From the time that the National Baseball Hall of Fame entrusted the primary job of voting for 20th century players to the Baseball Writers Association of America back in 1936, space on each voter's ballot has been limited to 10 players. Within a decade, a problem emerged. After voting on an annual basis up through 1939 — a process via which 12 players were elected in five years — the BBWAA switched to a triennial system. Because the field of worthy players was so large, it became very difficult for any one player to receive the requisite 75 percent needed for election. The organization voted in only one player in 1942, and nobody in 1945, after which the rules were changed to create annual votes, with run-off elections between the top candidates.
Even with voting responsibilities shared in parallel by various smaller committees (the Centennial Committee, the Old-Timers Committee, the Veterans Committee) — often with dubious results — the 10-man BBWAA ballot limit has endured. It has lasted through multiple rule changes, including a switch back to biennial voting, as well as several rounds of expansion that have nearly doubled the size of the major leagues. Despite no shortage of worthy candidates, there have been years when the BBWAA pitched a shutout. The last time was in 1996, when 300-game winners and eventual Hall of Famers Phil Niekro and Don Sutton received support above 60 percent but less than 75 percent in their fourth and third years of eligibility, respectively; future BBWAA selections Tony Perez, Jim Rice and Bruce Sutter fell short as well, as did future Expansion Era Committee selection Ron Santo.
That year's slate of 35 candidates was actually smaller than all but one of the 1988-1995 slates, which had been swollen because several candidates, including Santo, had their eligibility restored after sliding off the ballot due to a failure to receive even five percent of the vote in a prior year. It's worth noting that the slate hasn't been that large in any year since that shutout, and it's perhaps no coincidence that a very real possibility exists that this year's 37-candidate slate may well result in a similar zero, at least according to two online straw polls among voters who have published their ballots online, in newspapers or via Twitter.
Of the 81 ballots tracked by the Baseball Think Factory's 2013 Hall of Fame Ballot Collecting Gizmo, no candidate has more than Craig Biggio's 71.6 percent. A separate log of 56 individual voter ballots at the blog The Girl Who Loved Andy Pettitte (by Twitter user @leokitty) shows Tim Raines' 73.2 percent as the high, though before any Raines booster gets too excited, it should be noted that his share via such polls has outstripped his overall voting share in years past, sometimes by more than 15 percentage points. Voters choosing to withhold their support from otherwise overqualified players linked to performance-enhancing drugs, such as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Rafael Palmeiro, are part of the reason that no 75 percent supermajority has emerged.
I've argued several times in this space and elsewhere that I don't think PED suspicions should be used as an automatic disqualifier for election; actual evidence and the timing of the alleged infractions matters here. As I've shown over the past few weeks, with respect to JAWS and some acknowledgement of more subjective considerations (awards, postseason play, league leads) one can identify at least 10 candidates worthy of election, with a couple of borderline cases thrown in as well. To recap, in case you missed any of my rundowns over the holidays, here's how the top 13 candidates rank according to the distance by which they exceed the standard at their position:
Seven players on this year's ballot clear the strict positional standard by a significant margin:
• Bonds: He ranks third all-time in WAR among all players, and the PED-related allegations against him predate Major League Baseball's imposition of testing and suspensions. Even if one considers only his body of work through 1998, before he allegedly began using steroids, he would rank third among leftfielders behind Ted Williams and Rickey Henderson.
• Clemens: As with Bonds, his PED allegations predate testing, and his JAWS ranks third among starting pitchers behind Walter Johnson and Cy Young. Even if one considers his body of work through 1997, before he allegedly began using, he'd still rank 18th, well above the starting pitcher standard.
• Bagwell: Though he retired at age 37, he racked up impressive numbers while toiling in the Astrodome for the bulk of his career, good enough to rank sixth all-time in JAWS among first basemen, ahead of 14 who are already enshrined. While a whisper campaign regarding PED usage has been waged against him, there's no actual evidence to connect him to any illegal activity.
• Piazza: He was nothing special behind the plate, but Piazza ranks as the best-hitting catcher of all-time, and outdoes all but four other catchers in JAWS. As with Bagwell, some have accused him of PED usage, but there's no actual evidence to connect him to any illegal activity.
• Schilling: Coupling regular season dominance with an outstanding postseason resume, he's the candidate the boosters of Jack Morris wish their guy was. Despite accumulating "only" 216 wins, Schilling ranks 29th all-time in JAWS among starters, ahead of five 300-game winners and 33 enshrined starters.
• Trammell: The Tiger mainstay was an outstanding two-way shortstop whom the voters have been way too slow to recognize. He ranks 11th all-time in JAWS among shortstops, two spots ahead of Barry Larkin, who was elected last year.
• Raines: Though he fell short of 3,000 hits, Raines' ability to get on base and to advance himself via the highest stolen base percentage of all-time made him the game's second-best leadoff hitter behind Henderson, and a player of outstanding value.
Two other players clear modified standards that reflect some amount of positional ambiguity:
• Martinez: He created positive value in 564 games at third base but was moved into the full-time designated hitter role to protect himself from recurring injuries, and there he was an outstanding enough hitter to transcend the limitations of his role. A whisker short of the third base standard, he exceeds the standards for corner infielders and for all Hall hitters, with enough subjective considerations (particularly postseason performance and league leads in key categories) to suggest he belongs.
• Biggio: He's a bit short of the second base standard, but when one factors in three seasons where he was primarily a catcher, he's basically dead even with a standard for up the middle players (catchers, second basemen, shortstops and centerfielders). His membership in the 3,000 hit club puts him over the top.
That's enough to fill nine spots on the ballot. Four other players are also within a few points, but occupy a gray area for one reason or another:
• Walker: Accumulated a great deal of value in a short time even after adjusting for a prime spent hitting in high-altitude Colorado. He exceeds the JAWS standard in rightfield and ranks ninth among all rightfielders. That said, I'm slightly troubled by the defensive metric-driven discrepancy between his WAR-based JAWS score and last year's WARP-based one, which accounts for a 5.8-point difference relative to the standard.
• Lofton: Slightly below the centerfield standard but still ranks eighth all-time in JAWS among a particularly top-heavy group, and one can make a reasonable argument that a top-10 player at any position is worthy of a vote. That said, Lofton's ranking is driven by a defensive metric-driven discrepancy that's about twice the size of Walker's; via the older WARP system, he ranked 22nd among centerfielders.
• Palmeiro: Though he's one of just four players to accumulate both 3,000 hits and 500 homers and is a negligible distance from the JAWS standard at first base, Palmeiro's the one candidate on the ballot who failed a drug test that incurred a suspension. I'm not sure how long he deserves to dwell in purgatory for what may have been simply an end-of-career mistake, but on this crowded a ballot, I'd pass.
• McGwire: His admission of having used PEDs pertains to the era before testing was in place (he retired in 2001, testing didn't begin until 2004, and suspensions didn't begin until 2005) but it's his distance below the standard at first base that keeps him from my vote.
Of those four, the best case for a vote at the moment — and thus the 10th spot on my virtual ballot — appears to belong to Walker. I do worry that Lofton is likely to fall off the ballot, as he is below 5.0 percent in both straw polls, but Walker isn't doing a whole lot better, around 13 percent in both. If I had 11 spots, I'd include both, but hewing to the rules for this exercise, I can at best vote for only one, and that's Walker. Even with PED-induced squeamishness among voters, just 12 of the 56 individuals identified by @leokitty have used all 10 spots on their ballots, up from five out of 114 ballots last year. That all but guarantees a backlog of qualified candidates that will carry over to next year, when Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Mike Mussina, Jeff Kent and Frank Thomas all become eligible as well. The wider field will only serve to make it harder for any player to be voted in, and for potentially worthy players to become almost completely overlooked. It's a system that could use some reform, a topic I'll address sometime in the near future.