I had been following Ryan Thibodaux’s annual Ballot Tracker, and I was starting to get a little nervous there. It started off very strong, with five players above the 75% mark needed for induction. Five! I couldn’t believe it! That would put it in a tie with the initial Class of 1936 for largest number of inductees in a year, and it would go a hell of a long way in clearing out some of the ballot’s logjam.
But of course, things are never as rosy as the initial predictions look. Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines continued to pull in strong numbers, so they were never in doubt. But first Vladimir Guerrero* slipped below the mark needed for election, then Trevor Hoffman followed. It was starting to look like Ivan Rodriguez would follow, ending up at 79.6% with a strong possibility of a big drop coming once the anonymous ballots came in. After all, only one catcher had ever been inducted on the first ballot**, and I had always assumed Trevor Hoffman would have the better chance of making it in this year.
*I’m still kind of surprised that Guerrero did so well. In all honesty, he wasn’t one of the five best corner outfielders on the ballot this year, and even if you limited it to just the non-steroid set, it was still difficult to argue that he was better than third best at the position. In a world in which Raines took ten years on the ballot, Bagwell took seven, Larry Walker is stuck in the low 20s, Jim Edmonds fell off after one season…it just doesn’t make much sense. I guess voters went for the big home run and hit totals though (even if he didn’t hit 500 or 3000)? I won’t complain, as I think he’s deserving and I’m not nearly as concerned now about guys going in “in the correct order” as I once was, but it’s still kind of confusing.
**I still can’t get over how crazy this is. This might be the clearest sign that something in the BBWAA’s approach in voting was wrong, that a position had only had one first ballot guy. Hopefully, Pudge is the signal of coming change.
After a start like that, and a ballot that overall saw an incredible number of players pulling in large totals (nine different players got greater than 50% of the vote, tied with the all-time record set seven decades earlier in 1947*), only getting two players in would have been an incredible disappointment. But thankfully, Rodriguez held on to join Johnny Bench as the only first ballot backstops. Three candidates isn’t bad, in the grand scheme of things. And all three constitute and incredible Class of 2017.
*Every one of those nine would eventually make it in to Cooperstown. That year saw the top four get in: Carl Hubbell, Frankie Frisch, Mickey Cochrane, and Lefty Grove. Fifth-place Pie Traynor and ninth-place Herb Pennock made it the next year (with Pennock somehow leapfrogging everyone on his way to the most votes), with sixth place Charlie Gehringer coming the year after that. Rabbit Maranville and Dizzy Dean wouldn’t make it until the early ‘50s. Overall, I’d say this ballot is much stronger than that one, and yet, the top seventeen finishers that year all found their way to the Hall eventually.
But then…we discovered that Hoffman only missed by five votes, while Guerrero missed by fifteen. This marks the third time in four years that we’ve had a candidate miss by an extremely narrow margin like that, after Craig Biggio fell two votes shy back in 2014. And of course, if you go back just a few more years to 2010, you’ll find it happened again, with Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar missing 75% by five and eight votes, respectively. Clearly, this is not a rare issue.
And what’s worse is that, given how crowded the ballot is, the 10-player limit on Hall ballots is what probably kept them out. Well, maybe not Alomar and Blyleven, given that 2010 was a little less crowded and they had other things going on, but certainly with the other three; after all, public ballots over on the tracker averaged 8.5 names. And Ryan even kept track of names columnist mentioned when they said they would have voted for more than 10 players. Hoffman has four votes, while Vlad has ten*. Given that we don’t know 40% of the ballots, and that not every full ballot that we know even listed eleventh choices, it’s basically a given they would have made it.
*Eleven if you count Joe Posnanski, who wrote a good column on how hard it was to decide his final spot but wasn't included in the tracker's list.
This has been a recurring issue, and everyone knows it, but the Hall refuses to do anything. It’s stupid to have players competing for votes when the question is simply “Are they worthy?”, and not “Are they more worthy than everyone else on this arbitrary ballot?”. But even dumber, the Hall has refused to compromise on this issue at all, shooting down a request from the BBWAA to moderately expand the ballot to twelve slots two years ago.
Nothing about Hoffman or Guerrero will change next year. 75% of writers already think they’re deserving, which should be the most important thing. Instead, about 330 writers will need to waste at least 660 ballot slots (out of a possible ~4400) on guys that, for all intents and purposes, have already cleared the necessary requirements, ballot slots that could be better spread around to the other five players who cleared 45%, or the incredible class of newcomers (which includes Jim Thome, Chipper Jones, Scott Rolen, Andruw Jones, Johan Santana, and Omar Vizquel, among others), or the numerous players struggling at the bottom of the results who deserve more attention (like Larry Walker, Manny Ramirez, Billy Wagner*, etc….). All in all, 19 different players on next year’s ballot will have 50 or more career WAR, and that’s excluding Hoffman, Wagner, and Vizquel. With that much depth, we're going to need as many spare votes as possible.
*Let’s be honest, if Hoffman is going in, it’s very difficult to argue against Billy Wagner unless you reduce their cases to comparing save totals.
Fewer votes being wasted on guys who “should” be in already means a greater chance that someone deserving falls off the ballot, or sees their case stall out (which, given the time limit has been reduced from fifteen years to ten, is much more urgent). It’s a waste of time for everyone involved, and there’s no good reason for this rule to exist. Baseball writers have historically been fairly resistant to change; when they’re proactively requesting fixes, something is massively wrong in the system.