Since the very first Baseball Hall of Fame vote in 1936, the results have been steeped in controversy and arguments. It has been almost 100 years, and voting mostly remains an exercise ranging from polite disagreement to contentious bickering. That felt particularly true in the past decade, as the electorate argued publicly for or against polarizing candidates like Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling. They’re all off the ballot — for the first time since 2012 — but there is no shortage of players to debate and numbers to analyze before the results are revealed on Tuesday.
Between the lingering questions from the PED era and the blurred line of what makes a Hall of Famer that has increased partially because of some surprising veteran’s committee selections in recent years, it has become harder than ever to compare players directly to each other.
Not that it was easy back in 1936. The committee in charge of tabulating those initial ballots had figured correctly that Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb would battle it out for the most votes, and “When the first 100 votes were counted, both Cobb and the home run king were unanimous,” the Associated Press reported. “Ruth was the first to fall out, losing a vote from a writer who had watched him hang up some of his greatest records. The committee was amazed. Vote counting stopped momentarily for a discussion on how anyone could leave the great Ruth off the list of immortals. The same thing happened when Cobb missed his first vote.”
Cobb finished with 222 votes out of 226 ballots — seven more than Ruth and Honus Wagner. Cobb was crowned baseball’s “No. 1 immortal,” as the headlines put it, and the Cobb vs. Ruth debate filled newspapers, much like cases for Bonds’ inclusion or exclusion did last year.
With all that in mind, let’s take stock of where Hall of Fame voting stands now — by breaking this year’s ballot down into a few categories that allow us to examine how the top candidates compare to others with similar Cooperstown cases.
The PED-associated guys
On this ballot: Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield
Recent examples: Bonds, Clemens (neither are in)
The 10-year run for Bonds and Clemens on the BBWAA ballot expired last year with Bonds receiving 66% of the vote and Clemens 65% (three writers voted for Bonds but not Clemens). The two players were immediately bumped over to the Contemporary Era committee ballot — a 16-person committee that included seven Hall of Fame players. With 12 votes needed for election, both received fewer than four. Based on those totals, the door to Cooperstown was perhaps permanently slammed shut for the pair (along with Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa).
That’s bad news for Rodriguez and Ramirez, both of whom would be slam-dunk selections if not for their ties to PEDs. A-Rod is an absolute inner-circle Hall of Famer based on his numbers, even if your definition of inner circle is very small: Fifth in home runs, fourth in RBIs, eighth in runs, three-time MVP. When ESPN ranked the 100 greatest players of all time last winter, Rodriguez came in 26th — and that’s probably too low for what he accomplished on the field. He’s 16th all time in WAR and fifth since integration in 1947, behind only Bonds, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and Clemens.
Ramirez, while not an inner-circle all-around player, is one of the best hitters of all time, ranking 11th in OPS+ since integration, 12th in RBIs and 13th in batting average. He never won an MVP Award but had nine top-10 finishes, including eight in a row from 1998 to 2005, a stretch in which he averaged 41 home runs and 130 RBIs while hitting .318.
Alas, performance-enhancing drugs cloud the careers of both. MLB suspended Rodriguez for the entire 2014 season for the “use and possession of numerous forms of prohibited performance-enhancing substances, including testosterone and human growth hormone, over the course of multiple years” related to the Biogenesis investigation. Ramirez was twice suspended for positive PED tests, in 2009 and again in 2011. That puts them in a different position than Bonds and Clemens, who were never suspended by MLB — Rodriguez and Ramirez got caught after testing and enforcement began.
As a result, they’re receiving even less support. Rodriguez is in his second year on the ballot after receiving 34% in 2022. He’s tracking at 41% on the public ballots monitored at Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame tracker, and Ramirez’s totals are below Rodriguez’s.
Sheffield has strong Hall of Fame credentials as one of the best hitters of his era: 509 home runs, 1,676 RBIs, a .292/.393/.514 slash line good for an OPS+ of 140. He walked more than he struck out and had five top-10 MVP finishes. With his famously quick bat and menacing bat waggle, he was an absolute force. His estimated 561 runs created above average is 15th since integration — just behind Miguel Cabrera and just ahead of Chipper Jones.
On his ninth ballot, he’s polling at 64% on the public ballots — but that percentage will drop when the final tally is revealed (he finished at 40% last year). Sheffield’s middling support goes to three issues: (1) During the BALCO scandal in 2004, Sheffield admitted to using a topical treatment called “the cream” that he did not know was a topical steroid at the time while working out with Bonds before the 2002 season; (2) His vagabond career that saw him play for eight different teams; (3) Poor defensive metrics that drag his career WAR down to 60.5, which is low for a modern Hall of Famer.
More likely, it’s some combination of all three of the above factors, along with the crowded ballots Sheffield faced earlier — there are already 13 Hall of Famers from the 2015 ballot, Sheffield’s first, not to mention Bonds, Clemens, Schilling and McGwire. Voters can vote for a maximum of only 10 players. He started low and just hasn’t built any momentum.
The high-peak guys
On this ballot: Todd Helton
Recent examples: Larry Walker, Edgar Martinez, Johan Santana, Nomar Garciaparra (Walker and Martinez are in)
Here we are looking at players with a case that revolves around a few seasons of very high performance, rather than a long career compiling milestones that enhance a Hall of Fame resume. Walker and Martinez both were recently elected in their final year of ballot eligibility despite finishing with fewer than 2,300 hits and 400 home runs at offensive-minded positions while Santana and Garciaparra failed to receive 5% of the vote and got quickly booted off the ballot.
From 2000 to 2004, Helton had a dominant five-year run with the Rockies, hitting .349/.450/.643 while averaging 50 doubles, 37 home runs and 123 RBIs. Yes, this was peak pre-humidor Coors Field, but Helton still averaged 7.5 WAR per season over that span. While Helton had other good seasons and lasted long enough to compile 2,519 hits, those were the only 5-WAR seasons of his career. His Hall of Fame case rests on how much weight to give those five great years.
Now, let’s compare him to those other recent high-peak performers.
Walker and Martinez had relatively short careers for modern Hall of Famers. There are 70 Hall of Fame position players who began their careers in 1947 or later and Martinez ranks 59th in plate appearances and Walker ranks 62nd. Five of those below them were players affected by the sport’s color barrier, so it’s really more like 59th and 62nd out of 65. Both have relatively modest career counting stats for offensive-oriented positions: 309 home runs and 1261 RBIs for Martinez and 383 home runs and 1311 RBIs for Walker.
Santana, meanwhile, had an incredible five-year run from 2004 to 2008 with the Twins and Mets when he was the best pitcher in baseball, going 86-39 with a 2.82 ERA while averaging 229 innings. He won two Cy Young Awards and should have won a third. From 1997 to 2003, sandwiched around an injury in 2001, Garciaparra hit .326, won two batting titles, and averaged 28 home runs and 108 RBIs. Santana lasted just one year on the ballot and Garciaparra two (you need 5% of the vote to remain).
Let’s compare the five best seasons for these players:
Walker: 34.8 WAR/47.9% of career value (72.7 WAR)
Martinez: 32.2 WAR/47.2% of career value (68.4 WAR)
Santana: 35.6 WAR/69.7% of career value (51.1 WAR)
Garciaparra: 34.5 WAR/77.9% of career value (44.3 WAR)
Helton: 37.6 WAR/60.8% of career value (61.8)
Helton is right in the middle and that makes his Hall of Fame case a tough one — he has the best five-year peak, but Walker and Martinez did a lot more outside of those seasons while Santana and Garciaparra didn’t do enough.
In fact, via Baseball-Reference.com, Helton is one of just 47 players since 1947 with at least five 6-WAR seasons. Not including active players like Mookie Betts and Nolan Arenado, the only one with less total career WAR than Helton is Garciaparra. The most similar career arc belongs to Chase Utley, who also had a dominant run of five straight seasons in which he compiled 39.7 WAR. He finished with 64.5 career WAR and has yet to reach the ballot, so we don’t know how voters will evaluate his career.
Helton is trending in the right direction, receiving 52% last year and polling at 79% on the public ballots. In my book, he’s a stronger candidate than Fred McGriff, who was just elected in December by that Contemporary Era committee (receiving all 16 votes).
Wait, there actually is another player with a similar case to Helton’s. We’ll get to him next.
The defense and WAR guys
On this ballot: Andruw Jones, Scott Rolen, Bobby Abreu, Omar Vizquel
Recent examples: Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, Alan Trammell (Mussina and Trammell are in)
Like Helton, Jones also had five 6-WAR seasons. He also had a relatively short career as he flamed out after turning 30. Just as Mussina’s election resulted heavily from his career WAR total of 82.8 rather than traditional pitching factors like 300 wins, Cy Young Awards and peak dominance, Jones’ case rests on advanced metrics. And that’s where it gets interesting.
Bill James, the first-ballot sabermetrician Hall of Famer, recently wrote this in response to a question from a reader: “Andruw Jones is not ‘iffy’; Andruw Jones is a completely unqualified candidate who has sort of inexplicably developed a base of delusional fans who imagine that he should be a Hall of Famer.”
Jones has slowly built momentum during his five years on the ballot, from 7.3% his first year to 41.4% last year and he’s currently receiving 68% of the public vote. James is right about one thing — Jones definitely has an enthusiastic base of proponents. The argument basically goes like this: “He’s the best defensive center fielder of all time — and he hit 434 home runs.”
Jones’ career WAR of 62.7 is borderline — and that includes off-the-chart defensive metrics. Two notes here:
1. How much does that WAR figure mean when comparing candidates? Remember, the metric has become more relied on by voters in only the past decade or so. The BBWAA has elected 55 position players who began their careers since 1947 (not including those with shorter careers who began in the Negro Leagues). The average WAR is 77.5, so Jones is well below the usual standard. That doesn’t mean Jones shouldn’t go in; not every Hall of Famer has to be above average. Indeed, 10 of those 55 have a lower career WAR than Jones, including five outfielders (Vladimir Guerrero, Willie Stargell, Kirby Puckett, Jim Rice and Lou Brock).
2. Baseball-Reference credits Jones with 235 runs saved on defense, fourth most since 1947 behind only Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger and Ozzie Smith — and more than Roberto Clemente or Willie Mays even though Jones played many fewer innings in the outfield than those two legendary fielders (17,038 for Jones; 20,508 for Clemente; 24,525 for Mays).
Maybe Jones was that good in center field, as his 10 straight Gold Gloves indicate. He played a shallow center field but was able to get to balls hit over his head because of his tremendous jumps and instincts and, at least early in his career, excellent speed. James’ major contention appears to be that the defensive estimates at Baseball-Reference are giving Jones too much credit for his defense and those emphasizing his 434 home runs are overstating his offensive contributions.
“The idea that Jones was an all-time great defensive center fielder isn’t a new argument; while he was active, he was compared to Mays — all the time.”
As a hitter, despite the 434 home runs, B-R credits Jones with just 119 runs created above average. Of the post-1950 Hall of Fame outfielders, the only with a similarly low total is Lou Bock at 120. Everybody else has more than 200 with most above 400. Remember, Jones’ peak years came in the heart of a high-scoring era. While he led the NL in home runs and RBIs in 2005, that was the only season he ranked in the top 10 in the NL in slugging percentage (and he never ranked in the top 10 in OPS). After flaming out quickly once he turned 30, Jones finished with 1,910 hits. Until the Golden Days Era committee elected Tony Oliva and Gil Hodges last year, no position players from post-1950 had been elected with fewer than 2,000 hits (except those whose careers were shortened by the color barrier).
James’ own win shares metric does rate Jones a superb outfielder, although not quite as valuable over his career as Mays:
Jones: 235 fielding runs, 91 fielding win shares
Mays: 185 fielding runs, 104.1 fielding win shares
(Win shares aren’t on the same scale as fielding runs.)
To be close to Mays, in many fewer innings, does verify the eye test and even the reputation at the time that Jones was Mays-like in center field. But you also have to put a lot of trust in those WAR fielding estimates to consider Jones a strong Hall of Fame candidate.
The difficulty of Jones’ case can be seen when comparing Jones to two others on this ballot via James’ win shares analysis:
Jones: 276 win shares (90.5 fielding)
Torii Hunter: 277 win shares (71.5 fielding)
Omar Vizquel: 282 win shares (128.1 fielding)
Hunter won nine Gold Gloves so he was no slouch himself in center field, but is credited with just 33 fielding runs — a whopping 232 fewer than Jones. James’ metrics, on the other hand, say he is much closer to Jones as a fielder. (By the way, in terms of raw range factor, Hunter made 2.80 plays per nine innings in center field over his career compared to 2.76 for Jones.) The two are very similar in career offensive value:
Jones: 434 HRs, 1,289 RBIs, .254/.337/.486, 111 OPS+, +119 batting runs
Hunter: 353 HRs, 1,391 RBIs, .277/.331/.461, 110 OPS+, +113 batting runs
Because of the difference in fielding evaluation, however, Hunter is credited with 50.7 career WAR. As a result, Hunter is receiving just 2.5% of the vote and will likely be off the ballot next year. It’s not necessarily unusual for two players with similar careers to have such widely different Hall of Fame results — see Carlos Delgado vs. McGriff — but Jones and Hunter certainly provide an extreme contrast.
So, yes, WAR matters. Peak value matters. Defense is important. A quick look at the other three players listed above:
Scott Rolen: Rolen is headed to the Hall of Fame — if not in 2023, then almost certainly in 2024. He’s currently polling at 80% and given that his final percentage dropped 7.8% last year from the pre-results, he’s going to be extremely close to 75%. It’s quite a rise for a player who debuted with just 10.2% of the vote in 2018. No player who debuted since 1947 received such a low percentage on their first ballot and still got elected by the BBWAA. An eight-time Gold Glove winner at third base, Baseball-Reference credits him with 175 fielding runs — tied for 12th most since 1947. He was a better offensive player than Jones with 234 batting runs and a 122 OPS+, although their career counting stats are similar:
Rolen: 2,077 hits, 316 HRs, 1,287 RBIs, 1211 runs
Jones: 1,933 hits, 434 HRs, 1,289 RBIs, 1204 runs
I’d compare Rolen more to Larry Walker than Jones: A terrific all-around player with a career interrupted by injuries, but enough value and excellence to warrant selection.
Bobby Abreu: He’s on the ballot for the fourth time and receiving 19% of the vote, most of those coming from the analytic community that sees a vastly underrated player whose 60.2 career WAR puts him in the Cooperstown discussion. Did people think of Abreu as a Hall of Fame-type player while active? No. He made just two All-Star teams and never finished in the top 10 of the MVP voting. His best years, however, came on bad Phillies teams and he had a wide range of skills, hitting .291 with a .395 on-base percentage, topping 30 steals six times, driving in 100 runs eight times and averaging 156 games from 1998 to 2010 — 13 consecutive seasons with at least 150 games. Bill James gives him 356 win shares — 300 is sort of the minimum threshold for the Hall of Fame under the win shares standard — making him a stronger candidate than either Jones or Rolen (304 win shares) by that system. I suspect Abreu’s case will continue to pick up momentum, although getting to 75% down the road still looks like a longshot.
Omar Vizquel: He was on a Hall of Fame track a few years ago with over 50% of the vote, but then he was accused of domestic abuse and a former bat boy for the Double-A team Vizquel managed in 2019 filed a civil lawsuit for sexual harassment. His vote total plummeted to 23.9% in 2022 and is below 10% in 2023. Vizquel’s case, such as it is or was, is all defense — except Baseball-Reference credits him with just 129 fielding runs, barely half that of Jones. Vizquel ended up with 45.6 career WAR, well below Hall standards.
The longevity matters guys
On this ballot: Jeff Kent, Andy Pettitte
Recent examples: Fred McGriff, Jack Morris (both are in)
This is Kent’s final year and he’s not going to get in even though he is the all-time leader in home runs among second basemen (42 more than Robinson Cano) and third in RBIs (behind only Nap Lajoie and Rogers Hornsby). His lack of support has been a little baffling, especially since he also won an MVP Award. Like Sheffield, he moved around a lot and his late-blooming career — he was better in his 30s than his 20s — meant he wasn’t considered a Hall of Fame-type while active. But he kept going and going, lasting until he was 40 years old.
Pettitte won’t get close either, but I bring up these two because they are eventually going to be slam-dunk choices for a future committee. Compare them to a couple of recent committee selections that the BBWAA passed on:
McGriff: 493 HRs, 1,550 RBIs, 2,490 hits, 1,349 runs, 52.6 WAR
Kent: 377 HRs, 1,518 RBIs, 2,561 hits, 1,320 runs, 55.4 WAR
Morris: 254-186, 3.90 ERA, 3,824 IP, 105 ERA+, 43.6 WAR
Pettitte: 256-153, 3.85 ERA, 3,316 IP, 117 ERA+, 60.7 WAR
Morris, of course, had his Game 7 shutout in the 1991 World Series, but Pettitte had no shortage of postseason moments, helping the Yankees win five World Series titles. He was on our TV screens every October for nearly two decades. Like Morris, he lacks the traditional measurements of 300 wins and Cy Young Awards, but I’d argue he actually has a much stronger case. Kent and Pettitte don’t fit into the columns of high WAR and/or high peak as both are kind of viewed as “compilers.” But the era committees have softened in recent years with several marginal selections. Kent and Pettitte will absolutely get in someday.
The closers vs. center fielders conundrum
On this ballot: Billy Wagner, Francisco Rodriguez, Andruw Jones, Carlos Beltran, Torii Hunter
Recent examples: Mariano Rivera, Lee Smith, Ken Griffey Jr. (all are in)
There are many Hall of Fame debates — some fun, some less fun: how to weigh peak value versus longevity, how much emphasis to place on advanced metrics, what to do with the PED guys? Those issues have reasonable answers on both sides. But this is the most confounding to me: Hall of Fame voters absolutely love closers.
Don’t believe me? It’s true. Hoyt Wilhelm was the first closer elected to the Hall of Fame. We’re going to skip him. He was from a completely different era of baseball. The modern era for closers really began in the 1970s. Rollie Fingers was the first from this era to make the Hall of Fame when the BBWAA elected him in 1992. He debuted in 1968. Here are the Hall of Famers, broken down by position, who produced most of their value in the 1970s and later:
First base: 6
Second base: 4
Third base: 4
Left field: 4
Center field: 2
Right field: 6
Starting pitcher: 17
Yes, more closers than any other position outside of starting pitchers. Seven of them: Fingers, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Dennis Eckersley, Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera. All except Smith were elected by the BBWAA. And Wagner might sneak in too. He’s at 73%, but last year his final result only fell 0.7% from his pre-result, so he will be right at that 75% line.
Here’s what really stands out: Seven closers and ONLY TWO center fielders. Ken Griffey Jr. and Kirby Puckett. If you want to include Andre Dawson, OK. He played more games in right field and won his MVP Award as a right fielder, although his best seasons came with the Expos as a center fielder.
If you want to make an argument for Jones or first-ballot candidate Carlos Beltran, who finished with 70.1 WAR, or even Hunter, this is your case: Put in some center fielders! Among those the BBWAA passed over:
Kenny Lofton: 68.4 WAR, over 1,500 runs, 622 stolen bases, four Gold Gloves.
Jim Edmonds: 60.4 WAR, a little short on career counting numbers (393 HRs, 1,199 RBIs), but a high peak (seven seasons of 5+ WAR).
Bernie Williams: 49.6 WAR, key member of Yankees dynasty, career WAR killed by horrendous defensive metrics (minus-139 fielding runs).
Dale Murphy: 46.4 WAR, two-time MVP, sputtered out quickly.
Of course, Mike Trout will cruise in five years from whenever he retires. Still, two center fielders in 50 years. Weird. I think part of the problem is center field — like third base — is kind of a hybrid offense/defense position. It didn’t help that Lofton and Williams also entered on crowded ballot years and never really got the opportunity to have their cases discussed.
So, yes, Beltran — with 435 home runs and 1,587 RBIs and dominant postseason numbers (.307/.412/.609 in 65 playoff games) — should be an easy choice … except, of course, his role in the Astros’ cheating scandal makes his case more complicated. I don’t know the long-term ramifications of that (he’s polling at 56%), but I think he’ll eventually get in. Hopefully Lofton and Edmonds and Williams will get a second look from an era committee.
Just as Billy Wagner doesn’t have to be Mariano Rivera to get in as a closer, our center fielders shouldn’t have to be Willie Mays or Ken Griffey Jr. Although if you fielded like Mays for a decade, that will help your case.