Henning: Why Helton joins Bonds, Clemens, two others on my Hall of Fame ballot

Detroit News

Lynn Henning
| The Detroit News

Maybe this worked out, after all.

In a year when we were advised to keep Thanksgiving on the light side, minus the usual stream of friends and family who otherwise arrived at noon for drinks, more drinks, and at some point dinner, all the privacy a pandemic imposed in 2020 at least allowed for more time to contemplate the 2021 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot that arrived Saturday. 

And this one took some heavier-than-usual consideration.

It has to do with so many on-the-bubble candidacies from the list of 25 players forwarded for review. Even though there are no newbies to the 2021 cast who ranked as either a slam-dunk, or a conscience crisis, this was one of the harder verdicts from 31 years of delivering Hall of Fame votes.

But we’ll begin with four names, based on past and repeat analysis, who were no-debate choices: Bobby Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, and Scott Rolen.

Each poses a challenge. But each man won an earlier vote here after sorting through the numbers and – in three of the above cases – holding the nose based on either ties to the PED Era that continues to blemish big-league baseball, or, in the case of Schilling, because he is about as odious as it gets in a world that should be done, forever, with bigotry.

There is a fifth choice on a 2021 ballot that, per rules, allows as many as 10 names:

It’s Todd Helton. And this wasn’t easy.

I had put Helton on hold in his earlier bids, which remains the case with several others – Andruw Jones, Billy Wagner, Bobby Abreu – all of whom, in this view, just miss the cut.

Helton makes it in what is the narrowest single call I can remember from three decades of personal HOF votes.

Here’s the rub: One benefit from a process as imperfect as HOF voting is that so often it allows for extra time. You can weigh for as many as 10 years a player’s pluses and minuses, with real deliberation, all through the prism of history and comparisons. A player who gets 5 percent of any year’s vote sticks on the ballot for a maximum 10 turns. And even one year of added deliberation can help to illuminate, with just enough extra perspective, a career that when all is processed can push a worthy player past the threshold.

Helton made it here, in his third year as a qualifier, by about the weight of a sand grain.

And so those are the five names – Bonds, Clemens, Helton, Rolen, Schilling – that today drew a big, black X on a personal ballot that’s now headed for Cooperstown’s accountants.

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Why five selections when 10 names are allowed and when there is such stress over some of those fine-line rejections? Why five selections when a player who doesn’t get 5 percent of a particular year’s vote disappears from the writers’ ballots that initially decide whether a player is eligible for eternal baseball celebrity?

Because I like filing a tight ballot. I love the fact the Baseball Hall of Fame is the best of all such halls, in great part because winning a Cooperstown plaque has for generations been so difficult, and remains difficult probably to a point of unfair exclusion (hello, Lou Whitaker, as one example of a mistake that someday needs correction).

Yes, the ballot that showed up Saturday could have been loaded to the max: Abreu, Jones, Wagner, Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield – or, a popular but hollow choice, Omar Vizquel. Andy Pettite is another who makes the grade elsewhere and falls short here.

But you either feel good about a vote or you don’t. You either trust your conscience or you don’t. You either do research as exhaustively as you can, debate as frequently as these HOF skirmishes demand and are benefited by, or you make potentially a superficial judgment that doesn’t honor the responsibility or tenets attached to HOF elections.

At least that’s the thought here, acknowledging, for sure, that the most serious and astute of all voters can – and will – have disagreements. In fact, give me five respected HOF selectors and there’s a good chance no two ballots will match.

Deserving few 

Here’s an explanation for why some have, and haven’t, made this year’s docket, beginning with the annual cut-and-paste explanation for how I deal with the era when performance-enhancers were rampant and twisted career numbers so egregiously.

The personal creed is that if a player likely had a HOF career – numbers not overly boosted by PEDs, then that person wins a vote. Bonds and Clemens in that context are Exhibits A and B.

If the player in question might well have gotten a lift that pushed his numbers past the gateway – a subjective appraisal, admittedly, both in terms of guilt and in his performance – then that makes Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, and Manny Ramirez, too damaged to support. 

It’s admittedly an imperfect methodology waiting for a perfect remedy. Until the latter arrives, that’s the blueprint I’ve followed.

Moving to why five made this year’s ballot and why some popular golden oldies didn’t:

►Bonds and Clemens: They’re lumped together not only because they’re the Butch and Sundance from baseball’s PED lawlessness, they had careers so spectacular they neither needed enhancers, which was the ugly tragedy of baseball’s Wild West interlude, nor were carried across Cooperstown’s finish line by way of juicing. They belong, distasteful as their conduct was, and remains.

►Helton: The only reason, and it’s a big one, he didn’t make earlier lists is because he got immense help from that pinball machine known as Coors Field. Denver’s altitude does funny things to a baseball, especially to the advantage of hitters. What it didn’t affect to any reckless extreme was Helton’s career on-base percentage of .414, which is a nice chunk of his 17-season OPS of .953. Toss in the fact he was a radiant defender and you have, by a whisker, a Hall of Fame first baseman.

►Rolen: He makes the grade, statistically, even if his Cooperstown candidacy has been a quieter storyline. He has a career WAR of 70.1 and a seven-year peak WAR of 43.6, with the average HOF third-baseman coming in at 68.4 and 43.1. Rolen beats those numbers, as he does with the indispensable and compelling JAWS ranking invented by Jay Jaffe, whose “Cooperstown Casebook” is the most essential manuscript in a Hall of Fame voter’s library. Jaffe has Rolen at 56.9 in JAWS numbers compared with the average third baseman’s JAWS total at 55.7.

Rolen got only 35.3 percent in last year’s voting when a player must earn 75 percent of a year’s votes to win induction. Rolen’s got a long hike ahead. But Rolen deserves a plaque.

►Schilling: This is a little like voting for a repugnant version of Archie Bunker. Schilling’s freedom of speech rights are acknowledged, as is his ugly habit of spewing venom – the usual bigot’s witch’s brew – which has no place in a society that espouses equality and common humanity.

But as long as the Hall of Fame puts a premium on baseball game-performance, and as long as it long ago obliterated the so-called “character clause” by enshrining any number of racists and misogynists, then Schilling wins a vote based on the fact his 20 years totaling 79 WAR and 64 JAWS are well above the HOF norm for installment.

Missing the cut

As for those who are no-shows on this year’s Cooperstown manifest:

►Abreu: So much to like about Abreu’s numbers, beginning with that career .395 OBP as part of his 18-year OPS of .870. He had terrific peak seasons, but his closing years, especially on defense – or, rather, what he was passing off as defense – were detrimental to a player who, while extremely good, simply falls a half-notch below Cooperstown-grade.

►Jones: This is a gnarly one, the Andruw Jones sweepstakes. If you go by the decade before he turned 30, he’s there, with a gleaming HOF plaque. The problem is Jones really didn’t sustain those glorious seasons from his 20s. He did not finish well. And that, in this view, anyway, cost him just enough added luster necessary for the longevity and distinction Cooperstown requires.

►Ramirez: See: Reasons for declining Sosa, McGwire, and Palmeiro.

►Sheffield: Tempting, so tempting for what he achieved during 22 years in the big leagues. But Sheffield was neither strong enough on defense nor as extraordinary on offense overall to win a vote on a conservative ballot.

►Vizquel: He very easily will win a place next July on Cooperstown’s dais, surrounded by baked grass, hayfields, and hills that supposedly make baseball’s shrine so bucolic. But Vizquel’s induction will happen minus my vote.

Vizquel’s problem is he wasn’t much on offense (lots of singles, but a .688 OPS). And his defense, which, yes, was so smooth as to seem effortless, wasn’t as great as lore might have it, and wasn’t in the same galaxy as Ozzie Smith’s. Check the numbers, as Jaffe has done, in detail, and you see why he’s no better than 29th in WAR in the annals of big-league shortstops.

Vizquel’s a cozy, appealing choice for many. But in this corner there was no easier “no” on this year’s ballot.

►Wagner: Difficult case here. If you say: “Bruce Sutter is in, so why not Wagner?” you ignite the kind of comparative verbal duel that makes for great Hall of Fame sparring. Wagner struck out more batters per nine innings (11.9) and cut those batters the smallest batting average (.187) than any pitcher who has tossed at least 800 big-league innings.

The issue, beyond the fact relievers are held to something of a different standard, is that Wagner didn’t have the shelf-life that might have put him over the top. Here, at least.

And there you have it. As the wine was poured Thursday, and the turkey browned, we this year celebrated – maybe with fewer guests than most Thanksgivings – blessings that still fortunately include baseball, and its sacred Hall of Fame squabbles.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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