Wednesday, January 22, 2020

2020 Hall of Fame Election: Results and Recap

[Also up over at The Crawfish Boxes.]

What we discussed this morning is now official: Derek Jeter and Larry Walker are the newest members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. For the seventh year in a row, multiple players are going to Cooperstown off the BBWAA ballot, making it 22 in the last seven years. Both are far and away records.

Let’s start with Jeter: the long-time Yankees shortstop went in on his first try, falling one vote shy of unanimous support. We’ll probably never know who that one voter was, but to be honest, it doesn’t really matter. Sure, it would have been just the second unanimous induction in Hall history, but it’s not like they print the vote percentages on the plaques or anything. All it is in the end is trivia.

And for as much as it feels like Jeter is overrated to some degree, it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He’s sixth all-time in hits (3465), made the All-Star team fourteen times, and posted a 119 wRC+ over 20 seasons while playing shortstop. For all of the holes in his game, none of them were big enough to overcome that strength.

Walker was also a close call, but in the other direction: he cleared the bar for induction by just six ballots, ending with 76.6% of the vote. Walker was a five-tool player, carrying a .313/.400/.565 batting line along with one of the ten or so best gloves in right field history. His induction was long-deserved, but he finally made the mark in his tenth and final year on the writers’ ballot.

That 76.7% is still shocking, in some ways. Just six years ago, Walker was stuck beneath a ton of other snubbed candidates, and pulling in just 10.2% of the vote. Even as recently as three years ago, Larry was getting just under 22% of the vote. Last year alone saw him jump 20.5%, the ninth-biggest single-year increase in modern Hall of Fame voting, and then he topped that this year by increasing another 22.0%, tying him for seventh all-time with Don Drysdale. That combined two-year gain also falls just a hair behind Luis Aparicio’s record 42.7% increase from 1982 to 1984.

Outside of those two, what happened down the rest of the ballot, and how does it bode for the 2021 election? It may seem too early to be asking that, but we already know who will be eligible, and what their final career numbers are. The only other major variables are how they finished in voting this year. And given next year’s relatively weak class of newcomers (Mark Buehrle, Tim Hudson, and Torii Hunter are the biggest newcomers), we could very well be seeing a lot of improvement in the vote totals for the returning players.

At the top of the backlog is Curt Schilling, who finished with 70.0% of the vote. 2021 will mark his ninth year on the ballot, meaning he has two tries to pick up 5%. He’s done that each of the last three years (including topping 9% each of the last two years), so it seems likely he’ll be standing on the stage in 2021.

Following him were Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, at 61.0% and 60.7%. As high as those percentages are, it’s hard to be optimistic about their chances of making it in. Like Schilling, they only have two more tries, but unlike Schilling, they’ve only been adding about 2% each of the last few seasons. Picking up nearly 15% in two seasons seems like a tall order given that, unless a large number of voters suddenly change their mind on steroids. The last time either of them saw an increase that big was 2017, but that year featured Bug Selig getting elected, likely causing some voters to question what the point of punishing steroid users was if the architect of said era was going in. Nothing of that magnitude seems to be coming down the pipeline, so Clemens and Bonds will likely need the support of the Veterans Committee if they’re to make it one day.

Omar Vizquel converted nearly 10% of voters, and finally broke 50% of the vote in his third year on the ballot. Now at 52.6%, I find it very likely he gets elected eventually, although I can’t say I’m a huge supporter of his campaign. I have no idea how long it will take for him to make it in from here, if his lack of advanced stats will slow his growth or if passing 50% causes BBWAA members to consolidate around him even quicker than they have been. But given that he has seven more tries to pick up just 22.4% of the vote, he doesn’t exactly need to be improving each year by leaps and bounds the way Walker did.

Somehow, Scott Rolen might be both the most positive and negative surprise of the day? I’m a big supporter of his candidacy, and I don’t know how exactly to feel about it. On the one hand, it’s hard to feel too upset; Rolen finished his third go-around at 35.3%, over double the 17.2% he got last year. That means he’s almost halfway to that fabled 75%, and maybe a big jump like that sets him up for a next few years similar to Walker’s past few; election in two or three years doesn’t seem at all out of the realm of possibility!

But on the other hand, Rolen entered today trending around 50%, which we all knew would be high compared to the final totals, but a 15-point drop is rough. Publicly released ballots were nearly split down the middle on him, but private ballots only went his way 20% of the time. Of course, while that might not seem like much of an improvement, it’s worth noting his public-private split last year was 21%-9%, so this is still an improvement either way. Maybe the big jump he got this year will spur another big jump in 2021?

Immediately after Rolen were Billy Wagner (31.7%, fifth election), Gary Sheffield (30.5%, sixth), and Todd Helton (29.2%, second). Like Rolen, Wagner nearly doubled his support, from 16.7% in 2019. Unlike Rolen, Wagner is two years further along in the process, meaning two fewer chances to make up the 40%+ he still has to go. Right now, I’d rate his chances as “feasible”, though; another double digit gain next year and he’s looking a lot more likely.

I’m more encouraged by Todd Helton’s performance than either Wagner’s or Sheffield’s, though. I think Sheffield has a ceiling near wherever Clemens and Bonds end up, so I don’t know that we can expect another 17-point gain next year. On top of that, he’s a year further along than even Wagner. Helton, meanwhile, just took a major step forward from his 16.5% debut last year, and he has eight more tries to go. It might take him a while, but with an even emptier ballot next year, it’s very possible he makes another double-digit jump. And Walker going in also likely helps his case by helping to remove some of the Coors Field stigma (although I’m not sure if that’s the biggest factor hurting either of them, it’s probably not helping things either). I think he’s looking at a Tony Perez-like campaign, taking several years, but not quite pushing things to the wire like Walker.

And that’s really all of the major movement downballot. Manny Ramirez still hasn’t broken 30%, and will likely lag behind even Sheffield from here on out. Jeff Kent jumped up nearly 10%, but he’s still only at 27.5% with three more tries to go; he’s technically closer than Larry Walker was at this point, but he also isn’t the player Walker was. Let’s see him at least make a 12% jump in year eight before we start using Walker as the blueprint here (although I think Kent will find a more receptive audience in the Veterans Committee, so it’s not all doom and gloom).

Andruw Jones more than doubled his prior support, but that only takes him to 19.5%. Jones is a legendary fielder, so it feels a little silly he’s trending so far behind Vizquel. Then again, it’s at least good to see voters are open to considering him, and maybe Vizquel’s candidacy will lead to greater appreciation of Jones’s glove. With seven more tries, he’s not done yet, but I don’t feel as confident about his chances as I do Rolen or Helton.

The only other players to clear 5% and secure a place on the 2021 ballot were Sammy Sosa, Andy Pettitte, and Bobby Abreu. Sosa’s eighth time (13.9%) around marked both a new personal best and the first time he broke double digits since his debut back in 2013. So yeah, he’s basically just playing out the string at this point. Pettitte’s second ballot saw him jump from 9.9% all the way to 11.3%. I feel like he’ll be on the ballot for a while, if nothing else. And really, at 5.5%, I’m just glad Abreu is sticking around; like I said earlier, he’s more deserving of an extended hearing than most people give him credit for. He’s at least gotten a second year, now.

And with that, we can close a book on this year’s Hall of Fame election. Congratulations again to Derek Jeter and Larry Walker, as well as Ted Simmons and Marvin Miller, who are your new Hall of Fame Class of 2020. To everyone else, we’ll see you again next year.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

2020 Hall of Fame Announcement Day Preview

[Also over at The Crawfish Boxes!]

This Tuesday, three weeks after the Baseball Writers of America requires Hall of Fame voters to have sent in their ballots for the year, we will finally learn the names of the players who will be joining Ted Simmons (and possibly the family of Marvin Miller) on stage this July. The event starts at 5 PM Central Time, for those who want to follow along in real time with the MLB Network announcement or online (although, be warned, it usually takes them a while to get around to actually announcing the names).

In preparation for this evening, let’s go through what we know already. There’s of course the ballot itself. We’ve been covering the ballot here for several weeks, with breakdowns of various candidates on the ballot. And perhaps most critically, there’s Ryan Thibodaux and his team collecting ballots as writers release them and compiling them in their amazing Ballot Tracker. As of this writing, we already have over half of the ballot accounted for, with even more ballots liking being added throughout the day. So let’s dive right in:

Friday, January 17, 2020

Hall of Fame Ballot Newcomer Bobby Abreu Deserves to Have His Case Heard

[Also posted over at The Crawfish Boxes]

We’re going to go in a slightly different direction with this week’s Friday Hall of Fame preview, the final one before the official announcement of the results next Tuesday. We’re still covering someone on the ballot, it’s just someone without multiple ballots already under his belt, and who I’m not sure will be around for long enough to build up any sort of trajectory towards the Hall (as was the case with Todd Helton, Scott Rolen, Billy Wagner, Jeff Kent , and Larry Walker; see here, here, here, here, and here, respectively).

But Bobby Abreu deserves at least a little attention. And since I’m not convinced that he’ll still be around to get that attention next year (he’s currently at 7.6% in the 2020 Ballot Tracker, but that will absolutely drop when the final numbers come out), I want to take the chance to give him that attention now, before it becomes too late to do so.

And he even has an Astros connection! Although it was mostly a footnote: he was signed by the team out of Venezuela as a sixteen-year-old, and played 74 games for them between 1996 and 1997 before being taken sixth overall in the 1997 expansion draft by Tampa Bay. It’s a little painful given how good of a career he had, but simultaneously understandable given that they couldn’t protect everyone, and the outfield at that time was pretty packed. Less defensible is the Rays decision to immediately trade who quickly became the best player taken in that draft to Philadelphia for someone named Kevin Stocker . Stocker was worth 6.0 bWAR in eight seasons, a total Abreu bested in four individual seasons.

And it might shock you to hear that Abreu had that many good seasons! That’s MVP-caliber play, after all, and Abreu generally did not receive MVP consideration; in fact, those four 6.0-Win seasons amounted to just two 23rd-place finishes. I would argue that was more a fault with the voters’ understanding than Abreu’s play, though, and if you need more proof, his best MVP finish came in 2009 when he placed 12th overall. Abreu that year was a 35-year-old putting up solid year, sure, but that year was still arguably worse than half of his other seasons.

Bobby didn’t hit the big, flashy milestones, finishing his career with 2470 hits (just outside of the top 100 all-time) and 288 home runs. His RBI total was similarly a good-but-not-historic 1363, making him 89th all-time. He did manage to finish with a round number of steals, at 400 (74th).  And his 574 doubles are actually impressive, tying him for 25th in history.

Individually, none of that may seem special, but put together, you can kind of see it, right? Abreu’s career totals look like a sort of jack-of-all-trades player, really good at a lot of things, but maybe not elite at anything. A lot of power, and speed, and contact, but probably never the top of the league in any one of them (on that note, he led the league in just two batting categories over his career, doubles in 2002 and triples in 1999). Of course, being really good at everything makes a player a star, in its own way.

But there is one thing I haven’t touched on yet, the one area where Abreu was truly one of the best of all-time: getting on base. His eye for batting was truly incredible, as he finished with 100 or more walks eight seasons; only eight players have done it more times than that. He never finished with the league lead, but that was mostly bad luck from playing in the same league as Barry Bonds in his peak (although Abreu did lead the entire majors with 124 walks in 2006…the year he was traded from the Phillies to the Yankees, meaning that he wound up leading neither league)

In total, Abreu walked 1476 times, 20th-most in the history of baseball. Add those with his hits, plus his times reaching on HBPs and errors, and Abreu is one of just fifty-five players in history to reach base 4000 times or more. And the list of players to reach that mark and not make Cooperstown is fairly short. Among eligible players not presently on the ballot, it’s just Rusty Staub, Rafael Palmeiro, and Dwight Evans, and Evans came close to induction via the Veterans Committee last month.

Abreu managed a .291/.395/.475 batting line, good for a 128 OPS+, over more than 10000 career plate appearances. That, plus decent fielding (like recent inductee and fellow right fielder Vladimir Guerrero, Abreu was decent in his younger days but lost a step or two at the end) is why he managed 60.0 bWAR and 59.8 fWAR for his career. By those marks, he’s the nineteenth or twenty-first best right fielder, respectively, in history.

And they’re hardly alone in that assessment, either, as stats that attempt to filter value through a Hall of Fame lens by combining peak and career totals come out similarly. I’m partial to Hall Rating, with combines the two and then equates it to an OPS+-like stat, where 100 is the Hall borderline and each point over is 1% better than the borderline. By that measure, Abreu comes out at 110, twenty-first all-time and right in between Guerrero and future inductee Ichiro Suzuki. JAWS has him ranked similarly, twentieth among right-fielders at 50.8. And since there are twenty-six inducted right fielders, plus several ahead of Abreu also not in for various reasons (including the still-on-the-ballot Walker, the not-yet-eligible Suzuki, and the permanently-ineligible Joe Jackson), Abreu would slot in perfectly as the median Hall right fielder if he were added to Cooperstown right now.

Ultimately, I am not sure if I would vote for Bobby Abreu this year. I don’t know if I’m totally sold on his case, although it is certainly an interesting case and I feel like I’m almost there. But while the ballot isn’t as packed as it has been over the last few years, there are still more than ten players on it that I think deserve support. I also believe that Abreu is the type of player that deserves to have his case actually deliberated over multiple chances, though, and I really hope he can at least stick around another year. If I had an actual ballot, I might even drop votes strategically to help ensure that he hits the five percent he needs to return in 2021. But if he doesn’t quite manage that, at least we got a chance to finally appreciate just how solid his career was.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Continuing Down the 2020 Hall Ballot: Todd Helton Shows Sophomore Surge

[Article also up at The Crawfish Boxes!]

Last week, I covered the large number of Hall of Fame candidates seeing big increases in vote totals (in particular Scott Rolen, who’s leading the field in that regard). Because the ballot is less crowded than it’s been in a long time, voters finally have a chance to properly consider a lot of players who they would have had to leave off in years prior due to the ten-person limit on the BBWAA ballot.

Which is why I want to take a deeper look at Todd Helton. I didn’t vote for him last year on my hypothetical ballot, but I was very open to the idea. There just wasn’t enough space for him, though, between Mariano Rivera and Roy Halladay joining the ballot, Mike Mussina on the precipice of induction, Edgar Martinez and Larry Walker coming to the end of their windows, and so on. Now that there are a few more openings to work with, there’s definitely more space to consider him. And I’m hardly the only one with that idea; Helton has already picked up 28 new voters (while losing just 3). That’s one of the bigger jumps we seen, and increases his 16.5% debut performance on the 2019 ballot to 35.4% in the early returns.

So what does the case for Todd Helton actually look like? Starting with the big milestone numbers, he didn’t quite reach 3000 hits or 500 homers, but his totals of 2519 and 369 weren’t shabby, either. Neither were his 1406 career RBI, and his 592 doubles are actually nineteenth-most all-time.

Add in his strong batting eye (1335 walks), and you have one of just seventeen batters in history to maintain a .300/.400/.500 batting line in 8000 more plate appearances. The other sixteen players on that list include fourteen Hall of Famers, Larry Walker (who stands a strong chance of joining them this year), and Manny Ramirez (who has his own issues). And I know it’s easy to just dismiss that as Coors Field, but he still kept a 133 OPS+ (which is adjusted for home field, remember), a mark that is tied with Orlando Cepeda and better than a third of the Hall of Fame’s first basemen.

In fact, only ten first basemen ever have kept a mark that high or better in 9000+ PA; it is genuinely rare to find first basemen who hit as well as Todd Helton did, for as long as Todd Helton did. And of course, Helton’s career value wasn’t just a product of hanging around forever, either; he’s one of just 45 players since 1901 to post four or more seasons with a 160 OPS+ or better. That’s as many as Jeff Bagwell, Sammy Sosa, Joey Votto, and Reggie Jackson; it’s more than David Ortiz, Jim Thome, Ken Griffey Jr., Carl Yastrzemski, Harmon Killebrew, and so many others.

If you prefer value stats to get a fuller picture of his game, Helton holds up fairly well there, too. With 61.2 WAR (Baseball-Reference version), he’s seventeenth all-time among first basemen, at a position where there are twenty-one inductees. And if you’re the type of voter who prefers peak value to career numbers, Helton looks even better; his Wins Above Average (WAR, but it compares to a hypothetical average starter rather than a hypothetical AAAA player) total of 32.8 moves him up to fifteenth, and the 7-year peak component of JAWS places him tenth at 46.5.

Put it together in JAWS, and you get the fourteenth-best first baseman of all-time, with a 53.9 score. He’s within one of the position average (54.8), sandwiched in between Willie McCovey and Eddie Murray. And even more impressively, he’s ahead of eleven of the twenty-one inducted Hall of Famers. Hall Rating, another of my favorite stats for contextualizing Hall of Fame value, puts Todd at 120, or 20% better than the Hall minimum.

And if you’re one of the people that likes to say that there’s more to the Hall of Fame that statistics, I think Helton more than fills that role. He was and still is the undeniable face of his franchise, becoming the first Rockie to get his number retired. He also made the All-Star team five times, won three Gold Gloves and four Silver Slugger Awards, and posted a season for the ages in 2000. Voters at the time were a little wary of Colorado seasons at that point, but with twenty years of hindsight in our favor, Helton probably should have been the MVP that year (he finished fifth instead).

One other thing that I was struck by while researching this is a question I asked about Billy Wagner: is he the best Hall-eligible player at his position? With Wagner, you could answer yes, with some qualifications (mostly that he lacked innings and the position of closer is pretty new). Helton…might be in a similar place, actually?

Looking over his positional rankings, I was struck by how few snubs there are at first base compared to some other positions. As a result, there just aren’t many guys that make you say “But if we put Helton in, why wouldn’t we have put [X] in, too?” Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera are both ahead of him in WAR and JAWS, but they’re both future first-ballot guys regardless of what happens to Helton. Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire are ahead of him in WAR, but we know why those two aren’t in, and it doesn’t apply to Helton.

If you’re against inducting steroid users, Helton’s probably the best first basemen not in the Hall that’s eligible. If you don’t mind steroid users being inducted, every first baseman ahead of Helton is in Cooperstown, will be as soon as possible, or would have been already were it not for steroids. Either way, that seems like a strong pitch for his candidacy. And given that he’s more or less at the JAWS standard for the position, it’s not like he’d be weakening the Hall’s standards at all.

I know I’ve seen some fans of Helton worry that he may have difficulties picking up votes, based on Larry Walker’s struggles to date. The concern is that voters are discounting batting stats from Coors Field, but I don’t think that’s the case. Voters generally haven’t worried about voting for Rockies in awards (outside of right around 2000, unfortunately for Helton), and Walker’s well-roundedness looks like a number of other snubs we’ve seen in Cooperstown history (as I mentioned in my article on him, he was basically if Lance Berkman’s bat came with one of the twenty or so best gloves in right field history).

Helton’s case, meanwhile, is a lot more straight-forward to understand, based on great offense, solid counting numbers, and some historic seasons. And sure enough, in just his second year of eligibility, he’s posted the type of gains that have led to eventual election in the past, with that 35.4% I mentioned in the opening standing through 142 ballots. He’ll drop for sure when the final numbers come out, but he still has a decent chance to finish above 30%, a mark that Walker didn’t reach until his eighth year on the ballot. Given the relatively empty next few ballots, Todd Helton has a good opportunity to move up the voting totals in the next few years, and given his place in the history of the game, I think he definitely deserves an eventual induction.

Friday, January 3, 2020

2020 Hall of Fame Voting Is Looking Like a Turning Point, and Scott Rolen is Leading the Way

Two weeks ago, when I was covering Jeff Kent’s case for the Hall of Fame, I noted just how packed the Hall of Fame ballot has been for the better part of a decade. I don’t want to retread all of that, since I went fairly in depth there, but if you want a good summary at a glance, I think this table does a good job:

Players in each category: 70+ WAR 60+ WAR 50+ WAR
On the 2012 ballot 5 8 9
Added on the 2013-2019 ballots 13 24 37
Avg per year, 2013-2019 1.86 3.43 5.29

And of course, even that’s an oversimplification of how crowded it was, since there are also players under 50 WAR who have been drawing significant support in that span (including 2018 Hall inductee Trevor Hoffman and 2018 and ‘19 first-ballot Veterans Committee picks Jack Morris and Lee Smith). So if you were wondering how the ballot could still be crowded after electing 20 players in that span, that’s how: it doesn’t matter if you’re electing just under 3 players a year when you’re adding more than that to the ballot each year.

But the 2020 ballot marks a shift away from that, following up 2019’s four-person induction with a class of newcomers that’s basically just Derek Jeter, who will obviously go in first ballot, and Bobby Abreu, who may or may not hit the 5% needed to stick around for next year (technically, newcomer Jason Giambi also barely cleared the 50 WAR mark we mentioned earlier, but by just half a Win, and he’s not even doing Abreu’s numbers in voting thus far).

And what’s more, based on who will be becoming eligible the next three years, the 2021-through-2023 elections look like they will continue this trend. 2021 will clear out Jeter and Larry Walker (either by election or aging off), and replace them with Mark Buehrle and Tim Hudson, both of whom might fail to hit 5% of the vote (plus Torii Hunter, who also technically clears 50 WAR, but by even less than Giambi). It’s basically guaranteed to be the first year since 2013 that no first-ballot candidates are inducted.

2022 will likely continue that trend, with a first-year class of Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz (plus probably-nominal support for Mark Teixeira and Jimmy Rollins). While two new strong-but-complicated cases that will likely hang around for multiple years would seem like a return to the 2013-to-2019 era, 2022 will also represent the tenth and final year on the ballot for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, and Sammy Sosa (should they fail to garner election prior to then), meaning the thinning of the backlog will continue after that year regardless. And with 2023’s newcomers beginning and ending with Carlos Beltrán, there’s no way the following year’s ballot will be anything but even smaller.

The larger point is that the next few years is going to be great for a set of players who have been on the ballot for a few years and deserve more consideration, but who have been stuck under the absolute deluge of legends hitting the ballot. We had something of an idea of how this might play out, thanks to the fine folks at the Ballot Tracker making note when voters listed a player as being cut due to the 10-player limit, but it was still a wildly incomplete picture.

What we've seen through the first hundred and twenty or so ballots has been well beyond that picture, though. We are already up to five players who have converted twenty or more "no" votes to "yes" votes, which, on a ballot with only fourteen returning players and with an electorate that's only a little over 400 ballots, is massive. And there are another two or three players who could soon join them on the list, with likely upwards of a hundred more ballots to be revealed prior to the final announcement. (And note, after that update, Rolen and Helton immediately picked up another conversion each.)

And what's more, despite the number of ballots left to be revealed, the top two on that list are already among the biggest increases Ryan Thibadoux has seen in the decade-plus that's he's been collecting ballots. Leading the way is Scott Rolen, who looks poised to have one of the biggest single-year increases in Hall history, having already moved into a tie for twelfth place. He won’t finish anywhere near the nearly-50% he’s currently sitting at, as most players’ numbers will drop between now and the final tallies, but something close to 40% isn’t totally out of the question, and even something in the mid-30s would represent a huge jump from his 17.2% in 2019.

I’ve written long defenses of Rolen’s case before, and I don’t want to rehash all of that again, since I’m already going pretty long here.* I think the best one-sentence sales pitch for Rolen’s case is that he’s one of the ten best players in history at his position, between his fantastic offense and absolutely stellar defense.

*If you are in the mood for extra reading, though, here’s another 1700 words on the matter I wrote three years ago!
He has the third-most Gold Gloves at third base for a reason (behind just Brooks Robinson and Mike Schimdt), and advanced metrics have backed that up (Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference place him fifth and sixth all-time in defensive WAR at third, respectively). Meanwhile, Rolen’s 122 OPS+ is eighth all-time for third basemen with 7500 career plate appearances. Maybe you can bump him out of your top ten offensively if you lower your playing time threshold, but it generally seems like you can count the third basemen with a better bat than Rolen on two hands, and you can count the ones with a better glove than him without taking off your own glove.

When almost every position has twenty or more representatives in Cooperstown, it seems hard to keep out a player with a track record like that. But it also makes sense why voters have had trouble fitting him on their ballots before this year: it’s been crowded, and Rolen didn’t reach any of the big, traditional milestones. He’s in both the 2000 hit club and the 300 home run club, but neither of those are as exclusive as they used to be. His 517 doubles are an impressive 52nd all-time, but most people don’t care about double totals like they do homers. Maybe if there were big milestones like those for fielding, he would have hit those and gotten more immediate attention.

But now that the multi-year onslaught of stars with round numbers, your Randy Johnsons and Greg Madduxes and Ken Griffeys and so on, is over, voters actually have the space to consider players who didn’t reach the big, automatic-induction milestones. If Rolen finishes this year in, say, the low-40% range this year, it strikes me that he’ll be in a place similar to where Jeff Bagwell began his seven-year Hall campaign. Bagwell, of course, appears on that above list of biggest single-year gains twice, for his final two ballots that saw him pick up over 30% of the vote combined. And while he’s hitting 40% later than Bagwell, Rolen’s next few years don’t look anywhere near as daunting as the 2013 to 2017 ballots, so maybe his timetable will be even more aggressive.

And if he reaches 40% or so, another, even bigger milestone will be within his grasp come 2021: 50%. In the history of the Hall of Fame, every player to reach 50% of the vote on the BBWAA ballot is either in the Hall now or still on the ballot, save one (Gil Hodges). We’ve seen a number of players of the past few years rapidly consolidate support en route to election after passing the 50% mark, including stars like Bagwell, Edgar Martinez, and Mike Mussina. Scott Rolen’s early rise this year looks a lot like the start of their paths to induction, so the chances that he makes it in before aging off the ballot look much better than they did entering this election.

Election is years down the road still, though. For 2020, Larry Walker (who’s at a still-impressive +18) is the only one with a real chance to be on the stage this July. But what Rolen, Gary Sheffield, Billy Wagner, Todd Helton, Andruw Jones, and Jeff Kent has managed is impressive and shouldn’t be overlooked, especially within the context of doing it in the same year. And Rolen’s headstart against the other five and lead in converted voters this year means he’ll be the biggest bellwether to watch this year and the next few if you want an idea of who might still have a shot at Cooperstown immortality.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Is Billy Wagner the Best Closer Not in the Hall of Fame? Is 2020 a Turning Point for His Hall Case?

[As usual, this is also up over at The Crawfish Boxes.]

Hall of Fame voting continues on throughout the holidays, and so does our coverage of this year’s ballot. Last time, we covered Jeff Kent, a two-year veteran of the mid-2000s Astros who may finally have a change to break through the ballot backlog in his seventh time around. This time, we’ll be covering a longer-tenured Houston star with a similar chance to see his vote total rise, but two years ahead of Kent’s timetable.

Of course, there’s another big reason to be more excited for Billy Wagner’s chances this winter, and that’s who has been elected over the last two years. Specifically, Trevor Hoffman was elected to the Hall on his third ballot back in 2018, while Mariano Rivera went in unanimously on his first ballot last year while Lee Smith joined him on the stage after his first year on the Veterans Committee ballot.

That means that there are now eight closers in Cooperstown, an even more rapid expansion than when three were added between 2004 and 2008 (Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, and Rich Gossage). With Rivera, Hoffman, and Smith out of the way, Wagner now sits alone as the clear best closer on the Hall of Fame ballot, with the only other options this year being likely one-and-done candidates José Valverde, J.J. Putz, and Heath Bell. Traditionally, being the best at a certain role has helped candidates pick up votes more quickly, which is a good sign for Billy going forward.

Of course, not only is he the best on the ballot this year, but there aren’t really many challengers to that title coming up over the next two years: next year will add Rafael Soriano and Kevin Gregg (among others), while the year after that will add Joe Nathan and Jonathan Papelbon, who are at least both more interesting than Valverde or Soriano, but still not on Wagner’s level. Which lead me to a bigger question: is Billy Wagner now the best closer not in the Hall of Fame?

Friday, December 20, 2019

Revisiting the Hall of Fame Case for Jeff Kent

Now that the Veterans Committee is all taken care of, that leaves us with just the standard Baseball Writers Hall of Fame ballot. That one will take a little bit longer, since ballots need to be postmarked by December 31st and we won’t learn of the results until three weeks later, on January 21st. Of course, for those impatient to see how things are going in the meantime, Ryan Thibodaux’s Ballot Tracker is a nice resource to have on hand.

Either way, that leaves us plenty of time to cover the many players on this year’s 32-person ballot, or at least, some of the most interesting candidates. I’ve already dealt with one of them, the deserving Larry Walker, who looks like he’ll be straddling the 75% needed for election right up until the announcement. Today, let’s go in a radically different direction and instead look at a former Astro who is nowhere near that 75% line, even if he deserves more attention than that.

Granted, Kent was only on the Astros for two seasons, but they were full of pretty memorable moments, and he’s probably more closely tied to Houston in peoples’ memories than at least half the teams he played for. In any case, this election will mark his seventh go-around on the ballot, and so far, he’s struggled, topping out last year at just 18.1% of voters. Why has that been the case so far, and does he deserve better?

I’m going to start with the latter and tackle his overall case for Cooperstown. Debuting in 1992 for the Toronto Blue Jays, Jeff Kent would go on to a seventeen season career that finally ended in 2008 after turns on the Mets, Indians, Astros, Dodgers, and most substantially, the Giants. The 2000 MVP and a five-time All-Star, Kent was a second baseman with a big bat, putting together a .290/.356/.500 slash line. That makes him just the second second baseman in history with a slugging percentage of .500 or higher (3000+ PA), the other being the legendary Rogers Hornsby.

Despite something of a late start, that power (plus the era he played in) also helped him become the all-time leader in home runs at second base, breaking Hornsby’s seven-plus decade claim to the title, 377 to 301. As you can imagine, that power also brought him some big RBI totals (1518), and Kent is just one of three players at his position to top 1500 runs batted in (the other two being Nap Lajoie and Hornsby again). And to round out the more traditional counting stats, Kent also managed to finish tenth among second basemen in hits (2461), although Robinson Canó has since knocked him down a spot

You’d think numbers like that would get him in easily, but there has been some hold up due to ballot backlog, and Jeff was sort of lost in the shuffle. See, those numbers are really good, but they also omit that there were some holes to his game. For instance, while his power was fantastic, his batting average was just fine, especially when accounting for the increased offense of the ‘90s and 2000s.

And his batting eye was good, but not at all as good as his power, with his OBP ranking 39th all-time among his position (for another point of comparison, if his former teammate Craig Biggio had retired after 2003 instead of 2007, he would have finished with an OBP over 20 points higher in nearly 500 more plate appearances than Kent). Combining that with his power, his OPS+ and wRC+ were both just 123, good to still rank among the best ever (he’s twelfth in OPS+ and sixteen in wRC+, among second basemen with 5000+ PA) but not at all in the running for number one all-time like the home runs totals would suggest.

And unlike a lot of other second basemen, Kent doesn’t get much extra credit for the other things, largely because he wasn’t very good at them. Jeff never had a reputation as a great fielder, with the best interpretation at the time being that he could wrestle his position to a standstill, not being bad enough to move off but never really being good at it to add to his value. Advanced stats have basically confirmed that interpretation; going by Baseball-Reference’s defensive component of WAR, Kent is rated at -0.1 Wins for his career, meaning that, spread out over seventeen years, he was basically a net zero each year. That’s not horrible, seeing as it’s still places 178th all-time (out of 217 second basemen with 3000 PA, not to mention all the people who couldn’t cut it and got moved to other positions), but the hard data here really only helps his case if voters thought he was so bad that he was giving away runs.

What do you get when you put that all together into value stats like WAR? Baseball-Reference says he was worth 55.4 WAR for his career, and Fangraphs has him pretty similarly at 56.0. Positionally, he’s nineteenth in both all-time. Stats like JAWS and Hall Rating, which are built to combine peak value and longevity, also place him similarly; JAWS’s 45.6 rating puts him twentieth all-time at second, while his 103 Hall Rating marks him as 3% better than the Hall of Fame borderline and eighteenth at his position.

Finishing just within the top twenty at the position all-time might not sound like a great Hall of Fame argument…until you consider that we already have twenty Hall of Fame second basemen. And more than that, given that some of the players who rank above him were either snubbed by voters or still aren’t eligible, Kent is better than about eight of the twenty second basemen already in Cooperstown, making him pretty middle-of-the-pack. His hypothetical election would hardly look out of place in the real Hall of Fame.

So that, to me, seems like the gist of the case for Kent: better than enough Hall of Famers at his position that he would be a fine selection. And, given that he played on some good teams, had some eye-popping career totals (particularly the home run record), was generally seen as good during his career (see his 2000 MVP award), he picks up a little bit on intangibles as well. So why hasn’t he done better? Maybe it’s a case of his somewhat bristly personality, or maybe it was that he didn't reach a round number like 400 homers, or maybe it's voters dinging him even more for defense.

But I would argue that the biggest culprit so far has been the ten-player limit on the ballot. I haven't done a comprehensive check of this, but it's difficult for me to think of many other players who have been hit harder than Jeff Kent, especially when paired with the recent reduction in ballot time from fifteen years to ten. Maybe Larry Walker, if he doesn't make it this year? Or one of the recent players who couldn't make it to 5%, like Kenny Lofton or Jim Edmonds? Either way, it's pretty limited company.

Jeff Kent joined what may be the most crowded ballot since the Hall shifted towards its current election process decades ago. The year before was the infamous 2013 ballot, where eighteen different players topped 5%; all but Dale Murphy, who aged off, would be returning the following year. Biggio had led the pack, but failed to reach the 75% needed for election despite his 3000 hits, and having a second basemen of Craig’s caliber fail to get elected the year before could not have done Jeff any favors.

If that sounds bad, 2014's freshmen class just exacerbated his problems. Kent was clearly the fifth best player joining, which is less bad than it sounds when you consider that the other newcomers were Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas (all first ballot choices), and Mike Mussina (finally inducted last year), but it’s still clearly not great news. And to make matters worse, Biggio missed induction this time by 0.2%, meaning that Kent would need to live in his shadow for at least one more election cycle.

Even for voters who thought Kent was worthy of induction, or at least worth considering, he was stuck competing with over twenty other strong candidates to pick up one of ten spots on a ballot (as a reminder, Rafael Palmeiro, who reached both 500 homers and 3000 hits, finished 22nd in voting that year with just 4.4% of the vote and couldn’t secure another appearance). In that context, it’s a minor miracle that Kent got a solid 15.2% and a sixteenth-place finish; the fifteen players ahead of him consisted of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, and twelve players who have since been elected to Cooperstown.

And of course, the 2015 election would not ease matters at all. While four of the twenty-one players to get 5% of the vote last time were gone (the three inductees plus Jack Morris, who aged off), the newcomers that year included Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz (all again first ballot picks), Gary Sheffield (still on the ballot), plus Nomar Garciaparra (who would stick around for one more ballot) and Carlos Delgado (who just missed). So, in fact, there were actually more players who got 5% of the vote in Kent’s second time around, which is probably why he dropped to 14%.

The three first ballot picks plus Craig making it (and Don Mattingly aging out) made 2016 a little lighter, but it still featured Ken Griffey Jr., Trevor Hoffman, and Billy Wagner entering the picture (as well as Edmonds), meaning that votes were still spread pretty thin. At least it was enough to bounce Jeff up to 16.6%.

The induction of Griffey and Piazza, plus Alan Trammell and Mark McGwire hitting the end of the line, meant that next year’s new class of Iván Rodríguez, Vladimir Guerrero, and Manny Ramirez was basically just a lateral move. Kent stayed more or less in place (16.7%), as three people went in (plus Lee Smith reached his final year), although Hoffman and Guerrero each fell less than 4% shy.

Unfortunately, the 2018 newcomers were once again plentiful, meaning that Kent was once again struggling to gain attention (14.5%). Chipper Jones and Jim Thome made the Hall (with Hoffman and Guerrero), while Omar Vizquel, Scott Rolen, and Andruw Jones all stuck around for another vote, meaning that this ballot was once again stronger than the previous year’s. And once again, a four-person election didn’t really solve all that much, since once again, the next year brought just as many newcomers: Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay (two more first-ballot picks), Todd Helton, and Andy Pettitte. Kent rose slightly (to 18.1%), which seems to be setting the stage for this year.

As crazy as it sounds, 2020 is the first year since Kent joined the ballot where it looks like only one new nominee will cross the 5% threshold (Derek Jeter, although maybe Bobby Abreu has a shot). Consequentially, he's picked up nine new voters through the first thirty-eight ballots revealed; that puts him at about 36% of the vote, which probably won't hold, but it does mean that he has a bigger net increase than any other player on the ballot so far, edging out Scott Rolen by one (Todd Helton has also picked up nine votes, but lost two, meaning his net change is just plus-seven). That also gives the impression that there were a lot of voters who have wanted to vote for Kent, but just haven't had the ballot space for it.

Which just shows the silliness of the ten-player limit on the ballot: there's no reason it couldn't be a simple "up or down" vote on each player, but instead they ask voters not only if a player is worthy, but if they're worth spending a limited ballot slot on, something that is itself totally up to the interpretation of the voter (Do you pick the best players? Or the ones closest to induction? Or maybe drop a guaranteed player to get someone else over 5%?). Had Kent debuted debuted five years earlier or later, it would have greatly increased his vote totals just because voters who liked him enough to vote for him could have done so without having to make space for so many other players.

We've seen some impressive jumps in vote totals the last few years, so maybe Jeff Kent isn't totally out of the picture yet, especially if he can hold in the 30s this year. But that would still mean that he needs to make up 40-ish percent in his final three ballots, which is a challenge no matter how you slice it. Momentum is a massive part of Hall voting, and between the recent change in rules from 15 years of eligibility to 10 and the overstuffed last few ballots, Kent will basically only get four to five real chances before he becomes the Veterans Committee's problem (and who knows how that will shake out). And it just feels like his case deserved a little more discussion than that.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Recapping the 2020 Veterans Committee Election, and What it Means Going Forward

[Also published over at The Crawfish Boxes!]

On Sunday, we finally got our first Hall of Fame results for the 2020 Election cycle: the Veterans Committee has elected a pair of long-neglected candidates, Ted Simmons and Marvin Miller. Simmons received thirteen of sixteen possible votes, while Miller hit the twelve he needed for induction exactly. Both were long-overdue, as I covered in my full breakdown of the ballot three weeks ago, and each represented a massive breakthrough in different respects.

Ted Simmons was one of the best offensive catchers in the game, and had not just good advanced numbers, but also the type of traditional numbers that voters usually go for: he retired as the all-time leader in hits by a catcher (he has since been passed by Iván Rodríguez, who debuted three years after he retired), and second in RBI for the position behind just Yogi Berra (Berra and Simmons are still one-two in that ranking). Despite that, he didn’t even reach the 5% necessary to stay on the BBWAA ballot a second year back in 1994.

After a handful of Veterans Committee ballot appearances, including falling one vote shy in 2018 when Alan Trammell and Jack Morris were inducted, Simba finally broke through. This makes him the first player in history to make the Hall of Fame after not making a second writers’ ballot, something that bodes well for a number of other players who suffered the same fate, despite their worthy numbers.

Past voters overlooking Simmons might have been baffling, but that wasn’t at all the case with Miller. Few people have reshaped the game more than Marvin, the first head of the Players Association and a key figure in the end of the reserve clause and beginning of free agency. Of course, owners were somewhat less thrilled with his contributions, and they have an outsized impact on the Veterans Committee process. And as a non-player, Miller didn’t have a chance to face an all-writers electorate before facing the Veterans Committee.