This year’s Hall of Fame ballot had a very weak pool of first-year candidates. Bernie Williams was the leading vote getter with just 9.6% of the vote, and the only member to break the 5% cut off to stay on the ballot. At the same time the 14 returning candidates saw their vote total increase by an average of 7.1%, and five had increases of over 10%. Many have suggested that there is a relationship between these two facts; that is, with few good first-year candidates to vote for there were extra votes for the returning candidates.
Last year David Roher at Deadspin/Harvard Sports Analysis Collective noted that over the 2000s the average number of votes per HoF ballot was fairly constant, between 6.6 and 5.35. This would suggest that in years with strong first-year candidates there would be fewer votes for returning candidates and vice versa. I wanted to more explicitly test this relationship and see whether it extended further back than just the 2000s.
I looked at every Hall of Fame vote from 1967, when the current voting rules were put in place. Along the x-axis is the average number of first-year candidates voted for. Along the y-axis is the average change in vote share for returning candidates compared to the previous year (here an increase from 60% to 65% would be denoted by 0.05).
There is quite a strong, and significant, relationship. In years when ballots have about zero first-year players the returning pool sees about a 5% increase. On the other hand when there are over three first-year players on the average ballot returning players see a 5% drop in their vote. This suggests that voters — consciously or not — do have a rough number of players they want to include on their ballot, and thus the number of first-year candidates they vote for affects the rest of their ballot.
Obviously this could spell trouble for the current ballot as the 2013 first-year pool is loaded (Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio, Curt Schilling), and could receive higher vote share than the 1989 (Johnny Bench, Carl Yastrzemski, Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins) or 1999 (Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Robin Yount, Carlton Fisk) pools, thought the PED issue could complicate things. Going from a historically poor first-year pool to a historically great one, returning candidates could see double-digit drops in their vote totals.