Yesterday Buster Olney said that he would abstain from voting for the Hall of Fame due to the ridiculous choices and strategies the arbitrary 10-vote limit on Hall of Fame ballots causes voters to make. Tyler Kepner of the New York Times — who is eligible to vote but does not per his paper’s rules — looks at the problem himself today and he has a different solution: don’t vote for Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens.
Not that he thinks they shouldn’t be in the Hall — without checking back at all of his stuff my impression is that Kepner probably would support their candidacies if he voted — but because their continued presence on the ballot is the source of the logjam. It’s a fact that they will maintain more than 5% of the vote and stay on the ballot. It’s also certain, absent a radical change in the electorate’s collective mind, that neither Bonds nor Clemens will get the 75% needed for induction, thus filling up two of the ten slots on the ballot for years to come and squeezing out others. Kepner believes, correctly, given current realities, that Bonds and Clemens are a case for the Veteran’s Committee, so let’s get them there faster and make room for others.
This approach is, without question, logically sound. But it’s also kind of galling that such an approach seems necessary. Kepner notes that a BBWAA committee is coming up with recommendations for changes to the Hall of Fame ballot, including the elimination of the 10-vote rule. That would help.
But it’s also the case that freeing the roughly 35% of the people who vote for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens of their responsibilities to those two candidates is not some panacea. Yes, some of them are forced by circumstances to not vote for a player they want to, but knowing what we know about voter habits, the 60% or so not voting for Bonds and Clemens are not currently supporting, say, Edgar Martinez in large numbers. Nor are those 35% voting for Bonds or Clemens champing at the bit to vote for Fred McGriff or Lee Smith.
The fact is that ballot crush — while certainly a problem — is not as big a problem as it’s made out to be. In the voting for the 2013 inductees, only 22 percent of voters used all ten slots on their ballots. Last year, in perhaps the most loaded Hall of Fame ballot of all time, only 50 percent of voters filled out all 10 spots. What’s really going on is that a huge number of voters simply aren’t voting for the many, many worthy candidates on the ballot, for whatever reason. And that’s before we even get to the gimmicky ballots or blank ballot protest votes which enrage so many.
Getting rid of the ballot limit will help a bit. And it will certainly ease the minds of “big hall” voters who, like me, see at least 12 and maybe as many as 15 great candidates on the current ballot and would like to vote for them all. But it’s not a sufficient step. What is truly needed is for the BBWAA to cull and reorganize the electorate itself.
As it stands, once you are eligible to vote for the Hall of Fame, you get that vote for life, which means that a great many voters who are no longer covering baseball — including many who never really covered baseball in a meaningful way — get a vote. Editors who oversaw baseball writers for a time. People who covered baseball for a few minutes during the Carter Administration but later went on to do other things. At the moment, the BBWAA will take away everyday credentials from a member if he or she is not affiliated with a BBWAA-approved outlet for two years, yet it will not take away a Hall of Fame vote from someone who has had no professional need to pay attention to baseball for decades.
Meanwhile, a lot of reporters who live and breathe baseball and have done so for many, many years do not get to vote because they have not achieved a standard just as arbitrary as the ten vote limit: ten years of BBWAA tenure. In this instance I think of guys like Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He’s one of the best in the business and has been for a long time. He’s now the vice president of the BBWAA. He also did not get a Hall of Fame ballot until this year because he did not have his ten years in. There is no logical reason why he shouldn’t have been allowed to vote for the past decade while some guy who has covered golf or olympic sports since the 80s has cast ballots each year and will until they die.
The counterargument to this is that, since there is a historical element to all of this, having legacy voices is useful. Perhaps, but only to a very small degree. Many of those old voters have been out of the baseball game for the entire length of some current candidates’ careers and never saw them once, undercutting the “eyewitness to history” argument. At the same time, currently active and working BBWAA members are, just like anyone else, entirely capable of assessing the careers of players they did not actively cover or did not cover for long. Indeed, the entirety of baseball analysis and scholarship is based on the work of people who did not see Player X play talking about and contextualizing Player X’s career, rendering the “I saw him play” argument is a fallacy. More generally speaking, even if you aren’t into super advanced metrics, it is inescapable that the state of the art in baseball analysis has changed an awful lot in the past 25 or 30 years. No organization I know of outside of baseball — including historically-minded organizations — would continue to grant special and influential status to people who have no reason to keep up with advances in the field while eschewing fresher voices, yet the BBWAA does this with the Hall of Fame.
One would think that the BBWAA would want to have its brightest, most engaged members involved in the Hall of Fame voting process as opposed to treating a Hall of Fame vote like a gold watch given out at retirement or some sort of sinecure. It does so already with the postseason awards, giving the vote to currently active writers who are, by professional necessity, engaged in covering and study of baseball. And, as a result, the awards voting, while prone to some occasional dustups, has not resulted in the wholesale rejection of baseball accomplishment the way the Hall of Fame voting has come to do. And, as baseball thinking and analysis has improved, the awards voting has as well.
The removal of the 10-vote limit is a good thing. It’s a start. But it’s not going to fully get at the larger problem of a Hall of Fame that is missing a great many of the greatest players of all time. One thing that would do that is to address the composition of the Hall of Fame electorate itself. That is within the control of the BBWAA and is not something the Hall of Fame itself has to pass on. Here’s hoping some of the bright minds in the BBWAA are considering it.