Now that the announcement has been made, there is still a lot of criticism about the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) and how they choose people for the Hall of Fame (HoF). Most of the comments are on the order of “Any writer who voted differently than I would have should be stripped of their credentials and then taken out back and shot”. Even some of the BBWAA members themselves are sounding like this, calling fellow members who didn’t vote for a particular player “idiots”. This shows an utter lack of understanding of the process, which really seems designed to create a general consensus about a player. And it actually does a good job.
There are some basic requirements before a player can appear on a HoF ballot. First, one must have played in at least part of ten seasons. This is how players like Armando Benitez and J.T. Snow get on a ballot. Yes, there’s no chance of them ever getting into the HoF, but there needs to be some criteria, and if they meet it, they get on the ballot. Then, players must wait five years after their last game. This allows for time to get over the emotions of a player’s retirement and let their contributions and talents be properly assessed. Only once was this five-year minimum waived. That was for Roberto Clemente, who died in a plane crash the year after his retirement. In his case, there was no doubt that he’d get into the HoF anyway, so I suppose it didn’t matter.
Once the ballots go out and it’s time to vote, there are even more rules. Writers are allowed to vote for no more than ten players. With the large number of nominees recently, there’s been a call to expand the number of votes allowed. I’m not sure that’s really necessary. A look at voting patterns shows that on average, a writer votes for about five to seven players. And that number has been going up. This year, the average was 8.4 players per ballot, with over half the voters selecting the maximum ten allowed. Instead increasing the number of votes allowed (and thereby likely keeping questionable candidates around longer), how about just encouraging writers to vote for as many candidates as they are allowed?
There are well over 500 members of the BBWAA who receive ballots. That’s much more than enough to come to a general consensus on a candidate, as well as minimize the effects of blank or protest ballots. And it’s not like it needs to be unanimous, anyway. Only 75% approval is required. Three out of four… Not a simple majority, true, but it shouldn’t be easy to be elected.
What happens if a player doesn’t make the cut? It’s not a “one chance only” deal. If a player misses getting the required 75% of the vote, they are carried over onto the next year’s ballot. They get up to fifteen tries. Fifteen! With different ballot slates, different voters, and different circumstances. Surely that’s enough opportunities to separate the wheat from the chaff. And if that’s not enough, a few years after a player misses out on their last try, they get shifted over to the various Veteran’s Committees. The only circumstances under which an eligible player leaves the ballot for good is if they ever fail to get at least 5% of the votes in a given year. And if you can’t get at least one out of twenty BBWAA members to vote for you, well…
This method is probably the best way to do it. If you look at the voting results over the years, only two players to date have ever gotten over a 50% result during their fifteen years on the regular ballot and have yet to be elected. Those two are Jack Morris, who has yet to make it to the Veteran’s Committee ballots (and is likely to get elected by that route), and Gil Hodges (a sentimental choice who is arguably overrated).
If there are any general complaints about the players in the Hall of Fame, they tend to be along the lines of there being too many people in the Hall rather than not enough. I’d say that’s a good indication that things are being done well enough.
And when you get right down to it, it doesn’t really matter how a player gets elected. Nowhere in any of the official citations or on the plaques in Cooperstown does it mention how a player got into the Hall. As one commenter put it, there’s no secret club room where those who got better than 95% of the votes get to drink gin and play poker. Tom Seaver (first ballot, highest percentage ever) is no different from Ralph Kiner (squeaked in by two votes in his 15th year) is no different from Ron Santo (Veteran’s Committee).