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2014 Hall of Fame Ballot

The Hall of Fame ballot came out earlier this week, and thanks to a whole week off from school I've had lots of time to dig into it. This ballot stands out as a particularly important and invigorating one thanks to a confluence of factors. There are several first-time names on the ballot that are very sexy (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas come to mind). There are holdovers like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Mark McGwire that continue to make voters think about the legacy of PEDs in the 1990s. Then there are also a few long-time ballot members that seem to be on the fence of induction. Chief among this final group is Jack Morris, who is on the ballot for the 15th and guaranteed final time. He earned over 67% of the vote last year, and needs to be named on 75% of ballots for enshrinement.

In other words, pick your favorite debate on this ballot. There are lots of fun ones, which is why this ballot might mean more than most. People are even debating the voting process itself. In fact, Deadspin has even purchased a ballot this year, presumably from a disgruntled voter. Literally any and all debates are on the table this year.

At some point I will offer my own Hall of Fame ballot on this blog, but this post isn't about who should be in the Hall of Fame. I decided it would be more interesting to ask who will make the Hall of Fame. I was pleasantly surprised when I realized that the voters and the voting process are more predictable than many believe - or at least I believed.

For starters, debates around who should make the Hall of Fame mask the reality of how people vote. There are some cool metrics like JAWS, and things like the Hall of Fame monitor at the bottom of player pages in Baseball-Reference. These stats stem from attempts to compare players to existing Hall of Fame players, to see how they stack up. This methodology assumes that previous voters have set a standard which is used to figure out future cases.

However, perhaps unconsciously, the voters don't have a set standard. It's actually sliding, and getting tougher and tougher to make the Hall of Fame. This isn't just a trend now that the late '90s steroid kings are hitting the ballot. It's been around from the very start. Below is a chart plotting the ballot year on the x-axis, and how many players on that ballot became Hall of Famers on the y-axis (whether they were enshrined that year, or eventually in a future year) that goes all the way back to the very first ballot, 1936:


It's obvious with the naked eye that there is a strong downward trend. Don't believe anyone that says the Hall of Fame is getting watered down. Quite the opposite is happening. The induction trend looks very much like exponential decay, which would suggest that at some point the graph hugs a horizontal asymptote and stops sinking (actually it keeps sinking, but super slowly to the point it's hard to notice). It seems like Hall of Fame voting might have hit that point somewhere around the late 1980s.*

*There is a nosedive in the last 3 or 4 years, but keep in mind that this is a tally of eventual Hall of Famers on the ballot. Many players show up on several ballots before they are enshrined, and recent ballots haven't had many chances for players to get in afterwards. It is reasonable to expect that there are several players still alive on recent ballots who will get in.

Arbitrary start and end dates alert: For the rest of this post, I will consider Hall of Fame ballots from 1987-2013. I was born in 1987, and that seemed as good of a reason as any to pick a year from the late 1980s, where it appears Hall of Fame ballots have hit a rather stable standard for who gets in.

I looked at ballots from 1987 to 1999 and averaged how many Hall of Famers appear on a ballot in a given year in that time frame. It turns out to be about 6.8. I chose 1999 as the end year because nobody could possibly show up on the 2014 ballot from 1999 since there is a 15-year separation; in other words there is nobody that could be voted in this year that changes the calculations.**

**In case you are wondering, the average is still 6.8 players if you consider 1987-2007. Then you hit the dip you see in the chart above and that lowers the average.

Even though nobody got voted in last year, it would be stunning if nobody ever gets voted in that appeared on the ballot. In fact, the lowest total in any year from 1936-1999 is 5 players, from the 1993 ballot. The real question is who those players are, particularly in light of the steroid scandal.

It turns out that the BBWAA voters are somewhat predictable creatures of habit, at least once there are some Hall of Fame votes on record for a player. Using only voting precedents set since 1987 there are some pretty easy predictions to make. Here are some of the trends:
  • The "crowded ballot" hypothesis is mostly bogus. Last year, voters on average listed about 6.5 players on their ballot. They are allowed to list up to 10. This again asserts that voters, intentionally or subconsciously, prefer a more exclusive Hall of Fame than they used to.
  • Since 1987, anyone listed on more than 42.3% of ballots in their first year has made the Hall of Fame. The longest wait time has been 9 years, with an average wait time of 2 years. Lee Smith will change these numbers at some point though - he had 42.3% on his first ballot, but he's already in year 12 on the ballot.
  • Since 1987, the lowest percentage on a first-year ballot to ultimately get enshrined is Bert Blyleven at 17.5%. Between Blyleven and the 42.3% "guarantee" mark are 9 closed cases. 4 of those players are in the Hall of Fame, 5 are not. There are a whopping 10 active cases in that band right now, which speaks to the hot debates going on with the Hall of Fame ballots.
  • Year 7 might be another magic marker year, which will get tested as the years go on. Since 1987, everyone listed on at least 35% of ballots in year 7 has gotten in the Hall of Fame; everyone below is out. No previous year has such a clear demarcation, and the gap widens. It's basically the gap between Bert Blyleven/Bruce Sutter and Steve Garvey. At year 7 it is 35.4-30.8, in year 8 40.9-32.1, year 9 50.4-34.2, year 10 53.6-28.4, year 11 59.5-27.8, and I think you get the idea. Both Jack Morris and Lee Smith's vote totals live within this gap though, again asserting their borderline cases. Smith in particular seems to be splitting the gap right down the middle; Morris has trended more towards inclusion but would set a new low bar.
I believe we can make some pretty firm conclusions on who will get in the Hall of Fame and who won't on the 2014 ballot, based mostly on the trends exhibited in Hall of Fame voting. The 2014 ballot likely has 5 to 9 Hall of Famers, which to me means it probably has 4 or 5 clear-cut cases, and then another 4-5 borderline cases where half of that group will get in. That's before even looking at individual players. So let's take a gander:

CLEARLY IN: Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza - Bagwell started on the fringe (41.7% in his first year) but has gained enough traction in the last few years to safely say he will get enshrined at some point. Neither Biggio nor Piazza start on the bubble. They are well above 42.3% first-year threshold (Biggio at 68%, Piazza at 57.5%).

LIKELY IN: Tim Raines - Raines started squarely on the bubble, if not on the outside looking in, with just 24.3% in his first year of eligibility. However, as of year six he is up to 52.2%. Raines is about to hit the consenus-forming time for long-term ballot members, and he is in fair shape to get above 35% of the vote this season. However, if Blyleven is an outlier (and he probably is), the next lowest total in the Hall as of year 7 is Jim Rice, at 57.9%. Raines compares better to Rice than Blyleven anyway. All in all, his voting pattern is more in line with players who have built the necessary consensus to get in after a long wait than those who fell short.

FIRST YEAR PLAYERS LIKELY IN: Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine - No voting data to back these players up yet, just off of gut feel and their terrific numbers. I think Maddux in particular will get in this year on the first ballot. Glavine might end up being the last 300-game winner ever.

That's already 5 or 6 Hall of Famers on the 2014 ballot, depending on whether we include Raines or not. There might be no others, or maybe up to 3 more.

QUESTIONABLE CASES IN LATE STAGES: Jack Morris and Lee Smith - They are both on the bubble, as their percentages put them between Jim Rice and Bert Blyleven in the late stages of voting. I interpret Bert Blyleven more as an outlier in the voting than a new benchmark. Morris in particular is a very intense case as I think he is on the absolute edge. I say neither Morris nor Smith make it, based on the overarching trend towards exclusivity in the Hall of Fame. However, Morris will be very close. I won't be surprised if he makes it. I'm more confident that Smith is out though. Smith isn't building enough of a surge fast enough to get in the Hall of Fame.

QUESTIONABLE CASES IN EARLY STAGES: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Edgar Martinez, Curt Schilling - All of these players debuted in the 35-40% of votes range, and it remains to be seen how their cases develop. They will all hang around the ballot the full 15 years or until they are enshrined, whichever comes first. None of their fates will be decided any time soon. Given the trend towards exclusivity I say with some certainly Martinez and Schilling will fade away, but Bonds and Clemens clearly have numbers that put them among the all-time greats. The specter of steroids scare away many of the voters with those two. I anticipate views on PEDs in the '90s will soften over time, and perhaps soften enough in the next 15 years for both Bonds and Clemens to make it in.

QUESTIONABLE FIRST YEAR CASES: Mike Mussina, Frank Thomas, Jeff Kent - I have no idea how these cases will go. Personally, I'd put Thomas in. We'll see what the voters think.

So, to recap, my predictions as of now:

IN - Bagwell, Biggio, Piazza, Maddux, Glavine, Raines
BUBBLE - Morris, Bonds, Clemens, Thomas
OUT - Everyone else, to varying degrees

If I had to make a guess, I'd say the BBWAA will induct Craig Biggio and Greg Maddux this year. We'll see how things develop.