The grand national conversation

As any frequent THT reader may have already noticed, I have a considerable interest in the Hall of Fame’s electoral process.

At the beginning of the year I wrote a column predicting how the BBWAA would vote in its 2008 election. In it, I came up with 10 guidelines for determining how the writers would vote. One, termed the “Over the Top!” rule, noted that as a person gets closer to 75 percent, logs start rolling on his behalf. Many voters start following the wisdom of the crowd to vote for him.

Based on this, I predicted that Goose Gossage would smash in. Sure enough he did. He surged from 71.2 to 85.8 percent of the vote, getting half his opponents to support his candidacy. Neat trick.

But there was more than that. The next biggest rises on the ballot went to Bert Blyleven and Andre Dawson. Dawson moved up from 56.7 to 65.9 percent. Blyleven skyrocketed from 47.7 to 61.9 percent.

Of the BBWAA’s ballot backlog, Gossage, Dawson and Blyleven had the best vote totals in 2007. For that reason alone, it should’ve been the hardest for them to improve substantially in 2008. Someone at 20 percent in 2007 needs to only win one-eighth of all opponents over to move up 10 percent. Dawson needed to win over nearly one-fourth.

I was right about the “Over the Top” leap, but I clearly underestimated its impact. This should be examined more systematically.

Studying the surge

Here’s the plan: find every time a player received over 5 percent of the vote and returned in the following election. Then compare their vote total from the first year to second year.

Next, divide them into groups based on how much support they received the first year. This allows us to figure out at what point in the ballot the surge kicks in. Put them in groups: 5 to 9.9 percent, 10 to 14.9 percent, 15 to 19.9 percent, etc. (Note: for simplicity’s sake, 5 to 9.9 percent will be referred to as 5 to10 percent from here on out.)

Let’s take an example to explain it. In 1998, Steve Garvey got 41.2 percent of the vote. The next year he got 30.2 percent. The difference is a loss of 11 percent. Put him with all the others who got 40 to 45 percent of the vote and average out what happened to them the next year.

One thing should be noted. Rather than look at all baseball history, this study only examines the modern voting era. As a previous column noted, players didn’t always have to wait until they’d been retired for five years for eligibility and could stay on the ballot longer. The modern standards only applied to players who retired in 1952 or later. They’re the ones examined.

For those players, there are 801 times someone received at least 5 percent of the vote and returned to the ballot in the next go-around. The columns below include (reading from left to right): 1) the groups, 2) average vote members received the first year, 3) average votes they received the next year, 4) how many are in each bunch, and 5) how many went up, stayed exactly the same, or went down in the vote percentage the next year:

    Group    1st Yr      Next     Dif.     #  Up-Same-Down
   70-75%     72.41%   80.71%   8.30%      13       12-0-1
   65-70%     66.91%   73.56%   6.65%      21       18-0-3
   60-65%     62.55%   68.54%   5.99%      22       14-0-8
   55-60%     57.71%   62.34%   4.63%      35       27-0-8
   50-55%     52.10%   57.97%   5.87%      23       19-1-3
   45-50%     47.51%   49.82%   2.31%      23       14-0-9
   40-45%     41.92%   42.12%   0.20%      41      18-0-23
   35-40%     37.48%   40.93%   3.45%      42      32-0-10
   30-35%     32.10%   34.00%   1.90%      62      42-0-20
   25-30%     27.44%   28.59%   1.15%      69      36-1-32
   20-25%     22.26%   24.24%   1.98%      78      49-0-29
   15-20%     17.25%   18.46%   1.21%      77      43-0-34
   10-15%     12.40%   13.38%   0.98%     131      68-1-62
    5-10%      7.20%    8.52%   1.32%     164      99-3-62

Neat. What happened to Dawson and Blyleven was not a fluke. Apparently, surging begins at the 50 percent marker. Once you break that hump, you have an excellent shot to enter Cooperstown in four to five years on average. If you’re wondering, the only man in the 70 to 75 group to fall was Jim Bunning. After getting 74.2 percent of the vote in 1988, he had the misfortune of welcoming Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins, and Jim Kaat to the ballot the next year.

The other interesting tidbit is the 40 to 45 percenters getting clobbered. I have no good explanation, but it looks like the key is to get out of the 40s. This is where the BBWAA is uncertain if a guy is or isn’t an immortal. Move up, and you can go in.

Another issue should be mentioned. This chart actually understates how impressive the gains by everyone over 50 percent are. As noted earlier in the article, Dawson had to convince about a quarter of his agnostics to vote for him to move up 10 percent.

Let’s shift the approach. What happens if you take the percentage of voters gained (or lost), and divide by those who had not previously supported the campaign? After all, that really tells you who is surging. Here’s how they do when it comes to winning new converts among the BBWAA electorate:

Group   Converted
70%-75%     31.9%
65%-70%     21.0%
60%-65%     17.7%
55%-60%     11.3%
50%-55%     12.4%
45%-50%      3.8%
40%-45%     -2.0%
35%-40%      4.6%
30%-35%     0.03%
25%-30%     -2.8%
20%-25%     -2.8%
15%-20%     -6.0%
10%-15%     -7.7%
 5%-10%     -7.3%

In other words, if 100 writers opted not to put a player on the ballot, and that candidate got 73 percent of the vote anyway, he can expect 32 of the 100 to support him next time. If you get just under three-fourths of the votes in an election, one-third of the holdouts will rally to your side by the next year. Amazing.

The 50 percent line serves as an even more pronounced marker than in the previous graph. This makes sense if you know your Cooperstown voting history. Below is a complete and exhaustive list of all men who have gotten at least half the BBWAA’s votes at least once and are not currently on the ballot:

Gil Hodges.

That’s it. He’s the entire list. In theory, three-fourths may be required for enshrinement, but in reality it’s half. Not all were put in by the BBWAA, but the VC almost always inducts those the BBWAA passed on.

In contrast, some men have gotten 40-49 percent of the vote and never been inducted: Ron Santo, Maury Wills, Steve Garvey, Tony Oliva, Roger Maris, Marty Marion, Gil Hodges (again), as well as some men still on the ballot. Admittedly, it’s not a huge list, but at least there are some people on it. Four-tenths is no guarantee.

One oddity exists in this second chart. If all groups gained supporters in the first chart, how come several come off negatively here? Simple—if someone at 5 percent goes up by 1 percent, that’s only gaining a pitifully small sliver of the potential electorate. However, a 1 percent drop means you’ve lost one-fifth of your base. It’s a mathematical fluke, but I think it better captures what goes on.

Some would consider this a knock on the BBWAA and call it herd mentality. I beg to differ. It shows a willingness to listen to others, reexamine their position, and accept arguments others espouse. Simply put, it shows a willingness to listen, something I find commendable.

What it all means: the grand national conversation

A central philosophy guides BBWAA elections—it’s a conversation. It’s a 15-year debate between BBWAA members and (to a lesser extent) the larger baseball-loving public. When a sustained argument gets made on behalf of a particular candidate, the BBWAA can respond (as has happened with Rich Lederer’s Blyleven crusade), if they feel the argument is sound.

This is why I love Hall of Fame voting. It’s a debate where those with a real say can be affected by the rest of us. I don’t always agree with their choices—far from it—but I can’t stand the anti-Hall attitude some have. For me, to remove yourself from interest in the Hall of Fame is to turn your back on the wider world of baseball fans.

Years ago I took part in an organization called the Hall of Merit at the Baseball Think Factory. It taught me a valuable lesson. A huge difference exists between picks that I disagree with and mistakes. Each of us has to decide how much to weigh peak, prime, career, offense, defense, special considerations, and other factors. You can recognize others disagree with you without denigrating their thought process. Differences in opinion can be respected.

There’s something elitist about refusing to deal with an organization unless it only makes decisions you agree with. Frankly, it’s rather immature. There’s no moral virtue in taking your ball and going home. Just because the process won’t listen to you all the time is no reason to go off in a huff. Hence my interest in the BBWAA.

The above should be qualified. One reason players over 50 percent skyrocket so quickly is because the BBWAA is looking for reasons to elect someone. Attacking the candidacy of someone nearing immortality is seen as unsporting. For example, last year Rob Neyer’s writings against Jim Rice infuriated Peter Gammons. He all but gave Neyer a wedgie over the matter. That’s the biggest criticism I have of the BBWAA.

Even if you look at the BBWAA’s mistakes, they are understandable. Earlier this year I wrote a two articles on their record. I figured their worst errors were the election of Pie Traynor, Bill Terry, an overrepresentation on closers, and maybe the induction of Rabbit Maranville. Also, I concluded their main errors of omission were Johnny Mize, Arky Vaughan, and a bias against centerfielders.

Interestingly, even most of these errors are defendable. After I wrote those columns, several readers e-mailed me pointing out that in the context of their times, they were almost all reasonable choices. Traynor was the game’s best white third baseman between Frank Baker and Eddie Mathews. Maranville was both one of the greatest defensive players ever and had an exceptionally long career. Mize’s career was extremely short.

The mistakes are more reflections of the time. For most of MLB history, batting average has been overrated. Hence people overrated Traynor and Terry while underrating the walk-heavy Mize. Now, saves are overrated, helping guys like Bruce Sutter. There are no Fred Lindstroms or Rick Ferrells. The only real bad mistake was giving Vaughan’s plaque to Pennock.

A fundamental difference exists between their mistakes and those of the VC. The VC makes seemingly random picks based on cronyism. The BBWAA’s worst choices are rooted in what the widespread public thinks matters in a player. The induction of Terry is less a mistake in and of itself as it is a lesson that people paid too much attention to batting average.

That’s what I mean when I say turning your back on the BBWAA is turning your back on the game’s fan base. Generally, the BBWAA does a good job minimizing the judgment errors of the general public. If the vote was a popularity contest like the All-Star Game, Roger Maris likely would’ve won election.

The BBWAA do an imperfect and frequently frustrating job electing immortals. Yet I don’t really know of any realistic options that would be better. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it’s the worst form of elections, except for all the others.

What it means for 2009

In a few months, a new cycle of Hall of Fame columns from BBWAA writers and those of us outside the process will come forth. Many will focus on the leading returning candidate, Jim Rice.

Folks, those columns won’t make a damn bit of difference. He’s going in and there’s nothing in this world that will stop it from happening. Those promoting or deriding his candidacy are still free to do so, but no one should expect it to really matter.

The same things can be said about Dawson and Blyleven. They’re over the midway point. They’ve cleared the biggest hurdle. My hunch is that Dawson will enter in 2010, and Blyleven by 2011 at the latest.

The real debate is one the guys below that point. Two men in particular have been lounging around 40-50 percent: Jack Morris and Lee Smith. That’s where the action will be over the next few years.

In particular, I’d keep my eye on Smith. We’ve just seen Sutter and Gossage go in. Without those competing relievers, Smith may start zooming up. Then again, his main claim to fame was as all-time save leader, a claim he can no longer make. It will be very interesting to see what happens with him. Odds are they’ll both go in, whether by VC or BBWAA—almost all have, after all. But it’s not a certainty in either case.

References & Resources
I went to the Hall of Fame’s website months ago and downloaded the results of every election into excel. Then I just fiddle with the numbers from there.

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