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Thursday, January 16, 2014
The problem with the Hall of Fame

By David Schoenfield

It's been a week since the Hall of Fame announcement, and while the Baseball Writers' Association elected Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas -- its first three-member class since 1999 -- there was still a lot of fallout from the voting results and calls for the system to be fixed.

How broken is the system, or at least how strong is the perception that the process is broken? Even longtime Dayton Daily News writer Hal McCoy -- a BBWAA member since 1970 -- is calling for revisions:
The major problem with the voting process is that once a writer is in the BBWAA for 10 years, he is eligible to vote for the rest of his life, as long as he remains a member in good standing.

THERE ARE VOTERS who haven't covered a baseball game for 20 years and some who only watch games sporadically and casually. They aren't at ballparks often enough to see players every day.

What the process needs is a screening committee to revise the list of eligible voters every year. There is no reason why a long retired sports editor should have a vote. There is no reason why a long retired sports columnist should have a vote.

McCoy's gripe seems to be that Craig Biggio and Jack Morris didn't get elected and that 16 voters failed to vote for Maddux. That's a different complaint than the one offered by Jayson Stark, who believes the Hall of Fame should recognize the greatest players, including those tainted by PEDs. As Jayson wrote, "What do we want the Hall to become -- a museum of history or a shrine only to players who we'd love to pretend were both icons and saints?" Buster Olney suggested some fixes, such as expanding the voting maximum to more than 10 players and creating a higher threshold (20 percent) to remain on the ballot. Joe Posnanski wants an entirely new voting system, one that would include fans.

You get the idea. Everybody wants changes. My question: What is the goal to be accomplished? To elect the PED players? Or to simply elect more players? Or to do a better job in electing the right players?

The discussion starts with the PED guys. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens once again failed to rally up much support, banished along with Mark McGwire, as Joe Sheehan wrote, to Elba, where Alex Rodriguez will one day join them.

The argument goes that the PED guys have crowded the ballot, possibly leading to the exclusion of other players, as voters can only vote for up to 10 candidates. In the case of Craig Biggio, who missed election by two votes, that is no doubt true; several writers tweeted that they would have voted for Biggio if not for the 10-player limit.

But not all voters are checking 10 names on their ballot. And only three other players even reached 50 percent this year. In 2012 -- before Bonds, Clemens, Mike Piazza, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro were even on the ballot -- only four players topped 50 percent, with just Barry Larkin getting elected. It's not really clear that the PED guys are locking out other candidates.

McGwire was the first steroids guy to hit the ballot, in 2007. Let's break down the election totals into eight-year blocs -- players elected by the BBWAA (ignoring whatever shenanigans the Veterans Committee may have had going on):

2007-2014: 12
1999-2006: 15
1991-1998: 10
1983-1990: 15
1975-1982: 11
1967-1974: 13

We'll stop there since elections weren't held annually prior to 1966. Yes, last year's shutout got everyone up in arms, but the recent eight-year bloc doesn't stand out as an aberration (which is perhaps why the Hall of Fame itself has remained quiet on the issue). Are some of the PED guys getting short-changed? Sure. Let's review.

Bonds and Clemens: Two of the 10 greatest players of all time -- maybe the best position player and best pitcher -- and thus obvious first-ballot Hall of Famers without PEDs.

McGwire: His statistical case is actually borderline. But his legacy and historical impact likely would have outweighed those concerns and he would have been a first-ballot selection.

Palmeiro: With 3,000 hits and 569 home runs, I think he would have been a first-ballot choice as well, even though he was never really regarded as the best first baseman in the game. But of eligible 3,000-hit candidates, only Palmeiro and Paul Waner didn't get elected on the first ballot. Palmeiro is now off future ballots after failing to receive 5 percent of the vote this year.

Piazza: He received 62.2 percent of the vote this year, his second time on the ballot. Yes, he's widely regarded as the best-hitting catcher of all time. His statistical case is strong, although because of his short peak -- 10 seasons -- and defensive shortcomings, his career WAR lags behind, say, Gary Carter, 69.8 to 59.2. Carter wasn't elected until his sixth year on the ballot. I'm not absolutely sure Piazza would have sailed in by now.

Jeff Bagwell: The advanced metrics point to Bagwell as a strong Hall of Famer, with the second-highest WAR of any first baseman since World War II, behind only Albert Pujols. But much of Bagwell's value was "hidden" in things such as walks, defense and baserunning, areas a lot of voters aren't tuned in to. With 449 home runs, he failed to get to 500. His fame was below a guy such as McGwire, and Bagwell was a flop in the postseason (.226, two home runs in 33 games). He's been on the ballot four years; even minus PED rumors, I'm not sure he's in yet.

Sosa: He would have made an interesting debate. There are the 609 home runs, which would seem to make him a slam dunk, but his relatively low career WAR (58.4) means he may have taken a few years to get in.

So, yes, if we include the four players tied to PEDs (Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Palmeiro) or believed by some to have used (in the case of Piazza or Sosa), we'd be talking 17 or 18 Hall of Famers elected in the past eight years. That suggests that the BBWAA hasn't been any tougher than historical norms, minus the PED issue.

The debate, then, switches to another issue: Small Hall versus Big Hall, which has little to do with electing Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

A chart. This plots all 115 Hall of Famers elected by the BBWAA, with career WAR on the vertical axis and year of major league debut on the horizontal axis.

Hall of Fame chart

What's the chart show? We can form a dividing line of sorts where the plots congregate. The average BBWAA Hall of Famer has a career WAR of 79.7; the mean (half above, half below) is lower, between Ted Lyons (71.5) and Frankie Frisch (70.4). Get to 70 career WAR and you have a very strong Hall of Fame case. But it also shows how it was easier to compile a higher WAR back in the old days.

A quick aside. I use WAR here as a guide, not a be-all, end-all to the statistical arguments for each individual player. WAR doesn't factor in what a player did in the postseason or other reasons you may want to draw up support. As Bill James wrote back in November about his own system for evaluating players:
Such it is with Win Shares, WAR, and all other Total Player Ratings. It is not that there is no value in the effort, but we should never forget that what we are trying to do here is, in the end, impossible. We are trying to state all contributions to a team in one dimension, but in reality they exist in many different dimensions. What we are trying to do is not merely impossibly difficult, but theoretically impossible, in the same way that it is theoretically impossible to state both height and weight in one scale. ...

Because this is true, I think that it is best, in reviewing Hall of Fame candidates, not to try to go all the way to the finish line with one metric. Let us say, for example, that 350 Win Shares represents a Hall of Famer, or that 60 WAR represents a Hall of Famer. You can say that Vladimir Guerrero and Dazzy Vance are the same, in that they are both at 59.9 WAR, but the reality is that they are NOT the same. They are very different. In saying that they are the same, we are merely pretending that something is true that we know very well is not actually true.

OK, so 70 WAR is, generally speaking, a strong Hall of Famer. Not including active players, ineligible players (Pete Rose) or players not yet eligible (such as Randy Johnson, Chipper Jones or Pedro Martinez), here are the players with 70 career WAR not in the Hall of Fame:

Barry Bonds: 162.5
Roger Clemens: 140.3
Mike Mussina: 83.0
Curt Schilling: 79.9
Jeff Bagwell: 79.5
Jim McCormick: 75.8
Bill Dahlen: 75.3
Lou Whitaker: 74.8
Larry Walker: 72.6
Rafael Palmeiro: 71.8
Bobby Grich: 71.0
Alan Trammell: 70.4
Rick Reuschel: 70.0

You see what's happened? Other than McCormick, a pitcher from the 1880s, and Dahlen, an 1890s shortstop, all the players listed above are from the 1970s and later. If we stretch the bar down to 65 WAR, we get the following non-Hall of Famers: Tim Raines, Kevin Brown, Edgar Martinez, Kenny Lofton, Graig Nettles, Tony Mullane, Dwight Evans, Luis Tiant, Buddy Bell and Willie Randolph. Again, other than Mullane, another 1880s pitcher, all players from the 1970s or later.

As I've written before, the problem is this: The voters haven't adjusted for the fact that we now have nearly twice as many teams as in the 1950s and earlier. Logically, that should mean twice as many Hall of Famers.

Of course, it's not quite as simple as just recognizing that and voting in more players. It's also harder to separate the potential Hall of Famers from their peers.

Here are two examples. The BBWAA voted in Don Drysdale -- 61.2 career WAR -- in 1984. His case isn't really as strong as that of Mussina or Schilling or Brown. But compared with his contemporaries, Drysdale looks pretty good. Only Whitey Ford, Sandy Koufax and Hoyt Wilhelm from his era have a lower WAR, and all three of them are unique candidates -- Ford was part of the great Yankees dynasty, Koufax had that ascendent peak and Wilhelm was the first long-term, dominant relief pitcher. Get past those three and you're looking at Billy Pierce (53.1 WAR) or Larry Jackson (52.5 WAR), and I don't see a lot of people fighting for those two to make the Hall of Fame.

Or Tony Perez, elected in 2000 despite a 53.9 career WAR. Fred McGriff has 52.6 WAR and can't crack 25 percent of the vote. Again, it's an issue of "competition." From Perez's era (1960s and '70s), the best first basemen were Willie McCovey (64.4 WAR) and ... Tony Perez (or Harmon Killebrew and Dick Allen as well, if you want to count them as first basemen). Next is Orlando Cepeda (elected by the Veterans Committee) with 50.4 WAR. After that, you go down to guys such as Boog Powell and Steve Garvey, with less than 40 WAR, and decidedly not Hall of Famers. McGriff, meanwhile, has Pujols and Bagwell and McGwire and Palmeiro and Jim Thome and John Olerud and Will Clark -- all with a higher career WAR than Perez.

I guess my point is this: It was easier to elect guys such as Drysdale or Perez because they still managed to stand out among their peers; there were fewer great players simply because there were fewer teams. As the talent level in baseball gets more compacted (17 of the 31 players with 100 career WAR began their careers before World War II), it's more difficult to put up numbers that separate you from your peers. What's happened is that while there are many strong Hall of Fame candidates, one voter likes Edgar but another likes Raines and a third likes McGriff and nobody gets in.

And I don't know how to change that. To make matters worse is that BBWAA has elected some of its weakest members in recent years -- Bruce Sutter has the lowest WAR (24.5) of any BBWAA Hall of Famer, Goose Gossage is 110th, Jim Rice 105th and Kirby Puckett 100th.

Yes, their supporters would argue, all four had something special to add to their résumé -- Sutter made the split-fingered fastball famous, Gossage and Rice were feared in their time, Puckett was a postseason hero who had a tragic ending to his career. Still, their inclusion opens the debate for many qualified candidates.

I'd like to see more Hall of Famers. I have to assume that's what most of the people wanting change desire, as well.

In the end, it shouldn't really be an argument about whether it's a big Hall of Fame or a small Hall of Fame -- it's already a big Hall. Let's make it bigger.

But if we all agreed on that it wouldn't be quite as much fun to argue about, would it?