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    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.

    That’s probably the easiest issue to address right away, but it’s by no means the only one. There’s also the issue of how much more limited the ballot can even be with its ten or so slots. The process also has a tendency to regurgitate the same names over and over, which can make it feel even tighter.

    I looked at every Veterans Committee ballot since 2003 (when we started getting published ballots with names), which includes sixteen years’ elections.* In that time, we’ve seen a total of 109 different candidates come up. 41 of those were on one ballot only, and 10 of those 41 were inducted on that single ballot. So only 31 names came up and were totally dropped, and even that group is going to be filled with caveats (seven players who haven’t appeared since the 25-person days, another five who haven’t come up since the only-non-players years, another handful who only recently became eligible for the VC…)

    *2004 didn’t have a VC election, and 2006 had a unique committee in its place to focus on the Negro Leagues. Speaking of that, we should probably have another one of those, given the recent reclassification of the Negro Leagues as Major Leagues as well as various researchers’ efforts to compile stats from them.

    On the flipside, 45 names have come up three or more times in that span, which is even more impressive when you consider that, for a variety of reasons*, basically nobody has been eligible for more than half of these sixteen elections, even including the people who have appeared that often. Basically, the easiest way to make a Veterans Committee ballot is to make a lot of other ballots (either BBWAA ones or prior VC ones), so inductions are actually one of the biggest ways to open up space for more players to get consideration. Expanding the ballot but not the vote limit seems like it would be a disaster, but if the vote limit is removed or raised, increasing ballot size wouldn’t be the worst idea.

    *Reasons include: Some players were inducted in the middle of that span, and are therefore no longer able rack up further appearances (e.g. Joe Gordon and Ron Santo, nominated four and five times, respectively). We also have players who started this stretch of time still on the BBWAA ballot (e.g. Tommy John and Steve Garvey, who have managed four VC appearances each to go with multiple BBWAA ones over this time period). And, since the 2008 election, we’ve seen the Hall rotate who’s up for consideration each year, starting with 2008-2010’s weird “players/ non-players” years, and since then, rotating through different eras of the game’s history each year instead (which is much more reasonable, in my opinion).

    And some of the issues might be the voters. I have changed my mind on who should be voting for the Hall a lot over the last decade or so, and I think my end conclusion is “no single group of voters would be perfect by themselves”. But if we’re going to do things like have different committees specializing on the different eras, it might also be good to occasionally have slightly different types of committees giving those eras a second look, too; maybe something like one focused on historians or writers, or something else to differentiate it from the main group? If only to get a different set of names on the ballot, or maybe a different perspective on the names that are usually considered.

    I’m trying to not build a process on a desired result like, say, determining that the ideal process is one that elects Candidates X and Y. It’s a little frustrating to see committees repeatedly pass on players that I think are Hall-worthy, like Luis Tiant, or Dick Allen, or Ken Boyer. But it’s even more frustrating to see them not even consider a bunch of great players, like Bobby Grich, or Graig Nettles, or David Cone, or Bret Saberhagen, or Keith Hernandez, or Jim Wynn, or so on, none of whom have appeared on a VC ballot (at least, not within the timeframe I looked at). It was nice to see Dwight Evans and Lou Whitaker appear on the 2020 ballot finally, but again, the spots for them only opened up because Jack Morris and Alan Trammell were elected in 2018, and their spaces were only open because of the 2014 election of La Russa, Cox, and Torre, which brings us right back to the stagnation of the ballot.

    And the rotation of eras brings me to another problem, and a more concrete one than my last point: the era system could use work. This isn’t some secret; it’s already been revised once since it’s 2010 unveiling, back in 2016. The big issue right now, in my opinion, is that the Golden Days (1950-1969) committee only meets once every five years, much like the Early Baseball era (1871-1949). I just don’t think that era is as picked over as the Early Baseball one, though; in fact, most tracking shows that’s about where we see a downturn in election rates. And in my experience, the Golden Era ballots have actually been a little more crowded than the Early Baseball ones.

    Also, unlike the Early Baseball era, there are still some Golden Era players who are alive to see their induction, although that’s fast slipping away. Inducting a deserving player during their lifetime is one of the major reasons to act quicker, in my mind. Many candidates, from Marvin Miller to Luis Tiant, have said they don’t want to be considered for a posthumous election, and I can’t say I blame them.

    Unfortunately, this is one area where the Veterans Committee has dropped the ball, repeatedly. I mentioned Ron Santo earlier. Miller is another case. Minnie Miñoso and Buck O’Neill were repeatedly left hanging on the brink of induction, although both have not made it in still (although should another Negro League committee form, as I mentioned above, they should both be easy picks). And the latest failure in this legacy is Dick Allen, who was repeatedly snubbed during his life. His reputation had grown enough over the last few years that it seemed like his next chance might be the one, finally. He fell one vote shy on the 2015 Golden Era ballot, and then…

    The committee didn’t meet for the next five cycles. The 73-year old had to wait six more years for his next try. That’s playing with fire, and it went exactly how everyone feared. Allen passed away on December 7th, just after when the Golden Era election would have taken place, had it not been postponed a year (because no one wanted to bother with it if it couldn’t be done in person rather than over video conference, I guess?). It’s especially frustrating to see this happen (again) when compared to how other groups handled it a little better; take, for instance, the Phillies, who finally got sick of waiting for a Hall induction and retired his number anyway (good for them; this is one of the issues that makes me say teams should do this more!), then refused to delay his ceremony (Allen was the only number retirement during the 2020 season; the six other scheduled ones were all pushed to 2021). The Hall, in comparison, just looks slow and inept.

    Ultimately, I think that gets at my biggest point. I want the Hall to do a better job of recognizing and honoring deserving players. And I want there to be fewer obstacles to getting them inducted during their lifetimes. There have been some good things towards this effort, especially in recent memory, even if a lot of it was unintentional side effects of other issues; things like not distinguishing which committee elected a Hall of Famer, or splitting the VC into multiple subcommittees that specialize in eras, or more regular VC meetings, or reducing the time on the BBWAA ballot so players don’t languish in no man’s land for as long.

    I think the fears of a Veterans Committee that inducts too many players are long in the past, and we need to stop letting those fears drive the VC process; there is still progress to be made on that front. There are still things that could be improved, like expanded ballots, no vote limits, more regular meetings for individual committees, rethinking how they consider more unusual cases, and maybe getting other perspectives on candidates. Hopefully, the Hall continues to tinker with the process going forward, and remains fully committed to the original goal of getting overlooked players inducted.

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