The 2021 Hall of Fame ballot has provided a conundrum to voters thus far, with there being reason to vote against the three players that are clearly the best on the ballot. Those who wish to keep cheaters out of the Hall of Fame will not be voting for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who had two of the best careers in Major League history but were both named in the Mitchell Report as doing steroids. Those that give weight to the character portion of the Hall of Fame ballot will not vote for Curt Schilling due to numerous concerning statements Schilling has made. It has led to a tie up in the ballot, including two blank ballots already publicly submitted, that may see no players inducted from the BBWAA vote for the first time since 2013. This is how I rate the players on the ballot this year, separated into tiers based on a mix of talent and likelihood of making the Hall of Fame.
Tier 1: Obvious Hall of Fame talents with off-the-field issues
Barry Bonds/Roger Clemens
Since I started my analysis of BBWAA Hall of Fame ballots in 2019, I have not found a reason to consider Bonds and Clemens separately. Bonds has the most offensive WAR in history, though he’s in a virtual tie with Babe Ruth, whose pitching WAR puts him over Bonds, and Clemens has the most pitching WAR since Walter Johnson, who retired in 1927. Bonds is easily the career leader in MVP Awards (7) and Award shares (9.30) and Clemens is the leader in Cy Young Awards (7) and Award shares (7.66). In an era when it is hard to determine how many people took steroids, including some that likely did already in the Hall, these two still stood out head and shoulders over the competition, albeit while cheating.
Clemens had playoff success throughout his career and won two World Series with the Yankees in 1999 and 2000, while Bonds struggled in the playoffs the first half of his career and had success the second half, but made just one World Series without capturing a championship in his career. But Bonds and Clemens are arguably the best batter and pitcher in the last 100 years. Yes, they used steroids. Many players at the time did. Whether it was 10%, 25%, 33%, or however many players, these two were far and away the best who did it. Using performance enhancing drugs should be a significant point against a player’s Hall of Fame case, but the league has determined what punishment for such usage should be and there is nothing about the Hall of Fame in those punishments. Bonds and Clemens belong in the Hall.
Schilling is the toughest player, in my opinion, to decide which way to vote on among current players on the ballot. His on-field career was that of a Hall of Famer, with a career ERA just under 3.50, an ERA+ of 127 in more than 3,000 innings, over 200 wins and more than 3,000 strikeouts, and that’s just what he did in the regular season. In his postseason career, he won 1993 NLCS MVP and co-MVP of the 2001 World Series. He later won the ’04 and ’07 World Series with the Red Sox, where he went 6-1 in eight playoff starts in those two Boston playoff runs. His 2001 postseason holds the single-season record for postseason strikeouts and win probability added. His 79.5 WAR is above average for a Hall of Fame pitcher, and his JAWS score of 64.0 is also above average, with the average Hall of Fame starting pitcher at 61.6. Off the field, though, Schilling has always been rude with reporters, spread a hateful, extreme right-wing message in considering a political career, publicly considering running for Senate in Massachusetts in 2016 and for Congress in Arizona in 2020. What has drawn the most animosity towards Schilling was his tweeting a picture of a shirt emblazoned with “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required” and saying “Ok, so much awesome here…” in 2016. Statements like those make many wary of giving him a stage like the one he would get at a Hall of Fame induction ceremony, especially one that figures to be as well-watched as 2021 likely will be as this years inductees share a stage with Derek Jeter, Larry Walker and Ted Simmons. He is someone who people could make a similar argument that they do to vote against Bonds and Clemens, that the Hall of Fame Museum has important pieces and information of their career and they may not be personally worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame.
Tier 2: More off-field issues, less on-field dominance
Sheffield was an incredible hitter throughout his MLB career, which is what has gotten him over 30% in the Hall of Fame vote, but he has some PED ties and a lot of personality issues, but let’s highlight his success first. Sheff had a .292/.393/.524 slash line in his career, good for a 140 OPS+. He’s one of 27 players with at least 500 career home runs, one of 39 with over 1,000 extra-base hits, and also places in the top 40 all-time in runs, RBI, offensive WAR and walks. His hitting was without a doubt Hall of Fame worthy. Some issues of his include a large discrepancy between offensive WAR and total WAR, with 80.8 oWAR but only 60.5 WAR in his career thanks to awful defense at every position he played. He started as a shortstop in Milwaukee, where a lot of the personality issues showed, including admitting to intentionally committing errors and being quoted as saying he hated and wanted to hurt his general manager. He moved to third base quickly, but the defensive issues stayed including placing third in the league with 34 errors in 1993. He eventually moved to right field, where he still wasn’t good but was survivable enough there to keep his bat in the lineup. Sheffield earned a top-10 finish in MVP voting for five different teams in his career as he bounced around in part due to a reputation as a bad locker room presence. He was an incredible hitter everywhere he went, but had a lot of other issues that have kept him from being close to gaining induction into the Hall of Fame.
Manny was an even better hitter than Sheffield was but has more clear PED ties, with a 50-game suspension in 2009 and retiring in 2011 rather than serving a 100-game suspension for a second time being caught by a drug test. From 1995-2009, he had 14 seasons of at least a 140 OPS+, with a 126 in 2007 being the only time in that span he failed to top 140. That stretch included leading the AL in OPS in 1999, 2000 and ’04. He was a poor fielder who spent his career in the outfield corners leading to having just 69.3 career WAR with 81.8 oWAR. The offense carried over into some fantastic playoff performances including a World Series MVP award in 2004. In his career, Ramírez played in 111 postseason games and slashed .285/.394/.544 and his 29 career postseason are easily the most ever, over Bernie Williams’ 22. Some active players including 2017 World Series MVP George Springer, who has 19 playoff homers, and Randy Arozarena, who clubbed 10 dingers in the 2020 playoffs en route to winning ALCS MVP before he’s worn off his rookie eligibility, could eventually threaten him, but for now the record solidly belongs to Ramírez. In spite of all that, Ramírez has yet to appear on more than 30% of all ballots in a year as he’s currently the only player with multiple PED suspensions who has appeared on a Hall of Fame ballot.
Tier 3: Deserving but overlooked
A seven-time All-Star and eight-time Gold Glove winner, Rolen’s career was a mark of consistency, with eight consecutive years with an OPS+ of at least 120 and 11 times in 14 seasons over 115. Rolen is tied with Nolan Arenado for third-most Gold Glove awards at third base and by WAR runs fielding he’s the third-best defensive third baseman in league history. He’s one of nine primary third baseman with at least 8,000 career plate appearances and an OPS+ over 120, a list that trims to seven players when you raise the minimum plate appearances to 8,500, leaving six Hall of Famers and Rolen. Rolen’s defense was the best of the group as well. He had mixed results in the postseason in his career, but he rebounded from a hitless 2004 World Series to collect eight hits, including three doubles and a home run, in the 2006 World Series as he helped the Cardinals win their first World Series since 1982. Rolen’s offensive totals don’t jump off the page, with just over 2,000 hits, 316 home runs, 1287 RBI, a .281 batting average and a .855 OPS, but he was a consistent producer and an excellent defender. His 70.1 career WAR is just above average for a Hall of Fame third baseman and his JAWS score of 56.9 ranks 10th among third baseman, behind eight Hall of Famers and Adrián Beltré. Rolen made a big jump from 17.2% in 2019 to 35.3% in 2020 and looks like he’s taking another large step forward based on ballots that have been publicized so far this year. As this is just his fourth year on the ballot, there’s still plenty of time for Rolen to gain induction.
Wagner was hurt by a lack of innings in his career, as he was never a starting pitcher, had one batter faced before his age-24 season, and retired following his age-38 season. The two other prominent relief pitchers to enter the Hall of Fame in the last five years, Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, got even later starts, both debuting in their age-25 seasons, but Hoffman pitched through his age-42 season and Rivera through 43. He had just 903 career innings pitched, but what Wagner did with those innings was incredible. His 187 career ERA+ ranks second all-time among pitchers with at least 700 career innings, he’s one of only six pitchers with at least 400 career saves, and he averaged 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings in his career. Wagner has many similarities to Hoffman: seven All-Star appearances, faltering on the biggest stage, with Wagner owning a 10.03 playoff ERA while Hoffman allowed two runs and took a loss in his only World Series appearance. Hoffman had more innings and more saves, but Wagner had a better ERA and ERA+ and more strikeouts. Similar to Rolen, Wagner saw a jump from just over 15% in 2019 to just over 30% in 2020 and looks to keep climbing with four years of eligibility left after 2021.
It seems to be that the best reason people can think of to not put Helton in the Hall of Fame is his home ballpark, having spent the entirety of his career with the Rockies playing at Coors Field, and that just doesn’t sound like a good reason to me. A better reason for Helton to not make the Hall of Fame might be a lack of longevity, as he played more than 125 games in a season just once after the age of 33, ending his career with just 2247 games played. Due to that, he barely cracked 2,500 hits in spite of a .316 average for his career, did not quite get 1,000 extra-base hits in spite of getting them at historic rates, and ending his career below 1,500 in runs and RBI. His rate stats, while admittedly helped by playing in Colorado, were incredible. He is one of 18 players with at least 6,000 plate appearances in the live ball era with an OBP over .410. Among first baseman with a career OPS+ of at least 125 (his was 133), he ranks sixth in WAR runs fielding, and the only two players ahead of him in OPS+ and defense are Roger Connor, a Hall of Famer from the 1800s, and Albert Pujols. Very few first baseman get into the Hall of Fame because of their defense, but another first baseman who was great on both sides of the ball, Eddie Murray, had a 129 OPS+ and was less valuable than Helton in the field. A small knock on Helton is also an inability to perform in the playoffs. He only got two chances in his career, ultimately hitting .211 with no home runs in 15 postseason games, though he did have a .333/.412/.467 slash line in the 2007 World Series as his Rockies were swept by the Red Sox. After going from 16.5%-29.2% in his first two years on the ballot, Helton looks to be headed for over 40% this year.
Tier 4: Everyone else
I debated making an “overrated” tier for Vizquel and Pettitte but decided a two-person tier and then an unorganized grouping of everyone else didn’t make sense. Vizquel was an 11-time Gold Glove winner at one of the most premier defensive positions in baseball, where metrics say he was still an excellent defensive shortstop at 40 years old. That’s what built his Hall of Fame resume, but he was an All-Star just three times, had an OPS+ above 100 twice, and he had over 4 WAR just once in his career. His -244 career WAR runs batting is worse than any hitter currently in the Hall of Fame, with other slick-fielding shortstops Rabbit Maranville and Luis Aparicio currently as the bottom two. Maranville played from 1912-1935 and is one of the weakest Hall of Famers, and Aparicio was also tremendous on the basepaths, stealing over 500 bases with fewer times caught stealing than Vizquel had in his career. Vizquel’s offensive achievements are mostly based on longevity, as he ranks 12th in games played and 22nd in plate appearances in MLB history. Vizquel looks like his 2021 vote percentage might be lower than how he fared in 2020.
Kent was a below-average second baseman defensively whose hitting was barely above league average before he turned 30. But from ages 30-39, he slashed .301/.373/.529 for a 133 OPS+, earning five All-Star appearances, winning four Silver Sluggers and an MVP award. He hit 258 of his 377 career home runs in that decade, and his career home run total is still most in league history by a second baseman. He famously did not get along with Bonds when the duo were both in San Francisco, as Kent knew about and was not in favor of his teammate’s cheating ways. His 123 career OPS+ ranks eighth among second baseman with at least 8,000 career plate appearances, behind five Hall of Famers, Bobby Grich, and Robinson Canó. By WAR and JAWS, he would be a below-average Hall of Famer, but in line with Nellie Fox and Bobby Doerr, who were both inducted by Veterans Committees.
Jones won 10 consecutive Gold Glove Awards in center field while hitting for power including a league-leading 51 home runs in 2005, when he was the runner-up in the NL MVP race. Injuries cut his career short in his 30s, but he racked up 57.9 WAR from 1997-2006, third-most among hitters in that span behind Alex Rodríguez and Barry Bonds. The question facing voters is whether or not that decade of excellence was enough to overcome the lack of counting stats as his career got cut short. By some defensive metrics, Jones was the best defensive center fielder of all-time, including total zone runs, which only goes back to 1953 but places Jones at 230, 54 ahead of Willie Mays, who has his 1951 and ’52 seasons not counted, but he played just 155 combined games as he left in the middle of the ’52 campaign for military service and never produced more than 21 TZR in a season, which still leaves him well short of Jones. At any defensive position, Jones is second behind only 16-time Gold Glove winner Brooks Robinson in TZR at 253 (Robinson had 293). Any way you look at it, Jones is one of the best defenders the game has ever seen. Is a career OPS+ of 111, over 400 home runs, and over 1200 runs and RBI enough to carry that defensive performance into the Hall? That’s what the writers have to answer.
609 home runs. Some arguments on Sosa’s candidacy center around this, ignoring the fact that he was also an above-average defender in right field. He was found to have taken PEDs, he was caught using a corked bat, and he wasn’t great at anything other than hitting for power. That has proven to be enough for most writers to keep his name off their ballots now in his ninth year of eligibility. Sosa hit 60+ home runs three times, something no other player has ever done, but did not lead the league in homers any of those years. He took home NL MVP honors in 1998, won six Silver Sluggers and was a seven-time All-Star, but that has not been enough to get him over 15% of the vote yet.
Andy Pettitte’s Hal of Fame case is all about wins, both in getting over 250 in the regular season and being the all-time leader in playoff wins with 19. His career ERA of 3.85 would be the second-highest in the Hall of Fame, better than only Jack Morris, and his playoff ERA was 3.81. He played on great Yankees teams that got him five World Series rings, but was not a superstar pitcher for most of his career. He was an above-average pitcher who played for great teams, not someone who looked like a Hall of Famer while he was playing.
Abreu was underappreciated in his career, making the All-Star game just twice in spite of posting an OPS+ over 135 for seven consecutive years from 1998-2004. He stole 30+ bases in three of those seasons and was an above-average fielder in right field during that time, putting up over 5 WAR in all seven of those seasons. He declined as he aged, but still produced at least 2.4 WAR each year from 2005-’09. Part of the reason he wasn’t appreciated as a player was his Phillies not making the playoffs in any of his nine seasons with the team. Abreu was above-average at most aspects of the game, with a .291 batting average, over 1400 walks in his career to help him produce a .395 on-base percentage, 288 home runs and over 500 doubles in his hitting for power, 400 career stolen bases, and a Gold Glove to go along with 62 WAR runs fielding by age 30. He didn’t stand out in any one category, though, and was a below-average player his last five years in the league, which has made him a fringe Hall of Fame candidate.
Hudson’s best Hall of Fame case comes from comparing him to Pettitte, who looks like he may rise to over 15% of the vote this year. Hudson had an ERA+ three points higher than Pettitte, an overall ERA 0.36 lower, allowed 0.2 fewer walks per nine innings and 0.1 fewer home runs per nine. He had fewer wins but his win percentage (.625) was nearly identical to Pettitte’s (.626). He had a lower playoff ERA than Pettitte at 3.69 to 3.81, though he did it in just 75 2/3 innings compared to 276 2/3 innings for Pettitte. With similar regular-season stats and less team playoff success than Pettitte, I don’t think Hudson deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame, it just confuses me that many voters want to vote for Pettitte and not Hudson.
Buehrle’s 3.81 career ERA is barely lower than Pettitte’s, his 117 ERA+ is identical to Pettitte, and his 214 wins and .572 win percentage is below Pettitte and Hudson. He also struck out less hitters than the other two pitchers at a similar level on the ballot, though he did show great control in his career, walking just two batters per nine innings. He did even less than Hudson in his playoff career, with a 4.11 playoff ERA in 30 2/3 innings pitched. His four Gold Glove awards may be helping his candidacy some, though you rarely hear people talk about a pitcher’s fielding in his Hall of Fame case. Buehrle was a workhorse, recording 200+ innings from 2001-’14, but retired at age 36 after throwing 198 innings in 2015. A few more good years late in his career could have made his case interesting, but he figures to toil in low percentages for a few years and eventually fall off the ballot.
Hunter, like Jones, was a great defensive outfielder who hit for power, except that Hunter was never as good as Jones at his peak but Jones didn’t last like Hunter did. Hunter earned nine Gold Glove awards in his career, five All-Star appearances and two Silver Sluggers before retiring in 2015 with a 110 career OPS+. He hit 353 homers, had 498 doubles and was slightly above-average on the base paths to go with his plus defense. He hit 20+ home runs 11 times, though he only got to 30 once. Jones’ early start helped to make up the difference of Hunter lasting longer, and Hunter’s career ultimately doesn’t stack up to Jones, nor was he as good of a hitter as Abreu to make a case for being good at everything without being great at any one thing. Hunter looks like he will just fall short of the 5% threshold to stay on the ballot.
I don’t have a vote, but if I did I would select, in alphabetical order:
The backlog on the ballot is finally clearing, but the fact that this year may see no players inducted is still a shame. There are deserving candidates who are going to have to wait until at least 2022 for induction into Cooperstown.