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Hall of Fame election: Stark's 5 takeaways from Scott Rolen's triumph and a historic vote

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COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Some Hall of Fame third basemen make it easy. George Brett cruised into the Hall with 98 percent of the vote. Chipper Jones was never in doubt, with 97 percent. Mike Schmidt was just behind them at 96.5 percent. They all breezed into Cooperstown on the first ballot. No fuss. No muss. No suspense.

And then there was Scott Rolen.

He didn't exactly cruise into the Hall on a stunning Tuesday evening. He certainly didn't breeze. But when the ballot counting was finally complete, he had just enough votes to become the newest Hall of Famer.

Only six players in the history of the annual Hall balloting had ever cleared the 75 percent bar by five votes or fewer. But Tuesday, Rolen slithered over that line by exactly five.

It was the smallest margin since Pudge Rodriguez made it by four in 2017. And the only other player in the last 35 elections to eek in by this slim a margin was Ferguson Jenkins, by one vote, in 1991. So maybe history will show that Rolen attracted "only" 76.3 percent of the vote. But it was enough — to change his whole life.

Rolen single-handedly saved us from the second shutout in the last three elections by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. But he almost had company.

There was Todd Helton (72.2 percent), who almost made an unprecedented leap from 52.0 percent last year to election, but wound up missing by only 11 votes. And right behind was Billy Wagner, who made a massive jump to 68.1 percent, leaving him 27 votes short.

They're both now seemingly on the verge of election. But at least they're not stuck alongside Rolen, gridlocked in a ballot traffic jam that nearly resulted in another shutout and another seriously overcrowded ballot next year.

Nevertheless, this still makes just two players elected by the writers (Rolen and David Ortiz) in the last three years. And that ties the record for any three-year period since the dawn of yearly elections in 1966. The other periods with two were from 1966 to 1968 (Ted Williams, Joe Medwick), 1994-96 (Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt) and 1996-98 (Phil Niekro, Don Sutton).

But now that we've got those pesky details out of the way, what did this election tell us about Rolen's candidacy — and about some of the players who didn't get elected? Thanks for asking. I can help with that, with this edition of five things we learned from the 2023 Hall of Fame election.

1. The Scott Rolen bandwagon had just enough gas in the tank

Scott Rolen (Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images)

I've been a Hall of Fame voter for a long time. I've always had a theory about elections like this one. It almost turned out to be totally bogus, but in the end, it held true again.

As voters, we sometimes find ourselves with a choice — between pitching a shutout or listening to that voice in our head that says it's always better to elect somebody. And when those sorts of elections come along, we have a long history of looking at the most electable candidate and deciding: I'm voting for That Guy!

I think that happened last year with Ortiz … and in 2012 with Barry Larkin … and 2010 with Andre Dawson … and, hey, I could give you a half-dozen more examples. But here's why I mention it — because …

That came dangerously close to not happening this year, with Rolen.

Heading into this election, he seemed so perfectly positioned to ride that Let's Elect Somebody wave. He was only 12 percentage points away after last year. All he needed was another 50 votes or so. There was no reason to think it would be this close. But now that we've seen how the votes lined up, it's easier to dig in on why.

It's hard to add 200 votes in four years. As recently as the 2019 election, there were "only" 73 voters (17.2 percent) voting for Rolen. Then he hopped on the Larry Walker/Edgar Martinez Hot Candidate Expressway — and jumped by 18 percentage points, 17 percentage points and 10 percentage points over the next three elections. So among candidates who remained on the ballot, he had three years in a row in which nobody was adding more votes than him. I can't find anyone who ever did that four elections in a row. After all, there are only so many votes to add.

The Ortiz/Bonds/Clemens/Schilling exit didn't help him much. When Ortiz, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling waved sayonara to this process after last year, it meant the 1,055 ballot slots they took up in 2022 were officially up for grabs. That was great news for Helton, Wagner and others. But it didn't help Rolen anywhere near as much as those guys — and why not? Because, according to data gathered by the brilliant Hall election analyst Jason Sardell, almost all of the Ortiz/Bonds/Clemens/Schilling voters were already voting for him.

He had to depend on the "Old School" voting crowd. Another thing I learned from Sardell: The key to close elections is often the Old School/Small Hall voters, a group that isn't big on analytics and can be notoriously hard to crack. Of the 51 public voters who fit that definition last year and made their ballots public, only 39 percent were voting for Rolen this year.

On one hand, that was second only to Billy Wagner (43 percent) among all the candidates on this ballot. On the other, compare that with Ortiz, who pulled in 68 percent from that crowd last year. Edgar Martinez was at 62 percent from that group the year he made it. Larry Walker reeled in 57 percent of them. I'm not sure why an old-school type player like Rolen had so much trouble connecting with old-school voters. But that nearly became an election-swinging factor this year.

Fortunately for him, though, he attracted just enough of those votes to soar above that 75 percent line. And because he did, he wound up following almost an identical path to Mike Mussina, who also was elected in his sixth year on the ballot, in 2019.

Year Mussina PCTRolen PCT

Year 2

24.6%

17.2%

Year 3

43.0%

35.3%

Year 4

51.8% 

52.9%

Year 5

63.5% 

63.2%

Year 6

76.7%* 

76.3%*

 (*elected)

2. Four historic leaps — by guys not named Rolen

Todd Helton (Brian Bahr / Allsport via Getty Images)

A funny thing happened to four other guys on this ballot while we were busy fixating on Rolen. Todd Helton, Billy Wagner, Gary Sheffield and Andruw Jones went flying up the Big Board.

Player Increase 20222023

Helton

20.2 percentage points

52.0%

72.2%

Wagner

17.1 percentage points

51.0%

68.1%

Jones

16.7 percentage points

41.4 %

58.1%

Sheffield

15.6 percentage points

40.6%

55.0%

As a longtime student of Hall of Fame voting trends, I was blown away by that fiery ball in the Hall of Fame sky. Why? Because you don't see that much. By which I mean ever.

I couldn't recall an election in which four players in their voting tier — who had already crossed the 40 percent line (or higher) — saw their vote totals rocket upward at a level like that. So I double-checked with my friends from STATS Perform. They confirmed that has never happened.

The Hall of Fame started holding annual elections more than half a century ago. Never, in any previous election, had more than two players each jumped by at least 15 percentage points after entering that election with a floor as high as this group.

The previous record was set in 2017, when Edgar Martinez and Tim Raines reeled off gains of 15.2 percentage points and 16.2 percentage points, respectively, with Raines getting elected.

But in this election, we somehow had four? How did that happen? Mostly, it happened because the ballot departures of Ortiz, Bonds, Clemens and Schilling opened up those 1,055 ballot slots we mentioned earlier. And Helton, Wagner, Jones and Sheffield were delighted to fill them.

Sardell was able to pinpoint exactly where those new votes were coming from. At last look, 53 percent of Helton's added public votes were from writers who filled up all 10 slots on their ballots last year (meaning they previously didn't have room to include him). Same for Jones (59 percent), Sheffield (52 percent) and Wagner (59 percent).

But that wasn't an option for Rolen, who picked up only 14 percent of his new votes from that group. Why? Because, as we said earlier, those voters were mostly already voting for him.

So that breakdown is fascinating in and of itself. But wait a minute. I think we might be burying the most important part:

We now have to take a whole new view of the electability of these four guys. So let's do that.

Helton: He almost did something that has never been done: Leap from 52 percent last year to election the next. But even though he came up nine votes short, he's now at 72.2 percent, with five years left on the ballot. So it's time for him to start renting a bunch of Vrbos in Cooperstown in July 2024, because he'll be giving a speech! Over the last 50 elections, you know how many players have gotten this close within their first five years on the ballot and not been elected the next year? Right you are. Not a one (11 for 11).

Wagner: A 17.1 percentage point surge in one year? Incredible. Wagner's big move should command our attention for two reasons. One is, it's the largest year-to-year jump by any reliever ever — topping a 15.5 percentage point leap by Rollie Fingers in 1992. The other is, Wagner is now at 68.1 percent, with two years left on the ballot. So he'd have to make the wrong kind of history to not get elected in one of those two years.

Five previous relievers — Trevor Hoffman, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Hoyt Wilhelm and Fingers — crossed the 60 percent barrier with at least as many years left on the ballot as Wagner has. All five of them got elected within two years. They apparently now have a 100 mph left-handed smokeballer ready to join them one of these July afternoons.

Jones: Four years ago, who, other than his immediate family members, would have envisioned Andruw Jones closing in on the 60 percent barrier? His first two years on the ballot, in 2018 and '19, he got 7.3 percent and 7.5 percent of the vote, respectively. That's 31 votes the first year, 32 the second. That's not your typical harbinger of a trip to the plaque gallery.

But Jones has since added another 194 votes — so he, too, is now positioned for election some day. He has four years to pick up another 100 votes or so. And if he does, he'll become the first player in the history of the modern voting system to go from less than 8 percent in Year 1 to later getting elected by the writers. I guess it wouldn't be the first time he covered more ground than your average center fielder. Right?

Sheffield: Meanwhile, Sheffield has made a similar ride up the election elevator, from 13.6 percent in 2018 to 55 percent this year. But he's the one guy on this list we wouldn't advise betting on eventually getting the call. This was his ninth orbit on this ballot. So he's down to one shot left. Since he was at only 40.6 percent a year ago, his unlikely path to election would be via a 34.4 percentage point bungee jump over his final two go-rounds on this ballot.

Only three players in the history of this election have ever done that:

Luis Aparicio, 1983-84 — +42.7%

Larry Walker, 2019-20 +42.5%

Barry Larkin, 2011-12 — +34.8%

But of that group, just Walker was down to his final two elections before he caught fire. And it's hard to envision anybody with ties to performance-enhancing drugs, vague as Sheffield's may be, repeating that history, especially with the ballot getting more crowded again next year.

3. Beltrán gets more love than those PED "cheaters"

Carlos Beltrán (Bryan Yablonsky / Getty Images)

I can't tell you how many votes Carlos Beltrán would have gotten if he'd just lived on an alternative planet where there was no such thing as the 2017 Astros. I can tell you that his jury has now filed back into this courtroom. And we have a shocking verdict on our hands.

Was Beltrán guilty of the crime of heinous cheating, just like those notorious PED scoundrels this jury has been pummeling and punishing for a decade and a half? Surprisingly, nearly half of our distinguished jurists/voters (46.5 percent) have decided:

Whatever! Not guilty!

Full disclosure: If you've read my Hall ballot column, you know I agree with this verdict. I voted for the guy. I just didn't expect that many of my fellow voters would see it this way.

Beltrán's 70.1 Wins Above Replacement would make him essentially a sure Hall of Famer on that alternative planet. But now consider how differently Hall voters over the last two decades have treated 70-win players with PED ties in their first year on the ballot:

Barry Bonds — 36.2 percent

Alex Rodriguez — 34.3 percent

Rafael Palmeiro — 11.0 percent

So the message seems clear: Their "cheating" is officially being viewed as more scandalous than Beltrán and his fancy, high-tech, trash-can "cheating." That's obvious, just from looking at his vote totals. But let's zoom in a little closer.

When the first public ballots began to show up in Ryan Thibodaux's Hall of Fame Tracker, many of Beltrán's votes were coming from the same voters who were checking the names of A-Rod and Manny Ramírez. But now that we have hundreds more votes to break down, it turns out that those voters weren't the best ones to study. The most revealing group, Sardell reports, was the voters who tend to vote for lots of non-PED guys.

According to Sardell, at last look Beltrán was showing up on 70 percent of the ballots of writers who voted for at least six players with no PED ties. Beltrán was at 55 percent with voters who supported four or five non-PED candidates. But he was at only 31 percent among those who voted for three or fewer players in that group.

So what does that tell us? It tells us there was a surprisingly small link between how voters felt about Manny and A-Rod (who received 33.2 percent and 35.7 percent of this year's vote, respectively) and how they looked at Beltrán. And if that means most voters are willing to look at Beltrán from a place where they don't view him through the bars of Cheaters Jail, I think he's going to get elected someday.

Who knew!

4. Say Goodbye/hello to Jeff Kent, the next Fred McGriff

Jeff Kent and Fred McGriff (Todd Warshaw /Allsport via Getty Images)

Unfortunately for Jeff Kent, his time on this ballot has expired. But fortunately for Jeff Kent, in his 10th and final election, he did zoom past 40 percent for the first time. And that's quite a development, considering four years ago he hadn't even made it to 20 percent.

Even with his surge this year, from 32.7 percent to 46.5 percent, he was still more than 100 votes away from getting elected. But I wouldn't be worrying about any of that if I were him.

That's because in a few years his Hall of Fame mulligan arrives, via the Contemporary Baseball Era Committee. And that committee has already shown us — and him — the most irrelevant thing that has ever happened to him in his career was spending 10 years on the writers' ballot and never coming close to getting elected.

Exhibit A is a gentleman named Fred McGriff. He, too, logged 10 years on the writers' ballot. He never made it to 40 percent in any of those years (peaking at 39.8 in Year 10). And how'd that work out? Pretty, pretty good. Just last month, the Contemporary Era Committee took one look at his candidacy and … unanimously elected him on the first ballot.

So check out Kent's credentials and tell us you don't think he's the perfect candidate to follow that same trail to Cooperstown. Like McGriff, Kent has an old-school claim to historic greatness that seems to play well with all versions of these veterans committees: Most home runs ever by a second baseman (351) … most RBIs ever by a second baseman (1,428) … most 100-RBI seasons ever by a second baseman (eight) … highest slugging percentage by a second baseman (.509) in the live ball era.

And while it may not matter much to the voters on that committee, Kent's late momentum on the writers' ballot also mirrors McGriff's.

VOTE PERCENTAGE INCREASE IN FINAL FOUR ELECTIONS

McGriff — +26.9% (12.9% to 39.8%)

Kent — +28.4% (18.1% to 46.5%)

Kent's first year of eligibility via the Contemporary Era Committee is 2026, with the election held at the Winter Meetings in December 2025. Would it shock you if that committee sized him up that week and decided: Yep, he's our guy? Let's just say it shouldn't!

5. I already can't wait for next year's election

Adrián Beltré (Rick Yeatts / Getty Images)

Is it OK to gaze into the future on a day like this? Heck, yeah. Why not? Maybe this wasn't the most earth-rattling Hall of Fame election of modern times. But next year? Next year is going to be a blast. Let's tell you why.

The first-year class is so much fun. Adrián Beltré joins the ballot next year. He's the most surefire first-ballot lock since Derek Jeter in 2020. The highest first-ballot percentage ever by a third baseman was 98.2, by George Brett in 1999. Could Beltré beat that? Not impossible. I don't know who could find a reason not to vote for a five-time Gold Glove Award winner with 3,166 hits. But hey, weirder non-votes have happened.

But after Beltré, we'll have two more super interesting first-year attractions to chew on: Joe Mauer and Chase Utley. There had never been any such thing as a catcher who was a three-time batting champ, until Mauer. Except Mauer then finished his career with five seasons at first base that didn't quite remind anybody of Lou Gehrig. So if the first-base years are stuck in some voters' heads, he'll be a fascinating candidate.

And so will Utley, a Sabermetric cult hero who ranks higher, according to Jay Jaffe's essential JAWS metric, than Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio and eight other Hall of Fame second basemen. So that's a cool new-age/old-school debate waiting to happen.

But David Wright, Bartolo Colon, Matt Holliday, José Reyes and Adrián González also will appear on next year's ballot. And they don't all seem like your typical one-and-done candidates, either. So there's a lot to ponder there.

How many holdovers get in? Now back to this election. When the dust settled on the returns Tuesday, we had only one player elected — but we also had a half-dozen players all lined up to chisel their plaques someday. So with a 2024 ballot that's suddenly a whole lot more packed with excellent candidates, how many holdovers will there be room for?

• Two of those holdovers (Helton and Wagner) racked up more than 68 percent of the vote apiece. And that will make next year just the fifth election in the modern voting era to feature two returning candidates with vote totals that high. And in all four of the previous elections, both of those players got elected the next year:

2018 — Trevor Hoffman, Vladimir Guerrero

2017 — Jeff Bagwell, Time Raines

2011 — Bert Blyleven, Roberto Alomar

1987 — Billy Williams, Catfish Hunter

• But next year will also feature five returning candidates who got at least 46 percent of the vote. And there have been just seven previous elections in the last 37 years when that happened. In only two of them — 2013 and last year — were none of those returning candidates elected. But, as we've covered, Helton and Wagner are both solidly in the imminent-election zone.

No matter how many get to 75 percent next year, though, the first-ballot influx will no doubt have a ripple effect on vote totals up and down the ballot. So will that lead to some of this year's high jumpers abruptly riding the escalator back down next January? Could happen.

All I know is, 2024 is shaping up as one of the hardest Hall of Fame elections to project in years. I'm looking forward to it already. Can you tell?

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic / Getty Images)

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