|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.