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January 18, 2017

Outta Left Field

Cooperstown Changes

by Dustin Palmateer

Former New York Times writer and current blogger Murray Chass recently wrote about why he turned in a blank Hall of Fame ballot. In the piece, he shares an e-mail he sent to ballot-tracker Ryan Thibodaux:

As for my HOF voting, in my first year as a voter, I voted for 10 players. [That was and is the maximum, which some voters want the Hall to raise; why I don’t understand.] By the time of my second vote, I realized that by voting for 10, I was saying I wanted to see 10 elected. What a horrible thought, to make people sit through 10 speeches in the hot July Cooperstown sun. I also realized that by having 10 players inducted on the same day lessened the honor for each. From then on I voted for only the players I considered the best of the elite.

Ignore the finer points and there is—maybe—a lick of truth to Chass’ grievance.

Let’s say the 10-player voting restriction is abolished, a solution that’s been championed by saber-friendly writers for years. If every Hall of Fame voter could check off 12 or 13 (or more) boxes, and seven or eight players got in one year, it would create some potential issues. The actual problem of speech-induced coma would probably be solved quite easily, by expanding the ceremony to two days (and/or carting in some additional high-powered air conditioners). But the bigger problem of oversaturation, of—let’s say—eight players getting inducted in a single year would remain.

If, by the middle of February, it’s difficult to recall the names of every Hall of Famer from the upcoming class, that might be a problem. And as much as we want to see deserving players get their trip to Cooperstown—their figurative and literal day in the hot July sun—there’s a fair argument that having to celebrate too many of them at once would cheapen the whole shindig. There’s an unlimited amount of virtual ink out there, but our attention still tends to sway toward the most outstanding or most famous or most controversial.

Here’s a (relatively) simple compromise: Remove the 10-player voting restriction but limit the number of player’s eligible to be formally inducted in a single year to five. Allow me to explain.

If eight players are indeed elected one year, then the three receiving the lowest percentage of the vote total would be put on a waiting list. They’d be Hall of Famers, but their actual, official, 98-degree enshrinement would be postponed by a year or two, and in a broader sense we’d hold off on celebrating them in full. If, in the following year, only one or two players are elected, then the three holdovers would join them in Cooperstown. If, say, four get the nod, then the process would repeat. In this case, the two players out of the group with the lowest percentage of their respective vote tally would have to wait it out another year. More nuanced rules could emerge; one, for instance, might put a limit on the number of years a player could be wait-listed after hitting the 75 percent mark (call it the “Don’t Let Them Die in Limbo” clause.)

This change would help mostly on the fringes, getting obvious Hall of Famers elected a year or two earlier than otherwise, working to plunge a ballot that’s been clogged by “Steroid Era” sanctimony and downright mis-evaluation (where’s the Mike Mussina love, people?). This year, based on Thibodaux’s tracking, it’s possible that Ivan Rodriguez, Trevor Hoffman, and Vladimir Guerrero all get snubbed by just a few votes, subsequently jamming the ballot further next year. Of the 119 10-player ballots made public this year as of this writing, 12 of them didn’t include Pudge, 25 didn’t include Vlad, and a whopping 31 didn’t include Hoffman. So, in theory, Hoffman’s missing 31 potential votes thanks to the 10-player rule. Even though all those voters certainly wouldn’t have included Hoffman on their ballot if given the chance, if even a third of them did Hoffman’s percentage would jump from 73.6 to 78.2.

Perhaps of equal importance, our new rule would help save players from prematurely falling off the ballot altogether due to the five-percent threshold. Notable names like Jim Edmonds and Kenny Lofton have missed that number recently, disappearing into a Hall of Fame purgatory where they await a future date with the Today’s Game Committee (or whatever it will be called then). Edmonds and Lofton will never be mistaken for inner-circle candidates, but both rate well by WAR-based models and common sense alike, and it’s a shame we won’t be able to debate their cases over the coming years. This year Billy Wagner—he of the second-best ERA+ ever (min. 800 innings)—and bat-waggling Gary Sheffield are polling at around 10 percent, and Jorge Posada is in even greater danger of falling by the wayside.

Further, it’d reduce or eliminate the sort of game theory involved with the current election process, where voters are sometimes forced down certain paths that leave deserving Hall of Famers off their ballot. As Dan Szymborski of ESPN notes:

The scenario that gets Larry Walker into the Hall of Fame involves voting for Trevor Hoffman instead of Larry Walker. Because Hoffman can actually be inducted into the Hall of Fame this year and Walker can't (given their poll numbers), voting for Walker over Hoffman actually reduces the chances that Walker gets into the Hall because some of the votes that would go to Walker next year will instead be repeated for Hoffman.

On the other end of the spectrum, Chass’ worries would be quelled. No nightmares of endless speeches; no need to constantly monitor mid-summer heat waves in upstate New York; plenty of extra time to visit the Farmers’ Museum before Hall of Fame weekend ends. In a more serious sense, given that I’ve bought into Chass’ argument to a degree, writers could vote for as many players as they’d like without having to worry about the ramifications of inducting eight or nine players in a single year. There’d be a sort of built-in safe-guard protecting the sheen of exclusivity that surrounds the Hall, but also a reasonable route to break down the ballot logjam. And we, as baseball fans and analysts, would only need to worry about celebrating careers in five-player chunks, at most.

Like Chass, most of us want to see the “best of the elite” elected to the Hall of Fame, and no more; only Chass apparently draws his line at Ken Griffey Jr. (or, oddly, Jack Morris), where a more realistic voter might stop at Jeff Kent or Fred McGriff or Lee Smith. Either way, we shouldn’t limit any writer from voting for every player deemed worthy, particularly when Chass and his ilk are complicating matters by voting for nobody.

Chass may have stumbled into a good point about crowded inductions, though, and the few small tweaks outlined here could swing the voting process in a positive direction for all interested parties.

Dustin Palmateer is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Dustin's other articles. You can contact Dustin by clicking here

Related Content:  Hall Of Fame,  Murray Chass

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