Here’s my annual Hall of Fame ballot column, also known as “Why Dan Connolly is an idiot.”
Voting for the National Baseball Hall of Fame is a significant honor. And I take it seriously. When I became a professional baseball writer and ultimately had a public ballot to file, I dove deeply into the subject, and defined what I think makes a Hall of Famer.
Being around the sport for a long time, observing how hard it is to reach and then stick in the majors and having the opportunity to talk about the game with those who play it professionally has made me a “Big Hall” voter. This game is incredibly hard, and so I give the benefit of the doubt to some borderline players, especially if they are well-rounded.
How I cast my MLB Hall of Fame vote
I usually vote for between 7 to 10 (the maximum allowed) every year, because I tend to reward players who played well for a long period of time, and I give extra points for outstanding defense, something that is often overlooked in the evaluation process. Call my strategy the “holistic approach” to Hall voting.
Once writers were taxed with trying to figure out baseball’s steroid mess without direction, I decided to establish my own guidelines: One, I reduce the emphasis on power categories (home runs, slugging, strikeouts for a pitcher) and put a larger focus on more complete players.
Two, I’ll look the other way once for performance-enhancing drug usage/rumors because it was a huge part of the culture years ago and was not policed properly. However, if a player screws up twice with PEDs, including after penalties were established, I’m out. No two-time losers on my ballot. So, I voted for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens for years; I’ll never vote for Alex Rodriguez or Manny Ramirez.
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On this year’s ballot, there are roughly 14 players I feel should/could be in Cooperstown; I could only vote for 10. Here’s my list:
If I were a hardline, small-Hall guy, I could make the argument that Beltré is the only one on this ballot that deserves induction, simply because everyone else has warts. Beltré, however, checks all boxes: Power, average, longevity, peak years, tremendous defense at third base, leadership, character. If Beltré is not a first-ballot Hall of Famer, something is wrong with the system.
The Coors Field complaints will always come into play here, but he was one of the best hitters of his generation, slashed a Hall-worthy .316/.414/.539, played excellent defense and was a leader for the Colorado Rockies pretty much from the moment he made his debut, two years after he was selected eighth overall. His power dropped in his 30s, but he remained a tough out and fierce competitor throughout a 17-season career.
I was on the Jones’ bandwagon when he was getting just seven percent of the vote early on in his candidacy. He received 58.1 percent in 2023 and that total should rise in 2024. I applaud my fellow voters for putting less stock in his offensive dropoff in his 30s and focusing more on what Jones was: A generational defensive talent – one of MLB’s greatest center-field defenders — who also had 434 homers, an .823 career OPS and a 111 career OPS+. As I wrote above, I’m a huge proponent of defense in a Hall candidacy, and Jones is my poster boy.
Closers will always be tough to evaluate given their comparatively low innings pitched totals. But that’s part of the game now. If a closer is going to get my vote, it can’t just be because he racked up save totals. There must be more – such as dominance for an extended period. Wagner pitched 16 seasons in the majors and had an 11.9 per nine strikeout rate, a WHIP under 1.00 and a career ERA at 2.31. He’s one of the best to ever fill the closer’s role.
Take away the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal and Beltrán might have been a first-ballot inductee last year; he surely would have received more than 46.5 percent of the vote. Some writers wanted to think about his role in one of baseball’s biggest scandals. I respect that. But this a guy whose makeup was considered off the charts before the Astros’ cheating was exposed. And he was a tremendous all-around player, with power, speed and defense to spare. He also had a 1.021 OPS in 65 postseason games, better than his career OPS of .837 in 20 seasons. His role as ringleader in Houston certainly is concerning, but Cooperstown has its share of cheaters and rule-benders, and that black mark isn’t enough for me to keep Beltrán out.
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No one’s candidacy has given me a longer pause than Sheffield’s. He has been tied to PEDs, he was a brutal defender and his commitment to his team was questioned at times. He is, in some ways, my anti-candidate. Yet, Sheffield was among the most feared hitters of his generation. His iconic, violent swing produced an OPS+ of 140 and garnered him five Silver Sluggers. The defensive issues kept me from voting for him during the first part of his candidacy, but once I checked off David Ortiz, a career designated hitter, I felt like Sheffield had to be included, too, since much of Sheffield’s career was played in the NL without a DH. This is his last chance on the writer’s ballot and I’m guessing he falls short. That’s too bad, because one of baseball’s most menacing hitters of the last 30 years deserves induction.
Choosing Rollins goes back to my “holistic” approach. His career OPS of .743 and OPS+ of 95 suggest he was a below-average offensive performer, and that crushes his candidacy for many. If I were selecting solely on his hitting ability, Rollins wouldn’t make my cut. But there are other things I can’t ignore: He won an MVP, four Gold Gloves at shortstop and led the league in triples four times. He was an elite base stealer – 470 swipes, one stolen base crown and an 82 percent success rate – and the catalyst atop a Philadelphia Phillies team that won five division titles. He also was a high character/community guy, winning the league’s Roberto Clemente Award. And although his outstanding defense slipped at the end, he stayed at shortstop his entire 17-season career and is the only shortstop in baseball history to post 200 homers and 400 steals. He’s a sum of the parts Hall of Famer for me.
My former colleague, Ken Rosenthal, makes a salient point: It’s hard to envision Utley in the Hall without Rollins and vice versa. They’re the recent day version of Detroit’s Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, a fantastic double-play combination that was seemingly inseparable when dissecting their on-field play. (Trammell eventually made it to Cooperstown; Whitaker is still waiting). Rollins and Utley played together with the Phillies from 2003 to 2014 and were the soul/heartbeat of those teams. Utley was less flashy than Rollins and his defense was probably overlooked because of that, but he was a strong defender at second, a smart and effective baserunner and a productive hitter. His .823 OPS, 117 OPS+ and 64.5 rWAR are all higher than Rollins’ numbers. Utley will get docked by some old-school voters because he only tallied 1,885 hits, which would be the lowest of any Hall of Famer since the post-1960 expansion era. But Utley had plenty of intangibles, including a legendary will to win. I voted for Rollins last year. And I can make a case Utley should be ahead of Rollins. So, both are on my ballot.
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Based on the support he’s receiving in his first ballot, you’d think Mauer would be higher on my list. He’s a former MVP, a three-time Gold Glover and one of MLB’s greatest hitting catchers, winning three batting titles as a backstop. Here’s my problem: Voters view Mauer’s candidacy through the prism of being a catcher, which makes his offensive exploits more impressive. Indeed, he had a tremendous run as a hitting catcher, posting an .889 OPS in 3,943 plate appearances. But he also accumulated 3,942 plate appearances as a first baseman/DH and posted an OPS under .800 with 50 homers. Because of injuries, including concussions, Mauer started 885 games at catcher and 888 at first base/DH. Only six times in a 15-season career did he start more than 81 games – or half his team’s contests — behind the plate. He was an above-average offensive producer as a catcher and a below average one as a DH/first baseman. Ultimately, I voted for Mauer because, besides Yadier Molina, catchers don’t typically log 100 games for 15 seasons nowadays. So, Mauer probably shouldn’t be penalized for a modern trend, since he squatted a lot during his career. But this wasn’t a slam dunk for me like it was for other voters with whom I spoke.
If you really want to criticize my ballot, here’s your best shot. Hunter had a .793 OPS, 110 OPS+ and a 50.7 rWAR in a 19-season career, all numbers that scream Hall of Pretty Good. Also, his career dWAR was 4.0, unexceptional for a center fielder that won nine Gold Gloves, an award often more about reputation than yearly performance. Still, you don’t have eyes if you don’t think Hunter was one of the best to play his position during the length of his career. Also, consider there have been only 15 players in MLB history with at least 350 homers, 450 doubles, 150 steals and 2,400 hits. Ten are in the Hall; the others are Bonds, Rodriguez, Sheffield, Beltran and Hunter.
In full disclosure, I am not 100 percent convinced Hunter belongs in Cooperstown. But I think he should continue to be considered. There’s a real possibility he will fall short of five percent this year and drop off the ballot. And I think he has a compelling enough case that he deserves more chances to gain momentum. Remember, Jones nearly fell off the ballot in his first two years before his candidacy soared; meanwhile two other excellent all-around center fielders, Kenny Lofton and Jim Edmonds, were one and done. I continue to be bothered by that. It’s one of the hardest positions to play in the game, and when you did it as well as Hunter (and Lofton and Edmonds), that should mean more than someone with stronger offense and lesser defense at easier positions. Admittedly, this vote is more strategic than a full-throated endorsement.
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Those who fell short for me
I was an original backer of Vizquel but dropped him after disturbing off-field reports. I haven’t quite reconciled with that yet, simply because a significant factor that led me to vote for Vizquel originally was his character/leadership. Those took a major hit. Still, he is one of the game’s greatest defensive shortstops, had nearly 3,000 hits and will always get consideration from me.
He is my ultimate borderline candidate. I consider him every year. But every year he falls just under my threshold. His defense dropped off a cliff and his offense sputtered in the last third of his career. I almost included him on this ballot, but Hunter’s all-around candidacy and potential of being cut took precedent. Abreu will live on the ballot for another year or more.
Mark Buehrle, Andy Pettitte and Francisco Rodriguez
All were good pitchers. All have significant negatives. I’m probably more likely to lean toward Rodriguez than the other two, but just haven’t seen enough evidence to check any of the three during their candidacies so far.
Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez
Both have the credentials. Both should be in the Hall. But both threw their entire careers into question by being in the steroid glare multiple times, including after penalties were set. I hate playing judge/jury here, but I draw my line at two-time losers. I’m comfortable with that.