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January 10, 2012

Prospectus Hit and Run

Barry, Black Jack, and the Big Ballot Surges

by Jay Jaffe

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That Barry Larkin is headed to Cooperstown is not the big surprise of the 2012 Hall of Fame voting, the results of which were announced on Monday afternoon. As the top holdover (he received 62.1 percent of the vote last year) on a ballot with no overwhelming first-time candidates, and a deserving candidate on both the traditional and sabermetric fronts, he was well-positioned to close the deal. With 86.4 percent of the vote, he cleared the 75 percent bar easily, and will join the family of Ron Santo at the induction ceremony on July 22, 2012.

The inevitability of Larkin's election—for which hearty congratulations are in order, lest anyone think I'm downplaying it—shouldn't obscure the vote’s real surprises: The surges in the percentages of the four next-highest candidates. Jack Morris, whose 53.5 percent last year represented a gain of just 1.2 percentage points over his 2010 mark, pushed forward to 66.7 percent in his 13th year of eligibility. Jeff Bagwell, who debuted at 41.7 percent last year amid a whisper campaign pertaining to suspicions about his connection to performance-enhancing drugs, rose to 56.0 percent. Lee Smith, who spent his first nine years on the ballot riding a rollercoaster between 36.6 percent and 47.3 percent, crossed the 50 percent barrier for the first time, and finished at 50.6 percent. Tim Raines, who in his fourth year on the ballot received exactly half the support needed at 37.5 percent, made a double-digit percentage gain to 48.7 percent. All four now have plausible paths to plaques, which I’ll discuss momentarily. Even Alan Trammell, whose candidacy appeared dead on arrival with 24.3 percent in his 10th year, posted a double-digit gain to 36.8 percent, which may reanimate his candidacy.

At the other end of the spectrum, just one first-time candidate received the necessary 5.0 percent of the vote to earn another shot. That was Bernie Williams, whose 9.6 percent is at least a whole lot better than the three votes he received from among the 112 ballots published prior to the announcement. Those ballots, by the way, were collected as a yeoman service by Leonora Unser-Schutz (@leokitty on Twitter), an effort that was mocked by at least one voter last year but received the official BBWAA seal of approval this year. First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you, and eventually they retweet you.  

But I digress. Six first-timers—Jeromy Burnitz, Brian Jordan, Terry Mulholland, Phil Nevin, Ruben Sierra and Tony Womack—were shut out, as they should have been, since the only business they have with the Hall of Fame is whether their admission is full price. Javy Lopez and Eric Young each received one vote, Brad Radke two, Bill Mueller four, Tim Salmon five, and Vinny Castilla six. None of them will be on next year's ballot, and neither will Juan Gonzalez, glossy brochure and all; his support fell from 5.2 percent to 4.0 percent.

In the middle of the ballot, most of the returning candidates made slight gains, namely Rafael Palmeiro (from 11.0 to 12.6 percent in his second go-round), Dale Murphy (from 12.6 to 14.5 percent in his penultimate year as a candidate), Don Mattingly (from 13.6 to 17.8 percent, his highest showing since 2002), Larry Walker (from 20.3 to 22.9 percent in his second year), Fred McGriff (from 17.9 to 23.9 percent in his third year), and Edgar Martinez (from 32.9 to 36.5 percent in his third year, regaining the ground he lost last year). The only candidate besides Gonzalez who lost support was Mark McGwire, who dipped from 19.8 percent to 19.5 percent, and who still hasn't recovered the ground he lost after admitting to using steroids following the announcement of the 2010 voting results.

Though he has just two years remaining on the ballot, a flood of qualified newcomers against whom he must distinguish himself as he vies for limited space, and a case that's entirely overblown, Morris would appear to be a virtual lock to gain entry, though whether his advance is the effect of riding on Bert Blyleven’s coattails or a backlash against that effect is unclear. Either way, Gil Hodges is the only candidate to receive at least 60 percent of the BBWAA vote and never gain entry from either the writers or the Veterans Committee. He topped out at 63.4 percent in his final ballot, the third time he'd crossed the 60 percent line, but none of them consecutively. Several candidates of recent vintage took years to surpass "the Hodges Line" but gained entry soon afterward, reflecting the type of upward ballot momentum Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal described here—not exactly mob rule, but a certain type of peer pressure borne of not wanting to be the voter whose "no" freezes a player out of Cooperstown.

Recent examples of players quickly gaining entry once they cross the Hodges Line abound. Bruce Sutter jumped from 59.5 percent in 2004 to 66.7 percent in 2005 to 76.9 percent in 2006, his 13th year on the ballot. Rich Gossage received 64.6 percent that same year, and was in two years later, his ninth time on the ballot, at 85.8 percent. Jim Rice reached 63.5 percent in 2006 as well, and although it took him three years to make up the rest of the ground, he gained entry in his 15th and final year of eligibility. Blyleven surged from 62.7 percent in 2009 to 74.2 percent in 2010, then went over the top in 2011, his 14th year on the ballot. Further back—though still in the modern era of voting history, demarcated by when the BBWAA reverted to annual voting in 1966—Nellie Fox, Orlando Cepeda, Enos Slaughter, Red Ruffing, and Jim Bunning received at least 63.7 percent in their final year on the ballot, and eventually gained entry via the Veterans Committee. Suffice it to say that the Hall of Fame may as well begin casting Morris' plaque, because the question is when, not if, he'll gain entry.

Likewise, the news is very good for Bagwell… eventually. No candidate has ever received more than 48.3 percent in his second year on the ballot—that's Hodges’ vote total again—and not been elected via the BBWAA. Nonetheless, of those who received between 50 and 60 percent in their second year, the waiting time for entry wasn't insignificant. Harmon Killebrew (59.3 percent) was elected two years later, while Phil Niekro (59.9 percent) and Don Sutton (57.4 percent) took three more—and all three had "magic number" milestones, 500 homers in the Killer's case, and 300 wins in the cases of the two hurlers. On the other hand, both Tony Perez (55.1 percent) and Andre Dawson (50.0 percent), who lacked such round-numbered milestones, needed seven more years.

By clearing 50 percent in his 10th year, Smith suddenly has a fighting chance of gaining entry. With the exceptions of Hodges (59.6 percent) and Morris (44.0 percent), everybody with at least 36.3 percent in their 10th year has gotten in via either the BBWAA or the VC, though the ranks of the latter outnumber the former. Among BBWAA inductees, only Blyleven (47.7 percent) had a 10th year percentage lower than Smith, while Sutter, Rice, Bob Lemon, Duke Snyder, and Don Drysdale were all higher. Everyone else between Smith and Richie Ashburn (36.3 percent) who gained entry did so via the VC route.

Shift the timeframe one ballot year later, as is the case for Trammell, and the situation is less encouraging, though after I all but declared his candidacy dead last year, at least there's a flicker of life. He may have benefitted from the attention brought to Larkin. And though I had Trammell below the JAWS standard, other systems view his defense—and thus his candidacy—more favorably. Red Schoendienst (36.8 percent) and Bill Mazeroski (33.5 percent) received equal or lower totals in year 11 and gained entry via the VC. On the other hand, two other players in the neighborhood, Tony Oliva (40.7 percent) and Harvey Kuenn (34.9 percent) aren't in at all, and the low man to get in via the BBWAA was at 59.5 percent in year 11, that being Sutter.

Raines’ gains, which fall mainly on the plains, are more encouraging. When he debuted on the 2008 ballot, Rock received just 24.3 percent of the vote, and his support actually receded the following year, to 22.6 percent. His advances since then have been steady; his support has more than doubled, and his 11.2 percent jump this year was his largest yet. Again with the exception of Hodges, everybody with at least 40.7 percent of the vote in year five is in eventually. Furthermore, several BBWAA-elected Hall of Famers were in worse shape at that point: Sutter (31.1 percent), Snider (30.4 percent), Rice (29.4 percent), and Blyleven (26.3 percent). Rock’s path to glory remains long—that quartet averaged 13.25 years on the ballot—but again, Raines is in significantly better shape than those guys.

While Martinez’s stagnation—a net gain of 0.3 percent in two years—is disheartening, he isn't in bad shape, either. Among BBWAA-elected players, Sutter (29.1 percent), Snider (21.2 percent), Blyleven (17.4 percent), Lemon (16.6 percent), and Luis Aparicio (12.0 percent) were in far worse shape at this juncture. So were 10 VC choices, bounded by Ashburn (3.7 percent) and Johnny Mize (36.4 percent).

Back to Williams, a personal favorite. With a 54.0 WARP career mark, 40.3 peak, and 47.2 JAWS, he falls considerably short of the center-field standard (72.8/46.8/58.5), but there's an argument to be made for the value of his post-season work (.275/.371/.480 line with 22 homers in 545 PA) bridging the gap. Not that I'm the one making it—Joe Sheehan did, in our “Clubhouse Confidential” roundtable last Friday—but it's a reasonable one, and because of that, I'd rather see Williams stay on the ballot and be subject to further consideration. If Dave Parker and Dale Murphy can last for a combined 30 ballots without ever seriously threatening 30 percent, let alone 75—Parker fell off after last year, while Murphy guaranteed himself the opportunity to play out the string—I see no reason why Williams should be one-and-done.

Speaking of Willliams, the value of post-season performance, and the Yankee dynasty, over the weekend we learned that Jorge Posada will announce his retirement soon rather than search for a new team. Where Williams got a reasonably early start as a regular at 24, but was done as an effective player at age 33, Posada was a late bloomer who didn't make the team as a backup until age 25, and didn't start until age 26. He was still a marvelously productive hitter in his late 30s, hitting a combined .266/.360/.488 with 40 homers in 2009-2010. Among catchers with at least 7,000 plate appearances, he ranks fourth in OBP (.374) and sixth in SLG (.474), but that's partly a function of era and ballpark. His .290 True Average is essentially on par with the average among Hall catchers (.292), a figure that's as likely to come down due to Ivan Rodriguez (.265) as it is to rise due to Mike Piazza (.313) before Posada is too far along in his candidacy.

Posada (46.6/33.8/40.2) is closer to the JAWS standard at catcher (51.7/33.9/42.6) than Williams is in center, but his post-season line (.248/.358/.387 with 11 homers in 492 PA) isn't uniformly great; he had some stellar series (.296/.367/.556 in the 2003 ALCS) and some poor ones (.158/.333/.211 in that year's World Series). He finished higher in the MVP voting than Williams ever did—third in 2003, and sixth in 2007—and while he didn't have Bernie's Gold Gloves, FRAA doesn't ding him particularly hard for defense (-0.1 by my spreadsheet, nine runs below the average Hall of Fame backstop). But catcher defense is difficult to measure, and it's entirely possible that number will decrease between now and when he reaches the ballot if stuff like Mike Fast's groundbreaking work is incorporated into WARP. However, one really can't use it to make historical comparisons against players whose careers entirely predated PITCHf/x. As I've said several times over the years, Posada’s shot at Cooperstown depended upon him remaining productive throughout his contract and perhaps playing past 40, and alas, he did not. But like the similarly patient and tenacious Williams, the advantages he provided as a potent up-the-middle talent were significant, and they're a reason so many world championship banners wave in the Bronx.

Posada’s candidacy is a problem for 2017, and those of us in the Hall of Fame racket figure to have our hands plenty full before then. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Piazza, and Curt Schilling reach the ballot next year. All of them would be serious candidates were there no PED issues to consider, but of course, there are, and the forecast calls for a whole lot of ill-tempered debate and bloviating from certain fronts, not that I’m not trying to keep a cool head. Hell, I’ve already written a JAWS-flavored chapter in our forthcoming Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers about the PED-related implications of the upcoming ballots, and I’ll be on “Clubhouse Confidential” on Tuesday evening talking about the highlights of the forthcoming slate, which also includes lesser lights like Kenny Lofton, David Wells, and Julio Franco.

 As we turn our attention to counting the days until pitchers and catchers report, I’ve still got one or two more JAWS-flavored articles up my sleeve, but I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of you for your support this voting season. To my delight, JAWS continues to gain acceptance, and after nine laps through the ballot, I’ve lost none of my enthusiasm for the topic, mainly because you haven’t either. Yakking about the Hall of Fame is what gets us through the bleak first half of the winter, and until scientists figure out how to put us in suspended animation from around November 1 to February 15, it will remain one of the more pleasurable pastimes in which we can partake. So again, thank you for reading and for continuing to ask questions, because that’s what makes this job so much damn fun.  

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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