There’s a definite trend in the voting for baseball’s Hall of Fame working in favor of those remaining on the ballot — but it does not appear the electorate will get young enough fast enough for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
For me, that was the most significant storyline to come from the announcement of the 2020 class Jan. 21, although there were at least two others worthy of such attention. Unfortunately, the bigger story is likely to be the one voter who deprived Derek Jeter of becoming the second (successive) unanimous choice in history, following teammate Mariano Rivera, the first to accomplish that feat a year ago.
Jeter’s ticket to Cooperstown seemingly was punched during his first five years, when the Yankees won four World Series championships, so that one non-vote was the only piece of news providing suspense about his election. That will be debated, no doubt hotly, longer than a couple other notable takes from this election.
First, and perhaps most relevant, is the fact only 397 ballots were cast, the lowest number in 36 years (395 in 1985). That’s a drop of 28 from a year ago — and even more significantly 152 fewer than the 549 votes cast in 2015. That’s almost 28 percent, a drastic reduction in only five years.
It’s probably safe to say the lower vote total played a role in Larry Walker going into the Hall of Fame on his 10th and final year on the active ballot. It is also safe to say that fewer doesn’t necessarily mean better, as we learned from the non-vote for Jeter — and/or the handful of solitary votes for unlikely suspects.
There were 32 names on the ballots presented this year to the voting electorate, 10-year members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America who are still active in covering Major League Baseball. Candidates must receive at least 75 percent of the vote to be elected, and Walker is one of those who has been trending upward over the last five years — he attracted only 22.3 percent of the vote as recently as 2017.
The BBWAA’s voting body has been reduced significantly as older members have given way to a younger generation of voters — and the total has dropped in part because many newspapers no longer allow their writers to participate.
It had been generally presumed that as the average age of voters dropped, so too would the PED baggage carried by Bonds and Clemens. That theory held up initially as both climbed out of the 40% into the 60% range in 2017, but they now seem to have peaked at that level.
While Walker jumped from 54.6% to 76.6% this year, Bonds and Clemens both saw their raw vote totals drop, making their election next year unlikely — and setting up the perfect storm for 2022. For those keeping score, that will be the last year of eligibility for Bonds and Clemens — and the first for Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz. Now wouldn’t that make for an entertaining induction class?
As promised the last time we had this discussion, and in the interest of full disclosure, my ballot for this year’s HOF election contained the full complement of 10 names, and once again did not include Bonds or Clemens.
In addition to Jeter, there were five carryovers from last year, Walker, Schilling, Jeff Kent, Gary Sheffield and Billy Wagner, three newcomers who had been previously eligible, Todd Helton, Scott Rolen and Omar Vizquel, plus Bobby Abreu.
Although I don’t believe it’s the electorate’s responsibility to determine the eligibility of a candidate, and that some may have evaded the suspicion, I do believe the cases of Bonds and Clemens, given the evidence, at least leave open the question of worthiness. Right or wrong, that has been enough for me to abstain when it comes to checking those boxes at the expense of denying others who at least deserve to be in the discussion. Many will argue that is not a valid reason, but it has been enough for me for the eight years the Poster Boys for PEDs have been on the ballot.
I’m admittedly much more lenient when it comes to Abreu, “the other first timer” on this year’s ballot. I believe he’s one of the 10 best candidates on this ballot and at least deserves to stay in the discussion down the road. He needed 20 votes to stay above the 5% “one and done” line, and I have no regrets being one of the 22 he got. If I have to apologize for a guy with a 2,425 hits, 921 of the them for extra bases, a .291 average, .395 on-base percentage — and, by the way, 400 stolen bases, then I’ll turn in my card.
As for my other “returnees” Wagner is probably the most puzzling for me. Trevor Hoffman has the National League’s Relief Pitcher of the Year award named after him, and to me that is about the only difference I see in comparison to Wagner, who has a better WHIP than Mariano Rivera, which ends the discussion.
There are those who tell you Kent’s offensive numbers aren’t up to HOF standards and that he wasn’t as good a defensive player as you would expect at second base. All I see are some powerful numbers from a guy who played a lot of games in the middle of the infield while batting in the middle of the lineup. Check and double-check.
Sheffield didn’t win any popularity contests as a player, was hardly a model defensive player and his numbers were accumulated in a suspicious era, and while more than 500 home runs might not be an automatic qualifier, they do make a very strong case for one of the best hitters of his generation.
I once had a former player and coach of the era tell me he thought Rolen was “better than Brooksie” as a defensive third baseman. It was meant solely as a compliment to Rolen and to say it got my attention was … well, let’s just say it worked. Suffice it to say that Rolen’s body of work, offensively and defensively, is comparable to other Hall of Famers who played third base, one of the underrepresented positions in Cooperstown.
The nod to Vizquel is as much a statement about middle infield defense and its overall importance. Shortstop has become a position of power, but if Mark Belanger had Vizquel’s offensive numbers he’d have made the HOF before Ozzie Smith, against whom all others are judged when it comes to glove work. Whether Vizquel’s 11 Gold Gloves are enough (Smith had 13) may ultimately remain for a Veterans Committee to decide, but he’s another who is creeping up the board.
As for Todd Helton, there was a time he was known best as Peyton Manning’s backup quarterback at Tennessee. That was before he became the Rocky Mountain Masher. Offensively, from this perspective, Helton is another version of Walker, sans the speed. It’s only his second year of eligibility. I don’t think he’ll need the 10 years it took Walker to make it.
This HOF wrapup wouldn’t be complete without a couple of notes about Ted Simmons and Marvin Miller, who were elected by a special Veterans Committee last month.
Simmons is the first victim of the 5% rule to be “One and Done.” However, there should be an asterisk to that note. There were seven Hall of Famers, headed by Steve Carlton, the only inductee that year, who were on that 1994 ballot, when Simmons got only 3.7% of the vote (Orlando Cepeda, Phil Niekro, Tony Perez, Don Sutton, Ron Santo and Bruce Sutter).
Others on the same ballot were Steve Garvey, Tony Oliva, Dick Allen, Vada Pinson, Jim Kaat, Luis Tiant, Don Mattingly, Thurman Munson and Dale Murphy — all of whom have received substantial support for HOF recognition over the years. A total of 34 players (of 39 on ballot) received votes that year, with the O’s Scott McGregor one of five players shut out. By comparison, 25 of 32 players had boxes checked this year, with former Oriole Brian Roberts drawing a blank.
One final thought on Miller, the dynamic and controversial figure who turned the Major League Baseball Players Association into a powerful bargaining unit. After being passed over several times while he was still alive, Miller said that he would not attend any future ceremony should he eventually be inducted.
After his death, Miller’s family said it would honor his wishes. There has been no official word about who might represent him, but as irony would have it, Simmons might be a logical choice, having been a firm supporter of Miller and a central figure in the 1981 strike that resulted in a split season.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Photo Credit: Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum