Tis the season for baseball Hall of Fame controversy and remaining one of the biggest complaints is the ten man ballot limit along with the supposed backlog of worthy players.
While the Hall of Fame committee in Cooperstown’s move to drop eligibility from 15 years to ten last year did seem to be an intentional effort to reduce the chances of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and other accused steroid users from getting into the Hall of Fame, the ten man ballot limit is much older and has greater reasoning behind it.
— Rob Maaddi Sports (@AP_RobMaaddi) January 4, 2016
Maaddi was the most recent voter to complain about the system, although he wasn’t the first or the loudest. In fact, it has been a topic repeated by many voters and 53% of voters who have made their ballots public have used their full ten man limit this year.
This trend towards wanting the ability to elect more players at once may fall under the phrase “what is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right.” If you want to talk about Hall of Fame backlogs, when the Hall was originally created back in 1936, they had more than five decades worth of athletes to consider after the Reds became the first professional team in 1882. That first voting group chose five players the first year, three the next, and just one in 1938. By 1943, the 60+ years of backlog had been alleviated according to the early voters as no new players were elected from 1943 through 1946.
While some players of the time were added later, the selectivity of the early voters should have set a precedent for the future. Either a player was Hall of Fame worthy or he wasn’t, and mid-level players were effectively kept out. There were so few candidates considered worthy at the time that in 1940, they went to a three year ballot cycle and after going back to every year in 1946, they went back to every other year from 1957-1965.
Overall, 114 players have been elected through the BBWAA this way, equating to 0.9 players per year from 1882 through 2010. After the first class, four players were elected at the same time just three more times (1947, 1955, and 2015) and from 1956 through 2014, three players were elected in the same year just four times. Never since 1954-1955 have more than three players been elected in consecutive seasons until 2014 and 2015.
While the moral argument does offer some challenges, the fact is that the writers have found a way within the 10 man ballot to elect seven players in two years, the same amount that were elected in total from 1992 through 1998. This is not to state that any of the seven in did not deserve it, but to say that those who didn’t might not.
While it isn’t the be-all-end-all, WAR provides a better Hall of Fame standard than any other state because it is normalized for the season it occurred, comparing players against players of their own age instead of those who came decades before or after. Of the top 50 in career WAR, all are in the Hall of Fame already, currently active (Alex Rodriguez is the top active player), on the ballot or Chipper Jones. Jones will certainly get his day when it is time, but for now, only two players with a top 50 WAR are on the ballot and they are number four, Barry Bonds and number eight, Roger Clemens. There is more than enough room on a ten man ballot to vote for both and still have room to write in Pete Rose, who ranks 65th.
There is a lot of talent from the 50 to 100 mark, but the point of the Hall of Fame is to house the best of the best. While Ken Griffey, Jr. will certainly get in this year and Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza and others have arguments, the fact is the Hall wasn’t created to house players like Jeff Kent, Fred McGriff, and Nomar Garciaparra. Yes, they can get a vote or two, but just because you are allowed to vote for 10 players doesn’t mean you have to or that there are ten worthy Hall of Famers.
Of public ballots, 21 have found room for Kent, a player who wasn’t a regular starter until he was 30 and didn’t learn to hit until he had the opportunity to bat in front of Bonds, who only six of those 21 voted for as well this year. Just like when Kent won an MVP that should have belonged to Bonds, he is still reaping the benefits of Bonds’ bad image. Of those 21 voters, 14 filled out a full ballot and I would argue that if they had room for Kent, they really didn’t need all ten votes.
From a different point of attack, there is the fact that players who receive at least 5% of the vote have as many as ten chances to make it into the Hall. According to Baseball Hall of Fame Tracker, the class of 2016 looks right now to consist of Bagwell, Griffey, Piazza and possibly Tim Raines (currently at 79% with 32% of ballots in). The three that aren’t Griffey have been on the ballot for multiple years and now that some of the more worthy candidates are out of the way, they are getting their chance. Even if they don’t make it in this year, they will likely all gain enough momentum to make it in 2017.
Beyond them, there is no flawless candidate. There is a reason Bonds and Clemens are only getting placed on about 50% of ballots and it has nothing to do with the ten man limit. At a minimum, the pair along with Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Gary Sheffield have had serious and legitimate claims of performance enhancing drug use while others, like Edgar Martinez and his lack of fielding and Larry Walker and his mile high advantage, face other questions. Voters are not leaving any of these players off their ballots because of the limits alone, but because they don’t want them in the Hall of Fame.
At least part of the argument for a larger ballot appears to be that writers can’t admit that not everyone thinks as they do. McGwire has been on the ballot nine years, received just 10% of the vote last year, and still 21 of the public ballots voted for him this year. Essentially those are 21 wasted votes, just like the ones used on Kent and one used on Garciaparra. Sosa, who will likely just barely hang on the ballot for another year is in an even lower position than McGwire, and received just 6.6% last year, just above the threshold for elimination.
The answer to this dilemma is simply that the voters should vote for who they think deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. No more and no less. If you think 12 players deserve a spot, vote for the top ten and chances are the next two will still be on the ballot next year. This current system is almost certainly a better solution than all those who picked ten this year seeing a ballot of 12 as a challenge and giving Sosa, Kent, Garciaparra, or Garret Anderson enough votes to keep them on the ballot for another year.