Baseball fans who grew up savoring Gene Roddenberry’s old Star Trek scripts believe there will be a year, long from now and far away, when a Baseball Hall of Fame ballot is so clear and convincing that squabbles over who does and doesn’t belong will not lead to fisticuffs and loose teeth.
But it’s not happening this year.
Dukes are up, mouth guards are in place, and here are six names next to which an "X" will be marked on one voter’s 2020 Cooperstown ballot:
► Barry Bonds
► Roger Clemens
► Derek Jeter
► Scott Rolen
► Curt Schilling
► Larry Walker
Four of the above have been on past personal ballots. Two are newcomers: Derek Jeter, who in his first crack will make the Hall no matter how much some want to snort at his 20-year numbers, and Scott Rolen, whose case is more debatable, but whose metrics and all-time standing at third base earned him a bow.
Those who required long periods of isolated reflection, in a meadow, near a small lake, at the foot of a mountain that most reminded me of Olympus, and who didn’t ultimately qualify for Cooperstown’s sanctum sanctorum, include:
► Bobby Abreu, Todd Helton, Jeff Kent, Andruw Jones, Andy Pettitte, Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez, Omar Vizquel, and Billy Wagner.
I like a tight ballot. As many as 10 names are allowed to be checked each year; six made the cut here.
There isn’t quite the pressure this Hall of Fame season as there was a year ago, when Edgar Martinez had his last turn (and triumphed), and when a pitcher named Mike Mussina finally cleared the bar and got an overdue plaque.
Of the 32 chaps on this year’s docket, only Walker is staring at his 10th and final year of candidacy, which to win election mandates that you appear on 75% of the 400 or so ballots returned by Baseball Writers Association of America members who have spent at least 10 meaningful years on the job.
Some of those 2020 names, of course, are destined to be one-and-dones (farewell, Jose Valverde, Brian Roberts, Carlos Pena, Raul Ibanez, Rafael Furcal, etc.) which is what happens if you don’t pull at least 5% of a single year’s vote.
There is only one slam-dunk ballot rookie in 2020: Jeter, who had 3,465 hits, batted .310, and eight times was among the top 10 in American League MVP votes. You don’t like his defense? Tough. This isn’t the Gold Glove Museum. It’s baseball’s Hall of Fame. Jeter belongs.
That leaves five ballot holdovers from 2019 who made the grade here for reasons that either have been explained repeatedly before, or, in the case of Rolen, can be defended.
Begin with each year’s cut-and-paste explanation on those ballot bad boys, Bonds and Clemens.
Both men had dalliances with performance-enhancers, as evidence or testimony or both have confirmed. They did this during baseball’s sad and shameful period in which drug tests and penalties weren’t uniformly applied and anarchy more or less existed.
Bad times and bad decisions abounded. The difference with Bonds and Clemens: They had Hall of Fame careers apart from any help they were getting during a set number of seasons.
That’s the ongoing view here. It also differentiates them, in this opinion, from players whose numbers might well have gotten to, or past, the Cooperstown threshold by way of enhancers to which they’ve been tied, fairly or unfairly: Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, etc.
So, there’s the qualifier. As for those who are being offered this year to Cooperstown’s bean-counters for tabulation, here’s a personal justification for each.
That he also should be considered for immediate induction into the Neanderthal Hall of Shame doesn’t cancel a vote here.
Schilling is one of 18 pitchers in big-league lore to have struck out 3,000 batters. He has the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio of any pitcher of duration in baseball’s modern times. On the laudable Hall of Fame scoring system devised by Jay Jaffe of FanGraphs, and explained fully in Jaffe’s published masterpiece, “Cooperstown Casebook,” Schilling scores 64.5 versus an average score of 61.5 for past enshrined starting pitchers.
Schilling belongs in Cooperstown, even if a nose plug should accompany each year’s ballot, given Schilling’s odious views on basic matters of human inclusivity.
Had the Red Cross not been standing by each season that Walker played, he would have been a first-ballot guarantee. All that got in the way were injuries, so many injuries that he lost much of five seasons and still had a career batting average of .313, with 383 home runs and a mighty career OPS of .965.
Add to that his glove, supreme arm, and baserunning, and you have a Hall of Fame player. Not by a lot, no, but his 72.7 career WAR is right there with a mainstream Cooperstown right fielder.
Rolen was a near-miss a year ago with more time needed to ponder, read, discuss, and chew on this third baseman’s bona fides. It is no mandate, Rolen’s candidacy, but he’s at the finish line.
As with Walker, he lost too much time to the doctor’s office, due to shoulder issues. But notice Rolen’s numbers: .855 career OPS, 316 homers, a .281 average. Eight times he won a Gold Glove.
Rolen slips past the HOF average in career WAR (he has 70 against the norm of 67.5), and also beats the average for Jaffe’s scoring system (JAWS), with a 56.9 rating that clears the 55.7 mean number.
That leaves a bunch of close, or not-so-close, calls on players who simply fall short of making a Hall of Fame that has as one of its hallmarks the sheer difficulty in winning a plaque.
► Vizquel: No, no, and no. And in comparing him, as too many are genetically predisposed to do, to Ozzie Smith, spare the “Ozzie won only because of backflips” caterwauling. Ozzie Smith was at least five Cooperstown kilometers ahead of Vizquel, who didn’t come within 110 career Defensive Runs Saved of Smith, to cite one tell-all metric.
Check the career WARs for each player and the comparison becomes most graphic: 76.9 for Smith (Alan Trammell was 70.7), and 45.6 for Vizquel. In terms of career WAR for shortstops, he’s 29th. Way short of Cooperstown.
► Jones: Tough leave-out here, but his blindingly brilliant early career didn’t have enough staying power. He was basically finished as a sterling player by 30. Not a final verdict, but not a good-conscience vote in 2019.
► Helton: Another guy who just misses, and this is subject to further review, but on a conservative ballot Helton is shy. He should not be docked for hitting at Coors Field, but it figured in his favor and it bears consideration when he’s a bit of a jump-ball.
► Pettite: No. He got nice postseason exposure from the Yankees, but his overall work wasn’t adequately remarkable.
► Sheffield: Problem here was the glove. It diminished by too much his bat, which was more like an assault rifle during his 22 years in the big leagues, two of which were spent in Detroit. That gaudy .393 career on-base percentage and .907 OPS say it all about his weaponry. The WAR of 60.5 is tied to his lamentable defense.
► Kent: This is complicated, because his bat was so hefty, but the more deeply one crunches a host of numbers (55.4 WAR, shaky defense, etc.), Kent simply falls a brick shy.
► Abreu: He will be placed in a garlic-ginger-soy marinade with thoughts a year or more from now that Abreu’s numbers could appear more delectable than they do in 2019. And they just might. His power, batting grace, and wiles in taking walks are Hall-worthy. His defense steadily slipped. But if you made a case for Vladimir Guerrero, and that was an easy vote here, Abreu is in Guerrero’s neighborhood. Simply not this year. He gets the 2018 Rolen treatment on this ballot in a bid to feel more confident than a vote today feels.
► Wagner: Admittedly, relief pitchers are treated a bit harshly here. Trevor Hoffman didn’t cut it on a personal ballot, Lee Smith surely didn’t, and neither does Wagner, although he’ll likely get at least the 16.7 percent of votes he nailed a year ago.
So, have at it, this nailing to the church door of one man’s Cooperstown theses.
Hall of Fame votes are meant to be debated. Loudly. As you and your baseball-loving friends, long ago, no doubt confirmed.
Freelance writer Lynn Henning is a former Detroit News sports reporter.