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What is the Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot Really Asking of its Voters?

The BBWAA voters are the ultimate decision makers when it comes to Hall of Fame voting. Are they answering the question we think they are?

The First Class by Ron Cogswell is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

What is the Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot Really Asking of its Voters?

Estimated Reading Time: 5 Minutes

Hall of Fame voting season is upon us (baseball, not cats), and some of you might find yourself glued to BBWAA voting trackers as numerous ballots become public information. We’re only a few weeks away from the announcement of the inductee class of 2022. And with that, comes plenty of healthy debate amongst fans about who should be in and who should be out. As a fan, this is the fun stuff. I could engage in such a debate any day of the week for as long as anyone is willing to participate. But at the end of the day, the only opinions about this question that matter are the ones belonging to the roughly 400 BBWAA voters deciding the fates of worthy players.

I would encourage us all to check our assumptions here, though.

The BBWAA voters are the ultimate decision makers. They decide who is in and who is out. But the exact question they are answering when casting a vote for a player may not be the one we think it is. And this, to me, has major implications.

What exactly is going on?

I was recently curious to see who looks poised to be included in the upcoming Hall of Fame, and took a look at the tally of publicly-available ballots online. As a “small Hall” kind of person, I was a bit surprised to see Scott Rolen hovering around the 72% mark (he wouldn’t be in on my ballot, but I ultimately don’t care if he get’s in or not; and frankly this is not about Rolen anyways). I knew he’d been on the ballot for a few years now, and it made me wonder how many votes he’d received in the past. And THIS is where the confusion set it. Rolen received 10% of the votes in 2018. He got 17% in 2019. And now, after 4 years on the ballot, he’s just starting to knock on the door of Hall of Fame induction?

I was left with more questions that answers. How does that happen? Is Rolen a Hall of Famer, or isn’t he? How can a few years make that much of a difference? It’s not like Rolen has hit more homers or won more Gold Gloves in the meantime. How can the voting process lead to such fundamentally bizarre results? What are we really doing?

To me, we as fans debate a simple question amongst ourselves. Is [player] a Hall of Famer? There’s an unalterable, “capital T” truth that exists for each nominee and we are trying to find it. They belong in the Hall, or they don’t. As the case of Rolen shows us, BBWAA voters are providing us with an answer; it’s just not to this question. And the proof lies in the conditions under which BBWAA members must consider their votes.

What question are we asking, exactly?

I think of the Hall of Fame ballot as a kind of survey. A question is posed, responses are gathered, and results are analyzed. And if it’s a survey, it stands to reason that best practices for survey design should be applied. A basic principle of survey design is that questions should be structured to ensure that the answers collected are measuring what is intended to be measured. Sounds obvious, right? For something so straightforward, it’s a level of validity that is harder to attain than you might imagine. And perhaps the way BBWAA voters are asked to fill out their ballots does not align with the fundamental question of “Is [player] a Hall of Famer?

BBWAA voters are given a lengthy list of Hall of Fame eligible nominees (this year has 32). The first key condition: they are not allowed to vote for more than any 10 of the nominees. So, if a voter believes 12 candidates are worthy for the Hall, they must leave at least 2 of their “yes” votes off the ballot. In essence, players are being judged not only for the worthiness on their own merits, but also against the worthiness of other players on the ballot. And these players are forced to be compared against a select cohort of nominees simply because they all retired around the same time. So the question they are answering is not “Is [player] a Hall of Famer?“, it’s “Is [player] a Hall of Famer more so than the other nominees on this list?

The second key condition: players are allowed to remain eligible on Hall of Fame ballots for 10 years. If they do not receive the necessary votes for induction after 10 years, they fall off the ballot. And the sheer number of chances on the ballot a player gets allows voters the chance to change their minds over time for various reasons. As an example, BBWAA member John Tomase recently alluded to doing this very thing regarding Alex Rodriguez on this year’s ballot. He’s a “no” on A-Rod for his first year of eligibility due to his steroid-related transgressions, yet seems open to voting “yes” in years to come. So A-Rod is a Hall of Famer, just not yet? Tomase is not right or wrong for leaving out A-Rod this year, but this kind of thought process by voters (saving a “yes” vote for a later date) only highlights how these outdated ballot rules create a murkier, more meandering situation as we search for that “capital T” truth.

So when you add in this other condition which leaves players on the ballot for a decade, suddenly the question the voters are responding to becomes “Is [player] a Hall of Famer right now, and more so than the other nominees on this list?” A close relative, but still notably distinct question compared to the “yes or no” debate we assume the vote is really all about.

The simpler, the better.

The question of “Is [player] a Hall of Famer?” is the one I think we can all agree should be at the center of all of this. No additional conditions or considerations. To include any qualifying factors changes the discussion. And that’s exactly what is happening with today’s Hall of Fame votes. The voters are having a different discussion from the one that fans and others around the game partake in. And it’s antiquated, filled with extraneous qualifiers and rooted in traditions that lack any obvious justification at this point in time. And many BBWAA writers agree, although requests to update the process have often been denied by the Hall. And until things change, the Hall of Fame will continue to put out a clunkier ballot that is not asking as pure of questions to its voters as is warranted for such a prestigious honor.

Ryan Kelly lives in Cambridge, MA, a stone's throw away from his beloved Boston teams. When he is not working as an editorial assistant, he is providing commentary on the Boston Red Sox and Boston Bruins for The Turf.

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