The last two weeks have marked the official start of Hall of Fame season; this past Monday saw the announcement of the 2020 baseball writers' ballot (the more traditional election everyone thinks about), while the week before featured the reveal of the Veterans Committee choices. We'll have plenty of time to dissect the BBWAA ballot, so let's instead start our discussion with the second group, since their vote and subsequent induction announcement will take place over the Winter Meetings the second week of December.
For those who aren't aware, the Veterans Committee exists as a sort of safety net for the Hall of Fame, designed to elect worthy players to the Hall who may have been overlooked the first time around. Whether they've always met the "worthy" part is debatable, but the BBWAA has absolutely missed out on deserving players in the past, so something like the VC is at least a necessary part of the process, but the exact form it has existed in has shifted multiple times over the years.
The current format rotates through different eras (this year's ballot focuses on 1966 to 1982), picking ten to twelve candidates from the group of players of that era who have aged off the normal Hall ballot, as well as any non-players like managers or executives. During the winter meetings, a committee of sixteen various Hall of Famers, writers, and executives will get together to discuss the ballot and vote; just like with the BBWAA's ballot, any person who gets 75% of the vote is inducted the following July.
This year's ballot contains nine players and one non-player: Dwight Evans, Steve Garvey, Tommy John, Don Mattingly, Thurman Munson, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker, Ted Simmons, Lou Whitaker, and Marvin Miller. As a quick note, I’ll be making frequent mention of a pair of less-common stats devised to compare Hall of Fame cases, namely JAWS and Hall Rating. The long and short of it is, both of them combine total career value and a player’s peak, with JAWS serving to rank players within their position and Hall Rating working as a sort of OPS+, but for the Hall minimum (so a player with a Hall Rating of 110 would be 10% better than the Hall Minimum). If you want to know more about them, you can read about JAWS here and Hall Rating here.
With that out of the way, let's take a look at each of them individually:
-Ted Simmons: Simmons is one of the more baffling snubs when it comes to Hall voting, when you look at his career totals. When he retired, he was the all-time leader in hits among catchers, and a hook like that is usually irresistible for Hall voters. Even now, over three decades since he played, he's still second all-time, behind just first-ballot inductee Ivan Rodriguez. His other counting stats weren't too shabby, either: his 1389 RBI trails just Yogi Berra behind the plate, and his 248 homers are a respectable eleventh at the position (and he retired in fifth, before the home run boom of the last few decades). Granted, some of that is due to his playing time (he retired the all-time leader in plate appearances by a catcher as well, and has been passed by only Carlton Fisk and Rodriguez), but it's not like that quantity dragged down his overall quality too badly, since his 118 OPS+ is still roughly in line with Fisk's 117 or Gary Carter's 115.
Most value stats back up that assessment as well. Baseball-Reference's WAR places him tenth all-time with 50.3, while Fangraphs’ WAR puts him eleventh with 54.2. As for Hall-specific stats, Bill James's Hall monitor has him at 125, where 100 means "likely inductee". Jay Jaffe's JAWS standard has him more or less in line with his positional average, with his 42.6 JAWS being the first catcher below their 44.7 Hall average. Adam Darowski's Hall rating puts him at 113, or 13% better than the Hall standard, which makes him twelfth among catchers.
That type of resume looks like more than enough to make the Hall of Fame, especially off a Veterans Committee ballot. My biggest hold-up to calling him likely though is that I have no idea why he's not in already. Maybe it's the Hall's general stinginess when it comes to catchers? Only fifteen major leaguers at the position have been selected for Cooperstown, after all. Or maybe it's an Alan Trammell-like situation, where a bunch of contemporary inductees (Carter, Fisk, Johnny Bench) plus some high-offense successors (Rodriguez, Mike Piazza) made him look less impressive? What the reason is, the last time around, Simmons fell just a vote shy of induction after many prior attempts, so it looks 2020 might finally be his year.
-Thurman Munson: While we’re on the topic of the Hall’s reluctance to vote for catchers, let’s cover the other catcher on the ballot this year. Munson is a complicated and tragic case, given his mid-season death via aviation accident in 1979. He’s just not going to have counting stats, which have traditionally been the deciding factor in Hall of Fame votes; Munson had only just passed 1500 hits and 100 homers, playing in his eleventh season at the age of 32. He was still a good hitter for a catcher, with a 116 OPS+ for his career, but his defense behind the plate was as much or more of a strong suit.
As someone who was not alive in 1979, it can be hard for me to understand what Munson’s place in the game was at the time. But while looking through his rankings among catchers, I noticed this, and it was a little eerie how well it worked:
Thurman Munson: 11 seasons, 1423 games, 46.1 bWAR, 37.0 seven-year peak WAR, 41.6 JAWS, 7-time All Star, 2x World Series winner, 1970 Rookie of the Year, 1976 MVP
Buster Posey: 11 seasons, 1258 games, 42.1 bWAR, 37.0 seven-year peak WAR, 39.5 JAWS, 6-time All Star, 3x World Series winner, 2010 Rookie of the Year, 2012 MVP
I strongly believe Posey is a future Hall of Famer, and I think any retelling of baseball in the 2010s needs to include him. Seeing that Munson was that for the 1970s strongly swings my opinion on his induction. And it’s also worth noting that, despite his short career, Munson still provided the type of value you’d want from a Hall of Fame catcher, placing seventeenth all-time at the position by bWAR thanks to a seven-year peak that tops all but seven other catchers. Given that there are fifteen catchers in the Hall, Ted Simmons will probably make sixteen this year, and one of the other players ahead of Thurman in total value is the not-yet-eligible Joe Mauer, I really don’t see career length being a good enough reason to keep him out.
-Dwight Evans: Evans is one of the two impressive debuts on this year's Veterans ballot, with 2020 marking his first appearance in Hall voting since his original 1997 to 1999 run. He only topped 10% in 1998 before falling to under 4% the following year, but it's not hard at all to argue that he deserved better. For example, just take a look at how he compares to two of his corner outfield contemporaries, Hall of Famers Tony Gwynn and Tim Raines:
Gwynn was clearly the best hitter of the trio, but like Raines, Evans managed to match his OBP through sharp batting eyes. And while Raines added a lot of value with his stolen bases, Evans instead managed to make up the gap with some extra pop and a surprisingly-good glove (he won eight Gold Gloves, and advanced stats seem to back up that view). That all-around value is part of what's made him a favorite Hall dark horse candidate for some of the advanced stats voters over the last decade. JAWS places him at fourteenth all-time at the position (52.2, versus the 56.8 average of 26 Hall of Famers in right), as does Hall Rating (124). Overall, this is a very solid Veterans Committee candidate, and hopefully he can pick up some more support in his second go-around.
-Steve Garvey: Once upon a time, Garvey looked like a plausible Hall of Fame candidate, but his reputation has taken a hit and our understanding of the game has deepened. Both factors have worked against his candidacy. His case rests mostly on his 2599 hits and the bevy of awards he picked up in part from being a popular player on a run of good L.A. Dodgers team (including 10 All-Star selections, the 1974 MVP, and a pair of NLCS and All-Star Game MVPs). All of that in isolation doesn't seem like a bad case...
But everything else you can look at works against him. For example, those 2599 hits came with a .294 average, which is just 48th among first basemen with 3000 PA. Other players can make up for that with some power or a good eye or by playing a tough position, but Garvey didn't; his .446 slugging percentage is 91st at first, while his .329 OBP is an abysmal 153rd all-time. That all averages out to a 117 OPS+, which would be acceptable for a Hall of Fame catcher or middle infielder, but looks pretty rough on a first baseman; it puts him equal with guys like Wally Joyner and Ron Fairly. Similarly, he didn't even reach 40 WAR (Baseball-Reference or Fangraphs), and neither JAWS nor Hall rating has him in the top fifty all-time at his position. It was a fine career, but it seems hard to justify throwing a vote his way, let alone on such a stacked ballot.
-Don Mattingly: Mattingly had a Hall-level peak, for sure: from 1984 to 1989, he batted .327/.372/.530 (a 147 OPS+), averaged over 200 hits a season, and totaled 33.0 bWAR and 31.7 fWAR. That's about half of a Hall of Fame career, for sure.
The problem is that those six years are basically all of his case. He played parts of eight other years (although one was just a cup of coffee in 1982), and those eight years didn't even amount to 1000 hits between them. His batting line from the age of 29 on was just .286/.345/.405, barely above league average (a 105 OPS+), and in those final six seasons, he was worth around just 9 WAR in both versions we're looking at. That peak helps him a lot over Garvey, but it's still lackluster compared to most other Hall of Famers. JAWS and Hall Rating both place him 39th all-tie at first base. If you really rate peak value and fame highly when it comes to Cooperstown, I can't say he'd be a bad choice, but that's really about all there is going for him.
-Dale Murphy: Of course, if you're a fan of "high peak, nothing else" candidates, Murphy might be an even better choice than Mattingly. Murphy played in parts of eighteen seasons; in the '80s, the center fielder picked up 308 homers and 1553 hits while batting .273/.361/.491 (a 132 OPS+), good for 47.1 bWAR and 43.9 fWAR. That stretch saw him win two MVPs as well.
However, his career totals aren't much above that: 2111 hits, 398 homers, 46.5 bWAR, 44.3 fWAR. Yeah, those other eight seasons actually brought his career total *down* half a win in Baseball-Reference's version. It also doesn't help that his first two seasons were a pair of twenty-game call-ups, and his final two were 44 combined games of injury-plagued .400 OPS affairs, so his career was really just a good decade and four years as a replacement-level player. If you think a really good decade can make a candidate, Murphy has a decent case, although it's worth pointing out that B-R and Fangraphs have him just tenth and twelfth, respectively, among position player WAR for his peak decade, so it's still not like he was head and shoulders above the field. JAWS has him twenty-fifth all-time among center fielders, about 14 points below the position average (57.8 to 43.9), and Hall Rating has him tied for thirtieth at 87. He wouldn't be the worst choice for the Hall (*particularly* compared to some other Veterans Committee choices), and the longer peak makes me inclined to put him above Mattingly, but it still doesn't seem like enough to me, especially not this year.
-Dave Parker: Dave Parker is a regular fixture on VC ballots at this point, and is always a hard one for me to write because he is one of my dad’s favorite players. And Parker is not a bad player, which is sometimes what it feels like you’re saying in Hall of Fame pieces where you aren’t sold on a player’s candidacy. In truth, Parker would not be the worst player in Cooperstown, and there are even already multiple players there who look a lot like him. If you could somehow temporally swap Parker with, say, Chuck Klein or Kiki Cuyler or Sam Thompson, there’s a good chance Parker is the one inducted and not whoever you switched him with. If you got him in front of a voting bloc as favorable as the one Harold Baines faced last year, he would stand at least as good a chance at induction, and he would look a lot less out of place in the overall Hall of Fame.
Like Mattingly and Murphy, Parker at his peak was absolutely a Hall of Famer, and MVP and 7-time All Star. He first topped 100 games in a season in 1975, and from that year through 1979, he was worth over 30 WAR (whether you use Baseball-Reference or Fangraphs). That’s amazing! And unlike Mattingly or Murphy, he didn’t totally drop off the face of the earth; he picked up his final three All Start selections in 1985, 1986, and 1990 (that last one was as a kind of one-dimensional 39-year-old DH, but it still counts), and finished his career with 2712 hits, 339 homers, and 1493 RBI.
But the middle bit of his career sinks his case a lot. His ages-29-to-33 seasons, when he battled injuries and drugs, are just day-and-night with what immediately preceded them. He went from averaging a .321/.377/.532 slashline (a 147 OPS+) in 150 games a year with good defense to just .281/.319/.431 (106) in 116 games a season with poor defense. Neither version of WAR credits him with even 5.0 wins cumulatively between those five years. That’s just really rough, and it probably cost him a shot at both 3000 hits and the Hall. Like with Murphy and Mattingly, it’s just hard to justify squeezing him in this year, with so many other good candidates.
-Marvin Miller: Miller should already be in Cooperstown in some form; few people have had an impact on the game as big as he has, let alone non-players. Miller served as the first head of the players’ union, and played a critical role in things like the end of the reserve clause, modern free agency, and the MLBPA being the strongest players’ union in sports for years. Not many non-players get inducted into Cooperstown, but the ones that do tend to have a resume like that.
But the Hall of Fame is deeply indebted to staying on the good side of owners, none of whom were particularly fond of him for obvious reasons, so for years, they looked for ways to avoid acknowledging him in some way while enshrining all of the MLB Commissioners who tried in vain to stop his work. He’s been a constant fixture of VC ballots since then, but he always seems to hover in the 40-70% range when he needs 75% (keep in mind, the modern voting format usually gives just over a quarter of the votes to executives). From what I can tell, Miller seemed quite aware of this and made some form of peace with it before passing in 2012, and his family has been somewhat against a posthumous induction as it feels somewhat cynical. I understand that take, but I also feel like his career still deserves that recognition just as much as it did years ago. Still, on a crowded ballot like this year’s, maybe that’s a good enough reason to hold off; Miller won’t be getting any less dead, so maybe try and honor the living players in the meantime.
-Lou Whitaker: Whitaker is finally making his first Veterans Committee appearance, and just second overall Hall of Fame ballot following his debut at 2.9% on the 2001 ballot. And it’s really good to see, because the Veterans Committee exists to help guys like him, who were underrated in their time and have seen massive re-evaluations in the years since. His similarly-underrated double player partner Alan Trammell finally made it in on the last Modern Baseball ballot two years ago, so maybe this time is finally Lou’s turn.
One of the things that has really helped build Whitaker’s case in the last few decades, in my mind, has been the creation of value stats like WAR that helped people realize just how good Whitaker was at being a jack-of-all-trades on the diamond. If you don’t know better, it’s easy to see his 75.1 bWAR or 68.1 fWAR and think it must be wrong in some way, but the components add up. For instance, his .276 average, 2369 hits, and 244 homers don’t look impressive on their own, but they’re only part of a larger skill set. Whitaker had a great batting eye, taking 1197 extra walks and bumping his OBP up to a very respectable .363. And while he wasn’t a slugger, he had solid doubles power, adding 420 of them to his totals and bumping his slugging percentage up to .426. All in all, that makes for a .789 OPS and a 117 OPS+.
Coincidentally, that’s the same OPS+ as Stever Garvey! But where he ranks just outside the top 90 all-time at first, Whitaker is tied for 18th all-time among second basemen with 3000 PA; among Hall of Fame second basemen, he’d actually be just above the middle of the pack (since some of the people ahead of him all-time are active players like José Altuve or early baseball stars with short careers like Fred Dunlap). And on top of providing a lot of offense at a tough position, he was a really good fielder there, as well! Both versions of WAR put him in the top-25 all-time defensively at second (Fangraphs has him 16th, while B-R has him 24th). He even managed three Gold Gloves, despite playing at the same time as Frank White, perennial Gold Glover and one of the ten best fielding second basemen of all-time.
And in a way, that also sort of gets at why Lou Whitaker was so good. White is definitely one of the best fielding second basemen of all-time, but he also had a career OPS+ of 85. Bill Mazeroski is also in that discussion; he carried an 84 OPS+. So many other guys near the top of the fielding leaderboards were below average hitters for their career, like Placido Polanco or Nellie Fox or Hughie Critz. Meanwhile, when you look at guys with a better OPS+ than Whitaker, you get plenty of all-bat, no-glove guys like Jeff Kent and George Grantham. Whitaker is very likely one of the twenty best hitters and fielders all-time at his position; that should be enough for Cooperstown considering they already have twenty inducted second basemen, but looks even more impressive when you consider that most other players in those groups would only be appearing in one of them. And that’s why value stats like WAR, or JAWS (56.5, thirteenth all-time at second), or Hall Rating (144, sixth) rate him so highly.
-Tommy John: My stance on John’s candidacy has shifted over the years, but I think I’ve finally settled on “a bit of a borderline Hall case, but with a massive tiebreaker in his favor”. I mean, think about it; the guy hasn’t thrown a pitch in three decades, but he’s still going to get mentioned more in a season than many still-active pitchers. And sure, he didn’t do the surgery (although I think inducting Frank Jobe as a pioneer as well might also be a good call), but volunteering to be the first guinea pig for it still took a lot of guts.
Also, Tommy John racked up a ton of innings, which is pretty valuable in on it’s own (after all, it’s not like they were below-average innings, either). I think there might have been a tendency back in the day to write that off as part of his eponymous surgery, but given that so few people since has matched him, it’s probably just as much that he was a freak of nature. In the liveball era (1920-on), he’s eleventh in innings pitched with 4710.1, and the only other pitchers with 4500+ innings not in Cooperstown right now are Roger Clemens and Jim Kaat.
And like I said, it’s not like they were bad innings. His ERA for his career was 3.34, good for a solid 111 ERA+ (which is actually twelfth among those fifteen pitchers I mentioned with 4500+ innings, ahead of Kaat, Don Sutton, and Early Wynn). And despite not being a power pitcher or racking up many strikeouts, he had a similar FIP (3.38) in part thanks to having pretty good control and being shockingly good at limiting the home run over his long career (his 0.58 HR/9 is pretty respectable for the modern era) despite pitching until he was 46 on a rebuilt ligament. His peak wasn’t super high, but that all was still good for 62.1 bWAR and 79.4 fWAR. That lack of peak does hurt him in things like JAWS (48.0, 85th among pitchers) and Hall Rating (106, 78th), but like I said, “borderline but with a big tiebreaking factor” feels like a fair description.
Now that we have all of that out of the way, that leaves us with the two big questions: who would I vote for, and who do I think will be elected this time? As you probably gathered from my writing, there are six people here that I would consider supporting: Simmons, Evans, Whitaker, Miller, Munson, and John. Unfortunately, this election limits each voter to four choices, meaning two need to be cut. I think Miller is extremely deserving, but his views on getting elected posthumously do give me pause, even if I'm not sure that I agree with that view of Cooperstown.
Since I'm going to need cut someone, though, I might as well defer to his views on this in the meantime. And on that note, I might as well save Munson for next time; Simmons, Evans, Whitaker, and John are all still alive to enjoy a potential election, and they should be the focus to avoid another situation like Ron Santo a few years ago, where he was finally elected in the first ballot after his death.
As for who *will* make it in this time, Simmons is the obvious choice, falling one vote short last time. With both of the players ahead of him on the 2018 ballot getting elected, he's the obvious next in line. Miller was the fourth place finisher two years ago, but at only seven of the needed twelve votes, he was still fairly far away.
If you're looking for a second VC choice to be joining Ted on stage next summer, Lou Whitaker or Dwight Evans are your better choices. With no prior appearances to go off of, there's a lot of uncertainty here, but both are strong candidates just going by their resumes. That didn't mean much for them on the BBWAA ballot, but things change, and many more people today view them as worthy.
It's not hard to picture two-thirds of the committee going for them this time, especially if a strong advocate of theirs winds up among the voters (we’ll have a better idea on the specifics when the voters are announced, sometime around the start of the Winter Meetings). Right now, though, I'd bet on Whitaker before Evans, thanks to his longtime teammates Jack Morris and Alan Trammell going in last time around, leading some writers to note Sweet Lou's key role on those Detroit Tigers teams.
At the very least though, I say we'll be learning of one new Cooperstown member come the end of the Winter Meetings.