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December 18, 2008
The Old You're In, You're Out
Just 23 names dot the 2008 Hall of Fame ballot, the smallest number in history. That's mostly a fluke owing to the vagaries of when careers begin and end, which players come back for an extra season or an extra few weeks, and which don't. Rickey Henderson, the only first-time-eligible player with a snowball's chance in hell of being elected-and who will be this year-would still be playing if he had a choice. We've also seen a lot of players slip off of the ballot quickly in recent years, as the five percent rule for staying on becomes a tougher barrier to clear as the electorate grows. That rule will claim most of this year's new entries as well.
To some extent, a column like this repeats itself from year to year, as players who you support for the Hall come back to the ballot and you end up making the same arguments again and again. When the voting procedures were first codified, a 20-year timeframe for making decisions seemed reasonable; there was less information, less coverage, and perhaps a greater need for time to put performance into context. Now, that seems too long, especially given the way the voting plays out. Attention effects, death effects, highest-returning-player effects, arguments that have more to do with the voters than the players... all of these take hold over the course of 20 years, making it possible for players to double and triple their vote totals over time without doing a single thing to improve their career performance. The process simply takes too long, players are eligible for too long, and we end up with Hall of Famers (such as Tony Perez, Bruce Sutter, and inevitably, Jim Rice) whose plaques reflect not baseball playing, but the effects of being on a ballot for a decade or more.
So, still comfortably ensconced in my position as an outsider to the process, I'd like to suggest that the 15-year window for eligibility has long outgrown its usefulness. With all of the information available about modern players-information accessible in a heartbeat-you can cut that by two-thirds and still get solid evaluations of players' careers. In addition, by lowering the eligibility window, you can eliminate the five percent rule that has claimed a handful of players, such as Lou Whitaker, who deserved greater consideration. That rule was designed to clean up the ballot, but with players only staying on for five years, the ballot would be plenty clean.
Consider the BBWAA Hall of Famers since 1983, the last quarter-century, and their path to induction:
First five years: Juan Marichal, Brooks Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Lou Brock, Willie McCovey, Catfish Hunter, Willie Stargell, Carl Yastrzemski, Johnny Bench, Jim Palmer, Joe Morgan, Gaylord Perry, Ferguson Jenkins, Rod Carew, Tom Seaver, Rollie Fingers, Reggie Jackson, Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, Robin Yount, Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Carlton Fisk, Dave Winfield, Kirby Puckett, Ozzie Smith, Eddie Murray, Paul Molitor, Dennis Eckersley, Ryne Sandberg, Wade Boggs, Cal Ripken, and Tony Gwynn.
The vast majority of primary-path Hall of Famers in the modern era spend five or fewer years on the ballot. That's not to say that BBWAA doesn't make mistakes of commission in that time, but having a 15-year window isn't adding a whole lot to the process. Of the players in the second group, you have some of the weakest and most controversial BBWAA Hall of Famers, and not coincidentally, those are the ones who were on the ballot the longest. If you're not voted in on the first... let's raise the bar from five to seven ballots, which is a dozen years after retirement... you're probably not raising the standards. So cut off the eligibility then, make it a five-year, or even a three-year, waiting period, and a seven-year eligibility window. Look at the above lists, and tell me whether a 20-year window is allowing for an evaluation of a career, or just for mythologies to form, with the players becoming pawns in the modern arguments about observation versus data in career evaluation.
This is also more fair to the players, for whom this process is often a difficult one. No matter what they might say, these guys would all dearly love to be worthy, and it can't be easy to be Dale Murphy or Jack Morris in that gray area of support, and go through this cycle every winter, hoping against hope. These players' cases haven't changed at all, and that their vote total does-moving generally upward-has more to do with the process than with their arguments for induction. Let's change the process, and let's change it in a way that gets the most worthy players honored, while lessening the exposure of those not quite up to that standard. The voting patterns listed above speak for themselves: a decade past the end of your career is enough time for you to be evaluated.
Because the BBWAA has become so picky about election-a function both of rising standards and a bigger electorate-a process of education should be put into play as well. There are more players in the modern game, and there should certainly be a greater number of Hall of Famers, even if it's not a perfectly proportionate number. This is especially true when you consider the over-representation in the Hall of players from the 1890s and 1920s, made worse by the recent influx of inductees from the Negro Leagues. The Hall, by which I mean the plaque room, needs to grow to reflect the growth of baseball over the past half-century. The BBWAA should be electing more, not fewer, Hall of Famers, and doing so while not damaging the excellent standards it has set during the 70 years it's been doing its job. I've said this before, but if you had a Hall of Fame based solely on BBWAA voting, it wouldn't be perfect, but it would be a damned sight better than the one with Tommy McCarthy and Rick Ferrell in it.
Change the process, educate the voter pool, and make the Hall of Fame better. You don't need a radical solution, a five-step plan, or a massive expansion of the electorate-although the latter is certainly a good idea-all you need is a shorter eligibility window and an open discussion about how the standards should evolve over time.
Oh, this year's ballot... I would vote for Bert Blyleven again, because he would actually raise the standards of the room; Henderson, of course, who is one of the 35 or so best players in baseball history; Mark McGwire, who would be a Hall of Famer if not for a worthless waste of taxpayer money in March of 2003 and the hypocritical media hysteria that followed; and Tim Raines, the greatest leadoff hitter in NL history.
Alan Trammell remains a most difficult omission for me. The early end to his effective career, and my concerns that his defensive statistics-which make up so much of his statistical case for the Hall-are inflated by context, cause me to leave him out. This is a very difficult decision, again, and I understand that I'm a rare stathead who doesn't see Trammell as a Hall member. I'm not completely convinced that I'm right, and every year I go through this with him, going back over the numbers and the arguments, and what I keep seeing is not enough peak to make up for being more or less done at 32.
For some people, the cut line is Bert Blyleven. For others, it's Jim Rice. For me, it's Alan Trammell, falling between those two and perhaps, quite frankly, on the very line demarcating the "in" from the "out." Someone has to be that guy, and based on the standards, I believe it to be Trammell.