06 January 2016

A Call for the Hall to Remain (Mostly) Small

There's no shortage of Hall of Fame election coverage, given that today is set for the announcement of the induction class of 2016.  Neither is there a shortage of deserving candidates, unless you're Murray Chass, though this year's class is likely to include Ken Griffey and Mike Piazza, and perhaps nobody else.

This despite the presence on the ballot of PED-tainted all-time greats like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, but also seemingly clean but under-appreciated players like Alan Trammell and Tim Raines.  We also have recent additions to the ballot who will probably take a few years to gather the steam to get elected, like Curt Schilling, Jeff Bagwell, probably Trevor Hoffman and hopefully Mike Mussina.

Others are ironically being penalized for the era in which they played, despite the lack of a stain on their names with regard to steroids.  Fred McGriff, for example, performed at a high level and stayed in the majors for 19 years, finishing his career with the kinds of counting stats the voters used to love.  (He'd be top-20 all time in career HR without the suspected PED users in front of him!) But his failure to put up numbers sufficiently higher than the PED-boosted replacement level is keeping his career WAR numbers down, so neither the old school nor the new school voters give him any love.  

One of the more interesting analyses of the general trends in Hall of Fame inductions comes from Neil Paine of the NY Times 538 blog, who thinks that the MLB Hall of Fame is stuck in the 1960's.  I'm not sure he's right, or if he is, whether that's actually a bad thing.

Although players who produced the bulk of their WAR before the 1970s make up only 62 percent of the all-time MLB population, they represent 79 percent of all player inductees. Conversely, the 38 percent of players who made their mark since have yielded only 21 percent of Hall members. If we expect legendary talent to crop up in proportion with the playing population of an era, the Hall of Fame hasn’t been paying attention for a half-century.

He also ran a regression to look at how many Hall of Famers would be expected based on the existing standards set by the Hall itself, using Jay Jaffe's JAWS system, and comes essentially to the same conclusion.   He asserts that as baseball expanded (there are 30 teams in MLB since 1998, compared to just 16 before 1961) the frequency of Cooperstown inductees should also have expanded, but it has not.

Expansion gives more players the opportunity to build Hall of Fame-caliber careers, but it creates a backlog if the voters are slow to account for this by inducting a commensurate number of players. And from the numbers above, it’s clear that the Hall has never quite figured out the expansion time bomb, a problem that continues to grow each year.

The trouble with using JAWS to determine the benchmark is that this is just a metric of what is already there, not necessarily what should be there.  It's a retroactive measurement tool, rather than a predictive one.  Jaffe himself typically uses it to say whether the election of a player would raise the existing standard, but does not, I believe, ever say that a player should be elected because he exhibits a certain JAWS score.   

This comes off as kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Just because expansion has permitted twice as many roster positions now as there were 50 years ago does not mean that the HoF should be enshrining twice as many players as they did 50 years ago.  As the population becomes larger, it is the voters' right to become more selective, recognizing that what seemed really impressive 75 years ago (Herb Pennock's or Lou Boudreau's careers, for example) need not inspire same kind of awe now.

Put another way, and with caveats about counting stats being of limited usefulness when deducing a player's career merits: Hitting 500 home runs once seemed really impressive, because of its rarity.  Only 15 players (all Hall of Famers) had done it in the first century and a quarter of major league baseball, but another dozen would hit that mark in the next 20 years, and now its not such a big deal.  Striking out 2,500 batters was also a rare feat.  Only 16 players had done it up to 1993, and 13 of those are in Cooperstown.  But then the number of people who had done it nearly doubled in a span of 20 years, and now...meh.

Perhaps the quality of a ~65 WAR career, which was good enough to get Goose Goslin and Joe Cronin into Cooperstown (though they did not have that metric at the time), should not be enough to give Carlos Beltran and Edgar Martinez the same treatment.  Why should the voters or the Hall itself be compelled to admit a consummate number of players, even very good players, when such players are in some ways not as scarce as they used to be?  Why can't the set the bar higher?

While Paine uses some comparatively sophisticated analytical tools, his column amounts to not much more than a complex way of saying, "If Ralph Kiner is in Cooperstown, then Albert Belle should be too."  Or something of that ilk. 

In any case, I'm not sure they're really all that much more selective than they have been historically.  In the first 30 years of the Hall, the BBWAA did not hold elections every year.  They took a couple of breaks during WWII (since they had met the quota they were given by the Hall by 1940) and then for a decade in the 1950's and 60's went to an even-years-only schedule.

In fact, the writers were so parsimonious with their votes that the Hall occasionally had to instate a run-off system to try to get somebody elected when there was no consensus among the writers the first time around.  This means Charlie Gehringer, Red Ruffing and Luke Appling can essentially attribute their elections to, well, peer pressure.

Hence, there were only 21 votes in that span, and a total of only 39 players were voted in by the BBWAA.  There were also 43 players elected by the Old Timers or Veterans committees, so it could be said that the Veterans were at least doing the job they were assigned, finding deserving players that had been overlooked by the writers for one reason or another.  But an argument can be made that they were a little overzealous with the task, as we will see. 

Here's a look at the elections by the BBWAA and others, decade by decade, over the 80-years the Hall has existed:

The blue columns are the BBWAA elections, including special elections (Gehrig, Clemente) and the three aforementioned runoffs.   The Writers have been mostly consistent, voting in between 14 and 17 players per decade, with two exceptions which mostly balance each other out: They elected 20 players in the post-WWII decade, but only five from 1956-65.

The red columns are the Old Timers and later the Veterans' committees as well as the Negro Leagues elections.  Showing these by decade is a little misleading, I'll admit, because (for example) you frequently had panels or subcommittees meeting and discussing players for quite a while and then large batches of players elected all at once, but few or no elections in between.

There were 19 elected between 1945 and 46, who are broken up in this chart.  The VC and NL committees collectively enshrined 31 players in the 1970's but only a dozen in the 1980's.  Nine players from the Negro Leagues went into Cooperstown in 2006 alone, but otherwise the VC has inducted only a half dozen players in the past decade an a half, which is the trend that spurred Paine to write this article in the first place.

His contention, and Dan Syzmborski's and that of many others, is that the VC should be disbanded, as there is little gold left to mine from the pre-expansion era, and I agree there.  But he also says that the more recent years are underrepresented, that (based on JAWS and the ratio of Hall of Famers to actual players) there should be over 40 more inductees from the last 30-odd years, and this is where I differ.

I certainly see players worthy of induction who are not enshrined, some of whom may eventually get in (Raines, Mussina) but also some who can't without help from the Veterans Committee (Whitaker, Trammell).  But 40+ players?  Who the hell are they?  Where do you find over 40 even marginally deserving names to fill out that list?  It just doesn't pass the sniff test.

For a quick and dirty analysis, I looked at position players since 1970 with at least 65 WAR and pitchers with at least 50 WAR (per Baseball-Reference.com).  There were 44 of the former and 38 of the latter.  Then I took out those who were not yet eligible, those who had already been elected and those with PED connections, and I ended up with 13 of each.  These included Kenny Lofton, Buddy Bell, Willie Randolph, Chuck Finley, Mark Langston and Frank Tanana, among others.

And this was just one measure.  If you went position by position and set the cut-offs appropriately, you could probably come up with the other 15 or so names I didn't, some better, some worse than these names.  

Personally, I find the idea of a Cooperstown with Mark Langston in it kind of disturbing, or at least lackluster.  Forget a Hall of Fame or even a Hall of Merit.  Now we've got a Hall of Pretty Good for a While, which is not a hall worth having.

The problem with the rate of inductions, as I see it, is not that the current voters or committees are too stingy with their votes, but that previous generations - especially of the Veterans Committees - were far too generous.  Perhaps the BBWAA that only elected five guys in the 1940's and 50's had it right after all, and the Veterans committee that went crazyballz in the 1970's to compensate for it screwed it up for the rest of us.  The presence of the likes of Freddie Lindstrom and High Pockets Kelly and Lloyd Waner in Cooperstown tends to dampen its luster and make it easier for the Kevin Appiers and Graig Nettles of the world to look like viable Hall of Famers.  They are not, nor should they be. 

The solution to this problem is not to open the floodgates and let in several dozen marginally deserving players, but to allow the process to play out, to see where the BBWAA and the Hall's committees take us, as they always have.  It is to be patient and hopefully await the day when the average has been able to creep back up to a more impressive level.  I'm all for getting the deserving folks enshrined and I am not a "small Hall" guy who thinks that only the absolute top echelon of players deserves enshrinement.  But neither do I think that letting every player in who managed to stay healthy for 15 or 20 years and occasionally get some MVP or Cy Young votes  is the answer.

We can get Mike Mussina and Tim Raines without having to let in more George Kells and Hack Wilsons.

We just have to be patient.

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