The Hall of Fame Voting System and the Coming Logjam

Last weekend, as Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar were inducted into the Hall of Fame, the inevitable questions about which current players will eventually be elected to Cooperstown began to arise and be discussed. Additionally, the questions of how the Hall of Fame voters will handle the steroid era, whether or not Alomar and Blyleven are deserving of their election and other suggestions that the system for electing people to the Hall of Fame is not working well cropped up in newspapers and in the blogosphere.

Hall of Fame debates and discussions have been a fun part of baseball for decades and are likely to get more intense in future years. In general, most Hall of Fame arguments occur on three axes. The first is a small Hall of Fame/big Hall of Fame axis. Proponents of a small Hall of Fame believe that only the very best players, truly extraordinary talents like Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Walter Johnson and the like should be in the Hall of Fame while proponents of a big Hall of Fame argue that there have always been players in the Hall of Fame like Lloyd Waner, Chick Hafey, Jim Rice or Earle Combs who were good players but a far cry from being baseball immortals.

The second axis is the peak/career axis as some voters believe that the Hall of Fame should primarily honor those who played at a top level of a long time, usually 15-20 years, while perhaps never dominating the game while peak voters are more likely to reward those who were dominant but only for a few years. Eddie Murray is an example of the former type of Hall of Famer while Sandy Koufax is an example of the latter.

A third axis might be called the quantitative/fame axis. This axis has direct bearing on Blyleven who was a superb pitcher for many years, but was largely underappreciated while playing because he rarely had large win totals, ended up 17 wins short of the magic 300 number and was never famous in the way that some of his peers, like Catfish Hunter or Nolan Ryan, neither of whom were as good as Blyleven, were. The most clear recent beneficiary of the fame voters was Jim Rice who, despite not being the best outfielder on his team for most of his career, seems to have won election largely due to his reputation as the most feared hitter in the American League during the 1980s.

In the next few years voting for the Hall of Fame is going to get even more complicated not simply because of steroids but because of the large number of candidates who can generally be described as falling on the big Hall of Fame, quantitative and career side of the three axes who either are on the ballot or will be there in a few years. These players include people like Todd Helton, Jeff Bagwell, Vladimir Guerrero, Jason Giambi, Lance Berkman and Jim Thome. Most of these players had long impressive careers rather than distinct peaks, although Giambi is something of an exception. None, with the exceptions of Giambi and possibly Guerrero were ever truly famous in the way some of their peers like Derek Jeter or Ichiro Suzuki were, and while none of them were as good as Mays, Aaron or Mantle, they were all better than many outfielders and first baseman currently in the Hall of Fame. This potential logjam will almost certainly lead to some controversial decisions by the Hall of Fame voters, and some very interesting debates about Hall of Fame candidacies.

This logjam, will be exacerbated by pitchers like Mike Mussina and Trevor Hoffman, non-sluggers like Craig Biggio and easy first round Hall of Famers like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera who will retire soon and be on the ballot at around the same time. The number of top candidates is partly a result of expansion. There are now almost twice as many Major League teams as there were when the Hall of Fame first started, but it is also the result of a quirky electoral system.

Because Hall of Fame rules require a player to get mentioned on more than 75% of the ballots to win election, but allows players to stay on the ballot for up to fifteen years if they get at least 5% of the vote, if there are many good candidates on the ballot, voting can get very complicated with potentially strange results. This structure makes it possible for players to stay on the ballot for a long time, thus exacerbating the logjam, but sets a threshold for election that gets tougher if there are more candidates on the ballot. It is the players who deserve some consideration, but are not obvious Hall of Famers that confront this problem most directly, because over several years they will be competing with each other and with all the new similar candidates. For example, Edgar Martinez’s candidacy may look a lot weaker in a few years when he is suddenly competing with Frank Thomas and Ken Griffey Jr. as well as some other leftover players from the 1990s. In that context a new, but comparable player, like Lance Berkman could have a hard time breaking through with the voters.

In all elections, whether for awards, political office or All Star Games, the election system has a big impact. This will continue to be the case for the baseball Hall of Fame and it will add another dimension to an already complex and sometimes irrational process over the next few years.