Cleaning up Cooperstown

Well, that could’ve gone better.

As I’m sure everyone out there in reader-land already knows, last week the Baseball Hall of Fame announced the results of their annual BBWAA vote for admission, an in a massive embarrassment, for the first time in 17 years, no one got the needed 75 percent marker for induction.

Mind you, this happened on the strongest ballot in many a-moon. Okay, some clearly qualified candidates—Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa—had their names smeared in the steroids whirligig. Beyond them were Craig Biggio, and Mike Piazza, and Tim Raines, and Jack Morris, and Jeff Bagwell, and Lee Smith, and Alan Trammell, and Curt Schilling, and—I could go on, but you get the idea. (A few of those guys have also been implied to use ‘roids, but with no proof beyond innuendo).

By the Hall’s own standards for induction, there was an absurd number of qualified candidates, yet no one got in. Yeah, that’s bad.

The Hall heading forward

And here’s an added bonus—it’s going to get even worse.

You see, while no one got in, the BBWAA did average 6.60 names/ballot in 2013, the most since 1999. And since no one got in, nearly the entire backlog comes back. Well, Dale Murphy ran out of time, and a few guys fell under five percent, but just looking at the guys coming back for 2014, those players averaged 5.94 appearance/ballot.

Time for a quick aside. The BBWAA ballot allows 10 names per ballot, and so technically a 5.94 names/ballot leaves tons of room. That’s technically true. Technically. In reality, the ballot gets claustrophobic well before it’s supposed to. Voters used to putting four or fives names on their ballot just don’t like listing nine or ten.

And 5.94 isn’t just high for a returning backlog; it’s the highest returning backlog in decades. In fact, it’s higher than many overall BBWAA ballots, backloggers and newbies combined. Hell, the BBWAA hasn’t even averaged seven names on a ballot in over a quarter century, and now they’re going to walk in with nearly six per ballot even before we get to the 2014 newbies.

Oh, and who are those newbies next year? Oh, just Greg Maddux. And Tom Glavine. And Frank Thomas, Mike Mussina, Jeff Kent, etc. If history tells us anything, when a really strong newbie crop hits a crowded ballot, the backlog suffers. This happened in 1999, when the arrival of Nolan Ryan, George Brett, and Carlton Fisk caused every man in the backlog to have his support drop. And 1999 wasn’t nearly as crowded a ballot as 2014 will be.

No one from the current backlog will go in next year. Normally, Maddux, Glavine, and Thomas would all be shoo-ins, but on a ballot this overloaded, Maddux is the only one I feel safe predicting gets in (though Glavine has a very good shot).

And then in 2015, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, and Gary Sheffield show up.

There are overwhelmingly qualified guys that just ain’t going to come close. Its not just steroids—though that’s certainly making things a lot more crowded—but how incredibly crowded these ballots are. If you compare the names above to current Hall of Famers, almost every player I just named is clearly qualified for Cooperstown. This doesn’t mean they’re better than the mistake selections, but the current candidates measure up based on the Hall’s typical standards.

Sympathy for the electorate

I’ve always had a good deal of sympathy and support for the BBWAA in their elections. I wrote a two part piece looking over their results and generally reckoning that—with some notable exceptions—they’d done a decent job putting guys into Cooperstown.

Just before the election, Bossman Studes here at THT wrote an article about the need to reform the voting system and set up a petition calling for it to be changed. I’ve always been conservative on this matter. As an old manager once said, there’s no such thing as taking a pitcher out of the game, it’s about putting a new pitcher into the game. It’s easy to point to the flaws of the current system, but that doesn’t mean that any other system would be inherently superior.

Scary reality: the BBWAA tally is the best system for electing immortals that Cooperstown has ever had. Admittedly, that’s like being the tallest midget, but it’s true. Aside from that, the Hall has relied on either a crony-ist Veterans Committee that makes terrible choices or something like the 21st century Joe Morgan Super Friends Veterans Committee that stubbornly refused to elect anyone.

Keep in mind that if the Hall did radically transform or do away with the BBWAA system, the same Cooperstown geniuses that gave us things like the Joe Morgan Super Friends Committee would come up with the reforms. So there is ample reason to think that any new system would actually be worse than the present one.

Retroactive Review: Ace
Looking back at some of Justin Verlander's most interesting moments.

In fact, forget Cooperstown for a second. Let’s compare the BBWAA to the Football Hall of Fame. They have a system rather like the traditional Veterans Committee; they get about 20 guys in a room together and let them decide who belongs in. Hopefully, they do a better job than the baseball VC, but it’s a similar process.

That’s how most Halls of Fame do it. They typically have a closed off process. I’ve read a lot of talk over the last few weeks about how closed off the baseball electorate it, and while there is some truth to that, it’s also the most open voting for all sports Hall. You get sportswriters all over America writing columns about who they’ll vote for and why with Cooperstown, but you never see that with Canton or the others. As a general rule of thumb, a more inclusive process is better, and a more transparent process is better. And the BBWAA election is the most inclusive and transparent one out there.

If it’s broke, fix it

Yeah, all the above is nice and all, but it all misses the point. That whole section treats the BBWAA in the abstract without looking at the reality of what’s going on. And the reality is, the system is broken. In fact, the system has possibly always been broken.

Let’s think for a second, why do we have a Hall of Fame? In part, it’s to honor those who have excelled the most at, and done the most for, baseball. However, it’s not just for the players, but for the fans. The Baseball Hall of Fame wouldn’t exist unless people went there, after all. The Hall is a place for baseball fans to celebrate the game itself, and the people within it (mostly players) who meant the most to them. That justifies the Hall’s existence.

Well, by that standard, the Hall has a problem, and it’s one that’s actually a lot bigger than just the recent election. If you want to honor the players and give the fans something to celebrate, you know what works well? Honoring the players in a timely manner. Honor players when they’re well remembered instead of dimly remembered. Yeah, that’s doing it well.

How well does the Hall do at honoring those well remembered? Well, let’s see … including the three men entering Cooperstown via the Veterans Committee this year, there are exactly 300 Hall of Famers.

Of that 300, the BBWAA elected barely a third. In all, they put in 112 of the 300. That’s it. The majority of Hall of Famers entered via Veterans or Old Timers Committees. Well, it isn’t quite as bad as it sounds because the Veterans Committees handle all non-player inductions. Plus 29 immortals are in as Negro Leaguers. If you pare it down, a very large chunk of the major league players elected have gone in via Old Timers Committees.

That’s not ideal. It’s fine for there to be a waiting period until you start voting on guys. But nearly one-fourth of all Hall of Fame players were dead prior to their induction. If you include Negro Leaguers, it’s over 25 percent. A total of 39 big league players entered Cooperstown 40-plus years after retiring. In other words, by the time they won election, most of the fans who rooted for them were dead. Another 38 players entered from 30-39 years after they retired.

That stinks, both for the players and the fans. Yes, you can still honor the game, and there is value in that, but there is also value in having a more timely process. The current voting deadlock in the BBWAA just makes the problem that much more pressing.

Far too often, Cooperstown does a better job honoring the long-ago retired than the recently retired. It means the Hall does a better job honoring those barely remembered than those well-remembered. That’s dumb. Why set up a system that works like that?

In other words, the players of your youth will usually win election to the Hall when you’re getting old. The greats of your young adulthood will typically get into Cooperstown when you’re near death, if you’re lucky. Tell me again, how is this an ideal system?

Look, I think an inclusive system is fantastic. It’s a great idea to be inclusive, and the BBWAA election is the most inclusive Hall of Fame vote. But you know what works even better than an inclusive system? One that works. Ends, not means, are the thing. Results matter more than process.

Solutions

I have one main plan to solve both the long-standing problem of putting guys in after they’ve been forgotten and the current massive ballot gridlock: lower the election threshold from 75 percent to 50 percent of all BBWAA voters.

That sounds like a big deal, right? After all, the BBWAA threshold has always been three-fourths, and half is quite a step down. But you know what, all it will do is speed up what happens already and solve the current notable glut.

Here is the greatest, least-publicized fact about the history of Cooperstown vote. Below is a list of every single Cooperstown candidate not currently on the ballot who has received 50 percent of the BBWAA vote even just once and is not immortalized by the Hall of Fame:

Gil Hodges.

That’s it. Every single other person who got to half the BBWAA’s support has made it into Cooperstown. Either the BBWAA increased its support and put the guy in, or the Veterans Committee added him. Heck, under normal circumstances, Hodges probably would be in, but the 21st-century Veterans Committee went crazy and refused to elect anyone. (Even then, Hodges was always near the top of the candidates.)

So, if you lower the voting standard, you still elect the same guys you’d elect anyway, but you’d just do it in a more timely fashion. It’s the same guys going in, just when they are fresher in the public imagination and more likely to still be alive.

Just think, instead of reading about how no one went in this year, we’d hear stories about how Biggio, Morris, Raines, Piazza, and Bagwell were all Cooperstown-bound. Keep in mind that all those guys are incredibly good bets to make it at some point, anyway, and at least four of them far exceed traditional Cooperstown standards. But under the current system, with its clogged ballots, none will get in for the foreseeable future.

Wouldn’t a celebration of the new honorees be a better story for Cooperstown than the current black eye?

Also, Cooperstown might want to consider a failsafe. If no one meet the minimum standard, then the candidate or two with the most votes get in anyway. Why not? The football Hall has a required minimum number of inductees each year.

Here’s a suggestion for the Veterans Committee. Currently, it’s an odd three-headed beast. The VC looks at candidates every year, but they break it up into three different eras, looking at one each year. One year it’s guys from before 1947. Another year it’s 1947-72. The third year it’s post-1972. In other words, it’s the dead, the dying, and the still alive.

Look, if you’re going to divide into eras, just go with two eras. The pre-1947 period is already heavily overrepresented and, with apologies to Stan Hack and Wes Ferrell, there aren’t that many notable candidates left. Just have pre- and post-1972 categories.

The character clause

Even though I do an annual column here at THT predicting what the BBWAA will do in its Cooperstown election, it’s becoming harder to care about what happens. Heck, at this point, if it wasn’t for the prediction pieces, I’m not sure I would care.

The Hall of Fame argument used to be a blast for me because it was debates about baseball. Remember that, the ability to play baseball? It’s this thing people used to focus on when determining if someone belonged in Cooperstown or not. That isn’t the case anymore.

Now, all too often, Hall of Fame arguments turn into moralistic grandstanding.

My problem isn’t so much that people aren’t voting for Bonds or Clemens. I understand the thought process there, at least. But then you read people saying they aren’t going to vote for Bagwell or Piazza because … well, there are rumors and innuendo. No real evidence, just rumor and innuendo. Is the Hall really supposed to operate on the basis of suspicion?

At least one of two things inevitably will happen. Either someone who used steroids but isn’t popularly associated with them will end up getting elected, or someone who never did will be kept out due to unfounded suspicions. Actually, it’s quite possible the first already has happened. Hey, just because Jose Canseco wrote a book about how he used steroids doesn’t mean he really was the first guy to do so. Ultimately, we’ll never know who did or didn’t take stuff. As the system currently is set up, gossip determines who goes in.

Yes, there’s a character clause in the standards for Cooperstown. Character is one facet people are supposed to look at. But it’s rapidly becoming the standard, instead of a standard. If someone is found, or believed or rumored to be, wanting in character, then everything else is meaningless. This is especially interesting, given that for the first 70 years, the character clause was the least important and most ignored standard for induction. Now it’s completely flipped.

Though little known, the character clause originally was inserted for the opposite reason. It wasn’t to keep people out, but to help let in those with strong character. In particular, baseball commissioner Judge Landis wanted Eddie Grant, a Harvard graduate who died fighting for his country in WWI, inducted. That never happened, as Grant wasn’t much of a player, but that’s what created the character clause.

No other Hall has a character clause, yet all other sports certainly have their steroid users. At a certain point, the clause is more harmful than helpful.

References & Resources
I used B-ref to figure out how many guys have been elected by the BBWAA. To be exact, B-ref lists 107 inducted by the BBWAA but also notes two special elections (Lou Gehrig and Roberto Clemente) and three run-off elections, which were BBWAA elections.

237 players in all have been elected, including 21 by special Negro Leagues Committees and eight other Negro Leaguers put in by the Veterans Committee.


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Steve Vdoviak
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Steve Vdoviak
If only one guy, who happens to be one of my all time favorites, namely Gil Hodges, is the only one not in after receiving 50 % of the vote, why change?  Sounds like you want change for change sake.  Don’t see a problem.  There are plenty of guys in the Hall.  The plaque room is practically filled.  There are plenty of stories to write about.  You’ll survive ‘til next year without having a write stories about this year’s inductees; plenty of people will visit the Hall this year.  I don’t agree its broke; don’t dilute the standards by which… Read more »
Chris J.
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Chris J.

Steve – if you think it puts the same guys in, why do you think it dilutes the standards?

Why change?  Because putting guys into Cooperstown in a timely manner is better than one that puts them in a slow-manner.  It’s better to honor players when they’re alive and fresh in public memory than dead in fading from the popular imagination.

Paul G.
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Paul G.
The permanent 50% threshold idea is probably a good idea, but I suspect that it would be met with much resistance in certain circles.  Under normal circumstances it would probably be better to temporarily reduce the level to, say, 65% and see how that works.  If there are no issues, and considering your analysis there shouldn’t be, then further steps can be taken. These are not normal times. My suspicion is nothing will be done until the next ballot.  If the result is Maddux only or if the writers fail to elect anyone, then something will be done to deal… Read more »
studes
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studes

Really nice article, Chris.

Anon
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Anon

Normally, Maddux, Glavine, and Thomas would all be shoo-ins

Why is Thomas a shoo-in? Compare him to other sluggers with no evidence of steroid use (Bagwell and Piazza come to mind). Combine that with him being a DH for ~50% of his career. I would be surprised if his HoF vote breaks 50% in a normal year.

rubesandbabes
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rubesandbabes
The Hall of Fame has a history of Ron Santo, Bert Blyleven, and Buck O’Neil cruelty, but it’s not exactly stupid at a glance. The Hall will eventually honor Jim Thome like he was Willie Mays, but has already pooped out his more dynamic teammate Kenny Lofton. That’s sort of the extent of the stupid results this year.  Voting in Bagwell and Biggio, leaving Bonds on the outside would have been stupid awful, and regret we see too many voters applying the never got caught rule of thumb for PED use. Since the voters are closer to voting in the… Read more »
Chris J.
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Chris J.

Anon- Frank Thomas isn’t just a guy w/ 500 homers, he’s a guy w/ 500 homers and 2 MVPs.  He didn’t just have great career numbers, but also a great peak.  Those MVP Awards weren’t mistakes.

In fact, in the early 1990s Bill James once wrote that the three greatest hitters of all-time where Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Frank Thomas. 

The second act of Thomas’ career was a let down, but he’s an easy HoFer on career or peak scales.

bucdaddy
Guest
bucdaddy
Inclusive? The BBWAA? How many women are in the BBWAA? How many people of color are in the BBWAA? How many Japanese, Mexican or Dominican writers? I don’t know, so I’m really asking, if anyone knows. But I bet the answers are: Next to none. As a journalism professional myself, I don’t like the BBWAA being involved in voting for the Hall (AND the Cy Young, AND the MVP, AND any other awards) period, as a clear and obvious conflict of interest. There’s too much money involved in performance clauses and appearance fees today, and I don’t think people whose… Read more »
John Northey
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John Northey
I think you need to consider that if everyone with 50% got in that others would rise up too as writers like to vote for someone. For example, if it was put in place after 1996 (the last year with no one put in) you’d have seen… 1997: Niekro, Sutton, Perez in 1998: no one, top votes went to Santo at 43.1% 1999: Ryan, Brett, Yount, Fisk 2000: Rice 2001: Winfield, Puckett, Carter 2002: Smith, Sutter 2003: Murray, Dawson (dead on 50%) 2004: Molitor, Eckersley, Sandberg 2005: Boggs, Gossage 2006: Blyleven 2007: Ripken, Gwynn 2008: No one, top votes went… Read more »
Ed DeCaria
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Ed DeCaria
Interesting article, Chris. I like the 50% idea in theory, but it would likely result in dilution over time once voters mentally adjusted to the new threshold. Think of the 75% threshold like a speed limit. When the speed limit is 55mph, people drive 65-70mph without much thought. If you raise it to 70mph because that’s how fast most people are going anyways, IN THEORY you are just allowing those drivers to drive the same way except legally and thus perhaps more comfortably and safely, but IN REALITY it just invites people to drive 80-85mph. So I agree with John… Read more »
Bad Bill
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Bad Bill

Nice try and a thoughtful article, but the fundamental problem is left unaddressed: bad decisions are being made in the Hall of Fame voting, due to both individual voters, and the system as a whole, being unable or unwilling to accept that formal qualification to vote (long-term BBWAA membership) is not equivalent to actual expertise.

A “solution” that doesn’t address that underlying problem is no solution at all.  Sorry.

rubesandbabes
Guest
rubesandbabes
Hey, this afternoon why not hit the streets in your town with the following poll: Jose Canseco and Craig Biggio. Ask 25 random people to name which is the baseball player, and which is the hockey player. (Results will be fairly predictable.) Craig Biggio is not a famous person, the outside world has never heard of him, and doesn’t really care if he’s in the HOF or not. So, what’s the hurry to change around the HOF voting if all they are gonna do anyway is promote Biggio (and in so doing retroactively wash his bloodstream)? — Agree with the… Read more »
studes
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studes

I think the opposite would happen—if the threshold were reduced to 50%, a certain proportion of Hall voters would reduce the number of players they’d select in order to make sure the Hall isn’t watered down. It’s hard to predict these things.

Will
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Will
I wonder what the effect of an inner- and outer- Hall might have.  Perhaps a construction where 50% of the vote elects one to the Hall of Fame, consisting of players like Hodges, Morris, Raines, etc. In other words, true star players that excelled at the game, but did not define the game.  These would be players worthy of being remembered.  Then there could possibly be an inner- Hall (Hall of Immortals, or some better, more concise name.)which would consist of those players that truly defined the game and the era in which they played.  These players would be of… Read more »
Bill
Guest
Bill
This was a thoughtful article and not just the knee-jerk reactions which have populated the Internet since last week. However I do not find it shameful that no one was elected. After all is it not supposed to be hard to get into a Hall of Fame? I even read an interview with Craig Biggio where he stated words to this affect. So I don’t see the process as flawed. Mike Piazza may have been hurt by PED innuendo, but some voters may have found his defense lacking and so judged him not to be a first ballot Hall of… Read more »
John Northey
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John Northey
I think a true inner hall would need to be a separate election.  Jackie Robinson, for example, got under 80% while Nolan Ryan was well over 90%. Ideally a panel of experts would do the voting with an initial group of 5 ala the original hall, then another vote every 5 years adding a maximum of 2 each time.  Thus making it an extreme honour that few would ever get in their own lifetime.  I suspect an initial group would have Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron or Willie Mays, Walter Johnson, Jackie Robinson (not the greatest 2B ever but obviously had… Read more »
John Northey
Guest
John Northey
I think a question is how many future HOF’ers were ignored this time vs past blank ballots. 1996: 6 so far, I view Tommy John as a lock to get in someday with Kaat, Allen, Joe Torre, and probably some others having a strong chance as well. 1971: 15 so far, Gil Hodges likely at some point.  A similar ballot to this one in certain respects: one of the best catchers ever (Berra vs Piazza), a 300 game winner (Early Wynn vs Clemens), a big star who was overshadowed (Duke Snider vs Tim Raines), a powerful first baseman who didn’t… Read more »
aweb
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aweb
I’d make every player one and done on the the BWAA vote, and not change the threshold (keep ballot limit too). Then just take everyone who falls off immediately to a vet/expert committee (which would be tricky, but other sports manage it). No waiting 15 years, or 30 for the right “era” of committee to come up again. If the writers want to remain relevant to the process, they put in their work and vote the first time. No do-overs, no politicking, no campaigns for long-past players. Give the writers their chance, but move on quickly. There are fresh stories… Read more »
John Northey
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John Northey
Agreed that 15 years is too much – but 1 is a bit too small I think too.  Perhaps a 5 year window so you don’t get boom/bust for who gets in.  So 5 years you wait after retiring, 5 years on BBWAA ballots, 5 years of vets then put into a purgatory that is checked once every decade or something. Of course, given we just had a few long time guys get in Blyleven year 14, Dawson year 9, Rice year 15, Gossage year 9, Sutter year 13 I could see a case being made that it is only… Read more »
Paul G.
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Paul G.

@aweb: Baseball’s experiences with vet/expert committees is very spotty.  For a while the Veterans Committee seemed to exist solely for the purpose to select Frankie Frisch’s teammates.  George Kelly, anyone?  For another period its entire purpose appeared to be the snubbing of Ron Santo until after he died.  They have done some good work too but baseball committees, just like committees everywhere else, often leave something to be desired.  And if you really think a committee would eliminate politicking, you are a very, very optimistic person.

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