The announcement of the 2013 Hall of Fame voting results is around the corner, and there's sure to be plenty of teeth gnashing involved once they come out on January 9. We might be treated to the spectacle of purportedly clean players like Craig Biggio and Jack Morris voted in, while vastly superior players like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds remain on the outside looking in. Is this a case of results may vary? No, my friends, make no mistake: Results will vary.
Particularly where purported performance-enhancers are concerned, you already know to expect plenty of slow news day moralizing and some character assassination when the results come out. For that kind of sports-page sermonizing you can thank the guidelines, such as they are. What constitutes a Hall of Fame ballplayer is an opaque mishmash: “Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”
The first two are rough synonyms for what a guy did on the field, which we can measure fairly objectively thanks to Alexander Cartwright. In contrast, the next three are entirely subjective and depend on the individual voter's sense -- or flat-out guess -- about these things and their importance; relative to the first two statistical bases for voting, they're sort of apples to oranges. Sure, they might matter, but good luck on nailing down how much and to what extent; results will certainly vary from voter to voter. And that last suggested standard sort of sums of these two broad categories of criteria, which to stretch the metaphor must make it a pluot or something.
Then there's the tradition of some voters withholding their votes for some first-timers on the ballot because these knowing scribes worry about how only a certain kind of player is “supposed” to get in during his first year. This seems like a self-important, self-reinforcing conceit, that first-year winners are special as opposed to their getting in the first year being a special result. Special, as opposed to mere Hall of Fame ballplayers? If a player is special, just vote for him already; even these made-up standards have made-up standards.
For all that, I'm nevertheless looking forward to the day when I may eventually get to vote. You might reasonably think that's because I'll get to use the ballot to sound off about players I've seen, analyzed, touted and excoriated, but that's not quite it. There's little about talking about a player's performance relative to the Hall of Fame which is any different from what every electron-stained wretch in the Fourth Estate gets to do every day … except for the responsibility voting entails, and come the day, I figure I'll be leaning heavily on the first two criteria for election more than the others.
That's because working as a baseball writer for 15 years has taught me that, while there are plenty of ways to be objective about a player's career, there's wisdom in leaning on the expertise of others. I expect to refer to the work of an old Baseball Prospectus colleague, Jay Jaffe, and his Jaffe WARP Score system metric for evaluating players' careers to suggest Hall worthiness using the statistical standards informally established by the examples of who's been voted in already.
Using JAWS to look at this year's ballot on Baseball-Reference.com, we can see that there might be as many as 13, maybe even 14 guys worthy of election because they're at least within a point or two of their already enshrined peers: Bonds, Biggio and Clemens, plus Jeff Bagwell, Curt Schilling, Larry Walker, Alan Trammell, Tim Raines, Kenny Lofton, Edgar Martinez, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire and Mike Piazza. Lee Smith is kind of tricky, because there aren't a ton of relievers in the Hall of Fame, and the standards for relief greatness have changed dramatically over a very short period of time. Each case is fun to mull over, and it'll be interesting to see how they do.
As simple as that might seem, you can bet voting won't be that simple for most voters, because a good number of them will be publicly wringing their hands over the purported performance-enhancing benefits of PEDs and whether players suspected of using them to enhance their performance should be banned because their use is considered antithetical to those standards of “integrity, sportsmanship, and character.”
I admit, I prefer evidence in such matters: Convictions in court or suspensions by MLB, clear violations of baseball's rules against the non-prescription use of prescription drugs. That rule has been on the books since 1971, much longer ago than the 2005 agreement specifically banning PEDs like steroids and amphetamines. Using either was a clear case of breaking rules within the game and -- since 1991, when possession of a non-prescription steroid became a federal crime -- and the law outside of it.
The game's lax enforcement of its own rule across the decades since and the writers' willingness to do likewise by enshrining amphetamine users suggests to me that the issue today is less about the numbers or even guilt and innocence by the nebulous standards of “integrity, sportsmanship, and character,” and more about writers going on about the immorality of steroids and stooping to playing make-believe about some players while doing so.
Witness what's happened to Jeff Bagwell: Innocent by any reasonable or legal standard, he's been loudly pronounced guilty by a few character assassins with votes who retroactively decided he somehow looked 'roid-y back in the day. The witches of Salem got better due process, but that's the problem in a nutshell: The issue of PEDs has become less about actual guilt or innocence, and isn't even about performance or performance-enhancement, if ever it was. Instead, it has become an opportunity for one sportswriter or another to be visible as a noisily moral public person. Swell.
For those who are squeamish about voting for one PED suspect or another, I guess I'd remind them that the Hall already represents a collection of shabby compromises and irrevocable judgments, which we are not free to undo. We don't get to kick out Cap Anson because we can't be sure how many hits he had, or because today we'd consider him a racist guilty of wrecking decades of baseball history by fighting for the game's segregation, probably the worst thing anyone associated with the game's history has been a part of.
And we also don't get to go back and kick out the amphetamine users. I mean, c'mon, no Mike Schmidt or Hank Aaron in the Hall of Fame? By their own admission they broke the same baseball rule on the books that Bonds did, and they did so for the same reason -- to enhance their performance.
Which is why I'd go so far as to say this: If you're worrying for the sake of the sanctity of the Hall where Bonds or Clemens are concerned, you need to ask and answer whether it still has any, or ever did. And after that, perhaps we'll come to the conclusion that the Hall's purpose is not to play make-believe about some players to keep them in or keep them out, but is instead to preserve the game's history, many warts and all.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.