It’s back to business as usual for the BBWAA’s Hall of Fame voting, the results of which were announced on Tuesday evening. The messy and occasionally exasperating tradition of non-unanimity, which took an unprecedented one-year vacation when Mariano Rivera was elected with 100% of the vote last year, has returned. While Derek Jeter appeared on track to join Rivera in that exclusive club, one as-yet-unidentified voter from among the 397 ballots cast in this year’s election chose to throw a wrench in the works. No matter. Ol’ No. 2 will have to settle for the second-highest vote share in Hall history (99.75%) as well as the requisite bronze plaque in Cooperstown. He’ll have some company in the Class of 2020, as the writers also elected Larry Walker with 76.6% of the vote. Walker, the first Canadian-born position player ever elected, follows Tim Raines (2017) and Edgar Martinez (2019) as the third candidate in the last four election cycles to be chosen in his 10th and final year of eligibility.
With “only” two honorees this year, the writers’ unprecedented streak of electing at least three candidates annually has ended at three years; the last time they elected two was in 2016, when Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza were chosen. Even so, this is the seventh consecutive election in which the BBWAA has tabbed multiple candidates; that breaks a tie with the 1951-56 span, which was bracketed by back-to-back shutouts on either side. The 22 candidates elected over the past seven cycles is a record, far outdoing the 16 from the 1950-56 or 1951-57 stretches.
What follows here is my big-picture look at this year’s results; I’ll be back with my candidate-by-candidate breakdown on Wednesday.
Not Everybody Has to Agree
It was one of the dumbest traditions in all of sports, but for 82 years, from the first Hall of Fame election in 1936 through 2019, it was practically the law of the land: no candidate could receive 100% of the vote. Because the grizzled scribes who voted in the inaugural election could not unite to agree on Ty Cobb (98.2%) or Babe Ruth (95.1%), inevitably some self-appointed guardians of the gate would dissent in the name of tradition. Ted Williams and his 19 All-Star appearances, six batting titles, and combat heroics? Pfft, 93.4% in 1966. Stan Musial and those 3,630 hits, seven batting titles, and three MVP awards? Harumph, 93.2% for him in 1969. Willie Mays, with his spectacular power/speed/defense combination? Meh, 94.7% in 1979. Hank Aaron and his home run record, not to mention 3,771 hits and the RBI record too? Feh, 97.8% in 1982, though to be fair, that mark was still the highest since Cobb.
In 2016, Griffey came tantalizingly close to running the table, receiving unanimous support on all of 211 ballots published prior to the announcement of the election results but being snubbed by three unidentified voters. Even so, he set a new record at 99.3%, surpassing the 98.84% Tom Seaver received in 1992. Griffey’s high score took place in an age of increased voter transparency, and while the BBWAA’s desire for complete transparency was thwarted by the Hall of Fame a couple years later, the stage was set for Rivera when he reached the ballot last year. The all-time leader in saves, and arguably the best postseason player of his generation, Rivera benefited from a perfect storm of voter accountability, transparency, inarguable excellence at his specialty, and universal respect throughout the industry.
Jeter did not have all of those conditions working for him to the same degree. He’s not the best shortstop ever, just 12th in JAWS at the position due to lousy defensive metrics, and he merely replicated his outstanding regular season showing in the postseason instead of becoming even more dominant. Yet he’s a 14-time All-Star who ranks sixth all-time in hits, he was a key part of five championship teams, and he spent two decades as an outstanding ambassador for the sport. Other than first-time voter Sean Forman (of Baseball-Reference fame) publicly musing about the potential to exclude him for strategic reasons — to support a candidate who would otherwise have been number 11 on a 10-slot ballot — no voter seemed to waver on it. Yet one was apparently lurking in the weeds, and whether that voter cast their ballot with sabotage or strategy in mind is immaterial. It’s a done deal.
And in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter. Jeter’s eminently worthy of his spot in the Hall of Fame, and his celebration in Cooperstown on July 26 will be no less jubilant. Here he is on the all-time voting share leaderboard:
|Rk||Name||Year||Votes||% of Ballots|
|3||Ken Griffey Jr.||2016||437||99.3%|
|6||Cal Ripken Jr.||2007||537||98.5%|
A True Cliffhanger
The suspense over whether Walker, a true five-tool star and a personal favorite, would make it in his final year on the ballot was nearly unbearable. While he received 83.5% support on the ballots published in Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame Ballot Tracker prior to the announcement, the election’s various forecasters were split down the middle. Myself, I clung to the frequent updates of Jason Sardell (@sarsdell), who uses a probabilistic model that at last call gave Walker an 81% chance of election. That was apparently far ahead of the great right fielder’s own thinking, according to a tweet he sent on Tuesday afternoon:
Although I believe I’m going to come up a little short today I still wanna thank all you that have been pulling for me and showing your support. I’m grateful for all of you! It’s been fun leading up to today reading everyone’s thoughts. Cheers ? LW
— Larry Walker (@Cdnmooselips33) January 21, 2020
As voters revealed their ballots in recent days, every omission took on an outsized importance, particularly as arguments over how much time he missed due to injuries, how often he faced Randy Johnson, and how much Coors Field pumped up his numbers were rehashed again and again. It seemed possible that a couple of votes either way could make all the difference between making it now and having to wait until at least the 2022 Today’s Game ballot. The examples of Nellie Fox and Ralph Kiner loomed large. Fox missed by just two votes in 1985, his final year on the writers’ ballot, and then wasn’t elected until 1997 by the Veterans Committee. Kiner cleared the bar by just one vote in 1975, his final year on the ballot.
As it was, Walker made it with six votes to spare, which is merely tied for the 10th-smallest margin among those elected:
It’s a happy coincidence to find Jenkins, the first Canadian-born player in the Hall, on that list. Walker is the seventh candidate in modern electoral history (since 1966, when the writers returned to annual voting) to be elected in his final year of eligibility, after Red Ruffing (1967), Joe Medwick (’68), Kiner (’75), Jim Rice (2009), Raines, and Martinez. The three elected in the past four years had to overcome the loss of five years of eligibility after the Hall’s unilateral rule change in 2014.
Walker’s comeback is even more remarkable than his immediate predecessors’. He debuted at 20.3% in 2011 and polled as low as 10.2% in 2014; by comparison, Raines never fell below 22.6%, and Martinez never slipped below 25.2%. In fact, that 10.2% is the second-lowest share ever received by a modern candidate who was eventually elected by the writers, ahead of only Bob Lemon’s 7.0% from 1966 as the lowest. Among modern candidates, Walker’s 42.5% gained over the past two cycles is second only to Aparicio’s 42.7% (from 41.9% in 1982 to 84.6% in ’84), and his 54.7% gain over three years is tops:
Walker’s 22-point jump from last year’s 54.6% is the second-largest of any post-1966 candidate who cleared the 75% bar, nestled between two other relatively recent examples:
For more on big jumps, see this from last year.
Big Schill and the Gruesome Twosome
As anticipated, this was not the year for the ballot’s three most polarizing players, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Curt Schilling, all of whom made some progress towards 75% but just as significantly burned through another year of eligibility, their eighth on the ballot. Bonds and Clemens, whose statistical cases are overwhelming, have been held back primarily by their connections to performance-enhancing drugs, while Schilling has been held back by his corrosive public persona. We’ll skip rehashing the details here.
Schilling, who received 60.9% of the vote in 2019, gained 9.1% to get to an even 70.0%, which puts him clearly within striking distance next year. Since 1966, 24 candidates have received at least 70% but fallen short of 75%. Three (Fox, Orlando Cepeda, and Red Ruffing) were in their final year of eligibility on the writers’ ballot; of the other 21, only Jim Bunning (74.2% in 1988) failed to clear 75% the following year. Bunning tumbled backwards by more than 10 points in 1989, couldn’t make up the ground in his remaining two years on the ballot, and was eventually elected by the Veterans Committee, as were Fox and Cepeda; Ruffing was elected in a since-abandoned run-off process.
As for Bonds, he gained 1.6% from last year’s 59.1%, with Clemens adding just 1.5% from last year’s 59.5% — about half of what they gained from 2018-19. It’s fair to say that the two candidates’ momentum has completely dissipated, and it will take a radical reconsideration from the holdouts for them to get to 75% before their time in front of the writers is done. Right now, that’s just not happening. Per the Tracker, while Bonds and Clemens each received votes from eight out nine newcomers who published their ballots prior to the election, they changed very few minds, with the former netting just two votes from returning voters, and the latter just one. Schilling, who got votes from seven out of nine newcomers, did net 13 votes from returning voters, some of whom may have selected him in the past but did not do so in 2019.
With the recent flood of elected candidates and Jeter the only must-vote newcomer, voters had plenty of room to throw their support behind holdover candidates, and some made very impressive gains. Scott Rolen and Gary Sheffield more than doubled their support from last year, with the former vaulting from 17.2% to 35.3% and the latter from 13.6% to 30.5%. Billy Wagner nearly joined them, climbing from 16.7% to 31.7%. Todd Helton (up 12.7% to 29.2%) and Andruw Jones (up 11.9% to 19.4%) both posted double-digit gains. Omar Vizquel (up 9.8% to 52.5%) just missed out on that distinction, but more importantly, he crossed the 50% rubicon. Aside from current candidates, only Gil Hodges has received at least 50% and not gained eventual entry from either the writers or a small committee.
The Incredible Shrinking Ballot — and Electorate
Going into this election, it seemed likely that the recent parade of large classes would end. Not only was Jeter the only clear first-ballot honoree on this year’s slate, but the only additional suspense concerning first-year candidates was whether Bobby Abreu would even make it to a second election; he did, scraping by with 5.5% — 22 votes, two more than his candidacy needed to survive. The other 16 first-year candidates received 10 or fewer votes (2.5% or less), with seven of them shut out completely.
With that shortage of strong first-year candidates, as well as the clearance of so many holdovers in recent years, voters used an average of 6.61 slots per ballot, the lowest since 2013; they’ve averaged 7.95 or more every year since, breaking modern records three times. Likewise, just 21% of this year’s voters used all 10 slots, less than half the rate of last year. Here’s a look at recent history:
|Year||Votes Per Ballot||All 10||Elected|
Meanwhile, the 397 ballots cast was the fewest cast in any BBWAA election since 1985. The total represented a drop of 6.6% from last year’s 425, and a more jarring 31.7% drop from the high-water mark of 581, set in 2011. The shrinking electorate owes not only to the ongoing contraction of the media industry but the ramifications of a 2016 rule change that took ballots away from any voters more than 10 years removed from active coverage. Per the Tracker, it’s also worth noting that at least seven participants in last year’s election died in the past year, including the Elias Sports Bureau’s Seymour Siwoff, the owner of BBWAA card no. 1, representing the longest tenure of any writer, and this year’s Spink Award winner, Nick Cafardo. The total has been further diminished by a handful of still-eligible voters who have voluntarily surrendered their ballots in recent years.
Maybe they just had enough of the elections’ highs, lows, and absurdities. Me, I can’t get enough of them. I’ll be back with my full candidate-by-candidate breakdown on Wednesday.
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.