7 under-the-radar HOF candidates

December 15th, 2021

This year's Hall of Fame ballot features some big new names (David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez) and a potential last chance at election for some old ones (Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling). But there are a lot of other players worth paying attention to.

MLB.com's analysts picked out seven under-the-radar Hall of Fame candidates on the 2022 ballot -- either debut players in their first year of eligibility, or returning players who stayed on the ballot from prior years but have only ever gotten a small percentage of the vote before now.

All of them deserve a closer look. Here's the case for each.

Bobby Abreu
Year on the ballot: 3rd (8.7% in 2021)
Key stat: .395 career OBP

Abreu is exactly the kind of player who is going to be more appreciated now, looking back on the totality of his 18-season career, than he was during his playing days, because he made only two All-Star teams and finished in the top 15 of an MVP ballot only once (and even that was a modest 12th). Even that in-real-time lack of respect was a little surprising, though, because A) he played in the 2000s, not the 1960s, and B) he had eight 100-RBI seasons and 14 seasons with double-digit steals, along with a career .291 average. It’s not like he failed the "traditional stats" test here.

Yet where Abreu really shone was his ability to simply get on base, by any means necessary. Abreu drew 100 or more walks in eight consecutive seasons at his peak; he posted a .400 or better on-base percentage in each of those eight seasons. He had the power to win the Home Run Derby, as he did in 2005; he had the eye to have a top-10 OBP in baseball across his 1998-2006 peak; he had the speed to steal the fifth-most bases in that span. Consider his career against Tony Gwynn’s, and remember that Gwynn received nearly 98% of the Hall of Fame vote in his first year of eligibility.

Abreu: 2,425 games, .395 OBP, .459 SLG, 288 HR, 128 OPS+, 400 SB
Gwynn: 2,440 games, .388 OBP, .475 SLG, 135 HR, 132 OPS+, 319 SB

Are we really considering two players who are that different?

It’s true that Abreu's defense was questionable after his first few seasons; it’s true he’s often remembered for being incredibly undervalued early in his career, like when the Astros left him exposed in the 1997 expansion draft and then the Devil Rays, having had such a gift drop into their laps, immediately flipped him to the Phillies for light-hitting shortstop Kevin Stocker.

The problem, really, is that he was underappreciated in his time, making the hardware and accolades total light. The other problem is that the Hall limits voters to just 10 names, and Abreu may possibly be the 11th- or 12th-best player in this group. But consider this: There are only six players in history with at least 250 homers and 400 stolen bases. Three (Rickey Henderson, Joe Morgan, Craig Biggio) are in the Hall. Barry Bonds certainly has the stats to be; his father, Bobby, probably deserved more consideration. Abreu is the sixth. It’s not hard to make his case.

-- Mike Petriello

Ryan Howard
Year on the ballot: 1st
Key stat: 2 career BBWAA Awards (2005 ROY, 2006 MVP)

Howard’s case is not as strong as at least one other first-base newcomer in Teixeira, but his peak is certainly still worth highlighting. In his rookie season in 2005, Howard won Rookie of the Year honors. The next year, he followed it up with an NL MVP Award, setting the Phillies’ single-season home run record in the process (58). Simply winning Rookie of the Year doesn’t necessarily clear a path to Cooperstown, but individuals who follow that up with at least one other BBWAA award are far more likely to become Hall of Famers. Of course, this makes sense, because it represents success sustained beyond a rookie season.

For Howard, the focal point stretches from his initial call-up in 2004 through the 2011 season. In that span, he slugged .560 with 286 homers in 1,027 games. He won his two BBWAA awards, was a three-time All-Star, won a Silver Slugger and received MVP votes every year from 2006-11.

His WAR numbers are not particularly gaudy -- 19.5 in that 1,000-plus-game span, per Baseball Reference. But some of that was due to his defense, which gave him -9.8 dWAR in that span and therefore played in to the overall number.

Of course, we know what happened next, with Howard tearing his Achilles on a groundout to end Game 5 of the NLDS against the Cardinals in 2011. That signified the end of the Phillies’ dynasty in many ways, and led to a steep decline for Howard over the final five years of his career.

Declines to end careers often stand out with the story of a player, and there’s no doubt that Howard’s case would be stronger with another year or two of good production, especially to push him past the 400-homer mark from the 382 he retired with. But for a multi-season stretch in the NL East, Howard was one of the most fearsome sluggers around, and on a very successful team, to boot -- and that moment in time in his career certainly deserves its consideration and due.

-- Sarah Langs

Tim Hudson
Year on the ballot: 2nd (5.2% in 2021)
Key stat: Career 120 ERA+

A member of Oakland’s vaunted rotation trio in the early 2000s alongside Barry Zito and Mark Mulder, Hudson easily had the best individual career of the three, going 222-133 with a 3.49 ERA over 3,126 2/3 innings for the A’s, Braves and Giants, with whom he won a World Series title in 2014.

The Georgia native received just 21 votes in his first year of BBWAA eligibility in 2021 -- one fewer, and he would have fallen off the ballot entirely. It’s a toss-up whether he will even make it to a third year, yet a case can be made that he’s deserving of enshrinement.

Hudson didn’t post gaudy strikeout numbers and was never the best pitcher in his league, but his performance over 17 seasons stacks up well historically. The sinkerballer turned in eight 200-inning campaigns, including five in which he reached the 220 plateau and recorded an ERA+ above 125. He’s one of 18 Live Ball Era pitchers (since 1920) with at least 3,000 career innings and an ERA+ of 120 or better. Only five hurlers in this group aren’t in the Hall of Fame: Clemens, Schilling, Kevin Brown, Zack Greinke (still active) and Hudson.

-- Thomas Harrigan

Tim Lincecum
Year on the ballot: 1st
Key stat: 3 World Series titles, 2 Cy Young Awards, 2 no-hitters

Lincecum's Hall of Fame case is his array of career highlights -- the trophies, awards and historic feats he amassed in his time in the Major Leagues. The Giants ace won three World Series as part of San Francisco's early-2010s dynasty. He won back-to-back Cy Young Awards. He threw two no-hitters. He won three league strikeout titles. He was a four-time All-Star. Here's a cool fact: there are only two pitchers with multiple World Series rings, multiple Cy Young Awards and multiple no-hitters: Tim Lincecum and Sandy Koufax.

Lincecum's two Cy Young seasons were almost eerily similar.

2008 Lincecum: 34 games, 18-5, 2.62 ERA, 265 K, 227 IP, 10.5 K/9
2009 Lincecum: 32 games, 15-7, 2.48 ERA, 261 K, 225 1/3 IP, 10.4 K/9

And the year after that, he pitched the Giants to their first World Series championship since 1954. Lincecum kicked off that postseason by throwing a 14-strikeout shutout in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Braves. He capped it by tossing an eight-inning, one-run, 10-strikeout masterpiece against the Rangers to win the clinching Game 5 of the World Series.

Other pitchers might have more longevity, but few have reached all the great heights Lincecum did. At his peak, the Freak was absolutely the best pitcher in baseball. With his lanky frame, signature neck-craning delivery, explosive fastball and fall-off-the-table changeup, Lincecum was also one of the most memorable to watch. That's worth something.

-- David Adler

Joe Nathan
Year on the ballot: 1st
Key stat: 30.6 career Win Probability Added

There are two requirements involved with even considering Nathan’s Hall case: 1) You believe the Plaque Gallery needs more relievers (eight already reside there, with compelling candidates like Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel hitting the ballot by the 2030s), and 2) You believe Billy Wagner is a Hall of Famer.

Wagner has four more years on the ballot, and BBWAA voters are nearly split 50/50 on his merits. If you’re in the camp that Wagner should be Cooperstown-bound, then you have to consider Nathan, too. Wagner was a more dominant strikeout closer, but check out how close the two are in several key stats (per Baseball Reference):

Wagner: 422 saves, 27.8 WAR, 29.1 WPA, 1.00 WHIP
Nathan: 377 saves, 26.4 WAR, 30.6 WPA, 1.10 WHIP

Win Probability Added considers contextual factors like inning, score and runners on base that surround each play, making it an important metric for closers that are almost always pitching in big spots. Nathan’s cumulative career WPA is not only a shade better than Wagner’s, but also right in line with the average for relievers already in Cooperstown (30) and squarely between two Hall of Famers in Dennis Eckersley (30.8) and Hoyt Wilhelm (30.5). If one were to calculate the average of Nathan’s career WAR, WPA and WPA/LI (win probability added divided by leverage index, a stat that measures how much a given play could change a team’s win probability) totals, as FanGraphs’ Jay Jaffe did when analyzing Wagner’s Hall case last year, Nathan (24.4) is eighth among relievers all-time -- behind five Hall of Famers, Wagner (24.9) and Firpo Mayberry (24.6).

Like Wagner, Nathan doesn’t have the postseason bona fides that should accompany a Hall of Fame closer, but neither do Plaque Gallery members like Trevor Hoffman and Lee Smith. If you’re a Big Hall fan or a Wagner advocate, Nathan at least deserves a close look.

-- Matt Kelly

Andy Pettitte
Year on the ballot: 4th (13.7% in 2021)
Key stat: 19 career postseason wins (all-time record)

Let’s get this out of the way: Pettitte was named in the Mitchell Report in 2007 and subsequently admitted using human growth hormone to help him recover from an elbow injury in 2002, before it became a banned substance. Some might consider that disqualifying; I wouldn’t.

Now on to Pettitte’s actual case. Admittedly, it’s not an obvious one. The left-hander was only a three-time All-Star, never won a Cy Young Award, only once led his league in a significant category beyond games started (wins in 1996) and produced a 3.85 career ERA that would be the second-highest for a Hall of Famer, below only Jack Morris.

But as always with the Hall, context is important. Pettitte was a significantly better second-half pitcher, limiting his All-Star nods. His career Cy Young vote shares put him just behind AL East contemporary and Hall of Famer Mike Mussina. His 117 ERA+ -- which adjusts for ballpark and the league’s offensive environment -- puts him on par with Cooperstown inductees such as Bert Blyleven, Tom Glavine, Fergie Jenkins and Phil Niekro.

And as writer Sam Miller argued at ESPN in 2020, Pettitte debuted at a point in baseball history (1995) that was uniquely challenging for a starting pitcher, due to an offensive explosion boosted by PED use, changes in pitching philosophy and other factors. This period is not well represented in the Hall -- currently the only enshrined starter who debuted after 1992 is Roy Halladay ('98), with CC Sabathia (2001) the next-earliest who appears likely to make it. Pettitte’s 60.7 WAR (per Baseball Reference) ranks third behind Halladay and Pedro Martinez among all pitchers born in the 1970s.

And then there’s the postseason. Obviously, Pettitte benefited tremendously from pitching in an era of expanded playoffs, mostly for Yankees teams that played into October on a near-annual basis. But he deserves credit for maintaining his usual effectiveness against postseason competition (3.81 ERA), while his career Win Probability Added in the playoffs trails only Mariano Rivera, Schilling and John Smoltz. If you consider Pettitte a borderline candidate for his regular-season numbers, that could push him over the top.

-- Andrew Simon

Mark Teixeira
Year on the ballot: 1st
Key stat: 409 career HRs

Teixeira was well on his way to a strong case for Cooperstown -- by age 32, he owned a .904 career OPS and had slugged 314 home runs. He also had four Gold Glove Awards as a first baseman and a World Series ring from 2009 with the Yankees. But that’s when injuries began to plague him -- he never played in more than 123 games in a season the remainder of his career, and nearly missed the entire 2013 campaign. So it’s pretty clear why Teixeira’s Hall of Fame case is far from a slam dunk.

Still, his case is compelling. Teixeira is one of 14 players who slugged better than .500 (.509) and hit more than 400 home runs (409) and are not enshrined in Cooperstown. Of the 13 others, 11 have been connected to PEDs, tarnishing their respective candidacies for the Hall. Along with Teixeira, the two others who have not been connected to PEDs are Carlos Delgado and Fred McGriff, who have Hall of Fame cases of their own despite both falling off the BBWAA ballot.

According to Jay Jaffe’s JAWS (averaging a player’s career Baseball Reference WAR with the WAR total from his peak seven years), Teixeira’s 44.3 ranks ahead of Hall of Fame first basemen Orlando Cepeda, Frank Chance and recently elected Gil Hodges.

Let’s do a direct comparison between Teixeira and Hodges, since the latter was recently elected by the Golden Days Era committee:

Hodges: 2,071 games, 120 OPS+, 370 HR, 43.9 bWAR
Teixeira: 1,862 games, 126 OPS+, 409 HR, 50.6 bWAR

As you can see, it’s tough to justify having Hodges in the Hall but not Teixeira -- both were power-hitting first basemen who were hampered by injuries toward the end of their careers, but whose numbers make their cases for Cooperstown intriguing.

-- Manny Randhawa