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January 22, 2009
Prospectus Hit and Run
Protracting the Process
We've reached the dog days of January, the deadest of dead spots on the baseball calendar. Free-agent signings are few and far between, trade activity is nearly non-existent, and a vast, bleak expanse of winter weeks still separates today from the renewal brought by pitchers and catchers reporting to camp. And it's also the time of year for one particular ritual, because no matter how long I prolong my post-BP annual, post-JAWS series hiatus, inevitably I'm left to pick through the Hall of Fame voting results before moving on to other topics.
As you may have heard, the BBWAA elected two players to the Hall last week, Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice. Henderson, the all-time leader in runs scored and stolen bases as well as a member of the 3,000 Hit Club, was no surprise. What was surprising was that 28 of the 539 voters, including the immortal Corky Simpson from that bible of baseball, The Green Valley News and Sun, did not vote for Rickey, whether because of some petty personal vendetta, a blank ballot protest, or a total, catastrophic failure to understand any part of this stick-and-ball business. One way or another, that lack of a vote constitutes mail fraud even more surely than those Nigerian bank scam spams. For his part, Simpson at least saw the error of his ways.
The 94.8 percent of the vote that Henderson received even without such fraud was still enough to rank among the highest percentages received by anyone on the ballot since 1966, when the BBWAA reverted to annual voting after a decade of biennial voting:
Year Player % 1992 Tom Seaver 98.84 1999 Nolan Ryan 98.79 2007 Cal Ripken 98.5 1999 George Brett 98.2 1982 Hank Aaron 97.8 2007 Tony Gwynn 97.6 1995 Mike Schmidt 96.5 1989 Johnny Bench 96.4 1994 Steve Carlton 95.6 2009 Rickey Henderson 94.8 1979 Willie Mays 94.7 1989 Carl Yastrzemski 94.6 1993 Reggie Jackson 93.6 1966 Ted Williams 93.4 1969 Stan Musial 93.2 1990 Jim Palmer 92.6 1983 Brooks Robinson 92.0 2005 Wade Boggs 91.9 2002 Ozzie Smith 91.7 1991 Rod Carew 90.5
Of course, the voting percentages at this rarefied level owe as much, if not more, to players' popularity as they do to their sheer excellence. Since Henderson ranks among the top 10 JAWS scores ever, higher than everyone here except for Mays and Aaron, the fact that he "only" cracks the top 10 in a post-1966 group does qualify as a mild upset. Ultimately, however, what really matters is that his election to the Hall was well deserved.
As for Rice, I'm afraid I can't say the same, at least from this vantage point. Leaving aside the fact that I genuinely did enjoy watching him play, going as far back as his legendary 1978 season, and that I believe he got a raw deal both from the Red Sox management and the Boston media (as detailed in Howard Bryant's harrowing Shut Out: a Story of Race and Baseball in Boston), it's nonetheless a major disappointment to see him gain entry while stronger candidates such as Tim Raines and Alan Trammell can't get the time of day from voters. While Rice made history by becoming the first player ever voted in on his 15th and final ballot, his combination of a short peak and a short career, both of which were aided by playing in a tremendously favorable hitter's park, leaves him with a JAWS score that ranks as the fifth-lowest among hitters elected by the BBWAA. The bottom 10:
Player Career Peak JAWS Rabbit Maranville 49.8 32.2 41.0 Lou Brock 54.6 36.0 45.3 Ralph Kiner 47.9 43.4 45.7 Luis Aparicio 57.5 36.1 46.8 Jim Rice 55.1 39.6 47.4 Bill Terry 53.9 41.4 47.7 Billy Williams 59.2 38.8 49.0 George Sisler 50.1 48.4 49.3 Roy Campanella 56.1 48.6 52.4 Pie Traynor 63.9 43.6 53.8
While that group would make for a pretty imposing starting lineup, it's not exactly flattering company in the context of Hall of Famers, though it's worth noting that Campanella's Negro League experience separates him from the rest of this pack, that Terry at least had some managerial success to burnish his credentials, and that Brock crossed the 3,000 hit plateau, a feat which virtually guaranteed him entry.
Last year, when Rice fell just shy of enshrinement via 72.2 percent of the vote, BP alumnus and ESPN columnist Keith Law opined, "If Jim Rice gets into the Hall of Fame, you might as well go to the front doors, take them off the hinges and just take them down entirely, because there are dozens of better players than Jim Rice who are not in the Hall of Fame, who don't deserve to be in the Hall of Fame." The point is well illustrated via JAWS, as no fewer than 120 outfielders have scores better than Rice. Perhaps even more importantly, since Rice's candidacy ultimately boils down to an argument that his heyday was ultra-special enough to overcome the handicap of his relatively brief career, a whopping 122 had better peak scores, with one tying his. Here's a sampling of Rice in the context of the ten outfielders on either side of him, peak-wise:
Player Career Peak JAWS Curt Flood 51.9 40.8 46.4 Ellis Burks 62.2 40.7 51.5 Hugh Duffy 55.1 40.7 47.9* Fred Lynn 56.2 40.2 48.2 Harry Stovey 56.2 40.1 48.2 Pete Browning 48.5 39.9 44.2 Rusty Staub 64.1 39.8 52.0 Al Oliver 64.8 39.7 52.3 Roy White 47.6 39.7 43.7 Steve Finley 60.8 39.6 50.2 Jim Rice 55.1 39.6 47.4* Jesse Barfield 46.0 39.5 42.8 Chuck Klein 44.6 39.5 42.1* Tommy Henrich 49.7 39.2 44.5 Earl Averill 49.8 39.1 44.5* Reggie Smith 63.4 39.1 51.3 Kirk Gibson 56.4 39.1 47.8 Abner Dalrymple 39.7 39.0 39.4 Billy Williams 59.2 38.8 49.0* Juan Gonzalez 52.1 38.8 45.5 Jack Clark 64.0 38.7 51.4
While there are some fine ballplayers on that list, including four other MVP winners and four other Hall of Famers, that's not exactly a group of Cooperstown's best and brightest. None of those peak scores come close to the JAWS standards at their positions (48.2 for left fielders, 52.5 for center fielders, 52.2 for right fielders). Hell, on the 2009 ballot alone, four unelected outfielders had higher scores, three of them besting him on both career and peak measures:
Player Career Peak JAWS Tim Raines 94.3 54.9 74.6 Andre Dawson 66.3 45.6 56.0 Dave Parker 58.4 46.0 52.2 Harold Baines 63.3 32.3 47.8 Jim Rice 55.1 39.6 47.4
I'll argue that Rice gained admission because his legend grew with his protracted candidacy, perhaps furthered by a generational shift in the electorate; as Joe Sheehan put it, "Rice's honor is about late baby boomer sportswriters a little bit fazed, a little bit daunted, by the objectivist revolution in baseball validating their own youth, their own memories, their own relevance."
Beyond the fact that Rice made it in his final turn at bat, it's worth noting how uncommon it actually is for any candidate to win the requisite 75 percent after lasting for more than about five years on the ballot. Since 1966:
Years # Elected 15 33 1 Rice (2009) 14 37 0 13 39 2 Kiner (1975), Bruce Sutter (2006) 12 43 1 Bob Lemon (1976) 11 45 1 Duke Snider (1980) 10 52 1 Don Drysdale (1984) 9 62 4 Joe Medwick (1968), Lou Boudreau (1970), Tony Perez (2000), Rich Gossage (2008) 8 68 1 Hoyt Wilhelm (1985) 7 72 0 6 84 3 5 96 4 4 107 3 3 124 5 2 175 4 1 629 37
Basically, a candidate who lingers on the ballot for longer than five years has about half the chance of being elected as someone who gains entry in his first five years of eligibility:
Years # Elect % 1-5 1131 53 4.7 6-10 338 9 2.7 11-15 197 5 2.5
All of which is sobering news for those of us Bert Blyleven boosters who maintain some optimism given the 62.7 percent of the vote he polled in 2009, his 12th year of eligibility. Only three players have been elected in their 13th year on the ballot or later, though two of those three have come in the last four years. On a brighter note, with the exception of Gil Hodges (63.4 percent in 1983, his final year on the ballot) and Andre Dawson (67.0 percent this year), every player with a higher percentage of the vote has gotten into the Hall eventually; while the BBWAA elected Sutter and Rice, the likes of Nellie Fox, Jim Bunning, Orlando Cepeda, and Enos Slaughter all gained entry via the old Veterans Committee.
Dawson appears well-positioned to gain entry, possibly as early as next year, which will be his ninth on the ballot. Perhaps owing to the mystical properties of the number in a baseball context (or more likely, to small sample sizes), the ninth time seems to be the charm, offering candidates the highest frequency of gaining election in any single year. It helps his cause (and Blyleven's) that the next few years will see relatively soft slates reaching the ballot. There will be no slam-dunks, no pitchers with 300 wins, and only one player with 3,000 hits or 500 homers-designated pariah Rafael Palmeiro, whose positive test for performance-enhancing drugs will almost certainly see him being made an example of by the BBWAA voters. Eyeballing the top players on the next few ballots without bothering to check their JAWS scores:
As for Raines, the news is grim after he drew just 22.6 percent of the vote, a 1.7 percent drop from his first year on the ballot. Even with Rice's election, the annals of the post-1966 balloting include just nine players who eventually reached 75 percent after initially getting less than one third of the vote, all of whom got better support than Raines did during their second year:
Debut Player 1st 2nd 2000 Rich Gossage 33.3 44.3 1974 Eddie Mathews 32.3 40.9 1995 Jim Rice 29.8 35.3 1969 Early Wynn 27.9 46.7 1979 Luis Aparicio 27.8 32.2 1994 Bruce Sutter 23.9 29.8 1982 Billy Williams 23.4 40.9 1975 Don Drysdale 21.0 29.4 1970 Duke Snider 17.0 24.7 Average 26.7 35.9
That the Rock's road just gets rockier despite his robust credentials is, to me, the saddest and most disappointing part of this year's balloting, a far worse calamity than Rice's admission. Perhaps Henderson's quick clearance from the ballot will allow those writers who wanted to make sure that the Human Run gained entry before Raines to come around on his candidacy, but I'm not incredibly hopeful.
Finally, to the process. Elsewhere on BP, Sheehan advocated a one-and-done approach to the BBWAA voting. While I do think that there's ample room for reform, particularly in light of the data above, subjecting the candidates to a single in/out vote seems to me an awful idea given the obstinacy of a portion of the electorate, to say nothing of the sorry state of the Veterans Committee. Certain voters love to parade their ignorance of any approach beyond Ye Olde Pornography Test ("I know a Hall of Famer when I see one"), and many others could stand to research the candidates much more thoroughly before delivering a potentially fatal blow to the chances of the likes of Bobby Grich, Lou Whitaker, Darrell Evans, and Dan Quisenberry, all of whom fell off the ballot after one vote because they failed to garner five percent.
Instead of making this a one-shot deal, I'd advocate shortening a player's term on the ballot to three years-three strikes and you're out, get it?-with no minimum five percent cutoff. The portion of the electorate that feels strongly enough about the distinction between "first ballot" types and the rest of the field would still have that avenue available to them, but the process would be considerably sped up, and the field simplified.
Of course, I'd also like to see the BBWAA voting rules reformed to allow the new wave of internet writers-including my BP colleagues Will Carroll and Christina Kahrl as well as ESPN's Rob Neyer and Keith Law-their voting privileges before the ten-year waiting period is up. While there's more than a little self-interest with regards to that statement-I'm extremely hopeful that one day I might join those ranks myself-the bottom line is that those of us who have come around to any kind of sabermetric approach to the Hall want to see a better-educated electorate tackling the ballot so that the game's highest honor may be more uniformly bestowed upon the most deserving candidates. Is that so wrong?