Tuesday afternoon saw the results announcement for 2021 Hall of Fame balloting, and there’s a lot to break down on this year’s ballot. Let’s jump right in.
First off, no one made it in off the BBWAA ballot, the first time this has happened since 2013. That’s not terribly shocking, since no one was trending over the necessary 75% on Ryan Thibodaux’s ballot tracking project. More shocking was that fourteen writers turned in a blank ballot, which is apparently a record. This ballot was less packed than it has been the last few years, but I still think there were a number of deserving candidates on it.
Leading the pack was Curt Schilling, who finished at 71.1%, just 16 votes shy of induction. That is still an improvement on 2020, when he finished at 70%, which is a little surprising when you consider that the pre-vote tracking had him down 3 votes from 2020. In total, that means he went from 278 ballots in ’20 to 285 this year. Another year like this won’t be enough to get him over the line. Maybe he’ll get a bigger boost from it being his tenth and final year, something that does happen regularly with candidates, but refraining from spouting gross bullshit for a year would probably also do enough to win him the votes he needs. Who knows if he’s capable of that, though?
Another major story from the year, as it is every year, was the candidacies of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. 2021 also represented their penultimate chances at election, and has long been the trend, there wasn’t a lot of movement for either. Bonds finished at 61.8%, while Clemens was just below him at 61.6%.
Both marks are within 2% of their 2020 finishes, which means they’ll need a little over 50 voters to flip from no to yes to make the leap. The only way that seems especially likely is if there are a number of voters who deliberately planned on waiting until their last ballot to support them. It’s more plausible that there are voters considering that strategy for them than it is for some candidates, but it still doesn’t strike me as a group with over 50 constituents. As mentioned, 2022 marks their final year on the BBWAA ballot, after which point they will officially become the hottest topic the Veterans Committee has to deal with (of course, the BBWAA won’t be totally relieved of controversial all-time greats at that point either, but more on that later).
But the more interesting story than the top of the ballot this year was actually the middle of the ballot, which saw some substantial gains for a number of players. And not only that, but for a number of them, it was the continuation of a trend from last year.
Leading the pack is Scott Rolen, who followed up last year’s 18-point jump with another 17.5-point leap to 52.9%. That repetition, combined with finally breaking the 50% mark, puts him in a very good spot; he just needs a little over 22% of the vote, and he has six-years to make up that gap, with none of the baggage that the three players above him have (not even mentioning the four extra years he has without them starting in 2023). I think right now, you can put him down for a 2023 ETA, although maybe two straight years of big jumps convinces a few more voters to check the box next year and he goes in a year earlier.
Rolen made the biggest jump, but multiple other players also saw their percentages increase by double digits. Billy Wagner, in attempt number six, jumped from 31.7% to 46.4%, the third biggest leap of the day. That means that, over the last two cycles, he’s improved nearly 30 full points. In other words, in his last four years on the ballot, he just has to match his improvement over the last two years to secure a plaque. It’s not a sure thing, but with Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, and Lee Smith all in Cooperstown, there are no other closers competing with him for limited spots. I think he does it, although I wouldn’t be shocked if he’s a year or two behind Rolen.
You also have to feel pretty good about the chances for Todd Helton. In his third go around, he fell just shy of 45% of the vote, at 44.9%. That places him right between Rolen and Wagner, in terms of improvement, at a 15.7-point jump. Again, that’s a little behind Rolen, but Helton also has an extra year on the ballot. Barring any big changes, he’ll probably be going in sometime around those two.
Gary Sheffield (40.6%) and Andruw Jones (33.9%) also had big leaps, although their cases aren’t quite as rosy as Rolen, Wagner, and Helton. Sheffield, in his seventh attempt, has seen some major improvement over the last two years (from 13.6% in 2019 to 30.5% last year to this year), but given his steroid ties, I don’t know how he gets past the ceiling that Bonds and Clemens seem stuck at. I expect he stops making leaps of this size in the next year or two, but given that I also didn’t expect him to pick up 27% in two years, I don’t know how confident I am in that prediction. Is there a big group of voters who check “No” on Bonds and Clemens but would consider Sheffield? I haven’t heard of one, but there are some pretty idiosyncratic voters, so I guess it’s possible.
Jones’s case, meanwhile, started from a much worse place than most of these other players. In 2018, he debuted at 7.3% of the vote, and only improved to 7.5% the next year. Granted, those were crowded ballots, but that’s still pretty low. Since then, though, he’s improved to 19.4% in 2020, and then that 33.9% mark this year. I’m not ruling his candidacy out at all, but it’s hard to see him making it in in two to three years when compared to the Rolen/Wagner/Helton trio. If Jones gets in, it’ll probably be in the last three years of his eligibility on the BBWAA ballot (or via the Veterans Committee, if that falls through for some reason). Two more years like the last two gets him to over 60%, though, and it’s hard to make that trajectory, with a few more ballots to spare after, look bad.
Omar Vizquel (49.1%) is the one player in this bunch that doesn’t look good, largely due to the fact that he’s the only returning player on the ballot to see his vote total decrease from 2020 to 2021. In slipping from 52.6%, he even fell behind Rolen, who he led last year. Vizquel has always been a marginal candidate, and multiple voters likely balked at voting for him again following The Athletic’s recent reporting on his off-field issues (including allegations of domestic violence against his wife, as well as separate accusations about conduct toward a coworker from his time as manager Birmingham Barons that apparently led to his early termination back in 2019). Breaking 50% is usually seen as a positive indication of future induction (whether by BBWAA vote or Veterans Committee), but Vizquel also wouldn’t be the first borderline Hall case to tank his own candidacy through poor off-the-field behavior (Steve Garvey also leaps to mind).
Moving down the list, Jeff Kent (32.4%, +4.9) improved, but not enough, given that he only has two more go-arounds. I think the VC will give him strong consideration once he ages off the ballot, but I can’t see him picking up the 40% he needs before then. Manny Ramirez (28.2%) didn’t see any change from 2020, so it could have been worse for him, I guess. The still doesn’t mean much. And Sammy Sosa’s chances (17%, +3.1) look pretty dead in the water, with only two years to go.
Five other players crossed the 5% threshold needed to return on the 2022 ballot: Andy Pettitte (13.7%), Mark Buehrle (11.0%), Torii Hunter (9.5%), Bobby Abreu (8.7%), and Tim Hudson (5.2%). I recently wrote about how Pettitte, Buehrle, and Hudson deserve more consideration, and I had similar thoughts last year about Abreu, so that’s good to see, at least, even if their chances of climbing to 75% are low. My thoughts on Hunter are a lot weaker, but it’s not like he was a bad player.
In addition to all of these names, 2022 will serve as the Hall of Fame ballot debut for Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz, for those of you worried that Bonds and Clemens falling off the ballot would mean an end to the performance enhancing drug discussion we get each winter. It’s hard to say how they’ll do until we start seeing some early returns next winter, but my gut says “strong debut at over 50%, but not first ballot”. Meanwhile, Mark Teixeira and Jimmy Rollins will attempt to follow in Hudson, Buehrle, and Hunter’s footsteps and reach 5%.
So overall, the next crop of newcomers isn’t as weak as this year’s, but it’s also not overwhelmingly strong, either. I expect another year of forward movement from this year’s big gainers, which could set the stage for another big leap in 2023, when Bonds, Clemens, Schilling, and Sosa all age off and are replaced by a class led by Carlos Beltran and… John Lackey, I guess? Weak ballots are good for holdovers, so I feel extra confident about Rolen, Wagner, and Helton’s chances in that stretch (as well as Andruw’s odds to set himself up for an election down the line).