Bubble trouble? 5 legends in HOF ballot danger

January 13th, 2017

While many are waiting to see whether there might be a record-tying five Baseball Writers' Association of America electees in this year's Hall of Fame class, the number five represents another entirely different kind of drama to some candidates. It is the voting percentage required to remain on the ballot for 2018, and Yankees legend Jorge Posada is among a handful of big names on the brink.
The results of the 73rd BBWAA Hall of Fame election will be revealed at 6 p.m. ET on Wednesday live on MLB Network and simulcast live on MLB.com beginning at 5 p.m. A player can remain on the ballot for up to 10 consecutive years as long as he meets that minimum percentage, and here is a look at some of those just hoping to be holdovers:
Jorge Posada
The only catchers who had a higher OPS+ than Posada's 121 were Hall of Famers Mike Piazza, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Johnny Bench, Ernie Lombardi, Gabby Hartnett and Yogi Berra. That seemed to matter a lot five years ago, when Peter Gammons wrote this on MLB.com:
"Years from now, depending on the whims of the voters each December, Posada will go into the Hall of Fame in that uniform, like Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey. The voters will marvel at those five rings and seven pennants, and think about all the great pitchers he caught."
It is not even clear now if there will be whims to be had, though. Perhaps surprising to some, the catcher who spent his whole 17-year career with the Yankees and a leading force behind four rings -- and ranking 10th in WAR among catchers over the last half-century -- is in a battle just to remain on the ballot as a first-year eligible. Posada was at 4.2 percent with 43.9 percent of the ballots in on Ryan Thibodaux' BBHOF Tracker, gaining only eight votes so far.
Given an estimated 435 total ballots cast, that would mean Posada must find 14 more votes to finish at 5 percent, so this will be election-day drama. Thibodaux said "an awful lot of New York-area votes are not yet accounted for" and noted that in 2015, another Yankees-Red Sox rivalry cog, Nomar Garciaparra, had eight public votes (2.4 percent) yet wound up with 30 (5.5 percent) to earn a temporary ballot reprieve.
Sammy Sosa
He averaged 58.4 homers over a five-year span from 1998-2002, becoming the only player to top 60 at least three times, entertaining Cubs fans by sprinting out to his position in right field, and finishing with 609 homers. Alas, it is all but concluded that it won't matter to BBWAA voters, given past PED speculation, and Sosa has become an annual 5-percent suspense figure.
Sosa debuted at 12.5 percent in 2013 when he became eligible at the same time as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Piazza, and his percentages since then are 7.2, 6.6 and 7.0. As of Wednesday, he was at 9.9 and needed three more votes to achieve a 5-percent threshold based on the 435-ballot estimation. That makes Sosa the only candidate other than Posada (or those with less than 1 percent) who is still working on reaching 5 percent.
Billy Wagner
When he debuted on the ballot last year, Wagner said he should be "highly considered" and cited several "big" numbers that mattered to him more than saves. For example, ERA: His was 2.31 ERA over 903 innings, second lowest (to Mariano Rivera) in the modern era for pitchers with at least 903 innings. Also strikeouts: 1,196 of them, plus an 11.92 strikeouts per nine innings ratio, the best rate of any pitcher with at least 900 innings since 1900. And WHIP (1.00) or opponents' average (.187).
Wagner felt that those showed what the pitcher can control and speak more than saves, which have much to do with a pitcher's team creating those situations. Indeed, that probably fits with the current devaluation of saves in the industry. Nevertheless, he also converted 422 saves if you want to think that way, fifth-most all time and second to John Franco among lefty relievers.
With Lee Smith headed off the ballot and with Trevor Hoffman possibly about to be enshrined, Wagner could be the best closer on the ballot next year. Indeed, some already think he is the best one on it, better than Hoffman when you dig into his performance metrics. Whether Wagner gets the chance remains to be seen, though. He was at just 11.5 percent following a 10.5 debut.
Jeff Kent
No second baseman ever had more homers (351), RBIs (1,389), doubles (508) or a higher slugging percentage (.509), and those statistics were just from games where he played at second. Look at the past 70 years, and Kent's wRC+ of 123 trails only Jackie Robinson, Rod Carew and Bobby Grich among former second basemen.
Kent's overall minus-0.6 dWAR, however, compares to 12.8 for Ryne Sandberg or 3.3 for Joe Morgan -- second basemen who also hit for power. Maybe it's a perception of defensive mediocrity, maybe it was his uneasy rapport with writers, maybe it was association with his former Giants teammate (and sometimes alter ego) Bonds. Whatever the reason, this is Kent's fourth year on the ballot, and his percentages have gone from 15.2 in 2014 to 14.0 in '15 to 16.6 in '16 and 13.1 as of Wednesday.
"I've tried to eliminate a lot of drama from my life," Kent said. "I don't know why [the vote total isn't higher]. I don't get it. They come up with these WAR numbers, which I don't understand and they never had before. … It gets me to scratching my head. I don't know. I'm out having fun. I'm coaching kids. I'm building a sports facility for kids out here in Texas."
Fred McGriff
In 1995, the Crime Dog was the Braves' first baseman and his solo homer in the second inning of Game 1 led Atlanta toward its first (and only) World Series championship in that city. No matter what, McGriff will always have that. But will he ever get a bump in Hall balloting?
Among all first basemen, Hall of Famer Tony Perez ranks 27th with a 53.9 WAR, and McGriff ranks right behind him at 52.4. McGriff ranks 31st and just ahead of Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda among first basemen with a 44.1 JAWS score (Jay Jaffe's metric that averages a player's career and peak WAR to compare him to those already in the Hall of Fame). The five-time All-Star homered at least 30 times in 10 seasons and finished with 493 homers in an era when the 500 Home Run Club became common. The Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor gives McGriff a 100 ("a good possibility") and, unlike some peers, there were no suspicions or indications that his power came unnaturally.
Still, the needle isn't moving. McGriff debuted at 21.5 percent in 2010, his high-water mark was 23.9 in '12 and he got as low as 11.7 in the '13 bottleneck. Last year's rally back above 20 percent doesn't appear sustained, as he was tracking at 16.2 percent this year.