>Whatever Happened to Bill James’ Predictions for the Hall of Fame?


By Bill

Yesterday, a piece over on the Yankees blog Pinstripe Alley incited a little lively discussion (and some ridicule) on Twitter, when the author, jscape2000, noted Nate Silver’s observation that there are historically about 35 players active at any given time who go on to become Hall of Famers, and went on to make some guesses as to who those future Hall of Famers are at this moment.  And while you might argue with some of his picks (particularly picking Yadier Molina to end up in the “Tier One” camp; he’s had a pretty decent start to his career and everything, but he’s not going to make anybody forget about Bench or Piazza), I think the idea is a perfectly good one.

It reminded me, however, that in his 1995 book Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? (previously published in ’94 under the alternative, more provocative title The Politics of Glory), the great Bill James had made a similar set of projections and predictions, using his Hall of Fame Monitor tool and some educated guesswork to project the BBWAA Hall of Fame inductees for the next 25 years, covering 1995 through 2019.

That’s necessarily an inexact science — I remembered in particular that Ruben Sierra was on the list — but I wondered how the rest of it came out.  And it turns out that not only did I still have the book, permitting me to see it for myself, but through the magic of the internet, I can show you!  I thought I’d take a look at each year’s picks and see how he did.  The number in parentheses is that player’s year on the ballot that the predicted year would have represented:

1995: Mike Schmidt (1), Jim Rice (1)
There’s a fun one right off the bat.  Schmidt sailed in with 97% of the vote, while Jim Ed garnered less than 30% and, as we all know, had a long, tough fight ahead.  James has quite famously battled against the dramatic overstatements of Rice’s case, comparing him to Yankee contemporary Roy White (who got zero votes in 1985), but clearly didn’t trust the writers to see it his way.  It’s also appropriate that these two show up together given Schmidt’s recent comments; whatever the other failings of the BBWAA, at least they saw the situation more clearly than Schmidt does.

1996: Don Sutton (3), Pete Rose (5)
Sutton makes sense here. He’d gotten 56.8% in his debut in the 1994 ballot, so it was reasonable to expect his total to jump in 1995 and then put him over the top in ’96. It stagnated for a while instead, though, and it took Sutton until 1998 to top 75%.

But then…whoa.  Rose was on the permanently ineligible list by 1994, of course, and the rule had been put in place that ineligible MLBers are also ineligible for the Hall (he’d been getting a few votes every year anyway).  James obviously felt that Rose and baseball would make nice sooner rather than later, when in reality of course we’re still waiting for that.

1997: Steve Garvey (5), Phil Niekro (5)
Again, Garvey was a reasonable pick — I certianly wouldn’t have voted for him, but I’d have expected him to be voted in eventually. He’d debuted at 41.6% in 1993, though he actually lost 5% in 1994.  That he stayed pretty constant after that, slipping all the way down into the low 20s by the end of his fifteen years on the ballot, should perhaps make us think again about Jeff Bagwell’s chances (though Bagwell is of course an infinitely more deserving candidate).  James nailed the Niekro pick exactly, even though Phil was already getting over 60% of the vote in ’93 (dropping to just below 60% in ’94).

1998: Gary Carter (1), Al Oliver (8)
Getting even more interesting.  Carter actually debuted at just 42.3% in ’98, then dropped to 33.8% before picking up steam and finally getting in in 2003, his sixth try.  I don’t remember Carter being viewed as a sure thing, but his stats look enough like Pudge Fisk’s — who was considered a slam dunk, with the catcher home run record and all — that I can see where you’d think Carter would get the same treatment.

Oliver had to have been an editorial oversight, as he had actually received just 4.3% of the vote in 1991 and dropped off the ballot forever, so it would have been impossible for the BBWAA to vote him in.  His traditional resume (hit totals, batting average, All-Star appearances, MVP votes) look like someone the voters would consider a pretty strong candidate, but he wasn’t eligible, so I’m not sure what to say.  Oliver and the Hall of Fame are the subject of a hilarious but inexplicable-to-others inside joke between The Common Man and yours truly, however, going back about ten years, so he has that going for him.

1999: George Brett (1), Nolan Ryan (1)
Nailed those, though to be fair, anybody could have seen that coming.  He did miss a third first-ballot inductee on this one, though…

2000: Robin Yount (2), Carlton Fisk (2)
Close. Yount just squeaked in in 1999 (77.5%), the third of that year’s first balloters.
James nailed Fisk, who may well have gotten in on the first ballot in any other year than ’99, but he had to wait in line behind the Brett-Ryan-Yount triumvirate. Tony Perez, who doesn’t appear anywhere on James’ list (and having received more than 57% of the vote in 1994, probably should have), got in in 2000 as well.

2001: Andre Dawson (-1), Dave Winfield (1)
This was the first year where James had to guess at retirement dates, and he guessed a year too early on Dawson and his many-times-reconfigured knees.  But then he also evidently guessed incorrectly that Dawson would get in on the first ballot; he got a respectable 45.3% in 2002, but it took another eight tries after that to get him over the top.  Nailed Winfield, who was joined at the podium by former teammate and very early retiree Puckett (see below).

2002: Eddie Murray (-1), Ozzie Smith (1)
Again, Murray was a matter of guessing wrong about his retirement date; with his 3,000 hits and 500 homers, he did breeze into the Hall on the first ballot, but not until 2003 (slightly different story than for his closest career comp).  James nailed Ozzie, who got 91.7% in ’02.

2003: Dave Parker (7), Jim Kaat (15)
James would have looked at his projections and seen a pretty dry year in ’03, one in which some long-time holdovers might slide in.  In reality, both these guys hung on for 15 years (Parker’s last coming a week ago), but neither ever came close to election.  There was a holdover who went in with first-balloter Murray in ’03, but it was Carter, discussed above.

Note that Kaat appears on this list, but Bert Blyleven does not.  This is puzzling at first, as they have similar raw numbers and James certainly appreciated that Blyleven was a better pitcher (See James’ rankings in  The New Historical Baseball Abstract).  However, Kaat scored just ahead of Blyleven on James’ Hall of Fame Monitor (a tool he created in Whatever Happened… to track players’ likelihood, not worthiness, of reaching the Hall), 130 to 120, and was getting vote totals over 20% when the book was published while Blyleven still had four years to wait to get on the ballot.

2004: Dennis Eckersley (1), Ted Simmons (11)
Nailed Eck, which is starting to get pretty impressive; he had to anticipate Eckersley’s retirement four seasons in the future and that he would get in on the first ballot.  Simmons may well have eventually gotten this much support had he not received just 3.7% in 1994 and dropped off forever.  I’m not clear on whether James could actually see the 1994 ballot results when he drew up this list or not, though it seems likely.  But it at least became clear pretty quickly after he wrote this that Simmons’s call from the BBWAA, sadly, wouldn’t be coming.

2005: Wade Boggs (1), Cal Ripken (-2)
Nailed Boggs, impressively.  Saw Cal as retiring at age 38, which is more than reasonable for your average great shortstop.  Of course, Cal was probably more durable and definitely more stubborn than your average great shortstop.

2006: Rickey Henderson (-3), Paul Molitor (3)
You’d have to be crazy to predict that any player would hang on until age 44, especially one as ostensibly aloof as Rickey, who of course was about as close to a unanimous pick as the BBWAA will ever make when he did become eligible in 2009.

James likely — and reasonably — figured Molitor would hang on the ballot for a while, but he collected something like 900 hits after James wrote his book, ending with over 3,300, and got in easily on the first ballot in ’04.

2007: Tony Gwynn (1), Roger Clemens (-6)
It’s a pretty amazing feat to look at Gwynn — who had just hit .358 as a 33 year old in 1993 and flirted with .400 in ’94 — and hit exactly his HOF election year thirteen years into the future.  On the other hand…

Keep in mind that Clemens was coming off the worst year of his career, going 11-14, 4.46 in 192 innings in ’93 after three straight top-three Cy Young finishes from ’90 to ’92.  At the close of ’93, Clemens was 163-96 with a 2.94 ERA, 2033 strikeouts in 2223 innings, and three Cy Young Awards with two top-five finishes, an MVP award and a third-place MVP finish.  All he had to do was hang on until 2001, age 38, and keep doing roughly what he did from ’93-’96 (40-39, 3.77 ERA), and he would have a clear case with about 250 wins and an all-time great peak.  This was a good call, though that’s a pretty low win total for a first balloter, so I wonder if James was planning on some small fraction of the bounce-back we actually ended up seeing.

2008: Kirby Puckett (8), Dale Murphy (10)
Puckett was a 34 year old still very much in his prime when James was writing, and kept averaging 200 hits per 162 games right up to the end, which came on very suddenly very shortly thereafter.  He got in on the first ballot in 2001, no doubt with a lot of emotion-driven votes.  Had he not been stricken with glaucoma in the spring of ’96, he likely either (a) declines normally and retires at 38 or 39, just shy of 3,000 hits, and gets in on the third or fourth ballot; or (b) hangs around until he’s 41 or 42 to collect that 3,000th hit, retiring in about 2002, and gets in on the first ballot.  Either way, this puts him right about where he likely would have belonged (and of course, in that alternate universe, maybe he lives to see it).

Murphy is still on the ballot, and has never topped 23% of the vote, these days hovering around half of that.  The writers won’t put him in, but it was impossible for someone with the 1980s that fresh in his mind not to think of the two-time MVP and home run champ as a future Hall of Famer.  I think he can look forward to a veterans’ committee nod eventually.

2009: Jack Morris (10), Lee Smith (7)
This would have been the worst year ever for people like me.  Smith even still had some career left (and 77 more saves) as James was writing.  Both were over 45% in the 2011 balloting, but I suspect that like Murphy, they’ll both have to wait for the VetCom vote. 

2010: Tim Raines (3), Ryne Sandberg (8)
Raines was 33 and still a very good player when this was being written.  James probably foresaw that it would take a while for writers to come to grips with his understated brand of greatness, because I doubt he assumed Raines would play until 42, so this would be more like his fifth or sixth ballot year.

The Sandberg placement here is hard to figure out.  Sandberg’s last year was at age 37, so he didn’t retire terribly early for a second baseman.  He was considered one of the greatest players of the eighties, and I don’t think there was ever really any doubt that he was getting in eventually.  No idea why James thought it might take this long.  (In reality, Sandberg went in in 2005, his third shot.)

2011: Barry Bonds (-2), Joe Carter (8)
Bonds had 222 home runs and a .283/.391/.526 line through 1993, his age 28 season, had won three MVP awards, and had firmly established himself as the best player in the game (though some would still swear it was Griffey).  This puts his retirement at 2005 — age 40, when, in fact, he played just 14 games and very well could have retired.

Carter, on the other hand, was an awfully cynical choice for James to make.  His line through 1993 was .262/.309/.469 (110 OPS+), though he did have 275 homers through age 33 and had topped 100 RBI in seven of the last eight years (with 98 in the other), getting himself three straight All-Star appearances and, unbelievably, two top-five MVP finishes.  He also had just hit one of the most memorable home runs in baseball history.  I guess it wasn’t totally unreasonable to see him ending up with a case in the minds of most voters of the day.  He had just 121 more homers and a 93 OPS+ in him from there on out, though, and washed out with 3.8% in his 2004 ballot premiere.

2012: Brett Butler (10), David Cone (4)
Butler was one of those guys who come along a few in each generation and convince people with their hustle and bunting abilities that they’re much, much better than they are.  Butler was a good player, hitting for average and drawing walks, with the speed to hit triples and (at least early on) play pretty good defense.  But he’d probably have been better off if he’d never attempted a single stolen base, managing to swipe 558 in his career but leading the league in caught stealing three times. Wound up with just 2375 hits, which didn’t impress all that many voters, and he made just one All-Star team and never finished in the top 10 of the MVP voting.  He wouldn’t have been the worst outfielder in the Hall, but he got just one or two votes in 2003 and fell off, and nobody’s whining about it.

Cone is trickier.  It’s surprising that James put him here; through 1993, he’d gone 95-65 with a 3.14 ERA.  He’d led the league in strikeouts twice and made two All-Star teams, but he was already over thirty, so it’s hard to see him as a likely Hall candidate. He was actually better from 31-40, going 99-61 with a 3.82 ERA in a much harder environment for pitchers, winning one Cy Young Award and finishing in the top five twice more.  Doubling his career win total after age 30 couldn’t have been seen as likely, but it happened…and yet Cone got just 3.9% in 2009 and fell off the ballot.  He deserved more support than that, but I can’t imagine why James pegged him for the Hall given his career line at the time. 

2013: Alan Trammell (12), Lou Whitaker (13)
Wouldn’t that have been an awesome ceremony?  Whitaker is the most unfairly treated one-and-done in the BBWAA’s history, with just 2.9% in 2001, and while Trammell will stay on the ballot for his full fifteen, he’s got next to no chance of being voted in.  Both are among the ten best ever to play their position.

2014: Goose Gossage (15), Don Mattingly (16)
Gossage made it in 2008, receiving a big push after Bruce Sutter, a clearly inferior player at the same position, got in in ’06.  Don “100% ballplayer, 0% bulls**t” Mattingly retired a year too early to be eligible in 2014, and peaked in his first year of eligibility at 28.2%.  He’d had a decent comeback year in ’93, so James probably figured he had a few solid years left to pad those counting stats.  He didn’t.

2015: Jack McDowell (11), Greg Maddux (2)
From the ridiculous to the sublime?  McDowell was 81-49 from 1987 through 1993 with a 3.46 ERA (116 ERA+), and had just won 22 games and a totally undeserved Cy Young Award. If you had to take a stab at a 28 year old pitcher who was going to be a Hall of Famer, and there was no Roger Clemens or Felix Hernandez around, McDowell isn’t a bad guess.  His win-loss luck went away in ’94, however, and his skills dropped off the table two years later.  McDowell was out of baseball forever before the year 2000, and picked up four Hall of Fame votes in 2005.

Maddux was about the same age but had started as a full-time pitcher two years earlier and had even more success, going 115-85 with a 3.15 ERA (122 ERA+) from 1986 through 1993 and winning the first two of his four consecutive Cy Youngs. Barring something catastrophic, Maddux will go in in 2014, making this another damn good pick by Mr. James 21 years or so in advance.

2016: Fred McGriff (7), Dwight Gooden (11)
McGriff was at his very best at the time James was writing, and was one of the best hitters in baseball from 1989-1994, but he had the bad fortune to hit his decline phase just as offense all around him was exploding, and to fall just seven homers short of 500.  I think McGriff may get in eventually, and may well deserve to, but he’s going to have a lot of competition to do it by 2016.

Gooden was eight years removed from being dominant, but believe it or not, he still had a future-Hall-of-Famer type of stat line after ’93: 154-81 (154 wins at just 28!), 3.04 era (118 ERA+), a Cy Young and a second place finish.  I probably would’ve pegged him to go into the Hall even earlier at that point, maybe 2008 or so.  But from ’94 on, Gooden never started 30 games again, reached double digits in wins only once, and had an ERA very near 5.00 in just 672 innings.  He got himself 3.3% of the vote in 2006.

2017: Frank Thomas (4), Ruben Sierra (7)
At the end of the 1993 season, Thomas was 25 and hitting .321/.441/.561 with an MVP award already under his belt.  It’s hard not to project that guy to be a Hall of Famer.  I suspect he’ll get in on his first try in 2014, however, as one of the beneficiaries of that insanely unfair and mostly arbitrary BBWAA process that deems him a “clean” slugger while Bagwell and others were dirty.

So, yeah…Ruben Sierra.  A star almost immediately when he entered the league at age 20, Sierra put up an excellent season in 1989 and again in ’91, but saw his numbers tail off in ’92 and plummet to .233/.288/.390 in ’93.  I’m sure James’ various systems suggested that a guy with 1307 hits and 774 RBI through age 27 was Hall-bound, but he probably should’ve seen some warning signs there.  Sierra never had another season that was even a full win above replacement level, though he managed to hang on as mostly a pinch hitter and part-time DH until 2006.  He’ll get his one and only shot to grab a couple Hall of Fame votes next winter.

2018: Ken Griffey, Jr. (3), Roberto Alomar (9)
Griffey is nearly as much of a first-ballot lock as Maddux is, of course — his turn will come up in 2016 — and Alomar will go in next summer.  Both were in their early 20s when this was written, though, and though both were already All-Stars, just calling the Hall for them at all was pretty impressive.

2019: Jeff Bagwell (9), Juan Gonzalez (9)
We can hope it won’t take Bagwell this long to get in, but who knows?  This must have been written during Bagwell’s ’94 MVP campaign, because through ’93, he was a 25 year old 1B who had never hit more than 20 homers in a season. 

Gonzalez, meanwhile, had hit more than 42 homers in each of ’92 and ’93, and looked like a sure thing.  He never really developed as anything more than a power hitter, though (as people sometimes ridiculously say about McGwire, he truly was one-dimensional), and couldn’t play defense, and was plagued by injuries.  He just barely cleared 5% this year, and will almost certainly drop off by 2013.  I don’t think he would’ve had much of a chance even without the PED questions.

Who’d he miss? 
Not appearing above are previously mentioned Hall of Famers Perez, Sutter and Blyleven, but otherwise, he picked all the ones that have been named so far.  Deserving candidates who are still on the ballot and were not mentioned include Barry Larkin, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Edgar Martinez, and Larry Walker, but he can be forgiven for not foreseeing any of those except McGwire (who had already hit 229 homers by 1993, and if Sierra is on there, Mac probably should’ve been too), and anyway, it’s far from a lock that any of those guys save Larkin makes it in before 2019. 

Of the 26 players elected by the BBWAA since 1995, James correctly named 23 of them (88.4%).  Of the 34 players he named on ballots that have already happened, 31 have become eligible for the Hall so far (Clemens, Bonds and Rose, of course, have not), and of those 31, 21 (68%) have actually been inducted.  Of the 16 players he named on ballots that have not happened yet — eighteen to twenty-five years in the future at the time James was writing — seven are in already or have a good chance of getting in eventually, and two, Whitaker and Trammell, certainly should be in already.  There are also some must-have-been-surprising-at-the-time omissions that ended up being rather prescient, like Will Clark, Bobby Bonilla, Jose Canseco and Darryl Strawberry.

As funny as it is to see Sierra and Carter listed as future Hall of Famers, I think James did about as well as one could do with this sort of exercise.  Considering trying it myself later this week…


About Bill

Bill is an employment lawyer and baseball geek. Also a comedy geek, and just a geek generally.