2023 BBWAA Hall ballot: The ballad of Billy the Kid, plus two

Today we look at three Hall of Fame candidates returning on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot, all three of whom have real Hall of Fame cases.* We’ll begin with the relief pitcher who has a bona-fide Hall case even if you thought it only snuck up upon you.

Billy Wagner

Billy Wagner—he was way better out of the bullpen than a lot of people might remember . . . enough to earn him a spot in the Hall of Fame.

The Ballad of Billy the Kid

Billy Wagner—Maybe the most underrated relief pitcher of his and just about any time. He was as lights out as relief pitchers got and then some, even allowing that nobody yet has really figured out a final objective and definitive way to rate relief pitchers of any era.

Wagner yanked himself to a pinnacle following a childhood about which “hard scrabble” might be an understatement. (Too-frequent home changes; poverty so profound that peanut butter on a cracker equaled dinner often enough.) He was a small man who made himself into a lefthanded assassin. (Two right arm fractures during his impoverished childhood compelled him to go portside.)

Billy the Kid finished his fifteen-year career with a 0.99 walks/hits per inning pitched rate; and, when it comes to win probability added, Wagner has only five relievers ahead of him, Hall of Famers all: in ascending order, Trevor Hoffman, Goose Gossage, Hoyt Wilhelm, Dennis Eckersley, and The Mariano. He was also on his own planet when it came to missing bats. In fifteen full major league seasons (he had a cup of coffee with the 1995 Astros), his strikeouts-per-nine innings rate fell below 10.0 only once; he retired with a lifetime 11.9 rate.

Nobody could hit this guy too often: the lifetime batting average against him is .187. Here’s how the hitters did against the other Hall of Fame relievers:

Lee Smith—.235.
Rollie Fingers—.232.
Bruce Sutter—.230.
Goose Gossage—.228.
Dennis Eckersley—.225.
Hoyt Wilhelm—.213.
Trevor Hoffman—.211.
Mariano Rivera—.211.

Would you like to be reminded whom among those men pitched in the most hitter-friendly times? That would be Smith (in the final third of his career), Hoffman, The Mariano, and Billy the Kid. It’s to wonder how much more stupefying the record might be if Wagner could have avoided assorted injuries including late-career Tommy John surgery.

Maybe his only flaw was a Sheffield-like tendency to nuke bridges once he left town, though for far different reasons. Wagner waged war against those he thought didn’t share his competitiveness and determination. But he finally admitted in his memoir, A Way Out, “I learned a lot about criticism and how not to be a leader when I was traded.”

When he walked away after 2010, he decided his family was a lot more important to him than whatever else he could accomplish as a pitcher. “There’s nothing left for me to do in baseball,” Wagner admitted after leaving the park one last time. “I’m not going to change anyone’s mind about whether I’m a Hall of Famer. People are either going to like me or hate me, and I can’t change their minds. Besides, life is about a lot more than this game.”

If you must, call Wagner the Bert Blyleven of relief pitchers, with a Hall case that kinda sorta sneaks up on you upon deeper analysis. But he does deserve the honour.

Last Time Around

Jeff Kent—Yes, Kent is the best-hitting second baseman of the expansion era so far. But despite his late settling-in (traded three times before he found a home with the Giants at 29), Kent was also product enough of a high-scoring era. For middle infielders, defense looms large enough, and Kent wasn’t a particularly great-fielding second baseman despite his deftness on the double play: -42 defensive runs below league average doesn’t bode well.

He was his own worst enemy with a personality often described as “prickly,” and he was caught in a few dubious incidents. The ones remembered most: 1) The notorious lie about falling while washing his truck, which turned out to be him trying to pop wheelies on his motorcycle; and, 2) the accusation that mercurial Milton Bradley dogged it on the bases as Kent swatted a double, before it came forth Bradley played through a balky knee—that turned into season-ending surgery after a hard slide into base.

A lot of Kent’s issues also came down to his own health. He incurred enough injuries later in his career that, married to his early-career mishandlings before reaching San Francisco, plus his below-average run prevention at second base, it puts him just outside the top twenty second basemen of all time. Still, his 351 home runs as a second baseman are the most for anyone playing that position. He has a fine postseason record overall, too.

The question becomes whether Kent’s once-notorious attitude problems remain enough to keep the writers from putting him in no matter the ballot crowd, and this time the lone big controversy is liable to be around Carlos Beltrán’s candidacy. Though Kent accommodated the baseball press during his playing days, he turned out to be one of those players who fit the longtime cliche about learning to say hello when it was time to say goodbye.

“I’ve learned to love and appreciate the fans, and I’ve learned to love and appreciate the Jeff Kent haters out there, too,” he said at a rather emotional retirement announcement.

I’m thankful for those people even more than the fans who gave me a hug every day, because those people motivate you . . . I leave this game proud that I have treated it with the utmost respect . . . I have tried to carry on a legacy of winning wherever I have gone. Any integrity that I have had in this game is something that I’m very, very proud of. I believe I played this game right, and I believe I’m leaving this game right.

I wasn’t exactly Kent’s biggest admirer myself for long enough, but he does deserve Hall election. If he doesn’t survive on this final BBWAA ballot, a future Contemporary Baseball Era Committee may give him a second and deeper look and elect him. May.

The Toddfather 

Todd Helton—Unlike Hall of Famer Larry Walker, the Toddfather never got the chance to show what he could do with a park other than Coors Field as his home park. Even with the width of his home/road splits, though, Helton hit respectably enough on the road that you’d have a hard time convincing anyone that he wasn’t as Hall of Fame as a first baseman gets.

Helton also crosses the average Hall of Famer’s batting threshold according to Bill James’s Monitor and Standards measures, and his peak value is a few points above the average Hall of Fame first baseman. He was a rare bird who walked more than he struck out, was an on-base machine (.414. lifetime on-base percentage), and he was actually deadlier at the plate with men in scoring position than he was with the bases empty.

His Hall case rests upon that peak value. At the plate, his 1998-2005 peak shows a 149 OPS+ and a .435 on-base percentage. His Real Batting Average (RBA) for that peak is a whopping .696. If you want to compare Helton to another Hall of Famer with a home/road split about as wide as his, be advised that Jim Rice’s peak RBA is .583.

He wasn’t the second coming of Keith Hernandez at first base, but he was a well above-average defender. But wait a minute: Maybe Helton wasn’t the obvious infield general Hernandez was—and believe me when I tell you Hernandez deserves a plaque in Cooperstown, too—but Helton was worth +107 defensive runs above his league average . . . second only to Hernandez (+120) himself.

Helton’s decline phase was accelerated by back and hip issues, but he was respected enough in the Rockies organisation to become the first player whose uniform number (17) was retired by the team. (Neat, that: Keith Hernandez also wore 17, with the Mets, who retired that number in his honour in 2022.)

“The mentality, the character, the work ethic of this team,” his one-time manager Jim Tracy once said of him, while he missed two months with an injury in a season, “it’s easy to have all that when the best player in the history of the franchise is the hardest worker on the team. It’s absolutely tearing him to pieces not to be involved with us, to not be the player we’ve known him to be.”

Helton’s complete package sounds like a Hall of Famer to me.

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* Some of the foregoing has been published previously.

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