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Baseball’s Hall of Fame voting season has taken on a life of its own. A mix of moral quandaries, statistical evolution and meta-analysis has transformed the annual enshrinement announcement from another tick on the calendar to a notable perennial event.
This year was no different. If anything, the emphasis on the 2018 Hall of Fame ballot was even greater as baseball forgot to pay the gas man to keep its hot stove burning. The ballot—and the days leading to the final vote reveal—were thick with hot takes, deft spins, calls for reform and, personally, reflection: four stars from the 1990s-2000s gained entry into Cooperstown. Young players by the Hall’s age. Everyone but the Montreal Expos is getting old.
Anyway, here are some parting questions and thoughts on the 2018 Hall of Fame vote:
1. Did the writers get it right?
Whether the BBWAA members with ballots voted correctly is less about who got in than it is about who they left out. And with steroid era athletes across the ballot, it’s not even so much who they left out—it’s how much progress or regression towards or away from the Hall the guys with astronomical numbers and performance-enhancing question marks have made. We’ll come back to this a bit later.
This year’s four elected Hall of Famers—Chipper Jones (97.2% of the votes), Vladimir Guerrero (92.9%), Jim Thome (89.8%) and Trevor Hoffman (79.9%)—are all deserving. Chipper goes into the Hall as one of the sixth-to-eighth-best third basemen of all time. Vlad was a phenomenal free-swinger whose candidacy was no doubt boosted by the off-field suspicions other power guys in his era carry with them. Thome’s longevity allowed him to gain milestones that are (and should be) still important to acknowledge, and his pristine image is a particular type of writer’s dream. Hoffman is maybe the second-best modern era closer.
As a post-’86 Mets fan, I remember seeing a lot of three of these guys. With something like the Hall of Fame, which actively triggers your nostalgia every time you look down the ballot, anecdotal evidence isn’t the absolute truth, yet it matters: the Hall is about remembrance, and some players are hard to forget.
In that vein, sometimes you’ll show up to the ballpark and immediately notice how much better one athlete is than everyone else. It’s harder to notice in baseball because of the asymmetric nature of the game (I once saw the Miami Heat playing the Brooklyn Nets and LeBron looked like a fighter jet dunking on tricycles), so when you do notice it, it sticks out. This happened to me recently with Bryce Harper. I remember it happening a lot with Vlad, quite a bit with Thome, and over time with Chipper, who was surrounded by four other guys that made your favorite team feel inconsequential and unworthy of your memory.
2. What surprised you about the Hall of Fame ballot results? Who got robbed?
The Hall of Fame ballot isn’t capped off in its one-year run. In other words, the 2018 ballot isn’t just the 2018 ballot. This may have always been the case, I’m not sure, but ballots are essentially annual progress reports that help you track the incremental changes in opinions and sometimes stats. I’ll stop short of saying that the vote is about the writer’s pool as much as anything else—that discussion mostly already happened—but everyone thinks it this time of year.
In any case, there are so many ballot holdovers, the real thrills and surprises in Hall of Fame voting come with charting progress. Edgar Martinez, who should have been in the Hall years ago, picked up 12% more votes year-over-year, and I’d like to believe he is a virtual lock to make the Hall in 2019. Mike Mussina also made 12% progress, and Moose will continue to climb.
What surprised me most was a bit of stagnation in the gains of guys who are more directly tied (whether by evidence or intimation) to the steroid era. Barry Bonds saw about an 8% jump from 2015 to 2016 and a 9% jump from 2016 to 2017, two ballot seasons that saw the contents of the BBWAA voting pool change dramatically, but gained only 2.6% this year. Roger Clemens jumped about 8% and 9% over the same years as well, but gained only around 3% this year. Manny Ramirez and Gary Sheffield dropped down a few percentage points. I wonder if, given the current voter pool, the writers in support of these guys are all accounted for, and gaining votes in any meaningful total from this point will take some campaigning.
3. Who, if anyone, from this season’s results gets in next year?
Edgar Martinez is one of the three-best DH’s ever, if not the best, and if the rules of the game required that he spent the majority of his career at his native third base, his offensive numbers would make him one of ten most productive third basemen in the history of the game.
That it will take ten years to vote him into the Hall is perplexing, and is less a reflection of his bona fides than it is of the weirdly warped criteria the gatekeepers during his candidacy kept. I think he has benefited from a modernized voting population of late just as much as he was harmed by the, let’s say, elder one his first half-a-decade-plus on the ballot. That, and a prevailing sense of “better late than never,” along with the way baseball folk view David Ortiz, another prolific player who accrued a lot of Hall-worthy stats from the DH spot, will come together to put Martinez into the Hall of Fame next season. I hope.
He may very well be the only holdover to make it.
No one else on the 2018 ballot has the same combination of high vote total, changing opinions and urgency that Martinez’s candidacy carries over to the 2019 vote. The ever-steady Mike Mussina (51.8%) and the character clause conundrum that is Curt Schilling (45.0%) would be the next closest guys up (excluding Clemens and Bonds, who won’t get in next year anyway), and they’re too far—and perhaps too polarizing, at least in Schilling’s case—to make that kind of leap in one season.
4. Name one vote-getter who is overrated. Name one who is overlooked.
I loved watching Billy Wagner pitch. Aside from an annual swoon where he couldn’t miss a bat with his fastball, his overpowering lefty heat, coupled with a whip-it-west-to-east slider was a simple, brutal distillation of specialized pitching that was captivating. Wagner was a different kind of two-pitch, three-outs closer than, say, Mariano Rivera. If Mo was elegant and methodical, poetry written in broken bats, Wagner was heavy metal.
With that said, it’s odd to me that he received the same percentage of votes as Gary Sheffield, who for his career, was every bit the player Vladimir Guerrero was. Wagner, by comparison, is overrated. Sheffield, by comparison, is overlooked.
But even more overlooked than Sheff is Larry Walker. In his eighth year on the ballot, Walker received only 34.1% of the vote despite comparing favorably to Vlad and equally to Thome. I’m not sure what the hang up on Walker is—era association or ballpark factor or longevity issues—but if you go back to every ballot Walker has been on, he stacks up nicely to at least one Hall of Famer that got in ahead of him.
5. Look ahead to 2019. Which first-ballot guys next year are locks?
If it’s first-ballot guys who will also be first-ballot Hall of Famers, it’s Mariano Rivera. Mo is the messiah of modern closers, and he will be rightly canonized next year. The debate on Mo will be how close he gets to Ken Griffey Jr.’s 99.3%.
The late Roy Halladay has a shot at enshrinement. His peak years were exemplary.
Until next year, then.
Khurram Kalim is a senior writer for Bronx to Bushville.