Baseball Hall of Fame 2021: Storylines to watch for before Tuesday announcement

Mark Buehrle. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

TORONTO – Rarely are Hall of Fame debates simple in baseball, and that's certainly the case with the class of 2021.

Two of the greatest to ever play continue gaining support, but Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are likely to find themselves on the outside looking in Tuesday evening when full results are announced. If anyone gets voted in, it’ll likely be the most controversial candidate of all, Curt Schilling.

We can say with certainty that Derek Jeter and Larry Walker will be there to share the stage with any new inductees, as the class of 2020 still hasn’t been inducted. Along with them will be Ted Simmons and the late Marvin Miller, who were also set to be part of last summer’s class before COVID-19 led to a change in plans.

Thanks to Ryan Thibodaux’s invaluable tracker, we now have a clear sense of which candidates have a shot at the 75 per cent support required for election and which players are likely to receive less than five per cent of the vote and fall off the ballot entirely.

I don’t yet have a vote, but these are some of the storylines I’ll be watching ahead of Tuesday’s announcement…

One and done, or does Buehrle stay on?

A year ago this time, Jeter made it in easily as a first-time eligible player. Of the 397 ballots casts, he appeared on 396 of them for the second-highest approval rate of all-time.

This year, however, no first-time eligible players will be so fortunate. It's even possible that no first-time eligible players will stay on the ballot at all. Mark Buehrle (7.7 per cent of known ballots), Torii Hunter (4.9 per cent) and Tim Hudson (3.8 per cent) are all on that cusp.

Granted, Buehrle, Hunter and Hudson weren't the biggest stars of their era, but you could make a compelling Hall of Fame case for any of the three, maybe Buehrle most of all. A five-time All-Star, Buehrle pitched at least 200 innings 14 seasons in a row on his way to 60 career WAR. He was far from just an innings eater, too, with a lifetime ERA of 3.81, a perfect game, a no-hitter and a significant role on the 2005 White Sox team that won it all.

But having covered Buehrle, it’s hard to imagine he’s overly stressed about this moment. In 2016, when Buehrle was less than a year into retirement, then-Blue Jays manager John Gibbons sent a half-joking text to the left-hander suggesting he return for the playoff push. Buehrle’s response was succinct: a picture of a lake.

Helton and Rolen making progress

The early balloting suggests Todd Helton and Scott Rolen have a chance to make significant gains.

Helton, who placed on 29.2 per cent of ballots a year ago, is now appearing on 50.5 per cent. While it’d be hard to quantify how big of an impact Walker’s selection had on voters, it certainly can’t hurt that Helton’s longtime teammate is now heading to Cooperstown.

Like Walker, Helton's offensive numbers benefitted from Coors Field (Helton hit 227 home runs with a .345/.441/.607 batting line at home compared to 142 home runs with a still-impressive .287/.386/.469 batting line on the road). But even when you take into account that forgiving offensive environment, Helton’s peak was incredible with 37 homers per season and a .349/.450/.643 slash line from 2000-04.

Rolen, meanwhile, is now on 62.1 per cent of ballots, up from 35.3 per cent a year ago. It almost certainly won’t happen this year, but his chances of going in are improving rapidly as appreciation for his defensive work spreads.

Schilling on the cusp, creating tough calls

As of Monday evening, only one candidate's appearing on the requisite 75 per cent of ballots: Curt Schilling, at 75.3 per cent.

From a baseball standpoint, there's plenty to recommend Schilling. He posted a 3.46 ERA (127 ERA+) during a hitter's era, contributed to three World Series winners and generated 80.5 WAR. Yet the discussion here is hardly about baseball at all.

In recent years, he has made transphobic comments that lost him a job at ESPN and shared so-called jokes supporting the lynching of journalists. Then, during the siege at the U.S. Capitol earlier this month, Schilling tweeted his support for the rioters, saying that they started "confrontation for (stuff) that matters."

With that in mind, voters face a dilemma: omit an accomplished player from their ballots or vote for him, knowing that an induction speech might allow him to spread more hate. So far, most voters are choosing the latter.

Grand finale for Bonds & Clemens in 2022?

Close behind Schilling are two other familiar names: Roger Clemens (72.0 per cent) and Barry Bonds (72.5) per cent. In theory, both are within striking distance, but both typically see much less support on the anonymous ballots that are revealed late.

Again, these players are among the best of all time, but alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs has at the very least delayed their induction into Cooperstown, and depending how next year goes, their off-field decisions could keep them out altogether. The 2022 ballot will be the tenth and final chance for Bonds and Clemens to be elected by the writers.

Further muddying the ballot for 2022, two more all-time talents with links to PEDs will soon be eligible. The last chance for Bonds and Clemens will also be the first chance for Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz.

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