
Of the rest of the candidates, one newcomer worth keeping an eye upon is Johan Santana. He's qualified here because he hasn't pitched in a major league game since 2012, but he has been trying to come back from shoulder and Achilles injuries ever since. Santana was in Blue Jays camp in 2015 and was said to be eyeing a stint in the Venezuelan Winter League this year. If he makes it back to a major league mound—a long-shot at best—the two-time Cy Young winner would re-set his eligibility clock.