It’s that time of year again. Major League Baseball announced Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas will all be part of the 2014 Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown this summer. Players linked to steroids like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds saw slight decreases in the number of votes they received, even though many assumed there were writers who would leave these guys off the first ballot as punishment, but then would vote for them going forward. Players not linked to steroids but punished for being in the steroid era like Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell saw small movements up and down in their vote totals respectively, not nearly enough for either to be elected. Then there was the supposed shoe in Craig Biggio, who came within 2 votes of being voted into the Hall of Fame. Every year after the newest induction class is announced, there is always a huge debate amongst fans, writers, and sports talk show hosts about who should have gotten in and how the steroid era should be handled. We tackled that debate last year after the 2013 class was completely shutout of Cooperstown. Now, after another year of controversial results, I’d like to take this discussion in a different direction. The Baseball Hall of Fame election process is broken, and everyone knows it.
For those that are unfamiliar with the selection process, I’d like to briefly explain the basics to you. Five years after retiring, a player becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame vote. Once on the ballot, a player requires 75% of the votes in order for him to get in. If a player receives at least 5% of the votes, he can stay on the ballot for up to 15 years. How do you receive a ballot, you ask? The process is simple. Anyone who has been a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America for more than 10 years receives a ballot. On that ballot, they can only vote for up to 10 players, regardless of how many they think are deserving. Last year we predicted this was going to cause a logjam, and this year we were unfortunately proven right.
Since the system requires a player to receive a certain percentage of the vote in order to get in, that means every ballot without his name on it is effectively a vote against that player. Turning in a blank ballot is not the same as not voting. Because no one got in last year, many writers said they had fifteen or more players they felt should be in the Hall of Fame, but they can only vote for ten of them. Just as last year we discussed the lack of clarity in the morality clause that caused six hundred different writers to interpret it six hundred different ways, we were in uncharted territory when it came to leaving names off the ballot that you thought should be in Cooperstown. Some writers ranked the Hall of Famers and just included the ten best players. If a writer decided it wasn’t their job to police the individual players, their ballot then would have included Clemens and Bonds, while two other players would have then received a “No” vote. Other writers decided to take all of the players they felt should have made it, and ranked them by who is most likely to get in so their votes would matter the most. This would cause you to vote for Craig Biggio and Jack Morris, but leaving out Jeff Kent or Rafael Palmiero. This discrepancy has prevented anyone previous to a couple of first timers to be inducted, leaving us back where we started in terms of the numbers on the ballot for next year when Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, Nomar Garciaparra, Gary Sheffield and Carlos Delgado become eligible. At least one writer has already come forward and said they would have voted for Biggio but he was their 11th ranked player so they left him off the ballot. I am sure he was not the only one, and being only two votes short we can guarantee that a less restrictive system would have easily included Biggio in the 2014 induction ceremonies.
The biggest case for a change is not the shortcomings of Biggio, Piazza, Bagwell, Kent, or Curt Schilling. Its not even managers Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, and Tony Larussa being inducted this year while their managerial numbers benefited from sharing a locker room 162 days a year with players like Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Gary Sheffield, Roger Clemens, and Alex Rodriguez. The biggest case for a change is actually Greg Maddux. I’m not here to discuss the 97% of the vote he did receive, but the 3% that he didn’t. Greg Maddux was head and shoulders above every other pitcher in his era. He wasn’t just the best, he was the best of the best of the best. He had both the incredible peak and sustained longevity that are two of the main criteria for Hall of Fame candidacy. If you created a player in MLB The Show and received even half of the accolades that Maddux did, you were probably using cheat codes. To say his numbers were unreal would be selling them short. His 355 wins blow the magic 300 win mark out of the water. A career era of 3.16 over 23 years during the height of the offensive era is incredible. Not to mention his 4 straight Cy Youngs and 18 Gold Gloves. That’s right, eighteen! To be that dominant defensively for nearly two decades alone should get you into the Hall of Fame. Now, I’m not naive enough to sit here and tell you who did and who did not do steroids. Nobody knows for certain except the players themselves. But gun to my head if I had to pick one player, it would probably be the control pitcher that was physically built like a college professor. Chicks might have dug the long ball, but baseball nerds dug leading the league 8 different times in walks per nine innings. Any system that does not get Greg Maddux 100% of the vote is clearly a broken system.
Of course we also have the confusing case of Frank Thomas. Sure I believe he’s a Hall of Famer, but the overwhelming support he received contradicts many of the reasons other guys were being kept out. Jeff Bagwell was a power hitting first baseman during the 90s so he can’t get in because of PED suspicion. Frank Thomas was also a power hitting first baseman during the 90s and he received a whopping 30% of the vote more than Bagwell. If you want to argue Thomas was better than Bagwell, that’s fine. And sure, Frank Thomas cooperated with the Mitchell Report. But Lance Armstrong did and said a lot of things that made people believe he was clean too. No one knows for certain except Frank Thomas himself. So if playing in that era wasn’t enough to diminish what he had accomplished, we’re ignoring that Bonds was far better than Thomas. Is Thomas at this magical point where he was so good that he should get in despite the steroid era unlike Bagwell, but not too good that he had to be using them like Bonds or Sosa? Edgar Martinez can’t get in despite his numbers because he was a designated hitter, yet Thomas spent the latter half of his career DHing. This lack of consistency is what causes all the madness, but how did we get here?
The first Hall of Fame election took place in 1936, and consisted of any player who had ever played, active players included. The players included with that first class had their careers range from the end of the 1800’s through the 1930’s. This vote took place a full 3 years before the first televised baseball game. Radio broadcasts didn’t even start until 1921 after many eligible players had finished out their careers. And while you can follow along a game on the radio, you can’t fully appreciate the talent of someone like Mike Trout until you’ve watched him hit a ball into the gap and fly 270 feet into third for a triple. The only way to truly appreciate a players greatness was to actually be there on a daily basis. While luxury boxes might have driven up the prices of games recently, America was a very different place back then. Disposable income was not nearly what it is today. The Great Depression made it difficult for any average American to be able to attend one game, let alone enough to follow a player consistently. Some of the players eligible were still playing baseball when Labor Day was invented, a day used to celebrate unions and labor laws that prevented average american from working ungodly hours for minimal pay. Your average person wasn’t well enough equipped to debate the careers of Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb.
Meanwhile, there was this entire group of people who’s job consisted of attending and covering every baseball game a team played each year. Having the writers vote for the Hall of Fame made sense in an era when a baseball card wasn’t just a picture of a player you rooted for, but the only way you could look up a players stats and have an understanding for what type of a career that player had. But in 2014, that logic is just as outdated as the same logic that kept African American players out of the game until Jackie Robinson first stepped onto the diamond. With mlb.tv, I can watch any Major League Baseball game in America at anytime, as long as it’s not subject to blackout restrictions. I can watch twelve different teams play six different games all while sitting on one porcelain toilet. I can and have used my smart phone to watch baseball games in the back of cars, while sitting poolside, and while eating dinner at a restaurant. And while this might not make me the most social dinner guest, it does give me access to a sport unlike any access that has been given in human history. The fans and the general public are more educated than ever before. Fantasy sports helps your average american male fully understand what exactly Mike Trout has been doing. The internet allows people to read analysis and opinion pieces anywhere they have access to a phone, tablet or laptop.
So everyone has been complaining about this problem, but does anyone have a solution? Now based on my previous paragraph you might have inferred that I’m headed toward suggesting opening the Hall of Fame vote up to the general public, but that is not the case. While people are more educated than ever, we’ve seen enough allstar and probowl teams exclude the likes of Stephen Curry and Muhammad Wilkerson while including injured players like Kobe Bryant and Yao Ming to know this would be a terrible idea. The biggest issue with having the writers voting is that while yes, many of the Buster Olneys and Tim Kurkjians and Jayson Starks of the world are fully capable of making these decisions, the skill set that requires you to be able to write daily columns for the New York Times and ESPN.com includes an English degree. To use Microsoft Word as your canvas and the english language as your paint brush is absolutely an impressive talent, but it would be on the wrong side of the Skills Needed To Vote For The Hall of Fame Venn Diagram. They’re very good at what they do, sure. But they weren’t hired because of their ability to evaluate talent. Your average baseball scout may not be able to tell you the difference between an adjective and an adverb, because they don’t need to.
So here’s what I’m proposing. Baseball should form a Hall of Fame election committee of 50 members, and the members on the committee should rotate every five years. The committee should be made up of a mix of people closely associated with the game during the time in which most of the eligible players were playing, and their primary focus should have been on talent evaluation. So for example, a current committee would be made up of former scouts, general managers, coaches, and even former players from the late 80s through the early 2000s. I’m absolutely okay with including baseball writers within this group, as long as they’re mixed in evenly. Now obviously if this group receives a 100% turnover every 5 years, it could cause massive discrepancies in the voting. The easiest way to go about it would be to rotate out 10 members a year, so everyone serves their 5 years in different increments. Having a limited number of votes would make a voter less likely to waste a ballot leaving someone off of it because “they’re not a first ballot hall of famer.” You’ve got five cracks at this, so make them count. How do we choose who’s a part of this committee? Well, we can use the current Hall of Fame voters to vote each year on 10 new members to be added to this committee. That way they still have some say, but the decision is ultimately taken out of their hands and placed into the hands of talent evaluators. The members of this committee can vote for as many players they want, so no ten player limitation, and you still need the 75%, in this case 38 votes, in order to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
If you disagree with this system because it sounds similar in concept to our current Congressional system that resulted in a Government Shutdown just last year, then I don’t blame you. It’s not perfect, no system is, but it’s a heck of a lot better than what we’ve got. And while I’ve read article after article saying the Hall of Fame system is broken, it wasn’t until the last couple of days that I started to see writers like Buster Olney start to suggest an alternative. Could it be because these articles discussing the system were all written by the baseball writers who currently hold the election responsibility? In some cases, yes. But we need the discussion about whats wrong with the selection process to change to what we can do to improve it. If you have any suggestions I would love to hear it. I definitely do not have all the answers, but this is a conversation we need to have, and it needs to start now.
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