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Cal Ripken Jr.: Pete Rose is a Hall of Fame player
Tuesday November 10th, 2015

On Monday, the Baseball Writers Association of America released the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot. As with Christmas decorations in stores, if you think it seems a bit early for such matters, you're not crazy. This year's announcement is the earliest in recent memory, roughly two weeks earlier than last year's ballot. It's also the smallest slate in four years, with 17 holdovers joined by 15 newcomers, of whom only Ken Griffey Jr. stands out as a lock for first-ballot induction. That would be a marked contrast to the past two voting cycles, which each saw three first-ballot honorees. And it's the smallest electorate in quite awhile. This is the first ballot after a rule change by the Hall of Fame's board of directors, announced this past July, that took the vote away from nearly one-quarter of previously eligible BBWAA members.

How those downsizings will affect this year's process is an open question, one I'll discuss more in the coming weeks, along with in-depth examinations of each candidate using my JAWS system. (Short version: JAWS stands for Jaffe WAR Score system, in which I examine a player's Hall of Fame worthiness by comparing him to other already enshrined players from the same position, using the player's Wins Above Replacement for their career, their best seven seasons and their average of those two figures.) Below I'll take a look at the five biggest questions attached to this year's cycle, but first, it's worth reviewing the basics.

To be eligible for election to the Hall of Fame via the BBWAA ballot, a candidate must have played in the majors for parts of 10 years (one game is sufficient to be counted as a year in this context), been out of the majors for five years (the minors or foreign leagues don't count), and then nominated by two members of the BBWAA's six-member screening committee. Since the ballot is titled by the induction year, not the year of its release, the current slate of eligible players last appeared in the majors no later than 2010. Each of the new candidates has 10 years of eligibility on the ballot, a reduction from the 15-year period that was in effect for several decades.

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To be elected, a candidate must receive at least 75% of the ballots cast; each voter is allowed to list up to 10 candidates, a number that's become a point of contention in recent years. Candidates who don't receive at least five percent fall off the ballot and can then only be considered for election by the Expansion Era Committee, which is an entirely separate process. Ballots must be mailed by Dec. 24, with the results to be announced on MLB Network on Jan. 6. The induction ceremony will take place next July 24 in Cooperstown, N.Y.

The 32 candidates, with the 15 newcomers in bold, are: Garret Anderson, Brad Ausmus, Jeff Bagwell, Barry Bonds, Luis Castillo, Roger Clemens, David Eckstein, Jim Edmonds, Nomar Garciaparra, Troy Glaus, Ken Griffey Jr., Mark Grudzielanek, Mike Hampton, Trevor Hoffman, Jason Kendall, Jeff Kent, Mike Lowell, Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff, Mark McGwire, Mike Mussina, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling, Gary Sheffield, Lee Smith, Sammy Sosa, Mike Sweeney, Alan Trammell, Billy Wagner, Larry Walker, Randy Winn.

David Liam Kyle for Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

On to the five biggest questions:

1. What kind of impact will the changed electorate have?

To be eligible to vote in a Hall of Fame election, a writer or editor must be a member of the BBWAA for 10 consecutive years. Previously, upon reaching that status, a voter retained the privilege for the rest of his or her lifetime—even after ceasing to cover the game—via honorary BBWAA membership, though not everyone with that privilege actually took advantage of it. With the rule change, members who are more than 10 years removed from active coverage will no longer automatically be included in the voting. Instead, they'll have to re-apply, with the decision based upon how many games they covered in the previous year.

According to MLB.com's Barry Bloom, while 625 ballots were sent out last year, only around 475 were mailed on Monday, a reduction of 24%. Nobody knows the exact impact such a move will have, but based upon the work of Ryan Thibodaux, who has created a comprehensive system of tracking ballots, those who publish theirs either before or after the announcement of the voting results, often accompanied by detailed explanations of their reasoning, tend to be more inclusive. In 2015, the contents of 59.9% of the ballots were released either before or after the election; the average public ballot contained 8.72 names, the average private one 7.97, a difference of about nine percent.

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In comparing the public versus private voting results back in July, I found no particular bias for or against players linked to performance-enhancing drugs, given that candidates such as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa received more support from the unpublished masses, while Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens received less. Nor did I find a particular bias against pitchers with fewer than 300 wins, which was something of a surprise given how the use of that stat as a means of analyzing pitchers has fallen out of favor in the past decade.

What I did find was that the players with the largest falloffs between public and private voting shares are ones that my JAWS system identifies as above-average candidates. The seven players whose percentages on the private ballot were at least 10 points lower than the public ones were all JAWS-approved, as were 11 of the 12 who were lower by at least one percentage point. Meanwhile, only two of the 10 who received more support via the unpublished ballots were JAWS approved.

Some back-of-the-envelope math suggests that—assuming the published ballots represent the will of 80% of the electorate instead of 60%—the most extreme cases might add around 2.5 percentage points to an individual candidate. That's enough to be a difference-maker given recent close calls such as Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven in 2011 or Craig Biggio in '14, all of whom missed by eight or fewer votes and were elected the next year. For a candidate who's running out of time, such as Tim Raines, it could be the difference between gaining entry via the BBWAA process either this year or next versus having his case kicked over to the Expansion Era Committee; because the latter group votes on a triennial cycle, Raines wouldn't be eligible for consideration again until 2020 at the earliest.

More important than swaying the vote in favor of any particular candidate, however, the rule change increases the transparency of the process at a time when it is under more scrutiny than ever. Some will argue that by preventing many who covered holdover candidates in their heydays and have long since retired, like those players, it harms the process; shouldn't writers with more first-hand experience covering, say, Alan Trammell be the ones voting on him? (Note: it hasn't mattered). In my view, it makes more sense to ensure that the voters staying abreast of the game have a greater say in the process, while those further removed from coverage have less say.

2. Griffey may be a lock, but what about Hoffman, the former all-time saves leader?

With 630 career home runs (sixth all-time), 13-All-Star appearances, 10 Gold Gloves, an MVP award and—unlike several other candidates connected to the era's stratospheric home run totals—a sterling reputation with no reported connection to performance-enhancing drugs, Griffey is likely to receive about 90% of the vote.

The fate of Hoffman is less clear. To date, only five pitchers are enshrined for their work as relievers: Hoyt Wilhelm (elected in 1985), Rollie Fingers ('92), Dennis Eckerlsey (2004), Bruce Sutter ('06) and Goose Gossage ('08). Wilhelm and Fingers were pioneering firemen who held the all-time saves record for lengthy stretches (1964 to '80 for the former, 1980 to '92 for the latter), and Eckersley and Sutter were pioneers. Eckersley, who converted to the bullpen after his best days as a starter were behind him, became the model for the one-inning closer while helping the A's to three straight pennants; Sutter was the first successful practitioner of the split-finger fastball as well as the first closer whose usage was restricted largely to save situations. Gossage was the model for the hair-on-fire heat-thrower, an exemplar of dominance and a staple of three pennant-winners.

Of the next two pitchers to take over the all-time saves lead, Jeff Reardon (1992) and Lee Smith (1993 to '06), the former received just 4.8% of the vote in his lone year on the ballot (2000) while the latter peaked at 50.6% in his 10th year on the ballot ('12) but has since seen his support recede, even as he's been grandfathered into the eligibility window rule change. He received 30.2% in 2015, his 13th year on the ballot, and isn't likely to make up the necessary ground before the clock runs out next year.

Which brings us to Hoffman, who pitched from 1993 to 2010 for the Marlins, Padres and Brewers, earned All-Star honors seven times, broke Smith's record in ‘06 and held it until 2011, when Mariano Rivera surpassed him. Though he struck out more than a batter per inning over the course of his career, Hoffman was not a power pitcher; instead, he was a master of the change-up. That actually puts him in similar company to the knuckleballing Wilhelm, the split-dependent Sutter and cutter king Rivera, when it comes to riding a signature pitch to fame.

John W. McDonough for Sports Illustrated

But will it show up in the votes? The popularization of Wins Above Replacement has helped to illustrate the limited value that relief pitchers, even the best closers, provide compared to starters and position players because of their one-inning-at-a-time, 50–70 innings per year model. Thus, one has to place a particularly outsized importance on those final three outs to justify finding room in the pantheon for a pitcher such as Hoffman. He compiled just 28.4 WAR in his career, a number lower than that of 12 other relievers including all of the enshrinees except Fingers, plus Smith (29.6) and non-Hall of Famers like Tom Gordon (35.3), John Hiller (30.9) and Ellis Kinder (29.0). Consider that journeyman starters like Freddy Garcia (35.7) and Livan Hernandez (31.1) were more valuable during their less-distinguished careers than Hoffman.

Not exactly helping matters on this front is Hoffman's comparison to fellow first-time candidate Billy Wagner. Hoffman's 601 saves are 179 more Wagner, who threw about 20% fewer innings over the course of his career but struck out more hitters, finished with an ERA more than half a run lower (2.31 versus 2.87) and had a similar WAR (28.1). Both pitchers have identical JAWS of 24.0 (Hoffman's WAR from his seven-season peak was 19.6, Wagner's 19.9). It's a stretch to say that most voters are mindful of such matters, but a growing contingent is, at least conceptually regarding the value of the one-inning closer. While BBWAA voters used to reward relievers with the occasional Cy Young award (seven from 1974 to 2003), with a few doubling up with MVP awards in the same year, no reliever has won a Cy Young since then-Dodger Eric Gagne took home NL honors in 2003. Hoffman did finish second twice, in 1998 and 2006, but that doesn't mean he'd fare as well if those elections were held today.

Particularly in this crowded ballot, I suspect Hoffman will have a significant contingent of supporters—not enough to gain the necessary 75% this year, though I do think he'll be elected eventually.

3. What about fellow newcomer Jim Edmonds?

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One of the more intriguing candidates on the ballot is the former Angels and Cardinals (and briefly Brewers and Cubs) centerfielder, a lifetime .284/.376/.527 hitter who mashed 393 home runs and seemingly made that many highlight-reel worthy catches as well en route to winning eight Gold Gloves. He does have some significant shortages in terms of both traditional stats ("only" 1,949 hits) and advanced ones (his 51.4 JAWS is notably below the average Hall of Fame centerfielder's 57.2); via my system he rates behind Kenny Lofton (who fell off the ballot after his lone appearance in 2013), Carlos Beltran and Andruw Jones (neither of whom is eligible yet) among centerfielders, and holdover outfielders Larry Walker and Gary Sheffield may have stronger cases as well. Still, I'm looking forward to a closer examination of his career and credentials in my annual series.

4. Is this the year holdovers like Raines, Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza get elected?

This year's ballot contains three candidates who received more than 50% of the vote last year. Piazza is the top holdover, having received 69.9% in 2015, his third year of eligibility. History strongly suggests he'll make up the remaining ground. Since 1966, only one player out of 22 who received at least 69% in a given year failed to reach 75% the next year: Roy Campanella, who netted the same 69.9% in 1967, inched to 72.4% in '68 and exceeded 75% in '69.

Bagwell should benefit from this relatively thin crop of first-year candidates, as he has yet to build on his 2013 high-water mark of 59.6%. Since then, he's taken a back seat to ballot debutantes Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Frank Thomas in '14, and then Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz in '15. Bagwell's longtime Houston teammate, Craig Biggio, was the lone holdover to gain entry to the Hall in that span. Bagwell received 55.7% last year, his fifth on the ballot, meaning that he's reached the halfway point. He's got ample time to make up the remaining ground, but gaining 20 points in a single year is difficult.

Likewise for Raines, the player most hurt by the Hall's 2014 decision to trim the eligibility window from 15 years to 10, a move that appears designed to curtail the visibility of PED-linked candidates who have lagged in voter support relative to their numbers and accolades. That decision cut Raines' remaining eligibility from eight years to three. While he gained more ground last year than any other holdover, jumping from 46.1% to 55.0%, his net gain since 2013 is just 2.8 points. He'll need to find a whole lot more support to beat the throw to the plate, so to speak.

5. Where is Chan Ho Park?

Looking over the list of newcomers, there are certainly a few who stick out as players with absolutely zero chance of election, such as Troy Glaus, Mark Grudzielanek and Mike Lowell. For such players, some of whom may have won awards and many of whom helped win championships, merely getting onto the ballot is the final stop of their fine careers, one more chance to take a bow and receive attention for their distinguished service. Though the minimum requirement for addition to the Hall of Fame ballot is 10 seasons, as noted above, not every eligible player who attains that level makes it past the screening committee and onto the ballot, and weird things can happen along the fringes. In 2014, for example, Esteban Loaiza (the runner-up in the AL Cy Young voting in 2003) and outfielder Shannon Stewart (fourth in the AL MVP voting that same season) were left off the ballot while Armando Benitez and Jacque Jones made the cut.

This year's recipient of the ballot screw job is Park, who spent 17 years in the majors (1994 to 2010) with seven different teams, compiling a 124-98 record and a 4.36 ERA while pitching for five teams that made the postseason and earning All-Star honors once. It's obvious he's not a Hall of Famer, but Park does have status as a pioneer: He’s the first Korean-born player to reach the majors and to make an All-Star team. At a time when the pipeline of Korean talent is increasingly open,—Jung-Ho Kang played a significant role on the Pirates' wild card team in 2015 and Byung-Ho Park (no relation) had his posting rights awarded to the Twins on the same day the ballot was revealed—this is a careless oversight. Like Hideo Nomo, who blazed a trail for modern Japanese players to come to the majors, Park deserves the recognition that comes with a spot on the ballot.

In the next several days, we at SI.com will lay out a schedule for my JAWS evaluations of the holdovers and newcomers as well as a look at the Pre-Integration ballot, which was inexplicably announced on Oct. 2, the Friday of the regular season’s final weekend. And we'll keep discussing the Hall of Fame and its candidates right up until the day of the announcement.

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