We are less than a week away from learning who the Baseball Writers Association of America will elect to be the Hall of Fame Class of 2019. The last few years have represented a historic time in the Hall’s history, with the BBWAA electing sixteen new Hall of Famers in the five cycles since their 2013 shutout.
In spite of that, it’s hard to argue that this year’s thirty-five-person ballot isn’t still packed full of strong candidates. Nineteen of them have over 50 WAR; twenty-two score a 98 or higher on Bill James’ Hall of Fame Monitor test (where 100 or higher represents a likely Hall of Famer).
A full ten players on the ballot spent some time in Houston (plus, newcomer Freddy Garcia was drafted by Houston, then sent to Seattle as a prospect in the Randy Johnson trade of 1998). Only a few of those ten were Astros first and foremost (just Billy Wagner, Lance Berkman, and Roy Oswalt spent a majority of their seasons with them), but there were some good years among the other seven (Jeff Kent, Miguel Tejada, Roger Clemens, and Andy Pettitte crammed a number of All-Star selections, award votes, and playoff starts into relatively short stints in Houston).
However, I want to set aside Clemens and Tejada (the clear best and worst players in that group) for a moment and focus on those other five. To cut right to the point: none of Berkman, Kent, Oswalt, Pettitte, or Wagner would be bad Hall of Fame selections if they made it. They aren’t the strongest players on the ballot, and none of them are obvious, inner-circle, first-ballot types, but most of the Hall isn’t that, either. A quick rundown of what a framework case for each of them might look like, since I think it’s worth at least reflecting on and appreciating their careers:
Lance Berkman: 52.1 WAR, 45.7 JAWS, 101 Hall Rating, 6-time All-Star
One of the best switch-hitters of all time, with 366 homers (sixth) and a 144 OPS+ (third, min. 3000 PA). One of the best postseason batters ever, with 2.7 playoff Win Probability Added (third all-time) and the seventh-best single postseason on record (2011, 1.4 WPA). Currently the 20th-best left fielder by WAR and JAWS at a position that has seen twenty players inducted already. 98 on the Hall Monitor.
Jeff Kent: 55.4 WAR, 45.6 JAWS, 104 Hall Rating, 5-time All-Star
2000 NL MVP, four-time top-ten finisher, and four-time Silver Slugger. 377 home runs, most ever for a second baseman, as well as 560 doubles, 2461 hits, and a 123 OPS+. Currently the 19th-best second baseman by WAR and 20th-best by JAWS at a position that has seen twenty players inducted already. 123 on the Hall Monitor.
Andy Pettitte: 60.3 WAR, 47.2 JAWS, 108 Hall Rating, 3-time All-Star
256-153 record (.626 winning percentage) with a solid 117 ERA+ and 2448 Ks. Doesn’t look too out-of-place next to Whitey Ford, among others. A lot of playoff success, including 5 World Series rings, a 19-11 record, and 3.51 WPA (fourth among pitchers). Sure, a lot of that is a function of opportunities, but at the same time, over nearly 300 October innings, his numbers were if anything better than his career totals. 128 on the Hall Monitor.
Billy Wagner: 27.7 WAR, 23.7 JAWS, 65 Hall Rating, 7-time All-Star
422 saves, sixth all-time. 1999 Reliever of the Year. All-time leader in K/9 at 11.92, and second in WHIP at 0.998 (min. 900 innings). 2.31 ERA and 187 ERA+. Electing relievers is still an uncertain thing, but he holds up well against the two most-recent inductees. 107 on the Hall Monitor.
Roy Oswalt: 50.1 WAR, 45.2 JAWS, 106 Hall Rating, 3-time All-Star
163-102 record (.615 W%) with a 3.36 ERA (127 ERA+) and 1852 strikeouts. 2004 NLCS MVP. A great track record in high-pressure games. The weakest of these five, but still pretty good!
Now, that’s not to say any of them is a slam-dunk; these are intended to be highlights rather than in-depth comparisons. But still, there’s a lot to like there!
Despite all of that, they’re being hit hard by the crush of talent that’s stuck on the ballot. Kent and Wagner have languished below 20% of the vote, and look like they’ll be remaining there this year going by the early percentages. Berkman and Oswalt are sitting at just 1%, meaning they won’t hit the 5% necessary to come back next year. Pettitte is right on the line at 6.5%, meaning we won’t know his fate until the final results.
A big part of the issue is that artificial ballot crunch that the Hall chooses to create. The rules of voting say that no voter can select more than ten names, which completely alters the question a Hall of Fame vote asks, changing it from “Is this player a Hall of Famer” to “If this player is Hall-worthy, should I support them, or is there a better way to arrange my vote?”
This has had real consequences in years past. Just since 2010, we’ve had seven players fall between 70% and 75% of the vote (and another six between above 65%) as writers try and juggle which players could use vote the most. In the worst cases, like Craig Biggio in 2014, players have fallen short entirely because voters who wanted to vote for them ran out of ballot space (Biggio fell two votes short, with a number of voters listing him as their unofficial eleventh choice on an even more crowded ballot). It wastes everyone’s time and votes, as writers need to wait another year to set aside one-tenth of their ballot to a player who should, for all intents and purposes, already be in Cooperstown.
In the cases of Berkman, Kent, Oswalt, Pettitte, and Wagner, it means that their cases just might not be heard by people who could potentially be interested in them. If you already have ten or more names in mind (something that would especially affect the “Big Hall” advocates that likely make up their core contingent of voters), there’s no reason to expand your research to other players. You don’t have room to discuss the borderline players, since we’re too overloaded with stronger cases.
Is there anything meaningfully separating Billy Wagner from Lee Smith or Trevor Hoffman besides save totals? Should Lance Berkman or Andy Pettitte’s postseason performance be enough extra credit to push them over? We might never get to discuss it, because we’ve been stuck for multiple years arguing over easier calls like Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, and Jeff Bagwell (which in turn pushed back our discussions on guys like Mike Mussina, Edgar Martinez, and Larry Walker, which will in turn continue the cycle).
We’ve seen a number of strong candidates fall off the ballot in the last few years because of this crowding, including names like Jim Edmonds, Kenny Lofton, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, and Nomar Garciaparra. All of these players are close enough to the Hall’s borderline to at least merit an honest discussion about their cases (and for some of those, like Edmonds and Lofton, I’d argue they’re significantly better than just borderline cases!). Instead, the top-heavy ballots suffocate these discussions before they can really start.
There are plenty of fixes to this problem; the Hall could shift to a strictly “Yes/No” vote for each player, totally independent of how they compare to other players. However, they’ve even rejected compromise solutions, like the 12-player ballot recommended by a committee they appointed to offer improvements to their process.
They’ve decided to kick the can down the road, hoping the crowding subsides temporarily with only some strong candidates getting totally ignored. It might work for a little while, but these things come and go in waves; it’s only a matter of time before another wave of talent shows up and this problem arises again. Players on the ballot deserve to be judged on their own merits, rather than ranked or shuffled to make the math work.