Ahead of this year's Hall of Fame vote, which players on the ballot are trending up, and who is seeing their numbers go in the wrong direction?
On Tuesday at 2 p.m. Eastern, the results of the BBWAA 2015 Hall of Fame election will be announced. If the ballots published thus far are to be believed, we're in for not only a bumper crop of honorees — three, four, or even five players receiving at least 75 percent of the vote — but also the kind of history we haven't seen in at least 60 years.
As of Monday afternoon, 146 voters have made their ballots public thus far, via Ryan Thibs' Hall of Fame Tracker, just over one-quarter of the electorate based on last year's final vote total of 571. According to those ballots, five players have received at least 75 percent of the vote: newcomers Randy Johnson (98.6 percent), Pedro Martinez (98.0 percent) and John Smoltz (87.8 percent) and holdovers Craig Biggio (80.8 percent) and Mike Piazza (79.4 percent). Via the Baseball Think Factory 2015 HOF Ballot Collecting Gizmo — which unlike Thibs' Tracker merely aggregates the totals instead of recording each individual ballot but has a slightly larger sample size (154) — Piazza is down to 76.6 percent, but Biggio is up to 82.5 percent, and the other three are within a whisker of Thibs' numbers.
Johnson and Martinez appeared to be locks at the outset of the process, meaning the first surprise is the strong support that Smoltz has received. The longtime Braves starter, who spent three-plus seasons as a closer, won 213 games, but the BBWAA hasn’t chosen a starting pitcher with fewer than 268 since 1987, when Catfish Hunter (224) gained entry. Smoltz is also short on the Career/Peak/JAWS fronts (69.5/38.8/54.1, the latter 62nd all-time among starting pitchers), so he’s not an obvious choice for those guided by advanced metrics.
When I examined Smoltz more closely to account better for his time as a reliever, however, his merits became more clear. Whether it's a coattail effect carrying over from last year's first-ballot election of longtime teammates Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux (not to mention the Expansion Era Committee's feting of manager Bobby Cox) or some fuzzy math related to his Dennis Eckersley-like move to closer in mid-career, voters have bumped him ahead of several holdovers. Just after last year's election, I envisioned Smoltz taking until 2017 — his third try — due to the overcrowded ballot, and I left him off my hypothetical ballot this year due to the sheer volume of strong candidates.
If all three of those pitchers are elected this year on the heels of last year's trio (longtime White Sox slugger Frank Thomas was the third player elected), it would mark the first time since 1954-55 that the writers chose at least three players in back-to-back years. It would also be just the 12th time in 71 elections — at various points, the vote took place on a biennial or triennial cycle — that the writers have chosen at least three in the same cycle.
Next on the above list after that trio of near-certainties is Biggio. The Astros icon starred at catcher, second base and in the outfield but he fell a mere two votes short of election last year, his second year of eligibility, though he seemed almost certain to pick up those remaining votes this time around. While his case on the JAWS front isn't as strong as some of the others on the ballot — one has to adjust for his years at catcher, which limited his playing time — he's already had to wait longer than any other modern member of the 3,000 hit club save for Rafael Palmeiro, whose positive drug test doomed his candidacy from the start. If Biggio were to join the three first-year pitchers, it would make for the first quartet elected by the writers in a single cycle since 1955, when Joe DiMaggio, Gaby Hartnett, Ted Lyons and Dazzy Vance all gained entry. The only other time the writers have tabbed four men came in 1947, when Mickey Cochrane, Frankie Frisch, Lefty Grove and Carl Hubbell got the nod.
The biggest surprise of the bunch would be the election of Piazza, who's also in his third year of eligibility. Despite a strong claim as the greatest-hitting catcher of all time and the fact that he ranks fifth in JAWS among catchers, his share of the vote has lagged due to whispers of PED use. Thankfully, those whispers haven't been enough to upend his candidacy; he made a strong debut at 57.8 percent in 2013 and climbed to 62.2 percent last year, the only candidate besides Biggio to gain ground amid the flood of strong candidates. If he were to join Biggio and the three pitchers, it would be the first quintet tabbed by the writers in a single cycle since 1936, the first year of voting, when Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner were chosen as the inaugural class. History indeed.
Could we really see five? It's important to remember that the ballot trackers are not a thoroughly representative sample of the electorate. Those publishing their ballots more likely hail from among the BBWAA's active members — with daily or weekly columns to fill with such information — as opposed to the honorary ones who accumulated their 10 years of consecutive service and have moved on, some of them to retirement and others to jobs unconnected to baseball coverage. The sample almost certainly skews younger, more technologically savvy, more open to advanced statistical analysis and more inclusive ("large Hall") than the average voter.
Looking at Thibs' breakdown from last year, the 191 individual ballots recorded prior to the election averaged 8.8 names per ballot, with 63.2 percent using the maximum of 10 slots. The 109 recorded afterward averaged 8.2 names per ballot, with 49.5 percent using all 10 slots. The largest gap between pre-election percentage and final percentage in terms of overperformance — better exit polling than actual vote share — belonged to Curt Schilling, with a gap of 8.5 percentage points, followed by Tim Raines (8.4 points), Barry Bonds (7.7 points), Thomas (6.4 points), Piazza (5.9 points), Roger Clemens (5.4 points), Mike Mussina (4.3 points), Glavine (3.4 points) and Biggio (3.2 points).
Meanwhile, the largest underperformances in the polling were by two of the ballot's longest holdovers, Lee Smith (6.3 points) and Don Mattingly (4.0 points), with Mark McGwire the only other candidate to lose more than one point. If those gaps stayed the same for the 2015 election, Biggio would appear to be in the clear, election-wise; he'd need to top 78.2 percent in the public polling. Piazza would be in for a photo finish, as he'd need to top 80.9 percent. That said, it's worth noting that in 2013, ballot-by-ballot tracking by Leonora Unser-Schutz showed both candidates gaining ground relative to their public totals, by 2.7 points and 1.7 points, respectively.
Underlying this relative flood of honorees — which is a drastic change from the 2008-13 stretch, when just seven candidates were elected, none in the last of those years — is a sudden increase in the number of votes cast per ballot. Last year's average of 8.39 was the highest since the writers returned to annual voting in 1966, eclipsing the 8.36 from 1983, when Brooks Robinson and Juan Marichal were elected. Five other candidates topped 60 percent that year -- Luis Aparicio, Don Drysdale, Gil Hodges, Harmon Killebrew and Hoyt Wilhelm -- and all but Hodges were eventually elected. In fact, last year was the first time the average was above 7.0 since 1986. Via Baseball-Reference.com, here's a graph showing the annual averages:secretary/treasurer Jack O'Connell, who has handled the voting since 1995, only one other time since then did that figure top 20 percent (he did not specify which year).
Based on the early returns, we're almost certainly going to see another year above 8.0. Thibs' tracker shows an average of 8.99 votes per ballot thus far, with 63.7 percent using all 10 slots — a rising tide that will lift many a boat. After Piazza, three other players -- Raines (68.5 percent), Jeff Bagwell (66.4) and Schilling (54.1) -- topped 50 percent, a key threshold given that Hodges and Jack Morris are the only candidates to never gain entry via the BBWAA after reaching that mark. Smith, who topped 50 percent in 2012 but was down to 29.9 percent last year, is likely to age off the ballot in 2017 and could join that dubious company, though both he and Morris would appear to be ripe for the Expansion Era Committee to elect them in the future.
Raines topped 50 percent in 2013 before falling to 46.1 percent last year, and he suffered an additional blow when the Hall unilaterally shortened the eligibility cycle from 15 years to 10, leaving him just two more shots after this year. If he's anywhere above 60 percent this year, that would be a tremendous shot in the arm for his candidacy, putting him within range of 75 percent before falling off the ballot. Bagwell's increase from 54.3 percent last year would appear to put him in range for election in 2016 or '17 as well, particularly with Ken Griffey Jr. the only likely first-year honoree to hit the ballot next year. Schilling, who received just 29.2 percent last year, would have to make a significant gain to get to 50 percent.
Three others are below 50 percent but also gaining momentum, if Thibs' tracker is to be believed: Bonds and Clemens (both at 46.6 percent at this writing, up from around 35 percent) and Mussina (at 37.7 percent, up from last year's 20.3 percent). The first two, who have overwhelming credentials but also high-profile connections to PEDs, still have seven years remaining on the ballot, while the Moose has eight years left. Far less encouraging are the early returns on the JAWS-approved Edgar Martinez (27.4 percent), Alan Trammell (24.0 percent) and Larry Walker (8.2 percent). Walker is in danger of falling below the five percent minimum, as are first-year candidate Gary Sheffield (8.2 percent) and holdovers McGwire (7.6 percent) and Sammy Sosa (4.8 percent). Sosa and McGwire are doomed in front of this electorate by their connections to PEDs, and the same may be true for Sheffield, though it could simply be a numbers game for him given the logjam and a lack of a voting track record thus far.
If more than three candidates are elected, it would certainly help to clear the ballot backlog, though it would be only the first step forward in an appropriate level of representation for the era. My research shows that the average number of active Hall of Fame players per team per season from 1923 through 1941 is 1.5, though from 1946 through 1988, that level falls to 1.34, and it's been below 1.0 since 1988, and below 0.5 since 1993. All of that has happened in spite of a drastic increase in the player pool, with Latin America and Asia opening up (and the U.S. population growing, of course) to more than offset the increase in major league teams from 16 to 30. I do worry that the sudden spike of honorees might derail the BBWAA's effort to expand the number of available slots on the ballot to 12, but since I'm a part of that process — I was on the committee that recommended a request for change that was passed at the recent winter meetings — I'd rather not comment on that in detail here.
Like many, however, I would be very excited to see a large class elected, particularly because it clears space on the ballots for deserving holdover candidates whose support has lagged. If five players being elected this year means Bagwell, Raines and Schilling get their due sooner rather than later, with the long-term chances of Mussina, Edgar Martinez and Walker rising, then the more the merrier.