Three thoughts on 2015's sterling quartet of Hall of Fame inductees
It's a bumper crop for the Hall of Fame! On Tuesday afternoon, the BBWAA announced the results of this year's voting, and from among the 549 ballots cast, four candidates topped the necessary 75 percent: Randy Johnson (97.3 percent), Pedro Martinez (91.1 percent), John Smoltz (82.9 percent) and Craig Biggio (82.7 percent). Johnson, Martinez and Smoltz were all elected in their first year of eligibility, while for Biggio, the third time was the charm. The bronze plaques of this esteemed quartet will be presented at the induction ceremony on July 26 in Cooperstown.
Here are three quick thoughts on this year's class:
• Modern History: This is the first time since 1955 that the writers have elected four players in a single election, and just the third time they've produced a quartet in 71 election cycles, some of which were conducted on a biennial or triennial basis. In 1947, Mickey Cochrane, Frankie Frisch, Lefty Grove and Carl Hubbell all got the nod, and in 1955, it was Joe DiMaggio, Gabby Hartnett, Ted Lyons and Dazzy Vance. It's also the first time since 1954-55 that the writers have elected at least three candidates in back-to-back years. With Mike Piazza (69.9 percent) in the close-but-no-cigar category, the writers came within 28 votes of electing their first quintet since the 1936 inaugural class of Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner.
When the ballot was released back on Nov. 24, the election of Johnson, with his 303 career wins and five Cy Young awards, appeared to be a foregone conclusion. That of Martinez seemed like a near-certainty as well, given his three Cy Youngs and despite his only having 216 wins (the electorate hadn’t tabbed a pitcher with fewer than 268 since 1987). Likewise, Biggio appeared to be a lock after falling just two votes short last year, particularly since no modern member of the 3,000 hit club has been forced to wait at all, save for Rafael Palmeiro, whose positive drug test doomed his candidacy, and Pete Rose, whose lifetime suspension for gambling prevented him from ever reaching the ballot.
Somewhat more surprising was the election of Smoltz. Though inevitably linked to 2014 honorees Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux as anchors of the Braves' dynasty that reached the playoffs 14 times between 1991 and 2005, winning five pennants, Smoltz's three-and-a-half seasons spent as a closer suppressed his career numbers on both traditional and sabermetric fronts. Even so, he received over 87 percent of the vote from among the 202 individual ballots published prior to the election and logged at Ryan Thibs' Hall of Fame Ballot Tracker. Whether it was a coattail effect or the extra veneer of versatility lent to him by that mid-career move, he outdid my own projection from last year, which had him lingering on the ballot until 2017, his third try.
• Beefy ballots: The total number of ballots (549) was the lowest since 2010, about 25 short of the average in the four cycles prior to this year, but those who did vote filled their ballots nearly to the max. The 8.42 votes per ballot was the highest average since the writers returned to annual voting in 1966, up from 8.39 last year — which itself was the first time since 1986 that the average was even above 7.0. Consider how drastic a turnaround it's been: In 2012, when Barry Larkin was elected, voters used just 5.1 slots per ballot, the lowest average since at least 1966. In 2013, when the writers failed to elect anyone for the first time since 1996, that figure nonetheless climbed to 6.6.
Looking at it another way, 51 percent of voters used all 10 slots this year, the highest percentage since at least 1966. Fifty percent did so last year, up from 22 percent the year before. According to BBWAA secretary/treasurer Jack O'Connell, who has handled the voting since 1995, only one other time during his tenure was it even above 20 percent (he did not specify which year).
• Good news for Piazza, Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines: When I wrote my election day preview on Monday, Thibs' tracker — which sampled more than 25 percent of the electorate and was above 30 percent by midnight — had Piazza polling above 79 percent, Raines and Bagwell above 68 and 66 percent, respectively, and Curt Schilling above 54 percent. All lost considerable ground among the voters who did not reveal their ballots prior to the announcement of the results, as did many of the candidates below them. That's because that sample of the electorate isn't entirely representative; it almost certainly skews younger, more technologically savvy, more open to advanced statistical analysis and more inclusive ("large Hall") than the average voter. In my preview, the average published ballot used 8.99 names, well above the final mark of 8.42.
Even so, the news is still encouraging. Piazza, who debuted with a strong 57.8 percent in 2013 and then climbed to 62.2 percent last year — making him the only candidate aside from Biggio to gain ground amid a flood of strong candidates — gained considerable ground again. With Ken Griffey Jr. the only newcomer likely to gain first-ballot entry next year, the man with a legitimate claim as the best-hitting catcher in history is poised to join him. Yes, four election cycles is three longer than it should have taken for a player with his credentials, but he’ll be in there just the same.
For Bagwell (55.7 percent) and Raines (55.0 percent), topping that 50 percent threshold is significant given that only Gil Hodges and Jack Morris have polled that high and not eventually gained election via one route or another (Morris may eventually do so via the Expansion Era committee anyway). Both candidates have passed this way before. Bagwell, who peaked at 59.0 percent in 2013 but fell back to 54.3 percent last year, restored some momentum and will probably gain more significant ground next year. Raines reached 52.2 percent in 2013, but slipped back to 46.1 percent in 2014. His strong rebound opens up the possibility that he can gain entry before his suddenly-truncated tenure on the writers ballot — unilaterally decreased from 15 years to 10 by the Hall of Fame's rule change this past summer — expires. The news wasn't as encouraging for Schilling, but even so, he climbed from 29.9 percent to 39.2 percent.