It’s been a while since I was in your inbox, but I think that’s about to change. The baseball news has been slow with the lockout, but I think it’s time to start getting ready for the baseball season anyway. But first, Hall of Fame voting results will be announced Tuesday evening, so let’s talk Hall!
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Hall of Fame voting has felt broken for a while. Discussions over statistics, player value, and playoff performance have been at the center of some heated conversations, especially as the wars over sabermetrics and analytics entered the mainstream. Then, ten years ago, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens entered the ballot, adding steroids to an already volatile mix.
This year, the Hall of Fame discussions feel like they’ve been turned up even further. The ongoing lockout means the only real baseball news of substance since early December will be Tuesday’s Hall of Fame announcement.
Sometimes all the chatter makes it hard to get into the Hall of Fame discussions. Personally, it’s hard when we draw the line between great players and players worthy of enshrinement in the hall. What makes a player worthy and what makes a player unworthy?
Take Jimmy Rollins. He is unquestionably one of the greatest Phillies of all time and the greatest Phillies shortstop of all time. He won an MVP and a World Series, something only Mike Schmidt has done in franchise history. But compare J-Roll to his peers and he just doesn’t stack up in the same way. He played during a period filled with great shortstops.
To me, baseball is better because of what players mean to cities. It’s a regional sport and fans always think more fondly about their players and it’s easy for the greatness of other cities’ players to go unrecognized. Mark Buehrle, on this year’s ballot, is a legend in Chicago and considered a good player everywhere else.
Where does that leave the journeymen though? Kenny Lofton was only on the ballot for one year because he played for so many teams. He had a great career, rivaled for speed only by Rickey Henderson, but he did it for so many teams that few people were really in his camp. At the very least he merited the full 10-years of discussion, but I think he belongs in the Hall.
And that brings us around to the under-discussed part of this whole thing. Even players who don’t make it to the Hall of Fame on the writers’ ballots will have more chances. Committees are constantly assessing players from different eras of baseball to see who else should be enshrined. It’s how Minnie Miñoso, Jim Kaat, Gil Hodges, Buck O’Neil, Tony Oliva, and Bud Fowler were elected this past year. Could Kenny Lofton make it through a similar committee soon? I think so. I also think that these committees will make sure players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will end up in the Hall of Fame sooner rather than later, especially as it looks like both will fall short this year in their 10th and final appearance on the writers’ ballot.
It’s a lot to think about and it’s a lot of what goes through my mind when it comes to Hall of Fame season. I know that I’ll still appreciate great players who don’t get enshrined, but I also know that being in the Hall of Fame is special to these players and for their legacies.
Before I get to my ballot. I want to point in the direction of some great resources if you’re curious about the voting. First, Jay Jaffe is a baseball writer at Fangraphs and one of baseball’s preeminent Hall of Fame historians. He does great work profiling all of the players every year and you can read his work here.
Second, here’s the essential Hall of Fame ballot tracker compiled by Ryan Thibodaux. He does a great job of tracking the public ballots every year. He has a lot already and is sure to add many more once the results are public.
I don’t have a vote, thankfully, but if I did, here’s who would be on my ballot this year.
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens come first alphabetically on my ballot. They also come with a lot of the same issues and they are both in their final year on the ballot so it’s worth discussing them together.
First, the steroid issue. I have a mental line of demarcation for steroids, and it’s whether the league punished you. There has to be a line, and that’s my line. Before league suspensions, a lot of what we know is a) conjecture and b) ignore the reality that the leaders of the sport and just about anyone with power in the sport created the situation for steroid users to exist and flourish in the game because they made everyone money, especially after the strike years. Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire brought baseball back and they made the owners, the media companies, the players, and everyone else a ton of money. And they looked away from the steroid issue right up until the point where it became more prosperous for them to shine a bright spotlight on the issue. I’m not going to punish players for existing in that environment and we have already enshrined many steroid users from that era in the Hall, knowingly and unknowingly.
On the other hand, players who used steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs after the league created a testing and suspension policy should not be enshrined. They cheated. They knew they were cheating. And they were caught. So Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez will not be appearing on my ballot.
For more, you should read Jayson Stark’s excellent column at The Athletic because I think a lot of his thoughts mirror mine. And he’s Jayson Stark, so of course he writes it better, with more thought, analysis, and reporting, than I ever could.
On their merits, Bonds and Clemens are two of the greatest to ever play the game. Barry Bonds is one of the five greatest players of all time and you can make a serious case that he is the best hitter ever. If it were not for the steroid issue and his famously prickly (horrible, mean) personality, he would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Clemens is also one of the greatest pitchers of all time. A fireballer who competed all the time while playing for some of the league’s greatest teams, Clemens was a must-watch whenever he took the mound. Like Bonds, there’s a lot in his personal history that might make him a bad person, but he’s an all-time great player. If he wasn’t connected to steroids, Clemens also would have been in on the first ballot.
Todd Helton played his entire 16-year career with the Colorado Rockies. That’s pretty cool. Unfortunately, it also means a lot of what he accomplished in his career comes with the asterisk that is Coors Field. And Helton definitely took advantage of his home environment.
Over his career, Helton had a .316 batting average, a .414 on-base percentage, and a .539 slugging percentage. He hit 369 home runs. He walked 14.1% of the time and struck out 12.4% of the time. A lefty, he hit just as well against left-handed pitching as he did against right-handed pitching. And, crucially, he hit almost as well on the road as he did at home. He was helped by Coors, but it just meant that he was better than an already great hitter.
Colorado also works against Helton because of its obscurity. He led the team on its surprise 2007 World Series run, but he also played a lot of late-night games on the west coast. So people missed his greatness. But he was great. As an opposing fan, you worried whenever he came to the plate. Even if he wasn’t smashing a ball over the fence, you knew he would work a good at bat and probably come away with a backbreaking single.
Helton probably won’t get enough votes to make it into the Hall this year. But his case is building, and like fellow Rocky Larry Walker, I imagine Helton will eventually get over the bump.
If you were to tell a baseball fan who watched Andruw Jones on the Braves that he wasn’t already in the Hall of Fame, they might assume that’s because he played so long he wasn’t eligible for the ballot yet. Instead, Jones's case may be a warning about a long tail to your career.
Over his career, Jones hit .254/.337/.486 with 434 home runs. He was also one of the greatest defensive center fielders to ever play the game, especially during his Atlanta career. On top of that, Jones was a terror to face. As a Phillies fan, my late ‘90s and early ‘00s fandom is filled with memories of Jones crushing balls to left field and crushing my heart at the same time.
Unfortunately, Jones’ post-Atlanta career was not great. Weight and injury issues hurt his defensive ability. He became a platoon player, crushing lefties but was not a player you trusted against same-sided pitching.
That sharp decline should not overshadow what Jones was in Atlanta. He was Mike Trout before Mike Trout, a great defensive centerfielder who did it all. There should be no doubt that Jones belongs in the Hall of Fame and I think that slowly voters are realizing the mistakes that they have made and Jones will find himself in Cooperstown.
Before we get into the David Ortiz candidacy, here’s another candidate where we have to discuss steroid allegations. The case against Ortiz comes down to this: his name was included among a leaked list of names that tested positive in an MLB survey of players before they implemented testing and punishment. The MLBPA was promised that all players would remain anonymous, but the Department of Justice leaked the names to embarrass baseball into implementing stricter steroid policies. Lately, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has publicly cast doubt on the veracity of the testing with that list, saying at least 15-20 of the players who supposedly tested positive did so because of faulty processes. That list is the only connection Ortiz has to steroids and he played the bulk of his career under the league’s testing regimen.
With that out of the way, the truly controversial part of Ortiz’s case is his position. David Ortiz was a true designated hitter. He was so bad in the field that in some interleague series he was the world’s greatest pinch hitter because the Red Sox refused to play him at first base. That means Ortiz has no defensive value to speak of.
But offensively, Ortiz was great. He’s a career .286/.380/.522 hitter with 541 home runs. The best part of being a DH was that Ortiz was rarely hurt and he became the consistent lineup fixture in Red Sox championship teams where no one else seemed to stick around very long.
Still, if we were just looking at his regular-season numbers, Ortiz’s case would be a little iffy. What pushes Ortiz over the hump are incredible postseason numbers. According to Stark, Ortiz has the best OPS in World Series history among players with at least 50 plate appearances. That means he had to get there at least twice and he had to be great when he did get there.
I know a lot of Yankees fans and a lot of Orioles fans. Both love to hate on Ortiz. But I think it’s pretty hard to ignore just how great a hitter he was and how phenomenal of a postseason performer he was.
Let’s get the bias out of the way: Scott Rolen was my first favorite baseball player. He was rookie of the year for the Phillies right when I was getting into baseball and I was hooked. He was a great fielder, a great hitter, and it was a joy to watch him play. I didn’t understand what was going on when he left Philadelphia and that experience helped create my mindset that as much as I love the Phillies, I don’t have to love Phillies fans. To this day, I remain disappointed that Rolen couldn’t spend his entire career in red pinstripes.
So I’m already deep in the bag for Scott Rolen. But then you look at his actual career and there’s no question. First, Rolen is one of the greatest defensive third basemen of all time. He goes right up into the pantheon with Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt, and Adrian Beltre. In his ballot column Friday, Jayson stark says some of Robinson’s Orioles teammates have told him that they think Rolen was a better defender (sacrilege to anyone from Baltimore). Schmidt himself says Rolen was a better defender.
On top of that, Rolen was a pretty good hitter, capable of hitting for power and average. He hit .281/.361/.490 over his career with 316 home runs. He struck out 16% of the time and walked more than 10% of the time. That’s pretty good. It’s not Mike Schmidt, but it’s pretty good for a defender of his quality. Just imagine if the Phillies could claim that two of the greatest third basemen of all time played exclusively for their franchise?
Brooks Robinson, by the way, was a mediocre hitter. He hit .267/.322/.401 over his career with 268 home runs. He’s an icon in Baltimore, but having lived in the city, I think his defense has vastly overrated his career in the eyes of many Orioles fans. He’s a Hall of Famer, but not the greatest third baseman of all time.
Sheffield is one of those players who I think is hurt by not having spent a significant chunk of his career with one team. He played for 8 teams over his 21-year career and I have to imagine if he had played at least 8 years with one team, he’d be a sure-thing for the Hall. Unfortunately, the closest he comes is the Florida Marlins, and they just don’t have the national juice to help a player like Shef.
What hurts Sheffield is his defense. He was not a good defender. His bad defense probably hurts his career WAR totals. He had a cannon of an arm, but he bounced around the outfield and third base. But if we’re going to consider DHs like David Ortiz, how can we punish Sheffield for just how great of a hitter he was.
Over his career, Sheffield hit .292/.393/.514 with 509 home runs. He had five truly great seasons with a wRC+ above 160 and he has a lot more regular old great seasons. The man could hit. And who can forget his iconic bat waggle? Kids all over the country probably played themselves out of baseball because they tried to wag the bat like he did. But what they didn’t have were his lightning-quick hands and the violence with which he destroyed baseballs.
This might have been the hardest vote for me to make. I had three or four candidates for this final spot on my ballot, but I just couldn’t leave out “Slammin’” Sammy Sosa. I think Sosa was my first favorite baseball player that didn’t play for the Phillies. I couldn’t get enough of him.
There are a lot of things you could take away from Sosa. He was a one-dimensional hitter. He didn’t play great defense. He bounced around. He’s probably the clearest case of a player benefitting from steroids without having a definitive positive test or suspension to hold against him. But I loved watching him hit home runs.
And Sammy Sosa hit a lot of home runs. He’s a career .273/.344/.534 hitter. He hit 609 career home runs. He could also run. He stole 234 bases over his career, including 18 the same year he hit 66 home runs.
I don’t have a lot more to say about Sammy Sosa. This is his last year on the ballot and I wanted to give him a little bit of recognition. But I won’t mind having this space available for more players next year.
I wanted to leave Billy Wagner off of my ballot. I am not a big fan of putting relievers into the Hall of Fame, even closers, because of how volatile their careers can be. That’s the thing, though. Wagner wasn’t volatile. He was great. Every year. He wasn’t Mariano Rivera great. No one other reliever in baseball history has been that good or will be that good again. But Wagner might be Rivera’s mirror image.
Rivera was known as much for inducing weak contact with his cutter as he was for anything else. I think of broken bats when I think of Mariano Rivera. With Billy Wagner, I think of flames.
Before everyone threw 100 mph, only Wagner threw that hard. When it was so rare to throw 95+ mph that the FOX score bug would show flames, Wagner was the first reliever I can remember where I saw those flames consistently. And he did it from the left side. (Wagner was an accidental lefty. He broke his right arm one year but still wanted to play baseball. It turned out, he had a cannon attached to his left shoulder and didn’t know it.)
Wagner struck out 33.2% of the batters he faced, and strikeouts hadn’t truly gone crazy yet when he pitched like they have over the last decade. If Wagner threw today, he’d probably strike out have the batters he faced. At the same time, he had pretty good control for a reliever, walking just 8.3% of the batters he faced.
He started as the dominant closer for the Astros, but he finished his career as the closer in the NL East. He started with two years in Philadelphia. Then he moved to the Mets. And he finished his career with one year in Atlanta.
I don’t love Billy Wagner as a Hall of Famer. I tried hard not to include him because I think you have to be great as a reliever to make it to the Hall of Fame. Billy Wagner was great.
I put the other candidates alphabetically but I saved Rollins for last because, to me, he’s such a special case. If Scott Rolen had never played for the Phillies, I would still believe he should be a Hall of Famer. I’m not sure how I feel about Jimmy Rollins’s Hall of Fame case outside of my love for him.
Statistically, Rollins’s career was all-around good to great, but the only thing he did historically well was steal bases. He hit .264/.324/.418 with 231 home runs and 470 stolen bases. Defensively, he was typically a good defender, but never the best defensive shortstop in the league.
But dig a little deeper, as The Athletic’s Jayson Stark did, and you can see that Jimmy Rollins was a pretty unique player.
Because, as I wrote, there has never been any other shortstop whose career included all of this:
An MVP award … and four Gold Gloves … and more than 2,400 hits … and more than 200 homers … and more than 400 steals … and 857 extra-base hits … and the most hits in the history of his franchise … and the longest hitting streak by a shortstop (38 games) since 1894 … and his role as the energizer centerpiece of a team that won a World Series in the midst of a stretch in which it basically bludgeoned its league for half a decade (2007 through 2011).
And this is where the narrative, something I don’t typically buy into, also becomes essential to the Hall of Fame case. Between 2007 and 2011 the Phillies won five-straight division titles. They were an offensive juggernaut powered by Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, but Jimmy Rollins was the team’s leadoff man. He was also one of the team’s unquestioned leaders. There is a solid decade of baseball history that would be hard to tell without mentioning Jimmy Rollins.
I’m still not sure he’s a Hall of Famer. But, if I were a voter, this is where ballot strategy is important. Jimmy Rollins deserves more consideration and he shouldn’t fall off of the ballot after just one year. Maybe by the time Chase Utley comes around for consideration, Rollins’s case is over because Utley will be able to claim a lot of the narrative considerations with a much stronger statistical case. But at the very least, one of the best players in Phillies franchise history deserves this extra time for consideration.
Players who I disqualified:
Let’s get this out of the way. These are the players that might be Hall of Famers but steroid use or other reasons disqualified them for me: Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Curt Schilling, and Omar Vizquel.
The just missed
Bobby Abreu: Abreu is kind of the opposite of Jimmy Rollins. He has a pretty strong statistical case, and after a lot of the final-year players drop off after this year, he might have a place on my ballot next year. I enjoyed watching Bobby Abreu as a Phillie and he was criminally underrated during his career. Still, something is nagging at me, keeping me from checking the box for Abreu. He already has enough votes to come back next year, so maybe I’ll think about it some more then.
Jeff Kent: Kent was an offensively dominant second baseman and I’m not quite sure why I didn’t vote for him. He might be the 11th man on my ballot. I think the problem is that while his offense was great for a second baseman, his defense and baserunning were not great. And his offense doesn’t reach the heights that Sheffield and Ortiz achieved to counteract their lack of defense.
Joe Nathan: I think we found the line for relievers. It’s right between Billy Wagner and Joe Nathan. Nathan had the same level of consistency as Rivera and Wagner, but I never really considered him to be a dominant closer. He also became a closer later in his career, keeping him from compiling saves at the same level as his Hall of Fame contemporaries.
The Hall of Very Good
The rest of these players were very good and a lot of fun to watch. Most of them will be honored by their teams in some way as some of the best to ever play for their franchises. I just couldn’t seriously consider these players for the Hall of Fame.
Mark Buehrle, Tim Hudson, Jake Peavy, Andy Petite: These players were all good pitchers with long careers. But they were never truly dominant pitchers during their time. They were among the top 5% of pitchers, but to be Hall of Fame worthy, you have to be the best of the best. But I’m glad we get to celebrate these players for long careers of very good pitching. Buehrle is a White Sox Legend. Hudson had great moments for the Athletics and the Braves. Peavy kept the Padres afloat and relevant at a time when the franchise did not have much going for it. And Petite was a core part of one of the greatest baseball dynasties ever.
Carl Crawford and Torii Hunter were two of the most fun outfielders to watch. Crawford oozed athleticism. He was the first great Tampa Bay Ray. He stole 50 bases five times. But after he left Tampa, he couldn’t stay healthy long enough to put up the types of numbers he would need to become a Hall of Famer. He’s hurt for having a great peak, but a poor tail to his career.
Hunter was a defensive whiz. One of my favorite highlights of all time is Hunter robbing a Barry Bonds home run during the All-Star game. Unfortunately for Hunter, the numbers don’t back up what I remember as a lot of highlight plays. And offensively, Hunter never put together even one eye-popping season. He had some good seasons, but nothing that makes you stop and remember.
Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, Justin Morneau, Mark Teixeira: Here’s the first base club. You have to be great offensively to make the Hall of Fame as a first baseman. These guys were just very very good and their Hall of Fame cases come up short for some different reasons. Fielder and Teixeira were really good all-around hitters, but their careers ended too short for them to compile the types of numbers you need for enshrinement. Fielder, especially, had some great peak seasons, but heart problems derailed his career.
Morneau and Howard are franchise legends in Minneapolis and Philadelphia, respectively. Morneau and Joe Mauer led the Twins franchise for decades, but Morneau, like Hunter, never had the type of season to make you stop and say wow.
Ryan Howard did have those seasons to start his career. He hit 58 home runs in his MVP season, a great offensive season. His first 8 seasons were all good to great seasons. Unfortunately, Phillies fans know what happened next. On the final play of the 2011 Divisional Series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, Howard tore his Achilles tendon running out a groundball. He never truly healed after that and pitchers started to pound him with off-speed and breaking pitches and Howard couldn’t adjust. He was out of the league five seasons later. His injury is a great case of what-if.
Tim Lincecum: The Freak is the opposite of the longevity pitchers above. Lincecum only pitched 10 seasons in the majors, barely qualifying for the Hall of Fame ballot. Six of those seasons were average to bad. But from 2008-2011, no pitcher in baseball was more dominant. His funky delivery from a diminutive frame confounded batters and he helped the Giants win multiple World Series.
Jonathan Papelbon: Papelbon had some great seasons as a closer for the Red Sox and has more saves than any other reliever in Phillies history. But he was also a little inconsistent and ended his career with antics that exposed him as a horrible teammate.
A.J. Pierzynski: Pierzynski was the classic team leader catcher. He was solid defensively but mediocre offensively. He was the catcher for the World Series champion 2005 White Sox and I think despite his offensive deficiencies, he’ll still be remembered for some big moments for that team. He’s not a Hall of Famer though, especially when we’ll have much better catching candidates over the next five years, including Joe Mauer and Buster Posey.