Up and down the Hall of Fame Vote

As anyone who reads these columns of mine on any kind of regular basis knows, I have a fascination with the BBWAA’s Hall of Fame voting. It’s been over a month since my last Cooperstown-centric piece, so clearly I’m overdue.

Previous analysis has noted something key about how the BBWAA votes for would-be-enshrines—there are patterns in the voting process. In particular, people tend to gain momentum as they reach the top of the ballot. The higher they are, the more the logs start rolling for them.

That brings up a new avenue of exploration. To forecast a candidate’s chances, there are two items you should take into account. First, obviously, is his share of the vote. Second is how long he’s been on the ballot. Someone receiving 45 percent of the vote in his first year is in excellent shape. However, if that’s what you get in your 15th year, what are his odds?

Plan of action

Currently, a player can be on the ballot for up to 15 years. He has to wait for five years after retirement until he can become eligible, then people can vote for him from years six to 20, at which time he falls off the ballot.

Let’s divide up all candidate hopefuls into their years on the ballot—from first through 15th. Sort by percentage of the vote received and divide all candidates into three to four categories:

1) Locks: These are the ones who are assured election at some point. Maybe not this year, and maybe not even by the BBWAA, but everyone (or virtually everyone) who has been at this point in his ballot history has gone in.

2) Dark Gray Area: There are two stages of gray. One features a regular mixing of future Hall of Famers with those left out. A candidate has a legitimate shot, but is far from a lock. As for the other shade of gray …

3) Light Gray Area: You still get some Hall of Famers—not just a random needle in the haystack, but then again not enough to be considered a legitimate candidate.

4) S. O. S.: These guys have essentially no chance. Maybe once in a rare while someone will get in, but it’s praying to be a needle in a haystack.

Please note, deciding where these groups begin and end is somewhat arbitrary and not hard-and-fast rules. In fact, most years just have Locks-Gray-S.O.S, not two grays. Early years, when the ballot has more names, have four groups though.

A few things to note. First, this only looks at people who retired since 1952. As noted in a previous column, the retirement and election of Joe DiMaggio in 1951 kicked off a series of major reforms in the voting process. Previously guys could enter the ballot well before five years of their retirement and could stay on longer. That’s not what we’re looking for here.

Second, there is a problem with this whole approach. Since we’re looking only at recent guys, the VC hasn’t fully weighed in. That’s especially worth mentioning because for much of the last decade the VC has made it its special mission to block admission. That’s already changing and will likely continue to change, meaning the chances for admission will likely end up being a bit easier than it currently appears.

Fun stuff: results

Let’s stop dilly-dallying. Going year-by-year, what are the odds for enshrinement for a candidate? We’ll start from the first year and work our way to the end. From one year to the next changes don’t mean too much, but you can sense an overall arc in this process.

First Year:
Lock: 45 percent or better
Dark Gray: 23 to 45 percent
Light Gray: 10 to 23 percent
S. O. S.: 0 to 10 percent

The best ballot debut by anyone not enshrined is 45.3 percent by Andre Dawson in 2002. Guess what? He’s essentially a lock get his plaque in 2010. The next-lowest total by anyone (enshrined or otherwise) is a tie at 42.3% by Gary Carter and Lee Smith. Carter is in, and Smith is still on the bubble.

There’s a regular smattering of inductees until the mid-20s. Lou Boudreau had 24.1%, Bruce Sutter had 23.9 percent, and Billy Williams 23.4 percent. That’s also around where Gil Hodges, Roger Maris, Mark McGwire and Jack Morris appeared.

From Dawson to Williams, 22 names got from 23-45 percent. A dozen have been elected, nine by the BBWAA.

After that burst around 23 percent, it gets drier. Of the next 18 highest vote getters, only six have gone in. There’s a small bunching just north of 10 percent, where Orlando Cepeda (12.5 percent), Bob Lemon (11.9 percent), and Nellie Fox (10.8 percent) appear.

After that, you got virtually nothing—just Richie Ashburn and Bill Mazeroski. (Ralph Kiner might have appeared, but they voted every other year when he became eligible and he doesn’t show up here).

Last year, the only prominent newbie was Tim Raines, who appeared right on the border of the two gray zones. I actually really like his odds to go in, but it won’t happen overnight.

Second Year:
Lock: 39 percent or better.
Dark Gray: 25 to 39 percent
Light Gray: 16 to 25 percent
S. O. S.: 0 to 16 percent

Two guys who received more than 39 percent of the vote are not in Cooperstown. One is Dawson, who WILL go in, barring any massive scandals. The other is Gil Hodges. He is the great exception. He’s constantly at the top of the voting chart among non-immortals. Hodges had 48.3 percent of the vote, and each of the six people after him (Jim Bunning, Early Wynn, Goose Gossage, Eddie Mathews, Billy Williams, Hoyt Wilhelm) eventually went in.

Seven of the 11 Dark Grayers got in. Strangely, the four highest vote getters (Maury Wills, Lee Smith, Steve Garvey, Jim Rice) did not. Rice is a shoe-in for election next year though.

There’s a pack of guys from 16-19 percent in Cooperstown, all of whom were Vets Committee picks (Cepeda, Johnny Mize, George Kell, and Fox).

After that, there are a few random immortals, but most were VC picks who attained less than five percent of the vote (Ashburn, Larry Doby, Kiner, and Hal Newhouser). Only Maz got in of those from five to 15 percent.

Third Year:
Lock: 43 percent or higher
Dark Gray: 19 to 43 percent
Light Gray: 3 to 19 percent
S. O. S.: 0 to 3 percent

Again, Dawson and Hodges appear among the locks. If you look at where Dawson stands, and how his vote totals have grown in recent years, it’s virtually inconceivable he’ll not get elected. The other 18 men in the lock category now have plaques—all of whom, by the way, were put in by the BBWAA.

Picking endpoints for the gray areas is difficult. There’s a decent-sized gap after Nellie Fox at 19 percent. Then there is a gradual trickle all the way down to Ashburn and Doby at three percent. Eight of the 17 Dark Grayers entered Cooperstown (six by the VC), and seven of the 36 in the Light Gray (four by the VC). No one lower than Doby has gotten in.

Fourth Year:
Lock: 45 percent or higher
Gray: 9 to 45 percent
S. O. S.: 0 to 9 percent

Fourteen of the 15 highest vote getters are in Cooperstown. The other is Andre Dawson.

The two highest non-Dawson denied hopefuls are Lee Smith and Jim Rice. Smith could easily go in, and Rice has a half-dozen factors STRONGLY indicating next year will be his year. You could conceivably put the bottom of the Lock category around 40 percent.

As is, there are 38 men in the Gray category. Fourteen are in, eight via the VC. After a small cluster under 10 percent (Kell, Mazeroski, and Mize), you finally have a stretch of empty space. Only Ashburn (2.8 percent) got elected from the bottom bunch.

Fifth Year:
Lock: 40 percent or higher
Gray: 14 to 40 percent
S. O. S.: 0 to 14 percent

Twelve of the top 14 are in. The exceptions (again) are Dawson and Hodges. I feel a little lame just asserting “Dawson WILL go in.” I have evidence backing it up, but I really don’t have the time or inclination to regurgitate previous work explaining why. Trust me—he’s going in.

Ten of 26 in the Gray area are in. It’s possible the lock can end up going down to 36 percent, depending on what the future holds for Lee Smith (39.8 percent), and Tony Oliva (36.2 percent). If they join Dawson in Cooperstown, Hodges will be the only top-17 vote getting without a plaque.

Stop and think about this for a second. If, after five years on the ballot, nearly two-thirds of the BBWAA don’t think you belong in the Hall of Fame, you just might be a lock for eventual enshrinement. That’s how it works. Guys near the top start moving up, and the VC (along with its random picks) tosses highest vote getters from their rejected pile. Except for Gil Hodges.

There are three S. O. S.s that got in (Boudreau, Mazeroski, Ashburn) but they’re easy to miss.

Sixth Year:
Lock: 44 percent of higher.
Gray: 17 to 44 percent
S. O. S.: 0 to 17 percent
Actually, only 10 of the 13 in the locks are in Cooperstown. Two are Dawson (class of 2010) and Rice (class of 2009). The other, of course, is Gil Hodges. Notice how the number of men in the “Lock” category keeps getting smaller? That’s because the BBWAA kept electing. For example, Billy Williams, Luis Aparicio, and Gary Carter went in their sixth try.

Eleven of the 22 in the Gray area are in Cooperstown, but only four via the BBWAA. Mazeroski (12.8 percent), Newhouser (10.6 percent), and Ashburn (6.6 percent) serve as needles in this crop’s haystack.

Seventh Year:
Lock: 57 percent of higher
Dark Gray: 32 to 57 percent
Light Gray: 15 to 32 percent
S. O. S.: 0 to 15 percent

This is a weird one, necessitating the return of two shades of gray. Only six are in the lock category, including Dawson and Rice. (Actually, Rice is at the bottom of the category, even though he’s not in.)

After Rice, three of the next five aren’t in Cooperstown (Hodges, Oliva, and Jack Morris). Then seven of the next eight are in Cooperstown. The only one outside is Bert Blyleven, who has an outstanding shot for admission.

Frankly, Morris is a good bet, and Oliva looks like a future VC selection. That big stretch of Hall of Famers ends the Dark Gray category. It may very well become all Lock. Imagine that—32 percent makes you a lock after seven years on the ballot. A bit of a fluke, but it demonstrates how overblown the 75 percent barrier is. All you have to do is approach it.

Half of the 14 men in light gray are in Cooperstown. None below it are in.

Eighth Year:
Lock: 38 percent or higher.
Gray: 21 to 38 percent
S. O. S.: 0 to 21 percent

All the way down to 38 percent? The only non-inductees higher than that are Gil Hodges (yes, again), Jim Rice, and Bert Blyleven. In his last few years on the ballot, Blyleven has received the following vote totals: 40.9 percent (the year in question right now), 53.3 percent, 47.7 percent (in a year when the entire backlog lost a lot of its support), and 61.9 percent. There’s a trend there. He’s only got four years left, but all arrows are pointing up.

Nine of the 17 men in the Gray area are in. Jack Morris is near the top of it, and he has his fan base. No one below Ashburn (21.0 percent) is in Cooperstown.

Ninth Year:
Lock: 45 percent or higher
Gray: 22 to 45 percent
S. O. S.: 0 to 22 percent

A few themes are emerging. The Gray-S.O.S boundary keeps rising. Beginning with the third year it’s moved up as follows (in percentages): 3, 9, 14, 17, 15, 21 and 22. You can start slowly, but at a certain point you need to get moving.

Seven of the 10 men in Lock are in. Hodges, Rice and Blyleven are the exceptions. Thirteen of the 22 Gray guys are in. Would you have guessed that someone stuck in the 30 percent range after nine years would be essentially even money for induction? No one lower than 22 percent is in.

Tenth Year:
Lock: 36 percent or higher
Gray: 26 to 36 percent
S. O. S.: 0 to 26 percent

Look at the Grays get squeezed! Twelve of the 15 locks are in (exceptions: Hodges, Rice, Blyleven). If Oliva goes in through the VC, the Lock group can go down to 33 percent. As is, six of the 12 grays are in, all via the VC. No one under 26 percent is in Cooperstown.

For all the knowledge people have of the Frankie Frisch-era VC, when looking at post-WWII players, the committee does little more than pick from the best supported BBWAA rejects. If you can get one-fourth of BBWAA voters to support you a time or two, you have a legitimate shot That’s it. If half the BBWAA approves of you just once, you’ll go in, provided your name isn’t Gil. If just a quarter supports you, then you’re in contention.

Eleventh Year:
Lock: 41 percent or higher
Gray: 26-41 percent
S. O. S.: under 26 percent

Same old same old. Ten of 13 Locks in. You can guess the other three. Seven of 13 Grays in, all from the VC. No under from the S. O. S. is in, again.

Twelfth Year:
Lock: 42 percent or higher
Gray: 23-42 percent
S. O. S.: 0 to 23 percent

Aside from the occasional veer, the Lock-Gray boundary has been exceptionally stable. Six of the 15 Grays are in, all VC. The lowest BBWAA pick was Kiner at 59.3 percent. After 12 years, you can’t make a sudden charge unless you’re in position. As always, no S. O. S.s are in.

Thirteenth Year:
Lock: 43 percent or higher
Gray: 29-43 percent
S. O. S.: 0 to 29 percent

Unexpected news: someone from the S. O. S. group got elected! Hal Newhouser, who normally was at the bottom of the Gray group, had a bad year, falling to 21 percent. There’s just enough space between him and the rest to decide to shift him from group.

Fourteenth Year:
Lock: 43 percent or higher
Gray: 32-43 percent
S. O. S.: 0 to 32 percent

Hal Newhouser got 20 percent this year; otherwise it’s what you’d expect.

Final Year:
Lock: 50ish percent or higher
Gray: 30-50ish percent
S. O. S.: 0 to 30 percent

50ish? Well, there’s a gap between 63 and 43 percent. Jim Bunning had 63.7 percent and Gil Hodges had 63.4 percent. Then Roger Maris, Newhouser (big comeback!), and Mazeroski all scored around 43 percent. Neither is really a lock, but Hodges has never been the boundary for gray before, so split the difference.

Richie Ashburn is the only one lower than 36 percent. Forget a fourth—you need one-third of the BBWAA to support you at least once for entry. (Ashburn had over a third in other years.)

Lessons and conclusions

Aside from those still on the ballot, everyone who received 50 percent of the vote once or more not named Gil Hodges has entered Cooperstown. In the modern era, anyone who failed to get at least one-third of the BBWAA vote once has been denied entry. Those are the key cutoffs. Sorry all you Alan Trammell fans.

This could all change as the VC gets reconstituted in new formats in the decades ahead. They have always been tweaking or substantially changing it, so there is no reason to assume it will stay the same from here on out. Guys who never sniffed 30 percent could get in. However, at that point, there is still no reason to think any individual beneath 30 percent will get in. Cronyism roulette is a dangerous game to play.

References & Resources
I went to the Hall of Fame’s website, found the results for every BBWAA election, and schlumped that info into an Excel spreadsheet.

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