Voting materials are out for the 2019 class of the Baseball Hall of Fame and, as usual, the top-of- the-ballot choices are easiest. Among the 20 first-timers the peerless New York Yankees’ reliever Mariano Rivera is a shoo-in, a probable unanimous selection or nearly so. Among the 15 holdovers from previous elections Edgar Martinez and Mike Mussina are the likeliest inductees, having received 70.4% and 63.5% of the vote, respectively, the last time around. When someone gets that close he usually tops the magic 75% mark among the sportswriter electorate the next year.
Martinez’s selection was all but assured last week when one of the Hall’s Veterans Committees elevated the ex-Chicago White Sox Harold Baines to membership. Baines was a designated higher for most of his career and his election seems to remove whatever bias the Hall holds against players who filled that role. Martinez was the American League’s leading practitioner of the DH art for much of his career (1987-2004). The annual award for the best in that category is named for him.
Mussina, another ex-Yankee and like Martinez in his sixth year on the ballot, should have been elected by now. His 270 career wins (versus 153 losses) are about the most we’ll be seeing as starting-pitcher roles diminish in the game, and he ranks high in other Hall measures as well. I voted for him (and Martinez) when I was an elector and would do so again.
For me, though, the real interest in this election is in the down-ballot voting, among the players for whom Hall support is an acquired taste. The recent spate of first-time winners (Chipper Jones and Jim Thome last year, Ivan Rodriguez the year before) obscures the fact that most eventual Famers built their vote totals gradually toward the 75% mark. Mussina, for instance, polled only 20% in his initial listing in 2014, and just 24% the next year. His record hasn’t changed with the years, but perceptions about it have.
I’ll be watching to see how three other ballot newcomers fare when the results are announced on January 22. Pitchers Roy Halladay and Andy Pettitte are two of them, and first baseman Todd Helton is the third. I don’t expect any of them to gain admission this time but their chances down the road seem pretty good.
The Halladay-Pettitte matchup is particularly interesting. Lefty Pettitte pitched longer than righty Halladay (18 seasons to 16) and had a lot more wins (256 to 205), but Pettitte played for the mighty Yankees during most of his career while Halladay labored for the usually so-so Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Philllies. The Yankee connection is why a major Pettitte accomplishment, his record for most post-season victories (19), is on his resume. Head-to-head, though, I judge Halladay to have been the superior hurler, and his two Cy Young Awards (Pettitte had none) and two no-hitters (one a perfect game) support that view.
Halladay died at age 40 in a 2015 private-plane accident, something that brought heightened attention to his career. Pettitte will be hurt by drugs-related blemishes, mostly his admitted use of the banned Human Growth Hormone in treating a mid-career elbow injury. I expect Halladay to outpoll him this time and am curious to see how he’ll fare in future years.
Helton was a terrific hitter in his 17-year career—2,519 hits, 369 home runs and a lifetime .316 batting average—but all of it was with the Colorado Rockies, perennial also-rans whose rare-air home clime is viewed suspiciously when batting records are assessed. His stats are close to those of another excellent ex-Rockies batsman, Larry Walker, who hasn’t polled higher than 34% in his nine years on the ballot. I think Helton will do better that but not by much at first.
As always, much of the fan interest in the voting will concern the fates of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, the no-doubt-doper duo. They’ve performed about in tandem since first appearing on the ballot in 2013, going from an initial 36-37% to 56-57% last year. Barring new rules, or some startling development, it’s hard to see how they could vault to 75% this year. If they fail to do so by 2023 they’ll be passed along to one of the Veterans Committees. The ways of those panels are mysterious, so anything can happen after that.
Sixteen more men are ballot first timers. They are, alphabetically, Rick Ankiel, Jason Bay, Lance Berkman, Jon Garland, Freddy Garcia, Travis Hafner, Ted Lilly, Derek Lowe, Darren Oliver, Roy Oswalt, Juan Pierre, Placido Polanco, Miguel Tejada, Vernon Wells, Kevin Youklis and Michael Young. All were fine players and, maybe, great fellas, but it’s tough to envision a Cooperstown plaque for any of them. Indeed, most probably won’t get the 5% of the vote necessary to be on next year’s ballot. Berkman, Garcia, Polanco and Tejada seem to me to have the best chance of sticking, but I wouldn’t bet on any of them.
But Hall electors of various stripe are capable of surprising. The newly elected Baines, for instance, never got more the 6.1% of the vote in his five years on the sportswriters’ ballot. Old timers Gabby Harnett and Charlie Gehringer each got zero votes their first time around, in 1936, before eventually being elected by the scribes, Gehringer in 1949 and Harnett in 1955. That was long ago, and the voting rules have changed, but still…