January 7, 2010
Why the Illusion of a Binary Hall of Fame?
After listening to a whole afternoon of baseball talk radio-specifically to the outrage of some of the on-air personalities like Casey Stern, Kevin Kennedy, and Rob Dibble-I'm wondering why they're so surprised by Roberto Alomar not getting into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Their typical first argument is the comparison argument that says Player B is in the Hall of Fame, but Player A has better numbers and, therefore, Player A should be in the Hall of Fame. The common comparison for Alomar is Ryne Sandberg since, by all accounts, Alomar's numbers are better than his. The point that they miss is that Sandberg wasn't elected on the first ballot; he was elected on his third ballot, and that waiting is significant to the voters.
This brings us to their second argument, which is why should anyone's vote change from one year to the next since the stats don't change? I find this a naÔve view of human nature. We are obsessed with rankings, from VH1's Top 100 One-Hit Wonders (a wonderful series, although why couldn't they expand it a few hours and play each song fully? But I digress) to the Top 10 reasons why my wife should go get an account on eHarmony. Obviously, the baseball media is not immune to rankings, from Kevin Goldstein's Top 11 prospect rankings here, or his Top 101 Prospects in Baseball Prospectus 2010, or innumerable articles at Baseball America, ESPN, and other outlets.
For some reason, people have the illusion that inclusion in the Hall of Fame somehow breaks our desire to rank, or at least the process should break this desire. The simple truth is that, for at least some of the gatekeepers (and likewise for many fans, I might add), this just doesn't feel right. Some players are just more Hall-worthy than others. Given that the voters are asked only a yes or no question, they will use the only lever at their disposal to create tiers within the Hall of Fame, and that lever is when they are elected.
Let's go back to the question of deciding whether or not Roberto Alomar was given the shaft by not being elected on the first ballot. I looked at all of the first-ballot percentages for each player since 1960 and plotted them against Bill James' Hall of Fame Monitor Score (HoFM). In a nutshell, I like to think of HoFM as the measure of bling (awards and milestones that have historically attracted Hall voters), while his Hall of Fame Standards (HoFS) is more a measure of worth (how much value this candidate had compared to other people in the Hall).
From visual inspection alone, two things are apparent. There are a number of players with a much lower HoFM score that made it in the on first ballot. However, there are two players with a higher score that did not get in, so it's not like the Alomar snub is unprecedented. The reader should keep in mind, though, that those two players are Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford, who had 14 and 11 World Series appearances, respectively. Given how close Alomar is to our best-fit line, the drop can easily be explained by the few voters who still say that the Hirschbeck incident does count for something; despite the apologies and feel-good stories that followed, it was still a very graphic display of unsportsmanlike behavior.
There's almost no question that Alomar will get in next year, so he will probably be a second-ballot Hall of Famer. How does he stack up with the others? And, for that matter, when (or if) should we expect the other newbies on the ballot to get in? Below is a table of the median HoFM and HoFS scores of Hall of Fame Inductees (filtered to those whose first year on the ballot was 1960 or later) based on the year they were elected by the BBWAA. The group of "Others" consists of those that were not elected by the writers and are no longer eligible, but achieved at least 25 percent of the vote in their best year.
HoFM HoFS Ballot Elected Number Median [Max,Min] Median/Avg [Max,Min] 1st 39 214 [454,98] 56/54.3 [76,34] 2nd or 3rd 9 158 [226,120] 50/49.1 [57,18] 4th or 5th 7 149 [178,108] 47/48.6 [58,39] 6th to 10th 8 124 [150,81] 41/39.5 [57,19] 11th to 15th 7 134 [146,89] 35/36.0 [47,17] Other 30 98 [175,42] 34/33.3 [53,16]
Despite what pundits want to believe (or think should occur), there's an obvious correlation not only to a player's career and if he gets into the Hall of Fame, but also when he gets into the Hall of Fame. It is not limited solely to whether or not he's a first-ballot player. Based on the table above, whether consciously or sub-consciously, voters do like to peg players as to when they should get the call.
So what about the current group of 2010 candidates that will move onto next year's ballot as well?
2010 Player Ballot Vote% HoFM HoFS Dawson 9th 77.9% 118 44 Blyleven 13th 74.2% 120 50 Alomar 1st 73.7% 194 57 Morris 11th 52.3% 122 39 Larkin 1st 51.6% 118 47 Smith,L. 8th 47.3% 135 13 Martinez,E. 1st 36.2% 132 50 Raines 3rd 30.4% 90 47 McGwire 4th 23.7% 170 42 Trammell 9th 22.4% 118 40 McGriff 1st 21.5% 100 48 Mattingly 10th 16.1% 134 34 Parker 14th 15.2% 124 42 Murphy 12th 11.7% 116 34 Baines 4th 6.1% 66 44
Laying Alomar's HoFM and HoFS score against the first-ballot group, he does seem to fall in the cracks between the first-ballot/second-ballot group. He would not have looked out of place as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he doesn't seem that out of place going in on the second or third ballot, though he will be one of the best-credentialed of that group. As for Larkin, his high vote total is a little surprising, as he seems to be the typical player who would normally be elected on his sixth to 10th ballot; with his high vote total and the typical growth, he may sneak in on his third or fourth ballot. Edgar Martinez's first ballot percentage was perfectly in line with what you would expect. Based on his HoFM and HoFS scores, he seems to be a candidate that would fall into the sixth to 10th ballot group as well. Like Larkin, Fred McGriff got a higher vote percentage than one would expect given his HoFM score, but he profiles as a close-but-no-cigar non-inductee. On the other hand, his relatively high HoFS score suggests that if there is more of a shift in the writers to look not at the hardware but strictly the stats, he may surprise and get in toward the end of his eligibility.