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What's next? Top storylines for '21 HOF ballot

@AndrewSimonMLB
January 21, 2020

Tuesday’s Hall of Fame announcement brought the long-awaited and inevitable coronation of Derek Jeter and the dramatic conclusion to Larry Walker’s 10-year ballot saga. But what’s next? With Jeter now headed to the Hall in near-unanimous fashion (99.7 percent) and Walker completing an unprecedented surge up the polls in his

Tuesday’s Hall of Fame announcement brought the long-awaited and inevitable coronation of Derek Jeter and the dramatic conclusion to Larry Walker’s 10-year ballot saga. But what’s next?

With Jeter now headed to the Hall in near-unanimous fashion (99.7 percent) and Walker completing an unprecedented surge up the polls in his 10th and final chance, two more players will be joining Cooperstown’s legendary ranks. That makes a record seven straight years that the Baseball Writers' Association of America elected at least two candidates, and brings the total number of inductees over that stretch to 22.

Complete 2020 Hall of Fame election results

It also clears the ballot a bit more heading into the 2020-21 voting cycle, which should be an interesting one in its own right. Here is a first look at the major storylines surrounding the BBWAA’s Class of 2021 ballot.

A chance to breathe

Jeter’s election capped a seven-year stretch in which all-time greats rushed onto the ballot. In each of those years, at least one player was picked in their first opportunity, with an eye-popping total of 13 first-ballot inductees over that time. Before Jeter, there was Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay, Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Iván Rodríguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas.

The last time there were no first-ballot selections was also the last time nobody was picked at all. That was in 2013, when eventual Hall of Famers Craig Biggio (68.2%) and Mike Piazza (57.8%) didn’t get quite enough support right off the bat.

But that incredible run is about to come to an end. The top players slated to join the ballot for 2021, in order of career Baseball Reference WAR, are pitchers Mark Buehrle (59.2) and Tim Hudson (58.1), and outfielder Torii Hunter (50.1). Those three are highly respected players who all had excellent careers, but they likely face a steep battle for consideration and certainly won’t be first-ballot contenders.

That lack of high-profile newcomers, combined with so many players being voted in recently, should help clear the way for others who have been sitting on the ballot for a while now.

Will it be Schilling’s year?

Curt Schilling is running out of time. This will be the right-hander’s ninth year on the BBWAA ballot, giving him just two more chances of cracking the necessary 75% mark.

The good news for Schilling is that he is trending back in the right direction. After dropping from 52.3% to 45.0% in 2017, he has made significant gains in each of the past three voting cycles, landing at 70.0% on Tuesday.

That puts him on the doorstep to Cooperstown. Schilling has strong on-field credentials, but a history of incendiary political commentary seems to have affected his support. The tide appears to be turning in his favor, however, and a weak crop of first-timers in 2021 could be just what he needs to get over the hump.

Bonds and Clemens look for progress

Like Schilling, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will be in their ninth season of eligibility. But unlike Schilling, they appear to be stuck.

Both all-time greats going by the numbers -- but both penalized in the voting for their ties to performance-enhancing drugs -- Bonds and Clemens have seen their support grow only marginally in recent years. In 2020, they inched from 59.1% and 59.5%, respectively, to 60.7% and 61.0%. That still leaves quite a bit of ground to cover in the next two years.

The question looking ahead to 2021 is whether the clearing ballot backlog and lack of obvious first-time picks will finally open the door for Bonds and Clemens to move decisively toward Cooperstown, or whether they have more or less reached their ceiling with the voting body. While that group does change annually as voters gain and lose eligibility, it’s possible that there simply are too many with their minds firmly made up for Bonds and Clemens to overcome. The next year should be illuminating in that respect.

Omar coming for the Hall

In three years on the ballot, Omar Vizquel has gained significant ground, and he reached a key milestone Tuesday by clearing the 50% mark. Vizquel’s leap from 42.8% to 52.6% in this cycle sets him up quite well moving forward.

While the slick-fielding shortstop has his detractors due to subpar offensive numbers, Vizquel’s longevity (24 seasons) and defense (11 Gold Glove Awards) have won him plenty of support, too. Looking ahead to 2021, he will be the top returning candidate outside of the three controversial figures mentioned above.

Can Rolen keep it rolling?

Perhaps nobody benefited more from four players getting elected to the Hall a year ago than third baseman Scott Rolen. In his first two rounds on the ballot, he had gotten 10.2% and 17.2% of the vote, creating more concern about falling off (by getting less than 5%) than hope about his future prospects.

But a less-clogged ballot did wonders for Rolen in 2020, as voters who had not found room for him previously, due to the 10-vote maximum, were finally able to fit him in. Others perhaps gave fuller consideration to an eight-time Gold Glove Award winner who was both one of the smoothest defenders the hot corner has ever seen and a well-above-average hitter.

By more than doubling his vote percentage by jumping all the way to 35.3% in his third year of eligibility, Rolen appears well situated to continue his climb in 2021.

Who else can keep building momentum?

Also gaining notable support this year were Billy Wagner (16.7% to 31.7%, fifth year), Gary Sheffield (13.6% to 30.5%, sixth year), Todd Helton (16.5% to 29.2%, second year), Manny Ramirez (22.8% to 28.2%, fourth year), Jeff Kent (18.1% to 27.5%, seventh year) and Andruw Jones (7.5% to 19.4%, third year).

Each has at least three years remaining on the ballot and an opportunity to continue moving toward election. Will one in particular become a popular cause, like Tim Raines, Edgar Martinez and Walker have in recent years? There is quite a bit of work still to be done, but also more reason for hope.

The first-timers

As mentioned, there is nobody to fill that Jeter role of a new ballot centerpiece for 2021. Still, Hall of Fame voting always provides a good opportunity to look back on the accomplishments of notable players.

Buehrle, the quick-working left-hander who spent 12 of his 16 seasons with the White Sox, was a five-time All-Star, four-time Gold Glove Award winner and 2005 World Series champion. A consistent presence on the mound, he started nearly 500 games and recorded double-digit wins in each of his 15 seasons as a Major League starter.

Hudson had a productive and eventful career that took him from the “Moneyball” A’s to the Braves to the Giants, whom he helped win a ring as a 38-year-old in 2014. The four-time All-Star won 222 games with a 3.49 ERA.

Hunter was a charismatic human highlight reel in center field for much of his career. The five-time All-Star is one of seven outfielders to win at least nine Gold Glove Awards, and he combined that with 353 home runs and nearly 200 steals.

While the 2021 ballot won’t officially be set for some time, other notable names eligible to be added, according to Baseball Reference, include pitchers Dan Haren, Barry Zito, and A.J. Burnett, third baseman Aramis Ramirez, and outfielders Shane Victorino, Grady Sizemore and Nick Swisher.

Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.