My 2023 Hall of Fame ballot

Every Hall of Fame ballot is different. Some years, they’re stacked with qualified candidates, leading at times to a forced paring down of choices to adhere to the Hall’s longstanding rule against voting for more than 10 players. Some years, they’re lacking in obvious choices, which can lead to only a handful of votes and unfortunately no new inductees.

The 2023 ballot leaned more toward the latter description than the former.

Of the 28 names up for consideration – a big drop from the 35-player ballot of 2019 – there were no absolute, slam-dunk choices, no clear first-time electees who don’t even require a moment of research before placing a checkmark next to their name.

There were 14 newcomers to this ballot, and the most notable of them (Carlos Beltran) carried with him the stigma of the 2017 Astros’ electronic sign-stealing scandal. There were 14 returning players who received at least 5 percent support last year, and the best among those were longtime hopefuls Scott Rolen, Todd Helton and Billy Wagner. There were better players than those eligible for election, but each was tainted by the stain of performance enhancing drug usage (Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield).

The end result of all that: Rolen was the only player who crossed the sacred 75 percent threshold this year. And he barely did, named on 76.3 percent of ballots. Helton came up just short, receiving 72.2 percent support, with Wagner following him at 68.1 percent.

That didn’t make the process of voting any less consequential for me. My 13th Hall of Fame ballot may have included checkmarks next to only three names, but as always I gave full consideration to everyone listed.

With that in mind, here are my thoughts on all 28 players from this year’s ballot …

The career totals are good. Very good. Abreu finished an 18-year career with 2,470 hits, 574 doubles, 288 homers, 400 stolen bases and a .291/.395/.475 slash line. The problem: Those numbers, while good historically, weren’t great for his time. Abreu’s .870 OPS ranks 36th out of all major leaguers who took at least 5,000 plate appearances during his career (1996-2014), tied with Luis Gonzalez. Even his on-base percentage, which is among his best stats, only ranks 17th during that time frame, behind Brian Giles and John Olerud. As good a player as he was, Abreu just wasn’t one of the very best during the time he played, and the final evidence of that is the fact he only made two All-Star teams and never finished higher than 12th in any MVP race.

Truly one of the coolest individuals ever to pitch in the majors, Arroyo also is a professional musician, having released a record in which he sings and plays the guitar. He enjoyed a long and successful career, mostly with the Red Sox and Reds, winning 148 regular season games, plus one more in the postseason. But his 4.28 ERA and 1.301 WHIP don’t exactly scream “Hall of Fame pitcher.”  

The first member of the 2017 Astros to make a Hall of Fame ballot, Beltran presents a particularly difficult case. As a player, I believe he crosses the threshold for election. Over 20 seasons, he had 2,725 hits, 565 doubles, 435 homers, 1,587 RBIs, 312 stolen bases and a .279/.350/.486 slash line. His numbers actually are quite similar to those produced by Andre Dawson, a Hall of Famer himself. And Beltran probably has a stronger case because of his defense and dominant postseason stats (.307/.412/.609 slash line, 16 homers in 256 plate appearances). But here’s the problem: He wasn’t just part of the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme. He was the ringleader, as The Athletic reported in 2020. Beltran, who was hired by the Mets to be their manager but fired after the news broke, himself admitted his role in the scandal in 2022. “We all did what we did,” he said. “Looking back today, we were wrong.” My stance on PED users through the years has been consistent: If there’s substantial evidence someone took them during his career, I don’t vote for them, based on the Hall’s longstanding rules that voters are supposed to consider a player’s character, sportsmanship and integrity. In some ways, I could argue what Beltran did was even worse than taking PEDs. He didn’t only alter his individual performance. He altered an entire team’s performance, and perhaps even altered the outcome of a World Series. Maybe the passage of time will diminish the severity of his actions. But at this point, I just can’t overlook them.

A model of stability and durability, Buehrle made at least 30 starts, totaled at least 198 innings and won at least 10 games in each of his 15 full big league seasons. That’s really impressive in the modern game. It’s also not evidence of a dominant career, merely a long and consistent one. Buehrle’s 3.81 ERA ranks 14th among all major leaguers with at least 2,000 innings pitched during his career (2000-15), sandwiched between Dan Haren and Andy Pettitte. His 1.281 WHIP ranks 16th, sandwiched between CC Sabathia and Bartolo Colon.

Often overshadowed by his teammates Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner, Cain was nevertheless a key part of the Giants rotation during their glory years. From 2009-12, he averaged 14 wins, a 2.93 ERA, 1.096 WHIP, not to mention a whopping 220 innings pitched. Cain was brilliant during the 2010 postseason, never surrendering an earned run in 21 2/3 innings. Injuries unfortunately derailed the second half of his career, and he actually finished with a losing record (104-118), 3.68 ERA and 1.228 WHIP.

The right-hander pitched in 144 big league games (48 starts) through his age-34 season, producing an unsightly 5.43 ERA and 1.572 WHIP. Then once he joined the Mets in 2010, the knuckleballer enjoyed a late-career renaissance. Over his final 256 games (252 starts), he enjoyed a 3.66 ERA and 1.226 WHIP. And it all came together beautifully in 2012, when he went 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA and 230 strikeouts to win the NL Cy Young Award. Talk about an unusual career arc.

Ellsbury had a great seven-year run in Boston, producing a .297/.350/.439 slash line while averaging 35 extra-base hits and 34 steals. Then he signed a massive $153 million contract with the rival Yankees and never came close to living up to it. The outfielder played in only four of those seven seasons, producing a .264/.330/.386 slash line, though he did average 36 extra-base hits and 26 steals. A plethora of injuries brought an abrupt halt to his career, and the Yankees wound up releasing him with $25 million still owed on his contract.

Ethier looked like he’d be an integral part of a championship Dodgers roster when he produced a .290/.362/.476 slash line and an average of 33 doubles, 18 homers and 76 RBIs from 2006-12. But the outfielder’s career quickly declined once he reached his 30s; he played in only 38 games after his age 33 season, and he retired without winning a World Series ring in L.A.

The shortstop had a nice, seven-year run with the Brewers and Orioles from 2007-13, averaging 26 doubles, 21 homers and a .745 OPS while winning three Gold Glove Awards. His power stroke disappeared, though, in his 30s. And when Baltimore declined his 2018 contract option, his career came to an end.

Helton hasn’t made it to Cooperstown yet, but he’s slowly climbing the ladder. And with five years to go, his chance of reaching the 75 percent mark seems inevitable. From the outset, it seems the only thing keeping him out is the fact he played his entire career at Coors Field. If you’ve read these columns over the years, you know my stance on that: A player’s home park shouldn’t be held against him, especially when you think about the fact nobody ever held home parks against Hall of Famers from previous generations (most notably Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, who took full advantage of spacious Dodger Stadium in their heyday). Besides, Helton’s road numbers were still really good: His .855 road OPS was better than Hall of Famers like Dave Winfield, George Brett and Eddie Murray. And his career totals (.316/.414/.539) have been matched by only six others in major league history: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Rogers Hornsby and Stan Musial. That’s the elite of elite company.

There is a case for Hunter, maybe more than most are willing to admit. Anyone who combines 2,452 hits, 498 doubles, 353 homers and 195 steals with nine Gold Glove Awards in center field deserves serious consideration. But let’s also acknowledge Hunter wasn’t really an elite hitter for his time. His .793 career OPS ranks a mere 23rd among all major leaguers with 8,000 plate appearances during his career. And his career Defensive WAR was shockingly low: 4.0, which is 58th all-time among regular center fielders.

If I had to condense my criteria for a Hall of Famer down to one phrase, it would be “excellence and longevity.” Note that’s different than “excellence or longevity.” It’s the combination of the two that I believe is necessary for induction to Cooperstown. And that’s why Jones unfortunately doesn’t make the cut. He had the excellence, no doubt. From 1998-2006, he averaged 99 runs, 160 hits, 31 doubles, 35 homers, 104 RBIs and 12 steals with a .270 batting average and .860 OPS while winning the Gold Glove in center field every single year. The problem is that he never came close to sustaining that excellence over the remainder of his career. From 2007-12, Jones averaged 40 runs, 63 hits, 13 doubles, 15 homers, 44 RBIs, three steals while batting .214 with a .734 OPS and winning just one final Gold Glove. I’m sorry to all of his fans out there, but that drop off a monstrous cliff at age 30 is just too glaring to ignore.

Who were the best second basemen of the 1990s and 2000s? I would argue Roberto Alomar was No. 1, with Craig Biggio behind him. Chase Utley didn’t play in the 90s, but he probably owns the title for the aughts. What about Kent? While there’s no question he was the best power-hitting second baseman of all time (560 doubles, 377 homers), he’s never really been thought of in the same overall class as the others. That’s because he wasn’t regarded at all for his defense, which to be honest was pretty atrocious: minus-53 Defensive Runs Saved. Maybe you can gloss over bad defense at a corner outfield position, or even first base. But not at a premium, up-the-middle position like second base.

On Oct. 27, 2002, a 24-year-old rookie right-hander tossed five innings of one-run ball to earn the win in Game 7 of the World Series and help propel the Angels to the first (and still lone) championship in franchise history. Lackey set the bar awfully high right from the outset of his career. He would go on to win two more World Series rings with two more franchises (Red Sox in 2013, Cubs in 2016) and all told appeared in 29 postseason games, going 8-6 with a 3.44 ERA across 144 innings. A model of durability and consistency, Lackey totaled double-digit wins and at least 160 innings pitched for 14 consecutive big league seasons. He wasn’t a star, but he was a really solid pitcher for a long time.

The man hit homers, 267 of them over a 12-year career, 63 of those coming in his final two seasons alone. Napoli wasn’t big on batting average (.246) but he took his walks and finished with a .346 on-base percentage. A catcher with the Angels and Rangers, he transitioned to first base and DH over the second half of his career with the Red Sox, Cleveland and another stint in Texas.

Every season from 2005-15, Peralta took at least 570 plate appearances, notched at least 127 hits, recorded at least 25 doubles, averaged 17 homers and 75 RBIs. Except for the 2013 season, when he served a 50-game suspension after he was implicated in the Biogenesis PED scandal. The Tigers somewhat controversially included him on their playoff roster that fall, and he responded by hitting .417 with a dramatic home run to help lead his team to victory over the Athletics in the American League Division Series.

The left-hander won 256 games, most in the majors during his career (1995-2013). His 3.85 ERA, however, ranked 12th out of 22 major league pitchers with at least 2,500 innings pitched during that time frame. And his 1.351 WHIP ranked 19th, ahead of only Kenny Rogers, Livan Hernandez and Jeff Suppan. Pettitte gets Hall of Fame support from some because he won a lot of games (and five World Series rings) for some very good teams. But his career would not have been thought of nearly in the same light had he pitched for, say, the Royals and Brewers instead of the Yankees and Astros.

Look, he was as good a hitter as anyone who played the game in the last half-century. A .312/.411/.585 slash line with 2,574 hits, 547 doubles and 555 homers isn’t just Hall of Fame worthy. It’s first-ballot, slam-dunk induction worthy. But if you don’t believe PED users belong in Cooperstown, you certainly don’t believe Manny belongs there. If anything, his might be the most egregious PED case of them all, considering he failed not one but two official drug tests during his career and was suspended each time. It’s a shame, because he should be remembered as one of the greatest hitters of all time and a beloved member of two Red Sox championship teams. Instead, we seem to remember him more for PED suspensions and wacky behavior on and off the field. That’s too bad, but he has only himself to blame.

Sigh. Here’s another one whose case should be as slam-dunk as they get. A-Rod ranks eighth all-time in runs scored (2,021), seventh in total bases (5,813), fifth in home runs (696) and fourth in RBIs (2,086). And he finished with 3,115 hits. On top of all that, he was an outstanding shortstop (at least early in his career). Alas, there’s more to the story than stats. Rodriguez admitted he took steroids from 2001-03, then was suspended for the entire 2014 season for receiving PEDs from Biogenesis. It’s hard to imagine 75 percent of voters ever agreeing he deserves to be enshrined. What a waste of some of the best talent in baseball history.

I distinctly remember covering the 2002 World Series in Anaheim when this 20-year-old rookie reliever with only five September big league appearances burst onto the scene as the dominant setup man for a championship club. “K-Rod” would pitch in four games during that Fall Classic against the Giants, striking out 13 batters in 8 2/3 innings. He was a true phenomenon. And he continued to develop into an elite closer for many years, finishing with 437 saves (fourth all-time) and 1,142 strikeouts in 976 innings. So, he’s got a Cooperstown case, yes? Yes, he does. Just not quite enough of one, unless you’re really into electing a large group of relievers. I’ve got no problem with the best of the best closers going into the Hall, but I do think you’ve got to be in an extremely small class of the very best ever. To me, Rodriguez just comes up a little short. His 2.86 ERA, while excellent, didn’t compare to Mariano Rivera (2.21) or Billy Wagner (2.31). And though it’s right in line with Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman (2.87), Rodriguez’s WHIP (1.158) is significantly higher than Hoffman’s (1.058). And Hoffman has the added benefit of finishing with a whopping 601 saves (second only to Rivera’s 652).

I was on the other side of the fence for several years, unconvinced Rolen merited induction because I felt he was a very good defensive player and a very good offensive player who was never really a great player. I guess I still kind of feel that way about him. But what swayed me in the other direction was the fact there just haven’t been enough third basemen elected to the Hall of Fame over the years. Only two of them who debuted after 1973, believe it or not: Wade Boggs and Chipper Jones. That’s insane. Now, there’s probably going to be an influx of Hall of Fame third basemen in the next 10-15 years, with Adrian Beltre, David Wright, Josh Donaldson, Nolan Arenado, Anthony Rendon, Manny Machado, Kris Bryant and Alex Bregman among those who could receive consideration. But when you look at Rolen’s contemporaries from 1996-2012, you realize he does stand among the best at his position. He wasn’t as good as Chipper, but he was probably next-best on the list. That was enough for me to give him my vote. And at long last, it was enough for more than 75 percent of the voting body to select him.

There’s no debating Rollins’ importance to the Phillies during their sustained run of success from 2007-11, with his MVP season of 2007 rising above the rest. But as was the case with several of his teammates from that squad who signed long-term extensions, he just couldn’t sustain a level of excellence into his 30s. After hitting .277/.333/.441 with an average of 58 extra-base hits and 33 steals in his 20s, Rollins hit .247/.313/.389 with an average of 42 extra-base hits and 22 steals in his 30s. And unlike Rolen, Rollins just didn’t stack up with the very best at his position during his career, landing behind Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada, Nomar Garciaparra, Troy Tulowitzki and Hanley Ramirez on the shortstop depth chart from 2000-16.

Over the years, more and more people seem to be appreciating that Sheffield was a great hitter for a long time. He finished with a .292/.393/.514 slash line, 2,689 hits and 509 homers. The list of players who can also claim to have done that? It’s Babe Ruth, Mel Ott and Barry Bonds. Yeah, that’s an elite list. Alas, Sheffield also belongs to a list that includes Bonds as a member: He admitted in 2004 to taking a testosterone-based steroid supplied to him by BALCO, the same Bay Area lab that Bonds frequented. If you’re OK with likely PED users making the Hall of Fame, then you absolutely should support Sheffield’s case. But enough still aren’t OK with that, so he remains on the outside looking in.

We don’t tend to think of him among the best closers of all-time, but he was probably better than you realize. Street ranks 20th all-time with 324 saves, and he did that while maintaining a 2.95 ERA and 1.066 WHIP. In the end, Street misses the cut by a little bit because of a lack of volume (he spent only 13 years in the majors) and a lack of much in the way of memorable postseason appearances (he pitched in the Division Series three times, the League Championship Series once).  

I’ve long felt the case for Vizquel wasn’t as strong as some others do, that he wasn’t quite as great a defensive player as the narrative suggests. Though he’s No. 3 all-time in assists by a shortstop, he finished higher than fourth in his league only once during his career. Though he’s the all-time leader in double plays turned by a shortstop, he only finished higher than third in his league once during his career. Vizquel’s case is based more on his longevity – he played a remarkable 24 seasons in the majors – than his excellence. And as stated earlier, I believe you need to meet both standards to get my vote. So Vizquel remains a no for me. And that’s before even taking into any consideration his abhorrent actions against his wife and a minor league bat boy that have been reported in recent years.

He’s not there yet, but Wagner seems to be on track to finally earn induction before his time on the ballot runs out in two years. More and more voters are recognizing just how dominant a closer the lefty was for a long time. How dominant? Well, his 0.998 WHIP is the best by anyone who pitched at least 900 innings in the major leagues since 1910. So are his 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings. And his 2.31 career ERA trails only Craig Kimbrel and Mariano Rivera within the 300-save club. If you’re going to compile a list of the best relief pitchers from 1995-2010, it goes Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Wagner. He deserves to join those two greats in Cooperstown, and it’s looking like he will get there soon.

Weaver had a really nice run for the Angels from 2010-12, when he went 51-25 with a 2.73 ERA and 1.034 WHIP, finishing top five in Cy Young Award voting each year. But his career fizzled out in his 30s, and he retired after the 2017 season having finished with 150 wins, a 3.63 ERA and only 2,067 1/3 innings pitched.

They saved the best for last this year, huh? No, not the best player. Nobody would try to make the claim Werth deserves a Hall of Fame vote, including the big man himself. But if you’re a Nationals fan, the mere mention of his name brings a smile to your face, and you know how much he meant to the organization. Was he worth the $136 million Mike Rizzo gave him prior to the 2011 season? Not quite. But he was still worth a lot to a franchise that knew nothing but losing prior to that point and then knew nothing but winning for eight years. Werth’s epic walk-off homer in Game 4 of the 2012 National League Division Series remains the greatest single moment in club history that didn’t take place in October 2019. His influence within the clubhouse was substantial. And even though he had already retired before the Nats finally got over the hump and won their first World Series title, you could tell from the emotions he displayed throughout that month he felt like he was still a part of the run. Oh, and by the way: Werth was a darn good player in his peak, which included his final years in Philadelphia and his early years in D.C. From 2007-14, he hit .282/.377/.478 while averaging 26 doubles, 20 homers and 75 runs scored, totals that were held down a bit by some time he missed due to injuries. That’s a fine career for a guy who won’t go to Cooperstown but left an indelible mark on two major league towns.

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