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  • It's a top-heavy collection of players as Chipper Jones and Jim Thome are among the newcomers to the 33-member 2018 Hall of Fame ballot.
By Jay Jaffe
November 20, 2017

The Baseball Writers Association of America released the 2018 Hall of Fame ballot on Monday, with 14 holdovers—two of whom (Vladimir Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman) received over 70% of the vote last year—joined by 19 newcomers. Given that at least a couple of those newcomers, namely Chipper Jones and Jim Thome, appear capable of garnering the support needed for first-ballot entry, this will likely be the fifth year in a row that the writers elect multiple candidates. That hasn't happened since multiple players were elected annually from 1951–56. At the same time, this feels like a top-heavy ballot, featuring a grand total of seven candidates who have received at least 50% of the vote once (five of them for the first time last year, including Guerrero). Thus, some worthy newcomers are in danger of slipping through the cracks, at least among the actual voters.

Not here, however. Over the next six weeks, I'll profile all 33 candidates, either at length or in brief, examining their cases in light of my Jaffe WAR Score (JAWS) system, which I have used to break down Hall of Fame ballots since the 2004 one, first at Baseball Prospectus and then here, starting with the 2013 one. That series will kick off next week, but here I'll take a quick look at the biggest questions attached to this year's cycle.


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First, it's worth reviewing the basics. To be eligible for election to the Hall of Fame via the BBWAA ballot, a candidate must have played in the majors for parts of 10 years (one game is sufficient to be counted as a year in this context), been out of the majors for five years (the minors or foreign leagues don't count), and then nominated by two members of the BBWAA's six-member screening committee. Since the balloting is titled with respect to induction year, not the year of release, that means that the current slate of players last appeared in the majors in 2012. Each new candidate has 10 years of eligibility on the ballot, a reduction from the 15-year period that was in effect for a period of several decades; the 2017 ballot marked the final one for Lee Smith, the last candidate grandfathered into a longer run.

To be elected, a candidate must receive at least 75% of the ballots cast, and in this case, they don't round up; 74.9% won't cut it. The voters, each of whom has been an active BBWAA member for 10 years and is no more than 10 years removed from active coverage, can list as many as 10 candidates on their ballots, a number that's become a point of contention in recent years given the number of qualified candidates. In 2015, the Hall tabled a BBWAA proposal to expand to 12 slots (I was on the committee that recommended the change). Last year, the second since the Hall purged the rolls of voters more than 10 years removed from coverage, 442 ballots were cast, two fewer than the year before and 107 fewer than in 2015.

The BBWAA attempted to introduce a new wrinkle this year: last December, their membership voted to publish every ballot, along the lines of what the organization does with its annual awards. However, in a late surprise, the Hall's board of directors rejected the proposal. That doesn't preclude voters from revealing their ballots prior the announcement, as 56% did last year; you can track the reported ballots via the @NotMrTibbs Ballot Tracker, which tracks the incoming results in fascinating detail.

Candidates who don't receive at least 5.0% of the vote fall off the ballot and can then only be considered for election by what's now called the Today's Game Committee, an entirely separate process. Ballots must be postmarked by December 31 with the results to be announced on MLB Network on January 24 (again, about two weeks later than usual), and inductions to take place next July 29 in Cooperstown, New York.

The 34 candidates, with the 19 newcomers in bold: Barry Bonds, Chris Carpenter, Roger Clemens, Johnny Damon, Vladimir Guerrero, Livan Hernandez, Trevor Hoffman, Orlando Hudson, Aubrey Huff, Jason Isringhausen, Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, Jeff Kent, Carlos Lee, Brad Lidge, Edgar Martinez, Hideki Matsui, Fred McGriff, Kevin Millwood, Jamie Moyer, Mike Mussina, Manny Ramirez, Scott Rolen, Johan Santana, Curt Schilling, Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa, Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel, Billy Wagner, Larry Walker, Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano.

Note that Roy Halladay, who died tragically on November 7, is not among the new candidates on the ballot; he will appear on next year’s ballot, as he would have originally. As expected, the BBWAA cited Rule 3(D), which states: “In case of the death of an active player or a player who has been retired for less than five (5) full years, a candidate who is otherwise eligible shall be eligible in the next regular election held at least six (6) months after the date of death or after the end of the five (5) year period, whichever occurs first.”

On to the big questions…

Jones and Thome are first ballot locks, right?

The top two first-year candidates appear to have strong enough cases to reach 75% on their first tries. Jones, the offensive cornerstone of the Braves’ 1995–2005 run of playoff-bound teams, was an eight-time All-Star who won an MVP award (1999) and a batting title (2008, at age 36). He's one of the top switch-hitters in history, ranking third among that group in homers, fifth in hits and second in WAR behind only Mickey Mantle. He's sixth among third basemen in career WAR and JAWS, and eighth in seven-year peak WAR, well ahead of the standards across the board. Throw in a spotless reputation on the PED front and there's no reason he can't replicate the recent first-ballot elections of former teammates Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.

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Built like a lumberjack (and with a tremendous uppercut swing), Thome was one of the preeminent sluggers of his era. He ranked among the top five in his league in home runs eight times and walloped 612 in all, good enough for eighth on the all-time list. Unlike three of his contemporaries who reached the 600 level—Bonds, Sosa and Alex Rodriguez—he was never linked to PEDs. Gifted with a great batting eye, he posted 12 seasons with at least 90 walks; his 147 career OPS+ is tied for 30th (with Mike Schmidt, Willie McCovey, Willie Sargell and Edgar Martinez) among hitters with at least 7,000 plate appearances. Though he spent 33% of his career as a DH (and about 19% as a third baseman), he's above the career WAR and JAWS standards for first basemen, ranking 10th all time, just behind 2014 honoree Frank Thomas. That's a first-ballot guy.

Kirby Lee/Getty Images

And with over 70% last year, Guerrero and Hoffman are locks this time around, right?

While first-timer Ivan Rodriguez and holdovers Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines were elected last year, Guerrero and Hoffman just missed the cut. Hoffman, the former all-time saves leader who debuted on the 2016 ballot with 67.3% of the vote, came the closer of the pair with 74.0%, missing by a mere five votes. Guerrero, the former AL MVP, debuted with 71.7%, 15 votes shy of election—the nearest miss for a first-year candidate since Roberto Alomar came within eight votes in 2010.

The good news for both is that since the writers returned to annual voting in 1966, 17 out of 18 candidates who received at least 70% and had eligibility remaining were elected the next year. The exception was Jim Bunning, who fell short in both his 11th and 12th years of eligibility (with 70.0% and 74.2%, respectively) and needed another nine years before being elected by the Veterans Committee.

So is there room for four inductees?

That's the biggest question about this year's ballot. When Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Smoltz and Craig Biggio were elected in 2015, it marked the first time since 1955 that the writers elected a quartet. It's happened just one other time (1947) beyond the five-man inaugural election in 1936. The writers have responded to the backlog created by the stacked 2013 ballot and its subsequent shutout by electing 12 players in the past four years, matching their highest total in any four-year span (1936–39), but that doesn't mean this run can last forever. The election of even three candidates is generally a pretty big year. 

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So it's possible that one of the aforementioned quartet could miss by a small handful of votes (throwing darts, I'd guess Guerrero and Thome are the more likely ones to suffer that fate), but it's also possible that the crowd at the top could end up slowing the progress of Edgar Martinez, Mussina, Bonds and Clemens, all of whom topped 50% for the first time last year. For Martinez, that's a problem, given that he his eligibility would expire after next year. His 58.6% last year was higher than Raines' 55.0% share two years out, but he can't afford to lose momentum. Bonds and Clemens, meanwhile, are now in the second half of their 10-year runs, and after the election of Bud Selig led many to reconsider holding out on the gruesome twosome, we'll have to see if anyone reverses their stance.

Who could slip through the cracks?

Among newcomers, both Andruw Jones and Rolen bear all too much resemblance to past candidates who received less than 5% on their first ballots and were cast into oblivion. Both derived a great deal of their value from their gloves, with Jones, a 10-time Gold Glove winner, ranking first among centerfielders (+236 runs) and Rolen, an eight-time Gold Glove winner, third among third basemen (+175 runs) behind Brooks Robinson and Adrian Beltre. 

Both players could hold their own with the stick, and rank high in JAWS at their positions; Jones is 11th among centerfielders, having just recently been bumped out of the top 10 by Mike Trout, while Rolen is still 10th at the hot corner. Both players' high walk totals boosted their OBPs and thus their values, but those walks held down their hit totals—and in shorter careers, that has mattered to voters. Rolen, who retired at age 37, finished with just 2,077 hits, while Jones, who last played in the majors at age 35, Jones finished with 1,933 hits The Rule of 2,000 still holds; no player with fewer than 2,000 hits whose career took place entirely in the post-1960 expansion era has been elected by either the votes or the small committees, a group that that includes candidates as varied as Dick Allen, Bobby Grich, Mark McGwire, Minnie Miñoso and Tony Oliva. Throw in the crowd atop this year's ballot, and you've got trouble for this pair.

Meanwhile, the top-heavy ballot means that the candidates languishing below 25%—Walker, McGriff, Kent, Sheffield, Wagner and Sosa— don't have much hope of upward mobility, not that they all merit it (I'm keen on Walker and to a lesser extent Wagner). At best, Rolen and Jones could wind up mingling with that group near the bottom of the ballot for a few years, and voters who keep an eye on JAWS and other advanced statistics will be faced with hard choices in slimming their ballots down to 10.

Who's the ballot's most polarizing candidate?

To some that will still be Bonds and Clemens, due to their connections to PEDs. To others it will be Schilling, whose mouth finally cost him votes in last year's cycle. After rising from 29.2% in 2014 to 52.3% in 2016—gaining ground even after being fired by ESPN for his repeated violations of company policy—he fell back to 45.0% on the 2017 ballot in the wake of his "so much awesome" tweet promoting a t-shirt advocating violence against journalists.

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But there's a new entry in the field, namely Vizquel, a fielding whiz who will have the mainstream attention on the basis of his 11 Gold Gloves, the all-time record for games played at shortstop (2,709), and an entertaining highlight reel. Vizquel's supporters paint him as the second coming of Ozzie Smith on the basis of their defensive wizardry and superficially similar batting lines. But adjustment for their eras' differing offensive contexts, and credit for Smith's tremendous advantage in the field and on the basepaths according to the components that make up WAR, makes the separation between the two clear. I'll save the number-crunching for Vizquel's profile, but for the moment it will suffice to say that while Smith ranks sixth in WAR (76.5) and eighth in JAWS (59.4) among shortstops, well ahead of the standards, Vizquel ranks 29th in the former (45.3) and 42nd in the latter (36.0), a few hairs behind Rabbit Maranville, the low man among enshrined shortstops.

Are there any notable ballot snubs this time around?

Thankfully, no. It's not an automatic that players with at least 10 years get onto the ballot; as noted, they have to pass through the BBWAA screening process, which has drawn scrutiny in recent years. Sometimes, it's merely quirky (Jacque Jones but no Shannon Stewart), but in the past two years it looked somewhat culturally insensitive. In 2016, the committee omitted Chan Ho Park, the first Korean to pitch in the majors, while in 2017, Javier Vazquez, 30th in career strikeouts overall and tops among Puerto Rico-born pitchers in wins, went missing. Neither had a true chance at election, but both were deprived of their ballot valedictory while no-hopers such as Mike Hampton and Matt Stairs at least got their moment in the spotlight. The omissions this time around—starters Miguel Batista, Carl Pavano, Ben Sheets, Jeff Suppan, relievers Francisco Cordero, Brian Fuentes and Guillermo Mota, and position players Adam Kennedy, Scott Podsednik and Jack Wilson—aren't noteworthy in a Hall context.

What happened to the plan to publish ballots?

Starting in 2012, the BBWAA has published each ballot for its annual awards (MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year and Manager of the Year) on its website. Concurrently, an increasing number of Hall voters have attempted to bring a similar level of transparency to the Hall voting by opting to publish their ballots. Initially, this was done via the Baseball Think Factory's Ballot Collecting Gizmo, with the Tracker and finally the BBWAA's site itself joining the fun (the latter a few days after the results were announced). For the past two years, the Tracker has accounted for over 70% of the ballots, including those reported after the fact.

In light of that, a movement within the organization to formalize the transparency has arisen. At last year's winter meetings, Goold presented a proposal to publish all ballots seven days after the announcement of the results so as not to overshadow the hoopla surrounding the players honored. The motion, to take effect for the 2018 ballot, passed by a margin of 80 to 9 (89.9%), and it was widely reported that such would be the case.

However, the Hall of Fame has the final say on voting matters, and in this case, it said no. As with the 2015 decision to table the ballot expansion motion, it made no formal announcement as to its decision. Instead, it came to light when the ballots were sent out. "As is the case with any rules change related to the voting process, this proposal went to the Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors," Hall vice president of communications and education Jon Shestakofsky told SI.com on Monday. "The Board ultimately decided not to accept the proposal, believing that it should remain the individual voter’s decision whether or not to reveal his or her vote."

The ballot does have a new wrinkle, albeit a smaller one. Via the Orange County Register's Jeff Fletcher, who maintains the BBWAA's website, "This year's ballot will have a check box if you want your vote made public 14 days after the results. People can still reveal their own at any time."

That appears to have been a compromise won by the writers. Goold told SI, "I advocated on behalf of the the BBWAA's overwhelming wishes and attempted to find a resolution that respected the board's wishes and achieved the goal of giving voters the choice of transparency many clearly wanted. That choice is now on the ballot. The goal on both sides remains to always seek to improve the voting process."

In the next several days, we at SI.com will lay out a schedule for my JAWS evaluations of the holdovers and newcomers, as well as a fuller explanation of the metric.

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