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.


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