Today’s Game Ballot Is Tomorrow’s Headache

Will the Hall of Fame find room for an all-time saves leader in 2019 — besides current leader and first-ballot lock Mariano Rivera, that is? (He’ll headline the BBWAA ballot, to be released on November 19.) I refer instead to Lee Smith, the record holder from April 13, 1993 (when he overtook Jeff Reardon) to September 24, 2006 (when 2018 Hall inductee Trevor Hoffman surpassed him). At first glance, he not only appears to be the most likely ex-player to be elected from among the six on the 2019 Today’s Game Era Committee ballot, which also includes three managers and one owner, but the only one with a path to election. Released on Monday, the ballot, which centers on candidates who made their greatest impact upon Major League Baseball from 1988 onward, is as notable for its omissions as well as its inclusions.

The full slate of candidates alongside Smith includes former outfielders Harold Baines, Albert Belle, and Joe Carter; first baseman Will Clark; starter Orel Hershiser; managers Davey Johnson, Charlie Manuel, and Lou Piniella; and owner George Steinbrenner. Carter and Manuel are the ballot’s only newcomers besides Smith, which is curious because there wasn’t exactly a clamor to elect the rest, who served as bystanders when John Schuerholz and Bud Selig were elected two years ago. Six of the returnees received “fewer than five votes,” a shorthand the Hall typically uses so as not to embarrass any candidate. Piniella received seven votes, still far short of the 12 needed for election from among the panel of 16.

To these eyes, which have been studying the Hall of Fame voting since the 2002 election cycle, Smith isn’t necessarily the best candidate, but it’s not hard to see parallels with 2018 inductee Jack Morris, who was elected by the Modern Baseball Era Committee last December. Both candidates spent a full 15 years on the BBWAA ballot, Morris from 2000 to -14 and Smith from 2003 to -17; the latter was the last player to do so after a 2014 rule change that truncated candidates’ windows of BBWAA eligibility to 10 years. Both built up support slowly until they appeared to be trending towards election, with Morris crossing the all-important 50% threshold in his 11th year of eligibility and Smith in his 10th. The claims of both to a plaque in Cooperstown hinge(d) upon compiling big totals in a stat that’s since been devalued within stathead circles — 254 wins for Morris, 478 saves for Smith — but one that plays better in front of a panel where writers and historians generally constitute just a quarter of the electorate, with executives and Hall of Famers (both players and managers) making up the other three-quarters.

Admittedly, my comparison breaks down when it comes to the two candidates’ respective bodies of postseason work, which for Morris centers around his 10-inning complete game shutout in Game Seven of the 1991 World Series, where Smith struggled in his two tastes of October baseball. Nonetheless, the elections of Morris and longtime teammate Alan Trammell last year restored some relevance to a process that, though a handful of iterations, had not elected a single living ex-player since 2001, when Bill Mazeroski was tabbed. That such a process has Mazeroski (ranked 20th out of 20 Hall of Fame second basemen in my JAWS metric) and Morris (ranked 59th out of 63 Hall starting pitchers) as bookends isn’t a great advertisement towards that end, but Trammell (ninth among 22 Hall shortstops) serves to remind that there still exists a supply of candidates who deserve election despite slipping through the cracks of the writers’ vote, even if they’re not specifically on this ballot.

Indeed, a look at the actual list of candidates is one that quite rightly might induce some head-scratching. I’ll get to that momentarily, but first, a refresher course. The Today’s Game Era Committee doesn’t roll off the tongue, and if it doesn’t ring a bell, that’s because it’s relatively new. In 2016, six years after splitting the Veterans Committee into three chronologically based committees — the Pre-Integration Era (1871–1946), Golden Era (1947–72), and Expansion Era (-73 onward) committees — voted upon via a triennial cycle, the Hall again reconfigured its process for considering executives, managers, umpires, and long-retired players for election. Candidates are now separated into four eras to be voted upon with differing frequencies within a 10-year cycle, a laudable choice given that the earlier eras have been more thoroughly picked over by past committees, often to the Hall’s detriment. The three other committees besides the Today’s Game one are the Early Baseball (1871 to 1949), Golden Days (1950 to -69), and Modern Baseball (1970 to -87) Era Committees, with the schedule for consideration as follows. (Note that the year refers to that of induction; the balloting takes place the previous winter.)

2017: Today’s Game
2018: Modern Baseball
2019: Today’s Game
2020: Modern Baseball
2021: Golden Days and Early Baseball
2022: Today’s Game
2023: Modern Baseball
2024: Today’s Game
2025: Modern Baseball
2026: Golden Days

To be eligible, players have to have played a minimum of 10 seasons in the majors (one game in a given year is enough to count as a full season, same as on the BBWAA ballot), have to be retired for a minimum of 15 seasons (which, for this year, means that they last played in 2003), and can’t be on MLB’s ineligible list (tough luck, Pete Rose). Managers, umpires, and executives need to have spent a minimum of 10 years in baseball. Execs 70 years old or older may be considered even while still holding positions within an organization; such was the case for Schuerholz, then the president and vice chairman of the Braves.

It’s worth pointing out that, since the demise of the Veterans Committee, one major flaw in the era processes, both before and after the 2016 change, is that the former players — who have already passed through the BBWAA wringer, with the best of them elected — have been overshadowed. From 2011 to -17, eight of the 10 candidates elected were either executives (four), managers (three), or umpires (one); the two players elected, Ron Santo and Deacon White, were both deceased.

The Today’s Game candidates will be voted upon at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas on December 9, with the results announced that evening at 8pm ET. Any candidate receiving at least 75% of the vote will be inducted next July 21 in Cooperstown, New York along with Rivera and anyone else elected by the BBWAA, the results of which will be announced on January 22. While it used to be that the names of the voters were released alongside those on the ballot, the 2016 reconfiguration appears to have done away with that custom, though the voters will be identified eventually.

On the other hand, the members of the Historical Overview Committee, the group of 11 BBWAA veterans who filtered through dozens of candidates in the process of putting together the ballot, were announced on Monday: Bob Elliott (Toronto Sun); Jim Henneman (formerly Baltimore Sun); Rick Hummel (St. Louis Post-Dispatch); Steve Hirdt (Elias Sports Bureau); Bill Madden (formerly New York Daily News); Jack O’Connell (BBWAA); Jim Reeves (formerly Fort Worth Star-Telegram); Tracy Ringolsby (Baseball America); Glenn Schwarz (formerly San Francisco Chronicle); Dave van Dyck (Chicago Tribune); and Mark Whicker (Los Angeles News Group).

As to the inclusions and the omissions, let’s do this in table form. First, the players:

2019 Today’s Game Candidates (& Non-Candidates)
Player Pos Status Career Peak JAWS JAWS Pos Dif Yrs Max %
Orel Hershiser SP ON 56.3 40.1 48.2 61.8 -13.6 2 11.2%
Will Clark 1B ON 56.5 36.1 46.3 54.7 -8.4 1 4.4%
Albert Belle LF ON 40.1 36.0 38.1 53.5 -15.4 2 7.7%
Harold Baines RF ON 38.7 21.4 30.1 57.8 -27.7 5 6.1%
Lee Smith RP ON 29.0 20.9 24.9 32.3 -7.4 15 52.3%
Joe Carter RF ON 19.8 21.5 20.5 57.8 -37.3 1 3.8%
David Cone SP OFF 62.4 43.5 52.9 61.8 -8.9 1 3.9%
Mark McGwire 1B OFF 62.2 41.9 52.0 54.7 -2.7 10 23.7%
Bret Saberhagen SP OFF 59.0 43.3 51.1 61.8 -10.7 1 1.3%
Chuck Finley SP OFF 58.1 39.6 48.9 61.8 -12.9 1 0.2%
Matt Williams 3B OFF 46.6 34.0 40.3 55.7 -15.4 1 1.3%
Kenny Lofton CF Not Elig. 68.3 43.4 55.9 57.9 -2.0 1 3.2%
Rafael Palmeiro 1B Not Elig. 71.9 38.9 55.4 54.7 0.7 4 12.6%
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Career and Peak both refer to the Baseball-Reference version of WAR. JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) is the average of the two, and JAWS Pos the average among Hall of Famers at the position. Yrs refers to years on BBWAA ballot.

The most notable omission is that of McGwire, slugger of 583 home runs, the only candidate from among this group to receive more than 11.2% of the BBWAA vote in any year and the only one besides Smith to complete his full run of eligibility without slipping below 5.0% and thus off the ballot. There’s little doubt that the Hall would just as soon avoid spotlighting the never-ending debate surrounding candidates connected to performance-enhancing drugs; that was clearly the impetus behind the aforementioned rule change, which grandfathered only Smith, Trammell, and Don Mattingly but not anybody from the the so-called “Steroid Era,” whether they’d been implicated as users or not.

Also omitted were Cone and Saberhagen, two pitchers with similar credentials to Hershiser, Cy Youngs and postseason heroics included. Both do slightly better than Hershiser via JAWS but have lower win totals (204 for Hershiser, 194 for Cone, 167 for Saberhagen), and both fell short of 3,000 innings, below which election has become a rarity. That said, Cone’s got a huge advantage in strikeouts over the other two (2,668 to Hershiser’s 2,014 and Saberhagen’s 1,715), which is part of the reason his WAR is so high on him in the first place. It’s less of a mystery why Finley, a 200-game winner whose advanced stats put him on the same tier as that trio, was excluded: he lacks both a Cy Young and a signature October moment, but he hasn’t escaped my notice.

Of the other omissions, Williams is just an example of a contemporary who scores better in JAWS than most of the included candidates, though like Belle and McGwire, he’s short of 2,000 hits, a de facto barrier to election in that no candidate below that line whose career took place in the post-1960 expansion era has been elected. Both Lofton and Palmeiro are much stronger candidates than anyone on the ballot, from a statistical standpoint at least, though the latter did fail a drug test. Neither is eligible via this process until the Today’s Game election after what would have been their windows of BBWAA eligibility lapse. For Lofton, who went one-and-done on the 2013 ballot, that would be 2024, while for Palmeiro, it would be 2022.

The lack of timely recourse for candidates who fall victim to the Five Percent Rule — and the extent to which those low voting shares continue to influence how candidates are re-evaluated decades down the road by a subset of the same group that initially overlooked them — is an ongoing pet peeve of mine. That double jeopardy has turned the likes of Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker, both of whom failed to receive even 5% in their lone BBWAA appearance and have yet to appear on a single small-committee ballot since, into afterthoughts, and they’re hardly alone. A fella could fill a book

But I digress. As for the non-players, the managerial selections and non-selections look rather haphazard:

2019 Today’s Game Candidates (& Non-Candidates), Managers’ Ed.
Manager Status W-L W-L% G>.500 Playoffs Pennants WS
Lou Piniella ON 1835-1713 .517 122 7 1 1
Davey Johnson ON 1372-1071 .562 301 6 1 1
Charlie Manuel ON 1000-826 .548 174 6 2 1
Dusty Baker OFF 1863-1636 .532 227 9 1 0
Jim Leyland OFF 1769-1728 .506 41 8 3 1
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

The inclusion of Piniella, as the top returning vote-getter, I can understand, but retaining Johnson and introducing Manuel, who spent far less time than any of the others in the dugout, while excluding Leyland, who won as many pennants as that pair combined, seems off. And it’s not like Leyland, who last managed in 2013, is a threat to return to a dugout, whereas Baker, who’s just a year removed from his last job, might still answer the phone.

The aforementioned absent players and managers aren’t necessarily strong enough candidates for election themselves; one can find comparables both inside and outside the Hall using traditional and/or advanced statistics as yardsticks. For reasons that I’ll explain in a series of articles over the coming days and weeks, while the actual candidates on the ballot certainly had their moments in the majors, they aren’t all that strong either, particularly in comparison to Smith given the likely tilt of the electorate. For those keen on bringing a stathead sensibility to the process, this may well turn into yet another frustrating chapter in the long history of the Hall’s small-committee voting. I’ll have a whole lot more to say about the credentials of the candidates and the snarls in the process in the coming days and weeks, as part of my first election cycle since joining the ranks of FanGraphs — and yes, I’ll be doing the same for the BBWAA ballot, as well. Buckle up, it’s election season.

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.

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3 years ago

Where’s John Franco?!?!?!?!?!

Thanks, I just needed to get that out there.

Anthony Calamis
3 years ago
Reply to  khaaan

Not eligible.

3 years ago
Reply to  khaaan

He’ll go in with his long-time tag-team partner Julio. 🙂