July 28, 2014
The HOF Rule Change
What Happens After 10 Years?
On Saturday, the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame made its most significant rule change to Hall of Fame voting rules in nearly 30 years, reducing the amount of time a candidate can spend on the ballot from 15 years to 10.
How would this change have impacted earlier Hall of Fame candidates? Would reducing the eligibility requirement from 15 years to 10 years have eliminated worthy candidates for the Hall? Is this change relevant to the Hall of Fame landscape now?
In order to examine this change, I went through every Hall of Fame election from 1949 to the present and looked at candidates who were on the ballot for 11 years or more and had received at least five percent of the vote throughout their first 10 years of eligibility. 1949 was chosen because it was the first year that any candidate had 11 or more years of eligibility (the Hall of Fame did not hold elections during most of World War II). The 5 percent minimum vote threshold was not instituted until 1979. A number of candidates prior to this time received less than 5 percent of the vote but stayed on the ballot. This change was grandfathered, so some candidates (such as Bobby Thomson) stayed on the ballot despite garnering less than 5 percent of the vote. I did not include players like Thomson in this study.
The only exception I made for the 5 percent rule was for candidates who received votes before the modern five-year eligibility standard. Hall of Fame voters used to be allowed to vote for players immediately after they retired if they wished to do so. Phil Rizutto, who received less than 5 percent of the vote the year he retired, is included in this study. Ron Santo, who received less than 5 percent of the vote in his first year of eligibility and was then reinstated at a later date, is not.
On Saturday, several media outlets reported that more than 100 players stayed on the ballot for more than 10 years. This is correct, but does not account for the modern 5 percent rule. When this rule is accounted for, there were only 43 players who received 5 percent or more of the vote for 10 straight years. These players are listed in three tables below. The source for all Hall of Fame voting data and WAR is Baseball Reference.
Table 1: Elected to the Hall of Fame after 10 Tries
Table 2: Not Elected to the Hall of Fame but Chosen by the Veterans Committee
*selected as manager
Eleven players made it past 10 tries on the ballot at 5 percent or higher, were not elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America, but were ultimately enshrined by the Veterans Committee. The new rule would have resulted in all of these players being removed from the ballot earlier. However, with few exceptions, there was little if any voter groundswell for these players. Cepeda, Fox, and Slaughter were the only three players who saw a big vote jump after the 10th try. Perhaps if Mazeroski or Kell had stayed on the ballot 20 times, eventually enough voters would have rushed to their support.
Not surprisingly, this group of players is also a weak group of Hall of Famers on the whole. Reese and possibly Bunning are strong candidates, while Slaughter deserves additional consideration for missing time due to World War II. The rest of these players aren’t inspiring, and Torre was inducted as a manager.
Table 3: On the Ballot 11 or More Times and Not a Hall of Famer
*Smith, Trammell, and Mattingly are currently on the ballot.
Table 3 is the largest list of all players who match the 5 percent criteria for 10 years running. Predictably, most of the players on this table fall well outside the range of a typical Hall of Famer in bWAR. Trammell fits the Cooperstown mold and a good case could have been made for the underrated Luis Tiant (go look at his numbers if you don’t believe me) but most of these players clearly do not belong in the Hall.
Overall, out of 43 candidates who were on the ballot for more than 10 years with more than 5 percent of the vote, only eight had a bWAR of 60 or higher. Of those eight, three (Blyleven, Snider, Vance) were elected by the BBWAA and two (Bunning and Reese) were elected by the Veterans Committee. Only three of these 43 candidates—Trammell, Tiant, and John—produced 60 WAR but are not in the Hall.
If the worst “transgressions” are not included in Tables 1-3 above, who are the most deserving players not in the Hall?
Table 4: Top 20 Hall of Fame Eligible Players not in HOF by bWAR: 1901 – Present
Ah. The problem the rule change is not because of what happened in the past, but rather with the Hall of Fame’s present and its future.
The current ballot has nine of the Top 20 players in bWAR among players who aren’t in the Hall of Fame and eligible for balloting. This doesn’t include Craig Biggio, who certainly has a very good case, and players like Mark McGwire and Mike Piazza, who have decent cases as well depending upon your induction criteria. This problem will only get worse in the next few years.
Are all of these players Hall of Famers? Maybe they are, maybe they are not. WAR is not nor should it be the be all and end all for Hall of Fame induction. It is one way of looking at deserving players, not the only way.
In the past, the 10-year rule would have worked quite well, and saved us from a mostly undeserving crop of candidates. Yes, a handful of players like Blyleven would have missed induction but he is an extreme exception to the general rule. In not-too-distant past, the players getting lopped off of the ballot were players like Concepcion and Garvey: very good players but not Hall of Fame worthy by nearly any standard. In the past, the most worthy players who failed to make Cooperstown were players like Bell, Whitaker, and Grich, immediately underrated by the electorate and then eliminated after one ballot.
This has happened a couple of times in recent years (Brown and Lofton), but in more and more cases the stronger candidates are staying on the ballot but not getting admitted to the Hall of Fame. The BBWAA is often accused of making terrible choices and leaving deserving people out of the Hall. This is true on a case-by-case basis, but on the whole the electorate is getting better. It is quite possible that a candidate like Edgar Martinez might have been one-and-done a generation ago; now he is lingering on the ballot for years and years.
It seems like a funny time, then, for the Hall of Fame to decide to change the eligibility rules, which won't even do much to ease the overcrowded ballot in the short term. Mattingly, Trammell, and Smith were all grandfathered under the old 15-year rule, so they won’t be leaving the ballot until 2016, 2017, and 2018, respectively (although Mattingly might fall short of the 5 percent threshold next year). As far as the candidates currently on the ballot, McGwire will drop off the ballot in 2016 and Raines will fall off in 2017. After that, the next candidates to exit the ballot will be Edgar Martinez and Fred McGriff in 2019.
Clearing the Hall of Fame ballot of lesser candidates by changing the eligibility rules is a good idea. This is not what is going to happen during the next few years. The ballot is going to continue to be jammed with deserving candidates, who will drop off of the ballot five years earlier than they would have under the old system. Jettisoning players like Smith and Mattingly from the ballot five years earlier would have been one thing. Knocking players like Mussina and Raines off of the ballot five years sooner is going to leave a far greater number of deserving players out of the Hall and in the hands of the Veterans Committee, or whatever incarnation of that body exists in the next 15 to 30 years.