Tuesday, December 20, 2011


The mayhem Glenn Langan causes has nothing on what seems to be
heading in the direction of the Hall of Fame in January 2013...
The topic looms larger and larger, growing with a force as alarming as what faced poor Glenn Langan in The Amazing Colossal Man...

Before we know it, an avalanche of Hall of Fame candidates will come crashing down on the BBWAA. Doomsday scenarios of various forms and denominations are already being concocted.

We're actually going to try to go beyond the cheap symmetry in our title, and present our own speculative account of what's coming when the floodtide of qualified Hall of Fame players begins next year.

Our rationale is based on the fact that while a large majority of the BBWAA continue to exhibit a pronounced moralizing bent, they will be swayed by a series of practical considerations that will prevent them from imposing the type of across-the-board ostracism that many fear will be the case.

Forget about the Curse of the Bambino: might not the residual
malaise that continues to fester in Beantown stem from this
archetypal moment...the Great Molasses Meltdown?
But there's a greater worry: a crowded ballot will simply turn what is already a problematic enshrinement process into a molasses-like mush.

Some are envisioning a 2016 ballot with up to twenty bonafide Hall of Famers spinning their wheels in a combinatoric nightmare where no one can get the required vote percentage.

Others think the process will become a more protracted quagmire that will doom candidates to the vagaries of a Veterans' Committee that has been molasses-like in its own right over the past decade.

We think people who think this way are the luckiest...well, no, actually we think they are borrowing an entire molasses plant worth of trouble. And the psychology of the "disloyal opposition" to the BBWAA, a group that has done a better job of putting people through the front door of Cooperstown than anyone in the numbers community is willing to admit, is focused on the prospect of a "doomsday scenario" if for no other reason that it would constitute proof that the Hall of Fame's main voting body is more flawed than the cluster of seismic faults in and around the San Francisco Bay Area whose probability of catastrophic event is edging into Chicken Little territory.

Perhaps we should have called this article "Adventures in Future Schadenfreude." (And perhaps we would be in Pot. Kettle. Black. territory ourselves.)

What would be preferable would be to look at what is likely to happen in Hall of Fame voting beginning in 2013 and see if there is any reason to be constructing "sky is falling" scenarios.

Clearly, a 2016 voter stagnation'n'strangulation scenario depends on the BBWAA doing two major things wrong: 1) being unable to promptly elect deserving candidates and 2) conflating moral issues in such a way that all candidates suffer proportionally as a result.

If that happens, we would be looking at a 2016 ballot with the following 20 players still trying to get elected:

Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine, Ken Griffey, Jr.*, Randy Johnson, Jeff Kent, Barry Larkin, Greg Maddux, Edgar Martinez, Pedro Martinez, Mike Mussina, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling, Gary Sheffield, John Smoltz, Sammy Sosa, Frank Thomas, Larry Walker.

(*) means first year on the ballot

(numbers under the "2011" column in the chart indicate vote % in that HoF election)

Notice that for the purpose of this display, we are not even bothering to add in several folks who might still be on the ballot in 2016:

Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Lee Smith, Alan Trammell.

We are not expecting that the following players will receive (or retain) the minimum 5% support to remain on the ballot:

Juan Gonzalez, Kenny Lofton, David Wells, Bernie Williams.

Well, yes, if you look at it from this perspective, and come to the conclusion that the BBWAA, which shows a certain amount of molasses-like tendencies, will dawdle and double-dribble all over their shirts, then for goodness' sakes the sky has already fallen.

However...there are other perspectives. There are actually more than a few hopeful signs that argue against Chicken Little. We will go through them in a way that, if not convincing, will at least be confusing.

First, let's take a look at the most crowded ballot in the history of the Hall of Fame voting--1936. That ballot had nineteen hitters whose OPS+ was 130 or higher. It had eight pitchers whose ERA+ was 120 or higher (not including Babe Ruth). It had twenty-two players whose career Wins Above Replacement (WAR) was 60 or higher (not including Joe Jackson, who actually got two votes despite being ineligible).

The potential for chaos, for Chicken Little being more than just a future fryer with an advanced case of paranoia, was just as great.

What happened in that election? Five players (Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson) were enshrined.

Ah, you say. But those were five of the greatest players of all time, and the backlog of talent was much, much greater than five years. The players in the 2016 group have subtler, more elusive qualifications, and the BBWAA hasn't shown an ability to discriminate. This is the tsunami that will topple them, the perfect storm of candidates who will all founder on the rocks as the wind pushes all the boats against the current. Years of deadlock will  ensue.

Sorry, we don't buy it. One way to track the level of deadlock is to look at how decisive the BBWAA is in terms of players. Is there a pervasive tendency to make players wait years after they first become eligible?

The answer is: no. The Hall of Fame had some issues with its voting rules, which took two decades to sort out. Once the BBWAA had a five-year waiting period and a yearly ballot, they began to become noticeably more decisive with respect to inductees. (This doesn't mean that they were flawless in identifying all Hall of Famers, and one of the criticisms of the BBWAA is in its inability to keep players with more subtle--and previously unmeasurable--achievements on the ballot long enough for arguments about them to ripen.)

But it's clear from the graph at right that the BBWAA has had no problem identifying first-round inductees. Their cumulative percentage has progressed upward steadily since the 50s and approached its original 30s level in the last decade.

Ah, you say. But there is a catastrophic complicating factor--AKA "the age of PEDs." The BBWAA has its own case of "roid rage" that it will be systematically imposing upon the voting process. This will lower the vote totals of all players coming onto the ballot, as demonstrated by what's happened to  McGwire and Palmeiro.

We'll give you a "maybe" on that. So far the only serious vote suppression that has occurred has come at the expense of those two players. (The stats cadre wants to make a case that such is the case for Tim Raines, but the fact is that players like Raines often take time to ripen on the vine in terms of HoF voting. The insistence on the part of certain stathead factions that Raines is a first-ballot Hall of Famer is one part analysis, one part rhetoric, and one part attack-dog tactics. High OBP, low SLG players do take longer to get recognized, and Raines doesn't match up with players like Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, or Rod Carew, who were at the top of their leagues' offensive performance levels over a much longer period of time. WAR is not a perfect instrument.)

And what's likeliest to happen over the course of the next few years is that the BBWAA will single out the most controversial (read: arrogant) players from the age of PEDs and make examples out of them. As a voting group, they know that it would be impolitic to bar the doors of Cooperstown to all the players from the wraparound decades (1990s/2000s). They also know (when they are not pontificating) that the Mitchell Report is not...a perfect instrument.

To leave too many of these players out of the Hall of Fame based on the unreliable evidence that has been assembled would make everyone look bad.

And thus the real catastrophe would happen in Cooperstown, New York, where the ongoing financial health of the Hall of Fame--dependent on a PR stream from new inductees--would be seriously threatened.

Though many erstwhile revolutionaries would love to see the Hall crumble into dust, they should not hold out false hope for such an occurrence. The BBWAA isn't going to be party to that, no matter how devoutly one might wish it so. They will be stepping back from this brinksmanship and making an example of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

And there is tremendous good fortune in the fact that the two greatest players of the "age of PEDs" will be systematically ostracized. It will force the BBWAA to examine players that would otherwise get less attention in the voting process. This will serve to sustain several worthy candidates through what will be a crowded ballot period (people like Raines and Edgar Martinez) and give them a chance to be enshrined within the fifteen year period.

There is already good evidence to indicate that this is going to happen. Roberto Alomar's election in his second year of eligibility signals that the BBWAA is very likely to be selective in its punishment.

Barry Larkin
Craig Biggio--how many catcher/second
basemen/center fielders are there
in the Hall of Fame? None--yet.
Alomar's selection is good news for both Larkin and Biggio. It signals that the BBWAA is cognizant of positional difference and that they'll take it into account. Larkin is positioned to sneak over the line in 2012 as a result.

Biggio has an important ace up his sleeve that no other candidate can bring to the table--3000+ hits. It's one of two things that will make him a first-ballot inductee. (The other is his ability to successfully play two other positions on the left side of the defensive spectrum--catcher and center field. It makes him a unique player.)

The Hall of Fame history of 3000+ hit players is a strong indication that Biggio will come in at around 80% of the vote.

Even though in this rare collection of players (only 28 in baseball history) Biggio is down near the bottom of the group (as measured by hits, OPS, OPS+), he gets a big boost from the fact that out  of 25 players eligible for the Hall of Fame with 3000+ hits, 96% of them are in Cooperstown--and 76% of them were inducted on the first ballot.

And the only reason that three of the other members of this group weren't inducted on the first ballot was because they happened to be on the "first ballot" in 1936: Nap Lajoie, Tris Speaker, and Eddie Collins. Lajoie and Speaker went in the second year (1937), along with Cy Young; Collins was inducted in 1939.

Twelve of these players received 90+% of the vote when they went in.

Oddly enough, when we average all of these players' first-year voting percentages (even the three 1936 players, the odd anomaly of Paul Waner, who was part of the late 40s confusion that hampered the Hall of Fame for the better part of a decade, and the scapegoated Palmeiro) we get an overall average of 80% for this group. That looks about right for Biggio, who has more similarity with players like Robin Yount and Lou Brock--career longevity and several moments when he was seriously mentioned as the best player in baseball.

(Interesting fact: Forman et fil's intriguing Elo-Rater system has three second basemen piled up together in slots #64-#66: Biggio, Ryne Sandberg, and Alomar. While it's not "scientific," it's a solid little tool--and the other two guys are in the Hall. Neither of them played catcher or center field.)

It's silly of us to post a speculative scenario for how the Hall of Fame vote will proceed over the next four years, but--what the heck, we'll do it anyway. You'll be able to see where the assumptions are, and how those have more than a small chance of coming unglued. What we expect to happen in the upcoming vote is that Larkin will get inducted, Jack Morris will max out a bit lower than what other folks expect, and Bagwell will actually slip past Jack. Why will Bags get a boost? Someone has to, and there's no one else on the ballot with numbers remotely like his.

Someone will remind his pals that Bags had a helluva lot of RBI per game, and that of players with a moderate length career (2000-2200 games), he ranks fourth (behind Lou Gehrig, Harry Heilmann, and Joe DiMaggio). The ones who've cottoned up to on-base percentage will note that Bags is 21st lifetime (.408). They'll note that he had a lot of round-number seasons (nine seasons with 100+ runs scored, eight with 100+ RBI, seven seasons with 100+ walks, and six seasons where he did all three in the same year). They'll notice that in addition to winning the MVP (in 1994), he also finished 2nd and 3rd, and was in the top ten of MVP voting six times. And they'll note that while he didn't manage to lead the league in HRs, he hit 30 or more in nine seasons.

The breadth of these accomplishments will rub off on voters--in part because there is no one else to focus on in 2012--and Bags will move up. (He will be more evidence that the scurrilous folk who toss around baseless accusations of PED use are not going to poison the jury pool any more than has already been the case--we are on the downslope of all this, and pond scum such as Jeff Pearlman will suddenly discover that they no longer have working vocal cords.)

With Biggio on the ballot in 2013, the memory of the "Killer B's" will be just enough to bring them over the line. It will be a massive PR coup for Cooperstown. The "Schadenfreude crew" will be conflicted--torn between a sense of relief and a lack of satisfaction over the dimming prospects of the Fallen Sky Scenario.

The chart shows how we think it will play out...with Larkin, Biggio and Bagwell voted in, the logjam is lessened, and The Perfect Storm can remain a lugubrious, inauthentic film.

What we find out in 2013 is that the moralizing bloc will not be able to crush Bonds and Clemens to the extent that they did with McGwire and Palmeiro: these two guys were just too great for too long to be completely trashed. They'll get around 30% of the vote, and it will be more loyal and tenacious on their behalf because these guys were really and truly inner circle players.

Mike Piazza, also on the ballot in '13, will draw down a solid percentage that will be off by around 6-9% from what Yogi Berra polled in his first year on the ballot (67%). He will be in position to go in on the third ballot in 2015.

The reason he won't make it in 2014 is that an exceptionally strong crop of candidates will debut that year, with Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas, and Tom Glavine all crashing through in their first year. Jack Morris, in his last year of eligibility, will go out with a semi-quaver as two 300+-game winners will be inducted in the same year for the very first time.

In 2015, we'll have two more all-time pitchers in Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez, and Piazza will join them for the second consecutive troika on the Cooperstown dais--something that won't have happened since 1937. Bonds and Clemens will be joined in their 30s holding pattern by Gary Sheffield.

The BBWAA will steam through this purported Perfect Storm without a glitch, but it won't gain them much respect. Basement dwellers will still be miffed about Raines; some of us will still be venting about Edgar Martinez; and there will be a series of splinter groups mouth-foaming about Bobby Grich, Lou Whitaker and Rick Reuschel.

In short: life will return to normal.

It will just be another cataclysm that didn't happen that we won't talk about even though we still think we can see it coming in the rear-view mirror.