How’d He Make the Ballot?

Moe Berg was a better spy than a hitter. (via Goudey & Howell Media Solutions)

Moe Berg was a better spy than a hitter. (via Goudey & Howell Media Solutions)

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth post of “Hall of Fame Week!” For more info, click here.

Hall of Fame voting is, of course, ongoing, and baseball writers across the country are handing in ballots with up to 10 players checked off. The ballot this year has 32 people on it, ranging from the great (Ken Griffey Jr.) to the rather mediocre (Brad Ausmus). But even the worst player on the ballot isn’t that bad. The lowest WAR featured on the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot is 16.8, which belongs to David Eckstein – a perfectly respectable total for a career.

It hasn’t always been that way, though. The ballot has featured several players over the years who were never really within sniffing distance of the Hall at any point. Why were they on the ballot? I have no idea. But let’s take a look back at some of the most curious nominees for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Honorable Mentions

Up until 1968, there was no screening process for the ballot. Any player who played 10 or more seasons in the major leagues automatically was eligible to be voted for, which made for some pretty long ballots. It also allowed some absolutely terrible players to make it on. I guess these ones don’t really count, because unlike the post-1968 ones, nobody actually said, “This man is worthy to be considered for the pantheon of this sport, along with other all-time greats.” (Though I doubt anybody uttered those exact words after 1968, either.) So to make these count more, I only awarded honorable mentions to players who received at least one vote on a pre-1968 ballot.

A note on the format. For each player, you’ll see a table with three rows: “Best Season,” which is the player’s stats from his best season (by WAR); “Aggregate Best Season,” which are the best numbers a player ever put up in each category (in a season with at least 100 plate appearances); and “Career,” which are the career numbers.

With that being said, here are the worst of pre-1968 era.

Honorable Mention 1: Tommy Thevenow

Type Years PA AVG OBP wRC+ HR SB K% BB% Fld WAR
Best Season 1926 608 .256 .291 57 2 8 4.3% 4.4% 28 2.5
Aggregate Best Season 624 .312 .320 86 2 8 1.9% 10.2% 28 2.5
Career 1924-1938 4,484 .247 .285 49 2 23 5.0% 4.7% 24 -6.1

Thevenow was the epitome of a defensive-minded shortstop who couldn’t hit. Imagine Andrelton Simmons, just a worse hitter and a worse fielder. Really, imagine any good fielder nowadays, just a worse hitter. He had a career wRC+ of 49 and a career fWAR of -6.1. I can’t put numbers in all caps, but I want to emphasize that again. 49 and -6.1. There have been 1,179 batters to have at least as many career plate appearances as Thevenow, and every single one of them had a better career wRC+. In fact, the next-lowest wRC+ among those 1,179 was a full nine points higher.

Forget the fact that he earned two votes for the Hall of Fame, as he did. Why was this guy even playing long enough to be eligible? I know, back then they didn’t have access to fancy-pants stats like wRC+ and WAR, but the .247 average and two home runs – which, by the way, were both inside-the-parkers within a few weeks of each other – should’ve tipped general managers off.

It’s possible since we don’t have great ways to quantify defense from back then that we’re underrating Thevenow’s fielding. But even if we gave him another 60 defensive runs saved (which is nuts) just because we want him to have the benefit of the doubt, he’s not even up to zero WAR for his career.

He also holds the record – the record! – for most consecutive at-bats without a home run: 3,347. By comparison, it took Ben Revere, the modern-day symbol of home run futility, under 1,400 at bats to hit one. And Revere’s shot actually left the playing field; if you don’t count Thevenow’s two inside-the-parkers, he went his entire 4,484-plate appearance career without one.

In 1930, Thevenow – fresh off a -2.4-win season – put up a whopping -3.6 WAR, the third-worst season ever by that measure. That -2.4-win season, by the way, was the 41st-worst ever. Those two years were quite the pair:

Player Years WAR, both years WAR, year 1 WAR, year 2
Tommy Thevenow 1929-1930 -6.0 -2.4 -3.6
Pat Rockett 1977-1978 -4.9 -2.2 -2.7
Jim Levey 1932-1933 -4.8 -0.8 -4.0
George Wright 1984-1985 -4.7 -1.5 -3.2
George Wright 1985-1986 -4.7 -3.2 -1.5

Yup, they’re the two worst consecutive seasons ever, and by a good amount.

In fairness to Thevenow’s case, he did have a somewhat memorable 1926 season. His hitting was lackluster (57 wRC+), but his defense led him to 2.5 WAR and fourth place in the NL MVP Award voting with the Cardinals. He also helped the Cardinals win the World Series that year over the Yankees, going 10-for-24 in the Series with an inside-the-park home run.

But still, -6.1 WAR.

Honorable Mention 2: Eddie Miksis

Type Years PA AVG OBP wRC+ HR SB K% BB% Fld WAR
Best Season 1956 395 .239 .303 78 9 4 10.1% 8.1% 1 0.3
Aggregate Best Season 624 .265 .320 78 9 13 6.3% 8.1% 13 0.3
Career 1944-1958 3338 .236 .288 61 44 52 9.4% 6.4% -7 -4.8

Miksis had a rather unusual career. At the age of 17, he was called up by the Brooklyn Dodgers to play for them while several other players were off fighting in World War II, since he was a bright talent and could play anywhere on the diamond. But then for the next year and a half, he himself served in the Navy instead of playing. He returned to the Dodgers in the middle of the 1946 season, and, despite hitting only .146 with no extra-base hits the rest of the year, was considered by the Dodgers to be their second baseman of the future.

He never really got his chance, though. He was stuck behind Eddie Stanky in Brooklyn, then behind Jackie Robinson when Stanky got traded. Miksis was traded to the Cubs in June of 1951 because he wanted regular playing time. After two and a half poor and partially injury-riddled seasons, though, the Cubs gave the starting middle infield spots to Gene Baker, who wasn’t anything special but was better than Miksis, and Ernie Banks, who Miksis sure wasn’t beating out for a job.

Miksis managed to stick around for over 10 seasons, though, earning him a place on the ballot with a little check box next to his name – a check box which one writer marked off. Although it’s possible (while unlikely) that was an accident; Miksis was sandwiched alphabetically by Joe Medwick and Johnny Mize on the 1964 ballot, both of whom later made the Hall.

Miksis was not quite as bad Thevenow — he had both a higher wRC+ and WAR, and his WAR probably should’ve been higher as by all accounts he was a more-than-capable fielder. But, like Thevenow, he was still well below zero for his career. In Miksis’s aggregate best season, he hit .265, with an OBP of .320 and a 78 wRC+. In 2015, there were 67 hitters who hit at least as well as that, and there are 298 hitters who played in 2015 who have an aggregate career-best stat line at least as good as that. Miksis’s career numbers are at or below the level of current hitters such as D.J. LeMahieu and Jonathan Herrera.

Honorable Mention 3: Moe Berg

Type Years PA AVG OBP wRC+ HR SB K% BB% Fld WAR
Best Season 1935 105 .286 .320 80 2 0 2.9% 4.8% 0 0.2
Aggregate Best Season 383 .287 .323 80 2 5 2.7% 5.5% 3 0.2
Career 1923-1939 1961 .243 .278 48 6 11 6.0% 4.0% -2 -4.7

Berg, an infielder turned catcher, was a pretty lousy hitter, but his baseball playing really was only one part of his life. Shortly after his retirement, Berg was recruited into the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA) and sent to spy on Axis powers in Europe during World War II. It might be for that reason that he garnered the number of votes he did (nine total in two years), because he most certainly did not merit any votes based on his playing ability.

Berg was fairly similar to Thevenow and Miksis in his play – couldn’t hit a lick but could field quite well. FanGraphs’ defensive numbers only give him four runs saved as a catcher, but he was known in his day as a Yadier Molina type: elite at catching would-be base stealers and great with the staff. (He had -6 runs saved as a shortstop, hence the -2 total. He had 36 errors in 84 games there.)

Similarly to how Thevenow was a worse hitter than any other who had as many plate appearances, Berg was a worse hitter than nearly every other. Here’s a histogram of wRC+ for all 2,590 hitters ever with at least as many plate appearances as Berg.

Moe Berg wRC plus

Berg was exceptionally smart; he was fluent in at least seven languages, and he graduated from Columbia law school and passed the New York bar exam. His intelligence helped his teammates, since Berg was adept at providing advice to both pitchers and hitters. But it didn’t help him. As a teammate put it, “He can speak seven languages, but he can’t hit in any of them.”

Berg is tied for the longest career without a single-season WAR above 0.5, at 15 years. (Eddie Miksis is third with 14.) He’s tied for eighth for the longest career without one positive single-season WRAA. It took him until he was 33 to have a wOBA above .300 and a wRC+ above 65.

But the whole spy thing is pretty cool.

The “Top” Five

In 1968, the Hall wised up and added a requirement for players to be nominated by at least two out of six members of a screening committee before they could be placed on the ballot.

This should eliminate players like Thevenow from being on the ballot, right? Well…

5: Jimmy Stewart

Type Years PA AVG OBP wRC+ HR SB K% BB% Fld WAR
Best Season 1964 481 .253 .331 83 3 10 12.7% 10.2% -7 0.4
Aggregate Best Season 481 .267 .331 83 4 13 9.4% 10.2% 1 0.4
Career 1963-1973 1602 .237 .306 71 8 38 13.6% 8.7% -15 -1.3

Stewart, who shares a name with the famous actor, had a considerable bit less success in his profession. He was a utility man for his entire career, playing every position but pitcher (and playing all but pitcher and catcher for at least 50 innings). Despite that, his -15 career runs saved indicate he wasn’t great in the field. Stewart’s hitting was nothing to write home about, either, as he never had a wRC+ greater than 90 and never higher than 83 in a season with at least 100 PA. He did steal 38 bases in his career, but he also was caught 20 times.

His best season, 1964, was not good. While got on base at a decent clip – a .331 OBP in a year where the league average was .309 – he couldn’t hit for any power. His slugging percentage (.316) was lower than his OBP, and it was far worse than the league average of .379. That led to a sub-.300 wOBA and a 83 wRC+. Throw in subpar defense, and it added up to just 0.4 WAR, the highest of his career.

In the three years that followed, Stewart put up wRC+’s of 66, 40, and 10, with WARs of -1.0, -0.2, and -0.4. In his 10 years, he never had a positive Wins Above Average (the sum of the batting, baserunning, fielding, positional and league values, not including replacement).

Ninety-eight batters with at least 100 plate appearances in 2015 had more home runs and a higher batting average, OBP, wRC+, and WAR than Stewart’s aggregate best season. Ninety-eight! That group included surefire future Hall of Famers such as Clint Robinson, Corey Dickerson, Brett Wallace, John Jaso, Jason Rogers, and Ryan Raburn.

4: John Boccabella

Type Years PA AVG OBP wRC+ HR SB K% BB% Fld WAR
Best Season 1970 156 .269 .321 92 5 0 15.4% 7.1% 8 1.1
Aggregate Best Season 440 .269 .321 92 7 1 14.0% 7.2% 8 1.1
Career 1963-1974 1595 .219 .267 57 26 3 15.4% 6.0% 16 -0.7

Boccabella had a better WAR than Stewart, but that was only because he was a better fielder. A part-time infielder/part-time catcher, he only played 100 games once in his career. Dan Johnson – the currently active journeyman first baseman – has played as many seasons as Boccabella did, and Johnson has more career plate appearances and almost double the wRC+.

Boccabella was a decent fielder, with a +16 career rating, and first-hand reports corroborate that. Hitting, though, was another story. If it doesn’t look that bad in the first two rows of the table above, that’s because he had one decent season, in 1970, where he slashed .269/.321/.407. But for his career, he put up a measly .219/.267/.317 line with a 57 wRC+. And it’s not like he provided great value on the basepaths, with three career stolen bases against seven times caught stealing.

In 1969, he had, somehow, a -10 wRC+ in 40 games. If you take all player seasons (excluding pitchers) in the World Series era in which the batter played at least 40 games, Boccabella’s 1969 is the 0.127th percentile for wRC+ — as in 99.873 percent of all seasons were better than that. If you take all careers ever (again excluding pitchers) with at least as many games as Boccabella, he’s in the 1.4th percentile for wRC+. This man was not a good hitter.

The list of players from 2015 who had years as good as Boccabella’s aggregate best isn’t as long as Stewart’s (taking the same categories). But it still is 73 players long and includes some rather odd names, like Andres Blanco, Mikie Mahtook, Danny Valencia, and Martin Prado. Valencia has played six seasons. Should he be on the Hall of Fame ballot if he plays four more? No? Well, he already has more hits, home runs, walks, and plate appearances than Boccabella did, as well as a wRC+ that’s 43 points higher.

3: John Kennedy

Type Years PA AVG OBP wRC+ HR SB K% BB% Fld WAR
Best Season 1970 200 .255 .299 90 6 0 11.5% 5.5% 1 0.6
Aggregate Best Season 521 .276 .320 102 7 4 12.5% 9.7% 2 0.6
Career 1962-1974 2324 .225 .281 70 32 14 19.8% 6.1% -39 -2.9

Here we have the lowest WAR ever to be featured on a Hall of Fame ballot since 1968. Kennedy – who, just like Stewart, was nowhere near as successful as the more famous man he shared a name with – played 13 seasons in the majors on the left side of the infield and was flat-out terrible.

His career started out auspiciously: his first major league at-bat was a pinch-hit home run that broke up a no-hitter. But it was all downhill from there. His only season as an everyday starter was 1964, and all he could manage to do was slash .230/.280/.324, which translated to a 68 wRC+. But it was at least better than the year before (.177/.261/.226 in 69 PA) and the year after (.171/.243/.229 in 120 PA).

Despite the atrocious numbers FanGraphs gives him for his fielding, he wasn’t particularly bad. He was good enough to be put in as a defensive substitute toward the end of both Sandy Koufax’s perfect game and Game Seven of the 1965 World Series. So maybe his WAR should be a little bit higher.

But much like many of the others on this list, nothing changes the fact that he couldn’t hit. Kennedy played in 13 major league seasons and broke the Mendoza line in just seven of them. His 32 career home runs are the highest on this list, but he also had over 700 more plate appearances than the next highest; his career HR/PA mark is third out of the five. He grounded into 48 double plays, stole 14 bases and was caught 10 times.

I struggled with where to put Kennedy on this list. I initially had him at No. 1 because he had the worst WAR of everyone. Eventually, though, I decided I couldn’t fault him for earning more playing time than the current Nos. 1 and 2, and for this list it’s worse to have his kind of numbers in far fewer plate appearances. It makes more sense to put someone on the ballot when they’ve been in the majors for a while and earned consistent playing time. So even though the next player may have been slightly better when he did play… well, you’ll see for yourself.

2: Jim Beauchamp

Type Years PA AVG OBP wRC+ HR SB K% BB% Fld WAR
Best Season 1968 62 .263 .306 105 2 0 30.6% 6.5% 0 0.3
Aggregate Best Season 175 .242 .282 87 5 3 16.0% 5.3% -2 -0.1
Career 1963-1973 730 .231 .288 75 14 6 20.5% 7.4% -13 -1.7

If you think Boccabella or Stewart didn’t have anywhere near as many plate appearances as one needs to be considered for the Hall of Fame, then I’d love to know what you have to say about Beauchamp. (Pronounced “BEECH-um.”) He only came to bat 730 times in his career, something that has been done 45 times in a single season since 2000. (Most recently, Derek Jeter and Ian Kinsler both did it in 2012.)

Beauchamp wasn’t quite at Mike Hessman levels of minor league success and major league futility, but that was mostly because he wasn’t at the same level of minor league success. The major league futility certainly was there. He hit 192 minor league home runs in parts of 12 seasons on the farm, but whenever he got to the majors, he always struggled mightily.

His best season by WAR (and his only year with a positive WAR) was 1968… when he had 0.3 WAR. I didn’t count his 1968 numbers in the “Aggregate Best Season” row in the table above, though, because he didn’t have 100 PA. And that year was in large part fueled by luck anyway. His BABIP that season was .351, whereas his career mark was only .273.

Other than that one year, Beauchamp never was above replacement level or an above-average hitter, and even including that year, he never was an above-average fielder. He had 153 career base hits, which is one fewer than Kris Bryant has already. Beauchamp’s career high in hits was 38. There were 24 38-hit months by a single player this past year. Four hitters did it twice.

Beauchamp grounded into nearly as many double plays in his career (11) as he hit home runs (14). He had nearly as many strikeouts (150) as hits (153). He had more errors (20) than doubles (18). And he was a below-average defensive first baseman, which really only can fly if you’re great offensively, because first base is undoubtedly the easiest position to play.

I can only imagine his minor league heroics won him a spot on the ballot, because otherwise it’s hard to see how two or more people agreed that he belonged there.

1: John Stephenson

Type Years PA AVG OBP wRC+ HR SB K% BB% Fld WAR
Best Season 1972 161 .274 .342 109 2 0 5.0% 6.8% -5 0.5
Aggregate Best Season 308 .274 .342 109 4 0 5.5% 7.1% -2 0.5
Career 1964-1973 1076 .216 .271 63 12 0 11.0% 5.9% -23 -2.1

Unlike Beauchamp, who had his minor league track record going for him, I cannot find anything that might make Stephenson a reasonable Hall of Fame candidate. He did nothing of note during his career…except strike out to end Jim Bunning’s perfect game. His Wikipedia article is a mere 88 words.

Stephenson gets the top (bottom?) spot here because he played very little, just like Beauchamp, and was even worse than Kennedy. He barely cracked 1,000 career plate appearances. He posted a lifetime 63 wRC+. His career slash line was .216/.271/.296. And unlike most of the other players, where there was some kind of bio on the internet that at least touched upon the player’s defensive merit, there was nothing for Stephenson, so we’re left to assume the -23 runs saved attached to him is roughly accurate.

Stephenson’s aggregate best season isn’t actually all that bad. Most of that is powered by his 1972 campaign, as you can see. Credit to him, that was a decent season. (It’s sure as hell better than I can do.) But everything surrounding it is a nightmare.

Stephenson never tallied more than 308 plate appearances, 61 hits, four home runs, or 25 RBI in a season; he never stole a base (he was thrown out once); he never played 100 games. In 2015, 184 players had at least 308 PA, 61 hits, fou4 home runs, 25 RBI, one stolen base, and 100 games; 14 of them were below replacement level while doing so. Chris Owings, who had a 52 wRC+ and -1.4 WAR last year, met all those criteria, including five out of the six with ease.

Stephenson had a similar Mendoza-breaking percentage to Kennedy, with just six out of 10 seasons above a .200 average. He grounded into a double play more times than he hit a double; he had twice as many sacrifice bunts as sacrifice flies; he had over twice as many errors as home runs.

So for him more than any others, I ask: how’d John Stephenson make the ballot?

Random Observations

  • Everybody in the top five began his career in either 1962, ’63, or ’64 and ended it in either ’73 or ’74. That jumped out to me and seems weird. Why is that? I suspect that after 1980 (the year the last of these people was on the ballot), the screening committee started getting more strict. Given the ballot size shrunk from 61 names in 1980 to 39 in 1981, I think that’s it. That reasoning doesn’t necessarily mean that there couldn’t have been players who retired between 1964 and 1972 to make this list, since they would have been on the ballot post-1968, but that I think is just a coincidence.
  • All of the top five have a first name that starts with a J. Not surprising. Nothing good ever comes out of those kinds of people.
  • All of the top five and all the honorable mentions are batters. I assume that’s a combination between a bias in the screening and a bias in my selection. It does make some sense – a pitcher can be good in more than one sense (good ERA-wise or good peripherals-wise), so since it’s usually easy to defend a pitcher in some way, it’s difficult to say a pitcher is a bad choice to put on the ballot. For example, Mitch Williams, who made the Hall of Fame ballot, had -2.2 fWAR but also a 91 career ERA-.
  • If Bill Bergen had played while the Hall existed, he would’ve been automatically eligible for the ballot. That would have made the honorable mention section much better, because there are so many fun things to say about his career. Disappointing.

References and Resources

Jonah is a baseball analyst and Red Sox fan. He would like it if you followed him on Twitter @japemstein, but can't really do anything about it if you don't.
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Pirates Hurdles
6 years ago

“All of the top five have a first name that starts with a J. Not surprising. Nothing good ever comes out of those kinds of people.”

Johnnie Walker, Jack Daniels, and Jim Beam beg to differ

Jesus Christ
6 years ago


Jonah Pemstein
6 years ago

I don’t

87 Cards
6 years ago

The decrease number of candidates from 1980 to 1981 might be explain here:

I understand the BBWAA changed its selection process in 1981. All eligible players were on the 1979 and 1980 ballots (Larry Stahl, Paul Schaal, etc) then those un-elected former players with at least 5% of the vote carried over to the next ballot. In 1981, the Writers put a cut-off on voting for players last active in 1975. 1980 ballot holdovers with at least 5% were screened by committee on-or-off the ballot. All ten-year BBWAA members were eligible to vote ballot. Candidates named on 75% of balloted were offered induction; less than 5% former players fell off the ballot in 1982.

I sourced all of the above off of Wikipedia but it matches what I remember reading in the summer of 1981; The 50-day players strike gave me a lot of time to read up on such nuances.

6 years ago

And yet Willie Davis couldn’t crack the ballot.

6 years ago

I would suggest a additional rule: to get on the HOF ballot, a player must have a career WAR per season of 2.0.

For position players: if (career WAR) *502 / career PA > = 2.0, on the ballot.
For pitchers: if (career WAR) *162 / career IP > = 2.0, on the ballot.

If not, not on the ballot. Yes, that means if a player plays 10 season, 2 of which are 10-WAR and the 8 being replacement-level, that 20 WAR in 10 years, and on the ballot.

You’ve heard of Bill James’ Keltner List? I have what I call the Finley Line. To me, to be considered a serious candidate for Cooperstown, you should have had a career at least as good as Steve Finley. Not that Finley should have a plaque, but anyone worse shouldn’t even be in the discussion.

Tramps Like Us
6 years ago
Reply to  njguy73

Finley had 2548 hits and a career WAR of 44.0. That’s a rough standard. Probably have to take some guys out to meet that standard!

6 years ago
Reply to  Tramps Like Us

Well, I did a quick-and-dirty look at the all-time career WAR leaderboard, and the HOF’ers below Finley (ranked #407) who missed the 2.0/yr mark were the usual suspects of “how’d he get in?” Rick Ferrell, Rabbit Maranville, Ray Schalk, Rube Marquard…

Maybe “J” isn’t the bad letter.

6 years ago

So was George Wright’s 1984–1985–1986 the worst three year stretch ever (-1.5, -3.2, -1.5)?

6 years ago

I only remember Boccabella and Beauchamp though I was first introduced to baseball cards with the 1969 set. Boccabella I mentally mix up with Biff Pocoroba. I suppose there must have been an Arpanet campaign to “Free Jim Beauchamp” in the stathead punchcard world that got him on the ballot.

Jon L.
6 years ago

“Everybody in the top five began his career in either 1962, ’63, or ’64 and ended it in either ’73 or ’74.”

Baseball expanded in 1962, adding the New York Mets and Colt 45’s, and the NL also extended the season to 162 games (the AL having done so the year before). The former in particular meant adding a lot of new players to Major League baseball, some of whom apparently looked good enough in the field to stick around a while in the time before Bill James.

Tramps Like Us
6 years ago

John Boccabella should at least be remembered for the French PA announcer at the Expos original home, Jarry Park. Just hearing the announcer saying his name with great emphasis and great importance was worth the price of admission. And John Kennedy threw my brother a ball during warmups at the Dodgers’ pennant-clincher in 1965, against the Braves. So he gets my vote, too.

j ragnar
6 years ago

wasn’t the reason for this because milt papas sued(and won) mlb demanding that ALL retired players be listed on the hof ballot?