The Fallacy of the Baseball Hall of Fame

Roger ClemensThe voters have spoken: No living soul will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this year.

The announcement that no players from this year’s Hall of Fame ballot netted the 75 percent vote needed to gain enshrinement has triggered outrage in baseball circles, and will surely bring more of the same for the Hall and the people of Cooperstown. With the Pre-Integration Committee inducting three people into the Hall who’ve been dead for decades, upstate New York can look forward to something it hasn’t seen in half a century: a Hall of Fame induction with no living inductees to honor. That’s scary news for an institution that lost more than $2 million in 2011 and has posted losses in eight of the past 10 years.

The voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America’s inability to elect even one player into the Hall has raised one big question: Should the BBWAA be stripped of its voting power? Go through the long list of flaws in the process, and you start to wonder.

1. Intellectual inconsistency
Tom Verducci, one of the finest writer-reporters in the industry, wrote a thoughtful piece detailing why he’ll never vote for a steroids user for the Hall of Fame. A snippet:

You have to understand how much steroids changed the game. In the rush to dismiss them, people have thrown out awkward analogies about petroleum jelly, sandpaper, cork, tacks, diet pills from the ’70s, etc. under the catchall category of “cheating.” Stop it. You know what steroids are like? Steroids. Nothing else rises to the level of steroids when it comes to anabolically changing the body so that it can do far more than it ever could do without them.

Let’s focus on amphetamines for a moment, or “diet pills” as Verducci calls them. There’s a reason that players took them: They enhanced performance. Whether for a hot August doubleheader, a day game after a night game at the end of a long road trip, or a season-long upper to keep players sharper and more alert for games, the idea in taking them was always to perform better than you would have without them. So if we’re talking intent, amphetamines and the substances grouped under the broad heading of steroids are the same. Players want an edge, so they take ‘em. Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Mike Schmidt took amphetamines during their playing days. I have yet to read an argument by anyone, anywhere, advocating for kicking those four legends out of the Hall.

So we’re OK with players taking substances to enhance their performance, and crossing gray areas when it comes to making themselves better. That leaves the argument that steroids are qualitatively different than other performance-enhancing substances, and that it’s the specific choice of substance that should determine whether or not a player warrants induction. OK then — show us. Show us exactly how much better Barry Bonds was using performance-enhancing drugs than he would have been if he’d relied only on his otherworldly talent, hellacious workout routines, and strict health habits. I’d say do the same for Roger Clemens, except Clemens never tested positive for anything and has vehemently denied using PEDs. (We have no evidence that Mike Piazza used them other than Murray Chass’s crusade to rid the world of bacne, or that Jeff Bagwell used other than that the guy lifted a lot, hit a lot of home runs in the ’90s, and was bros with Ken Caminiti.)

Of course, no one can show us. Not doctors speaking in general terms about the effects of steroids without having any particular insight into these particular individuals, and certainly not baseball writers.

If a writer wants to argue that he’d eject Aaron, Mays, Mantle, and Schmidt from the Hall if he could and wouldn’t have voted for them if he had a vote back then, same as he wouldn’t vote for Bonds or McGwire now, OK, at least there’s some consistency there, some commitment to penalizing players who blurred the lines to get ahead. This is not what’s actually happening.

With apologies to Verducci’s rare, thoughtful writing on the topic, this is primarily a visceral argument, one that boils down mostly to two players. When Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire conducted chemistry experiments and broke home run records, this enraged a whole generation of writers. It’s basic human nature. We don’t like to be made the fools, and here come these two muscle-bound guys, who looked nothing like the Mark Belangers and Rod Carews of the past, launching baseballs into outer space at unprecedented rates. Leave aside the disappointment in seeing records previously held by an asterisked player and a greenies user go by the board. By blackballing Bonds, McGwire, and anyone about whom anti-steroids voters can concoct a flimsy argument, the writers are sending a message. And while that message isn’t uniform or universal, noted baseball historian Ken Burns summed up how many self-appointed Cooperstown bouncers feel about actual or merely alleged steroids users.

“Those motherfuckers,” Burns told The Hollywood Reporter, “should suffer.”

2. Making up your own rules
There are no clauses anywhere on the BBWAA-issued ballot that instruct voters to consider how many times a given player has appeared on a ballot. Yet voters aggressively do this every year. Much of this traces back to the old yarn about Joe DiMaggio. If Joe D didn’t get in on the first ballot, how can Curt Schilling or Craig Biggio receive such an honor? Of course, DiMaggio came up for vote at a time when the process was radically different, not at all comparable to the process we have today. Most of the time, this doesn’t backfire in a disastrous way as it did with Ron Santo, who had Hall-worthy credentials but didn’t get inducted until after his death. And the intent might not be as deliberately confrontational as a “no” vote against someone like Bonds. But the net effect is the same — let’s make the guy wait and stew a bit before I deem him worthy of my blessed vote.

3. Failing to take the process seriously
There’ve been shots directed at voters who agonize over their picks. While most of that agony tends to stem from the PED debate (a topic that leaves me with no such pain), at least you respect that there’s some thought and care put into the process. Then you have writers who seem to vote for or against certain candidates based on … nothing, really. Acknowledging that these could just be oddly crafted written thoughts, when you read this:

Next year, I’ll use my head, weigh all the numbers. This year, I used my gut: Does this guy feel right?

… or this:

You can argue that I should have voted for Jack Morris (I have in the past but wasn’t feeling it this year)

… it doesn’t exactly evoke warm feelings of writers committed to their task and to their roles in establishing players’ legacies.

4. “I need more time to think about it”
Voters get to watch a player throughout his whole career, then get five more years to contemplate whether a player is Hall-worthy; in some cases, we hear voters say they need more time even when we’re not talking about a first-ballot candidate. At best, this is a lazy cop-out, a failure to take a stand on a player when we’ve got more than enough information at hand to make an informed decision. At worst, it’s a coward’s move: thrusting your index finger in the air, gauging how the wind’s blowing based on the votes of your colleagues, and reacting accordingly to avoid sticking out. In a slight twist on this phenomenon, Bill Conlin voted for Tim Raines in his first year of eligibility … then didn’t the next year, because less than 25 percent of his voting colleagues voted for him in year one, so he couldn’t possibly stick to his guns in year two.

5. Saying things that are patently untrue
“Jack Morris was … the dominant starting pitcher of his era.” Now here’s the thing about an argument like this one. There are dozens of ways we can refute this claim using statistical analysis. But hey, if we’re stooping to gut tests to form opinions, so be it. Nolan Ryan pitched in Jack Morris’s era. So did Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux. (We won’t even get into pitchers like Dave Stieb, who have strong statistical cases demonstrating their superiority, just without Morris’s fame and his 1991 World Series performance.) In some cases, we get seven or eight or 10 years of crossover. In Ryan’s case, we get basically the full length of Morris’s career, a stretch in which Ryan trounced his mustachioed counterpart — setting aside all the numbers Ryan put up before Morris ever cracked the big leagues. Throw all the numbers out the window for a moment. Is there anyone willing to argue Jack Morris over Ryan, or Clemens or Maddux, or Steve Carlton for the years in which their careers crossed? Though I’m not a big fan of using awards as retroactive gauges of quality, what should we make of a reputation-based argument for Morris when he had four first-place Cy Young votes … for his entire career?

Morris has become a poster child for the supposed schism between analytical writers and those who prefer old-school evaluation tools. It’s a shame, really. He was a fine pitcher who had an excellent career. You can make honest Hall of Fame arguments in his favor. It is a fact, for instance, that Morris won more games than any other pitcher in the ’80s, and that he tossed more innings and racked up more complete games than anyone else during his 1977-1994 career. I don’t believe these are compelling arguments, because you’re invoking arbitrary end points (Mark Grace had more hits than anyone else in the ’90s, and he’s not a Hall of Famer), overvaluing the importance of pitcher wins (check out this chart from @CrashburnAlley — green shading presents above-average run support), and ignoring that Morris’s 3.90 ERA would be the highest for any pitcher ever inducted into the Hall. But when voters start to believe and then espouse arguments that are flat-out untrue and long ago refuted in an effort to fit a predetermined narrative, that’s not helping the voting process, and it’s not helping the BBWAA electorate at large look good.

You can bring up plenty of other beefs too. There are the Small Hall zealots who can’t bring themselves to vote for Schilling or Biggio or Tim Raines, because they’re not Walter Johnson, Rogers Hornsby, or Rickey Henderson — never mind that each would be above-average picks at their respective positions, thus raising rather than lowering the bar for the Hall’s membership. There are the protesters who submit blank ballots, supposedly to rail against the presence of cheaters on the ballot, but in reality doing more to draw attention to themselves and penalize worthy candidates with no such stigma (submitting a blank ballot counts as a “no” vote against everyone, whereas opting not to submit your ballot is merely an abstention, often a thoughtful and conscientious one).

Then there’s the subset of voters who … let’s be charitable and say they’re not winning any math-related Genius Grants. Forget WAR or JAWS or any other specific advanced stat. Can we get a little nuance beyond hewing to round numbers of hits, home runs, and wins? It’d be great if more voters could at least acknowledge the vastly different offensive criteria that should define success for a first baseman compared to a shortstop, center fielder, or especially a catcher. Maybe a little nod to park effects, and how playing most of one’s career at the Astrodome or Safeco Field might yield vastly different results than, say, Fenway? No one’s asking anyone to retake their math SATs, but maybe something a little better than a quick scan of raw Triple Crown stats and then calling it a day.

With all of these strikes against the existing electorate, urging the Hall of Fame to strip the BBWAA of its voting responsibilities would seem the obvious move, right? Well, not so fast.

For one thing, you couldn’t have picked a more convoluted set of voting circumstances. The two best players of the past half-century hit the ballot for the first time at the same time, and both come with steroid suspicions (again, only confirmed in one of those two cases). The silly rule that prohibits voters from picking more than 10 players at a time has hurt a few candidates, where an Alan Trammell might be no. 11 on a would-be ballot for a voter who did back, say, Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, and Sosa. We’ve got players like Greg Maddux and Ken Griffey Jr. coming down the pike that even the biggest curmudgeons can’t keep out. A new generation of analytically oriented and generally more open-minded voters has gained BBWAA membership over the past few years, and before you know it Keith Law and Christina Kahrl and the crews from Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs and similar publications will be able to cast their own Hall of Fame votes.

Perhaps most importantly, we should consider the longer track record of the Hall. Simply put, very few truly deserving candidates fail to gain induction sooner or later; if anything, the Hall might be a bit too inclusive rather than not inclusive enough. As long as a player can garner 5 percent of the vote each year, he gets 15 cracks at induction through the initial BBWAA voting process. If he fails to get in that way, some iteration of a veteran’s committee can honor him later. So Jim Rice, an undeserving candidate going by the numbers of his positional peers, gets in just before his ballot run ends, and someone like Freddie Lindstrom undeservedly gets in because the post-ballot committee was stuffed with his pals. There are a few snubs who deserve plaques, from Lou Whitaker (who couldn’t garner 5 percent of the vote in his first time on the ballot, but has the numbers to be worthy) to Joe Torre (forget his managerial career, the guy’s one of the best offensive catchers of all time) to Kevin Brown (a superstar in his prime and Exhibit Q that being unfriendly to reporters will make them want to stick it to you later). But those rare exceptions aside, most of the players who should be in the Hall do make it in eventually.

Some esteemed colleagues have proposed some interesting alternatives. The Wall Street Journal‘s Tim Marchman wants to democratize the process and put the vote in fans’ hands. Sounds great. Except that, if these surveys are any indication, fans or even a broader group comprising fans and baseball bloggers would elect one player, or even zero this year, themselves. The New York Times‘s Tyler Kepner would like to see a panel of 36 voters decide. His plan, too, might have its problems, though. By chopping the voting populace down to 36, you’re losing the wisdom of the crowds effect that 500-600 voters bring, and raising the chances of some kooky inductions. Also, by making existing Hall of Fame players one-third of the panel, you’re inviting a potential conflict of interest, one even bigger than the biases some writers might’ve had for or against players they covered. Namely, that the more players get inducted, the less exclusive Hall status becomes on a relative basis, which could create a financial disincentive for existing Hall members to vote others in, if only to keep the value of their autographs up. And that’s before we get into the voting preferences of said players, and whether they might end up being just as guilty of missing some of the more nuanced player cases (Alan Trammell, Edgar Martinez, etc.), just as the general public or the BBWAA might.

Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t, or shouldn’t, reform the way the Hall gets its inductees. Here are some changes that could help create a more rational voting process:

• Restrict voting to writers who actually cover baseball, in the present tense. It may very well be that the three writers from GolfersWest.com were diligent writers, reporters, and students of the game when they covered baseball for a living. But it’s inevitable that writers fall behind once removed from the beat, missing out on advances in statistical analysis and other forms of information that could better inform their thinking on the sport and its players.

• Since so many voters have claimed to be flummoxed by a lack of guidance from the BBWAA on voting conventions, here’s one that’d be great to see: All players should be evaluated based on the criteria set forth by the BBWAA, regardless of how many times a player has appeared on a ballot. Hopefully this will compel more voters to reconsider their stance on first-ballot candidates and to take a more logical stance: If you’re worthy, you’re worthy, first ballot or not.

• Allow voters to vote for as many candidates as they wish. This wouldn’t necessarily move the needle all that much, as there aren’t many voters who’ll vote for 10 players in a given year, even with a ballot as stacked as this one. But there are a few who would, and setting a 10-player limit feels arbitrary, and potentially forces voters to exclude worthy candidates. I had 13 this year, and the next two years bring Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Mike Mussina, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, and John Smoltz. This year’s shutout exacerbates the problem and makes it more likely that more voters will leave more deserving candidates off their ballots in the future, unless the 10-player limit is changed.

As bad as this shutout looks right now, it likely won’t happen again for a long time. The voting populace will get smarter as new blood filters in and others leave the voting ranks, whether through natural attrition or expulsion for no longer covering the game. It might seem preposterous that Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell and Curt Schilling and Tim Raines aren’t already in, leaving aside more polarizing candidates like Bonds and Clemens. But in time, I do think the vast majority of worthy candidates will get their due, sooner or later. Even the ones who are keeping voters up at night right now.

Filed Under: MLB

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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