Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 5, 2014

HOF Voting, Flawed But Still Fascinating

The results of the annual balloting for the Baseball Hall of Fame will be announced later this week, and three things already seem certain. First, this year’s voting by ten-year members of the Baseball Writers Association of America will not produce a repeat of last year’s results, when no one on the ballot received the requisite 75% of the vote to earn induction into the Hall. Second, when the results are announced there will be no shortage of writers and fans who will find fault with the outcome. Third, the drive by a growing numbers of both media members and fans to change the election process isn’t going away anytime soon.

As for the first point, one would have to look far and wide to find an analyst willing to predict that first-time candidate Greg Maddux is anything but a shoo-in for election to the Hall. During a career that spanned 23 seasons, most prominently with the Cubs and Braves, Maddux posted 355 wins. He won four consecutive National League Cy Young Awards between 1992 and 1995, and finished in the top five in the voting for that award five other times. He was an eight-time All-Star who led the league in wins in four different seasons and in ERA three times. A master of the strike zone, Maddux never walked more than 82 batters in a season, and that high came in 1989 when he was just 23 years old. For his career he averaged just 1.8 bases on balls per nine innings pitched. Adept at every aspect of his position, Maddux won a phenomenal 18 Gold Glove Awards, given annually to the player judged the best fielder at each defensive position. For the sabermetrics geeks, Maddux ranks in the top ten all-time in ERA+ and both of the major Wins Above Replacement calculations.

In addition to the virtually unanimous opinion from all quarters that Maddux is a first-ballot certainty, the website Baseball Think Factory (www.baseballthinkfactory.org) has been posting a running tally of votes from those BBWAA members who have chosen to publicly reveal their ballot. As of Sunday that included 130 individual ballots, or about 23% of the likely total vote, based on the number of ballots cast last year. Maddux was listed on 100% of those ballots, raising the possibility that he could become the first player to win unanimous election to Cooperstown. That almost certainly won’t happen, if for no other reason than that a stray voter or three will pass on the right-hander because they believe that no one should be elected unanimously, or no one should be elected in their first year of eligibility, or some other misguided principle. But even though Maddux won’t get every vote, he could challenge Tom Seaver’s record-setting 98.84% total, set in 1992; and it’s a safe bet that he will finish well north of the 75% required for election.

The tally that shows Maddux being named on every ballot also shows three other players with sufficient support to garner a plaque in upstate New York. They are pitcher and long-time Maddux teammate Tom Glavine (97.7%), slugger Frank Thomas (91.5%), and Craig Biggio (80.8%), whose 3,060 base hits are the most by any eligible player not already in the Hall. Like Maddux, Glavine and Thomas are in their first year of eligibility, while Biggio was the top vote-getter last year but fell 39 votes short of election. The list of publicly announced votes also indicated that Mike Piazza will fall just short of election, followed by Jeff Bagwell and Jack Morris, who is in his final year of eligibility.

Based on those numbers Maddux could well have company at next summer’s induction ceremony, as at the very least Glavine and Thomas both seem to have the wind at their backs as the votes are being counted. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of contrary opinions about those two, and every other one of the 36 names on this year’s ballot. Just prior to this post I reblogged Bill Miller’s excellent compilation of opinions from fans and writers around the country about this year’s HOF election. As Bill pointed out the opinions are often contradictory, with the career numbers of one candidate being dismissed as the product of simply hanging around; while another player is slighted for not playing long enough. Then of course there are the passionately held opinions which are just plain strange. No doubt somewhere in the land there is a fan who thinks Maddux is undeserving because of his disappointing 11-14 record in the postseason.

But it is part of the timeless appeal of the Great Game that every year, in the days leading up to the official announcement of the voting results, fans and the media alike weigh in with fervor. When was the last time one heard such passionate debate about which NFL players should be enshrined in Canton, or what basketball greats deserve recognition in Springfield?

Increasingly a portion of that annual debate is not about the merits of individual candidates but about the process itself. The BBWAA has been around for more than a century, with a principal function of improving working conditions and ensuring clubhouse and press box access for members. But it is fair to ask whether it remains the most representative electorate for its more public roles of voting not just for the Hall of Fame candidates, but also for the four annual awards in each league (MVP and Cy Young, as well as Manager and Rookie of the Year). The Association is restricted to journalists writing for newspapers and magazines, and only recently to those working for selected websites. In the case of the Hall of Fame vote the electorate is limited to those writers with at least ten years of membership, and is further restricted by the fact that several newspapers prohibit their writers from participating. In short, enshrinement in Cooperstown is being decided by a subset of a subset of those who make their livings covering baseball in our multimedia age.

The narrowness of that electorate may impact the accuracy of vote projections like those at the Baseball Think Factory website. It’s likely the case that younger members of the Association are more willing to publicly disclose their votes. If some of the older members who see themselves as self-appointed guardians of a mythical moral high ground are underrepresented in the public tally, actual results for Piazza and Bagwell, as well as Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds may be lower than indicated because of their real, or possible, or theoretical, or “he looks like a user” involvement with steroids.  In contrast a comparative old-timer like Morris may do better than the tally shows.

The PEDS issue, which will remain a part of the annual Hall of Fame debate for years to come, has created a crowded ballot and a backlog of candidates that under other circumstances would have been sure bets for Cooperstown. That in turn has led to conflict within the BBWAA, where some members are chafing under the rule that limits each writer to a maximum of ten players on their Hall of Fame ballot.

Meanwhile the entire process is seen as so hopelessly flawed by some that this year the website Deadspin (www.deadspin.com) succeeded in openly lobbying to “buy” a BBWAA member’s vote. In exchange for what is presumed to be a contribution to a charity of the member’s choice, the website’s readers were able to direct how that as yet anonymous sportswriter filled out his or her Hall of Fame ballot. Deadspin promises to reveal the identity of the writer later this month.

Doing away with the ten player limit would be good, and that may well occur. Opening the Hall of Fame voting to a broader and more representative electorate would be even better. Unfortunately, that almost certainly won’t.

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