The Veteran's Committee and Bad Math

SAN DIEGO — There are four people in my immediate family, and every week or two we decide to go out for dinner. This always begins with high hopes and expectations. And every week or two we end up instead going to Jersey Mike’s to get sandwiches and then come home and watch a movie.

This happens because of math. Four people means four votes for where we go to dinner. No two people EVER vote for the same place.

Four people also means four vetoes for where we don’t go to dinner.

Margo, my wife, always votes for something kind of exotic place, some new restaurant, some vegetarian place that specializes in dandelion cutlets, some new chef’s restaurant written up in the papers. The other three of us rotate in using our vetoes.

I suggest … whatever, it doesn’t matter, because nobody’s interested what I want to eat.

Elizabeth, our oldest daughter, pleasantly abstains — she is willing to go anywhere except every single restaurant you can come up with.

And Katie, our youngest daughter, always suggests mall Chinese food. Margo vetoes this continuously which doesn’t bother Katie at all because what she really wants is to go to Jersey Mike’s, get sandwiches, and come back and watch a movie, which is what we end up doing.

All math leads to Jersey Mike’s … and this, believe it or not, is simply a simplified version of ongoing problem with the Veterans Committee for the Baseball Hall of Fame. There, too, all maths point to Jersey Mike’s.

The Veteran’s Committee — a 16-member group of players, executives, sportswriters — once again met this year, and they enthusiastically discussed 10 pretty darned good candidates on what was called the Golden Era Ballot. The Committee Members then voted; a player needed to make 12 of 16 ballots to be called Hall of Famers.

Yes, they voted. And Monday afternoon here in San Diego, they had a fairly large press conference with five people, including Hall of Famers Fergie Jenkins and Pat Gillick on the dais. Then Jane Forbes Clark, the Chairman of the Board, stepped to the microphone and announced … nothing. Nada. Zippo. The committee had not voted in any of the players. OK, folks, thanks for coming. Please tip your waitress.

It was, to say the least, a disappointment. They don’t form committees to NOT elect people into the Hall of Fame. After the rather uncomfortable press conference, I heard one of the committee members turn to another and say, “I feel like we failed.”

But here’s the point: Did the committee fail? Or did the system fail THEM? I think it was the second. I think this whole thing was just bad math. First a little history: In 2001, the Veteran’s Committee elected Bill Mazeroski to the Hall of Fame. There’s a pretty good argument to be made that Mazeroski is the greatest defensive second baseman in baseball history and, as such, deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Trouble is, Maz was a lifetime .260 hitter (with a .299 on-base percentage) and, after he was elected, there was some pretty significant panic. Help! Help! They’re electing .260 hitters to the esteemed baseball Hall of Fame! Won’t somebody help us?

See, here’s what you need to know about the Hall of Fame: The wind blows out. That is to say, nothing scares the Hall of Fame more than what can loosely be called a “lowering of standards.” In truth, there are several people in the Hall of Fame who are less deserving than Bill Mazeroski, but in truth Cooperstown was not where baseball was invented … there’s a mythology about the Hall of Fame that comforts the board members and mobilizes the inducted players, a mythology that the Hall of Fame is Willie Mays and Walter Johnson and Mike Schmidt, not Lloyd Waner and Jesse Haines and Freddie Lindstrom.

Electing Bill Mazeroski and his .260 average pierced that mythology, and so the Veteran’s Committee was disbanded. The Committee has come back in various forms in the last 14 or so years. And it should be said that these committees have elected A LOT of people since 2001. They have elected seven managers, four executives, two umpires, one 19th Century player and 17 people who were involved one way or another with the Negro Leagues.

How about living players? Here’s your total: 0. The Veteran’s Committee has only elected two 20th Century players since 2001. One was Joe Gordon, who had died 30 years earlier. The other was Ron Santo, who had died two years before.

That’s right. The Veteran’s Committee has not voted in a living player since the Bill Mazeroski panic.

This year, it seemed inevitable that the Vets would break that streak. They were given a really strong ballot of 10 people — seven who are still living. There was Minnie Minoso, the man professor and author Adrian Burgos calls the Latin Jackie Robinson. There was Dick Allen, one of the most fearsome hitters of all time. There was Jim Kaat with his 283 victories. There was Maury Wills, who helped launch a stolen base revolution. There was Luis Tiant, El Tiante, who pitched like no one else.There was Tony Oliva, who smashed the hardest line drives of his time. There was Billy Pierce, so slight, throwing fastballs that seemed to rocket from his left hand.

The other three candidates — Gil Hodges, Bob Howsam and Ken Boyer — were also compelling candidates.

So: Ten good candidates. And I believe, having talked with several members of the committee, that they fully understood how good a list this was and how good these players were. The ones I talked to fully expected to vote at least one player in, maybe two or three.

So why did they fail to vote in any of them?

Math.

Here were the final totals — once more, players needed 12 of the 16 for election:

— Dick Allen, 11 — Tony Oliva, 11 — Jim Kaat, 10 — Maury Wills, 9 — Minnie Minoso, 8

All of the following got fewer than three votes: — Ken Boyer — Gil Hodges — Bob Howsam — Billy Pierce — Luis Tiant

So, you can see that Allen and Oliva fell one heartbreaking vote short of the Hall, Kaat two votes short. You can also see that five players got “fewer than three votes.” Why didn’t the Hall include their vote totals? At first I thought it was because they didn’t want to embarrass anyone who did not get a single vote … which is understandable. But there’s something else at work here too.

See, the ballot had 10 players, but voters were limited to four players. They did not have to vote for four, but they could not vote for more than four.

That means the maximum number of votes cast was 64 (4 x 16). The top five players got 49 votes, which means that there were only 15 possible votes left. It seems very unlikely that each of the five players got exactly three votes, so my guess is that not everybody voted for four players. In fact, I would bet that a few ballots had three or fewer votes on them. This is important because even with 16 FULL ballots, the odds of a player on this ballot getting elected were pretty slim.

Back to the math. Tom Tango explains it this way: Let’s say all ten candidates on the ballot were equally qualified for the Hall of Fame. That’s not quite true here, but it’s a good starting point — you had 10 good candidates. If they’re all equally good candidates, then each one had a 40% chance of getting picked for a ballot — 10 players on the ballot, voter chooses four, 40% chance. Pretty simple.

Well, if a player has a 40% chance of being on one ballot, his chances on making 12 of 16 is … get ready for it, less than 0.5%. That’s not 5% — it is less than one-half of one-percent. 995 times out of a 1,000, the player would NOT get elected. And remember, that’s assuming every voter uses all four of his votes.

Now, in this case, the panel did not see all ten candidates as equally qualified. They saw Allen, Oliva, Kaat, Wills and Minoso as the best candidates — those five players drew AT LEAST 77% of the total votes cast. For the record: I don’t agree with the Committee. I think Tiant was woefully under-appreciated as was Ken Boyer, and I think Wills was wildly overvalued. But these are just opinions, and we were talking math.

So, let’s look at the math again. Let’s say that you ask all 16 voters a question: Should Dick Allen be in the Hall of Fame? And let’s say that 14 of them say, “Yes.” That’s good right? Fourteen of 16 is 88%, way above the Hall of Fame threshold. OK, Allen is in!

Wrong. Even then he would probably NOT get in. Remember: There were at least FIVE strong candidates, and each voter was limited to four. If Allen had a 80% chance to appear on each of those 14 ballots, there would STILL be less than a 50% chance (44.8% to be exact) of him getting the 12 votes he needs for the Hall of Fame.

Jim Kaat is a good personal example. I think Jim Kaat should be in the Hall of Fame. But, given only four votes, I would not have had him on my ballot. I had Minoso, Tiant, Boyer and Allen higher than him.

You see the point? The Hall of Fame set up a mathematical mousetrap. Every turn runs into a statistical wall. There were too many people on the ballot. The voters were given too few votes. The only way to get a Hall of Famer with this system is to basically have a ballot split so that two or three candidates are separates from the rest. This happened last year when three great managers — Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox — were put on a ballot with old players. The committee united behind the managers. The committee has proven an ability to unite behind managers, behind umpires, behind executives — heck, they somehow found 12 votes for Bowie Kuhn. But they cannot unite behind living players … and that’s disappointing. Players should be elected to the Hall while they are living.

I suspect the Hall of Fame will tinker with the system again — maybe increase the number of votes each voter gets or have the committee shrink the ballot or something like that. In the meantime, it’s unfortunate that a Veteran’s Committee got together once again just to tell Minnie Minoso, Dick Allen, Tony Oliva, Jim Kaat, Billy Pierce, Luis Tiant and Maury Wills that they just weren’t good enough.