Last winter, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens each failed to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame for the 10th time, ending their tenure on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s ballot (the main vehicle for electing players to the Hall). But that hasn’t spelled the end of the rancorous debate over whether their suspected steroid use disqualifies them from enshrinement. Thanks to a quirk in the calendar, Bonds and Clemens are both up for the Hall again this year via a backdoor method of election — and the results will be announced this Sunday.
The Baseball Hall of Fame has long recognized that worthy players occasionally slip through the cracks of the BBWAA’s election (the results of which will be announced in January, as usual). So every year, it sets up a special committee of 16 Hall of Fame players, team executives and journalists to hold its own election. Under the current rules, there are three of these so-called “Era Committees,” and the Hall rotates through them every three years: This year, the Contemporary Baseball Era Players Committee will consider players whose “greatest contributions to the game” have come since 1980; next year, the Contemporary Baseball Era Non-Players Committee will consider managers, umpires and executives from that time period; and in 2024, the Classic Baseball Era Committee will consider players and non-players from before 1980.
Each committee considers eight candidates, and a candidate must receive at least 12 votes — 75 percent of the electorate, the same percentage that’s required for a candidate to be elected by the BBWAA — to earn a place in the Hall. Besides Bonds and Clemens, the other six candidates on Sunday’s ballot are outfielder Albert Belle, first baseman Don Mattingly, first baseman Fred McGriff, outfielder Dale Murphy, first baseman Rafael Palmeiro and starting pitcher Curt Schilling.
But unfortunately for those hoping to see a crowded stage at July’s induction ceremony, there’s a good chance that the Contemporary Baseball Era Players Committee will elect none of these players. That’s because the candidates with the strongest statistical cases for the Hall of Fame, by both traditional and advanced metrics, are also the ones with the most extracurricular baggage.
There are almost an unlimited number of ways to (try to) quantify a player’s statistical case for the Hall of Fame, but two of the most useful are Bill James’s Hall of Fame Monitor and Jay Jaffe’s JAWS. Hall of Fame Monitor assigns a player points based on various milestones that have traditionally been used to assess Hall of Fame worthiness, such as MVP awards, winning the World Series, knocking 3,000 hits or winning 300 games; it’s a good shorthand for how appealing a player is to the sort of old-school voter who tends to populate the Era Committees. JAWS, meanwhile, is the average of a player’s career wins above replacement (Baseball-Reference.com version) and his WAR in the seven best years of his career; to us sabermetric types, it’s a better measure of who actually deserves to be in the Hall.
|Player▲▼||Pos.▲▼||Years Played▲▼||HOF monitor▲▼||JAWS▲▼|
As you can see in the table above, Bonds and Clemens score off the charts in both of these metrics — no surprise, since on a purely statistical basis, they are arguably the best position player and best starting pitcher in baseball history. But their ties to performance-enhancing drugs are likely deal-breakers for some voters. At least two of the members of the committee, Jack Morris and Ryne Sandberg, have said in years past that steroid users should not be in the Hall. And a third, White Sox executive Ken Williams, said in 2008 that he would not sign a player he suspected of doping. It’s possible that they have softened their stances since, but if not, Bonds and Clemens could afford only one additional “no” from the other 13 voters.
Hall of Fame Monitor and JAWS are both pretty high on Palmeiro and Schilling, too, but they have issues of their own. We know for sure that Palmeiro took steroids — he actually failed a drug test, something neither Bonds nor Clemens ever did. It’s hard to see anyone voting for Palmeiro but not Bonds or Clemens when the latter pair’s statistics are so much better. And Schilling burned his bridges with BBWAA voters with his far-right political views, including support for the Jan. 6 rioters and lynching journalists (who happen to make up the membership of the BBWAA!). That said, it’s possible the committee voters will be more willing to look past Schilling’s politics.
That leaves Belle, Mattingly, McGriff and Murphy — three of whom at least have unblemished “nice guy” reputations,1 but none of whom have terribly strong statistical cases for the Hall. However, that hasn’t stopped Era Committee voters before (looking at you, Harold Baines), and if they do elect one of this bunch, it will probably be McGriff. Belle, Mattingly and Murphy have all been on Era Committee ballots before and never got more than a handful of votes, and they never exceeded 30 percent of the vote in BBWAA elections either. On the other hand, this is McGriff’s first time before the Era Committees,2 and he received 40 percent of the vote in his last BBWAA election. McGriff also has personal connections to four of the members of the committee, including his longtime Atlanta Braves teammates Chipper Jones and Greg Maddux, and he could benefit from the contrast with Bonds and Clemens as one of the few 1990s stars who is thought to have played clean. Voters may also decide to round his 493 career home runs up to 500 (a commonly cited threshold in Hall of Fame debates) since he probably would have gotten there if the 1994 season hadn’t been cut short by a strike.
But the most likely outcome on Sunday may be a shutout, and the reason is simple: cold hard math. The committee won’t vote up or down on each player independently; instead, each voter can vote for a maximum of just three candidates each. That means the eight candidates are competing for a pool of, at most, just 48 votes (16 voters times three votes each). That electoral system makes it very hard to reach a 75 percent supermajority — at least in a vacuum.
Let’s assume for a minute that every player is equally qualified and has the same 3-in-8 chance of making a given voter’s ballot (3-in-8 because a voter has three votes and eight players to choose from). According to simulations run by FanGraphs, each player would have a less than 1 percent chance of getting elected! Of course, not every player is equally qualified, but FanGraphs also calculated that even when two or four players stand out from the rest, it’s still basically a coin flip whether they get elected.
The upshot is that the committee members are essentially forced to coordinate their votes if they want to be sure of producing an honoree. That’s perfectly legitimate, but this year, it may be easier said than done. This isn’t a ballot with an obvious consensus pick. Some members of the committee might strongly advocate for Bonds and Clemens, but the anti-steroid bloc would be just as adamantly opposed. Others might lobby for Schilling, but liberal committee members might not be able to stomach him. Jones and Maddux might push hard for McGriff, but sabermetricians (or small-Hall purists) on the committee might balk. The result could be failure to come to a consensus, with everyone voting their conscience — and that would likely mean no one is elected to the Hall of Fame on Sunday.