Forecasting Cooperstown’s futureby Chris Jaffe
January 10, 2011
It's all over except for the inducting.
After another year of debate, arguments, and anticipation, the Baseball Hall of Fame announced that Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar will join Cooperstown's halls this year (just like I predicted!). That actually keeps an even-year/odd-year pattern the BBWAA has had lately. In 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2011, they voted two candidates in. In 2006, 2008, and 2010, it was only one.
The BBWAA circled Bert and Roberto for induction.
The Hall of Fame debate rages on for the 14 men on this year's ballot who return next year. The clock is really ticking for them because Cooperstown will soon experience an unprecedented glut of strong candidates. The glut won't show up next year. Bernie Williams is the only guy arriving in 2012 likely to top five percent.
The coming ballot-pocalypse, 2013-15
Then the ballot-pocalypse begins. In 2013, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling, Sammy Sosa, David Wells, Kenny Lofton, and Julio Franco show up. That's only the beginning. In 2014, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Mike Mussina, Jeff Kent, and Luis Gonzalez arrive. Finally, in 2015 Randy Johnson, John Smoltz, Pedro Martinez, and Gary Sheffield emerge.
Jeepers. Some voters, such as Joe Posnanski and ESPN's Jim Caple, have noted there are already more than 10 candidates for whom they'd like to vote. Imagine what they'll be feeling by 2015? They could have 20-25 guys worth voting for.
Let's put this in perspective: in the last half-century, which are the best new batches of candidates? Here's the top 10, in terms of how many votes they received per ballot:
Year Newbies 1999 3.62 1989 3.35 2007 2.32 1982 2.28 2001 2.12 1981 2.11 1993 2.09 1994 2.06 1962 1.99 2010 1.90
1999 and 1989 dominate. In 1999, Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Robin Yount, Carlton Fisk, and Dale Murphy. Ten years earlier brought Yaz, Johnny Bench, Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins, and Jim Kaat.
If not for steroids, the 2013 class would shatter the record. As is, even a worst-case scenario gives the 2013 newbies the third-highest vote ever. The only reason 2014 may not break 1999's record is because the ballot will be so suddenly crowded with a heavy pre-existing backlog. 2015 should have a top 10 newbie class as well.
I'm not too interested in forecasting how the 2013-15 newbies will do right now—it's way too early. Instead, let's focus on the current backloggers. Aside from Barry Larkin, who has a very good shot at induction next year, these guys will face the glut.
The cautionary tales: Tiant, Lyle, and Lolich
The best historic comp for the situation current backloggers face is what happened to pitching backloggers in the late 1980s, especially Luis Tiant.
In 1988—just before the second-best newbie class ever—Tiant debuted with just over three-tenths of the vote. That's very good. In fact, aside from guys currently on the ballot only one person (Steve Garvey) did better without later entering Cooperstown.
Then came Yaz-Bench-Perry-Jenkins-Kaat. Tiant was only the fifth-best-regarded pitcher on the ballot, behind Jim Bunning and the three newbies. Tiant suffered a historic collapse, dropping to barely 10 percent. It's the biggest one-year drop in support any candidate has had in the last half-century.
And it didn't get any better for Tiant. While 1990 didn't have as otherworldly a group of candidates, it did have Jim Palmer. Oh, and Perry, Jenkins, Kaat , Bunning all returned to the ballot for 1990. Tiant fell under 10 percent.
Of the 1990 pitching candidates, only Palmer got elected that year, so Perry, Jenkins, Bunning, Kaat, and Tiant all returned—and were joined by reliever Rollie Fingers in 1991. Tiant fell to seven percent.
Things began easing a little bit after those three hellish elections. In that 1991 election, Perry and Jenkins finally went in, and Bunning ran out of time on the ballot. But in 1992, Tom Seaver hit the ballot. He went in right away and took Fingers with him. In 1993, Phil Niekro showed up, and the BBWAA didn't want to vote him in immediately. In 1994, Don Sutton and Steve Carlton debuted, giving the ballot three 300-game winners. The next year, so did Tommy John arrived. In all, 11 straight elections featured at least one 300-game winner, as well as several other prominent pitchers. (Blyleven showed up at the tail end of this period.)
Luis Tiant's promising start was a thing of the past. Not until 2000, the first year without any 300-game-winners since Tiant's debut, did he top 15 percent—only half his 1988 election.
Tiant: he really was a better pitcher than many in Cooperstown.
It wasn't just Tiant. In 1988, reliever Sparky Lyle debuted at 13.6 percent of the vote. In 1991, he fell to 3.4 percent and off the ballot. His 13.6 percent is still the highest total for anyone who ever fell off the ballot late. Mickey Lolich had the steepest fall. He fell from a high of 25 percent, to barely staying on the ballot. He finished under six percent three times, bottoming out at 5.04 percent in 1994: a loss of 80 percent of his supporters.
What happened to those pitchers could happen to the entire backlog. Hitters will probably be most affected this time. There are more position players entering the ballot. The steroids controversy mostly revolves around hitters. Also, the current backlog is loaded with hitters: of the current 14 backloggers, 10 played primarily first base, designated hitter, or in the outfield.
It'll take years to sort it all out. Only one or two of the highest backloggers might survive—assuming they don't run out of time anyway.
Half-full or half-empty glass?
From one angle, the BBWAA has plenty of room on its ballot to handle the oncoming rush. Until the 1980s, the BBWAA always averaged more than seven names per ballot. Now they never do, and they usually have fewer than six names per ballot.
This year's voting had 5.98 names/ballot, which is the second-most in the last half-dozen elections—yet still the seventh-fewest ever. The 2013 election is a lock to have a new record low names/ballot. So yeah, if ever there was a time the ballot could handle a giant influx, it's now.
Since voters are putting so few names on the ballot, the backlog is much smaller now than it used to be. For decades, there were around 20 backloggers. That was true into the mid-1990s. There will still only be 14 backloggers next year and probably 14 when 2013 hits.
That's the positive spin: there's plenty of room on the ballot. That can be flipped around.
There's much more room because the BBWAA has become more selective. We now have more teams and are drawing on a larger, more international labor pool for baseball players than ever before—so how come there are fewer than six worthies per ballot now if there used to be eight or nine per voter back in the day? The standards are higher on the BBWAA than ever before. If BBWAA standards are already so high, I doubt the glut will make them lower.
Now, finally the candidates
So what does all of the above mean for the 14 guys still on the ballot?
One key note: aside from guys currently on the ballot, only one player ever topped 50 percent from the BBWAA vote and isn't currently in Cooperstown: Gil Hodges. Historically, the Veterans Committee does two things: put in the BBWAA's highest regarded holdovers, and select guys semi-randomly beyond that. Even though many guys below won't get in via the BBWAA, the VC should snap up those to whom the BBWAA gave the highest profile.
He'll enter Cooperstown next year. Three facts: 1) the 2012 newbies are a historically weak class, 2) the 15 current backloggers appeared 3.98 times per ballot this year, and 3) the fewest votes ever recorded for one BBWAA election is 5.35. So the backloggers will all rise tremendously in 2012. Typically, the guys with the biggest boosts are those on top of the backlog.
Another approach: compare him to Ryne Sandberg. Both middle infielders were perennial All Stars with well-rounded games and were widely considered future Hall of Famers during their careers. Both got around 50 percent in their first year on the vote, and a little over 60 percent in their second year. Larking edged Sandberg both times. Sandberg leapt into Cooperstown in his third year—and the 2012 newbies are much weaker than they were in Sandberg's last year. Larkin enters Cooperstown next year. Book it.
Future Hall of Famer Barry Larkin
He barely went up in 2011: from 52 to 53 percent. He'll rise more next year, but not enough to join Larkin. He won't be hurt as much in 2013 as others because most of the pitchers don't show up until later, but 2014 is his final year. I suspect the VC inducts him in 2017.
I don't think the BBWAA has ever had a candidate so stuck in the mud. He debuted at 42 percent. This year, in his ninth on the ballot, he was at 45 percent. Once Larkin gets elected, Smith will have highest first-ballot percent of anyone not in Cooperstown, and he might not ever get in. The Hall of Fame is still trying to figure out how to handle closers; that's why Smith is so oddly static.
The 2013-15 doesn't contain any closers. It has everything else—just no big save guys. Smith shouldn't take as big a hit as the other, but he will go down. There just aren't that many ballot slots to go around. Besides, the longer he's not the save king the less impressive Smith's candidacy looks.
Typically, starting with a little more than 40 percent of the vote is fantastic. The only people with better debuts than Bagwell are Larkin (who goes in next year), and Lee Smith (who is an oddity as the BBWAA figures out how to handle relievers). Given how weak the 2012 new candidates are, Bagwell has an excellent shot to top 50 percent next year.
Bagwell, however, didn't enter the ballot in normal times. He'll be submerged in 2013, but may not fall as much as the others. The guys near the top of a ballot usually falter the least.
In the pitchers of Generation Tiant, Bagwell's best comp is Jim Bunning. Bagwell is the top slugger in the backlog, just as Bunning was the top pitcher. Bunning fell in 1989, but not as hard as Tiant. Bunning declined from 74 percent in 1988, to 63 percent in 1989 and then 58 percent in 1990, when he ran out of time.
Bagwell may not hold his ground as well as Bunning did, but he might maintain enough traction to rise back up once the glut starts working itself out. It depends how long that takes, though. It helps for Bagwell that he has so many elections left. He might not go in via the BBWAA, but at worst he should go in through the VC.
Bagwell has the numbers, but will he get in via the Hall's front door?
Aside from 2012 shoo-in Larkin, Bagwell and Raines are the only ones with even a chance to get elected by the BBWAA.
Raines has a key aiding factor: uniqueness. Sluggers will be a dime a dozen on the ballot soon (and arguably are already), but who else has 800+ steals? The only speedsters coming up are Biggio (who should go in quickly) and Lofton, who won't get five percent.
Raines has the best bet to weather the storm of all hitters in the backlog, but he still might end up going to the VC if it takes too long for the BBWAA to sort out the arriving glut. A Rich Lederer-esque campaign for Raines might get him in, but it's a different environment.
Want to know a hidden factor driving Bert Blyleven's Cooperstown candidacy? A lull in new candidates from 2005 to 2009.
For comparison: from 1989 to 1995, you had at least two candidates per year appear on the ballot who went on to be elected by the BBWAA: 17 men in all. From 2005 to 2009, there was only one year more than one candidate arrived who has either been elected or is still on the ballot. In a five-year period, there are four elected and two remaining backloggers. That's it. Blyleven was already rising before 2005, but this stretch really allowed him to emerge. No one emerged from 1989 to 1995.
He is the highest ranking candidate I can see falling under five percent. I suspect he'll stay above it, but his candidacy rests purely on his bat, and a slew of heavy hitters will arrive.
Next year will be the highest Martinez ever scores with the BBWAA. It's Tiant-ville for him after that.
Assuming Larkin enters Cooperstown next year, when the deluge hits Trammell will be the sole backlog middle infielder. His vote total will collapse, but he should survive 15 years on the ballot. It's VC pot luck for him.
I don't think he'll survive 15 years on the ballot. If he does, it'll be the Mickey Lolich method of repeatedly dangling over the cliff of five percent.
A tough one to call. His support is less mobile than that of Smith. He's stuck at around 20 percent. But what happens when a lot of players suspected of steroids clog the ballot? Now it's just McGwire and Palmeiro as the clearly suspected major candidates, but soon it's Bonds and Clemens and Sosa. (Plus unfounded rumors and random conjecture about others.)
It's a variation of the Tiant scenario: if you're the fifth-best pitcher, you won't get that many votes. McGwire won't be the fifth-best pitcher widely presumed to use performance-enhancing drugs, but at least all BBWAA members will vote for pitchers. Most won't with steroid-related candidates. McGwire will fall as some writers willing to vote for him won't spend half their ballot on PED-concern candidates. McGwire's case will depend on Clemens and Bonds. If they can't gain traction, look out below for all of them.
Remember when sportswriters couldn't tell us enough times how these two saved baseball?
The last great slugger before home run rates took off in the mid-1990s. I think he has a great shot to fall off the ballot. The BBWAA won't elect him.
I predict he'll stay on, but barely. He's distinctive: a first baseman without too many homers, so people can vote for him as an anti-steroids guy. Plus, a lot of the BBWAA is stationed in New York. He might fall off, though.
His last year is 2013, when the deluge begins. He could fall under five percent just as he runs out of time, a frankly odd scenario.
Depending on how the steroids debate plays out, he could fall off the ballot. Would you ever have guessed that a 3,000-hit, 500-homer guy could do that?
If you're curious, without the positive test Palmiero would've gotten 85 percent of the vote this year. Eddie Murray got 85.3 percent. Paul Molitor got 85.2 percent. Dave Winfield got 84.6 percent. That's quite a little cluster of 3,000-hit guys. It's also the floor for 3,000 hit guys in recent decades. In the last 25 years, only Robin Yount did worse, and that's because he was on the 1999 super-newbie ballot.
All other 3,000 guys got over 90 percent. But those guys were all widely seen as arguably the best of their day in some ways. Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, and Rod Carew with the bat, Cal Ripken for his durability, Rickey Henderson on the bases. Molitor, Winfield, and Murray were great, but not the best—and they were all at 85 percent.
He doesn't stand a chance come 2013.
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.