Baseball needs a better way to elect players to the Hall of Fame

Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas were elected to the Hall of Fame yesterday, but many other players — deserving players — were not. And in years to come there will be more and more deserving players who do not get elected, perhaps even some beloved former Braves. Why then do so the people who are charged with electing players to the Hall of Fame, the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), struggle to vote for Hall-worthy players?

Many of the BBWAA members are beat writers, and following a team as a beat reporter may just be incompatible with the kind of analysis of players, especially historical analysis, needed to understand a player’s credentials for the Hall of Fame. The daily job of a beat writer is to write about the ups and downs of each game, include quotes from players and managers, and possibly add in some “easy stats” like batting average and ERA for the average reader to understand. Many beat writers also write notes columns, but those are generally just additional quotes from players or team personnel about the goings-on with a team, or stat-related snippets pulled from the “Team Notes” distributed by every Major League team before each game.

Asking many beat writers to understand anything beyond the basic stats in a box score might be asking too much. The journalist is about writing, not numbers. Day to day beat writing is more about being creative than following the scientific method.

I was a journalism major for a short time at The University of Georgia in the mid-90s, and I remember that to get a degree in that field there was no requirement for me to take any math courses (note that I may have placed out of a math course because of high school AP scores, but if there was a requirement for math it was likely only one or two courses).

While these requirements may not be universal across the university education spectrum, a quick Google search or two reveals that many schools don’t require journalism majors to take math, and those that do have very minimal requirements (one or two courses of basic college-level math).

While one doesn’t need college-level math courses to understand all baseball statistics, the lack of expose to or appreciation of math or college-level statistics could play a role in the lack of understanding of the more advanced sabermetric stats. I’m not implying an ignorance in a beat writer’s ability to understand these concepts, but rather a lack of desire to see usefulness in learning to understand the new ways of analyzing players.

To take that a step further, it is generally not in the day to day job responsibility of beat writers to analyze players; especially with any depth of research or analysis. So if one believes those two conclusions, then it could be said that the average beat writer has an aversion to math and is not practiced in the statistical analysis of players. These two factors would seem to be important prerequisites for determining which players are worthy for induction in the Hall of Fame. I’m not talking about the slam dunk candidates like Maddux and Glavine, but rather the so-called fringe candidates like Mike Piazza or Jack Morris or Tim Raines.

These fringe candidates are tough calls and their Hall candidacy represents a tough decision for a voter. Therefore, when considering player-x for the Hall of Fame one should look not only at how he stacks up versus his contemporaries, but also his performance versus similar players in other eras. This should be a tough and laborious job that BBWAA voters should spend days if not weeks on, pouring through stats both old and new — this type of thing is not “the beat.”

Not all beat writers are like this. Many have taken the time to learn new methods of evaluating players, and many actually do evaluate players in practice even though it may not be in their job description to evaluate players in print. But as we’ve seen in recent Hall of Fame voting it takes only a small minority of voters to deny a player enough votes for election. You can see the inconsistency of analysis (as well as the complete lack of analysis) in the ballots of MLB.com writers posted here.

2014hofballotThe Hall of Fame is far too important to simply fill out a multiple-choice check-box ballot. Baseball players work at their game for decades to amass the credentials worthy to be included on this ballot, and the only requirement for a writer filling out the ballot is to spend five minutes checking some boxes and mailing it in. That is what should change in the Hall of Fame voting process — the requirements that must be used when voting for or not voting for a certain player. Here are the new requirements I would impose on the BBWAA for the Hall of Fame voting process:

  1. For each player on the ballot a voter should be required to write a justification for that player’s inclusion or exclusion in the Hall of Fame.
  2. All written justifications by the writers and therefore their votes will be made public.
  3. The ballot will not be limited to number of spots, but rather all players worthy of inclusion.

These changes will force beat writers to become more statistically inclined, by forcing them to put their analysis of each player in writing for all to see. Being forced to write a reasoning for each vote will make more writers spend time researching their positions. Surely there will still be plenty of controversy, but at least a writer will have to justify why they voted for a player, or better yet why they didn’t vote for a player. To that end there will hopefully be fewer “throwaway” ballots.

If things stay the same I fear that many other worthy players will be denied election to the Hall of Fame because of mysterious reasons and secret ballots. Just as Craig Biggio missed being elected this year by two votes, I fear that someone like John Smoltz might be left off too many ballots next year for unknown reasons. This leaves the fans to wonder why. It leaves the players to wonder why. It shouldn’t be too much to ask of the writers to make their reasoning public… even if many of them have to go outside of their comfort zone and use stats (even advanced stats) to analyze players.

No system is perfect, but the BBWAA should seek to make this voting system better and more modern. We know more now, and that knowledge should be used.

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