The Baseball Hall of Fame could see a new addition by the end of the night, when the results of the Baseball Writers Association of America balloting are revealed at 6 p.m. ET on MLB Network.
All 28 former players — 14 returnees and 14 newcomers — on this year’s ballot are vying to be recognized as one of the best to ever play the game. However, what most fans don’t realize is that the list of players inducted into Cooperstown is much larger than you think. Oh, it’s still harder to get elected to than the Pro Football Hall of Fame or the Hockey Hall of Fame and certainly the Basketball Hall of Fame, but it’s not just the inner circle, elite of the elite who get elected. You may disagree with that philosophy, but that has been the case ever since the first class of five immortals was elected in 1936.
So, it may surprise you to learn that Scott Rolen and Billy Wagner might get elected.
Did they feel like Hall of Famers while active? Probably not. They need 75% of the vote to join Fred McGriff, who was elected in December via the Contemporary Era committee, at the induction ceremony in July. They might not get there, meaning it’s possible the writers association tosses its second shutout in three years, although because the ballot doesn’t include Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling — who finished their BBWAA eligibility last year — it has its weakest list of names in two decades, which helps the borderline candidates.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some key questions heading into the announcement.
1. Will Rolen get in?
It’s going to be a nervous wait for Rolen. Via Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame site, which tracks ballots that voters have publicly revealed, we know that Rolen was polling at 79% as of Monday afternoon. In general, however, players see a decline in their percentage once the final totals are revealed. Last year, Rolen dropped nearly 8 points from his pre-reveal total to his final percentage, finishing at 63.2% (receiving just 34.2% of the private ballots).
As for Rolen’s Hall of Fame case, it’s decently strong even by the tough standards of the BBWAA. While he falls short in some of the career counting numbers — he barely cleared 2,000 hits, for example, and finished with 316 home runs and 1,287 RBIs — third base is sort of a hybrid position, part offense and part defense, and Rolen was an eight-time Gold Glove winner with strong defensive metrics to back up that reputation. His defense is a big part of his Hall of Fame case.
In 2004, his then-manager Tony La Russa called him the best third baseman he’d ever seen. Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, himself a 10-time Gold Glove winner, said Rolen “is better than me.” The idea of Rolen as one of the best defenders ever at the position isn’t some rewriting of history. While he was a big guy at 6-foot-4 and well over 200 pounds, he had that first-step quickness of a shortstop (he was runner-up for Indiana’s Mr. Basketball award as a senior in high school) and a strong arm as well. The defensive metrics at Baseball-Reference.com credit Rolen with the third-most fielding runs among third basemen (behind Brooks Robinson and Adrian Beltre) and I’m buying those numbers. They helped boost his career WAR to 70.1 — ninth-highest among third basemen — and the ninth-best third baseman of all time is a strong Hall of Fame candidate.
From his rookie season with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1997 through 2004, his career year when he finished third in the MVP voting, Rolen ranked third among all position players in WAR, behind only Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez. Of course, Rolen’s all-around brilliance went underappreciated in those days, especially in that era of pumped-up offensive numbers. Still, he hit .287/.379/.524 and averaged 28 home runs and 102 RBIs over those eight seasons. It didn’t help that his early seasons, before his 2002 trade to the St. Louis Cardinals, came on mostly bad Phillies teams.
He was also not one for the spotlight. “Rolen doesn’t say a word around here,” Cardinals teammate Steve Kline said in 2002. “He just plays ball. He hustles at everything he does out there. He sprints up and down the line, he sprints on and off the field, and he just plays hard all the time. He gives you everything he has.”
Here’s one way to put Rolen’s 70.1 WAR in another perspective. Since 2000, the BBWAA has elected 38 non-relievers (I’m excluding them because of their lower WAR totals). The average career WAR for that group is 73.5, so Rolen isn’t far below the average. He’s also right smack in the middle of the median — 19 players above him with more WAR, 19 below him with less. Yes, that third-place finish in 2004 was his only top-10 MVP finish and he missed a lot of time in his 30s with injuries, but Rolen is comfortably above the bar for me.
2. How close will Wagner get?
In his eighth time on the ballot, the former Houston Astros/Phillies/New York Mets/Atlanta Braves closer is polling at 73.5%. While that would fall just short of the 75% threshold, it would be a big increase from last year’s 51% total and put him in great position to go over the top in 2024. Don’t dismiss the chance of him getting in this year, however. Unlike Rolen, Wagner’s final total barely slipped from the pre-vote public results last year, as he dropped just 0.7 of a point. With a few additional votes, he could get to 75%.
Wagner was a revelation when he came up with the Astros in 1995, a short lefty with a blazing fastball that would reach triple digits with today’s technology. His fastball drew comparisons to Nolan Ryan’s. Early in his career, the Astros had him junk his curveball to work on a slider on the sidelines. In the meantime, he just threw his fastball, one after another. Batters still couldn’t touch it. In 1997, he became the first pitcher with at least 50 innings to strike out 14 batters per nine innings. His career strikeout rate of 11.92 per nine innings remains the best ever among pitchers with at least 900 innings.
He was also remarkably consistent — his only season with an ERA above 3.00 was when he was injured in 2000 and appeared in just 28 games. His 2.31 career ERA is just a hair above Mariano Rivera’s 2.21, although Rivera pitched more innings and more than doubled him in career WAR (56.3 to 27.8). Wagner was also the antithesis of Rivera in limited postseason appearances, posting a 10.03 ERA in 11⅔ innings. He’s sixth all-time in saves, behind Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and Lee Smith (all Hall of Famers) but also behind Francisco Rodriguez (who is on this ballot) and John Franco.
It’s a strong case, no doubt, and his election now seems inevitable — whether this year, next year or by some future committee. My only issue: The Hall is already bloated with closers, at least in comparison with other positions. Since the modern closer emerged in the 1970s, more of them have been elected to the Hall of Fame than any position except starting pitchers. Broken down by position, the Hall of Famers who produced most of their value in the 1970s or later were starting pitchers (17) and closers (seven), with all other positions at six or less.
While I understand that closer is a “position” and they should be evaluated on their merits, it’s also clear that voters have been softer on closers while maintaining rigorous standards at other positions. For instance, Andy Pettitte is polling at just 17% — even though he pitched 2,413 more innings than Wagner and was a huge factor in the postseason behind five World Series titles for the New York Yankees.
3. Will Todd Helton and Andruw Jones continue to see their support increase?
Helton received 52% of the vote last year, his fourth on the ballot, while Jones came in at 41% on his fifth ballot. As with Wagner, jumping past that 50% mark for Helton is a good sign for future induction. In fact, we might be underselling Helton’s chances a bit by first writing about Rolen and Wagner. He edged ahead of Rolen in the public vote at 79.6%. His pre-result total fell 5% last year, so it appears he’s going to be right at that 75% threshold as well. Jones is at 68%.
I dug a little bit into their cases last week, but both were high-peak performers who weren’t as good in their 30s. Helton battled back injuries, and Jones flamed out quickly after turning 30. Both, however, had five seasons of 6-plus WAR — and only 47 position players since integration in 1947 have done that. Helton did it with offense over a five-year stretch in which he hit .349/.450/.643; Jones did it with perhaps the best center-field defense of all time and over 400 career home runs. Their career WAR totals — 61.8 for Helton, 62.7 for Jones — are a little soft.
Jones joins Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr. as the only outfielders with 10 Gold Gloves and 400 home runs (Mike Schmidt is the only other player to do it). Of course, that’s meant to make Jones look good, but he obviously isn’t in the same company as Mays or Griffey as an all-around player. (Actually, to put it even more bluntly: Mays’ career WAR is higher than Griffey’s PLUS Jones’. Willie Mays was good!)
Jones created an estimated 119 runs more than average as a hitter. That’s comparable to the likes of Mike Greenwell, Johnny Grubb, Carlos Pena, Matt Stairs and Michael Cuddyer. His case rests on his defense, not getting compared to Mays and Griffey.
4. How will Carlos Beltran do?
The most interesting new candidate on the ballot is Beltran. Like Rolen, he was a marvelous two-way performer, a nine-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove center fielder who was one of the best postseason performers of the wild-card era, hitting .307/.412/.609 with 16 home runs in 65 playoff games. He has more impressive counting stats than Rolen with 435 home runs, 1,582 runs and 1,587 RBIs. That makes him one of 29 players in the just-invented-yet-exclusive 400/1500/1500 club — and of those 29, only Mays and Alex Rodriguez also stole 300 bases. In 2003-04, Beltran swiped 83 bases in 90 attempts; he was also 31-for-32 in 2001. The young Beltran was something to watch.
All that should scream first-ballot inductee … except Beltran arrives on the ballot with the stink of the Astros’ cheating scandal. He was the only player named in the commissioner’s report, although that’s a little misleading because he was retired at the time, making him an easy target since commissioner Rob Manfred made it a point not to punish the active players in order to get their cooperation. Still, Beltran and coach Alex Cora came across as the architects of the whole idea, with Beltran the initial instigator in suggesting the Astros were behind the times.
My quick take:
Absent the scandal, I don’t believe Beltran would have been a first-ballot inductee anyway. As impressive as his career numbers are, he’s correctly not viewed as an inner-circle type — as evidenced by just two top-10 MVP finishes. His career WAR of 70.1 is better than that of many Hall of Famers, but Beltran is the kind of qualified candidate some voters still purposely hold back on as a first-ballot choice, believing that it holds special honor.
The scandal is going to cost him some votes. He’s polling at 55.2%, which feels a little low given his numbers. We’ve seen a handful of voters say they’ll withhold a vote for at least a year as punishment — and, I’m guessing, more than a few will perhaps permanently withhold a vote, classifying him alongside the PED guys.
Still, if he can get close to 50%, that’s a strong start. Given that we’ve seen Rolen rise from 10.2% his first year (no player has started that low and eventually been inducted by the BBWAA) and Wagner climb from 10.5%, Beltran should see his support rise in the future as the cheating scandal recedes into the past.
All that said, I could be wrong. Maybe the cheating cloud will hang over Beltran and he goes the way of Bonds and Clemens.
5. Who’s reaching the end of their eligibility?
It’s the final ballot for Jeff Kent, and he’s not going to get in, polling at 50.8%.
Kent is the all-time home run leader among second basemen and third in RBIs. While the BBWAA has given him a collective thumbs-down, he is the kind of player a future Contemporary Era ballot will almost certainly favor. This is how he compares to McGriff, who received 16 of 16 votes from the committee back in December:
McGriff: 493 HRs, 1550 RBIs, 2490 hits, 1349 runs, 52.6 WAR
Kent: 377 HRs, 1518 RBIs, 2561 hits, 1320 runs, 55.4 WAR
It’s also the ninth year for Gary Sheffield, who, fun fact, was a better hitter than Ken Griffey Jr. As somebody who has a Griffey bobblehead on my bookshelf, it pains me to say this, but it’s true.
Griffey hit more home runs, but Sheffield produced an estimated 561 runs more than average as a hitter compared to 440 for Griffey. That’s the value of Sheffield’s ability to get on base. Griffey’s career-high OBP was .408 and he topped .400 just twice, but Sheffield topped .400 in 10 seasons. If you’re a better hitter than Ken Griffey Jr., maybe you have a strong case for Cooperstown.
Sheffield is polling at 63.3%, up from his 2022 final total of 40.6%, and perhaps putting him within shouting distance of getting elected in 2024. Larry Walker shot up from 54.6% in his ninth year to 76.6%, so it’s possible although unlikely in Sheffield’s case. (Sheffield’s vote might be hurt by his admitting in 2004 that he had used “The Cream,” a designer steroid he claimed Barry Bonds introduced to him, during the 2002 season.)
6. What about Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez?
In his second year, A-Rod is at 39.8% and Manny, now in his seventh year (!) on the ballot, is at 37%. Bonds and Clemens fell short in their final year last January at 66%, then got immediately bumped over to the Contemporary Era committee and received fewer than four votes. Given that Rodriguez and Ramirez were both suspended (unlike Bonds and Clemens), it doesn’t look good for them.
Will we have another year of no one surpassing the 75% threshold, or will some variation of Rolen, Helton or Wagner be able to? We’ll soon see.