There are five times of year I love most, as a fan of the game of baseball. There’s Opening Day, the MLB Draft, the trade deadline, the Winter Meetings, and then the Hall of Fame voting.
The excellent BBHOF Tracker, for the 2017/2018 off-season is here, now. If you are just now finding out about it, thank Ryan Thibodaux, who runs the tracker every off-season (you can see records from past years on the tracker linked above).
This marks the beginning of an exciting time for me, where I will refresh the tracker at least once a day, curious to see if more ballots have been made public. As of this writing, there are only 10 ballots up, but that number will start to skyrocket in the coming weeks and months.
This is the start of a series, where I will be recounting the majority of players on the ballot, explaining why I believe they will or will not make the Hall of Fame (this year, or ever), and explaining my own hypothetical ballot, were I given a chance to cast one. Unfortunately, I’m not big, so I don’t get a ballot. Darn.
This first entry will focus on the most likely first-year players to draw votes. They have been listed in the order of plausibility they get elected (in my opinion).
Chipper Jones is going to be a Hall of Famer. There is not a single doubt in my mind, and if you are reading this, you probably feel the same. He’s a slam dunk choice, thanks to his excellent hitting ability.. The biggest argument against him is that he has said a few controversial things on Twitter. Not nearly as many things as Curt Schilling has, mind, but enough that it does at least put a question mark on his otherwise excellent character.
The biggest argument for why he belongs has to be a statistical analysis of what he did right as a player. Among those on the ballot, he ranks third in bWAR, and is the top player not named Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens, who have a very big argument against them being in the Hall of Fame that has nothing to do with their talent level. Jones doesn’t have these same marks against him, so he stands as the premier overall player for many. He doesn’t lead in any particular category that is listed on the ballot page at Baseball Reference, but he did basically everything extremely well, thanks in part to his sustained excellence over his 19 year career. Further, with how he played in his final season, there’s a decent argument he could have been a solid contributor for a 20th season.
Despite injuries targeting his knees and legs, Jones still managed to hit .287/.377/.455 over 112 games in his age 40 season. Among third basemen who had at least 400 plate appearances in 2012, Jones was able to manage being a middle of the pack player, on the whole, ultimately sustaining his excellence on having the highest walk rate among active third basemen (and 14th in all of MLB across all positions).
The 8-time All Star and 1-time MVP is going to make it to the Hall of Fame. It won’t be unanimous, and controversy could take a vote or two away from him. But despite a crowded ballot, there’s no chance he misses out on being a first ballot Hall of Famer.
Jim Thome feels to me like a certainty to make the Hall of Fame, and I believe there’s a pretty high chance this year will be all that it takes to ensure that. Thome, like Jones, had the right mix of statistical excellence and character that players inducted into Cooperstown tend to have. Known for his upbeat attitude and his jolly nature, Thome has many friends across the sport, and reflects well as a potential ambassador of the sport.
The biggest thing about Thome, was that he’s managed to avoid the stigma of the Steroid Era almost entirely, as his name is almost never thrown around as someone who was suspected of taking steroids, despite his eye popping 612 homeruns (good for 8th all time, and 2nd on this year’s ballot).
While he only went to the All Star Game five times in his career, and was never really a strong contender for an MVP award in any year. Rather it was his consistency, as with Jones, is what carried him to the end of his career. Between 1995 and 2007, Thome hit .284/.416/.577, with 477 home runs. There were only a handful of players in that same time frame who were worth more fWAR. Of them, one is a surefire Hall of Famer (Chipper Jones), and the other four should be (Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Andruw Jones, and Jim Edmonds). The entire list of the best offensive players of that era is a fascinating one, with as many as 25 Hall of Fame level position players arguably active at the same time.
I didn’t get to watch Jim Thome in his prime very much, but I can remember even in the twilight of his career, the fear that I sometimes had when our team faced a team with Jim Thome on it. Between 2007 and 2012 (the end of his career), he still managed to average 35 homeruns per 162 games. He wasn’t always healthy, and it showed, as he only played 110 games on average in those years, but when he was, he could change the game with one swing of the bat.
I’m going to preface this blurb by saying I respect Vizquel’s game a lot, but I do not personally believe him to be the third or even fourth most deserving first ballot player. I still believe there’s a good case for him as a Hall of Famer, because he was always a good guy of the sport, and played defense extremely well, and this often goes by the wayside when considering a player’s value.
Additionally, his longevity, among players on this ballot, is only surpassed by that of Jamie Moyer, which does say something about his ability to stick despite his pretty mediocre bat. The bat, unfortunately, is one of the major reasons I probably don’t have him in my top 10 players on the ballot, and also why I actually don’t know if he will hit the Hall of Fame. He serves as a litmus test for a couple of other players on the ballot, and his inclusion might make an argument for Scott Rolen easier.
He does have the second most hits among players on the ballot, but he also played far longer than all of the other players that are below him. There’s some debate that had he been able to accomplish getting 3000 hits, that he’d be a no-doubter, but I’m not sure I buy that argument. While it has been a bench mark in the past, Omar Vizquel would likely be the worst offensive player to get 3000 hits. None of the players to get that far had a worse batting average, or on base percentage. The closest comparison is Cal Ripken Jr., a player whose legacy could father an entire article by itself, were we to dive that deeply into things.
I’m not saying Vizquel is not a Hall of Famer. He is worthy, but there are definite flaws in the argument for him.
Scott Rolen is probably the most consistently underrated player on this ballot, and truthfully, I fear he will disappear off this ballot too quickly to get the needed support, much like Jim Edmonds, another very underrated player who was the victim of a loaded ballot.
Like with Vizquel, a lot of why Rolen gets underrated is because he played a strong defensive game, rather than being the best of the best, offensively, throughout his career. Unlike with Vizquel, however, Scott Rolen also was an above average hitter, who managed 12 seasons with an OPS+ above 100.
The biggest argument against Rolen, is also unfortunately the hardest one to debate against, as the ballot is loaded, and will continue to be loaded for years to come, unless reform is had within the way the process is done.
His offensive stats don’t pop off the screen at you, for sure, but to use that as an argument against Rolen is to ignore what made Rolen such a fantastic player. A brief look at a list of third basemen across the history of the game shows that Rolen’s defensive numbers more than warrant consideration, they practically demand it. On that entire list of players, I think the only player you can say was an objectively better defensive third baseman was Adrian Beltre, a surefire Hall of Famer when he finally decides to retire.
Scott Rolen probably will not get much support in this cycle. Hopefully he’ll get enough support to stay on the ballot. He’s like Omar Vizquel, except a better player in basically every meaning of the word.
The last player I’m going to focus on for the sake of this article is Andruw Jones. Not because I think he’s the 5th most deserving player, but because his argument represents an interesting test for Hall of Fame voters. For what was essentially the first half of his career, this Jones seemed to be on the cusp of being an active, surefire Hall of Famer.
The counting stats were there, he was always in some kind of award discussion, whether it was for his power, or his surprising defensive aptitude, or his general ability to be awesome at all things baseball. You wouldn’t be faulted for thinking there was a good chance of him continuing that excellence into his early 30’s.
However, injuries and decline both came early. Once he hit 30, he seemed to have lost the ability to hit, and soon after, the ability to field. He would get a brief resurgence at the end of his career, becoming a rather threatening role player, but he was never the same player once he got over the age 30 hump.
The first half of his career was excellent, without question. The second half left much to be desired, and is ultimately why I believe he will not be making the Hall of Fame.
With all due respect to the rest of the first-year players on the ballot (Chris Carpenter, Johnny Damon, Livan Hernandez, Orlando Hudson, Aubrey Huff, Jason Isringhausen, Carlos Lee, Brad Lidge, Hideki Matsui, Kevin Millwood, Jamie Moyer, Johan Santana, Kerry Wood, and Carlos Zambrano), there’s practically zero chance of legitimate support for any of them, given such a crowded ballot.
One name on that list might stand out to you, it did to me, after all. Johnny Damon, the player that once broke my heart when he went to the Yankees, is finally up for election. It feels like yesterday to me, watching him in the Red Sox outfield, as I was becoming a fan. His role in helping us win the World Series in 2004 gave me a much better coloring of his overall level of being a player, so it comes as a bit of a shock to remember that he only played here for four seasons. In either case, he deserves to be remembered by those of us who were lucky enough to watch him play, but he is not a Hall of Famer, by any stretch of the imagination.