Momentum shifting on steroid era Hall of Fame ballots

Based on the ballots that have been made public to this point, there is a change brewing in the Hall of Fame voting (thanks to Ryan Thibs at bbhoftracker.com for his incredible compilation that makes looking at this possible). Actual and perceived steroid abuse over the years from about 1988 through 2003 has lead to a moral dilemma among baseball writers. Ken Rosenthal highlighted this dilemma in a recent article describing his decision to vote for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens for the first time ever:

“They cheated their peers.
Election to the Hall is a privilege, not a right.
The question is one of authenticity.
Proof is not necessary; this is not a court of law.”

Because of vagaries in what the Hall of Fame really is (it’s more than just a collection of the greatest baseball players ever), this moral decision has been placed on the voters. In addition, the limits of needing 75% agreement and only allowing a ten man ballot make even the slightest moral issue extremely apparent. For a player who may have been a borderline Hall of Famer without any controversy, one who would get between 50 and 60% of the vote in a normal year, a moral issue could easily drop that below 10% of the vote. Bonds provides the obvious example of a player who should have been a first ballot Hall of Famer with 100% of the vote who has been dropped into the mid-30’s because of accusations.

This is not to debate whether or not Bonds & Clemens (among others) deserve to get in, just to note the change. In addition to Rosenthal changing his vote (he filled a full ballot of ten, the other 8 being the same he voted for last year), others have joined him in officially announcing a change of heart. One of these was Jon Heyman, who used this reasoning in choosing between those mired in this scandal:

But for me, the issue generally has been more about the authenticity of a player’s achievements, not the morality behind it (though I don’t discount morals entirely). Are the numbers real? Would the player have been a Hall of Famer even without the help?

A second problem here is that most of the players involved never actually tested positive for steroids. The reasons for this are varied, including that the steroid testing wasn’t ramped up to the current level until after this class retired, but the fact remains that nothing has been proven against these players and only a couple, Bonds and Clemens in particular, have been brought to court over the issue. Many others, like Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, and Sammy Sosa are instead being convicted publicly without any real proof that they ever did anything wrong other than playing in the wrong decade.

The most apparent version of this was in 2013, the first year without a Hall of Fame selection since 1996 and second since 1971. This year was the first on the ballot for Bonds and Clemens (players who would generally be guaranteed a spot based solely on their statistics), Sosa, Piazza, Curt Schilling, and Craig Biggio (players who deserve a place in the Hall of Fame, but probably shouldn’t have went in on the first ballot) and David Wells, Kenny Lofton and Steve Finley, players who shouldn’t necessarily have been in the Hall of Fame, but deserved more than 5% of the vote. This ballot also held many of those players still trying to get in like Bagwell, Edgar Martinez, Mark McGwire, and Fred McGriff.

It was partially this boon of new talent along with the ten player limit that split votes, but only two of the newcomers, Piazza and Biggio, received more than 50% of votes. In their first years, Bonds (36%) and Clemens (38%) were generally left off. The next year, the backlog got worse as seven players with a career WAR of 50 or more were added, although the first ballot elections of Frank Thomas, Tom Glavine, and Greg Maddux helped alleviate that, and Biggio was of course elected last year with three more first timers, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, and Randy Johnson.

This year, the big new name is Ken Griffey, Jr with Trevor Hoffman also getting some consideration. It seems as perfect time as any to deal with this backlog and in addition to Rosenthal, David Ammenheuser, Bill Center, Jerry Crasnick, Carlos Frias, Marc Lancaster, and Rick Plumlee all voted for both Bonds and Clemens for the first time ever while Heyman and Jerry Green voted for Bonds for the first time (Green voted for Clemens in 2015 as well as this year). With only one voter dropping the pair off his ballot (Richard Justice), this was an increase of eight known votes for Bonds and six for Clemens, bringing them both up to about 50% of known ballots.

Over the past two seasons, Bonds and Clemens had been maintaining, if not losing steam towards election, but it appears that time and well reasoned arguments by people like Heyman may be shifting public opinion. Of course, there is also the current purge going on in the BBWAA to eliminate Hall of Fame voters who don’t deserve a vote or have abused the voting process. Of the new blood replacing them, 60% have stated they voted for Bonds and Clemens this year.

In addition to that pair, which holds the greatest argument for and against being in the Hall, great bounds appear to have been made considering those players just associated with the era. Bagwell jumped from 55% last year to 84% of known ballots (including 100% of new voters), Martinez from 27% to 49%, Mike Mussina from 25% to 57%. Of all players, only Alan Trammell, who is in his 15th and final year and Tim Raines, who is in his ninth of ten tries in addition to those listed had more than a ten voter increase since last year.

While these numbers aren’t official and only represent a small portion of the actual voters, they give a good insight into the overall community. At the moment, only Griffey and Bagwell look to have enough votes to break into the Hall this year, but clear momentum is gaining for many of those below them.

If anything, things are about to get even dirtier. For the 2017 ballot, Vladimir Guerrero, Manny Ramirez, and Pudge Rodriguez will be making their debuts and all three are deserving based on numbers alone. Of course, all three also have questions, particularly Ramirez, who could be the first player to fail a test and make it into the Hall of Fame. While there is a good chance none of these players will be first ballot inductees based on recent history, the fact that Bonds and Clemens, the most hated of hated, are gaining ground at least gives hope that there won’t be a full decade missing from the Hall of Fame when all is said and done.

About Joseph Coblitz

Joseph is the primary writer and editor of BurningRiverBaseball.com and has been since its inception in 2011. He also writes for The Outside Corner and the Comeback and hosts the Tribe Time Now podcast. He is a graduate of the University of Akron and currently resides in Goodyear, Arizona the Spring Training home of the Cleveland Indians. Follow on twitter @BurningRiverBB

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