There are more than 10 worthy guys on next year’s Hall of Fame ballot. Mr. Thibs’ Hall of Fame tracker shows numerous voters who told the public which players they would have voted for if they had room on the ballot. We’re not talking about the Edgar Renterias or Jason Variteks. These are the Mike Mussinae, Edgar Martini, Larry Walkers, and dudes like them who are clearly Hall of Fame caliber.
On a ballot like this, what’s a poor BBWAA to do? Vote strategically, of course! But that’s the sort of thing that often rankles. Some writers and commenters may call it gaming the system or think of it as disingenuous when you don’t vote for the 10 players whom you think most deserve the honor. Well, it ain’t against the rules. In section 4 of the Hall’s voting rules we find this:
B. An elector will vote for no more than ten (10) eligible candidates deemed worthy of election. Write-in votes are not permitted.
There’s nothing that says which 10 players a writer deems worthy have to get his or her vote. </lawyering>
That said, we certainly don’t want to encourage voters to willy-nilly vote strategically and come up with goofball ballots like Murray Chass’ blank slate or one with a bunch of courtesy votes. Blech. What kind of situations does strategic voting make sense for, and is there any special strategery for strategic voting?
Why be strategic?
In one sense every voter should employ one or multiple strategies in assembling a ballot. Dictionary.com defines strategy clearly, and its fourth definition says:
a plan, method, or series of maneuvers or stratagems for obtaining a specific goal or result
Many voters appear to have no strategy, or at least not a discernable one, because of the contradictions of thinking apparent in their selections. Others may simply have one you or I disagree with. But in general we can say that when a voter applies a set of criteria, he employs a strategy of some sort. What we’re talking about is a lot more specific. I would define it as follows in the context of the current Hall of Fame rules:
Voting for a player who is not among one’s top ten choices while simultaneously not voting for a player among one’s top ten choices and with an intent aside from courtesy voting or protest voting.
It seems obvious that the only wise use of strategic voting is when a voter identifies more worthy candidates than exist electable slots. In voting strategically, an elector has four (and perhaps more) defensible, compelling, and combinable rationales for voting strategically.
Players on ballot may be closer than they appear
Whether we’re a stat head or a homers-ribbies-wins person, we might very well believe that our tools for comparing players are not sensitive enough. We might not believe that two players we’ve ranked in relatively close proximity are as far apart as they appear. Not merely in the case of our tenth and eleventh players, but perhaps our ninth and twelfth players. We might recognize that voting for our higher ranked player might accidentally turn out to be a vote for the lesser player.
It doesn’t matter once they’re elected
We may have a rank order of names, but there’s no special burst on anyone’s plaque proclaiming: #1 choice on 53% of 2017 ballots! All Hall of Famers are equal once elected, so our own personal ranks may matter less ultimately than our simple answer to yes/no. In which case, it may matter more to vote for ten than a specific ten. Yes means yes.
It’s important to stay on the ballot
This is obvious, of course, but important in an era when several recent honorees have risen from low initial totals to the Cooperstown podium. The Hall’s goal is to elect all deserving players. So from the point of view of what’s good for the Hall, it may be more important to keep a deserving player on the ballot after his first year of eligibility than to place a vote for someone safely on the ballot who is unlikely to be elected this year or before their eligibility runs out. For example, someone in their sixth year whose percentage remains in the 20 percent range may not benefit from our vote as much as a first-year candidate whom we believe is in some danger of falling off the ballot.
It’s important to get vote-hogs off the ballot
To use a fictitious example, let’s say that someone named, oh I don’t know, Hover Treffman is close to election. Very close, like 67% close. I might consider voting for him because if he doesn’t make it, he’ll be back next year to eat up 300-odd votes that could go to a down-ballot candidate that I believe is worthy. In my case, I think he and I should both be getting into the Hall through a turnstile. Looking back at Section 4, part B of the Hall’s rules, I am forbidden to vote for him. I’d take that seriously and not vote for him. But in the spirit of the first rationale we laid out, someone who isn’t entirely sure he’s worthy could vote for him in order to clear him off, knowing that the tools we use may not have enough precision to justify negging him. This was, of course, the case for Trevor Hoffman in 2017, and he ended up 5 votes from immortality, which means he’s back to soak up about 350 votes.
A strategy for 2018
As we look at the 2018 BBWAA ballot, voters have several candidates where strategic voting makes good sense.
- Scott Rolen: The BBWAA has treated third basemen very poorly over time, Rolen doesn’t have huge career totals, and a better third baseman is on this ballot, Chipper Jones. A terrible combination for Rolen staying on a thick ballot. But pushing him over 5% helps define a possible path to election as the glut thins out in the early 2020s.
- Andruw Jones: Defense is his calling card. But he ended his career out of shape and hanging on, so the narrative is slanting away from his greatness. Recently, HoME centerfielders Kenny Lofton and Jim Edmonds have been hosed by the 5% line despite Hall-worthy careers, and Andruw is facing the same conditions. Even if someone doesn’t believe that Jones is worthy now, they might consider a strategic vote to keep him on the ballot because defensive stats are improving and might yield more and better information for his case.
- Johan Santana: As we’ve said, he’s the Koufax of the 2000s, but with only 139 wins and just over 2,000 innings, most writers will write him off. Someone seeing an amazing, Koufaxian run, however, might see things differently.
Who might a voter choose to leave off their ballots to accommodate one of these guys or someone else the feel deserves a longer look? I’d start with Fred McGriff and Larry Walker. Both are getting long in the teeth ballot-wise, neither has a shot in hell to make it, and neither is in real danger of falling off either. I’d be careful with Sosa, Wagner, Sheffield, and Kent (if I felt them worthy) because they’re just close to the 5% line to worry. Though, really, if you are voting for Billy Wagner, you should just drop him anyway. Relievers can’t hold a candle to starters and position players.
As for Hoffman, with only five votes separating him from a plaque, it seems unlikely that because of the herding mentality he requires a strategic vote to pick up a percentage point. The marginal gain might not be worth it. I’m guessing that Vlad Guerrero isn’t worth it either. He debuted at 71.7% and missed by only 15 votes. The only other player to debut above 70% in the last 30 years (since the current voting rules were essentially laid out) was Roberto Alomar in 2010. He entered at 73.7%. He was elected in year two. The solid money is on Vlad doing the same thing.
So to sum it up in doggerel:
If there’s not enough space
on your ballot to place
Every worthy name
Of our great game,
It’s the ballot’s to blame
For this dastardly shame.
But there’s a way you can vote
Despite the candidate bloat.
Avoid a Hall of Fame tragedy—
Just use some strategy!