The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2023 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.
Even without Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, and Sammy Sosa — and with just a trickle of compelling new candidates — this year’s BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot doesn’t lack for controversy or tough decisions. The issue of performance-enhancing drugs continues to stand in the way of the candidates with the gaudiest statistics, and voters must also confront the matter of how much weight, if any, to accord the ballot’s notorious character clause. But with a deadline of December 31, a voter can deliberate for only so long, and so five weeks after my envelope arrived in the mail, it’s time to turn this thing around.
This is my third year with an actual ballot, but filling one out hardly feels like old hat, even with 21 years of analyzing Hall of Fame elections, and 19 years of doing so while armed with the system that became JAWS (next year, I’ll do something to celebrate). While so many mentors, peers, and colleagues have come and gone in this racket, I’m grateful to have stuck around long enough to have earned the right to vote, and it’s a privilege I embrace, even with the heightened scrutiny that comes with having a ballot.
In the weeks since the Hall unveiled this year’s 28-candidate slate, I’ve analyzed the top 17 candidates at length. That leaves 11 one-and-done stragglers to cover in early January, none of whom are in serious consideration for space on my ballot; indeed, none of those 11 has secured a single vote from among the 70 published in the Ballot Tracker as of 12:01 AM ET Thursday, but their careers deserve a proper valedictory. While I’ve mostly known whom I planned to include, I went through my full process before finalizing its contents, just as I did with my virtual ballots; particularly given my recent attempts to update the pitching side of JAWS, it never hurts to take another look.
Despite the BBWAA’s election of just one candidate over the past two cycles, the record 22 candidates elected over the previous seven eased what was once a nearly unmanageable backlog. Circa 2014, the ballot had 14 players who met or exceeded the JAWS standards at their respective positions, and 17 who had a JAWS of at least 50.0 (or 40.0 for catchers), thus requiring all but the most small-Hall-minded voters to perform some kind of triage in order to winnow the field down to 10 candidates who could fit on their ballots. Here’s the graph I’ve been using this year to illustrate the trend:
Even with those numbers reduced, there’s still no such thing as a perfect ballot. With my annual exercise has always come an acknowledgement of the numerous subjective choices that go into selecting even the most objective-minded slate. How much leeway to grant if one is using WAR and JAWS? How much emphasis to put on postseason performance, awards, and less quantifiable considerations? Where to draw the line with performance-enhancing drugs or off-field issues, subjects that may or may not fall under the umbrella of the so-called character clause? Perfection may be unattainable, but that’s not to say it isn’t worth pursuing, and if we don’t get there… well, we do the best we can.
With that ample preamble out of the way, here’s how the aforementioned 17 candidates stack up via JAWS:
Top 2023 Hall of Fame Candidates by JAWS Margin
JAWS Margin = difference between individual player’s JAWS and position standard. For starting pitchers, standards and margin are relative to Peak WAR Adj. and S-JAWS. For relief pitchers, standards and margin are relative to R-JAWS. Yellow shading = meets standard at position.
As noted, I’ve used my experimental, workload-adjusted S-JAWS for starting pitchers (detailed here), which brings the above starters closer to the standard but still leaves the best of them, Buehrle and Pettitte, more than nine points off the pace. Likewise, I’ve used my experimental, leverage-adjusted R-JAWS for relief pitchers (explained here), and while that doesn’t push Wagner past the standard, it makes him the top reliever outside the Hall.
Of this year’s candidates, only four meet or exceed the JAWS standards at their position, two of whom (Rodriguez and Rolen) do so while meeting the career and peak standards as well; of the other two, Ramirez meets only the career standard and Helton only the peak standards. Meanwhile, Jones tops only the peak standard. Those tallies are represented in the “Standards” column in the table above, with the yellow squares highlighting the particular standards met. Among those who don’t meet any standards are five other players I classify as “candidates of interest,” namely Beltrán, Wagner, Abreu, Sheffield, and Rodríguez, players who fall shy on JAWS but about whom I remain open-minded, for reasons explained below. If you want to know why I’m not affording similar leniency to Pettitte, Rollins, Kent, or anyone else, beyond consulting the table above, you can read their profiles.
That’s 10 for a first-cut list. I could just check my full allotment of boxes and call it a day, easy peasy lemon squeezy, but I’m pickier than that, and so the process becomes at least a bit more, uh, difficult difficult lemon difficult, to borrow a phrase from Armando Iannucci.
As for the “integrity, sportsmanship, [and] character” section of the voting rules, it was the brainchild of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who brimmed with such integrity that he spent his entire 24-year term as commissioner upholding the game’s shameful color line. The history of that hypocrisy and so many others — witness the election of Bud Selig, himself steeped in the collusion of the 1980s as well as the overseeing of the so-called Steroid Era — leads me to avoid putting any stock in the clause.
Which isn’t to say that I don’t have my own ways of dealing with the darker aspects of players’ candidacies. As I’ve said repeatedly throughout this series, when it comes to connections to PEDs, I draw a line between those whose allegations date to the time when the game had no testing regimen or means of punishment (i.e., prior to 2004) and those that came afterwards. With no means of enforcing a paper ban, and with players flouting such a ban being rewarded left and right amid what was truly a complete institutional failure that implicated team owners, the commissioner, and the players union as well as the players, I simply don’t think voters can apply a retroactive morality to that period.
With Bonds, Clemens and Sosa gone, that stance has less impact upon this ballot, but it does keep Sheffield in the clear on that front, and it has me crossing Ramirez and Rodriguez off my list. On a performance-only basis, both would get my vote, and likewise if their failing the supposedly anonymous 2003 survey test were their only PED-related transgression. A-Rod is one of seven players with at least 3,000 hits and 500 homers, and he ranks 12th in WAR among all position players, but his full-season suspension for using PEDs bought from the Biogenesis clinic from 2010-12 is a black mark I can’t overlook. Likewise with regards to Manny. He’s one of the greatest hitters of all time; his 154 OPS+ ranks 20th among players with at least 7,000 PA, but I still can’t get past the two failed tests, not when better players who never tested positive are being kept out. Every year, I consider whether it’s time to take a new approach with such candidates, but this isn’t the year I’m changing my mind.
Note that I have not used allegations of domestic violence to disqualify candidates from consideration, though such matters are far more serious than PEDs. I can certainly understand voters choosing to rule such candidates out.
So who did I vote for? These guys have been on my past two ballots and at least two virtual ballots. They’re easy calls to return:
Scott Rolen (10th among third basemen in JAWS, 63.2% in 2022)
An exceptional but under-appreciated player on both sides of the ball, he combined power and patience at the plate with some of the best glove work the hot corner has ever seen. Even in a career that contained numerous injuries and ended at age 37, he ranks third at the position in fielding runs (+175) and fourth in Gold Gloves (eight) and, depending upon your choice of metric, belongs among the top 10 or 20 hitters for the position as well. Particularly at an underrepresented spot — there are just 15 third basemen in the Hall, compared to 27 right fielders and 19 to 21 at every other position besides catcher — he merits enshrinement.
Rolen has surged from 10.2% in his 2018 debut to 63.2% last year; at this point, he’s polling at 80% in the Ballot Tracker, but hasn’t flipped as many “no” votes to “yes” as some of the other candidates. On the bright side, that means he’s already captured a lot of the votes from those open to changing their mind, but the trend nonetheless suggests that he may fall just short of 75% this year. He’s still on his way to enshrinement sooner or later, though it would be much, much better if it’s sooner.
Todd Helton (15th among first basemen in JAWS, 52% in 2022)
The 2020 election of former teammate Larry Walker opened up the road to Cooperstown for this denizen of Coors Field. An exceptional hitter who served as the face of the Rockies franchise, Helton put up very big numbers in the first half of his career, numbers that hold up once we adjust for his park and league scoring environment. Injuries caused him to fade away, as he had just one good season out of his last four, but it’s not out of the question that his time at altitude had something to do with that. His peak score ranks 10th among first basemen, about four wins above the standard, and the recent elections of Gil Hodges, Fred McGriff, and David Ortiz — all with JAWS about nine to 15 points lower – have increased the gap between his mark and the standard.
After polling at 16.5% in his first year of eligibility, Helton banked big gains on the 2020 and ’21 ballots, then crossed the 50% threshold last year. He’s polling at 78.6% right now, but because he’s flipped 11 ballots to Rolen’s four, he actually rates as a better shot at getting elected this year according to Tracker team member Adam Dore.
Billy Wagner (6th among relievers in R-JAWS, 51% in 2022)
The holder of the all-time records for strikeout rate and opponent batting average, albeit at just an 800-inning threshold, Wagner is short of the admittedly slapdash standard established by the eight enshrined relievers. Since I’ve never been entirely satisfied with how JAWS handles that small group, I’ve remained open-minded, seeking alternate ways to evaluate relievers; by my experimental R-JAWS, which incorporates Win Probability Added (WPA) and situational or context-neutral wins (WPA/LI) as well as WAR, he’s the top reliever outside the Hall, trailing only Mariano Rivera, Dennis Eckersley, Hoyt Wilhelm, Rich Gossage, and Trevor Hoffman. After debuting at 10.5% in 2016 and gaining little ground in the next three cycles, his support has more than tripled over the past three. At this point he’s polling at 70% in the Tracker, and is tied with Kent and Sheffield for the most flipped votes (14), so it’s possible he could come very close to election this year.
Andruw Jones (11th among center fielders in JAWS, 41.4% in 2022)
If 2018 Hall of Fame honoree Chipper Jones was the Braves dynasty’s offensive cornerstone, Andruw Jones was its defensive one, an elite flychaser who won 10 Gold Gloves and ranks first at the position in fielding runs (+235). He could hit, too, bopping 434 career homers. His career collapsed at age 31, however; he played just 435 games over his final five seasons, disappearing from the majors at age 35, and so while he’s well above the peak standard, he’s short on the career one and in JAWS. I’m not so bothered by that, given his relative ranking and the fact that the standards in center and right field are a few points higher than every other position. After two years in the mid-7% range, he’s more than quintupled his support since then. He’s continuing to pick up ground, flipping 11 votes thus far and polling at 68.6%, suggesting he’ll break the 50% threshold when the votes are tallied.
Those are my slam dunks. Next come two whom I’ve included in each of the past two years amid more crowded ballots. They’re personal favorites whose JAWS is in the neighborhood of 50, and I don’t see any reason to leave them off now.
Bobby Abreu (21st among right fielders in JAWS, 8.6% in 2022)
A five-tool player with dazzling speed, a sweet left-handed stroke, and enough power to win a Home Run Derby, Abreu was a stathead favorite thanks to his otherworldly plate discipline. He posted on-base percentages of .400 or higher eight times (.395 for his career) thanks to his ability to take a walk (100 or more eight years in a row). Yet despite routinely reaching traditional seasonal plateaus — a .300 batting average (six times), 20 homers (nine times), 30 steals (six times), 100 runs scored and batted in (eight times apiece) — he was ridiculously under-appreciated by the mainstream, making just two All-Star teams and winning one Gold Glove. He barely scraped by in his 2020 ballot debut with 5.5%, and after gaining a few points in ’21, he actually fell back by 0.1% in ’22. I’m not optimistic about his long-term chances for election, but I’m not giving up on him.
Gary Sheffield (24th in JAWS, 40.6% in 2021)
There’s no denying Shef’s skill with the stick. His total of 561 batting runs above average (the offensive component of bWAR) ranks 29th all-time, while his 140 OPS+ is tied for 48th; he’s either alongside or ahead of numerous no-doubt Hall of Famers in those categories, and to that he added an aesthetic quality of sheer menace in the batter’s box thanks to his lightning-quick reflexes and violent swing. It’s his defense (-195 runs, second-lowest all time ahead of only Jeter), not his BALCO connection or his penchant for controversy — two areas that require some digging in order to get a full and fair picture — that kept me from putting too much stock in his candidacy, as it knocks him more than seven points below the position standard. Yet I’m troubled by the extent to which those outlying defensive stats, which are largely estimates from the Total Zone era (based on play-by-play data but with limited information regarding batted ball type), nuke Sheffield’s value. That goes double when they’re compared to his defensive numbers via alternative methodologies. What’s more, it’s worth noting that 65% of his plate appearances came in the NL, where he didn’t have the chance to serve as a DH.
If he had DHed like Ortiz, would he be in? It does seem as though a good number of voters have asked themselves that question at some point in recent years. Sheffield’s support has more than tripled from 2019 (13.6%) to ’22, and he’s polling at 65.7% thus far, about 20 points above where he was at this juncture last year. I think he’s got too far to go to get to 75% by the end of next year’s cycle, but his odds of eventual election are certainly improving.
That’s six spots filled on my ballot, and I have two candidates left to decide upon, not coincidentally the two prominent newcomers. First, Rodríguez. Before writing up his profile, I gave little consideration to casting a vote for him. While he’s fourth all-time in saves, his WAR, WPA, and WPA/LI put him well down in both the old- and new-school JAWS rankings (34th in the former, 12th in the latter), with a significant gap between him and Wagner on the latter front.
I became more open to including Rodríguez upon realizing that he’s 0.1 R-JAWS points ahead of 2019 honoree Lee Smith (who’s third in saves) and 3.1 points ahead of Bruce Sutter. The weight of his postseason work, particularly for 2002, is worth considering as well. But thinking back to last year’s ballot, I included Joe Nathan, who’s eighth with 24.4 R-JAWS, 3.3 points ahead of Rodríguez, but left off Jonathan Papelbon, who’s 10th with 21.7; neither wound up getting even 5% of the vote. If Rodríguez is below Papelbon (who had great postseason numbers as well) in my system, I don’t see enough justification for including him where I left the other guy off.
Which brings us to Beltrán, the quintessential five-tool player, one of eight with at least 300 homers and 300 steals, not to mention the highest stolen base success rate (86.4%) of any player with at least 200 attempts. He’s ninth in JAWS among center fielders, a bit below all three standards at a very top-heavy position but the best eligible center fielder outside the Hall. Including Beltrán on my ballot should have been an easy call, but I’ve tossed and turned over that possibility since his name came up in commissioner Rob Manfred’s report into the Astros’ 2017 illegal sign stealing — and not just on the periphery.
Indeed, that Beltrán is so central to the report bothers me, because it sure as hell feels as though he’s been scapegoated for the whole affair; after all, he’s the only player named, and by Manfred’s previous determination, the players weren’t the ones in line for punishment of his no-electronics edict.
While his own performance didn’t benefit, Beltrán did something against the rules, and it continued through a postseason in which his team won a championship. Not every player was comfortable with it, but if we’re to believe the various reports, nobody stood up to him, and so he saw no need to stop. Given that manager A.J. Hinch reportedly destroyed two monitors, it’s worth questioning both his leadership capability and the heaping of blame upon Beltrán as a lone actor. It’s also worth noting that like spitballing/ball-doctoring, sign-stealing is a behavior that exists along a continuum of baseball history that stretches back nearly a century and a half, one that’s been admired as much as it’s been scorned (nobody ran to the fainting couch regarding the 1951 Giants’ belated confessions). The fan in me empathizes with that great 2017 Los Angeles team being cheated out of a title, but the industry professional in me knows that the Astros were merely the most extreme example of a team stealing signs electronically, some of which were ultimately reported and others just whispered about.
I came into this year’s ballot thinking I would withhold my vote for Beltrán for a year but likely include him in the future. In other words, that I’d treat his transgression more like Roberto Alomar‘s spitting on the umpire, an out-of-character incident that cost him the honor of first-ballot induction, rather than Rafael Palmeiro’s failed PED test, a late-career mistake that banished him from all serious consideration. Ultimately, after spending hours talking about it with friends and fellow writers (some of them voters), I harkened back to the concept of my PED line: If the commissioner couldn’t punish the player for what he did, I’m not going to play the vigilante and administer frontier justice on behalf of MLB or the Hall. It looks like many of my fellow voters feel the same way, as Beltrán has received 54.8% of the vote thus far.
I’ve only used seven of my 10 slots, but I’m not inclined to stock it with guys I don’t believe belong; believe me, I looked for rationales to support Kent, Rollins, and Pettitte in particular but just couldn’t break free of the gravity of my previous deliberations. So that’s another imperfect ballot in the books and in the mail.
Once again, I don’t entirely love the way this came out, the extent to which my self-imposed rules prevent me from simply voting for the 10 best players on the ballot, even if I still think the line I’ve drawn with regards to PEDs is a reasonable one. And I’m not about to lose sight of the bigger picture: I’m gratified that after covering baseball and analyzing Hall of Fame elections for so long on the outside, I get to cast a ballot. It’s still just one vote from among roughly 400, less impactful than my work to sway actual voters and help the likes of Walker, Tim Raines, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, and others find homes in Cooperstown, but it’s also symbolic.
I say this every year now, but it’s hardly mere lip service: I’m standing on the shoulders of giants in the field of baseball analysis, people who entered this industry without going through the traditional newspaper outlets and who either were never admitted to the BBWAA or didn’t last long enough within it to vote. People such as John Thorn, Bill James, Rob Neyer, Joe Sheehan, Christina Kahrl, and Steven Goldman were among those who opened my eyes to different ways of viewing baseball decades ago, and their thoughts on the Hall of Fame and its processes inevitably seeped into my own views of the institution and who is worthy of admission. Of that group, only Kahrl, trailblazer that she is — and not just in the encouragement of self-consciously named acronyms — is a BBWAA voter. I’d prefer a voting process that found room for all of them and other experts from beyond the mainstream, but in the meantime, I continue to do my best to represent.