Are Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling Hall of Famers? We’ve slogged through seven years of this highly charged and often exhausting debate, but Tuesday’s election results guaranteed that an eighth ballot cycle will be spent arguing the pros and cons of Cooperstown’s three most controversial candidates. While Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay, Mike Mussina and Edgar Martinez all earned bronze plaques, Schilling, Clemens and Bonds remain on the outside after finishing with 60.9%, 59.5% and 59.1%, respectively, of the vote.
That this trio once again fell short shouldn’t be a surprise. Per Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame tracker, all three were short of the 75% threshold amid the publicly available pre-announcement ballots, which made it unlikely they would make it across the finish line. And as all three have garnered less support on the privately released ballots than the public ones in the past, it was only a matter of how far those initial numbers would tumble.
It’s not all bad news for Bonds, Clemens and Schilling. All three increased their vote share from 2018, with Schilling doing particularly well in jumping from 51.2% to the low 60s. Bonds and Clemens made modest gains, picking up only a couple of points, but progress is progress, and each inched closer to election.
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Will they get there, though? Schilling is in the best shape. He’s seen his vote percentage increase by 15 points in the last two cycles, restarting a campaign that went off the tracks two years ago. Having dived headfirst into the toxic stew of the alt-right after retiring, Schilling saw his Hall of Fame support disappear in 2017 after—among other things—suggesting that journalists should be lynched, comparing Muslims to Nazis, and posting bigoted memes about transgender people on social media. He lost 35 votes from returning voters on that year’s ballot, dropping him from 52.3% of the vote to 45, and looked to be in dire straits with regards to Cooperstown.
Oddly, though, that dip now looks like a momentary lapse. Of those 35 voters who voted no on Schilling in 2017, 11 added him back on their ballots the following year; five more re-selected him this winter. It was also a brief exile for some of the 11 returning voters who dropped Schilling off their ballots in 2018, with five of those writers checking his box in this year’s vote. That’s still plenty of folks against him, but it’s clear that Schilling’s momentum was slowed down instead of halted altogether. Nor is he necessarily a pariah among newcomers, as five of the eight first-time voters chose him on their ballots.
The end result is that Schilling has rebuilt the vote share he had pre-2017 and now has three cycles left to add the 15% needed to reach 75. Just as important is that next year’s ballot will add only one surefire Hall of Famer in Derek Jeter; a thinner crowd could mean more support. Given that this is Curt Schilling, there’s a strong chance he says some new wildly racist or offensive thing before his time on the ballot is up, which may start this whole process all over again. But he’s already won back a sizable chunk of the electorate that dropped him, giving him a leg up going forward. His chances at a 2020 election are strong.
Things aren’t as straightforward or rosy for Bonds and Clemens. Unless you’ve been living under a rock in a giant cave on one of Saturn’s moons for the last two decades, you know the deal with these two: steroid use accusations have turned their Hall candidacies into a vicious battleground and the anti-PED crowd dug in tight to its trenches. As such, they debuted with modest numbers on the ballot back in 2013: Clemens earned 37.6%, Bonds 36.2. (For whatever reason, Clemens has always finished with slightly higher numbers than Bonds, in a splitting of hairs that would require an electron knife.) They remained stuck in the 30s for another two cycles before jumping into the mid-40s in ’16 and gained another 10 points in ’17. Since then, though, things have slowed down. Each added a mere three or four percentage points from 2017 to ’18, with similar results this time around.
What’s behind that stagnation? Unlike Martinez, Mike Mussina or Larry Walker, Bonds’ and Clemens’ cases aren’t up for debate. If you’re against voting for a PED-connected player for the Hall, then no argument is going to convince you to support either of those two. You can see that in how few voters are being flipped from no to yes on them: Via Thibodaux’s tracker, Clemens has added just six extra votes to his favor in the last two years, while Bonds has gained only four. It’s important to note that neither is losing support, but this slow trickle is harming their chances of getting a bronze plaque.
The math is stark and unforgiving. Bonds and Clemens each finished 65–70 votes shy of induction this year. They have three years to close that gap. In other words, they need either existing voters to change their minds, or the voter rolls to change quickly and significantly. For that to happen, they'll likely need younger writers more inclined to look past the PED accusations being added while older voters continue to fall off. It’s too early to sound absolute doom: Even if Bonds and Clemens add only five percent each year for the next two cycles, they’ll enter the 10th year within reach of 75. But their margin for error would be as thin as a sheet of paper, and this year’s weak results didn’t help.
Regardless, that may be exactly where we’re headed. The Hall of Fame debate over Bonds, Clemens and Schilling promises to rage on for at least another year, and likely more beyond it.