By Neil Munro
Canadian Baseball Network
Only a few Canadian ball players have ever received some consideration (i.e., have received one or more votes) for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
And just one Canadian baseball great has actually been given the nod for induction into the hallowed hall – Ferguson Jenkins (Chatham, Ont.). Jenkins was elected in his third year of eligibility (in 1991) and just barely made it, receiving one vote more than the 333 needed for selection that year. The only other Canadian ball player to receive a significant level of support for induction in the Hall of Fame is Larry Walker (Maple Ridge, B.C.).
Members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) vote annually to determine the retired players to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The ballots are distributed in the fall to active and retired baseball beat-writers who have been BBWAA members for 10 years or more. The ballots simply list the candidates in alphabetical order and voters are instructed to choose up to 10 names. In recent years, approximately eight names per ballot have been selected.
Only players who played in at least 10 seasons in the majors are eligible. The player’s active seasons in the majors must be not less than five or more than 20 years prior to the first year his name appears on a ballot. To be elected for selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame, a candidate must be named on at least 75% of the ballots cast. Any candidate receiving less than 5% of the vote is dropped from future ballots. A screening selection committee actually determines the names of the players that are deemed to be worthy enough to even appear on a ballot in their first year of eligibility.
Walker retired as an active player following the 2005 baseball season, so his name has appeared on eight annual ballots to date (from 2011 through 2018). His best showing (in terms of the percentage of votes amassed was on the 2018 ballot, when he received 34.1% of the 434 ballots cast. Although it is certainly not a hard and fast rule, players who have received more than 50% of the votes cast are quite likely to eventually be inducted into the Hall of Fame, either in subsequent elections or by one of the voting panels (once deemed the veterans’ screening committee) charged with the task of selecting deserving Hall of Fame inductees who had been overlooked in the annual voting process.
Walker’s vote totals in the past eight elections are shown here:
The corresponding results for Ferguson Jenkins in his three years on the ballot were:
Just five other Canadian players have received even as much as a single vote since the doors to the Cooperstown Hall of Fame first opened in 1936. While the 75% cut-off level has always been the base line for selection in any annual vote, writers were once allowed to name any retired player of their choosing in the some previous years. So it is likely that some of the five Canadians listed below might never have been listed on a ballot at all had the current selection process been followed from the outset.
John Hiller received 11 votes on the 1986 ballot before being dropped off future ballots, George Selkirk received a total of 7 votes during a six-year span from 1948 to 1953. Jimmy Archer (a defensive specialist as a catcher in the dead ball era) receive a total of 16 votes between 1937 and 1939, Erik Gagne received 2 votes on the 2014 ballot and Terry Puhl got one vote on the 1997 ballot. Equally surprising is the fact that neither Jeff Heath nor Tip O’Neill ever received a single vote for Hall of Fame consideration.
Walker has just two more years of eligibility left for appearing on the annual Hall of Fame ballot. It does seem unlikely that his vote total will more than double in that time frame, so his fate will almost certainly rest in the hands of what the WWBAA terms the “Today’s Game voting panel” that gives a second look at players who participated in the big leagues since 1988. The next scheduled year for this committee to meet is in 2021 (there are four such committees serving on a rotating basis). For example, two of the 2018 Hall of Fame inductees, Alan Trammell and Jack Morris, had their tickets stamped by this committee. The committee will consider 10 deserving candidates in 2021 (no waiting period is required once their names have been dropped from the annual ballot).
The next prominent retired Canadian players that might appear on an annual ballot are Jason Bay (Trail, B.C.) and Ryan Dempster (Gibsons, B.C.). Each retired following the 2013 season, so they become eligible for consideration on the 2019 BBWAA ballot. Of course both must pass the scrutiny of the selection committee and be deemed as worthy selections for that 2019 ballot.
The next Canadian to receive serious consideration will be Justin Morneau (New Westminster, B.C.). Officially retired after the 2016 season (after spending the 2017 season as an unsigned free agent) Morneau’s active career is now over, having accepted a front office position as a special assistant with the Minnesota Twins. This means that he will be eligible for inclusion on the 2022 BBWAA ballot. The former American League MVP (for 2006) and National League batting champ (in 2014), Morneau is sure to survive the scrutiny of the selection committee and appear on the official ballot. The question will be whether he survives the 5% cut-off level and thus remain on future ballots after 2022.
There are two active Canadian players with sufficient credentials to merit Hall of Fame consideration at some time in the future. Montreal native Russell Martin (depending on the duration of his career) might be expected to appear officially on a Hall of Fame ballot in the next 10 years or so. While his batting records are not quite at the lofty standard posted by most Hall of Fame candidates, his fielding excellence, team leadership and propensity for piloting his ball clubs to post season play, should accord him serious consideration.
Without a doubt, Joey Votto (Etobicoke, Ont.) must rate as not just a candidate for Hall of Fame ballot attention, but must be thought of as a strong candidate for ultimately receiving the highest accolade - being admitted as a full-fledged member inducted into the Cooperstown museum.
Many baseball analysts have devised formulas or rating scales for measuring the chances of an active player eventually becoming a Hall of Fame member. One such method is Bill James’ similarity score. It compares the output of a player to other active or retired ball players who are most alike in terms of their batting levels of achievement. Among those deemed to be most similar to Votto are Paul Goldschmidt, Jason Giambi, Hal Trosky, Ted Kluszewski, Mo Vaughn and the aforementioned Larry Walker. Of those, probably the one with the best Hall of Fame credentials to date is Paul Goldschmidt. Trosky and Kluszewski might well have been elected to the Hall of Fame if not for serious injuries which limited the length of their illustrious careers. It will really come down to the number of productive seasons that Votto still has in his future, and to a lesser extent, his final career batting statistics.
Another Bill James’ Hall of Fame predictor is his Hall of Fame Monitor Points structure. Points are awarded for a wide variety of batting and fielding categories, as well as for being named MVP or to All-Star teams, and for their appearances in post-season play. It is interesting to note that no points are given for leading in on-base percentage or in bases on balls – the categories in which Votto excels the most. Most baseball analysts believe that the on-base percentage is the single best indicator of a batter’s contribution to generating team runs scored. The original point total for a player being quite likely to make it into the Hall of Fame was 100, but most observers believe that the cut-off should now be listed as 125 points, as it appears to be much tougher be inducted as time goes on. Votto’s current point total is 85 points, but he is sure to accumulate well over 100 when his extra playing time enables him to reach many of the career milestones needed for additional points.
Baseball analysts also use the concept of MVP award shares to rank ball players from different eras. It is often used as part of a formula to determine if a player will likely be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. It is calculated by the number of points a player receives for a particular MVP award divided by the total points a player would have received if he had captured all of all first-place votes that year. In terms of Canadians, the top three in career MVP award shares are: Votto with 3.06 points, Larry Walker second with 1.63 points and Justin Morneau third with 1.48 points. No other Canadian has accumulated better than one full point. It should be noted however, that pitchers usually do not fare as well as batters in the calculating MVP award shares.
The career leader among all baseball players in history is Barry Bonds with 9.30 shares (well ahead of second place Stan Musial who accumulated 6.96 shares). Albert Pujols is actually the third ranked player of all-time, but it should be noted that there were no MVP awards given during most seasons played by many Hall of Fame greats like Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. Joey Votto currently ranks 34th on the all-time list. He is well ahead of many outstanding players who were elected to the Hall of Fame. These players include Joe Morgan, Paul Waner, Mel Ott, Jeff Bagwell, Ernie Banks and Roberto Clemente, as well as Derek Jeter who most certainly will be elected someday.
In terms of his actual batting and fielding accomplishments, there is certainly a strong case to be made for Votto’s eventual entry into Cooperstown. Joey has led the National League six times in on-base percentage. Only two N.L. batters ever led more times in their careers – Barry Bonds (led 10 times) and Rogers Hornsby (nine times). If Votto leads the league one more time, it will tie him with Ty Cobb for fifth place in the most times leading in this category. Votto has led his league five times in the category of reaching base safely (via a hit, walk or hit by pitch). He is the most proficient active player in this important category, and by a wide margin.
The Cincinnati Reds have a long history of producing outstanding batters, such as Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Frank Robinson to name just a few. However the Redleg with the highest total in a season in times reaching base is Votto (having reached safely 321 times last year). Votto also has the second and third highest totals of any Cincinnati batter in history (319 times in 2015 and 316 times in 2013).
Votto has led the N.L. in bases on balls five times in his career to date. This ties him for the fifth highest number of league-leading seasons of all major leaguers in history. Although even the most gifted fielders at first base are not likely to ever receive Hall of Fame votes for their defensive proficiency alone, Votto has amassed a significant record with his glove. Votto has led his league in assists by a first sacker six times in his career – tied for the third best mark in major league history. Even more impressive is his career average of assists per game (0.922), a figure which exceeds the all-time runner-up Bill Buckner (at 0.869) by more than 0.50 points. Votto has produced the fourth best single season assist total (173 in 2011), the eighth best figure (165 in 2017) and the 16th best figure (154 in 2013) in major league history. Votto was the National league Gold Glove winner at first base in 2011.
His rank in batting statistics among Canadian batters can only be compared to the records posted by Larry Walker. Votto now ranks first among all Canadians in career walks (996), intentional walks (132), OPS (.969) and on-base percentage (.928). In fact his career on-base percentage mark is the eleventh best of all major league performers, just behind Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx and just ahead of Hall of Famer Tris Speaker. These were certainly two of the greatest players ever to don a pair of baseball spikes. Only injuries can prevent Votto from topping the Canadian career batting records in runs, hits, total bases, doubles, home runs and RBI.
In garnering league post-season awards, Votto also ranks first among all Canadians. He was the N.L. MVP for 2010 and has now added two more top three finishes in the MVP vote by placing third in 2015 and second in 2017. His near miss last year (just 2 points back of the winner Giancarlo Stanton) indicates the respect that the writers hold for his batting skills. While Stanton’s home run exploits (including his 59 round trippers) earned him the most headlines, Votto led the league in almost all of the more sophisticated analysis statistics. These include on-base percentage (.454), OPS (1.032), adjusted OPS+ (168), offensive winning percentage (.797), adjusted batting runs (66) and adjusted batting wins (6.2). The fact that Votto did so well in the MVP vote indicates the significance that the writers now place on these types of statistics, compared to the past.
In many respects, Votto’s 2017 season was his best yet – even better than his MVP campaign of 2010 (when he belted 37 HR and drove in 113 RBI). Although he has topped the 36 HR, 100 RBI, .454 on-base percentage, .578 slugging percentage and .320 batting average on more than one occasion in previous years, he still managed to reach new pinnacles of success. Votto cut down substantially on his strikeout level (while most major leaguers continue to swing and miss at increasingly higher rates). Votto had just 83 whiffs compared to his major league leading 134 walks, easily the best ratio in all of Major League Baseball. This was the first full season in which Votto had fewer than 100 strikeouts.
Iron-man Votto played every one of his team’s 162 games in 2017 (one of only two National Leaguers to do this). The Reds infielder also led the league in intentional walks (for the third time) and his 20 IBB tied the best single season mark by a Canadian. It is not unexpected that Walker was the other Canadian with 20 IBB, but you will be surprised to learn that he set that mark while playing in Montreal in 1993 and not with Colorado. Votto just missed out on the major league record of having reached base safely two or more times in 21 straight games. With three walks in five plate appearances in the Reds' 2-1 win over the Cubs on August 15, Votto extended his streak of reaching base safely in a game at least twice to 20 games. Hall of Famer Ted Williams holds the modern Major League record of reaching twice or more in 21 straight games. Williams did that for the Red Sox from May 31-June 24, in 1948. Votto's 20-game streak equals the N.L. mark set by Pete Rose with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1979 and matched by Barry Bonds, who did it with the Giants in 2004.
In 2017, Votto became only the third player in major league history to produce at least 179 hits, 36 homers and 134 walks with 83 strikeouts or fewer in a single season. The other two are none other than Babe Ruth and Ted Williams! The other National League clubs began tinkering with new strategies to bring a halt to Votto’s record run for reaching base safely. On August 14 in a game against Chicago, Cubs manager Joe Maddon devised a scheme to make Votto appear to be a mere mortal at the plate. Maddon resorted to a recreation softball-type of alignment by using four outfielders to try and keep the Reds' first baseman off the bases. The Cubs made the unusual shift in the top of the fifth inning, with one out and nobody on. With the Cubs’ lefty Jose Quintana was pitching with a 3-1 count, when Votto pulled a double down the right-field line for his first hit of the game. Unaffected by the Cubs' strategy, Votto observed, "No matter the infield setup, no matter the alignment of the infield or outfield, I do the exact same thing. It's when I get caught up in what's going on defensively when I get myself into trouble.”
"Votto right now is ungodly," Maddon lamented. "Whatever you do, you're taking chances anyhow. It's almost like Tony Gwynn when he was good and moving when the ball was pitched to try to be in the right spot or distract him."
Maddon had sent third baseman Kris Bryant out to play left-centre field between left fielder Kyle Schwarber and centre fielder Jon Jay while Jason Heyward played right field.
I will now propose another method for predicting Votto’s eventual (or not) selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Joey is now 34 years old (preparing for his 12th big league campaign). I will use his last three very productive seasons as a measuring stick. Votto was at or near the league leadership in many important offensive categories (particularly walks and reaching base safely) in those seasons. He also placed near the top in the MVP vote as well in those seasons. If Votto can produce another four years with the same batting proficiency as he did in 2015, 2016 and 2017, he will be an absolute lock for gaining Hall of Fame membership in his very first appearance on the ballot. If he can’t produce another quality season like those, then he may be a long shot to gain admission to Cooperstown.
Somewhere in between these extremes, he is bound to pass the point where he will eventually gain admission to baseball’s most elite club. Let’s bring on the 2018 baseball campaign and see what the future holds for Joey Votto.