The doors of Cooperstown are swinging wider than ever before. But they aren't open wide enough. Not yet.
The backlog of qualified candidates was shortened with Wednesday’s announcement that the Baseball Writers' Association of America had voted in four new Hall of Famers. All were deserving. Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Trevor Hoffman and Vladimir Guerrero all hit benchmarks for typical Hall of Famers in Jay Jaffe's JAWS system, Bill James' Hall of Fame monitor or both. But when the voting for next year’s class begins, we’re still going to be looking at a ballot with more viable candidates than slots available for the writers to fill in.
Nine of the top 10 players in career WAR on next year’s likely ballot will carry over from this year’s process, joined by one newcomer, the late Roy Halladay. Here are the top 20:
In terms of combined WAR, next year’s top 10 will rank seventh among all classes since 1966. Of course, because of the persistent and, for many, frustrating stalemate regarding players associated with performance-enhancing drugs, the past seven classes all rank in the top seven. This year’s class, the one just announced, ranked fourth.
Beyond the top 10 listed above, there are a number of greats who will merit close looks. That group includes holdovers Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa, Jeff Kent and Fred McGriff, who like Edgar Martinez will be in his last year of eligibility. Omar Vizquel, who picked up a remarkable 37 percent in his first season, will be back for more. So, too, will be overlooked closer Billy Wagner.
The headliner among the first-timers is Mariano Rivera, the best reliever in the game’s history. As we know, WAR doesn’t do a great job of capturing reliever value, but according to JAWS, no player on the next ballot will have a higher score as compared to his positional average. Even those who hesitate to vote for relievers tend to think Mariano is a no-brainer.
In addition to Rivera, Martinez seems like a good bet after drawing 70.4 percent in the 2018 balloting. Like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, Martinez apparently didn’t fare well on the “dark ballots” not made publicly available, as he was above 77 percent on the Hall tracker before the results were announced.
Anyway, the list of players who reach 70 percent and don’t get voted in is very short -- Jim Bunning, Orlando Cepeda, Nellie Fox and Red Ruffing are the most recent. All but Bunning, who had an odd shape to his voting pattern, didn’t hit that 70 percent threshold until their final year. All four of those players eventually made it in, either by a veteran’s committee (Bunning, Cepeda, Fox) or by a run-off vote (Ruffing).
That, along with the customary final-year bump, should get Martinez over the top. Put the emphasis on “should” in that statement -- anyone who has tried to create a predictive model for future ballot results can tell you that spotting logical patterns in the voting habits of the writers is kind of like eating soup with a fork.
After Martinez, the holdover with the next-highest level of support is Mike Mussina, who in his five years on the ballot has gained every time, going from 20 percent to 25 to 43 to 52 to 64. He will rank third in career WAR on the 2019 ballot, owns a JAWS score better than that of the average Hall of Fame starter and has a solid Hall monitor score (121). Don’t be surprised if Mussina becomes the next cause célèbre of the analytical crowd.
If Mussina gets in, there’s not a good, objective case as to why Curt Schilling shouldn’t. In fact, Schilling’s value metrics are better than Mussina’s, for the most part. Yet because of what almost certainly are non-baseball reasons, the gap between the two continues to widen in Mussina’s favor.
What really will be compelling is to see what happens next year with the stalled candidacies of Bonds and Clemens. They made little progress in the 2018 balloting. Bonds gained just 2.6 percent over last year and Clemens 3.2 percent. Both have four years of eligibility remaining.
At this point, it’s starting to feel like they are rubbing against their ceilings, as if those who are willing to evolve their opinions on the PED issue have already done so. There will be new voters, and Bonds and Clemens have tended to do well with new voters, but will there be enough of them? And if it appears that their cause is lost, will current supporters stop burning ballot slots on them?
The only holdover candidates to land a higher slice of the votes are Martinez and Mussina. Rivera seems like the only slam-dunk pick among the first-timers. If there is going to be a year for Clemens and Bonds to make a leap, next year could be it. Unless, of course, there are just too many voters too deeply entrenched to be uprooted.
Beyond that, we’ll see a lot of the same debates we had this year. McGriff would need a miracle push to go from 23.2 percent to 75 percent in his final year, but those who support him tend to be adamant. Walker made his biggest jump yet and could be poised to make a move in his penultimate year of eligibility.
Scott Rolen remains on the ballot after getting 10.2 percent of the vote as a first-time candidate. His analytical case is a good one, and it’s not hard to see him building up his support over the next few years. But not many players have made a run at enshrinement after starting out at that level. Fox (10.8 percent) and Cepeda (12.5 percent) both started out around that percentage and eventually got near 75 percent, but that was when players could remain on the ballot for 15 years.
Beyond Rivera, none of the other first-timers seems likely to get in on the first try. Halladay and Helton figure to get the most support. Halladay’s peak was clearly Hall-worthy, and his tragic death likely will give his candidacy an emotional boost in the most bittersweet of ways. Pettitte will get a lot of ink spilled on him, with a fringy Hall case on regular-season value plus one of the best-ever postseason résumés.
There isn’t likely to be a lot of action on the veterans committee front, at least in uncovering new players. In the rotation of eras that the Hall began a few years ago, next year will feature the “Today’s Game” committee, looking at those overlooked in balloting from 1988 to present.
It’s possible the committee could give someone like Kenny Lofton, Jorge Posada or Kevin Brown a second look, but it might be too soon to reassess their careers. Last time this committee convened, Harold Baines, Albert Belle, Will Clark, Orel Hershiser and Mark McGwire didn't garner much support.
The best guess here is that we end up with a three-player class: Rivera, Martinez and Mussina. There have been 16 players elected since the shutout in the 2013 balloting. That’s an astonishing rate -- the most prolific stretch in Hall history. But it’s still not enough, and it seems inevitable that some future era committee is going to have to clean up this lingering mess.
But in the meantime, four new Hall of Famers give us plenty of reason to celebrate. With that happy quartet joining veterans committee selections Alan Trammell and Jack Morris on enshrinement weekend in July, it’s going to be a fine day of speeches out on the lawn.