Oh look people, it’s Hall of Fame season, which means it’s time for tired articles about Pete Rose and Barry Bonds, impassioned pleas for Mike Mussina and Larry Walker, glowing remembrances of Jim Thome and Chipper Jones, and the hottest takes about Curt Schilling’s Twitter account. But there is one annual piece that dares to break the trope and remember the lesser players on the ballot and decide who among them is worthy of receiving a single vote for the Hall of Fame. No rehashing Trevor Hoffman vs. Billy Wagner here, just looking at the best candidates to receive a pity vote. In previous years I have endorsed Jason Kendall, Edgar Renteria, and Mike Cameron as players worthy of a pity vote. Let’s see who meets the mark this year.
First we need to eliminate reasonable candidates. My standard has been likelihood of receiving three or more votes. Now this isn’t a perfect standard — I don’t think anyone would consider Mike Sweeney or Magglio Ordonez real candidates, but they have both gotten three votes in recent years — but it’s a good estimate of where the line between guys getting pity votes and guys who might be getting real votes lies. Of this year’s candidates, there are a number we can easily eliminate. Chipper Jones will likely get 95% or higher, and Jim Thome seems likely to get over the 75% mark this year as well. Omar Vizquel will more than likely at least hit double digits in percent, even if he was probably a worse player than Mike Cameron, who got completely shut out last year. It’s a little harder to gauge Scott Rolen, Johan Santana, and Andruw Jones. Their cases require some level of nuance, so there’s a wide range where they could end up. I’d say all three certainly deserve to stick around for at least a second ballot (personally, I’d vote for Rolen with no hesitation), and I feel pretty confidently they’ll each manage to reach double digits in total vote count.
The difficult choices for me are Johnny Damon and Jamie Moyer. Neither will stick on this ballot because neither has much of a case at all. But they might have enough of one to net more than two votes. Johnny Damon had a reputation as a great player, and he played in a lot of playoff series for high-profile teams and stuck around long enough to get some gaudy counting stats. There was even some brief talk about him possibly pushing to 3,000 hits. There hasn’t been a candidate with a super similar profile in a few years, but going back to 2014, we had Moises Alou receive six votes and Luis Gonzalez garner five. Now, I think both those players were better than Damon, but I think he’s perceived to be about the same level. While there’s a chance he doesn’t get more than two votes, he could definitely push into the 5-6 range. So I’m going to group him in with the non-pity vote guys. That being said, there’s a solid chance he only gets one or two votes.
Even more difficult to judge is Jaime Moyer. There haven’t been many pitchers hitting the ballot who had long, nice careers that weren’t real Hall of Fame candidates to compare to him. Moyer was better than Kenny Rogers, who got one vote in 2014, but he was definitely worse than David Wells, who managed five a year earlier. My made-up estimate is that Moyer will receive ~2.1 votes on average, so I’ll lean on the side of caution and not consider him for the honor of a pity vote.
Finally, let’s pour one out for Ben Sheets, who is, by a not insignificant margin, the best eligible player not to appear on this ballot. While he’s not quite the omission that Javier Vazquez was last year, Sheets was quite a good pitcher. He pitched like a Hall of Famer for one season (2004) and started the All-Star Game in another (2008). He has more WAR as a Brewer than any other pitcher, and ranks fourth overall in franchise history.
Carlos Zambrano (30.6 WAR) finished fifth in the Cy Young voting three separate times and was a fringe top-10 pitcher for three or four years, although he did walk a lot of dudes. Along with Mike Hampton and Dontrelle Willis, he was one of the good-hitting pitchers of his era. While his wRC+ was a pretty mediocre 57, his 24 career home runs (in 774 PA) are impressive for a pitcher. From 2001-2012, the length of his career, Zambrano hit 50% more home runs than any other pitcher. Yovani Gallardo and the aforementioned Mike Hampton are the only other guys in double digits. Zambrano was also known for wearing his heart on his sleeve, which just serves to make him a bit more memorable. Overall, Zambrano was a pretty good player, and a reasonably interesting one as well, but his career was rather short — he’s only 36. That being said, it’s not like an extra five years of quality pitching would turn him into a Hall of Fame candidate, or even a Jaime Moyer-level candidate.
Chris Carpenter (39.1 WAR) won a Cy Young award in 2005 and finished in the top three in the voting in 2006 and 2009. In between, he had two years lost to injury, which was a recurring theme with Carpenter. For a guy who didn’t become an above-average pitcher until he was 29, and missed quite a bit of time for injury, he had himself a nice career. In fact, if he had been able to stay healthy, he likely would have avoided eligibility for a pity vote, but alas, he’s stuck competing with these guys.
You probably remember Livan Hernandez (34.5 WAR) pitching a boring game for or against your favorite team. I’m not sure how, but I’m pretty sure Livan Hernandez pitched every inning for both the Padres and the Pirates in their July 29-31 series in 2004. Yeah, Baseball-Reference might say that Josh Fogg and Kip Wells and the other Adam Eaton and Brian Lawrence pitched those games, but those players all had the spirit of Livan Hernandez in them. In his career (1996-2012) Livan Hernandez officially pitched 3189 innings, which is 200 more innings than second place (Jaime Moyer!). Unofficially, I’m pretty sure he pitched about 55,000 innings and counting.
I mostly remember Carlos Lee (27.5 WAR) for signing a big contract with the Astros that just never seemed to end. Lee could rake with anyone, hitting both for power and for average, and he was generally pretty durable, but his poor defense kept him from being very valuable. There are two things in his favor as a pity vote candidate. For one thing, his top Similarity Score from B-R is Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda. Yes, Cepeda is an iffier Hall of Famer, and yes, Andres “The Big Cat” Galarraga is third on that list, but that’s something. Carlos Lee also ranks seventh all-time in career grand slams. Well, he’s tied for seventh, with Jimmie Foxx and Ted Williams. Of the players ahead of him, three (Lou Gehrig, Eddie Murray, and Willie McCovey) are Hall of Famers, two (Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez) would be if not for steroid drama, and one (Robin Ventura) is Robin Ventura. That’s some pretty good company, The Big Cat included.
Kevin Millwood (46.2 WAR) was almost certainly better than you remember him being. He ranks 22nd in WAR among starting pitchers since 1995, which places him immediately ahead of Johan Santana and Cole Hamels. Of course, Millwood first achieved success as the Braves’ fourth starter behind Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine, so it’s not hard to look bland compared to those guys. But Millwood garnered some legitimate accolades in his career. He threw a no-hitter, he led the AL in ERA in 2005 despite having a losing record, and he finished third in Cy Young voting in 1999. Even with that, I must say he had one of the more boring careers of a pitcher of his caliber.
Aubrey Huff (17.1 WAR), amazingly, is still one of the Rays’ franchise leaders in WAR among position players. He ranks tenth with a staggering 9.9 WAR, placing him among other Rays legends like Matt Joyce and Jason Bartlett. All joking aside, Huff was a fine, well-rounded hitter who couldn’t field a lick. Possibly the strangest aspect of his career, though, was his 2010 campaign for the Giants. He had a truly moribund season in 2009, and I mean it in the literal ‘about to die’ sense. But in 2010, at age 33, he decided to be good at everything baseball-related he possibly could be. His walk rate skyrocketed to 12.4%, well above his typical 8-9% range, and he hit 26 dingers, which is really like 47 when you account for the fact that he was hitting left-handed in AT&T Park. Even his defense, not traditionally one of Huff’s strong suits, was pretty solid, both at first base and in corner-outfield positions. Overall, he was good for 5.8 WAR and finished seventh in NL MVP voting. If this had been the start of some sort of late-career resurgence, Huff would have been an excellent pity vote candidate, but it turned out to just be a last gasp in a dead career, as he only survived for two more godawful seasons.
Orlando Hudson (21.1 WAR) was a solid all-around player — good defense, average offense. The type of guy who bats seventh on a pennant winner. He won four Gold Gloves and made a couple of All-Star games, but really, he wasn’t a particularly special player in any way. Cool guy, but really, a boring player.
It’s incredible to think that Kerry Wood (23.7 WAR) was in the majors as recently as 2012. I mean, he was basically broken by 2004, but still managed to limp along for nearly a decade. Well, I shouldn’t really say limp, because he did have a solid year in relief in 2008, but for the most part it was limping. To be honest, looking back on Wood’s career, it wasn’t exactly incredible in terms of value. While he did strike out anything that moved, he was also rather walk-prone — 4.34 per nine innings for his career. He never again matched his 4.4 WAR as a rookie and only crossed the 200 inning mark twice, and only one of those was during Dusty Baker’s tenure, so don’t blame him. Of course, I can’t continue without mentioning the 20 strikeout game, because, well, he struck out 20 guys in nine innings.
Brad Lidge (11.6 WAR), like Kerry Wood, struck out a lot of guys. In 2004, with the Astros, he struck out 42.6% of batters he faced. At the time, this was the third-most strike-out-iest season by a reliever ever, behind only Billy Wagner’s 1999 season and Eric Gagne’s 2003 season. Now it’s been passed by some Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman nonsense, bu that shouldn’t diminish from Lidge’s dominance. Lidge was also fantastic with the Phillies in 2008. They won the pennant and he came in fourth in Cy Young voting and eighth in MVP voting. Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. Lidge gave up a whole lot of walks. And he was hilariously awful in 2009. I mean, pitcher wins and ERA are pretty blunt tools for a reliever, but they tell a story here — Lidge went 0-8 with 7.21 ERA. What’s particularly impressive is that he actually sustained that ERA for months. Despite consistent usage, he never dropped below a 6.75 ERA for a day after April. Still got those 31 saves though.
I’m not actually going to do all the legwork, but I can say with some degree of certainty that Jason Isringhausen (11.2 WAR) is the best player ever drafted and signed in the 44th round. He was a good closer for the Cardinals for a few years. Made a pair of All-Star Games. He’s in a three-way tie for 26th in all time saves, which doesn’t sound that impressive. But one of those guys he’s tied with is Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter! And the other one is…Fernando Rodney.
Hideki Matsui (12.9 WAR) is probably the best non-Ichiro position player to come out of Japan. He won the MVP for the 2009 World Series, and he made a pair of All-Star Games, and he was remarkably durable, not missing a game for his first three years in MLB. That being said, Matsui’s bat was just good and not great, and his lack of quality glovework made him just a nice player. He only once reached 3 WAR in a season, which is less than even Orlando Hudson. Notable player, but not a particularly good one.
Now we come to the hard part. Who deserves a pity vote? Well, I can quickly eliminate Hudson, Huff, Matsui, Lidge, and Isringhausen. No offense to any of those guys. All were quality players. But if one of them were missing from the ballot and say…Adam Kennedy were in their place, I don’t think I would have gone through the effort to mention them as a snub. Sorry y’all. I think I’m going to eliminate Kerry Wood from consideration as well. While one particularly good game may be enough to get Jack Morris into the Hall of Fame, I don’t think it’s enough to earn a pity vote. And Carlos Lee, while a better player than any of the above group, isn’t exactly screaming out for further recognition.
That leaves us with four pitchers. Of them, I’d say Carpenter has the most impressive peak, Millwood has the most impressive full career, and Zambrano has the most impressive bat. But my choice has to be the one and only Livan Hernandez.
The way I see it, a pity vote is supposed to do one of two things. You should either shine a light on a good player, who is clearly not a Hall of Famer, but shouldn’t be forgotten. Or it should be to remember and acknowledge a guy who represented something to a generation of fans. Livan Hernandez definitely falls into the latter of these two. Livan Hernandez represents every Livan Hernandez-type pitcher who has ever done Livan Hernandez-type things. Joe Blanton. Carl Pavano. Jason Vargas. Bronson Arroyo. Gil Meche. Freddy Garcia. Kevin Correa. Kyle Lohse. Brad Penny. Jason Marquis. Sidney Ponson. Aaron Harang. Jeremy Guthrie. Ian Kennedy. Jon Garland. Matt Morris. Ervin Santana. Jeff Suppan. Mike Leake. Randy Wolf. Jake Westbrook. Livan Hernandez. Livan Hernandez.