New Format, Familiar Frustrations for Hall of Fame’s Latest Committee Ballot
Never let it be said that the National Baseball Hall of Fame can’t throw us a curveball now and then. On Monday, the institution announced the eight-man slate for the Contemporary Baseball Era Committee ballot, and while it contained some of the expected names — including those of 2022 BBWAA ballot “graduates” Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Curt Schilling, whose candidacies now enter a new phase — it also omitted some and retreaded a few candidacies that have never gained much traction. This ballot has something to frustrate everyone.
I’ll get to the omissions below. The full ballot includes the aforementioned trio, whose 10-year tenures on the writers’ ballot ended in January, with all three falling short of the 75% needed for election, as well as two other candidates making their first Era Committee ballot appearances: Fred McGriff and Rafael Palmeiro. The other three candidates, Albert Belle, Don Mattingly, and Dale Murphy, have all previously appeared on multiple Era Committee ballots.
The Contemporary Baseball Era Committee is one of three created by the Hall in its latest reconfiguration of the process for considering players whose eligibility on the BBWAA ballot has lapsed, as well as managers, executives, and umpires. The changes were announced in April, replacing a system of four Era Committees (Early Baseball, Golden Days, Modern Baseball, and Today’s Game) that voted on a staggered basis within a 10-year cycle. The new system — the fifth different one put in place of the old Veterans Committee since 2001 — divides candidates into just two timeframes: those who made their greatest impact on the game before 1980 (Classic Baseball Era), including Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues Black players, and those who made their greatest impact from 1980 to the present day (Contemporary Baseball Era). While the Classic Baseball Era ballot can include non-players, those from the Contemporary Era will be considered on a separate ballot.
As if consolidating the pools of candidates didn’t already make it harder for a given individual to land on a ballot, the size of the ballot itself has shrunk from 10 candidates to eight, and the number of whom each of the 16 voters can choose has been reduced from four to three. It all feels like a heavy-handed reaction to the voting from last December, when two candidates from the Early Baseball period (Bud Fowler and Buck O’Neil) and four from the Golden Days period (Gil Hodges, Jim Kaat, Minnie Miñoso, and Tony Oliva) were elected.
The Contemporary Baseball Players ballot will be voted upon at the Winter Meetings in San Diego on Sunday, December 4, and anyone elected will be inducted in Cooperstown on Sunday, July 23, 2023. Next December, the Contemporary Baseball ballot for managers, umpires, and executives will be considered, and in December 2024, candidates for the Classic Baseball ballot will get their turn, with the cycle continuing on a triennial basis — that is, if the Hall doesn’t decide to change things up yet again.
Bonds, Clemens, and Schilling each have ample credentials for the Hall, but they all have character issues that make voters squeamish — most notably, Bonds’ and Clemens’ links to performance-enhancing drugs, and Schilling’s long history of toxicity via his social media accounts. All three were grandfathered onto this ballot, as they would have been eligible for this year’s Today’s Game ballot had the Hall not changed formats. Starting next year, the Hall will enforce a one-year waiting period between BBWAA and Era Committee candidacies — that is, a minimum of a year, though such a candidate still has to wait until the next Contemporary Baseball ballot comes up. Thus, Jeff Kent, who’s entering the final year of his 10-year BBWAA eligibility window, and Gary Sheffield, who has one more year after this, would be eligible for the 2026 Contemporary Baseball ballot, but Billy Wagner, whose tenure would run through the ’25 ballot if he’s not elected, would have to wait for the ’29 Contemporary Baseball ballot, if the current system survives that long.
Speaking of PEDs and baggage, Palmeiro is here for the first time since falling off the writers’ ballot after four years of scant support. The fourth player ever to reach 500 home runs and 3,000 hits after Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Eddie Murray, he was suspended due to a positive test for a banned substance less than three weeks after his 3,000th hit; thus, he’s he first player to get placed on an Era Committee ballot despite serving such a suspension. By contrast, McGriff, who never got to 40% during his 10-year run on the ballot, has a spotless reputation that one suspects will stand out even more in this company. Though he does not fare very well via WAR and JAWS, he may well receive a Harold Baines-like benefit of the doubt for having missed out on a major milestone due to the 1994 players’ strike; he finished his career with 493 homers, seven short of the 500 that once virtually guaranteed election to the Hall.
Belle, Mattingly, and Murphy have all each appeared on two Era Committee ballots and have yet to come close to election via either the writers or the committees. From the standpoint of Era Committee voting history, not to mention advanced statistical analysis, it’s puzzling as to why that trio is here and not Dwight Evans and Lou Whitaker, the top two eligible returnees from the 2020 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot from which Marvin Miller and Ted Simmons were elected. Evans (50%) and Whitaker (37.5%) outpolled Mattingly and Murphy, both of whom were lumped into the “three or fewer” category (18.8% or less) for the second cycle in a row. Belle was similarly below the threshold on the last two Today’s Game ballots.
(If you’re wondering about the other unelected candidates from the Modern Baseball ballot, Steve Garvey, Tommy John, Thurman Munson, and Dave Parker have been classified as part of the Classic Baseball pool and will be competing for space with candidates as varied as Dick Allen, Maury Wills, Doc Adams, and stars from the Negro Leagues. That’s a headache for another day.)
For as frustrating as it is that Evans and Whitaker aren’t here, it’s all too clear that neither Era Committee voting history nor JAWS were the Historical Overview Committee’s guiding lights in assembling this ballot. Upon closer examination, both BBWAA voting share and the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor do a better job of explaining who made the cut than Era Committee voting or JAWS. The Monitor, a tool that’s used to assess how likely (not how deserving) it is that a candidate will make the Hall, gives credit for awards, league leads, postseason performance, and other things that largely go uncaptured via WAR. It doesn’t, however, adjust for variations in park or league scoring levels or make any reference to defense except via a Gold Glove count and a very rough defensive spectrum, which is to say that it’s all stuck in a very 20th-century frame of reference, and we’re nearly 23 years into the 21st century. Gulp.
Below is a sortable table of 25 candidates that includes every player included on this ballot; every player from the 2017–20 Era Committee ballots who is still eligible for this period; half a dozen starting pitchers from the Contemporary period whose cases look stronger via S-JAWS than traditional JAWS, particularly given the dearth of starting pitchers elected from the past 50 years; and a handful of other candidates with a JAWS of at least 50. The default sorting used for the table is the Monitor score, where 100 indicates “a good possibility” and 130 “a virtual cinch.”
Contemporary Baseball Era Committee Ballot and Backlog
|Player||Pos.||HOFM||JAWS||J+||Pos Rk||BBWA%||2017 TG||2018 MB||2019 TG||2020 MB|
Yellow = Included on actual Contemporary Baseball ballot. HOFM = Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor, JAWS = Jaffe WAR Score, J+ = JAWS above positional standard, Pos Rk = JAWS rank at position, BBWA% = highest share attained while on BBWAA ballot. MB = Modern Baseball Era Committee, TG = Today’s Game Era Committee. For starting pitchers, S-JAWS is shown.
Eight of the top 11 eligible candidates by HOFM are on this ballot. The exceptions are McGwire and Sosa, both of whom have been largely discredited and dismissed from consideration due to PED allegations that date to the pre-testing era, and Cone, whose comparatively short counting stats (194 wins, 2,898.2 innings) have made him easy to overlook. Going by peak BBWAA voting share, the top five (Schilling, Bonds, Clemens, McGriff, and Mattingly) are on this ballot, as are eight of the top 13 down to Belle, which is to say that candidates who went one-and-done need not apply, and if you peaked in the 5–25% range, the Historical Overview Committee threw darts to see whether you made it.
Not to be confused with the Era Committee that will do the voting (and that won’t be announced until just days before), the Historical Overview Committee is a panel of 11 BBWAA elder statesmen who assembled this ballot: Bob Elliott (Canadian Baseball Network); Jim Henneman (formerly Baltimore Sun); Steve Hirdt (Stats Perform); Rick Hummel (St. Louis Post-Dispatch); David O’Brien (The Athletic); Jack O’Connell (BBWAA); Jim Reeves (formerly Fort Worth Star-Telegram); Tracy Ringolsby (InsideTheSeams.com); Glenn Schwarz (formerly San Francisco Chronicle); Susan Slusser (San Francisco Chronicle); and Mark Whicker (Los Angeles News Group). O’Connell is the longtime secretary/treasurer of the organization, and six of the others are past presidents, three of whom have won the organization’s Career Excellence Award.
Anyway, an 11-person panel consisting of members of the very body that passed over Whitaker in 2001 and that supported Evans only long enough to get him to that third ballot in 1999 (with annual shares of 5.9%, 10.4%, and 3.6%) has rejected them again in favor of candidates who were more popular at the time but went nowhere and have been (re)evaluated for election umpteen times. Gah.
Now, for laughs, go back to the table above and click on the J+ column; that’s JAWS above the positional standard. The top four (Bonds, Clemens, Schilling, and Palmeiro) are on this ballot, but none of the next 17 candidates by that ranking — those ranging from 9.2 points below the standard to 0.4 points below — were included. Yet four who are 9.5 to 15.3 points below the standards are on the ballot as well.
For as polarizing as Barry, Roger and Curt are (and oh, brother, have we all had enough of all three of ’em after 10 years on the writers’ ballot), their presences on here make sense. Keeping them off this ballot after they got at least 60% multiple times by the writers would stick out like a sore thumb. On the other hand, one can understand the HOC bypassing Sosa, who never got nearly their level of support from the writers over the course of the same 10-year run on the ballot. And as for Lofton, who got lost in the shuffle when that quartet, Craig Biggio, and Mike Piazza all gained eligibility for the 2013 ballot, allegations that he sent sexually explicit photos of his body to a female employee, first reported by the Los Angeles Times in August. may have derailed his chance for another look.
What’s odd here is the placement of Palmeiro, given that no player suspended for PEDs has been elected yet; the writers prevented Bonds, Clemens, and McGwire — none of whom were ever suspended — from gaining entry, and the Today’s Game committee largely ignored McGwire. It seems patently obvious that Palmeiro won’t get anywhere. Perhaps that’s the point, not only in burying him far down the list of potential candidates after he inevitably makes a meager showing but also in limiting the number of truly viable candidates here. Great though the careers of Mattingly, Murphy, and Belle may have been before injuries took their toll, leaving them with resumés and career totals that have failed to impress voters, there’s nothing in the voting histories that suggests they’re anything but along for the ride here.
It turns out that having such ballast is what helps the chances of the election producing an honoree. A few months ago, I teamed up with Dan Szymborski to model a few different scenarios using Monte Carlo simulations (as we do for our Playoff Odds) to illustrate the lower likelihood of the new process producing an honoree relative to the old one. We can further explore the expected yields and odds of election given a few different scenarios.
Suppose, for example, that we see the field as having one set of four candidates who are clearly a cut above the other four, in that they’re twice as likely to be named on an individual ballot. In this scenario, because the competition is so heavy and the candidates so even, the best candidate has only a 50% chance of appearing on a single ballot, which doesn’t mean that he’s going to get 50% every time, but that he’ll receive an average of 0.5 x 16 = 8 votes per simulation. In this scenario there are four of those guys, and four with a 25% chance:
8-Candidate Model, Version 1
|Candidate||Ballot Odds||Votes Per Sim||Elected%|
That’s a recipe for a shutout. The simulation yields just 0.154 candidates elected per “year,” and 85.5% of the time, nobody gets elected.
Now, suppose we have some stratification, with two guys who are at the top, two who are one notch down but still more likely than not to wind up on an individual ballot, two who are much less likely, and two who are even less likely than that. Again, no names:
8-Candidate Model, Version 2
|Candidate||Ballot Odds||Votes Per Sim||Elected%|
That’s not great but it’s a lot better, with a yield of 0.65 inductees and “only” a 48.7% chance of a shutout. If we tilt things even more, such that the bottom two guys are total afterthoughts and the top four stronger but with more separation between the two levels, we get something like this:
8-Candidate Model, Version 3
|Candidate||Ballot Odds||Votes Per Sim||Elected%|
That doubles our yield from Version 2, to 1.3 inductees per year, and just a 17% chance of a shutout. It’s still basically a coin toss for the top two candidates, even if they’re more popular than the rest.
Finally, one more version. In this one, I’ve got some stratification with a bit of separation at the top, and I’ve gone so far as to tag the candidates for illustrative purposes, not for those of actual forecasting:
8-Candidate Model, Version 4
|Candidate||Name||Ballot Odds||Votes Per Sim||Elected%|
I think this is a plausible scenario, by the way, but free to swap the names around as you like. The yield on this one is 0.98 candidates per “year” with a 30.2% chance of a shutout — not as sunny an outlook as Version 3, even with some separation between the top two candidates and a bit more support trickling down to the bottom four.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll profile each individual candidate and his chances of election, just as I do every year, and I’ll have coverage of the election results from San Diego. In case you’re wondering, the BBWAA ballot will be announced on November 21, kicking off that round of fun and games.
All told, this ballot feels like a disappointment given some of the endless recycling and the absences of Evans and Whitaker, but maybe those two are better off sitting this one out if it means that that the candidates who fare poorly this time around get cycled out. That has to be what happens, right? (Right?) Given that the Hall appoints the electorate (generally eight Hall of Famers, four executives, and four media members), I’d be shocked if we get a panel that elects Bonds and Clemens, and I fear that by drawing moderate support they’ll become impediments to others being honored by this route. But as I noted in evaluating the format change in April, if there’s a silver lining to this process, it’s only a matter of time before the Hall switches things up again, for better or worse.