My 2024 Hall of Fame ballot

Nearly every Hall of Fame election I’ve participated in sadly has been dominated by the issue that plagued baseball for an entire generation: performance-enhancing drugs. With so many great players tainted by PED connections, most of the toughest calls I had to make in my previous 13 Baseball Writers' Association of America ballots required me to invoke the Hall’s longstanding off-the-field criteria, which instruct voters to consider character, integrity and sportsmanship in addition to playing performance.

The good news: There were still a few lingering PED cases on the 2024 ballot, but not many. And all of them concerned players who have been on this ballot for many years, so there wasn’t a whole lot of new research that needed to be considered.

That did not, however, make the 2024 ballot easy. Quite the opposite, because for the first time in a long time, there were a number of really difficult decisions to be made strictly on a player’s on-field performance. Which, to be honest, is how it should be. This is supposed to be the ultimate baseball debate: Is Player X a Hall of Famer or not? And it’s such a better debate when the question involves on-field performance and only on-field performance.

This was actually a smaller ballot than has been typical since I started doing this: Only 26 players up for election, 12 of those first-time nominees who retired five years ago, the other 14 returning candidates who continued to receive at least 5 percent support for up to 10 years of eligibility. As always, a player must be named on 75 percent of the roughly 400 ballots sent out to writers who have been active members of the BBWAA at least 10 years to earn induction into Cooperstown.

And it was refreshing to learn tonight that three players crossed the magic threshold and earned induction: Adrián Beltré, Joe Mauer and Todd Helton. Those three all-time greats will join Jim Leyland, who was elected last month by the Contemporary Era Committee, on the stage in Cooperstown this summer.

It was once again my privilege to serve as a voter. And I believe it’s once again my duty to reveal and explain my decisions on all 26 candidates …

There’s a compelling case for Abreu, as many others have noted over the years. His career totals (2,470 hits, 574 doubles, 288 homers, 400 steals, a .291/.395/.475 slash line) are strong. His seven-year peak from 1998-04 (.308/.416/.525) is outstanding. And his drop-off after that (.278/.379/.434) wasn’t all that dramatic, certainly not like some others on this ballot who draw plenty of scrutiny. So how come he doesn’t get my vote, and how come he’s never really come close to induction? Unfortunately, Abreu just doesn’t stand out when compared to his contemporaries. Among all big leaguers with at least 7,000 plate appearances during his career, he ranks 18th in batting average (tied with Garrett Anderson and Mark Grudzielanek), 11th in on-base percentage (behind Jason Giambi and Brian Giles) and 20th in OPS (tied with Luis Gonzalez). Had he played in a different era, Abreu might have been viewed as a Hall of Famer. But when stacked up against those who played at the same time as him, he’s a really good player who doesn’t quite ascend to the top of the peak.

Talk about a late bloomer. Between December 2003 and July 2004, Bautista was selected by the Orioles in the Rule 5 Draft, claimed off waivers by the Devil Rays, purchased by the Royals, traded to the Mets and traded to the Pirates (the team that originally drafted him). Then after five nondescript years in Pittsburgh, he was traded to the Blue Jays for a player to be named later (eventually Robinzon Díaz). And how did Bautista fare in Toronto? Remarkably well. Over the next 10 seasons, he hit 288 homers, produced an .878 OPS and became a franchise icon for several iconic October moments. Not a bad legacy for a guy so many other franchises gave up on.

Let’s be clear about something up front: I believe Beltrán’s playing performance merits a place for him in the Hall of Fame. He finished with 2,725 hits, 565 doubles, 435 homers, 1,587 RBIs, 312 stolen bases, a .279/.350/.486 slash line and was brilliant in the postseason. That’s a slam-dunk case based on his on-field performance. But let’s also be clear about something: The Hall of Fame has always instructed voters to consider a player’s character, integrity and sportsmanship in voting. And based on what we know about Beltrán’s role in the Astros’ 2017 sign-stealing scandal – he was named the ringleader of the entire effort, and admitted later he was wrong for doing it – it’s awfully difficult to make the case he displayed character, integrity and sportsmanship. It is unfortunate that Beltrán was the only player from that team to actually be punished for his actions, simply because he was retired by the time the story broke after the 2019 season. And I would not try to argue he should be banned from baseball for life; he deserves to work in the sport for any team that wishes to hire him. But the Hall of Fame is different. It is reserved for the very best of the best, and it is reserved for those who did not cheat the sport as Beltrán did. Perhaps I’ll change my mind someday, but for now I continue to believe he doesn’t merit election because of what he did. And based on the overwhelming anger fellow players across the sport showed publicly and privately after the scandal broke, I know I’m not alone.

There are players you know are Hall of Famers throughout their careers. And then there are those who slowly build their cases over time, maintaining a level of excellence that can’t be fully appreciated until they reach the finish line and everyone looks back at what they accomplished. That’s what Beltré did. You probably didn’t think a whole lot about him in his 20s, even though his numbers were good. The fact he appeared in the postseason only once during that time (2004 with the Dodgers) probably helped keep the spotlight off him. But Beltré bolstered his case throughout his 30s with the Red Sox and Rangers: four All-Star selections, four Silver Slugger Awards, six top-10 MVP votes and five Gold Glove Awards (plus two Platinum Glove Awards as the best defender in baseball, regardless of position). So by the time he retired in 2018, he had an airtight case for Cooperstown: one of only seven players in major league history with 3,000 hits, 600 doubles and 400 homers, joining Hank Aaron, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Stan Musial and Carl Yastrzemski. Add his elite defensive play at third base to those offensive numbers and there’s really no argument against Beltré. Which my colleagues proved by electing him overwhelmingly on his first ballot.

Perhaps no pitcher of his era was as reliable and durable as Buehrle, who made at least 30 starts, totaled at least 198 innings and won at least 10 games in every one of his 15 full big-league seasons. What manager wouldn’t want a guy who can do that in his rotation? Reliability and durability, though, are not the same as dominance. Buehrle’s 3.81 ERA ranked 14th among all pitchers with at least 2,000 innings from 2000-15 (behind James Shields and Dan Haren), his 1.282 WHIP ranked 16th (behind Shields and Javier Vázquez) and his 5.1 strikeouts per nine innings ranked 32nd out of 34 qualifiers.

There are some players who just bring a smile to your face at the mere mention of their name. And for many fans, Colon is one of those guys. He wasn’t exactly the physical embodiment of a professional athlete, but the man still found a way to start 552 major-league games as an above-average pitcher (106 ERA+). He pitched until he was 45. Oh, and he hit the one and only home run of his career at age 43. How can you not smile at that?

Gonzalez was a true hometown hero in San Diego, growing up in the area and then starring for the Padres from 2006-10, when he hit .288/.374/.514 with an average of 35 homers, 32 homers and 100 RBIs. But while he did sustain his production for a couple more seasons in Boston and then Los Angeles, his .889 OPS during his 20s dropped to .790 in his 30s. Still good, but not Hall-of-Fame good, especially when stacked up against his contemporaries. (González ranks 13th in OPS among everyone who played 1,000 games at first base from 2004-18, behind Paul Konerko and Anthony Rizzo).

It took a while (six years, to be exact), but enough voters finally came around to what I had been arguing from the beginning: Helton is a Hall of Famer. The longtime Rockies first baseman was elected at last, seeing his support steadily rise from 16.5 percent to 29.2 percent to 44.9 percent to 52 percent to 72.2 percent to 79.7 percent this time around. Helton’s numbers have always met the Cooperstown standard: 2,519 hits, 592 doubles, 369 homers, 1,406 RBIs, a .316/.414/.539 slash line. The only rationale anyone could ever muster to keep him out was that he was too much a product of the ballpark he played his entire career in. And yes, Coors Field does inflate numbers. But so do Fenway Park and Wrigley Field for hitters, and so did Dodger Stadium for decades for pitchers before they filled in much of its massive foul territory with expensive premium seats. Besides, Helton’s career .855 road OPS was still better than a bunch of Hall of Famers including Dave Winfield, George Brett and Eddie Murray. He has deserved this honor all along, and it’s nice to know he finally got it.

I didn’t enter this exercise thinking Holliday deserved serious consideration. And then I actually looked at his numbers and … whoa, he was way better than I thought. Here are his numbers from a 10-year peak from 2005-14: a .309/.388/.525 slash line, with an average of 38 doubles, 26 homers and 100 RBIs. That’s really good, and that’s not over a brief period of his career. That’s a full decade. So, I actually gave serious consideration to voting for Holliday. Why didn’t I go all the way and place a check mark next to his name? Because his defense was pretty bad (minus-43 Defensive Runs Saved). And because he also didn’t quite stack up with the best of the best during his career. He finished in the top-10 in WAR only once (2007), and that same year was also the only time he finished top-10 in an MVP vote (he finished runner-up to Jimmy Rollins). But, boy, I will admit I was tempted to vote for him. And nobody was more shocked by that than me.

One of the best center fielders of his (or any) time, though his career Defensive WAR surprisingly was a mere 4.0 (58th all-time among regular center fielders). At the plate, he was very good, but not great: a .793 OPS that ranked 23rd among all big leaguers with at least 8,000 plate appearances during his career. I don’t begrudge anyone who votes for him, but that’s a larger Hall of Fame than I’m comfortable with.

There are a lot of people out there who are really passionate about Jones’ candidacy, and I want you to know I respect that. I really do. There’s no question he was one of the best defensive center fielders ever, maybe the best ever. And there’s no question he put up big numbers at the plate during his 10-year peak from 1997-2006: an .853 OPS with an average of 34 homers and 101 RBIs. My problem, though, continues to be what happened to Jones after that peak. He didn’t just gradually decline. He fell right off the cliff and crashed at the bottom of the mountain. Over his final six years, Jones slashed .214/.314/.420, averaging only 15 homers and 44 RBIs. His defense waned as well. I understand there are people who believe dominance over a portion of a career is enough to get into Cooperstown. I don’t believe that, though. I believe induction requires both dominance and longevity. And Jones just doesn’t meet the latter criteria.

As was the case with Holliday, I entered this process never thinking Martinez would require serious consideration. And then … well, here we go again. He was an outstanding hitter throughout his career, finishing with a .295/.360/.455 slash line, not to mention 2,153 hits, 423 doubles, 246 homers and 1,178 RBIs. And he did that while spending a lot of time as a catcher. In fact, Martinez is one of only two players in major league history who caught at least 500 games and finished with 2,000 hits, 400 doubles and an .800 OPS. The other: Joe Mauer, whose case I will discuss in moments. So, Martinez deserved serious consideration, right? I thought so, though very few others apparently did. In the end, I didn’t vote for him because his numbers – while really good for a catcher – were not elite in the grander scheme. Martinez’s ranks among everyone who played during his career and took a minimum of 7,000 plate appearances: ninth in batting average, 13th in on-base percentage, 25th in slugging percentage, 22nd in OPS. And his actual catching wasn’t so good: His 23 percent caught-stealing rate was well below the league average of 29 percent during his career. So Martinez didn’t get my vote. But I absolutely have more appreciation for him now than I did prior to this exercise.

OK, so what made Mauer better than Martinez? He had a higher career batting average (.306), on-base percentage (.388) and OPS (.827). He won three batting titles, two on-base titles, one slugging title and one OPS title. He won an MVP Award and finished in the top 10 four times. He won three Gold Gloves and posted a career caught-stealing rate (33 percent) that was well above the league average (27 percent). I know he didn’t spend his entire career as a catcher, the unfortunate byproduct of concussions. But his eight-year peak from 2006-13 coincided with his time as a catcher. And regardless of the position he played, he still ranked among the very best players of his time. Over the length of his career, he ranked third in the majors in batting average, second in on-base percentage and 13th in OPS. That’s a Hall of Famer in my book. And just enough voters felt the same way, electing Mauer on his first ballot with 76.1 percent support.

There are 81 Hall of Famers who pitched at least 1,000 innings in their careers. The only one with a higher ERA than Pettitte’s 3.85 mark is Jack Morris at 3.90 (and Morris only made it in via the veteran’s committee after failing to get voted in by the BBWAA). And of those 81 Hall of Fame pitchers, the only ones with a higher WHIP than Pettitte’s 1.351 mark are Lefty Gomez (1.352) and Burleigh Grimes (1.365). Yes, Pettitte won 256 games, which would rank 35th among those Hall of Famers. But how many of those 256 wins were a reflection of his own dominance vs. a reflection of the dominance of the Yankees and Astros teams he pitched for? I have a hard time believing Pettitte would’ve come close to winning that many games had he spent his career with, say, the Orioles and Reds instead. He was a very good pitcher for a very long time who was a very big part of some great teams. But he was not one of the very best pitchers of his era.

Did you know Phillips could’ve been the Nationals’ first big star? He probably should’ve been the Nats’ first big star, if not for one of the most ill-advised trades in Expos history. Former general manager Omar Minaya, who was trying to do the impossible and lead Montreal to the 2002 postseason as Major League Baseball attempted to contract the franchise, traded Phillips, Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore and Lee Stevens to Cleveland for Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew. How’d that work out? The Expos never made the postseason, Colon was traded to the White Sox a few months later and Phillips, Lee and Sizemore all went on to have good-to-great careers for other organizations. Phillips did most of his damage during 11 seasons in Cincinnati, where he made three All-Star teams and won four Gold Glove Awards. Would he have done the same in D.C.? We’ll never know, but it’s too bad we never got the chance to find out.

I’m not sure what’s left to say about Ramírez at this point. There’s no debating his greatness as a hitter, one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all-time: a .312/.411/.585 slash line, 2,574 hits, 547 doubles, 555 homers. But he failed a league-issued drug test and was suspended for it. Then he failed another one and was suspended again. If you’re of the belief guys who took PEDs before MLB tested for it shouldn’t be kept out of the Hall, fine. But if you’re of the belief guys who took PEDs after MLB tested for it, then did it again after getting caught and punished, still shouldn’t be kept out of the Hall … well, I guess you don’t believe anyone needs to follow any rules anymore.

There was a seven-year stretch in which Reyes absolutely owned New York. Well, at least Queens. From 2005-11, he averaged 94 runs, 28 doubles, 13 triples, 11 homers and 48 stolen bases, all while playing with a style all his own that defined the Mets of that era. Then Reyes became a free agent, signed a $106 million contract with the Marlins – yes, the Marlins – and it all came crashing down. Over the remainder of his career, he averaged 64 runs, 24 doubles, five triples, nine homers and 21 stolen bases, playing for four different teams (including the Mets again).

As with Manny Ramírez, you’re just not going to find a lot of sympathy out there for A-Rod. As great a player as he was – 696 homers, 2,086 RBIs, 3,115 hits, 2,201 runs – he flushed it all down the toilet by twice getting caught for PEDs. He admitted taking steroids from 2001-03, then he was suspended for the 2014 season as part of the Biogenesis investigation. Rodríguez has managed to stay in the game as a prominent broadcaster, and he’s certainly entitled to that. But that doesn’t make him entitled to a plaque in Cooperstown.

K-Rod was undeniably one of the best closers of all-time. So his Hall of Fame candidacy basically comes down to this question: Where’s the cutoff for closers to make the Hall of Fame? Some don’t believe any closers should make it. Some believe only the absolute best (Mariano Rivera) should make it. Some believe a select group of the best should make it. And some believe a larger group should make it. I fall into the third category, which means I believe Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner deserve induction, but Rodríguez falls a bit short. His ERA (2.86) and WHIP (1.158) just don’t quite match those others.

The case for Rollins is built on his peak performance for a dominant Phillies team and sustained defense at a premium position. Here’s the problem: His peak wasn’t as great as you might think. Rollins produced an OPS of .800 or higher only three times in his career. He finished better than 10th in MVP voting only once, in 2007 when he deservedly won the award. He was an excellent baserunner, with 470 stolen bases in 575 attempts. But all of his defensive value came early in his career: From 2003-08, Rollins had an incredible 73 Defensive Runs Saved. And then from 2009-2016, he had a cringeworthy minus-23 DRS. Of course the Phillies owe a lot of their success to him. He was an indispensable part of that team. But his peak wasn’t very long (nor very great), and the rest of his career was rather pedestrian, especially when stacked up against the other great shortstops of his era.

There seemed to be a concerted push on Sheffield’s behalf in this, his final year of eligibility. The argument was that he shouldn’t be held responsible for taking a testosterone-based steroid supplied to him by BALCO (the same Bay Area company that supplied Barry Bonds with his PEDs), even though Sheffield himself admitted this way back in 2004. He claims he didn’t know what “The Cream” was. Maybe that’s true. But shouldn’t every professional athlete, when presented with a treatment he’s unfamiliar with, inquire what it actually is before using it? Is that too much to ask? It’s a real shame, because Sheffield’s on-field performance (2,689 hits, 509 homers, a .292/.393/.514 slash line) absolutely was Hall-of-Fame worthy. But he took PEDs; there’s no real debate about this. So for the 10th straight year, he wasn’t on my ballot. And for the 10th straight year, he wasn’t on enough other ballots to be elected, finishing at 63.9 percent and leaving his case now in the hands of an Eras Committee that has shown even less sympathy toward PED users than the BBWAA.

Nicknamed “Big Game James,” which actually was bestowed upon James Worthy many years earlier, Shields wasn’t much of a big-game pitcher in reality. In 11 career postseason starts with the Rays and Royals, he went 3-6 with a 5.46 ERA and 1.534 WHIP. Shields was, however, a durable and reliable starter for a long stretch. From 2007-15, he went 121-89 with a 3.67 ERA and topped 200 innings pitched every single year.

I think Utley has a much stronger case for induction than his longtime teammate Rollins. His five-year peak (.301/.388/.535, averaging 39 doubles, 29 homers, 101 RBIs) was off-the-charts great. His 87.5 percent stolen base rate is highest in MLB history among those with at least 150 steals (though everyone else on the leaderboard finished with way more steals than Utley’s 154). And his defense at second base was outstanding through age 33 (146 Defensive Runs Saved from 2003-12 before dropping off after that). But his case wasn’t quite strong enough to earn my vote. Why? Because his offensive peak was quite brief (five years), and the drop-off after that was significant: .749 OPS, 11 homers, 49 RBIs on average from 2010-18. He’s only 17th in OPS among all players during his career. And his career totals just don’t impress enough, most notably his final tally of 1,885 hits. Since 1960, there have been zero Hall of Fame position players with fewer than 1,900 career hits. That last point really stuck with me as I made my final decision, tough as it was.

The case for Vizquel has always boiled down to his incredible longevity – 24 seasons as a major-league shortstop – and elite defensive play. No argument here about the longevity; few have ever lasted as long as he did, certainly not at a critical position like the one he played. But there is some question about how great a shortstop he actually was, and whether his greatness was defined more by how long he played than how well he played. Though he’s third all-time in assists by a shortstop, he finished higher than fourth in his league only once. He’s the all-time leader in double plays turned by a shortstop, but he finished higher than third in his league only once. And as a hitter, he just didn’t do enough of note to boost his case.

It’s been a long, slow climb for Wagner, who in his first year on the ballot received only 10.5 percent of the vote and even on his fourth ballot was still stuck at 16.7 percent. But the voters finally came around on him, recognizing how dominant he was. His 0.998 WHIP is the best by anyone who pitched at least 900 innings in the big leagues in more than a century. Same for his strikeout rate (11.9 per nine innings). Combine those numbers with a 2.31 ERA and 422 saves and this really was a strong case all along. Alas, Wagner is going to have to wait another year, because he came up just short on his ninth ballot, receiving 73.8 percent support. You’ve got to believe he’ll get over the hump on his 10th and final ballot, but it’s going to be a stressful 365 days for the Wagner family.

A textbook case of “What if?” What if Wright’s career hadn’t been curtailed by a severe back injury? When healthy, he was the quintessential all-around third baseman, averaging 36 doubles, 23 homers, 93 RBIs and an .890 OPS during a nine-year peak from 2005-13. He made seven All-Star teams, won two Silver Sluggers and two Gold Glove Awards and was a top-10 finisher in the MVP vote four times. At that moment, he was a notch ahead of Ryan Zimmerman, his old travel ball teammate from Virginia Beach who enjoyed a similar career arc here in D.C. In Zimmerman’s case, a shoulder injury forced his move to first base, then a litany of other injuries large and small kept him from realizing his Hall of Fame potential. In Wright’s case, the back injury alone was enough to do him in. After age 30, he averaged only 11 doubles, five homers, 24 RBIs and a .734 OPS. And he never even got to 7,000 plate appearances, a bar that has unofficially been required of every Hall-of-Fame position player since Tony Oliva. In the end, Zimmerman actually totaled more career plate appearances, runs, hits, doubles, homers and RBIs than his longtime buddy.

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