“What about Whitaker?” That question, which has been on my mind for nearly two decades, came to the fore two years ago when longtime Tigers teammates Jack Morris and Alan Trammell, both of whom spent 15 often contentious and sometimes agonizing years on the BBWAA’s Hall of Fame ballot, were finally elected to the Hall by the Modern Baseball Era Committee. With five All-Star selections, three Gold Gloves, and a central role on the Tigers’ 1984 championship squad, Lou Whitaker had accumulated similarly strong credentials to Trammell while forming the other half of the longest-running double play combo in major league history, one that did a fair bit to prop up Morris’ wobbly candidacy. Yet Whitaker, who ranks 13th in JAWS among second basemen, did not get his 15 years on the writers’ ballot because in his 2001 debut — the last Hall of Fame election cycle that I did not cover, but a pivotal one in many ways — he failed to receive at least 5% of the vote from the BBWAA and thus fell off the ballot. Like so many other candidates who have suffered such a fate, he had never received a second look from a small-committee process. Until now.
Whitaker is one of 10 candidates on the 2020 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot, which was announced on Monday and which covers players and other figures who made their greatest contributions to the game during the 1970-87 timeframe. He’s not the only one emerging from limbo, either. This marks the first small-committee appearance for longtime Red Sox right fielder Dwight Evans, an eight-time Gold Glove winner who lasted just three cycles on the ballot (1997-99) and peaked at 10.4%, and for late Yankees catcher Thurman Munson, a former MVP who lasted 15 years on the ballot (1981-95) but only in his debut year broke double digits. Munson was virtually ignored on the 2003, ’05, and ’07 ballots voted upon by an expanded Veterans Committee consisting of all living Hall of Famers (and assorted stragglers), receiving just 12 votes out of a possible 243 across those three cycles.
The other seven candidates — former Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Marvin Miller, and ex-players Steve Garvey, Tommy John, Don Mattingly, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker, and Ted Simmons — have each been considered before, some of them multiple times via the 2018 Modern Baseball ballot and its predecessors, the ’11 and ’14 Expansion Era Committee ballots. Indeed, while this slate includes candidates long overdue for a bronze plaque in Cooperstown, a good chunk of ballot space is occupied by candidates who have repeatedly failed to gain much traction with the voters and who fare poorly via JAWS. The extent to which they have crowded out better candidates has been frustrating.
More on that shortly, but first, some details and background. The candidates will be voted upon by a 16-member panel of Hall of Famers, executives, and media members at the Winter Meetings in San Diego next month; to be elected, they must receive at least 75% of the vote, as they do via the more expansive BBWAA process. The voting results will be announced on Sunday, December 8, with the winners inducted next July 26 in Cooperstown, New York alongside anybody elected by the writers, whose ballot will be announced on November 18 and whose results will be announced on January 21.
The Modern Baseball Era Committee is one of four panels resulting from the 2016 rejiggering of the process by which managers, executives, umpires, and any players who have exhausted their eligibility on the writers’ ballot are considered for election. Up until 2001, that process was simply known as the Veterans Committee, and it had its share of pitfalls, most notably a long history of cronyism that resulted in the election of some inferior candidates, particularly in the 1960s and ’80s. The 2001 election of Bill Mazeroski, a defensive whiz whose JAWS is nonetheless the lowest among enshrined second baseman, produced such an outcry that the institution began a seemingly endless series of overhauls to its process.
In the wake of Mazeroski’s election, the Veterans Committee was expanded to include all living members of the Hall of Fame, all living recipients of the Frick and Spink Awards (broadcasters and writers), and members of the Veterans Committee whose terms had not yet expired. In 2007, after that large group failed to elect anybody in 2003, ’05’, or ’07, the frickin’ Spinkers and the spinkin’ Frickers were stripped of their rights to vote. The remaining group was allowed to vote on post-1943 players, but those from pre-1943, as well as managers, executives, and umpires, were considered on two separate tracks. The 2008 and ’10 processes resulted in the elections of three managers, three executives, and one umpire, but the late Joe Gordon was the only candidate elected for his playing career, that by the pre-1943 committee in 2009. That year, the living Hall of Famers once again pitched a shutout when it came to the postwar candidates.
In 2010, the Hall disbanded the expanded Veterans Committee and introduced three, 16-member Era Committees voting on a triennial cycle, namely the Pre-Integration Era (1871–1946), Golden Era (’47–72), and Expansion Era (’73 onward). In two full times through the order, none of them elected a living ex-player, and combined, they honored just two ex-players (2012 Golden Era choice Ron Santo and ’13 Pre-Integration choice Deacon White) out of eight total honorees, with complete shutouts of both the ’15 Golden and ’16 Pre-Integration slates. In the summer of the latter year, the Hall announced the reorganization of the process into four different periods, with the earlier ones — namely the Early Baseball and Golden Days Era Committees, respectively covering players whose greatest contributions occurred during the 1871-1949 and 1950-69 periods — considered less frequently across a 10-year cycle than the Modern Baseball and Today’s Game (1988 onward) slates:
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
Note that years refer to those of induction; the ballots are released the previous November and voted upon in December.
Former commissioner Bud Selig and longtime executive John Schuerholz were the only candidates elected on the 2017 ballot, with Morris and Trammell following the next year as the first living ex-players elected by a small committee since Mazeroski. Last winter, in the second go-round for Today’s Game, Harold Baines and Lee Smith were elected, with the choice of the former — who accumulated 2,866 hits in his career but compiled just 38.7 bWAR and 30.1 JAWS, with the latter now 75th among right fielders — widely criticized. Baines topped out at 6.1% in five chances on the writers’ ballot, the lowest mark of any honoree from the post-1960 expansion era, but what really drew fire was the makeup of the electorate, which had several connections to the candidates, an inescapable fact of longevity but also a reminder of the Veterans Committee’s aforementioned history of cronyism. The panel included White Sox team owner Jerry Reinsdorf (who agreed to retire Baines’ jersey number while he was still active, after he had been traded away), and Hall of Famers Tony LaRussa (who managed Baines in both Chicago and Oakland), and Pat Gillick (who served as GM of the Orioles while Baines was there in 1997-98). Smith had connections to Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith and Joe Torre (respectively his teammate and manager in St. Louis) and Greg Maddux, his teammate in Chicago.
Perhaps in an effort to downplay such connections or decrease the potential for lobbying, since the move to the post-2016 format, the Hall has stopped announcing actual voting panels far in advance. Last year’s 16-member panel, which consisted of nine Hall of Famers (including two apiece elected as managers and executives), four current executives, and three media members, was revealed on December 3, 2018, six days ahead of the election. We likely won’t learn who’s on this committee until just a few days prior to election, and you can bet that the Hall’s critics and anybody else interested in the upcoming result will be keeping their eyes peeled.
Back to the specifics. As gratifying as it is to see the candidacies of Whitaker, Evans, and Munson get their long-awaited turns, the reality is that they’re hardly alone in being overlooked to this point. This period is overflowing with viable candidates. Below is a sortable table showing those who were considered by the aforementioned older committees but failed to gain entry while Gillick (2011), La Russa, Torre, and Bobby Cox (all ’14), and Morris and Trammell (’18) were elected. Those leftovers are shown alongside a similarly-sized group of players eligible for consideration but left off those ballots:
Prior to this year, only one of the period’s top dozen unelected players in terms of JAWS differential (the gap between his score and the standard at the position) was on any recent ballot, namely Simmons, who has traveled quite a road from oblivion to the precipice of election. The longtime Cardinals backstop, who ranks 10th at the position in JAWS, went one-and-done on the 1994 ballot and thus was ineligible for consideration until 2009, the point at which his BBWAA candidacy would have expired. Thankfully, his credentials, which include eight All-Star appearances and totals of 2,472 hits and 248 homers, have impressed the Historical Overview Committee, a panel of 11 BBWAA elders that builds the ballots, enough for him to gain placement on committee ballots. That itself is exceptional; that he’s gained enough momentum to have fallen just one vote short of election in 2018 is nearly miraculous. Grich has yet to get past the ballot’s gatekeepers, and Whitaker is only now doing so. Meanwhile, 12 candidates with lower JAWS than that nearly-doomed dozen have combined for 20 ballot appearances over the past decade, with Concepcion the only one to break out from the “less than” group — the ones whose actual levels of support are obscured when the totals are announced, so as to avoid embarrassing any candidate.
This time around, four candidates from that upper dozen are on the ballot — an improved state of affairs — but now the issue is that they’re in such direct competition that gaining consensus could prove difficult. Each of the 16 members is allowed to vote for as many as four candidates, meaning that there are a maximum of 64 votes available in what Joe Posnanski termed “a mathematical mousetrap” back in December 2014 (on the occasion of the ’15 Golden Era shutout) while discussing the issue with MLB Advanced Media’s Tom Tango:
Tom Tango explains it this way: Let’s say all ten candidates on the ballot were equally qualified for the Hall of Fame. That’s not quite true here, but it’s a good starting point — you had 10 good candidates. If they’re all equally good candidates, then each one had a 40% chance of getting picked for a ballot — 10 players on the ballot, voter chooses four, 40% chance. Pretty simple.
Well, if a player has a 40% chance of being on one ballot, his chances on making 12 of 16 is … get ready for it, less than 0.5%. That’s not 5% — it is less than one-half of one-percent. 995 times out of a 1,000, the player would NOT get elected. And remember, that’s assuming every voter uses all four of his votes.
Gulp. That mathematical barrier helps to explain the dearth of living ex-players elected by the various small committees in recent years, shutouts and shortfalls that have led to heartbreak (think 90-something-year-old Minnie Miñoso dying just months after falling short on the aforementioned Golden Era ballot), endless griping, and near-endless tinkering.
I can almost hear you rolling your eyes at the notion that after so long with ballots that don’t have enough good candidates, we now have one that has too many. But much as the ongoing candidacies of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens have siphoned off votes that could go towards other worthy candidates on the BBWAA ballots, the same is true of Miller, arguably the single most important non-player in baseball history and a candidate who should have been elected decades ago. Instead of Simmons being enshrined already, he has to battle Munson for support among those inclined to recognize somebody from a position underrepresented within the Hall, so perhaps we should thank our lucky stars that Whitaker isn’t similarly paired with Grich, or Evans with Reggie Smith. Mind you, I’m not convinced that all of the top 12 players on the above table need to be elected; considerations outside of WAR and JAWS are always germane to the discussion, and even JAWS can’t sell me on the merits of Reuschel ahead of Tiant, whose modest support in three previous committee appearances is presumably why he’s not here this time, even if some of the other reheated candidates are.
Over the next two weeks, I’ll have far more to say about the 10 candidates on the ballot, most of whom I wrote about during my nearly six-year run at Sports Illustrated. I’ll break out the JAWS but also go deeper into their careers, if not as deep as I do for my BBWAA ballot profiles. As there are enough excerpts from The Cooperstown Casebook already in circulation, I won’t publish the full essays on Simmons and Whitaker that I wrote specifically for that tome (I’ll send any actual voter a book, though), but that doesn’t mean I won’t offer enough to make their cases. After all, in the case of Whitaker, I’ve been waiting nearly two decades for this chance.
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.