28 Dec
Not in Hall of Fame


Ten years. That is the new maximum length of time a player can remain on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, effective for the current (2015) ballot and for future ballots, a one-third reduction in eligibility length from the previous maximum of 15 years.

Oh, sure, there were other changes announced by the Hall on July 26 of this year: The voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA), those who are actually eligible to vote for the candidates on the ballot, must complete a registration form and sign a code of conduct before they can receive a ballot, with the code of conduct stating explicitly that the member will not transfer the ballot to another person or entity, and with the penalty for doing so being a lifetime ban from voting on a Hall of Fame ballot.

This is in response to last year's Dan le Batard incident, in which the Miami Herald sportswriter, to protest what he felt was the "moralizing" pervasive in recent voting to punish players on the ballot with performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) associations, "sold" his ballot to the sports website Deadspin and let the site complete the ballot. (Le Batard had Deadspin donate the money to a charity.) For his actions, le Batard was suspended from the BBWAA for one year, and he has been banned permanently from voting on Hall of Fame ballots starting with this one.

And starting with this year's vote, the names of all members who cast a ballot will be made public at the time the results are announced; however, how they voted will not be revealed unless the member does so of his or her own volition (as many voting members have been doing for some time).

But the big change is the reduction in the number of years of eligibility a candidate for the Hall of Fame may have to remain on the ballot. (Previous restrictions still apply: A candidate must collect at least five percent of the vote to remain on the ballot, and of course any candidate who collects at least 75 percent of the vote is thus elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.) The three candidates on the current ballot who have been on previous ballots for more than ten years already—Don Mattingly, Lee Smith, and Alan Trammell—will be grandfathered until they are elected, receive less than five percent of the vote, or reach their fifteenth year without election; Mattingly is in his fifteenth year currently.

Why the change to the number of years of eligibility? The answer is simple for anyone remotely aware of one of the two issues afflicting the ballot in recent years, and that is the logjam of qualified candidates for the Hall of Fame. The other issue is the question of players associated with PEDs. Both the Hall of Fame and the BBWAA have been grappling with these two issues for the past few years and will continue to do so. Let's look at these issues more closely.

Punting and Pontificating: Hall of Fame Ballot Issues

The good news is that we truly live in blessed times with respect to Hall of Fame-caliber players—there are so many of them. (In 2013, I identified 14 likely Hall of Famers on that ballot, and on last year's ballot I identified 18 likely Hall of Famers.) We live in an era of high talent compression, meaning that there are so many excellent players in the major leagues and have been for the last three decades—just check out any retrospective highlight-reel show.

The downside is that with so many quality players, so many of those have a harder time standing out from an impressive pack, making it in turn harder to recognize them as potential Hall of Famers. Nevertheless, they are on the ballot, and that is crux of the problem—even with a maximum of ten candidates a voter can choose on his or her ballot, there are still going to be candidates who deserve the recognition but will not get it in that voting year. Compounding that is the problem of mustering the minimum of 75 percent of the vote for each noteworthy candidate, who remains on subsequent ballots (provided each candidate receives at least five percent of the vote), and the cumulative result is a steadily growing number of qualified candidates as each year adds more candidates whose qualifications are also Hall-worthy.

And it is not as if the BBWAA is voting gratuitously, or has done so. The single largest class voted into the Hall by the writers was the inaugural Class of 1936, when five players were elected. It may go without saying that those early ballots were similarly overstuffed with qualified candidates, many of whom were eventually elected, but historically the BBWAA has been parsimonious: It has voted in four candidates in a single year only three times—even a blue moon occurs every two or three years—and the last time that happened was in 1955. (The previous two times were once each in the preceding two decades, in 1939 and in 1947, and in 1939 that fourth candidate, Lou Gehrig, was a special vote by acclamation stemming from Gehrig's forced retirement due to the ultimately fatal neurodegenerative disorder now named for him.) The writers have voted in three candidates on a single ballot seven times, most recently last year, but that too seems like an unlikely occurrence, with a frequency of about once per decade (about as often as the national census): Prior to 2014, the last three-player election was in 1999, with others occurring (in reverse order) in 1991, 1984, 1972, 1954, and 1937.

Six times the BBWAA was unable to elect a candidate, the most recent being 2013, when with a ridiculously overstuffed ballot the writers were unable to muster 75 percent for any one candidate; the other five years in which the BBWAA was unable to elect a candidate were 1950, 1958, 1960, 1971, and 1996. And since 1936, there have been 11 years in which no vote was held at all. The first two times were in 1940 and 1941, and after a vote in 1942 elected one player (Rogers Hornsby, and arguably the greatest right-handed hitter in baseball history squeaked into the Hall with 78.11 percent of the vote), the BBWAA held no voting from 1943 to 1946, resuming its voting in 1947 and making up for lost time by electing four players (Mickey Cochrane, Frankie Frisch, Lefty Grove, and Carl Hubbell). Then, from 1956 to 1966, the BBWAA voted only in alternate, odd-numbered years, with the veterans committee voting in even-numbered years, and from 1967 on the writers resumed annual voting.

In the 68 years from 1936 to 2014 during which the BBWAA held an annual vote, with six years in which a vote was held but no candidate elected, the writers have elected 102 players. That works out to exactly 1.5 candidates per year—and this year's ballot, as with the previous two years' ballots, certainly has more than one-and-a-half qualified candidates even if you remove any candidate with even a hint of association with performance-enhancing drugs.

The reason advanced by the Baseball Hall of Fame for shortening the time allotted for a candidate on a Hall ballot is that the large majority of players who have been elected have been elected within the first ten years of eligibility. (The BBWAA had no say in the decision; the BBWAA has been selected by the Baseball Hall of Fame to be its adjudicating body, but rules governing the conditions by which candidates are elected are the province of the Hall.)

Whether the Hall's rationale is valid or justified, whether it is a necessary measure to alleviate the ballot logjam, its consequences are crystal-clear: The Baseball Hall of Fame is punting responsibility for full consideration of a candidate's worthiness for the Hall of Fame to the Expansion Era Committee, the veterans committee for the period starting from 1973 that votes every three years and that currently comprises a mix of Hall of Fame members (both players and non-players), executives, and media members, although as it stands now the large majority of the individuals from each area change from session to session.

The rule change from 15 years to 10 years will have a short-term benefit, if the "benefit" is simply to remove candidates from the ballot. They may in fact be Hall of Fame-caliber candidates, and factors other than their perception of not being immediate and obvious Hall-worthy candidates may be significant ones, such as a voting member being limited to voting for no more than ten candidates on any one ballot, and the requirement that a candidate must receive at least 75 percent of the vote to be elected. But determination of whether a candidate who is not an immediate and obvious choice as a genuine Hall of Famer—or because of the ballot logjam simply cannot garner that required 75 percent—has now been removed from the writers after ten years and handed to the Expansion Era Committee sooner than had been the procedure previously.

The Expansion Era Committee, one of three separate veterans committees that include the Pre-Integration Era (1876–1946) and the Golden Era (1947–1972) Committees and that meet annually on a rotating basis, has met twice since the committees' 2010 inception. The Committee elected executive Pat Gillick in 2011 and in 2014 elected three managers—Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, and Joe Torre, although Torre was a near-Hall of Famer as a player. And in 2012 the Golden Era Committee did right a long-standing wrong and elected third baseman Ron Santo to the Hall. However, that Golden Era Committee met again this year for the 2015 class and did not elect one candidate from a field of ten, which included nine players.

That inability to elect a candidate, echoing the inability of the BBWAA to elect a candidate in 2013, has generated criticism of this year's Golden Era Committee in particular and the veterans committee process in general, and it suggests that the shortening of the term of eligibility on the BBWAA ballot from fifteen years to ten years is simply a stop-gap solution designed to clear the logjam but does nothing to rectify the issue of properly evaluating candidates and providing a fair mechanism to elect the deserving ones. (And with respect to this year's Golden Era Committee and its failure to elect even one candidate, I did recently a lengthy analysis of that Golden Era's ten candidates, nine players and one executive, and I concluded that although two or even three of the player-candidates came close to the Hall of Fame threshold, none were bona fide Hall of Famers who had been unfairly overlooked either by the writers or by previous veterans committees.)

Swept up—and swept under the rug—by the change in the term of eligibility are players with known or admitted associations with performance-enhancing drugs, and players merely suspected of having used PEDs even if there is no evidence of their having done so. They too are being shunted off the ballot and into the basket of issues that future Expansion Era Committees are now being asked to solve (or not), and although I do not think that the shortening of the term of eligibility was done specifically with the PEDs players in mind—Problem One is a much bigger one, and that is the logjam of qualified candidates regardless of "cleanliness"—it is a convenient by-product of the decision.

And, again, there should be no doubt by now that this year's ballot, as with ballots from the past several years and as with ballots for the next several years, are referendums on the Steroids Era—and it is crystal-clear what the majority opinion on the matter is: If a player has a PEDs association, whether actual or alleged, he is not going to receive a 75-percent majority of the votes needed for election. And as the other rule change instituted by the Hall of Fame this year makes clear, any attempt to protest this majority opinion, such as what Dan le Batard did by giving his ballot to a non-eligible entity, will be met by swift punishment: a one-year suspension from the BBWAA and a permanent ban from Hall of Fame voting. Of course, a voting member could protest within the restrictions—vote only for players with known or alleged PEDs associations—but that does little to solve the issue.

(What would be most intriguing, if highly unlikely, is if a protest as just described somehow managed to elect one or more of those tainted players to the Hall: Would the Hall, or Major League Baseball, find a reason to question the vote? Would this result in a voting audit? Would some restriction be instituted to somehow thwart the results? Or, if a player is invited to Cooperstown for the ceremony, would the ceremony take place—but all, or at least some, of the usual dignitaries send videotapes of congratulation, as what happened when Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron's career home-run record?)

We will not re-visit the PEDs issue here—I explored the issue at length during analysis of the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot—except to say that it has two near-absolute certainties: one is that the issue is not going away, even if some of the players implicated in the issue may be going away sooner thanks to the shortened time allotted on a ballot, and, two, the consensus is that any player simply suspected of PEDs involvement is highly unlikely to be elected to the Hall of Fame.

In sum, as the pontificating by BBWAA voting members over players with PEDs associations continues apace, the Hall of Fame has decided to punt overall deliberation of candidates away from the BBWAA and to the Expansion Era Committee (or whatever its equivalent may be in upcoming years) sooner rather than later by reducing the maximum time allotted on a ballot to ten years.

These two factors have an overriding effect on the evaluation of the qualification of a candidate for the Baseball Hall of Fame. How will voters react? Will there be a change in their approach? For my hypothetical ballot that I will reveal later in this article, these two factors have changed my perception of how I would vote if I had a vote in the 2015 Baseball Hall of Fame election. But before we get to that, let's look at the 34 candidates on that ballot.

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Last modified on Monday, 23 March 2015 17:28

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