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  • Barring a major surprise, the 2018 Hall of Fame class will be one of the deepest slates in recent memory. Here is our preview.
By Jay Jaffe
January 23, 2018

It's been 82 years since the Baseball Writers Association of America elected the first five members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, namely Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson. In the 72 elections across the decades since—at times, conducted only on a biennial or triennial basis, but annually since 1966—the writers have elected as many as four on three occasions, but they've never equaled that first-year bumper crop. Based upon the ballots published ahead of the announcement at Ryan Thibodaux's indispensable Ballot Tracker, there's an outside chance at another quintet year. At the very least, we’ll see a continuation of the historic surge of recent honorees.

Here's what to watch for when the results of the 2018 Hall of Fame voting are announced on Wednesday, January 24 on MLB Network at 6 pm ET. If you're looking for discussion of the merits of the individual candidates, please see here for links to my case studies of each one, and here for my virtual ballot.

The Big One?

As of 1:30 pm ET on Tuesday, the tracker has collected 217 ballots out of an expected 424; at roughly 51%, that's down about five points from last year's pre-announcement rate, though ballots may continue to trickle in. At this point, first-timers Chipper Jones (98.6%) and Jim Thome (92.6%) can be considered locks, as can second-year candidate Vladimir Guerrero (94.5%), who missed by just 15 votes last year. Whether or not this election winds up on the short list of bountiful BBWAA crops depends upon the fates of third-year candidate Trevor Hoffman, who missed by five votes last year, and ninth-year candidate Edgar Martinez, who as recently as 2015 pulled in just 27.0%.

Both are currently at 77.9%, but the suspense lies in the differing drop-offs between public and private ballots for the pair. In his previous two election cycles, Hoffman's support on the unpublished ballots was an average of 1.4% higher than his published support, while that of Martinez was 12.1% lower. Apparently those voters—who tend to be older and are less likely still actively covering baseball—have an easier time wrapping their heads around the candidacy of a closer than they do a designated hitter. If this year’s differentials are in the same ballpark, Hoffman will get the nod, while Martinez will fall short but still be very well positioned for 2019, his final year on the ballot.

Most of us are just guessing, but a quartet of dedicated statheads has been crunching the Tracker numbers and applying their own methodologies to project the final results. All four had an average differential of around two percentage points last year.

• Nathaniel Rakich (@baseballot) has been modeling the election results since 2013. His methodology, which uses an Adjustment Factor based on the public-private results split from the last three years (or two or one if that's all that's available), is explained here. In his most recent projection, he estimates Hoffman will receive 80.4%, Martinez 72.8%—a drop of 2.1 percentage points for the latter in less than 24 hours after less-than-robust support from the voting blocs at MLB.com, ESPN and USA Today, whose ballots were added to the Tracker in that span.

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• Ross Carey (@rosscarey), who hosts the Replacement Level Podcast, uses a qualitative analysis based on a number of factors including public-private splits, first-time voters, and candidate credentials and similarities. His most recent projection, which he shared via direct message on Twitter, has Hoffman at 76.5% and Martinez at 72.0%

• Scott Lindholm (@ScottLindholm), whose model is based on the Tableau visualization software package, was the only one of the quartet who had Martinez above 75% as of Monday. In his DM’ed projection, he now has both candidates in question receiving 73.4%.

• Jason Sardell (@sarsdell), whose probabilistic model "assumes voters can be broadly characterized by two factors: Large Hall (voted for 10 last year) vs. Small Hall, and Bonds/Clemens voter vs. anti-PED voter," is the only one of the four who has not published an update on Tuesday. He reports his projections—which in this case are based upon 202 ballots—in the form of 95% confidence intervals. In his latest update, Hoffman is in the 77-81% range with a 99.7% chance at being elected, and Martinez in the 70-76% range and having just a 5% chance of being elected.

Averaging the three projections besides Sardell's, that's 76.8% for Hoffman and 72.7% for Martinez. If the final outcome is along those lines, it will still be just the fourth time the writers have elected four men on the same ballot, after 1947 (Mickey Cochrane, Frankie Frisch, Lefty Grove and Carl Hubbell), 1955 (Joe DiMaggio, Gabby Hartnett, Ted Lyons and Dazzy Vance) and 2015 (Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz). While the writers also elected four in 1939, three were via the ballot results announced on January 24 (Eddie Collins, Willie Keeler and George Sisler) while the fourth was Lou Gehrig, for whom a special election was held in December after his retirement due to the onset of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

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Even if the projections are optimistic and we're left with just a three-man class, the five-year total of 15 players elected since the 2013 shutout would surpass the 1951–55 swell of 13 honorees for the largest in any such span (you can do the math for the four- and five-man classes). That surge has its foundations in the packed ballots. Since the arrivals of Bonds, Clemens, Schilling, Sammy Sosa and the since-elected Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza in 2013, the slates of candidates have been the most impressive of the post-1966 era in terms of traditional and advanced statistics—hit, home run and win milestones, WAR and JAWS, you name it.

Voters have responded by using record more slots than ever, setting back-to-back records in 2014 (8.39 candidates per ballot) and '15 (8.42) and following with 7.95 in '16 and 8.17 in 17. Thus far, the published ballots have used an average of 8.8 slots, but that number will fall; in 2016 and ’17 unpublished ballots have used roughly one fewer slot.

High scores

Having already been left off three published ballots, Jones isn't likely to overtake Ken Griffey Jr. for the highest voting percentage of all time (99.3%), since there are expected to be about 16 fewer ballots than in 2016. But if his current rate (98.61%) holds, he would surpass Cal Ripken Jr. (98.53% in 2007) for the fourth-highest voting share, trailing only Griffey, Tom Seaver (98.84% in 1992) and Nolan Ryan (98.79% in 1999). Cobb (98.23%) and George Brett (98.19% in 1999) as the only other Hall of Famers to receive at least 98%, and yes, that's a list heavily skewed to the past three decades. Even Hank Aaron (97.8% in 1982) and Willie Mays (94.7% in 1979) had blithering idiots making sure that the "tradition" of nobody being elected unanimously remained intact.

Meanwhile, Guerrero has a shot at two distinctions. He could surpass Roberto Alomar's 90.0% (from 2011) for the highest share received by a second-year candidate, and he could become just the second post-1966 candidate to gain more than 20 points in a single cycle while crossing the 75% threshold, after Barry Larkin (from 62.1% in 2011 to 86.4% in ’12). In theory, Martinez could join that company if he receives at least 78.6%, but his odds of doing so appear exceedingly slim.

 

On the verge

It will be maddening for their supporters (and perhaps the candidates themselves) but if either or both of Hoffman and Martinez fall short, they'll still be in the catbird seat for 2019. The good news is that since the writers returned to annual voting in 1966, 17 out of 18 candidates who received at least 70.0% and had eligibility remaining were elected the next year; Guerrero in but Hoffman out would make it 18 out of 20. The previous 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.

Looking ahead to 2019, two likely honorees will become eligible, namely Mariano Rivera (another lock) and the late Roy Halladay, whose tragic death in November may have accelerated his enshrinement timeline. Also eligible for the first time are Todd Helton (whose seven-year peak WAR is above the Hall standard at first base), Andy Pettitte and Lance Berkman. The clearance of Guerrero, Hoffman and/or Martinez will open up ballot space, which could mean the election of Mike Mussina (currently at 70.5% in his fifth year of eligibility, up from last year's final share of 51.8%); the average estimate of the aforementioned trio of projections is 63.4% The next tier, in terms of electoral jockeying, isn't likely to make it in 2019 but could set themselves up for 2020, namely Curt Schilling (currently at 62.2%, up from last year's 45.0%), Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens (both at 63.6%, up from last year's 53.8% and 54.1%, respectively). All three are in their sixth years of eligibility now, and the consensus among the projections has them finishing in the mid-to-high 50s. 

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I'll have more on Bonds and Clemens below. Schilling appears to have regained momentum after enraging a good portion of the electorate last year with his praise for a pro-Donald Trump t-shirt advocating the lynching of journalists (“So much awesome here,” he said of a shirt that read, “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.”). According to the Tracker, 35 voters who included him on published ballots in 2016 (when he received 52.3%, crossing the all-important 50% threshold for the first time) dropped him in 2017, including past BBWAA president Susan Slusser, Spink Award winner Dan Shaughnessy and Jon Heyman. Via Tracker intern Anthony Calamis, eight of the 20 published thus far have restored him this year, including Heyman. He's gained a net total of 15 votes from returning voters and has received eight out of 10 votes from first-timers.

While he won't be positioned for election in 2019, Larry Walker's rise is worth noting. After topping out at 22.9% in 2012 and receiving 21.9% last year, his seventh of eligibility, he's in no-man's land as far as BBWAA electoral history goes. Even so, either due to turnovers on the ballot or within the electorate — or perhaps widespread exposure via my book, The Cooperstown Casebook, which was published in late July—he's been added by more published voters (31) than any candidate this side of Guerrero. That's pushed him to 39.2%, and leaves open the possibility that he could get to the all-important 50% threshold before his 10 years lapses, instantly making him one of the more attractive candidates on the Today's Game Era Committee ballot. The 50% mark is important, because aside from current candidates, only Gil Hodges and Lee Smith have received that much support at least once and never been elected by either the writers or a small committee, and Smith is still awaiting his first turn in that format.

The Gruesome Twosome

It would be accurate to say that Bonds and Clemens are holding steady despite being directly targeted by the Hall in the form of vice chairman Joe Morgan's letter to the electorate. Their current percentages are within a point of last year's pre-election rates (64.3% for Bonds, 63.1% for Clemens), which helped the pair cross the 50% threshold for the first time. Each has netted two votes from returning voters (three adds, one drop), but more importantly for the long run, the former has received nine out of 10 votes from newcomers, the latter 10 out of 10. Given the possibility of attrition within the private ballot group, which gave each roughly 40% last year, they should inch upward. The average estimate from Cary, Lindholm and Rakich is 57.1% for Bonds and 57.8% for Clemens.

Some may see that as evidence that the pair won't make it to 75% by the end of their eligibility windows in 2022, but to these eyes, time is still on their side. Last year, each received 13 out of 15 votes from first-timers, and in general, the younger writers who didn't cover the height of the steroid era view the pair with much more leniency than older voters.

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That cycle will keep repeating, and will include my own real ballot come 2021. Regarding candidates linked to performance-enhancing drugs, my policy is to distinguish between allegations from the pre-2004 "Wild West era", before the introduction of random testing and suspensions, and the testing era. I know that several other writers who will join the electorate over the next few years feel similarly or are even inclined to vote “performance only.”

As for the other PED-linked candidates, Manny Ramirez (23.0%), Gary Sheffield (10.1%) and Sosa (11.1%) are at best treading water. Ramirez is at -3 (seven adds and 10 drops) among returning voters and three-for-10 among newcomers, while the other two have lost more returning voters than they've gained. Based on the 424-ballot estimate, each needs at least 22 votes to finish above 5% and maintain his eligibility; Sosa has received 24 published votes, Sheffield 22. Speaking of the Five Percent Rule…

Scraping by

Of the 17 first-year candidates besides Jones and Thome, 14 are certain to drop off after failing to reach the threshold, including Johan Santana and Johnny Damon, each of whom has received just three published votes (1.4%). Omar Vizquel (31.3%) is safe, and it appears that the criminally underappreciated Scott Rolen (12.0%) is, too, as he's received 26 published ballots.

For suspense, it all comes down to Andruw Jones, whose 13 votes equate to 6.0%. Nine votes out of the estimated 207 unpublished ballots is 4.3%, which doesn't seem impossible, but Sardell’s latest projection gives him an 87% chance of carrying over.

I'll have plenty more to come on Wednesday, starting with my appearance on MLB Now at 2 PM ET on MLB Network and a quick recap of the results Wednesday evening. My candidate-by-candidate rundown and an appearance on SI Now will follow on Thursday, with my five-year outlook … coming after I've gotten some much-needed sleep.

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