Five things to watch on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot: Could Beltré be a unanimous pick?

Five things to watch on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot: Could Beltré be a unanimous pick?
Five things to watch on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot: Could Beltré be a unanimous pick?

Nine weeks from today, we’ll find out who gets to live out the weekend of a lifetime next July in magical Cooperstown, N.Y. Spoiler alert: Adrián Beltré’s friends and loved ones had better make those dinner reservations ASAP!

But there were 25 other names on the 2024 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot that was announced on Monday. And when I looked over those names, I could already see the storylines forming in my brain.

So here they come — my Five Things to Watch on the latest, greatest Hall ballot.

1. Can Adrián Beltré make ballot history?

Adrián Beltré throws out the first pitch before Game 2 of the 2023 World Series. (Raymond Carlin III / USA Today)

Could Adrián Beltré really become the first position player to get elected to the Hall of Fame unanimously? It’s a fascinating question to contemplate, isn’t it?

Derek Jeter missed by one vote. Ken Griffey Jr. missed by three. Ty Cobb was four away. Cal Ripken Jr. was eight away.

Babe Ruth wasn’t unanimous. Willie Mays wasn’t unanimous. Henry Aaron and Ted Williams weren’t unanimous. It’s bizarre even to type those words.

But Hall of Fame voting is in its ninth decade of making way too little sense. So even if the voters of the 21st century seem a lot more rational than their predecessors of 50, 60 and 70 years ago, there are always questions. Don’t expect that to change between now and Jan. 23, when the results are announced.

So let’s ask again: Is it possible that Beltré could join the great Mariano Rivera as the only unanimous Hall of Famers? I’ll take the “under,” but seriously, what reason could any voter find to not check Beltré’s name?

Who could not vote for a third baseman with 3,166 hits? Can’t answer that … if only because no true full-time third baseman ever got that many. (George Brett finished with 3,154 hits. Paul Molitor topped 3,300 but spent more time at DH than at third.)

Who could not vote for a third baseman so smooth that he owns five Gold Glove awards and the most career Fielding Runs of any third baseman in history not named Brooks Robinson?

Who could not vote for a third baseman who once won a home run title, led his league in hits and was still winning Gold Gloves and collecting MVP votes at age 37?

Who could not vote for a third baseman who rolled up 93.5 career WAR, according to Baseball Reference? You understand that puts Beltré in legend territory, right? He ranks 25th in WAR among all position players whose careers began after 1900. And every non-Hall of Famer in that group is in the team picture of the All-PED team.

I’m sure somebody will find a reason not to vote for him. But even if Beltré isn’t unanimous, he could still rack up the highest first-ballot percentage by a third baseman in history. Brett was at 98.2 percent. Mike Schmidt was at 96.5. If Beltré isn’t somewhere in that range, I can’t wait to hear the reasoning from those voters who leave his name unchecked.



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2. Are we finally going to have a Hall of Famer who spent his whole career on a Rocky Mountain High?

Todd Helton is on the verge of election. (Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

Four elections ago, Larry Walker knocked down the big billboard at the Colorado state line that used to say: THE ROAD TO COOPERSTOWN — YOU CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE. So now that the road is finally open, is it Todd Helton’s turn?

Helton spent 17 seasons playing for the Rockies. He finished his career with a .316/.414/.539/.953 slash line. You know how many players whose career started after 1930 have topped that? Exactly two: Ted Williams and Stan Musial.

So do we even have to ask whether Helton would already be a Hall of Famer if he’d put up those numbers anywhere else? That’s obvious.

But what’s also obvious is that Coors Field is like no place else. And Helton is the first player ever to play his whole career in Colorado and find himself on the precipice of the Hall of Fame. So even if the Coors Cooperstown Curse isn’t what it used to be, has it magically evaporated all of a sudden? Don’t be so sure of that.

Nevertheless, there’s an excellent chance Helton’s time has arrived. He was the biggest shooting star on the ballot last year, jumping by an amazing 20 percent. So he missed election by 11 votes last year, his fifth on this ballot. And history tells us that pretty much everybody who comes that close gets his ticket to Cooperstown punched the next year.

In the past 50 elections, only 10 other players returned to the ballot after coming up short by 11 votes or fewer. Of that group, just Jim Bunning didn’t get elected the next time he was up. And Bunning got his plaque eventually (via the Veterans Committee).

So Todd Helton is going to be the first career-long Rockie to make it onto that podium. The drama over these next two months is whether that happens now or later. And “now” is an excellent bet.

3. Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley: Together again?

Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley will reunite on the Hall ballot.  (Hunter Martin / Getty Images)

They were the Trammell and Whitaker of their generation. Will Hall of Fame voters value that?

Not so long ago, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley hung out in the middle of the infield for an incredible 1,227 games together, the most in National League history. And not all of those games were in Philadelphia, by the way. (They also teamed up for 14 games for the Dodgers at the end of the 2015 season.)

But now it’s time for them to make yet one more cool reunion — on the new Hall of Fame ballot.

It’s Utley’s first year on the ballot, and he’s as intriguing as any first-timer on the list. It’s Rollins’ third spin through the process. And at first, I thought: Hey, that’s fun. But then my next thought was: Wait. Has this ever happened? Have two longtime double-play partners ever taken a ride together on the Cooperstown Express?

I knew, you see, that Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker somehow never appeared on the same ballot. That’s the voters’ fault, not theirs, of course. Whitaker remains one of the writers’ worst one-and-done’s ever, getting bounced following his first election in 2001 after receiving just 2.9 percent of the vote. Which meant he was missing in action once Trammell arrived in 2002.

So I had to turn to my friends at STATS Perform to see if there was any parallel in history to Rollins and Utley. And let’s start with this: No double-play combination in the history of baseball ever played as many games together as these two guys and then showed up on the Hall ballot together. Wow.

STATS’ Tom Paquette dug deeper on this. Besides Rollins/ Utley and Trammell/Whitaker, he found only six double-play duos in the modern era (1901-present) that played at least 1,000 games together. But to find the last time any of those combinations appeared on the same Hall ballot, you have to go back nearly 40 years.

Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio spent 1,035 games in the same infield in the 1950s and ’60s. Then, between 1979 and 1984, they made it onto six Hall ballots together, a streak that ended with Aparicio’s election in ’84.

Before them, you have to travel back another four decades to find any other member of the 1,000-Game DP Combo Club that appeared on the same ballot. The only other was the fabled Joe Tinker/Johnny Evers tag team. But don’t look for any YouTube footage on those two. They played their last game together for the Cubs in 1913. Then they appeared on six Hall ballots in the 1930s and ’40s.

So is it possible that Rollins and Utley are in for a longer ride than six years? Since Rollins has eight years of eligibility left, it’s theoretically possible. But is one of them going to get elected by 2031? Or both of them? Or neither? Good question. And if that answer is one of them, then which one?

Rollins has the more traditional selling points on his side: An MVP trophy, four Gold Gloves, more than 2,400 hits, 200 homers, 400 steals and 857 extra-base hits. And how many other shortstops in history can say that? That would be none. Yet he attracted only 50 votes last year. So is he going to find another 242 votes out there? That seems hard.

Utley, meanwhile, has a very different case. He’s basically an analytics cult hero, whose monster peak (six seasons, from 2005-10, in which he averaged 7.6 WAR) has the potential to make him a popular name to check, especially when you add in all the winning his teams did.

But Utley never even got to 1,900 hits. And the writers haven’t elected a player with under 2,000 in almost 50 years (since Ralph Kiner, in 1975). Yet if I had to place a friendly wager on this, I’d still bet Utley gets more votes this year than Rollins.

You know what would be really interesting, though? What are the chances these two can somehow elevate each other’s candidacy — just by generating perspective and conversation about who’s more deserving? It’s a question worth asking, if only because I’ve always wondered what might have happened if Trammell and Whitaker had gotten the chance to do that.

4. Will Billy Wagner and Gary Sheffield run out of time?

Billy Wagner received 68.1 percent of the vote in the last election. (Ronald Martinez / Allsport)

It’s Gary Sheffield’s 10th and final year on this ballot. It’s Billy Wagner’s ninth, so he has two more shots at this. But is that enough time?

Fourteen years after he took his final ferocious hack, Sheffield attracted 54 more votes last year than he’d gotten the year before, so he’s now at 55.0 percent. Thirteen years after his final save, Wagner’s vote count rocketed upward by 64 votes last year — the biggest one-year jump by any reliever in Hall voting history. He made it all the way to 68.1 percent.

If one of them is going to make it to 75 percent, Wagner is the obvious favorite. He was only 27 votes — 6.9 percentage points — away from election last year. So are there really 27 voters so dug in on keeping him out of Cooperstown that he can’t find those votes? History would suggest that’s highly unlikely.

Five previous relievers — Trevor Hoffman, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Hoyt Wilhelm and Rollie Fingers — have crossed the 60 percent barrier with at least two years left on the ballot. All five of them got elected within two years.

On the other hand, Hoffman was at 67.3 percent in 2016 and still came up short the next year. So does Wagner have a 7 percentage point leap in him this time around? We love election night drama, right? That story has all the makings.

Sheffield, meanwhile, has a bigger mountain to climb because he’s trying to do something extremely rare. Over the past 50 elections, only one man has made the unlikely pole vault from 55 percent (or lower) in his next-to-last year to getting elected at the buzzer. And that was Larry Walker, who was at 54.6 percent with one year to go — and then eked in by six votes on his final turn.

But does a guy with Sheffield’s ties to performance-enhancing drugs, vague as they might be, have that sort of jump in him? Seems unlikely, but we’re about to find out.

5. Can Joe Mauer channel his inner Ernie Banks?

Joe Mauer was the AL MVP in 2009. (John Biever / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Once upon a time, in a baseball galaxy far, far away, there was a future Hall of Famer named Ernie Banks. Just like Joe Mauer, his career was divided between time at two positions. Just like Mauer, he was special at one, not so much at the other.

In his nine seasons at what was then looked at as primarily a defensive position, Banks was the greatest hitting shortstop of his time. But then, in part two of his career, when he moved to an offensive position (first base), let’s just say he didn’t remind anybody of Willie McCovey.

So what happened when Banks finally appeared on a Hall of Fame ballot? He cruised to first-ballot election in 1977, with 83.8 percent of the vote. And why do we tell this tale of Mr. Cub at a time like this? Because it seems instructive to how voters could view Mauer in his first go-round on this ballot.



Joe Mauer ‘humbled and honored’ to be considered for Cooperstown

In his 10 seasons as a catcher for the Twins, Mauer did stuff at the plate no catcher had ever done. Three batting titles. An MVP award. A 135 OPS+. That’s not just greatness at that position. That’s historic greatness — for a full decade, remember.

But then concussions forced him to spend the last five seasons of his career at first base. And you know how that went. In his time at first, Mauer batted only .278, slugged a minuscule .388, never made another All-Star team and never showed up on a single MVP ballot. So now that his debut on the Hall ballot has finally arrived, here’s the question:

Why wouldn’t the voters treat him like they once treated Ernie Banks? At a position where he played 10 seasons, Mauer was clearly way over the Hall of Fame line. So how heavily does he deserve to be penalized for honoring his contract by playing another position, where he wasn’t That Guy?

On a ballot that’s jammed with so many fun first-ballot names — Beltré, Utley, David Wright, Bartolo Colon, Matt Holliday, etc. — nobody is a more fascinating candidate to watch than the pride of St. Paul, Joe Mauer. But where is his vote total headed? That, my friends, is the reason columns like this exist.

(Top photo of Adrián Beltré in 2012: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)