Monday, February 12, 2018

International Baseball Representation in the Hall of Fame, Now and in the Future

An interesting bit of trivia about recent Hall of Fame inductee Vladimir Guerrero is that he is just the third Hall of Famer from the Dominican Republic, which seems almost surprising considering how dominant they players from the island have been for years now. A friend asked me about the potential future members of this club, and it was an interesting question that lead me to do some research on baseball’s history and make some future projections.

First, though, let’s go through the history of international players in the Hall of Fame. As is, there are a dozen players who have been voted into the Hall of Fame by either the Baseball Writers or Veterans Committee* who were born outside of the 50 states. Overall, they represent six nations and Puerto Rico.**

*There are a few other international inductees from other groups like the Early Game Committee and Negro League Committee, but those groups aren’t really my area of expertise (and some of those aren’t inducted as players anyway, complicating comparisons further). But, for reference, those inductees are: Harry Wright, Henry Chadwick, Tommy Connolly (all born in the United Kingdom), Martin Dihigo, Jose Mendez, Cristobal Torriente (all three born in Cuba), and Barney Dreyfuss (Germany).

**Puerto Rico is a tricky case. It is part of the United States, even if it isn’t itself a state. But it has a notably different history with Major League Baseball than the rest of the US. Puerto Ricans were for the most part kept out of the league by the color line, although the light-skinned Hi Bithorn and a few others like him managed to debut a few years before the league began allowing Negro League stars to play. Players from the island were signed rather than drafted like young stars from the states until 1989 (just two years before Canada was added, interestingly enough), and even to this day, there are usually Puerto Rican teams separate from US teams in international competitions like the World Baseball Classic, the Little League World Series and the Baseball World Cup.

The first of these dozen players inducted into the Hall was Roberto Clemente, fittingly. Following his untimely death of the Puerto Rican star on New Year’s Eve 1972, he was inducted into the Hall in a special election the next year. It would be more than a decade before the next inductee, Dominican Republic native Juan Marichal, in 1983, followed by Venezuelan-born Luis Aparicio the next year. 1991 saw the first double-induction of international stars, with Fergie Jenkins (Canada) and Rod Carew (Panama). The Veterans Committee elected Orlando Cepeda (Puerto Rico) in 1999, while Tony Perez (Cuba) was inducted the following year by the BBWAA on his ninth try.

We’ve really seen the rate pick up the last few years, though. 2011 saw another dual-induction, between Roberto Alomar (Puerto Rico) and Bert Blyleven (born in the Netherlands). In 2015, Pedro Martinez became the second Dominican Republic native in the Hall. Last year, Ivan Rodriguez became the fourth Puerto Rican in the Hall*, and that brings us to Guerrero this year.

*Fun fact: if you’ve been wondering what he’s up to these days, Rodriguez was recently named a member of Puerto Rico’s five-person shadow delegation to the House of Representatives.

Overall, it’s a really solid batch of players right now, but it also looks like we’ll begin to see the membership in the group expand rapidly. Baseball has become increasingly international over the years, and now that we’re three decades out from the big jump in international players we saw in the late eighties and into the nineties, the best players from that period are finally hitting the Hall ballot.

Let’s start with the next few years of voting. Next year, Mariano Rivera will join the ballot and almost certainly get above 95% of the vote. That would make him just the second Panamanian Hall member after Rod Carew. Also, Edgar Martinez finished about 20 votes shy of induction and will almost certainly make it in 2019. Although Martinez was born in New York City, his family returned to Puerto Rico when he was just two years old, and he grew up on the island.




2020 will be the final year on the ballot for Larry Walker, who could be the second Canadian member of Cooperstown. He finally cracked a third of the vote last year, so he has a long way to go, but he did post the biggest increase from 2017 to 2018. And even if he doesn’t get the BBWAA’s nod, a strong finish may put him in prime position for a quick Veterans Committee nod, like Alan Trammell saw this year.

That year will also see Venezuelan Bobby Abreu joining the ballot. I don’t seem him doing well with the voting body, especially in such a crowded field, but I do think he would be a solid member of the Hall of Fame. If you don’t believe me, just compare him to recent inductees Tony Gwynn, Tim Raines, and Vladimir Guerrero. He didn’t have Guerrero’s power or Gwynn’s ability to make contact or Raines’ speed, but he was pretty good at everything and had sneaky doubles-power, a good sense of base stealing, and maybe the best batting eye of the quartet.

2021’s class is rather weak, but 2022 will see David Ortiz hitting the ballot. I’m not sure if he’ll be a first-ballot selection, but I do think he’ll get in sooner rather than later. Edgar Martinez getting inducted will probably clear the way for another designated hitter, and baseball writers seem to like Big Papi well enough. It seems like his incredible 2013 postseason and 500th home run solidified the idea of him as a no-doubter, so I would bet on Ortiz becoming the next Hall of Famer from the Dominican Republic.

Speaking of players with a strong playoff record, Puerto Rico native Carlos Beltran will be joining the ballot the year after Ortiz. Like Papi, I feel like more and more baseball writers came around to his case over the last few years of his career, to the point where I can see him maybe getting in without much fuss. If it happens, it will definitely be well deserved, thanks to Beltran’s 70-WAR, 400 HR/300 SB career in center field.

While that’s going on, there will be plenty of players already on the ballot to watch. Omar Vizquel (Venezuela) had a strong debut performance on the ballot this year, drawing 37% of the vote. We’ll see if he continues to climb or if he stalls out in the next few years. His case is a little on the weak side, especially statistically, but writers seem to like him. Both Sammy Sosa and Manny Ramirez (Dominican Republic) will continue to hang around. I’m still hoping they see their numbers improve, but the way players tied to steroids have been trending, they’ll probably fall to the VC. And Andruw Jones thankfully managed to hit the 5% needed to stay on the ballot. I’m hoping voters come around on his amazing fielding and he starts to see his numbers grow. If he makes it, the Curaçao native be the second Dutch Hall of Famer, and the first from the Dutch Caribbean.

And of course, there will be a number of players hitting the ballot in that time from outside the states who are not quite up to the standards, but who were still very good. Venezuelan Johan Santana fell off the ballot a little too quickly this year. He was joined by Edgar Renteria, probably the best player to come out of Colombia. In a less crowded ballot, a multiple-time World Series hero would have stuck around for a little while, but Renteria got just 0.5%. At least he made the ballot, though; South Korean trailblazer Chan Ho Park was totally left off the ballot in 2016. Panamanian Carlos Lee also came and went in 2018. In the “upcoming player” column, we have players like Freddy Garcia (Venezuela), Justin Morneau (Canada), Miguel Tejada, Alfonso Soriano, Placido Polando, Rafael Furcal, and Aramis Ramirez (all Dominican Republic).

And what about even further into the future? Well, I expect Ichiro Suzuki will retire in the next year or two, given that he’s 44. Five years after that happens, he’ll become the first Hall of Famer from Japan. Dominican stars Albert Pujols and Adrian Beltre will make it a little longer than that, but will still go in on the first ballot. Miguel Cabrera (Venezuela) and Robinson Cano (Dominican Republic) are probably locks at this point as well.

In the meantime, maybe the Veterans Committee will induct some older players. Just looking over the career WAR leaders for players born outside of the United States, there are some interesting possibilities, like Cuban stars Rafael Palmeiro, Minnie Minoso, Tony Oliva, or Luis Tiant. There are also a bunch of turn-of-the-century pitchers, like Jim McCormick (born in the United Kingdom), Tommy Bond, Tony Mullane (both born in Ireland), or Jack Quinn (born in Slovakia). Or maybe they reconsider another trailblazer pitcher, like Dennis Martinez (Nicaragua) or Fernando Valenzuela (Mexico).

And of course, younger, active stars carry a wealth of possibility. Reigning AL MVP Jose Altuve is another native of Venezuela. Countryman Felix Hernandez seems to still be going strong. Joey Votto may finish his career as the best Canadian to play the game. Yadier Molina (Puerto Rico) and Shin-Soo Choo (South Korea) may finish a little on short on the numbers side, but close enough to make arguments for them. There’s the host of names I see every year writing my Future Hall of Fame series, young stars like Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor (Puerto Rico), Andrelton Simmons (Curaçao), Xander Bogaerts (Aruba), Salvador Perez (Venezuela), Carlos Martinez (Dominican Republic), and Yu Darvish (Japan).

And maybe we’ll see even more boundaries broken. Young aces like Jose Quintana and Julio Teheran may unseat Edgar Renteria for the title of best player to come out of Colombia. Roberto Osuna or Julio Urias are filled with promise, and either could become the first Hall of Famer born in Mexico. We’ve seen more players coming out of South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia as of late; one of them could become a star. Or maybe MLB’s attempts to grow in China, Brazil, and Europe finally take off in a big way, and we see an all-timer come out of one of those places (or maybe, the opposite happens and an early star kickstarts a baseball boom back home).

In any case, the next decade or so looks like it could be an exciting time for the Hall of Fame. The Hall plays a major part in codifying the history of the game, and as such, it represents the final step in solidifying baseball’s transformation into a truly international sport, recognizing the greats of the past decades’ major expansions into foreign talent pools. Given how much of MLB is currently international players, it may not be long until we’re seeing a Hall inductee born outside the states every year, with new countries getting representatives fairly regularly. It’s all yet another way to see how far baseball has come on the world stage since its inception.

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