Tuesday, January 26, 2021

2021 Hall of Fame Results are a Shut Out, but the Long-Term Chances for Several Players Look Good

Tuesday afternoon saw the results announcement for 2021 Hall of Fame balloting, and there’s a lot to break down on this year’s ballot. Let’s jump right in.

First off, no one made it in off the BBWAA ballot, the first time this has happened since 2013. That’s not terribly shocking, since no one was trending over the necessary 75% on Ryan Thibodaux’s ballot tracking project. More shocking was that fourteen writers turned in a blank ballot, which is apparently a record. This ballot was less packed than it has been the last few years, but I still think there were a number of deserving candidates on it.

Leading the pack was Curt Schilling, who finished at 71.1%, just 16 votes shy of induction. That is still an improvement on 2020, when he finished at 70%, which is a little surprising when you consider that the pre-vote tracking had him down 3 votes from 2020. In total, that means he went from 278 ballots in ’20 to 285 this year. Another year like this won’t be enough to get him over the line. Maybe he’ll get a bigger boost from it being his tenth and final year, something that does happen regularly with candidates, but refraining from spouting gross bullshit for a year would probably also do enough to win him the votes he needs. Who knows if he’s capable of that, though?

Another major story from the year, as it is every year, was the candidacies of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. 2021 also represented their penultimate chances at election, and has long been the trend, there wasn’t a lot of movement for either. Bonds finished at 61.8%, while Clemens was just below him at 61.6%.

Both marks are within 2% of their 2020 finishes, which means they’ll need a little over 50 voters to flip from no to yes to make the leap. The only way that seems especially likely is if there are a number of voters who deliberately planned on waiting until their last ballot to support them. It’s more plausible that there are voters considering that strategy for them than it is for some candidates, but it still doesn’t strike me as a group with over 50 constituents. As mentioned, 2022 marks their final year on the BBWAA ballot, after which point they will officially become the hottest topic the Veterans Committee has to deal with (of course, the BBWAA won’t be totally relieved of controversial all-time greats at that point either, but more on that later).

But the more interesting story than the top of the ballot this year was actually the middle of the ballot, which saw some substantial gains for a number of players. And not only that, but for a number of them, it was the continuation of a trend from last year.

Leading the pack is Scott Rolen, who followed up last year’s 18-point jump with another 17.5-point leap to 52.9%. That repetition, combined with finally breaking the 50% mark, puts him in a very good spot; he just needs a little over 22% of the vote, and he has six-years to make up that gap, with none of the baggage that the three players above him have (not even mentioning the four extra years he has without them starting in 2023). I think right now, you can put him down for a 2023 ETA, although maybe two straight years of big jumps convinces a few more voters to check the box next year and he goes in a year earlier.

Rolen made the biggest jump, but multiple other players also saw their percentages increase by double digits. Billy Wagner, in attempt number six, jumped from 31.7% to 46.4%, the third biggest leap of the day. That means that, over the last two cycles, he’s improved nearly 30 full points. In other words, in his last four years on the ballot, he just has to match his improvement over the last two years to secure a plaque. It’s not a sure thing, but with Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, and Lee Smith all in Cooperstown, there are no other closers competing with him for limited spots. I think he does it, although I wouldn’t be shocked if he’s a year or two behind Rolen.

You also have to feel pretty good about the chances for Todd Helton. In his third go around, he fell just shy of 45% of the vote, at 44.9%. That places him right between Rolen and Wagner, in terms of improvement, at a 15.7-point jump. Again, that’s a little behind Rolen, but Helton also has an extra year on the ballot. Barring any big changes, he’ll probably be going in sometime around those two.

Gary Sheffield (40.6%) and Andruw Jones (33.9%) also had big leaps, although their cases aren’t quite as rosy as Rolen, Wagner, and Helton. Sheffield, in his seventh attempt, has seen some major improvement over the last two years (from 13.6% in 2019 to 30.5% last year to this year), but given his steroid ties, I don’t know how he gets past the ceiling that Bonds and Clemens seem stuck at. I expect he stops making leaps of this size in the next year or two, but given that I also didn’t expect him to pick up 27% in two years, I don’t know how confident I am in that prediction. Is there a big group of voters who check “No” on Bonds and Clemens but would consider Sheffield? I haven’t heard of one, but there are some pretty idiosyncratic voters, so I guess it’s possible.

Jones’s case, meanwhile, started from a much worse place than most of these other players. In 2018, he debuted at 7.3% of the vote, and only improved to 7.5% the next year. Granted, those were crowded ballots, but that’s still pretty low. Since then, though, he’s improved to 19.4% in 2020, and then that 33.9% mark this year. I’m not ruling his candidacy out at all, but it’s hard to see him making it in in two to three years when compared to the Rolen/Wagner/Helton trio. If Jones gets in, it’ll probably be in the last three years of his eligibility on the BBWAA ballot (or via the Veterans Committee, if that falls through for some reason). Two more years like the last two gets him to over 60%, though, and it’s hard to make that trajectory, with a few more ballots to spare after, look bad.

Omar Vizquel (49.1%) is the one player in this bunch that doesn’t look good, largely due to the fact that he’s the only returning player on the ballot to see his vote total decrease from 2020 to 2021. In slipping from 52.6%, he even fell behind Rolen, who he led last year. Vizquel has always been a marginal candidate, and multiple voters likely balked at voting for him again following The Athletic’s recent reporting on his off-field issues (including allegations of domestic violence against his wife, as well as separate accusations about conduct toward a coworker from his time as manager Birmingham Barons that apparently led to his early termination back in 2019). Breaking 50% is usually seen as a positive indication of future induction (whether by BBWAA vote or Veterans Committee), but Vizquel also wouldn’t be the first borderline Hall case to tank his own candidacy through poor off-the-field behavior (Steve Garvey also leaps to mind).

Moving down the list, Jeff Kent (32.4%, +4.9) improved, but not enough, given that he only has two more go-arounds. I think the VC will give him strong consideration once he ages off the ballot, but I can’t see him picking up the 40% he needs before then. Manny Ramirez (28.2%) didn’t see any change from 2020, so it could have been worse for him, I guess. The still doesn’t mean much. And Sammy Sosa’s chances (17%, +3.1) look pretty dead in the water, with only two years to go.

Five other players crossed the 5% threshold needed to return on the 2022 ballot: Andy Pettitte (13.7%), Mark Buehrle (11.0%), Torii Hunter (9.5%), Bobby Abreu (8.7%), and Tim Hudson (5.2%). I recently wrote about how Pettitte, Buehrle, and Hudson deserve more consideration, and I had similar thoughts last year about Abreu, so that’s good to see, at least, even if their chances of climbing to 75% are low. My thoughts on Hunter are a lot weaker, but it’s not like he was a bad player.

In addition to all of these names, 2022 will serve as the Hall of Fame ballot debut for Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz, for those of you worried that Bonds and Clemens falling off the ballot would mean an end to the performance enhancing drug discussion we get each winter. It’s hard to say how they’ll do until we start seeing some early returns next winter, but my gut says “strong debut at over 50%, but not first ballot”. Meanwhile, Mark Teixeira and Jimmy Rollins will attempt to follow in Hudson, Buehrle, and Hunter’s footsteps and reach 5%.

So overall, the next crop of newcomers isn’t as weak as this year’s, but it’s also not overwhelmingly strong, either. I expect another year of forward movement from this year’s big gainers, which could set the stage for another big leap in 2023, when Bonds, Clemens, Schilling, and Sosa all age off and are replaced by a class led by Carlos Beltran and… John Lackey, I guess? Weak ballots are good for holdovers, so I feel extra confident about Rolen, Wagner, and Helton’s chances in that stretch (as well as Andruw’s odds to set himself up for an election down the line).

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Hall of Fame's Problems Aren't Just Crowded Ballots, Part 2

This is a direct follow-up to last week’s long piece on the Hall of Fame and the Veterans Committee. Check that out if you haven’t already, then come back here.

Let’s revisit one of the pins I laid out last time. From 2002 to 2007, the Veterans Committee made no inductions at all. But starting in 2008, there was a shift, thanks to a new set of rules. That year, they voted to induct five non-players: two managers (Billy Southworth and Dick Williams), two owners (Barney Dreyfuss and Walter O’Malley), and one commissioner (Bowie Kuhn). And that kicked off a notable run; while that 2008 to 2017 period saw the VC induct just three players, at the same time, they inducted fifteen non-players in that decade.

That seems extremely expansive, for a group that was simultaneously hesitant to approve of any players. This isn’t to say that I’m opposed to non-players in the Hall; in fact, I think the Hall could be doing more on that front. I’m also not going to litigate the candidacies of all of those choices, as that’s its own can of worms (although I will note that I don’t really have any problems with those managers or general managers; I do think they’re maybe too aggressive when it comes to owners and commissioners, though).

The bigger issue is, this attitude wouldn’t be a problem if the two groups weren’t currently competing for limited votes (that hasn’t always been the case), but as you probably gleaned from that five-to-one induction ratio, that is exactly what’s going on as of late: players and non-players are appearing on the same ballot. For a particularly ridiculous example, see the 2014 VC election, which was limited to twelve slots on the ballot and a maximum of four votes per ballot, yet simultaneously featured Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre (all inducted that year), Marvin Miller (inducted long overdue in 2020), Billy Martin, and George Steinbrenner. Yeah, it’s hard for a player to standout in that group when votes are at a premium.

Maybe the answer to this doesn’t require splitting the players and non-players into separate groups (although if you do that, definitely don’t do what the Hall did from 2008 to 2010 and alternate voting on players and non-players each year, because that was really dumb). If you’re going to limit each voter’s votes that harshly, it might. But like with the BBWAA, I think the better solution is to just raise or remove the cap on how many players a voter can select from at a time.

As things stand now, the Veterans Committee has a vote limit that’s even more restrictive than the one on the BBWAA ballot, with four votes to go around the ten pre-screened choices (formerly twelve, in the first half of the last decade) each year. Four out of ten might not seem too out of line with the limit on the BBWAA ballot, but the level of pre-screening the two groups receive makes a big difference: all ten players on the VC ballot are deliberately added there because the Hall thinks their cases are worth re-considering. Even the worst player on their final ten-person ballot of the current system usually wouldn’t make the worst Hall of Famer if they were somehow elected (something we have more or less tested!).

In contrast, a decent number of slots on the BBWAA ballot go to players who only meet the bare minimum criteria for consideration (ten seasons, retired for five years), but who aren’t expected to get substantial vote totals (see, for this year’s examples, guys like Aramis Ramirez, or Dan Haren, or LaTroy Hawkins…). In effect, the Veteran Committee’s votes are much more thinly spread. If a voting limit is impeding the BBWAA’s election process, then it’s kneecapping the VC’s.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

The Hall of Fame's Problems Aren't Just Crowded Ballots, Part 1

I’ve had a lot of thoughts about the Hall of Fame lately. Not just about it in terms of this year’s ballot, although that is a lot of it, but also in terms of it as an institution and a process for enshrinement. The complete logjam on the main ballot the last few years, plus a Veterans Committee run that included several good selections, managed to send some of these issues to the backburner for a while, but they never fully went away, and this year is starting to highlight some of those issues again.

Really, there have been a lot of thing I’ve written lately that have brushed up against these topics indirectly, and I’ve been putting them off to stop those articles from getting derailed, intending to instead revisit them later. But what finally convinced me to finally pull all of those ideas together was this piece by Brian Cohn over at The Crawfish Boxes.

It’s a good piece, and a response to my last article looking at the Hall of Fame cases for Andy Pettitte, Mark Buehrle, and Tim Hudson. And he’s right; Pettitte, for all the support he’s gotten so far (2021 is his third year on the ballot, and according to early tracking, he’s polling at nearly 15% through 140+ ballots), is not as good as a lot of players who have fallen off the Hall ballot, many who didn’t even get a second time, let alone a third and fourth.

But that’s just one of the many problems with Hall of Fame voting as it’s currently structured. I’ve gone over it more in the past, when things were even more crowded, but like I mentioned last time, this year’s “normal sized” ballot still contains more players that I would vote for than spots to vote for them with. Just because the worst of the ballot crunch is gone doesn’t mean the problem no longer needs to be fixed.

Voters have gotten better at working around this problem, with strategic voting providing increased focus to players in critical thresholds, but this still isn’t an actual solution, just a workaround: get deserving players in quicker so you can shift focus (and their vote) to other players, and keep more fringe players around so they can get the discussion they deserve down the road. Pettitte is picking up more support than other deserving players, but under this theory, he becomes more deserving of more votes because he can actually build toward induction and be taken off the ballot. And I can see why that disconnect might be frustrating; it feels weird to have a vote for the Hall of Fame, but needing to leave the best players off of it so that you can vote for worse players (that you still think are deserving, mind you!) with more popular support.

Another thing that I commented on in Brian’s article is the choice of David Cone (this might feel like a bit of a tangent now, but I promise it all ties together later). I might have to look into this more later, but just looking back at it, I have no idea why Cone fell off the ballot so quickly. A former Cy Young winner with multiple other good seasons, a five-time All-Star, five-time World Series champion, who threw a perfect game. And all of that added up to just 3.9% of the vote, below even fifteenth-place Mark Grace. He wasn’t the best pitcher on the ballot that year, since Bert Blyleven (in his twelfth go-around) was still hanging around, but I would have a difficult time ranking four different pitchers ahead of him.

Was it really just his win total, given that he just fell short of 200 wins? If that is the case, he might have an argument for the player most screwed over by the 1994-5 Strike, given that those were two of his best seasons and he only needed six more wins to reach the milestone. Fred McGriff and his 493 homers are the only other major contender for this title that springs to my mind, but I still think McGriff goes in on his first Veterans Committee vote. I don’t even know if Cone makes it on to the next VC ballot he’s eligible for; by my understanding, he was eligible for the 2019 vote, but didn’t make that one.

Actually, let’s focus on the Veterans Committee a little more closely, since it’s another major point I want to focus on here. The BBWAA ballot has its problems, but so many of their biggest ones could be addressed with expanding or doing away with the cap on votes per ballot. How the BBWAA vote works with the VC, and their intersection, provides a different set of failures that are more unique and interesting.

But first, I want to address something about the two main methods of Hall induction. I often see them separated out, and on the one hand, I get it. On the whole, the BBWAA has inducted better players. But the question is also more complicated than that, which is why I get frustrated when I see people talk about doing away with the Veterans Committee entirely.

The BBWAA gets first pick at all of the most obvious candidates, which I think skews things in their favor. Like, yeah, they induct the Greg Madduxes and the Derek Jeters and whatnot; that many “gimmes” makes them look a lot better at the process than they really are, though. At the same time they’re making the calls that literally everyone else would make, they still regularly make questionable choices of their own, in both directions.

Guys like Catfish Hunter, Jim Rice, and Bruce Sutter look every bit the part of the stereotypical “Veterans Committee playing favorites” pick, but made it in on the BBWAA ballot. Meanwhile, players with overwhelming resumes like Johnny Mize, Ted Simmons, and Arky Vaughan had to wait for the VC to take up their cases. And even on some “obvious” picks that it eventually gets right, the BBWAA still leaves you scratching your head on their process; for example, why weren’t Yogi Berra (two times on the ballot), Phil Niekro (five tries), or Duke Snider (eleven!) first ballot selections? I have no idea! Maybe the first ballot distinction isn’t as meaningful as many people want to claim it is (and it’s probably a good thing the Hall doesn’t usually mention that on the plaques, since it’s so messy).

So on the whole, if we are going to have a Hall of Fame, we need something like the Veterans Committee as part of the process. And in my mind, it’s all the better to tear down the distinction between the two, for those reasons; the important thing is to get deserving players enshrined, and to not treat one method as some less-official “back door”.

In some regards, the Hall actually does a decent job of this! Once again, while it keeps note of how each choice was inducted, the plaques in the hall itself don’t make mention of or differentiate among the different selection methods. That’s good! People still remember the best of the best and the favorites, while the more questionable selections are still largely ignored by most people. No inductee is being “dishonored” by other players getting in, and the only people who could off the top of their head tell you that, say, High Pockets Kelly is in Cooperstown are largely trivia buffs who find it an amusing tidbit of info rather than an outrage to be corrected.

With all of that established, we actually can take a closer look at where the VC has gone wrong in recent history. While the early-‘70s Frankie Frisch era had the problem of letting too many players in, the much more recent problem has been the exact opposite: the VC has gotten too restrictive in who it lets in.

From 2002 to 2008, no players made it past the group (in 2008, they did finally let some non-players in, but put a pin in that for now). In 2009, they finally allowed Joe Gordon (died 1978) through the gates, a deserving player who had missed time while serving in World War II, which Hall voters had never really accounted for. They continued electing non-players, but the next player they let in was Ron Santo in 2012. Santo was a long-overdue pick, one of the ten best players in history at his position, but it took his death two years earlier to inspire the VC to actually act on his case. The next year saw them induct Deacon White, a formerly forgotten star of the 1800s who had died during Gordon’s sophomore season. And then, we saw another four years of solely non-players.

So for that sixteen year stretch, the VC inducted three players, none of whom were alive to enjoy the honor (and one of whom seems to have made it over the line because he had just died). If the point of the VC is to cover for BBWAA misses, that’s a pretty dismal stretch (especially if you think players being alive to see their induction is at all important). And, as you’ll know if you’ve followed my writing on this in the past, it’s not like they were short on potential candidates at that time, either!

The Hall restructured their rules on the Veterans Committee multiple times in the interim to get things going again, and maybe some of that finally stuck (in the last three years, they’ve added five players to the Hall*, and all of them have still been alive, to boot!). It could be like the BBWAA, where the failure to elect anyone in 2013 convinced voters to approach the task differently. But again, that’s people working around the existing system, rather than trying to build a better system without those inherent flaws.

*One sub-point I want to make is about candidate quality: while I think Alan Trammell and Ted Simmons are stellar choices, and Lee Smith makes sense compared to the other closers the Hall has inducted, Harold Baines and Jack Morris, though, are… not quite as good. I’ve already covered how Baines’ election was strange, and that one is all on the VC. I’m hesitant to chalk Morris up to the VC only, though.

If we regard the election of Jack Morris (and, if you’re among the more skeptical when it comes to closers, Lee Smith) as a miss by the VC, it only seems fair to note that they were only allowed to make that miss because of BBWAA incompetence. Both Morris and Smith had passed 50% and seemed well on their way to reaching the 75% needed for induction, but saw the 2013 crush of candidates kill their momentum. On an unlimited ballot, that might not have happened, and thus they might have been inducted like normal by the BBWAA. So for an analogy, if the election of Morris was the VC running into a metaphorical pole, it only happened because the BBWAA walking ahead of them tripped on their own metaphorical shoelaces before reaching it. Shoot, the BBWAA might have specifically cleared the path for the VC, if anything, thanks to years of building momentum through his case via the yearly discussions of the BBWAA ballot.

Still, as long as the induction of candidates doesn’t slow to a trickle again, it seems like they’ve at least found a format that isn’t actively impeding inductions. There are still pressing issues, though. Unfortunately, this piece is getting a little long, so I’ll revisit these issues in a Part 2 next week.