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The 2023 Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot, Part I: A Philosophical Primer
An overview of the quirks of Cooperstown voting and how I evaluate players
When I sat down to write this post, it was intended to be about my hypothetical ballot for the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s 2023 class. I have always been passionate about the Cooperstown selection process, and in the days when I wrote about baseball regularly I probably spilled more digital ink about the Hall of Fame than any other topic (maybe save for one). So now that I’m free to write about baseball again, I was excited to dive back into the debates with my picks for the players I would send to Cooperstown this year.
Then I accidentally churned out 2,500 words’ worth of my thoughts on the Hall of Fame voting process before I wrote up a single currently eligible player. I guess that’s what happens when you have a lot of pent-up thoughts and no editor.
So I’m dividing my Hall of Fame content for the year into (hopefully only) two parts. What follows here is a high-level overview of the nuances of the voting process and how I evaluate players in the Cooperstown context. For my non-baseball-obsessive subscribers (thank you for not closing this tab yet), I hope this helps illustrate why the seemingly straightforward process of honoring the game’s heroes has become so frustrating and controversial. For my fellow baseball-history enthusiasts who are ready to argue with my imaginary ballot, I hope seeing how I make my sausage will lead to more-constructive debates after I detail my picks in my next post.
The quirks of the voting process
If you were creating a selection process for a professional sports hall of fame, you’d probably design a framework along these lines:
Every year, the league compiles a list of players who retired that season and met some career-length threshold or simple statistical criteria.
Within a few years of a group retiring, a panel of experts and insiders votes on the members of each alumni class.
Any candidate who reaches a given level of support gets inducted. Those who fall short do not, unless and until special circumstances arise for their candidacies to be reconsidered.
The Baseball Hall of Fame’s election system starts as you would expect. Each year, 10 to 20 players with at least a decade of service time are added to the Cooperstown ballot, five seasons after they hung up their cleats. Ballots are distributed to veteran journalists from the Baseball Writers Association of America — specifically, those who have covered baseball for a major outlet both for at least 10 years and within the last 10 years. A player needs 75% of the vote to gain induction, which is no small feat given the cross-generational diversity in how writers evaluate players and weigh the moral concerns of the Steroid Era. Twice in the last decade, the BBWAA has not elected anyone.
The first notable quirk of the Cooperstown system is that newly eligible players are not alone on the ballot. Candidates who fall short of induction but receive at least 5% of the vote remain in consideration next year, up to a total of 10 times. Unsurprisingly, the range from 5% to 75% includes a lot of players. This year marks the third time in a row in which there are at least as many holdovers on the ballot as there are newcomers. Given that retired players are by definition not burnishing their résumés between elections (though hold that thought), this creates electoral logjams as the same candidates are judged by the same body of voters in consecutive years and usually still fall short — to the measurable actuarial detriment of the players seeking immortality. Those who miss out on enshrinement this way still have hope for future induction via the Era Committees, smaller panels who reconsider historical figures from rotating categories of ages past. This year’s Contemporary Baseball Era nominees include three players (Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Curt Schilling) who appeared on the BBWAA ballot as recently as last winter, and who are thus being considered for the 11th year in a row.
Yet the problems with the holdover system are somewhat mitigated by two even stupider quirks of the BBWAA’s process. To start, a player being elected on their first ballot is commonly considered a status symbol reserved for only the upper echelon of worthy players, so it is at least heavily rumored that some number of voters prefer to make even some deserving candidates wait. Getting into the Hall on your second try can be intended as a backhanded compliment, an almost-unbelievably petty way for the voters to turn a celebration of baseball greatness into a process story. It’s the same mindset of self-important gatekeeping that led the BBWAA to withhold unanimous election from everyone — not Babe Ruth, not Willie Mays, not Henry Aaron — until the unwritten rule was finally broken for Mariano Rivera in 2019.
Stranger still is that it is common or even expected for candidates to steadily gain support over time. For example, 2023 holdover candidate Scott Rolen got 63% of the vote last year, his fifth time on the ballot. His reaching Cooperstown this time would imply that one out of every eight veteran journalists who are paid to watch and analyze baseball remembers his career differently now than they did a year ago. It sounds ridiculous, right? At least until you look at how Rolen’s vote share has already grown: The jump from 63% to 75% would be nothing compared to how his support has already skyrocketed from the 10% he got in his debut in 2018. In other words, one could infer that a majority of the BBWAA electorate somehow believes that Rolen was a notably better player ten years after he retired than he was five years after he retired. Sometimes such surges stem from campaigns of fan support, but the privilege of voting for the Hall is reserved for those who are trusted do such research themselves.
Speaking of which, my single biggest pet peeve about the process is that the ballots are secret by default. Most voters reveal their choices in an article or through social media, but they are not required to do so. The secret ballot is of course a foundational tenet of representative democracy, but it makes considerably less sense when voting is a voluntary privilege granted only to people with professional expertise in communicating baseball analysis to the masses. At best, it demonstrates questionable journalistic ethics to obscure your role in creating the news you cover. At worst, anonymous voting facilitates the petty politicking of the selection process by allowing writers to snub worthy players without scrutiny — and in fact, as I used to doggedly document, voters are more likely to leave the best players off their ballots when they don’t have to explain why.
The other major wrinkle in the selection process is the vote maximum. Each writer can select only up to 10 players. Depending on the year, most voters don’t reach this limit — last year only 36% of publicly released ballots were full, and that rate was probably even lower for anonymous ones — but it creates additional strategic considerations for those who do. Writers who believe there are 11 or more worthy candidates on the ballot are ostensibly supposed to pick the 10 who are most deserving, but from a game-theory perspective the restriction incentivizes voters to prioritize players whom they think are close to the thresholds for being either inducted or held over. Shoring up a longshot candidate’s chances to get 5% and stay on the ballot or helping a borderline player reach 75% to be elected is a more-impactful use of your vote than padding the margin for someone who will get in anyway, even if you agree that the latter is a better player.
Evaluating on-field worthiness
It probably won’t surprise you that my approach to player analysis hews more to modern sabermetrics than traditional statistics. Having said that, I tend to look for reasons why a player is worthy of Cooperstown rather than why he isn’t. Sometimes that means consulting numbers that I would consider oversimplified or even outdated in other contexts. Would I ever use a pitcher’s win-loss record or a hitter’s runs batted in to evaluate a current player? I can’t imagine why. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the significance of milestones like 300 wins and 1,500 RBI, if only as indicators of playing at a high level over an impressively long period of time.
The other way my thinking about the Hall of Fame deviates from sabermetric orthodoxy is in prioritizing players who are great at specific facets of the game over those who are solid across the board. As the historian Dr. Bret Devereaux articulates well (albeit in a very different context), “‘Greatness’ is about extent, amount, ability, or eminence: great means ‘very big’ not ‘very good.’” In a foil of how debates about the MVP award commonly revolve around the difference between good and valuable, disagreements about who belongs in Cooperstown are often based on the distinction between good and exceptional. The ten players on a given ballot whom I consider most-essential to telling the story of baseball usually aren’t the same as the ten whom I would have most-strongly recommended that my team acquire.
Consider the case of Adam Dunn. Dunn was never seen as one of the best players in the game; to the contrary, towards the end of his career he authored one of the worst seasons for an MLB hitter of my lifetime. In 2020, his only year on the ballot, he got exactly one Hall of Fame vote…out of 397. Yet I’ve long believed that he deserves a spot in Cooperstown in recognition of being the greatest Three-True Outcomes hitter (meaning a disproportionate number of his plate appearances ended in strikeouts, walks, or home runs) of all time — an argument that I think has held up well in the years since he retired, as league strikeout rates have skyrocketed and teams are increasingly willing to accept the tradeoff of frequent strikeouts for big power for which he helped blaze the trail. If you don’t find that convincing, here’s a more-concise argument: Regardless of what he did for the rest of his career, Adam Dunn should be in the Hall of Fame because there is no accolade in baseball history cooler than being the only MLB player to hit a home run into another state.
Evaluating off-field worthiness
Content warning: domestic and sexual violence
In recent years, the elephant in the Plaque Gallery has been how to handle performance-enhancing drugs. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens’ well-established use of PEDs is the reason why neither is enshrined in Cooperstown despite their having strong claims to be the best player and pitcher, respectively, of all time. Even what ultimately amounts to a widespread rumor was enough to keep Sammy Sosa, who at the time of his retirement had the fifth-most career home runs in MLB history, out of the Hall. Generally speaking, such doping allegations do not deter me from supporting a player’s candidacy. PEDs had been an open secret, if not openly celebrated, for more than a century before the height of the Steroid Era. As I’ve argued previously, the fact that Mark McGwire was caught red-handed with a bottle of androstenedione and received no punishment makes it hard to retroactively accuse him of cheating, even if it would be seen as such today. I’m also more skeptical than the average fan about how much of an advantage juicers really gained through artificial means, especially since other exogenous factors like ballpark sizes, ball composition, and quality of competition already complicate the assumption of a level playing field (pun intended). I’m more sympathetic to the notion that a player who was actually contemporaneously punished for a rule violation should be demerited (though there is precedence for this in Cooperstown too), and I’m open to considering PED usage as a tiebreaker for borderline candidates, but it does not play a major part in my evaluation process.
The questions get significantly thornier for me when applying the so-called “character clause” to moral issues outside of the game. Many candidates who are absolutely worthy of being honored as players have done things that should preclude their being celebrated as people. For example, while keeping Bonds and Clemens out of Cooperstown because of PEDs may be silly, it’s probably for the best that the Hall of Fame did not devote a weekend to venerating a man who repeatedly beat his ex-wife or a literal child-groomer.
I’ve written before that I don’t believe compartmentalizing fandom from morality is necessarily wrong, if only because rooting against genuinely bad people in the context of a sporting event cheapens the significance of the social ills they symbolize. I also know that these ethical questions are not fun to argue about the way on-field accolades are, that outwardly pleasant people may still have malice in their hearts, and that caring about such scandals can feel lonely and frustrating when much of the electorate will discount them unless, as in the case of Curt Schilling, they are too salient in the zeitgeist to ignore. (This phenomenon is not unique to sports; over 150 million people combined to vote for one of two credibly accused sexual assaulters in the last Presidential election.) Even among those who prioritize morality in Hall of Fame discussions, reasonable people can disagree about where to draw the line, and whether or how to distinguish between engaging in appalling behavior and emblematizing it. But would it really do the game or the world a service to invite someone as reprehensible as Omar Vizquel, who faces a litany of domestic violence, sexual harassment, and ableist bullying allegations dating as recently as 2019, to the podium? It is the voters’ responsibility to consider the message it would send to his victims, and those who have been harmed by similar abusers, to see tens of thousands of fans cheering for him in Cooperstown.
If you’ve made it this far, you have learned everything you could ever care to know about how I think about the Hall of Fame — except whom I consider to be good enough to get in this year. To be continued…
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