Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Transparency in Hall of Fame Voting

By Mark Smith

I think there was a “groupthink” Hall of Fame ballot among “sabermetricians”. It involved voting for Tim Raines, Jeff Bagwell, Barry Larkin, and Alan Trammel, but it was perfectly fine to add Edgar Martinez, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, and/or Larry Walker. If you are a “big Hall” guy, you were allowed to bring in Fred McGriff and/or Dale Murphy, but those ten are about where the line was drawn. I say “groupthink” because anyone outside of those 10 were routinely criticized and even McGriff or Murphy would have brought you a decent amount of criticism and at least a demand for a good reason. The quotation marks were added because I think those 8-10 players were the result of solid research and comparison, but it was so common to see the names that it was almost expected. The voting surrounding the actual voters, however, was much more scattered.

Because of the variance in the voting among the electorate this year and in past years, there have been calls for an end to the secret ballot. The idea is pretty simple. The BBWAA is voting on a fairly important part of the game, and because the votes seem scattered and in no way consistent, fans want the votes revealed in order to make sure the voters are doing enough research and using consistency in their thinking. It’s a call for accountability.

The whole thing seems akin to Congress. Congress votes on legislation that will affect the future of the country, and because of the importance of the voting and to avoid corruption (haha), the voting is open to the public record. The lack of a secret ballot helps voters know who they should vote in to office and who actually reflects the district’s beliefs. The problem is that the type of voting isn’t exactly similar. Congress is making country-altering decisions. BBWAA voters aren’t even making baseball-altering decisions (it doesn’t really matter to baseball itself who is voted in and not). Perhaps if the BBWAA voted on instant replay or the like, they should be held accountable, but their votes are more akin to the Congress being asked to vote on the best politicians in American history for a private museum. We need the Congressional Record to be open. We want the Hall of Fame ballot to be open.

As a result of the lack of actual need, the revelation of ballots needs to be negotiated, either formally or informally. In order to get the voters to reveal the ballots, you have to give the writers something in return. Why? Let’s pretend to be in the BBWAA for a moment. Why would you reveal your vote? One answer could be the attention, but the one we’re focused on is accountability. You want your readers to know you are accountable, responsible, for your vote. I hate to break it to you, but that isn’t exactly a great motivating factor. Quite a few voters may feel the need to be accountable, but for the most part, accountability doesn’t pay the bills or keep their HoF vote. It’s theirs for life, so you’re going to have to work harder. The best result is garnering praise, but the most likely result is having to constantly defend your vote to smart and uninformed arguers alike. When the most likely result of your revelation is basically being annoyed and probably still having your intelligence questioned, I'm not surprised that most of the writers don't reveal their votes (though I'd like to note that I don't think the writers who did not reveal their votes are afraid of accountability; there are other reasons they may not have written something to that effect).

To be honest, the strategy isn’t to add something (you could try money or something, but I doubt that would work) but to subtract something - your attention and readership. I don’t see that happening, however, so we’re back to square one. We’re caught. We’re unhappy with the way things are (it should be noted that I would like writers to reveal and defend their votes; I agree theoretically), but we don’t really have any leverage to change the situation. The situation is more like players using steroids. They finally agreed to testing, but that was only because they believed that the credibility of their profession was on the precipice of collapse. I don’t think that mainstream journalism’s credibility is in the same jeopardy.

Listen, I would love for writers to be held accountable for their votes. It’s the best way to get them to vote in an educated and responsible manner. But we’re caught. The BBWAA and Hall of Fame rules don’t force them to reveal their votes, and there’s no compelling reason to make them change.


kaufmak said...

Great post Mark and after seeing some of the vicious attacks people made in this past voting cycle, I can't for the life of me see a reason for an end to the secret ballot. While it's not ideal, the situation is best when the voter makes the choice to reveal their ballot, but has the right to retain their privacy.

Brandon said...

Yup. If I were a BBWAA member, I would not only refuse any reform, but would actually try and restrict access to the ballots even more. As a fan, I wouldn't like this, but who cares? There is no incentive at all for those who currently hold the ballot to change and no real reason for the HOF itself to change either. I mean, what alternative system short of actually giving some portion of the vote to the great unwashed would inspire more HOF related dialogue than what we have?