Every year, the Hall of Fame vote brings a great deal of vitriol to baseball. With each year’s ballot, we are confronted by the specter of the steroid era, always a sore subject. But even neglecting the steroid era candidates, the BBWAA voters manage to produce a handful of idiotic ballots, defended with harebrained rationales, sometimes leading to obvious omissions.

It would be easy to pin the Hall’s recent mismanagement solely on the steroid issue, but the problems do not stop there. There’s a clear backlog of players that’s been developing for more than ten years, leaving deserving stars (with no steroid evidence against them) like Tim Raines and Curt Schilling on the outside. The situation is especially dire for pitchers, where the voters seem to rely upon outdated benchmarks like 300 wins, which even the best modern pitchers simply cannot hope to reach. This failure is through no fault of their own—pitcher usage patterns and injuries have changed the game. Clinging to the old milestones has the effect of artificially increasing the standards for induction, so that only the most inner-circle, obvious Hall players can make it.

In truth, the Hall’s problems go back a long way. As long as the BBWAA has been voting, the standards for induction seem to have been changing:

This graph shows the Hall of Fame Votes per Ballot as a function of time (data from Baseball-Reference). As should be obvious, the votes per ballot have been falling since the beginning. Part of that can be explained away by the fact that the early ballots were stuffed with deserving candidates from the past 50 years of baseball, during which the Hall had not existed.

But by the '60s, that backlog had been worked through. From about 1961 to 1982, one sees a relatively steady number of votes per ballot, hovering between seven and eight. Then the bottom drops out: from about 1983 onwards, the voting falls to about five votes per ballot.

This decrease in the voting pattern doesn’t coincide with the obvious beginning of the steroid era. In the later part of the '90s, voters were evaluating players like Phil Niekro, Mike Schmidt, and Don Sutton, players who, to my knowledge, are untainted by any suspicions of steroids. It does coincide, however, with a profound change in how pitchers had been used. From 1970-1979, the average league-leading IP total was 342.3; from 1980-1989, it had dropped down to 281.7, an extraordinary decrease.

Just as the votes were falling, the ballots were increasing:

The extent to which the BBWAA’s voter pool has increased is astonishing. From the beginning, when the ballots sat near 200, the number of returned ballots has nearly tripled to 571 last year. There certainly aren’t three times as many baseball teams playing nowadays as there were in 1940, nor is there three times as much baseball being played, so the cause of the increase is somewhat befuddling.

Without ballot-by-ballot information, we can’t say much about all the newly minted Hall of Fame voters. Ryan Thibs and others have done yeoman’s work to collect the publicly available ballot information, but voters are under no imperative to reveal their ballots. If they do not wish to provide transparency, they can remain anonymous, and we have no idea what kind of ballot they submit.

One small clue comes from the BBWAA’s own website, which lists the publication with which each BBWAA voter is affiliated. Some voters are listed as “Honorary”: these are voters who are no longer actively covering baseball, but have been granted lifetime voting rights. Interestingly, these voters skew towards fewer votes per ballot than the non-honorary members. In 2013, for example, honorary voters wrote down 6.25 votes/ballot, versus 7.02 votes/ballot for non-honorary members (a weakly statistically significant difference, p = .045). The difference is much smaller for 2014, so perhaps the gap between honorary and non-honorary members is shrinking.

While the votes per ballot are decreasing, the decrease could be affecting voting totals in one of two ways: 1) all finishers could be losing votes, regardless of position on the ballot; or 2) the top of the ballot could be remaining steady, while the bottom of the ballot declines. In the first case, this might indicate a general distaste for the Hall, a feeling that no one deserves inclusion, no matter their resume (plausible, for example, if a voter felt inclined to dismiss all steroid-era candidates). The second case seems to be a stronger statement on the kind of Hall the voters want, whether it should be Large or Small, encompassing the marginal candidates or only the very greatest. To test these possibilities, I made the following graph, which charts the percent of ballots for the 1st-8th place finishers over time (using LOESS smoothing):

The first, second, and third place finishers have suffered no loss in votes at all, continuing steadily onward. Indeed, the candidates who have lost votes have been primarily down-ballot, with the fifth place and lower finishers suffering most substantially.

To put it another way, the loss in votes has been extremely variable, depending on a player’s position on a ballot. The top of the ballot, which is most often occupied by the inner-circle caliber players, are still getting elected at their usual rate. But the more marginal players, often those who fail to achieve the now-obsolete career milestones, are being truncated. It is as though a conscious decision has been made on the part of the voters that the Hall should be smaller, that it should be composed of only the most elite players.

There’s several problems at work in the Hall of Fame voting, all of which may be interrelated. Votes per ballot have fallen at an alarming rate, even while the number of ballots skyrockets to tremendous heights. Some of the vote per ballot decrease can be pinned upon the honorary voters, who no longer cover baseball and seem to vote much more sparingly. What’s more, the loss in votes is extremely heterogeneous, affecting the top of the ballot minimally, instead changing the standards for the down-ballot finishers.

Intriguingly, most of these problems predate the steroid-era ballots. The falling tide of votes began soon after the Hall opened, and reached its present nadir in the mid-90s, long before PEDs were (overtly) on the voters’ minds. The meteoric increase in ballots has been going on as long as the BBWAA has been charged with voting for the Hall.

The new set of steroid-using candidates, most especially Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, have driven a wedge between the voters that is clearly visible in their voting preferences. It has exacerbated these issues by stratifying the electorate, causing some writers to spend votes on two or more steroid users, while others avoid them entirely. The result has been a sort of electoral constipation, in which the divide between PED voters and non-PED voters increases the backlog, further enlarging the pool of possible candidates, thus dividing the support more evenly between a larger and larger number of players. Consequently, fewer and fewer players are elected.

Therefore we arrive at the present year, in which every shade of Hall-eligible players exists, from the transcendent, first-ballot types, some of whom are ostensibly clean, to the marginal candidates, deserving perhaps only a recognition vote from their local beat writer. Early returns suggest that the results of this year’s election will be much the same as the recent pattern: a handful of obvious honorees (Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, John Smoltz), combined with one or two who sneak over the line (Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, or maybe Schilling). The rest will likely see their totals shuffle around a bit, without making substantial progress towards election or off the ballot. Without an obvious change to the voting or ballot-granting procedures upcoming, and with years of eligibility remaining for the confirmed PED users, we should get used to this state of affairs, because there’s no sign of it changing any time soon.

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
And what's wrong with the system staying the way it is? If Pedro and Randy get in, Thomas and Maddux etc., and the voters don't want Clemens and Bonds, what's wrong with that?
The problem with the way the current "system" works is that it has left the second best lead-off hitter on the outside looking in for no apparent reason other than a sniff of racism (BBWAA members who decline to vote for him due to admitted youthful drug use, who voted for white contemporaries of said player with admitted youthful drug use). Three other slam dunk players have been held back because of unsubstantiated accusations of PED use that is McCarthyesque on the part of the electorate. It is shameful and has diminished the HOF. I believe the electorate or the electoral process needs revamping before the HOF become irrelevant. How can the sport exclude it's all time hit leader, all time HR leader, and top 5 all time RH pitcher and still be relevant? The museum that is the HOF could use the exhibits as a teaching point, to balance the fears that we are honoring bad behavior
The HOF itself has to do the changing. They have to decide to limit voters,
change who should be allowed to vote, and any remaining criteria.
I keep reading that John Smoltz is an obvious candidate for enshrinement. I read this not only here at BP and other 'advanced metric' friendly sources, but also from many mainstream sources. I have no problem with that. I would vote for John Smoltz.

But if John Smoltz is so obviously worthy of the Hall of Fame, why is Mike Mussina considered a fringe candidate? Is it because Smoltz had a handful of good to great years as a closer? But consider that they moved him to relief because he could not stay healthy as a starter. So are voters/pundits actually holding one of Mussina's strengths (his incredible durability) against him in comparison to Smoltz?

If not that, then what? During Smoltz's 4 year run as a closer (2001-2004), he posted 7.5 WAR. Mussina posted 7.1 WAR in 2001 alone.
To clarify, I meant in that sentence "obvious" as in "easily perceived", not that Smoltz's case was _obviously_ worthy of induction. The reasons behind John Smoltz's HoF case may be stupid--I am willing to buy arguments against him, like Ben's--but he WAS an obvious candidate for the 1st or 2nd ballot, according to the established patterns of the HoF voting (and many people predicted him as such, even before the ballots started getting tallied).
I have no issue with the 'obviousness' of John Smoltz's candidacy. As I said, I'd vote for him. My issue is with his perceived worthiness over Mussina. I understand you are not offering your opinion on that, only your observation of fact.

If only Mussina had been forced to the pen due to arm injuries, perhaps he could be an obvious hall of famer as well.
82.9% vs 24.6%. I burned out my logic sensor trying to figure that one out.

What's worse is trying to figure out how Bonds and Clemens don't have the same exact vote total. Either you are ok voting for steroid guys (in which case you MUST vote for both) or you are against voting for steroid guys (in which case you MUST NOT vote for either). What voters out there are voting for one and not the other, and what criteria are they using to separate them?
I think the issue, justified or not, is that Mussina was never really seen as dominant, just consistent. Only won 20 games once, no rings, never really intimidating but just very reliable. The closer run only added to the Smoltz dominance storyline.
I concur.
Brian Kopec - a young man named Ben Lindbergh seems to generally agree with you:
I haven't read Ben's piece. Thanks...heading there now!
Some of the HOF voters (and fans) argue that steroids were not banned during many players' careers (example, Bonds & Clemens). I hate to break their bubble, but the use of steroids for any reason other than "specific, legitimate, medical conditions" is a "FELONY". Why is this constantly being ignored? And, if the ownership wasn't so complicit in the "little conspiracy" then they would have sued the hell out of these players for fraud. As for trying to rationalize steroids by pointing to "Prohibition alcohol use", please try a little harder. Amphetamine use? The body quickly develops a "tolerance", so that in fact, if they really helped we'd have a group of "speed-freaks" who wouldn't be able to play after a few months.

The sports networks have a vested interest in making the Public believe that every year they are seeing increasingly "better sports". So now, we would have to believe in worldwide genetic mutations, all in the space of twenty years. Um, ok, believe that, if you are feeling in need of 'entertainment validation'. Just please, hit the gym for a few hours a day, for months, and try to play some softball, five times a week. Steroids not allowed. You'll get the proof when you've gone through the Clemens' "routine", and try to even walk up a flight of stairs after your game.....
When I read crapola like that penned by Marty Noble, that's when I pine for the days of Fire Joe Morgan. The more things change...
How is the 75% actually counted. Is it based on ballots or just votes?

If 500 ballots are received, despite the ballot averaging only 70%, it means candidates need 375 votes. While if 75% of votes are needed (math ahead!! 500X10X70%=3500 votes/10 per ballots=350 votes=263 votes to get in). This would certainly put more candidates in, if indeed that is a positive.

Obviously, it could mean many more protest votes rather than a real top ten.
You have to be named on 75% of ballots mailed in.
"Consequently, fewer and fewer players are elected."

Except that didn't happen: four were elected.
Well, it did happen in the last few years, but it didn't happen this year.

To your point, I do think that the BBWAA is modifying their voting preferences yet again. For example, this year there were 8.4 votes per ballot, comparable to last year and about two votes higher than the average during the 2000s. If that continues, the Hall will likely return to a more historically normal level of inductions per year.
"The new set of steroid-using candidates, most especially Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, have driven a wedge between the voters that is clearly visible in their voting preferences.

It has exacerbated these issues by stratifying the electorate, causing some writers to spend votes on two or more steroid users, while others avoid them entirely.

The result has been a sort of electoral constipation, in which the divide between PED voters and non-PED voters increases the backlog, further enlarging the pool of possible candidates, thus dividing the support more evenly between a larger and larger number of players."


Seems a lot like I wrote just a few days earlier....

"The reason we have a backlog now is that a host of PED users have been passed over by a majority of the voters that others still cling to.

Without consideration of PEDs, those players would ALREADY be in the Hall (given the few admissions in the past 5 years) and 10 votes would be more than enough to consider the other candidates this year (just like it has been for the entire past history of the Hall).

It seems the frustration by those who continue to campaign for PED users (and inability to accept the views of the majority of the current voters) has lead them to suggest a different set of rules that would allow them to bang their drum."


PEDs have damaged the voting process. The question is who should bear the penalty for damaging the process?

Those that took the PEDS, those doing to voting, or those that played cleanly and will soon fall off the ballot (Mattingly, Trammel, McGriff)?

If you are going to blame someone start with the person(s) who created the problem.

There's so much blame to go around for the steroid era. The players are the most responsible, but let's not forget that nearly the entire apparatus of baseball ignored the problem, going all the way from the front offices to the commissioner himself. No one wanted to confront the issue until it was long past too late.

And even the writers *who are now voting for or against the HoF candidates* are partially responsible, for failing to report on what was happening. They, too, are complicit (some of them, anyway).

Not that I am condoning the steroid users; only saying that the era was the product of much more than one group's errors.