As it is every year, the holiday season is also the voting season for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and museum. Less than two weeks ago, the Modern Baseball Committee elected longtime Detroit Tigers teammates Jack Morris and Alan Trammell to the Hall of Fame. And now, as we speak, hundreds of members of the BBWAA (Baseball Writers Association of America) are submitting their ballots, choosing up to 10 out of the 33 candidates eligible for the 2018 voting cycle. The ballots are due by the end of the year, the votes to be revealed on January 24th.

As it’s seemingly been every year recently, there’s a super-strong presence of first-year eligible players on this year’s ballot. The 2018 freshman candidates include Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel, Scott Rolen, Andruw Jones, Johan Santana and Johnny Damon. All seven of these players had careers superior to several others at their respective positions who are already enshrined in Cooperstown.

The Hall of Fame ballot is currently clogged because of the ongoing presence of players who, in a universe without PEDs, would already have plaques in the Hall. If their careers were not tainted by the suspected use of Performance Enhancing Drugs, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez and Gary Sheffield would likely all have given acceptance speeches in the previous five summers in Cooperstown, New York. But their careers are tainted and, with varying degrees of success, they’ve all fallen far short of the 75% threshold of votes needed to be elected into the Hall. This particular ballot is also stacked because of those seven first-time candidates that have enough “Cooperstown Cred” to deserve some consideration.

Each voter is limited to 10 votes per ballot. The conundrum for each is how to sort through the 21 candidates who had careers equal or superior to multiple Hall of Famers at their respective positions and get down to 10. Even for the voters who take a hard line against PED users, there are still 13 to 16 players for whom you can make a legitimate case. So, for the record, here are the top 25 players on the 2018 BBWAA ballot. I’m listing the top 23 as ranked by WAR (Wins Above Replacement) plus the two top relief pitchers (Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner) since WAR does not adequately reflect the value of relievers.

By the way, whether you are a WAR believer or not, in this piece you’ll find that it’s a useful tool to sum up the aggregate value of both position players and pitchers. The metric itself is an approximation of a player’s overall value but it’s a handy stat to sort through groups of players. If you’re not familiar with how WAR works, please take a look at the Glossary. Even if you’re a WAR skeptic, I think you’ll get and enjoy the general principle of this piece.

RkPlayers (ranked by WAR)Years on BallotCareer WAR2017 BBWAA vote
1Barry Bonds6th162.453.8%
2Roger Clemens6th140.354.1%
3Chipper Jones1st85.0NA
4Mike Mussina5th83.051.8%
5Curt Schilling6th79.945.0%
6Jim Thome1st72.9NA
7Larry Walker8th72.621.9%
8Scott Rolen1st70.0NA
9Manny Ramirez2nd69.223.8%
10Edgar Martinez9th68.358.6%
11Andruw Jones1st62.8NA
12Gary Sheffield4th60.313.3%
13Vladimir Guerrero2nd59.371.7%
14Sammy Sosa6th58.48.6%
15Johnny Damon1st56.0NA
16Jeff Kent5th55.216.7%
17Fred McGriff9th52.421.7%
18Johan Santana1st51.4NA
19Jamie Moyer1st50.4NA
20Omar Vizquel1st45.3NA
21Carlos Zambrano1st44.6NA
22Chris Carpenter1st34.5NA
23Livan Hernandez1st31.1NA
26Trevor Hoffman3rd28.474.0%
28Billy Wagner3rd28.110.2%
Courtesy Baseball Reference

I’ve highlighted Jones, Thome, Vladimir Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman because most pundits (including this one) believe that they are the quartet likely to actually be elected next month. Guerrero and Hoffman got over 70% of the vote in 2017; it’s fairly typical for players who get over 70% to surge past the needed 75% in the subsequent year. Jones and Thome will almost certainly be first ballot choices.

Every year, Ryan Thibodaux tabulates the votes of all BBWAA members who release their ballot publicly. I’d recommend bookmarking this page if you’re curious about the “early vote” totals and tracking them up until the announcement on January 24th. With 101 ballots released as of late Saturday night, Chipper is at 98%, Thome at 96%. They’re getting in, as will Vladdy (who’s at 94%). Hoffman is currently in 5th place (at 80%), behind Edgar Martinez (who’s at 82% right now). I’ll get into Edgar a little more next week but this public vote total is still quite early and I would expect him to ultimately fall a little short with Hoffman holding steady and making it in.

On the list above of 25, although they all had some great moments in their careers, I don’t consider pitchers Jamie Moyer, Carlos Zambrano, Chris Carpenter, and Livan Hernandez to have a snowball’s chance in you know where to become Hall of Famers; I included them merely for context. If you dismiss these four pitchers, you still have 21 legitimate candidates, 16 if you’re a hard-liner about the PED-linked players. Moyer, by the way, did win 269 games but he lost 209 and had a 4.25 career ERA. With one All-Star berth in 25 seasons, he’s not in the top 21. Carpenter, the 2005 N.L. Cy Young Award winner and a post-season ace, was the best of this quartet but didn’t have the longevity to merit serious Cooperstown consideration.

OK, so here’s a quick rundown of the top seven newbies on the ballot. (Over the past few months, I’ve written pieces about these seven first-timers. You can access those pieces by clicking on each player’s name). 

  • Chipper Joneshe has the 3rd most home runs, the 2nd most RBI and the most runs scored among all third basemen all-time (with a minimum of 50% games played at the hot corner). He has the added bonus of being a lifetime member of the Atlanta Braves. BBWAA voters like to give bonus points to players who spend their entire career with one team.
  • Jim Thomehis 612 home runs are the 8th most in the history of the game, 6th most among those never suspected of using a needle to help themselves hit more. He is also 7th in the history of the game with 1,747 walks, behind names like Bonds, Henderson, Ruth, Williams, Morgan and Yastrzemski. Thome was one of the great authentic sluggers in the PED era.
  • Omar Vizquel; an 11-time Gold Glove Award winner, nobody in history played more games at shortstop. He’s also the career leader in double plays turned and in fielding percentage. The downside is that, despite 2,877 hits, he was not an effective offensive performer. Only once in his 24 years did he receive a single MVP vote. Vizquel is the most difficult candidate to figure. Some call him the 2nd coming of Ozzie Smith; others point out that he did not dominate the defensive metrics in remotely the same way as the Wizard did. In the early voting, the Viz is at a respectable 29%.
  • Scott Rolenhis 70.0 career WAR is 9th best among third basemen all-time (again with a minimum of 50% games played at third). He won 8 Gold Gloves while hitting 316 home runs. He’ll get some votes, probably enough to last for several ballots. His early vote percentage is 11%.
  • Andruw Jones: a 10-time Gold Glove Award winner who is considered the 2nd best (to Willie Mays) or best defensive center fielder of all-time. And he hit 434 home runs from a premium defensive position. He won’t get a lot of votes but should get enough to return for future ballots; he’s at 8% right now.
  • Johnny Damon2,769 career hits, 408 SB. Has the 5th most hits and 6th most runs scored among all center fielders all-time (minimum 50% games played in CF).  On this stacked ballot, there isn’t going to be any room for the Caveman. With only one public supporter so far, he’ll fall far short of the minimum 5% vote total required to remain on the ballot for subsequent years.
  • Johan Santanaa two-time Cy Young winner, 3-time ERA champion and 3-time strikeout champion, he was the best pitcher in baseball over a seven year period. Unfortunately, he won just 139 games (with a 3.20 ERA). Santana (to my surprise) only has two publicly revealed votes. It doesn’t look like he’ll make it to 5% either.

Anyway, that’s a power-packed septet and the fact that Damon and Santana have gotten virtually no support thusfar speaks to how crowded the ballot is. Of these seven players, only Vizquel has a career WAR below 50. Here’s why this is significant: as I said a little earlier, WAR is a useful tool to search through groups of players. The 2018 Hall of Fame ballot has 7 candidates with a 50 or higher career WAR (with Moyer being the 7th).

What you can see below is that the first-time candidate class of 2018 has the 2nd most 50-Win Players in the last 70 years. I picked a 70-year window for a reason. The 1948 ballot had 9 different 50-Win first-time candidates but it’s not a valid comparison. The Hall of Fame voting procedure was still in its infancy and the ’48 ballot contained players who were near the end of their careers but still technically active and also players who should have been voted upon in previous voting cycles.

Hall of Fame ballots with the most first-time candidates with 50+ WAR (last 70 years)
YearTotPlayers
20138BondsClemensBiggioPiazzaSchilling, Sosa, Lofton, Wells
20187C. JonesThomeRolenA. JonesDamon, Santana, Moyer
20147MadduxGlavineThomasMussinaKent, Gonzalez, Rogers
20106LarkinAlomarEdgar M.McGriffVentura, Appier
19926SeaverT. PerezRoseGrichCedeno, Harrah
19896YastrzemskiG. PerryJenkinsBenchKaat, Campaneris
20155R. JohnsonPedro M.SmoltzSheffieldB. Giles
20115BagwellWalkerPalmeiroBrownOlerud
19995BrettRyanYountFiskTanana
19985BlylevenCarterRandolphClarkDowning
19945CarltonSuttonNettlesCruzT. Simmons
Baseball ReferenceHall of Famers in Bold

From a talent and production standpoint, the freshman class of 2013 will not be matched for a long time and it’s the best since the early years of the Hall of Fame voting, which started in 1936. In a universe without PEDs and based strictly on each player’s record, Bonds, Clemens and Sosa would have been first-time inductees. Biggio and Piazza have actually been inducted since and Schilling is one of the great oversights by the writers who is long overdue for the Hall. Schill will get there eventually, whether it’s through the writers or through the Eras Committees. Bonds and Clemens are questionable. Still, for pure on-field accomplishments, this first-year class had 6 to 7 players who put up Cooperstown-quality statistics.

The freshman class of 2018 is not nearly as good and, ultimately, might only produce two Hall of Famers. But it has a large number of candidates who would normally deserve a long, hard look. Unfortunately for Rolen, Vizquel, Santana and the Jones not named Chipper, there are so many quality holdover candidates on this ballot that it’s going to be hard for any to break through.

The newcomers of 2018 also don’t have the top level pedigree of the freshman Classes of 2015, 2014, 1999 or 1989, all of which have produced at least three Hall of Famers. Still, it’s an impressive group.

In case your curious, the influx of quality candidates will continue next year: Mariano Rivera, the late Roy Halladay, Andy Pettitte, Todd Helton, Lance Berkman, and Roy Oswalt all hit the ballot in 2019, each with a 50+ WAR. After that, it slows down. In 2020, there are three 50+ WAR players (Derek Jeter, Bobby Abreu and Jason Giambi) but only Jeter will be a Hall of Famer. In 2021, there will again be just three 50-Win players (Tim Hudson, Mark Buehrle, and Torii Hunter) with no likely Cooperstown inductees.

By the way, in case you’re wondering why the most stacked first-year ballots have been in the last 20 years (as opposed to the years from 1949-1988), it’s simply because there have been more teams in the more recent decades.

Anyway, there are a total of 19 players on this year’s ballot with a career WAR of 50 or more. That’s a lot but not an extraordinary number. If it weren’t for the PED guys hanging around on the ballot year after year, there would only be 14, with three of them (Damon, Santana and Moyer) being likely first-ballot casualties (getting under 5% of the vote).

Why do I seem to be fixated on the number 50 when it comes to WAR? Among all the players who made their MLB debuts in the first 80 years of recorded baseball history (1871 to 1950), a WAR of 50 usually meant a Cooperstown plaque. Needless to say, the people who voted on these players had never heard of Wins Above Replacement but it’s interesting that, for all players to debut from 1871 to 1950, 92 out of 116 who Baseball Reference credits with a 50+ WAR are in the Hall of Fame.

The bar has been raised in recent decades: of the 127 players debuting in the forty years since (1951-1990), barely 50% (65 out of 127) have made it into Cooperstown.

Let’s finish by looking at how many members of recent Hall of Fame classes (last 50 years) have been first-ballot Hall of Famers, how many made it eventually and how many first-year candidates got 5% of the ballot or more.

First year Hall of Fame candidates in last 50 years
YearTotal HOFFirst Yr HOFTot with 5% in 1st YrHall of Famers
1999435Ryan, Brett, Yount, Fisk
1989425Yaztrzemski, Brett, Perry, Jenkins
2015335R. Johnson, P. Martinez, Smoltz
2014335Maddux, Glavine, Thomas
2002313O. Smith, Dawson, Trammell
1994316Carlton, Sutton, Sutter
1982324Aaron, F. Robinson, B. Williams
1981314Gibson, Killebrew, Marichal
1980313Kaline, Cepeda, Santo
1973313Spahn, Ford, R. Roberts
1969314Musial, Wynn, Schoendienst
*2013206Biggio, Piazza
*Several other "freshman" classes had 2 eventual Hall of Famers

The Class of 2018 will likely have two Hall of Famers (Chipper Jones and Thome) and three others (based on Thibodaux’s HOF tracker) who will hang around for a minimum of one more ballot (Vizquel, Rolen and Andruw Jones).

In case your curious, the six players from the first-year candidates in 1994 were Hall of Famers Steve Carlton, Don Sutton, Bruce Sutter along with Ron Guidry, Dave Concepcion and Graig Nettles. Also on that ballot was recent Modern Game nominee Ted Simmons, who got just 4% of the vote and fell off the ballot.

Anyway, this year’s first-year class is excellent. If, as we predicted, four new Hall of Famers are elected next month, three more stick around for next year’s ballot and six new 50+ WAR players join the 2019 ballot, the “stacked ballot” conundrum will continue. Writers will find themselves with the difficult choices of whittling their ballots down to ten names.

Thanks for reading.

Chris Bodig

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