Cooperstown crystal ballby Chris Jaffe
January 11, 2010
Last week was a fun week for me -- and not just because I received my author copies of Evaluating Baseball's Managers, 1876-2008 in the mail. (Now available! I know of at least one random purchaser who also got his copy, so it is coming out). That was the main reason I enjoyed last week, but I always get a kick out of the BBWAA Hall of Fame vote.
Part of it is the typical suspense of who will get in. I also like the aspect of trying to predict the future. After all, this was the third straight year I wrote a piece trying to predict the Hall of Fame vote here at THT. In that spirit, I want to see what we can expect in the future for the current backlog of candidates. Who will rise up and enter Cooperstown and who has no chance?
Looking back in order to look forward: the 2010 BBWAA election
I reviewed my predictions vs. reality already, so I'll just note some key features of this year's election.
First, this ballot contained 11 backloggers, the smallest total ever. Not surprisingly then, the ballot featured 5.67 names per voter, the seventh smallest average ever.
However, the rookie class performed strong, which is why 2010 didn't set the record for fewest votes/ballot ever. The rookies appeared 1.9 times per ballot, the fourth highest total in the last 16 years. Not only that - but none of the newbies were elected, so they'll stick around for a little bit. In fact, since 1962 (when the five-year waiting rule for eligibility was finalized) the Hall has never had a class of first-timers score so highly without anyone being elected.
Thus the backlog is now expanding.
Looking forward: The Big Picture
The future holds three stages. First, from 2011-12, some candidates appear, though no one who I foresee immediately overwhelming the BBWAA: Jeff Bagwell, Rafael Palmeiro, Larry Walker, Kevin Brown, Juan Gonzalez, John Franco, and Bernie Williams arrive (all except Williams in 2011). Some won't even get 5 percent.
The best are Bagwell and Palmeiro. Steroids will keep the latter out, and I think Bagwell will be more a sabermetric darling than a BBWAA favorite.
Then comes 2013-14. when arguably the greatest glut of candidates in history arrive. The first wave in 2013 will feature Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling, Sammy Sosa, Kenny Lofton, David Wells, and Julio Franco. The next year has a class about as strong with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Mike Mussina, Jeff Kent, Jim Edmonds, and Luis Gonzalez arriving.
The third stage is 2015-onward. It's too early to tell who will appear on those ballots (except that Randy Johnson will in 2015), but that period will feel the ramifications of the 2013-14 glut. That might take a while, because the taint of steroids affects a few otherwise no-brainer immortals. Simply put, 2013-14 will create a mess, and the remaining years will try to deal with it.
I can see a series of ugly, and annoying elections, but I think it'll eventually get sorted out. Historically, the BBWAA elections work as an exercise in consensus. Give it a few years, and things will improve.
Bringing it back to the 2010 election, the current backloggers have a chance to move up in 2011-12, but the 2013-14 avalanche will bury those still on the ballot. Since the institution of the 5 percent rule around 30 years ago, the best vote ever attained by someone who later fell off the ballot was 13.1 percent by Sparky Lyle. I expect that record to be broken.
That doesn't mean everyone will be affected equally. The more new candidates directly comparable to an existing candidate, the worse it will be for the backlogger. Alternately, the more unique one appears, the better off he'll be.
The key point for the backloggers is to get some kind of pecking order in place before 2013. Those lower down in 2012 will get clobbered in 2013-14. We need to look at the backloggers here to see what the future might hold for them.
Looking forward: for individuals
I'll go in order of how much support they received this year.
He'll go in. Historically, players who receive between 70.0 and 74.9 percent of the vote receive a bump of 8.3 percent the next year. Only in the last half-century has anyone in that neighborhood had his vote decline the next year, and that was a weird situation. Jim Bunning was on the cusp of election in 1988, only to see Gaylord Perry and Fergie Jenkins enter the ballot next year, making Bunning look much lesser in comparison. That won't happen to Blyleven.
Like Blyleven, Alomar will go in next year. The best ballot debut by anyone who didn't get into Cooperstown was 42.3 percent by Lee Smith, whose still on the ballot. Alomar easily tops that.
There is good news and bad news for him.
The bad news: The BBWAA ain't going to elect him. He's barely over 50 percent and he's only got two elections until the fun begins. He's moving upward far too slowly to get to 75 percent in that time.
The good news: He has an excellent shot to go in eventually via the Veterans Committee. Don Malcolm made a keen observation in a column here at THT. While people note the oddball selections the VC makes, they aren't all totally off the wall. One trend emerges: They historically always take the guys who performed best with the writers without getting in.
For example, aside from players currently on the ballot, Gil Hodges is the only person in history to ever top 50 percent in a BBWAA election and not earn enshrinement. Impressive. Morris just topped 50 percent this year, and has a good bet to rise up a bit more. After 2011, he'll probably be at the top of the backlog and those guys almost always move up. He won't get to 75 percent, but he'll be atop the VC wishlist.
I'm aware the VC currently isn't electing players from the last half-century, but that can't last. Either the VC changes its ways or Cooperstown will reformat it yet again. History is on Morris' side.
Even though he scored slightly lower than Morris, I think that Larkin actually has a slight chance to get to 75 percent before 2013. There's a difference between a person debuting around 50 percent and a person taking a decade to get there.
I wrote a column a few years ago on the vote called "The grand national conversation." Simply put: The 15-year electoral process is something of an elongated conversation among the writers, and someone who begins the conversation with the majority's support is in a good place.
To put it another way, in recent decades, the most similar debut to Larkin's 51.6 percent this year was Fergie Jenkins' 52.3 percent in 1989. Jenkins got enshrined just two years later. Larkin has an added bonus: I think he'll be at the top of the backlog once Blyleven and Alomar go in, which puts him in the best position to enter Cooperstown in 2012. That said, it's possible no one goes in that year. If Larkin doesn't make it in 2012, he's got a long slog in the backlog ahead of him.
However, I think Larkin will be hurt less by the avalanche than most. The only new middle infielder will be Biggio, who should get in quickly. Larkin should be at the top of the pre-2013 backlog and without anyone too similar to him spending much time on the ballot. He'll get in. It'll take a while, though.
He's gone nowhere. He debut in the low 40s in 2003 and now he's in the high 40s. The all-time save leader propelled his candidacy and he's lost that. He's held up partially by inertia. He's a sign of how Cooperstown is still not fully sure how to handler relievers.
He won't be killed by the 2013-14 backlog because there are no slamdunk closer candidates coming on board, but the BBWAA will pass on him. I have no idea what the VC will do.
Given how strong his start was, with 38 percent supporting him, I think his chances of getting elected by the BBWAA are surprisingly weak.
Hitting ability obviously drives his candidacy. Right now, it looks like the BBWAA considers him the best pure hitter on the backlog. However, a bunch of hitter-centric candidates will arrive. Next year it's Bagwell and Palmiero. He'll survive that, but he needs more to survive. He needs to move forward before 2013, when Bonds, Piazza, and Sosa show up. Normally, I'd say everyone I've except Bagwell goes in very quickly, but with steroids who knows.
By 2015, some voters will consider Martinez to be the fifth or sixth best pure hitter on the ballot. A lot of them will want to make room for others, and Martinez will be dropped. For example, Luis Tiant and Mickey Lolich underwent massive collapses in support from 1988-90 because Gaylord Perry, Jenkins, Jim Kaat, and Jim Palmer all arrived on the ballot. If Martinez hasn't moved up much prior to 2013, he'll be easier to drop as voters prioritize other candidates.
This year, more than 30 percent of the voters supported him. I like his odds to move up the next two years. He has a hook that sets him apart from the rest: base-stealer extraordinaire.
Depending how long it takes the 2013-14 logjam to work out, he may not be able to get in through the BBWAA, though. However, like Morris he might be someone that ends up with so much support from the writers that the VC enshrines him.
He's gotten 23.5, 23.6, 21.9, and 23.7 percent support in four elections. That is inelastic. This also gives an idea what'll happen to those tainted with steroids in the future.
The one big wildcard I can think of is how the steroid debate will play out. I know what the current mindset is - McGwire's support makes that clear. The question is how will it change. With Clemens and Bonds you'll get two candidates who had Hall of Fame careers based only on their pre-suspicion years. If one of them gets in, that makes it harder to keep the others out.
Also, attitudes can change. I live in the Chicagoland area and have heard radio commercials for a sports bar named Shoeless Joe's. That's right - a sports bar named after someone who took money to throw the World Series for a team that didn't win another one for over 80 years. That guy's apparently now a beloved local sports memory. Attitudes about controversial figures can change.
What I will say is this: By 2013, McGwire will be the third most prominent player on the ballot associated with 'roids. For that reason alone, he'll see his support sputter.
He finally broke 20 percent this year. It's too little, too late. He's only got six ballot left. He won't get in via the BBWAA nor will he get so much support as to be at the top of the VC's list.
More than anyone else here, McGriff will really be in deep trouble when the deluge hits in a couple years. He's cursed by fate. He's the last slugger to peak before homer totals went goofy in the mid-1990s, and he lasted so long many don't remember when 36 homers was impressive.
With so many sluggers entering the ballot in upcoming years, McGriff will be one of the easiest guys for BBWAA members to drop from the ballot. There's a chance he'll set a new record for highest vote total to ever drop below 5 percent. My hunch is that'll he'll survive somehow, but I don't see him in double digits from 2013-onward.
Murphy might do something I would've thought impossible: record less than 5 percent of the vote in his 15th and final year on the ballot. It's easy to envision. He's near the bottom of the backlog right now, and his last year will be 2013. This is someone whose already finished below 10 percent twice.
Only VC potluck will get him into Cooperstown.
McGriff, Murphy, and Mattingly are all candidates to become the best-supported player to ever fall below 5 percent. I think Mattingly will avoid the 5 percent barrier just because he's a different breed of candidate from the others. Sure he's a first baseman - just like McGwire and McGriff and Bagwell and Thomas (well, he was sort of a first baseman), but they were all sluggers. Being the non-slugger allows him to stand out.
Then again, he's already seen his support crumble over the years. He started out near 30 percent and is now far below that. If he continues to bleed voters, he could go below 5 percent.
Next year is his last year. He's doomed - better hope for a random VC induction.
Actually, he can shed some light on how the 2013-14 deluge can affect things down the road. Parker peaked early on the ballot, with 24.5 percent of the electorate supporting him in his second year. The next year, the deluge of 1999 - George Brett, Nolan Ryan, Carlton Fisk, and Robin Yount - showed up and knocked him down. He rallied barely over 20 percent, but it didn't last. He got lost in the shuffle of the backlog. All the new candidates started higher than him and he became back-of-ballot filler.
That's how it goes. Guys near the top of the backlog are the ones the BBWAA focus on the most (which makes sense). As a result, they're the ones most likely to experience gains. Those down below, either need vocal supporters or something distinctive about them or they get buried in waves of oncoming candidates.
Parker is what players like Martinez and McGriff (or Bagwell, who shows up next year) want to avoid becoming. He is the backlog's cautionary tale heading into 2013-14.
He'll survive at his typical 5 or 6 percent until 2013. Then the ride comes to an end for him.
There's one key point I take from this: The next two years are going to be exceptionally important for the backlog.
Some of these players will be buried in the 2013-14 avalanche and never gain serious support again. They'll be forgotten, just like Parker was all those years ago.
Alternately, not everyone will be left for dead. If there are any latter-day Richard Lederers out there, this is the time to rally support for your candidate. Pecking order prior to 2013 will go a long way toward determining who makes Cooperstown and who never will. Right now, I'd say Blyleven, Larkin and Raines are the only ones I feel confident about.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.