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Breaking Down This Year’s Veterans Committee Ballot for Cooperstown

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The first leg of Hall of Fame voting is fast approaching; how does this year’s ballot stack up?

MLB: MLB: Baseball Hall of Fame-Induction Ceremony Detroit Free Press-USA TODAY NET

A lot of you don’t know this yet, but Hall of Fame season is one of my favorite times of year to write about, as the Hall is one of my favorite topics. Few things in the game do as good of a job of highlighting both the game’s long history and the wealth of statistics so well, or provide as fun a topic of debate. And, with the release of this year’s Veterans Committee ballot, Hall Discussion Season has officially begun.

Technically, it’s not called the Veterans Committee anymore, which I stick with mostly because that’s what it’s been called for the longest period of time and how most people recognize the smaller group and process for inducting players who have aged off of the initial Cooperstown ballot. That job is now divided into different groups, each focusing on a unique era of baseball. This was a solid decision in the abstract when it was initially done, forcing voters to look at new time periods rather than returning to the most well-represented ones and picking them even further over.

This year’s electors are looking at “Today’s Game”, a period covering 1988 on. The ten-person ballot they’ve agreed to vote upon includes: players Harold Baines, Albert Belle, Joe Carter, Will Clark, Orel Hershiser, and Lee Smith; managers Davey Johnson, Charlie Manuel, and Lou Piniella; and owner George Steinbrenner. Seven of those ten were on the Today’s Game ballot the last time this group voted two years ago, with Carter, Smith, and Manuel as the new names.

In all honesty, a year after a Veterans Committee vote that saw two players inducted, an event has become something of a rarity in this process (and still-living players at that, which makes it even rarer), this prospective ballot feels….a little underwhelming. There are a variety of reasons this could be, I think: last year’s ballot was abnormally strong for a VC ballot, there’s been a little too strong a focus on recent managers and executives rather than players, the given window of time is effectively shorter than all the other eras (given that even players who fall off after one vote still need to wait 10 years to be considered, we are effectively limited to considering players who made their biggest impact after 1987 but retired before the 2004 season). Whatever the main reason is, though, it’s still a let down.

Let’s start with that gripe about managers and executives, though, because I feel like it’s worth putting into perspective. I think that all four of the non-players (Johnson, Manuel, Piniella, and Steinbrenner) on this ballot have interesting stories, and could fit in with plenty of other inductees in their roles if they’re selected. None of them would be the worst Cooperstown selection ever.

But it does feel weird to have this many non-players. Not necessarily because it’s unprecented, but rather because it’s become so common. For as much as the new committee-based approach has struggled to induct overlooked players, it’s put in managers and executives at a pretty good clip. Since 2008, there have been six managers and nine other non-players elected to Cooperstown, well over one per year. The group focusing on the most recent options (the Today’s Game committee and its predecessor, the Expansion Era committee) has been especially awash in non-player options in their last three meetings, inducting 6 managers and executives (and no players), and allocating 15 of their total 34 ballot spots to non-players.

I think that there’s a strong argument for the Hall to separate these two groups, since voters are limited in how many names they can select to just four choices each. The Veterans Committee was created to give overlooked players a second chance, but it has instead become a place to pit them against the best managers and executives in history (since there’s no earlier election process for them), who end up soaking up a majority of the votes as a result. It’s no wonder players have struggled to pick up support through all of this.

Even ignoring that recurring issue, this is a kind of weak set of non-players, making it a little confusing why the Hall decided to devote so much of the ballot to them. Steinbrenner was a huge figure in the game, so I can see a case for him, but he’s also been on all four VC-type ballots he’s been eligible for since passing away and never once even come close to induction, so it’s hard to say there’s a lot of momentum for him.

The three manager candidates are all…fine, I guess? I wouldn’t be opposed to any of them making it, and they all seem to have the minimum requirements to get in the Hall discussion (which basically appears to be “a World Series ring and a winning record”). The only retired manager with more wins than Lou Piniella not in the Hall of Fame is Gene Mauch, who had a losing career record and no championships to his name (neither of which applies to Lou, of course). That, plus success across a number of teams and the fourteenth-most games managed of all-time, seem like a strong argument for a Hall of Fame manager.

Similarly, Davey Johnson is more games above .500 (301) than any other manager not in the Hall, and only fourteen in the Hall are better. I’ve seen some people argue for Billy Martin’s candidacy by pointing out how many different teams won under him as a sign that he brought something to them rather than just sticking with good players, and I think you could make a similar argument for Davey. I don’t think he or Piniella would be bad choices, even if they aren’t as overwhelmingly obvious as Tony La Russa or Bobby Cox.

The inclusion of Charlie Manuel does confuse me a bit, though. He wouldn’t be the worst pick I guess, and there are good things there (1000-826 record, 2 pennants, 1 World Series). But, on a ballot with two other managers already, and coming off of a recent run that’s seen a lot of other managers hitting the ballot and getting elected, I do kind of wonder what exactly sets Manuel’s case apart? From what I can tell, Manuel’s twelve seasons would be the shortest career for any Hall of Fame manager (excluding part-time cases like player-managers). The only other two I can find under seventeen seasons are Billy Southworth at 13 (manager of the famed Gashouse Gang Cardinals, among others, who managed double the pennants and championships that Manuel did) and Frank Selee at 16 (who won five NL Pennants back in the 1890s, back when that’s all there was), and even then, they respectively took five and nine decades to get inducted into the Hall. Unless you want to use three of your four votes on managers this year, it feels hard to justify a vote here.

Unfortunately, the actual players aren’t exactly an exciting bunch themselves. Leading the way is Lee Smith, fresh off of his fifteen-year run on the BBWAA’s ballots that saw him top out at 50.6%. This is significant, as following Jack Morris’s election last year, Smith is one of two players (excluding players still on the BBWAA ballot) who have received 50% of the vote and not been inducted, the other being Gil Hodges. You have to figure that makes Smith a likely candidate for election someday, if not this year. A weak ballot and an older voting bloc that likely still loves saves should help his cause. He’s a seven-time All-Star and the former career leader in saves with 478 (and that’s still third all-time). I don’t know that I’m a huge supporter of his cause, but given how erratic the induction standards for closers have been, I’m not exactly opposed to seeing him get in either.

The rest of the ballot isn’t terribly interesting though, unfortunately. Joe Carter is an especially curious choice; I know some people have derided Hall of Fame picks like Jack Morris and Bill Mazeroski as being solely the result of their famous October heroics. In both cases, though, they seem at least like borderline cases absent those highlights, and I can see an argument that World Series heroics are enough to push borderline cases over that line.

Carter’s candidacy, though, is basically all that one big October moment, his famous 1993 walk-off home run in Game 6 of the World Series. Carter definitely had power, and his 396 homers and 1445 RBI are impressive in an old-fashioned sense, but neither of those is overwhelming, and the rest of his case is weak. His contact skills were subpar (.259 average), he didn’t walk as much as you’d like to see a middle-of-the-order bat (.306 OBP), and he played mediocre defense in the corner outfield spots. Going by Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement, Carter was worth just 19.6 WAR, good for just 186th among all non-Hall of Famers between 1980 and 2003.

The other four all fall in the top forty of that list, at least. Harold Baines only just makes it at #40 exactly, with 38.7 WAR. The biggest argument for Baines is that he almost made it to 3000 hits, falling just short at 2866, but his longevity was a big factor in that total; he’s actually 37th all-time in plate appearances. Also affecting his total value was that he was primarily a DH, limiting his defensive contributions. Over 11,000 plate appearances with a 121 OPS+ is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but generally speaking, the Hall of Famers with 121 OPS+ tend to come from defense-first positions rather than designated hitter.

He did stick around for five BBWAA ballots, so maybe there are some soft spots for him among the voters (I couldn’t find any rankings, but that feels like a long time to stick around for someone who eventually fell below 5% of the vote rather than aging off), but even then, they’d probably need multiple years to argue his case, given his past Veterans Committee appearances have gone nowhere. I don’t see his election happening this year.

Albert Belle has the exact opposite problem: his 144 OPS+ wouldn’t be too far off from some of the other sluggers in the Hall, but his career was just too short. There are only 19 position players with fewer than his 1539 career games in Cooperstown, and almost all of them played in the 1800s, missed out on playing time due to the color barrier or wartime service, or had tragic injuries cut their careers short. Belle doesn’t really have a story like that to add intangibles to his case, and his prickly personality (to say the least) probably isn’t going to convince many voters to champion his cause, so I don’t imagine this is going anywhere anytime soon.

Orel Hershiser and Will Clark are probably the strongest two players on this ballot, and neither is likely to see induction this year; in 2017, neither got even 5 votes (the exact totals weren’t released), when 12 were needed for induction. I think you could make a case for either, although neither is a glaring Cooperstown snub. JAWS, Jay Jaffe’s rating system that combines peak and longevity, has Clark 26th among first basemen and Hershiser 83rd among pitchers; neither figure is overwhelming, but they’re also better than a handful of players already inducted at their positions.

I’m also a fan of Adam Darowski’s Hall of Stats and corresponding Hall Rating metric, which creates an OPS+-like stat where 100 is the minimum to gain induction and each point above that is 1% better than that minimum. By this rating, Clark has a 103 and Hershiser has a 101. Again, that seems to indicate that both players would be fine choices, but neither is an especially glaring absence.

Still, who wasn’t on the ballot feels like a bigger deal in the end. Mark McGwire was on the previous Today’s Era ballot, but the Hall apparently didn’t feel like dealing with that discussion again. It would have been nice to see Lou Whitaker discussed, especially since his teammates Alan Trammell and Jack Morris just went in and might spur voters to take up his case. Whitaker has the most WAR of any player in that 1980 to 2003 range I mentioned earlier, but I guess the Hall decided to strictly follow their arbitrary time ranges (Whitaker played from 1977 to 1995). David Cone won a Cy Young Award, five World Series titles, and racked up over 60 WAR, but apparently didn’t come up in discussions. Bret Saberhagen nearly reached 60 WAR himself while being one of nineteen pitchers in history to win multiple Cy Youngs, but again, no sign of him. Obviously, there’s more to each of those candidates, but those seem like pretty good one-line summaries to use as a starting point.

Maybe it was important to leave all of those names off to make room for more managers and executives. Maybe some of these names that came up last time seemed to generate interest but were left off of full ballots, and we’ll see them pick up more votes this time (although, given that we’re returning seven of ten names, with six of those confirmed to have gotten four or fewer votes, I’m skeptical that all seven of them fall into this category). Maybe the nominating committee strongly feels these seven returning picks are such strong choices that it’s not worth cycling in too many new names to discuss, for whatever reason. In the end, though, it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed in this year’s batch of candidates as a result.

For my hypothetical four-man ballot, I’d probably go with Lee Smith, Will Clark, Lou Piniella, and Davey Johnson. None of them is a slam-dunk, but I feel like they would all make respectable inductees at their positions, and I don’t see any harm in honoring their careers. In real life, I think we’re most likely to see no one or just Lee Smith elected by the VC this year, with Piniella still a possibility depending on who’s voting and how his discussion went last time around.