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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.