Friday, December 27, 2013

This year's HOF ballot

For many of the BBWAA voters, this year's ballot for the baseball Hall of Fame will be the most difficult ever.  There are many reasons for it, which has numerous BBWAA voters and outsiders clamoring for a change.  Before plunging into the ballot itself (36 players this year, many of which are qualified), let's take a closer look at those who are voters, what the guidelines are, and where most of the complaints about the current system lay.

Current Guidelines
  1. The voters are current or former members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, who were active for at least 10 years.  
  2. For a player to be elected to the HOF, they must receive 75% of the submitted votes.
  3. Electors may vote for as few as 0, or as many as 10 players.
  4. There is no specific criteria for the players, other than they played at least 10 seasons, had been retired for 5, and were nominated by a selection committee (i.e., no write-in allowed).
So...what are the complaints?

1.  Who gets to vote?
  • The biggest cry I've heard about this is that there are a significant amount of voters who are retired, or no longer follow baseball closely, and therefore how can they be an educated voter? To that point, some have recommended the number of voters be reduced; others suggest the voting should be expanded to include baseball fans.  Others offer that only current baseball writers should be involved in the election process.
    • As for expanding the voting rights to more people, it has been pointed out that it might be even more difficult for a consensus to be reached.  This is probably NOT the answer, unless changes are made to what percentage was needed for a player to get elected.
    • Others have suggested to reduce the number of voters.  The only problem with that is...well, it's been done before.  
    • Jonah Keri has been a bit more specific about his complaints as to who qualifies as a voter - to be specific, he mentions three retired who work for and no longer cover baseball.  He says:
      • "The most jarring example of this surfaced last year, when three former baseball writers publicized their Hall of Fame votes at their current place of employment … If the BBWAA truly cares about the voting process, it'll stop allowing people who haven't covered the sport since acid-washed jeans were popular to retain voting rights."
    • Let's have a closer look at these three men who are out of date with baseball:
      • Bob Sherwin covered the Mariners for 20 years, and retired from newspaper writing in 2004.
      • Jim Street covered baseball for the better part of forty years before retiring in 2010.
      • Kirby Arnold covered baseball from 1984-2011.  
    • These are the men who Keri wants to revoke their voting rights?  Men who actually covered the baseball players who are on the ballot currently?  What makes a current voter for the Hall of Fame (maybe, a Bob Ryan?) better equipped to evaluate these players than these three?  If we look at the basis of the argument against the current method of voting, the issue is two things:  
      1. Keri (and others) don't like who they've voted for, and:
      2. They are upset that too many qualified candidates aren't getting 75%.
I think we discount the argument against who votes and who doesn't - expanding the voting membership won't improve the "intellect" of the voters, and reducing it might cause a person to have undue influence over the voting.  From Wikipedia:
The Hall of Fame suffered in the 1970s, when Frankie Frisch was a major voice on the committee. The old Hall of Famer, backed by former teammate Bill Terry and sportswriters J. Roy Stockton and Fred Lieb, who covered Frisch's teams, managed to get five of his teammates elected to the Hall by the committee. Additionally, in the three years after his death, two more teammates were elected.
After Frisch died and Terry left the Committee, elections were normalized. In 1978, membership increased to fifteen members, five Hall of Famers, five owners and executives, and five sportswriters. The members would meet in Florida during spring training to elect a player or two every year.
Do we need this?  With a body of 500+ voters, the best are going to get voted in...and some might not, which leads us to the second argument.  This year, we have legitimately 19 players who will garner significant support for their Hall of Fame candidacy.  With the voting limited to a maximum of 10 players, some writers are arguing that some qualified players won't get in, and some might not even garner the 5% needed to stay on the ballot.  The players, in no particular order:

  • Craig Biggio
  • Jack Morris
  • Jeff Bagwell
  • Tom Glavine
  • Greg Maddux
  • Barry Bonds
  • Roger Clemens
  • Mark McGwire
  • Alan Trammell
  • Tim Raines
  • Lee Smith
  • Curt Schilling
  • Edgar Martinez
  • Frank Thomas
  • Fred McGriff
  • Rafael Palmeiro
  • Mike Mussina
  • Jeff Kent
  • Mike Piazza
I haven't included Sosa, Mattingly or Larry Walker, but they do have their supporters as well.

This leads us to:

2.  How many players can a person vote for, and what percentage is needed to be elected to the Hall of Fame?

Again, let's listen to Jonah Keri's stance on the subject:

1. Lift the limit of 10 votes per ballot. Some voters' inflexibility on players linked to PEDs (or even players accused of being muscular) has created a backlog of viable candidates. What's more, the split on those players has caused a negative trickle-down effect for other deserving holdover candidates.
Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Mike Mussina, and Jeff Kent join this year's ballot, meaning writers who want to vote for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and the like have to exclude candidates they might find worthy in order to whittle down to 10. Hell, even writers who definitively refuse to vote for PED guys are running into this problem. But the 10-player ballot limit remains in place because … well, there's actually no reason, other than that's how it's always been. The good news is that some BBWAA members are speaking out. New York Times writer Tyler Kepner broached this at the winter meetings, arguing that the 10-candidate limit does more harm than good. While the idea met with some resistance at the higher levels, many rank-and-file BBWAA members supported Kepner's proposal, and the group voted overwhelmingly to form a committee to discuss this issue and other potential voting reforms.
Others have tried, unsuccessfully, to challenge the ballot limit in the past. But with Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz set to hit the ballot next year, and with no end in sight for the backlog, expect a growing chorus of support for reform.
2. Until no. 1 happens, abolish the 5 percent minimum threshold. With so many deserving candidates, some players who merit consideration are instead ignored, putting them at risk of not earning 5 percent of the overall vote and getting knocked off the ballot for good. We saw this last year, when first-time candidates Kevin Brown and Kenny Lofton were one-and-done; neither Brown nor Lofton was a slam dunk Hall of Famer by any stretch, and the fact that both are criminally underrated played a big role in them missing the cut, but some voters might have given Brown and Lofton the nod if they'd been allowed to go deeper than 10.
This year, players like Sammy Sosa (12.5 percent of the vote last time), Rafael Palmeiro (8.8 percent), and maybe Kent (the all-time leader in home runs by a second baseman) run the risk of suffering the same fate as Brown and Lofton. Again, I'm not saying Sosa and Palmeiro have perfect track records, especially to voters who won't back players suspected of PED use; nor am I denying that Kent's home runs came in an era rife with offense, or that he delivered only two truly elite seasons. But if lesser candidates like Jim Rice and Lee Smith can hang around for years and build support, it seems unfair to deny others that right simply because they became eligible when so many great candidates were also on the ballot.
As long as the 10-player limit exists, the 5 percent rule needs to go.

I think Keri misses an important point here:  change the criteria, and the way voters vote will change as well - how does the saying go?  "Water will always find its level."  To suggest that "all players who achieve 50% of the votes eventually make the Hall of Fame, so we should just reduce the percentage need to 50%" is oblivious to the attitudes voters would have.  Would they be more selective with whom they put on their ballot?  I would suggest it would.

So, where does this leave the candidates on this year's ballot?

I think four players will get elected this year, whom I'll write about in my next post.  This will "relieve" some of the pressure facing the BBWAA, but not all:  2015 is a stocked class as well.  But, should the 19 viable candidates split the voting in such a way that no one is elected again this year, I predict there will be major changes made to the voting process, starting with the ten player maximum (which in turn will allow Tim Kurkjian to vote for all the players on the ballot).  If no one is elected, I think they should institute the following:

  1. The top vote getter each year gets in.  The Hall of Fame has lost money 8 of the last 10 years, and not surprisingly, most of their money is earned during HOF weekend.  When Deacon Jones made it last year, not a lot of people came out to see his great-grandson accept it on his behalf.  By letting the top vote getter in, it would guarantee some type of crowd every year.
  2. I don't think the Veterans Committee is doing a great job.  We can talk about how the three managers elected this year overlooked the use of steroids on their team, and how players are penalized during this era when managers aren't...or not.   Personally, I think the Veterans Committee should be set up as a debate on players who have been off the ballot for a number of years...and the top vote getter gets in.  
But that's just me.  Besides those minor tweaks, I don't have a problem with the criteria for who gets to vote...or who gets in.  

Now if we could just deal with the PED issue...

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