Sunday, December 17, 2023

BTRTN: Our Annual Analytically-Based Major League Baseball Hall of Fame Predictions

Occasionally we take a break from politics and turn our attention to weightier matters, such as our annual prediction of who will be elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.  It is a Ruthian task, indeed. 

It’s that time of year again…the votes have begun to be tabulated for the Baseball Writers Association of American (BBWAA) Hall of Fame (HOF) ballot.  The BBWAA voting is underway now and the results will be announced on January 23, 2024.  Each year we at BTRTN analyze the ballot – in-depth, analytically -- to answer two questions:  

1)   Which nominees do we predict will be elected in this year’s voting, receiving at least 75% of the vote of the BBWAA? 

2)   Which nominees deserve to be in the HOF, based on our own analysis (and opinions)?  

The two lists are never identical.

For the first question – our prediction of who will be selected -- we use various statistical models (based on the candidates’ stats and, for those returning to the ballot, how they’ve done in prior years) to come up with an initial estimate of the percentage of the vote they will receive, and then overlay that with a dose of judgment.  For the second question – who should be in the HOF -- we have developed a methodology to compare nominees to their same-position predecessors to determine their “Hall-worthiness.” 

A few notes before we get into our answers.  First, we are aware that Hall of Fame votes are once again being publicly tabulated, as members of the BBWAA announce them (some writers do publicly, some don’t).  I have not looked at those tabulations.  The truth is, they are actually not very helpful in making predictions, because the writers who reveal their votes publicly tend to differ quite a bit from their more private counterparts, especially on the more controversial candidates.  So one can easily be misled by the public tally, because it is not a statistical sample of the entire BBWAA voting universe.  So we ignore the trackers ongoing tabulations entirely, and rely instead on our own analysis.

{Author note:  This article was first published on December 17, 2023 and has not been revised since.}

Second, we recognize the continued welcome trend of fewer players on the ballot, which appears to indicate that there is a better process in place for weeding out players who are, to be blunt, completely unworthy of consideration.  As recently as 2019 there were 35 players on the ballot, including the trivia-worthy but nowhere near Hall-worthy Rick Ankiel.  Ankiel’s true claim to fame was that he pitched and then hit as a position player at the major league level, multiple seasons in both roles.  But he was neither Babe Ruth nor Shohei Ohtani, nor even Smokey Joe Wood.  I don’t mean to pick on Ankiel, but he compiled a career WAR of 6 (yes, six), which means that he was essentially a replacement player for his entire career.  Typically you need of WAR of at least 50 to merit consideration for the Hall.  Anyway, this year’s ballot has only 28 players, and the lowest WAR among them was recorded by Brandon Phillips, who achieved a respectable (if not Hall-worthy) 28.  Bravo, ballot makers!

Finally, it would be wonderful to report that the steroid era is over, but unfortunately that is not the case.  Four of the top 11 vote-getters on the 2023 ballot were tainted by performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) and they are back again: Andy Pettitte, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriquez and Gary Sheffield (who is on his 10th and final ballot).  Our custom is to not consider the Hall-worthiness of the PEDsters, for reasons we have enumerated many times.  In a nutshell, we believe they violated a clear rule of the game, established by Fay Vincent in 1991, a violation that materially affected the outcome of games and artificially inflated the users' statistics, at the expense of their peers who were not users, fellas named Jeter, Ripken, Rivera, etc.  We have heard every counterargument under the sun, including those who cite baseball's lax enforcement of the prohibition in the era, and that the HOF is full of sinners, and we reject those arguments and others.  Our view is that the PED players are, ipso facto, all unworthy for consideration. 

Last year we also said that that policy also extends to then-newcomer Carlos Beltran.  Beltran was not involved with PEDs, but he was team leader (and, even worse, ringleader) of the Houston Cheatin’ Astros, the tainted 2017 World Series Champs, the only player named in the official report.  This was a material offense that affected many, many games and influenced statistics (like wins and losses), much like the use of PED's, and we are comfortable in denying Beltran consideration on this ballot.


We rather immodestly bill ourselves as “The Best MLB Hall of Fame Predictors,” but that might be accurate since, as far as we know, we are the only HOF predictors left since Bill Deane gave it up a few years ago after making predictions for nearly four decades.  We’d welcome some competition!  But last year we just may have actually lived up to that rather grand self-designation.

·        We accurately predicted that Scott Rolen would make the Hall of Fame, and be the only one on the ballot to do so.

·        We also were quite close in predicting the “jumps” that a number of returning candidates would have, including the top five vote-getters (Rolen, Todd Helton, Billy Wagner, Andruw Jones and Jeff Kent)

·        Perhaps the hardest thing to predict is the number of votes a viable first-time candidate will get, and we came reasonably close on Beltran despite his complicated, compromised candidacy (he received 47% and we predicted 39%) and were almost dead-on with Frankie Rodriquez (11% actual versus 10% predicted).

·        The only candidates for whom we were appreciably “off” were Gary Sheffield, who we thought would jump more in Year 9 on the ballot than he did, and Andy Pettitte and Mark Buehrle, who both jumped instead of declining, as we predicted, though each at low levels of voting.

You can see how we did for each player on the ballot on this chart.

Overall, we were off by an average of just 2.2 percentage points per nominee, our best showing ever.  Whatever you may think of the performance, we are clearly improving!


On to this year!  And here is our most important prediction:  BTRTN predicts that the BBWAA will elect Adrian Beltre, Todd Helton and Billy Wagner to the MLB Hall of Fame.  Beltre will be a deserved first-ballot selection and Wagner and Helton will both finally make it after long climbs from low initial vote tallies.

The chart below shows the complete voting history (in percentages) of all the returning players. 

Last year was a good year for repeaters, as there were no first-year candidates that were sure bets for induction, allowing votes to “migrate” to the top repeaters, which is why they made those double digit “leaps.”  This year may be nearly as good, as Rolen and 10-year expiree Jeff Kent have departed the ballot and only one near certain candidate, Adrian Beltre, has arrived.  So there remains, as there was last year, ample vote “capacity,” and that could easily help the top three returning vote getters who are all reasonably close to the 75% threshold, Todd Helton, Billy Wagner and Andruw Jones.  They all have been on an upswing that continued last year, and, after last year’s jump are all in sight of Cooperstown immortality.  We think Helton and Wagner will get there, but Jones will fall short. 

The next five top vote-getting returnees are all steeped in controversy.  Sheffield, Rodriguez and Ramirez are all tainted with PED’s (as well as Andy Pettitte, further down the ballot); Ozzie Vizquel has been accused of multiple instances of abuse; and Beltran wears the aforementioned cheater label.  None of the returners showed any real momentum last year, and we don’t expect them to this year either.  Beltran, in his second year, is the one to watch.  We expect him to get a bump and if it is big enough he may ride that to Cooperstown in a few years.

The big question is how well the other newcomers will do, specifically Joe Mauer and Chase Utley.  We don’t see either as first-balloters, but each should get a solid level of first ballot support, enough to begin their quest, which could take time if they start out below 50%, as we expect.

The remaining returners are in make-or-break land, with low vote totals that, if they begin to decline, could result in washing out in a few years.

So, what’s the answer?  Here’s the summary chart of this year’s ballot, including our official BTRTN 2024 Hall of Fame predictions (expressed as percentage of the total vote).  We have also included in this chart our views on which candidates belong in the HOF.  For the explanations of those ratings, read on.


The second question we ask annually is this:  putting aside what the writers think, who on the ballot do we think is “Hall-worthy”? 

We believe Adrian Beltre and Billy Wagner, who as noted we predict will be elected, are both worthy of being in the HOF.  We also think that three other players on the ballot should be in the HOF, though we don't think they will be elected this year:  Andruw Jones, Francisco Rodriguez and Chase Utley.  I know what some of you are thinking…what, no Todd Helton?  No Joe Mauer?  Read on!

To arrive at our conclusions, we use the following analytic methodology.  We compare each player to Hall of Famers and “just misses” (among those whose careers started after 1950) at his position across a number of key statistics, both traditional (hits, homers, RBI’s and batting average) and non-traditional (OPS+ and WAR).  To get a sense of how they were valued “in their time, “ we also look at their number of All Star selections and times appearing in the Top 10 in the MVP balloting (for pitchers, we use an identical methodology but, of course, with various pitcher stats instead).  

We show the average statistics by position.  So we will compare, say, Todd Helton to first baseman and Jimmy Rollins to shortstop.  Within each position, we compare the nominee, getting back to Helton in this example, to first basemen who are in these four groups:

·        The “top half” of all post-1950 HOF first basemen, using a ranking based on WAR.  (This group, for first baseman, includes Jeff Bagwell, Rod Carew, Frank Thomas, Jim Thome and Eddie Murray)

·        The “average” of all post-1950 HOF first basemen (all those plus the list below)

·        The “lower half” all post-1950 HOF first basemen (Willie McCovey, Harmon Killebrew, Fred McGriff, Tony Perez, Orlando Cepeda and Harold Baines)

·        The “next ten,” the ten post-1950 first basemen who have the highest WARs among those who are not in the HOF (using just last names, Allen, Hernandez, Clark, Olerud, Cash, Teixeira, Grace, Delgado, Mattingly and Powell).

The last two groups define the so-called “borderline” candidates.  Our general feeling is that to be worthy of the HOF, a candidate should be at least as good and probably materially better, on balance, than the last two groups.  Thus, they have to be better than borderline candidates, most of whom are either not in the HOF (the “next ten”) or include at least a few players (like Baines) who should never have been enshrined in the first place, and reside in the “lower half."  (We are not rigid, and you will see, we make exceptions.)   We also take into account a player’s postseason performance.

Last year we change the methodology to eliminate from the comparisons all players whose careers began before 1950.  The statistics before 1950 have various issues (pre-integration, World Wars, the dead ball era, the inflated 1930’s, etc.) and, with a solid base of players in the last 70 years to draw from, we thought it was time to make the change.  (We include a few players whose careers started in the 1940’s just to make sure we have a “large enough” comparison group.)

Again, we do not include the PED players or Beltran in this analysis.  We stipulate that if we just looked at  their stats alone, and accepted them at face value, all the PED players except, perhaps, Andy Pettitte, would make the Hall of Fame.

On to the analysis!


The catcher spot is back after having no nominees in 2023, with Joe Mauer and Victor Martinez gracing the ballot.  But this one gets complicated right off the bat, because neither Mauer nor Martinez played even half of their games at catcher, so we have to get a little creative to ensure the right comparisons are made.

Joe Mauer is a pretty tough case.  Many fans think they have a "feel" for who should be in the HOF and I suspect many think Mauer is a lock.  But I have to disagree.  It is important to note that Mauer played just under half of his games at the catcher position.  The average for post-1950 HOF catchers is 81%.  Mauer played most of the rest at first base, and some at DH.  Thus you cannot compare Mauer as a hitter strictly to other catchers – you have to compare him to first basemen as well, too (there are very few pure DH’s in the HOF, but their hitting profile is similar to first basemen).  So, in the charts above, we have created a 50/50 split between the HOF and Next 10 catchers and first basemen.   (Since Victor Martinez also played fewer than half his games at catcher, and also split his remaining games between first base and DH, the comparisons work for him as well.)

Mauer fares poorly in this comparison.  Only his career batting average is elite in these comparisons.  His WAR rises only to the level of the “lower half” HOF group, his OPS+ falls short, and his homers and RBI fall well short.  Mauer was not exactly a post-season dynamo, either; in 44 postseason plate appearances, he batted only .275 with no homers and exactly one RBI.  (To be clear, his stats, apart from batting average and hits, alsofall short compared to the pure catchers as well.)  The case for Mauer rests with his four Top 10 finishes in MVP balloting, which speaks to his impact for a brief period at the peak of his game.  But, unfortunately, those four years were accompanied by  two other very good years and nine others that were exceedingly modest.  Mauer will likely get a fair number of votes in the balloting, but the view here, which will likely be unpopular, is a thumbs down. .

Victor Martinez holds up surprisingly well in comparison to Mauer, besting him on the power stats, but he too suffers in comparisons when the first baseman are included.  His 32 WAR in particular is a killer – a fine hitter but a terrible fielder and baserunner -- and he too is a thumbs down.

First Base 

Every year I take a lot of heat from Rockies fans for my views on Todd Helton, now in his sixth year on the ballot.  He is joined on the ballot this year by fellow first sacker Adrian Gonzalez.

Todd Helton is an exceptionally difficult case, the hardest on the ballot.  You have to take into account the “Coors Field” high altitude effect that inflates any Rockie’s stats.  Helton’s OPS+ overall is down with the borderlines, and, if you break this stat down further, Helton’s home/road OPS splits are 1.048/.855.  The .855 is not Hall-worthy for a first baseman. Helton’s WAR of 61 is excellent, right in line with the average for HOF first baseman, and WAR is a park adjusted figure.  And yet, his power stats are low, as are his All-Star and MVP votes.  We went to the postseason stats to see if they would help him but, alas, he went 11-66 (.167) with no homers and a mere four RBI.  This is a toughie, but we had to give  Helton a difficult thumbs down.

Adrian Gonzalez.  AGon was not as hard.  His stats almost perfectly line up with the “Next 10 non-Hall of Fame” line, just about stat for stat, and that is where he belongs, on the outside looking in, a fine career to be sure, but thumbs down. 

Second Base 

Jeff Kent is gone, having been denied his due (we've always thought he was Hall-worthy) and he is replaced on the ballot by Chase Utley and Brandon Phillips. 

Chase Utley.  Yet another difficult case (the 2024 ballot is full of pesky cases to consider).  Utley was a power hitting second baseman, not in Jeff Kent’s class but certainly up there with the greatest second basemen, the top tier HOF’ers at the position.  While his average is a little low and his career was not as long (thus depressing his hit total), he really is up there with the greats on homers, RBI, OPS and WAR, above HOF averages on all of them.  (His WAR also reflects the fact that he was a terrific fielder.)  With six all-star selections, three Top 10 MVPs and 10 postseason homers, I give Utley a thumbs up. 

Brandon Phillips is the weakest player on the ballot, though at least he’s worthy of the honor of being on the ballot at all (i.e., he’s no Rick Ankiel).  He had some nice pop for a second baseman, but quite low OPS+ and WAR, and you simply cannot make the Hall of Fame if you’ve never received a Top 10 MVP ranking, in any year.  So a thumbs down here. 


We have two returnees at shortstop, Omar Vizquel and Jimmy Rollins, and one newcomer, Jose Reyes, and we don’t think any of them are truly Hall-worthy.

Omar Vizquel did well in the balloting in his first three years, establishing a voting track record (37%/43%/53%) that seemed well on the way to enshrinement.  But after a series of abuse charge (separate incidents involving sexual harassment and domestic violence), Vizquel plummeted in 2022 (24%) and dropped even more last year (20%).  It seems unlikely that he will be able to recover in his remaining three years on the ballot.  But, regardless, we never considered Vizquel to be HOF-worthy.  The only offensive stat he really has going for him, in comparison to the peers, are his 2,877 hits (which he compiled over 24 seasons).  But there is no getting around his OPS of only 82, which settles the matter on the offensive side.  He was an excellent defender, with 11 Gold Gloves, and 129 “runs saved” in his career.  But he was no Ozzie Smith or Mark Belanger, who had 239 and 241, respectively (and even Craig Counsell had 127), and his defense could not pull his WAR to HOF standards, not even close.  He made only three All-Star teams in those 24 years and was never a Top Ten finisher in the MVP balloting, so, scandals aside, we have always had him as a thumbs down.

Jimmy Rollins stats are largely better than those of the non-HOF borderline group, but they are generally below the lower half HOF group, in particular his OPS (which is below the league average for his career) and his WAR.  He only managed three All Star selections, though he did win an MVP in 2007.  But the view here is thumbs down.

Jose Reyes.  Like AGon, Reyes’ stats almost perfectly line up with the “Next 10 non-Hall of Fame” line, just about stat for stat.  He does have 517 stolen bases going for him, in an era that de-emphasized the steal, but that along cannot lift his boat, and so he is another thumbs down. 

Third Base 

With Scott Rolen’s deserved induction, and Chipper Jones’s in 2018, third basemen, long underrepresented in the HOF, are finally getting their due.  Adrian Beltre is a shoo-in to join them, and David Wright is another who is at least worthy of consideration.

Adrian Beltre is not only a certain Hall of Famer, and should be a first ballot one at that, he is actually among the greatest third basemen of all time (his WAR is exceeded only by Mike Schmitt and Eddie Mathews).   While his OPS+ is on the light side, his other stats are monstrous and worthy of the top tier.  He was also a superb fielder, and his high WAR reflects his defensive acumen.  He was certainly underrated in this time – there are not many players who have more Top 10 MVP vote appearances (six, in his case) than All Star games (four).  Beltre should sail in, thumbs up. 

David Wright is a much better candidate than I would have thought before looking into it.  He is sort of like Mattingly and Mauer, in that after a brilliant start to his career, injuries diminished him (his last good season was at age 30) and then finished him (done at 33, save for a few games at 35).  The difference is that while he was brilliant, he was not as dominant as they were, never wore the “best player in the game” tag, and never won an MVP, despite four Top 10 finishes.  Apart from batting average and OPS+, his stats are not Hall-worthy per the comparisons with other third basemen in the chart, and his WAR is low, even slightly below that of the “Next 10.”  Thumbs down. 


We have three returning outfield candidates, and two solid newcomers to ponder, Matt Holliday and Jose Batista.

Andruw Jones is an interesting case, with that very pedestrian .254 batting average and relatively low 111 OPS+.  His candidacy hinges on those 434 homers and a 63 WAR that reflects his superlative defensive skills.  He had 253 "runs saved" for his career, an astounding number exceeded only by Brooks Robinson.  That is truly impressive, and Brooks Robinson is a good comparison for Jones, as Robinson also was not a superlative hitter.  Jones, like Robinson, had fine power stats, superb defense and an excellent WAR that reflects both, plus solid postseason credentials.  For Jones, as for Brooksie before him, that means a thumbs up.

Bobby Abreu is a better candidate than you might think, and a surprisingly difficult case.  His power stats are above average for a HOF outfielder, but his OPS+ and WAR are borderline.  His stats are almost completely aligned with the bottom half of HOF outfielders, which gave me pause.  But he only made two All Star games in his career and never once was a Top 10 MVP vote getter, so it’s hard to make a case that he was recognized as one of the very best players of his generation.  And he played in 20 postseason games and put up just one homer and nine RBI.  Another thumbs down.

Torii Hunter, like Andruw Jones, has a “great fielder, solid hitter” profile, but the comparison for HOF purposes does not quite hold.  Hunter was a slightly better hitter than Jones, on balance, but light years away from Jones defensively.  He did win nine Gold Gloves, but unlike Jones, who won 10, modern defensive stats don’t quite back up Hunter’s reputation as they do for Jones.  As noted, those stats reveal Jones to be one of the transcendent defensive players of all time, but try as I might, I could not find Hunter among the top 250 in Total Zone Runs.  He had fantastic defensive years early in his career but did not match that in later years (and won Gold Gloves off that reputation).  And that ultimately shows up in his WAR, which, at 51, is well below Jones, Abreu and the borderline groups.  All in all, another reasonably tough call, but we give Hunter a thumbs down.

Matt Holiday was a fine hitter and his stats land somewhere in the range of the “Bottom Half” and the “Next 10,” which makes him the definitive borderline Hall of Famer.   What sinks his candidacy are his low WAR (which reflects in part his below average defensive skills) and the fact that only once did he crack the Top 10 in MVP voting (though he also finished, at various times, in 11th, 12th,14th,15th and 16th place).  He also was subpar in many postseason appearances; despite 13 homers, he batted only .245 with a .723 OPS, well below his regular season stats.  Another excellent ballplayer who does not quite have enough for the HOF, a tough thumbs down.

Jose Batista had one of the great nicknames (“Joey Bats”) of our time, and he was a professional hitter all the way.  He broke through relatively late in his career, with 54 homers at age 29 in 2010, and put up impressive numbers for five more years.  But it was a case of too little, too late, as he did not even reach 1,500 hits (no batter has made the Hall of Fame, apart from a few catchers, without reaching that total), and with a 37 WAR, he is a pretty easy thumbs down.

Starting Pitchers 

We recognize that the sands are shifting for the criteria to evaluate starting pitches for the Hall of Fame.  Long gone are the days of complete games and 20-game winners, and Justin Verlander may be the last pitcher to seriously threaten to crack the 300-win club, though he now seems a long shot.  While he pitched well last year, with 13 wins and a 3.22 ERA in 27 starts, he remains at 257 wins, and at age 41 as of opening day next year, he appears to be at least three years away from 300 even if he is able to maintain his 2023 level.  

Indeed, Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright, who achieved the 200-win milestone in 2023, may be the last ever to reach even that mark.  Only Gerrit Cole, who is 33 and has 145 wins, may have a shot at 200, if he can put 4-5 more good years on the tally sheet.

So our comparisons will change in light of this, and thus we will deemphasize wins, won/loss percentage and innings pitched in our little chart, and put more focus on ERA+ and WAR, which are only modestly affected by the new requirements for starters (six good innings is the ask), as well as All Star Games, Cy Young Awards and postseason records.

This year Mark Buehrle returns to the ballot, and he is joined by Bartolo Colon and James Shields.

Mark Buehrle is certainly one of the better 21st century pitcher, a member of the 200-win club.  He hangs reasonably well with the borderline groups, which essentially means he is a borderline candidate, nothing more.  In fact, he is another player whose statistics are very comparable to the “Next 10” group.  His All Star recognition is also a bit low, though, and he never won a Cy Young..  He did nothing special in the postseason, despite multiple opportunities.   I find myself being tough on the borderliners, and simply can’t find enough to get to “Yes.”  So we have to say thumbs down to Buehrle.

Bartolo Colon.  Colon is an immensely likeable character, seemingly ageless, taking the ball for 24 starts at age 45 in his final season in 2018.   Colon also performed one of those wondrous feats, when he memorably clubbed the first home run of his career at age 43.  Baseball has too many bland players these days, and when Colon retired, baseball lost more than a 247-win pitcher, they lost a singular personality.  But alas, Colon is not a viable Hall of Fame candidate, not with a 4.12 ERA, an ERA+ of 106 which means barely better the league average for his career, and a WAR of only 46, well below all four of the HOF comparison groups in the charts.  With regret, Bartolo is a no go, a thumbs down for the Hall.

James Shields.  Shields was a durable pitcher in his years with the Rays, Royals and Padres, delivering 10 straight years of 30+ starts and 9 straight with 200+ innings, figures that now look downright remarkable.  But the cold hard facts are that he was even more pedestrian than Colon in terms of ERA+ (very close to the league average) and WAR (down near Brandon Phillips), and thus another thumbs down.


Relief Pitchers 

There are no new relief pitcher candidates, just two holdovers, Billy Wagner and Francisco Rodriguez.

There are only 31 relievers who have saved 300 or more games in their careers, including three who are active (Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen, who both surpassed 400 last year, and Aroldis Chapman).  Of the 28 retirees, eight are in the HOF.  We use 300 saves as a standard – essentially a price of entry to be considered for the HOF -- because 7 of the 8 HOF relievers achieved that mark.  Only Hoyt Wilhelm had fewer, and he toiled in an era when the term “closer” was not even in use; indeed, the save was not even an official stat (it became one in 1969, very late in Wilhelm’s 21-year career).  But nonetheless Wilhelm compiled a 50 WAR, a figure that has been exceeded among relievers only by the incomparable Mariano Rivera.

The role of closer has also evolved, from a rubber-armed, multi-inning stud to a specialist who toils only in the ninth inning.  Yankee HOF closers Rich Gossage, who averaged 1.8 innings per appearance in his career, and Rivera, who averaged 1.2, embody this transition. The closer role may evolve further in the coming years, as managers have started to question the logic of saving their best reliever for the ninth inning when, say, the heart of the opponent’s order is due up in the eighth.  So defining what it takes for a reliever to make the HOF is a moving target, and not an easy one.  But we press on with a range of statistics to try to capture the overall sense of what is HOF-worthy.

Billy Wagner’s statistics are amazing, and voters are now finally catching on, as Wagner has advanced in his eight years on the ballot from 11% to 68%.  There is time for the BBWAA to finish the deed, and I feel quite confident that they surely will, this year or next (his last).  The stats are certainly there:  he has well over 422 saves and a 1.00 WHIP that is – incredibly – equal to Mariano Rivera’s (and better than Trevor Hoffman’s 1.06).  His stats compare favorably to the average of the eight relievers in the HOF.  Wagner is a thumbs up – he is simply one of the greatest relievers of all time.

Francisco Rodriguez is not that far behind Wagner, though not his equal.  He too recorded over 400 saves – at 437, more than Wagner’s 422, in fact – but his WHIP is higher and his WAR is lower.  But his stats, including his All Star selections and top 10 appearances in the Cy Young voting, hold up well against the average HOF reliever group (and Wagner), and so, without too much effort, I give Frankie a thumbs up as well.


That’s it!  We’ll be back after the announcement to see how we did.  In the meantime, comments welcome, of course.  Let’s see who yells louder, the Twins fans or the Rockies fans!

Thursday, December 7, 2023

BTRTN: Failure to Launch… Hyper-Feisty Debate Yields No Clear Winner (Except, uh, Trump), and a Bigger Question Lingers

Last night's Republican debate reflected the gloves-off desperation of candidates who sensed that Nikki Haley was pulling away from the pack. Chris Christie was superb, doling out punishing blows to Vivek Ramaswamy and Ron DeSantis. Nikki Haley emerged with a draw. And, yes, the guy who stayed home won again.

The story going into last night’s Republican debate in Tuscaloosa, Alabama was all about what George Bush the Elder once called “the big mo.” Momentum. In politics, it is solid gold. It is the perception that you are the candidate on the rise, on the move, that you’ve got that special sauce and snap crackle pop.  

When candidates have “the big mo,” donors flock. Pundits begin to speak of inevitability. Perception can morph into reality if the bandwagon suddenly balloons with voters climbing on board.

In the past few weeks, the candidacy of Nikki Haley took on the mantle of “the big mo,” as very strong debate performances and rising polling numbers led to a perception that she was the one Republican candidate around whom the anti-Trump faction should coalesce. Her rise triggered two very significant endorsements. The first was the support of the Americans for Prosperity Action, the huge Super PAC backed by billionaire Charles Koch. The second was when Wall Street titan Jamie Dimon, CEO of Chase, threw his support behind Haley, and even challenged Democrats to help out:

“Even if you’re a very liberal Democrat, I urge you, help Nikki Haley, too. Get a choice on the Republican side that might be better than Trump.” Apparently, some Wall Street liberals were actually of like mind: Linked In founder Reid Hoffman – an A-list Dem donor – sent a whopping quarter-million bucks to a Nikki Haley Super PAC.

The stage was set. If Nikki Haley could muster a big win in last night’s debate, the perception that she truly had the big mo’ could cause donors for other candidates to abandon ship and lead pundits to declare her the winner of the anti-Trump sweepstakes. If, if, if…

What really happened last night was much messier, rather ugly, and generally inconclusive. Haley did fine but did not have the breakout performance that would have sent anyone packing. Ron DeSantis continues to be underwhelming, but he wasn’t bad enough to be voted off the island. Chris Christie did extremely well in articulating a position that has absolutely no traction in today’s Republican Party.  

And Chris Christie labeled Vivek Ramaswamy “the most obnoxious blowhard in America.” Boy, did Ramaswamy earn that title last night.   

All sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Close, inconclusive debates are a winning hand for the indicted former President. He’s been right all along: without Trump, these debates are largely kiddie table sideshows in which the children fling mashed potatoes at each other while no one pays attention.  On Wednesday night, we saw the growing panic of Haley’s rivals, who were desperately trying to put a halt to her momentum. That tells you all you need to know.

The headlines are simple:

Nikki Haley knew that she was going into the debate with a target on her back, earned by the sudden geyser of momentum in polling and financial support. But even with that advanced knowledge, Haley at times seemed a bit stunned by the ferocity of the incoming, and hesitant and uncertain about how to handle it. The warmth and humanity of prior debate performances was missing, as she was constantly put on defense and seemed to spend the evening clenching her teeth or biting her tongue. After all, she is going to need the support and, ideally, the endorsement of her opponents if she does emerge as the sole candidate in the non-Trump lane, so last night was not the night to call any of her opponents “scum.”

Haley’s rivals had figured out exactly how to play Haley’s recent good fortune against her. Both DeSantis and Ramaswamy painted her endorsement from the Koch PAC and Chase’s Jamie Dimon as evidence that Haley was in the pocket of Wall Street liberals. Her response – that her opponents were “jealous” of her endorsements – was clever, but did not actually address their underlying attack… that she was the darling of the liberal media.

It was far from her best performance, but she maintained her poise, had a solid evening, and took no big chances, perhaps aware that her three testosterone-laden opponents were not scoring any direct hits.

Haley’s grade: no gain, no loss. It was not the ringing win she sought, but she certainly did not lose ground last night.

Chris Christie had the best evening of the four candidates, but somehow even in excelling at debate he illustrated just how far out of step he is with Donald Trump’s party. Christie slammed Ron DeSantis, pointing out that the Florida Governor never answers direct questions, and castigated all three of his rivals for saying that they would support Trump even if he was a convicted felon.

Christie absolutely flattened the visibly smarmy Vivek Ramaswamy, saying that his prior debate performances had earned him the title of “most obnoxious blowhard in America.”

In the end, though, Christie’s essential strategy remains fatally flawed: he felt he could win by speaking truth to a party that long ago decided that the truth was irrelevant. Christie may have won the debate on points, and he may get a bump in the polls, but this man will never be the candidate of this Republican Party.

With each debate, Ron DeSantis has become a tiny bit less dour, stiff, and wooden… but it is too little “less” and a lot too late. DeSantis had his best debate yet – a low bar, to be sure – but the essential narrative of Ron DeSantis is now hardening cement: he is a cold, mechanical, mean-spirited robot competing in a race that requires humanity, warmth, humor, and wisdom. The more you get to know him, the less you like him.

At one point, the NewsNation moderator noted that DeSantis had begun questioning Trump’s mental acuity in stump speeches, and asked DeSantis if Donald Trump was mentally fit to be president. DeSantis stumbled, stuttered, equivocated, mumbled, filibustered, foundered, and floundered, but refused to say a direct “yes” or “no.” Once again, it was Chris Christie bringing down the big club on a rival. Christie badgered DeSantis unmercifully, but the Florida governor refused to give the simple one-word answer, yes or no. Christie doubled down, accusing him of being too frightened to tell the truth. It didn’t help when DeSantis avoided a “yes” or “no” on two questions about whether he would send the U.S. military into action – one about a hypothetical mission to rescue American hostages in Gaza, and a different question about defending Taiwan in the event of an attack.

DeSantis needed to have a huge night – a gigantic night – and he did not produce it. He will be lucky to limp out of Tuscaloosa with the status quo intact.

Vivek Ramaswamy remains an enigma in this race. Last night he was so vicious, cruel, and hostile to Nikki Haley that Chris Christie intervened on her behalf. Ramaswamy called Haley “corrupt,” basing this serious allegation on, uh, what? The fact that Haley served on the Board of Boeing after leaving government? That she got the endorsement of a major Wall Street player? Ramaswamy has alleged in his campaign literature that he intends to be a “uniter,” and he may be right: last night he united the entire arena – audience, candidates, and heck, even the moderators -- in the common belief that Vivek Ramaswamy is a frightening, unhinged, weapons-grade jerk.

Ramaswamy’s manic peevishness was on full display when he zealously condemned Haley for not knowing the name of three provinces in Eastern Ukraine. Like an excitable prepubescent who spent too much time watching Jeopardy, Ramaswamy taunted Haley to “name the provinces,” smugly withholding his trivia as if it were the ultimate “gotcha” moment in campaign debate history. After one particularly painful childish rant, Haley was given fifteen seconds by the moderator to respond to a Ramaswamy allegation. She paused and simply said, “It’s not worth my time to respond to him.” She managed to say it in a way that made it seem like a far bigger insult than calling him scum.

Late in the debate, Ramaswamy seemed to wander just a bit too far out on the spectrum when he concluded that the “real enemy is the deep state,” and went full frontal non-linear in announcing that both the 2020 and 2016 elections (the latter being the one Trump won) were rigged, and that January 6 was an “inside job.” Yikes.

The eternal problem with spoiled rich kid candidates is that they can keep going as long as they want. It’s a pity, because it is time for Vivek to pack it in, go home, and make way for the adults in the room.  Ramaswamy gets a D- for his efforts.

Donald Trump didn’t even bother to stage an alternative event in the same time slot as this mess. Perhaps he finally realized that having more Republicans tune into the debate would actually help him even more than counter-programming.  Sure enough, the candidates on the stage spent so much time and energy ripping into each other that no one emerged unscathed. At times, it seemed as if no comment could be made without a rival candidates hissing “that’s a lie.” In the end, all the candidates were weakened relative to the guy who stayed home.

Donald Trump won again by doing nothing.

While each of the candidates seemed more willing to go after Trump than in prior debates, the simple fact is that only Christie plays hardball. Nikki Haley thinks she is being very brave and “speaking truth to power” because she acknowledges that Trump ran up the national debt by seven trillion dollars.

Hey, Ambassador Haley… that’s not the problem we have with Trump! It is his big lie, his inciting of an insurrection, the Federal and State indictments for attempting to undo the results of a free and fair election. You never hear Haley or DeSantis talk about those things. Christie does – and he calls out Haley and DeSantis for failing to talk about them. To refuse to condemn Trump for these actions is to embolden him and empower him.

In the end, the unfolding drama in the Republican Party – which is to jump on the Haley bandwagon or resign yourself to another Trump nomination – is actually beginning to put a very interesting spin on Democratic politics. Jamie Dimon’s challenge to Democrats is worth considering quite carefully.

It is the new question that people are asking Democrats: what is more important to you… that Biden wins, or that Trump does not win?

Those two options are not the same.  There is a small but very real path for Nikki Haley to win the nomination. It is simple: she has to emerge so strongly from Iowa and New Hampshire that all other candidates drop out or become microscopic rounding errors, so that she can head into her home state of South Carolina going one-on-one against Trump.  The odds are very long, but it could be done – and her nomination would ensure that Trump would not win the Presidency.

So for all you Dems who say that you care more about Trump losing than Biden winning, Nikki Haley is a solution well worth considering. You achieve your objective without ever living through the terrifying risk of a Trump v. Biden election. 

Ah, but there’s the rub. Many people think Haley would have a better chance of beating Joe Biden than Donald Trump.

If you honestly believe that it is more important that Trump lose than that Biden win, you may be perfectly happy to roll the dice in a Haley v. Biden race than stare down the barrel of a Trump v. Biden race.

And if Haley wins the Presidency, you end up with both outcomes…Biden loses, but Trump does not win.

Part of why this angle on Republican politics is growing in importance is because of the tidal wave of terrifying new language coming out of Donald Trump in recent weeks. He has been using code words out of Nazi Germany to describe his political enemies. He has been openly talking about a plan to seek and destroy political enemies. He did, in fact, tell Sean Hannity that he intended to be “a dictator only on day one” of a second Trump administration. In recent weeks, Trump is becoming more and more unabashedly anti-democracy, anti-rule of law, and ruthless authoritarian.

For many Democrats, the idea that Trump could actually win the 2024 election is the most terrifying political possibility of our lifetimes, and perhaps in the lifetime of our nation.

If you are a Democrat for whom the single most important thing in the world is that Donald Trump never again sets foot in the White House, you realize that the most certain way to make sure that happens is for Nikki Haley to win the Republican nomination.  Because you know that if Trump wins the nomination, it is going to be an agonizingly close election, with a very, very real chance that Trump could win – and end democracy in America forever.

Dimon’s comment is actually a very provocative notion: that Democrats should be giving serious thought to helping Nikki Haley win, with campaign donations, to be sure… but why stop there? With no contest in the Democratic Primaries, should Dems in early Republican primary states register Republican and vote for Haley?

But Dems must be aware of the law of unintended consequences… in trying to ensure that Trump never gets the chance to run for President, Democrats who help Haley may actually be helping the Republicans select a candidate who is more likely to beat Biden in the general election.

Last night’s debate is not going to change much.

But one idea is emerging and crystalizing.

If Joe Biden wins in 2024, we can all breath a sigh of relief that our democracy is safe for another four years.

If Donald Trump wins in 2024, there is a very, very, VERY real chance that democracy in America ends, that MSNBC, The New York Times, and The Washington Post are shut down, and that the DoJ, FBI, and the military are turned into search-and-destroy organizations that hunt down, terrorize, arrest, and incarcerate the perceived enemies of Donald Trump. Think I’m exaggerating? Read what Donald Trump has been saying, out loud and in public.

And then there is a third option…

If Nikki Haley wins, Democrats struggle with frustrating vetoes, over-reaching executive orders, and terrible policies. We have a frustrating, difficult, lousy four years.

But we still have a democracy.

I am thinking of sending a few bucks to Nikki Haley’s campaign.

Maybe we all should.


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