Thursday, August 13, 2015

Hall of Fame Voter Turnout Is About to Hit a Historic Low—But How Low?

Low turnout is usually a bad thing, but not when it comes to the Hall of Fame. Last year, 549 people voted in that particular election—and it was too many. Those 549 included sportswriters and retirees who hadn't covered baseball in years, decades even—people who have barely seen the great players of this century play, and people who know nothing of the gigantic strides we've made in just the last 10–15 years in how we evaluate players' value. Those people had no business voting for the Hall of Fame in 2015. Thankfully, as of 2016, they won't be eligible to—meaning turnout is about to sink even lower. Yay!

The total number of votes cast is something every Hall of Fame watcher should care about. Why? A lower turnout means a lower denominator from which to calculate how many votes (75% of the total number cast) are sufficient to open the gates to Cooperstown. Recently, with years of very level, predictable turnout (573, 569, 571, and 549 voters the last four years), it's been a pretty safe bet that a player needs well over 400 writers on his side. But the Hall of Fame's new eligibility rules have changed the game: no one knows how many voters will be left to still cast ballots. Will 384 votes (the number Mike Piazza got in 2015) be enough to clear 75%? Will 306 (Jeff Bagwell)? Will 302 (Tim Raines)?

Let's flip over the napkin and do some math. According to various reports, last year there were approximately 650 BBWAA members eligible to vote for the Hall of Fame. To use election lingo, let's call them registered voters.

Of these, about 570 regularly cast ballots (there was a slight dip to 549 voters in 2015, but so far that looks like an outlier in otherwise very steady data). In politics, they'd be called likely voters. That leaves about 80 writers who, for one reason or another, appear to always abstain from voting. We'll call them unlikely voters. Under unchanged circumstances, we'd expect 570 votes to be cast in 2016 (88% turnout), since that is the number of likely voters who usually turn out.

Then last month happened. Countless registered voters were purged from the rolls. The Chicago Tribune actually asked the secretary/treasurer of the BBWAA, who revealed that the Hall of Fame's new guidelines would exclude 20% of the previous electorate, or 130 people. So we know that the number of registered voters will be down to about 520 next year.

What we don't know is how many of those purged 130 were likely voters and how many were unlikely voters. This is where we have to resort to (educated) guesswork.

I believe it is reasonable to assume that a disproportionate number of the purged were unlikely voters. For all of the grumbling about old-timey know-nothings who ruin the Hall of Fame process by voting for Tim Raines and Alan Trammell and nobody else, I'm sure that a lot of retired baseball writers simply don't vote. Maybe they don't feel qualified to anymore; maybe they saw voting as part of their old job but now see that part of their life as behind them. Maybe they used to be proud to vote for the Hall—a combination of democracy and baseball that once made America great!—but are now boycotting it because steroids and spreadsheets have destroyed baseball forever. Maybe they just don't know they're still allowed to vote.

However, we know for a fact that some of the unlikely voters are still-active baseball writers who will continue to be eligible to vote. The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution all do not allow their beat writers to vote for the Hall of Fame. Every year, you also have some writers announcing that they are purposefully abstaining from voting—usually as a protest, or because it has become too hard to decide.

Let's estimate that there are about three registered but unlikely voters at each newspaper that doesn't allow its writers to vote. The five I mentioned are the best known, but we're probably missing a couple smaller papers that also muzzle their writers. Let's round up and say 20 still-active baseball writers are unlikely for this reason.

We also know at least four writers abstained last year (Lynn Henning, Buster Olney, Tim Brown, and Bob Brookover). Presumably, a few other writers also do this every year, either on purpose or by accident. (Some people probably just forget to mail the ballot in by the deadline.) Let's say that 10 still-active baseball writers are unlikely for this reason.

So my best estimate is that 30 of the 80 unlikely voters are writers who will still retain the right to vote for the Hall in 2016. If so, that would mean 50 of the unlikely voters are retired and were just declared ineligible. That, in turn, means that 80 of the newly ineligible voters were, through 2015, regular Hall of Fame voters (130 total purged voters minus 50 purged unlikely voters equals 80 purged likely voters). Subtract them from the universe of 570 likely voters, and you're left with 490 likely voters for 2016.

2016 Universe Lower Bound Best Guess Upper Bound
Registered Voters 520520520
Likely Voters 440490510
Unlikely Voters 803010

Provisionally, I predict that 490 ballots will be cast in the 2016 Hall of Fame election—the fewest since 2002. The figure will almost certainly fall between 440 and 510. If my best guess is right, it would represent 94% turnout (490/520), significantly higher than in recent years.

The first rule of elections is that a different electorate leads to different results. With fewer old-school voters getting ballot access and the threshold for election being lowered to just 368 votes (again, if my best guess turns out to be accurate), the path to victory for a lot of sabermetric favorites becomes more clear. According to my calculations, "public" ballots (those released before the election results as a whole are announced) are far more likely to include names like Bagwell, Piazza, and especially Raines—as well as the names of more long-shot candidates like Curt Schilling, Barry Bonds, and Mike Mussina. It's widely thought that older-school voters or voters who are now retired are less likely to reveal their ballots, so the voter purge could have the effect of giving less weight to private ballots, which tend to be more conservative. (However, it's impossible to draw a straight line from one to the other, as we know that some now-purged voters have publicized their ballots in the past, just as we know that a great many ballots that remain private belong to still-active writers.) Hopefully, making sure that only the most qualified baseball writers vote will ensure that the most qualified players get elected.