January 9, 2014
The Hall of Fame Ballots By the Numbers
There’s now officially nothing left to talk about in baseball for another six weeks. But at least we get some good news. Three new plaques will be going up in Cooperstown this summer, a welcome change from the unfortunate shutout that happened during last year’s Hall of Fame voting. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas will all take their places in rural New York. After weeks of the usual arguments over PEDs, the merits of Jack Morris, and the 10-person ballot limit, it’s nice to take a step back and reflect on how good the Class of 2014 really was. Also, we should take a moment to realize that the ballot is starting to read like a BuzzFeed list of “Players that only baseball fans from the ’90s would understand.”
And can we all just agree to let Biggio round it up to 75 percent? He’s going to get in next year anyway.
Now that the balloting is done, what conclusions can we draw about the process behind the votes and the future of the Hall of Fame voting? Let’s do a little #GoryMath and find out, shall we?
What Happens to the 10-Man Ballot?
Diving into the ballots that are already available (222 as I write), 58.1 percent of them (129 ballots) were completely full. If we assume that the published ballots are a good reflection of the still-private ballots (not necessarily a good hypothesis, but we’ll go with it), there were approximately 331 full ballots (out of 571 total votes cast). A player needed 429 votes to be elected this year. Now, did the 10-man ballot cost anyone a place in the Hall this year, other than Biggio? The next closest candidate to election was Mike Piazza with 355 votes, followed by Jack Morris with 351 and Jeff Bagwell with 310. Were there people who wanted to vote for Piazza or Morris or Bagwell, but didn’t because they felt that there were 10 others more qualified? Probably, but were there enough?
Of the published ballots that were full (129 of them), Mike Piazza did not appear on 23 of them (17.8 percent). Again, assuming that the private and published ballots mirror each other, we can assume that there were 59 ballots (17.8 percent of 331) that were full, but did not contain a vote for Mike Piazza. Even if all 59 of those voters had voted for Mike Piazza, he would have had only have 414 votes, falling 15 short of induction.
As for Morris and Bagwell:
It’s reasonable to believe that Piazza and Bagwell would have still fallen short if the ballot had been extended. However, from these numbers, we could make the case that Jack Morris would have had a chance to make it if the ballot were extended. If Morris were a first- or second-year candidate, I might buy that he was robbed. The problem is that Morris was in his 15th (and final) year on the ballot. For his partisans, there was every reason to prioritize a vote for him, because they would never have another chance to do so. Note that the reason that Piazza and Bagwell probably wouldn’t have been helped by an expanded ballot is that there just weren’t a lot of full ballots on which they did not feature. Morris just plain didn’t make as many full ballots. It’s hard to believe that even voters who were weakly pro-Morris, but realized that they had a full slate, wouldn’t have strategically sacrificed someone to vote for him. So yes, mathematically he might have had a chance, but logic suggests that the extra votes probably weren’t out there for him either.
There’s plenty of talk that the 10-player limit on the vote will be exterminated by next year’s ballot. But that ignores some major realpolitik that’s also at play. From one point of view, the 10-player limit is a smashing success. Even on a crowded ballot with a 10-man limit, the writers elected three players, meaning that the Hall will have a nice ceremony next year (especially with Joe Torre, Bobby Cox, and Tony LaRussa also being inducted). Craig Biggio’s near-miss is unfortunate for Biggio, but it’s pretty likely that he will be inducted in 2015, guaranteeing that the Hall won’t have to endure another shutout like it did this past summer. Plus, it could be the case again that the 10-player limit will artificially keep a couple of guys waiting an extra year or two. There’s a nice way to ensure that ceremonies for years to come will be well-attended. And those ceremonies drive a lot of the revenue for the museum and for the general Cooperstown area. It’s all about Mike Benjamin, baby.
Can You Bring a Date for My Friend?
There are some differences between those lines. Glavine pitched 850 more innings than did Mussina and 1150 more than Schilling, plus Glavine won more games (and more Cy Young Awards). Maybe more importantly, Glavine won three hundred (and five) games. But their ERAs are comparable, and Glavine notched the fewest strikeouts of the three. Looking at the WAR totals, they all rate pretty comparably. It seems like it’s the same basic case for all three men, or at least close to it. They all even have a “calling card” postseason heroic game to brag about (Schilling’s hematological hosiery heroics in the 2004 ALCS, Glavine’s eight-inning, one-hit performance in the clinching Game 6 of the 1995 World Series, and Mussina’s criminally overlooked 15-strikeout performance in Game 3 of the ALCS, although the Orioles eventually lost that game), as well as his three-inning relief appearance in 2003 ALCS Game 7.
Why then is Glavine (91.9 percent!) getting inner-circle level support while neither Schilling nor Mussina broke the 30 percent barrier? It seems that these three men should have roughly the same support. It’s tempting to think that Glavine’s crossing of the magic 300-win mark is what put him into the 90 percent, first-ballot club. Remarkably, the Hall hasn’t been as eager to let in 300-game winners as we might think. The last time that there was a 300-win pitcher on the ballot (who was not named Roger Clemens, as Clemens is a special case) was actually Nolan Ryan in 1999. Ryan got in on the first ballot with 98 percent support, but before him, Don Sutton (324 wins) took five years to be elected, as did Phil Niekro (318 wins). Steve Carlton (329 wins) got in on his first try, as did Tom Seaver (311 wins), but Gaylord Perry (311 wins) didn’t enter until his third year. (And yes, please spare me the standard argument about how wins are a silly statistic here…Glavine was going to make it at some point, even if he had “only” 250 wins).
Let me float a slightly different theory. If I played a word association game with “Tom Glavine,” I’ll bet the most common response would be “Greg Maddux,” particularly because I live in Atlanta. Maddux was always going to be a no-doubt-about-it, first-ballot Hall of Fame shoo-in. But Maddux and Glavine are two separate people, and in a perfect world, they should be considered separately. The truth is that Glavine’s career was good, but Maddux’s was better.
Suppose that Maddux had not been on this year’s ballot. Or suppose that Maddux had been teammates for most of the ’90s with Mussina or Schilling. Does Tom Glavine break the 90 percent mark, or is he simply a 60 percent guy who will get in eventually, but only after we’ve had enough time to think about it? Did Glavine get in this time because he had Greg Maddux (and fellow electee Bobby Cox) as a wingman? It’s sort of an uncomfortable question, isn’t it?
How many voters had the thought, “Well, I voted for Maddux, so of course I have to vote for Glavine”? It’s fine if you want to vote for Tom Glavine, but I worry that the thought process was short-circuited by some idea that we have to be egalitarian in our treatment of guys who happened to be on the same team. That’s not how this is supposed to work.
Keep Calm and Vote for Pedro
Of the published ballots that were full, Greg Maddux appeared on all of them, Tom Glavine on 95 percent of them, and Frank Thomas on 94 percent. Jack Morris appeared on 61 percent. That means that there are a lot of full ballots that now have three or four open spaces, and there are three or four new guys (depending on your views on Sheffield and Smoltz) whom a lot of people will want to vote for. In other words, we’ve basically treaded water as far as the crowdedness of the ballot goes. It’s still tight quarters, and it would have been nice for the writers not to have to use a vote on Craig Biggio next year. But we’ve seen that in this sort of environment, players can get elected, and only Rafael Palmeiro fell off the ballot (how about that!)
In 2016, the only big name to add to the ballot is Ken Griffey Jr. In 2017, Manny Ramirez and Pudge Rodriguez will be eligible. In 2018, we’ll see Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, and the criminally underrated Scott Rolen added to the list. In the meantime, there will probably be a few more years of multiple inductees, and space will naturally be cleared for other names to rise up the list. In 2018, saber-darling Tim Raines will be in his 11th year of eligibility, while most of the other cases that people worry so much about will still be in single digits. There seems to be a big rush to clear the glut of players out, but why? So that we can return to the years when there was no one worth electing? All we need is just a little patience.
Calming the ’Roid Rage
The “steroid era” has managed to taint the reputations of players whom no one has actually ever suspected of using PEDs and spawned Twitter “discussions” of what counts as a PED (Greenies? Adderall? Coffee? Viagra?) and what we should do with the people who drank that coffee. In fact, the evidence suggests that some voters are having the same discussions in their own heads, and are just as confused as to how to parse it all out.
Take the cases of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, whom everyone agrees would be inner-circle Hall of Famers if not for those nagging allegations against them. What’s interesting to see is what a difference a year can make. Both men actually lost ground in their quest to be elected: Clemens went from 37.6 percent in 2013 to 35.4 percent overall in 2014. Bonds saw a similar wiggle in his numbers, from 36.2 percent to 34.7 percent. We might be tempted to say that both men are effectively standing still, with people having staked out their opinions on PEDs and voted accordingly. But I don’t think that’s true either.
We have published ballots from 206 writers from both 2013 and 2014. In 2013, 147 of those writers did not include Barry Bonds on their ballot. This year, 35 of those same writers did. Of the 59 who voted for Bonds in 2013, eight rescinded that vote this year. Clemens had a similar pattern in his votes, with 31 of 148 previous “no’s” turning to “yes” and 7 of 58 previous “yes’s” turning to “no.” All told, about 20 percent of the published electorate flip-flopped.
Bonds and Clemens have been implicated, but nothing’s ever been proven conclusively about their involvement in PEDs. If we look at two other candidates—Rafael Palmeiro, who tested positive during his playing days, and Mark McGwire, who admitted to using steroids—we can see a somewhat different case. In 2013, 192 of the 206 public voters left McGwire’s name off their ballots. This year, only 11 of them relented. Among the 14 who voted yes for McGwire in 2013, six took it back. Similarly, Palmeiro, despite being a member of both the 3,000 hit and 500 HR club fell below the five percent minimum threshold to continue being on the ballot. Of the 11 writers in our sample who voted for Palmeiro in 2013, five took away that vote. Of the 195 who voted “no” in 2013, only five relented this year. Looks like we’re seeing a two-tiered system. Those who were suspected but not confirmed—who also appear to be two of the best players ever—appear to have people mumbling the words “reasonable doubt.” Those who were confirmed may simply be left in the wastebin.
The bad news for those who grow tired of these arguments is that Bonds and Clemens have 13 more years on the ballot, and about a third of the voters who will likely continue to check their names, so they won’t fall off the ballot any time soon. But the rate at which they will gain votes is not likely to push them over 75 percent any time soon. Chances are, we’re going to be parsing out who inhaled and what to do about it until my oldest daughter is looking at colleges. The thing about Clemens and Bonds is that they demonstrate that people can and do change their minds. In a culture where “But last year, you said…” substitutes for a legitimate critique of someone’s ideas, that may not sit well. Let’s face facts. We have not, as a baseball culture figured out what to do about PEDs, and there are a lot of people who are still trying to figure it out for themselves.