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January 6, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Blyleven in '11 and Other Tales from the Ballot

by Jay Jaffe

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Our long national nightmare is over. On Wednesday at 2 p.m., the National Baseball Hall of Fame opened its doors to Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven, two overwhelmingly qualified candidates who missed gaining entry from the BBWAA last year by a combined 13 votes. Both cleared the mandatory 75 percent threshold with room to spare, with Alomar drawing 90 percent of the record 581 votes cast during his second year on the ballot, and Blyleven garnering 79.7 percent in his 14th year of eligibility. They'll join Pat Gillick on the dais in Cooperstown, New York on July 24.

Alomar had the largest gain of any player on the ballot, adding 16.3 percent to last year's showing. His 90 percent was the highest of any second-ballot player since 1966, when the BBWAA switched back to an annual vote, eclipsing the 85.6 percent Yogi Berra received in 1972. In fact, it was the 21st-highest voting percentage of that period as well. It's not difficult to read the message in that pattern; the voters overwhelmingly felt he was a Hall of Famer, but deprived him of the honor of a first-ballot entry, penalizing him for the 1996 incident in which he spit on umpire John Hirschbeck after being ejected for arguing balls and strikes.

Blyleven gained 5.5 percent over last year's share, the fourth-highest gain, but the bigger news is that he became the first player ever to gain entry on his 14th ballot. More so than any other candidate of the past 15 years, his election is the result of a long grassroots campaign, waged primarily on the Internet, and owing a great debt to the way an advanced statistical lexicon—developed both here and beyond—has heightened the appreciation of his accomplishments after he was snubbed, or at the very least overshadowed, in his heyday.

In the hours before the announcement, I dug up the first piece I ever wrote advocating for Blyleven's election, written for my Futility Infielder site back on January 6, 2002. My site had been up for nine months at that point, and I'd been blogging regularly for seven of them. I had yet to come up with JAWS, and I'm not even sure I was aware of WARP, so in the piece, I used ERA+, strikeouts, and Win Shares—the bleeding-edge total value metric taken from the just-published New Bill James Historical Abstract—to argue for the election of Blyleven, who in the previous election cycle had received just 23.5 percent of the vote. I also discussed the distinction between career and peak, though the rest of my rudimentary analysis is something of a mixed bag; I cited won-loss records and argued for Tommy John and Jim Kaat, but tabled an initially favorable discussion of Morris until his Win Shares were published and the underlying system critiqued.

In any event, Rich Lederer receives and deserves a lot of credit for the great work he did in advancing Blyleven's cause, but I take pride in having preceded even that effort, nine years and 10 election cycles ago, long before I came to Baseball Prospectus. I'm elated for Blyleven (whom I've never met), and happy I played a small role in convincing voters both directly and indirectly that Bert Belongs. Sabermetrics is the search for objective truth about baseball; those of us who backed Blyleven uncovered plenty of it over the last decade and turned what appeared to be a lost-cause candidacy into a successful one.

Blyleven's election should give hope for other candidates languishing further down on the ballot, starting with Tim Raines, who received exactly half of what he needs to gain entry, 37.5 percent. While it's disappointing that he's still not receiving his due as the fifth-best left fielder in baseball history, he received a 7.1 percent jump over 2010, this year's third-highest gain, and he's hardly whupped yet after four ballots. Bruce Sutter (27.5 percent), Duke Snider (26.6 percent), Blyleven (23.5 percent), and Bob Lemon (16.5 percent) all received considerably less love in their fourth-go rounds, yet rallied to gain entry via the BBWAA, with two of those four successes coming via the last six ballots. For those looking for a new cause célèbre, Raines is the obvious choice, and the bandwagon still has plenty of seats open.

Likewise Edgar Martinez, even though he actually lost a bit of ground this year, falling from 36.2 percent to 32.9 percent. He's about even with Gary Carter (33.8 percent) and Luis Aparicio (32.2 percent) as second-year candidates go, and ahead of Sutter, Don Drysdale, and Snider, who were all below 30 percent. Indeed, while I don't intend to partake in similar campaigns on behalf of second-year candidate Fred McGriff (17.9 percent) or first-year candidate Larry Walker (20.3 percent) unless JAWS can convince me that they're similarly worthy, the chilly initial reception that Blyleven, Snider, and Drysdale received (21 percent or less in their first year) or that Blyleven (14.1 percent) and Lemon (12.0 percent) got in their second years means that it ain't over 'tll it's over even for them.

Further up the ballot, Barry Larkin posted the cycle's second-largest gain, adding 10.5 percent on top of his already-strong debut (51.6 percent) to reach 62.1 percent and put him within immediate striking distance of the Hall. There's an easy parallel to make between him and Ryne Sandberg, who received 61.1 percent of the vote in his second try and proceeded to sail in the following year. While Sandberg had the potential impediment of 3,000 Hit Club member Wade Boggs' first year of eligibility to contend with—those wily voters sometimes like to keep the stage clear, see—Larkin won't have anyone who could potentially outshine him joining the ranks; the top candidate hitting the ballot next year is Bernie Williams, who's  hardly a lock to gain entry at all, let alone in his first year. The fear of the BBWAA otherwise pitching a shutout could motivate holdout voters to tilt in favor of Larkin, who's overly qualified both on the traditional merits and the JAWS ones.

More ambiguous is the news for Jack Morris. Despite a considerable amount of noise from the "you had to be there" crowd frustrated by Blyleven's advancement and clinging to a narrative which privileges Morris' greatness in one game ahead of entire bodies of work, he gained just 1.2 percent to finish with 53.5 percent on his 12th turn. With a stronger showing, he too could have seized upon the dearth of qualified new candidates next year, but with just three strikes remaining, he's in trouble given the impending arrivals of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Sammy Sosa, Curt Schilling, and Craig Biggio (2013) and Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas, Tom Glavine, Jeff Kent, and Mike Mussina (2014). In Morris' favor is the fact that with the exception of Gil Hodges, every other player who's topped 50 percent on the ballot at any time has gotten in eventually, either via the writers or the Veterans Committee.

Also stagnating is Lee Smith, who lost two percent to fall to 45.3 percent instead of crossing that all-important 50 percent rubicon in his ninth year of eligibility. Among other ninth-year candidates, the lowest mark of anyone who got in is Sutter, who at 50.4 percent was just on the other side of the line; seven other players with lower voting percentages gained entry via the Veterans Committee.

Receiving the top percentage of any newcomer on the ballot, albeit considerably less than his case should have netted on merit, is Jeff Bagwell at 41.7 percent. As noted before, Bagwell rates as the fourth-best first baseman of all time according to JAWS, but any real consideration of his accomplishments was drowned out by a dismaying level of innuendo connecting him to the usage of performance-enhancing drugs, this despite the fact that he never tested positive, never was linked to a PED-related investigation, didn't turn up in the Mitchell Report, and wasn't leaked as one of the 104 supposedly anonymous positives from the survey test. Instead of his being presumed innocent in the absence of any credible proof, some voters judged him guilty by chronological association with PED-linked teammates (Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Ken Caminiti) and competitors, a shortcoming that says more about those voters' own shortcomings of character than it does of his. It's as though Bagwell woke up one morning having turned into the waterboy for the collective failure of the players' union, the owners, the commissioner and the media to address the problem coherently while he was still active.

Be that as it may, Bagwell's debut showing is actually a rather solid one; no less than 14 players have debuted with less than 50 percent and gained election via the BBWAA, 10 of them with percentages significantly lower (Rich Gossage, at 33.3 percent, leads that group). Hoyt Wilhelm got 41.7 percent in his debut as well, and Sandberg, Andre Dawson, and Carter all received slightly higher percentages and then got in. If there's a cautionary tale, it's that of Steve Garvey, who received 41.6 percent in his first try and then vacillated between the high 30s and low 40s before falling into the 20s after a decade on the ballot.

Among the 19 newcomers, only two others even received enough votes to come back for a second try, suggesting that the BBWAA needs to winnow the field more efficiently prior to sending off the ballots. Forget Lenny Harris (I already have), there's not a whole lot of constructive purpose for crowding the ballot with guys like Carlos Baerga and Raul Mondesi and Bobby Higginson whose careers were once so full of promise but who flamed out spectacularly, well short of Cooperstown standards. The two newcomers who received enough votes to come back for seconds are the ones who are probably the least welcome to the party, the PED-connected Rafael Palmeiro (11 percent) and Juan Gonzalez (5.2). The former sounded about as humbled and conciliatory as he ever has since testing positive for steroids when he told SI.com's Mel Antonen:

"I hear some voters talk about how they'll probably vote for Barry Bonds because he was a Hall of Famer before he (allegedly) took steroids... Well, why can't they do the same thing for me? I had one bad mistake at the end of my career.

"Voters are putting too much weight on the one incident... I wish they would look at my whole career. If they want, why don't they use throw out the last season of my career? I would still have Hall of Fame numbers.''

"I had one bad mistake" is as close as Palmeiro's ever come to taking responsibility for his positive test, which almost counts for something until one considers that the saga is about more than just "one incident." It's a tragic fall in three acts, from the finger wag in front of Congress, to the test itself, to the deflection of the blame to teammate Miguel Tejada for supplying an allegedly tainted supplement. In any case, his future on the ballot doesn't look bright, but it's still brighter than that of Gonzalez, who with one fewer vote would have fallen off completely—a shocking fate for a two-time MVP regardless of the merits of those particular wins. Elsewhere in the PED Zone ($1 to Buster Olney), even an outright admission of use didn't help Mark McGwire, who saw his share of the vote slip from 23.7 percent to 19.8 percent.

As for the rest of the bunch, the only one qualified according to JAWS is Alan Trammell, whose 24.3 percent is still less than one-third of what he needs, but who nonetheless gained 1.9 percent to reach his highest level in 10 years on the ballot. The sad fact is that nobody who's been this low this late in the game has gotten in by any method; VC selections Bill Mazeroski (30.3 percent), Phil Rizzuto (32.3 percent), and Red Schoendienst (34.3 percent) are the lowest of the modern voting era.

Two holdovers dropped off the ballot in Dave Parker, whose 15-year eligibility ran out with his receiving just 15.3 percent, and Harold Baines, who after four years of barely clinging to the ballot around six percent lost a handful of votes and fell to 4.8 percent. Two more appear destined to remain in sub-20 percent purgatory for the rest of their times on the ballot, namely Don Mattingly (13.6 percent in his 11th year) and Dale Murphy (12.6 percent in his 13th year).

Of the newcomers who won't be invited back, John Franco (4.6 percent) fell just three votes shy. That wasn't terribly surprising except that he beat out Kevin Brown (2.1 percent) and John Olerud (0.7 percent), two players whose sorta-close-but-no-cigar JAWS showings and one-and-done ballots were prefigured by those of David Cone, Dwight Gooden, and Orel Hershiser on the one hand, and Will Clark on the other. Twelve other newcomers combined to receive just 18 total votes, with ESPN editor Barry Stanton alone responsible for two of the more bizarre ones in B.J. Surhoff and Tino Martinez, along with more understandable votes for Edgar Martinez, Mattingly, and Morris.

Those are the 2011 results, and unless you're hankering for more chatter and patter from me, it's time to pack up this tent after devoting some 24,000 words to the topic over the past two exhausting and exhilarating weeks. On the heels of my own election to the BBWAA—no, I don't have a Hall vote for another 10 years—this has been by far the most rewarding of the JAWS series I've written in terms of a direct dialogue with voters and a feeling that at least some of what I've spent the past eight or nine years saying about these candidates is sinking in.

Hell, when you awake on New Year's Day and find that a shout-out from Joe Posnanski cuts through your hangover like a knife through butter, or find that writers you've occasionally exalted (or in your weaker moments, mocked) are suddenly following you or even debating you on Twitter, you realize you're no longer on the sidelines of this great debate, you're fully in the fray.

Thank you, one and all, for your support in getting to that point. 

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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