Occasionally we take a break from politics and turn our attention to weightier matters, such as our annual prediction of who will be elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. It is a Ruthian task, indeed.
It’s that time of year again…the votes have begun to be tabulated for the Baseball Writers Association of American (BBWAA) Hall of Fame (HOF) ballot. Each year we at BTRTN analyze the ballot – in-depth -- to answer two questions: 1) which nominees do we predict will be elected in this year’s voting, receiving at least 75% of the vote of the BBWAA, and 2) who do we think amongst the nominees deserves to be in the HOF, based on our own analysis? The two lists are never identical.The BBWAA results will be announced on January 25, 2022.
I’ll explain our methodology below, but first a few comments.
First, we note that votes for the MLB HOF are again being publicly tabulated, as members of the BBWAA voluntarily publicly announce them (some do, some don’t), by Ryan Thibodaux’s Tracker. I have not looked at those tabulations to help with our predictions. Not that they are very helpful in predicting…the writers who reveal their votes publicly, especially in the early going, tend to differ quite a bit from their more private counterparts. For instance, last year, 44% of the “public” writers voted for Omar Vizquel, while 69% of the “private” voters did so. Not surprisingly, they seem to differ most on the more controversial candidates.
Second, last week we gave our thoughts on the two committees that considered earlier eras of baseball immortals, the “Early Era Committee” and the “Golden Days Era Committee.” We did not make predictions as to who would be picked (our first question above) – those committees are too erratic to develop a workable methodology. But we did opine on which candidates were worthy of enshrinement (our second question), focusing only on the non-Negro League candidates, as they Negro League data is still incomplete. Among the 13 players or managers on the ballot, we believed that five – Dick Allen, Ken Boyer, Bill Dahlen, Gil Hodges and Minnie Minoso – were worthy candidates. The committees agreed with us only on Hodges and Minoso, and instead opted for Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva. (In addition, Buck O’Neil and Bud Fowler, who played in the Negro Leagues, were also named.)
Let’s get back to our methodology. For the first question – our prediction of who will be selected -- we use various statistical models (based on the candidates’ stats and, for those returning to the ballot, how they’ve done in prior years) to come up with an initial estimate of the percentage of the vote they will receive, and we use judgment to finalize that estimate. For the second question – who should be in the HOF --we have developed a methodology to compare nominees to their same-position predecessors to determine their “Hall-worthiness.”
As for the ballot itself, this year marks both the beginning and the end of two major performance-enhancing-drug (PED) tainted players on the ballot. This is the non-gift that keep on taking, deflecting attention from worthy players who played fair between the lines. Whatever happens this year, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa will be off the ballot next year, having either been elected or termed-out of the 10-year ballot limit. But Alex Rodriguez, who was suspended for the 2014 season for violating MLB’s drug policy and collective bargaining agreement, and David Ortiz, whose name was alleged to have appeared on a list of players who tested positive during 2003 survey testing, are both on the ballot for the first time – and I doubt the last. They will be a drag on the ballot, perhaps for the entire next decade.
HOW DID WE DO LAST YEAR?
We rather immodestly bill ourselves as “The Best MLB Hall of Fame Predictors” (we may well be the only ones), and while last year was not our best year, we did reasonably well, as you can see by the chart below.
Of course the main miss last year was that we thought that, without a clear first ballot candidate on the ballot, Curt Schilling would score enough new votes to achieve enshrinement, sneaking in with 77% of the vote. But Schilling missed again, getting to only 71%, barely improving over his 70% showing the year before.
We were within a six percentage point variance for most of the rest of the field, which certainly is not hard to do for the first-time candidates who are not really hall worthy and get few or none votes. We had larger misses on three returning candidates, Omar Vizquel, Andruw Jones and Mark Buehrle.
We expected Vizquel, then in his fourth year on the ballot, to jump from 53% to within shouting distance of the HOF at 67%. But just after we made our public predictions, Vizquel was accused by his wife of domestic violence. Vizquel’s candidacy was doubtless hurt by this accusation, which became public when most of the votes were still outstanding. (And for the current ballot, it should be noted that in August, 2021, Vizquel was accused of sexually harassing a Birmingham Barons batboy when he was manager there.)
Andruw Jones jumped more than we expected. We had him increasing from 19% in 2020 to 25% in 2021, his third year on the ballot, but he did that and more, gaining support from 34% of the writers. And Mark Buehrle, a first-ballot borderline candidate, did better than we expected, coming in at 11% when we had thought he would miss the cutoff at 4%. (This was a disappointment, because not only do we not think Buehrle is quite HOF-worthy – see below – but his name is really difficult to spell, and I’d hoped we’d be done with that chore!)
We did well with Gary Sheffield, who we correctly called at exactly 41%, an 11-point improvement over the prior year. And while we had no other “exactly right” predictions among those who received 10% or more of the vote, all in all the variances were pretty small given the magnitude of the change in the ballot year-over-year. When you have a first-ballot shoo-in, as with Derek Jeter in January, 2020, it tends to rob votes from other players, and there was no such player in January, 2021.
One thing we did very well was predict total votes per ballot. We said there would be 6.2 players picked on each ballot, and the final number was 5.9. That is pretty good, as this figure can vary considerably given the strength or weakness of the field. Not long ago it was common for each voter to make over eight selections on average. (The writers are not allowed to name more than ten.)
Overall, we were off by an average of 3.8 percentage points per nominee, about the same as 2020 (3.7) and not quite as good as in 2019, when we had our best showing at 3.3. Anything under three would be spectacular, anything over five is pretty bad. The toughest to predict are the first-ballot candidates, but none were particularly HOF-worthy last year, so that helped our variance, of course.
Here are last year’s results:
WHO WILL BE ELECTED? THIS YEAR’S PREDICTIONS
On to this year! And here is our most important prediction: BTRTN predicts that the BBWAA will, again, not elect anyone to the MLB Hall of Fame.
This year’s ballot might set a record for the most repugnant in the history of the BBWAA! There are eight --eight! -- players tainted by PEDs (first-balloters Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz, plus returnees Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa and Andy Pettitte), as well as the widely reviled Curt Schilling and the abusive Omar Vizquel. Throw in, for good measure, the press-surly Jeff Kent and the abrasive A.J. Pierzynski (who, in 2012, won a “most hated player” survey of MLB players, going away), and you’ve got a ballot that most sportswriters would stare at in disgust.
The first chart below shows the complete voting history (in percentages) of all the returning players. The returnees with the most votes are Schilling, Bonds and Clemens. All are in the last (10th) year on the ballot. Typically, players begin to rise in their final years of the ballot, and if they are at a high enough level, that deadline-driven surge is enough to put them over the top. Larry Walker, Edgar Martinez and Tim Raines are recent examples of that phenomenon. All three finally made the HOF in their final year on the ballot.
But you can clearly see that that momentum factor is not working for Schilling, Bonds and Clemens. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. All three have made significant progress in their many years on the ballot, but that progress more or less topped out three years ago for Bonds and Clemens, and last year for Schilling, when, as mentioned, he picked up only a single point. With that plateauing, I don’t see any of them garnering enough incremental support to get there this year. Whatever chance Schilling might have had in this, his last year, was probably completely shuttered by his petulant demand after last year’s rebuff to be taken off the ballot.
Vizquel’s momentum was crushed, I suspect for good, by the various abuse charges. As for the other PED’s, only Sheffield is making a run (one which I suspect will fall well short in his remaining three years on the ballot). Ramirez stalled out last year, Sosa will be off the ballot after this year. Pettitte may still have a chance, given that he is only in his fourth year and has risen each year, albeit very marginally and from a very low base. But as a starter with 200+ wins and a magnificent postseason record, the backward look may be kind to him in the coming years, even with the PEDs. And the newer generation of BBWAA members appears to be softer on PEDs than their crusty predecessors.
So all that, plus the lack of a first-ballot shoo-in candidate, makes it a good year for Scott Rolen to make a jump. Rolen has jumped from 10% to 53% in his four years on the ballot, and he can easily get within field goal range of the HOF this year, though I think he will fall short of enshrinement. Billy Wagner has taken off like a rocket in the past two years and, now in his seventh year, is racing against the clock. Todd Helton has had a similar trajectory to Rolen; now in his fourth year, he will benefit from former Rockies’ teammate Larry Walker getting the nod last year (their profiles are similar, and Walker finally shed the Coors Field factor). Andruw Jones also took off the last two years, his defensive prowess is now being properly recognized. Jeff Kent is running out of time; while he has climbed over the years, his gap to 75% is a bridge too far with just two years to go. Bobby Abreu is still struggling to stay above the 5% threshold in this, his third year.
As for last year’s first-balloters who return by virtue of exceeding the 5% threshold, Mark Buehrle, Torii Hunter and Tim Hudson, this year’s ballot will determine whether they advance with some second-year momentum, tread water, or fall below the 5% and are gone.
That leaves this year’s first ballot candidates. The most prominent, of course, are Rodriguez and Ortiz, and I suspect both will do much better than Bonds and Clemens did back in 2013; indeed, they may both do as well as Bonds and Clemens are doing now, as that would make some sense. Among the others, I believe only Jimmy Rollins will surely exceed the 5% threshold, though Mark Teixeira may have an outside chance.
So, what’s the answer? Here’s the summary chart of this year’s ballot, including our predictions. As said, we don’t see anyone getting to 75%, but that does not mean the year is a total washout. With so many bad actors on the scene, it is a good year to get rid of some chaff, and hope that Rolen, Wagner and Helton make a big move upward.
We have also included in this chart our views on which candidates belong in the HOF. For the explanations of those ratings, read on.
WHO SHOULD BE IN THE HALL OF FAME?
The second question we ask annually is this: putting aside what the writers think, who on the ballot do we think is “Hall-worthy”?
We believe that Curt Schilling should be in the HOF (although we are hardly a fan); and we think the ballot also includes four other players that should be in the HOF, but will fall short in this year’s balloting: Scott Rolen, Billy Wagner, Jeff Kent and Andruw Jones.
To arrive at our conclusions, we use the following analytic methodology. We compare each player to Hall of Famers at his position across a number of key statistics, both traditional (hits, homers, RBI’s and batting average) and non-traditional (OPS+ and WAR). We show the average statistics for comparison groups, by position. So we will compare, say, Mark Teixeira to first baseman who are in these four groups:
· The “top half” of first basemen in the HOF (using WAR)
· The “average” of all HOF first basemen
· The “lower half” of the first basemen in the HOF
· The “next ten,” the ten first basemen who have the highest WARs among those who are not in the HOF.
The last two groups define the so-called “borderline” candidates. Our general feeling is that to be worthy of the HOF, a candidate must be better across the board than the last two groups. They have to be better than borderline candidates, most of whom are either not in the HOF (the “next ten”) or include at least a few players who should never have been enshrined in the first place, and reside in the “lower half." .
We also give some consideration to how many All-Star teams a player was named to, and how many times a player was in the Top 10 in MVP or Cy Young voting. And postseason play can certainly be a factor as well. We try to keep it all completely objective (as you’ll see when we assess Curt Schilling).
Having said that, we at BTRTN do not believe that PED-tainted players should be in the HOF. Accordingly, we stipulate that although the eight PED-tainted players have HOF credentials (though Andy Pettitte and Sammy Sosa are subject to debate on that score), we have omitted them from the following analysis, since their stats are obviously inflated.
BY POSITION ANALYSIS
A. J. Pierzynski, somewhat to my surprise, has a set of traditional stats that hold up pretty well against HOF catchers and the “next ten.” But the advanced stats smoke him out, with a considerably lower OPS+ and WAR than the HOF catcher or “next ten.” Plus, A.J. was only selected to the All Star team twice, and never landed a top 10 slot in the MVP voting, which is a sure indicator that he was not viewed as one of the great catchers of his time. Thumbs down for A.J.
First base is very busy on the ballot, with the holdover Todd Helton, and four new candidates that put up some impressive numbers in their overlapping careers.
Todd Helton is one of those exceptionally difficult cases – the hardest one on the ballot, in our view. You have to take into account the “Coors Field” high altitude effect that inflates any Rockies’ stats. WAR is a park adjusted figure, though, and Helton's 61 falls between the average HOF and the borderlines. His OPS+ is down with the borderlines, and if you break this down further, Helton’s home/road OPS’s are 1.048/.855. That .855 is a problem – a fine number but not HOF-esque. We think Helton is a tough thumbs down.
Mark Teixeira is the best of the new first base bunch. He smacked over 400 homers, which is a terrific figure, but none of his other stats exceed the “bottom half” or “next ten” group, and in fact his batting average, hits and OPS+ are below both groups. Tex was a five-time All Star and a three time Top 10 MVP vote-getter, but an underachiever in postseason play. Thumbs down on Tex.
Justin Morneau, Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard are actually fairly similar candidates to each other, all putting up excellent numbers for a decade or so, before injuries abruptly ended their careers at ages 32, 35 and 36, respectively. Morneau and Howard won MVP’s, and Howard, in particular, seemed destined for Cooperstown with six consecutive Top 10 MVP vote-getting seasons. But for all of their power and run production, all had surprisingly low WAR scores, and average to low OPS+. And thus none of them really approach the level of immense production one needs to be in the HOF given a relatively short career (see: Ralph Kiner, who in 11 years won sven home run titles and finished with a 149 OPS+ and a WAR of 48). Thumbs down to all three.
Jeff Kent is the all-time leading home run hitter among second baseman, and is third in RBIs behind Rogers Hornsby and Napoleon Lajoie. He also won an MVP once, was a Top 10 in the MVP balloting three other times, and a five-time All Star. He hit three homers and had seven RBI’s in his only World Series. He was simply one of the greatest power-hitting second basemen ever and the best in modern times. His WAR may be a bit low, but it is better than the borderline groups, and his OPS+ is above the average HOF second basemen. If he had been a little nicer to sportswriters over the years, he might be doing better in the voting to date. But he is unquestionably a Hall of Famer. (By the way, for you Helton fans smarting over our snub, Kent’s home/away OPS splits are .853/.857 – in other words, he has a higher OPS than Helton on the road, while playing a middle infield position.)
Omar Vizquel did well in the balloting in his first three years, establishing a track record (37% in his first year, 43% in his second, 53% in his third) was likely to lead to enshrinement. The abuse charges have likely put an end to that. But we’ve never thought Vizquel was HOF-worthy. His OPS+ of only 82 is well below both the bottom half of HOF shortstops and the Next 10. He did bang out 2,877 hits, but it took him 24 seasons to do it, a classic accumulator. He was a fine player defensively, with 11 Gold Gloves, but no Ozzie Smith or Mark Belanger; Vizquel had 129 “runs saved” in his career versus their 239 and 241, respectively (Craig Counsell had 127.) He made only three All-Star teams and was never a Top Ten finisher in the MVP balloting. Thumbs down.
Jimmy Rollins is a very difficult case, a guy who just might clear the hurdle of being ahead of the bottom half and next ten – but maybe not. The real stoppers to his candidacy are his low OPS+ (at 95, which means he was a below league average hitter for his career), and only three All Star selections. I think Rollins will get some support, but HOF-worthy? The view here is thumbs down.
Scott Rolen made the mistake of having a career that almost completely overlapped with Chipper Jones, and in the same league, no less. And, maybe he should have avoided playing third base, a position the HOF does not favor (there are fewer third basemen in the HOF than any other position). Rolen was a terrific, if underrated player. Chipper may dominate Rolen in every category, but Rolen in turn is solidly above the average third base HOF’er in all the power categories, right in line with the average HOF third basemen in OPS+ and WAR, and he was a great fielder, too. Not to mention seven All Star selections. The Golden Era committee snubbed Ken Boyer; time for the BBWAA to recognize an even better Cardinal third sacker. We give Scott Rolen a thumbs up.
Andruw Jones is an interesting case, with those 434 homers and a 63 WAR that also reflects his outstanding defensive skills. He had 253 "runs saved," an astounding number exceeded only by Brooks Robinson. That is truly impressive. His relatively low 111 OPS+ is the big knock, but we think the power, defense and WAR – plus five All-Star selections and two Top Ten MVP vote totals -- add up to a thumbs up.
Bobby Abreu is another difficult case. His power stats are above average for a HOF outfielder, but his OPS+ and WAR are borderline. And when you throw in the fact that he only made two All Star games in his career (though he did put on quite a display in the Home Run Derby in one of those years) and never once was a Top 10 MVP vote getter, it’s hard to make a case that he was one of the very best players of his generation. Thumbs down for Abreu.
Torii Hunter is a very similar candidate to Andruw Jones, in that both were excellent fielders and solid hitters. Jones had more power, while Hunter hit better for average. But while Hunter was a fine fielder and won 9 Gold Gloves, Jones was, as noted, among the greatest defensive players of all time. Hunter trails Jones in WAR as well, largely due to the defensive gap. Jones was also the superior postseason player; both have extensive postseason resumes. We can find room for Jones in the HOF because of his defensive prowess, but we have to give Hunter the thumbs down.
Carl Crawford was a fine player who stole nearly 500 bases in an era where the stolen base became a lost art (or even a negative, given the potential to give away a precious out). But his overall stats are simply not compelling, especially for an outfielder. Thumbs down for Crawford.
Curt Schilling is perhaps my least favorite player, and I am hardly alone. I’m not talking about the ketchup sock or his Red Sox years. I’m not talking about him being a conservative Republican, plenty of them in MLB. I’m talking about his racist, transphobic and generally incendiary comments over the years, the cozying up to white supremacists, his expressed desire to “hang journalists,” his support of the January 6 insurrection and on and on. Unfortunately, though, on the field, Schilling sports a sterling ERA+ of 127 and his WAR is a hefty 80, both up there with the top half of HOF starting pitchers. And you also have to consider his postseason performances, which were sublime, with an 11-2 record and 2.23 ERA. Hate him or hate him, Schilling merits induction; I’m holding my nose and giving him a thumbs up, but I’ll be happier if he gets denied again and we don’t have to consider his case next year.
Mark Buehrle and Tim Hudson are, along with Schilling, members of a dying breed, the 200+ career win pitcher. Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke and Jon Lester are the only active pitchers who have achieved that milestone, and they will likely be joined by Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw. But then it will likely be a stat of the past, with the possible exception of Gerrit Cole. In a few years we will surely drop wins as a stat to consider for the HOF. You can make a case for both Buehrle and Hudson as HOF-worthy; both have stats that match up well with the “bottom half” of HOF pitchers, each made 4-5 All Star teams and Hudson has 4 top ten Cy Young finishes (neither pitcher ever won one). But still, they are borderline candidates, and we are tough on that group. So we say thumbs down.
Jake Peavy, in his first year on the ballot, is nowhere near Buehrle and Hudson on any statistical measure, so he of course is a thumbs down.
Tim Lincecum is an interesting case, a pitcher who was the best starter in the game for a few years, with a four-year streak of All Star appearances, top ten Cy Young ballot appearances, including copping the Cy Young award in consecutive seasons. Others with brief stretches of brilliance have made the HOF; perhaps the most famous among starting pitchers is Sandy Koufax. But Lincecum’s era of dominance was far too short (Koufax excelled for six seasons, won four Cy Young’s and an MVP, and managed 165 wins to Lincecum’s 110). Thumbs down for a shooting star.
There are only 31 relievers who have saved 300 or more games in their careers, including three who are active (Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman). Of the 28 retirees, only 8 are in the HOF. We use 300 saves as a standard because 7 of the 8 HOF relievers have achieved that mark. Only Hoyt Wilhelm had fewer, and he toiled in an era when the term “closer” was not even in use; indeed, the save was not even an official stat (it became one in 1969, very late in Wilhelm’s 21-year career. But nonetheless Wilhelm compiled a 50 WAR, a figure that has been exceeded among relievers only by the incomparable Mariano Rivera.
The role of closer has also evolved, from a rubber armed, multi-inning stud to a specialist who toils only in the ninth inning. Yankee HOF closers Rich Gossage, who averaged 1.8 innings per appearance in his career, and Rivera, who averaged 1.2, embody this transition. The closer role may evolve further in the coming years, as managers have started to questions the logic of saving their best reliever for the ninth inning when, say, the heart of the order is due up in the eighth.
So defining what it takes for a reliever to make the HOF is a moving target, and not an easy one. And we are presented this year with three candidates who are not necessarily instant recognizable outside of their home towns to casual fans, but had excellent careers worthy of HOF consideration. Given the paucity of relievers in the HOF, for them we offer two (not four) comparison groups: the relievers who are in the HOF, and the relievers who recorded 300+ saves who are not in the HOF.
Billy Wagner’s statistics are amazing, and voters are now finally catching on, as Wagner has advanced in his seven years on the ballot from 11% to 46%. He has well over 400 saves and a 1.00 WHIP that is – incredibly – equal to Rivera’s (and better than Trevor Hoffman’s 1.06). His stats compare favorably to the average of the eight relievers in the HOF. Wagner is a thumbs up – he is simply one of the greatest relievers of all time.
Jonathan Papelbon and Joe Nathan are very similar candidates, as their stats attest. Neither are quite in Wagner’s class as relievers (or, accordingly, as HOF candidates) but they present solid credentials. Nathan was a particular surprise to me; I knew he was a fine reliever, toiling away in obscurity for decent Twins teams in his prime (he pitched for four other teams in a 16-year career). But he is actually a stronger candidate for the HOF than Papelbon, who was a high profile closer on some excellent Red Sox teams. Both exceed the accomplishments of the non-HOF group, so that would seem to push them both over the top, but still, I’m not quite ready. Perhaps it’s because eight HOF relievers is actually quite a few for a position that only has a roughly 50-year history of prominence. (There are only 12 third basemen in the HOF, a position that has been around from the start).. I’m going to be tougher on relievers until this shakes out for a while. So, with some reluctance, especially for Nathan, thumbs down for both.
That’s it! We’ll be back after Tuesday, January 26, 2021, when the selections will be announced and see how we did! Comments welcome, of course.