The 2023 Hall of Fame voting is in process. Baseball writers are getting their ballots in. Some are making them public. Some are keeping them private.
Some are solid ballots that are perfectly defensible from a variety of reasonable points of view. Some are Looney Tunes levels of inexplicability (now that’s a good word) if you’ve ever watched a baseball game or read a stat sheet.
After following the BBWAA voting for the last few years, I’m not sure that watching a baseball game or reading stats are a prerequisite for becoming a Hall of Fame voter.
(See the voter who previously voted for candidates like Scott Rolen only to submit a blank ballot with a caption that said something along the lines of “that’s life”.)
Despite the oddities inherent in the HOF/BBWAA system, the voting does seem to be tracking toward good outcomes this year. As of today, January 10th, former Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen and former Rockies first baseman Todd Helton are on pace to gain election into the Hall.
Here’s where the voting sits according to the incredible Ryan Thibodaux and his Hall of Fame tracking team. (You can find his Hall of Fame Tracker here.)
As of Tuesday morning, Scott Rolen leads the election, appearing on 81.2% of the ballots with 37.8% of the ballots made public. Todd Helton follows closely at 79.9%. Former Astros closer Billy Wagner sits just outside of election at 73.2%. 75% is needed to gain the Hall.
With only 38% of the ballots made public, it’s a bit early to call this race. However, historical trends from Thibodaux indicate that by this point the trend line is fairly well established. The final reveals of public ballots and untrackable private ballots are unlikely to swing the total too much. The 62% remaining is likely to follow the 38% already known.
I’m one of those weirdos who likes to provide reputable data to support the claims I make on the internet. In the charts below, posted by Thibodaux on his Twitter page, you can see the way the voting trend lines level off well before the current % returns.
Scott Rolen’s Voting Trend:
Todd Helton’s Voting Trend:
Whether either or both players end up elected this season or not is somewhat moot for today’s conversation. They will get elected. Even if private or late-reveal ballots swing downward for either of these two in 2023, the momentum for both players is clearly toward election. If both don’t end up in the Hall this year, it seems certain that both will make it by 2024. If trends hold up, Billy Wagner and Andruw Jones will likely follow.
Today, I’m not going to go into an in-depth rehashing of any of these candidates. Instead, I want to look at the obvious symmetry that their impending election means for two current Cardinals.
Of course, I’m talking about Nolan Gorman and Jordan Walker.
Ha, ok, no. Though I think I can make a case for Walker if I wanted to. His 90th percentile exit velocity in AA seems Hall of Fame worthy to me. Put him in cowards!
2022 MVP winner Paul Goldschmidt and “no one else will ever win a Platinum Glove” Nolan Arenado are the obvious parallels to Todd Helton and Scott Rolen.
Two elite defenders with well above-average offense at third base.
Two elite hitters with good defensive ability at first base.
The comparisons write themselves. (Except I still have to do the work.) Let’s put some stats (and words) to it anyway, starting with the two third basemen.
Scott Rolen and Nolan Arenado
Rolen ended his career playing for the Cincinnati Reds at the age of 37. Injuries sapped him of his production over the last half of his career so most of his Hall of Fame resume was built with both the Phillies and Cardinals before the age of 32.
From 1996-2006, through his age-31 season, Rolen produced 54.4 of his 69.9 career fWAR. At that time, he had a .285/.375/.515 slash line with a 129 wRC+.
That productive first half of his career provides an easy point of comparison for where Arenado is right now. Arenado just completed his age-31 season, his best in the majors. Arenado is a season behind – Rolen came up as a 21-year-old rookie – but the PA totals for both players through this age are comparable (5939 for Rolen versus Arenado’s 5831.)
Arenado currently has a .289/.346/.535 slash line with a 121 wRC+ and 45.7 fWAR.
At the same point in their career, Arenado and Rolen have a very similar slash line. Rolen has a notable but not overly significant edge in wRC+. Rolen has a pretty substantial edge in fWAR – around 9 points.
Some of that fWAR difference comes from Rolen’s superior DEF value and that makes this comparison somewhat problematic. Arenado is playing in an era with advanced defensive stats – UZR in his early career and OAA now – calculated into his fWAR value. Rolen’s defensive fWAR doesn’t include those kinds of precise metrics.
What does that mean? With two players known for their elite defense who played in different eras, it’s impossible to have an apples-to-apples comparison.
I got to watch both of them. I think Rolen is a bit better defensively but I won’t quibble about it. That matches up with the rough stats we have. I’m good with it.
Through age 31, Rolen has a slight edge over Arenado.
It’s what happens next that has proved problematic for Rolen’s candidacy and might give Arenado an edge.
From age 31 through the end of his career at age 37, Rolen produced another 15.5 fWAR based largely on his defense. He lost quite a bit of power after his shoulder injury, leading him to a slash line from age 32-37 of .272/.340/.436 and a 106 wRC+. That’s solid but not Hall of Fame caliber and it adds up to an average of 2.6 per season over six seasons.
It would be pretty disappointing if Nolan Arenado can’t top Rolen’s 15.5 fWAR production from age 31 on. It is something we shouldn’t rule out, however. In 2021, Arenado’s first with the Cardinals, he produced just a 113 wRC+ with a slash line of .255/.312/.494 and 4.1 fWAR.
That’s a bottom-end projection for Arenado. It’s also one that has to maintain for the next 6 years to catch Rolen’s career fWAR total. A few seasons close to what he produced in 2022 would go a long way to helping him do that. As would continued good health.
In the end, though, this isn’t a Rolen vs. Arenado debate. If Rolen is a Hall of Famer, and he’s trending that way, then Arenado can follow a fairly standard age-regression curve and still finish in the “clear Hall of Famer” category, especailly with a few extra defensive awards on his mantle to sweeten the deal.
What would really help him is a World Series or two.
Arenado vs. Rolen? There’s no need to debate. They are very similar players. They should both end up as Hall of Famers.
Todd Helton and Paul Goldschmidt
Well, well, well. Would you look at that! Paul Goldschmidt and Todd Helton are already in a virtual tie in career fWAR. Helton has 54.9 in 9453 PAs. Goldy has 54.0 in just 6951 PAs.
The conclusions are obvious. If Goldy is already even with Helton in fWAR in 2500 fewer PAs and Helton is probably going to get elected to the Hall of Fame this season, then Goldy is already a Hall of Famer.
He even has that shiny new MVP trophy to further prove his point.
Case closed. Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk.
Let’s look at the stats anyway.
Todd Helton played his whole career in offense-boosting Coors Field. His slash line is .316/.414/.539 – exceptional – and it comes with a .405 wOBA. All of that is amazing and would place him among the best players in the game’s history.
That’s why we factor in where he played his games.
Helton’s wRC+ is just 132.
Is a 132 bad? Absolutely not. It’s very good. But it’s not all-time good.
Just to drive this point home, Stan Musial had a career .331/.417/.559 slash line. That’s a bit better but very comparable to Helton’s. Musial’s wRC+ is 158, good for 12th all-time.
That’s how big of an advantage it is to play your whole career in Colorado.
That reality has formed the crux of the arguments against Helton’s election to the Hall. Helton’s 132 wRC+ carries him near some guys who either didn’t or won’t receive significant Hall of Fame consideration. Like Pedro Guerrero, Will Clark, Carlos Delgado, John Kruk, Prince Fielder, John Olerud, Keith Hernandez, and Jose Abreu.
That shouldn’t invalidate Helton’s HOF candidacy for you. There needs to be a balance point between Helton’s park-adjusted offense, his impressive actual offense, his long and productive career, and probably even his standing in Rockies’ team history. Throw those things on the scales in whatever ratio you want, weigh them against the duck, and *poof* you’ll get the witch you wanted.
All of that only reinforces the fact that Paul Goldschmidt, not a career Colorado Rockie, is your first base Holy Grail.
Goldy just completed his age-34 MVP season where he produced 7.1 fWAR and won the MVP.
At the same age, Helton was already entering his collapse phase. At age 34, Helton produced just a 101 wRC+ and a .6 fWAR in 361 PAs. The next year when Helton rebounded to a 131 wRC+ but only managed 2.6 fWAR. Three seasons with wRC+ below 90 followed along with one brief resuscitation to a 120 at age 37.
At the same age as Goldy now, Helton’s line was .328/.428/.574 with a 140 wRC+ and 51 career fWAR.
Goldy’s line is .295/.391/.527 with a 144 wRC+ and 54 career fWAR.
To pass Helton’s career production, all Goldy has to do is stay healthy and not completely collapse at the plate. Goldschmidt could do something that would really disappoint us – say finish with a 2.0 fWAR average over the next four years (through age 38) – and it would still land him at 62 fWAR and clearly ahead of Helton.
If he steps down as I’ve projected in the past with a 5-4-3-2-1 fWAR over the next five seasons (age 39), he’ll finish his career with a fWAR of 69, dwarfing Helton and right alongside Rolen and where we want to project Arenado.
70’ish career fWAR, give or take a little, should always be a Hall of Famer.
If things continue as we hope they will, the Cardinals should be able to claim three Hall of Famers from this group, plus one Cardinal-killer that StL fans have long appreciated. In the end, all four players should reach the Hall. And all of them are probably deserved by one argument or another.
As we saw with Helton and Rolen, however, injuries and age-related decline matter. Rolen’s shoulder injury sapped his power, leaving the second half of his career far below the first. Helton fell off a cliff in the last few seasons in Colorado, producing offensive values that were well below league average, despite a long career of excellence to that point.
Similar things could happen to both Arenado and Goldy. We should probably expect them, considering the way that the vast majority of baseball careers go. Let’s just hope it doesn’t happen any time soon.