Sizing up the Hall of Fame hopes for six longtime candidates

Publish date:

Last week, the Hall of Fame ballot was announced, offering an opportunity for immortality to 15 new candidates as well as providing hope to several old faces who have perennially been on the outside looking in.

Players have 15 chances for enshrinement by the writers, and some of these longtime holdovers are running out of time: Bert Blyleven (13th year of eligibility), Jack Morris (11th year), Andre Dawson (ninth year), Lee Smith (eighth year) are all racing against the clock to reach the 75 percent mark necessary for immortality. Do these players stand a chance to make it someday, or are their Hall of Fame hopes merely a mirage -- an illusion forever out of reach? While cases can be made for or against these players on their merits, the best way to answer this is to look at how the voters have viewed them over time.

Hall of Fame voting has changed significantly in its 74-year history. In the old days, even the greatest players were denied access to the Hall on their first few tries and players were only allowed in after they had paid their dues. After complaints which led to the reinstatement of the eligibility of a number of players in 1985, voters began to abandon this principle and vote for players based on their merits, regardless of how long they had been on the ballot. Even so, less-than-perfect candidates often find themselves having to build up their vote totals over time.

To find comparable players to the current longtime Hall of Fame candidates, I examined the 28 players since 1985 who got at least 15 percent of the vote in their first year but fell short of election. Of these, 13 players eventually got in, nine did not or will not make it in, and the fates of the other six (the aforementioned four, plus Tim Raines and Mark McGwire) are unknown.

From that information alone, we can conclude that a player has a chance if he can get at least 15 percent of the vote on the first crack. Obviously, the higher percentage of vote the better, but Hall of Fame voters are a fickle breed, and their voting patterns do not always follow a predictable path. Steve Garvey and Gary Carter both started out with 42 percent of the vote, but over the next 15 years Garvey never cracked 50 percent and fell far short of immortality. Meanwhile Carter was giving his acceptance speech just five years later. For whatever reason, some players build momentum while other players' candidacies stagnate. Therefore, when assessing a player's chances of immortality, the trajectory of a player's votes must be considered, as well as the most recent vote total.

Among recent players who made it into the Hall of Fame after several years on the ballot, there are a few different paths. One path is a fairly high first-year vote -- usually in the 50-65 percent range, followed by induction within five years. Eight players followed this path -- Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, Ryne Sandberg, Carlton Fisk, Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter, Gaylord Perry and Fergie Jenkins. Another path, followed by Carter and Tony Perez, combines a modest initial vote of around 45 percent with a longer six- to nine-year journey to the Hall. A final path to the Hall, followed by Bruce Sutter, Jim Rice and Goose Gossage, is one in which the player starts with a vote total in the 20-30 percent range and then builds his successful candidacy over a longer period of time.

Among recent players that did not make the Hall of Fame, there were two trajectories: Mickey Lolich, Luis Tiant, Dale Murphy, Garvey and Don Mattingly started in the 20-40 percent range and declined steadily. Jim Kaat, Dave Parker, Alan Trammell and Tommy John started with a low share of the vote and stayed that way.

You'll notice that one trajectory is missing: the one in which a player steadily builds votes but ultimately falls short of the Hall of Fame. Since 1985 there have been zero players who have significantly increased their vote total over time but failed to make it into the Hall. That's not to say that such a case can't occur, but over the past 25 years it hasn't happened.

So, armed with this knowledge, how do we project the fates of the six current perennial Hall of Fame hopefuls?

The Hawk seems to be on a similar path to Perez and Carter. Now in his ninth year of eligibility, he has seen his vote share steadily increase from 45 percent in his first year to 67 percent last year. Dawson's trajectory echoes Perez's extremely closely, and that's good news for Dawson. While he lags a bit behind Carter's trajectory, he's well ahead of the pace of Rice, who also eventually made it to the Hall. Meanwhile, there are no comparable cases in which a player with Dawson's trajectory did not gain election. Whether he makes it this year or in the next couple of years, Dawson's eventual enshrinement appears to be merely a matter of time.

Prognosis for election: Extremely likely.

Smith's candidacy looked good after year one, when he received 42 percent of the vote. Of 12 other recent players who started with 42 percent or more, 10 are Hall of Famers, one still has a shot (Dawson) and only one was denied. The one that fell short? Steve Garvey. So far Smith has followed a path much more like Garvey's than that of Carter, Perez or Sandberg, who had similar starting vote totals. In seven years Smith has stagnated, with his vote total increasing just three points to 45 percent. In contrast, Carter and Sandberg were already enshrined at this point, and Perez had increased his share to 68 percent. In all, things don't look good for Smith. It wouldn't be impossible for a player with 45 percent of the vote at this point to make it in, but the fact that Smith's percentage has not improved much does not bode well. Since 1985 no player who has shown such little movement has made the Hall.

Prognosis for election: Very unlikely.

Blyleven started his journey with just 18 percent of the vote, which is Parker and Trammell territory. However, his candidacy has gained steam -- he garnered 63% of the vote last year. Currently Blyleven stands in almost the exact same position as Rice (65 percent) and Sutter (67 percent) going into their 13th year of eligibility. Both started with very low vote totals and built their way up. Both also eventually made it -- Rice in his 15th year and Sutter in his 13th. Given that Blyleven's vote total has recently been rising faster than either of those two players, Blyleven's outlook for eventual enshrinement is good. Gossage is another comparable player who built himself up from very low totals. Once he hit the 60 percent mark it took him two more years to crack the Hall. And Blyleven has three chances left. No player in the last 25 years has seen his vote totals rise so sharply and not been enshrined in the Hall. I wouldn't bet on Blyleven being the first.

Prognosis for election: Likely.

The case of Jack Morris is a curious one. Morris started with a very low vote total, 22 percent, and it didn't get much better over the next five years. Now, after 10 years, Morris has doubled his percentage to 44. Of the other eligible players, Morris mirrors Blyleven and Sutter most closely, though his vote totals have not increased as sharply as either of those two players. While Sutter is in and Blyleven has a good chance to make it, Morris is a borderline candidate. Given that Blyleven and Sutter had little room to spare, and that Morris lags somewhat behind both of these pitchers, it will be an uphill -- though not impossible -- climb for Morris.

The comparison between Morris and Blyleven is particularly ironic, considering that the two pitchers stake their Hall of Fame cases on completely opposite merits. Morris, the sabermetric whipping boy, is in consideration because of his high win totals, gutty big game performances and being a "winner" despite a career adjusted ERA just five percent better than the rest of the league. Meanwhile, Blyleven is in consideration because of his great statistics. Yet both appear to be on fairly similar paths with respect to the Hall of Fame.

Prognosis for election: Questionable.

After garnering just 24 percent and 23 percent support in his first two years, Raines' prospects are not great. To reach the Hall he will need to follow a path similar to that of Blyleven, who had just 18 percent and 14 percent in his first two years. But Raines' candidacy might not be in as much danger as it looks. For one, as time goes on, statistics shine more brightly, and fame and cachet garnered from where one plays diminishes. Both Blyleven and Raines toiled in anonymity for small market, non-playoff clubs, and both look better under the microscope of sabermetrics. Blyleven had 3.31 ERA and 3,701 strikeouts despite having just one 20-win season, and Raines had a .385 on-base percentage and played good outfield defense. As advanced statistical thinking comes further into the mainstream, these qualities will be valued more highly. This means that Raines has a chance to end up more like Blyleven than Dave Parker or Tommy John, who had similar first-two-year vote totals. Despite a stagnant first two years, my guess is that Raines eventually makes a run -- whether he makes it in or not remains to be seen.

Prognosis for election: Unlikely, but possible.

McGwire's case rests entirely on whether voters forgive him for alleged steroid use. If they do, he's in, if they don't, he's not. His support has been stuck in the low 20's in his first three years of eligibility. It's possible that voters will give him a break in his later years, but the psychology of voters and how that may change is hard to determine.

Prognosis for election: Unlikely, but possible.