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January 9, 2014

A Vote for Transparency

How Secret Ballots Skewed the Hall of Fame Election Results

by Lewie Pollis

Lewie Pollis is a senior at Brown University and a former baseball analytics intern for the Cleveland Indians. He also writes for ESPN Insider. Follow him on Twitter @LewsOnFirst.


The year was 2011. I was a green-behind-the-ears aspiring sabermetrician who would pore over every little piece of baseball-related data I could get my hands on in an attempt to better familiarize myself with the numbers. So as I sat on a Greyhound bus with nothing better to do on a dreary January afternoon, I found myself looking over some pre-announcement ballot counters for the newly minted Cooperstown class of 2011.

As my gaze moved back and forth between the spreadsheets and the fogged-up bus window, I gradually came to a realization: the writers who made their Hall of Fame ballots public had voted differently than those who kept their choices secret. Not only that, but from my perspective, those who opened up about their picks had voted more correctly than those who remained anonymous. This phenomenon occurred again in 2012, and then again in 2013.

Now that the 2014 results have been released, we’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that the influence of secret ballots on the Hall of Fame vote seems to be smaller than it was last year. The bad news is that secret balloting still very much matters, and this year it actually seems to have made a difference in the results.

Last year on its website the BBWAA posted a list of every voter who made his or her ballot public shortly after the results were announced, but as of this writing they have not yet done so. Instead, I copied down the last pre-announcement vote totals from Baseball Think Factory’s HOF Ballot Collecting Gizmo and leokitty’s collection of ballots few minutes after the results were announced; using these lists of ballots instead of the BBWAA’s is not ideal for this exercise, since Baseball Think Factory does not list individual ballots and leokitty does not have listed sources for all of hers, but since the two had virtually identical results they seemed like acceptable alternatives. I used Baseball Think Factory’s numbers for this analysis because its Ballot Collecting Gizmo had more ballots (205 ballots to 184).

In the 2014 Hall of Fame vote, 22 players received at least seven votes—we’ll call them the serious candidates for induction. Extrapolating the results for anonymous voters from the full results and the Ballot Collecting Gizmo, here’s how the two groups voted on the serious candidates:

A few quick observations:

  • If everyone had voted like the public voters, Craig Biggio would have been elected to the Hall of Fame this year.
  • If everyone had voted like the public voters, Rafael Palmeiro would still be on the ballot for 2015.
  • Assuming no public voter cast his ballot for a candidate who finished below Palmeiro, but counting private balloters who did, those who opened up about their votes checked off 0.7 more names than their more secretive peers, with an average of 8.84 votes per ballot compared to 8.14.
  • Anonymous voters were almost twice as likely to vote against Frank Thomas, more than twice as likely to vote against Tom Glavine, and more than eight times as likely to vote against Greg Maddux as those who owned up to their ballots.
  • Secret balloters were more than twice as likely to vote for Don Mattingly.
  • Jack Morris beat Mike Piazza among private voters.
  • Despite finishing higher than they in the total vote, Lee Smith finished behind Curt Schilling, Edgar Martinez, and Mike Mussina on publicly listed ballots. However, he beat all three of them as well as Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds among anonymous voters.

The good news is that the differences between public and private voters’ support for players are generally smaller than they have been in the past. The 12-point gap between Bonds’ public and private vote shares is the largest on this year’s ballot, but it would have ranked sixth-largest in 2013. We saw a full 16-point differential for Jeff Bagwell last year; now that gap is statistically insignificant. Perhaps most impressive is that the ever-polarizing Morris, who fared 11 points better with anonymous voters than with public voters in 2013, got identical support from both groups this year.

But that the situation has improved does not mean it has been fixed. As you can see, some of the gaps are so large as to be statistically significant, meaning we can say with a high degree of confidence that the two groups of voters were truly evaluating the candidates differently. We can say with greater than 99-percent confidence that Bonds, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina, and Thomas were evaluated more skeptically by those who kept their ballots secret, and we can be at least 95 percent certain that Smith, Piazza, Clemens, Glavine, Mattingly, and Maddux were considered differently by the two groups.

Though the pattern is less pronounced than it has been in years past, at first glance it also appears that there is a relationship between how deserving a player is of enshrinement and how much more support he received from the public voters than from the private voters. Each of the top five finishers received significantly more support from the open writers than the anonymous ones, and five of the six serious candidates whom the latter group liked more than the former finished in the bottom seven. Put it another way: 15 of the 19 candidates for whom I would have voted in a no-maximum ballot got more support from the public crowd, but none of the three I would have left off (Morris, Mattingly, and Kent) did.

It turns out this relationship is more than just anecdotal. The correlation between the voting discrepancies and Jay Jaffe’s JAWS scores is 0.64, with a 0.62 correlation between the public-private gaps and Adam Darowski’s Hall Ratings; assuming these are good proxies for Hall of Fame candidates’ worthiness, approximately 40 percent of the variation in how the two groups of writers voted for each candidate can be explained by how deserving he was of enshrinement.

I don’t think the relationship is entirely causal. Despite my having been overly dismissive of the idea in years past, I think it’s fair to say that the writers whose ballots have not been revealed are more likely both to be retired and to think about the game in terms of older and more subjective measures that those of us in the sabermetric community do not consider. (Not that I’m advocating for pure objectivity in the Hall of Fame conversations. After all, when I was filling out my ballot for a mock vote last week, I almost checked the box for Eric Gagne.) But to some degree, I think there is some not-insignificant number of voters who do not take their ballots as seriously as they should because they know their names will not be attached to them.

Take Greg Maddux. There is no good reason why he should not be in the Hall of Fame. (If you have one, tell me. I’d actually be very interested to hear it.) Unless you were to leave him off your ballot because you knew he was getting in and you wanted to use your 10th vote on someone for whom it would matter more, there is no excuse for not checking his name. Yet while only one writer admitted to not voting for him, 15 voters did under the cover of anonymity. Would all 15 nameless naysayers have voted for Maddux if their names were on their ballots? Probably not. But surely a few of them would have voted differently if not for their anonymity.

The story of the lone named Maddux denier is instructive. In case you haven’t heard, it was MLB.com Dodgers beat reporter Ken Gurnick who owned up to checking Morris’ name and no one else’s. It’s not worth pointing the flaws in his argument or the double-standards of his own voting record because the rest of the blogosphere already has ad nauseum, and that wave of mean-spirited criticism is probably part of why Gurnick has said he will never vote for the Hall of Fame again. It’s unfortunate that he’s been so bullied for his opinion, but if you take away the malice, that’s exactly what is supposed to happen. If a professional sportswriter cannot satisfactorily defend his opinions about the game he covers, he or she deserves to be challenged on it.

There is no reason that revealing one’s ballot should not be mandatory for all voters. I don’t think all or even most of the BBWAA veterans who did not reveal their ballots publicly failed to do so because they were embarrassed about their choices, but if even a few did, that is unacceptable. Voting for the Hall of Fame is a privilege, not a right, and if you make a living writing about baseball and you are incapable of convincingly arguing for your choices and snubs, you voted wrong.

In a world in which writers had to make their ballots public, Craig Biggio would probably get to stand with Maddux, Glavine, and Thomas on the Cooperstown steps in July. Protecting the identities of the people who snubbed him—many of whom will probably end up voting for him next year—is not reason enough to keep him out.

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

Related Content:  Hall Of Fame,  Bbwaa,  Secret Ballot

22 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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jnossal

Gurnick is an idiot who deserved every bit of that criticism and who ought to have had his ballot taken away if didn't already surrender it voluntarily.

This analysis is a very good argument for making all of the ballots public. That might make some people uncomfortable, but the fact is HOF voting is too high a privilege to give voters an opportunity to engage in personal crusades. They ought to be held accountable, just as Gurnick was, and if they can't handle the criticism, they can give up their ballot, just like he did.

Jan 08, 2014 15:27 PM
rating: 11
 
pft1957
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His was one of the best ballots out there, maybe more BBWAA writers should do the same/

Jan 08, 2014 19:53 PM
rating: -10
 
jnossal

Gurnick does deserve credit for making his ballot public and explaining his reasoning.

I think the fact that he offered to surrender his future ballots though says a lot about his convictions. Why would you give up your ballot if you genuinely thought you were doing the right thing? If he can't deal with the attention or the criticism that his principled stand will attract, then I agree that he shouldn't have a ballot.

Jan 09, 2014 07:36 AM
rating: 5
 
Probably Handsome

The last thing that I needed at this moment in time was more reason to dislike the voting process and results of the recent Hall of Fame voting. Still, I found this to be a great article. Thanks… kind of.

Jan 08, 2014 15:42 PM
rating: 4
 
rofldude

I would be curious to hear the arguments in support of voting for a player like J.T. Snow, Jacque Jones, or Armando Benitez. What a travesty.

Jan 09, 2014 04:00 AM
rating: 5
 
antonsirius

Those, to me, were more outrageous than Gurnick's submission. In previous years, I could shrug off some local beat writer throwing a token vote at a player who was nice to them that one time on the writer's first road trip, because what else were they going to do with it?

But in a year as crowded with viable candidates as this one, a vote for a player like Jacque Jones is basically an admission that you don't take your ballot seriously.

Jan 09, 2014 12:27 PM
rating: 10
 
dbiester

Trying to remember my high school chemistry and significant digits -- if the threshold is 75% -- not 75.0 or 75.00 -- and the vote total is 74.8, shouldn't that round to 75% and get Biggio in? In all likelihood he just has to wait another year, but it could matter for someone for real. I am sure the Defenders of the Hall and Running around the Bases the RIGHT way after a Home Run would never let anyone get in with only 74.8% because it's NOT 75 DUH!

Jan 09, 2014 06:12 AM
rating: -3
 
jnossal

No, because we are dealing with a precise number of ballots and votes; there is no uncertainty in the totals. Therefore it is unnecessary to specify significant digits, either the total is 75%+ or it is not.

Jan 09, 2014 07:20 AM
rating: 4
 
dbiester

Right, there's no imprecision in the determination of how many ballots were cast or received. Thanks.

Jan 09, 2014 07:47 AM
rating: 0
 
Martinique

Thanks to jnossal for clearing this up already, but I'm reminded of how Jerome Holtzman whined for years on this very same basis after Nellie Fox fell a vote or two short in his last year on the ballot (74.7% in his case). Evidently, he'd failed to read the sentence in every HoF election article that read "75% of the vote, or NNN ballots, were required for election." Not Jerome's best moment.

Jan 09, 2014 08:57 AM
rating: 0
 
Tarakas

Once, long ago, it made sense for baseball writers to determine who goes into the Hall of Fame. We live in a very different world now, and it is clear that it no longer makes sense for them to be the sole gatekeepers of the hall.

Nice article, BTW.

Jan 09, 2014 06:32 AM
rating: 6
 
maphal

I've always felt that we should be EVERY player in the HOF and instead vote players out. See ya, Cap Anson!

Jan 09, 2014 10:09 AM
rating: 0
 
cordially
(917)

I dunno. Your argument seems to rest on the fact that "those who opened up about their picks had voted more correctly..." As I see it, your evidence points to the fact that peer pressure swayed voters minds, which I don't think is a good thing. You need to divorce consideration about the process from the results. Imagine the results had been in the opposite direction. Would you then be in favor of making the process less public?

Jan 09, 2014 10:27 AM
rating: 1
 
kcboomer

I enjoy seeing who voted for whom and why. I can understand what some writers might not want to publish their ballot. Considering the brutalization that Gurnick received I will be surprised if more voters done keep their ballot to themselves.

I am really opposed to giving voters more slots on their ballot. What we need is an electorate that understands they need to identify the qualified candidates on the ballot and to vote for them in the descending sequence of their qualification.

The HoF needs to get over this strictly BBWAA thing anyway. They need to get rid of the dead wood in that group (yes, Murray Chass I am talking about you) and replace them with guys who know the game (Bill James, Rob Neyer, etc.)

Jan 09, 2014 11:54 AM
rating: 4
 
amazin_mess

In the last few years, the BBWAA has made the story about them and not the greatest baseball players in history. And the HOF seems fine with that.

Jan 09, 2014 13:11 PM
rating: 6
 
ofMontreal

What's up with the Lee Smith contingent? Over 9% difference? I wish there were other closers on there so we could see if the wind always blows that way.

Jan 09, 2014 15:23 PM
rating: 0
 
Noel Steere
(965)

I think this article is confusing correlation with causation. It's just as likely that the secret ballot group is made up of older, less technically (and sabermetrically) savvy voters who aren't hiding their votes from the disinfectant of sunshine that is public scrutiny, but just can't be bothered with modern doo-dads on the Intertubes. So making their votes public wouldn't change them, it would just give the Snarkverse more sustinance.

IHMO, 15 years is a *really* long time to get to 75%, and the backlog we have right now will take about five years to clear up. I see five guys in the next two years that will get in, four on the first ballot (Johnson, Pedro, Smoltz, Griffey; Sheffield eventually), so only one extra player will be in limbo come 2017, less if Biggio gets in on one of those two ballots.

This looks more like a bulge than a trend, so I think expanding the number of votes beyond 10 will look silly after this wave of extraordinary talent gets in. A legitimate concern is players who would otherwise be considered falling off the ballot because of so many inner circle types getting votes these next few years, so I'd remove the 5% requirement, or shrink it to 1%, or have a review panel decide which players below 5% can stay on (similar to the panel that decides who gets on the ballot in the first place)

Jan 09, 2014 21:45 PM
rating: 0
 
rofldude

MLB should take a look at the way the NFL structures it's HOF process and come up with something similar. Reducing the size of the voting population to the same level as the NFL would almost certainly eliminate those who aren't doing their due diligence, and those writers with a personal agenda.

Jan 10, 2014 04:29 AM
rating: 0
 
bhalpern

Agree. There are still 'advocates' for candidates in the NFL process, but those people have to go into a room and make their argument to the rest of the voters. The group can then debate the merits of the argument.

Jan 10, 2014 07:04 AM
rating: 0
 
drawbb

No, it won't. I believe Bill James also covered this point in his HOF books. The smaller the number of members voting, the more mathematically likely it is that one or two bad apples influence the outcome.

He demonstrates quite convincingly that the far smaller size of the various incarnations of the Veterans' Committee was one of the chief reasons they've been responsible for most of the truly awful selections in the Hall. In other words, it's a lot easier to logroll 15-20 other voters than it is to do so with 600 voters.

Besides, the absolute last thing this sport needs is to emulate yet ANOTHER thing the NFL does.

Jan 10, 2014 23:20 PM
rating: 4
 
pepper
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One modest defense of Ken Gurnick's vote:
If you're trying to magnify the value of your vote statically, then listing fewer players on your ballot makes it more likely your candidate will reach the 75% plateau, since it reduces the overall number of votes. In other words, if you're sure Maddux, et.al. will make it without your vote and you want to give your candidate a little extra push, this strategy makes sense. Had a couple of writers left the three winners off their ballots, knowing that they were in anyway, and voted only for Biggio, he'd probably have gotten in. As it was, their votes for Maddux et.al. may have cost Biggio entry this year, even though they included Biggio on their ballots.

Jan 10, 2014 13:05 PM
rating: -4
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Maybe you're making a "modest proposal" joke, but if not, the denominator used to determine the candidate's percentage is the number of ballots, not the number of filled ballot slots, so it doesn't work this way.

Jan 10, 2014 16:05 PM
 
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