The best non-Hall of Famer at every position

Let the debates begin: An all-time roster outside Cooperstown

January 30th, 2023

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America has elected the newest Hall of Famer, with third baseman Scott Rolen officially getting the call on Tuesday and joining Fred McGriff -- previously elected by the Contemporary Baseball Era Players Committee -- in the Class of 2023. 

Still, many big names remain outside the Hall's hallowed Plaque Gallery, so here is a roster of the best non-Hall of Fame players in baseball history at every position.

Important note: For this exercise, we only considered players who have been retired for at least five years, the waiting time required before one can appear on a BBWAA ballot. Recently retired stars sure to get a serious look once they’re eligible -- such as Ichiro Suzuki, Joe Mauer and Adrián Beltré -- are noted in the honorable mentions below.

C: Bill Freehan
Call this a toss-up between Freehan and Thurman Munson, both of whom could use a longer look from the Hall’s veteran committees. Freehan enjoyed a longer career because of Munson’s unfortunate passing at age 32, and thus he finished with more hits, homers, RBIs and Gold Glove Awards. But he was also just as accomplished a two-way catcher as the Yankees captain -- and just as revered a leader for the Tigers, too.

On a technical level, both Freehan and Munson (along with Gene Tenace, who nearly split his career evenly between catcher and first base) own the highest JAWS totals (Jay Jaffe’s system that combines career Wins Above Replacement with a player’s seven best seasons) among eligible backstops on the outside of Cooperstown looking in.

Honorable mentions: Munson, Tenace, Jorge Posada (Joe Mauer, Buster Posey, Yadier Molina not yet eligible)

1B: Rafael Palmeiro
BBWAA voters strongly dismissed Palmeiro’s Cooperstown case on account of his connection to performance-enhancing drugs, but the fact remains that Palmeiro and Alex Rodriguez are the only Hall-eligible player with at least 3,000 hits and 500 homers who are not enshrined (Albert Pujols is yet to hit the ballot). Mark McGwire reached higher peaks, but Palmeiro nearly matched McGwire’s career homer total, almost doubled Big Mac’s hit total and was a more lauded defender, too.

Honorable mentions: McGwire, Don Mattingly, Todd Helton (Pujols not yet eligible)

2B: Lou Whitaker
Jeff Kent famously hit the most homers of any second baseman, thus making his exclusion from the Hall somewhat strange. But most of Kent’s dingers were hit during unprecedented boon times for the long ball, and while defensive metrics get murkier the further back one goes, Whitaker’s more polished all-around game stands out more to this author. As Jaffe noted for FanGraphs in 2019, Whitaker belongs to a select group of players (and is the only second baseman besides Jackie Robinson) who finished their careers at least 200 batting runs, 50 fielding runs and 25 baserunning runs above average. Plus, it just doesn’t feel right that Alan Trammell is in the Hall without his double-play partner.

Honorable mentions: Kent, Bobby Grich (Chase Utley not yet eligible)

3B: Dick Allen
It's unfortunate that Allen (who died in December 2020) didn't live long enough to celebrate his induction, because he boasted some Cooperstown-worthy credentials. As’s Andrew Simon noted, Allen’s career 156 league-adjusted OPS+ puts him in the very upper echelon of post-integration hitters, and his best 10-year run at the plate was pretty much unmatched by his peers. Yet Allen fell just one vote shy of election when the Golden Days Committee last convened in 2021, meaning that the wait continues.

Honorable mentions: Graig Nettles, Ken Boyer, Sal Bando (Adrián Beltré not yet eligible)

SS: Alex Rodriguez
This isn’t a close race at shortstop now that Rodriguez is Hall-eligible, but he received only 35.7% of the vote in his second year on the BBWAA ballot in 2023. With 696 home runs, 2,086 RBIs, three AL MVP Awards, 14 All-Star Game selections and a World Series championship across his 22 year career, A-Rod’s on-field numbers legitimately rank alongside the Hall’s inner-circle members. But he will face the same hurdles as Bonds, Clemens and Sosa thanks to multiple transgressions with performance-enhancing drugs that included over a year-long suspension from baseball from 2013-14. Rodriguez will now have to endure the waiting game with BBWAA voters, like Bonds, Clemens and Sosa just did.

Honorable mentions: Bill Dahlen, Omar Vizquel, Jimmy Rollins, Nomar Garciaparra, Miguel Tejada, Jim Fregosi

LF: Barry Bonds
This doesn’t require much explanation; Bonds is the greatest player many of us have seen in our lifetimes, and he had accrued surefire Hall credentials before his alleged PED use clouded the picture. His momentum with BBWAA voters stalled out, and he didn't fare any better with the Today's Game Era Committee in late 2022, meaning that it's hard to see Bonds reaching Cooperstown anytime soon.

Honorable mention: Pete Rose, Manny Ramirez

CF: Carlos Beltrán
This was Kenny Lofton's spot before Beltrán reached Hall eligibility on the 2023 ballot, receiving a respectable 46.5% of the vote in his debut. Lofton and Andruw Jones still have compelling arguments here, with Lofton's particularly acute given that he went one and done on a crowded ballot in 2013. But Beltrán gets the slight edge, given his enviable combination of power (435 homers), speed (312 steals), defense (three Gold Gloves) and postseason heroics. The only question now is whether enough voters will eventually warm to Beltrán's case, given his ties to the 2017 Astros sign-stealing scandal.

Honorable mentions: Lofton, Jones, Jim Edmonds, Dale Murphy, Jim Wynn

RF: Shoeless Joe Jackson
On the day that Ted Williams famously played both legs of a doubleheader against the A's and clinched his .400 season in 1941, opposing manager Connie Mack said, “I wish I had a Williams. I had one once, and I lost him.”

Mack was referring to Jackson -- maybe the game’s most revered natural hitter before Williams came along -- whom Mack regrettably traded away before he became a star in Cleveland. One hundred years have passed since Shoeless Joe’s last big league season, and his talent and numbers (a ridiculous .356 career average and 170 career OPS+) may still make him the best choice for this spot 100 years from now. His ban from the game doesn't seem like it will ever be lifted.

Honorable mentions: Sammy Sosa, Dwight Evans, Reggie Smith, Gary Sheffield, Dave Parker, Bobby Abreu (Ichiro Suzuki not yet eligible)

DH: Hal McRae
Only six players have logged at least 7,500 career plate appearances while playing at least half their games at designated hitter. Four of them (Harold Baines, Edgar Martinez, David Ortiz and Frank Thomas) are already in the Hall following Big Papi’s election in 2022, while Nelson Cruz remains active.

That leaves an even matchup between McRae and Don Baylor on the outside looking in. Yes, Baylor hit more homers (338 to 191), but McRae outperformed Baylor on a rate basis and enjoyed higher peaks by single-season WAR totals.

Honorable mention: Baylor

Starting RHP: Roger Clemens
Seven Cy Young Awards, two pitching Triple Crowns, an AL MVP Award and the third-most strikeouts in history give Clemens a claim to best pitcher of all-time, and just like Bonds, he likely had a Hall of Fame résumé before he began his alleged use of PEDs. But like Bonds, Clemens did not have an easier time with the Today’s Game Era Committee than he did with the BBWAA.

Honorable mention: Curt Schilling, Tim Lincecum, Luis Tiant, Dave Stieb, Kevin Brown, David Cone, Orel Hershiser, Roy Oswalt, Eddie Cicotte

Starting LHP: Johan Santana
Santana’s one-and-done appearance on the ballot seemed like a mistake when it happened, and it still does two years later. It’s hard not to wonder whether Santana would be making a steady year-by-year improvement in the voting totals now if he had rightfully taken home the 2005 AL Cy Young Award that went to Bartolo Colon instead.

Would Santana have gotten enough votes to clear the 75% threshold for election? Probably not. But winning the 2005 Cy Young -- which would have given him three straight Cys from 2004-06 -- would have forced the BBWAA to give him a much longer look. Clemens, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer are the only three-time winners who don’t have a plaque.

Honorable mention: Andy Pettitte, Mark Buehrle, Ron Guidry, Tommy John, Mickey Lolich, Jimmy Key (CC Sabathia not yet eligible)

Relief RHP: Dan Quisenberry
Just about every modern-day righty reliever who should be in the Hall is already there following Lee Smith’s election in 2018. Joe Nathan and Jonathan Papelbon both went one-and-done after falling shy of 5% of the BBWAA vote in their ’22 ballot debuts. Francisco Rodríguez  debuted on the ballot in ’23, getting 10.8%.

So with a lack of a real statistical standout, how about Quiz? The beloved submariner has a case for the 1980s’ best reliever, having won five Rolaids Relief Man of the Year Awards, finishing with a league-adjusted 146 ERA+ and helping the Royals claim two pennants and the 1985 World Series title.

Honorable mention: Nathan,  Papelbon, Rodríguez, Keith Foulke, Tom Gordon, Tom Henke, Firpo Marberry, Troy Percival, Kent Tekulve, John Wetteland

Relief LHP: Billy Wagner
Among all Live Ball Era pitchers with at least 750 innings, Wagner is the very best in strikeouts per nine innings (11.9) and WHIP (0.998) while also ranking behind only Mariano Rivera in ERA+ (187) and owning the sixth-highest save total in history (422). But he might not be on this list much longer. Wagner has rapidly gained BBWAA support in recent years, rising to 68.1% in 2023, which gives him a good shot to crack the 75% mark over his two remaining ballots.

Honorable mention: John Franco, Sparky Lyle, Tug McGraw, Randy Myers

Kelly's all-time non-HOF team (as of 2023)

C: Bill Freehan
1B: Rafael Palmeiro
2B: Lou Whitaker
3B: Dick Allen
SS: Alex Rodriguez
LF: Barry Bonds
CF: Carlos Beltrán
RF: Shoeless Joe Jackson
DH: Hal McRae
R-H SP: Roger Clemens
L-H SP: Johan Santana
R-H RP: Dan Quisenberry
L-H RP: Billy Wagner