Newest members of coveted honor set a precedent
The Santa Clara
January 31, 2019
Major League Baseball announced the results of the 2019 Hall of Fame elections last Tuesday. Four new players joined the sacred ranks of Cooperstown: Mariano Rivera, Edgar Martinez, Roy Halladay and Mike Mussina. Lee Smith and Harold Baines were also added earlier in a vote from the Today’s Game Era Committee, giving the final 2019 Hall of Fame class six inductees.
While such an exclusive list of players makes every inductee unique and important, Mariano Rivera and Edgar Martinez stood out from this class due to their unprecedented circumstances. Rivera became the first player in Cooperstown history to receive a unanimous induction vote, while Edgar Martinez was voted in despite having the highest percentage of time played at the designated hitter position (DH).
To understand why these are significant precedents, it is crucial to understand some basics of the Hall of Fame voting process as well as the historical opinion on the DH position.
When it comes to the voting process, players are placed on the ballot five years after they retire. Once on the ballot, they must receive five percent of votes each year to remain a candidate.
In order to be inducted, a player must receive at least 75 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA). Assuming the minimum percentage of votes is met, a player is granted 10 years of eligibility on the ballot—until they either reach 75 percent and are inducted or fail to do so and are removed.
“First-ballot” Hall of Famers—being inducted during a player’s first year on the ballot—are rare, occurring only 24 percent of the time. Receiving 100 percent of the vote has never happened before—that is until this year.
Rivera set an incredible precedent by becoming the first unanimous induction in baseball history—something not even the likes of Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson or Hank Aaron achieved. Prior to this year, the closest player was Ken Griffey Jr.—teammate to Martinez in Seattle and 2016 Cooperstown inductee—who received 99.3 percent of the vote.
In Martinez’s case, the significance lies not with his voting numbers, but with the fact that he was elected to the Hall of Fame at all. Martinez’s primary position was DH—and clearly, he was a great one. The Edgar Martínez Outstanding Designated Hitter Award, which recognizes the most skilled DH each year, is named after him and some consider him the greatest the position has ever seen.
While nobody denies he was a fantastic hitter, the only player in the Hall of Fame who played DH at least 50 percent of the time is Frank Thomas prior to this year’s vote. Besides him, the only other player in Cooperstown who played DH at least 30 percent of the time is Paul Molitor.
In contrast, Martinez spent more than two-thirds of the time at the DH position. He is the most pure DH to ever get invited to Cooperstown—signaling an important shift in the way baseball writers are beginning to view that position and a player’s legacy.
Historically, being primarily a designated hitter pretty much disqualified a player from the Hall of Fame in the eyes of most baseball writers simply out of principle. The arguments against voting for DHs were logical, considering only half of the league allows the designated hitter position and that player doesn’t play defense. However, with Martinez entering the ballot 10 years ago, voters were forced to rethink their stances on the DH.
Early on during his time on the ballot, voters’ mentalities seemed to be the same. Martinez only gained 36 percent of the vote in his first year before slowly dropping even further each year until a 25 percent vote in his fifth year.
Yet, as a surprise to many, Martinez’s numbers began a miraculous turn around and began to climb quickly. Support from fans and other Hall of Famers coupled with his impact as hitting coach for the Seattle Mariners and the retirement of David Ortiz, legendary Boston Red Sox DH and probable future Hall of Famer, in 2016 pushed Martinez back into the spotlight.
Slowly, the BBWAA’s general opinion on Edgar’s candidacy began to shift.
With this being his last year on the ballot, it was now or never for the Mariners’ legend to get in. Fortunately, popular opinion flipped just in time and Martinez gained 85.4 percent of the vote this year.
A similar trend seems to be exemplified with Rivera’s induction. Rivera was a closing pitcher, meaning his job required pitching one inning about every 2.4 games. While he is widely regarded as the best closer in baseball history, the same approach to DHs in the Hall of Fame had historically been taken to closing pitchers. Yet, this year we have seen a DH get inducted on his 10th and final year on the ballot, and a closer get inducted with the first unanimous decision in baseball history.
If this year’s voting signals a turning point in Hall of Fame voting at all, it is this: voters are beginning to judge players on their unique career, accomplishments and legacy rather than making conclusions based on personal opinions and the validity of the position played. While players at these positions will continue to be held to a higher standard, as they should be, it is promising to see opportunities for truly great stars opened up in the future Cooperstown classes.
Afterall, for Rivera and Martinez who were two of the best to ever play their position, it is only fitting that they enter Cooperstown setting a precedent.
Contact Kyle Lydon at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.