Our long national nightmare is over. For 82 years, in one of the dumbest traditions in all of sports, no candidate in the history of the Baseball Hall of Fame had ever been elected unanimously. If all 226 of the BBWAA voters who participated in the Hall’s inaugural election in 1936 couldn’t completely agree on Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth, the logic went, then some voter somewhere needed to take it upon themselves to ensure that the candidacies of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ken Griffey Jr. didn’t arrive without blemish either.
In a reflection of the universal respect that he amassed throughout the industry, as not only the greatest closer in the game’s history but also the last wearer of Jackie Robinson’s otherwise-retired jersey number 42, Mariano Rivera slammed the door shut on that dumb tradition. Per the voting results of the BBWAA’s 2019 balloting announced on Tuesday evening, Rivera ran the table, receiving all 425 votes cast in this year’s election. He’s one of four players elected this year, alongside the late Roy Halladay (85.4%), Edgar Martinez (85.4%), and Mike Mussina (76.7%).
This is the second year in a row, and the third year out of five, that the writers have elected four players in a single year. The Cooperstown-bound parade of candidates elected by the writers over the past six years now numbers 20, more than in any other six-year span; the previous record of 15 was set from 1951-1956. This year’s class of six — including Harold Baines and Lee Smith, elected by the Today’s Game Era Committee last month — will be inducted in Cooperstown on July 21.
What follows here is my best attempt to collect several scattered thoughts in a timely fashion. I’ll follow this with a full candidate-by-candidate breakdown on Wednesday.
On This We Can Agree
When the writers first voted in 1936, Cobb led the pack with 98.2%, followed by Ruth and Honus Wagner (95.1% apiece), Christy Mathewson (90.7%), and Walter Johnson (83.6%). Regardless of what the various dissenters objected to about those candidates, the fact that somebody did was enough for at least some voters to justify non-unanimity for future candidates. Ted Williams? 93.4% in 1966. Stan Musial? 93.2% in 1969. When Mays received 94.7% in 1979, his share was the highest since Cobb’s, and the same was true of Aaron, at 97.8%, three years later, but here and there, one of the old guardians of the Cooperstown gates still spit on their ballots. In 1992, Tom Seaver finally surpassed Cobb with 98.84%, and after Nolan Ryan fell short by an eyelash seven years later (98.79%), Griffey came along and set the new standard with 99.3% in 2016.
What was different about Griffey’s share was that it took place in an era of greater transparency. Interested observers could follow along in real time on social media as voters revealed their ballots, and at the point just prior to the announcement of the results, The Kid had been on every one of the 249 ballots published in Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame Ballot Tracker. In the end, three of the 440 voters left him off their ballots, none of whom ever identified themselves, but Griffey still set the record. While many believed that the BBWAA’s late-2016 resolution to publish every ballot received starting with the 2018 election might open the door for unanimity, the Hall of Fame unilaterally scuttled those plans.
Even as Rivera was named on all 232 ballots published in the Tracker pre-election, it was apparent that some voter, somewhere, might leave him off on purely philosophical grounds. After all, Rivera’s 1,283.2 innings are just over a third of those thrown by Mussina (3,562.2), for example, and 14 players on the ballot accumulated higher WAR totals in their careers (by Baseball-Reference’s version, at least). Along those lines, one voter, the Worcester Telegram’s Bill Ballou, announced in late December that he had reached a similar conclusion but was abstaining rather than be That Guy. Then, earlier on Tuesday, he admitted to reconsidering his position and casting a ballot that included Rivera.
Anyway, here’s the new leaderboard, which should remind us that while the Hall is supposed to reward the best on the basis of merit, the messy process can turn it into a popularity contest along the way. It’s the Hall of FAME, after all, and the wiry Panamanian closer, who set the all-time saves record (652) and sealed four World Series championships for the Yankees, has that in spades, too.
|Rk||Name||Year||Votes||% of Ballots|
|2||Ken Griffey Jr.||2016||437||99.3%|
|5||Cal Ripken Jr.||2007||537||98.5%|
A seven-time All-Star who has a claim as the best designated hitter in the game’s history, Martinez not only helped put the Mariners on the competitive map during an 18-year career spent entirely in Seattle, he may have saved baseball for the Emerald City with “The Double,” his 1995 Division Series-winning walk-off hit against the Yankees. His candidacy followed the path of 2017 honoree Tim Raines: a modest start (36.2% in 2010 in his debut) but then a failure to make headway with the voters (25.2% in 2014, and just 27.0% a year later), the loss of five years of eligibility due to the Hall’s unilateral rule change shortening candidacies from 15 years to 10, and a late surge that carried him over the top in his final year of eligibility.
Martinez is the sixth candidate in modern electoral history (since 1966, when the writers returned to annual voting) to be elected in his final year, after Red Ruffing (1967), Joe Medwick (1968), Ralph Kiner (1975), Jim Rice (2009), and Raines. He’s the first player in modern history to gain at least 10 percentage points in four straight elections, thanks in part to the testimonials he received from his former Mariners teammates now in the Hall, Randy Johnson (2015) and Griffey, as well as a strong boost from the franchise’s PR department and a little love from the stathead crowd, which helped to convince voters that a player who spent 72% of his career plate appearances as a designated hitter could nonetheless produce enough value to match those of the average Hall of Fame third baseman.
The joy of election day was tinged with sadness when it came to Halladay, an eight-time All-Star and two-time Cy Young winner who died on November 7, 2017 at the age of 40 while flying his Icon A5 light sport airplane. He became the first player elected posthumously by the BBWAA since Roberto Clemente in 1973. The Pirates great, who himself died in a plane crash on December 31, 1972 while delivering humanitarian aid to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua, was honored via a special election conducted shortly after the announcement of that year’s voting results. The last player posthumously elected by the BBWAA in a regular election was Rabbit Maranville in 1954, while the only other one elected by the writers in his first year of eligibility was Mathewson, who died in 1925, at the age of 45, due to tuberculosis and a respiratory system compromised by exposure to poison gas during World War I.
From a statistical standpoint, Halladay, who had “only” 203 career wins and fewer than 3,000 total innings, may not have had a case quite as strong as the ballot’s other top starters, namely Mussina, Roger Clemens, and Curt Schilling. Nonetheless, the weight of his death lent an urgency to his candidacy. Based upon the results in the Tracker, where he received 92.7% of the pre-election votes but a more modest 76.4% from those ballots yet to be published, some voters might have been uncomfortable with anointing him so quickly, even given the circumstances. That said, his public-to-private drop-off was less than those of the more controversial Schilling (20.3%, from 69.8% to 49.5%) or Clemens (24.4%, from 71.1% to 46.7%).
The Moose Is Loose!
Aside from the question of Rivera’s potential unanimity, the major suspense around Tuesday’s announcement centered around whether Mussina, a five-time All-Star who spent his entire 18-year career in the crucible of the AL East, would sneak over the 75% line or fall just short. Based on the Tracker, he received 81.5% on the published ballots, but several projection systems still had him finishing in the low 70s based upon his falloffs in years past, and Jason Sardell’s probablistic model gave him “only” a 63% chance of reaching the threshold this year.
Both at the outset of this election, when I noted that candidates in his position (63.5% last year) generally need two years to close the deal, and in the hours before the announcement, when I told a few people I thought that he’d finish a handful of votes short, à la Bert Blyleven in 2010, even I was surprised by the results. Pleasantly so, I might add, because I’ve been stumping for Mussina ever since he became a candidate in 2014. And yet another slow starting one, at that, with 20.3% that year, and 24.6% in 2015. Mussina made double-digit gains in three years out of the four since then, and cleared the bar by a mere seven votes.
Among the 31 candidates who did not get 75%, none made more headway than Walker, who jumped 20.5 percentage points from last year, the ninth-largest jump in modern history:
Similarly, Walker’s two-year jump of 32.7 points (from 34.1%) ranks fourth, while his three-year jump of 39.1 points (from 15.5%) ranks fifth.
That’s the good news, as is the fact that he’s crossed the 50% threshold, a virtual guarantee of future election; current candidates aside, only Gil Hodges has received at least 50% and never gained entry. The bad news is that Walker, who was polling at 65.9% in the Tracker prior to the election, will need to almost exactly replicate this year’s boost to get to 75% next year, his final year of eligibility for election via the writers. Those of us who have chewed our fingernails while sweating out every single ballot on behalf of Raines and Martinez might need to pay more regular visits to the manicurist.
Going Big Yet Again
Last year, BBWAA voters set a new modern record by averaging 8.46 names per ballot, the third time in five years they’ve set a new standard. This year, they were not quite as generous, nor did as high a percentage use all 10 spots, but the numbers from these past six cycles remain in the stratosphere:
|Year||Votes Per Ballot||All 10|
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.