Bill James 1996 Hall of Fame Predictions

Darren Rovell tweeted about a month ago that 20 years ago Bill James was asked to predict all-stars from 1996–2019. How is he doing?

Year Player Elected In
1996 Pete Rose
Don Sutton 1998
1997 Steve Garvey
Phil Niekro 1997
1998 Gary Carter 2003
Al Oliver
1999 George Brett 1999
Nolan Ryan 1999
2000 Robin Yount 1999
Carlton Fisk 2000
2001 Andre Dawson 2010
Dave Winfield 2001
2002 Eddie Murray 2003
Ozzie Smith 2002
2003 Dave Parker
Jim Kaat
2004 Dennis Eckersley 2004
Ted Simmons
2005 Wade Boggs 2005
Cal Ripken Jr. 2007
2006 Rickey Henderson 2009
Paul Molitor 2004
2007 Tony Gwynn 2007
Roger Clemens
2008 Kirby Puckett 2001
Dale Murphy
2009 Jack Morris
Lee Smith
2010 Tim Raines
Ryne Sandberg 2005
2011 Barry Bonds
Joe Carter
2012 Brett Butler
David Cone
2013 Alan Trammell
Lou Whitaker
2014 Goose Gossage 2008
Don Mattingly
2015 Jack McDowell
Greg Maddux 2014
2016 Fred McGriff
Doc Gooden
2017 Frank Thomas 2014
Ruben Sierra
2018 Ken Griffey Jr. ineligible
Roberto Alomar 2011
2019 Jeff Bagwell
Juan Gonzalez

He listed 48 players, 47 who are eligible as of right now, and was right on 23 being Hall of Famers, just over 50%. Let’s take a look at those 24 he missed on.

Retired in 1996 (9)

Steve Garvey, Al Oliver, Dave Parker, Jim Kaat, Ted Simmons, Dale Murphy, Jack Morris, Lou Whitaker and Don Mattingly were all retired when James made this list. That means that he thought all of these guys were already Hall of Famers at this time. Missing 9 of these guys is pretty remarkable. Looking into these 9 guys it was interesting to see that either a guy in a ballot for one season, or he is on ballots for 10+. Al Oliver, Ted Simmons and Lou Whitaker were one and done on the ballot. The other six guys hung around for a while but none of them could get over the hump. Jack Morris is a guy who has come close a few times and whom many think should have made it.

Pete Rose, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds (3)

Rose is still banned. Clemens and Bonds are being blackballed for their connection to performance enhancing drugs. Based on on-field performance all three of them should be in the Hall of Fame. It’s hard to punish James for these.

Should Have Been Right (4)

There are four guys he had on his list who would have made the Hall of Fame.

  • Lee Smith – Was the career leader in saves when he retired in 1997. Has gotten votes in 10+ ballot years. His ballot numbers have slipped but he was not a ridiculous choice.
  • Tim Raines – Considered one of the major snubs of the last decade. 5th all-time in stolen bases. Walked a lot before it was cool. 64th all-time in Baseball Reference offensive WAR.
  • Alan Trammell – Trammell like Raines and Morris has long been considered a major snub. He was a great two-way shortstop and as defense becomes more important he will get more and more respect as a good player.
  • Jeff Bagwell – Bagwell was only 27 at the time, so good read by James. Although Bagwell isn’t in the Hall of Fame he deserves to be. He has exceeded 50% on the last four ballots. Bagwell is tangentially punished for playing during the PED era and shouldn’t be. He deserves to be in.

Hindsight is 20/20 (2)

Two of the guys he had were young and looked dominant, but for one reason or the other couldn’t keep it up over a long enough period.

  • Juan Gonzalez – I chuckled when I first saw this, then I looked at Gonzalez’s early ’90s stats. He had over 150 home runs at the end of 1995, and was just 25 years old. He finished with 434 career home runs even though he didn’t play a full season after turning 31. His PED association definitely stung his legacy, but his short career as a full-time player also hurt him. He appeared on two ballots.
  • Jack McDowell – If James had done this list after the 1996 season (not sure when he did it in 1996) he probably would have left McDowell off. McDowell was terrible for the Indians in 1996 and would only pitch in 26 more major league games. Got less than 1% of the vote on his only ballot.

Close, But No Dice (3)

Three guys were fringe Hall of Famers when James made this list, and his assumption was surely that they didn’t need to do a ton to make it, but none of them quite got there. McGriff was probably closest, and Gooden furthest, but these guys still had impressive careers.

  • David Cone – Didn’t retire until 2003, but again it’s hard to see what James was thinking in 1996. Cone didn’t win 200 games (wins don’t mean a lot, but that is a low number). He was coming off dominant seasons in 1994 and 1995, but he was already 32 and was far from a Hall of Fame lock at that point. His high strikeout numbers give him a decent WAR, but he only lasted one ballot.
  • Fred McGriff – McGriff made a lot of sense in 1996. He was one of the preeminent power hitters in baseball at the time and would have a long career. He has appeared on the last six Hall of Fame ballots but hasn’t really been that close. He hit a lot of home runs but also struck out a lot. He probably doesn’t get the respect he deserves because he played the end of his career in the infancy of the PED era.
  • Doc Gooden – James assumption was that Gooden, who had just returned from a year away was about to get his mojo back and have a good second act to his career. Goodness might get to 3000 strikeouts if he could have put together just one or two good seasons after James made this list, so it’s not crazy to put him on there.

W…T…F (3)

I just don’t have words…

  • Joe Carter – Had been in the league 10+ seasons when James listed him. Hard to see what James was thinking unless he thought Carter had a lot more big seasons in him. Only made one Hall of Fame ballot.
  • Ruben Sierra – Sierra literally got zero votes in his only trip to the ballot, and honestly this might be the most perplexing choice on here. Sierra was 30 in 1996, so he was in the decline of his career. He hadn’t hit 30 home runs to this point, wasn’t really a .300 hitter, didn’t steal bases and wasn’t a good defender. This one I don’t understand at all.
  • Brett Butler was 38 at the end of the 1995 season, so he was close enough to being done that this one makes no sense. It’s hard to look at his numbers and figure out what he saw here. Butler was an All-Star just once. He had only 2375 hits. Baseball Reference has him 107th in Offensive WAR for his career, which is actually pretty impressive. He stole 558 bases but he was only successful 68% of the time. To put this into perspective Rickey Henderson was 81%, Tim Raines 85%, Kenny Lofton 80%, heck even Paul Molitor was 79%. He didn’t win Gold Gloves, and wasn’t even a secretly good fielder. This one stumped me.

Wrap-Up

Bill James is a baseball genius for a reason. His predictions were pretty good, and this list made seem obvious in retrospect, but 20 years ago it wasn’t so obvious. Still interesting to look back and be so right though. Might be fun to try and do the same for the future from now at some point.