Monday, July 28, 2014

The BBWAA/Hall of Fame Changes

[NOTE: I should make it clear that the changes discussed herein were made by the Hall of Fame, not by the Baseball Writers Association of America.--JSS)


I was thinking it would be hard to miss much Saturday morning, what with it being the weekend and there being just one game scheduled before 4 p.m. So I was surprised, as I cavorted with Marina in Brooklyn Bridge Park, to get a cryptic text from a baseball friend. As it turned out, the BBWAA had picked Saturday morning to announce some changes to the Hall of Fame voting process. These changes have been panned in a number of places, but I can't share the outrage.

The change that got the most attention cut the time in which a player is eligible for BBWAA consideration from 15 years to ten, while grandfathering in three currently-eligible players who have crossed the latter threshold. I have suggested this in the past and I think it's a terrific change. The 15-year number stems from a time when we didn't have the access to the tools to evaluate a player's career that we do today. Given the number of players eligible for election and the greater reliance on contemporary observation and oral history, a long window for reflection and discussion made sense. Now, it no longer does. We're not writing letters and publishing columns in newspapers and digging through Total Baseball anymore. For one, the Hall passes judgment on almost all players in the first ten years; in the past 30 elections, just three players have been elected to the Hall past their tenth year on the ballot. That includes two of the BBWAA's worst picks -- Jim Rice and Bruce Sutter -- and Bert Blyleven, who may have ended up a ridiculous omission but for the work of Rich Lederer. That's one par-or-better Hall of Famer elected after the tenth year since 1985. It seems quite clear that the BBWAA doesn't need those last five years.

(Based on history, you might even want to cut that down to eight years. Hall of Famers elected in years 9-10 on the ballot over the past 30 years include Andre Dawson, Rich Gossage and Tony Perez. With due respect to Dawson, five of the last six players elected after Year Eight on the ballot are among the weakest ever selected by the BBWAA. If they had instituted an eight-year cutoff in 1985, the Hall would be stronger than it is today.)

Think about the conversations we have about these players. Nowadays, we pass judgment on Hall cases 20 minutes after a player retires, and those judgments don't change much over 20 years. Look at the players on last year's ballot. Do we need more time to talk about Don Mattingly or Lee Smith or Alan Trammell? This isn't 1948. We have scads of data, and we have huge video archives, and we have a series of tubes through which we talk about this stuff incessantly. We just don't need to talk about these players every year for 15 years. As I note above, eight might very well be plenty. I'd actually have gone one step further and shortened the time from retirement to the ballot as well, probably from five to three years in a couple of steps. These arguments can be had, and had well, over 10-15 years. They can generally be had over 10-15 months. This change was a boon to the process.

The one mistake the BBWAA did make is in not grandfathering in more players. Not that Trammell, Smith or Mattingly are getting in, but it would have been unfair to just remove them from next year's ballot. However, the same courtesy should have been extended to everyone on last year's ballot. The negative reaction to the change is correlated to the strong feelings many people have about candidates such as Tim Raines (entering his eighth year), Edgar Martinez (sixth) and Larry Walker (fifth). Those players will have less time to advance through the process now, with Raines in particular -- a fully-qualified candidate now down to three years with which to advance -- getting shafted. The BBWAA undercut its good decision by not extending the grace period to all players who reached the ballot under the 15-year rule. Changing a player's eligibility retroactively is bad form, and gives support to the idea that this change -- which, again, is a good one and long overdue -- is actually more about ridding the group of the Barry Bonds Question than improving the process. This is a correctable error, one I hope they will address next year.

The other changes to the process are a bit vague and deal with who gets to vote. This should be a net positive -- there seems to be a intention to keep the ballots in the hands of people who remain part of the baseball conversation -- but there's also talk of a "code of conduct", which I imagine is going to be less about limiting grandstanding moralists and more about preventing a situation such as what happened last year between Dan LeBatard and Deadspin. There's probably value in limiting the possibility of a repeat of what LeBatard did, but we'll have to see how the BBWAA uses this new tool before passing judgment on it.

I am most encouraged by what the BBWAA did not do, which is expand the ballot. There have been a lot of voices calling for the ten-player limit to be expanded, but as I have repeatedly argued, this is a non-solution to the real problems with the current ballot. Those are about a lack of leadership -- or, if you prefer, a lack of ability to think critically -- on the issue of fully-qualified players who had the temerity to play at a time when using illegal drugs to enhance performance was suddenly and ahistorically demonized. The average number of votes per ballot was in decline for decades prior to 2013, and making a rule change due to conditions that are temporary is bad policy. As I wrote in some e-mails (edited slightly here for readability) last week:

"Expanding the ballot doesn't really get at the problem -- no one not listing Bonds/Clemens/McGwire will add them at 11-15. Average ballot size has gone up the last two years, but it's entirely a PED-nonsense issue. Expanding the ballot helps the people who would vote for everyone but doesn't address the morons who vote for three guys."

Then, in response to why I think this is the last year of the "logjam:"

"Three [will get in] at least, in Biggio, Johnson and Pedro. Piazza has a chance, Smoltz a smaller one. Now you've cleared at least seven spots (with Morris falling off) in two years. You've elected six in two years, and then in 2016 they'll elect Griffey, probably Piazza, maybe one of Bagwell/Smoltz/Raines. Maybe nine guys go in the front door in three years, which has never come close to happening in modern times.

"Only one credible candidate comes on in 2016 (Griffey), and just three (Pudge 2.0, Vlad, Manny; only Rodriguez is a lock) in 2017. Trammell falls off after 2016, Smith after 2017. [Edit: Raines, too, if not elected absent a change.] This 'logjam' is no longer going to be blocking Craig Biggio, it's going to be blocking the kinds of players we've always argued about. Your 2016 ballot will be Griffey; 3-4 qualified holdovers in Piazza, Smoltz, Raines, Bagwell; Bonds and Clemens; Mussina and Schilling; and that Walker/Kent/Edgar group. Oh, and Lee Smith, good luck with that. That's not a particularly crowded ballot unless you're a big Hall-plus-steroid apologist guy, and the subset of voters that describes is small.

"This problem peaked last year. It's a lesser problem this year, and it fades sharply after that. We had 35 years of players-per-ballot shrinking until 2013, and if they don't change the rules, that number will go down again in 2016.

"Besides, if you water down an honor, is it still an honor? Say they expand the ballot and Tim Raines gets elected with 76.4% of the vote. The conversation will be, 'Well, if they'd had a 15-man ballot in Gil Hodges' day…'. And believe you me, expanding the BBWAA ballot will cause every constituency of a VC guy to rise up and demand justice for their guy."

There's also the problem of an electorate that has failed to adapt its standards, particularly its pitcher standards, to account for changed usage over the last 30 years. From another e-mail that I never did turn into an article:

"The Hall's standards for SPs -- leaving aside Clemens -- have never adjusted for modern SP usage. Guys like Mussina and Schilling, who are WAY over the line, have to go in before we even look at the next tier down.

Maddux, 355 wins
Glavine, 305 wins
Blyleven, 287 wins and a war
Ryan, 324 wins

"The Hall has voted in four starting pitchers in 15 years, none with fewer than 287 wins, and that guy had a huge number of strikeouts, was absurdly overqualified and still took 14 ballots.

"So really, while this is always the kind of fun exercise to BS about, the actual path for getting into the Hall for any starting pitcher is much, much harder than it looks like to us."

I'm amused by the idea that guys like Tim Hudson and Mark Buehrle are building Hall cases in a world where Mike Mussina is going to be the best returning pitcher on the ballot for a while. The electorate has to figure out that Mussina (and Schilling, at minimum) are Hall of Famers before we look anywhere else.

Bottom line, the problem of a packed ballot isn't structural, it's an electorate that, for one reason or another, is doing a terrible job of evaluating players in the context of their time and the historical standards for election. So when I look at what the BBWAA did over the weekend, I see one overdue change, one process change that should be a net positive, and the avoidance of a rule change that would have been a terrible idea. I think they did a very good job. There are still things that could be changed, but most of them would have to come from the Hall itself rather than the writers.