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5 HOF hopefuls who deserve longer looks in '21

As ballot clears, opportunities arise for BBWAA holdovers
@mattkellyMLB
January 23, 2020

Derek Jeter and Larry Walker were obviously the headliners of this year’s BBWAA Hall of Fame election, but there were several interesting voting trends below the fold. Seven candidates besides Walker saw their vote percentages increase by at least nine percentage points, and with a lack of no-doubt candidates entering

Derek Jeter and Larry Walker were obviously the headliners of this year’s BBWAA Hall of Fame election, but there were several interesting voting trends below the fold. Seven candidates besides Walker saw their vote percentages increase by at least nine percentage points, and with a lack of no-doubt candidates entering the ballot next year (Mark Buehrle, Tim Hudson and Torii Hunter lead the first-timers), there’s new opportunity for some down-ballot players to make headway.

Below is a look at five holdover candidates that probably deserve more attention, now that space will be available on the 2021 ballot. (For the purposes of this list, we're only looking at candidates who do not have performance-enhancing drug suspicions tied to their cases.)

Jeff Kent
2020 total: 27.5%

Knocking the most homers of anyone to ever play your position is a great launching point for a Hall candidate. But it hasn’t done a ton for Kent, who has yet to garner even one-third of the BBWAA vote across his seven years on the ballot.

Kent also claimed a National League MVP Award in 2000, a year in which his teammate, Barry Bonds, clubbed 49 homers and slugged .688. He’s one of two second basemen, alongside inner-circle Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, to slug at least .500 while logging at least 7,000 plate appearances and playing at least half of his games at the position. Only four second basemen in that group finished with a career OPS of at least .850: Kent, Hornsby and fellow Hall members Eddie Collins and Charlie Gehringer.

Unusual power for a second baseman was a major factor in Ryne Sandberg’s election in 2005, but Sandberg’s defensive reputation -- a more traditional evaluation for those who play the position -- was much stronger than that of Kent. The box score numbers build a better case for Kent than advanced metrics; he ranks 20th all-time at second base according to Jay Jaffe’s JAWS metric, and behind four recent players in Robinson Canó, Chase Utley, Ian Kinsler and Dustin Pedroia. But perhaps his biggest detriment is his prickly relationship with members of the press -- something he acknowledged this week in a text to MLB.com’s Bill Ladson.

“Seems to still be a popularity contest, and I'm sure that's something I’ll never be able to compete against,” said Kent. “I played the game quietly, yet I did so as one of the best second basemen in the game for over a decade. It's a shame that all player candidates still get their careers compared to those in the Hall that played in other eras, which is unfair to them and the current candidates in question.

“I’ve always thought Hall of Famers were judged for their play in their respective playing era,” Kent added, “but I guess those thoughts are wrong, too. I wish all the candidates the best and hope baseball stays on the forefront of the fans’ minds forever.”

Looking ahead: With nearly three-quarters of the voting body unconvinced of Kent’s merits, he’s a clear longshot to gain election before his eligibility runs out in 2023. Simply clearing 50% could help his chances with future veterans committees.

Scott Rolen
2020 total: 35.3%

Rolen more than doubled his vote total this year (from 17.2% to 35.3%) to put himself on a good track after three years on the ballot. But the fact that Rolen earned just one top-10 finish in MVP voting over his 17 big league seasons points to his potential issue in winning widespread consensus among BBWAA voters.

Like recent grassroot candidates Tim Raines, Edgar Martinez and Walker, Rolen’s case may need championing from the analytically-minded voters. His merits begin on defense, of course, where his 21.2 dWAR total (fifth all-time at third base) backs up his eight career Gold Glove Awards. While Rolen never reached the single-season peaks of fellow third baseman Adrián Beltré on offense, his career .490 slugging percentage ranks fifth among third basemen with at least 7,000 plate appearances. Rolen’s raw totals through the first nine seasons of his career (before injuries began to set in) aligned closer with Mike Schmidt than you might think.

Rolen, first nine seasons (1996-2004): .286/.378/.520; .898 OPS; 226 HR, 831 RBI
Schmidt, first nine seasons (1972-80): .259/.375/.525; .901 OPS; 283 HR, 787 RBI

But injuries did come early for Rolen, whose 2,077 career hits would rank as the lowest for any non-catcher BBWAA electee who debuted after baseball’s expansion in 1961. Rolen’s career 122 OPS+ is also good-but-not-elite, ranking ninth all-time at third base but behind two non-Hall of Famers in Bob Elliott and Bill Madlock. Still, Rolen’s 56.9 JAWS score is 10th all-time at his position, with Beltré -- a near Hall of Fame lock beginning in 2024 -- the only name above him not displayed in the Hall’s Plaque Gallery.

Looking ahead: Rolen flipped nearly one-third of public voters from “no” to “yes” this year, and he should benefit from more space on the ballot. Time is on his side with seven more years of eligibility.

Billy Wagner
2020 total: 31.7%

Perhaps the most surprising big gainer of 2020 (16.7% to 31.7%), Wagner picked up 41 yes votes from returning public voters, this year’s third-highest net gain behind Rolen (+56) and Gary Sheffield (+44). He’s clearly getting more looks from voters now that the ballot is opening up, and the more one examines Wagner’s career totals, the more favorably he compares to relievers already enshrined in Cooperstown.

Start with Wagner’s 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings, the most of any primary reliever (min. 750 innings) and far above Trevor Hoffman (9.4) and Mariano Rivera (8.2). Wagner’s .998 WHIP also tops that group, and his 2.31 ERA tucks in right behind Rivera for second place (over a half-run better than Hoffman and Lee Smith). Plus, Wagner racked up saves: his 422 are the sixth-most in history, and only 66 behind Smith.

Each of those three pitched longer than Wagner, however, and the brevity of his career is one of his biggest drawbacks. There’s also his career 10.03 ERA in October, including tough experiences in the 2006 postseason with the Mets. Wagner’s best case lies in his rate stats and his efficiency; he made the most of the regular-season innings he put up.

Looking ahead: Wagner trends well among “Large Hall” voters that typically fill 7-10 slots on their ballot. But with five years of eligibility left, he still has many traditional, “Small Hall” voters to win over.

Todd Helton
2020 total: 29.2%

Only seven left-handed hitters have finished their career with a .300/.400/.500 slash line and 300 home runs. Six of them are Hall of Famers: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Mel Ott, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, and now, Larry Walker. The seventh player is Helton.

Walker became the first Hall of Famer who wore a Rockies uniform for even a single game in his career, and there’s no question he did the heavy lifting for his fellow Colorado crusher. Indeed, this year’s groundswell for Walker, along with a more open ballot, were likely factors in Helton nearly doubling his vote share from 16.5% in Year 1 to 29.2% in Year 2.

Helton reaped the rewards of Coors Field (and dealt with its physical rigors) far longer than Walker, and while Walker was the Rockies’ first Hall of Famer, Helton tops virtually all of the franchise’s all-time lists. His monster 2000 season ranks among this millennium’s best, as he paced the NL with a .372 average, .463 OBP, .698 slugging, 1.162 OPS, 216 hits, 147 RBIs, 59 doubles and 405 total bases. And Helton hit .300 or better in 11 different qualified seasons, more than all but two modern-era first basemen: George Sisler (13) and Lou Gehrig (12).

But Walker was a slightly better hitter on the road (.899 road OPS as a Rockie) than Helton (career .855 road OPS), and it will probably take several more years before a large swath of voters recognize the physical toll of traveling to and from high altitude. Walker’s reputation as both an outfielder and a baserunner helped him get over the hump, and it might be harder for Helton's defense at first (three Gold Gloves) to shine.

Looking ahead: Walker’s election is undoubtedly a boost to Helton’s chances. He has a long way to go, but notching close to 30% in Year 2 is encouraging.

Bobby Abreu
2020 total: 5.5%

Edging past the 5% cutoff was huge for Abreu, a bubble candidate who will likely need a full stay on the ballot to build proper support. Abreu’s greatest attributes fit the modern analytical climate. He drew 100 walks in eight consecutive seasons from 1999-2006, and he posted a .400-plus OBP eight times in a nine-year span. Only eight Hall of Famers can claim the former. Abreu had more career bWAR (60.0) than Vladimir Guerrero (59.4), a direct contemporary in terms of position and era, and Vlad waltzed into the Hall on his second year on the ballot despite not checking off any of the classic HOF milestones, such as 3,000 hits or 500 homers.

From 1998-2004, Abreu ranked as baseball’s sixth-most valuable position player by bWAR (Helton and Rolen were two of the players ahead of him). The problem is that Abreu’s prime might not have lasted long enough; his run of 5-plus WAR seasons ended at age 30, ultimately leaving him about 12 bWAR shy of the average Hall of Fame right fielder. He was also vastly underrated during his playing days, capturing just two All-Star nods, one Gold Glove Award and one Silver Slugger Award across 18 big league seasons. Voters might see those totals at the top of Abreu’s Baseball-Reference page and use that as an easy disqualifier.

Looking ahead: Abreu is far from a slam-dunk Hall of Famer, but his career merits further examination. He’ll need to remain on the ballot long enough for voters to take a proper look.

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.