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Derek Jeter’s Hall Of Fame Case Was Never In Doubt. But Larry Walker’s Was Until The Very End.

That Derek Jeter did not become baseball’s second unanimous selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame on Tuesday, a year after its first such selection, was something of a surprise. Jeter’s failure to receive 100 percent of votes — he appeared on 396 of 397 Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballots — offers a reminder that it’s difficult to get all voters to agree on anything, even a case as seemingly open-and-shut as Jeter’s Hall of Fame candidacy. But that Larry Walker is joining Jeter in the 2020 class1 is perhaps evidence that there are broader changes to Hall of Fame voting behavior and the voting electorate.

In his 10th and final year of eligibility on the ballot, Walker received 76.6 percent of the vote, exceeding the 75 percent mark required for enshrinement. After receiving less than 20 percent of votes in 2014, 2015 and 2016, Walker rallied in recent years, appearing on 54.6 percent of ballots last year.

That Jeter, the shortstop with the jump throws and inside-out swing, he of 3,465 hits — the sixth-most all time — will now be enshrined in the Hall, was never in doubt.

Over the scope of Jeter’s career, from 1995 to 2014, he finished fifth in position player wins above replacement (WAR). According to Hall of Fame expert Jay Jaffe, Jeter’s 72.4 career WAR ranks 10th all-time among shortstops and is 5.4 WAR greater than the average of the 22 shortstops already in the Hall. Jaffe also noted that Jeter’s seven-year peak WAR of 42.4 ranks slightly below the average peak of 43 for Hall of Fame shortstops. Jeter’s resume in the postseason is even more impressive: He has the most postseason hits, runs and total bases in MLB history. While Jeter’s totals in October were aided by playing for great teams in the new era of expanded playoffs, he still posted a .308/.374/.465 postseason line slash line.

Still, in some ways, Jeter would have been a curious choice to become the Hall of Fame’s first unanimous position player. He never won an MVP award, though he had eight top-10 finishes. He never led the league in batting, on-base percentage, slugging or WAR in any of his 20 seasons. He was named AL Player of the Month only once (August 1998). He ranks 88th all-time in WAR.

Jeter’s game also had a glaring weakness: He had a suspect glove. His five Gold Gloves were likely based more on reputation than skill, according to metrics that have long regarded Jeter as a poor defender. Jeter has the worst Defensive Runs Saved total (-152) since the stat was first recorded in 2003. The stat measures a defender’s ability to convert batted balls to outs relative to his positional peers. Had he played in today’s game, Jeter might very well have been moved off of shortstop. Yet Jeter played all 23,225 2/3 of his career innings in the field at one of the game’s most demanding defensive positions.

Jeter was actually out-WARed by his fellow Class of 2020 member for his career, according to Baseball-Reference.com’s version of the metric. Walker recorded 72.7 WAR to rank 86th all-time. Mike Trout, regarded as the game’s best active player, ranks 87th at 72.5 WAR.2

Walker, the 1997 NL MVP, was likely penalized by voters in past years for missing the traditional Hall of Fame benchmarks of 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. Another factor working against Walker was that he played a significant portion of his career with the Colorado Rockies, who call the hitter-friendly thin air of Denver home. But only 31.1 percent of Walker’s career plate appearances took place at Coors Field. Moreover, Walker’s career mark of 140 weighted runs created plus, which adjusts for park effects and the run-scoring environment, is tied for the 65th-best all time. That measure means that Walker was 40 percent above league-average offensive performance for his career, even when adjusting for where he played. Jaffe also found that Walker’s total WAR and peak WAR both exceed the Hall of Fame average for outfielders.

Hall of Fame candidates who fell short this year include a trio in their eighth years of eligibility: Curt Schilling (named on 70 percent of the ballots), Roger Clemens (61 percent) and Barry Bonds (60.7 percent). They’re running out of time, and those whose accomplishments are tainted by ties to performance-enhancing drugs may have cases too complicated for help from future Eras Committees. Walker avoided needing that appeals court. And few cases are as open and shut as Jeter’s, a no-doubt Hall of Famer even if he’s not among the elite of the elite in Cooperstown.

CORRECTION (Jan. 22, 2020, 5:45 p.m.): In a previous version of this article, a prewritten caption said Derek Jeter was the second player to be unanimously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. As it turned out, Jeter’s election was not unanimous.

Footnotes

  1. Former Major League Baseball Players Association chief Marvin Miller and All-Star catcher Ted Simmons also join the 2020 Hall class, voted in by the Modern Baseball Era Committee in December.

  2. Jeter ranks ahead of Walker but behind Trout in FanGraphs’ version of WAR.

Travis Sawchik is a sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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