Fixing the Hall of Fame – Part 3: Plausible Fixes
In a better world, fixing the Hall would be simple. Face it; you or I or anyone could come up with a better system for identifying and honoring baseball’s greatest players. Start from scratch: dump the BBWAA and develop an expert electorate; dump the simplistic up/down voting method with its 75% supermajority requirement; dump the VC and any other second chance reviews; dump the limits on candidates and consider all players together. And so on.
Well, that’s never gonna happen. Due to inertia, tradition and “it could be worse” timidity, reforms that cut right to the heart of the system’s problems have no realistic chance of being instituted. The aim here is towards proposing “plausible” fixes, relatively simple upgrades to the existing system. My proposals are mainly first steps: how can we start moving towards a better system?
Part 3a – Obviating the Screening Committee
First of all, why do we even have a ballot screening committee anymore? It was established 43 years ago because of the difficulty in assessing a ballot with more than 50 players on it. (The 5% rule was established for the same reason.) Well, the world has turned since then; researching 200 Hall candidates is really not hard. However, we’ll have to work our way up to that size ballot, since the voters are used to handling only a couple dozen candidates at present.
It’s been said that the Hall of Fame is the final honor for players. But for most of them that’s not the case; less than 2% of all players make the hall of fame. No, the final honor for most outstanding players is simply to appear on the hall of fame ballot. There should be more of an effort made to get this right, rather than a casual review by six guys. I would advocate for an objective screening process for the ballot, setting standards for inclusion that are based on minimum standards of the Hall.
Let’s start with the question, what do we look for in a hall of fame player? At its most basic view, we look for 1) a long career, and 2) a high level of performance. What’s a better measure of a long career, years played (which the HOF procedures consider) or games played? Games, of course; we’re looking for full-time players. As to measuring performance at a “high level” this can be quickly eye-balled by looking at support in award voting, MVP and Cy Young. (Using award voting, rather than some standard based on playing statistics, eliminates any need for context adjusting.)
So, establish a minimum number of games to appear on the ballot. This can be fairly low, because we can now evaluate a lot of players fairly easily. The fewest games by a HOF player are by Ross Youngs (1211) and Roy Campanella (1215). So, let’s say 1200 or more games played. At the same time, we also need a way to honor a great(!) player who suffers a premature career demise. After 2006, Albert Pujols had played 933 games, batted .332 and had 250 HR. In a six-year career, his MVP finishes: 4-2-2-3-1-2. If his career had suddenly ended then we would want to have a rule that puts him on the ballot. So, along with the games qualifier there should be an MVP qualifier such as: any player who ever finished in the top 5 in a MVP vote will appear on the ballot. For pitchers we might consider minimums like 550 games or 1500 IP or a top 3 finish in Cy Young voting.
These limits can be studied and tweaked. The point is you can set objective standards that will capture every viable candidate, while fairly honoring every player who reached the standard by letting him appear on the ballot. This eliminates any possibility of charges of subjectivity or favoritism that can tarnish a screening committee’s selections.
The idea also is to get the voters’ attention towards considering statistical standards of the Hall of Fame in deciding which candidates deserve a more thorough vetting process. This is not to say that stats tell the whole story of a player, but as a better way of separating the wheat from the chaff than relying on subjective impressions of a player.
Another benefit to setting statistical benchmarks is it generates good promotion for the Hall. It turns the attainment of a minor milestone into a newsworthy event. “Julio Lugo played in his 1200th career game tonight, thereby earning a shot at immortality. This milestone qualifies him to appear on the ballot for the Hall of fame after he retires.” “The top-five MVP finishes of Pedroia, Youkilis, Mauer and Quentin secures them a spot on the ballot for the Hall of fame after their retirement.” The Hall of Fame appears in new contexts, creating a stronger link between today’s players and the HOF.
Part 3b – More Years Eligible / Reinstating 5% Rule Victims
One long ago rule change made by the Hall that suppressed the size of the ballot (even before the screening committee existed) was to reduce from a 25-year to a 15-year window that players could appear on the ballot. For their elections from 1947 to 1962, voters could vote for players who retired up to 30 years ago. (This was apparently adopted in principle for the 1947 election and officially codified for the 1958 election.) The Hall reduced this to 20 years starting with the election in 1964, not only to reduce the size of the ballot, but to get more “Golden Age” players over to where the veterans committee (VC) could elect them. (All the players retiring from 1932 to 1943 were thrown off the BBWAA ballot after 1962 and into the waiting arms of the VC, who eventually elected 20 players from that pool of candidates.)
What’s the rush? The writers are the Hall’s primary electorate. Stars of the past 40 years, those within living memory of most of the voters, should be solely under the jurisdiction of the primary electorate. The average age for a voter is…I don’t know, 50-something? Plenty old enough to handle evaluating the stars who retired in the past 30 years.
Who are we talking about? Who would be the oldest players being looked at now if they reinstituted the BBWAA’s 25-year window? Player who debuted on the ballot in 1987 (retired 1981) or later. Guys like Jim Kaat, Luis Tiant and Rusty Staub who came to prominence in the mid 60’s and played into the 80’s. I remember all of these players as stars, and I’m only 50. Players of the modern era like these should be under the jurisdiction of the writers, not the VC!
What about all of the victims of the 5% rule? We need a plan for getting all these players back onto the ballot, players who dropped off the ballot in the previous 23 elections. Bringing all of these players back at once would lead to about a 300-man ballot. While I think that would be ideal, I don’t think the BBWAA is ready for that. The voters are conditioned for starvation rations of candidates; they will need to be gradually weaned to the bounty of candidates that is rightfully theirs.
I propose a 1% solution, with a four-year phase-in. That is, anyone debuting on the BBWAA ballot from 1987-2009, and who ever received 1.0% in an election, and was dropped off will get reinstated. This means reinstatement for 68 candidates. For the 2011 election we would reinstate players who debuted on the ballot from 1987-92, a total of 15 players. For the 2012 election we would reinstate players who debuted from 1993-96, a total of 19 players. For the 2013 election we’ll reinstate players who debuted from 1997-2003, a total of 17 players. For the 2014 election we’ll reinstate players who debuted from 2004-09, a total of 17 players.
Part 3c – Escalating Increments
We have seen how the 5% rule tends to restrict voters from giving all the top candidates a thorough consideration over a period of years. Another factor contributing to this is a common attitude towards first-year candidates. To be a “First-Ballot hall of famer” is usually seen as a special honor. Due to this, many voters will only vote for a player in his first year if he is a no-brainer, an all-time great player. Combine this with a wait-and-see attitude that many voters have, a reluctance to support a player until he sees that his peers are doing so. These factors suppress the support of first-year candidates, leading to some less obvious greats dropping off after only one year.
At the same time, the 5% rule allows many weaker candidates to linger on the ballot for 15 years, despite meager support. For example, look at Dave Concepcion’s recently completed run on the ballot. In his first year he got 7% support. By his 5th year this had advanced to 17%. This turned out to be his top year. His support stagnated in the low teens, averaging 12% over the next nine elections. He finished with 16% in his 15th year on the ballot.
Allowing a candidate with this low level of support to linger on the ballot for 15 years is not serving anyone. Looking at recent decades of BBWAA voting, at what point can we say with fair assurance that this player is not going to come close to election? Certainly by his 10th year, when he got only 11% support. Let’s institute a way to eliminate stagnant candidates. A system of escalating increments would better serve the Hall and the candidates than a flat 5%.
Here is what I think is a good system. In the first five years of eligibility you need to get one vote to stay on the ballot. As long as one member of our esteemed panel thinks you belong in the Hall, you get to be a candidate. However, if you haven’t reached 10% support in an election in five years, you’re done. (Done for now; the fourth part in this series will describe a system giving a second chance to some of these players.)
If you have received 10% in an election, you can continue on the ballot in years 6-10, as long as you continue to receive at least 10% support in each election. If you fall below 10% you’re done. Then we raise it again.
If you have received 20% in an election, you can continue on the ballot in years 11-15, as long as you continue to receive at least 20% support in each election. If you fall below 20% you’re done. Then we raise it again.
If you have received 30% in an election, you can continue on the ballot in years 16-20, as long as you continue to receive at least 30% support in each election. If you fall below 30% you’re done. Then we raise it again.
If you have received 40% in an election, you can continue on the ballot in years 21-25, as long as you continue to receive at least 40% support in each election. If you fall below 40% you’re done.
To give reinstated players a chance to reestablish their candidacies, they will get a four-year pass; as long as they receive a vote we’ll let them continue on the ballot. In their fourth year back on the ballot, we’ll hold them to the vote percentage specified for them. For the one-and-done players it’s simple. Their fourth year back on the ballot is, in total, their fifth year eligible. They need to have attained 10% support in one of those elections to continue on the ballot.
For Bobby Bonds it’s a bit more complicated. He was previously eligible in 11 elections. His fourth year back is his 15th overall. Per the chart he needs to attain 30% support in an election to continue on the ballot. His highest support to date is 10.6%, so he quickly needs to establish a stronger base of support.
For a reinstated player who previously had 15 years on the ballot, they need to hit the 30% mark in one of the four years we’re giving them, or they’re done. Look at Luis Tiant, for example. He previously attained 31% support in an election, but that was way back in his first year eligible. To continue on the ballot past his 19th year, he needs to reach 30% again in one of the four elections we’re giving him.
Reinstated candidates who continue to receive the required amount of support will be allowed to remain on the ballot beyond 30 years past retirement. They will be allowed up to the maximum of 25 years on the ballot.