Saturday, December 20, 2014

Don't Vote for Pedro: A Strategic-Voting Guide to the Hall of Fame

This year, I was excited and honored to be accepted into the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America (IBWAA), an alternative to the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA) for bloggers and other web-based baseball writers. I'm a big fan so far; the IBWAA is open and accepting, it's full of knowledgeable baseball scribes I look up to, and it allows members to participate in BBWAA-style elections of their own—including for the Hall of Fame. As a result, on December 15, I submitted my first Hall of Fame ballot of any kind. My ballot was thoroughly researched, cross-referenced, and revised, and I'm now confident it represents my ideal vision on who should enter the Hall.

It's also completely different from how I'd want actual Hall of Fame voters to vote.

Wait, what?

Unfortunately, due to complicated and outdated Hall of Fame election rules, the list of players most deserving of the Hall of Fame and the ideal Hall of Fame ballot are two different things. This is especially true if, like me, you believe a lot more people deserve to be enshrined in the Hall than the 10 that the BBWAA allows its members to vote for. On the "big Hall vs. small Hall" spectrum, I'm pretty far to one extreme; there are 24 players on the BBWAA and IBWAA ballots that I believe should be Hall of Famers. In order of most slam-dunk to most borderline case, they are:

1. Barry Bonds
2. Roger Clemens
3. Randy Johnson
4. Pedro Martínez
5. Jeff Bagwell
6. Mike Piazza*
7. Curt Schilling
8. Mike Mussina
9. Tim Raines
10. Alan Trammell
(11. Barry Larkin)*
12. Craig Biggio*
13. Mark McGwire
14. Edgar Martínez
15. Larry Walker
16. John Smoltz
17. Sammy Sosa
18. Gary Sheffield
19. Jeff Kent
20. Fred McGriff
21. Brian Giles
22. Lee Smith
23. Nomar Garciaparra
24. Carlos Delgado

* Piazza and Biggio aren't on the IBWAA ballot, since the IBWAA "elected" them in previous years. However, Barry Larkin is on the IBWAA ballot, since he's never reached 75% among that organization as he did in 2012 with the BBWAA.

For the IBWAA ballot, which has no direct consequences for actually deciding players' fate, voting solely on the baseball merits will do just fine—hence the ballot I submitted of Bonds, Clemens, Johnson, Pedro, Bagwell, Schilling, Mussina, Raines, Trammell, Larkin, McGwire, Edgar, Walker, Smoltz, and Sosa. (The IBWAA imposes a cap of 15 votes per ballot, not the 10 limited by the BBWAA.) But if I had an actual Hall of Fame vote, my ballot would look much, much different.

That's because baseball merits aren't the only consideration. As politically minded readers know, it's equally important to maximize the impact of your vote. A vote is much more likely to make the difference in a close election than in a landslide. For Hall of Fame voters who, like me, can't fit all their preferred candidates onto one ballot, it's important to vote strategically.

Due to the unique setup of the Hall of Fame election, there are exactly two important numbers: 75% (the percentage required for induction) and 5% (the minimum percentage a player must receive to not be dropped from the ballot next year). As a result, the election is only suspenseful for—and your vote will only matter for—players who flirt with these marks. Thus, any BBWAA voter agonizing over which deserving players to prioritize on his or her ballot should start with those expected to fall inside two important ranges: between about 70% and 80% of the vote and below 10%.

Based on last year’s results as well as early "exit polls" of this year’s ballots, there are only three players sitting on the cusp of 75%, whose Hall of Fame fate is in real suspense: Smoltz, Biggio, and Piazza. This trio should be the starting point for any strategic ballot. Much lengthier is the list of candidates who are at risk of missing the 5% cutoff. Last winter, Kent, McGriff, McGwire, Walker, Don Mattingly, and Sosa all received less than 16% of the vote; on a ballot growing more and more crowded by the year, their support will only shrink in 2015. Of newcomers, Sheffield, Giles, Garciaparra, and Delgado are the four best-qualified candidates most likely to garner less than 5% support. That’s 10 endangered species right there, whereas our imaginary ballot has just seven slots left. Not everyone thinks all 10 of these men are Hall of Famers, so reasonable people can disagree on how best to allot the valuable seven remaining slots. For me, Mattingly is not a Hall of Famer, and Garciaparra and Delgado are iffy cases. I could live with myself if they didn’t survive the election.

Therefore, my ideal BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot would read Smoltz, Biggio, Piazza, Kent, McGriff, McGwire, Walker, Sosa, Sheffield, and Giles. Without a doubt, this would be one of the screwiest ballots ever submitted. It excludes players who everyone, myself included, agrees are better than the players actually on it. This year, everyone agrees that Johnson and Pedro are first-ballot Hall of Famers. But that means they are also locks to get upward of 80% or 90% of the vote—making them the biggest no-brainers for a smart voter to leave off his or her ballot. Of course, this isn't always the easiest call to make on a gut level. Many writers are just uncomfortable with not voting for who they believe to be the most qualified individuals on the ballot; it seems perverse. Well, it is, but these are the contortions that the overcrowded ballot and the limiting 10-vote cap force voters into. Some would also argue that achieving a unanimous election is important for the most elite players, but this too is silly; the Hall has never given extra credit for being elected unanimously, and being a Hall of Famer is a binary state—either you are one or you're not.

Likewise, the ballot leaves off the two people I believe are most qualified for the honor—without whose inclusion the idea of a Hall of Fame seems silly and pointless. But thanks to their history with performance-enhancing drugs, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are again destined for baseball purgatory with about 35% of the vote. Bagwell, Schilling, Mussina, Raines, Trammell, and Edgar Martínez are other examples of worthier players than most of the men I champion; nevertheless, supporting them on a BBWAA ballot would be like throwing that vote away, as it is a virtual certainty that they will once again register somewhere in the no-man’s land between 10% and 70%.

Regardless of this reality, most, if not all, BBWAA members will vote with their hearts, not their heads. That’s no surprise; after all, remember the myth of the rational voter. One of the great foibles of political science is that voting is fundamentally irrational; the likelihood that your individual vote will matter is so remote. Yet millions of people still do it. In baseball, even though many voters recognize that the system is broken, they’ll keep casting irrational votes.

If I’m honored enough to have any BBWAA voters reading this, I urge you to break the mold and reconsider. I urge you to vote only for Smoltz, Biggio, Piazza, and whomever you wish to protect from elimination. Your ballot may not end up containing the most deserving players—not by a long shot. But it will contain the most needing ones.

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