By Devin McCarthy
An empty Hall / Getty Images
The 2013 Hall of Fame balloting has come and gone, and despite an excellent crop of eligible candidates with somewhere between 9 and 13 statistically qualified players, not a single one received enough votes for election to the Hall. The median voter thought seven players should be inducted this July. But no player received more than the 75% of the vote necessary for election.

Many prominent baseball writers have understandably drawn attention to the voting rules as one of the culprits for the general unpleasantness and unproductive result of the 2013 balloting. One, Dave Studeman of Hardball Times, has started a petition to reform the Hall of Fame voting procedures, without asking for any specific changes.

Before I discuss what aspects of Hall of Fame voting should be changed—and there are certainly are some—I’ll first start with what the current system gets right. The Hall of Fame uses approval voting with a very high threshold for election. That means, in effect, that on a Hall of Fame ballot voters either approve or disapprove of each candidate’s fitness for induction to the Hall.

Approval voting is probably the most appropriate system for an institution like the Hall, in which there is no limit to membership and players are judged simply on whether or not they surpass a certain standard, albeit one that is very subjective on the part of each voter. Players are not necessarily racing against each other in a Hall of Fame election.

A high threshold also seems appropriate, as there should be a general consensus on whether a player is deserving of induction before they are permanently enshrined in baseball’s pantheon. The 15 year period in which players are allowed to remain on the ballot is another reasonable rule, as it allows the conventional wisdom on players to evolve as more analysis is done on their careers and ensures that there will be some turnover in the voting pool while the player is on the ballot

Working within that basic framework, though, there are several improvements that could be made to Hall voting. Here are the three that I would enact.

Reform #1: Lower the 5% Threshold          

The 5% threshold that players must clear in order to remain on the ballot is needlessly high. There is very little cost to having players stay on the ballot for the full 15 years, and the threshold can eliminate players from consideration early on in their 15 year period when they may have had a greater chance of election later.

This year, for instance, the 5% threshold claimed a victim in Kenny Lofton, who, according to some statistical metrics, is one of the top ten center fielders of all time. There is considerable debate over just how good his fielding ability was—whether “all-time great” or just “very good.” In a decade, when defensive statistical metrics have been refined and the pool of Hall of Fame voters gains a higher appreciation for defensive value, Lofton might have had an outside shot at election. He will now be deprived of that chance.

That said, it’s probably worth having a small threshold of about 1%, so Hall of Fame voters don’t have to be bothered by the reappearance of people like Aaron Sele on the ballot just because one presumably-confused voter checked off his name

Reform #2: Eliminate, Raise, or Modify the 10 Vote Limit

Compounding the 5% threshold problem is the limit of 10 players that each voter can vote for. Given that there are plausible arguments to be made that at least 14 of the players on the ballot deserve to be inducted to the Hall, the limit of 10 votes is arbitrarily restrictive.

If voters believe that more than 10 players are deserving, they will be forced to vote strategically. They might, for instance, decide that one player is very likely to get into the Hall without their vote, and use their 10th vote to a player who they think is deserving but won’t get as much support. Alternatively, some voters might have to choose between which of two players is more deserving, rather than whether each surpasses the general standard of greatness necessary for Hall of Fame induction. That goes against the spirit of Hall elections.

The 10 vote limit is not just a hypothetical problem. While most voters did not reach the cap in this year’s voting, a sizable minority did, including Jim Caple of ESPN. Of the 170 voters who made their ballots public (according to leokitty’s helpful spreadsheet), 39 voted for 10 players (23%). There was clearly a spike in 10-vote ballots from ballots with fewer votes; only 14 people voted for nine players, 16 voted for eight players, and 16 voted for seven players--the median number of votes cast.

It is likely, then, that only about 15 voters actually wanted to vote for exactly 10 players, leaving about 25 voters (15% of the disclosed ballots) who were constricted in their voting.

When the mode number of votes cast is the maximum number of votes that can be cast, that cap is clearly having an effect. Whether eliminating the cap would have actually put any players over the 75% threshold this year is unclear, though it’s possible. Craig Biggio missed out on election by under 7%, less than half of the number of voters who probably split their votes.

Where the cap almost certainly mattered is with the players on the other end of the spectrum, like Kenny Lofton. Voters who voted for ten players were more likely to vote for players typically supported by statistically-minded analysts—79% of voters who reached the cap voted for the sabermetrician-favorite Tim Raines (compared to his overall percentage in disclosed ballots of 61%). As Lofton’s support comes primarily from the sabermetric community, it is safe to assume that he would have received considerably more votes from cap-reaching voters had they not had to choose between him and other more obviously deserving players.

Thus, the combination of the high 5% threshold and the low 10 player voting cap worked in tandem to exclude Lofton from future consideration.

With several Hall-worthy players joining the ballot in 2014, including Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Jeff Kent, Frank Thomas, and Mike Mussina, the vote-splitting problem is only going to get worse.

So what should be done? Simply: the ten player voting cap should either be removed or raised to a more difficult to reach number like 15 or 20.

The main reason to keep the cap exists is, presumably, to prevent the Hall of Fame from being diluted with inferior players. While I am not too concerned that removing the cap would cause many unqualified players to be elected, there are voting system options that would free voters to vote for as many players as they like while still mitigating any possible diluting effects.

One possibility is a variant of cumulative voting, in which voters can vote for as many players as they want, but the more players they vote for over 10 the less each vote is weighted. If someone wanted to vote for 11 players, for instance, each vote would be valued as 10/11ths of the votes of voters who stayed within the cap guidelines. If a voter thought 20 players deserved election, their 20 votes would count for half as much as a normal vote, and so on.

The drawback of that plan is that it would still require voters to be strategic in choosing whether or not to vote for more than 10 players, rather than voting purely on the players’ merits.

Whichever reform option you prefer, the 2013 Hall of Fame vote made it clear that the voting cap should not remain as it is.

Reform #3: Expand the Voter Pool

This reform addresses the biggest source of unfairness in Hall of Fame voting. While the members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America are (mostly) very knowledgeable about baseball and are deserving of having a say in Hall of Fame elections, they are only one subset of the huge community of great American baseball minds.

It is bizarre and quite unfair that so many different types of baseball people are excluded from the Hall of Fame voting process. I’m not going to lay out a specific plan for exactly who should be added to the voting pool, but here’s a non-exhaustive list of some groups whose voices should definitely be heard:

·         Television and radio broadcasters

·         Members of the Hall of Fame itself

·         Current players and managers

·         Team owners, general managers, and presidents

·         Members of the Society for American Baseball Research

·         Prominent bloggers and other internet baseball personalities (possibly voted on by the fans)

There are many ways in which these groups could be incorporated into Hall of Fame voting. The actual number of voters could expand significantly or, as the Bleacher Report suggests, the panel of voters could be rotated every year.

Like any good electoral system, the Hall of Fame voting process should represent the views of the entire diverse American baseball community, not just one organization.

These reforms will not, by themselves, resolve the great debates over steroids and sabermetrics that have colored recent Hall of Fame elections. But they don’t need to—that’s not the purpose of structural reform.  

The Hall of Fame voting system is already pretty good, but it could be made much fairer. The three reforms presented here would be a significant step in that direction.

2/27/2014 02:06:40

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