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Baseball Hall of Fame Voting Is Broken—but Not in the Way You Think

As another ballot deadline looms, it’s time to explore the growing claims that modern players are underrepresented in Cooperstown

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It’s baseball Hall of Fame season, which means the annual tradition of transforming celebrations of the sport’s best-ever players into bitter debates about electoral philosophy is in full swing. The Hall selection process has no shortage of issues, from the lingering confusion over how the museum wants voters to handle steroid cases to disagreements between Hall leadership and writers over ballot proceedings, and with this year’s ballots due by December 31, the process has remained contentious.

An additionally persistent philosophical issue concerns the Hall’s size, and each year, forward-thinking writers argue that so-called borderline candidates deserve a plaque for era-based balance. Since the “Golden Era” of the 1950s and 1960s, this narrative goes, players have been underrepresented in the Hall, but the notion that modern voters judge players more harshly than their predecessors is a myth. The Baseball Writers Association of America, whose members make up the Hall’s 400-some-strong main voting bloc, has not toughened its standards, nor is the BBWAA electing fewer players now than it did throughout the 20th century.

The key point to note is that despite receiving the bulk of the attention and inspiring the bulk of the debate, the BBWAA is not the sole body charged with electing Hall of Famers. Throughout its history, the museum has tasked various Veterans Committees with electing players the BBWAA “missed,” and the writers have been far more discerning in their selections than the more generous—and sometimes cronyistic—VCs, which have typically been much smaller bodies made up of former players, other veterans of the sport, and occasionally writers. Per Baseball-Reference, fewer than half of the players elected to the Hall of Fame (124 of 251) were sent there by the BBWAA. (That 124 number includes Charlie Gehringer, Luke Appling, and Red Ruffing, whom the BBWAA selected in run-off elections in years that no player received 75 percent of the vote on the first ballot, and Lou Gehrig and Roberto Clemente, who reached the Hall via special elections.)

Jack Morris and Alan Trammell, who earlier this month were announced as members of next summer’s Hall class, are the first VC electees to have played after 1974. With essentially the entire designated hitter era awaiting VC consideration, then, recent decades are cast in sharp contrast to the early 20th century, which has had its Hall presence bloated by VCs. That’s why visuals showing declining rates of entry look so compelling—the early years have been picked over at length, and seemingly every pre-1970s player with a conceivable case has nabbed a plaque in Cooperstown.

But the calculus shifts when separating out and analyzing the writers’ voting record, versus the totality of the BBWAA and VC machinery. To compare induction rates by era, it’s better to use the percentage of players who reached the Hall rather than straight induction counts, as expansion suggests there should be more Hall of Famers playing now than half a century ago. The overall HOF rate reveals underrepresentation of modern players—but for the BBWAA’s HOF rate alone, recent decades don’t deviate from the historical norm. The writers have elected between 0.7 percent and 1.4 percent of all players born in each decade from 1900 through 1969, except one. The HOF rates of players born in the ’50s and ’60s fit snugly within those bounds.

(This graph includes Morris and Trammell, both born in the 1950s, as well as Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, both born in the 1960s, who are de facto BBWAA induction locks.) A similar pattern emerges when examining only players who reached a sufficient plate appearance or innings pitched threshold, to control for any potential weirdness introduced by expanded bullpens or other modern developments. Under these conditions, too, the BBWAA’s election rate for players born in the ’50s and ’60s is commensurate with its rate from earlier decades.

Another way to think about this discrepancy is to calculate how many modern players are missing from the Hall, if they are indeed missing. To meet the average election rate throughout the sport’s history—about 0.9 percent of all MLB players—the Hall would need to induct 16 more players born in the 1960s. To meet the average BBWAA election rate, though, the Hall would need to induct just two more players born in the 1960s, and Rivera and Hoffman will manage that feat by themselves. And that tally doesn’t even include any of the players born in the ’60s whom the writers have kept out for PED reasons.

Considering PED-implicated players helps address the decline posed by that first plate appearance graph, too. Limiting the Y-axis to BBWAA elects already starts to even out the bouncing trend line, and the remaining gap at the back end of the 20th century disappears entirely after adding in either players who are Hall locks (Adrián Beltré, Vladimir Guerrero, Roy Halladay, Hoffman, Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones, and Jim Thome) or players who would be locks had their cases not been sullied by steroid allegations (Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramírez, Alex Rodriguez, and Sammy Sosa). After the World War II–induced dip in the middle, the long-term trend is rather consistent and evinces a higher rate than is seen for much of the early 20th century.

If there’s any case, then, that the BBWAA is under-electing recent players, it pivots to the steroid debate rather than an indictment of the voters for using inconsistent standards of greatness to evaluate names on the ballot. Plenty of statistically savvy writers believe that the taint of PEDs should not preclude all-time greats like Bonds and Clemens from receiving the HOF honor, but that argument is separate from the claim that the BBWAA as a whole has grown too stingy.

There’s nothing wrong with recent decades surpassing the overall average, of course, and if present-day candidates like Edgar Martínez—who, according to ballot tracker Ryan Thibodaux, has appeared on 86 percent of the 86 ballots released thus far, in the process gaining 13 votes from those who omitted his name a year ago—receive a plaque, the Hall won’t lose any of its luster. And it’s hard to argue against the notion that writers need to adjust their benchmarks for starting pitchers in the age of five-man rotations and innings limits; Mike Mussina belongs on even the most staunchly small-Hall writer’s ballot.

But it also isn’t necessary that the BBWAA recognize this era’s more borderline candidates to preserve some sense of balance. There are, in essence, two Halls of Fame in terms of voting history. There’s the smaller and more exclusive Hall, which includes players for whom 75 percent of writers voted, and the larger and more inclusive Hall that includes both BBWAA and Veterans Committee elects. And while VCs have yielded worthy inductees—all-around contributors like Arky Vaughan and Ron Santo; a host of 19th-century stars; all those enshrined by 2006’s Negro Leagues special committee—they have more often elected candidates whose accomplishments don’t measure up to the standard of the writers’ elects.

The sabermetrician Jay Jaffe, who created the JAWS valuation system to compare Hall candidates with those already enshrined, wrote in 2010 that fewer than one-fifth of players elected by an old iteration of the VC “exceed the JAWS standards, and with the exception of shortstop, at least the two lowest-ranked players at every position came from that VC.”

So while Martínez and Larry Walker—who has already gained 18 votes this election cycle—are essentially right at the average career WAR for Hall of Famers at their positions (third base and right field, respectively), they’re not particularly close when compared with the average of only BBWAA elects. This discrepancy also affects a number of other contemporaries, such as Chase Utley at second base, Scott Rolen at third, and the trio of Carlos Beltrán, Kenny Lofton, and Andruw Jones in center field, whose résumés might look worthy of enshrinement compared with the whole Hall population but lag behind BBWAA elects alone.

Big Hall Versus Small Hall

Position Average WAR from All Electees Average WAR from BBWAA Electees Only
Position Average WAR from All Electees Average WAR from BBWAA Electees Only
C 52.6 59.6
1B 66.1 70.5
2B 69.6 86.5
3B 66.9 81.8
SS 66.5 74.5
LF 64.5 71.5
CF 71.9 99.4
RF 73.2 95.5

The dual system is imperfect and speaks to a broader disagreement between the BBWAA and the museum to which it elects players. As FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron wrote in 2013, “The creation of the Veterans Committee, and various other entities tasked with increasing the rolls of the Hall of Fame, suggest that the Hall’s own standard is lower than the BBWAA’s standard. Maybe it’s time for the Hall of Fame to simply tell the BBWAA to come in line with what the Hall wants the standard to be, so that we don’t have to have backup committees filling in the gaps where the Hall thinks the BBWAA failed.” Cameron is right, and, as he notes elsewhere in that piece, the fact that many VC inductions are posthumous is a terrible byproduct of the Hall’s longtime voting apparatus.

But that very disagreement warrants a wider-reaching solution, or intervention on museum leadership’s behalf, than simply beseeching the BBWAA to elect more players. The body of writers is acting in essentially the same way it always has. My personal Hall would include Martínez and Mussina, as well as Billy Wagner and perhaps even Walker. But I’m not a BBWAA member, and I don’t have a vote. So without a broader and more expansive change in how the Hall dictates its plaque room be filled, I can’t expect those who do cast the votes to act any differently than they have for the duration of the Hall’s existence.