The 2017 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot was released Monday, and the 34-name list is again rife with reasonable cases to be made, featuring a total of 13 position players with at least an argument for enshrinement based on the information at hand.
We’ll table the discussion of pitchers for the time being to examine a particular issue the Hall created for itself when it lowered the accepted threshold for modern position players so notably in 2009, opening up such cases to be made. It’s a theoretical exercise more than anything else, presented with the full awareness that voters will likely continue to hew to established patterns.
As a caveat, we are dismissing any issue of proven or suspected use of performance-enhancing drugs for the purposes of this discussion. The Hall already features some certain to be guilty of that. It’s mostly pointless moralism over a museum in upstate New York that is unaffiliated with MLB and not bound by its rules, judged often on hearsay and slippery innuendo. And it’s a criterion we are not going to apply.
This year’s list features the second best player of all time in Barry Bonds, whose 164.4 Wins Above Replacement per Fangraphs.com is a mere four behind that of Babe Ruth and a full 14.5 ahead of the next best player in history, Willie Mays.
Next is Jeff Bagwell at 80.2 fWAR, and expected to make it this time around.
Ivan Rodriguez is ranked third in career fWAR at 68.9, also the third best catcher of all time by that metric behind only Johnny Bench and Gary Carter, and ahead of Carlton Fisk and Yogi Berra.
Outfielder Larry Walker is at 68.7, though his production is considered enhanced by many due to favorable hitting conditions at Coors Field. Still, his top-10 statistical comparisons at BaseballReference.com contain four Hall of Famers, including Joe DiMaggio at #6.
Then it’s another popular choice for election in his last year on the ballot, Tim Raines, at 66.4.
Manny Ramirez is newly eligible at 66.3, followed by the curious case of Edgar Martinez at 65.5. Martinez is one of the great hitters of his era, but has faced the headwinds of being a primary DH, playing in an era of outsized offensive numbers and toiling off the national media radar in Seattle.
Gary Sheffield’s 62.1 fWAR ranks eighth, and the nine-time All Star’s 10 stat-comps feature eight HOF players — guys like Mel Ott, Reggie Jackson, Ken Griffey, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson and Frank Thomas, which is to say, good company.
Then it’s Sammy Sosa at 60.1, and Fred McGriff at 56.9, followed by Jeff Kent at 56.1 and Vladimir Guerrero at 54.3.
And here we are at Jim Rice.
Rice joined the Hall in ’09 despite a career value of just 50.8 fWAR, riding a surge of east-coast voter sentiment and a memorable peak value in his three best years in the late 1970s. He couldn’t field or run the bases, and was all but worthless after turning 33. He’s not the worst modern Hall-of-Famer (with that distinction likely belonging to Lou Brock and his 43.2 fWAR, 167 errors and the lowest fielding percentage of any qualified left fielder ever, in because he accrued enough of two of the counting stats, even if we now know better about how to value total hits and steals), but his presence means others now can point to him.
If you have been counting names, you’ll notice we have still accounted for just twelve on this year’s ballot. Eligible player #13 has 50.7 fWAR, just a 10th of a win less than Rice. He had considerably more value as a defender and baserunner, boasting eight different 4-win seasons to Rice’s six. He is Mike Cameron, nobody’s idea of a Hall-of-Famer and merely the latest illustration of a Jim Rice problem that is not going away.