There are no more surefire inductees after the BBWAA elected Derek Jeter and Larry Walker this year
With Tuesday's announcement that Derek Jeter and Larry Walker have been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Baseball Writers' Association of America continued a historic streak of enshrining players.
For the seventh straight season, the BBWAA elected multiple players to the Hall, bringing their total to 22 players over the past seven seasons. Before this stretch, voters hadn't elected multiple players in consecutive years since 2004-05, and the only other time with nearly this many inductees came when voters elected 12 players in the first four years of voting from 1936-39.
That streak appears ready to come to an end, though, as the 2021 Hall of Fame ballot looks as thin as it has since 2013 when no player reached the 75 percent voting threshold. With no notable additions to the ballot and a slew of flawed candidates returning, there are plenty of unknowns heading into next year.
Who are the notable additions to the 2021 ballot?
Baseball teams spent much of the 2014 season celebrating the end of Derek Jeter's career, but there were no such farewell tours in '15. Only one player retired after that season who won an MVP or Cy Young Award, and that was Barry Zito, who had been a shell of his former ace self since going to San Francisco in 2007.
The strongest first-time candidates that received enough votes to stay on the ballot a second year are Tim Hudson, Mark Buehrle, and Torii Hunter, but none stand much of a chance to reach Cooperstown. The 65 Hall of Fame starting pitchers averaged 73.2 career WAR and 49.9 WAR during their best seven years, but Hudson (58.1, 38.3) and Buehrle (59.2, 35.8) come well below that threshold. Hunter's resume is similarly lacking (50.1, 30.8) compared to that the average of the 19 inducted center fielders (71.0, 44.5).
There are a number of other fun names to remember. Aramis Ramirez, Shane Victorino, and Dan Haren stick out. But none are likely to get more than a handful of votes. (Shout out to the one voter who wrote down J.J. Putz's name this year.)
A thin crop of new additions may make for a smaller Class of 2021. But the good news is that with much of the backlog of candidates cleared — and the limit of 10 players per ballot still in place — key returning players are likely to see big jumps next season.
Who is most likely to get inducted in 2021?
Four returning players received at least 50 percent of the votes this year, but only one has a realistic chance at reaching that magic 75 percent next season: Curt Schilling. The three-time World Series champion finished with 70.0 percent of the vote and gained nine points for the second straight cycle. Gaining that final five percent — he fell 20 votes short this year — is well within reach.
Schilling's case on the field is nearly unimpeachable. Although he never won a Cy Young Award, he was a runner-up three times and made it to six All-Star games. He struck out 300 batters three times and led the majors in K/BB six times in his final eight seasons. Of course, he's even more known for his postseason dominance, when he carries an impressive 2.23 ERA and 11-2 record.
What's held Schilling back, though, is his noxious off-the-field behavior. From calling for the deaths of journalists to endorsing white nationalist rhetoric and sharing transphobic and Islamophobic memes, Schilling has painted the picture of a person many people consider to be not worthy of honor. Although he's on the brink of enshrinement now, his joke about hanging journalists caused his vote share to fall from 52.3 percent to 45.0 percent in 2017.
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens — who have a case for being the best hitter and pitcher of all-time — have almost no shot at induction despite sitting at 60.7 and 61.0 percent, respectively. Although they only need to flip a few dozen votes, the duo's numbers have hardly budged since they sat at 54.1 and 53.8 percent, respectively, in 2017. They just have too much ground to make up before their final year on the ballot in 2022, and their detractors have an unusually deep disdain for them and their alleged PED use.
Finally, Omar Vizquel is on a path to induction after reaching 52.6 percent in his third try. Only 11 players have reached Cooperstown after receiving less than Vizquel's 37.0 percent on their first ballot, but it's happened recently with Mike Mussina (20.3 percent, 2019 ballot) and Tim Raines (24.3 percent, 2017). Vizquel's issue is that he is not well regarded among newer voters, who see his career .272/.336/.352 hitting line as not worthy of enshrinement. It will be even more important for him to flip existing voters since the new voters added each year are less likely to support him.
Which returning players stand to see big improvements?
The 2020 cycle was good not only for fans of Larry Walker but also for supporters of several other players farther down the ballot. Scott Rolen, Gary Sheffield, and Billy Wagner all saw their support essentially double into the 30s, while Todd Helton and Andruw Jones also received double-digit boosts to their vote share.
None of the players are necessarily sure bets to make the Hall of Fame, and Sheffield has a particularly steep hill to climb with just four years left on the ballot. But stranger things have happened, including Larry Walker climbing from 21.9 percent in his seventh year to 34.1 to 54.6 to 76.6 percent in his last opportunity.
Players often get a boost when fans and media rally around them. Walker, Edgar Martinez, and Tim Raines all received extra attention in their final year on the ballot — each improved by at least 15 points and were inducted — and there are plenty of candidates to see their support rise, particularly if the sabermetric community rallies behind them.
Perhaps the best candidate to see an improvement is Rolen, whose 35.3 percent vote share placed him seventh on the 2020 ballot. He already gained 18.1 points in this cycle, one of the biggest jumps in BBWAA voting history. Unlike many sluggers of the 2000s, he doesn't have the stink of a PED suspension or suspicion, and he played defense at third base comparably to how Vizquel played at shortstop. Although he didn't clear traditional milestones with only 316 home runs, his .281/.364/.490 line is leagues better than Vizquel and strong enough for the hot corner.
Todd Helton should also see a boost, as it would have been hard to imagine him making the Hall if his former Rockies teammate Walker fell short. Voters may be more okay with considering his still-strong numbers on the road (.287/.386/.469) after another player who played at Coors Field made it. Walker's induction is not enough to give Helton a spot, but it was definitely a necessary first step.
There are plenty of other intriguing candidates. Andruw Jones is perhaps the best defensive center fielder in baseball history while also swinging a mean bat. Sheffield, Manny Ramirez, and Sammy Sosa each cleared 500 home runs. Wagner has a comparable resume to Trevor Hoffman, who sailed through in 2018. There's plenty of time before ballots are mailed out in December, but the 2021 cycle will be nothing if not entertaining.