Skip to main content

Rule change to Hall of Fame ballot isn't death blow for steroid era

The Hall of Fame is shaving its ballot down from 15 candidates to 10, but contrary to popular belief, that's not all bad news for the players of the steroid era.

Cooperstown gleamed especially bright on its annual baseball solstice. Buried, though, beneath a spectacular reaffirming weekend for baseball — generations connected, tears shed, memories summoned, and stories, the true currency of the game, exchanged — was the biggest change to Baseball Hall of Fame voting procedures since the lords of baseball made sure Pete Rose never appeared on a writers' ballot. The Hall's board of directors cut a candidate's maximum stay on the writers' ballot from 15 years to 10 years, a change that actually may be good news for steroid-tainted candidates.

Of course, steroid supporters reacted with complaints that the Hall tailored the rule to "keep out" baseball's versions of Big Pharm. After all, Mark McGwire just saw his remaining chances on the writers' ballot sliced from seven to two. This just in, folks: The writers aren't voting McGwire into the Hall of Fame if he had 70 more chances, let alone seven. In eight tries on the ballot, he never has received more than 23.7 percent of the vote — not even one-third of the way toward the required 75 percent for enshrinement.

Here's where the new rule could actually help McGwire and others. If the Hall had left the 15-year rule in place, McGwire would not have been considered by the Expansion Era Committee until December 2022. (The Expansion Era Committee meets every three years as part of a three-committee rotation that considers players no longer eligible for the writers' ballot based on when they played, as well as managers, executives and umpires.) Now his "second chance" will arrive sooner. Candidates for the Expansion Era ballot last December were eligible if they were retired for 21 seasons (the five-year waiting period after retirement, the 15-year maximum span on the writers' ballot plus a one-year buffer). Assuming a recalculation to 16 years, McGwire would be eligible for the December 2019 Expansion Era ballot.

I asked Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson about how the steroid issue may have influenced the board's decision to act. "Honestly, not at all," he said. "It never came up."

Hall of Fame rule changes a cruel twist to current crop of candidates

So what did prompt the board to issue a rare rule change? Separately, the Baseball Writers Association of America had a committee studying whether it should recommend changes to the voting procedures, with particular attention to whether the Hall should allow writers to vote for more than 10 candidates. I serve on that study committee. Keep in mind that any amendments to the voting procedure are entirely in the hands of the board. All we can do is make a suggestion; they can act on it or throw it in the trash, as they please. Our committee's work was ongoing and separate when the Hall announced its rule change. We found out when you did.

Idelson said the change resulted only from the board's routine, occasional review of procedures to keep the voting relevant. In doing so, he said, "it became quite evident" that some candidates were "just twisting in the wind" on the ballot.

"Only three guys since 1980 were elected after their 10th year on the ballot," he said, pointing to a "faster flow of information" as one reason why writers no longer needed 15 years to pass judgment on a player. He also mentioned how it helps long-time candidates get to the committee phase with less waiting.

It made sense to me. Last year, I advocated a similar pruning of the ballot. I recommended that players be dropped after 10 years, but added one exclusion: They could stay on for the full 15 if they gained more than 33 percent of the vote in any of their first 10 tries. I was being kind. Since current rules were put in place in 1968, no one has gained election from the writers without getting at least 52 percent in their first 10 tries. The Hall swung a heavier cleaver, cutting all players after 10 years no matter their level of support.

Of course, any Hall issue these days immediately gets connected to steroids. The rule change presents a scenario for the kings of controversy, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, that resembles the one for McGwire — it's not the bad news you might think it is. Bonds and Clemens have been on the ballot for two years. Neither has received more than 38 percent of the vote, and their totals actually went down last year; so much for the "first ballot protest" theory.

To be voted in by the writers, Bonds and Clemens need more than 60 percent of the writers who didn't vote for them to change their minds. That's unlikely to happen within eight years. This isn't a case of the sabermetric world running campaigns to convince voters there is a Hall of Famer hidden in the numbers. Nobody needs to look at the numbers for Bonds and Clemens. You either condone steroid use or you don't. Do some people change their minds, and does the (slow) turnover of voters offer Bonds and Clemens some hope for gaining votes? Sure. Some. But do more than 60 percent of the no voters change their mind on such a polarizing issue?

Overall, the writers' position on steroid-tainted candidates has been clear so far: The door is closed. McGwire, Bonds, Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro have combined for 18 ballots, and not once has any of them come close to simple majority support, let alone the 75-percent threshold.

(Time for a quick break here for a public service message. The pro-steroid crowd wants to go after the writers with torches and pitchforks because their PED boys haven't been elected. If you don't like the results, it must be the voters' fault, of course, not that of the candidates. "Let other people vote!" they cry. Well, unofficially, we saw that happen in several places last year. Deadspin asked its readers to cast ballots [without the official limit of voting for no more than 10]. The Internet Baseball Writers Association of America held its own poll of members, as did the Baseball Bloggers Alliance and the Magnolia [Georgia] and Southern New England chapters of SABR.

And guess how McGwire, Bonds, Clemens, Sosa and Palmeiro did among Deadspin readers, internet writers, bloggers and two chapters of card-carrying SABR members? They couldn't carry 75 percent of the vote in any of those precincts, either. Five alternatives to the baseball writers and they all went 0-for-5.

The problem is not the writers. It's the choices made by the players. Seventy-five percent is a very high bar to clear, and as a founding principal of the Hall, immutable. You would have a hard time getting 75 percent of people at a random cocktail party to usher steroid users into the Hall.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.)

As it did for McGwire, the rule change cuts a few years off the wait for Bonds, Clemens and Sosa to get on an Expansion Era Committee ballot. They stand eligible for that committee in December 2025 rather than 2028 (assuming the three-committee rotation stays in place). Clemens will be 63 years old in 2025; Bonds 61; Sosa 57.

So your next question is obvious: Do they stand a better chance of being enshrined by a 16-person Expansion Era Committee than a group of almost 600 writers? Yes, but only vaguely so. The composition of the committee changes all the time. Candidates still need 75 percent support (12 of the 16 votes) for enshrinement, but there's no predicting who will be in the room on that particular committee in that particular year on that particular ballot. Last year, eight Hall of Famers, four executives and four writers, comprised the committee.

This much is certain: If you think the writers' ballot has suffered from a backlog of strong candidates in recent years, wait until you see what happens with the Expansion Era ballot. Idelson told me "there are no plans" to address any restructuring of the era committees, and perhaps not for another "10 or 20 years," when the board may want to reconsider the span of years each committee oversees.

What that means is that all the good candidates who fall off the writers' ballot annually will continue to land on the lap of the Expansion Era committee, where a backlog is sure to develop. That committee meets only every three years and also has to consider managers, executives and umpires. And, like previous versions of the Veterans Committee it replaced, it recently has not favored players who didn't pass muster with the writers.

The JAWS 75 for 75: Ranking the Hall of Fame's top players

In 2002, among the 188 players in the Hall, a player was just about as likely to enter through a selection committee (93 such players) as by election from the writers (95). But since then, entry for a player to the Hall has been almost exclusively through the writers, by a 20-3 count. The only three players in the past 12 years to gain enshrinement by a committee vote have been Joe Gordon, Deacon White and Ron Santo. Enshrined managers, executives and umpires have outnumbered players from those committees, 13-3. Here's another way to look at how difficult it has been recently for players to get into the Hall after they fell off the writers' ballot: Over the past 12 years, only one such player who debuted after 1938 has made it to the Hall of Fame (Santo).

Now imagine what the 2016 Expansion Era ballot could look like. It could include holdovers Marvin Miller, George Steinbrenner, Dave Concepcion, Steve Garvey, Tommy John, Billy Martin, Ted Simmons, Dave Parker and Dan Quisenberry. Then add potential eligible newcomers like Bud Selig, John Schuerholz, Bruce Froemming, Jim Leyland, Cito Gaston, Lou Piniella, Dusty Baker, Jack Morris, Don Mattingly and Dale Murphy.

The fun really starts in 2019. Eligible for that 12-person ballot are the 19 names above plus McGwire, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell and Lee Smith. We haven't even brought up star players who never stayed on the ballot all 15 years but should not be overlooked, such as Keith Hernandez, David Cone and Lou Whitaker.

Hoo, boy. Now you see the problem of having three committees that meet on a rotating basis, but only one of them keeps getting more and more new, good candidates. (The other committees are the Golden Era, which considers candidates who excelled from 1947-1972, and the Pre-Integration, which considers standouts from the game's origin to 1946.) Just imagine being on the screening committee for the Expansion Era Committee and charged with coming up with a 12-person ballot from all those names.

Now you see a bit more of the road ahead. Cutting the maximum years on the ballot from 15 to 10 is a good thing. With all that is said and written about candidates now, 10 tries is plenty to get 75 percent of the vote. "We think the writers have done a good job and are happy with them," Idelson said.

What the rule does is change life after the writers' ballot more than the writers' ballot itself. The Expansion Era Committee just became much more fascinating, with many more difficult choices. Unlike the writers, the committee never has had to deal with The Steroid Era. That will change in December 2019.