Many of the 30 players eligible for the 2022 BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot fall into distinct categories. There are “character clause” players including Curt Schilling and Omar Vizquel. There are players linked with performance-enhancing drugs including Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Alex Rodriguez. Perhaps the most fun group of players is the “is he really a Hall of Famer” group that includes Scott Rolen and Jeff Kent.
Jones, Hunter, and Abreu have a remarkable overlap in their careers. Jones and Abreu debuted in 1996 while Hunter joined the Majors in 1997. Jones wrapped up his career in 2012. Abreu stepped away in 2014. Hunter played his final games in 2015. None of them fit the traditional mold of a Hall of Famer, but they deserve consideration.
The “Traditional” Mold
When you think of a Hall of Famer, these are the players you think of. They have the stats, the rings, the popularity, and every other characteristic that has any remote importance. Jones played with several easy Hall of Famers in Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. Abreu played with Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Rodriguez, and Derek Jeter. Hunter played with Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Zack Greinke, and Miguel Cabrera.
Those 12 players do not need this kind of article written about them. It takes one glance at a Baseball-Reference page to tell that Maddux, Bagwell, Jeter, or Trout should be on your ballot. However, for every easy Hall of Famer, there are several players who did not necessarily fit the eye test. Trout looks like a Hall of Famer when he plays baseball. For a variety of reasons, Jones, Abreu, and Hunter did not, but they still put up strong cases.
Let’s look at Abreu for example. Several right fielders are slam-dunk, no-doubt Hall of Famers. Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron, Stan Musial, and Roberto Clemente are integral pieces for baseball. They are inner-circle Hall of Famers, and they are not the players that Abreu should be compared to. For every Ruth or Aaron, there is a Tony Oliva, Enos Slaughter, or Chuck Klein. The Hall of Fame should be selective, but the greatest players of MLB history are the outlier, not the standard. Imagine if a centerfielder had to be as good as Willie Mays to make the Hall of Fame. For many, Mays would be the only Hall of Famer at the position.
The Jones Case
Jones has the most traditional case of the three. He is, at worst, the second-best defensive centerfielder in MLB history. If you like Gold Gloves, Jones won 10 in a row. If you like defensive metrics, Jones was worth +238 fielding runs from 1997 to 2007, finishing with fewer than +12 just once in 11 seasons. He ranks first in dWAR among centerfielders and 22nd overall. He is second in total zone runs to Brooks Robinson.
Compared to the top 20 Hall of Fame centerfielders, Jones ranks 11th in bWAR, eighth in WAR7, and eighth in JAWS. Jones’ Hall of Fame accolades are similar to Andre Dawson and Richie Ashburn. Jones has the counting stats to be competitive with his 434 home runs and 152 stolen bases, and his offensive rate stats are eerily similar to Dawson and Ashburn.
Compared to the median Hall of Famer in centerfield, Jones should be a selection as an offensive player. When his defense is factored in, he stands above the rest.
The Hunter Case
Hunter is a slightly worse version of Jones. He was a five-time All-Star, nine-time Gold Glove, and two-time Silver Slugger. Hunter was not quite as consistent with his glove as Jones was, but Jones is the gold standard of defensive excellence. As offensive players, Hunter and Jones had remarkably similar primes. Hunter was a marginally better contact hitter while Jones slugged more. Over a sample size of 1,700 games and 7,100 plate appearances, Hunter posted an OPS+ of 115 between 2001 and 2012. Jones had an OPS+ of 114 between 1997 and 2007.
Like Jones, Hunter had a decline in his final few seasons. Jones built enough of a cushion to protect his legendary defensive metrics, but Hunter suffered through -5.1 dWAR in his final six seasons as a primary right fielder. This hurts his defensive cumulative stats, but these were some of his most productive hitting seasons. From 2010 to 2014, Hunter had a rock-solid 120 OPS+ despite getting into his later 30s.
Hunter ended up with 2,452 hits, 353 home runs, and 195 stolen bases. Only Mays, Dawson, and Carlos Beltran matched those three figures among centerfielders. Mays and Dawson are in the Hall of Fame, and Beltran will be eligible next season.
The Abreu Case
Picture a Philadelphia Phillies right fielder. He has a ridiculous on-base percentage. He is one of a handful of players to have a .420 on-base percentage in a season since 2000. While this description fits reigning National League MVP Bryce Harper, it fits Abreu even more. With the Phillies, Abreu posted a .416 on-base percentage, 14 points better than Harper’s stint.
Abreu has a career bWAR above that of slam-dunk, no-doubt Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki (and recent inductee Vladimir Guerrero Sr.). At the same time, he had a higher WAR7 than inner-circle Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. He has more runs scored than Suzuki and more hits than Larry Walker. He even has the same career OPS+ as Sammy Sosa.
Abreu is one of 23 players to have both 250 home runs and 250 steals in a career. Only four players eclipse Abreu in both: Bonds, Biggio, Bobby Bonds, and Rickey Henderson. Yes, only two of those four are in the Hall of Fame, but the younger Bonds’ candidacy is not based on his baseball exploits.
Abreu may only have two All-Star nods, one Gold Glove, and one Silver Slugger, but perhaps he played in the wrong era. In any context, a .300/.400/.500 slash line is incredible. Abreu did that four times in five seasons, and his Phillies slash line was .303/.416/.513, good for an OPS+ of 139. He had a pair of 30/30 seasons, and he ranks 25th in doubles, 20th in walks, and 14th in power-speed. He deserves much more than 8.7% of the Hall of Fame vote.
Of the three, Jones has the strongest case. The Hall of Fame voters seem to agree as Jones posted a 33.9% clip in 2021, his fourth year on the ballot. Hunter received 9.5%, edging out Abreu. Jones’ teams might be too successful for him to get in. On the other hand, Abreu’s prime years with the Phillies coincided with zero playoff appearances. In the ultimate twist of irony, they made won the NL East the first five seasons after Abreu was traded to the New York Yankees. Hunter split the middle, playing in the playoffs eight times, but never playing in a World Series.
Even if these three do not make the Hall of Fame one day, they are case studies to analyze. Not every Hall of Famer needs to be Ruth, Aaron, or Mays. Sometimes, a player is good enough for long enough and deserves to be recognized in the Hall.
Follow me on Twitter at @MrSplashMan19 for more baseball content. Don’t forget to join our OT Heroics MLB Facebook group, and feel free to join our new Instagram – @overtimeheroics_MLB, and listen to our baseball podcast, Cheap Seat Chatter! We’ll see ya there!
Come join the discussion made by the fans at the Overtime Heroics forums! A place for all sports!
Main image credit Embed from Getty Images