The Broken Hall of Fame Voting Process
The Hall of Fame has a math problem—too many deserving candidates and too few ballot slots to elect them. This is not a new problem, although it is likely coming to a head in the soon to be released class of 2014 voting results on January 8th. The problem has been building for years, as either the voting rules (maximum ten votes per ballot) or the attitude of the voting body (unwillingness to expedite the election of unambiguously qualified candidates), has resulted in a backlog of “should be” Hall of Famers, still stuck on the Hall of Fame ballot. Couple this reality with the pool of super star candidates who are suspected of using performance enhancing drugs and the problem is compounded. Players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who would have been quick honorees are lingering on the ballot, likely to consume votes year-after-year until voters ultimately sort out their fate. The controversy over PEDs is like a tax on votes. By my count, over 30% of last year’s votes went to those who have been suspected by some of using steroids, drastically reducing the number of votes available to other worthy candidates.
The 2014 ballot introduces non-controversial HOF candidates—Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, and Mike Mussina—who are added to the list of clear cut HOFers—Biggio, Bagwell, Piazza, Raines, Alan Trammell, and Edgar Martinez. In addition, there are players who are on my HOF list, although I concede they will not be on everyone’s list—Curt Schilling, Fred McGriff and Larry Walker. Next, let’s add in the “absolutely HOFers, if not for steroid allegations”—Bonds and Clemens. Finally, I haven’t even mentioned Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Don Mattingly, Jack Morris, Lee Smith, and newcomer Jeff Kent who are likely to garner votes. The math simply does not add up.
I’m not writing to make the case for HOF candidates. We’ll save the merits or de-merits of various HOF candidates for another day. I want to focus on the election process. Let’s briefly look at the ballot history and make some assumptions about the 2014 ballot. In the past twenty years, we have seen as many as 581 ballots (2011) turned in by the eligible voters—the baseball writers who are members of the BBWAA. Over the same timeframe we have seen the average ballot contain six names, with a high of 6.7 names per ballot in 1999, the year that Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Robin Yount were voted into the Hall of Fame. Over the twenty years, we saw 28 players elected, an average of 1.4 per year.
For the upcoming 2014 election results, let’s assume that the number of ballots are at their all time high of 581, which is similar to the number of ballots submitted the last three years (569, 573, 581). This would require a player to reach 436 votes to achieve the 75% threshold of election. Let me create a best case scenario. In 2013 we saw an average of 6.6 names per ballot, but in our best case scenario let’s say that each 2014 ballot has an average of 8.6 names. This is a generous assumption (which is why it’s a best case scenario), since the last time we saw an average of 8.6 names per ballot (or greater) was 1960—54 years ago. Next, let’s assume that voters are consistent year-to-year and that most players who were on last year’s ballot receive the same number of absolute votes in 2014, with several notable exceptions:
- In his second year on the ballot, let’s say that 3000-hit Craig Biggio ups his percentage by four percentage points to 72.2%, still leaving him 16 votes short of election.
- Since many voters continue to view Bonds and Clemens as consensus HOFers, even before there was any suspicion of steroids, let’s assume that some writers avoided voting for them on their first appearance on the ballot in 2013, as a form of punishment. I’ll give them 6 additional percentage points of votes for their second year on the ballot, raising their totals to 42.2% (+39 votes vs. 2013) and 43.6% (+41 votes), respectively.
- Tim Raines has most deservedly increased his vote total each of the last five years (22.6%, 30.4%, 37.5%, 48.7%, 52.2%). Let’s assume that trend continues with a modest 3 percentage point increase to 55.2%.
- Jack Morris, in his last year of eligibility, is likely to see a push, which will fall short, but raise his vote total to 70% of the ballots from last year’s 67.7%
- Finally, voters will be in search of ballot space to vote for the most deserving candidates, so the support is likely to wane for Don Mattingly and Rafael Palmeiro, both of which will sink to 25 votes (from 75 and 50 last year) and will fall off the ballot, as they will dip below 5%.
The net result: Based on these assumptions, we are left with 1338 votes to allocate to ballot newcomers for 2014. This includes the 106 votes that went to Dale Murphy in 2013, his last year on the ballot. (Remember, 1338 remaining votes is based on an unprecedented one-year jump in votes per ballot from 6.6 to 8.6). I’ll assume that universally beloved Greg Maddux gets a vote on all but 30 ballots, which translates into 551 votes. This leaves only 787 votes for Glavine, Thomas, Mussina, Jeff Kent or for that matter all the remaining candidates on the ballot.
Under this scenario, I expect Maddux to be the lone inductee from this year’s BBWAA ballot, with Glavine and Thomas dividing the modest number of remaining votes to fall short of securing their rightful place in the Hall of Fame. (Former Hall of Fame senior research associate and longtime SABR member Bill Deane came to the same conclusion. You can read about his thought process in this blog post). I have serious concerns about Mike Mussina’s ability to remain on the ballot, given the anticipated voting dynamics, despite his impeccable credentials which place him slightly ahead of Glavine on my Hall of Fame candidate slate. Pitching his entire career in the tough AL East division, Mussina put up extraordinary numbers while facing opposing lineups that touted a .760 OPS. By comparison, Maddux and Glavine faced lineups that averaged .730 and .738 OPS, respectively.
The scenario I’ve laid out represents my best case scenario. If voters use only 8 votes per ballot versus the 8.6 I have assumed, we may see some big names—McGwire, Sosa, Mattingly, Palmeiro, Mussina, McGriff—fall off the ballot by not achieving the modest 5% minimum. The story does not end here. This is just the beginning. The ballot limitations of 10 votes and/or the mindset of the voters being stingy with their votes will compound itself in subsequent years as the backlog of deserving candidates grows quickly. In any of the plausible scenarios I see the problem getting worse rather than better as a result of the 2014 election. What would it take to begin to correct the problem? A “victory” for those who want to eliminate the glut of deserving candidates who are wallowing away on the ballot would require 6 or 7 players being voted into the HOF this year—a virtual impossibility, given the arithmetic. Treading water—not solving the problem, but not allowing it to worsen—would result in four players being voted in, such as Biggio, Maddux, Glavine , plus a 4th from the list of deserving candidates. This “tread water” scenario would take 5 players off the ballot and not worsen (nor help) the backlog. (Regardless of his fate, Jack Morris will come off the ballot after this vote).
For 2015, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, and Gary Sheffield are among the high quality candidates joining the ballot. From 2016 to 2018 we will add Ken Griffey, Jr., Pudge Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Jorge Posada, Vlad Guerrero, Jim Thome and Chipper Jones to an already bloated HOF ballot.
On a recent episode of Clubhouse Confidential on MLB Network, I discussed my hypothetical voting strategy (I am not a member of the BBWAA and do not have a vote) in the upcoming HOF elections. Given my assessment of the situation, I could no longer afford to vote for my ten most deserving candidates, because that approach would likely result in many worthy candidates falling off the ballot with less than 5% of the votes. My voting goals would be two-fold: First, vote for the candidates with the highest probability of being elected, in hopes of electing them and clearing ballot space for next year’s ballot. Second, vote for the deserving candidates on the lower end of the ballot, in order to protect their inclusion on future ballots. Who would I leave off my ballot? Those in the middle category—on my list it would likely be Bagwell and Piazza—deserving candidates who are not in jeopardy of falling off the ballot, but are not going to get elected this year. We are now in a situation that requires “gaming” the ballot, in order to gerrymander the broken process and preserve its original objectives—electing deserving candidates to the Hall of Fame.
In Washington this year we watched as lawmakers dealt with the “fiscal cliff.” In 2014 we will watch closely as the BBWAA and the Hall of Fame deal with the “ballot cliff” and explore ways to reform the voting process.