Over the past few years, Hall of Fame voters have become steroid addled. By refusing to elect candidates with links to PEDs, regardless of substantiation, voters have allowed each subsequent year’s ballot to become increasingly crowded. As a result, some electors have been forced to consider game theory as much as the individual merits of each player when casting their ballot. And yet, despite the intricacies of this new dynamic, the 2015 Hall of Fame class has the potential to be historic.
This year’s ballot isn’t really more concentrated than 2014’s. Although three likely honorees are joining the ranks, they’ll be replacing the trio that was elected last year. Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz are a good bet to replicate last year’s vote totals of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas, so their entry into the field shouldn’t force others off many ballots. This year’s class also includes first timers like Garry Sheffield and Carlos Delgado, who will likely gain a solid backing, but the departure of Jack Morris and the 351 votes he garnered last year should provide more than enough slack to accommodate them. That leaves us to consider whether anyone from last year’s returning field has enough momentum to make this year’s Hall of Fame class historic in size.
Note: Data is as of 1966, when BBWAA started conducting annual ballots.
Source: baseball-reference.com and BBWAA
Since annual ballots commenced in 1966, 700 players have been nominated for enshrinement, but only 74 have been elected to the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA. Of that total, 40 were honored on the first ballot, leaving only 34 (or about 5% of those not elected on the first ballot) who eventually got over the hump after falling short in their initial attempt. This year, there are 17 players from last year’s ballot seeking another chance. The chart below illustrates how they compare to other eventual Hall of Famers in the ballot years leading up to their induction.
Current Holdovers vs. Aggregate Historical Vote Totals of Future Hall of Famers
Note: Compares last year’s holdovers to the 34 Hall of Famers elected by BBWAA after their first year of eligibility. Vote totals are only included from the years in which an eventual Hall of Famer failed to earn the necessary two-thirds vote. The average represents the aggregate of all applicable nominees in each year. Max and min refer to the highest and lowest vote total recorded by a future Hall of Fame in each respective year of eligibility. Data is as of 1966, when BBWAA started conducting annual ballots.
Source: baseball-reference.com and BBWAA
Because of mitigating circumstances related to the ballot glut, historic voting patterns may not be as useful an indicator as in the past. Still, the vote total progression of past inductees is noteworthy. Entering this year’s election, three candidates find themselves on the right side of the historical snapshot provided above. In particular, Craig Biggio’s and Mike Piazza’s second year vote percentages are both well above the average rate for all eventual Hall of Famers in their second year of eligibility. In fact, no player has ever recorded at least 60% of the vote in their second year on the ballot and not been enshrined. So, unless Biggio and Piazza face a strong PED backlash, their eventual induction seems inevitable.
Jeff Bagwell is also in a favorable historical position. Last year, in his fourth year of eligibility, Bagwell recorded 54.3% of the vote, placing him above the 48.7% average for the 18 Hall of Famers since 1966 who needed more than four tries to win election. No player who has earned over half the vote at this point in their candidacy has failed to eventually pass the 75% mark, and 15 of the 19 who cleared 40% at a similar juncture were eventually elected. Unfortunately, Bagwell is somewhat of a unique case because he has been unfairly targeted as a PED user by some voters despite the lack of evidence to warrant such speculation. If this continues, it could cause Bagwell’s candidacy to deviate from historical patterns, which makes his vote total this year of particular interest. It’s unlikely that the first baseman will clear the bar in 2015, but if his momentum is maintained, it could signal induction at some point in the near future.
Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds continue to be the bellwethers for the electability of players with links to PEDs. For each player, the historical comparisons have no meaning. What matters instead is any indication of a thawing among the electorate. After only two tries on the ballot, Bonds’ and Clemens’ vote total has stagnated, suggesting neither is poised for a breakthrough, at least not until either the ballot glut clears or the Hall of Fame Board of Directors provides more guidance on how such players should be handled.
Tim Raines has been among those most hurt by the crowded ballot. After six years of a gradual progression that was in line with the average totals of eventual inductees, Raines’ candidacy took a step back in 2014, placing him below the mean for seven-ballot players. Unfortunately for the former speedster, it could be more of the same this year. However, there is a silver lining for Raines, whose candidacy enjoys grass roots support from several factions, especially the sabermetric community. As the ballot thins out, those who continue to make a compelling argument for Raines may bolster his chances, similar to what occurred for Bert Blyleven in 2011.
Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling and Edgar Martinez are three more strong candidates who enjoy grass roots support, but, unlike Raines, lack mainstream traction. In his first year on the ballot, Mussina only attracted 20.3%, which would represent the third lowest initial rate for an eventual Hall of Famer (Duke Snider at 17% in 1970 and Blyleven at 17.5 in 1998). Similarly, Schilling’s 29.2% in his second year would also rank low for a future Hall of Famer, behind Bob Lemon, Blyleven, and Snider at similar points on the ballot. Meanwhile, Edgar Martinez’ 25.2% in year-five is above only Lemon, making his prospects even more of an outlier. Barring a sudden jump in the vote totals of these players, their candidacies seem likely to languish.
Note: Data is as of 1966, when BBWAA started conducting annual ballots. Source: baseball-reference.com and BBWAA
The other eight leftovers from last year’s cycle fall outside of a historical path to enshrinement, but most of them could eventually add to the 37 players who have lasted on the ballot for the full 15 years. With the exception of Sammy Sosa, who was just 13 votes above last year’s cut off, and Don Mattingly, whose eligibility comes to an end, every other player has at least a 5% cushion and should get another look.
A lot of attention for this year’s Hall of Fame election has been on the crowded ballot and which players won’t be elected as a result, but a historic class still seems likely. In addition to first-timers Smoltz, Martinez and Johnson, Biggio is a good bet to finally cross the threshold, which would represent only the third quartet ever elected by the BBWAA. And, if Piazza can clear the bar, the group of five would only be rivaled by the inaugural class of 1936 in terms of size. That’s no consolation for the many deserving players destined for another snub, but such a historic election would also thin the ballot and, perhaps, improve their chances going forward.