The Hall of Fame Numbers Game

The question of what active players will eventually get elected to the Hall of Fameis a fun one which can generate numerous articles and even more hours of debate. However, this topic also raises some interesting questions about the Hall of Fame itself and what defines a Hall of Fame ballplayer. Perhaps the most easily overlooked aspect of this discussion has to do with how many active players will end up in Cooperstown.

Historically, the number of active Hall of Famers in any given year might be more than many would expect. Beginning in 1910 and ending in 1980, the number of Hall of Famers active in each year ending with a zero ranged from a low of 29 in 1950 to a high of 55 in 1930. The numbers for 1990 and later are less useful because too many players from those years are either still active or still eligible. I chose to look at years ending with zero rather than with one because 1981 was only a partial season due to the strike.

In each of these years, Hall of Famers included obvious Hall of Famers winding down their careers, players in their prime but who were clearly on their way to Cooperstown and young players who had not yet made built Hall of Fame credentials. In 1980, for example, Willie Stargell and Willie McCovey fit in the first group, Reggie Jackson and Steve Carlton in the second, and Rickey Henderson and Ozzie Smith in the third. This is still the case today with players like Mariano Rivera or Derek Jeter in the first group, Roy Halladay in the second group and somebody as yet undetermined in the third group.

The 30-35 number has been relatively stable, but the context from which this number has come has not. 33 active players from 1910 eventually made it to the Hall of Fame; 34 from 1920 and 36 from 1940 did as well, but in those years there were only 400 roster spots so roughly 8% of all roster spots, at any given time, were taken by Hall of Famers. In 1930, which was something of an anomaly, 55 of the 493 men who appeared in a major league game, more than 10% made it to the Hall of Fame.

In 1980, the last year for which data is truly available, there were 650 roster spots, so the 34 Hall of Famers took up only slightly more than 5% of all roster spots. Today there are 30 big league teams and 750 big league roster spots. If only 35 active players from 2011end up in the Hall of Fame, that will constitute only 4.5% of all roster spots. For a similar proportion of 2011 players to make it to the Hall of Fame as did in the years before expansion, fully 60 players who have played, or will play, this year would make it.

It is not likely that 60 of today’s active players will make it to the Hall of Fame. Even if the election process were to change to help elect more people, there would be obvious downsides to expanding the Hall of Fame so dramatically. Nonetheless, it is clear that there are well over 60 players today who have already built solid Hall of Fame credentials, are well along the way to doing this, or have begun their careers so strongly that the Hall of Fame cannot be precluded. Steroid questions aside, just on the Yankees there are four players, CC Sabathia, Rivera, Jeter and Alex Rodriguez who are likely Hall of Famers as well as one other, Robinson Cano, for whom that outcome remains very possible. Even teams that are not very good, have veterans with solid Hall of Fame credentials, like Jim Thome, or young players with enormous potential, like Mike Stanton or Clayton Kershaw.

The dilemma facing the Hall of Fame is that if they do not change the voting rules, it is likely that as time goes by more players who are at least as good as many from previous generations already in the Hall of Fame will be kept out, but if they change the way people are elected to the Hall of Fame to reflect the increased number of teams compared to fifty or more years ago, within a few years recent players will begin to dominate the Hall of Fame membership. Thus, the question of a big or small Hall of Fame will become more salient in the future as we move towards a Hall of Fame that is big for players from before expansion, but increasingly small for more recent eras.