Early in January, the results of the 2013 Baseball Hall of Fame balloting will be announced, in what should prove to be the most anticipated and talked-about election results in the history of that institution.
The reason the results will be splashed across the sports pages and the reason even non-baseball fans will be interested in it are the names who are appearing on the ballot for the first time in 2013. Call them The Big Six: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Curt Schilling, Craig Biggio, and Mike Piazza.
There are also notable players who will be making a return appearance on the ballot, call them the Leftovers: Jack Morris, Jeff Bagwell, Lee Smith, and Tim Raines. Some in this latter group are knocking on the door of election, while Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro will have their names on the ballot, once again clouded in controversy.
I worked at the Hall of Fame for a few years, but the only connection I had to the voting process was in posting the results on the HOF website. I did a lot of analysis of the voting records for the Hall of Fame – I even got the chance to see the original ballots from the very first election in 1936. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at trends in HOF voting, but I am by no means the Nate Silver of baseball. Hell, Nate Silver is the Nate Silver of baseball. But I think I learned some things during my time in Cooperstown, and as a result I’m going to try to predict how the historic 2013 ballot will look.
The voting, by the way, is done by all 10-year members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), the folks who cover and write about the game. Usually there are about 500-600 ballots returned, and it should be noted that the BBWAA doesn’t flush out their membership very well. I have a friend who wrote about sports for a newspaper located 200+ miles from a major league city, he never covered the game on a day-to-day basis, but he has a vote, even though he’s no longer employed by a newspaper. He happens to be a thoughtful, educated voter, but not all baseball writers are.
Bonds has never been convicted of using steroids, either inside baseball or by the government, but he did fail a drug test in 2007 for the use of amphetamines, and was convicted of obstruction of justice. The latter conviction was in regards to the government’s investigation of BALCO, the lab that supplied many pro athletes with supplements, both legal and illegal. If Bonds wasn’t taking illegal substances during his playing career, why lie about so much? Anyway, Bonds’ reputation is severely tainted, in fact even before the allegations and suspicions, Bonds was a polarizing figure in baseball. He’s never been well liked and he’s often displayed an ego the size of his corner suite in the the clubhouse in San Francisco. How will voters respond to Bonds? When Mark McGwire hit the ballot in 2007, less than one on four voters marked an X next to his name. McGwire had set the single-season HR mark and clubbed more than 500 homers, but his character had been destroyed by the steroid scandal, namely his “non-testimony” in front of the Congressional hearings in Washington D.C. Bonds doesn’t have an embarrassing moment like that hanging around his neck, but he has the stigma of being the biggest star who has been convicted in the court of public opinion. Neither Bud Selig nor Hank Aaron could even bring themselves to be in the ballpark when Bonds broke Aaron’s all-time home run record. The egg was already on the face of MLB, as they realized that a steroid user owned some of the most important records in the book. There are many sportswriters who are really upset about that, they feel Bonds tried to cheat his way to legendary status. Many of them admit that Bonds was a great player before he started juicing, but the evidence is just so overwhelming that they will punish Bonds in the HOF vote.
Prediction: 39% (chance of election 0%)
Bonds won seven MVP Awards and Clemens won seven Cy Young Awards. Under normal circumstances, Clemens might challenge Tom Seaver’s record for the highest vote percentage in history (98.8%), but Clemens is under almost as large a cloud as Bonds. Several witnesses, most of them credible, have come forward to say that Clemens used PEDs while in Toronto, after his career started to nosedive in Boston. At that time, Clemens was 34 years old, and though he’d never suffered a serious arm injury, he was starting to see a reduction in velocity. His strikeout-to-walk ratio in his final three seasons in Boston had dropped significantly. Then in Toronto, The Rocket somehow got a boost, posting the highest strikeout rates of his career, and he pitched parts of 11 more seasons, seemingly never breaking down. Or was he using PEDs to bounce back and increase his ability to recover between starts, not to mention to add velocity to his fastball? According to teammate Andy Pettitte, Clemens was on something, and Clemens’ one-time trainer has also staked his life on it. There’s little reason for the trainer to lie, he only ruined his career by disagreeing with his high-profile client. Clemens is not a very popular player, either in Boston or New York. His character, if he has any left, will not be helped by his many narcissistic attempts to resurrect his career since he last pitched in MLB in 2007. The six-time 20-game winner has more than 4,600 K’s on his résumé, but voters are still going to make him wait, if they ever vote him into the Hall of Fame.
Prediction: 38% (chance of election 0%)
The only player to hit 60 homers in a season three times, Sosa takes his 609 home runs to the ballot in 2013. Like Bonds, Sosa is guilty of using PEDs in the court of public opinion. As much as McGwire, Sosa’s career took a sudden turnaround in the mid-1990s after years of swinging and missing a lot earlier. Sosa may have had the ability to be a 40-HR guy (perhaps), but on the juice and playing in Wrigley Field, he suddenly started hitting the ball like Josh Gibson: four straight seasons of slugging percentages over .630, after having never approached that level before the age of 29. Sosa reportedly failed at least one drug test, in 2003, according to leaks. He originally denied steroid use, even doing so in front of Congress, but he has since gone silent on the subject. His connection with McGwire as a participant in the Home Run Chase of ’98 will further hinder his candidacy.
Prediction: 21% (chance of election 0%)
In a normal year, Schilling might get a lot of attention as a candidate “on the bubble”, but on this ballot he will be left out by many who might consider voting for him under other circumstances. Factor in that he was considered a media whore (see Gary Carter’s difficulties in his first 3-4 years on the ballot), and Schilling will not start his HOF ballot experience very well. His career numbers are not eye-popping: 216 wins and a 3.46 ERA. That’s 38 fewer wins than Jack Morris, who has been on the ballot for 13 years. I expect Schilling to debut with a modest figure, but pitchers with 180-220 wins have historically fared poorly on the ballot. Marginal positional players are normally more likely to stick on the ballot for 5-10-15 years. His best chance is for there to be a revelation in the way the voters start to value post-season success. If you’re wondering if the northeast bias will help him, consider that Ron Guidry got 5% in his first year on the HOF ballot, and Don Mattingly received 28%. Luis Tiant did get 30% in his first go-around, so Schilling will certainly get a figure that will keep him viable, but Schilling’s portion of the vote won’t be as high as Tiant got in his initial year on the ballot.
Prediction: 15% (chance of election 0%)
Since the institution of the 5-year wait rule in the 1950s, only one member of the 3,000-hit club has failed to be elected in his first year on the ballot – Rafael Palmeiro, who has been made to wait (perhaps forever) due to things he shot into his butt, not for what sort of player he was. Biggio has no connection to PEDs, and he will be elected in 2013, and I see his voting support being similar to that of Robin Yount, a player who was very, very good, but not a year-in, year-out batting champ or something like that. Biggio, like Yount and Paul Molitor, accumulated his 3,000 hits by being remarkably good for two decades or so, playing at an All-Star level for a very long time.
Prediction: 78% (chance of election 90%)
An interesting case, because Piazza has never been directly tied to steroid use. He did self-report that he used andro in the early 1990s, but andro was legal at that time and available at any GNC store. However, Piazza will likely be lumped into the same category as Jeff Bagwell, who has been assigned as a member of the “suspicion group” of candidates from the 1990s. If we look at how Bagwell has fared and also examine the voting record of Gary Carter, another great catcher who was the best at his position in his prime, Piazza will not get enough support in 2013. My feeling is that the BBWAA at large thinks he’s worthy, but they don’t see him as a first-ballot guy and some of them have concerns about whether he was playing clean or not.
Prediction: 45% (chance of election 5%)
Only one player who received at least 50% support in an election has failed to be elected eventually – Gil Hodges, who topped 50% 10 times, peaking at 63.4% in his 15th and final year of eligibility. Morris has topped 50% the last three times and made his biggest jump last year when he increased more than 13% to 66.7%. Given his success in recent years and the fact that he’s surpassed the 50% mark, it seems that Morris would gain election. The tough thing in the short term for Morris is that the ’13 ballot will be crowded by The Big Six. What does that mean for him? To complicate matters more, this will be Morris’s 14th time on the ballot, so he only has two more chances. Voters can choose up to 10 players from the ballot, but the average number voted for is between 5-6 in recent history. The last time that number was as high as 7 was in 1986, and the average number of players on each ballot has been gradually decreasing as a larger BBWAA electorate has more choices and has grown more discerning. Morris has been a polarizing candidate: the SABR crowd is against him because his numbers are not glittering; the traditionalists see him as the best pitcher of the 1980s and a big game ace and support him as the best of his generation, damn the numbers; then there seems to be those who want to penalize him for being a dickhead (0r so they say). It’s growing increasingly apparent that more Morris supporters are joining the BBWAA and some are switching to his side, but in 2013 how will he do with Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling on the ballot? Those two right-handers followed Morris, making their marks in the 1990s and the early 2000s. In many ways, Schilling is a similar candidate – a guy who didn’t reach the magical 300-win or post an ERA below 3.00, but nevertheless was an ace who had a reputation for winning big games in the post-season and contributed to multiple World Series championship teams. No other player in the history of HOF balloting has jumped from the low 50s of support to 75% in just two years, so that’s working against Morris. I think it’s likely that Morris will be the one holdover from the ’12 ballot who will still get the votes of those who are going to vote for Biggio, Piazza, and one of the steroid-stained superstars. A strict comparison to Hodges isn’t pertinent, because Gil essentially had 55-60% for a decade, then he took a dip in year #14 before getting the 15th year bump of about 14 points. Morris, in contrast, has been gradually gaining more support. A more apt comparison is to Bert Blyleven, who was elected in his 14th year on the HOF ballot, but it took Bert five years to get from 50% to 75%, something Morris is trying to do in 2-3 years. Blyleven was elected in 2011, and it’s possible that the electorate is learning more quickly – recognizing and jumping on bandwagon candidates sooner.
Prediction: 70% (chance of election 25%)
Will the BBWAA want to see Biggio elected along with his longtime Astros teammate? There’s no real precedent for that in the BBWAA election history (Tinker, Evers, and Chance went in via the Veterans Committee), but Bags has climbed to 56% in only two years on the ballot. It appears that he is one of those candidates, like Ryne Sandberg, who the voters feel is HOF-worthy, but not first ballot worthy. Then, after a few years on the ballot he vaults quickly to the requisite 75%. Will he suffer from the crowded ballot? Most likely.
Prediction: 58% (chance of election 12%)
His 290 votes in ’12 are the most he’s ever received and Smith has now limped across the 50% threshold. The voters have determined that he’s not the caliber of Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, and Rich Gossage, that’s obvious, but is there a place for a second-tier of relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame? Smith’s gains in 2012 are probably more of a fact of how weak the ballot was, and he will regress in ’13 against among these names.
Prediction: 42% (chance of election 3%)
The support for Raines has doubled to 48% from his 1st ballot total of 24% in 2008. That’s in large part due to a campaign on his behalf and the fact that writers are taking a more close look at his diverse skills as a leadoff man in comparison to the steroid era. If Rickey Henderson was the greatest leadoff man ever, then Rock surely must be 1a? – is their argument. It seems to be gaining traction, but in 2013 Raines will not be helped by the arrival of The Big Six on the ballot sheet.
Prediction: 48% (chance of election 1%)
Since his appearance on the ballot in 2007, Big Mac has received between 19-24% every year. He seems to have about 120 voters who are in his corner, despite the steroid use. His vote has ebbed and flowed only a tiny bit based on the quality of the rest of the names on the ballot. In 2010 when there were no obvious 1st ballot guys on the docket, McGwire got 23.7%, a higher total than his first year on the ballot. Some have suggested that McGwire’s vote totals would gradually erode as his supporters in the electorate recognized that he has slim to no chance of being elected. That appears to be the case, as he’s dipped below 20% the last two ballots. With the big names appearing on the ’13 ballot, McGwire will see his vote total dip to a new low, though he will still garner enough votes to keep him on the ballot for 2014.
Prediction: 16% (chance of election 0%)
In his first year on the ballot in 2011, Raffy received just 64 votes, or 11% – a smaller amount of support than Don Mattingly or Dale Murphy got in their first appearance on the HOF ballot. Neither Mattingly nor Murphy are in the Hall, though they remain on the ballot by picking up 10-15% each year. Palmeiro failed a drug test and was suspended, and even though he’s continued to deny using performing enhancing drugs, his reputation is beyond repair when it comes to the Hall. In ’12, Palmeiro actually gained 7 votes, but he won’t see that happen again, not with the hefty names on the ballot this time around.
Prediction: 9% (chance of election 0%)
Others on the ballot
Thanks in large part to the support from the Sabermetric crowd, Alan Trammell has emerged as one of the favorite underdog candidates on the ballot. His percentage numbers are actually closer to those of Cal Ripken Jr. than you might think, and he compares very favorably to many shortstops in the Hall of Fame, including Phil Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese, Luis Aparicio, and contemporary Ozzie Smith. Even the career of Derek Jeter doesn’t seem to hurt Trammell that much, as his supporters point to his consistent excellence over a 20-year career. Tram was not flashy, but he was effective. It seems Trammell will continue to gain some support each year, having made a big leap in 2012 when he jumped to 36% after muddling along between 15 and 25% for 10 years on the ballot. He’s running out of time, but Trammell will probably still maintain his base support for the ’13 ballot… I fully expect Larry Walker to eventually start to gain more support, because his batting stats are just the sort of thing many HOF voters drool over. But he won’t gain ground this year with the top-heavy ballot. I don’t think Walker will ever be elected by the BBWAA, because enough awareness exists about park effects that his candidacy will be diminished by having played in the thin air of Denver for most of his career… Bernie Williams will almost certainly drop off the ballot this year, and Dale Murphy will have his 15th and final shot with voters, probably receiving 17-22%… Expect Kenny Lofton to receive enough support to stay on the ballot in his first appearance… David Wells and his 239 wins, Steve Finley (300 HR and SB), and Shawn Green (328 dingers) will struggle to meet the 5% minimum to see a second ballot… Julio Franco, who played the game until he was almost 50, nearly hit .300 in more than 2,500 career games, and won a batting title, will be a close call to meet the 5%, but I expect he’ll squeak by.
National Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot Projection for 2013
Biggio … 78%
Morris … 70%
Bagwell … 58%
Raines … 48%
Piazza … 45%
L. Smith … 42%
Bonds … 39%
Clemens … 38%
Trammell … 33%
Ed. Martinez … 30%
Murphy … 21%
Sosa … 21%
Mattingly … 19%
McGriff … 19%
La. Walker … 18%
McGwire … 16%
Schilling … 15%
Palmeiro … 9%
Ju. Franco … 5%
Ber. Williams … 4%
Wells, Finley, Green, Ryan Klesko, Reggie Sanders, Jeff Cirillo, Royce Clayton, Jeff Conine, any others … less than 5%
What do you think will happen? Tell me in the comments section.