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A Follow-Up Thought on the Hall of Fame Standard

Yesterday, I noted that the historical average set by the Hall of Fame was to induct between 1-2% of the total population of baseball players, and that was fairly consistent throughout history. In response, some commenters noted that expansion and specialization meant that perhaps the inflation of the number of players hasn’t led to a proportional inflation of worthy of Hall of Famers, and wondered what the data looks like if we exclude the legions of middle relievers who bounce around the game but obviously aren’t in consideration for election to Cooperstown.

This was a good point, and a potentially interesting challenge to the idea I put forward yesterday. Perhaps the change in roster construction in the modern games means that we should be electing a lower percentage of players now than we have been before. Maybe the correct model isn’t total percentage of all players, but total percentage of all players who had long sustained careers that would give them at least a fighting chance to end up on the HOF ballot.

So, I took the same process I had yesterday, but I re-ran the numbers with some significant playing time minimums. For each birth decade, I only looked at the total number of players and Hall of Famers who either had 5,000 plate appearances or 2,000 innings pitched. This basically translates into 10 full seasons of work, so a player who hit these milestones was a regular contributor for the better part of a decade. By isolating just regulars with longevity, we’re eliminating the vast swath of middle relievers who now make up about 20% of today’s rosters, and are simply looking at the Hall of Fame percentages of players who put up at least long enough careers to be acknowledged on the ballot.

To the data, in the same format as yesterday.

Year of Birth Hitters Pitchers Players HallHitters HallPitchers HallPlayers Percentage
<1900 161 97 258 40 24 64 24.8%
1900-’10 61 32 93 21 3 24 25.8%
1911-’20 50 16 66 14 3 17 25.8%
1921-’30 55 22 77 8 5 13 16.9%
1931-’40 66 33 99 19 7 26 26.3%
1941-’50 113 55 168 7 7 14 8.3%
1951-’60 106 41 147 15 2 17 11.6%
1961-’70 118 42 160 2 0 2 1.3%

It is pretty eerie how consistent the percentages are for the first 2/3 of baseball history. Essentially, 1/4 of all long career guys ended up in the Hall of Fame, with the mark being almost exactly 25% in four of the first five time periods we looked at.

And then expansion hits. MLB goes from 16 teams to 24 teams in a decade, a 50% increase in available roster spots, which keeps players in the game longer. We have an almost immediate doubling of the number of players who meet the 5,000 PA mark, and while pitcher longevity didn’t keep up with roster spot inflation, there’s still a significant jump in the number of HOF eligible players, thanks to expansion.

But, as we can see, the election committees never really adapted to expansion. Of the 168 players who fit the criteria and were born between 1941-1950, only 14 have been elected to Cooperstown, roughly the same number of electees as we saw in the 1911-1920 and 1921-1930 birth decades. Since 1900, we’ve seen between 14 and 26 players elected from each birth decade, so the number of elected players by era has stayed pretty consistent, even as the total population of candidates has exploded.

For me, perhaps the most telling data point is this.

Born in 1940 or before, 5,000 PA/2,000 IP: 593 players, 144 HOF, 24.3% HOF%
Born between 1941-1970, 5,000 PA/2,000 IP: 475 players, 33 HOF, 6.9% HOF%

Even if we give the BBWAA assumed credit for adding all of the no-brainer choices from the 60s who are coming up soon, and we assume the veteran’s committee will eventually put in guys like Tim Raines and Alan Trammell (and Jack Morris, if he’s not elected this year), we’re still looking at something like 50 players being enshrined, or about 11% of the players who met the playing time thresholds.

And again, like we did yesterday, we can see that the historical standards would suggest a much higher rate. The lowest election rate by birth decade of the 5,000/2,000 club is 16.9%, from the players in the post-WWII era; if we elected 16.9% of players born between 1961-1970, we’d settle on 27 Hall of Famers, so far, we have two. Interestingly, that 27 HOFer minimum matches our estimate from yesterday based on total player population, which helps support the idea that inflation of roster spots hasn’t simply been led by a legion of non-worthy players.

This isn’t just an issue where an influx of part-time players has inflated the number of total players who appeared in an MLB game while the number of potential Hall of Famers has held steady. As expansion has created more roster spots, more players are meeting the 10 year minimum for Hall of Fame consideration, and the election results simply haven’t adjusted for the addition of more candidates. The pool of electable players has dramatically increased while the rate of electees has not, and that has created the backlog of qualified candidates we see today.

Certainly, the PED issue is a significant factor in the gridlock of the current ballot, but this data shows that it isn’t the only issue. While there are a bloc of voters who are quite happy to keep out nearly every player who starred in the 1990s, the 70s and 80s seem underrepresented as well, given the number of players who have been elected to the Hall of Fame in prior eras. The veteran’s committee will inflate these recent numbers, but there’s a huge gap between where we are now and where the prior standard was. Barring a change in the way players are elected after being dismissed by the BBWAA, the veteran’s committee won’t be able to clear the backlog as fast as it is being created.

And, again, I will repeat something I said yesterday. The Hall of Fame, and those responsible for inducting people into the Hall of Fame, should be motivated to ensure that as many eventual HOFers as possible are inducted while they are still alive. It is sad that Ron Santo had to be inducted posthumously, when there was every chance for him to be recognized while he was alive. If we’re going to have committees to add worthy players to the HOF because we don’t feel the BBWAA is inducting enough players, then let’s just reform the system so that the BBWAA inducts more players, leading to more living inductions and fewer posthumous ones.

The creation of the veteran’s committee, and various other entities tasked with increasing the rolls of the Hall of Fame, suggest that the Hall’s own standard is lower than the BBWAA’s standard. Maybe it’s time for the Hall of Fame to simply tell the BBWAA to come in line with what the Hall wants the standard to be, so that we don’t have to have backup committees filling in the gaps where the Hall thinks the BBWAA failed. Let’s get it right the first time. If they’re going to go in eventually, let’s make sure they go in when they’re alive.