SI.com’s Jay Jaffe previews Wednesday’s Hall of Fame election, including who and what to watch for.
The Hall of Fame election results show isn’t quite ready for prime time, but this year, the institution, the BBWAA and MLB Network have moved the announcement of the voting results from its previous 2 p.m. ET time slot to 6 p.m. in hopes of reaching a wider audience. What follows here is my quick guide to five things to watch for. For links to my profiles of any of the 32 candidates, see here, and for my virtual ballot, see here.
1. Ken Griffey Jr. could go where no man has gone before
No candidate has ever been elected unanimously via the BBWAA ballot, not even Babe Ruth, whose 95.1% share of the vote in the inaugural election in 1936 merely tied Honus Wagner for second place behind Ty Cobb, who received 98.2%. The fact that none of those greats swept the field established an unwritten rule among the electorate that has held for over 3/4ths of a century: nobody, not even Willie Mays (94.7%) or Hank Aaron (97.8%) gets in with 100%.
The reasons vary. Apart from the very rare game-theory ballot in which a voter passes up a sure thing to lend support to a candidate in greater need, a small faction of self-appointed guardians of the Cooperstown gate long ago adopted a policy of not voting for any first-time candidates, and from time to time, a few voters submit blank ballots, which under the voting rules are counted in the total received. That percentage has dwindled in recent years, though in 2013, five voters, four of whom publicly identified themselves, turned in blank ballots as a protest against the influx of candidates linked to performance-enhancing drugs. That helped produce a shutout, but each of the past two cycles has seen just a single blank turned in anonymously. It's not known yet whether the lone holdout was affected by the Hall of Fame’s most recent rule change, in which 90 voters were purged for being at least 10 years removed from actively covering the sport.
To date, Tom Seaver owns the highest percentage, with 98.84% in 1992. He was left off five ballots, of which three were blanks protesting the Hall's decision to bar ineligible players from consideration, a rule put into place the year before in anticipation of the recently banned Pete Rose reaching the ballot. Since then, Nolan Ryan (98.79% in 1999) and Cal Ripken Jr. (98.53% in 2007) have challenged Seaver but fallen short; each was left off six ballots. Now, it’s Griffey’s turn. So far, he’s been named on all 171 ballots revealed at Ryan Thibodaux’s ballot tracker, but that’s only about 38% of the electorate.
History points to the likelihood of somebody—likely an old-school voter bucking the trend toward accountability and transparency by hiding behind the anonymity of a system that was designed with secrecy in mind—taking it upon themselves to deprive Griffey of the distinction of being the first one to run the table. Even so, he could very well top Seaver for the all-time high, or at least Ripken for the high among position players. With 450 ballots expected, he could be dropped from five and still top Tom Terrific with a 98.89% rate.
Upon election, Griffey will be connected to at least two other firsts. Fifty-one years after the introduction of the amateur draft, he’ll be the first No. 1 pick—the modern-day symbol of limitless talent—to be elected, reaching the promised land where others before him failed. In a more obscure first, he’ll join former Reds teammate and Archbishop Moeller High School (Cincinnati) graduate Barry Larkin in the Hall, making for the first pair of Hall of Fame alumni from a high school outside California. Via Sports-Reference.com’s Hans Van Slooten, there have been six pairs from the Golden State: Frank Chance and Seaver (Fresno High), Walter Johnson and Arky Vaughan (Fullerton High), Eddie Murray and Ozzie Smith (Locke High in Los Angeles, where they were teammates), Ernie Lombardi and Frank Robinson (McClymonds High in Oakland), Joe Cronin and Harry Heilman (Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep in San Francisco) and Joe DiMaggio and Tony Lazzeri (Galileo High in San Francisco).
2. Mike Piazza’s in very good shape but not a lock
Piazza appears to be on track for election, having received 86.0% of the published votes thus far. Again assuming an electorate of 450, he would need 68.5% of the vote on the remaining ballots. That’s not exactly a “gimme,” given that he received just 61.2% on last year’s unpublished ballots compared to 75.2% on the published ones, but with his rate climbing and with the unpublished faction presumably reduced by the purge, it’s a reasonable bet that the best-hitting catcher in the game’s history winds up getting his bronze plaque this summer.
On that note, in the immediate aftermath of Piazza receiving 69.9% on the 2015 ballot, I muffed my attempt at calculating the modern voting era success rate of close-but-no-cigar candidates. The easy-to-digest factoid I offered spent a year in circulation and was cited by other writers on more than one occasion, but earlier this week, I discovered it was incorrect, and that the correct answer isn’t so tidy. In the interest of getting it right, I undertook a recount that was independently verified by another writer who covers the Mets, The Wall Street Journal's Jared Diamond.
Since the reinstatement of annual balloting in 1966, 20 players besides Piazza have received at least 69.0% of the vote, but less than the necessary 75.0% needed for election. Fifteen of them were elected the next year, and a 16th—longtime Yankees ace Red Ruffing—was actually elected in the same year (1967), via a since-discontinued runoff procedure designed for when no candidate receives enough votes. Of the remaining four, Orlando Cepeda and Nellie Fox were in their final year of BBWAA eligibility but were eventually elected by the Veterans Committee. Roy Campanella, who received 69.9% in 1967, needed two additional election cycles to surpass 75%, and Jim Bunning went from 70.0% in '87 to 74.2% in '88, then back to 63.3% in '89; he was eventually elected by the VC. I don’t expect Piazza to suffer such a fate, but it should serve as a reminder that crazy things occasionally happen to candidates on the cusp of election.
One more note on Piazza: He’ll be the lowest draft pick ever elected, having been chosen with the 1,390th pick in the 62nd round in 1988. That’s a neat bookend opposite Griffey becoming the highest draft pick ever elected, though of course scores of players from the pre-draft era are already enshrined.
3. The Class of 2016 could be more than two
If Griffey and Piazza wind up as the only candidates to reach 75%, it will be noteworthy in a few different ways. On the heels of the elections of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Frank Thomas in 2014, and then Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz in '15, it will be the first time that the BBWAA has elected multiple candidates for three years in a row since 2003–05, and it will match the largest group of players ever voted in by the BBWAA in three consecutive election cycles (whether annual, biennial or triennial). The writers also elected nine in the three-year spans from 1936 to '38, '53 to '55 and '54 to '56. If either of Jeff Bagwell or Tim Raines—currently polling at 79.5% and 77.8 %, respectively—breaks through, it will mark the first time in history that the writers have elected at least three candidates for three cycles in a row.
With or without that third candidate, it may seem as though the BBWAA is lowering the bar by honoring so many players—a common complaint among old-school voters—but the fact is that by electing just six candidates from 2008 to '13, the writers created a ballot backlog of which its effects continue to resonate. What’s more, my research and those of others shows that once you adjust for the size of the major leagues, the writers have been electing significantly fewer candidates than their predecessors. Limiting the field to those elected by the BBWAA, the average number of active Hall of Fame players per team per season from 1923 through '41 is 1.5. From 1946 through '88, that level falls to 1.34. It's been below 1.0 since 1993 and below 0.5 since '98. All of which is to say that anyone who believes that eras should be equitably represented within an institution devoted to the game’s history can’t help but conclude that we're missing 15–20 Hall of Famers from the post-strike era, many of whom are the ones bogged down on these backlogged ballots.
As for Bagwell, who received 55.7% of the vote last year, and Raines, who received 55.0%, it’s worth remembering with regards to their apparent gains this time around that both had double-digit dropoffs on last year’s unpublished ballots relative to the published ones. What’s more, they have at least a half-century of electoral history working against them. In modern electoral history, just one candidate has gained at least 20 points and been elected in the same year: Larkin, who jumped 24.3 points from 2011 to '12. Meanwhile, just one candidate has climbed from below 60% to above 75% in that span: Ralph Kiner, who jumped from 58.9% to 75.4% from 1974 to '75, his final year of eligibility. Either Bagwell or Raines, or both, could supplant Kiner, but the odds point to Larkin’s record being safe. Even if both fall short, the history I outlined above regarding Piazza suggests that both will be elected in 2017, which is of particular importance since it will be Raines’s final year on the writers’ ballot.
4. Other candidates stand to make big gains that point to their eventual elections
As I noted in the aforementioned piece on big jumps, the early returns suggest that seven candidates could gain at least 15 percentage points relative to last year, with four gaining at least 20 points:
Not all of those gains will hold, but beyond the aforementioned prospects of Bagwell, Piazza and Raines, the big news here is that Mussina and Schilling could break 50%. That’s significant: In the history of the voting, the only candidates—excluding those currently on the ballot—to top 50% and not gain entry via either the BBWAA, the Veterans Committee or its era-based successors are Gil Hodges and Jack Morris, the latter of whom has yet to have his case considered by the Expansion Era Committee (expect him to be on their 2017 ballot).
With Schilling eligible for six more years and Mussina for seven, both have ample time to garner the necessary support, and aside from Roger Clemens, it will be a few years before they have any clearly superior pitchers to crowd them as the 2013 and '14 ballots did. If current trends hold, Mussina could even challenge Luis Aparicio’s 25.5 point gain from 1982 to '83 as the largest in modern election history, but that’s a longshot. While it's been remarked that Schilling has been hurt by his propensity for controversial political statements—eight writers who voted for him last year did not do so this year—it’s more accurate to say that his support is growing slightly more slowly than some of his fellow candidates. An 18.7-point jump would rank somewhere between the 12th- and 17th largest of the modern era, depending upon how many of other gains shown above hold (again, we’re talking long shots), and even assuming some kind of falloff from that clip, Schilling’s long-term outlook points toward Cooperstown.
As for Martinez, he’s got only three years of eligibility remaining after this one, but after receiving just 27.0% of the vote last year, a boost to above 40% would breathe new life into his chances. For Trammell, who’s in his 15th and final year of eligibility, this is too little, too late as far as the writers’ ballot is concerned; he’ll be the first candidate who's above the JAWS standard at his position to age off the ballot since Ron Santo in 1998. Still, candidates such as Cepeda, Fox, Bill Mazeroski and Hal Newhouser were elected by the Veterans Committee after posting big gains in their final year of BBWAA eligibility, and the hope here is that the next group of votes will similarly smile upon a candidate who's been criminally under appreciated by the writers during his run on the ballot.
5. Only two other first-year candidates, Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner, will likely be back next year.
The fates of the two great closers debuting this year are likely to be drastically different. Hoffman, the former all-time saves leader, is polling at 62.6%, making it unlikely that he'll be elected this year but suggesting that he could get in either in 2017 or '18 (I'll have an update of my five-year outlook on Friday). Wagner, who saved “only” 422 games to Hoffman’s 601 but was the more dominant pitcher by several measures, is barely scraping by at 9.4% of the vote, which is at least enough to return for 2017. In an electorate of 450, he needs to find only another seven votes to guarantee his return.
As paltry as his total may seem, the 16 votes that Wagner has received thus far is four times that of fellow first-timer Jim Edmonds, who’s polling at just 2.3%. The dynamic centerfielder needs to find 19 more votes (still just roughly 6.9%) to retain eligibility for next year, though his long-term prospects via the writers’ ballot don’t look very promising. As for the other 11 newcomers, they’ve totaled one vote among them so far. Garret Anderson received that vote on a ballot that also included Edmonds.
I’ll be on MLB Network’s MLB Now show at 2 p.m. ET on Wednesday, previewing the election results, and back here in this space with some quick thoughts on the voting results on Wednesday evening, with a fuller candidate-by-candidate breakdown on Thursday.