While the 2021 ballot announced Monday features former All-Stars such as Torii Hunter, Tim Hudson, Mark Buehrle and Barry Zito, none of its first-timers is an obvious Hall of Famer. The crowded crush of Cooperstown-caliber cases that voting members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America were presented with in recent years has cleared, and that creates breathing room -- and potentially large percentage increases -- for the ballot’s hopeful holdovers, notably Curt Schilling, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Omar Vizquel.
Players must have their names checked on at least 75% of submitted ballots to enter the Hall of Fame, which will hold its 2021 induction ceremony on July 25 in Cooperstown, N.Y. The 2020 class featuring Derek Jeter, Larry Walker, Ted Simmons and the late Marvin Miller will also be inducted on this day, after the 2020 ceremony was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The 2021 class will not feature any non-BBWAA inductees, as the Golden Days and Early Baseball Era Committees have postponed their votes until the winter of 2021-22.
Among the new additions to the BBWAA ballot, the highest career Wins Above Replacement figures, as calculated by Baseball Reference, belong to starting pitchers Buehrle (59.1) and Hudson (57.9) and outfielder Hunter (50.7). To put that in perspective, the average bWAR of Hall of Fame position players and pitchers is 69.
What this likely means, therefore, is closer scrutiny of players who have fared well on past ballots but have not yet crossed the 75% threshold. Players are eligible for up to 10 years on the BBWAA ballot. Last year, 397 ballots were submitted and 298 votes were needed for election.
The full list of first-timers on the ballot, in alphabetical order by last name, is as follows:
Mark Buehrle, A.J. Burnett, Michael Cuddyer, Dan Haren, LaTroy Hawkins, Tim Hudson, Torii Hunter, Aramis Ramirez, Nick Swisher, Shane Victorino and Barry Zito.
Players must receive at least 5% support in order to stay on the ballot the next year.
The following 14 players return to the 2021 ballot:
NAME, YEAR ON BALLOT (2020 vote total, percentage)
Curt Schilling, 9th (278, 70.0%)
Roger Clemens, 9th (242, 61.0%)
Barry Bonds, 9th (241, 60.7%)
Omar Vizquel, 4th (209, 52.6%)
Scott Rolen, 4th (140, 35.3%)
Billy Wagner, 6th (126, 31.7%)
Gary Sheffield, 7th (121, 30.5%)
Todd Helton, 3rd (116, 29.2%)
Manny Ramirez, 5th (112, 28.2%)
Jeff Kent, 8th (109, 27.5%)
Andruw Jones, 4th (77, 19.4%)
Sammy Sosa, 9th (55, 13.9%)
Andy Pettitte, 3rd (45, 11.3%)
Bobby Abreu, 2nd (22, 5.5%)
Here are five storylines associated with this ballot:
1. Ready, Schilling and able?
In the past two elections, Schilling has received the most votes of anybody not selected to the Hall. Last year, he reached 70%, tantalizingly close. His support went up 9.7% from 2018 to 2019 and 9.1% from 2019 to 2020. In the past 30 years, Jack Morris is the only player to get shut out by the writers despite reaching at least 65% with at least two years remaining on the ballot (Morris eventually made it in via the Modern Baseball Committee vote).
So history is on Schilling’s side as he enters his penultimate year on the ballot, as he has the highest strikeout-to-walk rate of any pitcher with 3,000 innings (4.38) and an outstanding October legacy. The likely holdup is a history of inflammatory political commentary on social media. But one more modest push -- on a relatively light ballot -- and Schilling is in.
2. No "first time" in a long time
While the likes of Hunter, Hudson and Buehrle are well-respected in the sport, it’s a given that an incredible run of seven straight years with a first-ballot entrant will come to an end in 2021.
That run began in 2014 with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas. In 2015, it was John Smoltz, Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson. Ken Griffey Jr. joined the party in 2016, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez in 2017, Chipper Jones and Jim Thome in 2018, Mariano Rivera and the late Roy Halladay in 2019 and, finally, Jeter in 2020.
The only longer streak of years with a first-ballot Hall of Famer was the eight-year stretch from 1988 to 1995 in which Willie Stargell, Johnny Bench, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Palmer, Joe Morgan, Rod Carew, Tom Seaver, Reggie Jackson, Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt were inducted.
3. The Bonds and Clemens watch
Monitoring the progress (or lack thereof) of Bonds and Clemens has become an annual tradition. But the tradition has a 2022 expiration date, and these two controversial talents have basically been stuck in neutral. Last year, they saw their support grow only incrementally (+1.6% for Bonds, +1.5% for Clemens).
The actual voting body changes from year to year as voters gain and lose eligibility. But if Bonds and Clemens don’t make meaningful gains now that the decks have been cleared, their chances of ever getting into the Hall of Fame are slim to none.
4. “Little O” looks for big jump
Vizquel inspires great debate in this process because some voters value his longevity (24 seasons) and defense (11 Gold Gloves) while others dock him for only having two seasons in his long career that rated above-average offensively, per OPS+.
Despite the disagreement, Vizquel managed to cross the 50% mark in his third year on the ballot, and that sets him up nicely for the future. It would take a monumental jump for him to get inducted in 2021. But if Vizquel, whose candidacy is free and clear of any off-field or performance-enhancing drug controversy, can see another surge of support akin to the 9.8% jump he got last year, it becomes easy to envision the guy with all those Gold Gloves eventually getting a gold plaque.
5. Others gaining momentum
Last year was huge for Rolen, whose support jumped 18.1% in his third year on the ballot. The ballot sets him up nicely for another big gain. Sheffield also saw a surge last year (+16.9%) to breathe needed life into his Hall of Fame hopes, but he only has four years to get from 30.5% to 75%, so this is a big ballot for him.
Others who saw notable jumps last year were Wagner (+15%), Helton (+12.7%), Jones (11.9%) and Kent (+9.4%).
It would be a shock if any of these players were to be elected in 2020. But the key to the BBWAA ballot for those with more nuanced Cooperstown cases is to keep building blocks of support each year, with the hope that their numbers are eventually viewed through a particular prism that pushes them over the top.