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Starting Nine: Can hurdles be cleared in these HOF bids?

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The voting momentum (or lack thereof) and the trends/roadblocks former Braves players face in Hall of Fame candidacies 

Atlanta Braves v Chicago Cubs
Recent Era Committee inductee Tony Oliva — the only Expansion Era HOFer with less than 2,000 hits — has 16 fewer career hits than Andruw Jones.
Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

Along with children the world over writing out those letters to Santa, and Amazon, the Baseball Writers Association of America is doing its part to keep the U.S. Postal Service in business, with Hall of Fame ballots still going through traditional mail.

Voters have until Dec. 31 to have their submissions postmarked, but the Yeoman’s work of Ryan Thibodaux (aka Twitter’s @NotMrTibbs) is giving us an early indication of the fates of the 30 candidates.

It’s not a large swath, with as of this writing under 10 percent of the estimated 392 ballots having been made public. But the early indications are positive for two of the game’s lightning rods in their 10th and final years on eligibility in Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Currently, both are appearing on 81.5 percent of ballots, which is above the 75-percent vote threshold for induction. So, too, is David Ortiz (77.8 percent) in his first year.

The forecast isn’t quite so rosy for the six Braves on the ballot — Tim Hudson, Andruw Jones, A.J. Pierzynski, Gary Sheffield, Mark Teixeira and Billy Wagner — and the franchise may not be adding another plaque in Cooperstown this summer, but there are some positives, along with some and negatives, in the initial returns.

Gauging the early voting figures and the trends and roadblocks Braves’ candidates face on their bids to reach Cooperstown.

Andruw Jones

1. Polling figures

The 10-time Gold Glove winner and five-time All-Star barely stayed on the ballot beyond his first year in 2018, receiving 31 votes (7.3 percent) and was at just 7.5 percent a year later. That climbed to 19.4 percent in 2020, 33.9 percent in 2021, and is currently at 51.9 percent. He’d need to appear on close to 77 percent of the remaining ballots to gain induction but is so far moving in the right direction. It would be unprecedented if Jones can pull it off. Since the rule limiting players to 10 years on the ballot was put in place in 2014, no one has gone from as low a percentage as Jones received in Year 1 to enshrinement. But with five more years remaining, it’s beginning to feel like more of a reality.

2. Help from Era Committees?

It’s unrealistic to use the attitudes of the Era Committees toward candidates as what we can expect voters, but at the same time, when the panel of HOFers, executives and media members let players in, it does change the measuring stick. Harold Baines’ 2019 election meant a player with 50 fewer homers than Jones and a slightly lower OPS (.820) than the former Brave (.823) was in. Tony Oliva’s recent inclusion makes him the first Expansion Era player with fewer than 2,000 hits to get in, and with 1,917 hits, he has 16 less than Jones. It’s not as though the Era Committees have thrown open the barn doors, but Jones has to also be judged just as much on who else is in as his own merits.

3. Changing attitudes

The vast defensive metrics at our disposal these days would have made it far easier to bolster Jones’ resume had they been available in his heyday. The easy argument is that if Ozzie Smith, arguably the best shortstop ever with 13 Gold Gloves and a career .87 OPS, is in, then his center field equivalent — and one with an 111 OPS+ and 400-plus homers — should be in too. But let’s consider this: Ortiz is likely a first-ballot HOFer, and the writers elected Edgar Martinez in 2019. Martinez spent 68 percent of his career games as designated hitter, his election a breakthrough for the position ... but Ortiz manned the spot in 84 percent of his games. If we’re putting the foundation of a candidate into a singular skill (hitting, and yes, he hit 541 homers), Jones’ defensive resume makes a compelling case. His 26.6 dWAR from 1997-2007 was 9.9 higher than any other player at any position in that same time. The change in attitudes toward players excelling in specified roles should only help.

Billy Wagner

4. Polling figures

Wagner’s current support (51.9 percent) mirrors that of Jones. That’s an uptick from last year (31.7 percent) and continues a strong trend after starting at 10.5 percent in his first year of eligibility (2016). There are eight closers in the HOF — Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Trevor Hoffman, Mariano Rivera, Lee Smith, Bruce Sutter and Hoyt Wilhelm — four of whom, like Wagner, made 10 or fewer career starts. But not a one started from a low a level of support as the former Brave and earned induction. He has three years of eligibility remaining but may end up needing to follow the path of Smith, who fell off the ballot in 2017 (after the then-15 years maximum on the ballot) and got in two years later via the Era Committee.

5. On par with his contemporaries

Much like Jones’ defense, it’s unfair to see Wagner’s candidacy through any prism other than dominance at one thing where he was absolutely elite. He’s sixth on the all-time saves list (422) and got to that figure in a mere 903 innings. If Hoffman and Rivera are the measuring sticks — the former got elected in Year 3; the latter in his first year — Wagner has a better opponent batting average and in the last 121 years, among pitchers with at least 900 innings, no one has a higher K/9 than Wagner’s 11.92. Had he reached 500 saves is there any debate? Still, he has 32 more than Eckersley, is 81 ahead of Fingers and Gossage trails Wagner by 112 saves. If the argument is that Wagner was lost in the shadows of Hoffman and Rivera and never considered the very best at his position, the numbers say he was on par, including just as many 2.0 fWAR seasons (six) as Hoffman and a WHIP (1.00) equal to Rivera.

Gary Sheffield

6. Polling figures

Appearing on 11.7 percent of ballots in his first year (2015), Sheffield has seen his support increase dramatically the past two years. He dipped to a low of 11.1 in 2018, then was up to 13.6 percent a year later, 30.5 in 2020 and 40.6 on the 2021 ballot. The early returns echo that figure (40.7) and he’d need to make a serious run to earn induction, appearing on 283 of the remaining ballots. With two years of eligibility, it may be tough for Sheffield to get a 35 percent increase, but at the least he’s sticking around for what could be intriguing 2023 and 2024 votes depending on what happens with others huddled under the dark cloud of performance-enhancing drugs. On that topic ...

7. Fate of other PED users looms large

Does Bonds get in? What about Clemens? Sosa? All three were linked to PEDs, but never suspended, as they operated in the time before any enforcements were at MLB’s disposal. Their penalties have played out in the form of the HOF votes, but all three are also in their 10th and final years of eligibility. If the early returns are an indication of what’s to come, Bonds and Clemens have paid their dues, though Sosa is well behind at just 18.5 percent. Sheffield, named in the Mitchell Report for his ties to BALCO, is just one of 12 players in history with at least 500 home runs, 2,600 hits and an OPS+ of 140 or higher. Seven are in the HOF, two are active (Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera) and the other three — Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Sheffield — all have the PED label attached. The numbers are there, and if the sentiment changes with Bonds, Sheffield can’t be far behind.

Tim Hudson/A.J. Pierzynski/Mark Texieria

8. Polling figures

Hudson received 21 votes in his first year, a putting him at 5.2 percent and just beyond the five percent threshold to remain on the ballot. It’s not looking good for the right-hander to make it to Year 3, as he has yet to make any of the votes on the tracker. Neither has Pierzynski or Texieria, which is why we’re lumping these former Braves teammates together. It would be surprising to see Texieria fall off after his first year given Bobby Abreu — who played four more years than Texieria and hit 121 fewer home runs and had nearly identical wRC+s, with Abreu at 129 and Texieria at 127 — is in his third year on the ballot.

9. Recalculating HOF resumes

These two may not see the doors to Cooperstown opened via the writers’ ballots, but the Era Committees could end up being a different story. The days of 300-game winners may be over, and it’s going to change those baseline expectations for HOF starters. Hudson, who won 222 games, is one of 17 pitchers with at least 220 wins, 2,000 strikeouts, 3,000 innings pitched and an ERA+ of 120 or better. Every other player on that list is in the HOF, except for Clemens. Meanwhile, Texieria’s resume isn’t that dissimilar from Gil Hodges, who was just elected by the Golden Days Era committee. Texieria hit 29 more homers and had a higher fWAR (44.8 to 42.1), playing in 209 fewer games. Neither may get the call via in the immediate future but judging Hudson and Texieria through a different lens could change their fortunes. That’s not likely to case for Pierzynski. Yes, he is one of 10 players who spent at least 50 percent of their time at catcher and had 2,000 hits, made two All-Star games and has the longevity of 19 seasons, but it’s difficult to see him sticking around on a crowded ballot. Some players are victim of the 10-player voting limit, and Pierzynski figures to be one.