Ballots for this year’s National Baseball Hall of Fame election were mailed to eligible Baseball Writers Association of America members on Monday, and I say it’s about time Livan Hernandez got his due.
OK, with a 178-177 career record, 4.44 ERA and less than half the WAR of an average Hall of Fame pitcher, Hernandez isn’t headed to Cooperstown. Still, he was chosen World Series MVP as a rookie, pitched 17 seasons in the majors, and earned, by baseball-reference.com’s estimation, more than $50 million. And my own affection for him stems from my first spring training as a Twins writer, when Hernandez kept a basketball in his locker, drove to Miami a couple times during camp to attend Heat games, and spent plenty of time debating various NBA topics with me.
There are 14 holdover candidates from last year’s ballot among this year’s field, including two — Trevor Hoffman and Vladimir Guerrero — who cleared 70 percent of the vote but fell just short of the 75 percent required for election. They’re likely to clear that benchmark this year.
And another 19 retired players are on the ballot for the first time, a group that’s headlined by the all-but-certain first-ballot enshrinee Chipper Jones.
Four of the newcomers are former Twins, if not necessarily known for their time in Minnesota. Hernandez is one, and Orlando Hudson — who spent only one of his 11 MLB seasons in Minnesota, as the starting second baseman on the 2010 AL Central champs — is another, and for them, just appearing on a Hall of Fame ballot is an honor.
But the other two are more interesting cases. Jim Thome, who spent 2010 and five months of the 2011 season in Minnesota and hit his 600th career home run in a Twins uniform, is on the ballot for the first time this year, and he doesn’t figure to be on the ballot for long. A crowd of candidates and the fact that he hit homers at a time when they were plentiful might delay Thome’s election for a year or two, but his stellar off-the-field reputation, and a lack of connection to performance-enhancing drugs make him a huge favorite to reach 75 percent soon.
Then there is Johan Santana, the only two-time Cy Young winner in Twins history, and arguably their best pitcher ever. Most Twins fans who witnessed Santana’s final five seasons in Minnesota, 2003-07, would probably say they believed they were watching a future Hall of Famer. Anyone who watched him absolutely destroy the Rangers in the Metrodome on Aug. 19, 2007, striking out a franchise-record 17 in just eight innings and holding Texas to two hits, might believe he was a first-ballot electee.
Santana led the league in strikeouts three straight years, finished in the top seven of Cy Young balloting in all five seasons, and posted an ERA below 3.00 in three of them. If voters hadn’t been more impressed with Bartolo Colon’s 21 wins than Santana’s superior 2.87 ERA and 238 strikeouts in 2005, he’d have won three straight Cy Young trophies.
Yet the history of injuries that cut Santana’s career short may also keep him out of Cooperstown. He pitched only 2025 innings in his career, which would be the second-lowest total, ahead of only Dizzy Dean, among starting pitchers in the hall. He clears the 10-year minimum for consideration only because of two seasons spent waiting for his chance in Minnesota’s bullpen and a comeback attempt with the Mets in 2012 after missing a season following shoulder surgery. And because of that, most of his cumulative statistics fall below Hall of Fame norms.
So it might take a few ballots for Santana’s odds of election to become clear, and a player gets only 10 chances. Already, a campaign has begun for the Venezuelan left-hander, making the case that Santana is the modern-day Sandy Koufax, brilliant through his prime but denied because of injury a chance to enhance his numbers. And baseball-reference.com founder Sean Forman noted recently on Twitter that if you neutralize their numbers to account for Koufax playing in a pitching-dominant era in spacious Dodger Stadium, their statistics are remarkably similar (though even Koufax, who retired when he was only 30, pitched 300 more innings than Santana).
That’s the case that Santana supporters will have to make if the Twins’ ace lefty is ever going to clear the high hurdle of 75 percent.
Here are the players on this year's ballot: