Hall of Shame: Why BBWAA’s Secret Ballots Matter

This was originally posted on WahooBlues.com

When the Baseball Writers Association of America announced Wednesday that Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven had been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, two worthy inductees who had waited too long were granted entrance to Cooperstown. But to judge the voting process solely by the selections of two worthy candidates would be to ignore the massive problems with the way the BBWAA does business.

Only ten-year veterans of the BBWAA are allowed to vote for the Hall, so each of the 581 people who sent in their ballots should be fully capable of forming a well-reasoned opinion about who belongs in Cooperstown. No, this isn’t about the five hipster voters who thought supporting players for induction was too mainstream (I can’t think of any other reason for why they wouldn’t choose anyone), or Barry “Worst Ballot Ever” Stanton—it’s a trend that persists throughout the entire electorate.

Out of the nearly 600 Cooperstown voters, 122 had the decency to make their choices public. Using this tool to analyze all of the known votes, we can compare the ballots people put their names on to those that were turned in anonymously.

As a reminder, all of the voters are longtime professional sportswriters who have extensive experience with analyzing players and forming opinions about baseball. More importantly, it is their job to present their positions to the public. It only seems logical, then, that everyone who turned in a ballot should be able to provide a well-reasoned defense of his or her picks, and therefore there should be little difference between the known ballots and the anonymous ones. Right?

Wrong. While a few candidates received roughly the same amount of support from both groups, more than two-thirds (12) of the 17 players who received enough votes to stay on the ballot had a difference of at least three percent, and nearly half (eight) had a disparity of more than five percent. It could be a series of coincidences, but I don’t think it’s random chance. Look at the players who had the biggest advantages on the public ballots:

Notice a trend here? Alomar was a clear fan favorite for induction, especially after being unfairly snubbed last year, and keeping PED users out of Cooperstown is a flimsy excuse for denying a man with over 500 homers and 3,000 hits. The other three are beloved by sabermetricians and some of the baseball media’s most influential outsiders (including here at FanGraphs). In other words, the players who got the most love from people willing to share their votes are the ones whose absence from the ballots would receive the most scrutiny.

We see a similar pattern with the other extreme, the players who got significantly more support from those who kept their ballots secret:

All of the candidates on this list have flaws that drag down their overall worth. Jack Morris‘ candidacy is founded almost entirely on the longevity of his career. Fairly or not, Larry Walker‘s explosive years with the Rockies are tainted by his playing in Coors Field, and most of Lee Smith‘s value is derived from his gaudy saves total. And Juan Gonzalez, Dale Murphy, Don Mattingly, and Dave Parker are simply not good enough for the Hall of Fame. They weren’t necessarily the worst candidates (I’d take any of them over B.J. Surhoff in a heartbeat), but they all would make some fans raise their eyebrows.

If those numbers don’t seem like much of a disparity, consider this: private balloters were nearly twice as likely to vote for Walker, more than doubly supportive of Mattingly, and gave Parker over triple the approval rate of their more upfront peers. The unnamed voters were also twice as likely to vote against Alomar, and while nearly half the writers who made their choices public picked Tim Raines, barely a third of those who kept their selections secret put him on their ballots.

It’s clear that voters who chose more popular players were more likely to make their picks public. Unless the correlation is pure coincidence—and with large disparities across the ballot, the odds of that are practically nil—this isn’t a ringing endorsement for the baseball media.

The conclusion I draw from this is that many voters can’t construct convincing arguments to explain their selections. For a layman that might be understandable, but for a professional sportswriter? If you’re one of the most knowledgeable people in the world about the game of baseball and you can’t explain why you voted for Dave Parker without sounding stupid, you shouldn’t have voted for Dave Parker.

If secrecy (or lack thereof) changes the decisions people make, you’ve got a problem, and privacy shouldn’t be a top priority. Voting for the Hall of Fame is a privilege, not a right. If someone is honored with a ballot, he or she should be held accountable for his choices. If any voter is embarrassed to reveal his or her picks—or worse, unable to defend his or her selections—then the process is fatally flawed. Putting an end to secret ballots wouldn’t mean the BBWAA would suddenly start making all the right decisions, but at least we would know that the voters took their responsibility seriously enough to put their names on their ballots.

In the almost-words of Greg Lake: “The Cooperstown we get, we deserve.”

Lewie Pollis is a freshman at Brown University. For more of his work, visit WahooBlues.com. Follow him on Twitter: @LewsOnFirst or @WahooBlues.




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Lewie Pollis is a sophomore at Brown University. For more of his work, go to WahooBlues.com. He can be reached at LewsOnFirst@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @LewsOnFirst or @WahooBlues.


18 Responses to “Hall of Shame: Why BBWAA’s Secret Ballots Matter”

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  1. Jimmy says:

    Agree with most of this piece, except the part about Larry Walker. Even if you adjust his numbers for the Coors effect, the guy was one of the best hitters in the league when healthy (and a decent fielder, too).

    The main argument against him is the “when healthy” caveat…Walker just couldn’t stay on the field.

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  2. Danmay says:

    I’m still in shock from learning this year* that it’s not expected/required to defend your selections. The arguments for or against are way more interesting, to me, than who was selected or not selected.

    *The rate of increase of my baseball knowledge is quite exponential over recent years, even though my love for the game isn’t.

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  3. Bronnt says:

    Jimmy, I agree, except that Larry Walker was a damned good corner outfielder. Not quite Carl Crawford, but certainly Barry Bonds-ian defense on the corners. If you’re in favor of Tim Raines being in, you should support Larry Walker’s candidacy. You don’t have support either of them if you’re more of a small-hall guy, but they’re both definitely fringe guys. and solid hall of famers if you prefer a bigger hall.

    Now that Blyleven is in, Walker might shift more to the center of focus for debate, before we get to the big PED tainted names.

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  4. philosofool says:

    In fairness to the system, the point of secret ballots is to protect people from unreasonable pressures and allow them to have their private reasons. Part of the value of private reasons is that they let people think about things in a new way without being the subject of public ridicule for it. Worse, certain political opinions may interfere with a writer’s ability to vote honestly if he votes publicly.The reason to have a large voter pool is to prevent pervse opinions that aren’t widely shared from ruling the day. Studies in the effect of public discourse are actually pretty sad, and it turns out that allowing groups to deliberate hurts their ability to get good results in many cases.

    Imagine for a moment that you are a writer who works for a paper that has given a lot of money to anti-drug campaigns over the years and you think Palmeiro is deserving. Are you going to risk your job for his entrance into the hall? The question will only arise if ballots are public.

    Note that not a single person you mentioned would have made it this year if the private had been more like the public voter, so in some ways your point is moot.

    Anyway, I don’t think you’ve given proper consideration to the ways that secrecy benefits the wise as well as the foolish.

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  5. Lewie Pollis says:

    Just want to clarify my position on Walker—he’d have my vote, just as Smith might. It’s just that Coors is a major stumbling block for some people, so a vote for him could seem unreasonable to a lot of fans.

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  6. William says:

    Circle:

    I’m afraid you’ve overreached a bit here: can you give a couple of examples of A) papers that give lots of money to certain causes that B) relate to baseball and C) care so much about them that a single vote by a sportswriter would cost him his job? Anything’s possible, but that is a stretch imho.

    But the first point, I mean, isn’t it pretty clear that in the article it is the opposite of what you propose? That is, what sort of “new” thinking makes the picks most differing from the public picks? Seems to be old or nonexistent, certainly not new.

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  7. dondbaseball says:

    Writers:please publish your votes so we can rudely deride, ridicule and promote your ineptude as our folly! How dare you have different opinions than the rest of us “metric type” analysts. I don’t want to actually think about any candidate who is on the ballot for more than one year, if you’re a hall of famer, be inducted in the 1st year or else the writers were morons.

    That’s the synapsis I just gathered from this writers post. Subjectivity is life. As noted all of these writers earned their votes, we may not agree and that’s why 75% must be in agreement for someone to earn the HOF. As almost half the HOFers were put in by the Veterans Committee, I think the chances of a Surhoff earning induction are non-existent. Stanton was and is entitled to his opinion and let’s face it, BJ wouldn’t be the worst player in the Hall if he were somehow inducted.

    What I would ask if for writers to publish their lists within their voting structure (to the other 500+ writers) and be able to defend why they voted for each of their candidates. What was Stanton’s reasoning for Surhoff? Versitility, leadership, winning chemistry, whatever. It doesn’t mean we agree but at least we would understand. Ridicule and derision is no way to treat anyone’s opinion. It just makes you look small.

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  8. WilsonC says:

    The correlation between public votes and sabermetric darlings is obvious, but the conclusion’s a leap. Just because there’s a correlation doesn’t mean one’s a cause of the other.

    Here’s my interpretation of those numbers. Who’s more likely to vote for the sabermetric darlings: somebody who spends a lot of digital ink of baseball analysis, or someone who’s a beat writer for his local paper, relying more on narrative and memory than on numbers? Who’s more likely to publish his voting results: somebody who with a substantial online presence, or someone whose primary medium is a newspaper, during the part of the season dominated by other sports? I would expect that, in general, we’d see a strong correlation here just because the writers with the strongest online presence are probably more likely to be the ones who favor some degree of sabermetrics.

    I don’t know if we’d see any difference if writers had to publish their votes, or if it’s simply that those who do publish tend to be the same subset of writers who favor popular saber candidates.

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  9. Chris says:

    I’d like to see historical trends. Not that I don’t doubt that the writers are voting poorly and those more likely to vote poorly are the ones voting in secret, but, we’re looking at 122/581, then you further reduce it to 12 players receiving votes.

    A historical trend could shed more light and further your argument.

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  10. KS says:

    PED cheaters shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame, and no-one needs to defend that stand. Far too many in the sabermetric community support having cheaters in the Hall of Fame, and that’s a disgrace to the game of baseball.

    The writers have no obligation to reveal their ballots, or to explain them. You obviously don’t like that, but that’s why we have secret ballots… so one can vote their conscience, without having to justify it in public and be subjected to public pressure. It’s the same reason why you have a secret ballot when you vote in an election.

    Lots of people will disagree with votes for the Hall of Fame, just as lots of people will disagree with your vote for Congress, President or City Council. That’s the way voting works. I don’t agree with every decision made by the Hall of Fame voters, but I certainly don’t think they need to be held up to ridicule for exercising their right to vote.

    Get off your high horse.

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  11. Lewie Pollis says:

    @Kris

    First of all, there already are cheaters in the Hall of Fame—Gaylord Perry is an obvious example. Why are spitballers any less reprehensible reprehensible than dopers?

    Likening the Hall of Fame vote to citizens going to the polls doesn’t work. Voting for a Congressman is a right, but voting for Cooperstown is a privilege. In addition, you don’t have to prove any knowledge or expertise to vote, but the BBWAA balloters are supposed to be the best baseball minds in the country. The better comparison is to Congressional voting records—which, of course, are public.

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  12. Brian says:

    I don’t see why a person’s ballot needs to be well reasoned at all. The Hall of Fame is just a way for a group of people to honor their baseball heroes. Why does it need to be based on anything more than emotion and feeling?

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  13. Brian says:

    @Lewipollis: Because spitballs don’t a) alter your muscle mass and turn you into the Incredible Hulk and b) don’t kill you.

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  14. entrinzikyl says:

    @KS

    Saying that no one needs to defend the no-PED stand is as high-horsed a position as saying that votes ought to be public. Probably more so, since your argument is most likely at least somewhat ethically based.

    That said, I agree with you that private voting is an important way to avoid being subjected to public pressure. It prevents undeserved scrutiny. Unfortunately, it doesn’t prevent deserved scrutiny, but since it’s hard to really say when scrutiny is deserved, I think it’s best as is.

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  15. philosofool says:

    “First of all, there already are cheaters in the Hall of Fame—Gaylord Perry is an obvious example. Why are spitballers any less reprehensible reprehensible than dopers?”

    Can everyone please stop with the compounding evils arguments for cheaters? Where the hell were you people when they told you that two wrongs don’t make a right in grade school?

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  16. bcp33bosox says:

    @philosofool, I could make the same argument that not voting for players, who took non-illegal PEDs (not all of them are/were illegal substances and some of them were yet to be banned by MLB at the time of players taking them) is a wrong and that 2 wrongs don’t make a right. A wrong by the same writers who basically looked the other way in 1998 when Wilstein broke the andro story (which was not against McGwrire because as he stated Andro *was* over the counter and *not* yet banned in the MLB), but more questioning MLBs policies (why is Andro not allowed in the Olympics, but is okay in MLB? Why is there no testing policy?). It took baseball 5 or 6 years after ’98 to even start testing…

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  17. John says:

    How are steriod users different fom other cheaters?
    Surely the reason some want them keep out is because cheating is wrong, level of enhancement cannot be measured and differs from player to player.
    Ruth, Cobb, Aaron, Mays, Schimdt, Perry, Ford, McGraw, Sutton etc. are all cheaters in the HOF, and they won’t be kicked out.

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  18. B N says:

    re: “Because spitballs don’t … kill you.”

    Tell that to Ray Chapman, Brian. I’m sure he’ll be relieved.

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