The ballot for the 2021 BBWAA Hall of Fame class was revealed on Monday and, hey, we in the baseball world don't have much else to talk about right now, so it's pretty good timing. As a reminder on the process, each year the BBWAA votes on a Hall of Fame class from a set of former players who qualify to be on the ballot. Those players have either been placed on the ballot by the Hall of Fame (chosen from a group of players with a minimum of 10 years in the majors) or are holdovers from years' past.
The holdovers had to have received at least five percent in the previous vote. A player can only remain on the ballot for 10 years. If he's not voted in for those 10 years, he'll fall off the ballot. Those who don't get at least five percent of the vote also fall off. Those who get at least 75 percent of the vote get into the Hall of Fame. Voters can only select a maximum of 10 players and there is no minimum (yes, ballots can be sent back blank).
Here are some storylines to watch this winter as we discuss the Hall of Fame leading to the announcement in mid-January.
A final note: I'm not going to dive deep on cases for or against any of the legitimate candidates here. We have weeks for that. This will simply be an analysis of the ballot and the storylines that come with it.
1. Weak class of newcomers
This is all relative to it being the Hall of Fame, because we have a decent-sized list of first-timers on the ballot who had very good and long careers. If there was a such thing as a "Hall of the Very Good" we'd have a crowded class. Tim Hudson, Mark Buehrle, Aramis Ramirez, Torii Hunter, Shane Victorino, Dan Haren and Barry Zito are among the best players to join the ballot. As noted, that's a strong list of players who were greatly productive for a long time. They are not, however, Hall of Fame-caliber players. My expectation is that no newcomers survive the five-percent rule, meaning they are all likely one-and-dones on the Hall of Fame ballot. If any do hang around with at least five percent of the vote, the guess is Buehrle, Hudson and Hunter have the best shot. It's hard to see a road to any of them ever getting in, though. And that's OK! Being a Hall of Famer should be incredibly difficult.
2. Crowded ballot no more
For years, many of us lamented the crowded Hall of Fame ballot. It is crowded no more. After the empty 2013 class, we have seen BBWAA Hall classes of 3, 4, 2, 3, 4, 4 and 2 on the last seven voting cycles. Small Hall people might be losing their minds in seeing an average of more than three per year from the BBWAA, but every single player voted in was worthy by the previously established Hall of Fame standards. The new veterans committees are still swinging away (and missing at times), but the BBWAA is doing good work.
That means the maximum of 10 player votes isn't really that big a problem anymore. For example, there are exactly 10 players I would vote for. Some would be against the likes of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa due to their PED connections and others might not like my selections of Scott Rolen, Todd Helton, Billy Wagner, et al for different reasons. The point is, the maximum shouldn't really constrain people anymore. Reasonable people can disagree on players, but we're a lot closer to a true binary (yes or no) ballot than we were five years ago. It'll still be awfully tough to get to 75 percent, but with the ballot backlog having been cleared out, the process is much more fair for players like Jeff Kent and Andruw Jones now.
3. Is it Schilling's year?
My guess is this is it for Curt Schilling, in a good way for him. His vote percentages the last four years ...
With the ballot crowding cleared and the weak class of newcomers, the best bet is Schilling gets the added boost he needs and is enshrined into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown this summer.
This is Schilling's ninth year on the ballot, so if he doesn't make it there will be one more chance, but the trajectory here suggests he'll make it this time. Rightfully so, as I've made his on-field case before.
4. Last ride for Bonds and Clemens is near
Like Schilling, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are on the ballot here for the ninth time. Unlike Schilling, the two highest-profile names on the ballot don't appear to have much momentum. It's not exactly stagnation, but they haven't gained enough in recent years to believe 75 percent is reachable in this vote or next year's vote. The percentages ...
2017: Clemens 54.1; Bonds 53.8
2018: Clemens 57.3; Bonds 56.4
2019: Clemens 59.5; Bonds 59.1
2020: Clemens 61; Bonds 60.7
Gaining just a few percentage points doesn't get them home before they fall off the ballot. A surge is needed this year, next or both in order for Bonds and/or Clemens to make it via this route.
As far as I can tell, there could be two things in their favor, though neither point is a big one. First off, as time ticks on, the voting body continues to turn over, with lapsed (likely older) voters losing their vote while newer blood gains a vote. Generally speaking, this has been shown to help the PED-related players. I'm just dubious it will push the vote totals more significantly than the past few years. Secondly, and this is probably a stretch, the uncrowding of the ballot hypothetically opens spots up. Again, I'm dubious, though. If a voter is OK with voting for Bonds and Clemens and their warts, how weren't they already voting for the duo? The on-field stats put each among the inner-circle elite players in history. Sure, we might see a small handful of voters come around on this front, I'm just not seeing upwards of five percent of the electorate doing so (there were 397 votes last year). Most likely, everyone has already made his or her mind up on these two and voter retirees/newcomers aren't going to move the needle to the tune of 14 percent in two years.
5. Names to watch for continued momentum
A good number of players have some serious momentum now with the ballot unpacked and a weak class of newcomers. Here are some players who have made gains the last few years and have a great shot to continue on the path toward enshrinement.
Omar Vizquel - It's his fourth year on the ballot. Vizquel is trending very well and has a shot at getting to 75 percent this year, I'd estimate. He's gone from 37 to 42.8 to 52.6 percent so far.
Scott Rolen - Like Vizquel, Rolen is also in his fourth year. After going from just 10.2 percent to 17.2 percent, he more than doubled his percentage to 35.3 last voting cycle. Especially given the rise of Larry Walker to gain enshrinement last year, things appear to bode very well for Rolen. I wouldn't say he'll get in this time, I'm just saying he has a strong chance before he falls off the ballot. The bet here is he makes it in before that happens.
Billy Wagner - Things aren't as optimistic for Wagner, though he did have a big jump last year. Through four voting cycles, he only rose from 10.5 percent to 16.7, but the leap went all the way to 31.7 percent last year. He has five tries left and it seems likely to be close. Possibly good news for Wagner? Fellow closer Lee Smith didn't get in via the BBWAA but the Today's Game (veterans) committee voted him in at the 2018 Winter Meetings. The bad news for Wagner? It'll be a long time before that becomes possible. He'll look to continue BBWAA momentum this year and hopefully avoid a longer wait.
Todd Helton - It's possible that Larry Walker suffered from the Coors Field stigma before last year, though Walker was only on the Rockies for about 10 of his 17 years. Helton spent his entire 17-year career with the Rockies. He's only been on the ballot for two voting cycles, but last year's was encouraging, jumping from 16.5 to 29.2 percent. From his perspective, I'd be cautiously optimistic. It's hard to be fully optimistic when shy of 30 percent, so hold off until seeing this year's percentage.
Jeff Kent - Here's the guy needing the most help in this section. It seems a lost cause. Kent is on the ballot for his eighth time. From 2014-19, he was always between 14 and 18.1 percent of the vote, at times falling in percentage. The last three years, respectively, going 14.5 to 18.1 to last year's 27.5 percent might provide a glimmer of hope, but that's a tall order with just two votes left. We'd be asking roughly half the electorate (maybe around 200 voters) to either say they've had a spot open up or are reconsidering their previous thoughts on Kent as a Hall of Famer. I suppose it's possible, but not very likely.
Andruw Jones - In his fourth try this year, it's looking like a pretty big vote for Jones. His first two years (7.3 and 7.5 percent, respectively) had the makings of a player who hung around on the lower part of the ballot for a few years before mercifully falling off. He jumped nearly 12 percent last year to 19.4, though. Getting up around 30 percent or more in his fourth try would put Jones in a somewhat favorable position moving forward. He's one of the more intriguing players to watch.
6. Can Pettitte and Abreu make big gains?
Andy Pettitte went from 9.9 to 11.3 percent in his second try last year. It's a gain, though pretty marginal. He's got eight tries left, but there needs to be some momentum to believe he has a realistic shot of making it. By now, some might be wondering why I'm saying stuff like this when the players aren't playing more games. That's fair. The answer is that, in addition to the ballot and voting body changing every year, players increasing in vote percentages start getting more coverage from us media types in these winter months and it's possible writers who hadn't previously considered certain candidates might start to give a player a harder look. I was guilty in my early writing years of dismissing players like Tim Raines and Larry Walker, but after seeing them gain momentum, I looked further into their cases and realized I should've done a better job in evaluating their careers.
Perhaps if Pettitte gains some momentum, more and more writers come around.
Bobby Abreu would need a similar type move, as he got just 5.5 percent of the vote last year in his ballot debut.
7. PED purgatory?
Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa and Manny Ramirez remain on the ballot and appear stuck. The merits and demerits of the three candidates vary and we already said we aren't getting into specific cases here. We'll simply point out that the three would already be in the Hall of Fame if it weren't for their various connections to PEDs in some form. And yet ...
Ramirez has been on the ballot for four years. His vote percentage started at 23.8, and last year it was 28.2. He has six cycles left, but it's hard to see him getting to 75 percent.
Sosa is dead in the water. In his first year on the ballot, he got 12.5 percent of the vote. Last year, he got 13.9 percent. There were six single-digit vote percentages in between. With just two tries left, it's just a formality before he falls off.
Now, Sheffield made a big move last year. After stagnating between 11.7 and 13.6 percent for five years, he jumped to 30.5 percent last year. Given what we're seeing with Bonds and Clemens, I really don't think Sheffield can get to 75 percent from 30.5 percent in four voting cycles. If anything, it seems like more of the Bonds/Clemens voters had spots open up for Sheffield last year. Still, he seems like the one with the best chance to escape PED purgatory here.
We'll have a lot more to come here before turning the calendar to 2021, but hopefully this is enough to whet the appetite for my fellow Baseball Hall of Fame die-hards.