Hall of Fame Voters Have a Mess to Deal With

Last year, seven former players received at least 45% of the Hall of Fame vote while also earning less than the 75% necessary to actually get elected to the Hall. Seven former players, in other words, possessed sufficiently impressive credentials to merit serious consideration and were then all pushed to this year’s ballot for further review. Notably, this was one year after eight players returned to the ballot having received at least 40% of the previous season’s vote. The consequence of these developments? A very crowded ballot in 2018 — and that’s without even accounting for the newly eligible candidates.

It’s a state of affairs that’s rarely been duplicated in history. Back in the late 40s and early 50s, there was a considerable logjam of deserving candidates. Writers responded by including an average of nine-plus players per ballot, inducting 13 different players between 1951 and -55.

There was a similar issue in 1981, a year in which 10 players received at least 40% of Hall of Fame votes but only Bob Gibson was elected. The writers eventually elected Don Drysdale, Harmon Killebrew, Juan Marichal, and Hoyt Wilhelm, leaving the Veterans’ Committee to decide the rest. Jim Bunning, Nellie Fox, and Red Schoendienst, eventually earned a place in the Hall, while Gil Hodges and Maury Wills remain on the outside looking in.

It was shortly after that 1981 election that writers began to significantly downsize their ballots. Consider: from 1936 to 1986, the average number of players per ballot was at least seven for every season but 1946. From 1987 through 2013, however, the average decreased significantly, never once reaching the seven-per-ballot mark. The trend was particularly pronounced from 2006 to -12, when the average was just 5.7 players per ballot.

The last four cycles have seen an average of roughly eight votes per ballot, but with eight of the 12 Hall of Famers elected coming on the first try, ballots remain congested.

Below are the players returning to this year’s ballot with last season’s vote totals, Hall of Fame rating, and JAWS. If you’re unfamiliar with Hall of Fame rating, you can find the introduction here. It works similarly to Jay Jaffe’s JAWS except that it uses FanGraphs WAR instead of Baseball-Reference and measures peak in a different way, so as to encompass all of a player’s good seasons. HOF AVG and MEDIAN denote the average and median HOF Ratings of players at a candidate’s respective position. BBWAA AVG and MEDIAN denote the same thing, except consider only those players voted in by writers (and not those inducted by, say, the Veterans’ Committee).

2018 Hall of Fame Ballot Holdovers
Trevor Hoffman 74.0% 6.0 26.1 16.1 22.3 18.7 22.3 18.7 24.0 34.0
Vladimir Guerrero 71.7% 33.0 54.4 43.7 63.1 51.5 85.0 71.8 50.2 58.1
Edgar Martinez 58.6% 44.0 65.5 54.8 57.3 52.6 71.9 75.3 56.0 55.0
Roger Clemens 54.1% 115.0 133.7 124.4 52.9 48.2 66.9 63.3 103.3 62.1
Barry Bonds 53.8% 173.0 164.4 168.7 55.7 49.7 62.7 52.5 117.6 53.3
Mike Mussina 51.8% 53 82.2 67.6 52.9 48.2 66.9 63.3 63.8 62.1
Curt Schilling 45.0% 65.0 79.7 72.4 52.9 48.2 66.9 63.3 64.5 62.1
Manny Ramirez 23.8% 37.0 66.4 51.7 55.7 49.7 62.7 52.5 54.6 53.3
Larry Walker 21.9% 44.0 68.7 56.4 63.1 51.5 85.0 71.8 58.6 58.1
Fred McGriff 21.7% 31.0 56.9 44.0 59.1 57.0 66.3 57.1 44.1 54.2
16.7% 32.0 56.1 44.1 59.8 52.8 77.1 65.4 45.4 56.9
Gary Sheffield 13.3% 41.0 62.1 51.6 55.7 49.7 62.7 52.5 49.1 53.3
Billy Wagner 10.2% 5.0 24.2 14.6 22.3 18.7 22.3 18.7 24.0 34.0
Sammy Sosa 8.6% 40.0 60.1 50.1 63.1 51.5 85.0 71.8 51.0 58.1
Players listed in order of 2016 voting percentage.
Those above the median Hall of Famer at their respective position are highlighted in blue.

You’ll notice immediately that the two returnees who came closest to the 75% threshold last year actually don’t surpass the average Hall of Famer at their respective positions according to the criteria used here. Paul Swydan looked at the case for Vladimir Guerrero through the lens of MVP winners, which certainly helps his case, while I made some generous modifications to Guerrero’s stat line in an attempt to “quantify” fear. In any event, Guerrero’s exciting play likely made him feel like a Hall of Famer to a lot of voters, and though he is more of a borderline case, it’s unfair to say he’s undeserving.

As for Trevor Hoffman–moving from 67.3% to 74% of the vote–made a bit of history last season. In the last 50 years, only a handful of players have received at least two-thirds of the vote and not gained election the next year.

  • In 1979, Enos Slaughter went from 68.9% of the vote to 68.8%.
  • In 1988, Jim Bunning went from 70% to 74.2% down to 63.3% in 1989.┬áThat 1989 ballot was stacked with first-timers Johnny Bench, Fergie Jenkins, Gaylord Perry, and Carl Yastrzemski, along with holdovers who eventually made the Hall of Fame in Orlando Cepeda, Bill Mazeroski, and Ron Santo.
  • In 1990, with a ballot that was still fairly stacked, Gaylord Perry went from 68% to 72.1%.
  • In 1999, with Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Robin Yount, and Carlton Fisk all first-timers on the ballot, Tony Perez moved from 67.9% to 60.8%. he would get over 75% the following election.
  • In 2014, Craig Biggio went from 68.2% to 74.8%.
  • Also in 2014, Jack Morris went from 67.7% to 61.5%. That came a year after he moved up just one percent from 66.7%.

Of the nine occurrences above, four have come in the last five years. To get a sense of how a normal progression occurs, consider this table, which documents the average yearly election change over the last 50 years depending on the previous year’s vote. If Hoffman doesn’t get it in this year, it would be very unusual.

Average Hall of Fame Vote Change
Vote Percentage AVG Increase % of Players Increasing
40%-49% 4.1% 67.7%
50%-59% 4.9% 77.6%
60%-69% 6.9% 78.8%
70%-74% 8.7% 94.4%
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Years: 1967-2017.

While the effect of “voter momentum” does appear to exist, it isn’t something that really emerges until a candidate has reached the 60% mark. Before that point, there are generally small increases, but they aren’t guaranteed. Looking at this year’s ballot, that’s a problem. It’s hard not to see Guerrero and Hoffman getting inducted this year — Hoffman isn’t doing great in the early going — but of the remaining holdovers, it’s improbable that any of them will receive sufficient support to earn induction this year. In the last 50 years, only Ralph Kiner has received less than 60% of the vote one year and then been elected the following season. He was also the only player to make the Hall in the 1975 vote, which makes things very different from our present situation.

Given the already crowded ballot and the addition of some qualified first-time candidates, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a major jump for any of the players who received less than 60% of the vote last year. For Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, and Curt Schilling, the consequences aren’t that grave: they each have at least four more years on the ballot after this one (though Schilling dropped seven points from last year and can’t really afford that again).

As for Edgar Martinez, though, the situation is more critical. Last year, his third-to-last on the ballot, he earned just 58.6% of the vote. Of the 26 players who’ve appeared on 60% to 65% of ballots in one year, only seven gained induction the next one. Between 65% and 70%, 13 of 27 gained induction the following year. Hoffman notwithstanding, over 70% is pretty close to a lock. Martinez should get a bump in his last year, not unlike what Tim Raines received. That said, Raines went from 55.0% to 69.8% in his ninth year on the ballot before easing in with 86% in his final year of eligibility. As one of the greatest hitters of all time, Martinez is certainly deserving of the honor, and from the publicly available information, things look promising. According to the early returns from Ryan Thibodaux’s indispensable ballot tracker, Martinez has gained some ground, but he’s going to need a big push this year to put in him range next season.

As for the rest of the ballot, I’ve talked about the strange case of denying Mussina and Schilling before. Larry Walker is like Vladimir Guerrero but better. We know why Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens aren’t in, and Joe Morgan’s letter isn’t helping people care more about the Hall of Fame. The cases for Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield, and Sammy Sosa are better or at least similar to Vladimir Guerrero, though PED accusations and suspension hurt the former three players. Billy Wagner was nearly as good as Trevor Hoffman but doesn’t have the saves to sway voters. Jeff Kent was a darn good player, as was Fred McGriff, but they fall short of the Hall of Fame standards as I discussed last season.

So we have seven clearly deserving Hall of Famers based on the on-field merits, plus another two surpassed the 70% mark last year. That’s before we even get to first-time candidates in Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, and Scott Rolen. Because writers can’t vote for more than 10 players, the Hall of Fame is keeping players on the ballot while seemingly requesting writers not vote for them. Voters, meanwhile, are holding some players — particularly pitchers — to an impossible standard. Whatever the case, writers once again have an extremely difficult task this year.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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4 years ago

To the non fangraphs inclined Mussina’s ERA of 3.68 looks pedestrian, which is why even though he pitched in veritable bandboxes his whole career he has had such a hard time getting elected.

4 years ago
Reply to  largebus

Jack Morris just got in with a 3.90 ERA. Not saying Morris isn’t deserving – as a Tiger fan growing up in the 80’s, he was a favorite – but that could give Mussina a better case for the non-Fangraphs types.

4 years ago
Reply to  Derb

Morris isn’t deserving.

4 years ago
Reply to  Sleepy

He and Jim Rice should have their own wing of the hall of fame, called the “perceived but not actual hall of fame”.