Mo-nanimous

Here’s something from last week, written after Mariano Rivera became the first-ever unanimous selection to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

This is something I confidently predicted would never happentwice, in fact. Shows what I know. Rivera broke the barrier, though – not only because he was easily the best relief pitcher ever, but also because of who he was over the 19 years he played Major League Baseball.

The flawed Hall of Fame ballot

Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza are going in to the Hall of Fame. Both clearly belong, and Griffey was almost unanimous.

Almost.

Now, predictably, there are some demanding explanations from the three voters who left Griffey off. MLB.com’s Phil Rogers believes they owe fans an explanation:

What were you possibly thinking when you left Ken Griffey Jr. off your Hall of Fame ballot? How can you possibly justify turning a cold shoulder on a center fielder who won 10 straight Gold Glove Awards, hit 630 home runs and was the face of his generation?

First off, this isn’t how democracy works. Votes are kept secret at the discretion of the voter for a reason: to allow for unpopular opinions.

Second, let’s not pretend like this is an election for something really important. Baseball is entertainment. It’s interesting. It’s fun to follow and talk about. But we aren’t discussing what to do about ISIS here.

Third, this process really isn’t how democracy works. The voters (who, incidentally, are baseball reporters and not players, managers, or front office members) get ten votes, which they can use on anyone within the pool of eligible players. It isn’t a straight up-and-down vote on each career, but a selection of the ten most worthy from an arbitrary pool.

Rogers and others acknowledge the concept of a “strategic vote” – the idea that, with Griffey a likely lock to get 75% of the vote, a few writers could hedge their bets and vote for someone else if they felt strongly for them. One year ago, I made a case for doing just that. At ESPN, Jayson Stark wrote about leaving Mike Mussina off the ballot because he only had 10 spots to work with. Stark felt Mussina was deserving, but couldn’t vote for him. Kevin Davidoff of the New York said Tim Raines was his eleventh choice.  Raines fell 23 votes short, which makes you wonder how many eleventh votes he would have gotten.

The point is not that the three voters who skipped Griffey have a compelling case for keeping him out of the Hall of Fame, but that the voting system doesn’t do what it was intended to do – which is provide a referendum on each player’s career.

 

 

 

The case against Ken Griffey Jr. (Or, there will never be a unanimous Hall of Famer, but that’s ok.)

After the Baseball Hall of Fame announced its 2015 class yesterday, some of the annual grousing about the results centered on winning vote totals. Arizona and Boston writers wondered why Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez were not unanimous selections. That echoes a 2013 Joe Posnanski article which claims at least 20 previous inductees should have been unanimous selections – the likes of Tom Seaver, Cal Ripken, and Willie Mays. Speculation about how close Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter will get is already underway.

Rivera and Jeter might get deservedly close, but neither will be unanimous. Neither will Ken Griffey Jr. when he reaches the ballot next year. The reason why is in the nature of the vote: Writers are asked to name up to ten former players who belong in the Hall of Fame. One player’s vote total versus another’s doesn’t matter – it’s not like only the top four vote-getters make the cut. Everyone named on 75% of the ballots gets in. Conceivably, there could be up to 12 or 13 inductees in any given year.

Look at the list of potential candidates next year. Griffey and Trevor Hoffman seems like slam dunks, and Mike Piazza looks likely. Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines have gotten a good amount of buzz this year and may creep closer. Then there’s the steroid caucus – Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and a handful of others – who will get significant votes but probably not make the cut because of admitted or suspected PED use. Just below them are a group of players who were good but not no-doubt Hall of Famers. Each Fred McGriff, Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina, or Jim Edmonds will have their case made by writers who saw them play.

Let’s pretend we’re an elector. Our ballot has ten spots. We vote for Griffey, Hoffman, Piazza, Bagwell, and Raines. We think Bonds and Clemens would be in even without the steroid-fueled parts of their career, so we include them, along with Gary Sheffield and his 509 home runs. That’s eight spots taken, we have two more for McGriff, Schilling, Mussina. But wait! Billy Wagner’s 422 saves and Garrett Anderson’s 2,500 hits are still there, not to mention the old YouTube clips of Edmonds playing centerfield. (Seriously, compare this one to Matthew McConaughey’s grab in Angels in the Outfield. Sidebar: How loaded was the cast of Angles in the Outfield? You had Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Adrien Brody, and McConaughey in a movie where Danny Glover and Tony Danza get top billing. That’s pinch hitting Hemmerling for Mitchell.)

Assuming you believe strongly that at least 11 of the 14 players listed belong in the Hall of Fame, whom do you leave off? Remember the loaded ballot means any of those candidates could plummet below the 5% threshold and not get a second chance, so dropping the least worthy and waiting until next year may not be the best strategy.

The most rational candidate is Griffey. In future years, it would be Rivera, or Jeter.

Griffey will surely be named on almost every ballot, so one vote one way or the other wouldn’t make a difference in his election. But one vote could help some of those other, not-quite-sure-thing candidates stay on the ballot or build momentum for future years. If a writer seriously believes in ten candidates beyond the shoe-ins, he or she should absolutely vote this way.

In any election, blowouts reduce turnout. Knowing Griffey, Jeter, and Rivera will top 95% means writers holding the torch for lesser candidates have every reason to leave the no-brainers off their ballot.

Peer Pressure and Hall Of Fame Voting

ESPN’s Jayson Stark struggled with his Hall of Fame ballot this year.  You can see why if you look at the official ballot – there are an awful lot of good players on there, so picking only 10 must have been tough to begin with.  And then there’s this dilemma which Stark faced:

I tried ranking them … But the more I considered voting according to any top-10 list I could come up with, the more I felt that many of those votes were going to be “wasted,” on players who couldn’t possibly get elected.

When a friend asked me to share my picks on Facebook, I never thought to include Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens.  Mike Piazza was a tentative addition.  Unlike the Rafeal Palmeiros and Sammy Sosas of the world, there seems to be general consensus that these three would have been Hall of Famers with or without the steroid use they have been accused of.  Stark is right though – voting for Clemens or Bonds is a wasted vote, because there is no prayer that either gets the 75% needed for induction.  

I wonder how that will affect the other candidacies.  Individual voters may not believe the performance-enhancing drug rumors around Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, but do they have confidence other voters are buying them?  With so  many deserving names on the ballot, why cast your lot for someone more likely to hover around 60% when someone like Jack Morris may be just a few votes away from baseball immortality?

For what it’s worth, my ballot would have been Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Craig Biggio, Piazza, Morris, Frank Thomas, Bagwell, Edgar “The Antichrist” Martinez (grudgingly), Don Mattingly, and Alan Trammell.  (I don’t actually have a ballot, so it’s worth nothing.)  Mike Mussina, Moises Alou, and Tim Raines also deserve election, but should have some years of eligibility left.  

Storming the Hall

Major League Baseball linked to this article from its Twitter feed today.  It’s an impassioned case for Fernando Valenzuela to make the Hall of Fame.

What a joke, right?  No rational fan who looks at the stats could possibly think that, right?

Luckily, the author talks more about Fernandomania, and what he meant to the LA Dodgers of the 1980s.  “I won’t write about all of his statistics,” says Sarah Morris, “because they don’t tell the story.”

A few weeks ago, Major League Baseball announced a null class for 2013 induction.  Jack Morris and his splitter sat on the outside.  Advanced stats show that Morris didn’t have the best statistical career of any pitcher, and others in his era outperformed him over the long haul.  Morris’s candidacy comes down to pitching his team to a couple of titles and a 10-inning, 1-0 shutout in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series.

What is the Hall of Fame, though?

If it’s just about stats, there’s no need for voting.  A computer could crunch the numbers and, five years after a player’s career is over, either place him in or out based on statistics measured against his peers and those already in the Hall.  Heck, if it was all about stats, you wouldn’t even have to play the games, would you?  You could have a computer pick the champion.  Hey, it works for college football.

Halls of Fame are supposed to be museums to their respective sports, and baseball’s hall is the most revered.  All-time players are shut out if they carry the stench of cheating or gambling.  Players enshrined in a Hall of Fame should be excellent, but even more importantly they should be significant.

Bernie Williams was, by most statistical measures, a more prolific player than Don Mattingly, but was named on fewer ballots.  Most likely, the voters recognized Mattingly for being the face of the New York Yankees through a lean decade.  Williams, always a class act, was tempermentally similar to Mattingly in many ways, played a tougher position, and exceeded his production – but was never the rock the franchise was built around.   That counts for something, and it should.

As former Yankees broadcaster Jim Kaat said, “It’s a Hall of Fame, not a Hall of Achievement.”  Reggie Jackson hit 563 home runs, but there are only three that fans think of instantly when they see his spot on the wall.  Three thousand hits is nice and everything, but the hushed reverence you hear around Roberto Clemente’s plaque recalls his selfless end.

There are simply no sabermetrics for fame; the Hall is subjective, as it should be.  Remember, this isn’t anything serious.  It’s literally just a game.

Should Mattingly be a Hall of Famer?  That answer probably depends on how old you were when he was in his prime, and what team you rooted for – and its the same way with Morris’s take on Fernando Valenzuela.

Except Morris is completely wrong because the Dodgers suck.