Monday, July 28, 2014

One Hall of a Bad Idea

This weekend, the Baseball Hall of Fame announced some election-law changes. Effective immediately, players will only have 10 years on the ballot to make their case before dropping out of consideration—not 15 years as it has been for most of the Hall's history.

Let's get the editorializing out of the way: I think this was the coward's way out for the Hall of Fame. The calls for the Hall to reform its voting process have gotten ever louder in recent years, and it didn't seem like they were listening. Now they've finally made a change, but it was a passive-aggressive one—the exact opposite of confronting the very real issues facing the election process. It was a change that allowed them to dodge the issues even more.

By cutting off one-third of the eligibility period, the Hall of Fame is essentially targeting individual players to make it harder for them to get elected. Most of these players are those tainted with PED use. Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, who will be on the ballot this winter for the third time each, now have much less time to earn forgiveness from voters. Although I would have disagreed, the Hall could have come out and simply issued an election advisory—one that several voters have publicly said they wished for—that said steroid users were cheaters and should be ineligible for the Hall of Fame. Instead they invented a new rule that does the same thing, except it lets them pretend their hands are still clean, and it creates a permanent fix for a temporary problem.

I want to harp on that last point. In the Hall's obsession with appearing above the steroid fray, they've created a mechanism that will affect generations of players to come, as well as take out collateral victims in the present. Tim Raines, who will be on the ballot for the eighth time, has never been associated with steroids and will now probably fall off the ballot without being elected. They could have avoided this by making the change effective starting for candidates who are new to the ballot this year. But this wouldn't have spared them the embarrassment of the Bonds/Clemens/McGwire/Sosa debates for five more years. They valued their supposed decorum enough that they were willing to sacrifice a ballot full of players.

More than that: the Hall of Fame's actions implicitly said to some of its members, "We don't think you belong." Bert Blyleven, Jim Rice, Bruce Sutter, Duke Snider, Bob Lemon, Ralph Kiner, Dazzy Vance, Gabby Hartnett, Rabbit Maranville, Bill Terry, and Harry Heilmann were all elected in between their 10th and 15th years of eligibility. Under the new rules, they would have dropped off the ballot instead. One of the reasons the Hall made the change was to de-clog the coming logjam of candidates on the ballot. They could have instead decreed that a voter can vote for as many candidates as he or she wants, not just a maximum of 10, as the current rules state. Instead they decided to go more exclusive and solve the logjam by kicking more people off, not letting more in. This is not only an admission that Blyleven, Rice, Sutter, and their kin were mistakes, but also a denial of the size of Hall they already have. (This despite the fact that post-1990 baseball is dramatically underrepresented in the Hall of Fame already.) Like it or not, players elected from now on must meet a different, higher standard, making them somehow "purer" choices for the Hall than those guys. The Hall of Fame has succeeded in creating "tiers" of Hall of Famers.

There is one way—and one way only—that these election changes could actually be a good thing. There is one way that I could owe the Hall of Fame a massive apology.

That would be if the Hall of Fame is outsmarting all of us right now. If they've done their research and dug into the data and know for a fact the ripple effect that this change will have.

This change could redeem itself if it forces Hall voters (the BBWAA, in case you forgot) to change their behavior. As a close watcher of elections of any form, I've spent some time breaking down the trends of past Hall of Fame votes, and I'd say I know them pretty well. What I don't know is how those trends will hold up under different election laws. The new rules put us in new territory for predicting results. Will voters panic, knowing there is suddenly less time to elect players, and suddenly become more generous in allocating their votes? If so, will this be a one-time spike in this year's election, or will voters become permanently more open-minded?

A basic fact of Hall of Fame voting trends is that it often takes the full 15 years for players to build up to the 75% needed for election. Many eventual inductees started on the ballot at levels of support around 20% and added five or ten points each year to gradually climb. Take Blyleven, who attracted just 17.5% of the vote his first year on the ballot in 1998. He was finally elected in his 14th year of eligibility with 79.7% of the vote.

If the new rules had been in place while Blyleven was on the ballot, he'd have fallen off after 2007, when he got 47.7% of the vote.

Or would he? Maybe his timetable would have been accelerated as voters felt more rushed to consider his record. Could the Hall of Fame's new election rules cause steeper climbs than we're accustomed to seeing from candidates? Something like this?

I am honestly not sure. On one hand, I can't not believe that Tim Raines being two years away instead of seven from falling off the ballot will jolt more writers into taking his Hall case seriously. At the very least, more voters will sit down this winter and do some research into Raines's career where before they might have passed over his name, based perhaps on outdated memories or long-obsolete first impressions. And the accelerated timetable will surely force some voters to see that, now more than ever, a non-vote or a blank ballot are as affirmative an action as a "yes" vote. If the rule change makes it so that writers are comfortable with a 10-man ballot being the norm, rather than the conservative six votes per ballot that is the average today, then it will have been worth it.

On the other hand, many of the candidates on the ballot today are so polarizing that no degree of extra consideration will convince 75% of writers to vote for them. There is also little evidence that players currently get an abnormally large bump in support in their 15th year on the ballot, so why should they get one on their 10th now? Unfortunately, it doesn't look like writers consciously withhold their vote, but rather that the full 15 years are sometimes needed for a critical mass to "evolve" their thinking.

Maybe the Hall of Fame knows something we don't, and voters will change their behavior.

But given both the Hall's and the BBWAA's maddening track records, I'm not holding my breath.

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