BBWAA ballot should be looked at more closely

December, 22, 2008
Last week the New York Times' Dan Rosenheck proposed a fairly radical change to the Hall of Fame's voting procedures:

    Hall of Fame voters are a fickle bunch. Neither Jim Rice nor Bert Blyleven has done anything to bolster his candidacy for enshrinement in Cooperstown since retiring. Yet their shares of the vote have increased to 72.2 percent and 61.9 percent last year from 29.4 percent and 14.1 percent 10 years ago. Clearly, the hundreds of baseball writers who determine who receives a plaque need every one of the 15 years they are given to consider each player to render their verdict.

    Yet a little-noticed quirk of the Hall's voting procedures has denied a vast majority of candidates their due period of deliberation. To prevent the electorate from being swamped by an overwhelmingly long list of choices, the organization permanently removes everyone from the ballot who fails to attain 5 percent of the vote in any year. This condemns those players to obscurity because their names will be excluded from the annual ballot debate among baseball pundits nationwide.


    Perhaps the single most egregious victim of the 5 percent rule is Bobby Grich, who makes for a fascinating comparison with Rod Carew, his rival for the title of top American League second baseman of the 1970s.

    Carew was unusual for the concentration of his value in a single skill, batting average. Grich did absolutely everything in the game brilliantly -- except hit for average.

    Although Carew actually spent more time at first base than at second, and was merely adequate at second, Grich was one of the top defenders at his position. Carew's aggressive style limited his ability to draw walks, but Grich was one of his era's most patient hitters. And although Carew had little extra-base pop, Grich was a feared slugger.

    On balance, Grich and Carew were equally useful to their teams over their careers. Yet Carew was chosen for the Hall on the first ballot in 1991, and Grich dropped off after receiving 2.6 percent of the vote in his first year of eligibility, 1992.

I believe this analysis overstates the case for Grich, just a bit. He finished his career with 329 Win Shares (not that we knew it then); Carew finished with 384. But it's absolutely true that the Hall of Fame voters treated Grich terribly, and all because they didn't fathom the value of Gold Glove defense and a .373 career on-base percentage. I mean, seriously: 2.6 percent of the vote should stand as one of the great blots on the reputation of any voting body ever.

Of course, giving Grich 15 years on the ballot wouldn't have been enough to get him into the Coop. All we have to do is look at Tim Raines' "support" a year ago to know that. Going forward, though, eliminating the 5 percent rule might someday help an underappreciated player like Grich.

In response to Rosenheck, here's Baseball Ink's take:

    The article attempts to reveal a so-called flaw in the Hall of Fame election process. On the contrary, Rosenheck exposes the farce that is the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA), whose members do the actual voting.

    How is it that support for Jim Rice and Bert Blyleven has "increased to 72.2 percent and 61.9 percent last year from 29.4 percent and 14.1 percent 10 years ago"? Rosenheck admits that the players qualifications have not changed but does not question the illogical mindset of the BBWAA writers. Instead, he contends that other "worthy" players -- who could not even get five percent of the vote -- are unfairly eliminated.

    Poppycock. Rather than doing away with the five percent rule, the Baseball Hall of Fame should do just the opposite: A candidate gets one year to get the 75% of the vote required for election. Period. None of this 15 years of "getting better with age" crap. If a player is (not) good enough five years after retirement, that player is not going to be any better (or worse) a decade and a half later. (Egregious oversights can still be corrected by the Veterans Committee.)

I don't believe that either Rosenheck or Baseball Ink has this exactly right. If you never take anyone off the ballot, it becomes simply unmanageable for the voters. If you restrict every candidate to just one year on the ballot, you might wind up basically electing everyone because voters like to vote.

I've never quite figured out how Jim Rice goes from 29.4 percent to (probably) getting elected, or how Luis Aparicio goes from 12 percent to 85 percent in three short years. But what I think happens is that many voters often vote for 10 candidates, the maximum allowed. Maybe Aparicio was 11th or 12th on many voters' lists, but moved up as other candidates were either elected or became ineligible. What would happen if this year's ballot contained only the 10 first-timers?

I don't know, and I don't believe that Baseball Ink knows, either.

What bothers me about the BBWAA ballot is that nobody in Cooperstown seems to be thinking about it. I don't know if a radical change is necessary or advisable. I do know the current system is not perfect, and has not changed in many years. I know we can never achieve perfection. But it seems to me that you'd at least want to try.


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