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December 12, 2013

Skewed Left

A Cooperstown Party Like it's 1999

by Zachary Levine

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It was probably my favorite story idea that I’ve come up with in the 13 months I’ve been working at Baseball Prospectus, in part because it was so original. In the wake of the election of zero living Hall-of-Famers for the 2013 induction class, when everyone was writing about what a travesty this was for the Hall, I told Ben Lindbergh I was going to write about the tragedy for the village of Cooperstown.

It was an original idea until it was already written even before the vote. Until the story of one of my favorite places in the world, just 70 miles from my own hometown, was so well told months later that there was nothing left to say. Until business honchos in the village were apparently changing their answering machine messages to preempt the questions about the death of a yearly tradition of late July.

So I didn’t write the story, but to be honest, I never really bought the sentiment either. I understand the problem of backlogs and why it might take longer to clear the backlog in the BBWAA than it did to create the backlog. However, last year was always going to be an off year. Either people, preferably even living people, were going to start getting elected or the rules were going to change. The 10-vote-per-ballot limit is an obvious place to start – I’d probably advocate voting for 14 or 15 this year, and that’s being fairly conservative. The word out of the BBWAA meeting during Winter Meetings in Orlando is that the association is creating a committee to look at the Hall of Fame voting.

Anyway, one year later, we’re going to be wondering where to put all the people.

Thanks to the Veterans Committee falling on the triennial “Expansion Era” cycle, where people of similar talent to their predecessors are freed from the erosion of time and the idea that the best guys from the past would be in already is gone, this class is shaping up to be wonderful.

Joe Torre, who as a player didn’t miss by all that much, joins Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox in a group of managers that combined to win 7,558 games.

Greg Maddux is the likeliest candidate to go in as a player, and will be the best pitcher inducted into the Hall of Fame in more than 20 years (and if you think he was better than 1992 inductee Tom Seaver, then you’re going back to the 1940s.)

Craig Biggio could go too in his second shot, which would give the Hall the first 3000-hit/300-win combo going in the same year since the Nolan Ryan/George Brett/Robin Yount Class of 1999. Jack Morris could join him in his 15th and final attempt.

On the periphery, there’s a writer of national prominence in Roger Angell—the most celebrated Spink Award winner in years, and the most well known since Peter Gammons in 2004. And a local legend in Frick Award winner Eric Nadel, who has represented North Texas for five-sixths of Major League Baseball’s time in existence there.

This isn’t comparable to the first class—the museum’s opening with Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson—but a year after the death of the Hall of Fame, in part thanks to where we fall in the VC cycle, the Hall will bounce back with its best class in years.

How many years?

It’s the best class since 1999: The aforementioned group not only had Ryan and Brett topping 98 percent of the vote, it also got Yount, Orlando Cepeda, Negro Leaguer Cyclone Joe Williams, umpire Nestor Chylak, and 19th-century manager Frank Selee.

It’s the best class since 1982: Think Ryan was a little overrated as a headliner? Maybe you like the 1982 class that featured a couple of guys in the innermost circle, with Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson plus commissioner Happy Chandler and 1920s and ’30s shortstop Travis Jackson. That year also featured dual Spink winners and Ernie Harwell winning the Frick Award.

It’s the best class since the 1940s: You’d really have to put the managers on pretty equal terms with players here to put this class up against those from the formative years. I can see the argument for three of the top five managers in wins being an all-timer, though.

I tend to think it’s “only” the best since 1999, especially if the BBWAA voters elect Maddux alone, but with a couple of extras, this could be one of the most memorable inductions ever.

Biggio looks good. Jay Jaffe, in his analysis of Biggio’s candidacy, broke down how little elbow grease it takes to get from his debut vote of 68.2 percent to the necessary 75 percent:

(T)he voting history shows that candidates who debut with between 60 and 74.9 percent of the vote don’t have to wait long to be elected. The seven previous first-timers who fell in that range between 1966 and 2013 gained an average of 10.3 percentage points in their second year, with only one — Phil Niekro — losing ground. Five of those seven (Roberto Alomar, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Carlton Fisk and Rollie Fingers) topped 75 percent in year two. Gaylord Perry had to wait until year three, while Niekro needed until his fifth year of eligibility to gain entry.

As for Morris’ last dance, I looked at the Year 15 bump last year. Players going from their second-to-last to their last ballot average a bump upward of 3.5 percentage points. However, the bump is much larger for players who are close in Year 15, like Morris, who got 67.7 percent last year. His momentum—which has carried him from 22 percent in his debut—is slowing, though, with only a one percentage point increase last year, making 2014 seem a little more difficult.

And as for the rest, while ballot debutants Frank Thomas and Tom Glavine and several others are deserving of their place someday, it’s going to be awfully difficult to navigate the backlog and the bias against first-time candidates.

If Biggio and Morris get in, then not only is this an all-time sort of class that will render the Morris controversy a sideshow on induction day, but it will also be a class that has both wide reach and deep penetration into one market.

Not even counting the teams that the elected managers played for, half the teams in baseball will be able to claim a Hall-of-Famer in 2014, giving this class the widest appeal in years. In addition, even if there’s no Glavine, Atlantans would have the same claim to this ceremony that Philadelphians had in 1995 with Richie Ashburn and Mike Schmidt and that New Yorkers did when Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle went in together in 1974. The following from across the Deep South, plus Maddux and Cox’s recognition to a nation of Braves fans in the Superstation era could make for a much better scenario for local business.

The BBWAA vote could still turn out to be disappointing, and the backlog will remain an issue for years, but one year after the biggest crisis in the Hall of Fame’s existence, the last weekend in July offers a lot to look forward to.

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,  Cooperstown

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