Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas's election to the Hall of Fame represents one of the best years for Hall of Fame selection in a long time. Although there were numerous other deserving candidates including those tainted by steroids, like Barry Bonds and those with no steroid association, like Craig Biggio and Mike Mussina, it is still a good sign that three players, the most since 2003, were elected by the BBWAA. Biggio missed by an agonizing 0.2% and is in strong position to get elected next year.
The voting for the Hall of Fame is still hamstrung by a flawed electoral system, a backlog of good candidates and myriad steroid related problems, but the election of these three candidates is possibly a step in the right direction. All of these players are clear Hall of Famers. Maddux and Thomas were dominant players among the very best ever at their positions. Glavine was a cut below the other two but clearly qualified for the Hall of Fame. In recent years, several borderline candidates such as Jim Rice, Andre Dawson and Bruce Sutter have been elected to Cooperstown, but none of these three are borderline.
The most discussed candidate on this year's ballot was Jack Morris, who in recent years has evolved from a pitcher to a symbol. Despite this being his last year of eligibility, Morris, to the delight of more quantitatively oriented fans, did not get voted into the Hall of Fame. This is probably a disappointment to some, but is also an indicator that the more statistically oriented analysts, at least with regards to awards and Hall of Fame voting, are clearly in the ascendancy.
Morris will now fall off the ballot, along with Rafael Palmeiro and several lesser players who did not receive 5% of the vote. This leaves a number of highly qualified players like Biggio, Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Mussina, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling and others on the ballot for next year. Clemens and Bonds, the best hitter and pitcher associated with steroids, did worse than in previous years,indicating that PED users will continue to have a difficult time getting in to the Hall of Fame in the foreseeable future. Clemens support went from 37.6% to 35.4%; Bonds's from 36.2 to 34.7. It is possible that as age replacement begins to change the Hall of Fame electorate that the best AL pitcher since Lefty Grove and the best player ever not named Babe Ruth will be recognized in the Hall of Fame, but that process has not yet begun.
While it is good to see some players elected to the Hall of Fame, getting these three off of the ballot will not clear up the current logjam as the new candidates next year will include Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez, who should get in easily, John Smoltz who will be a very strong candidate and Gary Sheffield an otherwise strong candidate who could end up in PED purgatory.
This was an important election for the BBWAA, the body that is primarily responsible for electing former players to the Hall of Fame. Had they elected nobody or only Greg Maddux, whose credentials and reputation are both outstanding, calls to reform the voting system or take the vote away from the BBWAA would have grown louder. By electing three players, and having a fourth on the cusp of getting in, the BBWAA successfully avoided those calls for at least another year.
The underlying problems, however, were not resolved. The BBWAA has, informally at least, adopted a policy that known steroid uses will not get into the Hall of Fame, but this is ultimately an effort to absolve MLB's leadership from its role in steroid abuse and penalizes both those who were known PED users and those about whom the evidence is based largely in hearsay. Jeff Bagwell, for example, a player very comparable to Frank Thomas, only got 54.3% of the vote. This can only be attributable to unproven rumors of steroid use. Mike Piazza, with 62.2% of the vote, faced a similar predicament.
Additionally, the backlog of talent is such that, unless something is done, there will now be a two tiered Hall of Fame including very good players from previous eras and only the very best from recent times. In addition to the dominant players from recent years who were in one form or another associated with steroids who did not receive strong support, players like Mussina, Schilling, Alan Trammell and Raines who are clearly better than many Hall of Famers from previous eras, are unlikely to make it in unless something changes that helps clear the backlog. Baseball has long had a complicated relationship with its history; and keeping the best players of a generation outside the Hall of Fame only further complicates that relationship.