My 2021 HOF ballot: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Todd Helton, Andy Pettitte, Manny Ramirez, Scott Rolen, Curt Schilling, Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa, Omar Vizquel.
Justin Verlander is the epitome of the next generation of starters heading toward the National Baseball Hall of Fame. By most measures he’s already there, despite the probability of missing most of the 2020 and 2021 seasons because of Tommy John ligament replacement surgery on his right elbow.
He has two Cy Young Awards, three no-hitters, an American League MVP award, 3,013 strikeouts and an MLB all-time 30th-best career WAR of 72.3.
But as far as traditional Hall of Fame counting stats are concerned, he’s not there. He has 226 wins, 26 complete games and has thrown 2,988 innings. He’ll be able, of course, to add to those numbers if he returns at full strength at age 39 in time for the 2022 season.
“Sure, I’ve thought about [getting into the Hall]. That’s been my dream since I was a little kid,” Verlander said a few years ago in an exclusive one-on-one interview. “You want to be great, you want to be great for a long time. There’s no better way to quantify that than to be in the Hall of Fame. I know there’s still work to be done, but voters are going to have to go less with the traditional numbers, specifically wins. Wins are going to be a tough one because of the way the game has changed.”
Comparatively, Clemens has 354 wins, 118 complete games, 4,916 2/3 innings pitched, 4,672 strikeouts and a 138.7 career WAR over the course of 24 seasons. Clemens has the third-highest all-time pitching WAR behind Cy Young (165.7) and Walter Johnson (151.9), who were long dead when that stat was invented.
Of course, because of the steroid discussion, Clemens has serious mitigating circumstances.
The current ballot facing eligible members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, due Dec. 31, already reflects the difficulty of selecting starting pitchers this year, and well into the future.
There are eight starters on the ballot, and I voted for the top three among the maximum of 10 slots for all players: Clemens, Pettitte and Schilling. All provide their own major issues, but statistically all belong in the Hall.
Clemens and Pettitte (like Bonds) are tainted by performance-enhancing drug use that was rife during the era in which they played. Schilling has been shunned because of his right-wing politics, which came to light since his career ended in 2007. Like Clemens and Bonds, he’s in the ninth of his 10 seasons of eligibility on the BBWAA ballot.
Schilling had 70% of the vote earlier this year, missing by 21 votes of the 299 necessary. Clemens fell 57 short, Bonds 58. Any candidate’s name needs to appear on 75% of the ballots to be elected.
Schilling has the best shot at it, but clearly, if neither he, Bonds nor Clemens gets in this year when there aren’t any viable first-year candidates, they will be hard-pressed to do so next year. That’s when Alex Rodriquez and David Ortiz appear for the first time, and the entire steroid controversy will rear its ugly head again.
Back to the discussion about starters: It won’t get any easier.
Fellow future active Hall of Fame candidates such as Zack Greinke (208 wins, 16 complete games, 67.1 WAR), Clayton Kershaw (175 wins, 25 complete games, 67 WAR) and Max Scherzer (175 wins, 11 complete games, 60.6 WAR) are in a lesser position to get in than Verlander.
“You’re looking at the writing on the wall before you even get there,” Verlander said. “Even the guys you’re saying should be surefire Hall of Famers, like Kershaw—when he’s done, his numbers and mine are not going to stack up the way you do your voting.”
Kershaw was also good enough to have a long conversation about this subject. How do we, as voters, elect this generation of elite starting pitching to the Hall of Fame?
“You’re going to have to adjust the way you view the numbers,” Kershaw said. “It’s up to you. We have no control over it.”
Verlander, Greinke, Kershaw and Scherzer are the top four in WAR among active pitchers. After that it basically falls off the cliff. Jon Lester, for example, is tied for 135th at 45. Lester is currently an active free agent.
The retired CC Sabathia (251 wins, 38 complete games, 3,093 strikeouts, 62 WAR) has the best long-term shot at the Hall when he becomes eligible along with Ichiro Suzuki in 2025.
It’s not as if BBWAA voters with more than 10 consecutive active years in the organization have treated starting pitchers with any consistency, anyway. For decades, the benchmark was 300 wins. Twenty-three of the 24 pitchers (sans Clemens) with 300 wins or more are all in the Hall. That standard, in the past, eliminated such now seemingly clear Hall of Famers as Tommy John (288) and Jim Kaat (283).
Even in this generation, it kept out Mike Mussina (270) until 2019, his sixth year on the BBWAA ballot.
From Nolan Ryan’s 1999 induction until Bert Blyleven in 2011, the BBWAA didn’t elect a single pure starting pitcher. Only Dennis Eckersley (197 wins, 390 saves) was elected in 2004 for his bifurcated career as a mediocre starter but lights-out closer.
From 2014 on, there’s been an avalanche of starters elected from the last generation, some of them with 300 wins.
In order, they include: Greg Maddux (355), Tom Glavine (305), Randy Johnson (303), Pedro Martinez (219, 86.1 WAR), John Smoltz (213 wins, 154 saves), Mussina and the late Roy Halladay (203 wins, 67 complete games, 65.4 WAR). Even the Modern Era Committee got into the act, electing Jack Morris (254 wins, 175 complete games, but a 43.6 WAR) in 2018, four years after he fell off the BBWAA ballot.
Johnson may be the last of the 300-win starters, having surpassed that figure in his final season of 2009, his only one with the San Francisco Giants.
As far as the current group of elite starters on the ballot is concerned, the Hall gives BBWAA voters precious little in the way of directions, but they do give us one: the so-called character clause.
“Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the teams(s) on which the player played.”
I’m not disposed to like Schilling’s politics, but I do like his 216 wins, 83 complete games, 3,116 strikeouts, 80.5 WAR, 11-2 postseason record, 2.23 ERA and three World Series titles for the teams(s) on which the player played.
The fact is that Clemens, like Bonds, was exonerated of perjury in federal court regarding PED use long after his career ended.
These pitchers were dominant in their era. They have the numbers. In the future, that evaluation will have to be different. A guy like Morris, for instance, may have been the best pitcher in the American League from 1979-92, but he had a 3.90 ERA over the course of his 18 seasons.
“I like the [best player in a] decade thing,” Verlander said. “If you’re the best player or one of the best of your time, you should be in.”
(This originally stated Verlander won Cy Young awards in both leagues. In fact, both were won in the American League, in 2011 and 2019.)