Breaking the Hall of Fame logjam

With the results of the Hall of Fame’s BBWAA election coming next week, let’s figure out how many viable – purely in terms of statistics, I mean – Hall of Fame candidates are actually out there, both now and in the reasonably near future.

Rather than make some arbitrary distinction of my own, I’ll draw on Jay Jaffe’s work for my arbitrary distinction. On the 2015 ballot, there are 16 candidates with JAWS scores — a Hall of Fame-worthiness metric — of 50 or better. You can make a pretty damn good Hall of Fame case for all 16. Sammy Sosa (JAWS 51) just clears the bar; Gary Sheffield (49) just doesn’t. Which seems about right to me, because in their slugging era, both feel like borderline candidates.

Just to be clear about this … I’m not suggesting that everybody with 50 or more belongs in the Hall of Fame, but that it’s a perfectly reasonable way to find a reasonable number of top-notch Hall of Fame candidates. So here are the number of candidates who clear that bar in each of the next five years …

2015: 16

2016: 18 (plus Griffey, Edmonds)

2017: 19 (plus Ramirez, Pudge, Vlad; minus Trammell, McGwire)

2018: 22 (plus Chipper, Thome, Rolen, Andruw; minus Raines)

2019: 25 (plus Halladay, Helton, and maybe A-Rod)

Now, of course there won’t be 25 of these guys on the 2019 ballot. I will guess that Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Ken Griffey Jr., John Smoltz, Ivan Rodriguez, and Craig Biggio will have been elected. Probably Mike Piazza, too, and maybe Chipper Jones and Jeff Bagwell, too.

Oh, I should mention relief pitchers. Mariano Rivera scores only 43 JAWS, because relief pitcher, but he’s obviously more than viable. I haven’t counted Lee Smith, who draws a fair amount of support each year.  Or Trevor Hoffman, who first shows up on the 2016 ballot. Or Omar Vizquel, who wasn’t a relief pitcher but is going to get some of the same extra credit that relief pitchers get.

So we might assume there will be something like 20 impressive candidates on the 2019 ballot in five years. And there will have been roughly THIRTY impressive candidates on the ballots from 2015-2019, including those candidates who actually do get elected.

There is a point to all this, which is that (as you’ve probably heard) there’s a glut of fine Hall of Fame candidates, and this would be true even if Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were somehow elected. As you’ve (probably also) heard, a fair number of the Hall of Fame’s BBWAA voters, those charged with judging all these candidates, are really frustrated by their inability to vote for more than 10 candidates every year. You can’t blame them! If you think 15 candidates really, really belong in the Hall, you would like to vote for 15. Jay Jaffe doesn’t vote yet, but he knows as much about the Hall of Fame as anyone and would happily vote for 16.

The BBWAA made a smidgeon of news at the Winter Meetings when it recommended a slight change to the Hall of Fame’s voting procedures:

SAN DIEGO — The Baseball Writers’ Association of America on Tuesday voted to recommend an expansion of its annual Hall of Fame ballot from 10 players to 12, effective with next year’s ballot. The recommendation must be approved by the Hall’s board of directors, which earlier this year changed the rules regarding the election of players on the BBWAA ballot, shortening the time of eligibility from 15 years to a maximum of 10 years, beginning five years after retirement.

So both the Hall of Fame and the BBWAA have noticed this logjam, and both are trying to do something about it. But the Hall of Fame’s measure will, as I think I’ve demonstrated above, do very little to break the logjam. Not in the short term, anyway (more about the long term later). The BBWAA’s proposed measure might do something … but I don’t know how anyone would know, without a sophisticated analysis of every ballot that’s been cast, and I don’t believe that analysis has been conducted.

What I find faintly hilarious about the BBWAA’s proposal is the underlying premise that Hey, there’s really nothing wrong with the process, and certainly not with us … We just need a tiny bit more freedom to do whatever we want!

Hey, maybe they’re right. As I’ve mentioned a few dozen times over the years, the BBWAA’s voters have, on the whole, done a pretty damn good job. Most of the “mistakes” have been mistakes of omission rather than commission, and were later redressed by either another BBWAA election (ex. – Bert Blyleven, Gary Carter) or one of the many manifestations of the Veterans Committees (ex. – Ron Santo, Arky Vaughan).

But if we accept that the BBWAA’s system isn’t working, it seems unlikely that adding two slots to each ballot is really going to fix something. Let’s be frank: If you’re not happy with 10 slots, you probably won’t be happy (for long) with 12. If they get 12, it won’t be long before they’re asking for 15.

Or more. Buster Olney is abstaining this time around, because he “can’t stand the idea of casting a ballot” that doesn’t include worthies like Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling.” Derrick Goold has proposed a “binary ballot” that would require each voter to say yay or nay with every single candidate on the ballot, with the current 75-percent support still necessary for election.

Goold’s proposal is radical, and thus automatically interesting. What’s not clear is what would actually happen. I suppose we could study voting behavior in other sorts of elections, and get a pretty good idea. But maybe we don’t even need to know. Maybe it’s enough to acknowledge that it’s strange, purely on its face, to limit voters to x candidates when it’s clear that x-plus deserve election. This isn’t a political office; there’s room in there for more than one plaque.

I just don’t think Goold’s proposal goes far enough.

If you’re going to revamp the process, then revamp the process. Figure out where you want to go, and how to get there. And when I say you I mean you, Hall of Fame. Two years ago, not a single candidate reached 75 percent. No, the Village of Cooperstown’s economy didn’t collapse. But the Hall did take a PR hit, just as the Hall took a PR hit earlier this month when the (so-called) Golden Era Committee didn’t elect anyone.

So here’s a modest proposal … Considering how many tremendous players are eligible for the Hall of Fame, there’s little excuse for not electing two or three candidates every year. So why not a) junk the 75% requirement, and b) simply elect the top two or three vote-getters every year? I keep saying “two or three” because I worry that three might be too many, but two not enough. If the “right” answer is two-and-a-half, you could just alternate from year to year. Or take the Burkean approach and just say it’s two. But if the number were three, you would still be electing only half the highly viable candidates over the next five years.

Would dropping the requirement for 75 percent constitute a lowering of the beloved standards? Well, I don’t know. But I’m guessing that it would not. One year, a candidate might be elected with only 69 percent … but another year, a candidate might receive 77 percent and not be elected. I think if you set the number of annual electees at the right spot, you would wind up with the same Hall of Famers and the same number of Hall of Famers … but their elections would simply be spaced more regularly, five or six for every two years.

Is this a long-term solution? I don’t know. We can look at the next five ballots, but beyond that it’s difficult to know how many top-notch candidates will appear on particular ballots. The number might, for some reason, begin to steadily drop. In fact, once you get past Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki, it’s hard to come up with another great candidate who will first be eligible for the Hall in 2020 or shortly thereafter. Depending on when they retire, there’s also Adrian Beltre and David Ortíz and Carlos Beltrán, and Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley will someday have their partisans, too. But the glut will diminish steadily if the BBWAA does elect two or three candidates every year. If we look into the early 2020s, the combination of elections and candidates exhausting their 10 years of eligibility will have a significant impact. It’s just not clear, to me anyway, how significant.

So that’s the Burkean argument: Don’t take any drastic steps when this problem might well take care of itself, given enough time. Sure, the Hall of Fame could make a radical change now, and another in five or six years when the glut is gone. But you make enough radical changes and your credibility suffers. Which is obviously self-defeating.

I don’t know what’s “right” here. But it seems to me that the Hall of Fame has long been process-driven rather than results-driven. Which would be great, except the process has been so obviously flawed for so long. Maybe it makes more sense to decide how many Hall of Famers should be elected – not who, but how many – and design a process that gets you there.