Fixing the Hall of Fame – Part 1
Introduction: What is a Hall of Famer?
Jim Rice was finally voted into the Hall of fame last year. Should he be there? Were there better players on the ballot that should have been elected before him? Considering the process that got him there, should he feel honored?
Before we can begin to assess whether a player should or should not be in the Hall, we need to have an answer to this basic question: What is a Hall of Famer? Some of the most vociferous arguments about players result from the failure to come to a common understanding of the definition of this term. All of the most sophisticated metrics can’t prove a thing until we know the answer.
Looking at the rules for electing players to the hall of fame is no help. The criteria given can be used to describe a hall of any size, from a couple dozen players to more than a thousand players. And we’re not looking for a fuzzy definition like, “One of the top players of his generation” or some such. We need something concrete.
Well, how many players are in the hall of fame? The official count is 232. This includes 203 players in MLB from 1876 to 2004, plus 29 Black players barred from playing in MLB. Not counted among these are a few great players that the Hall classifies otherwise (as pioneers, managers or executives).
This gives us the definition now in use by the Hall. A “Hall of Famer” is one of the top 232 players retiring in 2004 or before (not including banned players such as Pete Rose and Joe Jackson). Thus, the Hall’s electorate can be said to be in error when it elects a player who is not one of the top 232, or when it fails to elect a player who is among the top 232.
My focus is on the latter group of players, the guys that the Hall voters are missing. This is towards the larger aim of identifying, prioritizing and publicizing the players who deserve the most attention from the Hall voters. Based upon virtually every survey and advanced metric I’ve seen, I’m convinced there are from 45 to 55 players who are among the top 232 players eligible for the Hall but have not been elected. (Correspondingly, there are then 45 to 55 hall of famers who are not among the top 232.)
That’s a lot of players, I think. How can the voters be missing so many guys? A few likely explanations:
- Many voters holding to personal, stricter standards of what “Hall of Famer” means, that leaves room for much less than 232 players.
- Lack of interest. Face it, few among the electorate ever sought to become a voter for the Hall. Filling out a ballot is often a perfunctory act; little thought (and no research time) is invested in the process.
- A general lack of understanding of findings from sabermetric analysis.
- A system of rules that fails to allow for a thorough vetting of candidates, even to the point of giving some strong candidates only one year of eligibility.
My initial focus in this series will be on that last one, the rules for election for the annual BBWAA voting. Ideas for fixing the electorate we’ll save for another day.
Part 1 – Undoing the Anachronistic Constraints
This guy’s great, this guy’s not quite so great, this guy’s almost great…. Who decides these things? Beautiful ballplayers, great ballplayers, like me. They go to their graves in little out of the way places, after waiting, waiting, waiting thirty, forty years, one step away. Forever.
–Harry Willette in the movie Cooperstown
Who decides? Initially, it’s six guys. Six anonymous newspaper writers comprise the BBWAA ballot screening committee. Each year, they are charged with the task of assessing the qualifications of everyone who played their last major league game five years before. Their job is made easier by the rule that restricts their review to players that were active in ten or more seasons. These days, this results in about three dozen players they have to judge. All it takes for a player to make the ballot is for two of the six screeners to support his inclusion. Whatever process they use in arriving at their choices is known only to them.
Does this make sense? Isn’t there a better way? I’m here to argue that the rules for hall of fame elections by the BBWAA have become outdated. The BBWAA screening committee, the 10-years played rule, the 15-year limit on eligibility, and the 5% rule are relics from a prior age that need to be retracted. None of these were part of the Hall’s rules during their early elections; the conditions that led to their establishment are no longer in existence.
Up until about forty years ago it was easy being a voter for the Hall. Merely being an experienced observer and scribe of the game gave you the right to be considered an expert. Few research tools existed to enable people to construct factual arguments to challenge your opinion. This is no longer the case.
The creation of the first computerized baseball database led to the publishing of the Baseball Encyclopedia by MacMillan in 1969. The Big Mac was the first resource with a complete stat line for every player in history. Today, we have readily accessible computerized databases. It’s easy to use a spreadsheet to customize your own numerical studies. In addition, baseball historical research has boomed in recent decades. The founding of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) in 1971 has led to a great expansion of knowledge of every aspect of the game.
Given these advances, it’s as easy to study 200 players now as it was to study 20 players when the screening committee was instituted 43 years ago. In addition, there are more teams, 30 now as opposed to 20 back then, so the number of players with outstanding careers has similarly expanded. Yet the BBWAA ballot is smaller than ever, 25 candidates in 2008, 23 in 2009 and 26 in 2010. How does that make sense? The voters should be allowed to consider a larger field of candidates now that’s it’s easier to do so. Indeed, if you trust that your electorate is interested and knowledgeable, you don’t want to limit them; you would want to rely on them.
If I’m a hall of fame voter, I want to vote for the best candidates. So, I want to be able to make my own study of ALL the candidates; I don’t want to be limited to the tiny field they have now, with many top candidates eliminated by archaic rules. The rules enacted over time to suppress the ballot size need to be eliminated.