Folks, there’s no long lead-in for this year’s Hall of Fame ballot explanation column.
Let’s just jump in: Here are the eight players I voted for, in alphabetical order by last name: Bobby Abreu, Barry Bonds, Mark Buehrle, Roger Clemens, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Scott Rolen and Gary Sheffield.
MORE: The 50 greatest seasons in sports history, ranked
For the players who are ballot hold-overs, you’ll see a lot of similar thoughts from previous columns, which are here: for the class of 2023, for the class of 2020, for the class of 2019, for the class of 2018 and for the class of 2017. As always, I tried to explain my thinking not just on the players I voted for, but those whose names were not marked on my ballot.
The players I voted for last year …
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens
Thoughts: I grouped Bonds and Clemens together in my very first ballot column, and I’ve taken the same approach every year since then. Not going to change now, the 10th and final year they’re on the BBWAA ballot. This year is a bit different, of course. Not only is it their last year on the ballot, but they’re joined by two players with PED ties who have been embraced with open arms by MLB, Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz. Now, those “ties” are not identical — far from it, as we’ll get to — but how will their presence impact the thought processes of voters who have traditionally kept Bonds and Clemens off their ballots? We’ll see.
For me, nothing’s changed. I’ve voted for them in the past and am doing so again this year.
Their baseball cases are essentially identical. On the field, they produced like few players in the history of this great sport. Bonds won the MVP award a record seven times — no other player has more than three MVP awards, which were first handed out in 1931 — and finished in the top five on five other occasions. Clemens won the Cy Young award a record seven times — no other pitcher has won more than five — and finished in the top six on five other occasions.
Their counting stats are jaw-dropping and their advanced metrics are elite. They’re also forever linked to performance-enhancing drugs. Some people think that disqualifies them from the Hall of Fame and some people don’t. I see both sides of that debate, and I had long vacillated on this issue before my first ballot.
But the Hall is full of two things: Players who displayed “character flaws” in all aspects of their lives, and players who used every possible advantage — legal or illegal — to achieve greatness. The biggest difference with Bonds and Clemens is that the advantages available to them were more performance-improving than the advantages that were available to the generation that popped greenies on game day, or the generations that scuffed and spit on the baseball. Is a spitball the same as using PEDs? Of course not, not as it impacts the game on the field. But the decision-making process that results in players choosing to use those advantages is essentially the same.
This part is important: Just as baseball long turned a blind eye to spitballs and greenies, for most of Bonds/Clemens’ careers, baseball took the same approach. With both Bud Selig — commissioner during most of the steroid era — and Tony La Russa — manager of an A’s team with players like Jose Canseco — now in the Hall, it seems hypocritical to keep the players of that era out, too. Both Bonds and Clemens played three season in the league after testing was officially implemented in 2005 and neither produced a positive test.
Thoughts: The focus of the 2023 ballot additions of A-Rod and Ortiz always seem to center around Bonds and Clemens, but the biggest impact might actually be on Ramirez’s candidacy.
He wasn’t just suspected of taking PEDs — he actually tested positive and was suspended by MLB twice, in 2009 and 2011. For a lot of voters, that’s the separation. Anyone officially busted after testing was officially implemented in 2005 is off their list. I can’t argue that. It’s logical. Honestly, with the crowded ballots, it’s only natural to look at negatives as reasons to eliminate players from your ballot instead of solely judging the positives of a resume. If you think, for example, 14 people deserve to be elected but you can only vote for 10, reasons like PED suspensions work as well as anything to whittle down a list.
To me, though, Ramirez was about a month shy of his 37th birthday when the first positive test happened. Heading into that 2009 season, he already had 527 home runs, a .314 average, 1.004 OPS and 66.5 WAR. How is that different from Rafael Palmeiro, you might ask? Palmeiro already had bona fide Hall credentials when he was suspended for steroid use in 2005, his Age 40 season, and that suspension crushed his Cooperstown chances. The answer is this: Maybe it’s not very different. But I didn’t have a vote when Palmeiro was on the ballot, so I didn’t have to deal with that decision. I have to deal with Ramirez now, and it’s impossible to have watched him for his entire career and come to the conclusion that he was anything but one of the best hitters in MLB history.
And when we think of Ramirez as a hitter, it’s easy to get caught up in the counting stats of home runs and RBIs. Especially the eye-popping RBIs. He had five seasons with at least 41 homers and he had 12 seasons with at least 100 RBIs; he had at least 144 RBIs three times, including a Hack Wilson-esque career-high 165 in 1999. His batting averages almost get lost in the mix, but he hit at least .300 in 11 seasons, including seven of at least .321.
For historical context, only six hitters in MLB history played at least 1,500 games and produced a slash line of at least .310/.410/.575. Manny is one of the six, with a .312/.411/.585 slash line. The other five: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby and Jimmie Foxx. Yeah. Manny is the only slugger who played after 1960 in that club. Think about that. Baseball hasn’t seen a better career slash line than his in 60 years.
Manny’s resume isn’t all about traditional back-of-baseball-card stats, of course. His adjusted OPS+ of 154 is tied for 25th all time, with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. His wOBA of .418 is 28th all time. His ISO of .273 is ninth all time. The list goes on. His WAR number takes a pretty significant hit because he wasn’t very good (being kind) at playing defense and running the bases. But still, his bWAR of 69.3 is higher than the average Hall of Fame left fielder (65.6), and that speaks volumes to how good he was as a hitter.
I have voted for Ramirez every year I’ve had a ballot, with the exception of 2018. On that ballot, I needed to find spots for Scott Rolen and Johan Santana in an effort to keep them above the five-percent threshold needed to stay on the ballot (Rolen made it, Santana didn’t).
Thoughts: Here’s what I wrote last year (with a few tweaks/updates). It remains accurate.
I’ll be honest. I remain torn on Abreu’s candidacy. I was 100 percent certain he deserved at least a second year in the conversation, though, so I was one of 22 BBWAA members who voted for him on the class of 2020 ballot. He finished at 5.5 percent, just barely over the 5 percent threshold. I wound up voting for him again in his second year and he finished at 8.7 percent (35 votes), a bit of an improvement.
So let’s look at Abreu’s case, starting with this: There are only three players in MLB history with at least 275 career home runs, 400 stolen bases and an on-base percentage of .375 or better. Those three: Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson and Bobby Abreu. That’s pretty select company. And, yeah, maybe grouping homers, steals and on-base percentage is an odd, arbitrary trio of statistics. But those are things Abreu did well, and his skill set was helpful.
He had nine seasons with at least 20 homers and 20 stolen bases, the final one in 2010, his Age 36 season with the Angels. He also had eight seasons with an on-base percentage of .405 or better. From 1998 to 2004, Abreu produced an average slash line of .308/.416/.525, with a low bWAR of 5.2 and a high of 6.6 (average of 5.9). That’s incredibly brilliant consistency. And he reached base via a hit or walk 3,979 times in 2,425 career games; Tony Gwynn reached base 3,955 times in 2,440 games. More good company.
There was a drop-off in his 30s, though not nearly as precipitous as some of the other players on this ballot (we’ll get to them in a minute). From his Age 31 to 40 seasons, Abreu averaged .278/.379/.434, with an average bWAR of 2.0. Still a productive player, but not the All-Star he was in his 20s.
Abreu falls short of the average bWAR (71.9) and JAWS (56.7) for Hall of Fame right fielders — he’s at 60.2 and 50.9 — but you also have to consider how those numbers are impacted by the totals of Babe Ruth (162.1 bWAR, 123.5 JAWS), Hank Aaron (143.1, 101.7) and Stan Musial (128.3, 96.3). Abreu is not equal to those those three players, of course, but his numbers are very similar to BBWAA-elected right fielders Dave Winfield (64.2, 51.1) and Vladimir Guerrero (59.5, 50.3).
I’m voting for him again this year.
Thoughts: I have often compared Scott Rolen to Larry Walker: absolutely brilliant player when healthy, really wish he was healthy more often.
Rolen was unquestionably one of the greatest defensive third basemen of all time, right there in the conversation with Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt. He was an excellent middle-of-the-lineup hitter, too, with a .903 OPS and an average of 28 homers, 102 RBIs and a 133 OPS+ from his Age 22 through 29 seasons. If he had stayed healthy, there’s zero doubt Rolen would have been a slam-dunk Hall of Famer. Instead of barely reaching 10 percent of the vote in 2017, his first on the ballot, we might have been discussing whether the first-ballot lock was the best third baseman in MLB history.
But he didn’t always stay healthy. Not counting his rookie year — he wasn’t called up until August 1996 — Rolen played 16 seasons in the majors. In those 16 years, he played more than 142 games just five times. He played 115 or fewer six times. Those injuries hurt his traditional counting stats (home runs, RBIs, etc.) not just because he missed actual games, but because his chronic shoulder issues often zapped his power when he was at the plate, playing at less than 100 percent.
Still, Rolen’s metrics help his Hall resume. There are 15 primary third basemen enshrined in Cooperstown, and they have an average WAR of 68.4, with an average JAWS rating of 55.7. Rolen is at 70.1 and 56.9, so he’s above the average Hall of Fame third baseman, not just above the worst Hall of Fame third baseman. I will point out, though, that veterans committee additions such as Freddie Lindstrom, George Kell and Deacon White do pull those averages down rather significantly from those at the top of the position list, Schmidt (106.5, 82.5), Eddie Mathews (96.4, 75.4) and Chipper Jones (85.2, 66.0).
Rolen played for the Phillies, Cardinals, Blue Jays and Reds; He made the NL All-Star squad with each team (seven total) and he also won at least one Gold Glove with each team (eight total). His postseason was a mixed bag. He hit .310 with three homers in the 2004 NLCS, helping the Cardinals reach the World Series, but then went 0 for 15 vs. the Red Sox. He later hit .421 in the 2006 World Series (and probably should have won MVP honors), helping St. Louis beat Detroit in five games. Overall, he hit .220 with a .678 OPS in 39 playoff games.
I feel pretty certain that he will one day wind up in Cooperstown. Rolen wasn’t in the top 10 on my list in 2018, but I voted for him anyway, in hopes that he would reach the 5 percent needed to stay on the ballot. He did, barely, at 10.2 percent. In 2019, he was the 10th spot on my ballot, and he finished with 17.2 percent of the vote. For the 2020 vote, Rolen jumped way, way up to 52.9 percent. Why’s that? The ballot cleared up; eight players were elected in his first two years of eligibility, and even thought Rolen didn’t make voters’ top 10, many clearly thought he had a Hall of Fame resume.
Thoughts: Like Manny Ramirez, the case for Sheffield certainly will be impacted by the arrival of Ortiz and Rodriguez on the ballot. Sheffield was named in the Mitchell Report, but never tested positive under the official testing. For his first five years on the ballot, it looked like that connection to PEDs crushed his Hall chances. He was between 11.1 and 13.6 percent that first half-decade. But with the uncluttering of the ballot, Sheffield jumped up to 30.5 percent in 2020 and 40.6 percent in 2023 as voters like me finally found a place for him.
Sheffield was an incredible hitter, even though injuries limited him to just two seasons of more than 125 games in what should have been his first seven full seasons in the majors, through his Age 26 year. He hit better than .300 eight times and finished with 509 homers and a .907 OPS. He was a nine-time All-Star and finished in the top nine of the MVP vote six times (three times in the top three).
Let’s do some comparisons. First, Ramirez.
Sheffield: 2,576 games, .292/.393/.514, 509 HR, 1,676 RBI, 253 SB, 140 OPS+, 60.5 bWAR
Ramirez: 2,302 games, .312/.411/.585, 555 HR, 1,831 RBI, 38 SB, 154 OPS+, 69.5 bWAR
Ramirez has the edge in most categories, though Sheffield made teams pay attention to him on the base paths; he had 14 seasons with at least 10 stolen bases (a career high of 25). Neither were good defenders.
Now, let’s compare Sheffield to Vladimir Guerrero, a recently elected Hall of Famer who also primarily played right field.
Sheffield: 2,576 games, .292/.393/.514, 509 HR, 1,676 RBI, 253 SB, 140 OPS+, 60.5 bWAR
Guerrero: 2,147 games, .318/.379/.553, 449 HR, 1,496 RBI, 181 SB, 140 OPS+, 59.4 bWAR
Well, that’s interesting, isn’t it? Guerrero fell just short of election in his first year on the ballot (71.9 percent) and was elected on his second try. Guerrero, of course, has no PED ties, which is the differentiator for many voters.
Now, David Ortiz.
Sheffield: 2,576 games, .292/.393/.514, 509 HR, 1,676 RBI, 253 SB, 140 OPS+, 60.5 bWAR
Ortiz: 2,408 games, .286/.380/.552, 541 HR, 1,768 RBI, 17 SB, 141 OPS+, 55.3 bWAR
Huh. Ortiz is generally seen as someone who will get into Cooperstown sooner than later, but Sheffield’s career numbers are pretty similar. The slam-dunk part of Ortiz’s case, of course, is his INSANE postseason production, and that’s a worthy separator. Sheffield appeared in one World Series, batting .292 with a .943 OPS and five RBIs in seven games as the Marlins won the 1997 title, but his overall postseason numbers are pedestrian (.799 OPS, six homers in 44 games).
Anyway, Sheffield gets my vote again.
Thoughts: If you’ve read my ballot columns in the past, you know I’m a big believer in using my vote to help first-time candidates stick around on the ballot — anyone who falls below 5 percent of the vote drops off — if I feel their resumes are worthy of longer consideration and a possible eventual spot in the Cooperstown plaque gallery. In the past, I’ve voted for Scott Rolen, Johan Santana and Bobby Abreu for that exact reason, and last year I voted for Mark Buehrle and Tim Hudson using that principle. Both Buehrle and Hudson survived — Hudson by literally a single vote; one fewer vote and he would have have finished at 4.987531 percent, and the Hall does not round up. So now the question shifts: Do they stay on my ballot going forward?
Let’s start with Hudson.
The right-hander burst onto the scene with the A’s and made an immediate impact, rolling up a 3.30 ERA in his six years with the club — including a 2.98 mark for the 2002 squad featured in the book Moneyball (though he was basically left out of the movie, for some reason). From there, he spent nine years as a fixture in Atlanta’s rotation, posting a 3.56 ERA/3.88 FIP, and then he spent his final two years with the Giants, with a 3.91 ERA. Hudson made 14 appearances (13 starts) in the postseason, with a 3.69 ERA.
Let’s do a little comparison to Jack Morris, who spent 15 years on the BBWAA ballot and topped out at 67.7 percent of the vote, then was elected by a veterans committee as part of the class of 2018.
Hudson: 57.9 bWAR, 48.1 JAWS, 3.49 ERA, 3,126 2/3 IP, 1.239 WHIP, 2.27 K/BB, 3.78 FIP
Morris: 43.5 bWAR, 38.0 JAWS, 3.90 ERA, 3,824 IP, 1.296 WHIP, 1.78 K/BB, 3.94 FIP
If “was Candidate X better than Jack Morris?” was the sole qualifier, the Hall floodgates would stream open; seriously, Morris’ 43.5 bWAR ranks 157th all time for starting pitchers, just below Bob Welch (43.7) and Carlos Zambrano (43.9). For me, that was enough to keep Hudson in the conversation another year, but it’s not enough to keep him on the ballot going forward.
Thoughts: Buehrle’s final-season ERA of 3.81 — his Age 36 season — was exactly the same as his career ERA, which speaks volumes about the consistency of his career. In that final year (2015), Buehrle fell four outs shy of recording his 15th consecutive season with at least 200 innings pitched, a remarkable feat for a control pitcher who rarely, if ever, hit 90 mph with his fastball. He was a five-time All-Star and maybe the best fielding pitcher of the past several decades not named Greg Maddux (four Gold Gloves). He was a workhorse in an era of fading workhorses who finished with 3,283 1/3 innings in his career; only one pitcher who made his debut after 1998 has more (future Hall of Famer CC Sabathia, at 3,577 1/3).
His career bWAR of 59.1 is better than 21 pitchers already enshrined in the Hall — a list that includes Catfish Hunter, Jack Morris (obviously), Dizzy Dean, Sandy Koufax, Jim Kaat, Whitey Ford and Three-Finger Brown, to name a few. His ability to control the opponents’ running game was historically elite. Here are two examples: He’s second in MLB history in pickoffs, with 100 (Steve Carlton is first, at 146) and think about this: Since 1910, only two players have thrown at least 3,000 innings and allowed fewer stolen bases than the 59 swiped with Buehrle on the mound: Whitey Ford (30 in 3,170 1/3 IP) and Billy Pierce (53 in 3,306 2/3 IP. And it’s worth noting that Ford threw 92 percent of his innings to catchers Yogi Berra (career caught stealing percentage of 49 percent) and Elston Howard (44 percent), but Buehrle threw at least 100 innings to 10 different catchers over the course of his career and more than 525 to only A.J. Pierzynski (1,049 2/3), whose career caught-stealing percentage was just 24 percent. Yep.
He’s also the only player in AL/NL history to face the minimum 27 batters in a game three times in his career: his 2009 perfect game (obviously) and his 2007 no-hitter — he walked Sammy Sosa in the fifth and immediately picked him off first, of course. In a 2004 game in Cleveland, after six no-hit innings, he allowed singles in the seventh and eighth, but both runners were retired on double plays. The only other players with even two complete games with the minimum 27 batters: Sandy Koufax, Walter Johnson, Cy Young and Frank Hiller. And there are lots of little things like this note: He came out of the bullpen to record the save in the 14th inning of Game 3 of the 2005 World Series, after pitching seven innings in Game 2. And he did this all as a 38th-round draft pick.
On the other hand, his 3.81 ERA is higher than any Hall of Famer other than Jack Morris — let’s be very clear here: Buehrle’s Hall resume is superior to Morris in many, many ways — and just ahead of Red Ruffing (3.80) and Mike Mussina (3.68). And his 4.11 FIP would be the highest of anyone in Cooperstown; currently “tops” on that list are Tom Glavine (3.95) and Morris (3.94). While we’re looking at “where he’d fit” stats, here are a few more: His career K/BB ratio of 2.55 would be 30th of the 76 Hall of Fame pitchers (excluding Negro Leagues stars), his 2.01 BB/9 ratio would be tied with Mariano Rivera for 17th of the 76, but his H/9 of 9.50 would be tied with Burleigh Grimes for 71st.
The knock against Buehrle’s Hall resume mostly amounts to this: He never had a long stretch of overpowering dominance. And, sure, maybe that’s true. He finished fifth in the Cy Young vote once — his fWAR (5.9) was actually much better than winner Bartolo Colon’s (4.1) in 2005, btw — and Buehrle’s career never had what you would call a true peak, but that’s because his career was basically just one long plateau of All-Star quality production. By definition, a “peak” is surrounded by contrasting valleys, and his career didn’t have those. He was a 21-year-old rookie reliever (who had a 2.62 ERA in his final 23 appearances in August/September for a playoff team, btw), then he was an outstanding starter for 15 years and then he retired.
By FanGraphs’ formula, Buehrle had a 4.0 WAR his first full season and a 3.7 his 14th (with six more seasons in-between higher than 3.7). His approach was never about dominating hitters and missing bats like Randy Johnson or Pedro Martinez. He was about throwing strikes, working quickly and inducing weak contact, and he excelled at that approach in ways few other pitchers ever have. He stays.
Thoughts: Researching and writing the piece last winter advocating for the removal of J.G. Taylor Spink — the long-time publisher of The Sporting News, my employer since October 2005 — from the BBWAA’s Hall of Fame award changed my thinking about who we should honor. There was plenty of blowback from that piece — how many ways can people scream “cancel culture” on social media? — but I hold to this truth: There’s a difference between “canceling” someone and simply choosing not to honor them. I did not advocate for Spink to be erased from baseball history or kicked out of the Hall of Fame, just that his name be taken off the BBWAA’s highest award.
I’m not advocating for Schilling to be erased from baseball history, just saying he doesn’t get my vote for the Hall of Fame honor. I’ve voted for him in the past, but I’m out. His vocal support of the rioters who stormed the United States Capitol building last January was the tipping point, after years of hate and vitriol, and the reprehensible way he treats his fellow humans with unrestrained and unabashed contempt. Maybe I should have reached that point sooner. I don’t know.
If you’d like to read what I have written about his candidacy in the past, here’s another link to my class of 2023 column.
MORE: Why Shohei Ohtani was the easy choice for TSN 2023 Athlete of the Year
The class of 2023 ballot newcomers …
Thoughts: Boy, Peak Lincecum was fun to watch. The three-time draft pick — 48th round in 2003, 42nd round in 2005 and first round (10th overall) in 2006 — burst onto the scene, winning the National League Cy Young award in both his second and third seasons in the majors. With that long hair, the explosive max-effort delivery and wicked movement on his pitches, every single one of his starts was must-watch stuff. He pitched well in his fourth and fifth big league seasons, too, leading the NL in strikeouts in 2010 and posting a 2.74 ERA in 2011, making the All-Star team each of those years.
But the fact that he’s on the Hall of Fame ballot at just 37 years old tells you most of what you need to know about the rest of his career. Injuries and inconsistencies — the bane of so many players in MLB history — were the story of his final few seasons. He threw his last pitch at 32 years old, finishing with a 9.16 ERA in nine starts for the Angels in 2016. But there are a couple of short-career guys in the Hall — hi, Sandy Koufax and Dizzy Dean! — so let’s do a quick comparison. Johan Santana had another brilliant-but-too-short career, then was bumped off the ballot after just one year.
Lincecum: 278 G/270 GS, 3.74 ERA/3.45 FIP, 1,682 IP, 19.9 bWAR/27.5 fWAR
Santana: 360 G/284 GS, 3.20 ERA/3.44 FIP, 2,025 2/3 IP, 51.1 bWAR/45.6 fWAR
It’s not particularly close, is it? So, yeah, I loved watching Big Time Timmy Jim pitch, but his resume is not Hall-worthy.
Thoughts: David Ortiz is a relatively easy “yes” for me. Is he an “inner-circle” player? Nah, but the Hall is not “inner circle-only.” And, yeah, he was “only” a designated hitter but for 14 seasons in Boston, but he did exactly what any franchise would want from its DH: He produced. Even in his worst year with the Sox, he had 28 homers and 99 RBIs. In those 14 years, he averaged 35 homers, 110 RBIs, 37 doubles, a .387 on-base percentage and a 148 OPS+. With runners in scoring position in those 14 season, Ortiz produced a .305/.425/.556 slash line.
Seriously, what more could a team want from a DH? How about production in the postseason?
You already know where this is going. Ortiz helped lead his Red Sox to the World Series three times, and they won all three: 2004, 2007, 2013. In those 14 World Series games, Ortiz produced silly numbers: a .455/.576/.795 slash line, good for a 1.372 OPS, with 14 RBIs, 14 runs scored and nine extra-base hits (six doubles, three homers). And that first World Series, the one in 2004 that broke the Curse of the Bambino? Ortiz basically carried the club through the AL side of the playoffs, producing 15 RBIs in 10 ALDS/ALCS games, with a 1.339 OPS and enough unbelievably clutch moments that you’re forced to ask “wait, which walk-off are you talking about, specifically?”
The leaked report about Ortiz’s positive PED result in the 2003 testing — which was supposed to remain anonymous — doesn’t bother me in the least. MLB put in strict testing starting in 2005 and Ortiz played until 2016, producing some of his greatest seasons and never testing positive.
Thoughts: Alex Rodriguez isn’t the only player on this ballot with PED connections, obviously. But he is unique. He’s the only player to admit that he took PEDs at two different points during the prime of his career — from 2001 to 2003, and again starting in 2010 — and he was handed the longest PED suspension in baseball history.
So the question attached to A-Rod for voters (like me) who have voted for Bonds and Clemens and Ramirez, etc., is this: Is there any line for players with no-doubt on-field qualifications? For some, the line is 2005, when MLB started its official testing/punishment program. Anything before that, when baseball basically turned a blind eye, isn’t a disqualification, but any positive test after that is an automatic “no.” As I said, I’ve voted for Ramirez because his positive tests came at the very end of his career.
But Alex Rodriguez? Even if you allow for the admitted three years of PEDs — before the 2005 testing was implemented — his relationship with Biogenesis started in 2010, when he was 34 years old and just two years removed from his third MVP award. So with Rodriguez, voters basically have two options: 1. Take a “if he’s on the ballot, he’s eligible” approach and vote for A-Rod, or 2. Not vote for A-Rod.
I can see both sides, but I’m not voting for A-Rod.
Thoughts: Let’s start with a list: Every player in AL/NL history with at least 230 home runs and 470 stolen bases in his career:
Jimmy Rollins: 231 HR, 470 SB
Paul Molitor: 234 HR, 504 SB
Joe Morgan: 268 HR, 689 SB
Rickey Henderson: 297 HR, 1,406 SB
Barry Bonds: 762 HR, 514 SB
Molitor, Morgan and Henderson were all elected to the Hall of Fame — with at least 85 percent of the vote — in their first year on the BBWAA ballot. Bonds, well, ya know. Rollins is the only shortstop on the list.
And here’s the list of every player — at any position — with at least 30 homers, 30 doubles, 20 triples and 40 stolen bases in a season:
Rollins, 2007: 30 HR, 38 2B, 20 3B, 41 SB
That’s it. Take away the stolen base qualifier completely and Hall of Famer Jim Bottomley is the only one who joins Rollins, with his MVP season in 1928: 31 homers, 42 doubles and 20 triples. He had 10 stolen bases that year, for what it’s worth. Heck, take away the doubles stat and Rollins is still the only one with at least 30 homers, 20 triples and 40 stolen bases in a season.
But the Hall can’t be about just one season, of course. Otherwise Roger Maris would have been in long ago and every pitcher with one Cy Young would have a shot. So where does Rollins stack up among other shortstops in AL/NL history?
The average Hall of Fame shortstop has a career 67.7 bWAR and 55.5 JAWS; Rollins checks in at 47.6 and 40.1. That’s a really big gap. His career bWAR is above just five Hall of Famers; four of those five were elected by a veteran’s committee and all five were done playing by 1956. How does he compare with shortstops elected in the 2000s? Derek Jeter (2020) had a 71.3 bWAR, Barry Larkin (2012) was at 70.5, Cal Ripken Jr. (2007) was at 95.9 and Ozzie Smith (2002) finished at 76.9.
All pretty far above Rollins. And not that on-base percentage or OPS+ are everything, but if the strength of Rollins’ case rests with his offense, it’s not great that his on-base percentage is double-digit points below Ozzie (.324 to .337) and his OPS+ is just a shade higher (95 to 87).
As you know, I’m a big fan of voting for players I think deserve a second year on the ballot, if I feel they have a chance of one day winding up in Cooperstown, either through the BBWAA ballot or, eventually, a veteran’s committee. I loved watching Rollins play, but don’t think that’s the case with his Hall resume.
Thoughts: The man could mash a baseball. Howard was the perfect old-school left-handed slugger in the middle of the lineup for those outstanding Phillies teams, the group that made the postseason five years in a row (2007-11), won one World Series and made it to another. And, really, it was his injury — tearing his Achilles’ on the final out of the 2011 NLDS Game 5 loss — that symbolized the end of a glorious era of Phillies baseball. Look at his numbers from those five seasons, plus his MVP campaign in 2006.
Average year: 670 PA, 44 HR, 133 RBI, .274/.369/.559, 139 OPS+, 96 R
But is Howard a Hall of Famer? No, he’s not. He wasn’t a perfect player before the injury — he struck out too much and was not an asset defensively at first base — and then his production at the plate wasn’t the same after the injury. He averaged just 19 homers, 109 games and minus-1.0 bWAR in those final five seasons and played his final game at 36 years old.
The other ballot holdovers …
Thoughts: There are only 11 players in MLB history with at least 2,000 games and a slash line of .310/.410/.510 or better. Nine of those players are in the Hall of Fame: Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Harry Heilmann, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Jimmie Foxx and Edgar Martinez. The other two? Manny Ramirez and, yep, Todd Helton, with a career .316/.414/.539 line. That’s crazy impressive company, no doubt. Gehrig and Foxx are the only other primary first basemen on the list; Helton’s 369 career homers fall well short of Gehrig (493) and Foxx (534).
Helton played his entire career with the Rockies. I want to stop for a moment and say that I kind of hate what comes next, the standard comparison/implied critique of the career home/road splits for any player wearing a Rockies uniform. The point isn’t to criticize and tear down, but to provide context in a Hall of Fame debate. The Coors Field issue was seen as a negative for Larry Walker, but eventually Walker was elected.
Here are Helton’s splits …
Home: 1,141 games, .345/.441/.607, 1.048 OPS, 227 homers, 859 RBIs, 2,452 total bases
Road: 1,106 games, .287/.386/.469, .855 OPS, 142 homers, 547 RBIs, 1,840 total bases
That’s a pretty big gap, though a .386 on-base percentage on the road is still really damn impressive. Tony Gwynn’s career on-base percentage was .388, folks. During his absolute peak — 1999 through 2004 — Helton hit an incredible .383 at Coors Field and a still-very-good .303 on the road.
But maybe more damaging to his Hall chances were the injuries that zapped most of his power and changed who he was as a hitter. Despite playing in Coors Field, Helton didn’t pop more than 20 home runs after his Age 30 season, and his overall production dropped off the table after his Age 33 season.
First 10 years averages: 154 games, .332/.432/.585, 1.017 OPS, 30 homers, 108 RBI, 144 OPS+, 5.5 bWAR
Last 6 years averages: 112 games, .279/.373/.430, .803 OPS, 11 homers, 53 RBI, 104 OPS+, 1.1 bWAR
He was great his first decade, no doubt about that, but he was barely an average MLB first baseman those last six years. And if we’re solely looking at the power/production output — not an unfair measuring stick for a first baseman in a debate about Cooperstown — in his final nine seasons in the majors, he averaged only 13 home runs and 63 RBIs per season, on an average of 124 games, playing his home contests in Coors Field. He was basically a singles/doubles hitter playing what should have been the most potent power spot on the diamond (first base) in the best hitters park in baseball.
It’s hard to get past that point when we’re talking about a spot in Cooperstown. I think Walker’s induction has helped Helton’s chances — he’s gone from 16.5 percent his first year (on a very crowded ballot) to 44.9 percent last year — but I also think Walker had a much better overall Hall of Fame resume than Helton, which is why Helton isn’t on my ballot.
Thoughts: For some superstars with obvious Cooperstown talent, the countdown begins around Year 7 or 8. “Only two years until he’s a Hall of Fame lock, even if he immediately retires after his 10th year.” That was the case with Albert Pujols during his St. Louis decade, and it’s the case with former Angels teammate Mike Trout. Want a test case on how to potentially sink a Cooperstown candidacy after the first decade? Look at Andruw Jones.
Jones had a beautiful run with the Braves, bursting on the scene as an otherworldly 19-year-old defensive center fielder and developing into a reliable bat in the middle an Atlanta lineup that regularly appeared in October. Young Andruw was truly brilliant. Watching Braves games, you held your breath when an opposing hitter smashed a baseball toward the center field wall or the power-alley gaps. Not because you were worried he would drop the ball, but because you eagerly anticipated how he would make a seemingly impossible catch instead look impossibly easy. He was, for the first several seasons of his career, one of the best defensive center fielders anyone had ever seen play the sport. He won the Gold Glove 10 years in a row and was an All-Star regular — five times by his Age 29 season. And because he was so good with the glove, it was easy to forget about his contributions at the plate.
But, yeah, he was good there, too.
Average Age 20-29 season: 158 games, .268/.346/.506, 34 HR, 101 RBI, 13 SB, 117 OPS+, 5.8 bWAR
His last year in Atlanta, though, Jones’ numbers showed signs of trouble, despite 26 homers and 94 RBIs. His OPS+ dropped to 87 — 13 percent below league average — and he had more strikeouts (138) than hits (127) for the first time. Undaunted, the Dodgers gave him a two-year, $36.2 million free-agent deal to leave Atlanta, but that was a disaster. L.A. cut him after the first year (2008), when he played just 75 games, batting .158 with three home runs and a .505 OPS. He finished his career with stints with the Rangers, White Sox and Yankees, but he struggled with injuries, inconsistency and strikeouts. He was a shell of his former defensive self, having been forced mostly to the corner outfield spots when he wasn’t a DH.
Average Age 30-35 season: 98 games, .214/.314/.420, 15 HR, 44 RBI, 3 SB, 92 OPS+, 0.8 bWAR
It was not pretty. He played his final MLB game at 35 years old, though he did play two years in Japan, mostly as a DH or first baseman. Like Helton, when I look at his complete resume, I don’t think the first 10 years were enough to make up for the last five. With both players, I’m keeping an open mind.
Thoughts: With Trevor Hoffman’s induction in 2018, Lee Smith’s election (via committee) in 2019 and Mariano Rivera’s unanimous election by the BBWAA, Wagner’s path to Cooperstown isn’t quite so murky.
I voted for Rivera (obviously), but I didn’t vote for Hoffman, and I haven’t voted for Wagner. If I had to pick Hoffman or Wagner for one vote, I’d choose Wagner. Unlike Hoffman, who struggled through a rough final season in search of his 600th save (at 42 years old, Hoffman had a 5.89 ERA in 50 games), Wagner retired when he was still one of the game’s most dominant closers. The lefty turned 38 during the 2010 season, when he had 37 saves and a minuscule 1.43 ERA for the Braves; he averaged 13.5 strikeouts per nine, against just 4.9 hits per nine. Wagner retired with 422 career saves, though he clearly could have chased, at least, the 500-save mark. Hoffman, for example, had 119 saves from Age 39 to 42. Wagner decided to walk away, though. He’d missed most of the 2009 season with elbow ligament replacement surgery, and the time he spent at home with his wife and kids was powerful.
So he retired with 422 saves, which is currently sixth all-time. As for the other two players above him (other than Hoffman, Smith and Rivera), Francisco Rodriguez (437 saves) will be on the ballot for the first time as part of the class of 2023 and John Franco (424) fell just short of the 5 percent plateau (4.6 percent) in 2011, his lone year on the BBWAA ballot. Hoffman kept pitching into his 40s and racked up a bunch more saves. And don’t take this as me dinging Hoffman for sticking around. I love the idea of athletes playing as long as their bodies will allow. One of my favorite things about Rickey Henderson is that he played independent baseball after his MLB career ended, just because he loved the game so much.
But Wagner was the more dominant pitcher. Let’s look at some of his percentage/rate stats among the 37 pitchers in AL/NL history with at least 250 career saves.
ERA: 3rd (2.31)
Fielding-independent pitching: 5th (2.73)
Opponents OPS: 5th (.558)
Opponents batting average: 4th (.187)
Opponents on-base percentage: 3rd (.262)
Opponents slugging: 4th (.296)
Hits per 9 innings: 3rd (5.99)
Strikeout percentage: 4th (33.2)
Strikeout-to-walk ratio: 5th (3.99)
Any way you cut it, Wagner was an elite, elite reliever when he was on the mound.
But then, there’s this: No pitcher (aside from stars who spent all/most of their careers in the Negro Leagues) has been elected to the Hall of Fame — by the BBWAA or a veterans committee — with fewer than 1,000 career innings. Bruce Sutter is low on that list, at 1,042 innings, then Hoffman (1,089 1/3), Rivera (1,283 2/3) and Smith (1,289 1/3). Wagner threw just 903 innings in his career. That’s a huge, huge gap. Johan Santana dropped off the ballot in his lone year of eligibility despite brilliant numbers because of a lack of innings and a career that was deemed to short. He threw 2,025 2/3 innings.
Thoughts: Vizquel was an outstanding player for a really long time, racking up lots of Gold Glove awards (11 of them), stealing bases with his legs (and base hits with his glove) and peppering 2,877 hits in a career that spanned 24 seasons. You’ll find lots of smart baseball people who believe fervently that the defensive marvel belongs in the Hall of Fame, and lots of smart baseball folks who are just as adamant that he falls far short of the Cooperstown standard. I sit somewhere in the middle, leaning toward the latter.
The average Hall of Fame shortstop finished with a 67.0 bWAR and 55.0 JAWS; Vizquel finished at 45.6 and 36.2. As with Rollins, that’s a really big gap. Only one shortstop is in the Hall of Fame with worse numbers in both statistics, and John Ward (34.3, 29.5) played his final game in 1894.
You’ll often hear the argument that goes something like this: “If Ozzie Smith — the benchmark defensive wizard/OK hitter at the position — is a Hall of Famer, so is Vizquel.” But Smith was a far superior all-around player, shown by the advance metrics. In his 24-year career, Vizquel’s bWAR topped 4.0 exactly one season. Smith topped that 4.0 number 10 times in his 19-season career, and posted an average bWAR of 5.4 for a 11-year stretch from 1982 to 1992. Smith also had 176 more stolen bases in 395 fewer games. Smith’s career bWAR was 76.9, his JAWS is 59.7. It’s not close.
But we’re not just judging Vizquel against Smith. I know that. This discovery, though, is what made up my mind about Vizquel: In those 24 seasons, Vizquel received exactly one MVP vote. Not one first-place vote, mind you. Just one vote, ever. In 1999, one writer gave Vizquel the eighth-place vote on his ballot. That’s it. He never appeared on any other MVP ballot. This isn’t like Mike Mussina never winning a Cy Young award or Edgar Martinez never receiving an MVP award. In his entire 24-year career, only one voter ever thought Vizquel was even one of the top 10 players in his league. If you’re never considered one of the top 10 players in your league any given year, how in the world are you a Hall of Famer? And it’s not about shortstops being undervalued in MVP voting. Barry Larkin, Cal Ripken Jr., Ernie Banks, Robin Yount and Lou Boudreau won MVP awards as shortstops. Ozzie Smith (second in 1987, received votes five other years), Arky Vaughan and Luke Appling came oh-so-close to winning MVP awards. Vizquel, though, was basically never even a consideration.
Thoughts: If you’re a believer in extended excellence over peak performance, you could easily be swayed by the case for Pettitte. Players representing both schools of thought are in the Hall, and Pettitte has an interesting resume. I don’t put a ton of weight in his 256 wins over 18 years, to be honest, because it wasn’t tough collecting Ws with the lineup Pettitte often had supporting him with the Yankees.
Pettitte was Mr. Reliable for the Yankees and Astros; in his 16 seasons with at least 20 starts, the lefty had a bWAR of at least 2.1 in 14 of those years. Reliability is a wonderful characteristic in a starting pitcher. On the other hand, he had a bWAR above 3.8 in just three of those 16 seasons. That isn’t great. Pettitte was the same consistent pitcher in the postseason as he was in the regular season. In the regular season, he had a 3.85 ERA, 1.351 WHIP and 2.37 K/BB ratio; in 44 playoff starts, the numbers look very similar (3.81, 1.305, 2.41). Look, Pettitte was EXACTLY what the Yankees needed for all those years, and he earned his undeniable place in franchise glory, but I just don’t think he hits the Hall standard.
I do think, though, he’s the type of player who deserved a chance to stick around in the conversation. I did not vote for him in his first year on the ballot — it was crowded, and we only get 10 spots — and he finished at 9.9 percent, thankfully. If I had to do that one over again, with my voting philosophy cemented as it is now, I probably would have done my best to help him reach Year 2. Each year he stays on is an appreciation of his career, and that’s a good thing. I do think his only realistic shot at getting to Cooperstown, though, resides with a friendly veterans committee.
Thoughts: There’s little doubt that Sosa took a PED-enhanced path to all those home runs. But I’ve had this one thought running through my head for a long time: If I’m going to vote for Bonds, Clemens, Ramirez and Sheffield, how can I not vote for Sosa, a guy who finished with 609 career home runs and topped the 60-homer mark in three separate seasons? I honestly don’t have a great answer for that question.
It’s easy to forget how much of a lift that Sosa’s power — and joy on the field — gave baseball during the post-strike struggles. On the other hand, even with all those home runs, Sosa’s career WAR of 58.4 falls way below the standard for average Hall of Fame right fielders (it’s 71.1). In fact, only one right fielder with a lower WAR has ever been elected to the Hall by the BBWAA, Wee Willie Keeler (54.0 WAR), back in 1939.
Thoughts: Kent’s career was basically the opposite of Todd Helton and Andruw Jones, in that he was an OK player for three teams through his Age 28 season, then his career hit rock star levels from Age 29 to 37. Funny how getting to bat directly behind Barry Bonds — he was traded to the Giants before the 1997 season — coincided with his reinvention as a player.
Average Age 24-28 season: 120 games, .274/.327/.450, 107 OPS+, 16 HR, 64 RBI, 24 2B
Average Age 29-37 season: 147 games, .296/.365/.529, 132 OPS+, 28 HR, 110 RBI, 40 2B
Kent was still a productive hitter his last three years in the bigs, but not to the level of his peak years. Kent proponents will start their pitch with one fact, and it’s a doozy: No second baseman in MLB history has hit more home runs while playing the position than Kent (351).
The Hall of Fame isn’t just about one facet of a player’s game, though. As with Sosa, you have to show me more than just home runs. By career bWAR, he’s 19th among second basemen all-time. By JAWS, he’s 21st. The average bWAR for Hall of Fame second basemen is 69.5 and the average JAWS is 57.0. Kent checks in at 55.4 and 45.6, well below the average and a decent amount below recent inductee Craig Biggio (65.5, 53.7). He’s essentially tied with Ian Kinsler (55.2, 46.6).
Why are those numbers so low when he hit so many home runs? He was not great with the glove, putting it kindly, which is a big part of being a second baseman. As Jay Jaffe points out in his Kent profile, defensively Kent was 42 runs below average in his career by Baseball-Reference’s Total Zone and Defensive Runs Saved. That’s rough. Looking at the complete profile, I’m passing on Kent.
Thoughts: Few players were as much fun to watch as Hunter, a dynamic center fielder who won nine Gold Glove awards in a row, from 2001 to 2009. He was a five-time All-Star who had a bWAR of 3.0 or above for a dozen consecutive years, from 2001 to 2012. I didn’t vote for him last year, his ballot debut, but was very happy that he stayed above the cut line, finishing at 9.5 percent.
Let’s compare Hunter with the two center fielders, Jim Edmonds and Kenny Lofton, who wrongly fell off the ballot after just one season.
Hunter: 50.7 bWAR, 2,372 games, .277/.331/.461, 110 OPS+, 353 HR, 1,391 RBI, 195 SB
Lofton: 68.4 bWAR, 2,103 games, .299/.372/.423, 107 OPS+, 130 HR, 781 RBI, 622 SB
Edmonds: 60.4 bWAR, 2,011 games, .284/.376/.527, 132 OPS+, 393 HR, 1,119 RBI, 67 SB
He’s quite a bit behind those two offensively, and both Edmonds and Lofton were excellent defensive center fielders, too (Edmonds had eight GGs, Lofton had four). The average bWAR for a Hall of Fame center fielder is 71.3, almost 20 points above Hunter’s mark. The average JAWS for a HoF CF is 58.0; Hunter checks in at 40.7. That’s too much of a gap. Hell of a player, but I’m passing again.