On January 24th, former Phillies third baseman Scott Rolen was announced as the lone inductee among this year’s 28 candidates voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, capturing 76.3% of the vote. Rolen was a deserving candidate as a seven-time All-Star and eight-time Gold Glove Winner, and made it in on his sixth year on the ballot.
The list of players who didn’t get in this year includes Todd Helton (72.2%), Billy Wagner (68.1%), and Andruw Jones (58.1%). Others farther down the list include two of the most prolific hitters of the 1990s and 2000s, but who were both saddled with controversy over steroids and PEDs later in their careers: Alex Rodriguez with 35.7% of the vote and Manny Ramirez with 33.2% of the vote.
The 2023 vote illustrates just how difficult it is to make the Hall of Fame, as only 270 players out of the more than 22,000 (approximately 1%) who have played Major League Baseball are in Cooperstown.
One of the best debates as a baseball fan is to argue who belongs in the Hall of Fame. So who wasn’t on the list of eligible players voted on this year, but should already be in the Hall of Fame? Let’s take a look.
Barry Bonds is the most obvious inclusion on this list. He seemed destined for the Hall for his entire life, as the son of a major leaguer and the godson of one of the best players of all time, Willie Mays.
Bonds’ career numbers look like the statistics of a video game “Create a Player.” He finished his career with averages of .298/.444/.607 and as the all-time leader in home runs and walks. He is the only member of the 500/500 club and is in the top ten for RBI, runs scored, extra-base hits, and total bases in a career. He was a 14-time All-Star, eight-time Gold Glove Award winner, and seven-time MVP (no one else has more than three MVP awards).
Bonds had two separate Hall of Fame careers—the first when he was a speedy 30/30 threat with the Pirates and the second when he transformed into a fearsome slugger who put up historic numbers annually.
First half career (1986 – 1996)
- 1595 Hits / 1121 Runs
- 334 Home Runs / 993 RBI / 380 SB
- 1990, 1992, 1993 NL MVP
Second half career (1997 – 2007)
- 1340 Hits / 1106 Runs
- 428 Home Runs / 1003 RBI / 134 SB
- 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 NL MVP
The next-generation stats support a spot in Cooperstown as well: fourth all-time in career WAR (162.8) and first all-time in Win Probability Added (WPA) (127.7). Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Willie Mays are the only other players above 100 in baseball history.
However, the reason why he is not in Cooperstown is also obvious. It is the same elephant in the room that looms over many of the superstars of the late 1990s/early 2000s: steroids. Bonds is unique among these superstars in that he was unpopular long before any cheating allegations came to light, due to his famous surly attitude. This combination of issues affected his chances during his eligibility period.
However, in Bonds’ 10 years of Hall of Fame eligibility, his support did increase from 36.2% in 2013 to 66% in 2022 so it seems some of the steroid heat and character concerns have subsided. In recent years, he also apologized for his behavior.
Clemens is the pitching version of Bonds—a historically great player who was known to be at times arrogant and irritable before PED issues popped up late in his career causing additional controversy.
In 1986, his third season in the league, Clemens pulled the rare feat of winning both the AL Cy Young and MVP awards after going 24-4 with a 2.48 ERA and 0.97 WHIP. He followed that up by going 20-9 with 18 complete games and seven shutouts in 1987, a performance that earned him a second Cy Young Award. He then spent nine additional years with the Red Sox before leaving Boston for the Blue Jays at age 34 and turning back the clock in a dominant fashion, going 21-7 with a 2.05 ERA and 20-6 with a 2.65 ERA in successive seasons. This earned him two more Cy Young Awards before he continued his tour of the AL East by joining the Yankees.
In summary, Clemens led the American League in ERA six times, strikeouts five times, wins four times, and complete games three times. He finished his career eighth all-time in WAR (139.2) and even achieved something Bonds did not by winning a World Series. You can also make the same argument with Clemens that can be made with Bonds; he could make the Hall of Fame with the numbers accumulated from only half of his career. In each career segment (shown below), he surpassed Sandy Koufax’s career win total (165) and matched Pedro Martinez’s career Cy Young Award total (three).
First half career (1984 – 1995)
- 182 wins – 98 losses
- 3.00 ERA / 1.14 WHIP / 8.3 SO/9
- 1986, 1987, 1991 AL Cy Young Awards
- 1986 AL MVP
Second half career (1997 – 2007)
- 172 wins – 86 losses
- 3.26 ERA / 1.21 WHIP / 8.8 SO/9
- 1997, 1998, 2001 AL Cy Young Award, 2004 NL Cy Young Award
- Two World Series rings with the Yankees in 1999 and 2000
Clemens followed a similar trajectory as Bonds in his Hall of Fame voting results, capturing 37.6% in 2013 and finishing with 65.2% in 2022. The two will always be linked together and because of this they will likely be shut out of Cooperstown together or go in together at the same time.
The man known as “The Murph” should have been inducted in the Hall of Fame a long time ago, having retired in 1993. He is best known for his time with the Atlanta Braves, where he spent the prime of his career and played a total of 15 seasons.
Murphy was named to his first All-Star game in 1980 at age 24 after hitting .281/.349/.510 with 33 home runs and 89 RBI. Two seasons later, he was an All-Star again hitting .281 with 36 home runs, 109 RBI, and 23 steals while also earning a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger for the first time. For his excellent season, he was named the NL MVP for the Braves, leading them to a division title in the NL West.
He was even better the next year, winning MVP again after hitting .302 with 36 home runs and 121 RBIs with a .540 SLG and .993 OBS. Murphy continued his dominance over the next four seasons, earning an All-Star bid each time.
Murphy was a seven-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glove winner, four-time Silver Slugger winner, and earned back-to-back MVPs in 1982 and 1983. His career total of 398 home runs is fourth all time in Braves history. Murphy is also fifth in career WAR for Atlanta, behind a pretty good list of players: Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Chipper Jones, and Andruw Jones.
Looking at the list of all other retired players that have won two MVPs in baseball history, only Juan Gonzalez and Roger Maris are not in the Hall of Fame.
Two Career MVP Awards
Miguel Cabrera (active)
Bryce Harper (active)
Cal Ripken Jr.
Saberhagen is in an interesting case as his cumulative statistics fall short of other Hall of Fame pitchers.
He went 167 – 117 with a 3.36 ERA and 1,715 strikeouts over 16 seasons in the majors. These totals are not even in the top 100 for career wins or strikeouts. He was also hampered by injuries and inconsistency and was only an All-Star a total of three times.
On the other hand, it’s hard to find better seasons than Saberhagen’s 1985 and 1989 seasons with the Royals:
- 1985: 20 – 6 with a 2.87 ERA and 1.06 WHIP (Cy Young Award)
- 1989: 23 – 6 with a 2.16 ERA and 0.96 WHIP (Cy Young Award)
He was only 21 in 1985 as he led the Royals to a World Series title and captured the World Series MVP. Saberhagen was masterful in the series, going 2 – 0 with a microscopic 0.50 ERA. He started Game 3 and Game 7, pitching a complete game in each and shutting out the Cardinals in the decisive Game 7.
In 1989 he led the majors in complete games (12), innings pitched (262.1), ERA, and WHIP. Unfortunately, he couldn’t match the same level of excellence in the 1990s, when he won more than 10 games only four more times before retiring in 2001. He only garnered a measly 1.3% of votes in his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility in 2007.
He deserves consideration for what he did in the 1980s. Players are best remembered and judged most harshly for their play on the biggest stage. If you were using weighted scoring to assess his career, 1985 and 1989 would easily equal multiple individual seasons of regular-season pitching success. Very few people have ever played as well as Saberhagen did in 1985.
Blue is one of the rare people that did pitch as well as Saberhagen did during Blue’s historic 1971 season. Blue made the big leagues at the age of 19 but truly burst onto the scene two years later.
During that 1971 season, at age 21, he started 39 games, pitching 24 complete games and leading the majors with eight complete game shutouts. He was named a first-time All-Star and finished that year with a 24 – 8 record, leading the American League in ERA (1.82), WHIP (0.95), and SO/9 (8.7).
For his historic season, Blue won the rare double feat of the Cy Young and MVP Awards in the same season. He was and is still the youngest player to win MVP in baseball history. For a cross-sport comparison to another wunderkind: LeBron James didn’t win his first MVP award until 24 years old.
Blue had five additional seasons where he won more than 15 games, including a 20-9 record in 1973 and a 22-11 record in 1975. In total, he was a six-time All-Star and won three World Series with the A’s.
He finished his career with a record of 209 – 161 with a 3.27 ERA – that’s the same number of career wins as Hall-of-Famer Don Drysdale.
Lofton was the catalyst for the Cleveland Indians’ run of success in the mid-1990s, a leadoff hitter who could get on base and a menace on the basepaths. Lofton hit .285 and stole 66 bases in 1992, finishing second in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. He followed that up with 70 stolen bases the next season while hitting .325 with a .408 on-base percentage.
In his third full season, he finished fourth in MVP voting, hitting .349/.412/.536 with 12 home runs, 57 RBI, and stealing 60 bases. In 1996, he led the league with a career-high 75 bases.
Lofton put up similar career numbers to Tim Raines, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017, and is who Lofton supporters point to when making their case. Raines’ career covered four decades (1979 – 2022), so his remarkable longevity led him to play six additional seasons more than Lofton, padding his career numbers. However, his career WAR is only slightly higher than Lofton’s, and his career batting average is five points lower than Lofton’s.
When compared side-to-side, you can argue that Lofton would have surpassed Raines if he played a few more seasons. Lofton averaged 143 hits and 37 stolen bases a season while Raines averaged 113 hits and 35 stolen bases a season.
Raines Career Stats
- 7-time All-Star
- Highest MVP vote (5th place – 1983)
- .294/.385/.425, OPS+ 123
- 2605 Hits, 170 HR, 1571 RBI, 980 SB
- Career WAR – 69.4
Lofton Career Stats
- 6-time All-Star, 4-time Gold Glove
- Highest MVP vote (4th place – 1994)
- .299/.372/.423, OPS+ 107
- 2428 Hits, 130 HR, 1528 RBI, 781 SB
- Career WAR – 68.4
Raines won a batting title in 1986 with a career-high .334 average, something that Lofton never achieved. However, Lofton had separate seasons where he hit .335 and .349. Lofton was also better defensively, as he won four Gold Gloves and is 31st all-time as an outfielder putouts. Raines is 59th all-time in outfielder putouts.
The official Hall of Fame election requirements state that voting is based “upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”
By using this definition, Tommy John simply belongs in the Hall of Fame for his consequential, although unlikely, contributions to the sport of baseball.
On July 17, 1974, John was sitting with a lifetime record of 124 wins and 106 losses, a 2.97 ERA, and had been a one-time All-Star in 1968. He entered the July 17th contest against the Montreal Expos with a season record of 13-3 with a 2.50 ERA when he took the mound for the Dodgers. During the third inning, John injured his left arm but was unsure of what exactly happened.
Eventually, John was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his left elbow and underwent the groundbreaking surgical procedure that is now named after him as Dodgers team doctor Dr. Frank Jobe took a ligament from John’s right wrist and used it to repair his left throwing elbow.
John missed the entire 1975 season while recovering from the surgery, but made his return in 1976. He then amazingly went on to play 14 additional seasons, winning 20+ games in three of those seasons and making three additional All-Star games. John finished second in Cy Young voting twice post-surgery; in 1977, when he posted a 20-7 record with a 2.78 ERA, and in 1979, when he went 20-7 with a 2.78 ERA. He finally retired in 1989 at the age of 46 with a career record of 288-231.
Since that time over 1,000 players have undergone the procedure, including stars such as Jacob DeGrom, Stephen Strasburg, and John Smoltz. He didn’t know it at the time, but his name will live on in baseball history. Many casual fans may be more familiar with his name than many of the players actually in the Hall of Fame.
Other Famous Hall of Fame Cases
Of course, any Hall of Fame article would not be complete without talking about Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose. Jackson, a career .356 hitter (fourth all-time) was banned from the game after it was determined he was part of a gambling scandal to fix the 1919 World Series. Jackson had seasons where he hit .408 and .395 but his best season may have been 1913 when he finished second in the MVP voting after hitting .373/.460/.551. His career on-base percentage of .413 is 17th all-time.
Rose, baseball’s all-time hit leader with 4,256 hits, was banned for life in 1989 for placing bets on games while serving as the Reds manager. He was a 17-time All-Star, three-time World Series champion, and was the 1973 National League MVP. The man known as “Charlie Hustle” played in the most games ever, had the most at-bats ever, and is second all-time in doubles with 746. Rose would have been a unanimous first-ballot Hall of Famer, and as recently as November 2022 he is still pleading his case, sending a personal letter to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred.
While fans remain divided about whether Jackson and Rose should be in the Hall of Fame, the gambling blemish left on their careers will likely never fade. They face a tougher uphill battle than Bonds, Clemens, and the rest of the steroid-era stars and it is doubtful they will ever be named to the Hall.
Looking toward the future, the list of deserving players will only continue to grow.
Those debuting on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2024 include Chase Utley, Joe Mauer, Adrián Béltre, and David Wright. And the returning players such as Helton and Jones will continue to gain votes. Then there are still the cases of players clouded by PEDs such as Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez.
Let the debate begin!
Feature image by Michael Packard (@CollectingPack on Twitter)