The 5% rule

As usual, I have a million thoughts about this year’s Baseball Hall of Fame ballots — both the Golden Era ballot which the veteran’s committee will vote on in two weeks, and the Baseball Writers ballot — and will be spilling way too many words on them over the next the month and a half. But today I have a very specific thought, inspired by Tom Tango, on a part of the Hall of Fame process I had never spent much time thinking about.

Let’s begin by talking about first timers on the ballot.

Going back to 1966 — that is the year the modern BBWAA voting procedures began — there have been 677 players who have appeared on the ballot. That’s a LOT. That means, on average, 14 new players have been added to the ballot every year. This year, 15 first-timers have been added — only four or five whom will get the requisite five percent to stay on the ballot next year.

I think the reasoning behind having all these first-timers is that it is supposed to be some kind of honor just to be included ON the Hall of Fame ballot. I don’t think it actually IS an honor since, for the most part, these players are mocked for being there and anyone who votes for them is mocked too. Rich Aurilia was a fine player, and maybe he will get something out of getting zero votes this year. I have to believe there’s a better way.

Anyway, most of the first year players get an embarrassingly low number of votes. Let’s break iit down. Of the 677 players who appeared on the ballot:

— 217 of them — almost a third of them — got ZERO votes. The list includes some pretty good players. Tommie Agee is on the list, Sudden Sam McDowell, Bill James’ favorite player Amos Otis, Brady Anderson, Boomer Scott, Ken Singleton and so on. Probably the best player on the zero list is a sabermetric favorite, Jimmy Wynn, the Toy Cannon, who walked a ton and mixed power with speed and spent almost his entire career having his numbers depressed by death valley ballparks. It’s kind of a shame not one person saw the merit of his career. But the larger point is this: Like 217 others to receive 0 votes, had absolutely no support for the Hall of Fame and, realistically, was just clogging up the ballot.

— 102 of them — another 15% — got one vote. The ceremonial vote. The list includes good players like Johnny Sain, Denny McLain, Greg Luzinski, Jose Rijo, Terry Pendleton, Bret Boone and The Gambler Kenny Rogers. I don’t sense that the best of this group is any better than zero-player like Wynn or Singleton or Joe Rudi. But somebody up there in the BBWAA liked them. Heck, somebody gave Bobby Adams, Tommy Helms, David Segui and Hal Lanier a vote, so anything’s possible.

— 137 more — another 20% — got between 2 and 5 votes. Again, none of them were elected to the Hall of Fame, though in this group there are a handful of players (Reggie Smith, Rocky Colavito, Billy Pierce, Rick Reuschel, Willie Randolph among others) who have had their Hall of Fame cases talked about in recent years.

So almost 70% of the players who have been added to the ballot the last 50 or so year received five votes or less — less than 1% of the actual vote in most years. This is Point 1: The Hall of Fame ballot has included hundreds of players who were not serious or even semi-serious Hall of Fame candidates.

Now, let’s look at the 220 players who received at least six votes — I hope this will lead to Point 2.

— 39 of them were elected first ballot. We have written plenty about them.

— Seventeen players of them received between 50 and 75% of the vote. All but two of them have already been elected to the Hall of Fame, and two remaining — Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza — are on the ballot and, certainly, will get elected in the next two or three years. I’ve written before about the 75% standard; I think it’s silly. Anyone who gets the majority of the vote first ballot will get elected in time; the 75% standard just makes those players wait in Casablanca, and wait, and wait. But that’s an argument for another time.

— Six players received between 40 and 50%. These six did worse than I expected. Only three of the six have been elected to the Hall of Fame (Ryne Sandberg, Gary Carter and Andre Dawson). The other three are Steve Garvey, who never came close, Lee Smith, whose support dwindled quickly and Jeff Bagwell, who I think will get elected but who did take a step backward last year.

— Ten players received between 30 and 40%. Again, these 10 did way worse than I thought. Only two of the 10 — Eddie Mathews and Goose Gossage — were eventually voted in by the BBWAA. Two more (Jim Bunning and Enos Slaughter) were voted in by the Veteran’s Committee after torturous 15-year stints on the BBWAA ballot. And the other six include two all-time greats in PED limbo (Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds) and four players who are perhaps doomed Hall of Fame causes for various groups (Maury Wills, Luis Tiant, Curt Schilling and Edgar Martinez).

— Sixteen players received between 20 and 30% and, for some reason, these players have done better with the BBWAA than the 30-50% group. Six of the 16 were elected to the Hall of Fame already (Jim Rice, Early Wynn, Luis Aparicio, Bruce Sutter, Billy Williams and Don Drysdale). Two more came very, very close (Gil Hodges and Jack Morris). Five are currently on the ballot, with Tim Raines building the most momentum so far. I think Mike Mussina will build momentum. Some think Fred McGriff will also gain momentum over time — but he seems to be going the other way.

— Eighteen players received between 10 and 20% — only two of the 18 (Bert Blyleven and Duke Snider) were voted in by the BBWAA. Orlando Cepeda and Nellie Foxx were eventually elected by the Veterans Committee.

For the most part, these players who start off between 10 and 20% get what I call “ornamental 15-year consideration.” That is, they are put on the ballot for 15 years but never come close to getting the necessary 75%.

*Tony Oliva (47.3% peak) *Harvey Kuenn (39.3% peak) *Jim Kaat (27.3% peak) *Mickey Lolich (25.5% peak) *Dave Parker (24.5% peak) *Dale Murphy (23.2% peak) *Thurman Munson (15.5% peak)

It appears to me that Alan Trammell (36.8% peak so far) and Don Mattingly (28.2% peak) are on their way to this ornamental 15 year destiny, though after them players only stay on the ballot for ten years.

— Twenty seven more players got between 5% and 10% of the vote. As you know, it takes 5% of the vote to stay on the ballot (hey, we really are getting to the point). None of the 27 were elected by the BBWAA and none came close. Let me break those down for you:

*Two eventually were elected by the Veterans, but Joe Torre was elected as a manager and Bill Mazeroski, well, that pick was viewed with such horror by the Hall of Fame that they essentially disbanded the Veterans Committee because of it.

*Eight fell off the ballot the very next year, including Bernie Williams, Hank Bauer, Albert Belle, Dave Stewart, Fernando Valenzuela, Fred Lynn, Juan Gonzalez, Willie McGee.

*Fell off the ballot two years later: Dwight Evans.

*Three years later: Nettles, Foster, Blue,

*Four years later: Boone, Baines,

*Six years later: Staub

*Eight years later: Guidry, Keith Hernandez.

*10 years later: Bobby Bonds.

*Seven got called the ornamental 15 year treatment – no real threat to get elected but they stayed on the ballot: Larsen, Concepcion, Vernon, Roy Face, Al Dark and Elston Howard.

*Pete Rose got 41 votes his first year, but of course those don’t count.

— The final 87 received more than 5 votes but less than the 5% required to stay on the ballot. None of them were elected to the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA (obviously) but three (Richie Ashburn, Larry Doby and Ron Santo) were elected by the veterans.

This group is the most interesting one of all to me because there are some SUPERB players on the list who in my mind never got an especially fair Hall of Fame hearing. Some of the more famous ones include Minnie Minoso, Dick Allen, Lou Whitaker, Bobby Grich and Curt Flood, but there are many more including Kenny Lofton, Dave Stieb, Darrell Evans, Will Clark, Dan Quisenberry and Kevin Brown who certainly deserved to have their stories told and their cases batted around a bit.

So, finally we get to Point 2: The 5% measure for keeping a player on the ballot is, in my opinion, destructive to the process. Like I say at the top, I had never really thought about it before, it has been such a clear part of the process for so long that I doubt anyone thinks about it. But in exchanging some thoughts about all this with Tango, he wrote something that sticks with me:

“The main problem is that the voting results is what establishes next year’s nomination list for the returnees.”

He’s right, this is the main problem. You have two different things going on here. You have Hall of Famers elected AND you have next year’s ballot being built. Those are two very distinct tasks and they should have two very distinct processes.

This is ESPECIALLY destructive right now because the ballot is so bloated. I’ll get into this in more detail in a later post, but this year’s Hall of Fame ballot is a logistical mess. For me, there are many more than 10 qualified Hall of Fame candidates on the ballot. A couple — Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez for instance — will sail into the Hall of Fame by landslide this year. A couple more — Craig Biggio for example — will need every vote he can get for election (Biggio fell shot by two votes last year). Others like Clemens and Bonds won’t get elected, not a chance, but they were the best players on the ballot.

Then some will need help just to get the 5% necessary to stay on the ballot. What do you do? Do you give Mike Mussina a vote to make sure he falls off the ballot and take it away from Clemens because he’s not getting in anyway? DO you pass on Pedro, knowing full well he will have plenty of wiggle room, and vote for Sammy Sosa to be sure he doesn’t fall below 5%?

These last considerations should NOT be part of this process. I’m now beginning to believe that this, more than anything else, is the worst part of the Hall of Fame voting. The 5% rule is a lousy one. And my recommendation (like anyone cares about my recommendation) is that the BBWAA and Hall of Fame eliminate it immediately.

Here’s one version of what the BBWAA and Hall could do: Create a Hall of Fame nominating committee. It could be a rotating committee of, say, 10 people. They would create the ballot every year. The ballot they create would be much smaller than it is now — only real Hall of Fame candidates would be on it. If the Hall of Fame wants to find ways to honor good but not great players like Jermaine Dye and Jason Schmidt, I’m all for it.

The finaly ballot would have a limit — 15 players on it, 20 at the most. The committee would have to work very hard to limit it that much. But that’s good. What they would end up with is a ballot of legitimate Hall of Fame players who deserve real Hall of Fame consideration. It would be a REAL honor to be on that ballot.

And — this is important — the committee would have the opportunity to put ANYONE on the Hall of Fame ballot who deserves to have his case heard, even those who might not have received five percent of the vote the first time around. Let’s face it: Don Mattingly’s case has been heard clearly. He has been on the ballot for TWELVE YEARS. I love Mattingly, he’s one of my all-time favorite players, but how many times do the voters have to say no? Meanwhile, Lou Whitaker never really got his case heard.

The 5% rule is ineffective and arbitrary. It’s a poor way to build a ballot. It gives us cacophonous ballots stuffed with cronies who the voters have already dismissed time and again. It encourages a kind of strategic voting that shouldn’t be a part of a an upright Hall of Fame process. It also creates the same conversations every year. Even I was getting tired of the Jack Morris arguments.

There are many things the Hall of Fame and BBWAA could do, I think, to make the process better. But I would begin here: Create a real nominating committee with the power to create a compelling and changing ballot.