2017 Baseball Hall of Fame

Last year I wrote a lengthy post (link) explaining my approach to the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. This year I will follow much the same approach, and I recommend reading the intro to that post before diving in below. While you’re at it, check out Ryan Thibodaux’s awesome ballot tracker (link), which he updates whenever voters publicly reveal their ballots, leading up to the announcement on January 18th. Follow him on Twitter @NotMrTibbs for those updates.

Introduction

Here’s the quick version of the intro:

The ratings below use a hybrid rating of WAR and “points” which represent accumulation of high quality major-league seasons. It uses FanGraphs WAR for batters and a hybrid fWAR/RA9 WAR for pitchers (batting WAR included). Although I wouldn’t be strict about using such a system, it is a good smell test for identifying which players belong in the Hall. Craig Edwards introduced this approach at FanGraphs for his review of the 2016 ballot.

My own philosophy on the Hall of Fame is (a) big-Hall and (b) PED- and character-agnostic. In other words, I wouldn’t limit the Hall to inner-circle greats, and I think on-field factors should be the primary evaluation method for who deserves to be enshrined, regardless of what the official ballot says about character.

2017 Ballot Overview

There are usually a dozen or so newcomers to the ballot for whom inclusion on the ballot simply represents a career longevity award. This year is no different, and the following players should be pleased simply to be recognized on the ballot: Derrek Lee, Tim Wakefield, Edgar Renteria, Melvin Mora, Carlos Guillen, Casey Blake, Jason Varitek, Orlando Cabrera, Pat Burrell, Freddy Sanchez, Arthur Rhodes, Matt Stairs. The first couple guys on that list had better careers than I remember—go back and look at Lee’s 2005 season, for instance—but they are probably not anyone’s definition of a Hall-of-Famer.

These new guys may receive a few scattered votes, but I don’t find them particularly compelling candidates: Mike Cameron, J.D. Drew, Jorge Posada, Magglio Ordonez. Cameron was very good for a long time and deserves to be listed in that tier. Javier Vazquez would have belonged in this tier too, and he represents a pretty glaring omission from the ballot, given some of the other players who made it. The remaining debuts—Pudge Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, and Vlad Guerrero—should receive strong consideration, and I will consider them below. I’ll cover my 2017 ballot first and then get into some ephemera at the end: active players, future ballots, etc.

My 2017 Ballot

The table below this section shows all the players who are currently on the ballot, plus notable players (in the top 250 by HOF Rating) who will become eligible over the next five years. A number of other players will likely be on the ballot based on the Hall’s “Future Eligibles” list, but I’m only including the ones who will warrant some consideration.

For 2017, I ranked the entire ballot; for future years, I ranked just the players who would merit induction on my theoretical ballot. The ranking goes deeper than 10 every year, illustrating either the silliness of the ten-player limit, the quality and depth of the ballot, or both (you decide). I’m not projecting who will get in, or conversely, who will fail to reach the 5% threshold to stay on the ballot. Red highlights in the rankings indicate that the player will have exceeded 10 years on the ballot. It’s 15 years in the case of Lee Smith, the last remaining player for whom the old rule applies.

View the whole spreadsheet here (link).

Inner-Circle Greats

Barry Bonds (1) and Roger Clemens (2) are two of the greatest players of all-time, and as a person who came of age mostly in the 1990s watching them at the peaks of their respective careers, the Hall of Fame borders on farce without them.

Both carry the baggage of PEDs, which brings up at least two questions for reconciling that problem: (1) Is the usage of PEDs (or cheating in general) a disqualifying character trait, regardless of when it occurred (or whether it was prohibited by the league) and (2) if not, (a) what was the effect of the performance enhancement and (b) would they have been all-time greats without it?

The answers I have seen to these questions, at least from voters who do find their actions disqualifying, have been mostly unsatisfying to me. I don’t think we have the knowledge and sophistication to answer #2 in any kind of meaningful way. Some voters simply consider their careers before the first reported usage. Then I’m mostly against using character as a disqualifier. Every team, every year has bad apples from that standpoint, and we tend to overlook their personal traits and enjoy baseball anyway.

The bottom line for me is that Bonds and Clemens are clearly among the greatest players ever, and a Hall of Fame without them doesn’t adequately represent the era of my youth.

Other No-Doubters

Jeff Bagwell (3), Curt Schilling (4), and Mike Mussina (5) should clear any reasonable threshold for inclusion. PED speculation has followed Bagwell (and as far as we know, it never advanced beyond speculation), while Schilling and Mussina are under-appreciated due to the era in which they played.

Schilling also seems to be losing support because of his vocal alt-right political beliefs and the colossal failure of his video game company. Baseball-wise, Schilling’s career looks pretty similar to that of John Smoltz, who cleared the HOF voting bar rather easily by comparison. There’s probably only one topic on which Schilling and I would agree: he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Moose doesn’t have the postseason dominance of Schilling and Smoltz on his resume but is similarly qualified overall.

The other issue with starting pitchers, one which also applied to Kevin Brown’s unfortunate failed candidacy, is that voters seem to have unusually high standards for starters when compared to other positions. Here’s Craig Edwards again discussing the issue: link. There was a time when 300 wins was a HOF baseline. Setting aside the issue that pitcher wins tell us very little about pitcher quality, we are unlikely to see many more 300-game winners because modern starters don’t make as many starts or pitch as deep into those games as they did decades ago. The league has gradually begun to place more emphasis on pitcher fatigue and injury, and although we certainly don’t understand it well yet, our HOF standards should adjust so that we can still recognize the great pitchers of our time.

The Rest of My 2017 Ballot

Pudge Rodriguez (6) played in the era before catcher framing was measured, but if you believe his defensive value is understated by fWAR (I think it probably is), he’s a much stronger candidate than his HOF Rating would indicate, and he’s the sixth player on my ballot.

Tim Raines (7) is in his last year on the ballot, and early returns indicate an uptick in performance among new voters and returning voters alike. I’m optimistic that he will be inducted this year. Larry Walker (8) is actually quite similar from an overall production standpoint—even after you factor in having Coors Field as his home for half his career—Walker just did it in 80% of the games. It’s shocking to me that Walker isn’t considered a stronger candidate, with some voters considering him below relief pitchers and hitters who amassed more HR/RBI but did less of the other things that contribute to winning.

Edgar Martinez (9) was a phenomenal DH, a better version of David Ortiz before the latter became a superstar. DHs are not specialists in the same way as relief pitchers, which I am more reluctant to include, because hitting is exactly half of the whole game. He’s an all-time great and shouldn’t be penalized for not playing the field, at least not beyond what the value metrics suggest for positional replacement level. Gary Sheffield (10) was not as well liked and had PED attachments, but his Hall case is comparable. After the first few years of his career saw him shift around the diamond, late-career Sheffield also was a player who didn’t offer much defensively while swinging a big stick.

Would Include If I Could

On-base struggles kept Sammy Sosa (11) from true star-level production until the home run chase year of 1998, and after that point he declined defensively as he continued to put up truly elite power seasons. Power goes a long way, and he still (barely) makes my cut for the level of player I would induct. On a crowded ballot, though, he’s the first name after #10.

Manny Ramirez (12) was a special hitter but also was a truly bad defender. I’m not entirely sure whether playing at Fenway helped or hurt him in that regard, since he had less ground to cover but also had to deal with those caroms off the wall. He’s going to be dinged more than a typical PED offender, since he was busted after the testing program was implemented, and his Hall case is borderline enough that he seems an unlikely inductee. Manny would be the last player on my theoretical ballot this year.

Missed the Cut

Vladimir Guerrero is a Hall of Very Good player for me, a player who was more exciting than he was truly excellent, but he appears to have strong early support. Declining defense rendered him less than a star after age 30, and his last full season was at age 35, so he won’t be inducted for longevity either. He is younger than both Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey, two pitchers my preferred team will employ in 2017.

Fred McGriff‘s candidacy is also affected by my Braves fandom, and he deserves credit for having some excellent hitting seasons before offense spiked in the early-to-mid-1990s. By the time he reached the Braves in 1993, he was in the middle of his sixth consecutive 30-homer season. But alas, he played the easiest position in the field and never once topped 7 fWAR, so he lacked the sort of peak performance you typically see in stronger candidates.

Jeff Kent was an interesting offensive player for a second baseman, but he occupied the position more than he truly mastered it, and his hitting wasn’t quite good enough to make up the difference.

The cases of Billy Wagner, Trevor Hoffman, and Lee Smith are more nuanced than this, but their candidacies all fall short to me, based on their usage as (mostly) modern relievers. Smith had some higher-usage years, but he also wasn’t as good as Wagner or Hoffman. 70 innings per year, even excellent innings, is not a lot, and we know enough about the development of relief pitchers to understand that many closers end up in that role after being deemed deficient in some way as starters. Leverage isn’t enough to make up that ground. I am unimpressed by the accumulation of saves, which are often a function of manager whims and teammate quality as much as they are a reflection of talent. Nevertheless, Hoffman appears likely to get in, which will add to the Hall tally for former Chattanooga Lookouts.

Future Ballots

One reason it is important that the BBWAA elects at least a few players this year is because the 2018 class is so strong. Chipper Jones should have nearly unanimous support, but Scott Rolen, Andruw Jones, and Jim Thome also have compelling cases. Given enough spaces on the ballot, I would induct them all.

Roy Halladay joins the ballot in 2019 along with some more borderline guys: Lance Berkman, Todd Helton, and Andy Pettitte. The arguments for Mariano Rivera will be interesting—I expect he will have broad support—and he might be the one modern reliever worth inducting in my view. 2021 has a borderline candidate in Tim Hudson, and 2022 marks the first year of eligibility for both Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz.

If they are not inducted, we will lose Edgar Martinez and Fred McGriff from the ballot after 2019, then Bagwell and Walker after 2020, so the ballot is only getting more crowded over the next few years. 2020 has my deepest list, with 18 players, but that assumes no inductions between now and then. Of that group, I think Martinez and Bagwell will be inducted, perhaps even this year, and I hope Walker is inducted as well.

Active Players

No one’s inducting active players, but maybe we should go ahead and start readying the plaques for a few. Albert Pujols should be automatic, even if Angels fans never quite get the warm fuzzies at the mention of his name. Adrian Beltre is automatic for me, and he is still good enough to become that way over the next few years, for voters who are less likely to consider his strength on defense. Ichiro should be automatic as well, assuming we’re giving any weight to his Japanese career (I am).

I would induct Miguel Cabrera and Chase Utley if their careers were over today. Utley’s may well be, and he is another interesting case based on his early career defensive value. I feel similarly about Carlos Beltran—he should be in too. C.C. Sabathia is on the border for me, and with last year’s return to viability, perhaps he can string together a few more years and become more of a sure thing. Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander could last long enough as effective pitchers to make their cases compelling. Felix Hernandez was sitting at 90 mph with his fastball last year, but he’s also young enough and remains effective enough to figure out how to make it work. There are a few more names in that class of players who could easily have strong enough decline phases to warrant consideration: Longoria, Cano, Votto, etc.

Then we have today’s superstars, Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout. Disregarding the 10-year eligibility rule, I’ll argue that both should be in the Hall if their careers were tragically cut short today. Plenty of pitchers get hurt, so I might still take the under on 100 career WAR for Kershaw, but the fact that it merits discussion should show how phenomenal he has been. Trout needs to average only 5 WAR per year for 10 years to reach that mark by age 35, but he seems destined to blow past that into all-time great territory. “Only” is relative here—there are not many players who can get 5 WAR regularly—but Trout has played well above that level so far. If he remains healthy, even only as a shadow of early Mike Trout, he will be an easy choice for induction.

Josh Donaldson, Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey, and Alex Gordon cracked this top 250 list over the course of 2016, but I think we’re a few years away from discussing them seriously, if at all. Posey is going to be another case where his defensive/framing value probably outclasses his fWAR by a significant margin.

Again, January 18th is the day we find out who will make it in 2017. More candidates are deserving, but hopefully we will get at least four or five inductees.

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