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Is The Hall of Fame Too Small?

Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven were selected for baseball’s Hall of Fame this afternoon, becoming the 234th and 235th players so honored.

Others were left on the sidelines, however. Jeff Bagwell, the Astros slugger who according to’s Wins Above Replacement statistic was among the 50 best hitters of all-time, received just 42 percent of the vote. The multidimensional shortstop Barry Larkin, who made 12 All-Star teams, and won 9 Silver Sluggers and 3 Gold Gloves, was also left out, although he was named on 62 percent of the ballots, up from 52 percent a year ago.

My ballot, if I had one, would probably have included Tim Raines, Mark McGwire and Alan Trammell in addition to Alomar, Blyleven, Bagwell and Larkin. I would also have given serious consideration to the Seattle Mariner designated hitter, Edgar Martinez.

Some of these cases are debatable, of course. Having grown up in Michigan during the 1980s, I will confess to a lack of objectivity on Trammell (I would also have selected his double-play partner, Lou Whitaker) — although his accomplishments hold up well to more careful scrutiny.

Steroid use — actual or suspected — is another issue. Rafael Palmeiro, whose case was debatable on the statistical merits anyway, and who was actually suspended by Major League Baseball for steroid use, would not have made my ballot. Like Tyler Kepner, however, I cannot understand docking Bagwell for mere suspicion of steroid use when there is no evidence of it. McGwire, who never received any official sanction for steroid use, is an in-between case: I would not have punished him for “outing” himself, when so many other players of his generation used steroids and got away with it, but I can understand the contrary position.

But Larkin? Here is a player with a squeaky-clean reputation — University of Michigan graduate, captain of the Reds for 9 seasons. He was the best shortstop in his league for a period of a decade, something which would seem to be the very hallmark of a Hall of Fame player. He was the National League’s 1995 MVP, and he hit .353 in the 1990 World Series to lead an overachieving Reds team to a sweep of the Oakland A’s. What is there not to like?

ESPN’s Jayson Stark has remarked that there now seems to be a backlog of qualified players. Mr. Stark wanted to select 12 players, but had to leave two out because the ballot allows a maximum of 10. Has it gotten tougher to make the Hall of Fame?

Actually, the Baseball Writers Association of America has always had a stingy door policy. Of the 235 players in the Hall of Fame, only 111 were elected by the writers — and only 44 of those during their first year of eligibility.

Over the past 10 elections, the writers have permitted an average of 1.6 players annually into the Hall of Fame. This is, in fact, a highly typical figure: since 1967, when the writers began to vote on induction every year rather than every other one, the average is 1.5. So at first glance, the answer seems to be that the current standards are pretty much par for the course.

There are two other factors, however, complicating the debate. One is the veterans committee, which sorts through the players that the writers rejected. Depending on the composition of the committee, and whom it felt like playing favorites with, its results have varied markedly from era to era. It admitted 35 players between 1963 and 1977 per year, for instance (2.3 per season). But just one player, Joe Gordon, has made it in since 2002.

The mercurial standards of the veterans’ committee has led to profound inequities in the number of players represented from different eras of the game. For instance, 54 major leaguers who were active in the year 1930 are now in the Hall of Fame — as compared with 30 who were active in 1910, 30 who were active in 1950, or 37 who were active in 1970. (Some bookkeeping: I consider a player to be ‘active’ so long as his major league career overlapped the year in question, even if he took the season off for injury, military service, or for another reason.)

The discrepancies are even larger if we consider players admitted from the Negro Leagues. (My data includes both players who spent their whole careers in the Negro Leagues and those who began their careers in the Negro Leagues but then joined the majors after integration.) Counting the Negro League players, there were 70 active Hall of Fame players in 1930 (the all-time high was 72 in 1926), roughly twice as many as in periods before or since.

This is not intended as an argument against the inclusion of players from the Negro Leagues, by the way. But if there was that much talent in the Negro Leagues, it also meant that the Major Leagues were foolishly depriving themselves of it. Players from the late 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s — many of whom already have substandard statistics for the Hall of Fame — would have had even weaker numbers if they’d had to pitch to Josh Gibson, or hit against Bullet Joe Rogan.

Other than the indulgences that the veterans committee made for players from the Depression era, the number of Hall of Famers is reasonably consistent from the birth of the American League in 1901 onward — provided that one accounts for the fact that many players who were active from about 1980 onward have yet to exhaust their eligibility. Generally, there have been about 30 or 35 Hall of Famers active in the majors at any given time.

But is this how it should be? Until 1960, there were 16 major league teams; now there are 30. Today, 35 Hall of Famers would reflect around 5 percent of the player population (assuming a roster of 25 players per team). In 1960, it would have been closer to 9 percent.

And during parts of the 1920s and 1930s, more than 13 percent of major leaguers eventually reached the Hall of Fame. Furthermore, if it assumed that Negro League players from this era would nevertheless have reached the Hall of Fame had they been allowed to play in the majors instead, the equivalent of 18 percent of active major leaguers would have been deemed Hall of Fame worthy. That works out to about 4 or 5 per major league team: fully half of a 9-man starting lineup!

I certainly do not mean to argue that the lax standard of that era was the right one. If so, we wouldn’t be debating whether Barry Larkin or Tim Raines was a Hall of Famer; instead, you could make a credible argument for Tino Martinez or Orel Hershiser or Robin Ventura. Lloyd Waner is in the Hall of Fame, for some reason. Was he really any better than, say, Bobby Higginson? On balance, I would prefer a smaller Hall of Fame to a larger one: reserved for those players which truly embody greatness.

The fact is, however, that if you think a fixed number of players from any given era belong in the Hall of Fame — rather than a fixed percentage of them — it will take a higher and higher standard of statistical accomplishment to reach the Hall of Fame as the game expands.

In both 1952 and 2005, about 20 percent of players eligible for the batting title hit at least .300. But in 1952 — when there were 16 major league teams — this represented 15 players. In 2005, when there were 30 teams, it represented 31.

Either you have to say .300 is no longer the right benchmark for having had a great season at the plate — instead, it might be .310 or .315. Or you have to be willing to let in more players from the expansion era.

Expansion alone, of course, is not a reason to admit more players. If the major leagues doubled in size from 30 to 60 teams tomorrow, all sorts of crazy things might happen: Joe Mauer might hit .400, for instance. That wouldn’t make him any better a player — his stats would be inflated by taking half his at-bats against what amounts to Triple-A pitching. Nor would a player who went from hitting .280 with 25 home runs per year, to .310 with 35 home runs per year, go from being a borderline All-Star to a borderline Hall of Famer.

But as the number of teams has gradually increased, so has the size of baseball’s player pool. In fact, it has more than kept pace. When the Hall of Fame was established in 1936, no country other than the United States produced more than 5 active major leaguers. The population of the United States was about 138 million back then — but about 13 million of those Americans were black, and were barred from competing in the majors, bringing the effective total down to 125 million.

Today, there are 311 million Americans — of all races. There are also 5 or more active major leaguers from the following countries: Japan (128 million people), Mexico (112 million), Canada (34 million), Venezuela (29 million), Australia (23 million), Cuba (11 million), the Dominican Republic (10 million), Panama (3 million), and from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico (4 million). That adds up to a player pool of about 655 million people, more than 5 times what it was in 1936.

So, even though there are almost twice as many teams now, it is almost certainly much more difficult for a player with comparable talent to become a major leaguer. This is not to suggest that we should let the Robin Venturas and Tino Martinezes in. But talent-wise, they were probably the equivalent of most players who made the Hall of Fame from the 1930s — and of many players from other eras when less indulgent standards were applied.

If you’re not willing to reserve a place for players who meet or exceed the statistical standards of the average Hall of Famers at their positions, however — players like a Larkin or a Bagwell — the discussion really ought to turn to which players we need to kick out. No Barry Larkin? No Travis Jackson. No Tim Raines? No Max Carey. No Jeff Bagwell? No High Pockets Kelly. No Trammell and Whitaker? That’s fine: let’s boot Tinker and Evers.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.