The 2013 Hall of Fame vote will long be remembered as the year that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were denied entry into Cooperstown. Lost in the raging PED debate, however, is the fact that some noteworthy players fell off the ballot entirely during their first year of eligibility. Kenny Lofton, David Wells, Steve Finley, Shawn Green, Julio Franco and Reggie Sanders, among others, won't be in play in 2014 because they failed to garner the five percent of the vote necessary to stay on the ballot (Bernie Williams also got axed during his second year of eligibility).
Lofton's lack of Cooperstown love got us thinking: Who are the best players to fall off the ballot in their first year of eligibility since the 5% vote minimum was implemented in 1979? Here's a closer look at the top five players to fall short of 5% BBWAA vote threshold in year one -- plus one guy who was initially snubbed but got the Hall call thanks to the Veterans Committee. The players are ranked by Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement, which considers offensive, defensive and pitching value.
Lou Whitaker, 2001
Sweet Lou was a complete player, combining rangy defense at the keystone with superb strike-zone control and sneaky power for a player listed at 5-foot-11, 160 pounds. According to Baseball-Reference's Total Zone defensive system, the three-time Gold Glove Award winner saved 77 runs more than an average second baseman during the course of his career. At the plate, Whitaker had more walks (1,197) than strikeouts (1,099) and hit 244 home runs, sixth all-time among second baseman. With 71.4 career Wins Above Replacement, Whitaker trails just Eddie Collins, Joe Morgan, Nap Lajoie and Charlie Gehringer and bests recent Hall of Fame inductees at the position like Ryne Sandberg (64.9) and Roberto Alomar (62.9).
Despite that resume, Whitaker garnered a paltry 2.9% of the vote during his first and only year on the ballot. Perhaps voters focused on his so-so batting average (.276) and wheels (143 steals, 65.6% success rate) instead of his strong secondary skills and defense. Whitaker was a quality top-of-the-order hitter, but he didn't fit the speedy, slap-and-dash archetype.
Bobby Grich, 1992
Everything just said about Whitaker applies to Grich, too. Like Sweet Lou, Grich was an up-the-middle player with plus defense (+82 Total Zone runs, mostly at 2B but also with solid marks in limited time at shortstop), a good eye (.371 on-base percentage) and pop (224 career home runs) despite playing his home games in Memorial Stadium and Anaheim Stadium, both pitcher-friendly parks. The six-time All-Star's 67.8 WAR rank seventh all-time among second baseman.
Grich, who got just 2.6% of the HOF vote, also likely suffered from not playing the "little man's game." His career batting average was .266, and he stole 104 bases with a 55.6% success rate.
Ron Santo, 1980
This injustice was made right -- albeit posthumously -- when the Veterans Committee elected Santo to the Hall of Fame in 2012. The first time around, however, Santo got only 3.9% of the vote even though his WAR total at third base (66.6) ranks behind just Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, Wade Boggs, Chipper Jones and Brooks Robinson. The BBWAA later petitioned to have Santo and two other players who fell below the 5% threshold in their first year on the ballot (Ken Boyer and Curt Flood) reinstated, and they were. While Santo stayed on the ballot for a full 15 years the second time around, he never got more than 43.1% of the vote. The third time was a charm, thankfully.
Santo played solid defense at third (+27 TZ runs) and was one of the better hitters at the position, placing seventh in OPS+ (125). Maybe Santo and other third basemen aren't given enough props for playing a more difficult position and are instead lumped in with other sluggers at first base. There are fewer hot corner players in Cooperstown (15) than at any other position on the diamond.
Rick Reuschel, 1997
A doughy fellow who had the misfortune of pitching at Wrigley Field when it truly was a bandbox (Wrigley boosted offense between three percent and eleven percent during his Cub years), Reuschel had neither the shiny-looking ERA nor the high win total (214) of an archetypal Hall of Famer. When you adjust for Wrigley's gusting winds, however, Reuschel's ERA was 14% better than the league average. He also surrendered the second-fewest home runs per nine innings pitched (0.6) among Expansion Era starters topping 3,000 frames.
Reuschel's career WAR total (66.2) actually tops that of Jim Palmer (63.2) and Don Sutton (62.9), and it's in the same ballpark as possible 2014 first-ballot Hall of Famer Tom Glavine (69.3). If Reuschel pitched the bulk of his career in a more hospitable park and got more run support, he would have gotten more than a mere 0.4% of the vote.
Kenny Lofton, 2013
If Tim Raines is the poor man's Rickey Henderson offensively, then Lofton is the poor man's Rock. That's far from an insult -- Raines' on-base ability and high-percentage prowess once he reached should have landed him in Cooperstown years ago. Similarly, Lofton was an on-base fiend (career .372 OBP) who wreaked havoc on the bases. While he didn't keep up the dizzying stolen base pace he set during his first stint in Cleveland (he led the league in steals each year from 1992-1996), Lofton retained his wheels into his early 40s, finishing with 622 steals and a 79.5% success rate. The four-time Gold Glove Award winner was also a breath-taking center fielder during the first half of his career and saved +108 runs. That's fifth-best all-time among guys covering the middle pasture, behind just Andruw Jones, Willie Mays, Paul Blair and Devon White. When you consider that Raines was mostly a left fielder, and not a particularly graceful one, Lofton might just be Raines' equal in terms of overall value.
Lofton ranks a surprising seventh all-time in WAR (64.9) among center fielders, just ahead of Brooklyn Dodgers legend Edwin Donald Snider (63.1). Even so, he got just 3.2% of the vote this year. Maybe Lofton could have used a catchy nickname -- is Duke taken? Or maybe it would have helped him if he didn't switch unis so often that he became the unofficial pitch man for a shipping company. In addition to the Indians, Lofton also played for the Astros, Braves, White Sox, Giants, Pirates, Cubs, Yankees, Phillies, Dodgers and Rangers. He never spent more than one year with any of those clubs, and he was traded six times during his career.
Kevin Brown, 2011
Brown deserved better than the 2.1% of the ballot that he received a few years ago. Among starting pitchers who threw at least 3,000 innings during their career, he ranks 15th all-time with a 127 ERA+. On a per-inning basis, he was as effective as Curt Schilling, Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson. Don't get the strait jacket out -- I'm not suggesting Brown was anywhere near the caliber of pitcher that Seaver or Gibson were. Seaver threw roughly 1,500 more innings than Brown, and Gibson about 600. But Brown's career WAR total (64.3) puts him in Palmer/Sutton territory. Surely that's worth more than a dozen votes.
Brown likely fell off the ballot because he was named as an alleged user of Human Growth Hormone in the Mitchell Report and made a godawful impression in the country's biggest media market. He had an ERA near five during two injury-riddled years with the Yankees. Some of those maladies were self-inflicted (he punched a wall in frustration in September of 2004), others were courtesy of the Sox (David Ortiz took him deep during a two-inning disaster start in Game 7 of the '04 ALCS). This sort of stuff, coupled with a low win total (211), draws the ire of sports writers.
Whitaker, Grich, Reuschel, Lofton and Brown aren't the only guys whose legitimate Cooperstown cases were short-circuited. Here are the top 20 players who fell off the ballot during their first year of Hall of Fame eligibility:
Highest career WAR totals for players knocked off HOF ballot in Year 1