My predictions so rarely come true that I find it comforting, when I actually get one right, to pause and be awed by the sheer unlikeliness of it. This time around, I predicted that Jack Morris would take a huge jump forward in the Hall of Fame voting in 2012 — I said his vote total could even get into the high 60s.
Well, sure enough, Jack Morris jumped from 53.5% of the vote in 2011 all the way up to 66.7% in 2012. High 60s. I was hardly the only person to make this prediction, but, again, I’m going to bask in it. I think Morris did enough this year — I really believe he will get elected to the Hall of Fame next year. I will get into all that in a few minutes.
First, I’m going to give you more than wanted to know about Hall of Fame voting. I find Morris’ climb in the voting — from a low of 19.6% in his second ballot all the way up to the shadow of the Hall of Fame in his 13th — absolutely fascinating. And it made me go back and look at some of the other players who climbed from low vote totals to the Hall of Fame. That led me to look at every Hall of Fame ballot since 1966, when the writers went back to voting every year. And THAT look back led me to break down the Hall of Fame votes player by player in a way that would get me locked up in a padded cell in most countries.
But, hey, I did it, so I might as well share what I found. I’ll warn you again: It’s more than wanted to know.
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Start with this: Starting with the class of 1966, there have been 636 different baseball players who have appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot. Of those 636:
— 37 were elected first ballot
— 29 made it to a second ballot and were eventually elected.
— 48 got more than 5% (to stay on ballot) but have not been elected.
OK, so of the 636 players who made the ballot, only 66 have been elected, and only 114 even received the 5% necessary to advance to a next ballot. That’s only about 18% — fewer than one in five.
Which tells you — year after year after year the Hall of Fame ballot is mostly filled with players almost nobody thinks belongs in the Hall of Fame. In fact, there have been 201 players who, literally, nobody thought was was a Hall of Famer.
That’s right: 201 of the 636 players who have appeared on the ballot since 1966 received ZERO votes.
How good a team could you make up of the players who received zero votes? A pretty good one, I would say:
C: Darrell Porter
1B: Ken Singleton
2B: Robby Thompson
SS: Dick McAuliffe
3B: Bob Horner
OF: Jimmy Wynn
OF: Andy Van Slyke
OF: Roy White
DH: Hal McRae
P: Frank Tanana
P: Mark Langston
P: Steve Rogers
P: Sam McDowell
CL: Todd Worrell
That’s a really good baseball team. I’ll bet that team, at its best, could beat the worst Hall of Fame team you could put together in a best of seven series. And there is a lot of depth — I didn’t even mention players like Devon White, Amos Otis, Cecil Cooper, Garry Maddox, Joe Rudi, Boomer Scott …
So, you have 201 players who received zero votes. And there are another 98 players who received exactly one vote. So, basically, half the next players on the ballot since 1966 received zero or one vote. For fun, let’s put together an All-Star Team of the players who received one vote on the ballot:
C: Jim Sundberg
1B: Gene Tenace
2B: Tony Phillips
SS: Toby Harrah
3B: Clete Boyer
OF: Chet Lemon
OF: Lenny Dykstra
OF: David Justice
DH: Rico Carty
P: Chuck Finley
P: Kevin Appier
P: Bob Welch
P: John Candelaria
CL: Al Hrabosky
Again you could play with the names — I really wanted to make Ellis Valentine my closer; what an arm that guy had — but I think the zero-votes team is better than one-vote team.
OK, to finish this thing off:
636 total players:
124 were either elected or received more than 5% of the vote
201 received 0 votes
98 received 1 vote
213 received more than 1 vote but less than 5%
Now, this is where it gets tricky. The voting rules changed in the early 1980s and there have been a couple of other quirks through the years — so some of the players who received less than 5% of the vote actually DID advance to another ballot. For instance: Vic Raschi got one vote in 1968, three votes in 1969, two votes in 1971, four votes in 1972, seven votes in 1973, back to three votes in 1974 and a whopping 37 votes his last year on the ballot in 1975.*
*And there is nothing in the world quite like a whopping vote.
Don Newcombe had nine years on the ballot when he did not receive 5% of the vote. Ron Santo actually received less than 5% of the vote in 1980 and he fell off the ballot, but he was put back on the ballot in 1985 and stayed there for 14 excruciating years.
Others who did not get the requisite 5% in the first go-around but appeared on other ballots: Dick Allen, Minnie Minoso (17 years later), Vada Pinson, Curt Flood, Denny McLain and Ken Boyer.
But of the 213 who received fewer than 5% of the vote — 162 of them never appeared on another ballot. You can build an absolutely amazing team made up of those players who did not qualify for a second ballot. Truth is, you have more than once great choice for every position:
C: Ted Simmons or Bill Freehan
1B: Will Clark or John Olerud
2B: Lou Whitaker or Willie Randolph
SS: Bobby Grich or Jim Fregosi
3B: Buddy Bell or Darrell Evans
OF: Sal Bando or Jack Clark
OF: Reggie Smith or Cesar Cedeno
OF: Minnie Minoso or Jose Cruz
DH: Frank Howard or Darryl Strawberry
P: Rick Reuschel or Dennis Martinez
P: Kevin Brown or Dwight Gooden
P: David Cone or Bret Saberhagen
P: Jerry Koosman or Jimmy Key
P: Dave Stieb or Milt Pappas
CL: Dan Quisenberry
I’m not giving you an option on the closer (for obvious personal reasons — not that you need another option). Truth is there are at least two dozen other great players I didn’t even mention on that list. There’s no question that an All-Star team of players who did not even get a second ballot could crush a team of the worst Hall of Famers in a seven game series, and would probably beat a middle-of-the-road Hall of Fame team.
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OK, so that was fun — but now it’s time for the second part, the part about how players actually get voted into the Hall of Fame. Remember we are going back to 1966 — the writers have voted every year since then:
Thirty seven different different players have been elected first ballot. They are the certain Hall of Famers, the 3,000-hit guys, the 300-win guys, the 500 homer guys, the record breakers, the 15- or 20-time All-Stars, the legends.
— By Wins Above Replacement, they go from Willie Mays (154.7) to Lou Brock (39.1).
— By voting percentage, they go from Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan (98.8% of the vote) to Robin Yount who squeaked in with 77.5% of the vote. The first ballot Hall of Famers average about 90% of the vote — 21 of the 37 received more than 90% of the vote. These are the Hall of Fame locks, and to be honest, there are few arguments about them. There are some people who thought Kirby Puckett — because of his short career — shouldn’t have been a first-ballot choice. And a few who thought Dennis Eckersley’s case was too serpentine to make him a first-ballot guy. But mostly, these are just celebrations.
The arguments come from the borderline guys. Who are they? Well, there are 77 players who got between 5% and 75% of the vote on their first ballot appearance. And there are a handful of others — Ron Santo, Vada Pinson, Richie Ashburn — who did not get 5% of the vote their first time around but still managed to stay on the ballot for a long time.
Not all of those are “borderline,” though. As we all know, the Hall of Fame voters have something you could call the “first-ballot phenomenon.” The Hall of Fame has not officially embraced it, but they probably should — there are certain players who are so good they are widely viewed as first-ballot Hall of Famers. And there are other players who the vast majority believe belong in the Hall of Fame, but they are not quite as good as the first-ballot guys. Maybe they had some controversy in their careers — say Robbie Alomar or Gaylord Perry. Maybe they lacked a certain gravity in the voters mind. I couldn’t explain to you all the reasons — I certainly don’t know why Yogi Berra didn’t make it first ballot.
But the point is that 15 players who did not make it first ballot still got at least half the vote on first ballot. And all 15 were voted into the Hall of Fame, most of them within three years.
Robbie Alomar, 73.7% (made it 2nd year)
Gaylord Perry, 68% (made it 3rd year)
Yogi Berra, 67.2% (made it 2nd year)
Whitey Ford, 67.1% (made it 2nd year)
Carlton Fisk, 66.4% (made it 2nd year)
Phil Niekro, 65.7% (made it 5th year)
Rollie Fingers, 65.7% (made it 2nd year)
Harmon Killebrew, 59.6% (made it 4th year)
Juan Marichal, 58.1% (made it 3rd year)
Don Sutton, 56.8% (made it 5th year)
Robin Roberts, 56.1% (made it 4th year)
Catfish Hunter, 53.7% (made it 3rd year)
Fergie Jenkins, 52.3% (made it 3rd year)
Barry Larkin, 51.6% (made it in 3rd year)
Tony Perez, 50% (made it 9th year)
These players — with the possible exception of Perez — were not really contentious choices. They were all going to get into the Hall of Fame sooner or later. Two more players — Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson — got between 45 and 50% of the vote. Both of them have been voted into the Hall of Fame, Sandberg in his third year, Dawson in his 9th. I would put them in more or less the same category.
Once you go below 45%, though, things change a bit. There are five players who got between 40 and 45% of the vote. Two are in the Hall of Fame. One is out. One is in limbo. One seems to be gaining momentum.
— Gary Carter got 42.3% of the vote his first year and he was elected in his sixth year. But Lee Smith also got 42.3% of the vote his first year on the ballot, and he has now been on the ballot for 10 years without really gaining any momentum (Smith did break 50% in 2012 for the first time).
— Hoyt Wilhelm, Jeff Bagwell and Steve Garvey all got 42% of the vote their first years. Wilhelm was elected on his eighth ballot, Garvey was on the ballot for 15 years without ever getting as many votes as he did the first year, and the jury is still out on Bagwell (though signs are good — he took a big leap forward in 2012).
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And, finally, we get to the true borderline players — the players who got less 40% of the vote. That’s a real crapshoot. There are 65 of those players. Ten were elected into the Hall of Fame by the writers. Another seven would get in through the veteran’s committee. It’s tough — really tough — to find a pattern.
Look: Duke Snider received 17% of the vote his first year on the ballot. Mickey Lolich received 19.7%. Snider was elected a decade later. Lolich received barely 5% his last year on the ballot.
Look: Don Drysdale received 21% of the vote his first year — Tommy John, Luis Tiant, Jim Bunning all received a better percentage their first years. Drysdale, in time, was voted in by the writers … John, Tiant and Bunning were not (Bunning was voted in by the Vets).
Look: Gil Hodges and Billy Williams received roughly the same percentage their first year — Hodges’ percentage was actually a touch higher that first year. Billy Williams’ vote total skyrocketed and he wasn’t just elected, but elected with big numbers just five years later. Hodges also took a big leap forward the next year but while he was on the ballot for 15 years he could never quite push beyond the 63% mark.
Obviously there are many factors in all this. I would say the two biggest are “timing” and “narrative.” Let’s look at a couple of players who got close but weren’t voted in — say, Jim Bunning. He was just four votes shy of the Hall of Fame in 1988. That was only his 12th year on the ballot (as you know, players get 15) so he seemed a dead lock to get elected. But in 1989, Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins and Jim Kaat all came of age, and they all had substantially more wins than Bunning. I have no doubt in my mind that buzzed Bunning’s momentum. His vote total dropped by more than 30. Jim Palmer joined the ballot in 1990. Palmer also had more wins and was seen as the better pitcher. Bunning never did reach 75%.
One thing I have come to believe is that unless a player is a slam-dunk choice like Frank Robinson or Gwynn, the rest of the ballot matters a lot. I don’t think a player has to be the best choice on the ballot. Bu I do think he has to be the best choice IN HIS CATEGORY on the ballot. Take Orlando Cepeda. He started WAY behind — in his third year he dropped to only 10% of the vote. But then he began to make his move. He worked his way into the 40s, fell back, jumped forward, and by 1992 he was up to 57.2% of the vote with two years to go. He seemed poised for a big move.
But in 1993, Reggie Jackson came on the ballot … and that was crushing to Cepeda. They didn’t play the same position, exactly (though Cepeda played some outfield) but you would have to say they were generally the same kind of player — slugger. Only Reggie was better. And Cepeda’s vote total went up only 2%, A late rush in 1994 when he was generally viewed as the best slugger on the ballot only got him to 73.5% of the vote — seven votes short. This is just my opinion — this is all just my opinion — but I would say Reggie Jackson unwittingly prevented Cepeda from being elected by the writers.
Let’s go through the 10 borderline candidates who were elected into the Hall of Fame and why I think they were able to break through.
— Duke Snider (17%) had made a lot of enemies among writers in his playing days, which I think is why his early vote total was so low. But he had his strong connection to The Boys of Summer (he mostly came across as heroic in the book) and the was at the heart of baseball’s co-called Golden Age — when Mickey, Willie and the Duke all played center field at Yankee Stadium. Nostalgia eventually overpowers everything.
— Bert Blyleven (17.5%) got a longer look largely because of a vigilant Internet campaign and the modern access to advanced statistics.
— Don Drysdale (21%) was a well-liked announcer, an occasional actor and the second-billing co-star in one of the beloved pitching duos in baseball history — Koufax and Drysdale.
— Billy Williams (23.4%), in my opinion, does not belong on this list. He was not really a borderline candidate in the voters’ minds. His low first year total, I think, is simply a quirk of timing. Williams first year on the ballot was 1982 — and that just happened to be the year that Hank Aaron AND Frank Robinson made it to the ballot. Billy Williams was a great hitter, but he wasn’t Aaron or Robinson, not even close. And his first year total reflects that. But in his second year he jumped to 40.9%, which is probably where his first year total should have been. And then his totals moved fast: The next year he cracked 50%, the next year 60%, and two years later he was elected.
— Bruce Sutter (23.9%) is a great example of the power of a good story. Sutter was a terrific pitcher, no question, and he had the advantage that the Hall of Fame voters have been known to fall in love with closers (See Goose Gossage). But one of the biggest factor in Sutter’s Hall of Fame run was his role in popularizing the split-fingered fastball. I recall some people writing that he INVENTED the split-fingered fastball, which he did not, but he was certainly one of the first to use it successfully. The voters, many of them, viewed Sutter not only as a closer but as a pioneer. That helped him.
— Luis Aparicio (27.8%). I think Aparicio’s story connects with Maury Wills. Aparicio went on the ballot one year after Wills (the same year as Willie Mays, who overwhelmed everybody). Here were two shortstops and leadoff men from the same era, both known offensively as base stealers. Aparicio was widely viewed as the better defensive player, but I think they were the same category, and early on there was a real split about which player was the more deserving Hall of Fame candidate.
In Aparicio’s first year, Wills got 38.4%, Aparicio 27.8% — not an insubstantial difference.
In Aparicio’s second year, Wills stayed put (37.9%) while Aparicio went up a bit to 32.2%.
In Aparicio’s third year, Wills went up to 40.6%, Aparicio went up to 36.9%.
So the first three years, Wills got more support. And then, in year four, Aparicio made his moderate gain (up five points) but Wills suddenly and shockingly nosedived. His support was cut almost in half down to 21.9%.
What the heck happened? Well, best I can tell, Wills became manager of the of Seattle Mariners in 1980. And he was a disaster — an unmitigated, unequivocal, unparalleled disaster. He lasted a grand total of 83 games — 58 in 1980 and 25 in 1981 — and managed in that short time to get suspended for a couple of games, mocked incessantly and, of course, fired. He also became much despised by many of the writers, and over the next few years would have numerous other off-the-field problems that made headlines.
I can’t say this was the reason that Wills’ numbers fell off … but I can tell you his vote totals never recovered. He had some pretty powerful supporters, including the legendary columnist Jim Murray, but his percentage never again topped 30%.
Once Aparicio was more or less crowned as the official shortstop with speed candidate of his era, he skyrocketed. He jumped from 41.9% to 67.4% in one year. And he was elected with 84.6% of the vote a year after that. Hey: It’s all for the best: I think, despite those early votes, Aparicio was a much better player than Wills.
— Early Wynn (27.9%) is a baffling one to me. The guy won 300 games — at the time, he was one of only three pitchers since Deadball to have won 300. And we know the writers historically have LOVED wins. My guess is that Wynn came on the ballot the same year as Musial, and so was simply overlooked. Wynn’s quick ascent — he jumped 20 points the next year, 20 more the next, and was elected in his fourth year — suggests that his low first year total was a mirage.
— Jim Rice (29.8%). I’m going to give you a theory about Rice, and I fully appreciate that you might not agree. But, if you made it this far into this morass of Hall of Fame stuff, you are probably ready for an off-the-wall theory. I think Rice’s election was, in large part, a backlash against steroids.
Rice began at 29.8% … and he basically stayed there. After five years he was at 29.4%. His Hall of Fame case was simply not going anywhere. Cepeda had a higher percentage after Year 5. Tony Oliva had a higher percentage. Steve Garvey, Enos Slaughter, Gil Hodges all had higher percentages. None of them were voted in by the writers.
But the next year — 2000 — Rice’s numbers skyrocketed from 29.4% to to above 50%. Why? Well, I think there was a strong Rice campaign building, so that helped. The timing was good — the 2000 class of hitters was exceptionally weak — the best hitter to come on the ballot was probably Willie Wilson, Lonnie Smith or Kent Hrbek.
But I also think that Rice (not unreasonably) was beginning to represent a different kind of slugger in the minds of many people. Let’s face it: 2000 was just about the time when people were getting sick of the home runs, started getting concerned about how these players were bulking up. People were beginning to compare the sizes of players heads to their younger days. And Rice reminded of those days BEFORE sluggers looked like body builders. Again: Nostalgia.
It is Rice’s second big jump that, I think, is even more connected to the steroid backlash. Rice’s percentages stayed between 50 and 60 percent for another six years — again, he wasn’t really moving. And then, around 2006 — and this was when the steroid fury was peaking — you started to hear people actually say that, hey, Jim Rice may not have 400 home runs, and he may not have a huge on-base percentage, and he may have been inconsistent after he turned 27, but he was CLEAN. I read this sentiment in numerous stories, received many emails along those lines, heard that talk in many places.
Did that give him the boost he needed? Obviously, opinions will differ. The way I see it, he jumped in the 60s in 2006, stepped back slightly in 2007 when Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn went on the ballot, moved to the cusp in 2008 (when the best hitter to join the ballot was the criminally underrated Tim Raines) and made it in 2009, his last year on the ballot with 76.4% of the vote — Rice made it with seven votes to spare. Would Rice have made it without the backlash? Maybe. As I say, there were other obvious factors. But I think him being the strongest anti-steroid candidate on the ballot in the mind of many voters got him some votes.
— Eddie Mathews’ (32.3%) Hall of Fame journey is baffling. How could a third baseman with 500 home runs not go first ballot? I guess timing plays a role — he did come on the ballot in 1974, the same year as Mickey Mantle. But nobody particularly exciting joined the ballot the next year, and Mathews’ totals only went up a few percentage points. Nobody particularly exciting joined the following year either, but again Mathews’ numbers barely climbed — after three years, he was still not at 50%. The voters finally came to their senses in 1977, jumping him into the 60s, and he was elected the following year. But I really don’t know why it took so long. The low batting career batting average (.271)? The under appreciated skills (Mathews led the league in walks four times)? Eddie Mathews was one of the greatest baseball players ever — when he went on the ballot in 1974 he was almost without question the best third baseman ever. The voters not electing him first ballot is one of the stranger decisions in the history of the Hall of Fame.
— Goose Gossage (33.3%). If you will humor me for a minute (heck, you humored me this far) I’ll make an obvious point:
Using WAR, the bottom two pitchers in the Baseball Hall of Fame are Rollie Fingers (24.4) and Bruce Sutter (25.0).
Using innings pitched, the bottom three pitchers in the Baseball Hall of Fame are Sutter, Fingers and Goose Gossage.
Using strikeouts, Bruce Sutter is last.
Using wins, Sutter is again last, and then there’s Fingers, Gossage and Hoyt Wilhelm.
Shutouts? Well, Sutter and Gossage have zero. Fingers has two.
In other words, by most historical measures of a pitcher’s career — save ERA — none of the closers in the Hall of Fame really fit in with the rest (with the exception of Dennis Eckersley, who started half his career). Like I say: That’s obvious. But what isn’t obvious is how the writers determine the greatness of a closer. It’s a moving target. For a while, it looked like the relatively new statistic “saves” would do it — but Jeff Reardon had the saves record for a time and he didn’t make a second ballot. Lee Smith destroyed the saves record, and he has had real trouble getting Hall of Fame footing. Tom Henke* had more saves than Gossage or Sutter, and he got six votes.
*I noticed, looking up Jeff Reardon and Tom Henke, that both of them according to Baseball Reference were called “The Terminator.” I don’t recall either one being called that, but I think that’s amusing.
So, I think the voters basically have chosen their Hall of Fame closers almost entirely based on the ethereal “gut feeling,” and I think this is when we as Hall of Fame voters tend to be at our worst. We don’t play all that well in space. I’m including myself in this. I voted for Gossage because I thought he was better than Sutter and Fingers and about as good as Wilhelm — and those were the closers in the Hall. That to me was the standard, and he met it. But I wonder if I was wrong there. Do I think Gossage was as valuable over his career as, say, Jim Kaat or Tommy John or Luis Tiant or David Cone or two dozen other starting pitchers? No, I don’t.
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And finally, we come back around to Morris. I think his vote total narrative is pretty easy to follow. He entered the ballot at 22.2% — a borderline candidate if there ever was one. He didn’t have 300 wins or 3,000 strikeouts or a Cy Young Award or an ERA title. He had a durable career, most wins of the 1980s and a great World Series Game 7.
In his second year, Morris’ percentage dropped — and I think it’s largely because of Bert Blyleven. I know there are still a few stragglers fighting that war, but I suspect history will simply state that Morris wasn’t as good a pitcher as Blyleven. He wasn’t particularly close to as good a pitcher as Blyleven. He didn’t do anything better than Blyleven. It took a while for everyone to come to grips with this, but over the years most people did. Blyleven’s lead over Morris grew just about every year.
I would sometimes tell the most adamant Morris fans that if they REALLY wanted their guy in the Hall of Fame, they should think hard about voting for Blyleven. For one thing, Blyleven was better and it made them look provincial and sometimes even ridiculous to argue otherwise. But, more importantly, Morris needed Blyleven off the ballot so he could gain momentum. Unless you’re an all-time legend like Frank Robinson (who made it in Hank Aaron’s year) you HAVE to be the best player at your position on the ballot. Morris was not. His vote total just never took off.
Blyleven was elected last year, and sure enough this year Morris had the biggest percentage jump of his career — going from just over 53% to 66.7%.
I have written my own views of Jack Morris’ Hall of Fame candidacy many times. He was a good pitcher but in my mind not a great one. He was incredibly durable, but not incredibly effective — he had the good fortune of playing for high scoring teams that did not generally have great starting pitchers. His peak was not quite Hall of Fame caliber for me. His career arc was not quite Hall of Fame caliber for me. There are several other pitchers who are not in the Hall of Fame who I think were better than Jack Morris.
But now I’m not talking as a voter but as an observer. Will Morris get in next year? He’s on the cusp with 66.7% of the vote. And yet, as you know, next year’s ballot will be a hailstorm — Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Sammy Sosa all go on the ballot. Will Morris get lost?
I predict Morris will get in. And here’s why: He’s so close, and there’s an overpowering sense among even non-Morris voters that it’s just cruel to tease a fine player like Jack Morris for all these years. But the other thing is that I don’t think next year’s candidates will hurt Morris as much as some seem to believe. Most of them are hitters, and I don’t think those will affect Morris.
Of the pitchers, Clemens was unquestionably a much better pitcher by multiples, but if anything I think his appearance will HELP Morris because of Clemens’ steroid issues. I think Schilling was also a significantly better pitcher than Morris, but I don’t think that’s how many of the other voters see it. I don’t think David Wells — though his career WAR is higher than Morris’ — will play any role at all.
I’m on a prediction role, so I’ll just stay with it: I think next year Jack Morris and Craig Biggio will be elected. Bagwell, because of Bonds, could take a step back. Tim Raines is in a weird limbo, and I don’t know yet how the addition of Bonds and all those other hitters will hurt him. Finally, I think Bonds, Clemens, Piazza and Sosa will all fall short first year. It will be fascinating to watch — at least for a Hall of Fame junkie.