The Hall of Fame process, biases, and other general thoughts

As you’ve no doubt seen by now, Andre Dawson was elected to the Hall of Fame today while Bert Blyleven and Robbie Alomar juuuust missed, Barry Larkin and Jack Morris received were named on about half of the ballots, Tim Raines got about a third of the vote and Kevin Appier got one vote. In many years, the Hall of Fame announcement leaves me with a weird feeling of dissatisfaction, but this year I’m left with a distinctly bad taste in my mouth. (More after the jump)

The BBA held their own Hall of Fame vote in parallel with the BBWAAA balloting about a week back. Like the BBWAA’s votes, ours were due at midnight on December 31st. I had a good idea about who I was going to put on my ballot (Alomar, Blyleven, Raines, and Larkin were automatics for me), but I really wanted to sit down and analyze a few guys (Edgar Martinez, Mark McGwire, Fred McGriff, Alan Trammell, and Dawson were next on my list, in that order with McGriff probably being the first guy that wouldn’t have made my ballot though I am not willing to say that for certain about any of these players) before I posted/sent in a ballot.

As should be obvious, I never found the time to sit down and really dig into the whole thing. I simply didn’t have the time over the holidays to sit down with my list of players, pore over them and submit a ballot I would’ve been happy with. As a result, I didn’t vote at all. I think that the Hall of Fame discussion is an important one (witness the change in Blyleven’s support in recent years … more on this in a bit), and I knew that my fellow BBA bloggers were taking their ballots seriously, so I decided that I’d rather not vote at all than do a half-assed job of it. I felt really bad about this; by not voting as a member blog it felt like I was marginalizing the BBA’s efforts and I don’t mean to do that at all because I really dig what Daniel and company have done by bringing so many blogs together. But since the Hall of Fame isn’t our Hall of Fame and since I couldn’t do it right, I didn’t do it.

I’m only mentioning this because whenever I get worked up over this stuff I get the inevitable “You know it’s broke and it won’t get fixed, why do you care?” comments. The Hall of Fame is important to me. As a kid, I knew guys like Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Honus Wagner, Paul and Lloyd Waner, Max Carey, Arky Vaughn, Kiki Cuyler, Ralph Kiner, Pie Traynor, Fred Clarke, and even Rabbit Maranville (I know I’m missing a few, but those are the names that stand out in my head even now, twentysome odd years later) because they were Hall of Famers who played for the Pirates. When Jim Rice was inducted last year, I wondered how far the line in the sand would move. When Bruce Sutter went in, I wondered why no one ever gave poor old Dan Quisenberry any support at all. I’m also really not certain that Sutter, Rice, and Dawson don’t deserve to be in, but these are the things I think about.

And I’m not at all accusing the BBWAA of not taking their job as caretakers of the Hall seriously. The few voters I’ve had the pleasure of discussing the Hall with have all left me with the impression that they take this job very seriously and I’m sure that’s true for the great majority of the voters. Really, I think they get things right far more often than not and so I’m certainly not trying to paint the BBWAA with any sort of wide brush here because that’s just the sort of thing that sets me off and I think that I would probably love to discuss Hall of Fame candidacies with 90% of the guys with votes and while I certainly don’t agree with every vote cast, I fully understand that any process like this is designed to create disagreement and that’s part of what makes it so fun. There’s bound to be the odd Murray Chass (who proudly trumpets on his notablog blog that he didn’t really even start thinking about his ballot until 9 PM on New Year’s Eve, then hastily made up a nonsensical reason to not vote for Bert Blyleven and turned his ballot in), but I think he’s more the exception.

What does bother me, though, is the process that leads to paragraphs like this one from SI’s Jon Heyman:

My contention regarding Blyleven is that almost no one viewed him as a Hall of Famer during his playing career, and that is borne out by the 17 percent of the vote he received in his first year of eligibility in 1998, followed by 14 percent the next year. Blyleven obviously had an excellent and extremely lengthy career that looks a lot better to many with a decade to review it. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s the favorite of the Internet lobby.

His basic argument against Blyleven is that no one thought he was a Hall of Famer when he retired, which is mostly a strawman because he doesn’t like the influence of the “Internet lobby” on the process. What is the fifteen years of eligibilty for if not for discussion? In the thirteen years that Blyleven has now been on the ballot, the understanding of what makes a good pitcher has been drastically improved. It’s clearer now that Blyleven’s huge strikeout total, his excellent career K/BB ratio, and yes, his durability over a very long career, make him a much better pitcher than his 287-250 career record make him out to be. The discussion has improved our perception of him; it’s part of the reason I enjoy the Hall of Fame debate so much.

Digression: We’re not all the way there on discussion of pitchers yet, though. Toss out win/loss records, compare Kevin Appier to Jack Morris, and explain to me why Morris got named on half the ballots while Appier was only named on one and most people out there thought the lone Appier vote was indefensible. The only differences between Appier and Morris are the teams they played for and one night in October of 1991 that we’ll never know if Appier could have replicated because he never had the chance. Maybe Morris did have some kind of mystical quality that made him a better pitcher than Appier, but it can’t be big enough to bridge the gap between a borderline Hall of Famer and a guy that can’t stay on the ballot.

Instead, many writers seem to treat the 15 years of eligibility as a way to stratify players. The only real reason Roberto Alomar wasn’t elected this year, as far as I can tell, was because a some of the voters don’t see him as a “first ballot Hall of Famer.” I don’t know what that means, but if that’s important than Alomar damn well better not be elected until 2013 at the earliest because Joe DiMaggio was a third-ballot Hall of Famer and as good as I think Robbie is and as much as he deserves to be in the Hall, he’s not better than Joe DiMaggio. What would Barry Larkin (who’s career is really pretty similar to Alomar’s)’s vote total have looked like today if voters thought they only had one chance to put him in? What, exactly, has improved about our understanding of Andre Dawson’s career since he first appeared on the ballot in 2001? What did we learn about Jim Rice in his fifteen years in purgatory

I don’t think the ballot should be one and done; before becoming tired in the last year or so the discussion about Blyleven was great and I hope that the same thing can happen for Tim Raines in the future. Still, so long as some voters keep their biases, I’m going to head into every year’s Hall of Fame announcement braced for the feeling that today’s gave me.

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.