Uh-oh. Here it comes.
Here comes the mess, and it’s heading straight for Cooperstown.
This January, the Baseball Writers Association of America held its annual Hall of Fame election, this time voting Barry Larkin into Cooperstown. It was a standard election—something no one will say about the upcoming ones.
The 2013-15 elections promise to be the messiest ones the BBWAA has contended with in over a half-century. We’re about to have two things happen at once: 1) An exceptionally and perhaps unprecedented number of terrific candidates will reach the ballot all at once, and 2) the steroids controversy will reach a new degree of fervor.
Just one of the above would make the upcoming 2013 ballot memorable, but both at the same time? Yikes. And it won’t get much easier in the immediately foreseeable future.
Let’s add some actual detail to the coming Cooperstown ballot mess. Here are the big names reaching the ballot in 2013: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling, Sammy Sosa, Kenny Lofton and David Wells. Under normal circumstances, there are five or six slam dunk Hall of Famers right there.
They all get to join backloggers Jack Morris, Jeff Bagwell, Lee Smith, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell, Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff, Larry Walker, Mark McGwire, Don Mattingly, Rafael Palmeiro, Dale Murphy and Bernie Williams.
Then in 2014, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Mike Mussina, Jeff Kent, Luis Gonzalez and Moises Alou arrive. Then in 2015, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, Gary Sheffield, Carlos Delgado and Nomar Garciaparra.
Sure, normally we’d be looking at multiple guys cruising into Cooperstown each year, but these aren’t normal times. The PED cloud plus the sheer volume of strong candidates can create major problems. There’s at least a threat of no one getting into Cooperstown in the mother of all ballot bottlenecks.
Cooperstown’s nightmare scenario
Okay, so steroids will cause candidates like Bonds and Clemens to suffer. But it shouldn’t hurt guys like Biggio or Thomas. So why is there a fear no one will get in?
To understand that, you need to look back at the history of BBWAA voting, specifically what went on in the 1940s. This was the trickiest time for BBWAA voting. Hardly anyone had been put into Cooperstown by that point, and a half-century backlog existed.
The writers wanted to immortalize new candidates, and the ballots of that period averaged about 10 names per ballot, meaning the entire electorate filled their ballots to the maximum allowed. Yet they almost never put players in. In 1942, they elected Rogers Hornsby by the thinnest of margins, just 77 percent of the vote. Then, in their next vote, no one made it in. And it happened again the next time.
What was going on? Well, in part, the BBWAA was hurt by an odd decision to vote every three years. After inducting Hornsby in 1942, they didn’t vote again until 1945. Immediately after that, they shifted back to annual elections, but still couldn’t get anyone in 1946.
And these were some incredibly deep ballots full of worthy candidates. For example, 46 future Hall of Famers received votes in the 1946 ballot. Sure, some don’t belong, but a ton did. Yet the BBWAA couldn’t put a single one in that year despite almost every voter putting 10 names on his ballot.
The very depth of candidates itself was the problem. The 75-percent bar is a difficult one to clear. With a huge number of really strong candidates, it’s harder to stick out of the crowd. It’s not impossible—there is a reason guys like Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth got elected in the 1930s—but if you have a lot of really deserving players, it’s damn difficult for any single one to clear 75 percent. That’s the lesson of the 1940s and the danger the upcoming ballots present.
If you want a more recent example, look at Robin Yount. He was a two-time MVP with over 3,000 hits who spent his entire career playing up-the-middle defensive positions. Normally, guys like him fly into Cooperstown. In fact, from 1986-2010, all other 3,000 hit players received at least 85 percent of the vote their first time, and as his MVPs indicate, Yount was better regarded than the likes of Paul Molitor and Dave Winfield.
Yet, Yount barely made it on his first try with just 77 percent of the vote. It was a crowded ballot, as he debuted alongside Nolan Ryan, George Brett, and Carlton Fisk. Thus, a guy like Biggio or Thomas could have trouble he otherwise wouldn’t. And just because Yount barely eked in doesn’t mean Biggio will do likewise in 2013.
Predicting the future
OK, so there’s danger of a complete fiasco, but will it occur?
Let’s forecast ahead as best as we can.
The 2012 election saw a new record set: Only 5.10 names appeared per ballot, a new all-time low. The previous record low was 5.35.
That’s one piece of good news for avoiding a complete mess in upcoming years. Sure, we have the biggest batch of candidates ever coming up, but we also have the most room available for them. Larkin won’t be back, but the 12 others will return next year. They appeared 4.23 times per ballot.
This doesn’t mean that there are 5.77 names/ballot worth of space before people start losing votes. The biggest increase in names per ballot ever came in 1999, when the arrival of Yount, Brett, Fisk, and Ryan caused the names per ballot to leap from 5.41 names/ballot to 6.74. It’s quite possible that the 1999 record increase will be broken in 2013, but it’ll get crowded before the average gets anywhere near 10 names/ballot.
Let’s look at the new guys in 2013. Bonds and Clements top the list. Normally, they’d likely receive 98 percent, but not with the steroids controversy. No one knows how they’ll do exactly. To date, the biggest ‘roid-releated name on the ballot is McGwire. He peaked with 24 percent of the vote and most recently was at 20 percent. He has his supporters, clearly.
That’s the starting point. Those willing to vote for McGwire are incredibly likely to vote for Bonds and Clemens. After all, the latter two have far stronger cases, and if you’re willing to vote for one guy that did steroids, why not another?
Some electors who skipped McGwire could vote for Bonds and Clemens. They’re stronger candidates, and a voter can decide to give no credit to the asterisked years of Bonds and Clemens and still say they deserve induction solely based on their previous seasons. If Bonds started juicing after 1998 (as is commonly believed), you can vote for him just because of his previous seasons.
Okay, so Bonds and Clemens will top 24 percent. By how much? That’s impossible to say. From my own perspective, I’ll say this. The battle lines in the steroids debate seem pretty hard. Those who are opposed to putting juicers in are often adamantly opposed. The nuance of the previous paragraph isn’t their thing. A majority of those not voting for McGwire probably will support neither Bonds nor Clemens.
Let’s do some math. Last year, four-fifths of the voters didn’t support McGwire. Let’s say half of them support Clemens and Bonds. That means two-fifths still oppose, and they each end up with 60 percent of the vote.
But the reality is that it’s doubtful they’ll get half of the votes of the McGwire non-supporters. Maybe a third. Maybe. If that’s the case, then Bonds and Clemens get the 20 percent already voting for McGwire, plus another 26-27 percent (that’s a third of 80 percent). So I’d tentatively put their support at 40-45 percent. I doubt they’ll get more than that, but they could easily get less support.
Actually, the less support that Bonds and Clemens get, the easier it is for anyone else to get elected. Allow me to explain.
Let’s go back to the 1999 election for a second when Yount and Brett and Ryan all debuted. Yount lost support in that crowded ballot, but neither Brett nor Ryan did. In fact, Ryan got 99 percent, one of the best totals ever. Brett was a hair behind at 98 percent. Its funny, crowded ballots usually cause guys to lose support. It happened to Yount and to the 1940s gang, but not Ryan and Brett.
That’s because a player overwhelmingly considered to be the best on the ballot won’t be hurt by the strength of the ballot. All voters will begin by penciling in their pick for the best player, and if everyone agrees that Ryan and Brett (or Cobb and Ruth) are the best guys out there, it doesn’t matter how crowded the rest of the field is.
Let’s take it back to the 2013 election. For a chunk of the electorate, Clemens and Bonds are the best candidates. Everyone agrees they have the best numbers, but that’s not the main factor for many.
A couple of things flow from this. First, for those that put Clemens and Bonds on their ballot, they’ll already have a very tight ballot. Two spaces are already taken up. Plus, about half of them vote for McGwire, and half of McGwire’s supporters also vote for Palmeiro. So whereas most of the electorate has 10 spaces open, others have six-to-eight slots left. Or perhaps five slots, if they vote for Sosa.
And by and large, writers don’t like to use all their slots. The electorate hasn’t averaged over seven names per ballot in over a quarter-century.
What will happen in the remaining slots? Well, the next most prominent newbie is Biggio, a member of the 3,000 hit club. In the last quarter-century, 3,000-hit guys fall into one of three categories on the ballot. (Well, four categories if you count Palmerio, but that’s a special case due to PEDs).
Category one is players who finished with over 90 percent of the vote, guys like Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn, Rod Carew and Cal Ripken, Jr.. These guys were considered among the best players in their primes and then had long enough careers to accrue impressive career numbers.
A second category is Yount, who for reasons already noted is a special case.
The third category is guys who were really good for a really long time. They lasted long enough to get 3,000 hits but weren’t as well regarded when they played. This group includes Winfield, Molitor, and Eddie Murray. (Sure, Murray came close, but then again, he also had one All-Star game in his last 11 seasons, so his image diminished).
Here’s the kicker: This group all got the exact same vote from the BBWAA. They all got 85 percent. Winfield got 84.5 percent, Molitor 85.2 percent and Murray 85.3 percent. That’s a tight cluster. Normally, Biggio would fall into this group, as he was badly underrated in his prime.
Yeah, but things are not normal next year. Well, check that. For the opponents of Bonds and Clemens, it is a normal year. After all, they still have a blank ballot, and there sits Biggio with his 3,000 hits and no hint of PED usage. He’ll get 85 percent of their vote.
For the Bonds and Clemens supporters, Biggio won’t do as well. Biggio is the third-best new guy in 2013, just like Young was in 1999. And he’s likely to do worse than Yount’s 77 percent among these guys. Under normal circumstances, Yount would be a 90-percent guy. He was a two-time MVP, after all. (Biggio might not seem as good a candidate as Piazza to some, but then again, Fisk debuted alongside Yount, and some might have preferred him, so that’s a wash).
What should happen? Well, among non-Bonds/Clements voters, Biggio should get around 85 percent. With the others, he’ll get less in what’s already a crowded ballot for people willing to support PED-rs. I’d guess he gets 65-70 percent of their vote. Maybe less.
Upshot: Biggio has a very good shot to get in. Assuming he gets 85 percent of the non-Bonds/Clemens guys (and he really should, given the clustering of Molitor/Winfield/Murray right at 85 percent), and assuming Bonds and Clemens get about 40 percent of the vote, Biggio needs only 60 percent of the votes from the supporters of Bonds and Clemens. That should happen.
Actually, I find this a bit surprising. A week ago, I assumed that Biggio was doomed on this messy ballot. That would set off the real nightmare, because if everyone from this year’s vote went into next year, it would be that much harder for anyone to rise up.
But Biggio should go in next year. No one else should. If Fisk couldn’t get elected as the fourth-best new guy in 1999, Piazza won’t in 2012. Schilling will finish further down, and Sosa may be under 10 percent. As for the backloggers, Morris probably won’t move up enough because it is such a strong batch of new guys. I think he’ll get close but ultimately have to go to the VC.
Looking forward: 2014-15
No matter what happens, Maddux should enter Cooperstown in 2014, just like Ryan and Brett did in 2013. When everyone agrees you’re the best, it doesn’t matter how stacked the ballot is.
Fellow 2014 ballot rookies Glavine and Thomas might have it a bit trickier. Both are overwhelmingly deserving, but it’s a really, really crowded ballot, and it’s hard to say who the voters will prefer. On the hyper-crowded 2014 ballot, I can’t see three new guys making it in. My hunch is that Glavine gets in while Thomas just misses, but it could be the other way around. It’s also possible both just fall a little short.
In 2015, Johnson should make it with no problems, just like Maddux the year before. Martinez has a good chance and ordinarily would waltz in, though the overall strength of the ballot and his comparatively short career might hurt.
From the point of view of Cooperstown, though, the nightmare scenario shouldn’t happen. You’ll get at least one new candidate making it in every year. In 2016, when the glut finally subsides a little bit, Ken Griffey, Jr. should make it in, along with at least one guy from the massive backlog, most like Thomas (if he hasn’t gone in already).
Image how packed that ballot would be by 2016, though. If my hunches are correct, the following guys will be on it: Bonds, Clemens, Bagwell, Griffey, Thomas, Mussina, Schilling, Trammell, Walker, Martinez, Palmerio, McGwire, Smoltz, Raines, Sheffield, Sosa, Kent, Piazza, McGriff, Trevor Hoffman, Jim Edmonds and Andy Pettitte.
Normally, all those guys would be legitimate candidates. By 2016, some might be under five percent.
But as long as guys get elected every year, and Cooperstown has a nice draw with its annual induction ceremony, they’ll stick with the status quo and avoid any reforms.