In the years before I crossed the threshold to become a Baseball Hall of Fame voter, I always swore I wouldn’t be one of those writers who yo-yoed on candidates from year to year.
Some voters’ apparent distinction between a “first-ballot” Hall of Famer and a run-of-the-mill Hall of Famer — like the handful who dropped previous support of other candidates to vote for Derek Jeter and no one else last year — made no sense to me. Hall voting is mostly, though not entirely, a function of statistics. And it’s not like any of these guys’ statistics change from year to year once they retire.
Yet there I was late last month, agonizing as always over which boxes to check, reevaluating a couple of players who have been on the ballot for years and never received a vote from me.
That was partly a function of the logjam that endured for several years, due in part to the Hall’s insistence on maintaining its arbitrary 10-player limit on each ballot. Thankfully, that backlog has cleared in recent years, easing some of the pressure on the need to game a ballot: Should I leave this guy off even though I think he’s deserving because I know he’ll get enough votes elsewhere to make the required 75 percent?
With last year’s election of Derek Jeter and Larry Walker, only four holdovers checked on my 2020 ballot returned for 2021. So, my first four checks went to them: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Todd Helton and Curt Schilling.
None of this year’s first-timers — a group led by Tim Hudson, Torii Hunter and Mark Buehrle — merited lengthy consideration. So, based on my longtime notion mentioned at the top, I should have put the ballot in the envelope with only the four returnees checked and sent it on its way.
Every year, though, I take some time to give a second (or third) look at returning players I haven’t previously selected. Now that more space is available, that players I consider “automatic” don’t fill up the maximum 10 slots, I’m trying to be more open to arguments others have made on behalf of candidates they believe are deserving.
I suppose those who fill out ballots based purely on the metrics, establishing a JAWS or WAR cutoff for their yes or no vote, would disagree. But I don’t honestly know anyone who approaches the task that way. Particularly in the midst of evaluating candidates from the dreaded and impossibly undefined “Steroid Era,” any semblance of an entirely quantitative voting system has mostly fallen by the wayside among the actual humans who do the voting.
As I’ve often discussed with my longtime friend and newly elected Baseball Writers’ Association of America President C. Trent Rosecrans, it’s different when the actual piece of paper is sitting in front of you, as opposed to being a thought exercise on Twitter or at a bar.
Just look at the ballot submitted this year by Jay Jaffe, who almost certainly has spent more time studying the Hall of Fame than anyone alive. His annual analysis of the candidates over nearly 20 years has informed the decisions of dozens if not hundreds of voters, including me. Yet this year, when Jaffe could cast an actual ballot for the first time, he omitted Schilling — a player he had placed on his “virtual” ballot nearly every year he had been eligible — because of the former pitcher’s increasingly inflammatory rhetoric.
This kind of blew my mind. I mentioned JAWS earlier. It’s the metric Baseball-Reference.com uses as its default method of ranking first-time Hall of Fame candidates on its landing page each year. JAWS is the Jaffe WAR Score — created by and named after Jay Jaffe, who in his first year as a voter decided to disregard his own metric and declined to check Schilling’s name.
But I get it. I know others who have made that choice this year, including Rosecrans. The criteria distributed to Hall of Fame voters are vague, and the system that has existed for decades ultimately relies on the judgment of writers who watched these candidates play during their primes.
As will inevitably be the case, I saw some of these candidates firsthand more than others, which is another reason I try to take a wide survey of opinions about their worthiness. Though I will admit to pondering whether a player just “feels” like a Hall of Famer to me, based on what I remember of their career, I do my best to read up as much as I can, even on those I’ve previously dismissed. When I did so this year, two names kept resurfacing.
Scott Rolen is a fascinating guy, and someone I saw quite a bit when he was with the Cardinals and I was covering the Reds for the Cincinnati Post. This is his fourth year on the ballot, and I haven’t voted for him before, but the more I dug into the analysis offered up by observers I respect, most notably Jaffe and Jayson Stark, the more I became convinced that his combination of offensive production and defensive excellence at a difficult position made him worthy, even though his counting stats don’t necessarily measure up to those of his peers.
My other new check among the holdovers this year goes to Billy Wagner. Properly evaluating closers is a long-running dilemma for Hall voters, particularly as the role evolved from multi-inning Goose Gossage types to the Mariano Rivera/Trevor Hoffman model of the last couple decades.
Wagner, of course, was the latter without the longevity of those two. But he was consistently outstanding across a dozen seasons as a closer, capped by a farewell 2010 campaign in which he posted a career-best 1.43 ERA while striking out 104 in 69 1/3 innings — at age 38! Wagner’s career WAR is just a tick below Hoffman’s in 200 fewer games, and his ERA+ of 187 would be second only to Rivera’s 205 all-time if Wagner had thrown 97 more innings and qualified for the Baseball-Reference.com leaderboard.
So, those are my six for the Class of 2021: Bonds, Clemens, Helton, Schilling, Rolen and Wagner.
In the eight years since I gained the privilege of filling out a ballot that actually counts, I have second-guessed myself countless times. It has been years since I mailed a ballot I actually felt good about. When Ken Rosenthal led his explanatory column earlier this month with “I hate my Hall of Fame ballot,” I just sighed and nodded at my computer screen.
Based on past results and early indications for 2021, I don’t expect any of my six (or anyone else) to be elected this year. That would set up a fascinating 2022 election, with Bonds, Clemens and Schilling on the writers’ ballot for the final time and the equally controversial Alex Rodriguez making his debut as a candidate.
But we’ll get to that argument in 11 months or so.