What Went Wrong with the Hall of Fame Vote

By David Roher

At least no one voted for Pat Buchanan.

It seems to me that most of the negative response to this afternoon’s Hall of Fame vote is going to be focused on Andre Dawson’s getting in, which is unfortunate. I wouldn’t have voted for him, but he’s a borderline case, and, no matter what, a great ballplayer who had an excellent career.

I hope that most people focus on the deserving candidates who didn’t get in, like Bert Blyleven, Roberto Alomar (both of whom will almost certainly get elected next year), Tim Raines, Edgar Martinez and Barry Larkin, among others.

There are a lot of reasons that the BBWAA might have overlooked these guys, but I think the answer is pretty simple: BBWAA voters don’t appear to change the number of candidates that they vote for, regardless of the number of qualified candidates.

This year was the first in a long time that featured many possible, if not definite, Hall of Fame candidates on their first ballot. Four first-year candidates received 20% or more of the vote, the first time that has happened since 1999, which saw Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Robin Yount, and Carlton Fisk.

It got me thinking. Voters may select up to 10 candidates for induction, and as few as zero. But are they really taking advantage of that flexibility? Here are the average number of votes cast per voter for the last ten years, along with the player(s) elected and the number of first-year candidates who received at least 15% of the vote but were not elected. An asterisk indicates that the elected player was a first-year.

2010: 5.67 (Dawson, 4)
2009: 5.38 (Henderson* and Rice elected, 0)
2008: 5.35 (Gossage, 1)
2007: 6.58 (Ripken* and Gwynn*, 1)
2006: 5.64 (Sutter, 0)
2005: 6.32 (Boggs*, 0)
2004: 6.55 (Molitor* and Eckersley*, 0)
2003: 6.60 (Murray* and Carter, 2)
2002: 5.95 (Smith*, 2)
2001: 6.32 (Winfield* and Puckett*, 1)

Unfortunately, there’s no distribution data, which would be necessary to make more certain conclusions. Time does appear to be a significant factor here (it looks like voters got more strict as the decade progressed), as well as the presence of obvious Hall of Famers.

However, the number of “borderline” candidates doesn’t seem to matter that much, and I can’t help but wonder why. It’s somewhat indefensible, regardless of your philosophy about whether the Hall should be more or less inclusive. Neither side of the debate should be happy that 2010 and 2006, which featured the highest and lowest number of interesting candidates on this list respectively, had essentially the same number of average votes per BBWAA member.

I think that voters just vote for a similar number out of habit. It makes sense, since a lot of candidates stay on the ballot for the maximum fifteen years, and it stands to reason that those players receive their votes from the same writers over and over. Writers probably have a static, core group of guys to vote for that only changes when they get elected or dropped off the ballot, and then add a couple each year. It would admittedly feel very strange to vote for 10 players after voting for 5 or 6 almost every year (or 7 instead of 3 or 4, depending on your standards), and maybe that’s what held some people back. Instead of taking all of Blyleven, Alomar, Larkin, Raines, etc., a lot of writers took only one, and then their votes started to effectively cancel out.

I don’t want to blame any particular writer (except whoever voted for David Segui). I’m sure that many of the 500+ voters changed their total appropriately this year, and I have an immense amount of respect for most BBWAA members as sportswriters, regardless of how they vote. But casting the same number of votes every year is something that needs to change in years like 2010.

In the end, though, I’d rather have voting oddities explain this year’s sparse HOF class than questions about candidates’ overall quality. Alomar and Blyleven will certainly be elected next year, and with a more normal-looking 2011 class, Martinez and Larkin will likely fare better as well. The real concern is the regrettable number of writers that don’t think Tim Raines belongs no matter the quality of the ballot.

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