The past few days have featured a lot of people talking about how to change the Hall of Fame voting process. I appreciate these ideas as, no matter how contentious the debates become, they are inspired by people who want to make things better. By people who care about baseball and the Hall of Fame. Negativity sucks and a lot of people hate it, but remember, almost all of it starts with an impulse of wanting to improve something cool about baseball, and that’s good.
Still, it’s probably worth realizing that no matter what you do with the voting process or the voters or the criteria or anything else, it’s not like the actual induction classes are going to radically change. Adding voters or increasing vote slots or taking the BBWAA out of it or making the Hall of Fame vote the sole province of an elite panel of benevolent, sabermetric dictators is not going to usher Barry Bonds or Alan Trammell or Tim Raines through that door like so many of us would like to see.
I know this because of a recent experience: I was asked to join the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. Yes, it’s a real thing. It’s populated by a lot of excellent Internet-based baseball writers. People like Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Spink Award winner Ross Newhan, Sports on Earth’s Will Leitch, FanGraphs (and many other places’) Wendy Thurm, Bleacher Report’s King Kaufman and many, many others.
Formed in 2009, the IBWAA functions like a shadow government in a parliamentary system, offering its own voting for the Hall of Fame and for postseason awards. I can’t speak for its leadership or membership, but I find it a fun process aimed at perpetuating the baseball conversation in a more focused way as opposed to some serious “storm the barricades” thing regarding the BBWAA. The BBWAA isn’t going anywhere and isn’t letting people like me in, so it’s fun to have an alternative outlet for the imaginary Hall of Fame and awards ballots we’re all doing anyway.
The point of me mentioning the IBWAA is this: we had our IBWAA Hall of Fame vote recently. Four people received 75% of the vote or more: Maddux, Glavine, Thomas and Biggio. Given that Biggio himself only fell two votes short in the BBWAA vote, our IBWAA thing — in results anyway — is pretty much in the margin of error of the real McCoy. Jeff Bagwell didn’t get in. Barry Bonds and Rogers Clemens did not get in.They had higher vote totals than the BBWAA gave them, but they still fell short. The complete results can be seen here. (note: I originally had Mike Piazza in the “didn’t get in” list, but the IBWAA inducted him last year so, well, yes, some groups can do a bit better than the BBWAA).
The point here is that, even though the electorate is comprised of people who don’t carry the same baggage as many in the BBWAA — people who don’t cover or care deeply about baseball, people who are afraid of sabermetrics, people who do not think an entire era is corrupt — it’s still almost impossible to come to a consensus on more than a small handful of players. There are still voters in this (for lack of a better term) enlightened group of people who view PED use as an automatic grounds for exclusion. Or don’t appreciate the all-around greatness of Alan Trammell. Or, at the moment, somehow don’t think that Mike Mussina is anywhere close to deserving of election.
I think this would be true of an electorate comprised of almost any demographic. Fans. So-called experts. Broadcasters. Any combination of people many have been throwing around as a better electorate than the current BBWAA crowd. No matter how you put it together, you’re likely still to get about three or four inductees, and certainly not all the ones a lot of us think are deserving. People just fundamentally can’t agree on a lot in large enough groups, and that’s especially true of baseball stuff.
All that being said, I do not want my friends in the BBWAA to get all smug. Which, by the way, we’ve seen quite a bit of in the past 48 hours. Patting themselves on the back for what is, inarguably, a great group of inductees. And echoing my points above about how no group of people would do better. Those things may be true, but it’s only part of the story and it doesn’t absolve the BBWAA of its many, many sins.
Process matters, not just the results. No one would fully accept a flawed political election’s results as wonderful just because, well, the right guy basically won and because it wold be too hard and messy to create a perfect process. Likewise in baseball, we should not accept ill-informed and unqualified voters, opportunities for grandstanding, the airing of personal vendettas and procedural rules which have no purpose and do a lot of harm. A good result notwithstanding, those sorts of abuses should still be highlighted and criticized. Those flaws should still be fixed. A process that, by accident of history, happens to be the best we’ve been able to come up with yet should not be assumed to be perfect and forever immune from change. Baseball writers who point to the current inductees and say “we did JUST FINE, so you shut your piehole!” are like pilots who skidded a landing off the end of the runway, turn around to their passengers and say, “Well, we got you here. Quit complaining.”
Change is needed and I think, eventually, it will come. The IBWAA just voted the other day to increase its ballot to 15 players as opposed to ten. The BBWAA will probably do that too (though it’ll take them way longer and they’ll fight about it because that’s how the BBWAA rolls). When these and other changes occur we should applaud them and we should continue to demand improvements wherever we can see the need for them and however we can accomplish them.
We should not, however, do so in the hopes of getting our preferred candidates into the Hall of Fame. Because no matter what changes, it’s still going to be an exercise in getting hundreds of people to agree on something, and that never happens. We should do so only in the hopes of cleaning up a messy system and making the process one in which baseball fans and baseball writers alike can have confidence and about which they can be proud.