There are, I dare to suggest, three factors that Hall of Fame voters consider when filling out their ballots:
On-field performance: The objective, after all, is to elect the best players.
PEDs: Some voters regard this as a disqualifying component of a player’s case, although voters are becoming more lenient in this area.
Q-rating: This is the "fame" part of Hall of Fame.
We mostly discuss the first two areas and rarely discuss Q-rating, and even though it’s often a hidden factor, it’s an important one. Without it, we’re basically turning Hall of Fame debates into a cold exchange of numbers, and there’s no fun in that, let alone that we have different statistical standards. While on-field performance should be the most important consideration, Q-rating, fair or not, is part of the debate.
In a sense, Q-rating is simply that gut reaction: Does this player feel like a Hall of Famer? Whether or not you believe Q-rating should be applied, there’s no denying many voters use it as a qualifier. Here’s an example: Ryne Sandberg and Lou Whitaker were contemporary second basemen in the 1980s. Statistically, they have similar cases:
Sandberg: .285/.344/.452, 282 HRs, 1061 RBIs, 1318 R, 67.5 WAR
Whitaker: .276/.363/.426, 244 HRs, 1084 RBIs, 1386 R, 74.9 WAR
Sandberg was elected on his third ballot, whereas Whitaker failed to even stay on the ballot after his first try. The difference: Q-rating. Sandberg had it, Whitaker didn’t.
For a borderline candidate, Q-rating can be the difference between getting in or falling short, so let’s look at the top candidates on this year’s ballot: Did they have a positive Q-rating or not?
Jeff Bagwell: No. He’s the second-greatest first baseman since World War II, behind only Albert Pujols. Over a 10-year span, he averaged .301/.420/.574 with 37 home runs and 116 RBIs. He even won an MVP award and finished second and third in two other seasons. It seemed that he was never fully appreciated, however, and it didn’t help that he performed poorly in the postseason, batting .226 with just two home runs and 13 RBIs in 106 at-bats. When the Astros finally reached the World Series in 2005, he was just a pinch-hitter off the bench. Part of the reason for the lack of appreciation is that a lot of first basemen were putting up huge numbers: Mark McGwire and Jim Thome and Rafael Palmeiro and Jason Giambi and Carlos Delgado and Frank Thomas. Mo Vaughn won an MVP award. It was difficult to stand out, but Bagwell was the best of the bunch.
Barry Bonds: Yes. Hey, don’t forget he played “Barry Larson” on an episode of “Beverly Hills, 90210.”
Roger Clemens: Yes. From the moment he struck out 20 Mariners on that April night in 1986, until he threw his final pitch 21 years later in the 2007 playoffs, he was as big a name as any player in the game. Sometimes for the right reasons, sometimes for the wrong ones.
Vladimir Guerrero: Yes. With 59.3 career WAR, Vlad’s statistical case isn’t over-the-top convincing, yet he’s going to come close to election in his first year on the ballot. It’s all about Q-rating. The .318 lifetime average helps, but his all-out style of play and uncommon look at the plate made him stand out, even when he was playing on bad teams in Montreal. He was fun. He had a strong arm, and that helped obscure that he wasn’t really a good right fielder; he had poor range, especially later in his career, and made a ton of errors, including 19 in 1999.
Trevor Hoffman: No. I guess he had the "Hells Bells" entrance song, and that was pretty cool. He was good forever, but I never felt like he was feared like peak Dennis Eckersley or Eric Gagne in his Cy Young season or some other closers who had short careers.
Jeff Kent: No. A generation ago, Kent would have been an easy Hall of Famer. He’s the all-time leader in home runs by a second baseman, he had eight seasons with at least 100 RBIs, and he had a great mustache -- all things that historically have been keys to election. He was even an excellent postseason performer over 49 games (.276/.340/.500) and got into fights with Bonds. His career WAR, however, is a borderline 55.2, and he’s one of those guys who have been hurt by a crowded ballot of candidates; some voters might view him as a Hall of Famer, but not one of the 10 best players on the ballot. Because Kent did most of his work in his 30s -- his first 100 RBI season came at 29 -- he was never viewed as a future Hall of Famer. He kind of snuck up on us, and the next thing you knew, he had 377 home runs and more than 1,500 RBIs. It’s better to start young and finish slow than start slow and finish old.
Edgar Martinez: No. Walks aren’t sexy. He was also overshadowed by Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson on the Mariners, although he did have this grand slam and "TheDouble" in the 1995 playoffs.
Fred McGriff: No. His best numbers came with the Blue Jays and Padres in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but those numbers soon paled when everyone’s numbers exploded in the mid-’90s. The Blue Jays traded him before they won their back-to-back World Series titles, and with the Braves most of the attention went to Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. He did have that signature high follow-through swing, which was always underappreciated. He also split his time among franchises -- five years in Toronto, five in Atlanta, five in Tampa, plus time with the Padres and Cubs -- which didn’t help his Q-rating.
Mike Mussina: No. He’s overwhelmingly qualified for the Hall of Fame, with 270 wins and 82.7 WAR, but he was never The Man, never winning a Cy Young Award, an ERA title or a strikeout title. While he had great postseason performances, he joined the Yankees the year after they won in 2000 and retired the year before they won in 2009.
Jorge Posada: No. He has played the second-most playoff games in history behind only Derek Jeter, but he never had that signature October moment or series, and his game was more quietly effective than loudly exciting -- walks, doubles and 20-plus home runs a year but only once hitting 30. I hope he stays on the ballot, but it’s going to be difficult for him to get that 5 percent to remain on.
Tim Raines: No. Another perfect example of the power of Q-rating. Raines is a good statistical comp for Tony Gwynn, with 69.1 WAR against 68.8 for Gwynn. But Gwynn had a great personality, was a good interview, got 3,000 hits and won batting titles, whereas Raines drew a bunch of walks and had his best seasons for mediocre teams in Montreal. It looks like he’ll finally get elected this year, his 10th on the ballot.
Manny Ramirez: Yes. He hit two home runs in his second major league start -- and a double that bounced over the wall that he thought was a home run. Manny being Manny was born. So was a star.
Ivan Rodriguez: Yes. That arm.
Curt Schilling: Yes. There’s something odd about Schilling’s lack of support through four trips on the ballot, reaching 52 percent last year. He belongs based on the statistical measurements -- at least if you go past his relatively low win total of 216 -- and has a high Q-rating, going back to his performance in the 1993 World Series with the Phillies to beating the Yankees with the Diamondbacks in 2001, then the Bloody Sock game and ending the curse in 2004, and then another title in 2007. He’s one of the great postseason pitchers ever. Put it this way: With 80.7 WAR, he was a much better pitcher than other low-win Hall of Famers such as Don Drysdale (209 wins, 61.2 WAR) and Catfish Hunter (224 wins, 36.6 WAR), who got elected because of a high Q-rating.
Gary Sheffield: Yes. It felt like he had a high Q-rating when he was active, even though he moved around a lot and didn’t have a likable personality. He had that amazing bat speed to go with all that hand movement in his setup, just daring pitchers to come inside to him. He finished with more than 500 home runs and was an on-base machine, but PED allegations have probably hurt him in the voting.
Lee Smith: No. I don’t think anyone ever thought he was the best reliever in the game. There were first guys such as Bruce Sutter and Dan Quisenberry or Willie Hernandez, and then came Rob Dibble, Eckersley, Bryan Harvey, Tom Henke and then John Wetteland and others. After leaving the Cubs, Smith moved around a lot and racked up a lot of saves with ERAs in the threes, and he pitched for just two playoff teams.
Sammy Sosa: Yes. The advanced stats say Sosa has a borderline case, even with 609 home runs and 1,667 RBIs. He had a relatively short peak, his career .344 OBP isn’t good for a Hall of Fame outfielder and his 58.4 career WAR is below Hall standards. But Q-rating? Like his partner in the great home run chase of 1998, you can’t tell the story of baseball without telling their story, and few players achieved the level of fame that Sosa and Mark McGwire reached.
Billy Wagner: No. He’s a borderline “yes,” at least as far as relievers go. He threw harder and was more dominant than Hoffman but didn’t last as long, although he could have -- in his final season he posted a 1.43 ERA and struck out 104 batters in 69⅓ innings. He received just 10 percent of the vote his first year. Like Mussina, who won 20 games in his final season, it’s a shame that simply not sticking around is hurting their cases.
Larry Walker: No. He had those monster seasons with the Rockies and even won an MVP award, but he appeared in the playoffs just once with them, and then twice at the end of his career with the Cardinals. He was a true five-tool player and trumps Guerrero in WAR -- 72.6 to 59.3 -- but I think his Q-rating never climbed higher for an obvious reason. Todd Helton had monster seasons with the Rockies, so did Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette and Vinny Castilla. Ellis Burks had a season in which he hit .344 with 40 home runs and led the league in slugging. Walker was a legitimately great player, but it was hard to separate fact from fiction.