The Hall of Fame is suffering from its refusal to expand the ballot. I wrote about this some last year, but now that we have some hard numbers rather than an abstract word problem to work with. What we’re seeing is the problem with the current Veterans Committee voting, but on a larger scale.
First, let’s start with the positives: the early balloting this year is looking mega-promising. Ryan Thibodaux’s amazing yearly ballot-tracker is a must-follow for any baseball fan, tallying any and every ballot published by a voter prior to the official announcement. Right now*, the gizmo has 88 of them, a little over a fifth of the expected voting body, and the early returns are good. Nine different players are at 69% or higher, something that would be historic if it held through to the final tally.** Five players (first-timers Chipper Jones and Jim Thome, plus hold-overs Vladimir Guerrero, Trevor Hoffman, and Edgar Martinez) are all currently above the 75% threshold needed for induction***, with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, and Curt Schilling all right behind them.
*As of writing, on December 22, 2017. The exact figures will quickly be out of date as more ballots continue to trickle in, but the overall percentages and underlying issues won’t change much at all.
**It won’t, because the early results always run high, but it’s worth noting that even in the context of past ballot-tracking, this is still really, really good.
***This one might actually carry through, although it will be close. Almost every player sees their votes drop between the final pre-announcement tally and the results; the voters who don’t reveal their ballots tend to include fewer names than those who do. But Jones, Thome, and Guerrero are all polling above 90%, which has historically been pretty safe, and Martinez is sitting at over 86% with the Mariners launching a large campaign for his induction. Hoffman will be close, sitting at 78.4%, but closers are historically one of the few types of players who actually see their total increase for the final results. If they all make it, they would represent the first 5-person class for Cooperstown since the inaugural one way back in 1936.
The biggest problem with this, though, is that the ballot has waaaay more than just those nine overqualified stars. In fact, I think you could make a convincing argument for twenty different players on this year’s Hall ballot. Larry Walker, Scott Rolen, and Andruw Jones are just some of the players around who would raise the median for Cooperstown inductees while escaping the stain of steroids scandals. Those three currently sit at 40.9%, 11.4%, and 9.1%, respectively. They’ll all probably make it around to the next ballot, but those totals are still wildly out of line with how good those players actually were. Billy Wagner is Trevor Hoffman’s equal in just about every way but save total, yet he sits at just 9.1%. And these are just half of the cases you could be making.
So what’s the problem? Do voters not see what makes these players great? That’s probably some of it, but there’s another component at work here: the ten-player cap on the ballot. With each voter getting up to ten spaces, there’s essentially up to 1000% to go around. Those first nine players I listed combine for 740.9%, leaving just 259.1% to split between every other player on the ballot.
And, of course, not every writer wants to use all ten of their slots; only 60 of the 88 ballots revealed have been full, just over two-thirds. Nine ballots, just over one-tenth, have feature six or fewer names, including both a four-name one and a two-name one. With an average of 9.10 names per ballot, we’re only dealing with 910% rather than that full 1000%, and that’s almost certainly going to drop as more writers announce their votes.*
*Last year saw an average of 8.43 per ballot, and around 8.5 has shown to be an incredibly difficult hurdle to clear in the past.
Thankfully, it seems this year that all of these other deserving players will be returning in 2019 except for Johan Santana (who’s really more of a borderline candidate at best, even if I think he has something of a place/precedent in the Hall). But there are still problems to this, even if no one falls off the ballot as a result. Most players build their case for the Hall of Fame gradually, and relying on momentum. Starting too low can and has stopped Hall discussion on a player in its tracks before, even worthy candidates. Starting out too low (in the case of newbies like Rolen and Andruw) or not picking up enough converts (in the case of Walker et al) is a massive problem that doesn’t need to exist.
And it’s not like there haven’t been proposed solutions. Even if you disagree with the idea of an unlimited ballot (still the best idea, but whatever), there are other options. The Hall itself vetoed the idea of a 12-person ballot proposed by a committee it commissioned to discuss improvements (which included great baseball writers like JAWS-creator Jay Jaffe).
Others have suggested lowering the 75% threshold; some may worry this would lower standards, but the stinginess of Hall voters has shown this won’t be too big of a problem. Every player who has received 2/3 of the vote has gone on to eventual induction (thanks to the Veterans Committee’s recent enshrinement of Jack Morris). Even if you lower that arbitrary cutoff to 50%, you still only pick up two names (Gil Hodges, who peaked at 63.4%, and Lee Smith, who peaked at 50.6% back in 2012 and hasn’t yet been eligible to appear on any VC ballot). If history has shown that last 8.23-25% to be largely a formality, why not formalize it? Just in the past decade, we’ve seen plenty of players fall in this range, so it would definitely help clear out the ballot a few years earlier and leave more spots to go around.
Going with the 2/3 (67.7%) mark, over the last decade of elections, we’ve seen: Jim Rice at 72.2% (2008); Andre Dawson at 67% (2009); Bert Blyleven at 74.2% and Roberto Alomar at 73.7% (2010); Jack Morris at 66.7% (2012); Craig Biggio at 68.2% and Morris again at 67.7% (2013); Biggio again at 74.8% (2014); Mike Piazza at 69.9% (2015); Jeff Bagwell at 71.6%, Tim Raines at 69.8%, and Trevor Hoffman at 67.3% (2016); and Hoffman again at 74.0% and Vladimir Guerrero at 71.1%. Even if you just drop the limit from 75% to 70%, that’s seven guys who wouldn’t need to come around one more year to pick up the 75%+ we all know they’re going to get, which in turn means more ballot spaces for the underrated players who deserve to see their case built up. That, combined with the 12-name ballot, wouldn’t fix everything, but it would sure do a hell of a lot.
There are many other gripes I could make about the specifics of the voting, like Trevor Hoffman being the fifth-highest vote-getter (let alone so far ahead of Billy Wagner), or Vladimir Guerrero leading every outfielder, or Omar Vizquel drawing 30% of the vote while amazing fielders who could also hit in Scott Rolen and Andruw Jones languish far behind. But confusing or outright questionable choices aren’t the root of the problem, and for some of them, voting for the “more marginal” candidates is actually the strategically correct decision if you want to clear out the ballot (getting Hoffman and Guerrero both in this year frees up a lot of spaces for next year, so as long as all the other candidates hit the 5% to stick around for 2019, it should help them more).
As long as the ballot is structured this way, it’s forcing the writers to not vote for deserving players. It’s a shame that Cooperstown hasn’t actually listened to those proposing ways to fix this.