The BBWAA has released its 2014 Hall of Fame ballot, with the results to be announced on Wednesday, January 8. Any candidate named on at least 75% of the ballots mailed in earn induction to Cooperstown. This used to be a fairly straight-forward process. Worthy candidates often had to wait a year or two (due to the silly notion that certain players deserve enshrinement, but not on their first ballot), and none of us would agree with every yea or nay, but for the most part baseball's best players were voted in. In January of 2007 though, that began to change.
That year Mark McGwire, who'd hit 583 home runs and would have been a shoo-in at another point in time, received just 24% of the vote. The obvious explanation was his connection to performance-enhancing drugs. He's gained no ground in the voting since then, in fact his 2013 showing (16.9%) was his worst yet. It's clear McGwire will never be voted in by the BBWAA.
In 2011, Rafael Palmeiro, one of just four players in history with 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, which would otherwise have made him a lock for Cooperstown, instead received only 11% of the vote due to a failed drug test. He is now on the verge of falling off the ballot entirely. That same year, Jeff Bagwell, a man who on merit ranks as one of the five or six greatest first basemen ever, was listed on just 42% of the ballots. He never failed a drug test and his name never turned up on any of the famed lists, his only sins were a muscled physique and tremendous bat speed. Meanwhile, other solid candidates made their way onto the ballot, but for various reasons, were also nowhere near being inducted.
Last year brought the real tipping point, as more than half a dozen reasonably qualified candidates landed on the ballot for the first time, joining those already there. The two most-significant names were Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. It isn't hard to make a case for Bonds as the greatest player ever, or for Clemens as the greatest pitcher, but neither received even half the votes needed to reach 75%.Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling, Sammy Sosa, and Kenny Lofton also made their debut on ballot. They all fell short; Lofton didn't even receive the 5% of the votes needed to remain on the ballot. His case won't be heard again for at least 20 years, despite a claim to being one of the ten best center fielders ever.
Nearly twenty players with at least a compelling argument to be made for them, and not one of them was elected.
Now another round of newcomers has arrived, including Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Mike Mussina, Frank Thomas, and Jeff Kent. Take a minute to study this year's ballot at Baseball-Reference, where they've got players' statistics right next to them. Really, take a look, I'll wait...
If you can't find ten players there whom you believe deserve to be in the Hall of Fame, you've chosen to completely ignore the standards set by three quarters of a century's worth of voting. I'll think up and post my own hypothetical ballot in a couple weeks, but at first glance there are 15 guys I think I'd vote for if I could. Now, the main reason I can't is that I'm not a part of the BBWAA (sigh...), but even if I were, I still couldn't vote for 15, because the BBWAA and Hall of Fame have a rule that limits voters to no more than 10 players a year.
Until recently, this wasn't an issue, as there were rarely that many strong candidates. Now though, it's a different story, and the awful logjam shows no signs of giving way. Next year Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez,John Smoltz, and Gary Sheffield will arrive on the ballot, the year after that it's Ken Griffey and Jim Edmonds, then Ivan Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, and Vladimir Guerrero, followed by Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Scott Rolen, Andruw Jones, Johan Santana, and Omar Vizquel.
That isn't to say all of those guys should be elected, but they're legitimate candidates, and they'll all draw at least moderate support.
My guess as to what happens this year: Maddux gets in (he was far too great to deny, given the absence of any PED connections), along with Biggio and lightning-rod candidate Jack Morris, who's in his last year of BBWAA eligibility. Glavine and Thomas each come close, and Bagwell and Piazza both creep up the list. All four of those guys will be in very good shape to get in come 2015, but with Johnson and Martinez arriving too, something will have to give, because the last time the BBWAA elected more than three players at once was 1955.
Many voters will be forced to leave players they view as deserving off their ballot. How does that work, how do you choose? Do you rank them all and list the top 10? Perhaps you choose the ones you believe will get the most support from others, to try and push them over the top? Maybe you vote for the ones you believe will get the least support, to try to ensure they don't fall of the ballot like poor Lofton.
My preference is that BBWAA voters not attempt to whitewash an entire era from the Hall of Fame, especially an era most of them covered (but were apparently too naive or too starstruck to notice what was going on). More important to me personally, it's the era in which I came of age as a baseball fan. A Hall of Fame that ignores that era is a Hall of Fame I have less interest in. That may not matter to you, but I assure you it matters to the Hall of Fame, because it's people like me visiting Cooperstown that allows it to exist. Induction weekend is by far their busiest time of the year, and living inductees bring the visitors.
Something needs to be done. If voters can't be convinced to vote players in based on their production during the era in which they played, with all its marks and blemishes, at the very least the 10-player limit should be done away with. As is, every year leaves me less interested in the Hall of Fame voting debate, because every year the Hall of Fame itself feels less relevant.