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What Publishing the BBWAA Hall of Fame Vote Might Mean

Finally! Miller and I for years have hoped the BBWAA would adopt a full-disclosure policy for its Hall of Fame balloting. On December 6th, it happened. Beginning in 2018, all ballots will be made public after the election results are announced.

We, for two, are standing and applauding.

The Hall was the only one among the many BBWAA elections each year that had no proviso for making individual ballots public. The MVP, the Cy Young, the Rookie of the Year, the Manager of the Year are all fully disclosed. Now the Hall is too. This level of transparency will make the process more interesting and more inclusive. Yes, inclusive, in the sense that when we fans can see under the hood, we feel more agency and ownership over a process that looked like a black box for years. So hooray for the BBWAA!

Of course, the question becomes how throwing open the curtains will affect the vote. If at all. We won’t know for certain until two Januarys from now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t ask and speculate on the answers to a few questions in the meantime.

The Electorate

Will public ballots have any effect on whether BBWAA members choose to vote?
Pressure has been on the BBWAA for years to reveal all ballots, much of that pressure internal. The voter-purging rule that took effect for the 2016 election appears in hindsight to have been a first step toward public ballots. On the outside, many assumed that the lack of disclosure was intended to shield long-retired back-benchers and those voting members who now covered other sports from criticism from the likes of, well, people like Miller and me. By first expunging those who haven’t covered the game in recent memory, the BBWAA reduced exposure by force of procedure. With that problem out of the way and few squawking loudly, they can take this new step. If anyone left on the rolls dislikes sunshine disinfectant, they don’t have to vote. Will they opt not to? It’s surely possible. But I personally suspect that few will decline their franchise. If they do, I think they will be folks still in the field who feel a conflict of interest in voting on people who played on the team they currently cover. And I could be wrong.

Will public ballots cause some voters to become more influential than others?
This is an interesting meta-question for which I have no answer at all. Those of us outside the BBWAA have no insight into the identities of its most influential members, whether they are Hall voters or not. We probably have even less understanding about which voters’ opinions might sway others’. With fully open ballots, we may be able to observe whether specific voters influence others and to what degree. The answer to this question may be a few years in the making.

Will public ballots increase the use of contemporary analytics by voters?
One of the memes about Hall voting goes like this: Those voters are too lazy to even find out what OPS+ means, let alone WAR or JAWS. They just look at hits, homers, and wins. Heck, some of the oldsters who don’t reveal their ballot probably don’t even have a computer! It’s the out-of-touch voter meme. I don’t think that making the ballot public will change any voter’s reliance on old-school versus new-school stats. What will change that is the gradual granting of voting privileges to younger writers who do use analytics and the aging out of the older, less stat-friendly voters.

The Process

Will public ballots reduce criticism of the BBWAA’s process and increase substantial discussion about the candidates themselves?
With less and less to complain about thanks to the purge and now the public ballot, high-information folks like Miller and I can get back to the business of talking about what players did instead of what voters didn’t do. I think that voters will still get raked over the coals for filing poorly thought through ballots—and some of them won’t like the heat. But dissecting a particular ballot is better for all of us than constant complaints that start to erode the sense of the Hall’s legitimacy. After all, arguing about ballots makes good copy and good social media engagement.

Will public ballots create an explosion of campaigning by fans and teams?
Almost certainly. Rich Lederer’s famed campaign for Bert Blyleven opened this door for fans. The Boston Red Sox’s successful lobbying for Jim Rice did the same for teams. But public ballots will create a whole new kind of Hall election season. Knowing the identities and votes of each elector will give people—like you, me, and the PR guys for every MLB team—the data necessary to wage a fully modern campaign. You want Mike Mussina to get a plaque? Easy! Identify the 200-odd people whose vote he doesn’t have, and find a way to get information and persuasive arguments in front of them. You can get to them on Twitter, Facebook, email, maybe even the good old US Post Office. But now you will actually be able get to them.

Will public ballots increase public confidence in the BBWAA electoral process?
Generally, yes. Transparency generally increases confidence. On the other hand, it may for a little while reduce confidence in the electors themselves. When eccentric ballots roll in that used to be hidden, more calls may issue for the heads of some voters. In the long run, however, confidence should increase as people warm to the idea of being able to drop a line to a voter to stump for a candidate.

Will public ballots lead to further changes in the Hall of Fame voting?
This is a serious wild-card question, and the answer depends greatly on what you think will happen as a result of open ballots. If you think that exposing the worst voters will create public pressure to relieve them or the entirety of the BBWAA of voting privileges, then, yes, perhaps some more changes may be forthcoming. If you think that fan and team campaigning will rise to a fever pitch, then the BBWAA may return to secret balloting. For those wishing that a panel of learned baseball historians end up with the vote, I wouldn’t count on that happening in this lifetime. Will we see a twelve-person ballot? Maybe. But I don’t see it as related to public ballots. Will voters be forced to explain their ballots some day? I think that’s more trouble than it’s worth.

The Results

Will public ballots have an effect on eccentric ballots?
By eccentric ballots, we mean ones like Murray Chass’ famous Jack Morris only ballot or his 2016 Griffey-only vote. Or blank protest ballots. Or Pete Rose votes. Or courtesy votes. Or not voting for first-year players. Or last year’s whopper from Marty Noble of Ken Griffey and Jeff Kent—only. Or Guy Cutwright in 2016 tossing Bagwell and Piazza off his ballot so he could vote for three relievers and Fred McGriff. If all the rest of human behavior is any guide then, yes, some degree of exposure will probably rub off a few rough edges. On the whole, however, it’s likely that anyone willing to vote for Garret Anderson or David Eckstein in 2016 won’t shy away from something that silly again.

Will public ballots increase herding?
Here’s the opposite of the eccentricity question. T.R. Sullivan posted his ballot to Baseball Think Factory (post #34) this year and explained, “My rule is if a guy gets over 60 percent, I vote for him. I have a real fear of a guy falling one short, and I didn’t vote for him.” This is a form of herding behavior (and no offense to Mr. Sullivan whose posts on BTF are highly informative). We see it frequently when a candidate gets near enough to election he usually gains momentum and makes it very quickly thereafter. Public ballots could increase herding if previously shielded voters feel exposed to controversy by not voting publicly for someone their fellow members support in large numbers. But, you know, there’s plenty of herding now. We may well not be able to observe much of a difference.

Will public ballots help break up the steroid logjam?
I doubt it. Ultimately, time and the new ten-and-done rule will do most of that work. The logjam may already be easing. Public balloting would only accelerate the logjam’s dissolution if herding becomes more common or if the number of voters decreases due to formerly private-ballot electors deciding not to vote instead of revealing their ballots. Non-disclosers are tougher on steroid-tainted players than disclosers. Should that logjam break quickly, however, we might see it break in the Veterans Committee as well. Andre Dawson told the media this week that, “…As a committee, we don’t feel like we are the ones to make that decision [voting up steroid players], at this time.” The election of a steroid figure could be the push the Today’s Game committee needs to give Mark McGwire the nod. Or Kevin Brown or Rafael Palmeiro down the line.

Will public ballots increase the number of honorees?
This is the $64 question, isn’t it? Several of the factors we’ve discussed intersect at this juncture.

  1. If fewer non-disclosers vote, then the steroid guys might have a chance to grow their ballot share. If even one of them elected, it will open up hundreds of ballot spots for other deserving players.
  2. If eccentricity is reduced a small number of ballot spots might open for more deserving players.
  3. If herding increases, players might increase their vote percentages more quickly, leading to less time on the ballot and more slots opening sooner for other deserving players.

So, yes, it is possible that more players could get a plaque, but it’s dependent on several mights that we don’t yet have data on. But one thing is for sure. The Hall needs honorees to bring the throngs there in August. If the writers are too stingy and the VC doesn’t get it in gear, we might see changes that no one yet anticipates.



One thought on “What Publishing the BBWAA Hall of Fame Vote Might Mean

  1. Halle–flippin’–lujah for common sense in Hall voting. Never thought I’d say that.

    Posted by verdun2 | December 21, 2016, 8:18 am

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