Let's Get Smart About the Hall of Fame Voting Process
"Missed it by THAT much" was made famous by Don Adams in his role as the clueless secret agent Maxwell Smart in the 1960s comedy series "Get Smart." Smart, also known as Agent 86, would utter his catch phrase while holding up his thumb and forefinger to demonstrate how close he was to pulling off a heroic super spy move.
Well, there have been numerous baseball players whose careers "missed it by that much" when it came time to vote for their worthiness as Hall of Famers. Gil Hodges, the only player to earn 50% or more of the vote and never get elected, is the poster boy for this dubious distinction.
I've always found it interesting how some candidates for the Hall of Fame get dismissed summarily while others get a second look (or more). Will Clark, Darrell Evans, Bobby Grich, Ted Simmons, Lou Whitaker, Dan Quisenberry, Bret Saberhagen, and Dave Stieb were all "one and done" guys. All eight of these players were as good or better than one or more Hall of Famers at their positions, yet not a single one received as much as 5% of the vote in their lone shot at baseball immortality. Smart would have simply said, "Sorry about that."
Granted, the Hall of Fame vote is a binary choice: it's either a "yes" or a "no." There's no place on the ballot for "maybe" or "gosh, he was awfully good...shouldn't we honor him in some other way?"
That said, in practice, many writers will not vote for a player in his first year of eligibility because they do not believe he is worthy of being a "first-ballot Hall of Famer." It's not only a silly distinction – either you're good enough in year one or you're not – but this type of thinking runs the risk that a fully qualified candidate could get booted if enough voters acted in this manner. It's unlikely, but it's certainly possible.
"Now Listen Carefully"
One way around this dilemma would be to add a category, as has been proposed by Tom Tango, that would enable writers to check the following box: "I need more time to think about this candidate." To be honest, I've never been too fond of this idea because a voter shouldn't need more than five years to think about a player's Hall of Fame worthiness. However, the time may have come to adopt something like this, especially in view of the fact that many star players from the so-called "steroid era" have now retired or will be calling it quits in the not too distant future.
Now, one can argue "for" or "against" players from this era all you want. But the whole issue might be a bit more complicated than just saying so and so cheated or that it doesn't matter. As for me, I would hope writers would either vote "yes" or "no" based on the player's merits or admit they need more time to sort this matter out.
The Hall of the Very Good has made its way into the baseball lexicon in recent years. I think most of us would agree that players like Norm Cash, Orel Hershiser, Fred Lynn, Rick Reuschel, Reggie Smith, and Jimmy Wynn all came up a little short in meeting the standards for the Hall of Fame. (Notice that I didn't mention Ron Santo as I'm still holding out hope for him.)
With respect to the Hall of the Very Good, I would like to submit a first-year eligible pitcher from this year's ballot for inclusion. He won't come close to sniffing the required 5% in order to keep his name on next year's ballot. His name? Chuck Finley.
Let me be perfectly clear here. I do not believe Chuck Finley is a Hall of Famer. However, I believe he was a better pitcher than generally recognized.
There are dozens of players who are deserving of the mythical HOTVG, yet are rarely even thought of in those terms. I would submit that Finley is one of those players. How many baseball fans realize that the tall lefthander from Monroe, Louisiana won 200 games during his career? Or that he had seven seasons in which he won 15 or more contests? Or that Chuck ranks 22nd in career strikeouts among all pitchers since 1900? Or that he had back-to-back years with ERAs under 2.60?
How many sabermetricians realize that Finley is tied for 62nd in Runs Saved Against Average in the modern era? Or that his ERA+ is 115? He's eighth in ERA+ among pitchers eligible for the HOF with 3,000 or more innings.
The bottom line is that Finley pitched at a high level for a long time. In fact, higher and longer than most fans realize.
Jerry Crasnick of ESPN wrote an article a few days ago on (Chuck) Tanner backing Gossage, Blyleven. Crasnick, whose "License To Deal" is one of the best books on the world of agents, called me last Wednesday and we spoke for about 20 minutes.
But Blyleven's supporters swear by his Hall-worthiness. Rich Lederer, a baseball analyst and historian, studied Blyleven's career and estimates that if he had received even league-average run support, his record would be closer to 313-224 than his 287-250.
I should point out that the win-loss records with "league-average run support" are courtesy of Lee Sinins and his Complete Baseball Encyclopedia.
The Hall of Fame ballots must be postmarked no later than today. The results of the voting will be announced on Tuesday, January 8.
Update (01/01/08): According to Keith Law, Blyleven has been named on 68% (58 of 85) of the ballots he has seen. Polling at 89%, Gossage appears to be a lock this year. If Blyleven can finish with the most votes among those who do not get elected, he will be like the Goose this year and become the favorite to get the additional support next time around.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at the Baseball Think Factory/Baseball Primer Newsblog with a focus on the merits of ERA+.]