Wednesday, January 23, 2019

On Hall of Fame Voting

Last night we found out the latest group of players to be elevated to Hall of Fame status, as voted by the BaseBall Writers Association of America. Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, and Mariano Rivera will be inducted in Cooperstown this July, joining Lee Smith and Harold Baines, who were elected in December by the Today’s Game Era Committee. Rivera goes in as the first ever unanimous selection.

In more Astros-related news, both Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman dropped off the ballot after just one year, receiving 4 and 5 votes, respectively. Former Astros Legend Rick Ankiel received 0 votes.

I’ve noticed a few trends in voting recently that I think may be worth discussing, and I think Rivera, Oswalt, and Berkman are great examples of these trends. In particular, increased voter transparency and the internet “hive mind” have changed the way the voters have approached their ballots.

As mentioned earlier, Mariano Rivera is the first ever inductee to be elected unanimously. I’ve seen many negative reactions to this news, not because anyone thinks Mo’s not worthy of induction, but because they think there should have been others before him, whether it be Griffey or Maddux or Ripken or whoever else. The BBWAA didn’t start releasing public ballots until 2012, though some people online have been tracking votes at least as far back as 2009, most famously Ryan Thibodaux (@NotMrTibbs). As these votes became public, voters started receiving massive amounts of… let’s call it negative feedback… if their ballots didn’t include whichever candidates The Internet decided were most worthy of votes that year. Prior to Rivera, Griffey was the closest to unanimous in 2016, with just 3 voters leaving him off their ballots. However, all 308 ballots (out of 440 total ballots cast) that were made public according to Thibodaux’s tracker included Griffey. As a matter of fact, every single inductee since 2014 has received a higher percentage of votes on public ballots than on ballots that are kept private, with the exception of Trevor Hoffman.

While this transparency and public discourse has helped push some candidates over the line (Bagwell, Raines, and Edgar Martinez, especially) I believe it has also led to some candidates dropping off the ballot much earlier than they would have in the past. While this is harder to quantify and prove, because less attention is paid to the down-ballot candidates, Berkman and Oswalt are examples of the type of players who used to get a few honorary votes in the past. Voters would often do this to acknowledge that, while not Hall-worthy, players like this were good enough, long enough, to be worthy of some further recognition. Often these votes would be cast by writers who had covered the team(s) these players had been on or who had played against them often, as division rivals or playoff foes. For example, one of the two public votes for Berkman was Rene Cardenas, a Spanish language broadcaster who has been connected to the Astros off and on since 1961. Both public voters for Oswalt are similar, with one coming from Cardenas and the other from former Astros beat writer Jose de Jesus Ortiz. It used to be far more common for players like Berkman and Oswalt to make it to at least their second ballot. For example, Bernie Williams, Orel Hershiser, Fernando Valenzuela and Willie McGee all made it to a second ballot because they were good but not great and had been fan favorites. However, voters are now reluctant to give players these throw-away votes, especially if they make their votes public. The ridicule from the armchair voters online is too much. In fact, every single player who has dropped off the ballot since 2013 had a higher vote percentage among private votes as opposed to those made public, with the exception of Jim Edmonds in 2016 (I’m excluding Garret Anderson, whose only vote was on a public ballot.)

I don’t know if these trends are good or bad. Honestly, I don’t think they need to be either. At the end of the day, those players who are obvious Hall of Famers are getting in. And, other than some head scratchers from the various after-ballot committees in Cooperstown, those who are obviously not Hall of Famers are not getting in.