Each year, starting in December and continuing for several weeks, the Hall of Fame tends to dominate the baseball scene. Well, at least that’s my perspective. There are other things to talk about during that time of year, but there is certainly no shortage of content if you’re a Hall of Fame connoisseur.
By now, I’m sure you’re all familiar with the 2017 voting results that were released a couple of weeks ago, as well as analysis of the latest trends, so I feel no need to rehash that. Plenty has been written on that front.
Next year, Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel, Scott Rolen, Andruw Jones, Johnny Damon, Johan Santana, Jamie Moyer, and many others will debut, Trevor Hoffman and Vladimir Guerrero look to get over the hump, Edgar Martinez, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Mike Mussina all look to build on their 50%+ level of support (although Edgar will be down to his last 2 attempts), and the world awaits to see what the 2017 version of Curt Schilling’s Social Media Circus will yield and how that will impact his support.
I plan to repeat our Hall of Fame prediction contest next year, where we submit our predictions in terms of the % of the vote each candidate will receive. It’s way too early for me to submit my specific numeric predictions yet, but my early general expectations include the following (some of which are, admittedly, vague):
- Hoffman, Guerrero, and Chipper will be elected
- Thome gets close in his debut but needs a second year to clear the bar
- Edgar Martinez makes a big push in his final attempt but comes up short (Edit on Feb. 2 - I was incorrect in stating that 2018 would be Martinez's final attempt. He actually has 2 more years to go, which changes the conclusion. With 2 more years to close the gap, I do think he will come up short in 2018, but will make it on his final attempt in 2019).
- Bonds, Clemens, and Mussina build on their gains and take another step towards eventual election.
- Rolen faces lukewarm support in his initial year despite impressive rWAR and JAWS figures
- Schilling treads water around the 50% level, managing to simultaneously attract and repel voters in equal measures
That’s what I think will happen….but we have plenty of time to hash that out.
In the meantime, there were a few other Hall of Fame related topics that grabbed my attention, and they involved such topics as voting privileges, blank ballots, anonymity, and the extreme changes in support that a candidate may witness over time. Some of these have been discussed in varying degrees in Reader Posts, but I thought I’d explore these in a broader forum while the subject is still a little bit fresh.
First, I think it’s important to revisit a pretty basic concept, but one that is often lost in the shuffle.
What is a Vote, After All?
The other day at work, I was involved in an email thread that started off with a very basic question, and initially involved only a few people. Over the course of a couple of days, it had evolved into a thread with more than 30 replies and had expanded to the point where over 20 people had been copied, most of whom had something to say about it. The original, simple question had been buried in an avalanche of side issues and had never been answered, and we were all of a sudden staring at a decision that might involve a significant expense to accomplish what everyone now assumed was needed as a solution.
A couple of people from the original email finally circled back to the original question, identified the one key person that it turns out had the truly relevant information that was needed, had a quick review with that person, and then determined that the expensive option that we were on the verge of moving forward with really wasn’t needed at all, and the issue was resolved.
Lesson being, sometimes, when we get too deep in the weeds on a subject, it’s useful to step back and remind ourselves of the basic question being asked.
So what is the fundamental question here? The question is, how does the Hall of Fame go about determining what a Hall of Famer is? And, just what is a Hall of Famer, anyway?
The Hall of Fame has never really defined what a Hall of Famer is aside from providing a few very basic guidelines, including the much-discussed, so-called "character clause", and even on that particular front, the Hall of Fame doesn’t give much direction on how to interpret it. It’s left up to each voter to interpret and apply as he or she sees fit. That’s done intentionally.
The Hall of Fame doesn’t directly decide who is a Hall of Famer and who isn’t. The Hall of Fame has entrusted that primary duty to the Baseball Writers Association of America (and, of course, the various "Veterans Committees" that have evolved over time, but that’s a separate topic and process). The writers individually cast ballots, and then collectively they decide who is and who is not a Hall of Famer by whether or not the candidates reach 75% of the vote. There is no specified Hall of Fame "line". The voting of the writers establishes and defines that line with each and every vote.
Here’s Dictionary.com’s definition of "vote" (as a noun):
- A formal expression of opinion or choice, either positive or negative, made by an individual or a body of individuals.
- A collective expression of will as inferred from a number of votes.
The first key there is that a vote is an opinion. Why do we conduct votes in the first place? Because we’re looking for subjective selections to determine an outcome. We can certainly hope people are well-informed and consider all the facts in making their choices, but ultimately a vote is an expression of an opinion, and each person that casts a vote is providing his or her individual opinion on the matter. There is no such thing as a wrong or a right vote. If there were completely objective alternatives to arrive at a decision, we wouldn’t need a vote in the first place. We would reach it in some other manner. If the Hall of Fame wanted to, they could just come up with some other way than holding a mass vote of baseball writers to determine who is elected.
The nature of a Hall of Fame (not just baseball’s, but any Hall of Fame), is that there will always be a large degree of subjectivity. I wouldn’t want it any other way. Consider all the evidence, of course. But ultimately, the decision is based on a collection of subjective opinions, whether it’s a large number (440+voters for baseball) or a relatively small one (hockey has 18).
Another key, not directly stated in the definition, is that it is a free choice. It should completely convey each person’s honest and true opinion, regardless of what others may think of it. "Freedom of Choice". Hey, if Devo wrote a song about it, it must be important, right? Although….apparently that song is not really a celebration of freedom of choice. One of the lyrics states "Freedom of choice is what you've got. Freedom from choice is what you want.", implying that people really want to be told what to do and are throwing their freedom away. But that’s another topic…..
Anyway, the main point is that a vote, at its heart, implies a free, clear, expression of opinion. Which leads to the next topic…..
The Blank Ballot
Although it may sound like it at times, this is not going to be a defense of Murray Chass. I promise you that. The scope is bigger than just one man’s ballot.
Chass, who was the 2003 J. G. Taylor Spink Award winner, created quite a stir when he turned in a blank ballot this year. Now, Chass is obviously not a friend to the sabermetric community, but that’s OK….I’m pretty sure the feeling is mutual. He doesn’t have much use for analytics or new ways of evaluating baseball, is generally dismissive of the field in general and very combative to those in it. All true. He generally bad-mouths the entire community every chance he gets. I’m very clear on the background and the relationship between Chass and many in the analytic community. But, I’m trying to go beyond that, to not just focus on the individual at the center of the storm, but on the situation itself.
When Chass submitted a blank ballot, there were many people who expressed the thought that he needed to have his voting privileges revoked (by the way, Chass was not the only one to turn in a blank ballot. Bill Livingston of Cleveland Plain Dealer submitted one as well). There were many who gave the opinion that he was using his voting privileges frivolously, that he was turning in a blank ballot to call attention to himself, that he was effectively playing games with his vote simply to antagonize others.
I couldn’t disagree more.
As to whether he is trying to call attention to himself, or whether he delighted in antagonizing others…well, I haven’t the slightest idea. Perhaps he is. I’m not a professional psychologist, nor even an amateur one. However, I feel quite certain that ultimately Chass turned in a blank ballot for one reason, and one reason only: he didn’t think anyone on the ballot was a Hall of Famer.
Now, that may sound unreasonable and unsupportable to many, especially during a year when the average ballot that was submitted contained 8.1 players selected, and over half of the public ballots that were revealed used all 10 available slots. Certainly, a voter in this particular year, with so many viable candidates and so much of the voter community selecting so many names, should submit a ballot with at least a few players selected, right?
No, not necessarily. Look, if I had a ballot, and if I were allowed to vote for more than 10, I would have submitted 13 names. For full transparency, I’m on record that my top 10 would have been:
- Barry Bonds
- Roger Clemens
- Ivan Rodriguez
- Jeff Bagwell
- Tim Raines
- Manny Ramirez
- Curt Schilling
- Mike Mussina
- Vladimir Guerrero
- Edgar Martinez
In addition, if I had been allowed to vote for more than 10, I would have also included:
- Fred McGriff
- Trevor Hoffman
- Larry Walker
I also think that Sammy Sosa, Jeff Kent, Billy Wagner, Lee Smith, Gary Sheffield, and Jorge Posada have solid cases as well. But, the Hall of Fame is about drawing a line somewhere, and the above is where I drew my line. My line is likely different than yours. We all apply our own criteria, for better or worse, and decide individually where it is drawn.
Murray Chass looked at that same list, and didn’t select a soul. I obviously disagree….but I understand why he didn’t pick anyone, and I feel it has nothing to do with attention.
Look, Murray Chass isn’t against the notion of electing people to the Hall of Fame. He just draws the line differently than I do or the overwhelming majority of voters currently do. He is not just taking an automatic and unyielding stance a la the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and invoking a "None shall pass" attitude. He voted in favor of Ken Griffey Jr. A few years ago, he voted in favor of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas.
Yes, he also voted for Jack Morris at the same time as Maddux, Glavine, and Thomas, which certainly had many people scratching their heads, that he can find room for Jack Morris but not (for example) Mike Mussina, which many in the current climate regard as completely unreasonable. But even on that point, I don’t see a big deal. It’s perfectly reasonable for Chass, or any single voter, to prefer Morris to Mussina as a Hall of Fame candidate. Remember, at his peak, Jack Morris reached 67.7% of the vote in 2013, when he finished #2 on that ballot where no one reached 75%. That year, he finished ahead of Bagwell, Piazza, and Raines, all of whom have since been elected. Mussina is currently a little over 50%, though he is trending up. The majority of voters towards the end of Morris’ time on the ballot felt Morris was a Hall of Famer. You may disagree….but that’s certainly a significant result.
We have to remember that the image of Morris, while he was active, was that of a workhorse who excelled in the postseason. Now, it’s easy to look at Morris’ final career postseason totals in the books of 7-4, 3.80 and dismiss that image as pure hokum, but if you look at what his record was coming on the heels of his legendary 1-0 win in the 7th game of the 1991 Series, at that point he had a career postseason record of 7-1 with a 2.60 ERA. He pitched very poorly in the 1992 postseason, which dragged his career postseason record down. You can’t dismiss 1992, and of course it counts, but we have to remember that, through 1991, his postseason success had already cemented that image in many people’s minds, and for those same people, I suspect his subsequent poor performance in the 1992 postseason wasn’t enough to undo that image. Writers following his career remember the status he attained. He was a key pitcher in the rotation on 3 different Word Champs with 3 different franchises (’84 Tigers, ’91 Twins, ’92 Blue Jays) over 9 years. You may argue that he had great taste in team mates, and you may right, but to others it’s no coincidence that he ended up with 3 rings. His image as a "winner" was intact. To some, that’s very compelling evidence in a player’s Hall of Fame case.
Morris will probably get elected to the Hall of Fame the first time he appears on a Veterans Committee ballot. So, I don’t think there’s anything particularly strange that Morris would appeal to Chass, yet Mussina doesn’t. I personally regard Mussina as the superior pitcher with the superior career value, and I suspect most of you do as well, but it’s not hard to find voters who consider Morris to be the better Hall of Fame candidate. To some, Morris’ career is more evocative of what a Hall of Fame career looks like. Again, I don’t agree….but many do feel that way. That’s why we vote.
Look, Chass generally votes for only a few players each year. He’s extremely restrictive when it comes to players who have been connected to PEDs in any shape, form, or rumor. According to Chass, he voted in favor of Jeff Bagwell the first time he was eligible (many people have forgotten that in the ensuing years), but then became convinced that Bagwell used (I believe due to information he received from sources he trusted), so he decided to stop voting for him. He was insistent on the suspiciousness of Mike Piazza’s "back acne", and refused to vote for him. He refused to vote for Craig Biggio because Chass indicated that he had several sources that indicated to him that he had used. So, I’d say he’s been among the strictest, maybe even the most strict, voters in this regard. In addition, although Tim Raines had no connection to PEDs, Chass applied the "character clause" to his candidacy by holding his cocaine use against him. So, he takes the character clause to its extreme interpretation. But, the Hall of Fame has issued no guidelines or restrictions to the writers on how to apply that clause, or anything else for that matter. Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised when someone interprets it in such a strict manner.
So, again, I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum on these candidates. I would have voted in favor of all them. I disagree with his conclusions. However….is that any reason suggest that his voting privilege be taken away? I say no. That would be an overzealous reaction to his ballot, regardless of how out of the mainstream his thinking may currently be. Reasonable people don’t threaten to take away the voting privileges of someone with a minority opinion simply because it’s extreme and doesn’t fit with the more popular point of views.
Look, I am a strong believer (like many) that there are legitimate ways to improve the system. I am in favor of expanding the vote beyond the BBWAA to include other types of media, experts, and fans. Bob Costas, Bill James, Vin Scully, John Thorn, and many others do not currently get to vote. I think the Hall of Fame would benefit from including them and others like them.
I believe that there should be no limit to the number of players that you can vote for on a ballot. If you think that more than 10 players have had Hall of Fame careers, then I think you should be permitted to vote for more than 10. However, if there shouldn’t be a maximum, then I also believe that there should be no minimum number of selections that a voter must make. If you honestly think none of the candidates rise to the level of a Hall of Famer, applying whatever your criteria are, then you should absolutely vote for no one. I don’t think there should be a limit on how many you vote for….and I don’t think there should be a minimum either.
Some have also expressed the thought that someone considering submitting a blank ballot should simply abstain because it increases the denominator and makes it more difficult for borderline candidates to gain entry. That’s certainly true, but I would disagree that abstaining would be the appropriate action. Abstaining means you’re deciding to not participate. If you think no one rises to the level of Hall of Famer, then submitting a blank ballot is the only logical action. It’s the same as selecting "none of the above".
The Hall of Fame ballot is sent out blank, with no names pre-selected, nothing checkmarked, simply a list of names for voters to consider. We are asking voters for their opinions. Vote for none, vote for 10, vote for somewhere in between. The choice is yours. We’ll tally the results, and, as a group, find out where the line is drawn. That’s how it should work.
Moving to a Transparent World
In December 2016, the BBWAA voted, by an 80-9 margin, to make all Hall of Fame voting (beginning with 2018) public, with all ballots revealed after the winners are announced. I’d say the general reaction has been positive. I heard Mike Greenberg from "Mike & Mike" on the radio state something to the effect of how this was a positive step because, and I’m paraphrasing here, what was the big secret anyway? Jayson Stark wrote an excellent article on the topic. I thought he was fair to all sides, but ultimately it was clear that he was very much in favor of the impending transparency.
I’m probably in the minority on this one. While I don’t think that full disclosure is necessarily a bad thing, I’m just not celebrating it like others are.
Why? Because I believe in the power of anonymity when it comes to casting a vote. It ties back to the fundamental reason we ask for people’s votes. One of the keys is that we are looking for honest opinions. Now, for most voters, I don’t think whether their vote is public or private makes much of a difference at all. After all, most of the voters already voluntarily reveal their ballots. According to Ryan Thibodaux’s very popular Hall of Fame Tracker, about 71% of the 442 total ballots that were submitted were voluntarily made public. So, I’m assuming the voters who volunteer their selections aren’t that worried about reaction, and it probably has little to no effect on their choices.
However….for some others it would. Let me ask this….have you ever been in a situation where a vote was being conducted and they asked for a show of hands? Have you ever let that influence your vote? If being forced to make your selections public changes who you would vote for because you’re afraid of backlash or simply afraid of being ridiculed, is that a good thing or a bad thing? I think it’s a bad thing. I want people’s honest opinions, even if they’re not popular. If it’s not an honest reflection of your true opinion, then it’s not a free expression of choice.
Now, I’m sure that a big reason that a lot of people support the notion of full ballot disclosure is that they feel it will reduce the number of voters who don’t vote for strong candidates when under the cloak of anonymity. For example, the 3 voters who declined to select Ken Griffey Jr. a couple of years ago were submitted by voters who did not publicly reveal their votes. One suspects that they didn’t vote for him under the premise that, since no candidate has ever received 100% of the vote to date, that no one should. We know that some voters feel that way. Many people are dismayed or even outraged when a handful of voters opt not to vote in favor of players such as Griffey Jr. or Greg Maddux or someone like that, and they demand accountability for these actions. There are always at least a few voters like that, and I’m sure the thought is that "smoking them out" and making it all public will discourage that.
Perhaps. But, if that’s the primary reason for publishing all votes, then I think it’s a poor trade-off. For starters, I think the distinction of unanimous selection is pretty meaningless at this point. What would it really mean if Ken Griffey Jr. had achieved this status, or if Derek Jeter is unanimously elected in a few elections from now? I won’t say it means nothing. However, I would say it means virtually nothing. Unanimous election would be a largely meaningless distinction at this point after having had roughly 80 years of voting under various dynamics, standards, and procedures where we haven’t had any unanimous selections.
Let’s say that, under the new policy, Derek Jeter is elected unanimously. OK….now what? What does that mean at this point? Derek Jeter obviously isn’t the greatest player of all time. He might not even be top 50 (Joe Posnanski, for example, has him at #57). The point is, he’s nowhere near the greatest player of all time. If elected unanimously, it would be strongly related to the presence of the new policy. So what does it really mean in the scheme of things? It’s a designation without any true, meaningful significance for anyone who understands history.
So, is there any real, tangible benefit to publishing everyone’s choices? So that we can more easily single out those with whom we disagree and publicly beat them over the head with their "ignorance"? Is that what we’re looking forward to? Or are we hoping that the fear of casting an unpopular vote will shame people into going along with the crowd?
In any case, public ballots, I’m sure, are here to stay. The vote was overwhelming in favor of going that direction, so of course I have to respect that decision, and I don’t mean to be too negative. I suppose it will be fine, it may end up being no big deal, and perhaps some good things may occur because of it. But forgive me if I don’t join in the celebration.
442 Angry Men (and Women)
One of my favorite movies is "12 Angry Men". It was released nearly 60 years ago (1957), and I never get tired of watching it. It’s got a great cast, led by Henry Fonda, but also includes the likes of Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall, Jack Warden, Jack Klugman, Martin Balsam, Robert Webber, Ed Begley (Sr., not Jr.), and John Fiedler.
It’s certainly the kind of film you don’t see much of today. Except for a couple of brief scenes, the bulk of the movie takes place in one room – the jury room. It’s a stripped-down movie - the focus is on dialogue, conflict, personalities, prejudices, motivations, and observing how the jurors behave and how their consensus unfolds.
For those not familiar with it, here’s a brief summary. A young man is on trial for murder and is facing the death penalty. The movie opens just as the trial has concluded and the judge is excusing the jury to deliberate. The jury decides to take a preliminary vote to see where they stand. The vote is 11 to 1 in favor of guilty. Henry Fonda (identified initially only as "juror #8") is the lone holdout. The others want to know why. After all, the evidence seemed pretty overwhelming against the young man. Fonda says he just wants to talk, that it’s not easy to raise his hand for "guilty" and send a young man to his death without at least discussing the case. Of course, the others mostly gang up against him and try and convince him of the young man’s guilt. After all, they don’t want to spend any more time there than they have to. One juror in particular (Jack Warden) has tickets to a ball game later, and doesn’t want to be late, so at least we can all relate to that…….
Anyway, what happens is that, as they discuss the case, as they begin to talk, things begin to swing. They start to find problems with the evidence. There are issues and questions around the murder weapon. Holes are poked in eyewitness testimony. Some evidence that seemed clear hours earlier now seems contradictory. Even the motivations of the jurors themselves start to get called into question. One juror after another changes his vote to "not guilty". Eventually, they all agree to acquit.
What does that have to do with the Hall of Fame? Well, one of the things that comes up each year is that you hear several people question why a player’s vote % fluctuates so much over time, and why should voters change their minds? After all, they say, the players’ stats haven’t changed in the interim. Why should their voting results change so much?
Tim Raines, in his first year on the ballot, received 24.3% of the vote. Roughly 3 of 4 voters felt that he was not a Hall of Famer. Here’s his full history:
2008 BBWAA (24.3%)
2009 BBWAA (22.6%)
2010 BBWAA (30.4%)
2011 BBWAA (37.5%)
2012 BBWAA (48.7%)
2013 BBWAA (52.2%)
2014 BBWAA (46.1%)
2015 BBWAA (55.0%)
2016 BBWAA (69.8%)
2017 BBWAA (86.0%)
You hear people ask, why? Why would he go from 24% in year 1 to 86% (and in) by year 10? Raines didn’t change, his stats didn’t change. Why should his vote change so much?
Or, look at Bert Blyleven:
1998 BBWAA (17.5%)
1999 BBWAA (14.1%)
2000 BBWAA (17.4%)
2001 BBWAA (23.5%)
2002 BBWAA (26.3%)
2003 BBWAA (29.2%)
2004 BBWAA (35.4%)
2005 BBWAA (40.9%)
2006 BBWAA (53.3%)
2007 BBWAA (47.7%)
2008 BBWAA (61.9%)
2009 BBWAA (62.7%)
2010 BBWAA (74.2%)
2011 BBWAA (79.7%)
This perplexes many voters. The players didn’t change. Why should their votes change so much?
Well, when you think about it…..plenty changed.
First of all, every year the voting body changes some. New voters come in, some may flow out. A couple of years back, the BBWAA eliminated the voting privileges of several writers who were no longer truly active, and that trimmed the # of voters by around 100. So, the changing of who actually votes can impact the dynamic, although in many years, that is a minor factor.
A bigger factor though, is the natural reaction to the examination of evidence. Think of "12 Angry Men". Often, a candidate’s case may only appeal initially to a few voters. Only a few may see the allure of his case, while others are blind to it.
I think it’s fair to say that, to many, Raines and Blyleven didn’t seem like Hall of Famers while their careers were unfolding. I’m a firm believe that many, if not most voters, do ask themselves a basic question, and that is, in my gut, do I believe that this person is a Hall of Famer? Does he seem like one to me? Of course, they all look at evidence and stats to varying degrees, but I do think that it is a fundamental question that each voter ultimately asks. Many considered Blyleven and Raines to be fine players, but not necessarily great ones, not legendary ones. And, as a result, they may not vote for them out of the gate.
However….when you actually talk, when you discuss, when you review, the evidence may start to look different. People start to advocate for a candidate, to make the case for them, like Jonah Keri famously did for Tim Raines, or Rich Lederer did several years ago for Bert Blyleven. The players exhibited their cases during their career, others advocated for them after the careers were over, and the jurors (voters) continued to examine the evidence. And the more they examined it, in many cases, we would see momentum changing and hearts and minds being won.
Some evidence, the more you look at it, may take on different meaning. You start to see that Bert Blyleven, who was considered a bit of a disappointment during his career due to a mediocre W-L record (lots of wins, but lots of losses too), was actually a pretty darn good pitcher when you separate his performance from the quality of the teams he was generally on. And you start to realize that Tim Raines, despite hitting 40 points less than Tony Gwynn, was essentially Gwynn’s equal at the skill of getting on base.
And, through discussion and review, the tide starts to shift. Just like "12 Angry Men", voters see things they hadn’t realized before. Consensus building occurs. Voters see things in a different light. And the minority opinion can eventually become the majority opinion, if the facts and people’s opinions and perspectives support it.
In short, this shouldn’t be surprising, and is one of the reasons that we don’t just have candidates disappear from a ballot unless they are below the 5% threshold. We do it so that "the case can be heard". It shouldn’t surprise anyone that vote totals have the ability to shift dramatically over time. It’s all part of the process.
Hope you enjoyed reading.