The best player not in the Baseball Hall of Fame at every position


The Hall of Fame has been at a crossroads for more than a decade now due to uncertainty on how to consider what I call the PED Five, which sounds like an outlaw gang that used to rob stagecoaches and saloons in Dodge City: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro. A group that has now been extended to also include Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez.

To make the Hall of Fame debates even more disorienting, in recent years the various veterans committees have grown exceedingly — what’s the right term here? — magnanimous in their selections. Don’t get me wrong, Jack Morris, Lee Smith, Harold Baines, Jim Kaat, Tony Oliva and Gil Hodges were all excellent ballplayers and it will be especially enjoyable to see Kaat and Oliva, both in their 80s, get enshrined this summer. It’s also fair to say that none of these players raised the overall level of the Hall of Fame. Kaat has the highest career WAR of that group at 50.5 — a total exceeded by 18 of the 30 players on this year’s ballot.

Before you jump on my case, no, it’s not the Hall of WAR. That’s just one barometer to consider, although career value and statistics have generally been the talking points for a player’s candidacy — not fame or popularity or even contributions made in the postseason.

In a sense, the lack of a clear bar has turned some fans off on the whole process, myself included. I’m still a couple years away from voting eligibility, but my general philosophy would be as follows:

(1) The Hall has elected Bud Selig, John Schuerholz, Pat Gillick, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Tony La Russa — all of whom enabled, ignored or simply didn’t care about PEDs in baseball. I don’t see how you can put Bud Selig in the Hall of Fame after he presided over the sport during the steroid era and not Barry Bonds.

(2) Does this player raise the average level of the Hall of Fame?

With that second factor in mind, there is one follow-up question to ask: Who is the best player at each position not currently in the Hall of Fame? Each candidate shouldn’t be analyzed in isolation. So let’s look at the best players not currently in Cooperstown at each position:

Catcher: Yadier Molina

When he’s likely to get in: 2029

Molina confirmed late last season that 2022 would be his final season, making him eligible for the 2028 ballot. I’m not sure he’s an automatic first-ballot selection, so I have him going in a year later.

Next in line: Joe Mauer, Buster Posey, Jorge Posada

Early in their careers, Mauer and Posey both looked like potential inner-circle Hall of Famers — elite offensive catchers with Gold Glove-caliber defense. Both won MVP Awards and Posey added three World Series championships his first five seasons with the Giants. Molina, meanwhile, looked like the next Tom Pagnozzi or Mike Matheny early on in St. Louis. He didn’t break out at the plate until well into his career and he’s remained one of the most durable backstops of all time. Indeed, he’s caught more games than Mauer and Posey combined — and Hall of Fame voters have long preferred longevity over peak value.

Including Posada, who has the best career counting stats of the group with 275 home runs and 1,065 RBIs, each player has a significant roadblock to overcome, however:

Molina: The worst hitter of the four, his career OPS+ of 97 means he’s been a below-average hitter over his career (not to mention his lack of speed on the bases).

Posey: I wrote about Posey’s Hall of Fame case when he retired back in November, but with just 1,371 career games he would easily have the shortest MLB career of any Hall of Fame position player since Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella.

Mauer: He has the highest career WAR of the four at 55.2, but played fewer than 50% of his career games at catcher.

Posada: He had a poor defensive reputation and his career WAR of 42.7 is hardly a separator.

One thing to keep in mind — the bar for Hall of Famers is different depending on your position. Catchers don’t play as many games, they get beat up, and so much of what they do isn’t captured in the stats that go into WAR (at least the Baseball-Reference version). If you don’t elect any of these four, you’ll go an entire post-Mike Piazza/Ivan Rodriguez generation without any Hall of Fame catchers, which doesn’t seem fair.

Mauer hits the ballot for the 2024 election and Posey in 2027, so it’s possible either or both get in before Molina, but I feel Molina is the best candidate, or at least the easiest for whom to forecast a path to Cooperstown. In a sense, Molina is the Ozzie Smith of catchers — maybe the best ever defensively at his position; it won’t matter that he wasn’t a great hitter and it’s clear WAR doesn’t tell the whole story of his value to the Cardinals. How about this: All three get elected the same year. As for Posada, he’s already off the ballot, so he would have to be a Veterans Committee selection (he should get in when Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera are on the committee).

What it means for the 2022 ballot: No effect. A.J. Pierzynski is the only catcher on the ballot.

First base: Albert Pujols

When he’s likely to get in: 2028

Pujols apparently wants to play in 2022 and given that he mashed against lefties in 2021 (.294/.336/.603), maybe some team gives him a chance as a platoon DH/bat off the bench. There isn’t much of a role for a player of that ilk in this era, but let’s say he gets in some games somewhere and then retires after the season, putting him on the 2028 ballot.

Next in line: Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, McGwire, Palmeiro, Keith Hernandez, Todd Helton, Dick Allen, Fred McGriff.

When Pujols left the Cardinals after the 2011, it appeared he would eventually pass Lou Gehrig as the greatest first baseman of all time and maybe even finish as one of the top 10 players. He was at 86.6 career WAR and entering his age-32 season, putting him 27.1 WAR behind Gehrig. Not a sure thing, but certainly doable. It didn’t happen, of course, and Pujols is at 99.6 WAR, still one of the top 20 or 25 players ever.

Note that I have Dick Allen way down the list here. There was much consternation when Allen fell one vote short of election in the recent Veterans Committee selection and, yes, Pujols, Cabrera and Votto are not yet eligible, but Allen isn’t clearly the best eligible first baseman not in. He had tremendous peak value as a hitter but a short career.

What it means for the 2022 ballot: It’s possible Helton beats Pujols to Cooperstown. He’s the only one of the above players currently on the ballot and polled at 44.9% last year. He should inch above 50% this year and then see more support as the ballot thins out with the removal of Bonds, Clemens, Schilling and Sosa after this vote.

Second base: Lou Whitaker

When he’s likely to get in: 2024

Whitaker criminally lasted just one year on the BBWAA ballot, receiving 2.9% of the vote in 2001. Modern analytics have helped create a better appreciation for his career value — 75.1 WAR. He should appear on his second Modern Era ballot in December of 2023, after receiving six votes from that committee in 2019, six short of the 12 needed (out of 16 voters).

Next in line: Robinson Cano, Bobby Grich, Willie Randolph, Chase Utley, Jeff Kent

Borderline Hall of Fame candidates generally fall into two categories: Those like Helton who have a short peak of dominance but not enough longevity, or those like Whitaker who were mostly pretty good for a long time but never dominant. Look at those recent Veterans Committee selections and you can see why Whitaker looks like a no-brainer to get elected next time around. Whitaker trumps all nine players selected since 2018 in career WAR, with only Alan Trammell, his old double-play mate with the Tigers, coming close, and he has that longevity that helps get Morris, Baines and Kaat elected.

Whitaker made the game look easy. He had no single outstanding skill but did everything well. He was overshadowed in his own time by Ryne Sandberg and then Roberto Alomar, but Whitaker actually has the highest career WAR and OPS+ (117 to Alomar’s 116 and Sandberg’s 114) of the three — which shows why offensive context is important (Alomar played in a higher run-scoring era, Sandberg at Wrigley Field).

What it means for the 2022 ballot: I’ve been surprised by Kent’s lack of support through the years — he’s the all-time leader in home runs by a second baseman, won an MVP Award and only Nap Lajoie and Rogers Hornsby drove in more runs — but despite the impressive power numbers he may be the sixth-best second baseman not currently in, which makes me a little less enthusiastic about his candidacy. Like Whitaker, Grich and Randolph are underrated, and Utley’s extremely high peak will make him an interesting candidate in a couple of years.

Third base: Adrian Beltre

When he’s likely to get in: 2024

With over 3,000 hits, 477 home runs, 1,707 RBIs and five Gold Gloves, Beltre will be an easy first-ballot selection.

Next in line: Scott Rolen, Buddy Bell, Graig Nettles, Ken Boyer, Evan Longoria

There were a slew of very good, not-quite Hall of Fame third basemen who had their best years in the 1970s: Bell and Nettles, plus Sal Bando, Darrell Evans and Ron Cey. All have at least 53 career WAR, with Nettles at 67.9 and Bell at 66.3 thanks to outstanding defensive metrics. There has never been any groundswell of support for either. Boyer, the 1964 NL MVP, has appeared on many Veterans Committee ballots, including the most recent one, and fallen short time after time.

What it means for the 2022 ballot: Rolen is now on his sixth ballot after getting 52.9% last year. He will continue to climb to that 75% threshold for election. While he’s a strong candidate based on his excellent two-way game, it would help him if he can get in next year before Beltre hits the ballot as sometimes those head-to-head comparisons can halt a player’s progress. So it may be 2025 before he gets in, but I believe he does eventually make it.

Shortstop: Alex Rodriguez

When he’s likely to get in: Umm …

Rodriguez is currently polling at less than 50% on the public ballots. Like Bonds and Clemens, it appears we’re headed for a 10-year debate over his worthiness.

Next in line: Bill Dahlen, Jimmy Rollins, Omar Vizquel

Dahlen ranks ninth in WAR among shortstops — one spot of ahead of Jeter, not to suggest he deserves to go in more than Jeter. Nicknamed “Bad Bill” because of his tendency to get ejected from games (65 times as a player and manager), he was a solid two-way player, starting his career in 1891. Dahlen was on the latest Early Baseball ballot and received little support and his chance won’t come up again for another 10 years.

What it means for the 2022 ballot: Vizquel received 49.1% of the vote last year, but his support has cratered overnight in light of domestic violence accusations from his second wife and then a lawsuit filed in August by a former batboy of the Birmingham Barons accusing Vizquel of sexual harassment when Vizquel managed the team in 2019. (The White Sox investigated the accusations at the time and terminated their relationship with Vizquel.) The early returns for 2022, however, have Vizquel dropping all the way to 10%.

Vizquel was always a difficult candidate anyway — the winner of 11 Gold Gloves and the star of SportsCenter highlights for his web gems. He lasted forever, playing his last game at 45 and racking up 2,877 hits. His defensive metrics don’t quite match his reputation, leaving his career WAR at a sub-Hall standard of 45.6. With his support from the BBWAA apparently in ruins, Vizquel will eventually go to a Veterans Committee — and he’s certainly the type of player they have liked in the past. We’ll see how he’s viewed down the road.

Outfield: Barry Bonds, Mike Trout (!), Carlos Beltran

When they’re likely to get in: Not in 2022

Assuming Bonds falls short — while he’s currently at 80% on public ballots, that total is expected to dip well below 75% when all is said and done (he received 61% last year) — he immediately becomes eligible to be placed on the ballot decided by the Today’s Game committee that will meet in December. In fact, that could be an absolutely stacked ballot if the screening committee puts all these players on it (10 can appear): Not just Bonds, Clemens, Schilling and Sosa, but potentially McGwire and Palmeiro, plus other intriguing candidates including Kenny Lofton, Bernie Williams, McGriff and Kevin Brown.

As for Trout, he is, believe it or not, already 18th on the all-time WAR list among outfielders despite playing just 89 games over the past two seasons. He’s a lock whenever he retires and Beltran, who hits the ballot next year, could be a first-ballot selection as well after a well-rounded career that saw him become one of just 38 players with at least 1,500 runs and 1,500 RBIs.

Next in line: Manny Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, Dwight Evans, Reggie Smith, Andruw Jones, Gary Sheffield, Jim Edmonds, Bobby Abreu, Ichiro Suzuki, Sammy Sosa

Those 10 outfielders are ranked in order of career WAR, from 69.3 for Ramirez down to 58.6 for Sosa. Only Ichiro, however, is a clear bet to make it when he becomes Hall eligible in 2025. Lofton, Evans, Smith and Edmonds were on and quickly off the ballot, but all four deserve serious consideration. Those four are why I have problems advocating for Jones and Abreu — two favorites of the sabermetric community, but two borderline candidates even if you’re feeling generous.

Jones’ case is all about his defense. He won 10 straight Gold Gloves in center field, when he made the visual and statistical case that he was the best since Willie Mays — and maybe even better than Mays. He played shallow, he had amazing first-step instincts, and he made the famed Braves rotation better. He also hit 434 home runs, including a 51-homer season in 2005 when he finished second in the MVP voting. Those numbers, while impressive, came in an era when a lot of players were putting up even bigger numbers. Jones finished in the top 10 in his league in on-base percentage, slugging percentage or OPS just once — fifth in slugging in his 51-homer campaign. He collapsed at age 30, so his counting stats are short of typical standards for a Hall of Fame outfielder.

Abreu was undoubtedly one of the most underrated players of the past 25 years, with surprising speed despite his build. He was durable, hit for average (six .300 seasons), got on base thanks to his exceptional eye at the plate (.395 career OBP), drove in 100 runs eight times, stole 400 bases and was a solid right fielder — at least early in his career. Again, however, Abreu’s peak came during the extreme offensive environment of the late ’90s and early 2000s. He made just two All-Star teams and never finished in the top 10 in the MVP voting. He had seven straight 5-WAR seasons from 1998 to 2004, but never a 4-WAR season after that. He’s your classic underappreciated candidate, but his case basically rests on that seven-year peak.

What it means for the 2022 ballot: The two to watch are Jones and Sheffield, both hovering just below 50%. History says once a player gets to 50% he eventually gets in. Sheffield is on his eighth ballot, however, so time is starting to run out on him, at least for the BBWAA portion of this exercise. Ramirez continues to linger in PED purgatory while Abreu is in the low teens, enough to remain on the ballot, but he needs to start showing progress.

Starting pitcher: Roger Clemens

When he’s likely to get in: Umm …

Keep this in mind: the veterans committee has already rejected McGwire on more than one occasion. Granted, Bonds and Clemens were vastly superior players, arguably the best position player and pitcher ever, but the Hall of Fame players who usually make up half of the 16 electors seem to be a resounding “no” on PED users.

Next in line: Justin Verlander, Curt Schilling, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Kevin Brown, CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, David Cone

Four pitchers:

Pitcher A: 213-155, 3.33 ERA, 125 ERA+, 3473 IP, 66.4 WAR

Pitcher B: 203-105, 3.38 ERA, 131 ERA+, 2749 IP, 65.4 WAR

Pitcher C: 211-144, 3.28 ERA, 127 ERA+, 3256 IP, 68.2 WAR

Pitcher D: 219-132, 3.41 ERA, 123 ERA+, 3110 IP, 68.0 WAR

Pitcher A is John Smoltz (elected on first ballot). Pitcher B is Roy Halladay (elected on first ballot). Pitcher C is Brown (lasted one ballot). Pitcher D is Greinke (could be elected on first ballot).

What it means for the 2022 ballot: Schilling reached 71% last year and frankly should have been elected five years ago, before he lit his own case on fire. He asked to be removed from this year’s ballot, was denied, and now looks like he’s going to see his percentage decrease. Schilling is clearly above the line for a Hall of Fame pitcher, especially when considering his postseason record (11-2, 2.23 ERA over 133 innings). I do think the Today’s Game committee puts him in — perhaps in December.

Relief pitcher: Billy Wagner

When he’s likely to get in: 2025

He’s now on his seventh ballot and trending slightly upward, but still sitting at around 50%. Maybe he gets that final-ballot push in 2025.

Next in line: Joe Nathan, Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen

Nathan is on his first ballot and while his career is pretty similar to Wagner’s, it looks like he won’t get the 5% needed to remain on the ballot. Kimbrel’s Hall of Fame chances appeared shot until rebounding in 2021. He’s now ninth on the all-time saves list, with several of the most dominant relief seasons of the modern closer era, but the knock against Wagner is that he has just 903 career innings and Kimbrel is way behind him at 628. Heck, Schilling threw over 500 innings in just the 2001-02 seasons alone.

What it means for the 2022 ballot: If Wagner can get to 50%, I like his chances, especially with the overall quality of the ballot declining with the removal of Bonds, Clemens, Schilling and Sosa (and possibly Ortiz, if he gets in). The fewer candidates the better for a borderline player like Wagner. Remember, voters generally want to elect players: While the BBWAA may throw that shutout, the average ballot so far contains 7.8 votes — the voters just can’t agree on which players.

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