Wednesday December 23rd, 2015

At the risk of sounding like a broken record—because this is the third year in a row that I've written it—there is no such thing as a perfect Hall of Fame ballot. Even with the Baseball Writers Association of America electing seven players over the past two election cycles, the 2016 ballot is backlogged, with more qualified candidates than can fit into the maximum 10 slots that each voter is allowed. Recognizing this, a BBWAA committee (of which I was part) formally proposed expanding the maximum to 12 slots back in February, but the Hall's board of directors ultimately tabled—but did not outright reject—the proposal with only the barest minimum of explanation, leaving the 10-slot ballot in place for at least another year. Thus, the electorate, which has been pared down to eliminate approximately 90 voters who are at least 10 years removed from actively covering the game, is faced with difficult choices.

JAWS and the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot: Schedule for write-ups

In an ideal world, a voter can fill out his or her ballot entirely according to merit, selecting every candidate who meets the Hall of Fame standards by his or her own reckoning. This is the so-called "binary ballot," to use the term of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold, the current BBWAA president; it asks simply, “Was his career worthy of the Hall of Fame?” Stuck here in a messier reality, any voter who identifies more than 10 candidates worthy of the honor is required to perform a kind of triage, selecting his or her top 10 while hoping that the traffic abates enough to allow consideration of worthy ones left off next year and weighing tough questions. "Is this the year I stop being part of the morality police?" is a sentiment I've heard more than one voter ask aloud when considering whether it's time to vote for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. "Do I want to be the one who catches hell for leaving [Player X] off the ballot, when he doesn't need my vote nearly as badly as [Player Y]?" is another such question. "Will [Player Z] even be around to consider next year if I don't vote for him this time?" is yet another.

Are more than 10 candidates at a time worthy of the game's highest honor? Study the history of the Hall of Fame and its honorees and you'll quickly be reminded that they can't all be Willie Mays. While voting for everyone better than Bad Choice Player Q based on a lowest common denominator standard isn't the right answer, it's clear that the writers and the institution have failed to keep pace in terms of electing modern players—not just those who played in the 1990s and 2000s, 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 '41 is 1.5. From 1946 through '88, that level falls to 1.34. It's below 1.0 since 1993 and below 0.5 since '98, all of which is to say that based on historical standards, we're missing 15 to 20 Hall of Famers from the post-strike era.

Some of that, as well as the ballot's backlog, owes to the split in the electorate regarding how to how to handle candidates linked to performance-enhancing drugs. The Hall has provided little direction in this matter beyond passive aggression, unilaterally truncating candidates’ eligibility window from 15 years to 10 and thus decreasing the volume of debate around the likes of Mark McGwire (whose final year of eligibility is now this year, instead of 2021, as understood when he debuted) and friends.

Despite all of the work I put into my annual series and into Hall of Fame research in general in the service of my forthcoming book, I do not yet have a ballot of my own; under BBWAA rules, I am still five years away from that privilege. Nonetheless, every year I create my virtual ballot to illustrate the hard choices a voter faces. As always, I am guided by my JAWS system but not enslaved by it, for there are considerations that a Wins Above Replacement-based methodology—which can account for the widespread variations in scoring from era to era and ballpark to ballpark (producing the occasional double take)—can't capture, including postseason contributions, awards and honors and historical importance.

Of the 32 candidates on this year's ballot, 11 exceed the JAWS standard, the average of the enshrined players at their position, and nine of them do so by topping the career WAR, peak WAR and JAWS standards across the board. Two others exceed the career and JAWS standards while falling short on peak; two more exceed the standards on peak alone. Three others are what I will call "candidates of interest:" players who fall shy on JAWS but about whom I remain particularly open-minded, for reasons that I'll explain below. That leaves 16 players for my first-cut list:

player years career peak jaws margin
Barry Bonds 4 162.4 72.7 117.6 64.3
Roger Clemens 4 140.3 66.3 103.3 41.2
Ken Griffey Jr. 1 83.6 53.9 68.8 11.6
Jeff Bagwell 6 79.6 48.2 63.9 9.7
Mike Piazza 4 59.4 43.1 51.2 8.1
Alan Trammell 15 70.4 44.6 57.5 2.8
Curt Schilling 4 79.9 49.0 64.5 2.4
Tim Raines 9 69.1 42.2 55.6 2.3
Mike Mussina 3 83.0 44.5 63.8 1.7
Edgar Martinez 7 68.3 43.6 56.0 1.0
Larry Walker 6 72.6 44.6 58.6 0.5
Jim Edmonds 1 60.3 42.5 51.4 -5.8
Sammy Sosa 4 58.4 43.7 51.0 -7.1
Billy Wagner 1 28.1 19.9 24.0 -10.4
Trevor Hoffman 1 28.4 19.6 24.0 -10.4
Nomar Garciaparra 2 44.2 43.0 43.6 -11.1

The numbers in bold are those that exceed the standards at their position, and the last column is the margin by which each player exceeds or falls short of the JAWS standard. For space considerations, I'm not going to rehash why I have no McGwire, no Fred McGriff, no Gary Sheffield and no Jeff Kent here; you can read their cases elsewhere.

My first cuts are the easiest: Sosa and Garciaparra. Slammin' Sammy, despite exceeding the peak standard among rightfielders, is too far away in the other two categories to make up the ground on the factors that JAWS doesn't cover. Nomar's career just wasn't long enough to justify my vote, though the fact that he received enough electoral support to survive to a second ballot is testament to the high quality of his peak.

JAWS and the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot: Introduction to JAWS

Next, the relievers: Hoffman and Wagner. As I detailed over the course of some 10,000 words published over the past week in the service of their cases and that of Lee Smith, I've never been fully satisfied with the way my system handles relievers. I've often turned to win-expectancy based metrics as a check on the replacement level-based ones because they do a better job of capturing leverage, the quantitatively greater impact upon winning (and losing) that events at the end of a game have relative to earlier ones. In these cases, those metrics paint enough of a different picture than what WAR and JAWS tell us that I'm vowing to keep both under consideration. While Hoffman had the saves record, it's Wagner's dominance—the highest strikeout rate and lowest opponent batting average of all time, among pitchers with at least 800 innings—that I refuse to dismiss despite his relatively small workload. Consider this a table for two.

Regrettably, I have to table Edmonds as well. On a visceral level, he's one of the most entertaining and exciting players I've ever seen, but the combination of a short career and a defensive input that doesn't match his reputation leave him short on all three standards—admittedly, at a position where the standards are particularly high relative to other positions. I'd love to reconsider by taking a closer look at him (and his contemporaries) via other defensive metrics besides Total Zone and Defensive Runs Saved, but I fear he won't receive the 5.0% minimum necessary to remain on the ballot—a fate that befell 2013 candidate Kenny Lofton, who's five notches higher in the centerfield JAWS rankings.

That narrows the field down to 11. I could apply a game-theory approach and withhold a vote from Griffey, who's going in with or without my (virtual) support, but with none of the 97 ballots revealed so far having left him off, I'm not going to be That Guy, even in an unofficial exercise. Working from the other direction, I could rule out Trammell, who in his 15th and final year of eligibility is about to become the first player since Ron Santo in 1998 to age off the writers' ballot despite being above the career, peak and JAWS standards. Alas, JAWS and WAR didn't even exist back then, and Santo passed away before he could get his due, a reminder that this election stuff does have a very human side to it. Trammell has never received more than 36.8% of the vote and was down to 25.1 last year, so his non-election is a lock. If anything, however, that only strengthens my resolve to vote for him, particularly having cut him from my final 10 in each of the past two years. He gets a spot this time.

Bonds and Clemens get spots as well. As detailed at length throughout this series, with regards to PED allegations, 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. McGwire and Sosa fall short on JAWS, and I'm reluctant to grant them extra credit on historical grounds for helping to open this can of worms, but that's different from what's happening here. Neither Bonds nor Clemens will reach 75% this year—both received around half of that last year—but I'm sticking to my established principle, particularly given the pair's otherwise overwhelming credentials.

JAWS and the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot: Five biggest questions

Bagwell, who ranks sixth among first basemen in JAWS and second only to Albert Pujols among those since World War II, and Piazza, who has a solid claim as the best-hitting catcher of all time (with enough defense to rank fifth at the position in JAWS), exceed the standards by wide margins and thus get my vote as well. After receiving 69.9% of the vote last year, Piazza is very likely to go in this time, and it's even possible that Bagwell could climb all the way from last year's 55.7% to do so as well (more on that topic in a future article). The election of both will be a significant victory over those who have waged whisper campaigns, offering their own suspicions as to illegal PED use without substantiation. Even better, the pair's election—even if it's next year for Bagwell—will clear prime real estate on the ballot, spaces that have been occupied for too damn long given their credentials.

That leaves me five candidates for four spots. As with last year, I'll go at this lightning-round style, describing the merits of each candidacy in 30 words or less and including their JAWS ranking and 2015 voting percentages as well:

Schilling (27th in JAWS among starters, 39.2%): Best postseason pitcher of his generation, outstanding strikeout rate and best strikeout-to-walk ratio since the pitching distance moved to 60'6".

Raines (Eighth in JAWS among leftfielders, 55.0% in 2015): Best percentage base stealer and second-best leadoff hitter of all-time, best player in the National League from 1983 to '87, more valuable than Tony Gwynn despite lack of 3,000 hit milestone.

Mussina (28th among starters, 24.6%): Long-term success at run prevention despite spending his entire career in the AL East, with an outstanding strikeout rate and second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio, behind Schilling.

Martinez (11th among third basemen, 27.0%): Not just the best designated hitter of all time but also 12th in on-base percentage and 25th in OPS (8,000 plate appearances minimum), with 500-plus average-ish games at third base bolstering his value.

Walker (10th among rightfielders, 11.8%): Outstanding at defense and base running as well as hitting. After adjusting for altitude, he's 36th all-time in OPS+.

Given the truncation of his the eligibility window, time is running out for Raines, who has just this year and next year remaining on the ballot. As a well-qualified player who just happens to be one of my all-time personal favorites, he gets a spot on my ballot, though anybody surprised at that simply hasn't been reading me for the past eight years. The candidacy of Martinez, in his seventh year of eligibility, has urgency to it as well, and like Raines, he was a particular favorite of mine, so he's on my ballot.

Given how close they are in the JAWS rankings, it's very difficult to separate Schilling and Mussina despite their differing resumes. I did it in each of the last two years, leaving Moose off in 2015 on the basis of his disadvantage relative to Schilling in terms of peak and postseason; I went the opposite way in '14, out of concern that first-timer Mussina wouldn't make it to a second ballot. This time, I'm keeping the pair together, which means it's tough luck for Walker, whom I believe is worthy but whose short career and low voting percentage through five cycles suggest that he's the new Trammell.

Since I left Mussina, Trammell, Walker and John Smoltz off last year—the last of those in a bit of game-theorizing, despite my reservations—this is an improvement upon that sorry state of affairs, but it still rankles me, and I'm hardly alone. Respected baseball writers such as Yahoo Sports' Tim Brown, the Detroit News' Lynn Henning and ESPN's Buster Olney publicly announced last year that they were abstaining from voting as a protest against the current mess, and all three have stuck with that stance.

The system needs fixing, no doubt. But for the moment, the rest of the electorate will attempt to make do, hopefully with the increasing recognition that changing times call for a reconsideration of their own individual processes of choosing worthy honorees. Just because the Hall of Fame remains resolute in its desire to keep things just as they were in 1936 doesn’t mean the rest of the world can’t get with the times.

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