That the Baseball Writers' Association of America didn't elect anyone into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Tuesday was not necessarily surprising. With no strong first-year candidates and a slew of controversial holdovers, none of the top contenders gained more than a handful of votes.
But what the results of the 2021 ballot do illustrate are the tough questions facing Hall of Fame voters, ones that will only grow larger on the 2022 ballot.
As Curt Schilling, Barry Bonds, and Roger Clemens enter their final year on the BBWAA's ballot — and Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz make their debut — voters must reconcile the National Baseball Hall of Fame's purpose.
Is it a baseball museum that tells the entire story of the game — the good, the bad, and the ugly? Or should enshrinement be saved not only for the best players but for those who played cleanly — if that can even be determined — and were wholesome citizens as well?
If voters are penalizing players for poor character, should they be electing more candidates with borderline statistical cases who were upstanding? Is it right that we've shunned the players of the steroid era but glorified the managers, front office members, and commissioner who aided and abetted its rise?
How much will the character clause matter?
With the top three returning candidates and top two new candidates all held back by their off-field decisions and personas, there is no place to start other than the character clause.
The Hall of Fame has already disqualified some players — anyone on baseball's ineligible list, including Pete Rose and the Black Sox players — but also asks voters to consider a player's "integrity, sportsmanship, (and) character" in addition to their on-field performance.
Some voters have used that as a reason to exclude confirmed and suspected PED users, even if they used before it was against baseball's rules or never failed a test. Yes, players of all eras have tried to cheat by using spitballs or pine tar, but chemical substances are a bridge too far for some, and we're not (yet) in the business of kicking out current Hall of Fame members for cheating.
But more recently, some BBWAA members have declined to vote for players because they've deemed the person not worthy of elevating. Mainly, this is about Curt Schilling and his toxic personality. The 2001 World Series Co-MVP clears the Hall of Fame bar by most metrics but is more recently known for getting fired from ESPN for using Islamaphobic and homophobic memes, sharing a tweet that called for journalists to get lynched, and endorsing white nationalist rhetoric. His support for the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection — which came one week after 2021 ballots were due — was the straw that broke the camel's back for multiple voters in the 2022 cycle.
Beyond Schilling's noxious (albeit not illegal) behavior, there are plenty of other harrowing stories about other major candidates. Clemens allegedly had a sexual affair with then-16-year-old singer Mindy McCready. Bonds and Andruw Jones were both credibly accused of domestic assault. Todd Helton spent two days in jail in 2019 for his second DUI.
Omar Vizquel, the all-time leader in games played at shortstop, appeared to be on the path to induction after reaching 52.6 percent in his third year, but after a report about domestic assault came out in December, he lost 12 votes and fell to 49.1 percent. He already faced long odds because newer, more analytically-inclined voters tend to find his career .272/.336/.352 slash line underwhelming, but his current personal issues may be the nail in his coffin.
A large portion of voters seems dead-set on keeping Bonds and Clemens out of the Hall of Fame despite their generational talents; they've stalled out lately, growing only from 59.1 and 59.5 percent, respectively, to 61.8 and 61.6 percent in the last three years. It's unlikely that 50-plus voters will have a change of heart in their last year of eligibility, but it remains to be seen if Schilling can pick up the last dozen votes he needs to reach the magic 75 percent threshold.
How will voters handle A-Rod and Big Papi?
As Bonds and fellow suspected PED user Sammy Sosa enter their 10th and final year on the ballot, it's fitting that Rodriguez and Ortiz are the two names headlining the new class. And how voters handle their cases will tell a lot about the future of the Hall of Fame.
Whereas Bonds never failed a test, both Ortiz's and Rodriguez's names were leaked to the New York Times in 2009 as two of more than 100 players who tested positive for PEDs during the 2003 spring training. Since then, both players have been connected to steroid use, although their cases are a little different.
Since the survey's results were destroyed as part of the testing agreement and there were questions about whether legal, over-the-counter supplements could trigger a positive test, it's unclear what (if anything) Ortiz tested positive for. He has maintained his innocence — as have most suspected users — and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in 2016 that it was "entirely possible" that he did not actually test positive for PEDs.
On the other hand, Rodriguez has admitted to using steroids from 2001-03 and was suspended 211 games for receiving HGH in the 2013 Biogenesis scandal. Having actually served a punishment unlike other admitted users such as Andy Pettitte, Rodriguez will be a fascinating case.
Rodriguez has a clearly superior Hall of Fame case to Ortiz purely on the field. He's a career .295/.380/.550 hitter and ranks fourth all-time in home runs (696) and RBIs (2,086), 16th in WAR (117.5), and 22nd in hits (3,115), all while playing solid defense at premium positions. Rodriguez made 14 All-Star Games and is one of 10 players to ever win three MVP awards.
Ortiz's late start to his career and lack of defense makes his WAR total underwhelming (albeit still Hall-worthy) at 55.3, even if his offensive numbers hold up well against most players not named A-Rod; he hit a career .286/.380/.552 with 541 home runs, 1,769 RBIs, and 2,472 hits. Ortiz may lay claim to being the greatest designated hitter ever, but many old-school voters hold the lack of defensive plays against DHs. It took Edgar Martinez, the man who previously held that title, until his final season of eligibility to reach Cooperstown.
Despite Rodriguez being the clearly superior player, the two could realistically finish in either order, and it would be a surprise to see either inducted on the first try. Ortiz was fiery with journalists at times but had an amicable relationship with the press; his Big Papi persona on TV has been even friendlier after his retirement, and a 2019 near-fatal shooting has made him an even more sympathetic candidate. Rodriguez, on the other hand, had a more adversarial relationship and turned some fans off with plays such as a 2004 incident when he slapped the ball out of Bronson Arroyo's glove. Fair or not, that will likely factor into some voters' minds.
There are, of course, other interesting hitters who will be added to the ballot next year, none of which are likely to ever hit 75 percent. Jimmy Rollins won the regular-season MVP and a World Series in 2008. Mark Teixeira won his own World Series a year later and hit 409 home runs. Justin Morneau was the 2006 MVP and won a batting title eight years later. And Prince Fielder's and Carl Crawford's careers burned bright but flamed out quickly after signing massive nine-figure deals.
There are several interesting pitchers as well, although their cases for Cooperstown will require voters to change how they've voted recently. Jake Peavy and Tim Lincecum each had outstanding peaks; the former won a Cy Young and pitching Triple Crown while the latter won two Cy Youngs. However, both careers were likely too short to garner much consideration, especially after Johan Santana failed to get five percent in his only year on the ballot. Staying on the ballot for a second cycle, like Tim Hudson and Mark Buehrle this year, would be a worthy accomplishment.
The pitchers who are perhaps most interesting are the ones who pitched even less: Joe Nathan and Jonathan Papelbon. The BBWAA has only elected six relievers to the Hall of Fame, but these were two of the most dominant relievers of their time and sit seventh and eighth, respectively, all-time in saves. Nathan ranks favorably to Billy Wagner over his seven peak seasons, and Papelbon is one of the best postseason relievers ever. If Wagner (46.4 percent of ballots in 2020) eventually punches his ticket to the Hall, these two will have bolstered cases — if they can stay on the ballot.
How much can other returning players continue to rise?
While the top candidates stalled in their quest for enshrinement, there were several down-ballot players who made large gains for the second straight season, bringing promise for more inductions over the next few years. Five players gained at least 10 percentage points in voting from 2020 to '21, all of whom also had double-digit gains in the last cycle.
Scott Rolen had the largest gain (17.6 percent) for the third straight season and surpassed Vizquel to finish with 52.9 percent in his fourth year on the ballot. While he lacks traditional counting stats with just 316 home runs and 2,077 hits, he's an advanced stat darling due to his excellent third base defense and high on-base percentage (.364). He also surpasses the average Hall of Fame third baseman's mark both in career (70.1) and seven-year peak (43.6) WAR. With an unimpeachable character, it now appears to be a question of whether he'll hit 75 percent in 2022 or 2023.
Todd Helton jumped from 29.2 to 44.9 percent in his third year and, as expected, greatly benefitted from his Rockies teammate Larry Walker getting inducted last year. Now that the seal has been broken on Coors Field players entering the Hall, it's easier for many voters to justify voting in another. Helton's career .345/.441/.607 line is inflated by the Mile High air, but his .287/.386/.469 line on the road is still plenty commendable.
Fellow slugger Gary Sheffield also jumped significantly from 30.5 percent to 40.6 percent, although his clock is ticking since he only has three more years on the ballot. It's still possible to make up nearly 35 points in three years — Walker was at 21.9 percent at the same point four years earlier — but it will be a long shot. If anything, cracking 50 percent will make it easier for the nine-time All-Star with 509 career homers to make it to Cooperstown later through the Veterans Committee.
Andruw Jones is another long-shot candidate by reaching 33.9 percent in his fourth year. He clearly falls short on longevity but had a higher seven-year peak (46.4 WAR) than 12 of the 19 Hall of Fame center fielders. More voters are opening to the idea of honoring him for his league-best defense and 30-home run power, even if he was effectively done contributing by 31.
Finally, there is Wagner, who is up to 46.4 percent in his sixth year on the ballot. Gauging how to value pitchers in the modern era can be difficult, but he retired fifth on the all-time saves list and has the highest strikeout rate in baseball (11.9 per nine innings) for any pitcher with at least 900 innings.
Still, given how far each of these players is from 75 percent, it wouldn't be a surprise to see a second straight shutout from the BBWAA in 2022, which hasn't happened since 1958 and '60 when the vote was held every two years.