Well, it’s that time of year again. The Baseball Hall of Fame will announce the results of this year’s voting on January 6th. I wouldn’t be surprised if as many as four players are elected for entry. I would also not be surprised if no one was elected. But rather than write about why I believe certain players should be enshrined like everyone else is doing right now, I plan to rant on one of my great frustrations. Every year, I constantly hear people pose the question, “Why do players' vote totals change so much from year to year? Either you are a hall of famer or you’re not.”
There are several valid reasons which explain the ever changing and sometimes dramatically changing vote totals for players. There are also some invalid reasons.
First, and I suppose most obvious, is that the voting body itself changes each year. Every year, a new crop of sports writers become eligible to vote, while each year, some aging members lose their vote, typically because they die. While this may not seem overly dramatic in any one given year, over 15 years, which is the period of eligibility for a player to remain on the ballot, this is significant. The younger voting members are more likely to have covered the eligible players and therefore, may have strong opinions as to their worth. Conversely, the older voting body has a tendency to romanticize the players that they covered and are much tougher when scrutinizing the more recent players.
Second, a voter is limited to only choosing ten players in any given year. This is significant because it forces voters to not vote for players he believes eligible. True, some voters do not even cast all ten of their available votes, but many do. When I look at the 26 players on this year’s ballot, I see 14 players that I believe warrant selection. However, cutting it down to ten is a challenge because if a player does not receive at least 5% of the vote, he falls off the ballot completely for the subsequent year.
When I look at the fourteen players that I wish to vote for, I need to be strategic. I could choose not to vote for the players that I think will get in without my help like Roberto Alomar who I think is in the best position to get in this year. However, that’s not fair to Roberto because if everyone followed this plan, the best candidate to get in would not get in.
I could go the other way and not select those players that I have ranked 11-14 on my list. While this seems logical, it is these borderline guys that are in most need of my support because if they fall below the 5%, then all hope is lost.
Instead, what I am likely to do is temporarily abandon my support for a few guys in the middle. Guys who will stick around on the ballot at least a few more years until such time that a push could be made for them. I believe this is why guys like Blyleven and Morris have hung around the middle for some time. I do believe Blyleven’s time has arrived and he will get in either this year or next.
Third, perspective changes over time. When Lee Smith retired he was first on the career list in saves. But he wasn’t immediately elected. Since then, two other players have surpassed Smith on the all time saves list, Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera. So, if this accomplishment was all Smith had to hang his hat on, his election may be in jeopardy. Personally, I think he should and will get in eventually. If the only guys surpassing you are themselves hall of famers, I don’t think it diminishes your accomplishment at all.
By the same token however, a player’s stats can begin to look even better over time. Let’s look at Bert Blyleven for example. His career overlapped with many obvious dominant hall of fame pitchers including, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Jim Palmer, Nolan Ryan, Gaylord Perry and a few others. But these guys all debuted before Blyleven. If you compare Blyleven to the pitchers who debuted after him, it’s a different story; his 287 wins are surpassed only by Maddux, Clemens, Glavine, and Randy Johnson, all future hall of famers. In strikeouts, only Clemens and Johnson have more than Blyleven amongst those whose debut came after. And, nobody who debuted after Blyleven has pitched more shutouts or thrown more complete games.
This perspective can only be accomplished over time. It is not fair to only compare a player with those who came before him. This system is designed so that a voter has the opportunity to also compare a player to those who have come since. This is a perfectly valid reason for vote totals to change over time.
I have now mentioned three good reasons for the changing vote totals; now, for an annoyingly invalid reason. I hate the voters who try to distinguish between a first ballot hall of famer and the others. How sad is it that being a hall of famer isn’t enough to make it clear that a player was one of the greatest to ever play the game? This distinction of being a first ballot hall of famer is just plain insulting to the other members.
Any voter who fails to vote for somebody solely on this rationale does an injustice to the hall. Once again, if every voter followed this warped philosophy, tons of current hall of famers never would have gotten in, including Cy Young himself.