My Hypothetical 2024 Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot
Cases for and rankings of 17 worthy Cooperstown candidates
I write a lot about the National Baseball Hall of Fame. About the quirks of the selection process. About the retroactive moralizing applied to players of the Steroid Era, and the precedent it establishes for setting future ahistorical standards. About the surprisingly deleterious effect that secret ballots have on the Baseball Writers Association of America’s decisions. Yet I am not a member of the BBWAA, so I don’t have an actual say in who gets into Cooperstown.
Still, with voting underway for the 2024 Hall of Fame class, it seemed only fair to put my money where my mouth is. So for the second year in a row, I sat down to detail who I think is worthy and, just as importantly, why.
To start us off on the same page, here is a quick summary of how I evaluate players in the Cooperstown context (as explained in greater detail here):
I am a so-called Big Haller who looks for reasons to put players in, not to keep them out. Historic greatness in a single area of the game is enough for me even if the player’s other credentials fall short.
I make no distinction between Hall-worthy and first-ballot-worthy candidates. If my ballot actually counted, I might prioritize players whom I expect to finish close to 75 percent (the threshold for election) or 5 percent (necessary to remain eligible for next year) over those for whom my vote would not change the outcome, but that feels obnoxious for this exercise.
I consider known or credibly accused uses of performance-enhancing drugs as a minor factor in ranking players, akin to considering Todd Helton’s power numbers in the context of the thin air of Colorado, but I consider it ahistorical to withhold induction from those who took PEDs.
I believe there is a line of personal conduct, including (but not limited to) domestic and sexual violence, beyond which it is irresponsible and hurtful to honor someone with the pomp and circumstance of an induction ceremony.
You may not agree with these premises, in which case you will probably disagree with my Cooperstown picks. But if these sound like reasonable starting points, I hope I can convince you that each of the players below has a Hall-worthy résumé.
Content warning: domestic and sexual violence
Of the 26 candidates on this year’s ballot, I believe 17 deserve a spot in the Hall of Fame based solely on their athletic accomplishments. As mentioned above — and in the Hall of Fame’s rules, which include “integrity” and “character” among the selection criteria — I also consider off-field behavior. This gets uncomfortably murky very quickly. Most fans I know would be squeamish about honoring Omar Vizquel. But what about Curt Schilling, who has never committed violence but is an infamous bigot, defrauded the state of Rhode Island, and advocated killing journalists? I’ll lay down a marker now that, when Clayton Kershaw’s time for Cooperstown comes, his dog-whistle pushback to the Dodgers’ Pride Night this summer should be a relevant consideration under the so-called “character clause.”
At what point does being a jerk or holding disagreeable values become disqualifying for enshrinement? Reasonable people can disagree, and change their minds, about where they draw that line.
So I’m sticking with the approach I took last year: Below you will find my list of the 17 players I would support if I both had unlimited votes and knew nothing about them off the field, roughly in order of their respective character-agnostic worthiness. (I’m not going too far in-depth because we have a lot of players to get through.) I will also mention anything that might give you pause about them as people and let you decide how much it bothers you. You can consider the first 10 players to be my pre-character-clause endorsees, and replace anyone who doesn’t meet your moral standards with the next-highest player from the latter group. To be clear, there are multiple players discussed below whose personal conduct I believe should be disqualifying for Cooperstown, but rather than argue with you about such not-fun subjects I will let you make those calls for yourself.
1. Álex Rodriguez
696 home runs. 3,115 hits. Three Most Valuable Player awards, two Gold Gloves, 10 Silver Sluggers, and 14 All-Star selections. Rodriguez reset the market for free agent contracts in 2000, then broke his own record seven years later. He is the best infielder since before integration, if not ever. Candidacies like A-Rod’s (not that there are many) aren’t meant to be debated. They should be assumed.
Yet here he is on his third ballot, having received less than half the requisite 75 percent for induction on his first two tries, because of his recurring use of PEDs. I go back and forth on whether his conduct in contesting his Biogenesis-scandal suspension — which legitimately reflected poorly on both him and the game, and also was his collectively bargained right to appeal a severe and hardly impartial punishment — is at least an admissible consideration for keeping him out. I’m certain that attributing his historic achievements primarily to steroids is ridiculous, unless your understanding of biomechanics comes from Popeye. My theory is that his heretofore-exclusion is largely about personal distaste. Between his contract sizes, his diva persona, and his playing for the Yankees, Rodriguez is one of the sport’s all-time-great heels. The hardline anti-PED argument is easier to buy if you don’t like the player you’re applying it to.
2. Manny Ramírez
If you are a thousand words deep into an essay about baseball, you probably don’t need me to tell you how good of a hitter Ramírez was. In his youth with Cleveland, the linchpin of the last MLB team to score 1,000 runs; as a veteran in Boston, where he teamed with David Ortiz to power the Red Sox to two World Series championships in four years; his revival in Los Angeles, where he hit a bonkers .396/.489/.743 and finished fourth for MVP in a league where he played only a third of the season. His .996 career OPS is the highest for a right-handed hitter since integration, and his 29 career playoff homers (on top of the 555 he hit during the regular season) are an MLB record. Even acknowledging how much of his offensive value he gave back with his defensive ineptitude, his omission from the Hall after seven attempts is glaring.
As with A-Rod, the main thing keeping Ramírez out of Cooperstown is his connection to PEDs. He was suspended for violating the Joint Drug Agreement twice, in 2009 and 2011; he also reportedly tested positive in a non-punitive, (theoretically) anonymous league survey in 2003. A trendy compromise view on PEDs in the Hall is to admit candidates who allegedly doped before it was punishable, like Ortiz, but bar players who were disciplined for it, as Ramírez was twice. However, this logic elides the fact that Ramírez (and Rodriguez) were given limited-duration suspensions, not lifetime bans. I don’t buy that the voters should be stricter on steroids than the league itself is. A better reason for retroactive moralizing is his 2011 arrest for domestic violence, an event that had so little impact on his public legacy that I honestly had completely forgotten about it by the time I wrote about him last year.
3. Billy Wagner
Over the last century of Major League Baseball, 1,115 pitchers have thrown at least as many innings as the 903 Wagner compiled in his 16-year career. Of those thousand-odd players, Wagner leads them all in strikeout rate — and not by a little. On a per-nine-innings basis, his 11.9 K/9 is almost a whole strikeout over second-place Blake Snell’s 11.1. As a raw percentage of batters faced, his 33 percent strikeout rate puts him two full points above his closest competitor, Jacob deGrom (31 percent). His .184 batting average against is a similarly singular accomplishment, besting the next-lowest (Nolan Ryan’s .200) by 16 points. His 2.31 ERA trails only Mariano Rivera’s. And he did this at the height of the Steroid Era, when the run environment was high and the baseline strikeout rate was much lower than it is today.
Reasonable people can disagree about where the bar should be for relievers in the Hall of Fame. It’s easier to throw one or two innings at a time than six or seven, and putting Wagner’s accomplishments up against those of, say, ballot-mate Bartolo Colón — who pitched nearly quadruple as many innings — is comparing apples and oranges. But this debate is a distraction from the matter at hand. Pitch for pitch, Wagner’s left arm (not his natural throwing side!) may be the most-dominant in baseball history. As he enters his penultimate year of eligibility, here’s hoping the voters wise up soon.
4. Adrián Beltré
He made it to the big leagues as a teenager. Twenty one years, 3,166 hits, five Gold Gloves, and darn near 500 homers later, Beltré retired as one of the league’s elder statesmen. Once dismissed as a flash in the pan, he proved to be one of the most-resilient and -consistent hitters of my lifetime. His defense might be second only to Brooks Robinson’s in the annals of great third basemen. And he did it with a smile, always playing hard while clearly having fun on the field.
Beltré is the clearest-consensus candidate to debut on ballot since Derek Jeter in 2020. I’m not sure what the argument against him would even be. He was underrated for much of his career, but his reaching 3,000 hits should render any skepticism about his credentials moot. Many suspected his 48-homer breakout in 2004 was fueled by steroids, but even if the evidence were more than circumstantial there is precedent for affable athletes to overcome early-career doping allegations if they played cleanly afterwards (see David Ortiz). It will be a profound disappointment if he does not get in on his first try.
5. Andruw Jones
On Jones’ 30th birthday, he was in the midst of his 12th MLB season and had 345 home runs to his name. He had averaged six wins above replacement per year from ages 20 through 29 and was on his way to his tenth straight Gold Glove. Had he retired then, he would have already been Cooperstown-worthy in my book, if for no other reason than (by both the eye test and the available rudimentary historical fielding metrics) he is in the conversation with the likes of Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays as the best defensive outfielder of all time.
Alas, Jones got just 7 percent support when he debuted on the ballot in 2018 because of how quickly his performance fell off from there. His physical decline cost him his consistency at the plate and his dynamism in the outfield. This protracted, early-onset career denouement looms large in how he is remembered. In addition, his offensive numbers were not superlative for his era (Jones never had a season with an OPS within 70 points of Ramírez’ for his whole career) especially for someone often speculated to have taken steroids. Voters are slowly coming around to appreciating his onetime greatness, as his support octupled to 58 percent by 2023. However, this rightful movement to take his on-field legacy seriously should also apply to the brutal domestic violence incident for which Jones was arrested in 2012.
6. Gary Sheffield
Today bat speed is valued more than ever before. It’s a shame we can’t retroactively measure how hard Sheffield swung, because by all accounts his bat speed was at the top of the scale. His violent swing carried him through a lengthy run as one of the game’s most-feared hitters, sustaining a terrific 153 wRC+ over a fourteen-year stretch from 1992-2005. He may not have reached the heights of some of his contemporaries’ peaks, but scant few players have hit as well as Sheffield did for as long as he did it. Did I mention he hit 509 home runs?
Playing in the shadow of Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds is part of why Sheffield is still on the ballot for his 10th and final try. PEDs surely also play a role: he admitted to taking steroids to recover from knee surgery, and was rumored to have used them far more extensively than that. His many potential character-clause violations include an assault charge, saying Latino players are easier to “control” than Black athletes, and fighting a fan in the middle of a play.
7. Chase Utley
Over the last 30 years, only four hitters have managed five consecutive seasons that FanGraphs graded at seven WAR or better: Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, and Utley. Go back to integration and you add only Henry Aaron, Wade Boggs, Willie Mays, and Joe Morgan. Before them? Just Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer, Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth, and Honus Wagner. I fear Utley’s image as fan favorite and wily veteran has ironically clouded memories of just how excellent he was; certainly debuting on the ballot alongside Beltré and Joe Mauer does him no favors. Between his potent bat, his great defense up the middle, and his characteristic baserunning skill beyond mere speed, Utley had the kind of peak reserved for inner-circle Hall of Famers, then continued to play at a high level for several more years. The Plaque Gallery (hopefully) awaits him.
8. Joe Mauer
Ten years into his career, Mauer had a career OPS+ of 135. He was fresh off his sixth All-Star selection and fifth Silver Slugger to go along with his three Gold Gloves and MVP trophy. And he did it while battling recurring injuries, stealing strikes well (seen as a good thing, for now), and playing the most-grueling position on the diamond. Per Jay Jaffe’s WAR7 metric, it was one of the five best peaks ever while donning the tools of ignorance. Given how stingy the BBWAA is with catchers, Mauer’s case may hinge on whether voters ding him for his subsequent move to first base and offensive decline, or if they consider where his stats would have ended up if not for the concussion that derailed his career. The counterfactual shouldn’t matter. He played well enough for long enough that his enshrinement ought to be a mere formality.
9. Carlos Beltrán
The consummate five-tool player and one of the most-dynamic athletes of his generation, Beltrán got to the big leagues as a speedy center fielder and stayed there for 20 years because of his bat. His combination of power and speed is rare in baseball history, with only four players topping both his 435 homers and 312 stolen bases: Barry Bonds, Andre Dawson, Willie Mays, and Alex Rodriguez. Only Bonds, his father Bobby, and Bobby Abreu (more on him in a moment) had more 20-20 seasons than Beltrán’s seven. The path to the Hall is notoriously difficult in center field — per Adam Darowski’s Hall Rating, it’s tied with third base for the most deserving hitters who have been kept out of Cooperstown for non-PED-related reasons — but in getting 47 percent of the vote on his first ballot last year, voters are at least taking Beltrán more seriously than one-and-done snubs Jim Edmonds and Kenny Lofton.
The main issue for Beltrán is his role in the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal at the end of his career. Depending on whose story you believe, Beltrán was allegedly the ringleader of the Astros’ illegal surveillance operation, in which case it’s easy to see his cheating as more-egregious and -damaging to the game than the umpteenth player getting busted for PEDs. On other hand, Beltrán did not obviously benefit from the scheme, the league did not punish any players for it, and Commissioner Rob Manfred’s reflex to downplay the scandal rather than seek accountability evokes my own argument for letting steroid users into the Hall. I currently lean towards voting for him, as I did last year, but I’ve talked myself into and out of that several times in the intervening months.
10. Todd Helton
Manning the easiest position in the field, calling the thin air of Coors Field home, playing your career in the peak Steroid Era: each of these factors invites greater scrutiny for one’s offensive accomplishments. Any two in combination sets the bar for Cooperstown extremely high. Check off all three and you get Helton, who may be held to a tougher standard as a hitter than any other candidate in the history of the Hall — yet he clears it. One of the best pure hitters of his generation with a knack for getting on base, in the five-year stretch from 2000-04 he hit .349/.450/.643 while averaging 90 extra-base hits a season and winning three Gold Gloves. His support has already surged from 16 percent in his 2019 ballot debut to 72 percent in 2023, hopefully priming him for election in 2024.
We have now exhausted our character-agnostic 10-vote limit. Yet at least for me, there are some players above for whom the personal honor of an Induction Weekend would be more offensive than a missing bust in the Plaque Gallery. Since there are seven more candidates who I think are worthy of the Hall, let’s go through the others:
11. Omar Vizquel
Infielders Brandon Phillips and José Reyes, both eligible for the first time, are such fringe candidates that I had forgotten they were even on the ballot until I wrote this blurb. Each has more than 50 points of career OPS on Vizquel. I’m under no illusions that he would be one of the worst overall players in the Hall of Fame, but I long maintained that he deserved enshrinement regardless of his mediocre offensive performance, in recognition of being one of the consensus greatest defenders in the history of baseball. Unfortunately he would lower down the Cooperstown standard not just with his bat but his character, as the last few years have brought accusations of committing both domestic abuse and recurring sexual and ablist harassment.
12. Bobby Abreu
It’s easy to see why Abreu was underrated in his day. He was a corner outfielder at the height of the Steroid Era who topped out at 31 homers. His best skill was his plate discipline, which the industry did not properly value until the tail end of his career. He is unfairly remembered more for playing well for a long time than for ever being great. But even under that premise his consistency was remarkable: The only other players to reach 585 PAs and an .815 OPS 12 years in a row (as Abreu did from 1998-2009) are Henry Aaron, Lou Gehrig, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Albert Pujols, and Paul Waner. Abreu is the only player not named Bonds to notch nine separate 20-20 seasons or go 15-15 in 13 (or 12, or 11, or 10) consecutive years. He faces a tall task of gaining traction amid a backlog of snubbed candidates whose greatness needs less explanation, but he could position himself well for a future Eras Committee selection if he builds on his existing 15 percent support in the coming years.
13. and 14. Mark Buehrle and Andy Pettitte
If they had pitched in a different era, Buehrle and Pettitte (whom I am lumping in together here, as the arguments for them are very similar) would not be serious candidates for Cooperstown. Only one Hall of Fame pitcher has a worse ERA than Buehrle’s 3.81 and Pettitte’s 3.85 — Jack Morris at 3.90 — and each pitched fewer innings than the average inductee. The flipside is that a pitcher of these southpaws’ caliber would have put up better numbers a few decades earlier. The average league ERA in years when at least one of Buehrle or Pettitte pitched was 4.30. By comparison, the typical ERA over Morris’ career was 3.91. And while their workloads weren’t superlative historically, both were reliable innings-eaters by today’s standards. Someday the voters will have to adjust their expectations to reflect how the game has evolved. That reckoning may arrive too late for Buehrle (who got 11 percent of the vote on his third try last year) and Pettitte (17 percent on his fifth ballot).
Picking between these two is tough, but will ultimately be necessary for my ballot. Buehrle, a four-time Gold Glove winner, gets bonus points for being one of the consensus best-fielding pitchers of his era. Pettitte gets extra credit for his extensive postseason experience, including the most wins (19) and innings (276.2) in playoff history. The tiebreaker for me is Pettitte’s acknowledged use of human growth hormone. I don’t believe taking HGH should be disqualifying for Cooperstown, but if there’s room for only one of them on my ballot, I’m choosing the guy who (so far as I’ve ever heard) played fully clean.
15. Bartolo Colón
I’m as surprised as you are that I consider Colón Hall-worthy. His overall stats probably fall short, and regular readers know that I’m not a member of his personality cult. Yet the more I sat with this ballot, the more convinced I became that he is vital to the story of the game. Colón arrived as a phenom flamethrower. Two decades later he had lost his velocity, but was still getting outs in the big leagues by filling up the zone with not-very-fast fastballs, an evolution directly opposite to how the industry had moved in that time. Just two years after winning the Cy Young, Colón had to settle for his first minor-league free agent deal, often a sign that a veteran player’s career is near its end. He ended up pitching in the Majors for over another decade. Despite his teddy bear reputation, his integrity is not above reproach — his suspension for taking synthetic testosterone and his maintaining and then not supporting a secret second family could each be disqualifying under various interpretations of the character clause — but he gets bonus points for charting arguably the most-fascinating career trajectory of my lifetime. That puts him over the top for me.
16. Francisco Rodríguez
My feelings about Rodríguez are similar to those on Vizquel: I earnestly believe in the contrarian case for his enshrinement, but in light of his personal conduct (in this case, multiple incidents of domestic violence) I am not enthusiastic about making it. The short version is that he holds the single-season record for saves (62), ranks fourth in career saves (437), and trails only Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax in batting average allowed (.205) in at least as many career innings. When Rodríguez finished his career, he was tied for the second-highest strikeouts per nine innings (10.5) among pitchers with as much or more innings bulk — there’s a reason a guy whose first name starts with F came to be called “K-Rod.” If you accept the premise that modern closers are worth inducting, has to be on the radar.
17. José Bautista
If a writer gets through the serious candidates without using their full 10-vote allotment — clearly not a problem I would have — sometimes they’ll check off an extra name or two as a downballot salute. I don’t think David Wright or Jimmy Rollins are quite Hall material but I’d support keeping their candidacies alive. Matt Holliday and Adrián González are closer to the Cooperstown line than most fans give them credit for. I’m rooting for Víctor Martínez to get at least one throwaway vote. Yet the fringe candidate I can’t bring myself to omit from my hypothetical list is Bautista.
Only seven players in MLB history have had back-to-back seasons with 43 or more homers and a .995 OPS or better in at least 655 plate appearances: Henry Aaron, Jimmie Foxx, Frank Howard, Mark McGwire, Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth…and Bautista. Is that statistic cherry-picked up the wazoo? You betcha. But it helps illustrate just how fearsome Bautista’s bat was after his unlikely mid-career breakout. Over a seven-year stretch from 2010-16, he led the Majors in home runs and was a top-five hitter by both OPS and wRC+. Heck, I’d put him in just for pulling off the most-iconic bat flip in the game’s history. You can’t tell the story of baseball without Joey Bats.
This brings us to decision time. I am willing to vote for Rodriguez, Sheffield, and (with reservations) Beltrán despite their varying levels of cheating. While I respect those who can compartmentalize such things while still taking them seriously, my hard lines against domestic violence and sexual assault preclude me from supporting Jones and Ramírez, as well as my top alternate, Vizquel. So I will add Abreu and Buehrle to the rest of my top ten.
Who would make your ballot?
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