Mariano Rivera Makes History With Unanimous Hall of Fame Election Among Huge Class

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The 2019 Hall of Fame election results are out, and the voters have made history yet again. Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez and Mike Mussina all earned 75% or more of the 425 ballots cast and will join Veterans Committee selections Lee Smith and Harold Baines in Cooperstown this July for induction. It’s a huge group of players that includes in Rivera the first-ever unanimous selection in the Hall’s history.

As we celebrate the newest members of baseball’s most exclusive club, let’s dive into the ballot and the results (with the help of Ryan Thibodaux’s ballot tracker) and break down the biggest storylines from Election Day.

Perfect Mo

In the long and silly history of the BBWAA’s Hall of Fame vote, no player had ever been elected unanimously—not Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle or Hank Aaron or Ken Griffey Jr. or Greg Maddux. But with Rivera, the streak has finally been broken, as he appeared on all 425 submitted ballots to become the first man to earn 100% of the vote.

It’s a shock, though not because of anything Rivera did or didn’t do. To start, it’s amazing that 425 baseball writers could come to an agreement on anything beyond hotel loyalty programs. But there were a number of factors lined up against Rivera reaching 100%. I figured for sure that at least one person would leave him off the ballot as an argument against the role of the closer, or that a specialized reliever isn’t deserving of Hall honors (or at least unanimous selection). Just as likely was that a voter would leave Rivera—a lock for election—off the ballot in order to give a spot to a more needy candidate. Since the Hall doesn’t require voters to make their ballots publicly available, it was easy to imagine a few writers not voting for Rivera and never explaining why, as was the case with Griffey, who was left off of three anonymous ballots to spoil his shot at perfection.

But Rivera also had plenty going his way. He’s inarguably the greatest ever at his position. His postseason resume is impeccable, and he was a huge part of five World Series titles. His cutter is one of the best pitches in the history of the game. And he carries a reputation as one of baseball’s nicest players, which always goes a long way with writers. His case was not only simple but also practically flawless; there was no character or performance case you could make against him.

Regardless of why Rivera became the first man to reach 100%, though, what’s most important is that the argument over whether or not unanimous election matters is blessedly over. It’s one we would’ve revisited next winter with Derek Jeter on the ballot (and still will to some degree), but thankfully, we can all yell about something else now instead.

Edgar Realizes The Impossible Dream

Four years ago, Edgar Martinez’s Hall of Fame hopes were done and dusted. The longtime Mariners designated hitter came out of the 2015 results—his sixth year on the ballot—with a mere 27% of the vote. Worse, thanks to the Hall’s truncation of eligibility, he had just four years left to reach the 75% threshold. Such a climb on a crowded ballot seemed beyond belief.

Martinez’s election, then, represents an improbable ascent. Few eventual Hall of Famers have ever had as low a share of the vote total that far along into their candidacies as Martinez has. Bert Blyleven finished with 26.3% in his fifth year on the ballot (and was sitting as low as 35.4 seven years in), and Jim Rice earned just 29.4% of the vote in his fifth cycle. But both of those players—along with fellow long-haul candidates like Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Andre Dawson—were allowed to stay on the ballot for 15 years. Martinez’s closest comparison is Tim Raines, who also had his time shortened to 10 years and was at 46.1% after seven cycles before his meteoric rise began.

Martinez followed a near-identical path: Having gotten 43.4% of the vote in his seventh year in 2016, he jumped to 58.6 the following winter, then 70.4—20 votes shy of election—last year. That miss may have stung, but it boded well for Martinez to break the 75% threshold in his final year. He did that with room to spare, earning 85.4% of the vote thanks in large part to picking up at least 25 additional votes from last year’s returning voters, per Thibodaux’s tracker.

It’s an overdue and well-deserved honor for Martinez, the greatest designated hitter of all time and a hero in Seattle as the author of the most important and impactful moment in Mariners franchise history. It also represents a victory for the advanced stats crowd, which has long championed Martinez’s candidacy. Score that as another notch on their belt alongside fellow former darlings Blyleven and Raines.

Mussina Barely Makes It

Rivera, Halladay and (to a lesser extent) Martinez all felt like sure things for this year’s Hall class, but Mussina was the wild card. The ex-Orioles and Yankees ace was on the cusp of election in 2018, finishing with 63.5% of the vote, and positive returns this winter raised hopes that he could break through in his sixth year on the ballot, albeit likely in a narrow finish.

Well, narrow it was: Mussina became the fourth member of the 2019 class by a hair, finishing with 76.7%, or just seven votes above the threshold. It’s the closest result since Ivan Rodriguez slid through with 76% of the vote in 2017, a mere five votes over the line, and just the fifth time since 2000 that a player has finished between 75–77%.

It’s a well overdue selection, too, as Mussina’s Hall absence was hard to explain. He was strong in the traditional numbers: 270 wins, over 3,500 innings, and close to 3,000 strikeouts, as well as the fourth-best strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.58) among all pitchers ever with 3,000 or more innings thrown. (Ballot-mate Curt Schilling is second all-time.) The advanced stats favored Mussina as well: His 83.0 career bWAR is second on the ballot only to the steroid-tainted Roger Clemens, and he exceeds the JAWS standards at his position.

Maybe it was Mussina’s lack of Cy Young wins or World Series rings that held him back, or falling short of 300 career wins, or having only one 20-win season, or simply not being as good as the inner-circle aces like Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson who’ve been elected in recent years. Thankfully, none of that matters anymore. Instead of having to sweat out another year on the ballot, Mussina will take his rightful place in Cooperstown this summer.

Run, Don’t Walker

Larry Walker didn’t get into the Hall, finishing with 54.6% of the vote, but he has the most helium of anyone still on the ballot. That figure is a massive leap from 2018’s 34.1%, with that 20.5% gain ranking as the ninth-biggest year-to-year increase on a BBWAA ballot since 1967. Per Thibodaux’s tracker, Walker gained a staggering 48 votes pre-announcement from last year’s returning voters—not only the most of any man on the ballot (narrowly topping Fred McGriff, who picked up 46) but also tied for the third-biggest gain from one ballot to the next since 2009.

What’s encouraging for Walker is that the last man to flip that many voters in a year was Martinez, who pulled the trick twice, gaining 48 votes on the 2017 ballot and 51 in ‘16 en route to election. (Vladimir Guerrero is No. 1 at plus-56 in his election year.) But as impressive as Martinez’s jump into the Hall is, Walker’s would be even more incredible if he can pull it off. The former Expos and Rockies star had been a total afterthought since debuting on the ballot in 2011 with 20.3% of the vote and falling as low as 10.2% in his fourth year, but the gains of the last two years have given him a realistic shot at Cooperstown.

Before you start planning your trip to upstate New York next summer, though, it’s worth noting that Walker’s chances are still low. Even with the massive gains of the last two years, he finished 87 votes shy of election, and it would take a historically huge jump to break 75%. As Fangraphs writer and Hall of Fame expert Jay Jaffe noted earlier this month, the biggest one-year gain resulting in election belongs to Barry Larkin, who went from 62.1% in 2011 to 86.4 in ’12, or 24.3%. A similar increase for Walker would get him in, but few have ever managed that: Larkin and Guerrero in 2017 are the only candidates since 1967 to increase their vote share by 20% or more in a single cycle resulting in election. And Walker will have just one year to make it happen, as 2020 will be his 10th and final ballot appearance.

Still, that Walker is even within shouting distance of election is remarkable. Hopefully he can follow Raines and Martinez as a deserving yet overlooked candidate.

Odds And Ends

  • This is the second straight four-person Hall class after last year’s quartet of Chipper Jones, Vlad Guerrero, Jim Thome and Trevor Hoffman, and the third year out of the last five in which four men will earn bronze plaques. That also makes 20 players elected since 2014, the most in a six-year span in Hall history. The immediate and most important effect of that, though, is to continue clearing out an immense ballot backlog. That’ll hopefully leave more room for voters to consider lesser supported yet worthy candidates like Scott Rolen, Billy Wagner and Todd Helton in 2020 and beyond.
  • Interestingly, despite four players getting in, the average ballot contained 8.01 names, a drop from last year’s 8.46. What’s more, only 42.8% of voters selected the maximum 10 names, down from 50% in 2018. With 2020’s class looking light beyond Jeter, it’s unlikely those numbers will increase next year.
  • One last bit of ballot numerology: This year set a record for number of ballots returned. Of the 428 mailed out, 425, or 99.3%, were filled in and sent back.
  • Halladay’s election was expected, though the circumstances remain tragic, as he became the sixth posthumous selection by the BBWAA and the first since Rabbit Maranville in 1954. Several other players have entered the Hall after dying, mostly via the Veterans Committee; the most notable are Lou Gehrig in 1939 and Roberto Clemente in ’73, who both had the five-year waiting period waived and were chosen via special elections.
  • Halladay’s entry could mark an important turning point in how the voters evaluate starting pitchers. His 2,749 1/3 career innings are the fifth fewest among starters elected by the BBWAA, falling behind Pedro Martinez (2,827 1/3) and ahead of only Lefty Gomez, Addie Joss, Sandy Koufax and Dizzy Dean, all four of whom had their careers ended early by injury or, in Joss’ case, death. Like Koufax and Martinez, Halladay’s peak is what put him over the top, but it’ll be interesting to see if the 3,000-inning mark—once a prerequisite for starter election—fades away as an important benchmark, as the modern game simply doesn’t produce pitchers who throw that much. The same is true of Mussina and 300 wins, another once inviolable Hall figure that is beyond the reach of virtually every pitcher still active.
  • I wrote a longer piece on the Hall futures of Schilling, Bonds and Clemens, but the quick takeaway is that, while Schilling looks good for election in 2020, the latter two are in increasingly dire straits after a second straight year of weak results.
  • As with last year, there was little down-ballot support beyond those elected. Schilling, Bonds, Clemens and Walker were the only other candidates to receive 50% or more of the vote, and Omar Vizquel was the sole player above 40. In total, 14 players earned 5% or more of the vote and will be eligible again in 2020, including first-year candidates Todd Helton and Andy Pettitte.
  • Gone is McGriff, who ended his stay on the ballot by earning 39.8% of the vote in his 10th and final year. That’s a big jump from 2018, when he got just 23.2%, but even that big push was nowhere close to enough. Still, McGriff is a strong candidate for eventual election via the era-based Veterans Committees, which have been more receptive to borderline players with good traditional numbers.
  • Beyond Walker and Schilling, who were the big gainers among those who’ll return in 2020, a few others saw some positive results. Rolen went from 10.2% in his debut to 17.2 this year. Frequently cited by voters as their 11th choice if they’d had it, he may make a leap next winter now that the ballot crowd has been thinned. Likewise, Billy Wagner went from 11.1% in 2018 to 16.7 this year—a more modest gain, but he may benefit from fellow closers Rivera and Hoffman both coming off the ballot.
  • Vizquel, though, looks to be in the best shape of the down-ballot candidates. Not only did he earn 42.8% in his second year, he also was one of the few to finish with more support on the private ballots than the public. His arrow is pointing in the right direction.
  • As for those in trouble: Kent and Sheffield remain stuck, each adding only a few percentage points and unable to crack the 20% barrier. With only four and five years left, respectively, they look dead in the water. The same is true for Manny Ramirez and Sammy Sosa, whose PED connections have killed their chances. And while Andruw Jones once again narrowly escaped falling off the ballot, finishing at 7.5%, his hopes look long.
  • As noted, Pettitte and Helton were the only other first-year players to survive to next year’s ballot. The former snuck in at 9.9% thanks to better numbers on the private ballots, but I’d bet heavily against him getting much beyond that.
  • Five other first-year players earned votes but were one-and-done: Lance Berkman (five votes), Roy Oswalt (four), Placido Polanco (two), Miguel Tejada (five), and Michael Young (nine). Polanco is the biggest head-scratcher of that group; unsurprisingly, both of his votes came from ballots that have yet to be released.

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