Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Toward Fixing the Hall of Fame Selection Process

By The Common Man

The Common Man believes there is little doubt that the Hall of Fame voting process is flawed. Deserving candidates, such as Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and (until recently) Bert Blyleven and Ron Santo have been held back while clearly less deserving players, such as Jim Rice and Bruce Sutter have been elevated far beyond their actual value by the voters. The process as it currently stands is held hostage by peer pressure, by suspicion, and by ignorance. This is a problem.

It's a problem because so many fans of the game care so deeply about the Hall of Fame, the ultimate career achievement of the best players in baseball history. In a sport where history is so revered and studied, the Hall of Fame offers a link to the past, and to the players we have loved. And to stand by while that past is willfully ignored and distorted is simply unfathomable to TCM. Quite simply, the system must be reformed.

But how? That's the central question. Alas, there's no obvious and glaring fix that we're ignoring.  Here are a few possibilities:

We could ask the players, coaches, and managers to vote.
This has some appeal because, you'd think, nobody knows the players better than the players themselves. And yet, if you've followed the Gold Glove voting, you know that this process is just as unanalytic. Voters rely on their eyes, on small sample sizes, and on reputation. Remember, Derek Jeter has five Gold Gloves, and Rafael Palmeiro won one in 1999 even though he only played 26 games at first. There's nothing to indicate they'd be any more careful in their picks of Hall of Famers than they are in the awards they vote on, and the All Star selections they make.

We could have a super-committee of reporters, Hall of Fame players, execs, and historians.
Because super committees have worked so well this year.... Anyway, this has some appeal. It's similar to the current Veterans Committee arrangement that finally oversaw the election of Ron Santo this year. And it would give HOFers a say in who joins their ranks. There are still potential pitfalls however. As Bill has pointed out, players have a financial stake in keeping the pool of Hall of Famers small. They also have proven to be particularly maleable to the whims of one man (Frankie Frisch) in he past. And while the other wings of the HOF vote might restrict some of their flights of fancy, it's not outside of the realm of possibility that a small committee could fall under the sway of a small group of voters who are seen to have greater legitimacy.

We could ask fans to vote.
This has the advantage of being the most democratic. Why does the Hall of Fame exist if not for fans of the game? Shouldn't the people who love the game most have a voice in who gets its highest honor? Unfortunately, we've seen what can happen when fans are asked to vote to honor players. The fan vote for the All Star Game starters and final roster spot have become a combination popularity contest/get out the vote drive that's consistently claimed by the teams who can best organize their fans to vote. It also is terribly unanalytic, in that it rewards the players who are best known and played in the biggest market. It would presumably lead to a Hall of Fame of Jack Morrises and Don Mattinglys, while Raines and Blyleven continue to stand on the outside looking in.

We could ask bloggers to vote.
Obviously this isn't happening. The Common Man threw it in to A) flatter your ego (since most of us figure we'd make a great electorate) and B) point out that it's completely unworkable. While many of the bloggers TCM has been fortunate enough to encounter are smart men and women who think carefully about the game, there would be no way to accredit voters. Which means that these guys would be standing toe to toe with this moron. There's nothing that differentiates us, as bloggers, from fans except that we take the time to write about it. And there are proportionately as many crazy bloggers out there as there are crazy fans.

We can let the BBWAA continue to vote.
This is actually the best of all of our options, but we need to tweek it a little. The rank and file beat writers and columnists do tend to see a ridiculous amount of baseball. They are close to the game and they have an accreditation process already in place to ensure that most of them are serious, with only one or two exceptions.

Editors, however, really have no place in the voting, given that they have relatively little contact with the game on a day-to-day basis. Nor should it take a full ten years in the BBWAA to gain a vote. Indeed, the BBWAA should not assume that its members started paying attention to the game the moment they joined. Moving the waiting period up to, say, three or five years will put the electorate more in line with the general mindset of the American sportsloving public, which they should be striving for, lest they appear completely out of touch.

Finally, we need to have greater accountability and transparency for the voting that's going on. Last year, there were roughly 580 voters who cast a ballot for the Hall of Fame. Of those, just 127 posted their ballots publicly, according to Leo Kitty's HOF tracker. Here's the thing. Voting for the Hall of Fame is not the God-given right of BBWAA members. It's a power and a privilege. And if Spiderman has taught us anything, it's that with great power comes great responsibility. In agreeing to take on this responsibility, BBWAA members should be required to publish their vote and, preferably, an explanation as well.

Admittedly, this opens voters up to additional criticism, some of which will be unwarrented and ugly. That's incredibly unfortunate, but it may also be the cost of doing business. If you want to be the authority deciding who receives baseball's highest honor, you need to justify your picks. You need to stand up to public scrutiny. No more self-agrandizing talk about how voting has become "agony." No more whining about legitimate criticism levied by fans who have the best interests of the game and the Hall at heart. This is not a burden voters will be forced to bear. They can lay it down at any time. But if they want to continue to wield this power, they should consent to allow that power to be checked by the players who play the game, other writers who make their livings off of it, and the fans who make the sport possible. 

Open your curtains, BBWAA.  Let some light into the process and join in actual conversation.  The Common Man believes we'll all be better for it.


Brandon said...

This is a really unsatisfying comment to make, but baseball maybe more than any other sport suffers from massive analytical gaps between fan/popular perception and the reality of who contributes what. That misperception is there for players/managers too, as you note in your Gold Glove example. Anybody with any responsibility to a large segment of the fan base (writers, mostly) or to the players (everyone within the game) is going to either fall victim to those biases or flat out pander to them. More people will read Phil Rogers than Joe Sheehan and that is flat out how it is and forever will be.

No matter what we do, the only way to correct that is through further education of both fans and people within the game. OBP matters now. OPS matters now. I've even seen WAR mentioned in mainstream articles in a non-derisive way. Further education, death of old guys, and ascension of new guys is the only answer. Accountability is nice, but I don't think anybody would vote for Jeff Bagwell just because he'd have to admit he didn't. Sure didn't stop Nick Saban from voting Oklahoma State behind Stanford.

Besides, maybe it's appropriate that the sport's highest honor suffers from the same disconnect as all the others.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the best solution is to continue the BBWAA but restrict it to those that actually cover games. I would also consider losing columnists from the voting pool as well. Also I think historians (give me a vote!) should have a percentage of the ballots. I have issue with the open ballot system. While the idea of transparency is laudable, the open ballot is also susceptible to great abuse, especially in the forms of peer pressure and retaliation. There is a very good reason that the secret ballot is a cornerstone free elections. People need to be free to vote their conscience without fear of reprisal. I realize that the HOF is different than a governmental election, yet I feel the principle is still the same. I'm just not comfortable requiring someone to explain their vote. It leads too much to a forced consensus and what would inevitably be endless ad hominem attacks on the voters

Adam Darowski said...

Since the lack of objective judgement is rampant among members of the BBWAA, I assume that all members of the BBWAA are incapable of making an objective decision. Therefore, I don't read any of them.

JimCrikket said...

I'm not so sure I like the idea of giving the vote to writers after just 3-5 years. I kind of like knowing that the voters have to have been around long enough to have actually watched at least some of the players on the ballot on a regular basis.

I am in favor of making ballots public, however, and I think that would eventually go a long way toward making voters put greater thoughtful analysis in to their selections. Nobody want's to look like a fool and over time maybe those who just don't want to risk looking foolish will stop voting.

There is some risk in that proposal, however. Not everyone believes that players should be elected purely based on their career stat lines and how they measure up to others statistically. In fact, the instructions for voters mention many factors to be considered in addition to a player's "playing ability". I would hate to see greater transparency in the voting process lead to all voters feeling pressured in to following a single minded philosophy based on whatever the most recently favored advanced metric du jour might be.

So Cal Jack said...

The baseball Hall of Fame process is THE most flawed in all of sports and I agree that it's us fans who are the ones really left out without a say (and that ain't right!).

Here's just my partial list of issues that I take exception to:

1) Living members of the HOF don't want any new living members put in the Hall because they don't want any more competition for lucrative and declining appearance signing fees;

2) Baseball writers from one league cities shouldn't be able to vote for players from a league they don't cover on a regular basis;

3) Baseball writers hold personal biases and grudges which have led to the blackballing of deserving past players like Steve Garvey and Richie Allen;

4) The important infield skill positions (3B, 2B, SS), are woefully under represented in the Hall. Last I checked, defense is a critical component to winning baseball (not just offensive stats);

5)Players from the modern "dead ball era" (when the pitching mounds were significantly higher), are woefully under represented because their stats simply aren't as impressive as those of players who followed them;;

6) I think that there should be a quota for every 15 year period in baseball. Shouldn't the best of their era be deserving of entrance to the Hall of Fame?;

7) The current format of having the Veteran's Committee meet only once every three years to vote on baseball's "golden era" is a total sham. I could care less about players from baseball's infancy or Executives and broadcasters getting in. New retired players should IMO be voted in EVERY year, which would happen if voters HAD TO use all of their votes on ballots (i.e., no short list voting allowed); and

8) Baseball needs one big "catch up" vote (as was done by a committee to induct past early baseball pioneers a few years ago). Take the top 50 modern era players not in the hall of fame and make it a simple yes/no vote, again allowing no abstentions.

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

I'd like to think it can be fixed. But it's a joke right now. And just wait until we get Bonds and Clemens, etc. Who knows where it's going, but it's broken and Humpty Dumpty can't get up.

Joe Gualtieri said...

@So Cal Jack

1. If you think the Baseball HoF practice is screwed up, read some of Peter King's columns about the process for the Football HoF. I'm shocked that anyone gets elected there because the process sounds impossible for anyone who isn't Jerry Rice. Additionally, by capping the number of people who can be elected in one year at five and pitting players vs. coaches, owners, and pioneers, they've made it extremely difficult for non-players to get elected (Ed Sabol just got in) and it's ensured that non-glamour positions will always be underrepresented.

2. Forcing people to use all of their possible votes is absurd. I'm a Big Hall guy, but if the voters actually did their job, I find it very easy to imagine a year where no HoF worthy players are on the ballot.