Some thoughts on this year’s ballot, which produced one inductee, Scott Rolen.
(1) Rolen is a classic gray zone candidate for the HOF. He’s a guy who was an excellent player for a long time, without ever really being one of the very top players in the game. As a lifelong Detroit Tigers fan, I’m struck by the extent to which, in terms of player value, he’s almost exactly the same player as Lou Whitaker: Rolen had a career WAR of 70.1 and a WAA (this stat just tosses out all of a player’s career that wasn’t above the level of a solid starter) of 44.0; Sweet Lou’s comparable numbers are 75.1 and 42.7. Rolen’s peak was very slightly higher and Whitaker’s career value was very slightly greater, but really they’re pretty much the same player.
Rolen’s performance on the HOF ballot is interesting in that he got little support right off the bat, being named on just 10.2% of the ballots in 2018 — you need 5% just to stay on the ballot — but then seeing support very quickly build to be elected in his sixth year of eligibility. Whitaker got 2.9% in his first season, which was truly ridiculous for somebody who at the time was one of the top 50 position players of all time in terms of career value. He’s since been snubbed by the same Veterans Committee that thought it was a good idea to put Harold Baines — WAA 1.9 (!!) — in the Hall, so it’s not just racism, you kneejerk wokesters. (It is some racism though. Speaking of comps the two most similar players in major league history in every relevant respect are Whitaker and his keystone partner Alan Trammell, who got lots of support in the regular HOF voting and then was duly put in by the Veterans Committee, as indeed he should have been).
So Rolen and Whitaker are the kind of players who clearly shouldn’t be in the HOF if you believe in some sort of “greatest players of all time” standard. This is the sort of standard that fans are alluding to when they say things like “my idea of a Hall of Fame player is Willie Mays.” I mean that’s fine, but also if that’s your idea of a Hall of Fame player there would be like 20 players in the Hall of Fame.
(2) One of the peculiarities of major league history is the almost complete absence of great players at third base for the first 75 years of that history. Really the only third baseman prior to Eddie Mathews who could be considered a great player, even loosely speaking, was Home Run Baker, ahd he had a pretty short career. This makes it all the more striking that Mathews, who at the time he retired after the 1968 season was the best third baseman in the history of the game by a truly enormous margin, got only 32% in his first year on the HOF ballot five years later. It took him five tries to get in, i.e., just one fewer than Rolen. This was probably because Mathews had all his greatest seasons in the earlier part of his career, and also spent almost all his time in the majors being overshadowed by an even greater player on his own team, Hank Aaron. But Mathews was 97% the player Mike Schmidt would later be, and Schmidt went in almost unanimously on the first ballot, as of course he should have. The politics of glory are complicated.
(3) I’m genuinely puzzled by the refusal of this generation of baseball writers to put Alex Rodriguez in the Hall of Fame. I understand the moral panic that broke out when all the Barry Bonds/Roger Clemens revelations came out 15-plus years ago now, but aren’t we past that? Apparently not.
I don’t necessarily want to rehash the whole steroids thing, but I can’t help but note that the conventional wisdom about who was and wasn’t using steriods is almost completely arbitrary, besides a handful of the most obvious cases. My sincere and prayerful hope is that St. Jeter of Playing the Game the Right Way is revealed at some point to have juiced it up, and we can then grant a general indulgence to that entire generation.