I love Hall of Fame debates. I hate the current Hall of Fame debates.
The good news is that the current ballot for enshrinement in Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame is about to clear out quite a bit. There are four extremely famous guys in their tenth and final year on the ballot, each of whom carries a ton of personal and professional baggage to the conversation. There are three players on the ballot who are statistically no-brainer, slam-dunk, all-time candidates–all three have been credibly accused of using illegal performance-enhancing drugs, with two of them also carrying the weight of indefensible non-doping personal scandals. Oh, and the #4 guy, who has asked that he be removed from the Hall of Fame ballot, has three separate “Conflicts with” sub-sections on his Wikipedia page in addition to a controversies section which is astonishingly brief given what is known about him.
Below is my run-down of all thirty candidates on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot. Some candidates are more credible than others, but I do want to at least think a little about each of them. As much as I respect Jay Jaffe and his JAWS system of evaluating players by a combination of their career peaks and their career longevity, I do not believe that baseball should have a Hall of Fame that is simply a Hall of the highest WAR totals (to be clear, neither does Jaffe). Who knows if WAR will exist in twenty years? In the early days of Bill James, Runs Created seemed like a perfect statistic, and then it was improved upon. If our sole rationale had been Runs Created, we would seem like dinosaurs.
Bobby Abreu: Players like Abreu are a bit tricky because while I don’t think anybody who saw him play would dispute that he was good, he wasn’t necessarily a star–he was twice an All-Star and failed to achieve any significant MLB milestones–he had fewer than 300 career home runs and fewer than 2,500 career hits. And yet he was basically a 60-win player by the mainstream Wins Above Replacement models. By a JAWS model which factors in both Baseball Reference and FanGraphs WAR, Abreu is the 18th greatest right fielder ever. By accumulation and peak, he was better than Vladimir Guerrero, who sailed into Cooperstown fairly easily. If you’re a Hall of Fame literalist, Guerrero was far more famous, but maybe Abreu should’ve been more famous? He received MVP votes seven times and is probably the second-best player on this ballot without a whiff of steroid or legal controversy. He’s probably the most borderline player on my ballot, and I’m not going to be heartbroken when he doesn’t make it, but he reached 8.7% last year and I’m happy to help keep him around for another year of deliberations. In.
Barry Bonds: The fact that Barry Bonds probably did steroids doesn’t move me much–his “steroid years” came during an era in which performance-enhancing drugs were tacitly legal. To some extent, his steroid cloud has done a mostly effective job of blocking criticism of Bonds as a person–while I do not moralize about PEDs, I am inclined to do so about domestic abuse. Ultimately, though, I think about Kirby Puckett, a man with a borderline-at-best Hall of Fame resume whose supposed high character was a substantial part of his first-ballot case but was eventually revealed publicly to be a creep, and have ultimately surrendered to evaluating candidates strictly as baseball players. And Barry Bonds was the best baseball player I have ever seen. In.
Mark Buehrle: There is a part of me that wonders if Buehrle, the best player on a team which won its first World Series in 88 years, is a victim of the obnoxious media apparatus that elevated the shorter Boston Red Sox title drought to mythic legend and ignored the Chicago White Sox. Buehrle arguably should have been more famous than he was, and even if his resume is a little bit thin, would a South Sider Bill Simmons give the St. Louis area product a real shot? Maybe, but ultimately, Mark Buehrle just wasn’t exceptional. A good player for a long time, but an innings-eater who only once received Cy Young votes (he finished fifth in 2005) and whose lone career highlight, his perfect game, is really a Dewayne Wise highlight, is not enough for me. Out.
Roger Clemens: Like Barry Bonds, a probable steroid user who was also a creep off the field, having been accused of grooming of a minor. Like Barry Bonds, maybe the best I’ve ever seen at what he did. The shelf full of Cy Young Awards speak for themselves–Roger Clemens is probably the greatest pitcher of the Live Ball Era. In.
Carl Crawford: There is a whole off-field case to be made against Carl Crawford if, like with Omar Vizquel, there was a movement to get Crawford into Cooperstown. But there isn’t–he was a nice player who fell off far too quickly to be a realistic candidate. Out.
Prince Fielder: Delightful of a personality as he was, his peak was not nearly as high as you probably remember it being and he was functionally done as a Major League Baseball player by the time he was 31. The St. Louis Cardinals had four players in 2021 who were older than Prince Fielder is now. Out.
Todd Helton: The career-long Colorado Rockies first baseman had a long, sustained drop into meh-ness in his thirties, though at his peak, he was among the best hitters in the sport. Helton was an All-Star, received MVP votes, and won a Silver Slugger and/or Gold Glove Award in each of the first five years of the 21st century. As a long-time skeptic of how quickly some will point out raw totals of players in Colorado as evidence of their superstardom, I was initially very hesitant to support Helton, but he has one of the highest peaks on this ballot and while he isn’t quite an inner-circle Hall of Fame first baseman, his JAWS case is ahead of that of Harmon Killebrew, a player whose Hall worthiness is rarely questioned. In.
Ryan Howard: Talk about a man who is a candidate in the wrong era–Ryan Howard won an MVP and was a home run and RBI machine for a perpetual playoff juggernaut in the Philadelphia Phillies. But given his poor defensive flexibility and his immediate drop-off in his thirties, JAWS has him as the single worst candidate on this ballot. I don’t think he’s actually the #30 candidate–he was a truly terrifying slugger and nearly 400 home runs in such a condensed career is nothing to sneeze at–but I also don’t think he’s anywhere near a Hall of Famer. Out.
Tim Hudson: Hudson received Cy Young votes on four occasions and did have a legitimate peak with the Oakland Athletics, but when it comes to Hall of Fame candidacy, this is largely an attendance award. He started no fewer than 21 games in 16 of his 17 MLB seasons was never really worse than “meh”, and there’s something to be said for that, but ultimately, even when Hudson was making Cy Young ballots, he was never the guy–his zero first-place votes are a testament to his ability to be there but never to be a true superstar. Out.
Torii Hunter: Torii Hunter checks more boxes than you might think–350+ home runs, nine Gold Gloves, a moment as a legitimate star with the 2002 Minnesota Twins, robbing home runs from Barry Bonds in the All-Star Game and acting as the face of a team Bud Selig had tabbed for contraction and whatnot. But modern metrics have not been especially kind to his peak–he once won a Gold Glove with negative Defensive WAR–and his career OPS of .793, above-average but hardly transcendent, would require a truly all-time glove. Out.
Andruw Jones: Now there’s the all-time glove. By most metrics, Andruw Jones was the greatest defensive outfielder of all-time, and his ten Gold Gloves reflect that the eye test largely matched those numbers. Once Jones left the Atlanta Braves, his defense fell off a cliff and his offense wasn’t good enough to keep him at a superstar level, but even so, his career Wins Above Replacement puts him right around the mark of a typical Hall of Famer. But when evaluating players among this level of production, I want to find excellence somewhere, and it’s not hard to find it with his stellar defense. And 434 home runs is nothing to sneeze at, either. In.
Jeff Kent: I should admit my biases off the bat–Jeff Kent is probably my least favorite baseball player ever. I found him to be an aesthetically unpleasant player and while I have some room in my life for prickly baseball players, he managed to somehow be both prickly and insincere–Barry Bonds was a jerk, but at least he was an honest jerk. I will begrudgingly admit that Kent does have a case–he famously has more home runs, 377, than any other second baseman in history. But Kent was a defensive liability and didn’t really come into form until he was 29, thus leaving his overall career numbers aside from home runs a bit short. Out.
Tim Lincecum: I love high peak candidates, and boy does Tim Lincecum, who is still only 37 years old, test that theory. Lincecum twice won the Cy Young Award and was the ace of a historically significant 2010 San Francisco Giants team. But his numbers started to taper off when he was just 27 years old, and he was barely 32 when his career ended, after a forgettable nine starts with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. I give Lincecum some credit for a micro-peak–if Jay Jaffe used WAR4 rather than WAR7, JAWS would be more into him–but not enough to put him onto my ballot. No.
Justin Morneau: He won the 2006 AL MVP award while, by WAR, the fourth-most valuable player on the Minnesota Twins. Six years after the last time he received even a down-ballot MVP vote, Justin Morneau won a batting title, but with the Colorado Rockies, a team where batting champions grow on trees thanks to the spacious park in which they play. In some ways, Justin Morneau seems to have stumbled into the honors he received–he was an exclusive first baseman who didn’t reach 250 home runs and, by OPS+, was only the 14th best hitter on this ballot. Out.
Joe Nathan: Morneau’s Twins teammate Nathan has a more idiosyncratic case–as a relief pitcher, his WAR totals pale in comparison to almost everyone on this ballot, but even the JAWS inventor Jaffe thinks Nathan deserves, at the very least, a look at Cooperstown. And while he was a very good reliever for a stretch, he also didn’t record his second career save until he was 29 years old, and while I do agree that holding relief pitchers to a different WAR standard than starters makes sense, Nathan’s closest company among historic relievers is John Hiller, a perfectly nice Detroit Tigers reliever who was one-and-done on the Hall of Fame ballot. Out.
David Ortiz: A controversial candidate, but not because of his alleged positive PED test or even because of the restraining order issued against him by the mother of his first child, but rather because of the absence of these stories in the hearts and minds of most voters. While all-time superstars like Bonds, Clemens, and Álex Rodríguez are hounded by their steroid accusations, the Boston fan favorite is not held to the same scrutiny. I don’t understand why not, but also I don’t care about the steroid thing. And while his WAR and JAWS numbers are slightly below the typical standard of a Hall of Famer, he fits a similar argument as Andruw Jones–he was amazing at the one thing he did. He hit 541 home runs, his career 141 OPS+ is the third-highest on this ballot, and while I’m not a big believer in David Ortiz–King Of Clutch as a superpower rather than as a statistical coincidence, his postseason heroics did happen. That’s enough for me to put a candidate who is just below the line for Cooperstown above it. In.
Jonathan Papelbon: Like several of the candidates on this ballot, Jonathan Papelbon had a brief period of being a dominant performer followed by a longer period of being merely pretty good. But, again, reliever. I didn’t go with Joe Nathan, and by any measure Papelbon wasn’t as good as Joe Nathan, so I must remain consistent. Out.
Jake Peavy: Because it came in San Diego, I’m not sure that a lot of people realize just how good prime Jake Peavy was. But post-Padres, Peavy settled into being merely a good pitcher, and his 2007 Cy Young campaign is the only time he ever received votes for the award. A quite good pitcher for a while, but fairly far behind the typical standards for Cooperstown and without the super-duper peak needed to transcend that. Out.
Andy Pettitte: You could credibly make a case that Andy Pettitte is the greatest starting pitcher in the history of the New York Yankees. Maybe that doesn’t mean anything to you, but for a franchise with the lore of the Yankees, I give him credit for that. Although Pettitte was rarely considered a superstar, he received Cy Young votes in five seasons and tallied 256 wins, a mark representative of the great offenses supporting him, yes, but also of his longevity. In addition to his 60+ career WAR by both Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, he also had over a full season’s worth of postseason starts unaccounted for, during which he posted a respectable 3.81 ERA (consider his era and the high quality of playoff opponents) and 19-11 record. His admission of using performance-enhancing drugs weighs against him, though even scolds ought to give him some credit for readily admitting it once caught. He isn’t getting in soon, but I’ll continue to bang his drum. In.
A.J. Pierzynski: Immortalized forever by the Ozzie Guillén quote that “if you play against him, you hate him. If you play with him, you hate him a little less”, Pierzynski was more famous (sometimes infamous) than his accomplishments. He was a decent-hitting catcher but he was only an All-Star twice, never won a Gold Glove and was a moderately below-average hitter for his career, and his MVP vote-receiving peak was 30th. Out.
Manny Ramírez: His case is not unlike that of his teammate David Ortiz–Manny was an extremely feared hitter who provided almost no defensive value and was on maybe the most famous single-season MLB team of the 21st century. He has 555 home runs and a career OPS of nearly 1.000, and yet, while David Ortiz’s steroid cloud is based on reports of pre-prohibition use, Manny Ramírez was an active user, being suspended twice for PED use and effectively being banned from Major League Baseball after his final positive. His run in Boston ended with Ramírez refusing to play in games and getting into fights with traveling secretaries. He was a superstar, but given his steroid cloud, his often destructive surliness, and the fact that his career numbers, while Hall-worthy, are not astonishing, here’s where I have to make a cut. Out.
Álex Rodríguez: Not unlike Manny Ramírez, Álex Rodríguez is a controversial though undeniably powerful baseball figure, dragged through a year-long steroid suspension in 2014 after many years of controversy surrounding him. Unlike Manny Ramírez, Álex Rodríguez is a legitimate, point-blank all-timer. He was the greatest shortstop since at least Honus Wagner with the Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers and is improbably the greatest third baseman in New York Yankees history despite not joining the team until he was 28. I do dock players for steroid suspensions, as opposed to allegations, but in the case of A-Rod, he easily overcomes that stigma. In.
Scott Rolen: By Hybrid JAWS, a combination of JAWS using Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, Scott Rolen is the 10th greatest third baseman of all-time–eight ahead of him are in Cooperstown, and the ninth, Adrián Beltré, will be. The seven-time All-Star and eight-time Gold Glove winner is a top-five all-time defensive third baseman by Defensive Runs Above Average and was 22% above average at the plate throughout his career–his peers at this mark include Hall of Famers Kirby Puckett, Lou Boudreau, and Paul Molitor. Rolen and Abreu are the only people on my Hall ballot without a steroid, general surliness, or criminal background (not that Todd Helton’s DUIs are exactly in the same stratosphere as the straight up violence of some others), and Rolen is the far more conclusive candidate. In.
Jimmy Rollins: He’s a stronger candidate than long-time teammate Ryan Howard, but the 2007 MVP’s peak was a bit more brief than you may remember–2007 and 2008 were the only seasons in which he was more than a five-win player. On the whole for his career, Rollins was a below-average hitter and a good but not all-time-Elite fielder. His role on a World Series winner and the aesthetic pleasure of watching him made me consider J-Roll longer than his numbers suggest I should have. Out.
Curt Schilling: No man has worked more tirelessly to sabotage his own Hall of Fame candidacy quite like Curt Schilling. He was following a familiar trajectory from 38.8% in his first year of eligibility (all six who finished ahead of him in 2013 have since been elected, though none in 2013) to nice upticks that would eventually approach 75%, but his crippling addiction to Posting has derailed what would otherwise be a fairly indisputable Cooperstown case. And while I do not personally like Curt Schilling, he ultimately belongs–the 23rd greatest pitcher of all-time by hybrid JAWS (with only Roger Clemens ahead of him among those not in Cooperstown) should have been elected in 2013, before his chronic Onlineness consumed him. And while I don’t agree with his off-field worldviews, it is not as though they bled (obligatory “the sock was ketchup” reference) onto his illustrious baseball career, which is more than can be said of enshrined segregationists such as Cap Anson and Kenesaw Mountain Landis. In.
Gary Sheffield: I go back and forth on Sheffield as much as I do with any player on this ballot–his career value metrics tend to punish Sheffield’s poor defense, which isn’t itself unfair, but his offense is arguably good enough to put him in Cooperstown had he simply been a designated hitter. Viewing Sheffield, a 500+ home run and 2500+ hit batter, as a de facto DH is the sensible thing to do, so I compare him to David Ortiz. Ortiz was a marginally better hitter but in fewer plate appearances, though ultimately while I’m willing to squint a bit on Ortiz’s body of work due to his postseason acumen and broader cultural legacy, I don’t think Sheffield quite stacks up to that level. Out.
Sammy Sosa: Modern analytics have not been especially kind to Sosa, indisputably a more culturally significant baseball player than, say, Gary Sheffield, but somebody whose 609 career home runs feel relatively empty given his relative aversion to drawing walks until his thirties. Sosa spent a large chunk of his career as a pretty lousy defensive right fielder and his all-around offensive game, as measured by OPS+, makes him a parallel hitter to the less celebrated but far superior defensively Bobby Abreu. Also, even if you want to ignore steroid allegations, something I’m happy to do, the corked bat incident in 2003 ain’t great. Out.
Mark Teixeira: He was a nice hitter and was an MVP runner-up for a World Series champion (though this was the only time he finished in the top six for the award), and admittedly I was surprised to see that he eclipsed 50 WAR, but to proclaim that the first baseman with just over 8,000 plate appearances and a good but relatively pedestrian OPS+ of 126 belongs in Cooperstown is a reach. Teixeira does have the honor of helping build the terrific Texas Rangers teams of the early 2010s by being dealt to the Atlanta Braves for Elvis Andrus, Neftalí Feliz, Matt Harrison, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, though, so there’s that. Out.
Omar Vizquel: Nope. Out.
Billy Wagner: Again, I want to keep an open mind regarding relief pitchers, but does Billy Wagner really reach the level of specialness that I want in order to justify enshrining a guy who pitched fewer than 1,000 career innings in Major League Baseball? He came closer than the other relievers on this list, I’ll give him that. But among relief pitchers (I’ll define it as anyone who pitched in relief for 85% or more of his career appearances), he ranks just 10th in modified JAWS. The only current Hall of Fame reliever Wagner eclipses, Bruce Sutter, is a much maligned one. I’m keeping an open mind on Wagner, but for now, I know where I stand. Out.
A hearty congratulations are in order to Bobby Abreu, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Todd Helton, Andruw Jones, David Ortiz, Andy Pettitte, Álex Rodríguez, Scott Rolen, and Curt Schilling. I’ll be sure to share the good news with Bonds, Clemens, Jones, Ortiz, and Rodríguez on Twitter while asking somebody to let Curt Schilling know he’s in since he blocked me.