Hall of Fame Credibility and Respecting Our Game

The Hall of Fame faces a credibility problem. Despite an abundance of worthy candidates, voters failed to induct anyone in 2012. After welcoming players with questionable credentials (e.g., Jim Rice over several similar players; Bruce Sutter, who wasn’t that much better than John Wetteland) in recent years, they denied entry to the game’s brightest superstars, thus diminishing the impact and relevance of an institution that serves to celebrate baseball’s rich history.

Steroids played a role. Or, the writers’ response to steroids played a role. Either way, their failure to act created a backlog of players who deserve to be honored in Cooperstown. With many more added to the ballot in 2013 and a limit of 10 selections per voter, some will be denied again. Others, who merit a longer look, risk failing to reach the minimum number of votes required to stay on future ballots.

There is an irony in writers who covered baseball during the so-called Steroid Era now denying entry to stars of that era. It’s as though the cloud of suspicion that hangs over those stars never existed while they were playing. As though nobody (aside from the occasional Steve Wilstein) thought to inquire into steroid usage until well after the chemically enhanced home-run delirium that helped baseball recover from a costly mid-’90s work stoppage had subsided.

Or, as Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky put it a year ago:

This is why the BBWAA voters for the Hall of Fame now find themselves in such a mess, as the players of the steroids era become eligible. Before they can make historical judgments, they have to confront their own professional dissonance. These writers in many cases weren’t just passive bystanders to the PED users, but hapless-yet-active allies in bringing them fame, fortune, and national respect.

But steroids aren’t to blame for everything. Laziness and sloppiness also lend a hand, as in the case of Dan Shaughnessy, who brings new meaning to “professional dissonance” by disagreeing with himself in the span of 12 months for no apparent reason.

Jason Collette has pointed out the folly in Shaughnessy’s vote, noting not only that it lacks internal logic but also that it relies on speculation about steroid use by players who “look dirty” rather than on verifiable facts. That’s the sort of trick mainstream writers once chastised bloggers for back in the day.

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If I had a vote, I’d choose Jeff Bagwell, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling, Frank Thomas, and Alan Trammell.

If I weren’t limited to 10 votes, I’d add Craig Biggio and Tim Raines, both of whom belong.

I’m not sure about Edgar Martinez, Rafael Palmeiro, and Larry Walker (I’ve said in the past that Walker “deserves serious consideration”; I’m still seriously considering him). I’d like to see all remain on the ballot so I can make a more informed decision in the future.

These votes reflect my personal biases, but I believe they are fair. (Head on over to Baseball-Reference and judge for yourself.)

Some have advocated for “strategic voting,” where gaming the system trumps merit. It’s an interesting concept whose worst-case scenario leads to, say, Walker being voted in and Maddux removed from future consideration. Although the intent (to ensure that Walker remains on the ballot when he might otherwise be dropped) is noble, the implementation could have regrettable consequences that would further damage the Hall’s credibility.

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Fortunately, in today’s media landscape, where everyone has instant access to everything via Facebook, Twitter, etc., there is a movement toward greater transparency. Such accountability gives voters incentive to take their responsibility seriously and support their judgments with reasoning that digs deeper than how a player looks. It’s no guarantee, but it’s something.

Ballots of voters who choose to make their selections public are being tracked by @leokitty. Using this information and his own formula, Adam Darowski has ranked those ballots, citing Michael Silverman’s as the best so far. Although Silverman and I disagree on some points, his choices at least show proper respect for the process and the institution, which is all anyone can ask.

Tom Tango has done his own ranking. It’s a little different than Darowski’s, but the larger point is that smart folks who care are paying attention. In a perfect world, this leads to the best voters keeping their privilege to vote, with the weakest being removed from the pool. In our world, we hope for a fan base educated enough to demand writers that strive to make informed choices when submitting their ballots, thus ensuring that the Hall of Fame retains its relevance for future generations.

Eventually the Veterans Committee or some such entity will need to fix what the voters did in 2012, and even before then. As a long-term solution, Gammons-approved expert Jay Jaffe has suggested lowering the threshold for election below 75 percent to help eliminate the backlog created by voter reaction to the Steroid Era. That could work; so could allowing folks to choose more than 10 names when there are more than 10 worthy candidates, as there are now.

However the situation is resolved, soon would be good, so the next Ron Santo doesn’t have to die before being inducted. Meanwhile, as the game and its fans continue to evolve, so will its writers. Increased transparency and accountability will lead to better process, which will lead to better results, which will lead to a better Hall of Fame that can be enjoyed well into the future by people who would rather celebrate baseball’s grandeur than wonder at its selective denial of history and the whims of those charged to preserve it.

This is our game. This is our legacy. Treat it with respect.

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Big thanks to Jason Collette, Jay Jaffe, David Laurila, @leokitty, Alex Remington, Tom Tango, and Bernie Wilson, as well as several Facebook and “real-world” friends, for help in clarifying my thoughts on the Hall of Fame voting process.

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  • Good stuff. I haven’t been tracking the votes as much as I have in the past, but the Bagwell/Biggio and Maddux/Glavine tallies to this point certainly leave me with a lot of questions about process.

  • When I hear the name Edgar Martinez I think of a guy who was absolutely brilliant at hitting a baseball. He also performed a good amount of the brilliance while playing DH, something that many players find very difficult to do successfully. I’m OK with Edgar Martinez being slightly one-dimensional (although he did actually log innings in the field) because there are so few humans who can hit the round ball with a round stick as well as Edgar Martinez once did. I think the Hall of Fame’s purpose is to reward those whose skill was absolutely remarkable.

    • pat

      The DH has been around just as long as the Fireman/ Closer and three or four of them are in. A DH is far more valuable, a far more difficult job. Edgar absolutely should be in.

      • Agreed, Pat. I was going to make the DH/Closer comparison but my comment was getting long.

    • Geoff Young

      It’s possible that my anti-DH bias is too strong. Martinez was clearly one of the best hitters of his generation. He’s a better candidate than Rice. Then again, so is Dwight Evans.

  • pat

    Good stuff as always GY. While there are undoubtedly more like shaunessey out there. I think most voters take it seriously. I do think they try, but they definitely have different standards than those of us who are more modern stat friendly. And I can’t hold it against them though I do find it frustrating.

    I do think the number of full and nearly full ballots is very encouraging. We may see four go in this year! Even three would be exceptional! If this is a trend, much credit to the electorate! If not, we should definitely revisit the discussion. Although I’m not averse to some lobbying of the HOF now to address some such as shaunessy and chass the blogger.

    • Geoff Young

      Tango’s list gives me hope that the weak voters are slowly disappearing. It’s easy to forget, though, because some of them make an awful racket on their way out.

  • Frank Kocher

    Geoff, a very well reasoned and excellently written piece. While somebody might not agree with your conclusions it is impossible to assail how you have reached them. Great bit about the writers’ role in enabling the juice era, then standing in judgment. I can sense the frustration you feel that the Hall and MLB has painted themselves into a corner. Before I go, though, I am rooting for Biggio.

    • Geoff Young

      Thanks, Frank, for the kind words. I’ve visited Cooperstown twice, and both times it was a life-changing experience. I want other people to feel the same way when they visit rather than being distracted by political issues that have little or nothing to do with baseball.