Last year, we talked about who deserved to make the Baseball Hall of Fame the most among players on the Baseball Writers Association of America Hall of Fame Ballot, and I mostly agreed with the writers. Eight of the ten players I said I would vote for received greater than 50% of the vote, with only Omar Vizquel (who received the ninth-most votes at 42.8%) and Todd Helton (16.5%) being further down the list. I have the biggest issue with how Helton was received in his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame, while Vizquel (among others) is mostly being held back by the logjam that the ballot has had for quite some time now. Four players getting in last year, along with Fred McGriff moving off the ballot after receiving about 40% of the vote in his tenth and final year on the ballot, should help clear that jam with only one player in the incoming class who’s a clear-cut Hall-of-Famer. The question is, who takes the biggest leap with some more breathing room now on the ballot? Is it one or more of the Bonds-Clemens-Schilling trio that’s been on the ballot since the 2013 0-entrant year? Is it Larry Walker making a big push in his final year to sneak his way into the hall? Do we see more support for players further down the ballot? We’ll find out on January 21 when they announce the results. As for me, I’m going to break down the candidates into a few tiers, just as I did last year.
First Tier: Hall of Fame Locks
The list of accolades for Jeter’s career is daunting. 14 All-Star appearances, 5 World Series Championships, 5 Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers, a World Series MVP, and a Rookie of the Year award. We can debate whether he deserved quite such an extensive list, as even as he was racking up Gold Gloves some doubted his defense, and based on defensive analytics we have today he wasn’t very good defensively compared to other shortstops of his era. But even with those analytics telling us he was a poor defender his career numbers still look like a clear Hall-of-Famer. He had great longevity and durability, playing the second-most games all-time at shortstop behind only Omar Vizquel, logging the tenth-most plate appearances all-time, and his 3,465 hits are the sixth-most in MLB history. He’s also in the top 50 all-time in games played (29), runs scored (11), total bases (23), doubles (35), hit by pitch (17) and times on base (12). His rate stats weren’t as impressive, but his 115 OPS+ for his career ranked ninth among players who had at least 3,000 plate appearances and played at least 70% of their games at shortstop when he retired (Francisco Lindor is currently ahead of him, and Carlos Correa and Corey Seager have a higher career OPS+ currently but have yet to hit 3,000 career plate appearances). His 72.9 career WAR is sixth among shortstops, trailing only Bill Dahlen, who played from 1891-1911, and Hall-of-Famers Arky Vaughan, Luke Appling, Ozzie Smith, and Cal Ripken Jr. It’s no stretch to say he’s one of the best shortstops the game has ever seen, and he’ll likely be receiving over 95% of the vote to get into the Hall of Fame on his first ballot.
Second Tier: Has a Shot in 2020
As I mentioned last year, and many BBWAA voters have realized, Larry Walker is more than just a product of Coors Field, he’s a Hall of Fame-worthy right fielder. His peak numbers were inflated by pre-humidor Coors Field, he wasn’t quite as good as the .369/.451/.689 slash line over his three-year peak from 1997-’99, but his 167 park-adjusted OPS+ of 167 from that same stretch was third-best in the majors behind just Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds, two known steroid users. Zooming out to look at ’97-’02, he ranked sixth in OPS+ behind Hall of Famer Jim Thome, Jason Giambi, Manny Ramirez, Bonds and McGwire, and ahead of Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, Chipper Jones, Vladimir Guerrero, Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr, etc. He also won 5 Gold Gloves in those 6 seasons. While he did spend most of his career in Colorado, which seems to be the biggest reason that some voters have against putting him in the Hall, those people are discrediting his great work in Montreal. From 1991-1994, his time as an Expo other than his rookie year, he slashed .293/.366/.501 with 80 home runs, 129 doubles, and 76 stolen bases. That was a 134 OPS+, and he won 2 Gold Gloves, a Silver Slugger, and was an All-Star in ’92. People forget that among all the crazy stats that we got left with a “what if” on in the ’94 strike, Walker had 44 doubles in just 103 games (113 team games) putting him on pace for 63. The all-time record is 67, and there have been just 6 times a player had 60, all of which came between 1926 and 1936. Todd Helton had 59 in 2000, and Nick Castellanos just came close with 58 in 2019, but we still haven’t seen another 60, and Walker would have had a good chance. Walker was more than just a product of Coors Field, and he was more than just a great hitter, as evidenced by his 7 Gold Gloves and 230 career stolen bases. He made a jump of 20.5% between 2018 when he received just 34.1% of the vote, and 2019 when he got 54.6%. Another jump of that magnitude would put him at 75.1%, which would make him the “narrowest” Hall of Famer, as three players have received 75.4%, of which only Ralph Kiner, who made it on his 15th ballot, was on a later ballot than Walker’s upcoming 10th. Let’s get this man the Hall of Fame plaque and bust he deserves.
Barry Bonds/Roger Clemens
As I mentioned last year, I see no reason to mention these two separately. They both dominated the ’90s and early 2000s, and they both took steroids to do so. Unfortunately, with Bonds spending his whole career in the NL and Clemens playing nearly entirely in the AL, only 8 times was Clemens on the hill with Bonds at the plate. The ball was never put in play. Clemens walked Bonds 5 times (3 intentional), hit him once, and struck him out twice. Clemens is the only pitcher to win a Cy Young award for more than two teams, having done it for four different organizations in his career (Red Sox, Blue Jays, Yankees, Astros). Barry Bonds, of course, holds the career and single-season records for home runs (762 and 73), walks (2558 and 232) and intentional walks (688 and 120). Bonds is the only player (so far) in MLB history to win more than 3 MVP awards, and he won 7. Clemens won 7 Cy Young Awards, although that leaves him a little less by himself compared to Randy Johnson’s 5 and Greg Maddux and Steve Carlton both having 4. They’re the two highest players on the career WAR leaderboard to not be in the Hall of Fame, with Bonds ranking fourth all-time and 0.7 hitter WAR above Babe Ruth, who’s pitching WAR puts him ahead of Bonds, and Clemens ranking eighth all-time and first among pitchers who played post-1930, as only Walter Johnson and Cy Young are higher. The Hall of Fame Monitor, a stat created by Bill James and used by Baseball-Reference that uses counting stats, awards, games played, etc. that James says a score of 100 gives a player a good chance at the Hall of Fame and 130 is a virtual lock, Bonds ranks 10th all-time for hitters at 340 while Clemens is tied with Young for the second-most points among pitchers at 332. The Hall of Fame Career standards, also devised by James (but slightly altered by B-Ref), which is scaled from 0-100 with 50 as roughly average for a Hall of Famer, is kinder to Bonds as he’s tied with Willie Mays and Alex Rodriguez for second among hitters at 77 (Ruth is at 79), while Clemens is fifth for pitchers at 73. Both players were unbelievable and head-and-shoulders above their peers. They also both cheated to get there. How many people have gotten away with cheating and are already in the Hall of Fame? That answer isn’t zero, so I’m comfortable putting these two in.
Curt Schilling doesn’t have a plaque in the Hall of Fame yet largely due to many instances of insensitive speech, especially against reporters. That doesn’t help you get into the Hall when writers are the voters. Despite some voters who let a somewhat personal dispute get in the way of putting a deserving player into the Hall of Fame, Schilling has climbed to 60.9% in voting, the highest total in the 2019 vote of anyone returning to the ballot. He has three years left and has seen his percentage rise by 15% over the last two years, while another boost that big would put him in the Hall. Schilling has the highest career WAR of any player who isn’t currently in the Hall of Fame, not yet eligible for election, isn’t linked to PEDs and doesn’t have a lifetime ban (sorry to @ Pete Rose like that but I had to), but his career got out to a very slow start after being a 2nd-round draft pick by the Red Sox in 1986. He was traded (along with Brady Anderson, who wound up being a 3-time All-Star) to the Orioles in exchange for Mike Boddicker at the 1988 trade deadline and made his MLB debut that September for Baltimore. He would end up throwing just 69 1/3 innings for the Orioles with a 4.54 ERA (85 ERA+) before being sent to the Astros in the January 1991 trade for Glenn Davis, who would wind up playing just 185 games for Baltimore and accruing just 0.7 WAR as injuries prematurely ended his career. He didn’t do much in Houston, either, throwing 75 2/3 innings in relief with a 3.81 ERA (92 ERA+) before being sent to Philly the next April for Jason Grimsley, who never pitched for the Astros in the majors but eventually became a decent reliever and won two World Series with the Yankees. It was with the Phillies that he first showed his postseason magic, as after a league-average 1993 season (99 ERA+) he threw 8 innings of 2-run work in games 1 and 5 of the NLCS against the Braves, both of which Mitch Williams got a blown save and win in the tenth inning, as the Phillies went on to lose the World Series to Toronto. Schilling was named NLCS MVP. He had a chance to be one of the most anonymous playoff series MVPs when he reported to camp for the 1995 season as a 28-year-old with 689 career innings between 78 starts and 111 relief appearances with a 107 ERA+, but that was when his career took off. In his final year before free agency, he posted a 3.57 ERA (117 ERA+) in 17 starts as his year was cut short due to injury. Philly showed faith in him to give him a contract, and he rewarded them with three straight All-Star appearances from ’97-’99. It took a haul for Arizona to get him in a trade in 2000, but it paid off for them as he had back-to-back Cy Young award runner-up finishes (behind teammate Randy Johnson) and won co-MVP of the World series with Johnson in ’01. His career numbers are absolutely Hall of Fame-worthy, and he should get there soon.
Third Tier: Not Getting in in 2020, but Has a Chance in the Future
Vizquel’s first two years of vote totals look like someone who is going to eventually make it into the Hall of Fame, going from 37.0% in his first year to 42.8% in his second year on the ballot in 2019. An elite fielder at one of the most important defensive positions, he’s second behind Ozzie Smith for the most Gold Glove awards at shortstop all-time with 11. He compares pretty similarly to Luis Aparicio, a nine-time Gold Glover at shortstop who also had a career 82 OPS+, though Aparicio was a bit better of a baserunner. Aparicio made it into the Hall of Fame on his 6th ballot, receiving 84.6% in 1984. Vizquel could see a similar path to that as the ballot blockade starts to clear with Jeter and Walker (at least) likely to go in this year, and the Schilling-Bonds-Clemens trio that all received 60%ish in 2019 will age out the year of Vizquel’s 6th ballot. Notable additions to the ballot between now and then (2023) will be Álex Rodríguez, David Ortiz, Tim Hudson, and Mark Buehrle. Metrically, there are many ways of showing that Vizquel was as good as advertised defensively, including his being 9th all-time in defensive WAR according to Baseball-Reference with 29.5 career dWAR. His .9847 career fielding percentage is best of all-time as a shortstop while also being 71st all-time in range factor/9 innings, a rough way of showing how many balls they got to. 71st all-time doesn’t sound great, but it’s ahead of recent Gold Glove winners like Andrelton Simmons, Nick Ahmed and Brandon Crawford. His offense wasn’t good, but the Hall has accepted incredible defenders with mediocre hitting before, and he looks like the type of player that fills that mold.
I know he’s a career Rockie who’s best attribute (by far) is his hitting, but OPS+, wRC+, and WAR all account for park factors and still put him on the edge of first baseman in the Hall of Fame. He’s tied with Orlando Cepeda at 133 in career OPS+, and Cepeda ranks 15th out of 21 Hall of Fame first baseman. Among first baseman with at least a 130 career OPS+, his 72 defensive runs saved ranks fourth, behind Albert Pujols and Hall of Famers Roger Connor and Bill Terry, and just ahead of Hall of Famers Cap Anson and Jeff Bagwell, and modern players Anthony Rizzo, Paul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto. That’s some great company to be in, and it shows that while obviously the offense is what stands out with Helton, it’s no exaggeration to say he’s one of the best defensive first baseman at least of his era, if not ever. To be fair, Helton has the fourth-largest gap in career OPS at home vs on the road at .193, but 7 of the top 10 players on that all-time list are in the hall of fame along with him and former teammate Larry Walker being on the ballot. In his playing career, he missed out on some All-Star games and MVP votes playing on some awful Rockies teams, and he made the playoffs just twice in his career, during his age-33 and 35 seasons where he was 34 and 36 during the playoff runs. Chronic back issues and late-career leg injuries crippled his production at the end of his career, but his 7-year peak WAR was above that of the average Hall of Fame first baseman. He’s one of the players who should see a benefit of the ballot thinning out in the upcoming years, and while it’s likely that Larry Walker ends up being the first player wearing a Rockies hat in the Hall of Fame, Helton could be the first player to play his full career in Colorado to gain enshrinement.
Somewhat similar to Vizquel, Rolen is among the all-time leaders in Gold Gloves and defensive metrics at his position (third base) but with quite a bit more offensive production than Vizquel. I (along with many voters) overlooked Rolen last year, but upon further examination, I think he belongs in the Hall. The eight-time Gold Glove winner (third-most at third base behind Hall of Famers Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt) was also a seven-time All-Star in spite of injuries that limited him to just 2,038 career games played. That puts him 219th in MLB history for games played, but he ranks 52nd in doubles, 75th in extra-base hits and 120th in RBI. He’s also 24th in total zone runs all-time regardless of position, though that only ranks sixth at third base. He ranks 45th all-time in defensive WAR, and his 122 career OPS+ is good enough for him to rank 68th in WAR for position players in spite of his relative lack of games played. His counting stats aren’t great, but they all clear basic Hall of Fame benchmarks. He has over 2,000 hits, 500 doubles, 300 home runs, 1,200 runs and RBI, and Rolen drew 899 walks in his career. He went from 10.2% to 17.2% of the voting in his second year on the ballot, and with some of the logjam being removed from the ballot, he’s looking to see his name continue to rise on the ballots. Among his other career achievements were a Rookie of the Year award in 1997 and a World Series championship with the Cardinals in 2006.
By pure numbers, Manny Ramírez belongs in the Hall of Fame. A twelve-time All-Star, Ramírez was one of the best hitters in the league from 1995, the first time he logged 100 games played, through the first half of 2010 before his brief stint with the Dodgers ended and he faded out of the league, appearing in each season through 2014 in triple-A as he tried to keep his career going into his 40s. Ramírez is one of only eleven players in MLB history to post a triple-slash line of at least .300/.400/.550, a list that includes eight Hall of Famers, two players currently on the ballot (with Larry Walker joining Ramírez) and one active player (Mike Trout). His .996 career OPS ranks ninth all-time, but he played in one of the most hitter-friendly periods in major league history (leading his OPS+ of 154 to be just 25th all-time), he’s linked with steroids, and was negative in all aspects of the game but hitting, being worth, according to Baseball-Reference, -22 runs baserunning, -27 runs from double plays and -129 runs fielding in his career while playing the corner outfield and some DH led his career positional adjustment to be worth -105 runs. Those factors are what has kept him from getting over 25% of the vote in his first three years on the ballot. The nine-time Silver Slugger winner was dominant in Cleveland and Boston, hitting over 500 doubles and home runs in his career while racking up over 2,500 hits, 1,300 walks, 1,500 runs, and 1,800 RBI while also being a great playoff contributor, hitting .285 with 72 walks, 29 homers and 19 doubles for a .937 playoff OPS in 111 playoff games including two World Series wins with the Red Sox, taking home WS MVP honors in 2004 when he had seven hits, three walks and a home run in the sweep. It may not be enough to make the Hall of Fame with the cheater tag applied to his name.
Fourth Tier: Slim Hall of Fame Odds
Andy Pettitte’s Hall of Fame case hinges on the fact that he played in an incredible eight World Series in his career. His team (mostly the Yankees, but also three years in Houston) went to the playoffs in fourteen of his eighteen seasons in the MLB, and he made a lot of starts, pitched a lot of innings, and got a lot of wins as a result. Among Hall of Fame pitchers, only Jack Morris has a higher ERA than Pettitte’s 3.85, and Morris had to wait for a Veterans Committee to put him into Cooperstown. Despite being remembered as a great postseason pitcher, it’s once again quantity over quality for Pettitte, who had a 3.81 playoff ERA in his career. Five World Series rings and a 2001 ALCS MVP award overshadow the fact that Pettitte was good-not-great in the postseason just like he was in the regular season. There’s a reason Pettitte only had one top-3 finish for a Cy Young award in his career without winning any and was only a three-time All-Star. He logged an ERA+ of 120 or better just six times in his career, and three of those came in seasons where he threw less than 150 innings. His candidacy is based mostly on old-time voters who see he won over 250 games in his career and like how many games he pitched in the playoffs. I don’t expect him to have a plaque in Cooperstown any time soon.
Billy Wagner is basically a polar opposite of Pettitte in that his career was all about quality but lacked the quantity of a Hall of Famer. Wagner threw more than 80 innings just once in his career and ended with a total of 903 innings pitched. He barely had more batters faced (3600) than Pettitte did innings (3316). But those innings he did pitch were phenomenal, as his ERA was only above 3 in one season. He’d like us to forget that 2000 campaign where he only made 28 appearances and had a 6.18 ERA, but it did happen. If we ignored it, we would say Wagner had a 2.19 career ERA, when it was actually 2.31. That’s still incredible, good enough for a 187 ERA+ which ranks second among pitchers with at least 700 career innings. Neither Wagner nor his teams had success in the playoffs, as he had a 10.03 playoff ERA in just 11 2/3 innings as his teams won just one playoff series (Mets 2006 NLDS) in his seven trips to the postseason. Wagner was hovering around 10% in his first three ballots, but went up to 16.7% last year and can at least hope for some major jumps, especially after the Schilling/Clemens/Bonds trio that’s been over 50% each clears off the ballot in one way or another in the next three years. Wagner’s lack of innings results in a low career WAR, and he doesn’t have playoff brilliance to make up for it, but his peak performance was better than any relief pitcher other than Mariano Rivera, and there’s still a chance that’s enough to get him into the Hall of Fame.
Bobby Abreu is probably the second-best player making his first appearance on the BBWAA ballot in 2020 after Jeter, and every ballot since 2012 has seen their top two candidates reach the 75% vote threshold at some point. That doesn’t mean Abreu’s getting in, though, as the 2012, 2009, 2008, 2006, and 2005 classes all had one or fewer first-year candidates make it to Cooperstown. Abreu was only a two-time All-Star, winning a Silver Slugger in his first All-Star season in 2004 and a Gold Glove the following year while playing in the Mid-Summer Classic once again. He deserved more than that, as his OPS was over .850 every year from 1998-2006, and his OPS+ over those nine years was 139, he averaged 5.5 WAR per year in that stretch, and five times in his career he received MVP votes without being an All-Star. Abreu had 288 career home runs, 574 career doubles and stole 400 bases while also drawing 1476 walks to go with his nearly 2,500 hits. His career OPS+ was 128, he was a good fielder until his 30s when he slowed down in the outfield, and he was underappreciated as he spent the best years of his career on bad Phillies teams. I don’t expect him to be a Hall of Famer, but I think he’ll get the 5% of the vote necessary to stay on the ballot for 2021.
Jeff Kent had a very odd career arc, being a just-okay player for the Blue Jays, Mets, and Indians between his age-24 debut and age-28 seasons, then being traded to the Giants and becoming one of the best players in the league during his six seasons there. Pre-Giants Kent had an OPS+ of 107 without hitting more than 21 homers or 27 doubles in a year in what are supposed to be the prime years of an athlete’s career, especially for power hitting. Then he went to San Francisco and for six years hit no fewer than 37 doubles and 22 homers while averaging 41 doubles and 29 homers a year and posting an OPS+ of 136. He continued to play well, though not quite that well, for the Astros and Dodgers as he had an OPS+ of 124 over the next five years while earning two more All-Star game trips (after making three in SF) and grabbing his third and final Silver Slugger award before falling off in 2008 at age 40 and retiring. In total, Jeff Kent before age 30 averaged 126 games, 121 hits, 26 doubles, 18 homers, 31 walks, and had a 106 OPS+. Jeff Kent after age 30 averaged 140 games, 158 hits, 37 doubles, 25 homers, 56 walks, had a 131 OPS+, won an MVP award, was a five-time All-Star and won three Silver Sluggers. He had a .840 playoff OPS with nine home runs in 45 career playoff games while appearing in one World Series (and losing) with the Giants. He also famously didn’t get along with teammate Barry Bonds, with some belief they feuded over the fact that Kent was such a straight-edge person and didn’t like the fact that Bonds cheated even if it was helping their team win. His late-career surge, somewhat similar to Adrián Beltré’s, has led a portion of voters to believe he belongs in the Hall of Fame, but he has yet to top 20% of the vote in his first six years on the ballot.
Gary Sheffield, somewhat similarly to Manny Ramírez, has the career offensive numbers of a Hall of Famer. He wasn’t quite as good of a hitter as Manny, but his .907 career OPS ranks 57th all-time, and his 140 OPS+ is 77th, as he also benefitted from playing in the late-90s offensive surge. While Manny’s problems are defense and steroid ties, Sheffield also had defensive issues and has a major antics problem. Being quoted as saying you hated your team and general manager “so much that (Sheffield) wanted to hurt the man (Brewers then-GM Harry Dalton)” and saying he intentionally committed errors at times when he was an infielder for the Brewers doesn’t help you get into the Hall of Fame, which has integrity and sportsmanship listed on the voting criteria for the writers. Sheffield was a great hitter, hitting 507 career home runs and 467 doubles posting a triple-slash line of .292/.393/.514, he was a decent baserunner, stealing 253 bases, which sounds great until you realize he was also caught stealing 104 times for a success rate barely over 70% (where certain analytics estimate you need to be at least 75% successful for stealing bases to be worth it). Sheffield also was considered a poor locker room presence (unsurprisingly, given what he said about his time in Milwaukee) and shuffled between teams, posting top-10 MVP finishes on five different teams of the eight he played for in his career. Sheffield was a great hitter but did too much damage to his reputation to be a likely candidate for the Hall of Fame.
Jason Giambi is the best hitter coming onto the ballot this year, and though he faces slim odds of gaining entry into the Hall of Fame, we’ll discuss him on the merit of his career, especially with the 2000 AL MVP award in his trophy case. That year, Giambi hit .333 with 43 homers and a league-leading 137 walks to lead the league with a .476 OBP and top the AL with a 187 OPS+, which was still very new and not widely talked about yet. The next year, he was slightly better, hitting .342 with 38 homers, once again leading the AL in walks with 129 and OBP at .477, but his AL-best 47 doubles allowed him to also top the junior circuit in slugging (.660) and OPS (1.137), good for a 199 OPS+. He finished second in MVP voting that year because some rookie named Ichiro Suzuki had the most hits by any player in 71 years and beat him by eight vote points. He then went to the Yankees, where he would continue to hit well (though not quite as well as those two peak years), but injuries started to mount up and limit his production, playing just 80 games in 2004, his final of five All-Star seasons, and 83 games in 2007, which would make ’06 the last time he received MVP votes. He then faded out with Colorado and Cleveland before calling it a career in 2014. He topped 2,000 hits, 400 homers and doubles, 1,300 walks, and 1,400 RBI in his career, but also has a steroids admission, a bad perception centering around the A’s success without him and the Yankees faltering with him, and a lack of counting stats that comes with having played 145+ games just six times in his career, and is more likely to be gone from the ballot after one year than to ever make his way to Cooperstown.
Andruw Jones’ Hall of Fame candidacy, in my opinion, centers around the idea that if a great fielding shortstop with poor offensive output (say, Omar Vizquel) is receiving enough votes to seem to have a good shot at induction, why shouldn’t a 10-time Gold Glove center fielder with at least above-average production at the plate? Even if you believe shortstop to be the more important defensive position: would you rather have the shortstop who’s fifth all-time in total zone runs (Baseball-Reference’s defensive metric used for WAR) who owns an 82 OPS+ or the center fielder who’s first all-time (by 54) in TZR for center fielders and second in MLB history regardless of position behind only Brooks Robinson with a 111 career OPS+? If you think Gold Gloves are the be-all, end-all for determining the best defender, fine, Willy Mays is the best defensive center fielder in MLB history with his 12 GGs. By defensive metrics, it’s Jones. Part of that (a small part) is Mays playing center field until he was 42 (and then retired) while Jones played just 17 games in center after the age of 31, but in a way that makes it even more impressive Jones racked up 230 total zone runs in center field in just 1,724 games there. I know Braves fans would love to see Jones in the Hall, as his twelve years there were incredible. All ten Gold Gloves, five All-Star appearances, the 2005 Silver Slugger and NL MVP runner-up while winning the Hank Aaron Award and being named Major League Player of the Year by The Sporting News, and the last ten years of their 11-year NL East title run. Jones and Wagner are probably the two best players in this category, in my opinion, and they’d both have my vote. But I’ll get to that later. At his peak, Jones had the value of a Hall of Famer. There’s an argument to be made for either side of him getting in the Hall, the “no” side led by his lack of longevity and on-base ability (.337 career OBP), but his defense was so spectacular that I think he deserves it.
I wanted to talk about Giambi strictly to talk about the best first-ballot hitter, so I’ll talk about Cliff Lee to discuss the best pitcher (sorry Josh Beckett) entering the ballot for the first time as well. Lee, of course, won a Cy Young Award while playing for the Indians in 2008 when he made 31 starts, completing four (two shutouts) with a 2.54 ERA to lead the American League, and his 167 ERA+ and 2.83 FIP also were AL-best marks along with leading the majors with 22 wins, as he won the vote in a landslide over future Phillies teammate (and now Hall of Famer) Roy Halladay. Lee would collect Cy Young votes four other times in his career, along with being a four-time All-Star between 2008 and 2013. During those six years, Lee was one of the best pitchers in baseball, averaging 31 starts, 222 innings, 200 strikeouts to 33 walks, and put up an ERA of 2.89 in that span that was good for an ERA+ of 140. According to Baseball-Reference’s WAR, Lee was worth about four more wins than any other pitcher in that span, topping Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander as the next-highest performers. The rest of his career was very pedestrian, though, as he owned a 94 ERA+ in 741 2/3 career innings before 2008 and having his career due to a torn ligament in his throwing elbow midway through the 2014 season, making his final Major League appearance at age 35. Another two or three productive seasons would have given Lee a chance at Hall of Fame induction, but his 43.5 career WAR as a pitcher is low even for starting pitchers even in the expansion era (since 1961). That’s tied with Jack Morris and ahead of only Catfish Hunter, who won five World Series in his career. Lee also performed well in the playoffs, but only made the postseason three times in his career, playing for the losing team in back-to-back World Series in 2009 and 2010 (for the Phillies and Rangers). He owns a 2.52 career playoff ERA but made just eleven playoff starts in his career, not enough to make a difference in a Hall of Fame resume. He isn’t likely to stay on the ballot for 2021.
If I had a Hall of Fame vote, I would select (in alphabetical order): Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Todd Helton, Derek Jeter, Andruw Jones, Scott Rolen, Curt Schilling, Billy Wagner, and Larry Walker. There’s some significant change from what I said last year, as I’ll admit I didn’t give enough thought to Wagner, Rolen, and Jones. I was on the fence about both Omar Vizquel and Bobby Abreu, and I wouldn’t have a problem with someone who supports Manny Ramírez, Gary Sheffield, or Jeff Kent, which shows how loaded the ballot still is, but none of those players had quite enough for me (or had a reason to keep them out). Last year I said I’d vote for Vizquel, but especially when looking at Rolen and Jones, I saw them as comparably elite defenders who were much better at the plate. Vizquel having some comps to current Hall of Fame shortstops doesn’t mean he should automatically be in, and I don’t understand how many voters have voted for Vizquel without also checking Rolen and Jones’ names. In my opinion, any reason other than oversight seems like poor judgment, and while I use oversight as my excuse for what I said last year, what I say doesn’t really matter because I don’t have an official vote. Those that do owe it to the players, and the BBWAA that they have to have spent at least ten years as a member of to get a vote, to do their research on all of the players on the ballot.
Sammy Sosa is the only returning player on the ballot that I haven’t highlighted here, and that’s because he’s in his eighth year on the ballot and received over 10% just once — his first year. He’s not getting in, and no other player in their first ballot this year is going to clear the 5% threshold to stay on the ballot. It doesn’t look likely for Giambi and Lee to stay on, and the only other candidates that I think might receive even a single vote would be Rafael Furcal, Eric Chávez, Josh Beckett, Alfonso Soriano, and Paul Konerko. The logjam is clearing, and it’s allowing some players who have been receiving low percentages of votes to have a chance to climb their way into the Hall of Fame. 2021 should have more clearing coming, as it looks like it might be the first time since 2012 that not a single player in their first year of eligibility gets inducted on the writers’ ballot.