The National Baseball Hall of Fame released it’s 2021 ballot today, marking the beginning of Hall of Fame season! Newcomers to the ballot this year are: Tim Hudson, Mark Buerhle, Torii Hunter, Dan Haren, Barry Zito, Aramis Ramirez, Shane Victorino, AJ Burnett, Nick Swisher, LaTroy Hawkins, and Michael Cuddyer. The 2021 introductory class is unquestionably the weakest since 2012 when the strongest candidate entering the ballot was Bernie Williams; this will also mark the first year without a first ballot Hall of Famer since 2013. Compared to even last year this ballot feels significantly less crowded, which offers an opportunity to less famous players to earn recognition and perhaps earn induction. A few stories I will be following this season:
- Will Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens gain any traction? ‘No’ answered the BBWAA every year since 2017, when Bonds & Clemens jumped about five points each (to cross the 50% mark). Since that initial jump Bonds & Clemens both appear to only be gaining support from new voters entering the BBWAA pool, and older voters retiring. 2021 offers a moderately more interesting study than normal due to the complete dearth of new good candidates, and the decline of candidates worthy of consideration.
- Will Curt Schilling earn induction? Schilling debuted in 2013, and followed a relatively traditional path for a non-consensus Hall of Famer: a strong debut of 38%, with a slow climb since. Schilling lost support after posting a bigoted social media post in 2016, and has lost some support due to offensive comments towards the media. However, Schilling garnered 70% of the vote last cycle and appears likely to cross over 75% this ballot. Then again, Schilling’s penchant for self-destruction appears limitless.
- How will Omar Vizquel, Billy Wagner, Jeff Kent, and Gary Sheffield fair? Of all the returning candidates these four benefited the most from a far less crowded ballot in 2020. Omar Vizquel crossed the 50% mark, typically a sign of eventual enshrinement, while Wagner, Kent & Sheffield made strong gains after languishing on the ballot for years. Scott Rolen & Todd Helton made similar gains, but both retain far more time on the ballot than these four.
- Can Bobby Abreu hang on? Abreu surprised me by squeaking into the ballot this year with 5.5% of the vote. A player reaching the Hall of Fame, via the BBWAA, with this low support is unprecedented, but if Abreu can hang on, and potentially see his vote percentage rise into the 40-50% range, he has a solid shot at earning induction via the Veteran’s Committee, historically.
It’s always fun to guess what player will get the strange single vote (Nick Swisher perhaps?), maybe Mark Buehrle or Tim Hudson can somehow survive to a second ballot, but none of these threads are as important as the above four.
What Makes a Hall of Famer?
I typically write about the Hall of Fame every year, and every year I seek a different lens to look at the players on the ballot. Numbers are fun, and comparing players to their contemporaries and the historical record is, of course, necessary to understand a player’s place in history. But numbers don’t make a Hall of Famer. Here are a few player pairings: one will be in the Hall of Fame, the other will not:
203-105 W-L, 3.38 ERA, 2,749.1 IP, 2,117 SO/592 BB, 67 CG, 20 SHO
194-112 W-L, 3.51 ERA, 2,800.2 IP, 2,293 SO/954 BB, 68 CG, 24 SHO
11,092 PA, 2,866 H, 384 HR, 1,628 RBI, .289/.356/.465/.820
10,531 PA, 2,591 H, 354 HR, 1,439 RBI, .283/.367/.479/.845
9,967 PA, 2,369 H, 1,386 R, 1,084 RBI, .276/.363/.426/.789
9,282 PA, 2,386 H, 1,318 R, 1,061 RBI, .285/.344/.452/.795
270-153 W-L, 3.68 ERA, 3,562.2 IP, 2,813 SO/785 BB, 57 CG, 23 SHO
211-144 W-L, 3.28 ERA, 3,256.1 IP, 2,397 SO/901 BB, 72 CG, 17 SHO
Player A is the recently passed Roy Halladay. Nicknamed ‘Doc’ Halladay won two Cy Youngs, pitched a no-hitter and was electric until injuries ended his career early. Player B is Dwight Gooden. Also nicknamed ‘Doc’ Gooden tossed a no-hitter, won a Cy Young in his second season, and was about as electric a young starter baseball ever saw until addiction problems ended his career. Doc Halladay is in the Hall of Fame, elected first ballot. Doc Gooden fell off the ballot after one try.
Player C is Harold Baines, a career ‘professional hitter’ who spent time with a variety of teams, rarely leading the league or even the best hitter in his division, he collected an enormous amount of counting stats, retiring just short of a bunch of big milestones. Player D is Luis Gonzalez, a career ‘professional hitter’ who spent time with a bunch of teams, rarely leading the league in much of anything, and retired just short of a bunch of big milestones. The Veteran’s Committee inducted Harold Baines for unclear reasons in 2019. Luis Gonzalez received five votes in 2014, and most people wondered who the heck voted for Luis Gonzalez.
Player E is Lou Whitaker, the double play partner to Hall of Famer Alan Trammel. Whitaker was a Gold Glove second baseman and solid hitter who lasted a long time. Player F is Ryne Sandberg, also a Gold Glove second baseman who was widely considered a great player (he won an MVP in 1984). Sandberg was elected third ballot in 2003, Whitaker never made it to his second.
Finally, Player G is Mike Mussina. He spent his entire career on winning teams, racking up wins for the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees. A workhorse, Mussina was in the top 10 in Innings Pitched eight times in his career, and retired at the top of his game. Player E is Kevin Brown, who was less fortunate in what teams he played for and thus did not rack up the wins as much as Mussina. He was also a workhorse, and finished in the top 10 in the Innings Pitched seven times. Mike Mussina was, finally, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2019. Kevin Brown, alas, never made it to a second ballot.
The capricious nature of Hall of Fame balloting can drive you nuts, and I did not even cite all of the egregious examples. But, while the numbers can show eerie similarities, the whole picture can occasionally reveal a greater truth.* Doc Halladay and Doc Gooden look similar, but Halladay was more consistent: remaining great into his 30s, while Gooden started hot, and struggled for the remainder of his career. Mussina was a superior playoff pitcher, who shined for New York and Baltimore, and was an enormously likable man. Brown struggled in the postseason, and struggled after signing a big contract.
*Occasionally, alas, the full story reveals less savory truths. The Harold Baines saga reeks of cronyism. The Veteran’s Committee was loaded with players, managers and owners who were all connected (somehow) to Harold Baines. The explanation for why Baines, unlike countless other players, is in the Hall of Fame remains shoddy at best. There are numerous other examples of players like Baines in the Hall of Fame, which makes writing these articles far more difficult.
So this year, instead of heavily focusing on the numbers, I want to ask a question: what moment (or moments) makes this player a Hall of Famer? What is this player’s story? I will still discuss numbers, but in a less intense way. Hopefully it will offer a different look at the ballot, and provide some more insight than a regular numbers exercise.