There are a lot of things wrong with the Hall of Fame vote. There’s the fact that the recent bar for enshrinement is set far higher than it’s been in the past (especially for pitchers). There’s the 10-vote-per-ballot limit, even in a year when there are probably 18 candidates I’d vote for if I could. There’s the belated moral panic about PEDs that holds back anyone who is remotely suspected of having used them (no matter how baseless or arbitrary the rumors) even though there are plenty of both dopers and cheaters already in Cooperstown. And then there’s the fact that Kenny Lofton fell off on his first ballot.
But at the top of my list is the BBWAA’s secret balloting system. As you probably know, voters are free to share their selections, and every year a significant number of them do. But the default is secrecy, and voters are not required to explain or even reveal their individual ballots. And that’s a problem.
You probably also know that the right to vote for the Hall of Fame is granted exclusively to journalists who have had some involvement in covering baseball for at least 10 years. In other words, anyone who has a say in awarding the game’s highest honor has both a deep-seated knowledge of baseball and the communication skills to offer facts, analysis, and opinions in clear and interesting ways. Obligation or not, explaining one’s ballot is something that every voter is more than qualified to do.
That’s why, when the thought first crossed my mind four years ago, I was disturbed to find that voters who kept their ballots secret didn’t just vote significantly differently than those who shared their picks—their selections were worse. I thought perhaps that was a fluke until the same thing happened in 2012. And 2013. And the trend continued last year, when anonymity probably cost Craig Biggio an earlier place in Cooperstown.
Unfortunately, the voters weren’t content to let the streak of anonymity impacting the selection process end after (at least) four years in a row: When the 2015 Hall of Fame voting results were released Tuesday, it turned out it had happened again.
Sources of Secrecy
Before we get to the numbers, I should say that there are surely some demographic factors at work here. Those who reveal their ballots probably skew younger, both because they are more likely to use and be active on social media and because retired journalists have fewer writing outlets at their disposal. Younger writers, in turn, are more likely to be tuned into contemporary baseball analysis. They probably also have more favorable opinions of recent players—it’s basic human nature to be more skeptical of things that come after your time, especially in a sport that’s obsessed with how great the game used to be at the expense of appreciating the present. So the pool of public voters is not a perfect counterfactual for what the results would be if all ballots were revealed.
But there’s a point at which discrepancies between the groups can’t be wholly chalked up to generational factors. Take last year’s election: inductees Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas were both fairly obvious first-ballot Hall of Famers who got broad support across the board, and Greg Maddux has to be in the conversation as one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Yet anonymous voters snubbed Glavine and Thomas at about twice the rate of those who revealed their ballots. Even more damningly, only one of the 16 writers who somehow didn’t pick Maddux was willing to own up to his ballot. Ken Gurnick became the lone face of the anti-Maddux movement even though more than a dozen of his peers also had club jackets.
If, in your opinion, Greg Maddux wasn’t good enough to join the likes of Jesse Haines and Rube Marquard in the Hall of Fame… well, that’s your prerogative. If you assume that every player in the last 25 years is a doper and also think they should all be held to a higher standard than any other generation of Cooperstown candidates has faced, I doubt I’ll be able to convince you otherwise. And if you declined to check Maddux’ name because you didn’t want him (or anyone) to get in unanimously, you were entirely within your rights to do so. But considering that by definition you have a wealth of knowledge about the game and experience expressing your opinions to your readers, you should be willing (if not eager!) to reveal and explain your choices to your audience.
We’ll never know how different the 2014 vote would have looked had all the ballots been public. But if even two nameless writers left Craig Biggio off their ballots in part because they knew no one would ever know who they were, then the BBWAA’s secret voting process can be said to have cost him an earlier induction. And if lending anonymity to people who are specifically qualified to support their choices changes the outcome of the vote, that’s problematic.
The 2015 Ballot
Okay, so we’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that secret balloting probably didn’t make a difference in terms of actual outcomes. The bad news is that this ballot may have seen the single most blatant example of anonymity driving voting behavior in the five years since I’ve been doing these studies.
Just after the results were announced on Tuesday afternoon, I snagged the results from Ryan Thibs’ phenomenal Hall of Fame ballot tracker and removed the ballots that he had received anonymously. I then compared the results of the 198 public ballots in his collection (representing 36 percent of the electorate) with the 351 unmarked ballots cast and looked at the 23 candidates who received more than four votes each. Here’s what I found:
The biggest thing that jumps out here is that Mike Piazza would have been elected from the public ballots. It would be easy to jump on that and blame anonymous voting for his falling short of 75 percent overall, and a couple years ago when I was quicker to jump to conclusions I probably would have. However, he just barely made it over the threshold among public voters, and some of the 10-point difference between the two groups’ support from him probably comes from demographic differences. Anonymity surely didn’t help, but I doubt he would have gotten in either way.
In my opinion, the only probable effect of secret balloting on the outcome this cycle is saving Nomar Garciaparra from falling off the ballot, which doesn’t bother me at all: I’d much rather give a questionable candidate another chance than bounce a potentially worthy player off too soon. However, there are some very real differences in how open and anonymous voters viewed certain players. To wit:
- Public voters averaged 8.8 names per ballot; private voters checked off 8.2.
- Fifteen of 23 players registered statistically significant differences in support between the two groups, including five gaps that were significant at the 0.1-percent level.
- Private voters were more than twice as likely not to vote for Randy Johnson.
- Private voters were more than six times as likely not to vote for Pedro Martinez.
- Private voters were twice as likely to vote for Larry Walker and Don Mattingly.
- Private voters were more than three times as likely to vote for Nomar Garciaparra and Carlos Delgado.
- Private voters picked Craig Biggio over John Smoltz and Lee Smith over Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds.
- Tim Raines got almost two-thirds of the public vote but less than half of the private vote.
- Curt Schilling got majority support from public voters but was named on fewer than a third of private ballots.
- Amazingly, Mike Mussina got more votes from public voters (69) than from private voters (66).
- I think this bears repeating: Private voters were more than six times as likely not to vote for Pedro Martinez.
Where Anonymity Mattered
Let’s focus now on the 15 players for whom we observed statistically significant differences in how the two groups voted. Some of the gaps probably don’t mean very much. Delgado and Garciaparra got so few votes that their discrepancies aren’t worth wasting too much bandwidth on. I’d lump Walker in that group too since I can’t think of a reason for why he’s getting so much more support from private voters aside from the fact that they have more ballot space since they’re voting for fewer other people. (Nor for that matter do I understand why he’s not considered a serious candidate for induction.)
Of the 12 remaining big-gap players, some of the discrepancies probably represent differences in demographics. Younger voters probably care less about Clemens and Bonds’ PED scandals as well as the questionably substantiated doping rumors surrounding Piazza and Jeff Bagwell than their older peers. (This squares with some research I did for a term paper in college showing that age is one of many demographic factors that shapes opinions on PED use.) Raines and Mussina are players better appreciated with sabermetric stats, while Smith and Mattingly’s candidacies look more appealing through the lens of more traditional numbers. I don’t agree with the arguments I’m assuming of the private voters, but considering the generation gap between the two groups of writers, I think there are legitimate explanations for why the anonymous voters differed as they did.
But that leaves four players whose vote gaps are much harder to square. Randy Johnson’s vote differential isn’t much, but as with Maddux private voters apparently found it significantly easier to leave him off their ballots than their more-open peers did. John Smoltz’s relatively underwhelming showing among anonymous writers is noteworthy, but it might not grab much attention in a vacuum either. But what about Schilling, who fared almost 20 percentage points worse among private voters than he did on public ballots? And, most strikingly, what about Pedro? Of the 49 BBWAA members who neglected to check the box for the man who may have been the greatest pitcher to ever walk the Earth in his prime, only four did so while putting their names on their ballots.
Of course, there is at least one valid reason not to vote for Martinez or Johnson: If you’re sure he’s going to get in and believe that more than 10 worthy candidates exist on the ballot, it might be worth the risk to leave him off and vote for a less-obvious Cooperstown candidate instead. But that’s the kind of strategic voting you’d expect a writer would be eager to explain—especially since the plan depends on the rest of the voters knowing you’re counting on them to put the right guys in. And since the anonymous voters averaged almost two empty spots per ballot, I’m not inclined to assume that they were simply running out of space.
Which leads us to the fact that, in the aggregate, the public ballots are simply better than the anonymous ones. The 18 candidates I (probably—I keep going back and forth) would have voted for if I could averaged four percentage points more support from public voters, while the five I would have snubbed averaged three percentage points more from the private ballots. The vote differentials had linear correlations of 0.59 and 0.57 with Jay Jaffe’s JAWS and Adam Darowski’s Hall Rating, respectively. I wouldn’t recommend basing one’s Hall of Fame vote on a single mathematical formula, but those are two pretty good proxies for Cooperstown worthiness, which means the following plots are troubling macro-level indicators for how voters’ behavior changes when nobody’s looking:
Whatever the cause, it’s clear that anonymous voters don’t just vote differently. They vote worse. And that’s a problem that the BBWAA needs to address.
The Cure: Mandatory Public Ballots
The difference between public and private ballots may stem more from demographic differences between the groups than from a desire to avoid being associated with unpopular opinions or internal politicking, but in the long run even that could be mitigated by opening up the voting process. The knowledge that people will be reading their opinions could be enough to inspire older voters to learn more about sabermetrics (it certainly was for me when I first started writing), and engaging with readers about their choices could help everyone come to a better understanding of how the game works and who is worthy of immortality among Cooperstown’s legends.
Not to mention that, among the 351 writers who did not make their ballots public (at least, in time for inclusion in this article), there are probably at least a handful who did not vote with careful thought and consideration in part because they knew they wouldn’t have to put their names on their ballots. Maybe they didn’t want Johnson to go in unanimously but didn’t want the accountability of being the ones to stop him from doing so, or maybe they thought Martinez didn’t feel like a Hall of Famer even though they didn’t have articulable reasons for thinking so. We all convince ourselves to make decisions we don’t really believe are right. But when it comes to the Hall of Fame selection process, I think it’s fair to expect a higher standard.
Put it another way: In a group of 351 experienced professional baseball journalists, 45—more than 1 in 8—implicitly said they didn’t think Pedro Martinez should be in the Hall of Fame (or at least that he wasn’t one of the 10 best players on the ballot) but declined to take ownership of their opinions. If each had been required to publicly reveal his or her ballot, how many of them do you think would have voted for Pedro? If your answer to that question is greater than zero, then we have a problem.
Let me be clear that I am not saying that all, most, or even a significant minority of the voters who have not disclosed their ballots have anything but the best intentions. Nor am I saying that my opinions about who should be in the Hall are infallible. I personally know some of the qualified voters whose ballots I have not seen; I trust their integrity as much as I respect their experience and knowledge of the game—I imagine I would disagree with some of their choices, but I would never dream of accusing them of intellectual dishonesty—and I assume the same of most of the electorate. But after five years of seeing these discrepancies in the results, something needs to be done.
Voting for the Hall of Fame isn’t a right, it’s a privilege. Of the millions of people who would love to have a say in whose plaques hang in Cooperstown’s hallowed halls, only a few hundred get to vote. The electorate is chosen based on strict guidelines and the BBWAA isn’t afraid to punish perceived impropriety. So what’s the harm in making all the ballots public (especially since they’ll be covering the news they helped to create)? If you are a professional sportswriter and you are incapable of convincingly supporting the ballot you cast, you voted wrong.
Making the ballots public won’t fix all the problems with the Hall of Fame selection process (I’ve been saying for years that we should just put John Thorn, Bill James, and Adam Darowski in a room together for an afternoon and induct whomever they agree on), but it would urge the voters take the job more seriously and lend the process a much-needed boost of transparency and legitimacy. BBWAA voters have the right to cast whatever kind of ballots they want, but to prioritize their preferences for privacy over ensuring the integrity of the vote is to compromise the sacredness of the Hall of Fame.