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Bill Madden: Making sense of the Hall of Fame voting and why Billy Wagner can count on another vote

NEW YORK — The 2024 Baseball Hall of Fame election is over and as is so often the case there was more debate about the players who didn’t get in than those who did.

Adrian Beltre, who had the magic number of 3,000 hits, was a lock to be elected and the only question I had was how high a percentage he would get which, at 95.1%, was impressive but still a tad lower than three other third basemen in the Hall (Chipper Jones, George Brett and Mike Schmidt). It figured, too, that Todd Helton would get in after moving to the doorstep at 72.2% in his fifth year on the ballot in 2023 and he squeezed out another 26 votes to get him safely over the necessary 75% at 79.7.

Even though he was the best catcher in the American League for seven seasons and the only receiver in history to win three batting titles, there was question whether Joe Mauer would make it in his first year on the ballot after having to shift over to first base his final five years because of a severe concussion. But enough writers, of which I was one, didn’t hold his truncated career against him and gave him 293 votes for a narrow 76.1% plurality.

When it comes to this annual exercise, I’ve always been a “Small Hall” guy who, to the best of my knowledge, has never voted for more than six players in any one year, and more often than not, three or less. My criteria is quite simple: Did this player dominate the game at his position and did I know in watching and covering this player I was looking at a Hall of Famer? As such, Beltre and Mauer was an easy vote.

I realize a lot of my BBWAA brethren agonize over this vote every year, which is good, but to them I would also say: “If you have to think about him, he probably isn’t.” Which brings me to the subject of Scott Rolen, the elite-fielding Phillies, Cardinals, Blue Jays and Reds third baseman who was last year’s only electee with 76.3% on his final year on the ballot. Rolen’s election appears to have been a product of the newer more analytically inclined BBWAA voters, who put a heavy emphasis on defense and on-base percentage.

Mind you, Rolen was an excellent player who played third base as well as anyone I’d ever seen and was also a player of high character. But the Hall of Fame (at least in my Small Hall view) is for the greatest players of all time and it’s hard to think of Rolen that way with only seven seasons of more than 140 games, no boldface (as in ‘denotes led league’) anywhere in his 17-year career, barely 2,000 hits (2,077) and only one top-10 MVP finish.

Likewise, this year’s “Rolen” seems to have been Chase Utley, the five-time Phillies All-Star second baseman whose career was also curtailed by injuries. Utley got 111 votes for 28.8% in his first year on the ballot, despite the fact he had only five seasons of 140 or more games, only 1,885 hits and led the league in only one category (131 runs in 2006) in 16 years. What’s most striking about Utley’s impressive first-year showing was that he surpassed his Phillies shortstop mate, Jimmy Rollins, who finished at 14.8% in his third year on the ballot.

If you ask me, Rollins has a far greater case for the Hall of Fame than Utley. Besides being regarded as the best shortstop in the National League from 2001-09, Rollins led the league in triples three times, runs once, stolen bases once and was NL Most Valuable Player in 2007. He is also the only shortstop in baseball history to hit at least 200 homers and steal more than 400 bases. Up until now I have not voted for Rollins, probably because it was hard to compare him with his American League counterpart Derek Jeter, who I covered on a daily basis, but I have to admit he does at least meet my first criteria about dominating at his position.

The one other checked name on my ballot was Gary Sheffield. It took me a while to come around on Sheff and not because of his link to steroids with Barry Bonds’ trainer back in 2001. He swore he didn’t know the cream he was rubbing on his body was a PED and I believed him because if there is one thing I learned about Gary Sheffield it’s that he’s honest to a fault.

I voted for him this time especially because it was his last year on the BBWAA ballot, but he fell short at 63.9% and will now have to wait until 2025 when the Contemporary Era veterans committee next meets. No doubt the steroids taint has hurt him, but I also think his vagabond career (eight teams), where every place he went always seemed to end badly, was a factor. But he was arguably the most fearsome hitter of his time, with those 509 homers, eight 100-RBI seasons and six top-10 MVP finishes and, despite his firebrand reputation, really is a good guy. I hope the vets smile favorably on him in ’25.

Finally, there was the sad story of Billy Wagner, who missed election by five votes in his next-to-last year on the ballot. Wagner is another really god guy, always accommodating to the media, who unquestionably had a regular-season Hall of Fame career with the sixth-most saves (422) in history and the all-time records for 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings .187 batting average against. But after covering Mariano Rivera for his entire career and voting for a closer for the Hall of Fame, I could never get past Wagner’s 21 hits allowed, 13 runs and 10.03 ERA in 14 postseason games.

It took Tom Verducci, my respected colleague from Sports Illustrated, to bring me to my senses about Wagner. “For God’s sake, it’s only 11 2/3 innings!” Verducci said, adding: “Ted Williams hit .200 in his only World Series. Are you gonna keep him out of the Hall of Fame for that?”

So next year, Wagner can count on getting at least one more vote. Besides, I could never live with myself if he missed by one vote on his last time on the ballot and it could’ve been mine.