Rolen Into Cooperstown: BBWAA Voters Avoid Shutout

Dilip Vishwanat-USA TODAY Sports

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2023 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

There’s joy in Cooperstown after all. Amid considerable pessimism heading into Tuesday regarding the prospect of any candidate receiving at least 75% from the writers on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, Scott Rolen gained entry after all. The top returning candidate on this year’s ballot received 76.2% of the vote from the writers, thus completing one of the greatest comebacks in modern electoral history. When he debuted on the 2018 ballot, Rolen received just 10.2% of the vote; no other post-1966 candidate has rallied from such meager beginnings to cross the 75% threshold via the BBWAA voters.

A masterful, athletic defender with the physical dimensions of a tight end (he was listed at 6-foot-4, 245 pounds), Rolen excelled on both sides of the ball. The 1997 NL Rookie of the Year went on to make seven All-Star teams, earn eight Gold Gloves, and star for two pennant-winning Cardinals teams, with a World Series performance that helped the Redbirds win it all in 2006. He ranks third among third basemen in Baseball Reference’s version of fielding runs, and by most measures he also ranks among the position’s top 15 or 20 hitters. Even given that injuries significantly curtailed several of his seasons, and that he played his final game at age 37, that offense/defense combination is enough to place him 10th among third basemen in both career WAR (70.1) and JAWS (56.9).

This is the second year in a row that the writers have elected just one candidate, that after a record-setting surge of 22 players elected from 2014-20 and then a shutout in ’21. And it was a nail-biter. Rolen may not have the level of fame of the 2022-elected David Ortiz or the 2020-elected Derek Jeter, but bolstered by the advanced stats and the statheads themselves (ahem), he had increased his share of the vote in dramatic fashion during his time on the ballot, jumping from 17.2% in 2019 to 35.3% in ’20, then 52.9% in ’21 and 63.2% last year. Yet as recently as Monday, his odds of getting elected this year looked slim based upon the data in Ryan Thibodaux’s Ballot Trackerand it appeared that the writers were about to produce their second electoral shutout in three years and their third in the last 11. Forty-eight hours prior to the results being announced, forecaster Jason Sardell’s probablistic model — which groups voters based upon the number of candidates they include on their ballots and their electoral stance on PED users — gave Rolen just a 12% chance of election. Nearly 24 hours later, those odds had slipped to 9%, as I noted in my update earlier today. A surge of ballots late in the afternoon boosted those odds back up to 24% by the time the announcement was made, but suspense was in the air as Hall of Fame president Josh Rawitch opened the envelope to announce the results.

The three-to-one shot came in, nosing across the line by just five votes. Meanwhile, Todd Helton, whose pre-election share via the Tracker was just two points lower than that of Rolen (78.7% to 80.7%), received 72.2%, missing the election by just 11 votes. Three other candidates, namely Billy Wagner (68.1%), Andrew Jones (58.1%), and Gary Sheffield (55%), gained at least 14% and finished above 50%, giving them good shots of eventual election, while 10th-year candidate Jeff Kent and first-year candidate Carlos Beltrán both received 46.5%. Beltrán and Francisco Rodríguez (10.8%) were the only candidates from among the 14 newcomers to receive at least 5% and thus retain eligibility for next year; seven were shut out completely while five received a token vote.

The two candidates who were suspended for violating the game’s drug policy, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, both burned another year of eligibility, netting percentages in the mid-30s. They’re afterthoughts, and anybody surprised by their tepid reception from the majority of voters is invited to review the course of the candidacies of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemensneither of whom was suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs, but both of whom came closer to the eventual election.

What follows here are a few quick take-home points from the electoral results. I’ll have a candidate-by-candidate breakdown in my next installment.

Taking It Out

Rolen became the seventh player since 1966 to gain entry by five or fewer votes. He’s the closest call in six years:

Smallest Margins of Election Since 1966

On the other side of the coin, within the last decade both Craig Biggio (two votes short in 2014) and Trevor Hoffman (five shy in 2017) had closer near-misses than Helton. Both were elected the following year.

The Big Comeback

As noted above, since the writers returned to annual voting in 1966, no candidate debuted with a lower share of the vote than Rolen and was able to reach 75% via the writers:

Lowest First-Year Voting Percentages of BBWAA-Elected Players

Player Year % Year Elected YoB
Scott Rolen 2018 10.2% 2023 6
Duke Snider 1970 17.0% 1980 11
Bert Blyleven 1998 17.5% 2011 14
Larry Walker 2011 20.3% 2020 10
Mike Mussina 2014 20.3% 2019 6

For players who debuted on the ballot in 1966 or later

Rolen’s 10.2% didn’t happen in a vacuum. As I noted in his candidate profile, 10 candidates on the 2018 ballot had a JAWS at or above the standards at their positions, and 13 had a JAWS of at least 50; Rolen was competing for space with four players who were elected that year, three more who would be elected by the writers over the next few years, plus Bonds, Clemens, and Curt Schilling. Those overcrowded ballots required voters to perform triage, which rarely bodes well for players with nine years of eligibility remaining.

Helton is very likely to crack this list next year, as he received just 16.5% in 2019, and Wagner who received 10.5% in ’16, could wind up there as well. If/when they’re elected, both would also join the leaderboard for a similar list of the lowest percentages received by a modern BBWAA-elected candidate at any point during their run, a list that Rolen barely missed topping; Wagner (10.18% in 2017) would actually cut it even closer:

Lowest Voting Percentages at Any Point by BBWAA-Elected Players

Player Year YoB % Year Elected
Larry Walker 2014 4 10.16% 2020
Scott Rolen 2018 1 10.19% 2023
Larry Walker 2015 5 11.84% 2020
Bert Blyleven 1999 2 14.08% 2011
Larry Walker 2016 6 15.45% 2020
Duke Snider 1970 1 17.00% 1980
Bert Blyleven 2000 3 17.43% 2011
Bert Blyleven 1998 1 17.55% 2011
Larry Walker 2011 1 20.31% 2020
Mike Mussina 2014 1 20.32% 2019

For players who debuted on the ballot in 1966 or later.

Is it a coincidence that Blyleven, Mussina, Rolen, and Walker all gained traction as voters came to appreciate their candidacies in light of advanced statistics? You be the judge.

Beginnings and Endings

In an odd coincidence, Kent, the ballot’s lone 10th-year candidate, and Beltrán, easily the best of the first-year candidates, matched percentages at 46.5%. This may look at first glance to be too little, too late for Kent, but in his first six years on the ballot, he didn’t even break 20%, and he didn’t reach 30% until his eighth year, 2021, when he received 32.4%. He stagnated last year, increasing his share by just 0.3%, but thanks to a modest surge, his final share of the vote is higher than those of both Alan Trammell (40.9% in 2016) and Fred McGriff (39.8% in 2019) — and both were soon elected by Era Committees. While he ranks just 21st in JAWS among second basemen and thus never landed on my ballots (virtual or real), his status as the all-time leader in home runs by a second baseman will likely play well in front of a committee where Hall of Fame players account for half of the votes. He’ll be eligible for inclusion on the 2026 Contemporary Baseball Era Committee ballot, assuming the Hall doesn’t change the format again in the interim.

As for Beltrán, his statistical qualifications — 2,725 hits, 435 homers, 312 steals with an 86.4% success rate, ninth in JAWS among center fielders — are impressive, but voters gave him a less-than-rousing reception in the wake of the Astros ‘sign-stealing scandal, which cost him his job as Mets manager. Debuting at 46.5% is nothing to sneeze at, however. Every modern candidate who received at least 41.7% in their first year has eventually been elected either via the writers or a small committee. It’s not out of the question that a large enough bloc of voters will hold Beltrán’s sign-stealing involvement against him to the extent that the rules of electoral gravity don’t apply, as was the case for Bonds, Clemens, and Schilling, albeit for entirely different reasons. Still, it seems more likely than not he’ll wind up in Cooperstown… eventually.

The Incredible Shrinking Ballot Got Even Smaller

The writers cast just 389 ballots, five fewer than in 2022, and the lowest total since 374 voted in 1983. They were less generous than at any time in the past decade; on a ballot that lacked a slam-dunk choice among the newcomers — particularly given Beltrán’s baggage — voters averaged just 5.86 votes per ballot, the lowest share since 2012, when they averaged just 5.1 while electing only Barry Larkin. Just 13.9% of voters used all 10 slots on their ballots, the lowest total in at least a decade. Here’s the data going back to 2012:

Recent BBWAA Ballot Trends

Year Votes Votes Per Ballot All 10 Elected Blank
2012 573 5.10 N/A 1 9
2013 569 6.60 22% 0 5
2014 571 8.39 50% 3 1
2015 549 8.42 51% 4 1
2016 440 7.95 41.6% 2 N/A
2017 442 8.17 45.2% 3 2
2018 422 8.46 50.0% 4 1
2019 425 8.01 42.8% 4 0
2020 397 6.61 20.5% 2 N/A
2021 401 5.87 14.5% 0 14
2022 394 7.11 33.8% 1 6
2023 389 5.86 13.9% 1 8

SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

“All 10” and blank ballot figures via BBWAA. Yellow shading = modern record (since 1966).

Note that at most there were two blank ballots in 2016 and one in ’19, as Ken Griffey Jr. and Jeter came close to unanimity; the BBWAA did not report blank ballot totals in those years, and the best guess is that nobody sent one at either time. Blanks count in the denominator and thus require three “yes” votes apiece to offset, but while this year’s eight blanks nearly prevented Rolen’s election, they did not actually block Helton. Had those voters practiced their jump shots with crumpled-up ballots instead of sticking a stamp on them, candidates would have needed to be named on 286 of 381 ballots to reach the 75% threshold; Helton received 282 votes.

Big Gains, Plus One Notable Exception

With Bonds, Clemens, Schilling, and Sammy Sosa no longer taking up space on ballots — they occupied an average of 3.1 slots last year — voters had ample room to add players they hadn’t previously included, whether because they lacked the space or weren’t yet convinced. Six candidates increased their share of the vote by at least 10%, led by Helton’s 20.2% increase. Only one candidate lost support relative to 2022, namely Omar Vizquel. In the wake of allegations of both domestic violence against his wife and sexual harassment of a batboy while managing in the minors, he’s lost support in each of the last three cycles, tumbling from 52.6% in 2020 down below 20% this year:

2023 BBWAA Hall of Fame Voting Results

SOURCE: BBWAA.com

* ineligible for future consideration on BBWAA ballots.

I’ll have more on each candidate in my next installment.

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