There's no such thing as a perfect Hall of Fame ballot. As with last year, that's true again this time around. Even with the possibility of the writers electing at least three players for the second year in a row — something that hasn't happened since 1954-55 — the BBWAA's 2015 Hall of Fame ballot contains a backlog of qualified candidates, more than can fit into the maximum of 10 slots each voter is allowed. With any change in that limit at least a year away, and with ballots required to be postmarked by Dec. 27 (yes, the Hall still works in analog), each voter has to make some extremely difficult and often unpopular choices in order to participate in the process, leaving off deserving candidates and decreasing the likelihood that even the worthiest are elected this year.
As I have pointed out at length in the past, this problem has multiple causes. Currently, there exists a significant split in the electorate regarding how to handle candidates linked to performance-enhancing drugs, with little direction from the institution itself. Beyond that lies the fact that the 10-slot rule dates all the way back to 1936, when the Hall of Fame first empowered the writers to vote, and it's remained at 10 despite the major leagues nearly doubling in size from 16 to 30 teams. That has created a bottleneck via which voters have failed to keep pace in terms of electing modern players — not just those who played in the 1990s, but also in the '70s and '80s as well. Limiting the field to those elected by the BBWAA, my research shows that the average number of active Hall of Fame players per team per season from 1923 through 1941 is 1.5. From 1946 through 1988, that level falls to 1.34; it's been below 1.0 since 1988, and below 0.5 since 1993.
This past year, I was part of an eight-member BBWAA committee charged with reviewing the Hall of Fame voting process with an eye toward proposing changes to it. We examined various ideas, from lowering the threshold for election down from 75 percent, to expanding beyond 10 slots to 12, 15 or even an unlimited number — the so-called "Binary Ballot," as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold recently termed it — to doing away with the five percent minimum eligibility requirement or changing the threshold based upon the number of years a candidate has been on the ballot, and so on.
Meanwhile, the Hall of Fame unilaterally enacted its own change, curtailing the window of eligibility for each candidate on the writers' ballot from 15 years to 10 — a move that's transparently aimed at curtailing the public debate about PED-linked candidates who otherwise might have spent more than a decade and a half falling short of the magic percentage. In time, such a move could break up the ballot's bottleneck, albeit without helping to increase the pace of players elected, particularly when one considers that the various Veterans Committees charged with picking over the BBWAA's leftovers haven't elected a living former player since the 2001 cycle.
Long story short, since not everybody within the BBWAA believes that the current ballot process is a problem, and since the final decision on any change rests with an inherently conservative institution that is clearly unwilling to undertake a radical restructuring, the recommendation that we passed at the recent Winter Meetings in San Diego was to increase from 10 slots to 12. A formal proposal to the Hall of Fame is in the works, but once it's submitted, the final decision on that move rests with the institution, and won't be enacted in time for this election.
That leaves each voter still stuck with the problem of getting to 10. Since I have only been a part of the BBWAA for the past four years, I won't officially have a ballot until the 2021 election cycle (players whose final year is in 2015). Thankfully, the hours I put into my annual ballot reviews and my deeper research into the process have translated into voters using my system to aid their choices, either publicly or privately. Since I'm a glutton for punishment, I need to cap my evaluation process by cutting my list down to 10 as well.
So let's get down to business. Strictly speaking, of the 34 candidates, 12 exceed the JAWS standard — the average of the enshrined players at their position — and 10 do so by topping the career, peak and JAWS standards across the board. Two others exceed the career and JAWS standards while falling short in peak, two more exceed the standards on peak alone, and two are close enough with regards to what I'll call "hybrid standards," taking into account their time in multiple roles that limited their Wins Above Replacement totals. Here are those 16 players:
The numbers in bold are those that exceed the standards at their position. I'm not going to rehash the individual cases; you can read about why I've got no Fred McGriff, no Mark McGwire, no Gary Sheffield and no Jeff Kent here. As to why I've got PED-linked candidates Bonds and Clemens as part of this, the very short and oversimplified answer is that in my process, I draw a line between the pre-testing era (prior to 2004) and the testing era, so I'm not ruling out anyone on the basis of that which was not punishable by Major League Baseball. Even with Bonds (34.7 percent in 2014) and Clemens (35.4 percent) unlikely to reach 75 percent this year, I'm sticking to that principle, particularly given those two players' otherwise overwhelming credentials.
I am, however, ruling out Sosa, because despite exceeding the peak standard among rightfielders, he's too far away to make up the ground on the factors that JAWS doesn't cover — mainly awards, postseason play and historical importance. Likewise, I'm ruling out Garciaparra, whose career was just too short. So I'm down to 14, which means that I only have 1,001 separate combinations of 10 candidates to sift through.
The easy way out would be to go with either the top 10 in terms of JAWS margin or the 10 who top the standards in all three categories, leaving Schilling, Mussina, Biggio and Smoltz on the cutting room floor. I'm not ready to pull that switch, however. Nor am I willing to take a game-theory approach and pass up voting for Johnson or Pedro Martinez on the grounds that both are locks to get in anyway; I've considered the idea, but I'm just not comfortable with a strategy that perverts the process so drastically. Those two pitchers clear their bars by a wide enough margin to be must-haves; with them, Clemens and Bonds, I've filled up four spots and need to turn the remaining 10 players into six.
Make that eight into four: the overwhelming credentials of Bagwell (via JAWS, the sixth-best first baseman of all time and the second-best since World War II behind Albert Pujols) and Piazza (the best-hitting catcher of all time, with enough defense to rank fifth in JAWS), and the margins by which they exceed the standards, are more than enough for me. Additionally, I'm happy to take a stand against the whisper campaigns against each, where some voters have offered their own suspicions as to illegal PED use, but without substantiation.
It's time for a harsh dose of pragmatism. In my eyes, Trammell is more than qualified; statistically, he belongs in the class with the great '80s shortstops who are already enshrined (Cal Ripken, Robin Yount, Ozzie Smith), and his case is the equal of 2012 enshrinee Barry Larkin. But on the writers' ballot, he's a lost cause. He's never received more than 36.8 percent of the vote — less than half of what he needs for enshrinement — and even having been grandfathered into the rule change so as to preserve his 15-year eligibility period, he's not going to make up the remaining ground before his time is up. I hate to bump him, particularly as I've supported his candidacy since I began evaluating Hall of Fame ballots for the 2002 cycle (pre-JAWS, at my Futility Infielder blog), but as with last year, I see no realistic alternative.
While the deck would appear to be similarly stacked against Raines, whose remaining eligibility was cut from eight years to three by the rule change, the facts that he topped 50 percent of the vote in 2013 (52.1 percent, to be exact) — a significant indicator of eventual election — and that he ranks eighth among leftfielders by my system, the highest of any of my remaining candidates, mean that I'm including him.
I’m down to three spots for the six remaining candidates. Let's summarize the case in favor of each — beyond their JAWS ranking and 2014 voting share — in 30 words or less for the lightning round:
• Schilling (27th in JAWS among starters, 29.2 percent): Best postseason pitcher of his generation, outstanding strikeout rate and best strikeout-to-walk ratio since the pitching distance moved to 60-foot-6.
• Mussina (28th among starters, 20.8): Long-term success at run prevention despite spending his entire career in the AL East, with an outstanding strikeout rate.
• Martinez (11th among third basemen, 25.2): Not just the best DH of all time but also 12th in OBP and 25th in OPS (8,000 PA minimum), with 500-plus average-ish games at 3B to bolster his value.
• Walker (10th among rightfielders, 10.2): Outstanding at defense and base running as well as hitting. After adjusting for altitude, 36th all-time in OPS+.
• Biggio (14th among second basemen, 74.8): 3,000 hit club member, All-Star at catcher and second. Adjust for his time behind the plate, and he's very close to up-the-middle standard (C, 2B, SS, CF).
• Smoltz (58th among starters, first year): Cy Young winner, outstanding strikeout rate and postseason track record, co-anchor of Braves dynasty. Adjust for his time as an elite closer, and he's above a hybrid starter/reliever standard.
While I would be proud to vote for any of those six, when I look at it like this, framing each candidate in the most positive light I can, I'm taking Schilling over Mussina on the basis of peak and postseason, because the comparison is inevitable. I went the other way last year out of concern that Mussina would fall off the ballot (he got 20.8 percent), but he doesn’t appear to be in danger. I'm also taking Biggio, because he fell two votes short last year; I axed him from my final 10 as well, but in the interest of not standing in the way of an imminent honoree — and of alleviating a bit of the traffic up top — this time he gets my nod.
I hate to do it, but I'm trimming Walker, whom I believe is worthy but whose short career and low voting percentage through his first four cycles suggest that he's heading for the no man’s land of Trammell. That leaves Martinez and Smoltz for the final spot. I could easily go with the consensus and tab Smoltz, who may well get in on the first ballot, setting up the possibility of four honorees for the first time since 1955.
I could do that, and I don't blame any voter for doing so, nor will I be surprised or disappointed if he gets in, for in my eyes, he deserves his plaque. But in the context of my process, I refuse to back down on Edgar Martinez, who's been hurt by the rule change nearly as much as Raines, and who with this ballot is more than halfway to his 10-year window. By not casting a vote for Smoltz, I'm bringing game theory into this despite my own reservations, but that's the way it crumbles, cookie-wise. That leaves my virtual ballot as follows:
On: Bagwell, Biggio, Bonds, Clemens, Johnson, E. Martinez, P. Martinez, Piazza, Raines, Schilling
Off, with sincere regrets: Mussina, Smoltz, Trammell, Walker
Back on Dec. 16, I went to MLB Network to tape a Hall of Fame-themed episode of MLB Now that’s scheduled to air on Dec. 31; voters Jon Heyman and Marty Noble were the other guests. We discussed several candidates at length over the course of the hour-long show, and after they revealed their final ballots during the show’s closing segment, I reeled off my own. It’s the same as what’s above, even though I swore to myself I would re-examine every possible angle before posting what I consider to be my official final 10. In the end, I’ve wound up in the same place.
As many a voter will tell you after completing their ballots, it’s not a comfortable place. So much so that thoughtful, high-profile voters such as ESPN’s Buster Olney and the Detroit News’ Lynn Henning are among those who have opted to abstain, on the grounds that 10 is an arbitrary limit whose time has passed, and that by not voting for one of their choices beyond the 10th, they’re harming the chances of those candidates by lowering their voting percentage. Check the other ballots linked via Ryan Thibs’ public ballot tracker and you’ll find many other voters on that spectrum as well.
That discomfort is why I continue to invest time and energy into changing a flawed system. While I don’t have a vote yet, I do have a voice, and I intend to keep using it.