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    Friday, February 9, 2024

    Backyard Baseball 2024: Revisiting the Idea of a Revival

    I’ve had a fairly busy month for writing. There was of course all of my Hall of Fame coverage; that always keeps me pretty packed.* I also just published a very large playlist covering the music I listened to over the last few months of 2023 over at Out of Left Field; as a reminder, if you want to see my non-baseball writing, I have a separate mailing list for that! I’ve even started prepping for the 2024 installments of my Future Hall of Fame series, so expect that in the next few weeks.

    *I also had another Hall of Fame article that I put a lot of effort into, but I ultimately had to scrap because I couldn’t get it to where I wanted it before the results came in. However, I may try to rework it into something new once the Future Hall updates are done, so maybe keep an eye out for that. Plus, I have a few other music and video game pieces in the works.

    But I can’t resist taking a break for a fun idea. So when I learned that Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce is a fan of the Backyard Sports series and has actually looked into buying the rights to revive it, it was too good to pass up. And it makes sense; for people of a certain age, those games were incredibly influential, and for pretty good reason! I wish him luck in his quest to bring them back!

    My angle on this is pretty obvious: What would a Backyard Baseball roster look like going into the 2024 season? I’ve actually looked into the idea twice before, back in 2017 and then again during the delay of the 2020 season, so it’s been a little while. Back at their peak, Humongous Entertainment’s individual sports series were releasing new games every year or two, so four years should give us a decent amount of turnover.

    As a quick refresher, I’m using the rules of Backyard Baseball 2001 and 2003, where the developers would include 31 real pro players (one from each team, with one team getting two, which I’ll get into more later). Later games would stray from both rules somewhat,* but this gives us a little more structure. Plus, I think it’s more fun this way, sort of like getting to pick the face of a franchise at a given time.

    *Also, those later games just generally weren’t very good anyway, although that’s less of a deciding factor.

    While there weren’t hard-and-fast rules beyond those, there were a few other you could see trends. You’d generally want mid-career stars, although older stars at the end of their careers could be added if they were big enough names, like Cal Ripken Jr. or Tony Gwynn (sometimes, though, neither were available). Players were strong favorites to return if they were still on the same team, although not guaranteed (about 14 out of 18 eligible players from 2001 were back in 2003), and some big enough names came back even after changing teams (i.e. Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi). Positionally, there wasn’t a huge attempt to balance things, so it’s not a huge issue if we’re not even ourselves. However, one thing to note is that pitchers did feel like a bit of an afterthought (2001 included just 2, 2003 had 3), so it’s probably fine if we focus on position players first and foremost.

    Let’s begin with the spots that give us an easy starting point: only thirteen players that I picked for the 2020 roster were even still with the same teams in 2023. However, three of those thirteen are already guaranteed to be elsewhere for 2024 (the retired Miguel Cabrera, the released Madison Bumgarner, and the traded Chris Sale), and another, Joey Votto, is still a free agent (and one who seems likely to sign elsewhere).

    How are the other nine looking?

    Tuesday, January 23, 2024

    2024 Hall of Fame Results: Beltre, Helton, and Mauer in, Wagner Just Misses, & Looking Further Ahead

    As is becoming tradition, the BBWAA delivered mixed results on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot. There are a lot of good things here, including three deserving new members of Cooperstown, but it’s also not hard to imagine how things could have gone even better.

    Let’s start with the three big positives from the election: specifically, the three members of the Cooperstown Class of 2024. Adrian Beltre and Joe Mauer both made it on their first ballots, while Todd Helton finally broke through on his sixth attempt. As a quick update and refresher, we had 385 ballots submitted this year, meaning that to reach the 75% needed for induction, a candidate needed to get 289. I’m clarifying that because these figures will actually be important later.

    Beltre was the no-doubter of the bunch. Early results from Ryan Thibodaux’s Ballot Tracker had him constantly above 99%, and while he didn’t finish quite that high, his 95.1% is still going to rank as one of the top twenty results in the Hall’s history. I was kind of shocked the former Ranger had 2 “No” votes in the early tracking, so I’m even more surprised that 17 additional voters found a way to leave off a third baseman with 5 Gold Gloves, 3166 hits, and 477 home runs. Maybe some of them were just trying to make space for other players, since he was so far over the line? Perhaps that’s giving them too much credit, though. Either way, it’s largely just an academic difference at this point; Cooperstown is Cooperstown, and first ballot is first ballot.

    The second plaque wound up going to Todd Helton, in something of a shock, with the first baseman finishing at 79.7%. The induction wasn’t the surprising part; Helton had been running comfortably above the 75% line in tracking (finishing at 82.6%), and in his fifth ballot last year, he only missed by 11 votes. And his stats pointed to his induction, with 2519 hits, 369 homers, and a .316/.414/.539 batting line (a 133 OPS+). No, the surprising part was that the longtime Rockie passed Mauer in the final results.

    Joe Mauer spent basically the entire ballot tracking season running neck-and-neck or better with Helton, even finishing at 83.4% before the results. I had been saying for a while that I was concerned that late ballot reveals and especially private voters (i.e. ones who never share who they chose) would sink his candidacy, and while his pre-reveal margins were big enough that those concerns basically subsided, goodness did they end up making things close. The Twins backstop finished at 76.1%, clearing the bar for 75% by only 4 votes.

    It was another deserving induction in my mind, and only the third time a catcher has made the Hall of Fame on their first ballot. His career was a little short, cut down by the usual injuries that whittle away at catchers, but was it ever a high peak: 2009 MVP, three-time batting champ (a record for the position), six-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove, five-time Silver Slugger, and a .306/.388/.439 career batting line (124 OPS+). The fact that Mauer saw such a drop off in the results is kind of a sign of the type of squeeze that hit this year’s overly-stuffed ballot.

    Unfortunately, that effect was out in full force on the top runner-up, Billy Wagner. In his ninth and penultimate go-around, the former Astros closer landed at 73.8%, just five votes shy of the 289 that he needed. It’s not the closest miss in the Hall’s history (Craig Biggio missing by 2 votes in 2014 springs to mind), but it’s not far off from that, and it’s still just as frustrating. Wagner will get one more shot on next year’s ballot, and he’s almost certain to get the five votes he needs, but I doubt that’s going to make it any less anxiety-inducing for Wagner himself.

    Adding on to all of this is how much of the issue is caused by the Hall of Fame shooting itself in the foot with stubbornness. For years, they were reaching out to different parties about ways to alleviate their crowding on the ballot, and routinely ignored all of them. They even outright rejected a proposal from the BBWAA themselves to expand the ballot from ten spots to twelve several years ago. Just glancing down the Ballot Tracker again, I can see a few voters who wanted to vote for Wagner but ran out of spots (listed in Column AE). I wouldn’t be shocked if that change by itself would have gotten him over the line.

    2024 Hall of Fame Announcement Day Preview

    After weeks of speculation and ballot reveals, this Tuesday finally marks the culmination of Hall of Fame season: at 5 PM Central Time (in a presentation broadcasted on and the MLB Network), we will learn who will be added to the hallowed halls of Cooperstown at this summer’s induction ceremony.

    Or, rather, who else will be added; we already know that longtime manager Jim Leyland will be there, after he was elected by the Veterans Committee back in December (not to mention broadcaster Joe Castiglione and writer Gerry Fraley, for the Ford C. Frick and BBWAA Career Excellence Awards, respectively). However, it’s looking like the BBWAA will be sending several players along as well. So, with under 24 hours to go, how are things shaping up?

    Well, for anyone who hasn’t been keeping up with Ryan Thibodaux’s Ballot Tracker: just last night, we learned of our 200th ballot, meaning we already know how likely just over half of the electorate has voted (there were 389 votes for the 2023 election, but that total fluctuates year-to-year). Those are the numbers that I’ll be working with for this piece; however, please note depending on what time you’re reading this, these numbers may already be outdated compared to what’s in the Tracker, since so many writers wait to release their votes until the morning of. I’m largely going to be speaking about trends in the voting anyway, so it won’t matter too much for the analysis.

    Right off the bat, there are two things about this evening’s announcement that I feel like I can say for certain. One is that multiple people will be getting the call this year, and the second is that ballot newcomer Adrian Beltre will be leading the pack. The 3000-hit third baseman sits at 99% right now, well above the 75% of the vote that a player needs to hit to secure a plaque.

    I’m really not sure how anyone could object to his case, and I suppose I could look up the two “No” votes and interrogate their reasoning, but quite frankly, I only have so many hours in a day and they won’t make all that much of a difference. Here’s the all-time leaderboard in highest voting percentage if you’d like to follow along at home; we know Beltre isn’t going to be the second unanimous choice in Hall history (after Mariano Rivera back in 2019), but 99% would put him at fourth-best ever, if it holds.