New Hall of Fame rule to eliminate inactive writers from its voting pool is a positive one by giving voters who are staying abreast of the game a greater say in the process

By Jay Jaffe
July 29, 2015

For the second year in a row, the Baseball Hall of Fame's board of directors has followed the institution's annual induction weekend with a change to the voting rules. Via a press release from the Hall, the Baseball Writers Association of America members who are more than 10 years removed from actively covering the game will no longer be included in the voting. That move could help the electoral causes of some popular candidates, including Tim Raines and Jeff Bagwell, but it still doesn't address the limitations of the current process, which have created a backlog on the ballot. Even with the election of seven players over the past two years, there are more qualified candidates than there are voting spots on the individual ballots.

The BBWAA has been tasked with the responsibility of voting on recently retired candidates since the Hall was established in 1936. Under rules in place since '47, BBWAA members must spend 10 consecutive years covering the game for an affiliated outlet before being allowed to vote in the annual Hall of Fame elections, which generally feature 30 to 40 candidates who have been retired for at least five years and no more than 15 (20 for three candidates grandfathered into last year’s rule change, which shortened the eligibility of current candidates from 15 years to 10).

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Prior to this new rule, those qualified to vote in the elections who had ceased to cover the game were still granted the right to vote via honorary membership, though not everyone with that privilege actually took advantage of it. According to the Hall's press release, approximately 650 BBWAA members are currently eligible to vote, though the highest total of ballots for a single election is 581, set in 2011. This year, only 549 ballots were cast, the lowest total since '10.

As with just about every other aspect of the voting process, the enfranchisement of writers who have moved on, whether to cover other sports or simply to retirement, has drawn scrutiny and criticism. Some critics have argued that even if they are familiar with the players they covered who remain candidates, they're less in touch with the current game and developments in the way players are analyzed. Critics also point to a lack of transparency within the voting process, one that has been partially offset by active writers publishing their ballots either before or after the annual election, but many of the inactive writers no longer have outlets to do so or prefer to buck the trend toward accountability and transparency.

According to the release:

BBWAA members previously holding Hall of Fame voting privileges who are no longer active in the game and are more than 10 years removed from active status will have the opportunity for annual reinstatement, based on their coverage of the game in the preceding year.

…A voter registration system and survey will determine each individual member’s eligibility.

That builds on a change put into place this past year, via which eligible voters are required to register online and to sign a code of conduct that specifically states that their ballot is non-transferrable, and that their names will be publicized as having voted—though not for whom they voted, unless they volunteer that information for the BBWAA’s own site once the election results have been announced. It's unclear how many of the 650 members would be affected by this new rule, which applies to the 2016 ballot to be released in November, with the results to be announced on Jan. 6, 2016.

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Not addressed by the Hall of Fame at this time, and therefore unlikely to be in place for the 2016 election, was a proposal from the BBWAA to expand the number of spots on individual ballots from 10 to 12. I was part of the BBWAA committee that delivered that proposal in January, though under current rules, I will not be eligible to vote in Hall elections until the '21 cycle (players whose final year is this season).

With no firm demographic data on the makeup of the electorate, the best we can do is make educated guesses about what the rule change's impact could be. The increased trend toward active writers publishing their ballots, often with detailed explanations as to their reasoning, has given rise to efforts to track individual voters, including that of the BBWAA itself. The most sophisticated breakdown is via Ryan Thibodeaux's Hall of Fame Ballot Tracker, which for the 2015 election recorded 329 full or partial ballots from among the 549 cast in all (59.9%), including the ones published prior to the announcement of the results, other ballots reported only at and some that remain anonymous.

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Operating on the theory that active voters are more likely to reveal their ballots than inactive ones, it's worth looking at the differences between the actual results versus those from the published ballots, as they might offer a clue as to the direction of the effect of paring the roles, if not the magnitude. Here they are for the 22 players who received at least 5% of the vote (enough to remain eligible if they haven’t aged off the ballot), along with the percentages that Thibodeaux reported via the public ballots and his calculations for the private ballots so that they square with the actual results:

Candidate Public private Difference ACtual JAWS
Lee Smith 24.9% 38.2% +13.3% 30.2% No
Larry Walker 8.5% 16.8% +8.3% 11.8% Yes
Nomar Garciaparra 2.4% 10% +7.6% 5.5% No
Don Mattingly 6.7% 12.7% +6% 9.1% No
Sammy Sosa 5.2% 8.6% +3.5% 6.6% No
Gary Sheffield 10.6% 13.2% +2.5% 11.7% No
Mark McGwire 9.4% 10.9% +1.5% 10% No
Fred McGriff 12.5% 13.6% +1.2% 12.9% No
Alan Trammell 24.9% 25.5% +0.6% 25.1% Yes
Jeff Kent 14% 14.1% +0.1% 14% No
Edgar Martinez 27.4% 26.4% -1% 27% Yes
Roger Clemens 39.2% 35% -4.2% 37.5% Yes
Randy Johnson 99.1% 94.6% -4.5% 97.3% Yes
Barry Bonds 39.2% 33.2% -6% 36.8% Yes
Craig Biggio 86% 77.7% -8.3% 82.7% No
Jeff Bagwell 60.5% 48.6% -11.9% 55.7% Yes
John Smoltz 87.8% 75.5% -12.4% 82.9% Yes
Mike Piazza 75.1% 62.3% -12.8% 70% Yes
Tim Raines 60.2% 47.3% -12.9% 55% Yes
Mike Mussina 30.4% 15.9% -14.5% 24.6% Yes
Curt Schilling 45.3% 30% -15.3% 39.2% Yes
Pedro Martinez 98.2% 80.5% -17.7% 91.1% Yes

At first glance, it's difficult to discern any trends. There’s no particular bias for or against players linked to performance-enhancing drugs, given that Sosa and McGwire received more support from the unpublished masses, while Bonds and Clemens received less.

On the subject of Clemens, note that the pitchers with fewer than 300 wins (Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz, both of whom were elected, as well as Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling) all lagged behind on the public ballots relative to the unpublished ones. The use of wins as a means of analyzing pitchers has certainly fallen out of favor in the past decade, with BBWAA voters awarding Cy Youngs to Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum in 2009 and Felix Hernandez in '10 despite other pitchers with significantly higher win totals. Martinez (219 wins) and Smoltz (213) were the first starters elected with fewer than 268 wins since 1987. Note also that closer Lee Smith fared much better in the private voting at a time when the perceived value of closers has taken a significant hit, with far fewer making salaries upward of $10 million a year as analytically inclined front offices have become more widespread.

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Beyond that, a trend that is most glaring to the creator of the JAWS system of Hall of Fame analysis is that the players with the largest falloffs between public and private are ones that my system identifies as above-average relative to the already enshrined players at their position with regards to their career and peak Wins Above Replacement totals. 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 in the red by at least one percentage point. Meanwhile, only two of the 10 who received more support via the unpublished ballot were JAWS approved.

As I alluded to above, the fact that there were 13 JAWS-approved candidates on the ballot testifies to the backlog—and that count didn’t even include Biggio, whose 3,000 hits marked him as a likely inductee anyway, or Kent, who holds the all-time record for homers by a second baseman, or Smith, who formerly held the all-time saves record and received more than 50% of the vote in 2012, suggesting he was on his way to election. The 2016 ballot will include 11 JAWS-approved candidates, with Kent and Smith returning as well.

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The differences between the public and private percentages above in many cases are largely insignificant in the grand scheme, but once you look past those players who received minimal percentages and the ones who were elected, it seems clear that Piazza, Raines and Bagwell particularly stand to draw closer to the necessary 75% if those private ballots are representative of the voting patterns of inactive members, if only by a few points. Using the percentages from the published and unpublished ballots as proxies for those of the active versus inactive members, even an assumption that the published ones would represent the will of 80% of the electorate instead of 59.9% would add only about 2.5 percentage points to each of those three—enough, perhaps, to prevent them from an agonizing near-miss à la Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven in 2010, or Craig Biggio in '14. Already, Piazza appears almost certain to gain entry in '16 given his status as the top holdover candidate and the addition of only one likely first-ballot candidate, Ken Griffey Jr., and Bagwell, who’s now halfway through his 10 years of eligibility, should regain some of the ground he’s lost in the past two years (he was at 59.6% in '13) with less competition from the newcomers. Even a gain of a couple points could be a real difference-maker that could prevent Raines, who has only two years of eligibility left instead of seven thanks to last year’s rule change, from potentially having to wait until '20 for the Expansion Era Committee to take up his case.

That’s a very rough stab at analysis, however, particularly without knowing how many voters could be affected. But beyond the impact the change may have on any individual candidates, this is a laudable move, as it ensures that the voters staying abreast of the game have a greater say in the process, and could help to improve the transparency of the process. This doesn’t solve all of the Hall of Fame’s problems by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a solid step in the right direction.

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