The Hall’s broken relic

Each year, BBWAA voters are limited to no more than ten players on their Hall of Fame ballots. They don’t have to fill all ten spots, of course, but they can’t go over that. So why ten? Why limit the number at all?

The limit originates from the Hall’s formation. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum opened in 1939 as the centerpiece of the game’s centennial celebration, 100 years after Abner Doubleday allegedly invented baseball in Cooperstown, NY.*

*The Doubleday myth was known to be apocryphal even then, but it was popular enough to be a major publicity event, and the game’s leaders wanted to capitalize on the marketing opportunity.

At the core of this centerpiece was to be the induction of the game’s biggest stars into the Hall. The task of selecting these stars was divided between the BBWAA for 20th-century players and a Veterans Committee for 19th-century players, starting with a vote 1936 and continuing annually until the Hall’s opening in 1939.

The issue for the voters was, who exactly were the game’s biggest stars? And not just who were they, but how many were there? Everyone would agree that Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb qualified, but just how far down the list do you go? Tris Speaker? Mordecai Brown? Kiki Cuyler? Larry Doyle?

We take for granted today that Speaker and Brown belong. And Cuyler? Well, he’s probably borderline at best, but he’s in. Doyle never would be seriously considered. Nearly eighty years of history have established those standards.

In 1936, however, all of these men could have been considered stars. The question was whether they were big enough stars, only no one knew what “big enough” meant because there had never been anything like a Hall of Fame before. In order to answer that question, somebody had to set some kind of standard.

And so the Hall asked voters to list ten players deserving of enshrinement. There was some initial confusion about just what this meant—a 1935 AP story reported there would be ten initial modern inductees, for example—but in essence, the Hall was saying that they not only wanted players who were among the ten biggest stars of the modern game, but players whom the overwhelming majority of writers agreed were among those ten best.

That, of course, meant Ruth. It meant Cobb. It meant Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Honus Wagner. It meant Speaker would get in the next year as one of the consensus best players remaining. It also meant Brown, as big a star as he was, fell below the cut.

As the Hall continued to develop, the standards were further refined.* Committees were formed to clear up the backlogs that resulted from having the BBWAA go through several decades worth of candidates at once. This opened the door for stars of Brown’s caliber who had been overlooked originally. Eventually, some of the lesser-known stars like Cuyler started to get in this way, and the limits of the Hall of Fame began to firm up.

*Chris Jaffe has written a good summary of the evolution of Hall of Fame voting practices from the early years to their current form for those interested in a more in-depth look.

By the 1960s, the BBWAA’s role had evolved from combing through the backlog of all 20th-century players to considering fairly recent (within the past 20 years) retirees. Up to this point, voters had still, for the most part, been filling their ten ballot spots with a wide variety of names, and the handful that they could all agree on went in.

By this time, voters had come to an understanding of what constituted Hall of Fame caliber. They no longer needed to be told how to limit their votes. They were now doing so on their own, with an increasing number of voters leaving open spots on their ballots.

Like I said earlier, we now have a pretty firm idea of what our Hall of Fame standards are. Different people may have different ideas about what exactly those standards are and who meets them, but for the most part, those ideas are formed around a firmly established history. Each person is able to come to his or her own educated interpretation of how to apply those historical standards. The original purpose of the ten-name limit—to establish what the standard is—no longer applies.

It’s probably time to get rid of that limit, not to alter the standards of the Hall or ask voters to elect more players, but simply to recognize that by now the voters have figured out how to tell—without an arbitrary limit—who does or doesn’t meet their standards.

Historically, this hasn’t usually been that big a deal. Most voters have not filled their ballots to the limit anyway. There are clearly up and down years for the amount of talent on the ballot, though, and whatever limit may be appropriate in one year won’t necessarily hold in another. If you happen to get enough talent on the ballot in one year, that limit is going to fail.

Last year, the BBWAA cast more votes for the Hall of Fame (6.60 per ballot) than in any year since the loaded 1999 ballot (6.74 per ballot) that debuted Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Robin Yount, and Carlton Fisk. Nearly a quarter of the 126 voters who published their ballots last year filled all ten spots. The electorate agreed that the ballot was loaded with Hall of Fame talent, even if they couldn’t agree on who it was.

Every significant vote-getter except Dale Murphy (18.6 percent) returned to the ballot in 2014. Voters expanded their ballots as much as they could to accommodate new talent. Votes swelled to 8.4 per ballot, the highest since the current rules were established in the 1960s. But with so many ballots already full, there was no place for voters to put Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Mike Mussina, or Jeff Kent without taking off someone they had already decided deserved that vote.

The Hall now was telling voters that their long-established standards were no longer appropriate. Players like Alan Trammell, Larry Walker, Lee Smith, Tim Raines, and Jack Morris—players who had been good enough just a year earlier—were no longer good enough simply because they didn’t fit on a ten-name ballot this stacked with talent.

There is no longer any need for that limit. Voters already know who they think belongs in the Hall of Fame and who doesn’t. The limit doesn’t shape their standards like it did back when there were no established standards to go by. It just prevents them from voting for players they find deserving and have already voted for in the past if the ballot ever gets too loaded.

Craig Biggio fell just two votes short this year. Last year, there were three published ballots that used the full ten names and didn’t have Biggio on them. Would they have voted for Biggio if they had had more space? Did they make room for Biggio this year after seeing how close he was last year? Did he fall off any other ballots with the influx of talent on the 2014 ballot? I don’t know. It’s hard to say for sure, but maybe Biggio would be in the Hall right now if not for the limit.

Biggio isn’t the only one potentially hurt. While he may have been pushed off a few ballots and kept out an extra year, he’s a strong enough candidate to get support even on a loaded ballot, and he’ll eventually get in anyway. For the less clear candidates, the issue can be crushing.

The relative strength of a particular ballot has always had an effect on support for borderline players. Joe Posnanski recently wrote about this effect by comparing the candidacies of Luis Tiant and Morris, two similarly accomplished pitchers who started off with similar support for the Hall.

Their support diverged wildly as they ran up against very different crops of starting pitching talent on their respective ballots. Simply put, borderline candidates who might otherwise be considered get pushed off the ballot when there are enough better options available.

We see this any time a really strong group of players goes on the ballot. This year, everyone but Biggio and Mike Piazza lost ground, and some by a good 15 percent. In 1999, everyone left over from 1998 lost votes.

Granted, the ten-name limit is not the only reason for that. There certainly are other factors that cause voters to drop candidates in the face of tougher competition. An increasing number of votes are being affected by the limit, though, as the crop of eligible talent continues to swell.

Part of the problem with the current ballot isn’t just that it’s a strong group coming onto the ballot, it’s also a strong group staying on the ballot. Normally, the long-term carryovers are themselves borderline candidates. Guys who hang around for 15 years—like Morris or Murphy or Don Mattingly—are competing for votes every year. Mattingly vs. Trammell vs. Smith is the kind of thing voters weigh and consider and go one way or another on.

This ballot has a completely different kind of holdover, players who have slam-dunk credentials on the field—Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Jeff Bagwell, etc. These are not guys who are competing for votes. Voters who have accepted that they can vote for them aren’t weighing Bonds vs. Walker. They may see Walker as a Hall of Famer, but if it comes down to space, Walker is the one missing the cut.

There are enough of these holdovers maintaining spots every year on a sizable portion of ballots that there just isn’t enough space left for the rest of the candidates.

So when someone like Kenny Lofton comes up, he doesn’t stand a chance. I’m not saying that Lofton was going to be voted into the Hall of Fame, but I think there probably was a subset of voters who appreciated Lofton as a Hall of Fame-caliber player, at least enough to keep him over the five-percent threshold. The problem was, those voters didn’t have any space to put him.

Or maybe it wasn’t Lofton, but somebody is getting hit here. Someone who is still hanging around on the ballot—Trammell or Walker or Fred McGriff or Edgar Martinez or Kent or whomever—who maybe could build up steam the way someone like Morris or Bert Blyleven did. Someone voters want to vote for but can’t because he is not one of the ten best guys on the ballot, and because of that, he just can’t get enough of the remaining voters to give him a second look.

Even the guys who already had built up steam like Morris and Raines have hit a brick wall on this ballot. And, like I said, who knows what would happen without a ballot limit? I can’t look at any one player and say that’s the guy getting hit by the system. Someone probably is, though.

We know there are players who meet voters’ standards who are getting left off their ballots anyway. Voters are saying as much. The limit was essential to shaping the early standards of the Hall when none existed, but it has outlived that usefulness. All it does now is enforce an arbitrary limit on top of an already established standard. It is codifying the idea that a player who qualifies one year may not be qualified the next if a better player comes on the ballot and takes his spot.

In the worst case, this limit stifles the discussion of interesting candidates. Blyleven was able to emerge as a serious candidate because he was able to stick around and slowly pick up votes year after year. Voters started taking a second look and seeing something they somehow had missed.

The same thing happened to Morris, who has picked up enough attention throughout his candidacy to become a probable Veterans Committee selection. It happened to Raines before the current backlog hit the ballot.

It’s not happening to anyone right now, but it could. Voters could start to say, “Wow, Trammell’s defense was a lot more valuable than I thought” or “Okay, it looks like Walker did way more damage in Coors than can be explained by the thin air.”

Or if not those guys, someone else. When even their supporters can’t vote for them, though, there’s nothing motivating that discussion. And that’s the biggest problem with the ten-name limit.

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  1. Jim said...

    Hell, let ‘em all in.  I think 10 is too many, but that’s my opinion.  I truly had a hard time getting past nine.  But then I was playing as I do not have a vote.

  2. Ian R. said...

    Re: Biggio – It’s not even hard to tell. Multiple voters have explicitly said they would have voted for him were it not for the 10-vote limit.

    Of course, Biggio himself should go in next year, so he’s not the biggest victim. His continued presence on the ballot, though, will take votes away from everyone else, especially the other middle infielders (Kent and Trammell). Plus we have the guys like Marty Noble who artificially limit their votes to avoid having “28 players” inducted. (Never mind that that’s mathematically impossible – with the 10-player limit, the theoretical max number of inductees is 13.)

  3. Adam Dorhauer said...

    Yeah, I looked at some of the ballots after the BBWAA published their list on their site (which was after I wrote this, unfortunately).  They have 157 ballots up now, and 18 of those have a full ten players listed without Biggio being one of them.  Two of the first three I checked (Ken Davidoff and Anthony McCarron) said that they have voted for Biggio before and would have this year but ran out of room.  So it looks very much like the limit kept Biggio out an extra year.

  4. Bill said...

    Well I’m fine with ten players limit. It’s supposed to be hard to get into a Hall of Fame. Baseball is the only sport I follow so when I hear on the news how many people get elected to the Football and Basketball Halls of Fame (don’t recall hearing much about the Hockey Hall of Fame) I always think, “How can that many players be that deserving?”
    When I play sportswriter I come up with only five candidates in my opinion (and that’s really what this all comes down to personal opinion) worthy of enshrinement. Everyone else is a candidate for the Hall of the Very Good.

  5. Bill said...

    Yea, another post-sorry. I posted too soon, before I read the link to the 1935 AP article. If you haven’t read it I recommend that you do. Even in 1935 there was controversy. I must say I didn’t recognize many of the names mentioned in the article so perhaps the writers were on the right track after all.

  6. gc said...

    Most of the names nominated got in but there were two mystery names to me, catcher Lou Criger (72 OPS, 1665 Fan EloRater) 1012 games from 1896-1912 and only 1 WS appearance in 1903; 3B William Bradley 108 OPS 638 Fan EloRater) 1388 games 1899-1910 excluding Federal League, no WS appearances.

  7. jg941 said...

    RE:  the 3 or 4 guys who publicly claimed they would have voted for Biggio if they had only had that magical 11th spot – that’s BS.

    In a voting system where voters routinely make a mockery of their voting privilege, having the ballot expanded to include – what? – the 11th-best guy on the ballot in a given year?  No one thought to press that handful of voters on the wisdom of their actual ballot and whether Biggio should have really been safely in the middle of their top 10.  Based on the comments they released immediately after the vote was made public, I’d say they were waiting to grind that axe publicly and cast a ballot that would intentionally support that argument.

    In a voting system that still includes guys who cast 35% of their votes (and falling – heh-heh) for those players that cheated the game (granted, an irreconciliable difference amongst voters apparently), or left 7-8-9 spots blank or cast their votes for JT Snow and Eric Gagne, the idea that actually expanding their ability to vote badly isn’t even close to being a solution.  It’s not even in the Top 11 solutions.

    It’s not time to expand the ballot, of all things – it’s time to thin the herd of knucklehead voters, and implemnent a system that actually forces those with a voting privilege to do their job, and respect the privilege and institution.

  8. Largebill said...

    Not to single out the other Bill, but he makes a argument I’ve seen made elsewhere (TV/radio, etc) that misses a key point. Yes, it seems football Hall of Fame elects a lot more players. However, that is not a valid comparison. Each football team has 11 starters on offense and 11 on defense. Also, with the greater likelyhood of injury and the resulting shorter careers it is understandable for football to have more enshrinees. If anything an argument can be made that football is overlooking many greats who should be in Canton.

  9. Paul G. said...

    @GC: Criger was Cy Young’s catcher for most of his career.  Had an excellent defensive reputation.  (Also may have been involved in an attempt to fix the 1903 World Series.  His team won anyway.)

    Bill Bradley was one of the early stars in the American League both with bat and glove, and was considered in his prime as roughly the same value as Jimmy Collins.  (Actually, Jimmy thought Bill was better.)  Unfortunately, Bradley suffered a series of illnesses and injuries that derailed his bat just as he should have been peaking.  If he had remained healthy he’d probably be in the Hall.

  10. bucdaddy said...

    “His continued presence on the ballot, though, will take votes away from everyone else, especially the other middle infielders”

    So let’s just have a vote on each player, in or out, one at a time. “Biggio, in or out? biigio gets 80 percent, he’s in. Next …” Then nobody’s taking votes away from anybody.

    I have a question, Adam, and I’m too lazy to do the research, so if anyone knows: Has the number of ballots cast (not the number of votes, the number of ballots) increased, decreased or remained steady during the past, say, 10 years?

    Because given trends in newspaper and human mortality rates, someday the BBWAA is going to be a dozen 95-year-old men deciding who gets in the Hall (talk about a veterans committee). The HoF is going to have to change its voting policy someday. Why not do it now, and get a much broader concensus of opinion? Cheezus, it’s 2014, it’s not like it would take a month to count 10,000 ballots by hand.

  11. Adam Dorhauer said...

    The number of ballots cast has been pretty steady over the last four years (between 569 and 581), but long-term, the figure has been steadily rising since the 1960s.  Here’s a graph of the number of ballots cast each year by the BBWAA:

    The BBWAA began admitting internet-based writers in 2007, so they should still have an influx of new members even if print media were to completely die out.

  12. Ian R. said...

    “In a voting system where voters routinely make a mockery of their voting privilege, having the ballot expanded to include – what? – the 11th-best guy on the ballot in a given year?  No one thought to press that handful of voters on the wisdom of their actual ballot and whether Biggio should have really been safely in the middle of their top 10.”

    First of all, it’s entirely possible to have more than 10 worthy players on the ballot in a given year. There are 15 players on this Hall of Fame ballot who I see as vote-worthy, and another half-dozen who have legitimate cases.

    Second, how many voters left Biggio off because they assumed he’d be elected and wanted to spare a vote for another guy? How many of the voters who left him off actually had him outside their top 10? If the answer is anything other than 0 or 1, the 10-vote limit left a player who’s deserving by any standard out of the Hall.

    And, of course, the ballot is so loaded in the first place in large part because of the 10-vote limit. Getting rid of it may not be the solution, but it at least eliminates part of the cause of the problem.

    I’d be very much in favor of reforming the electorate entirely, but that’ll take time. Removing the arbitrary limit is a good, simple measure in the meantime.

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