Beyond the inevitability of Ken Griffey Jr.'s impending election to the Hall of Fame and the strong likelihood that Mike Piazza gains entry as well, the biggest question for Wednesday evening's BBWAA vote announcement is whether a third or even fourth honoree will join them in Cooperstown in July. Based upon the early returns at Ryan Thibodaux's Hall of Fame ballot tracker, both Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines are on pace to do so: They've been named on nearly 80% of the 163 ballots published thus far, a segment that’s anticipated to be more than 1/3rd of the electorate. Given last year’s returns, either or both would make modern electoral history if they gain the 75% necessary for election.
Bagwell, who's in his sixth year of eligibility, received 55.7% of the vote last year and is currently polling at 79.8%. Raines, who's in his ninth (and penultimate) year of eligibility, received 55.0% last year and is currently polling at 78.5%. Last year, both candidates received significantly less support on unpublished ballots than on published ones, and for Raines, the trend has been an ongoing one. That gap could narrow this year thanks to the Hall of Fame's recent decision to exclude voters who are more than 10 years removed from active coverage, a bloc that in the past has been less likely to reveal the contents of their ballots or to vote for as many candidates as those who publish their ballots. In the 2015 voting, Bagwell received 60.5% from the published ballots compared to 48.4% from the unpublished ones; for Raines, the numbers were 60.2 and 47.0, respectively. Assuming an electorate of 450 (475 ballots were sent out, but not all will be sent back), Bagwell will need to be named on 72.5% of the remaining ones, Raines on 73.2%. In both cases, the final outcome is a tossup, though at least it bodes well for their eventual election.
Is it possible to make the jump from 55% to 75% in one year? With the fates of that pair in mind, I dug into the modern history of the BBWAA vote in search of precedents, using the 1966 return to annual balloting as my cutoff. And if you think the voting process is messy now, check out the 1958 and '60 elections sometime; note that the five-year waiting rule didn't go into effect until '54. What I found was that among the 1,858 candidate-years since then, just 32 featured annual jumps of at least 15 percentage points, and just nine featured jumps of at least 20 points; nobody jumped between 19 and 20 points, for those splitting hairs between Bagwell and Raines. Only one player jumped 20 points and crossed the 75% threshold in the same year: Barry Larkin in 2012. Here are the largest gains:
Larkin rode the second-largest annual gain in modern history into Cooperstown, but his was the only one of at least 20 points that pushed a candidate above 75%, and also the only one from which the starting point was above 50%. The nine candidates who received such substantial boosts averaged just 32.1% in the year before their climb and 54.8% in the year they received the boost, which put them back in the game, so to speak. Everybody on the list except for Hodges and Sain—the latter of whom had by far the lowest "before" percentage of the bunch—found their way into Cooperstown eventually, with Aparicio, Drysdale, Rice and Wynn joining Larkin among those elected by the writers.
The slick-fielding Aparicio debuted on the ballot at 27.8% in 1979 and climbed to 41.9% three years later. His candidacy then caught fire, with the above gain followed by a 17.2% increase that put him over the line (I’ll detail such gains below). The hard-throwing Drysdale debuted at 21.0% in 1975 and made a huge jump two years later but still needed another seven years to reach 75%. Rice, who debuted at 29.8% in 1995, had gradually inched his way to 42.9% by '98 before dipping and then rebounding as shown above; he still took nine more years to be elected, finally gaining entry in 2009, his final year on the writers' ballot. Wynn, who struggled along the way to collecting his 300th and final win, debuted with just 27.9%, gained 18.8 points the next year and then 20 points as shown above; even then, he needed one more year to get his bronze plaque.
Meanwhile, both Fox and Newhouser were eventually elected by the Veterans Committee. Fox, like former “Go-Go Sox” teammates Aparicio and Wynn, is one of six players who received multiple bumps of at least 15 points. He debuted at just 10.8% in 1971; the 23.8-point gain shown above happened just weeks after his death at age 47 via skin cancer. After his death, the momentum of his candidacy lagged; his share of the vote was down to 30.6% in 1982, his 12th year of eligibility, but then three big gains in a row—15.7, 14.7 and 13.7 percentage points in consecutive years—pushed him to 74.7%, albeit as his BBWAA eligibility lapsed. He was finally elected by the VC in 1997. Newhouser debuted at 2.5% in 1962, before the Five Percent Rule (which requires a minimum share of the vote to remain eligible) was in effect. He broke 25% only once before his big gain in 1975, which still left him far short of the necessary 75%, and didn’t get elected by the VC until '92.
While the 20-point jump into Cooperstown has just one modern precedent, nine candidates have gained at least 15 points and crossed the threshold in the same year. Thus, here are the top 10 "over-the-threshold" gains:
As you can see, Larkin's jump (which came in his third year of eligibility) dwarfs that of the rest of the group, but what stands out here are a handful of candidates who today might be presumed to have been first-ballot honorees but were forced to wait. That the voters found reason to make Berra, a three-time MVP who played on 10 World Series winners, wait until a second ballot is a black mark against the BBWAA of that era. As suggested by the fact that he received the highest percentage among this group in both the “before” and “after” years, Alomar was viewed as Hall of Fame-worthy but made to wait until his second year mainly due to the fallout from the infamous 1996 incident in which he spit on umpire John Hirschbeck after being ejected for arguing balls and strikes. Remarkably, Mathews—who stood as the best-hitting third baseman of all time until Mike Schmidt came along and was sixth on the all-time home run list with 512 when he retired in 1968—needed five years to gain entry. Again, it was not the BBWAA’s finest half-decade.
Snider, part of a hallowed 1950s New York centerfield triumvirate along with Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle and a bopper of 407 career home runs, debuted with just 17.0% of the vote in 1970 and took until his 11th year to gain entry. He didn't break 30% until 1974 and didn't break 50% until '77; even upon receiving 55.4% that year, it still took three more years to close the gap. His final push was aided by an endorsement from Mays, who told The Sporting News' Jack Lang, "All I know is that Mickey and me are both in the Hall of Fame and Duke is still waiting to get elected. It's about time he was voted in. He belongs."
Of the rest, the candidate who's particularly noteworthy in this context is Kiner, a masher who led the National League in home runs in each of his first seven seasons. He’s the only candidate to receive three bumps of at least 15 points, first adding 18 points (from 24.5% to 42.5%) in 1966–67, then 15.4 points (from 40.3% to 55.7%) in '69–70, and finally the 16.5-point gain shown above. Not only did that come in his final year of eligibility, but his 58.9% before the jump also stands as the lowest of this bunch, which is to say that his is the furthest distance from which a modern candidate has gained entry. Bagwell or Raines, if elected this year, would supplant him in that regard.
Of course, it’s worth remembering that what we’ve seen of the ballots thus far constitutes too small a sample size to say with certainty whether Bagwell or Raines will get in. It’s a fascinating sample, though, and in this context, it’s worth noting that if the current results hold, a whopping seven candidates would post gains of 15 points over last year:
We shouldn’t expect all those gains to hold, given that the average published-to-unpublished falloff last year among that group was 9.9 points, with only Trammell (+0.2) and Martinez (-1.3) falling fewer than 12.6 points. That said, it’s worth noting that within the timespan in question, there have been four election cycles with at least three players gaining 15 points: 1969 (Hodges, Kiner and Wynn), '74 (Phil Cavaretta, Kiner, Newhouser and Sain, the last two with gains of at least 20 points), '82 (Aparicio, Fox and Billy Williams) and '99 (Gary Carter, Tony Perez and Jim Rice). Oddly, all four followed years in which just one candidate was elected, so unlike the current crop, it’s not as though those past groups were particularly benefiting from the clearance of multiple top-shelf candidates.
If at least three of those 20-point gains hold, or if five gains of at least 15 points hold, it will be just one more way in which this ballot makes history. As to the others, I’ll have those in my upcoming election day guide.