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The First Unanimous Inductee and other Hall of Fame Queries

Mariano was the first unanimous inductee to the Hall of Fame, but what took so long?

Hall of Fame by numb3r is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The First Unanimous Inductee and other Hall of Fame Queries

Estimated Reading Time: 6 Minutes

After Mariano Rivera was elected to the Hall of Fame on 100% of the Hall of Fame ballots, somebody on Reddit asked if anyone had ever written an op-ed piece speculating who the first unanimous inductee would be. The answer is that many people have, but I haven’t.

Until now.

We used to take it pretty much for granted that nobody would ever be voted in unanimously. Eleven people didn’t vote for Babe Ruth, although to be fair the Hall was brand new in 1936 and nobody really knew what they were doing. Also, Ruth had only just retired the previous season. Twenty-three people didn’t vote for Willie Mays. Those twenty-three people are now in a mental institution (I’m guessing). Nine people didn’t vote for Hank Aaron, but again, to be fair, they were voting from a mental institution (I’m guessing).

For most of my life, the highest HOF voting percentage ever belonged to Tom Seaver (98.84%), which I always thought was weird because as a kid I never heard him mentioned in the same breath as Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, and Bob Gibson, all of whom were named to MLB’s All-Century Team in 1999. Seaver was not.

With the benefit of hindsight and advanced baseball acumen, we can now see that Seaver was better than all of them. The story of the five 1992 ballots that didn’t have Seaver’s name on them is pretty funny: three writers sent in a blank ballot, protesting that Pete Rose was not on the ballot; one writer had just gotten out of open-heart surgery and forgot to check off Seaver’s name; and retired writer Deane McGowan refused to vote for any player on his first ballot. Perhaps McGowan was somehow protesting the twenty-three people who didn’t vote for Willie Mays?

Ken Griffey, Jr. beat Seaver’s record in 2016 with 99.3 percent of the vote. It’s a safe bet that the three people who didn’t vote for him either had a full ballot and knew he would get in anyway, or, like Deane McGowan, refused to vote for a player on his first ballot. Thankfully, no such writer left Rivera off his ballot, and the one writer who did refuse to vote for him didn’t want to be the one person standing in the way of his unanimous election and so did not submit a ballot.

Whatever it was that got voters’ panties in a bunch about players getting in unanimously seems to be evaporating like the boxers of a 95-year-old voter who hasn’t gotten shopping for new underwear in thirty years. Of the twelve players with the highest Hall of Fame voting percentages, five of them have been elected in the last six years and two more were elected as recently as 2007 (Ripken and Tony Gwynn; for the curious, the other top five are Seaver, Ryan, Aaron, Ty Cobb, and George Brett).

The Hall purged about a hundred retired voters a couple of years ago, and it’s quite possible that had they been on the ballot since the purge, Cal Ripken or Greg Maddux would have been the first unanimous inductee. Maddux, in fact, has the highest vote total of all time, with 555. But there were sixteen additional writers who didn’t vote for him, so he somehow ranks only 11th in HoF voting percentage.

At any rate, the 100% threshold has finally been reached, and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

So who else might soon crack the threshold? Rivera’s gal pal Derek Jeter is on the ballot next year and he’s likely to come close.

As far as my personal idols go, Jeter ranks right up there with Robin Williams, Stephen Sondheim, and Barack Obama, so it’s impossible for me not to think he’s deserving of such an arbitrary honor. After him, we’re not likely to have a serious candidate for unanimity until the 2030s, when Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout hit the ballot.

Ichiro Suzuki might come close, but somebody will dock him for starting his MLB career at 27, or his (relatively) underwhelming offensive sabermetrics, or his having not really deserved his 2001 MVP award or something stupid like that.

Somebody won’t vote Albert Pujols for having wasted about $200 million of the Angels’ money, somebody won’t vote for Miguel Cabrera because he punched Austin Romine, somebody won’t vote for Alex Rodriguez because… never mind, I’m not touching that one.

We DO, however, have a slew of exciting debates coming up in the next few years about recent retirees Carlos Beltran, Adrian Beltre, Chase Utley, Joe Mauer, and David Wright.

Beltran and Beltre will get in; it’ll just be a question of whether they get in on the first ballot.  David Wright won’t get in, which is right, but it’s a shame. Wright was the Don Mattingly of his generation: a well-respected, wonderful all-around player who spent his entire career in New York, but whose career was cut short by a bad back. I’m just glad Wright finally got to play in a World Series in 2015, something Mattingly never did.

Utley and Mauer are probably borderline cases in many voters’ eyes. Utley’s total WAR and average offensive output are almost identical to HoFer Craig Biggio’s and Utley was by far the better fielder. Utley also ranks higher than Biggio (and Roberto Alomar and Jackie Robinson) on Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system, which averages a player’s career WAR with his 7-year peak WAR.

Among second basemen in the post-integration era, Utley ranks fifth, behind Joe Morgan, Rod Carew, Robinson Canó, and the underrated Bobby Grich, who spent his career being overshadowed by Carew and Morgan.

As for Mauer, he ranks seventh in JAWS behind Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Ivan Rodriguez, Carlton Fisk, Mike Piazza, and Yogi Berra. You’d have a hard time arguing that those aren’t the six best catchers of all time, so putting Mauer right behind them is saying something. He ranks higher than the average HOF catcher in WAR, peak WAR, and JAWS, and his .388 lifetime on-base percentage would rank fourteenth among post-integration HoFers (first among catchers, Hall or not).

Both Utley and Mauer will lose votes for their significant drop-off in production in their thirties, but hopefully they’ll both get in at some point.

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