While there are many different methods for voting for the Hall of Fame, these are the five major categories the ballots I came up with.
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When it comes to Hall of Fame voting, everyone has an opinion. There are “big Hall” voters and “small Hall” voters. Some voters ignore PED use, while others refuse to vote for anyone associated with PED use, whether the player failed a test or is only a suspected user. Some vote using traditional metrics, others use more advanced analytic methods.
Times have changed for Hall of Fame voters. They had it much easier in the past. They would get the ballot in the mail, check the boxes of the players they thought were Hall of Fame caliber, and send it back. The winners would be announced and everyone would move on with their lives.
Today, in the age of the Internet and cable TV and social media, everyone has an opinion and an easy way to express it. Voters have been encouraged/pressured into revealing who they vote for and get considerable scorn if there are players on their ballots that others deem unworthy or if they chose not to vote for a popular candidate.
Also, for many years there were core statistics that everyone believed in as the best way to judge a player. Home runs, RBI, batting average, pitcher wins, and ERA were the main statistics a voter would use to judge whether a player belonged in the Hall of Fame. They would check to see how many batting titles or 20-win seasons a player had. How many all-star games was the player selected for? Did he ever win an MVP or Cy Young Award?
Now, there are many more statistics used to judge a player’s value and the numbers are easily accessible for everyone through multiple sites on the web. There’s also the issue of Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs), which has created a backlog of players who would normally already be voted in. The ballot has a 10-man limit, but some voters would choose even more than 10 players if they could. This makes sense because, compared to previous eras, the players over the last 20-plus years are underrepresented in the Hall of Fame.
Thanks to Ryan Thibodaux (@NotMrTibbs on Twitter), we already know who roughly 50% of the Hall of Fame voters have selected. Thibodaux is tracking the Hall of Fame votes from those who make their ballots public or who submit their ballots to him anonymously. You can see how the votes are tracking if you follow him on Twitter.
I used Thibodaux’s spreadsheet to look at the ballots that have been cast so far and came up with five categories of voters. Some voters clearly use WAR as a guide, and this is shown by the players they’ve chosen, although they aren’t necessarily a slave to WAR in their voting. Others seem to use WAR as a guide, but draw the line with one or more players who either tested positive for PED use or have strong suspicions around them. There are also anti-WAR voters with ballots that lack any of the top five players by WAR. There is still a strong contingent of anti-PED voters. Finally, there are ballots that make you shake your head and think, ‘WTF?’
For those who may not know, WAR stands for Wins Above Replacement. WAR is a framework for determining the value of a player based on the things he does on the field, such as hitting, fielding, pitching, and base running. All of these components are put together to create a number that reflects the player’s total wins above a theoretical replacement-level player.
The replacement-level player is a guy who could be brought up from Triple-A and perform at a baseline level. Baseball analyst Tom Tango has often cited Willie Bloomquist as a career replacement-level player. Bloomquist played 14 seasons in the major leagues and had between -1.0 and 1.3 wins above replacement every single year. He had eight seasons in which he was within 0.5 wins of replacement level (above or below) and five seasons in which he was within 0.2 wins of replacement level (above or below). He’s the guy you plug in when one of your starters gets injured. The great thing about Willie Bloomquist is that he could play multiple positions adequately. Not good, mind you, but adequate.
The metrics used in creating WAR include adjustments for the league and ballpark of the player. This way, a player who played during the high-offense eras of the 1930s or the mid-1990s can be compared to a player who played during the low-offense eras of the first part of the 20th century (the “dead ball” era) and the 1960s.
There are two main versions of WAR—Baseball-Reference WAR (bWAR) and FanGraphs WAR (fWAR). The main differences between these two versions of WAR are in how defense is measured and how the runs allowed by a pitcher are incorporated. The details can be found here. Despite the differences, most players have comparable numbers in both versions of WAR.
Before there was WAR, Hall of Fame voters likely used more traditional statistics when completing their ballots, like batting average, home runs, RBI, pitcher wins, and ERA. There was also a big “feels like a Hall of Famer” component. This is the subjective “eyeball” test. When you watch baseball, which players “feel” like Hall of Fame players? As the demographics of the Hall of Fame voter has evolved over time, more voters are looking at advanced metrics, including WAR
With that in mind, here are the top 15 players on the current Hall of Fame ballot sorted by the most Baseball-Reference WAR first and FanGraphs WAR second:
Both lists have the same players in the top 10. The differences are: Bagwell and Schilling switch spots between fourth and fifth, Ivan Rodriguez moves up from ninth to sixth, and Larry Walker moves down from sixth to seventh. It should be noted that there are error bars around WAR. We can’t possibly know to the decimal point how many wins above replacement a player was worth, so a difference of 2-3 WAR over the course of a 15-20 year career shouldn’t be considered a major difference.
I like the idea of looking at these top-10s in tiers. You have the Barry Bonds tier, then the Roger Clemens tier. Mussina, Schilling, and Bagwell are all close enough to be a tier of their own. Then you have the bottom five, who are separated by around four wins total from sixth to tenth on the ballot. In case you were wondering, the next group starts three-to-five wins below Edgar Martinez and would include Gary Sheffield, Vladimir Guerrero, and Sammy Sosa.
I used the Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot Tracker to see if there were any ballots that had the exact 10 names listed above. These are the “Perfect WAR Ballots”. I found five voters with those exact 10 names listed: Mark Bradley (Atlanta Journal-Constitution), Ken Davidoff (New York Post), Sam Mellinger (Kansas City Star), C. Trent Rosencrans (Cincinnati Enquirer), and Michael Silverman (Boston Herald).
This is as by-the-numbers as you can get. Line them up by WAR and there are your 10 Hall of Famers. With just five voters out of the 216 tracked so far, this shows that very few voters go solely by WAR. Many likely use WAR as a baseline, but with their own individual adjustments.
There were 13 voters who picked nine of the top 10 players according to WAR but left off one player. Eight of these 13 voters left off Larry Walker in favor of another player. The most common replacement for Walker was Vladimir Guerrero, who was chosen by five of the eight to replace Walker. The other choices were Sammy Sosa, Trevor Hoffman, and Fred McGriff.
It’s interesting that Walker is the main guy being left off the ballot. Of these players, he’s sixth in bWAR, and seventh in fWAR, ahead of Manny Ramirez, Tim Raines, and Edgar Martinez in both versions. Walker likely suffers from the Coors Field effect. He played nine-plus seasons with the Rockies and put up crazy numbers in Coors Field during his career.
If you took Walker’s Coors Field numbers and pro-rated them to a 150-game season, you get: .381/.462/.710, 139 R, 205 H, 39 HR, 131 RBI, 19 SB. That’s just insane. Apparently, Coors Field had enough of an effect on these eight voters that they dropped Walker off the ballot in favor of players who were lower than him in WAR, including Manny Ramirez, who twice tested positive for PEDs
Another version of the Almost All-WAR ballot in which only one player was different is the All-WAR ballot without Manny Ramirez. There were five such ballots. Three of the five voters chose Vladimir Guerrero over Manny Ramirez and the other two chose Trevor Hoffman over Manny.
Of course, Manny Ramirez twice tested positive for PEDs. These All-WAR voters didn’t mind voting for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, but chose not to vote for Manny. I think many people are willing to make that divide between players who tested positive once testing began in 2005 (like Manny Ramirez) and those who are suspected to have used before testing (like Bonds and Clemens).
Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
The Anti-WAR Ballots
“I said, WAR, good god, now, what is it good for?
Say it again, WAR, what is it good for?
Absolutely, nothing, listen to me…”
Some voters seem to have disregarded WAR altogether. Rather than pick from high on the WAR list and choose players like Bonds, Bagwell, Mussina, and Schilling, some voters chose none of the top five players in WAR and picked guys like Jeff Kent (14th in bWAR of the 34 players on the ballot), Fred McGriff (15th), Jorge Posada (18th), and Lee Smith (23rd). These players have their arguments for the Hall of Fame, but they aren’t backed by WAR.
Jeff Kent, for example, was a very good hitter who stood at second base when he was in the field but wasn’t particularly adept at fielding. He had 12 seasons with 20 or more home runs and eight seasons with more than 100 RBI. He was a five time all-star and won the NL MVP award in 2000 (despite being fifth in bWAR that year). Based on raw totals, Kent is among the best-hitting second basemen of all time.
Then again, we have to remember the era in which Kent played. He played in a very high offense era, a time when baseball experienced a surge in home runs and runs scored not seen since the 1930s. FanGraphs has a metric called weighted runs created plus (wRC+) that evaluates what a hitter does on offense and adjusts for league and ballpark. This number normalized players to the era in which they played. Jeff Kent had a 123 wRC+, meaning he was 23% above average as a hitter. For reference, that puts him below Robinson Cano (127 wRC+) and above Chase Utley (121 wRC+). Add in his defensive deficiencies and you have a player that WAR values lower than some would expect by just looking at his home runs and RBI.
If the ballot didn’t have so many good players, perhaps McGriff and Posada would get more consideration. McGriff hit nearly 500 home runs in his career. At one time, that was an automatic entry into the Hall of Fame. The high offense era from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s made 500 home runs no longer worthy of an automatic spot in the Hall. Posada helped the Yankees win four world championships. He’s among the top 10 for catchers with more than 5,000 plate appearances in home runs, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. Like Kent, Posada’s glove doesn’t do him any favors.
Lee Smith is on his last year on the ballot and won’t be making it into the Hall of Fame through the BBWAA. He peaked with 50.6% of the vote in 2012, but has dropped since. He’s currently at 28.7% on the publicly known ballots. Relievers are a difficult position for Hall of Fame voters. Trevor Hoffman looks like he’ll get in soon, if not this year, but Billy Wagner and Lee Smith don’t have a shot based on their current vote totals. Personally, I would argue that Wagner was every bit as good as Hoffman, but I don’t think either are Hall of Famers, as I explained here.
Chris “Mad Dog” Russo of the MLB Network is the epitome of an “anti-WAR” guy. He’s also a “No PEDs” guy. He goes over the ballot in the video below and crosses off PED guys and WAR guys right and left in his yelling and screaming, hand-waving way.
Mad Dog is very much against Trevor Hoffman for the Hall of Fame because Hoffman had a couple of poor post-season performances. For Russo, a couple of bad post-season performances negate the 601 saves he had during the regular season. On the other hand, Russo loves Jeff Kent and Vladimir Guerrero, both of whom are out of the top 10 in WAR.
Of the ballots on the Hall of Fame Tracker, Paul Gutierrez (ESPN) has a very anti-WAR ballot. His choices:
Tim Raines (8th in bWAR)
Edgar Martinez (10th in bWAR)
Vladimir Guerrero (12th in bWAR among 34 players on the ballot)
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are the poster boys of PED use. They are also two of the greatest players who ever played the game when you look at the numbers they put up. Depending on your favorite version of WAR, there’s Babe Ruth with around 180 WAR (combined hitting and pitching), then Bonds with 160-165, and Willie Mays with 150-155. Roger Clemens is in the top 10 all time.
This is the fifth year for Bonds and Clemens on the ballot. For the most part, their vote totals mirror each other. A few voters will choose one but not the other, but they are generally within a percentage point or two. Their vote total increased from around 35% in their first three years to 44% last year. It looks like they’ll make another jump this year.
Before the ballots were made known last year, Bonds and Clemens were named on around 50% of the ballots that were made public. This year, they have been named on roughly 62% of the known ballots. That number will drop when the vote totals are released on Wednesday, but they will both make another significant jump from last year. It feels like it’s just a matter of time before they make it in.
Until then, there are still many voters who simply will not vote for players they suspect used PEDs. This eliminates Bonds, Clemens, and Manny Ramirez for sure. Sammy Sosa had 12.5% of the vote in his first year on the ballot and has been below 10% ever since. In his case, it could be more than PEDs because he is seen by many as a one-dimensional player. Some voters won’t vote for Jeff Bagwell or Ivan Rodriguez because of suspicions, despite no clear evidence.
Regarding Barry Bonds, there’s a common belief that Bonds didn’t start using PEDs until after the 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Some Bonds voters point to his career before 1999 and say he was a Hall of Famer at that point, even before ever being connected to PEDs. Is this true?
Through 1998, Bonds had played 13 seasons. His career totals to that point:
Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
The WTF Ballots?
Some ballots defy explanation. More than half of the ballots publicly-known were completely filled out with the maximum 10 players, yet there are still a handful of voters who voted for three or fewer players. They must be “small Hall” guys. There are voters who selected Manny Ramirez, despite his two PED suspensions, but not Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens. What is the thought process there?
Then we have this ballot. See if you can spot the anomalies:
This ballot is all over the place. There’s Manny Ramirez but no Bonds or Clemens. There’s sabermetric favorites Tim Raines and Edgar Martinez but also Jeff Kent and Lee Smith. Then there’s Edgar Renteria? The commenters on his tweet sum it up pretty well.
Sent in my Hall of Fame ballot today, best of luck to Jeff Bagwell, the best all-around first baseman I saw in 22 years covering MLB. pic.twitter.com/a2jBLoj7Wr
Dunn explained his vote for Jason Varitek (and Jorge Posada). In his writing about Ivan Rodriguez, he wrote, “His [Ivan Rodriguez] presence on the ballot is likely to overshadow two other first timers—Jorge Posada and Jason Varitek—both of whom were catchers. Neither had Hall of Fame numbers and I don’t expect either to get a lot of support, but both of them are getting my vote. Both of them were irreplaceable cogs to successful teams.”
Some people take this Hall of Fame thing pretty seriously. This guy admits that Posada and Varitek don’t have Hall of Fame numbers, but he votes for them anyway. Cue the pitchforks crowd.
Speaking of Varitek, he had a pretty amazing baseball career if you consider his entire life. According to the tribute video below, Varitek appeared in the Little League World Series, won his high school state championship, played with Team USA in the Olympics, played in the College World Series Final, smashed Alex Rodriguez in the face during a brawl, played in the inaugural World Baseball Classic, and won two World Series with the Red Sox. That’s pretty damn impressive.
Another WTF ballot is from Steven Marcus of Newsday. In 2013, he voted for Bonds, Clemens, Piazza, Biggio, and Jack Morris. At the time, he wrote: ”Bonds and Clemens were not found guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs, nor did either player admit to such use. And Major League Baseball did not put them on the disqualified list. Doubts remain, but it is beyond the voter’s scope to let beliefs supersede the need to vote on facts—an overwhelming statistical body of work for each—not suspicions.”
After voting for Bonds, Clemens, and Piazza in 2013, Steven Marcus did not vote for them the following year or in any year since, including this year for Bonds and Clemens. He voted for three of the four Hall of Famers who were inducted in the 2015 vote—Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez—but not John Smoltz. In 2014, he voted for Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas, and Jack Morris, but not 300-game winner Tom Glavine. His ballot this year:
Steven Marcus’ ballot:
I don’t know his explanation, but there it is, the two-man Vladimir Guerrero/Trevor Hoffman ballot. Behold it in all its glory.
From the northeast, we have the “defender of the Wall”, Dan Shaughnessy. The Wall (his capital letter) is the barrier between any potential PED users and the Hall of Fame. Shaughnessy is the defender of the Hall of Fame, the man who will keep it pure (ignoring the psychotic Ty Cobb and the spitballing Gaylord Perry and the amphetamine use of numerous players during the 60s, 70s, and 80s). Shaughnessy acknowledged that his ballot could go 10 deep if he voted for the players who have Hall of Fame Numbers—Clemens, Bonds, Sheffield, Ramirez, Sosa, Bagwell, Ivan Rodriguez—but he is not going to allow them in. He’s defending the Wall.
He did not vote for Jeff Bagwell or Ivan Rodriguez because of the “whispers, body changes, and unexplained power surges.” Trevor Hoffman didn’t make the cut. Neither did Edgar Martinez because Shaughnessy “never thought of him as a dominant, feared hitter in his era.” Maybe he should have asked Mariano Rivera about Edgar Martinez. (Edgar was 11 for 19 against Mariano, with three doubles, two homers, and a .579/.652/1.053 batting line).
His toughest omission was Mike Mussina, despite his 270 wins for teams in the tough AL East. Shaughnessy also withheld his vote from post-season hero Curt Schilling because of Schilling’s re-tweet about the lynching of journalists with the comment “so much awesome.” In the end, he voted for just two players.