Tuesday represented a historic day for the Hall of Fame in a number of ways. We saw four players inducted by the Writers, only the sixth time they’ve enshrined four or more players in one year in history and the first time they’ve done so in consecutive years. In the six cycles since the 2013 shutout, the BBWAA has added 20 different players to the Hall, itself a massive achievement.
The four players selected, who will be joining Veterans Committee selections Lee Smith and Harold Baines on the stage come July, were all also fascinatingly uniquely in their own ways on the path to Cooperstown. All-time saves leader Mariano Rivera of course became the first player inducted with 100% of the vote, being named on all 425 ballots. I legitimately thought this would never happen, given how easy it is for one person to throw a wrench in the works, but I’m excited to see it’s finally happened. Now that this specific hurdle has been crossed, maybe we can see other no-brainer choices also hit that mark.
And while Rivera was obviously the headliner, the other three also bring a lot to the table. Roy Halladay became just the sixteenth starting pitcher in history to go in on the first ballot. The late ace was historic in many ways, from his postseason no-hitter, to his perfect game (only six other Hall of Famers have one), to his multiple Cy Young Awards (he becomes the eleventh Hall of Famer with more than one). It is truly a shame that he won’t be able to take the stage later this year and enjoy the moment.
Edgar Martinez made it in his tenth and final year on the ballot, hitting 85.4% after polling as low as 27% just four years ago. For four straight years, he posted double-digit jumps to become the first “pure” designated hitter to make the Hall (depending on where your cutoff for that lies, of course, but Edgar definitely played more at DH than anyone else ever elected).
And then, there’s Mike Mussina, who made up a lot of ground himself. There was still doubt that he’d get in this year, with various models based on early polling projecting him to land between 72.6 and 75.6%. In the end, he saw a little less drop off than normal and landed at 76.7%, finally getting his due. Like Edgar, Moose was pulling in just 24.6% of the vote back in 2015, and has essentially tripled that in just four years.
Of the other 31 players on the ballot, thirteen of them will be returning to the ballot next year thanks to getting more than 5% of the vote, with Fred McGriff aging off after ten seasons (to a hopefully more-receptive Veterans Committee). We basically already know everything we need to about the 2020 election, from the relevant stats to most of who will be added to the ballot, with only the early vote returns missing. So, what do the trends and early signs point to for next year?
Things to watch for in 2020
The biggest story of 2019 among the misses was almost certainly Larry Walker. He was pulling in totals even lower than Mussina and Martinez, and even more recently at that. Just two years ago, he bounced back above 20%, finishing at 21.9%. This year, he gained a full 20.5% to jump to 54.6%, making it the ninth-largest gain in a single year. Coincidently, if he duplicates that increase next year, his final one on the ballot, he’ll finish at 75.1%, just narrowly getting him over the bar.
It’s a little disappointing in a way, given that he was pulling in support from nearly two-thirds of voters who revealed their ballots early. Still, there’s a lot to be hopeful for. He’s already jumped 20%, so he could do it again. Momentum plays a big part in Hall candidacies, plus players in their final year on the ballot frequently see bigger jumps than they usually get (see also, Fred McGriff this year). And moreover, it’s a pretty empty ballot, something that has also traditionally boded well for returning players.
In fact, let’s take a look at 2020’s ballot. Derek Jeter is a first-ballot lock, and might become the second player to hit 100% of the vote now that Mariano has cleared the way. But after him, the best new candidates are probably Bobby Abreu, Jason Giambi, and Cliff Lee. I would honestly be shocked if any 2020 player comes back in 2021.
That means the ballot is the most open than it’s been since 2012; I could still find over a dozen players that I’d support in a process that still limits you to just ten votes, but it beats the recent swell that’s seen sometimes two-dozen or so players worthy of consideration. Even if you figure Jeter absorbs Rivera’s 100%, that still leaves nearly 300% from this year to go around to the other players sticking around.
Where might those votes go? Ryan Thibodaux’s tracker tallies any mention of players that voters had to omit for space reasons, which isn’t comprehensive, but serves as a good starting point. These are the voters who don’t actually need to be convinced of a player’s case, they just need the extra space.
Based on what we know, there’s a lot of Larry Walker, Billy Wagner, Scott Rolen, Jeff Kent, Omar Vizquel, and Todd Helton support that might be popping up next year. We’ve covered what a big deal that would be for Walker, and Wagner, Rolen, Helton, and Vizquel are all early enough in their candidacies that it could be the start of a snowballing to election three or four years down the line.
Meanwhile, Curt Schilling is the new king of the backlog, finishing atop the pile of players who weren’t inducted at 60.9%. He didn’t see a drop between public and private ballots as big as Walker, Barry Bonds, or Roger Clemens, but he still dropped from a hair over 70%. Still, the end result was a nine-point gain from last year, and more importantly, between the election of Mussina and Halladay, it leaves him as the unquestioned-best (non-Clemens) pitcher on the ballot for the foreseeable future. Hall voting depends fairly heavily on comparisons and narratives like that, so it may open him up to a big jump of his own. 2020 is still possible, and with three more tries, he looks like he’ll have plenty of time to make it in.
I’m not sure if the same can be said about Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, though, who finished just behind him at 59.5% and 59.1%, respectively. Unlike Walker and Schilling, they haven’t seen any sort of jumps lately; they both consistently gone up, but neither has ever seen a double-digit jump in support in any year, nor have they gone up by more than 3% either of the past two years.
There might have been voters who were leaving them off to make room for other players, who now have space to add them back. But failing that, their best hopes are that the electorate grows rapidly (both have historically done well with newer voters) and that older voters who disapprove of them stop voting or age out of the voting requirements. It might happen, but it’s certainly not as clear of a path forward as Walker or Schilling has.
And what of the other ten players, who make up the downballot? Omar Vizquel continued to tick up, and was one of the few players to do better on private ballots. I wonder if he’ll pick up more support thanks to the lighter ballot this year, as the private ballot set that likes him is also more likely to name fewer players (there was difference of 1.25 names between the average private and public voter); being the sixth vote of someone who only ever votes for five players at a time will work as well as the eleventh choice on a full ballot in the coming years. The 5% gain isn’t one of the biggest ones this year, but it’s still a respectable amount, and will be more than enough if he can repeat it for a few years.
I already highlighted Todd Helton, Scott Rolen, and Billy Wagner earlier, and I think they’ll be the ones to watch down the line. Maybe not in 2020, but beyond that. All have strong cases, no real natural opposing contingent to their cases (in the way that, say, Bonds and Clemens have the anti-steroid faction, or Vizquel has the voters more up on advanced stats), and a dearth of new closers or corner infielders on the next few ballots to compete with (in much the same way that Schilling now stands out as the best starter). 2020 for them could be the start of three or four year climbs similar to what Edgar and Mussina pulled off.
Then there’s Jeff Kent, Gary Sheffield, and Manny Ramirez. All seem to be in a holding pattern. Kent only has four years to break that, and a lot of players to jump. It’s hard to see how he does that. Meanwhile, it’s hard to see Manny or Sheff breaking their pattern if Bonds and Clemens can’t escape it, even if they do have more time left. Andy Pettitte, Andruw Jones, and Sammy Sosa all held on for dear life between 5 and 10%, which isn’t the worst thing, but also isn’t very promising.
It’ll be a little harder to pull off than this year’s class, but there’s a real chance that we see another three-person Hall of Fame class in 2020 (even excluding potential Veterans Committee choices, which are a category unto themselves), and a few more players who might start to come on strong in the mold of some of this year’s inductees. It’ll be tough to match 2019’s quartet, but very compelling for those who like to watch the early returns.