Another Look at Why the Hall Ballots Are So Crowded

There has been a small flurry of retirement announcements recently, with Kris Benson and Trevor Hoffman announcing their retirements this week. Billy Wagner already announced that 2010 was his last year, and Andy Pettitte just admitted that he wouldn’t be suited up for the beginning of the year, at least, though he wasn’t certain about the rest of the season. With their retirements in mind, as well as the work of Tom Tango and others on the current and increasing Hall of Fame logjam, I started to wonder how many good players tend to retire in any given year.

Of course, many retirements aren’t strictly announced — some players get injured and just never come back, some players sign a minor league deal and never get called up again, some players just fade away, and some players are Rickey Henderson. So for my purposes, I’ll consider “retirement” to be a player’s last appearance in the major leagues, and I’ll consider a “good” player to be someone who’s made at least one All-Star appearance. Somewhere around half of them will make it to the Hall of Fame ballot — this year, 16 of the 30 “good” players who retired in 2005 made it to the ballot, along with three others who never played in an All-Star game, Kirk Rueter, Bobby Higginson, and Lenny Harris.

There are 616 players in my sample, former All-Stars who played their last game between 1977 and 2006. It turns out that the number of good players who retire in any given year is remarkably consistent, despite two league expansions and recent All-Star roster expansions. In any given year, about 20.5 good players retire. (The average is 20.5 and the median is 20.5; round up if you want, but you’ll lose half a player either way.) Their average age at their final game is also remarkably consistent, right around 36 every year.

How consistent has it been? The average number of players who retired from 1977-1991 (20.4) is almost exactly the same as the average number of players who retired from 1992-2006 (20.7). And the median number of players in each subset (21 and 20) is almost exactly equal to the average. In other words, the rate has stayed constant over time, virtually unaffected by expansion. Nor was it affected by strikes — 1981 had the lowest number of retirements, nine, but 1994 was exactly average with 20. The maximum of 30 has been reached three times, in 1987, 1989, and 2005.

So what does this mean? Well, this is another way of understanding the Hall of Fame logjam — every year, 20 prominent players stop playing, and five years later, many or most of them merit consideration for the Hall of Fame ballot. It has become especially clear in the last decade. Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn both hung up their spikes after the 2001 season, and easily marched into the Hall five years. later. Exactly two other players who played ball after Gwynn and Ripken have made it into the Hall, Roberto Alomar and the aforementioned Rickey Henderson. Yet hundreds of other “good” players have retired in the meantime, and many of them will likely face the same unlucky fate that met John Franco, Kevin Brown, and 12 others who fell off the ballot on their first try.

Ballplayers retire at the same age and in the same numbers as they have done for the last three decades. Hopefully, an enlightened Veterans Committee will begin to clear the logjam. After all, in 2011, another 20 good players will likely play their last.




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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.


23 Responses to “Another Look at Why the Hall Ballots Are So Crowded”

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  1. Sun king says:

    Idk what your tryin to say here. Is it that the up coming hall of fame class is not really a lot better? That all the seemingly hall of fame players should get in? Maybe I’m just a poor reader, but what’s the point of this article?

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  2. John says:

    You are a very poor reader. All he did was show why there are quite a few players on the ballot to choose from.

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  3. bill says:

    I think part of the problem is that certain candidates are suffering due to playing at the same time as some historically great players that the HOF has yet to elect (Maddux, Clemens, Randy Johnson, Bonds, Griffey). Not to say those guys are the baseline, just that other more “average” candidates seem to lose their luster in comparison to some of the greatest players of all time, which is what some of those guys are.

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  4. ChisoxPurdue says:

    I think he is trying to show how many good players have become eligible for the hall of fame since 2001 (6 times 20.5=123) and only two have been elected. The people who were on the ballot before Ripken and Gwynn plus the new candidates will make for a crowded ballot. After next year, we have a few years of “highly qualified” candidates.

    Another point I see is that whoever puts the ballot together may have a hard time narrowing down the newcomers. This will be even harder as the holdover list grows.

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  5. Brian Kelly says:

    The nugget in this post that piques my interest is that the average age at retirement for these good players remained steady at around 36. Weren’t steroids supposedly allowing these players to hang on longer and produce well for a more extended period of time? Maybe the graph hasn’t been extended sufficiently toward the present to begin to see such effects, but I’m surprised it’s not there to some degree for the guys retiring from 1998 onward.

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    • Danmay says:

      That’s a very interesting point.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      I’m guessing there’s more factors that go into than that.

      Steroids, ar enot a long-term, anti-aging solution. Muscles recover faster. Tendons and Ligaments do not.

      I found it interesting that both Big Mac and Bonds were done in by a knee that wouldn’t “get right”.

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  6. SOB in TO says:

    Part of the logjam is at the bottom. Sympathy votes for guys who call voters to talk with them in order to turn them into giggling schoolgirls seems to be the main cause of this.
    So, players retire at some constant rate over time. And of the “all-star caliber” players, maybe about 20% of them should get elected into the Hall of Fame.
    Where’s Captain Obvious when you need him?

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  7. hunterfan says:

    Why does the sabermetric community even care about the HoF anymore? They use too many counting stats, they want to exclude steroid users (and suspected steroid users), and now they’re not clearing off the ballots fast enough…all sins of varying degrees to the sabermetric guys.

    Seriously, I have my own opinions about the whole matter, but I fail to fathom the annual blood, sweat and tears expended on HoF nonsense, when all the HoF really is some guy’s opinion of another guy.

    Dave, do you go home and cry bitter tears when someone doesn’t like your articles? Do you seethe with rage and indignation? Is it an injustice and an infamy that must be corrected? Or do you simply shrug your shoulders and move on?

    Why can’t we do the same thing with the HoF and its nominees?

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    • Danmay says:

      For that matter why do we care about sabermetrics at all? We still watch managers lose leads in the 7th inning when the best reliever is being held to “close” games. We still watch Ryan Howard receive a 5/125 extension beginning at age 32. Justin Morneau still won an MVP in 2006.

      I’m not saying that you don’t have a point. The HOF is painfully subjective, and is even less grounded in logic than MVP voting. But we care because we find it interesting and we like to learn. [Also, I think that Bert appreciates our blood, sweet, and tears (well, maybe not mine).]

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        We still watch managers lose leads in the 7th inning when the best reliever is being held to “close” games.

        Why do we still say this?

        If it’s a close game in the 7th, why would one think it won’t be close in the 9th?

        Furthermore, we have no idea what the highest leverage situation is unitl the game is OVER.

        So, you bring your relief ace in the 7th and he holds the lead. Now, there’s another high leverage situation in the 9th, and your 3rd best reliever is in the game.

        I only have ONE question: Would you rather lose the lead in the 7th inning or 9th inning? Why or why not? (I guess that’s two questions).

        There’s a decent reason for using your close in the 9th.

        You don;t know when the highest leverage situation occurs. It bothers me that statistically-intelligen people would look at the box scores after the game and conclude the manager should have used the closer in the 7th … as if everyone knew during the game that it would be the highest situation of the night.

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      • Newcomer says:

        CC11, I’ll point you to The Book (and I know you frequent their site), where they examined the frequencies of different LIs and typical closer usage.

        “Much too often, a manager lets his relief ace sit on the bench in high-leverage situations in the eighth inning, waiting to use him in the ninth, only to still see him on the bench when the game ends. Eventually, the manager needs to give his ace some work, so he gives him whatever comes up. And this happened in almost one-fifth of the aces’ appearances.”

        Their conclusion was to bring in ace relievers when the leverage reaches 1.5, at least in the eighth inning. If you wait for a higher leverage, the closer would miss too many high-leverage opportunities, whereas a low threshold would lead to the situation you describe (higher leverage later) occurring more frequently. You can’t predict what will happen, but you can try to balance the probabilities for a long-term optimum allocation of resources.

        Of course, you were addressing the 7th inning comment. To that, I’ll add that coming in to get out of a jam will lower the LI for the next inning. Of course, if that pitcher gets into a jam…. I concede that point. But LI can still be used as a guide in the present.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        I agree completely newcomer.

        IMHO, the 8th inning and 9th are rather different than the 7th, namely due to the number of chances you get to regain a lead. Lose the lead in the 8th or 9th, and the heart of your lineup may not come to the plate again.

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  8. Cliff says:

    I’m sure there is a relatively simple formula for how high the leverage has to get before you use your best reliever. Similar to the common thought problem that goes something like, if you can date 100 women in your life, when should you marry if you want to maximize the quality of the woman you marry? I believe the answer is the first woman after the first 33 who is better than everyone you have dated so far.

    Anyway, there are only 9 innings, and there must be some distribution for leverage, such that at a certain point in the game you can say okay, the leverage is this much, there are this many innings left, more likely than not this is the highest leverage we will face.

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  9. adohaj says:

    I liked this article and found it very interesting. To think that expansion and such didn’t change it at all baffles me.

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  10. Cidron says:

    Each year, they add 20 players to the “available for HoF” pool. And, if the voters only clear out one name from the pool, you get that 19, plus the new 20, … etc etc. That alone crowds it, or, saturates it, depending on your angle.

    To further complicate it, the voters only can vote for 10. Not 10 of the new 20, but 10 TOTAL! There will be a point very very soon (in the next three to five years) when someone who was an absolute lock for HoF will slip thru the cracks because of the saturated talent pool awaiting votes, and a limited number of votes available.

    Soon the “shoulda beens” will be lower than the 5% and be lost to the ages (people like Trammel, and others of recent yesteryear).

    Also, how long will it take before someone of the “steroid era” actually starts to accumulate enough votes to give the rest from the same era another look, diluting the vote total even more.

    Note to the Hall of Fame voters. I understand you have standards. Thats great, but, take a good look at the talent pool you have before you. Tweak the system so that worthy people don’t slip between the cracks and be lost forever. Yes, keep the minimum vote to stay on ballot. Maybe allow more votes per voter.

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    • Cidron says:

      oh, Baseball Hall of Fame. Please don’t allow yourself to become a joke like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has become (without KISS, Rush, Deep Purple, but has alot of new, questionable “talent”). :(

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  11. miffleball says:

    When describing former all stars, how many all star games were needed to qualify? After all, in the last edgardo alfonzo, walt weiss, bj surhoff and countless others within that time span made one all star game and I’m fairly certain no one thinks they should be considered for the HoF.
    If you’re looking for a logjam, aren’t you more interested in the bagwell, kevin brown, larkin, raines and now pettitte types that have arguments for being elected (granted, to varying degrees for each – how you value their careers is somewhat person dependant) who are receiving less than 75% of the vote? How many multi-AS players with whichever type of number you prefer and consistent appearances in top 10 or 15 MVP/Cy Young voting have retired in the last fifteen years, and is that different than the previous 1 years?
    Likewise, do the numbers indicate that the caliber of player was better in the 90s and early 2000s than in the late 70s and 80s, creating a logjam as those players become available for election?

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    • For my purposes, only one All-Star Game was needed to qualify. (Though, as I pointed out in the article, some players are added to the Hall of Fame Ballot without ever having made the ASG, like Kirk Rueter and Bobby Higginson.)

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  12. Blue says:

    I don’t see how you can say expansion didn’t change anything…just eyeballing the chart, only 3 years from 1985 through 2005 were lower than the pre-1985 average rate of retirement.

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  13. Uncle Monty says:

    I don’t think I understand the confusion about Expansion here. You seem to imply that there should be more “good” players retiring each year just because there are more MLB teams. But this doesn’t follow for two reasons:
    1. The MLB talent pool doesn’t increase with MLB expansion (I don’t know exactly how it has changed over these years, I am sure it has, but expansion has nothing to do with it)
    2. Your definition of “good” is All-Star selections, but there are still only 2 All-Star teams with (as far as I know) the same # of roster spots each year

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  14. quincy0191 says:

    There is an extra period in this sentence, after the word “five”.

    “Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn both hung up their spikes after the 2001 season, and easily marched into the Hall five years. later.”

    This horrendous typographical error has caused the entire article to become unreadable, and I suggest that you, the incompetent author, call your mother and berate her for allowing you to exist in this world and make mistakes such as this. I would also suggest that the clearly non-existent proofreaders at Fangraphs ought to be fired, despite the existential questions this idea raises. I am extremely distraught with the poor quality of this freely viewable piece, so much so that I have absolutely no input on the subject of the article (though this is related the aforementioned unreadability), yet felt compelled to comment regarding the inexcusable error I discovered through careful examination.

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