Breaking Down the 2017 Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot

In just two weeks, the National Baseball Hall of Fame will announce its new inductees for the Class of 2017. The announcement will take place on January 18, and as someone who is fascinated with the history of the game, it’s always fun for me to make my hypothetical ballot. This year I’ve taken it a step further by digging deeper into each candidate’s credentials and highlighting points in favor of all legitimate candidates on the ballot. Players who played in ten MLB seasons and have been retired for five years are eligible to appear on the ballot, as well as all players who received at least 5% of the vote the previous year. This year, 34 former players were selected to have their cases examined. Of those 34, there are 19 who you could make an argument for and who have a realistic chance at reaching the 5% threshold. Tim Raines and Lee Smith are each in their final year of eligibility.

Barry Bonds

If you just focus on him as a player, there’s no doubt about it. Bonds is one of the greatest players of all-time. What people tend to forget is that before he started hitting home runs every eight at bats in the early 2000s, Bonds should have already been a first ballot Hall-of-Famer. After the 1998 season, he had already hit 441 home runs and stole 445 bases to go along with a Cooperstown worthy .290/.411/.556 slash line. He had also collected three NL MVP awards, eight Gold Gloves, and seven Silver Sluggers. The biggest hurdle in Bonds’ path to induction is getting enough voters to change their minds regarding steroid era candidates. Since it’s impossible to know exactly who used and who didn’t, when Hall of Famer voters have tried to determine who should be punished, it’s led to inconsistencies. Players who have never been connected to PEDs at all, like Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, have been unfairly penalized on past ballots. Plus, odds are that there is someone, if not multiple players, already in the Hall of Fame who used steroid that we’ll never know about. From the 1990s into the new millennium, baseball largely turned a blind eye to the issue. That doesn’t make it right, but it does make it was a characteristic of the era. If the league didn’t care to do anything about it, the Hall of Fame should honor the best players of the era. That is my stance on the steroid era, although many voters and fans will understandably disagree.

Jeff Bagwell

Bagwell is one of the more underrated players in history. It’s widely accepted that he was a great player, but he never gets mentioned as one of the all-time great first baseman. He should. Even in an offensive era, Bagwell was still a significantly better than average hitter, amassing a career 149 OPS, good for 38th all-time. Most players with 1,500 runs and RBIs are in the Hall of Fame, but Bagwell was able to achieve the feat despite playing just 15 seasons. Of the players to reach those significant career milestones, only nine others also have over 400 home runs and 200 stolen bases. Bagwell is the only first baseman. In addition, there are only 11 players in history to match his career slash line (.297/.408/.540). I’m not sure why it’s taken Bagwell so long to reach the Hall of Fame, but hopefully this will be the year he finally gets the honor he is long overdue.

Roger Clemens

The same rationale used to explain Barry Bonds’ case also applies to Clemens. The Rocket was an exceptionally great pitcher who would be an easy Hall of Fame selection if he retired after 1996. He went on to blow away hitters for over another decade, ending up with 4,672 strikeouts (3rd all-time) and a record seven Cy Young Awards. His 3.12 ERA is remarkable considering the era and division in which he pitched, and his 354 wins are a total that will probably never be surpassed again. Like with Bonds, I am choosing to ignore the PED connection that Clemens carries and focus on him as one of the best players of his era. Players who were caught after drug testing began following the 2005 season, like Manny Ramirez, are a different story. I’ll get to that later.

Vladimir Guerrero

Guerrero will go down as one of the best players of the 2000s. Immense power, speed, and a cannon arm made him fascinating to watch, so I’m hoping he will get in sooner rather than later. His case is unfairly hurt by his relatively short career (by Hall of Fame standards), very much like Jeff Bagwell’s. Guerrero’s career totals are very good, but they don’t tell the whole story. If you look at his best ten-year stretch from 1998-2007, there was not one year in which Guerrero failed to have an OPS+ under 138, hit under .307, or slug under .547. That’s not just one of the stretches of hitting in the last 20 years; it’s one of the greatest ten-year runs in the history of baseball. Guerrero’s career WAR of 59.3 isn’t as impressive as some of the other players on this year’s ballot, but it’s again more of a product of his shorter career than anything else. My best memories of Guerrero were when he played in Montreal earlier in his career, and at that time he was probably the most talented player I’ve ever seen.

Trevor Hoffman

His chances depend upon how different voters value his role. For what his job demanded, Hoffman was easily one of the most effective closers in the baseball history. Then again, he was only a one-inning pitcher, unlike the other relievers in the Hall of Fame who would typically close out games by pitching the last two or three innings. There isn’t really a precedent for the modern closer getting into the Hall of Fame, but after Mariano Rivera (who will be elected easily in 2019) ranks Hoffman and another pitcher who happens to be on this ballot. From 1994-2009, Hoffman never had a WHIP over 1.18 and only had three seasons with an ERA over 3.00. Known for having one of the best changeups ever, he managed to strike out 9.4 batters per nine innings even though he was never considered to be as dominant as other closers. Relief pitchers are very much a critical part of baseball, so we must recognize those who filled that role the best. Like DH’s however, the limited capacity of their role means that they should be judged by a higher standard for Hall of Fame consideration. Luckily for Hoffman, he fits into the highest standard of relief pitchers.

Jeff Kent

Kent’s biggest claim to fame is that he hit more home runs than anybody else who played second base. He passed Ryne Sandberg in that category on October 2, 2004, although Sandberg was a better player as an elite defender who also stole 344 bases. That’s not to say Kent’s career was all offense. He wasn’t a bad second baseman, and turned a double play about as good as anyone. A bit of a late bloomer, his career really took off near age 30, when he became a potent run producer for the Giants, often acting as Barry Bonds’ protection in the lineup. From that point forward, Kent remained remarkably consistent, batting .295 and averaging an even 25 home runs, 100 RBI, and 85 runs scored per season for the rest of his career. 560 career doubles boost his resume as well. He’s a Hall of Famer in my mind, but unfortunately with the 10 player limit, he’ll be left off of many ballots for more qualified candidates. It’s going to be a long uphill climb for Kent to get inducted, but at least he got to compete on Survivor.

Edgar Martinez

Martinez is another guy whose role is one with virtually no Hall of Fame precedent. There are players currently enshrined who spent significant time at DH, but none to the extent that Martinez did. To put a player who barely spent any time in the field over the last ten years of his career, his hitting stats should have to be significantly better than the average Hall of Fame hitter. If Martinez doesn’t fit that bill, he at least comes close. He wasn’t really a power hitter until age 32, yet he still ended up with over 300 home runs and 500 doubles. His .312/.418/.515 slash line is quite impressive considering he played into his 40’s, when most other guys experience a big drop off in production that hurts their rate stats. Believe it or not, there are only 23 .300/.400/.500 players in history (with at least 3,000 plate appearances), and all but one of them who is eligible for the Hall is either already in or still on the ballot. If you raise the criteria to .310/.410/.510, Edgar becomes one of just 16. I’ve long considered him a borderline candidate, but I’m finally convinced that he belongs in the Hall.

Fred McGriff

The Crime Dog may be the ultimate borderline candidate. He was very good for a long time, but rarely stood out as excellent. He was actually pretty phenomenal in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and was recognized with six straight top-10 MVP finishes from ’89-’94. McGriff’s familiar 30-homer, 100-RBI production stayed pretty steady and consistent throughout the rest of his career, but he became overshadowed by the offensive explosion of the mid-1990s. That’s not a knock on him, but reasoning as to why he was never as famous as some of the other sluggers during the era. For a Hall of Famer though, McGriff’s offense is borderline as a first baseman. One contemporary I rank ahead of him is Carlos Delgado, who inexplicably fell off the ballot after one year. I wouldn’t have an issue if McGriff ever got in, but I don’t include him as one of the ten players on my ballot.

Mike Mussina

A proper evaluation of Mussina’s career requires putting his numbers into perspective. His 3.68 lifetime ERA, would be the second highest among all Hall of Fame pitchers behind only Red Ruffing, but his 123 ERA+ would be ahead of 38 Hall of Famers. The disparity is the result of pitching virtually his entire career in an inflated offensive era against some notoriously dangerous AL East lineups in a lot of hitter’s ballparks. Mussina was a consistently durable control pitcher for his entire career, but doesn’t get enough credit due to his misleading career numbers. In fact, only seven pitchers who threw at least 2,000 innings over the timeframe of Mussina’s career (1991-2008) had a lower ERA and WHIP than Mussina. Four are in the Hall of Fame, and the other three are on this ballot.

Jorge Posada

Posada was one the best catchers of the last twenty years and a staple of the most recent Yankees dynasty. However, he was never as good offensively as Mike Piazza or as great defensively as Ivan Rodriguez, his two top contemporaries. He is probably much better than people realize, though. Among catchers, only Piazza, Mickey Cochrane, and Bill Dickey were better in batting, on base, and slugging percentage for their careers. With that being said, Posada falls short for me when compared to other hitters from his era, and he would rank either 18th or 19th on this ballot.

Tim Raines

Raines enters his 10th and final year on the ballot, but luckily momentum has been building for him in the last few years. In 2016, he was checked on nearly 70% of ballots, and saw significant 14.8% increase. Ryan Thibodaux, who has been working tirelessly on his now famous annual BBHOF Tracker, estimates that Raines will only need a net gain of 20 votes to reach 75%. Through 160 public ballots (as of Wednesday morning), he has already picked up 23 votes from writers who didn’t vote for him last year. Raines is another candidate who has been greatly overlooked, maybe because his debut on the ballot came at a time where speedy leadoff hitters were being phased out of the game. Yet, Raines ranks 5th all-time with 808 stolen bases, and was arguably the most efficient base stealer ever. Of the 351 players who have stolen 200 bases, only Carlos Beltran has a better career percentage since caught stealing started being recorded. With his super effective baserunning, .385 career on base percentage, and ability to get extra base hits, Raines was everything you could ask for from a leadoff hitter. Compared side-by-side with Lou Brock, Raines actually appears to be much better. It’s time for Rock to get this long overdue honor.

Manny Ramirez

On the surface, Ramirez is one of the greatest hitters of all-time. The 12-time all-star ranks in the top 20 in career home runs, RBIs, slugging percentage, and OPS. He also added an MLB record 29 home runs in 111 postseason games. Like some of the other bigger names on this ballot, Ramirez is connected to PEDs. Unlike anyone else, he tested positive and was suspended not once, but twice. I place Ramirez in a different category than Bonds, Clemens, and Sammy Sosa for that reason. Although all of those players are widely thought to be PED users, they all played for at least a few years after MLB began testing in 2005, but only Ramirez ever failed a test. As I wrote earlier, the pre-testing era is too complicated to differentiate who was using what and for how long, so I’m willing to ignore it and just recognize the very best players of the era. But with Ramirez, it’s hard to vote for someone who knowingly broke the rules twice. Maybe if he was only suspended once, it’d be worth giving him a second chance. But unfortunately, Ramirez’s own poor choices ruined what would have already been a magnificent Hall of Fame career and washed away his legacy.

Ivan Rodriguez

Rodriguez made his mark as one of the greatest defensive catchers of all-time. Offensively, he was pretty good too, compiling 934 extra base hits and batting .296/.334/.464. From 1994-2004, Pudge was even better, hitting .315/.357/.513 with 229 home runs and 870 RBI over that 11-year stretch, highlighted by his 1999 MVP season. His biggest weakness as a hitter was that he rarely walked, averaging just 33 walks per 162 games and only once drawing more than 41. During his prime years, he made up for it with high batting averages, but as Rodriguez got older and his power and overall hitting ability declined, his on base percentage became more of a problem. But Rodriguez’s historic defensive abilities behind the dish paired with his well-above average hitting as a catcher make him worthy of Hall of Fame support.

Curt Schilling

If no one had ever introduced Schilling to social media, he would have a much easier path to induction. Although he only finished with 216 wins over 20 seasons and didn’t notch number 100 until his 13th year, Schilling has the best strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.38) in the modern era. His postseason performance also boosts his case. In 19 career postseason starts, Schilling posted a 2.23 ERA and 0.97 WHIP, while leading his teams to three World Series titles, including the 2001 Fall Classic when he shared co-MVP honors with Diamondbacks teammate Randy Johnson. Overall, Schilling’s career matches up pretty well with Mike Mussina, but Mussina was far more consistent over the course of his career. Schilling is very much a peak candidate. While he had stretches of dominance during the first half of his career, Schilling was more good than great. He became a more durable and reliable starter towards the end of the 1990s, but truly broke out in his mid-30’s after he was traded to Arizona. There, he compiled a 148 ERA+ over 781.2 innings and was a perennial Cy Young candidate. However, Schilling’s case is complicated by his frequent idiotic and repulsive tweets and comments, and in return, a large number of voters have removed him from their ballots, citing the Hall of Fame’s character clause. One way to look at it is to say it’s unfair to withhold support for him when players’ character has been so often ignored by the voters in the past, arguably rendering the clause irrelevant. On the other hand, it is part of the Hall of Fame’s voting criteria and many feel that Schilling has gone too far. For me, it doesn’t matter much right now since Schilling falls short of the top ten players on my ballot anyway. Still, if his vote total continues to plummet, Schilling has only himself to blame, despite his best efforts to have you believe otherwise.

Gary Sheffield

Sheffield was one of the most feared hitters of the 1990s into the 2000s, but he may have trouble standing out on a crowded ballot. His career totals make him appear worthy of the honor, as he was able to surpass the 1,600 run, 1,600 RBI, and 500 home run milestones. He also hit a healthy .292/.393/.514, made nine all-star teams, won five Silver Slugger awards, and had six top-ten MVP finishes. Two things work against Sheffield, though. One, his subpar defense detracts from his career value. I also believe it hurts the perception of players if they don’t have one or two main teams that they are associated with. Of the eight teams Sheffield played for, the Marlins are the only one he lasted more than four years with and he only played 100 games in a season twice with Florida. It’s unfair, but fewer people tend to push for the cases of guys like Sheffield and McGriff to be heard because they don’t have the same level support from any one fan base that Edgar Martinez (Mariners) or Jeff Bagwell (Astros) would have. I believe Sheffield’s a Hall of Famer, but I also think there are ten other players on the ballot more qualified.

Lee Smith

Before Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera, Smith was MLB’s all-time saves leader. Earlier in his career, Smith pitched at least 90 innings in relief four straight years, starting in 1983, and surpassed 100 innings twice. Later in his career, however, he became more of the modern one-inning closer. Smith is in his 15th and final year on the ballot and won’t get close to enough support for induction, but he will certainly get a long look by the specialized era committees in the future. While he was a top tier closer for a long time, Smith was not as good as fellow ballot mates Billy Wagner and Trevor Hoffman. Smith’s best quality was his consistency, as he never had an ERA higher than 3.88 until his 18th and final season. But for me, he falls slightly short of the prolonged dominance I would need to see from a Hall of Fame closer.

Sammy Sosa

Sosa’s Hall of Fame chances have been badly hurt by steroid rumors. He was named on an anonymous list in 2003 of players who allegedly had taken PEDs, though the validity of that list can be debated. Even Commissioner Rob Manfred questions the accuracy of that list and how much we should trust it. Nonetheless, Sosa did experience a huge power surge in the late 1990s, including a career high 66 in the epic 1998 season when he and Mark McGwire both surpassed the previous single-season home run record. From 1998-2003, Sosa slammed 332 home runs (averaging 55 per year) and slugged a video game-like .635. Though he had some very good years prior, that incredible run is where Sosa derives much of his career value. It shouldn’t be the job of writers to decide who’s innocent and who isn’t in regards to the steroid era, and as I already said, I make a distinction between the pre-testing era and post-testing era. Sosa never failed a drug test, nor is there any concrete evidence that he ever did anything wrong, so I’m judging him solely on his performance. He is a heavy peak candidate, but was so historically good during that six-year peak, and added enough very good seasons around it to convince me that he belongs in the Hall.

Billy Wagner

Although his vote percentage fell well short of Trevor Hoffman’s in his first year on the ballot, Wagner actually had much better rate stats throughout his career. Among all pitchers who have pitched at least 500 career innings since 1920, Wagner is first in WHIP, strikeout ratio, and batting average against and second in ERA and ERA+ to only Mariano Rivera. Aside from a bad 2000 season, Wagner never had an ERA in the three’s or a WHIP as high as 1.20 in 16 big league seasons. It’s hard to understand why then, with that level of career dominance, he isn’t given more credit for his accomplishments. One reason could be his unsightly postseason record. In 11.2 innings across 14 playoff appearances, Wagner surrendered 24 baserunners and 13 runs. It’s something worth considering, but I feel that playoff performance should be used to enhance a player’s credentials, like Rivera, rather than detract. Therefore, Wagner deserves a vote because of his unprecedented dominance on the mound.

Larry Walker

Walker gets a lot of criticism for putting up the bulk of his career numbers in Colorado’s Coors Field, but if you take a look at his stats, you’ll realize that he was pretty darn good during his early years with the Montreal Expos. Obviously, his ten years in Colorado did enhance his numbers, but Walker was such a great all-around player regardless that he should still be a Hall of Famer. It’s true that his career splits indicate a major discrepancy, as he looked a lot like Ted Williams in the batter’s box in Coors Field, hitting an insane .381/.462/.710 there during his career. However, he still hit .282 on the road, so it’s not like he was bad, and there’s something to be said for the idea that many Rockies players hit worse on the road than they normally would if they played their home games in a more neutral ballpark. OPS+ not only compares a player’s OPS against league averages, it also takes park factors into consideration. Walker’s career total stands at 141, which is outstanding. Plus, he wasn’t just a great hitter. Walker also excelled on the basepaths and in the field, making him a true five tool player. One point that works against Walker was his tendency to get hurt a lot. Only once did he play in 150 or more games (his 1997 MVP season), which proved damaging to his career counting stats. But his talent was so great when he was on the field that he still managed to put up great numbers throughout most of his career. No Hall of Famer has been inducted as a member of the Rockies, but Walker would make a great first representative.

Other players appearing on the ballot: Casey Blake, Pat Burrell, Orlando Cabrera, Mike Cameron, J.D. Drew, Carlos Guillen, Derrek Lee, Melvin Mora, Magglio Ordonez, Edgar Renteria, Arthur Rhodes, Freddy Sanchez, Matt Stairs, Jason Varitek, and Tim Wakefield.

These players won’t stay on the ballot past this year, and most will be lucky to get a single vote. However, I listed them because it’s still an accomplishment to even make it onto the ballot. Contrary to popular belief, not every player who plays ten seasons makes it the cut. Each player must first pass through a screening committee, and only about half of the eligible players typically make it each year. No one should mistake any of the players listed above as Hall of Famers, but each made major contributions to the game in different ways and should be recognized for that.

When constructing my own ballot, I pretended as though I actually had a vote. That means I needed to be conscious of who could fall off the ballot, who has the best chances to make a significant leap, and who has only one more chance. It also means I could only choose ten, even though there are fourteen players I’d select if each was subject to a simple yes/no vote.

Those ten players are: Bagwell, Bonds, Clemens, Guerrero, Hoffman, Mussina, Raines, Sosa, Wagner, and Walker.

If I could choose more than ten I would also vote for Kent, Martinez, Rodriguez, and Sheffield. I think they’re Hall of Famers; it’s just very difficult to find enough room for all of the worthy candidates.

For McGriff, Posada, Schilling, and Smith, they don’t make the cut for me this year, although my opinion could change on a couple of them in the future, as it did with Martinez’s case.

Manny Ramirez is a different story. As a player, he’s easily a Hall of Famer. However, I make a distinction between players who used PEDs before they were banned by MLB and players like Ramirez who were suspended after testing was implemented.

As with many of the statistically driven articles on this site, Baseball Reference proved again to be an invaluable source of information. Nearly every statistical total in this article was found on the site, and many of the comparisons were found through its Play Index feature.

Another big thanks is owed to the aforementioned Ryan Thibodaux, whose Ballot Tracker provides outstanding insight and analysis into the voting process. If you’re at all interested in the Hall of Fame voting process, Thibodaux’s work is a must-follow.

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