Eight storylines to watch for on this year's Hall of Fame ballot
Welcome to another Hall of Fame election year, with all of its attendant misery. Polarizing issues, campaigning and grandstanding, a crowded field of candidates, a series of nasty debates, constantly updated polling results, and all this talk about defense, drugs and WAR: If only the Hall of Fame voters of the Baseball Writers Association of America could play as nicely as the Republicans and Democrats vying for the White House.
Truth is, for all the Sturm und Drang over voting for the Hall, the process works quite well, thank you. There is a neat, fundamental line of continuity to it since the Hall was founded: Hundreds of baseball writers vote on retired players, and any player who is named on at least 75% of the ballots is elected. What was good for Babe Ruth (1936 ballot) is good for Mark Grudzielanek (2016).
Eligibility rules for writers and players have been tweaked over the years, including this one, but the results are generally consistent. The writers have been electing between 1.3 and 1.8 players annually for each of the past five decades. You have to think of it as a rolling election process: Even though you might see one or two players elected on an annual basis, the average ballot between 1968 and 2002 included 10.2 eventual Hall of Famers, thanks to multiple tries on the ballot and various versions of the Veterans Committee, a kind of review system to the writers’ balloting.
Voting in recent years has become especially tricky because of players who chose to use steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, a decision so blasphemous to the tenets of fair play and sportsmanship that they had to do so surreptitiously; even years later, they will not acknowledge it. In 2013, I explained why I'd never vote for a known steroid user. We move on.
This could be an especially surprising year because the Hall made two changes to the voting process in the past two years: reducing a player’s maximum run on a ballot from 15 years to 10 for the 2015 ballot, and then reducing the number of voters by nearly 100 for '16. My guess is that we will still get a familiar looking result: two players, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza, will get in, and the debate about the next election will begin as soon as this one is announced.
To prime you for Election Day on Wednesday—now Election Night, with the results announced on an MLB Network show that starts at 6 p.m. Eastern time—here is all you need to know about the national election that generates the most chatter and debate this side of the presidential one.
1. Griffey Jr. vs. Cobb
No player has ever been elected unanimously. Tom Seaver holds the record for garnering the highest percentage of the vote, 98.8% in 1992. (Five not-so-terrific writers didn’t vote for him.) Even if Griffey Jr. doesn't get 100% or pass Seaver, he could at least challenge the biggest percentage by an outfielder: Ty Cobb, who pulled in 98.2% on the first election in 1936.
Such marginalia, of course, is nothing but meaningless fun. This is a pass-fail test. All that matters is the 75% needed for election.
2. The electorate skews younger
The Hall of Fame took away votes from writers who have not covered baseball within the past 10 years. How many? We don’t yet know exactly. The record for most ballots returned is 581 in 2011. Last year, there were 549 ballots. This year, the BBWAA mailed out approximately 475. (Not every ballot gets returned, for various reasons.) So we may be looking at 75–100 fewer voters this year. It just means we are returning to voting numbers we saw in the 1990s, when the average number of players elected that decade was 1.5.
How does that affect the results this year? Speculation is that removing older voters helps PED-stained candidates. But we just don’t know. Let’s see what happens.
3. Piazza a lock?
Piazza drew 69.9% of the vote last year. Since 1968, when current rules were put in place, 16 players received at least that much support with years remaining on their candidacy. Fifteen of those 16 near-miss players were elected the very next year, a 94% success rate.
The exception? Former Tigers and Phillies ace Jim Bunning, who drew 74.2% in 1988, missing election by just four votes. In his remaining three cracks, he received only 63.3%, 57.9% and 63.7%. Bunning had to wait for enshrinement until 1996, when he was voted in by the Veterans Committee.
4. Tim Raines and the 60% bar
This is the penultimate chance for Raines to be elected by the BBWAA. He posted a personal-best 55% last year, his eighth on the ballot. He’s not getting elected this year, so with one more shot next year, that got me thinking: What’s the biggest jump by a holdover candidate in the year he was elected?
The biggest leap since 1968 belongs to Ralph Kiner, who went from 58.9% in 1974 to election in '75, his 13th time on the ballot (the kind of lengthy run is no longer possible thanks to the Hall's aforementioned rule change). The next lowest percentage in the year prior to election belongs to Tony Perez, who went from 60.2% to election in 2000, his ninth try.
The election of ballot holdovers is much more rare than you might imagine: just 34 in 48 elections since 1968. Thirty-three of those 34 elected holdover candidates received at least 60% of the vote in the year prior to the election. So keep an eye on Raines. His target before his last shot is a minimum of 60%.
5. Goodbye, Trammell and McGwire
When the Hall reduced the maximum years on a ballot to 10, it did grandfather the 15-rule year rule for players already at least 10 years into their run. Alan Trammell is one of the grandfathered players. (Lee Smith, up for a 14th year, will be the last of them.)
Trammell, the longtime shortstop of the Tigers, was an excellent player and a manager’s dream, but on 14 ballots he has done no better than 36.8% and as poorly as 13.8%. That’s not a Hall of Famer. Trammell had only seven qualified seasons with an OPS+ better than 100—fewer than Jim Fregosi. His career numbers resemble those of recent shortstops Edgar Renteria and Jose Reyes.
As for Mark McGwire, he has never received even 25% of the vote in nine tries, so he will not be elected this year.
6. The Five Percent Dissolution
Players who fail to get 5% of the vote are thrown off the BBWAA ballot for good. Twelve players—all first-timers—were bounced last year, “led” by Carlos Delgado.
Those who barely remained on the ballot were Nomar Garciaparra (by three votes) and Sammy Sosa (nine votes). Keep your eye on them around the cut mark this year. There are 15 first-time candidates this year. Four seem likely to stay above the cut line: Griffey, Trevor Hoffman, Billy Wagner and Jim Edmonds.
7. The Overlooked
There has been far too much talk about PEDs—so much so that some really great candidates are not getting the amount of public study and debate that would enhance their candidacy. Here are the four most under-supported candidates on the ballot, none of who have cracked 40%. For the attention-challenged, I’ve summed up their Hall of Fame qualification in one quick sentence (followed by brief supporting evidence):
Jeff Kent: An outlier offensive player at second base for a very long time. No second baseman hit more home runs or had more 100-RBI seasons than Kent, and only Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer had more seasons with 250 total bases.
Fred McGriff: One of his era’s most feared sluggers until steroid users bastardized the game. McGriff won the National League home run title with 36 in 1989 and the AL crown with 35 in '92, but when he hit 32 in '99, he finished 17th in the AL. He is a near statistical dead-ringer for Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews, and he has more runs, hits, home runs, RBIs, All-Star appearances and postseason success than fellow Hall hopeful and first base contemporary Jeff Bagwell.
Mike Mussina: Rare sustained Hall of Fame greatness. Mussina won more AL games in the designated hitter era than any pitcher except Roger Clemens. He is one of only a dozen pitchers in history with 10 seasons with an ERA+ of 125 or better. Clemens, kept out of the Hall because of his association with PEDs, is one. The others: first-ballot Hall of Famers Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Jim Palmer, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson, plus fellow Hall of Famers Pete Alexander, Lefty Grove and Bert Blyleven.
Curt Schilling: One of the most precise big-game pitchers ever, Schilling owns the greatest strikeout-to-walk ratio since the pitching distance was set at 60'6" in 1889. He started five games when his team faced postseason elimination, and his team won every one of them, with Schilling posting a 1.47 ERA in those win-or-go-home crucibles (and a 2.23 mark in 19 postseason games overall).
8. The PED Crowd
This is the consolation round to Hall of Fame voting, where much will be inferred from support gained by Clemens and Barry Bonds in particular. This is the fourth of 10 chances on the writers’ ballot for those two. For three years, they have been stuck in a very narrow range between 35% and 38%. In other words, eight years into retirement, they are getting no traction whatsoever.
Looking at last year’s results, for Clemens and Bonds to be voted in by the writers, they would need 60% of the people who didn't vote for them to change their mind. (The voting roll is a somewhat fluid list, so we’re not talking about the exact same people every year, but you get the idea.) That’s a massive amount of flip-flopping on a polarizing issue. Don't expect it to happen.