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The broken Hall of Fame voting system

Over the weekend, I saw "The Imitation Game," the story of British mathematician Alan Turing. Turing helped crack the German Enigma code machine during World War II, allowing the Allies to decipher German secret messages and help bring an earlier end to the war. The movie was sophisticated and compelling and is a definite Oscar contender.

It also wasn't completely true to history. One of the key plot points involves Turing designing and building a machine -- an early version of a computer -- to break Enigma. In truth, Turing's machine was an improvement on a Polish device. And Turing didn't collaborate solely with a small team to break the German code; there were thousands of people working on it.

What obligation does a movie -- even one "based on a true story" -- have to historical accuracy? After all, it's just a movie. As I researched Turing and thought of this, I realized a similar problem exists with the Hall of Fame and its voting process.

What's the obligation of Hall of Fame voters? We know the Hall of Fame is supposed to tell the story of baseball, through exhibits and artifacts and plaques honoring the game's best players, managers and important contributors. But that's where it gets complicated. Hall of Fame voters are allowed to tell the story they choose, with little to no direction on the ultimate objectives beyond the vague idea of electing the best players. But how many players? What makes a Hall of Famer? Can voters erase the careers of Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds? That's why we have these heated debates every year.

Anyway, I had vowed to stay away from writing about the Hall of Fame this year but ... well, people love to read about the Hall of Fame. Mostly, of course, people just like to argue. Here are six issues with the current system -- and a potential solution:

1. The 10-person ballot is clearly a flawed concept.

Think about it: What are Hall of Fame voters -- active or honorary members of the Baseball Writers Association of America -- asked to do? They are presented a ballot with a list of candidates, with the purpose of electing recently retired players to the Hall of Fame. Candidates who receive 75 percent of the votes will earn election. The voters are instructed to vote for the "candidate[s] of your choice." This year's ballot includes 34 names. Simple enough. Voters, however, are restricted to voting for a maximum of 10 players, implying a ranking or hierarchy of players must necessarily be involved. But no such wording exists on the ballot. Voters don't list their choices in order. Players are either "in" or "out."

The fact that the BBWAA has failed to understand and fix this flawed logic has led to ballots like this one:

I'm not knocking Mike, but he's decided to not vote for two of the most accomplished players on the ballot. If voters were instructed to vote for the best players, Mike would have voted for Johnson and Pedro. He's not the only one who has been forced to strategize his ballot because he wants to vote for more than 10 players. Others like Buster Olney decided to abstain from voting this year, hoping instead the 10-player limit gets changed in the future.

2. A lack of understanding of ballot history.

The reasoning for not changing the rule is, I suppose, that the limit on the number of players has always been there or that no more than a handful are ever elected in a given year anyway.

Consider this, however: Every Hall of Fame ballot contains more Hall of Famers than are elected that year. Some random examples:

2005: Seven (two elected)

1998: Seven (one elected)

1991: Eight (three elected)

1990: Eight (two elected)

1982: 14 (two elected)

1973: 15 (one elected)

1964: 19 (one elected in a special run-off)

3. That said, the 10-player limit may not be keeping anyone out of the Hall of Fame.

Well, it may have kept Craig Biggio out last year, when he missed election by two votes. He will likely get in this year, however. But the average Hall of Fame ballot contains fewer than 10 votes:

2014: 8.4

2013: 6.6

2012: 5.1

2011: 6.0

2010: 5.7

Even last year's crowded ballot, with newcomers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas alongside all the strong leftover candidates and the steroid-suspicion-tainted guys, didn't quite approach 10 players per voter and was a big increase over recent averages. We may get a similar result this year, with high-profile newcomers like Johnson, Martinez and John Smoltz, but the list of automatic new candidates thins a bit after that.

But there is a potential ripple effect going on here. Clearly, with an average of 8.4 votes per ballot, many of the 571 voters last year did turn in a full ballot, and presumably some of those would have voted for more than 10. So that holds down vote totals for candidates like Tim Raines, Edgar Martinez or Curt Schilling, and those players fail to develop the "momentum" that helps propel disputed candidates forward to election.

4. Steroids.

The anti-steroids voters have won this debate so far, at least in the cases of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa, with some effect on the totals for Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell. Here are the two sides of the debate from two of the most prominent BBWAA members.

Buster Olney:

As written in this space many times, I think all players should be judged within the context of the era in which they played, and during McGwire's career, the sport was saturated with performance-enhancing drugs, largely because over the period of about 15 years, no one within the institution of baseball -- not the union leaders, not MLB owners, not the commissioner, not the clean players, nor the media that covered the sport -- aggressively addressed the growing problem. Through that inaction, what evolved was a chemical Frankenstein of a game. Like it or not, that's what the sport was in that time: no drug testing, lots of drug use, lots of drug users, lots of money being made by everybody. (And by the way, no team, baseball executive or player has offered to give back the money made in that time.)

The idea of retroactive morality is ridiculous, especially given that the folks in the sport had a strong idea by the mid-'90s that there was a growing problem, and nobody did anything about it. Here's Jose Canseco being asked about his steroid use on national television before the 1988 playoffs, right after Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal. And here's a Bob Nightengale story from 1995 in which then-interim commissioner Bud Selig was asked about the problem, making mention of a "private meeting" the year before. Yet serious testing and penalties really weren't in place until 2006.

Tom Verducci:

First, you must understand the voting process. A ballot is sent to me in the mail -- a personal ballot, just as it is sent to about 570 baseball writers eligible to vote. This is not an SAT test or a trivia contest. There are no "right" and "wrong" answers. This one ballot is my judgment. Yes, I am being asked to be "judge" or juror, in the parlance of some writers uncomfortable with responsibility, but I am only one of many hundreds.

When I vote for a player, I am upholding him for the highest individual honor possible. My vote is an endorsement of a career, not part of it, and how it was achieved. Voting for a known steroid user is endorsing steroid use. Having spent too much of the past two decades or so covering baseball on the subject of steroids -- what they do, how the game was subverted by them, and how those who stayed away from them were disadvantaged -- I cannot endorse it.

The Hall of Fame itself has refused to weigh in on the issue, leaving the voters to make their own judgment on history.

5. Are we even debating the right issue?

In a recent article on Bill James Online titled "Fixing the Hall," Bill James made an interesting point:

The first thing that should be noted, about the Hall of Fame's selection process, is that more than 99 percent of the shoddy work has been done not by the BBWAA, but by the various and sundry and mundry committees that have acted on the Hall of Fame's behalf.

It is an odd thing, that:

1) MOST of the people who are in the Hall of Fame were not actually selected by the BBWAA ...

2) ALL or virtually all of the unworthy selections to the Hall of Fame were not made by the BBWAA, and yet ...

3) Discussion about the Hall of Fame selection process is 90 percent focused on the BBWAA voting process.

James is right. The BBWAA has elected 115 players, but there are 305 men -- and one woman -- in the Hall of Fame. The various and sundry committees have elected 96 major league players (and 35 Negro Leaguers). The BBWAA hasn't helped itself in recent years, however, by electing some of its weakest members (Bruce Sutter, Jim Rice) while leaving out more worthy candidates.

6. The BBWAA doesn't elect enough players.

Aside from steroids, this is the issue that gets fans most riled up, that the BBWAA is simply too tough, that its standards are too high considering the caliber of players already enshrined, that their favorite player is getting passed over.

That's true; as a collective voting bloc, the BBWAA is tough. A low point came two years ago when nobody got elected. But look at the average number of votes per ballot. Individually, voters do want to see more players get elected. Other than obvious choices like Maddux and Glavine, they just have trouble agreeing on whom to elect. There were enough votes last year to elect 11 candidates, but only three got in.

This isn't surprising. If we look at the 115 Hall of Famers elected by the BBWAA, the midway point in career WAR is right around 70: Half the Hall of Famers are above that, half are below. (If we included all Hall of Fame players, it's way below 70.) Anyway, this year's ballot contains 15 players with between 55 and 85 career WAR. Pedro Martinez may seem like an easy selection, but it's the other 14 that we argue about, and while they are strong candidates, few are getting in right now.

Solution: Elect a minimum number of players each year.

It's the one thing most of us do agree on: We want more Hall of Famers. Yet the writers haven't elected at least two candidates in back-to-back years since 2005. Meanwhile, we managers and umpires and team owners and players from the 1800s keep getting enshrined.

Bill James again:

The first thing that needs to be done, to fix the Hall of Fame system, is: Terminate all of the side committees. Close all of the back doors and side doors and windows and air vents or however the hell it was that Alex Pompez and Travis Jackson and Dracula got into the building. Get rid of those, and promise us that there will never, ever, ever be any more of them. That's a good start.

Next, establish a rule that four persons must be selected to the Hall of Fame in each year; not four persons MAY be selected; four persons MUST be selected.

A regular flow of entries of a fixed and steady number -- coming out of a consistent and well-defined process -- creates standards. The Hall of Fame suffers from indefinite standards because inconsistent and incompatible processes are used to make the selections. Travis Jackson is in; Alan Trammell -- obviously a better player than Travis Jackson -- is out. This is because those passing judgment on Alan Trammell's career are different in every way than those who plucked Travis Jackson from the lost island of New York Giants history. If four candidates and only four candidates could be selected each year in a well-thought-out public process, Rick Ferrell, Alex Pompez, Eppa Rixey and Dracula would never have been selected because they could never have fought their way past the better-qualified candidates who have been left out.

James proposed a radical tournament-style election that would have 32 candidates running off against each other in a playoff, one candidate nominated from each team plus two at-large candidates from remaining players, managers and executives. I love the idea, in part because it asks voters to weigh in on history: Was Edgar Martinez better than Larry Walker? Was Jeff Bagwell better than Tim Raines? It forces voters to at least consider all the candidates and creates a more defined goal.

Of course, the idea is way too fun to ever be considered.

The important point is that the current process doesn't work. As James writes, "The BBWAA has little history of selecting unqualified candidates, but the BBWAA has passed on -- rejected -- a large number of well-qualified candidates. The BBWAA whiffed on Joe Torre, Ron Santo, Nellie Fox, Tim Raines, Luis Tiant, Dwight Evans and others. These are failures, too. These failures create pressure to open the alternative admissions process -- and the alternative admissions process is a dart board."

On Jan. 6, this year's election results will be announced. I expect Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Craig Biggio to get elected. While we'll celebrate their achievements and careers, we'll also criticize a system that failed to elect Raines or Bagwell or Schilling.

Then we'll start up again next December.