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December 4, 2012

Skewed Left

Could We See a Blank Hall of Fame Ballot in 2013?

by Zachary Levine

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Before thinking about the awkwardness that the next Hall of Fame ceremony could unleash on the baseball world, we’ll think first of Sal’s Pizzeria and Nicoletta’s, the Cooperstown haunts that need that weekend a lot more than we do.

They won’t be ruined by an induction weekend where a steroid user gets a key to the somewhat sacrosanct halls of 25 Main Street. What will hurt them is the lack of visitors that would follow the very realistic scenario of the BBWAA turning in a collectively blank ballot with none of the 37 candidates reaching 75 percent of the votes on the individual ballot.

It would lead to a type of induction ceremony not seen since 1965, when Pud Galvin was a class unto himself and also 63 years grave-bound. Though three worthy candidates were granted admission by the Veterans Committee on Monday, all three of them have been deceased since the 1930s, meaning that a blank BBWAA ballot would make for the first induction weekend since Galvin’s without a living inductee.

National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum president Jeff Idelson acknowledged that this was a possibility but not a devastating one to him.

“At the end of the day you want your election process to be that: an election process and not an appointment,” Idelson said. “What’s most important to us is the integrity of the process.”

It’s a two-part process that began Monday with the election of three figures from the pre-integration era. With 12 votes necessary for induction, Jacob Ruppert received 15 of 16 votes on the strength of his tenure as Yankees owner that featured the acquisition of Babe Ruth and the building of the real Yankee Stadium. Long-serving National League umpire Hank O’Day also received 15 votes, while (notably barehanded) catcher and third baseman Deacon White, who played from 1871-90, received 14.

That was the easy part. Now comes the loud part, as the BBWAA pores over the ballot sent to them with intentionally vague language, some statistics, and a lot of pressure and anticipation.

The best hope to prevent an empty stage would be Jack Morris on his 14th of 15 tries. He won’t get the do-or-die boost that next year’s inclusion would bring, but his candidacy has taken a pretty nice trajectory toward 75 percent. He dipped after 2006 and has been on the increase since:

2007: 37.1%
2008: 42.9%
2009: 44.0%
2010: 52.3%
2011: 53.5%
2012: 66.7%

The 2013 ballot debutant Craig Biggio is the second favorite for induction, and while Mike Piazza could have a strong debut and Jeff Bagwell has progressed up to 56 percent and enters his third ballot, no other candidate has much of a shot to emerge from a bizarrely aligned set of circumstances. There’s a crowded ballot, omnipresent drug questions, and a deep divide in the candidacy of the favorite whose numbers don’t stack up for some but whose postseason highlights and durability are enough for others.

The funny part of a potential BBWAA goose egg is that this is the deepest ballot in recent memory. There is a statistical argument to make that Biggio, who reached the generally potent 3,000 hits milestone, is the 11th-most-deserving player on the ballot. (He’s seventh on the ballot according to WARP, but Baseball-Reference’s WAR has him 11th and Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system ranks him tied for 10th/11th.) Beyond the stats, voters may hold a first-ballot bias, drug suspicion, or just simply run out of room before they get to him. The rules imposed on the BBWAA voters limits each to 10 names, and Idelson is in no hurry to change that even with what next year potentially looks like.

“Ten is a lot,” Idelson said. “It’s a lot of votes. It’s 25 percent of what’s traditionally on a ballot.”

As has been much discussed, including by Dave Cameron in his plea to expand the ballot, should the BBWAA fail to elect anybody this year, next year’s ballot is a total mess for any writer inclined to vote only on performance lines. Never mind the fact that Morris would be a near-lock to make it in his last year of eligibility. A statistics-minded voter picking a different 10 for his or her ballot—let’s say 2014 virgins Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Mike Mussina and Frank Thomas, plus Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Jeff Bagwell, Curt Schilling, Tim Raines and Edgar Martinez—would have to leave off Biggio, Piazza, Sammy Sosa, Jeff Kent, Alan Trammell, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, Larry Walker and Kenny Lofton (if the underappreciated case of Lofton even surpasses the five percent necessary to stay on the ballot this year). Maddux and Glavine would get in, but everyone else could be lost in a math problem that shows no signs of ending.

A BBWAA election this year that yields no Hall of Famer might be closer to an accurate view of players’ candidacies than a ballot that yields only Morris, as electing Morris would significantly lower the bar for entry if precedent is to be considered. However, a blank ballot could be a bigger disaster for the Writers Association and the Hall.

It would mean an even bigger backlog of candidates next year, and the possibility of the loudest calls yet for overhauling the process or for the need for the Hall to step in. And worst of all, an emptiness muting what is supposed to be a joyous celebration next July.

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

Related Content:  Hall Of Fame,  Induction,  Voting,  Ballot

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