The Hall of Fame’s Standard, and Its Biggest Problem

With the baseball off-season moving into a little bit of a lull, the next few weeks of baseball writing often take on a decidedly Cooperstown-centric swing. Hall of Fame ballots have been mailed to the 600 or so voters, and they have until December 31st to decide how to fill those ballots out, so those of us with some semblance of a platform usually try to influence the voters while they have the ballot in their hands. For instance, Jay Jaffe penned this excellent piece on Mike Mussina’s candidacy, and anyone who is planning to vote for Tom Glavine but not Mussina should read that and reconsider.

I probably won’t join the lobbying for any specific players this year. From my perspective, there are something like 15 to 19 reasonably justifiable candidates on the ballot, so lobbying for one player out of that bunch is necessarily lobbying against some other viable candidate. So, instead, I’m simply going to try and provide some evidence that will hopefully convince my fellow members of the the BBWAA to stop waffling and start voting in worthy candidates.

I think an important point in deciding whether or not a player is Hall of Fame worthy or not is to know the historical standard for enshrinement. What percentage of players do we think are worthy of immortalizing? The top 10%? 5%? 1%? Before we can argue that a modern player is worthy of enshrinement, we should know what the standard of acceptance has been in the past, and then we can figure out if that player meets the standard relative to his own peers.

So, let’s look at what the standard of election has been throughout baseball history. To break players into peer groups, I looked at birth year since 1900, and then grouped by decade, with the pre-1900 guys lumped together as one large group. Thanks to Baseball Reference’s Play Index, I was able to search out the total number of players who played in MLB and were born in each 10 year span, and then the total number of both hitters and pitchers who were elected to the Hall of Fame from those groups. The percentage column shows the standard that has essentially been set as the guiding line for whether or not a player is worthy of enshrinement.

Year of Birth Hitters Pitchers Players HallHitters HallPitchers HallPlayers Percentage
<1900 5,393 1,038 6,431 90 36 126 2.0%
1900-’10 1,058 231 1,289 25 4 29 2.2%
1911-’20 1,227 542 1,769 11 3 14 0.8%
1921-’30 1,015 460 1,475 14 5 19 1.3%
1931-’40 968 460 1,428 26 7 33 2.3%
1941-’50 1,310 643 1,953 15 8 23 1.2%
1951-’60 1,535 740 2,275 19 4 23 1.0%
Total 9,661 2,731 12,392 166 55 221 1.8%

Because some players both hit and pitched, they’ll show up on both lists, which is why there are 221 players totaled here and only 208 players enshrined in the Hall of Fame. The point is going to remain the same, however, as both the numerator and denominator are inflated nearly equally, so it doesn’t materially change the results. And the results show that, historically, the Hall of Fame has enshrined between 1-2% of the total pool of players, with some variance for certain eras.

To me, this seems about right. I have no problem with the Hall of Fame being reserved for the top 1-2%, as that makes it an exclusive club and a legitimate honor to be chosen. This seems like the kind of standard that is worth upholding, and gives us a reasonable range of what a “big hall” or “small hall” might look like. At the minimum, we should accept the top 1%, and at the maximum, the top 2%. Something in that range seems like the right fit.

Now, let me present the birth decade that is currently up for debate: 1961-1970. There are a few guys on the ballot this year born after 1970 (Richie Sexson and Armando Benitez, for instance), but they’re not serious candidates, and they’re only on the ballot now because they had short careers not worthy of enshrinement. All the legitimate candidates on this year’s ballot were born in the 60s, with the exception of Jack Morris, Lee Smith, Alan Trammell, and Tim Raines, who are holdovers from the 1950s pool of players. Here is the same table as above, but for the decade of players that we’re currently voting on.

Year of Birth Hitters Pitchers Players HallHitters HallPitchers HallPlayers Percentage
1961-’70 1,731 925 2,656 2 0 2 0.1%

The BBWAA has elected exactly two players born after 1960 so far: Roberto Alomar and Barry Larkin. Those two players represent 0.1% of the population of players who played in MLB and were born between 1961-1970. One tenth of one percent. Or, in graph form, the overall plot looks like this:


With 2,656 players in MLB born between 1961-1970, the smallest of small hall voters would favor electing 27 candidates from that decade, while the most aggressive big hall guy would favor up to 53 candidates from that 10 year period. We can basically round those numbers and say that the historical standard suggests that there should be something like 30 to 50 Hall of Famers born in those years, if we’re upholding the historical standard of election.

So, at the minimum, the BBWAA needs to elect something like 28 more guys from that decade. Let’s check off the names of the guys we’re fairly certain will get elected at some point in the not too distant future.

1. Greg Maddux, 1966
2. Ken Griffey Jr, 1969
3. Randy Johnson, 1963
4. Mariano Rivera, 1969
5. Tom Glavine, 1966
6. Craig Biggio, 1965

I’d say those six are a virtual lock, given their careers and Biggio’s vote totals from last year. So, electing those six players will get us to a total of eight players born in that decade, or 0.3% of the population of players born between 1961-1970. That’s still ~20 players short of the minimum historical standard, and ~45 players short of a similar proportion to the eras most heavily represented in Cooperstown.

I understand that a lot of the players born in this decade performed at their best during the “Steroid Era”, and that many are reluctant to reward players who may have had their numbers inflated by using PEDs, but we cannot and should not simply pretend that an entire decade of players did not exist. If you don’t want to vote for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, then vote for some other player from that era who you don’t think used steroids. If you’re taking a stance against the cheaters of that generation, then acknowledge those who we have no reason to suspect.

No birth decade has ever seen fewer than 14 players inducted, and that decade (1911-1920) only saw 1,227 players get to the big leagues. There are more than twice as many players from the 1961-1970 decade who played in the Majors, and we’re on pace to elect about half as many as we did from the 1911-1920 group. This is simply applying a new standard of qualification to the current batch of candidates that has never existed before.

Take Mike Mussina or Curt Schilling and put them in any other time frame in baseball history, and they are easy, obvious Hall of Famers. The reluctance of voters to put any players in who played during the PED era is leading to a wholesale change in the standard of election, and because of the insane 10 player limit on the ballot, there is currently no way to resolve the issue.

As long as the 10 player maximum ballot remains, this generation of players have no chance of being represented in Cooperstown, because the BBWAA simply cannot elect players fast enough to make up for their mistakes, while also acknowledging the deserving candidates from the 1970s that are going to be on the ballot very soon. Pedro Martinez, born in 1971, is on the ballot next year. We are reaching the point at which the 1960s players are no longer going to have the ballot to themselves, and the worthy 1970s players are going to start taking their place at the podium.

The BBWAA has a couple of years left to change course and acknowledge that players were indeed born between 1961-1970. After that, it’s simply going to be too late, and the veteran’s committee will have to fix the writer’s errors. In many cases, those corrections happen after a player has already passed on, so the player does not live to see his own induction. We should absolutely be motivated to make sure that worthy players who will end up in Cooperstown are inducted while they are still alive.

The idea that there are only eight Hall of Fame worthy players born between 1961-1970 is ridiculous. It is time for the voters to acknowledge the standard that has been set, and to keep pace with the established norms, not attempt to re-write the standards of the Hall of Fame because they perceive it as an opportunity to take a moral high ground.

There are great players in every era. We’ve immortalized the great players from every other era in baseball history, including the guys who played when the World Series was fixed. Let’s not pretend that this most recent era didn’t happen, or that this was the first time in baseball history that there were no great players. Let’s live up to the historical standard already established. Let’s start putting Hall of Famers in the Hall of Fame.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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8 years ago

Fascinating post. Did you consider counting Pete Rose (or Shoeless Joe Jackson) as inclusions, for the sake of determining what % of players have been voted in. A minor data point, but the fact that off-field issues singlehandedly keep Rose out seems like it affects the percentage in some (albeit minor) way.

Bubber Jonnard III
8 years ago
Reply to  Underwood4000

Rock Raines being kept out of the Hall due to cocaine use? That’s an off-field issue. Pete Rose, as an MLB manager, trying harder to win some games than others, while betting or not betting accordingly? That would be extremely on-field.