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January 7, 2010 at 9:43 AM

Why the Hall of Fame voting process gives a guy up to 15 years to get in

Wow, it feels like Miami Beach out there in Seattle today, doesn’t it? Seriously, it does. Brrr. No less chilly on this site at times yesterday, but that’s OK. Mariners fans obviously wanted Edgar Martinez to get to the Hall of Fame (photo above) and were upset that not everybody with a vote feels the way that they do. It happens. By the way, welcome to all of our new followers and commenters. Glad to have you aboard.
One question that kept popping up yesterday — and it’s a very good one — was why the voting process works the way it does. Why do voting members, active and retired, from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, have up to 15 years to decide whether or not to vote a player into Cooperstown?
First off, for those wondering why the BBWAA gets to vote on this and not, say, fans, coaches, broadcasters, etc., the answer is, it’s always been their gig to vote on. I’m a big movie buff, but when the Academy Awards come up, guess what? They don’t send me a ballot. And I happen to think that a lot of their choices for awards are not the right ones. I mean, Million Dollar Baby for Best Picture? I’m a huge Clint Eastwood fan, but you’ve got to be kidding me. The first two hours was great, but the final 30 minutes was scribbled on the back of Clint’s cowboy hat.
So, as I was saying, we don’t always get what we want in life, especially when it comes to awards for achievement. I’m still waiting for the Academy voters to come on a blog and explain their Million Dollar Baby pick to me. Maybe one year, if I blow out the candles real hard…
So, if you want awards decided by players, you’ve already got them every year — the Players’ Choice awards. Something voted on by coaches? The Gold Gloves. Or the Seattle BBWAA chapter’s Unsung Player honor. By fans? You’ve got the All-Star Game lineups. Some years, the picks are very good. Other years, you’ve got your Million Dollar Babies.
The Hall of Fame in baseball is, I think, the best one in sports. You disagree? Take a look at the Hockey Hall of Fame, where a guy like Clark Gillies is allowed in. Sorry Islanders fans.
Make it in baseball and you know you’re among the elite that ever played. The voting is deliberately tough — 75 percent of more than 500 ballots needed.
And that’s why you need the 15 years. This isn’t a Star Chamber after all. Those of you advocating a “you’re either a Hall of Famer on the first ballot, or never” approach would make for nice “Hangin’ Judges” in the old West. But fortunately, the BBWAA is a little more progressive than that. The folks who created the voting system realized that the thought process of the day might not always be the most enlightened. Or, better yet, might need more time and an evolution in the way certain stats or player traits are looked at, before making a final decision. Just like our country’s legal system, we realized that new thinking might emerge — new jurisprudence, if you will — and re-write the existing precedents.
It’s a fundamental part of democracy. And Edgar Martinez will benefit from it. After all, if some of his biggest fans had their way with the voting regulations, he’d have no chance of ever getting in. One and done if you will. Fortunately for him, that isn’t the case.
Photo Credit: AP

And I happen to think that this is the best part of the Hall of Fame voting process. It’s extremely generous. Because 15 years is a long time. Don’t forget, a player already has to wait five years to become eligible. So, that’s two decades. If a player falls below 5 percent of voting in any year, he’s done. I agree with that. Otherwise, the system becomes clogged with hundreds of names on the ballot. Too many David Segui types who clearly are not Hall of Fame guys crowding up an already crowded list of names.
By the way, I mentioned this yesterday, but, in case you missed it, my Hall of Fame ballot had: Roberto Alomar, Andre Dawson, Bert Blyleven, and Tim Raines.
Hope that answers your questions on that.
With all four of those names, you can make a case that the 15-year system is needed because of the changing way that some stats are viewed.
Alomar will get in next year, his razor thin exclusion this time likely coming because of a handful of voters “penalizing” him for a spitting incident nearly 15 years ago. I don’t agree with that, but then again, I’m not always right.
Dawson, I think, got the nod because of his combined offensive and defensive play. We’ve seen a growing shift towards recognizing the value of defensive stats in recent years as well as a re-emergence of speed as a valued commodity. Back in the big-bopper, so-called Steroids Era, the fact that Dawson fell short of 500 home runs was likely held against him. Today, when you put his 300 stolen bases in the context of a 400-homer career and multiple defensive honors, the voting soars.
Raines as well, I believe, will see his numbers grow over time. This was only his third year of eligibility. His hit totals are below the 3,000 mark. But when you look at his walk rate, throw in his 800 stolen bases and his ability to score and create runs, you are looking at maybe the second-best leadoff man of all-time. Better than Hall of Famer Lou Brock. Better than Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. The arguments are there and will keep being made. And voters will have another dozen years to be convinced.
Nowhere, though, is the need for time in this process more apparent than with Blyleven, a guy who is a barely above-.500 pitcher if you look at the facts. Ah yes, but being 287-250 is a lot different than being 56-50 lifetime. That part is now fully recognized, as are some of his peripheral numbers and the fact he played for some truly mediocre teams.
A decade ago, Blyleven received only 14.1 percent of the vote. Yesterday, he was just five ballots shy of making the Hall of Fame.
What happened?
I think the most obvious is, a different way of valuing “wins” and “losses” for pitchers by many voters. We already saw it in Cy Young Award voting this year, with Zack Greinke getting the AL nod despite only 16 wins. Nowadays, BBWAA voters are less likely to see Blyleven’s lack of a 300-win career (or better still. his 250-loss career) and hold it against him.
More and more, the dependance on your team for wins and losses has become evident with the passage of time. So has the fact that teams now rely on relief specialists more than they did in Cy Young’s time, when the threshold for greatness in wins was set at 400, then 500, because guys could go out and throw and throw and throw. No more. The game has changed. And the BBWAA voters recognize that this is a fluid process. That’s why they have left themselves two decades to view and review careers.
I have no doubt that Blyleven will get in next year once arguments continue to be made in his favor and new voters — you need 10 consecutive years of BBWAA membership to get a vote — become eligible to cast ballots.
Trust me, I don’t always agree with some Hall of Fame choices. But that’s democracy. You have to leave open the fact that you are not always right and that there will always be decisions you don’t agree with.
It’s a good thing that our baseball thought process has evolved over the years, or else even pitchers with 300 career wins would have a hard time making the Hall of Fame. After all, Cy Young set the standard, didn’t he? 500 wins?
Does anyone really want all guys with fewer than 600 career homers being excluded? Because let’s face it, the past decade we saw that 600-homer barrier cracked with more frequency than I’d ever have dreamed. But the passage of time has allowed us to view the past decade or so in better context. We now have a good idea of why so many guys cruised past 500 homers with apparent ease.
Anyone out there really want us to use the “power” standards of 500 homers on all non-infielders anymore? Didn’t think so.
The inclusion of Dawson shows the “500-homer barrier” has actually been lowered to “400 homers” in his case. And that voters are looking beyond the typical homers-RBI-hits stats nowadays. It’s called progress. Some of you may be sitting back and thinking “Bah! I’ve known all along that was a lousy way to evaluate things and that my sabermetric formula of the week is the right one!”
And you know, you may be right. Or not.
Not too long ago, WHIP was a favored stat to throw out there and sound progressive when it came to pitching. Not anymore. Nowadays, make a WHIP argument and you’ll get laughed out of the room.
On defensive stats, we still see plenty of disagreement when it comes to certain UZR scores versus what John Dewan publishes every year in the Fielding Bible.
And so, “progress” might not always come at the speed we’d like it to.
Think of how long it took to get laws passed in this country when it came to women’s rights regarding workplace salaries. Or, in divorce law when it came to Roe vs. Wade. We weren’t using black and white TVs when this stuff happened. It was a lot more modern than you may want to accept.
Everything takes time. And that’s why the Hall of Fame voters have given themselves the two decades.
As for this “first ballot Hall of Famer” stuff, some voters have always used it as an honor to preserve the “sanctity” of the Hall or whatever. They believe that a first-ballot guy should be the cream of the crop. No room for groundbreakers here. New precedent can wait for year number two in their minds.
Other voters, and I believe they are just as predominant as the first group, simply leave a guy off their ballot if it isn’t a slam dunk. They may want to be convinced more. May not feel that the arguments have been made convincingly enough and want one more year to hear them out.
Other guys are simply afraid of looking dumb like the Segui voter. Maybe they’re thinking “Hey, am I out on a limb here?” and want to see whether others feel the same way they do.
Still more are reluctant to put 10 names on their ballot.
I fall into the second group. If I’m not sure, I leave the name off. Especially for a first-timer who has 14 more years to get in. There were thousands of Hall votes cast before mine over the years and they helped shape a Hall of Fame that’s pretty exclusive. I try to respect the thinking that went into that. I’m not going to throw 10 “pretty good” names on my ballot just to be some modern, progressive maverick. I respect the choices made before mine and why the Hall is what it is. The best one in all of sport. And if I have first-ballot doubts about a guy, I leave him off. If I have second-ballot doubts, I leave him off. This is only my second year of voting, so I have no third-ballot thoughts just yet.
Finally, for those of you asking “Weren’t the last five years enough time to make a decision on Edgar?” my answer is no. And clearly, about two thirds of voters feel the same way.
There is a reason for the five-year cooling off period and we have to look no further than the Steroids Era to see it.
Back in 2001, when Barry Bonds was homering his way into the all-time record books, a positive steroids test for any ballplayer would have meant automatic ostracizing from the game — and certainly, any Hall of Fame consideration. We’re already seeing that dynamic play out in the voting.
But what’s happened in the eight years since?
Well, we’ve seen a whole bunch of players linked to PED use, including a bunch of potential Hall of Famers. There are going to be many questions asked in coming years about the Cooperstown hopes of Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez. I’m not going to try to answer those today. But let’s just say that both have a better chance of making the Hall, with what we now know, than they would have had they been “outed” as PED users back in 2001 and had a vote on their Hall of Fame chances in 2002.
Once again, that’s why the Hall isn’t a “one and done” thing.
Opinions change with time. Context changes, too. Conventional wisdom of the day often looks silly in hindsight. Or not. After all, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose still aren’t in the Hall and are banned from being voted upon. But a jerk like Ty Cobb is. Try to predict the future too quickly and you can often be wrong, no matter how certain you feel about something.
The Hall of Fame process will never be for the impatient. Just remember to breathe. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. As Andre Dawson can tell you this morning. You don’t have to like it the way it is. But I still think it produces the best results.



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