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Who’s On Track To Make The Baseball Hall Of Fame?

You may have heard there’s an election coming up. It’s expected to be close. And given that it’s conducted among a small and homogenous group of voters, it’s very hard to predict the results. Yes, on Tuesday, the results of the 2020 election for the Baseball Hall of Fame will be revealed. What did you think we were talking about?

Every winter, eligible members1 of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America vote on the players who will be honored with a spot in Cooperstown the following summer. Players need to receive at least 75 percent of the vote to be elected, and they are allowed to stay on the ballot for up to 10 years. But if a player hasn’t been elected after a decade’s worth of attempts — or if he falls below 5 percent of the vote in any one election — he won’t appear on subsequent ballots.2

So who’s on track to get elected, and who’s in danger of lapsing off the ballot? Thanks to the work of Ryan Thibodaux, we don’t have to guess. Many Hall of Fame voters share images of their ballots or write columns explaining their votes before the full results are announced, and Thibodaux and his team of volunteers tally up these partial results in their leviathan Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot Tracker. So far, they’ve hunted down 165 of the 412 ballots expected to be cast this year, and the results appear promising for several candidates:

Everyone is gaining votes in early ‘polls’ of the Hall of Fame

The share of the vote received as of 11 a.m. on Jan. 17 by each candidate for the Baseball Hall of Fame, compared with last year’s final results

Player 2020 Vote Share So Far 2019 Final Vote Share Net Flipped Votes
Derek Jeter 100.0%
Larry Walker 85.5 54.6 +28
Curt Schilling 80.0 60.9 +9
Barry Bonds 73.9 59.1 +2
Roger Clemens 72.7 59.5 +1
Scott Rolen 50.3 17.2 +41
Omar Vizquel 47.9 42.8 +17
Gary Sheffield 38.2 13.6 +37
Todd Helton 35.8 16.5 +27
Manny Ramírez 33.9 22.8 +10
Billy Wagner 34.5 16.7 +29
Jeff Kent 29.7 18.1 +24
Andruw Jones 27.3 7.5 +25
Sammy Sosa 17.6 8.5 +6
Andy Pettitte 11.5 9.9 +7
Bobby Abreu 7.3
Eric Chávez 0.6
Cliff Lee 0.6
Paul Konerko 0.6
Jason Giambi 0.6

Excludes candidates who have received zero votes on public ballots.

Jeter, Abreu, Chávez, Lee, Konerko and Giambi are appearing on the ballot for the first time in 2020.

Source: Ryan Thibodaux’s Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot Tracker

New York Yankees great Derek Jeter is currently polling at 100 percent in his first-ever3 Hall of Fame election, giving hope that he could be the second player ever (after his longtime teammate Mariano Rivera just last year) to be elected unanimously. Larry Walker and Curt Schilling have also appeared on more than 75 percent of the ballots released so far. That’s especially important for Walker, who is in his 10th year of eligibility; this is his last chance to be elected through traditional means.4

But just as importantly, the Tracker shows other candidates — who as recently as last year had only token Hall of Fame support — gaining momentum for possible election in future years. A whopping seven players (Scott Rolen, Gary Sheffield, Billy Wagner, Walker, Todd Helton, Andruw Jones and Jeff Kent) have flipped, on net, at least 24 “no” votes from last year into “yeses.” This is likely because, with the election of 11 players in the last three years, the recent logjam of Hall-worthy players on the ballot is finally clearing up. (Voters are allowed to vote for up to 10 players at a time, and many voters used all 10 of their votes the last few years — but now, those slots are up for grabs again.)

But be careful — the Tracker’s numbers will mislead you if you take them literally. In reality, most of these players will finish significantly lower in the final results than they sit in the Tracker. That’s because the sample of this “poll” is not random: Voters who make their ballots public ahead of time also share other characteristics in common, like voting for more candidates rather than fewer. And voters who choose to stay private collectively appear to vote more based on traditional, rather than advanced, metrics and take a firm stand against steroid use, which means they are especially unlikely to vote for candidates like Rolen (a stathead favorite) or Barry Bonds (an alleged steroid user).

Someone who’s interested in, say, election modeling can use these patterns to predict the final Hall of Fame election results based on the Tracker’s data — and that’s exactly what I’ve done. With 165 ballots made public as of 11 a.m. on Jan. 17, the below would be my 2020 Hall of Fame projections if the election were today and no more ballots got released. (Of course, more ballots will almost certainly drop over the weekend, making these projections merely preliminary; as more ballots are made public, the accuracy of my forecast rises. Follow me on Twitter for real-time updates, including a final projection on Tuesday afternoon just before results are announced.)

Only Derek Jeter is a safe bet to make the Hall of Fame

Forecasted results for the 2020 Baseball Hall of Fame election, combining 165 already public ballots and an estimated 247 remaining ballots whose projected vote shares reflect the historical voting bias of private ballots

Players likely to make the Hall % of Public Ballots Adjustment Factor* Estimated % of Private Ballots Projected Final Vote
Derek Jeter 100.0% 0.0 100.0% 100.0%
Players projected to fall short
Larry Walker 85.5% -20.3 65.2% 73.3%
Curt Schilling 80.0 -19.6 60.4 68.3
Barry Bonds 73.9 -23.6 50.4 59.8
Roger Clemens 72.7 -22.8 49.9 59.0
Omar Vizquel 47.9 +4.2 52.1 50.4
Scott Rolen 50.3 -19.8 30.5 38.4
Gary Sheffield 38.2 -8.3 29.8 33.2
Todd Helton 35.8 -9.1 26.6 30.3
Billy Wagner 34.5 -6.6 28.0 30.6
Manny Ramírez 33.9 -7.8 26.1 29.3
Jeff Kent 29.7 -2.0 27.7 28.5
Andruw Jones 27.3 -2.9 24.4 25.5
Andy Pettitte 11.5 +7.7 19.2 16.1
Sammy Sosa 17.6 -7.0 10.6 13.4
Bobby Abreu 7.3 -0.9 6.4 6.7
Players projected to be eliminated from future ballots
Eric Chávez 0.6% 0.0 0.6% 0.6%
Jason Giambi 0.6 0.0 0.6 0.6
Paul Konerko 0.6 0.0 0.6 0.6
Cliff Lee 0.6 0.0 0.6 0.6

Excludes candidates who have received zero votes on public ballots.

*The adjustment factor is derived from historical differences between public and private ballots.

Source: Ryan Thibodaux’s Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot Tracker

Here’s the methodology in a nutshell: For every player returning to the ballot, I calculate an “adjustment factor” based on how big of a dropoff the player has historically suffered from public to private balloting, then subtract this adjustment factor from his current public vote share to come up with his estimated private vote share. In a new twist this year, the adjustment factors also take into account how close a player is to being elected; it turns out that the more public support a player has, the steeper his dropoff on private ballots — until his public support gets above 75 percent, at which point the dropoff abates again (the bandwagon effect, perhaps?).5 For players appearing on the ballot for the first time, there is no past dropoff data to go off, so I estimate their private vote shares based on the predicted private vote share of players with whom their votes are highly correlated.6 Finally, players who have received fewer than two public votes just get an adjustment factor of zero; it’s pointless to split hairs over whether Paul Konerko will get one vote or two in the end.

Contrary to the Tracker (which isn’t meant to be a predictor), my system expects that Jeter will be the only player elected on Tuesday. He is currently projected to receive 100 percent of the vote, although this is more art than science; it would take only one stingy private voter to rob Jeter of unanimity.7 Idiosyncratic behavior like that is virtually impossible to predict, but practically speaking, there is no difference between Jeter getting 100 percent or 99.8 percent; he will easily join the Hall of Fame’s class of 2020. Meanwhile, I expect Schilling to perform around 20 points worse on private ballots than on public ones; his numbers on public ballots simply aren’t good enough to withstand that kind of hit, so it’s a very good bet that he will not get elected this year.

The only real suspense is around Walker. Currently, I project him to fall just short, with 73.3 percent support. But as someone who believes Walker belongs in the Hall of Fame, I’m comforted by the fact that models like mine come with plenty of uncertainty. In an eerily similar situation at this time last year, I thought Mike Mussina would get just 73.0 percent of the vote — but he wound up getting elected with 76.7 percent. Small errors like that happen all the time with my model; it’s just that they don’t normally mean the difference between election and elimination.

So I’m not writing off Walker just yet. I’m not the only Hall of Fame prognosticator in town, nor am I the best; for the last two years, that honor has gone to Jason Sardell, whose model divides voters into lanes8 and then projects how many votes each player will gain over last year based on how many net votes each player has flipped from “no” to “yes” in each lane so far. (In a treat FiveThirtyEight readers are sure to enjoy, Sardell uses a Bayesian model that spits out not only a predicted vote share, but also each player’s probability of being elected.) And as of Jan. 8, Sardell was giving Walker a 76 percent chance of achieving baseball immortality. This one is going to come down to the wire.

Footnotes

  1. Specifically, those who have covered baseball for at least 10 consecutive years over the past 20 years.

  2. But that doesn’t necessarily spell the end of his Hall of Fame chances; the Hall has set up a backdoor method of election, the Eras Committees, to periodically review older candidates and correct any egregious snubs. Marvin Miller and Ted Simmons were already elected to the Hall’s class of 2020 via this method last month.

  3. Players become eligible for the ballot six years after they play their last game, and Jeter last played in the major leagues in 2014.

  4. Although he would have a decent shot at induction in 2022 or 2024 via the Eras Committees.

  5. Here are the gory details on how I now calculate adjustment factors. I assume that all players’ adjustment factors — aka their predicted public-private dropoffs — degrade and then recover along a curve parallel to the cubic curve of best fit between players’ public vote percentages and their public-private dropoffs in the past two elections. For each player, I find out what the y-intercept of that curve needs to be in order to exactly describe the player’s dropoff last cycle as well as two cycles ago. Then, I take a weighted average of those two y-intercepts — two parts the 2019 y-intercept and one part the 2018 y-intercept. That becomes the y-intercept of the equation I use in 2020 to calculate the player’s adjustment factor from his public vote percentage in the Tracker. Note that this means that adjustment factors may change slightly as the Tracker’s vote totals change.

  6. For example, Bobby Abreu voters are most correlated with Helton voters; Abreu is polling at 14 percent with voters who checked Helton but only 4 percent with those who did not. To estimate Abreu’s vote share on private ballots, I simply apply these numbers to my projections of how many private voters I think will and will not vote for Helton.

  7. I can’t use my usual method of predicting first-time candidates on Jeter because, with everyone voting for him so far, he is equally well correlated with every other candidate on the ballot. When this happens, I have to resort to a more subjective method: substituting the adjustment factor of other recent Hall of Fame candidates whose careers resembled the new candidate. To me, Jeter’s case is similar to Omar Vizquel’s (a fellow gritty, multiple-Gold Glove-winning shortstop) and Rivera’s (a fellow member of the turn-of-the-century Yankees dynasty). Vizquel is the rare player who does better on private ballots than public ones; Jeter’s final number can’t improve on his 100 percent tally so far, but it can at least be no worse. And that’s exactly what happened with Rivera, who scored 100 percent on both public and private ballots last year. So I’m tentatively expecting Jeter to do the same.

  8. Yes, those kinds of lanes.

Nathaniel Rakich is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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