Baseball Hall of Fame 2024: TSN’s Ryan Fagan explains change in Cooperstown voting philosophy

My Baseball Hall of Fame ballot explanation column is a bit different than years past. Last year, following my own little tradition, I wrote extensively about the six players I voted for and even more about 10 who warranted consideration but did not get a vote. 

This year, I want to have a conversation about the ballot, and how it reflects the changes in baseball. I’ve had the honor and privilege of voting for the Hall seven previous times, starting with the Class of 2017. There’s no reason Tim Raines should have had to wait as long as he did, but I’ll always relish the fact that my first ballot helped get him into Cooperstown. 

Filling out my ballot for the Class of 2024 was the toughest yet. That knot in my stomach that builds when I start my ballot research was much more intrusive than usual the last few weeks of December. If I’m being honest, I even considered sitting out this year, because this particular crop of players has forced me to reexamine my entire approach to voting. 

That change, which I’ll get to in a moment, has left me with 12 players I would vote for if this was a true yes/no ballot. It’s not, of course. We are only allowed to vote for 10 players, so decisions had to be made. Here are the players I would like to vote for this year: Bobby Abreu, Carlos Beltran, Adrian Beltre, Mark Buehrle, Todd Helton, Andruw Jones, Joe Mauer, Andy Pettitte, Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield, Chase Utley and Billy Wagner. 

Two have to sit out a year. I’m not leaving off anyone even remotely close to 75 percent (the number required for induction) or 5 percent (the threshold for staying on the ballot), using the essential tracker run by Ryan Thibodaux and his crew as a guide. That means Beltre, Beltran, Buehrle, Helton, Jones, Mauer, Pettitte, Sheffield and Wagner stay. At the time I filled out my ballot, both Ramirez and Utley were polling in the 40s — very safe, but not close to Cooperstown — so I dropped them this time instead of Abreu, who was in the low 20s. I will vote for them when space allows, or if they get close to election.

Ryan Fagan’s 2024 Hall of Fame ballot
Bobby Abreu
Carlos Beltran
Adrian Beltre
Mark Buehrle
Todd Helton
Andruw Jones
Joe Mauer
Anddy Pettitte
Gary Sheffield
Billy Wagner

Now, let’s get to that conversation. 

Above all, I’ve tried to be consistent with my vote, year to year. That’s a challenge, because every ballot is unique and every player’s Cooperstown resume is unique. There are no catch-all voting philosophies, unless that standard is “Was this guy as good as Ted Williams?” 

But that’s not what the Hall actually is, really.

With the travesty of one-and-done players like Kenny Lofton, Jim Edmonds and Ted Simmons always on my mind, I’ve used a spot on my ballot to help get players over the 5 percent bar, to keep them in the conversation. Sometimes that’s worked — Scott Rolen was around 10 percent on the tracker when I dropped my Class of 2018 ballot off at the post office; he survived and was elected to the Hall in 2023. Sometimes it hasn’t worked — that same year, I was one of only 10 people who voted for two-time Cy Young winner Johan Santana. 

There are first-timers with outstanding careers on this Class of 2024 ballot, but none with resumes that quite fit the “I can’t believe that guy dropped off the ballot!” profile. 

I’ve voted for those with PED connections, almost without exception. For guys like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, their alleged transgressions happened when baseball — including Hall of Fame commissioner Bug Selig — basically turned a blind eye. What’s the difference between Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez, who had PED issues after testing was fully implemented? On the surface, maybe not much. Ramirez tested positive twice, but at 37 and 39, long after his Hall resume was secure. A-Rod, on the other hand, has admitted that he cheated twice, including three years during the peak of his career, from 24 to 26. And the lengths he went to in an effort to cover up those transgressions, especially with the Biogenesis debacle? His case reaches a whole new level, and to me that’s the separation between the two. 

I have voted for Ramirez, and will again in the future. I have not voted for Rodriguez, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Aside from those two, Sheffield is the only person linked to PEDs, and it’s a flimsy link, at best. I’ve voted for Sheffield every time I’ve had room on my ballot. He belongs.

I’ve voted for players who had long and productive careers, like Abreu and Buehrle. I abhor the “compiler” dismissal of players of their ilk, as if consistent excellence over a long period of time is something to be discarded.

There’s still a standard to reach, of course, something exceptional needed. For example, I would not have voted for Harold Baines, who was inducted by a veterans committee. But Abreu is one of only three players with at least 275 homers, 400 stolen bases and a career on-base percentage of .395, right there with Rickey Henderson and Barry Bonds. And among his other numbers, Buehrle is the only pitcher in MLB history with at least 3,000 innings, at least 55 pickoffs (he had 100!) and a BB/9 of 2.0 or better. Exceptional. 

So, finally, let’s get to the dilemma caused by this year’s ballot. 

I have not voted for Todd Helton and Andruw Jones in the past (breakdowns here). Both were elite during basically their first decade in the bigs, but their production dropped off significantly in the last third of their careers. They were essentially shadows of their former selves. That’s been the difference. Even with open spots on my 10-man ballot, I have passed on the duo. In my mind, they’re linked. Either you vote for both or you vote for neither. 

But now, along comes the Class of 2024 ballot. Beltre, of course, is an easy yes. Long, productive career as an elite, inner-circle third baseman. The good folks in Cooperstown probably started designing his plaque the moment he played his final game. 

Also on the ballot: Joe Mauer and Chase Utley. Here is where the knot forms. Their resumes are basically carbon copies of Helton and Jones. Unique in their own way, of course, but essentially the same — elite performers during their peak, with a peak that’s shorter than most Hall of Famers already in Cooperstown. David Wright sneaks into that conversation, too, though he played 273 fewer games than Mauer and 352 fewer than Utley. That’s not nothing, considering Utley and Mauer are already on the low end, so Wright doesn’t quite match up, even though he was brilliant when healthy. Injuries suck. 

And then you can’t help but look at future ballots, when you see high-peak, short(ish) career guys like Buster Posey and Dustin Pedroia, to name just a few. Feels like more than just a couple outliers, right? Maybe says something more about where the sport is today?

I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating for context: I wouldn’t hate it if Cooperstown was only inner-circle players. Instead of the 343 who have been elected, maybe only half would have gotten the call. Keep the plaque gallery reserved for players whose names are whispered in reverence. There would be only no-doubters, not “OK, I guess” guys. 

But that’s not what the Hall is. It’s not what the Hall has been, for decades and decades. And because nobody is getting booted — nor do I think they should — I see my responsibility as a voter as helping the Hall continue to enshrine the best players of the current era of baseball. And it’s becoming more and more clear that this era of baseball is not producing the same type of two-decades elite resumes — Willie Mays, Stan Musial, etc — as previous eras produced. So does nobody get in?

If we held that standard firm, who would have gotten in recently? From the Class of 2015 to the Class of 2023, 17 players were elected by the BBWAA, and another 14 people by various veterans committees. Of those 31, maybe only Ken Griffey Jr., Mariano Rivera, Jim Thome and Derek Jeter (and Marvin Miller) make the “inner circle” cut? 

Is that representing an era? Nope. The sport has changed, whether we like it or not. The Hall probably should, too. So, yeah, maybe it’s time (past time?) for a reevaluation of how I view my ballot. Other voters arrived at this point long before me, and others aren’t there. Lots never will be. That’s ok. 

There still have to be standards, of course. Not every player with a 12-year career and 6ish-year “peak” should be inducted. This year, that includes ballot newcomers like Jose Bautista, Matt Holliday and Adrian Gonzalez. Great players, no doubt, but not Hall of Famers. To get a ballot checkmark, the resume has to be extraordinarily unique or historically significant, with something to truly separate them from the pack. And with that Helton/Jones/Mauer/Utley quartet, each one brings that element to the equation. 

For Helton, it’s his hitting brilliance — for all the talk of his gaudy “Coors Field numbers,” his career road on-base percentage (.386) was basically equal to Tony Gwynn’s overall career OBP (.388). For Jones, it’s that truly breathtaking defense in center field in his 20s — it’s impossible to definitively determine the “best ever” but he’s certainly on the short list — along with a better-than-average bat that first decade. 

For Mauer, it’s recognizing that he did things offensively as a catcher we’ve rarely seen in the history of the sport, and that he was elite behind the plate defensively before concussions forced him to move to first base. For Utley, it’s accepting that a short but brilliant peak is probably enough — Utley, Rogers Hornsby and Eddie Collins are the only second basemen to have six consecutive seasons with a bWAR of 5.8 or higher — despite a career that started late and ended with injuries derailing his last several seasons. 

And with this reevaluation, it’s time for another look at relief pitchers. Until this year, I have only voted for one reliever, Mariano Rivera. For Billy Wagner, on the surface it was hard to get past the lack of innings — his 903 career innings is much lower than the next Hall of Famer on the list, Bruce Sutter (1,042). Obviously, Wagner retired when he was still elite, stepping away to spend time with his family, or he would have gotten closer to Sutter and the others. But let me be clear about this: I would not have changed my vote if he had pitched two or three more seasons. That was never the point. It’s always been about the limited role of a relief pitcher, specifically closers, and how few batters they face. 

Let’s look at that last year for Wagner in Atlanta, 2010. The lefty had a 1.43 ERA, with 37 saves in 44 opportunities, with 104 strikeouts in 69 1/3 innings. Great year for any closer, no doubt. Wagner recorded 208 outs. The Braves, as a complete pitching staff, recorded 4,318 outs (1,439 1/3 innings). What percent is 208 of 4,318? It’s 4.8 percent. Wagner, as an elite closer, had a direct impact on only 4.8 percent of the outs the Atlanta staff recorded that year. Important ninth-inning high-pressure outs, no doubt, but only 4.8 percent of the outs. 

The Braves let Kenshin Kawakami and his 5.15 ERA get 6.1 percent of their outs that year. And not that it’s a direct comparison, of course, but Erik Hinske scored 5.2 percent of Atlanta’s runs that year (38 of 738) and Alex Gonzales had 4.5 percent of the hits (64 of 1,411). 

This question has always bothered me, when it comes to the Hall: If they were truly Hall of Fame-elite, wouldn’t their teams have asked them to get more outs? Most of the relief pitchers already in the Hall fumbled their way into the closers role, failing as starters either in the minors or the majors, then being sent to the bullpen. Over the course of his career, Wagner was not a more important pitcher to his teams than, say, Ron Guidry, a four-time All-Star starting pitcher who never got more than 8.8 percent of the Hall of Fame vote in the nine years he stayed on the ballot. There’s a reason that most teams’ No. 4 starters make more — a lot more, typically — than their closers. 

The lack of innings/outs thing was especially driven home when Santana received basically no BBWAA support despite his two Cy Young awards and brilliant peak because of a “lack of innings” as a starter — 2,025 2/3, more than twice Wagner’s career total, with a career bWAR higher than both Sandy Koufax and Dizzy Dean, two other short-career Hall of Famers. 

But during this whole voting reevaluation, I realized maybe it’s time to take a full step back — I don’t want to be readjusting philosophies piece by piece, year after year — and understand I should place a little more value on the role that closers have played in baseball over the past few decades. They’re very important, no doubt. And shouldn’t the Hall represent that change in the game? 

Billy Wagner

Begrudgingly, I admit, probably so.

I’ll say this, though: For me, the bar for closers will always be so much higher than it is for other positions, because of their limited impact on a season. It’s not just about saves totals, but how they did what they did on the mound. As I’ve written in the past, I would have voted for Wagner before I voted for Hoffman, because dominance > longevity. Wagner’s rate numbers are pretty incredible, in any historical perspective. Doesn’t matter whether they’re traditional stats (ERA, WHIP, etc) or analytics (FIP, WAR, etc), Wagner was elite. 

So he gets my vote this year. But for me, he’s the bar. If you’re Wagner level or better, you’ll probably get my vote. If not, you won’t. Francisco Rodriguez does not reach that level. He has 15 more saves, yes, but his rate/analytic stats across the board fall short of Wagner. 

One other change to this year’s ballot: I’m voting for Andy Pettitte for the first time. His profile is so very similar to Buehrle’s, with both were right on the edge. In years past, Buehrle has just made it, Pettitte has just missed. With my reevaluation this year, though, both get a vote. 

So, that’s where I am, and that’s my ballot — all 10 spots filled for the first time in a couple years. Hopefully my explanation makes sense, even if you disagree (which I’m sure many of you will, as always). I will do my best to remain consistent going forward. 

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