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Breaking down this year’s Hall of Fame voting

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An in-depth look at the early returns, and what precedent says about them

MLB: Baseball Hall of Fame-Induction Ceremony Gregory J. Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

We’re in that annual offseason slow period that falls between Christmas and New Year’s, where the rumor mill is slow and the actual transactions crawl to a halt. That’s what traditionally makes it such a great time for writers to release their Hall of Fame ballots (real or hypothetical). The Hall is something that I’m especially passionate about, and in a decade-plus of closely following the electoral process, I’ve picked up on a number of trends to keep in mind. So, in addition to a basic explainer on the process for those who aren’t as familiar with it, I want to give a rundown of these other bits of info, so that you can be a more informed watcher of the early returns.

The Basics

A quick reminder of the basics for those who need it: the Baseball Writers’ Association of America is already voting for 2019’s Hall of Fame class. Ballots are due on December 31, and the results will be released on January 22. Anyone who gets 75% of the vote will be inducted on July 21, 2019, joining Veterans Committee selections Lee Smith and (the rather confusing) Harold Baines.

Any player who played for at least ten seasons and last played five years ago or more is eligible, meaning that this year’s new candidates played their final games in 2013. Additionally, anyone who got at least five percent of the vote last year and has been on the ballot for less than ten years will be reappearing. Voters can list up to ten players per year. The full list of players up for election can be found here.

Who’s Who

If you didn’t check that full list, twenty new players will be joining fifteen returning ones from last year. Headlining the new names are Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay, Todd Helton, and Andy Pettitte. Edgar Martinez, in his tenth and final year on the ballot, leads the returning candidates; he managed 70.4% of the vote last time, and looks to be a likely inductee this time. Mike Mussina (63.5%), Roger Clemens (57.3%), Barry Bonds (56.4%), and Curt Schilling (51.2%) were the next runners-up.

Some Resources

For those interested in the Cooperstown discussion, the single best resource to watch in the coming weeks is Ryan Thibodaux’s Ballot Tracker. For years now, Ryan has down incredible work tracking down every publicly released official ballot and tallying the results, and as become enough of an institution in Hall circles that some writers who don’t want to release their ballots to the public at large will tell him their votes secretly so it can be added to the tracker anonymously. It’s updated regularly, and great to keep an eye on (and if you’d prefer just a summary, that’s here).

If you’re interested in comparing the stats, Baseball-Reference is especially comprehensive and even compiled all of the major numbers for the ballot into that ballot I linked earlier. They now include JAWS as well, writer and Hall of Fame expert Jay Jaffe’s attempt to combine peak and career value and put it onto a scale with the players already elected to Cooperstown. Speaking of Jaffe, the author of the wonderful Cooperstown Casebook is continuing his long-running annual series looking at every player on the ballot over at Fangraphs. And historian Adam Darowski’s Hall of Stats is something I’ve been following for years, similar to JAWS in its attempt to combine peak, longevity, and existing Hall selections. If you find the question of who should be in Cooperstown interesting, those are some great places to start.

Other Assorted Observations

We’re still seeing high vote totals

The last few years, we’ve seen a lot of voters using more of their ten ballot spots. That seems to be continuing this year, where revealed ballots are averaging just over eight and a half names each, a total that’s not too far out of line with the last few years. Voters who don’t reveal their ballots usually vote for fewer players, so expect those totals to drop on the final totals. But it’s good to see voters are still grappling with the loaded ballot.

This is probably Edgar Martinez’s year

Edgar Martinez missed by just 20 votes last year, and has a lot of factors going in his favor this year. He’s been gaining in votes for a few years now, as many strong candidates do. But candidates who get that close usually see an extra boost on top of that as more voters convert to their case. Plus, this is his final year on the ballot, which also usually gives players another boost. All of that seemed like it would be enough to push him over the edge, and sure enough, he’s at 90.1% through the first 101 ballots.

Mike Mussina will take over for Edgar Martinez as the one to watch

Last year, Mike Mussina was right behind Edgar, finishing 49 votes short at 63.5%, and it looks like he’ll be taking over the role of “Guy right on the borderline” for 2019. He needs just an extra 11.5 points, and he’s gained more than that two of the last three years, but it’s no guarantee he’ll make it this time. Right now, he’s sitting at 82.2%, which may be enough of a buffer to keep him above 75%, but we’ll need to keep a close eye on how he tracks this final few weeks.

The ten-year limit draws close for Fred McGriff and Larry Walker

Fred McGriff has reached his tenth and final year on the ballot, while Larry Walker is on attempt number nine. Neither looks likely to make it this year, but both are interesting. McGriff compares favorably to recent Veterans Committee choice Harold Baines, as someone who came close to hitting one of the traditional milestones, and a strong finish this year could set him up for a strong performance on future Veterans Committee ballots. Right now, he sits at 34.7%, up from 23.2% last year (which is narrowly is second-best performance in voting).

Walker, meanwhile, has another year after this. Right now, he’s at 63.4% (up from his career-best 34.1% last time, and way ahead of where he was tracking at this point in the early votes), which seems to indicate voters mobilizing to his cause. Can he pull off two large jumps in total to make it in under the wire? If he can’t, he might also set himself up for a good hearing from the VC, but I’m sure he and his fans would prefer that he make it in before then.

There’s an interesting bunch at 50%

In addition to Martinez, Mussina, and the four players who were inducted last year, three other players topped 50% of the vote last year. This has been a huge milestone historically, as only one player (Gil Hodges) has ever reached 50% in the writers’ vote and not gone on to eventual induction. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens both finished in the mid-50s last year, and while both are tracking in the low-70s, there are causes for caution. Their totals are usually much worse among voters who don’t reveal their ballots, and they’ve only converted one returning voter. Still, every new voter so far has voted for them, so they are still making progress.

Curt Schilling, meanwhile, has had seven voters go from no to yes while losing only one, and has been named on a majority of new voters’ ballots as well. He probably won’t be getting in this year (he’s tracking at 73.3%, and it’s crowded at the top), but he could very easily set himself up to make it in the next time around.

The rookie class is fairly deep

We all knew Mariano Rivera was going to be a first-ballot selection. He won’t be the first unanimous choice, but he’s still yet to drop a vote through about a quarter of the potential ballots, so even if you were taking a “let’s see what the voters think” approach, you can pretty safely assume he’ll be on the stage come this July.

What’s more surprising is the late Roy Halladay’s performance. Hall voters have been confused in their approach to electing starting pitchers as of late (just look at how Mussina and Schilling have languished on the ballot, especially compared to first-ballot choices like Tom Glavine and John Smoltz), but they appear to have come down on the side of the two-time Cy Young winner. Halladay is still over 94%, giving him plenty of wiggle room the rest of the way. If you were the betting type, I would say that Halladay is more likely than not to make it right not

Some had doubts about how Todd Helton and Andy Pettitte would fare, but they’re standing strong at 20% and 10% so far, respectively. At the very least, it looks like we’ll have many more years to discuss their qualifications. Helton even seems to have already secured the necessary votes to reach 5% and return in 2020.

The interesting returning down-ballot names

There are a lot of interesting names returning in the lower half of the ballot as well. Omar Vizquel is currently at 37.6%, which is about where he finished last year (37.0%). However, Vizquel has a big bloc of voters in the “old school” crowd, meaning that he’s one of the few players on the ballot who usually sees his totals noticeably increase on the final tally. He could very realistically top 40% this year. Making that mark in just his second year is a promising start, and could put him in a prime position as the top of the ballot clears out.

Scott Rolen has also seen an uptick in his percentage, and now sits at around 20%. I’m a huge advocate for Rolen’s case (he’s one of the top ten third basemen of all-time, easily), so seeing that kind of improvement is promising. Chipper Jones getting inducted last year has probably helped him, both in putting another third baseman in Cooperstown and in removing him from direct comparisons to Rolen. Hopefully, this newfound momentum carries forward.

Similarly, Billy Wagner is seeing a handful of new voters convert to his cause, and is now around 14%. It makes sense, as he’s pretty comparable to recent inductees Trevor Hoffman and Lee Smith, but getting Mariano Rivera elected and leaving him as the unquestioned best reliever on the ballot will probably help him immensely going forward.

The rest of the ballot seems largely stagnant, however, as Jeff Kent, Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa haven’t moved much. Andruw Jones is even in danger of falling below 5%, which would be a shame for someone who is one of the best fielders of all-time.

Next year will be a big opportunity for holdover candidates

The depth of the newcomers here is probably holding down the increases everyone else is seeing. Electing Jim Thome, Chipper Jones, Vladimir Guerrero, and Trevor Hoffman freed up a lot of space for voters to use, but a lot of those are being immediately re-invested in Rivera and Halladay. There are still gains to be had, as Helton and Pettitte aren’t pulling in the types of votes that Guerrero and Hoffman did, which is why players like Walker, Martinez, and Mussina can see some jumps, but it still limits how many spaces there are to go around.

That is not the case for 2020. Next year’s ballot will be substantially lighter, with Martinez, Rivera, and Halladay likely elected, Mussina possibly joining them, and McGriff aging off. Derek Jeter will be joining the ballot, but after him, the next-best choices are probably Jason Giambi and Bobby Abreu. Weak rookie classes on the ballot have traditionally been the best opportunity for backlog candidates to make their move, and another large class of inductees will free up hundreds of slots that might go to Walker, or Rolen, or Wagner, or whoever your pet candidate is. Maybe voters who have had to drop players due to the ten-player limit will be able to re-add them.

In any case, 2020 could potentially be the least-crowded ballot in a full decade. In that time, the Hall of Fame has made substantial tweaks to the rules of who gets to vote, dozens of new voters have joined the electorate, and existing voters have had to deal with a decade of deciding to juggle the players they viewed as qualified to get under the ten-player limit. It will be fascinating to see how this new environment mixes with a return to a ballot that isn’t bursting at the seams with qualified Hall candidates.