It’s a fan, just a regular fan who has become one of the most important people in baseball every January. His name is Ryan Thibodaux. Maybe you know him as @NotMrTibbs. The way I got to know him is through his Baseball Hall of Fame Tracker. That’s where he keeps tabs on actual Hall of Fame votes as they come in and provides tremendous fodder for conversation during an otherwise slow time in the baseball world.
Eric and I cite him and the Tracker regularly, like here, here, here, here, and here. In fact, it seems I can’t refer to him without using the word “great”, which is both an indictment on my writing and an indication of just how impressive his work is. Eric calls the Tracker crack for Hall junkies, and I couldn’t agree more. We keep it open all day and just hit refresh. It’s the beginning of so many of our conversations each December and January, and it’s simply indispensable for us and many others.
If you missed a piece highlighting his work this past January on mlb.com, I’m proud to introduce you to him here. Ryan was kind enough to give me more than a few minutes of his time and sit down to chat. Sure, it was both asynchronous and I think bicoastal, but the meaning of “chat” has morphed over the years, right?
I hope you enjoy.
What made you start the Tracker?
I didn’t so much start the Tracker as continue the fine tradition of ballot tracking done by people like Darren Viola (Repoz) on Baseball Think Factory and @leokitty on Twitter. For me, it was just a way to pass the time in the offseason. When I started, I was particularly interested in Jeff Bagwell’s candidacy since I grew up in Houston. I didn’t think it would ever be the all-consuming thing it has become for me for two months every winter, but here we are.
Have you had contact with any players on the ballot because of it?
The only real contact I’ve had with players is on Twitter, mostly from a few players who seemingly follow the balloting. Billy Wagner, Vlad Guerrero, and Curt Schilling follow me on Twitter and chime in from time to time (as do some others like David Cone). By far though, the coolest experience I’ve had with a player (indirectly) was when one of Jeff Bagwell’s representatives sent me a “Class of 2017” poster autographed by Bagwell: https://twitter.com/NotMrTibbs/status/839665329915621376
Who’s the most famous/interesting/surprising non-player who’ve you’ve talked to because of it?
That’s easily been the best part of this hobby over the years, to be honest. Baseball writers have always been heroes to me in much the same way that baseball players themselves are, so I’m extremely lucky for all the things I’ve gotten to experience. I’ve gotten to meet and talk to Susan Slusser from the San Francisco Chronicle, who I’ve been reading for years and years and consider one of the best ever at her job. She’ll be in the Hall of Fame someday as a Spink Award winner, I hope and suspect. I’ve done phone interviews with some greats like Larry Stone and Evan Grant. I’ve had the writer and voter who runs the BBWAA website, Jeff Fletcher, solicit my help adding what I’d collected to BBWAA.com. I’ve had long email discussions with Jonah Keri and Jerry Crasnick. I’ve gotten out of the blue direct messages from Buster Olney. I’ve had the Hall of Fame expert of our time, Jay Jaffe, ask me questions. Can you imagine!? I did my one and only podcast interview on my favorite baseball podcast, Effectively Wild, with Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh. I’ve had my name plastered all over MLB Network for uncomfortably long stretches of time. Insane! Any one of those things would be amazing and an honor, but the fact that they’ve all happened is still surreal to me.
Since you’ve started, do you have an opinion as to whether the writers are submitting ballots of higher, lower, or about the same quality?
I think the average ballot has probably “improved” a bit in recent years, though I don’t make much of a habit of criticizing individual ballots or voting philosophies. The “improvement” that I do think has occurred probably has something to do with many former voters who haven’t actively covered game in the last decade getting “purged” from the voter rolls. Votes per ballot has increased, which I think is important since we still have such a backlog of deserving candidates. Voters seem to be willing to consider candidates who don’t have traditional Hall of Fame resumes more and more (Tim Raines, for example, whose case is largely based on advanced statistics and the modern understanding of what makes players valuable, as opposed to meeting traditional milestone numbers of hits/home runs/etc.). There are fewer objectively ridiculous ballots and fewer votes cast for players who have little to no real case. There are fewer voters not voting for obvious inner-circle Hall of Famers like Griffey and Maddux. I suspect we may actually get a unanimous Hall of Famer sometime in the next few years, which would have been impossible as recently as a couple of years ago. So overall, I think there are fewer “bad apple” voters who historically have given the process a worse reputation than it probably deserves.
How do you think the Tracker has influenced ballots? If it has, do you think it’s a good or a bad thing?
I think the impact on voters is fairly minimal. The primary thing the Tracker provides voters is an easy way to easily access other voters’ rationales for their ballots through the links I include on the sheet. That might have some impact, in that I believe voters influence each other far more than fans and observers do. Of course, a criticism of that is that the Tracker might contribute to a “hive mind” situation, where there’s less variability among voters and the votes they cast. I’m happy to leave it to others to decide if that’s good, bad, or both.
Beginning with the 2018 election, the BBWAA will start making every Hall ballot public once the election is over. How do you foresee that affecting the Hall vote? And just as important, the Tracker?
That’s a very open question at this point. On my end, I expect it to be business as usual. Voters are still free to reveal their ballots whenever they choose, and when they do, I’ll be there to log them. It might be that more voters choose to reveal their ballots later (after the results are announced), so I may have less “work” to do in the pre- announcement period. It may be that some voters who have historically kept their ballots private may stop voting to avoid the attention and the often aggressive criticism that comes with publicly sharing a ballot. Like you said, this is the first time the BBWAA will make all ballots public (which won’t occur until one week after the results are announced), so I’ll be as interested as anyone to see how that affects both voting as well as how voters decide to reveal their ballots.
Do you prefer players having ten years or fifteen years of ballot eligibility?
I can see why the Hall changed it to 10 years, and it makes sense in plenty of ways, but I feel for players who might be hurt by it like Edgar Martinez and Larry Walker. Of course, we all thought that change was the knife in the candidacy of Tim Raines, too, and we know how that turned out.
Do you prefer a cap of ten votes per writer, something more, or no cap?
The Hall, I don’t think, will ever go to an unlimited ballot, but I wouldn’t be opposed to it. Derrick Gould from the St. Louis Post Dispatch has proposed what he calls a “binary ballot” where each voter votes yes or no on every candidate. I like the idea, but that’s essentially a “no cap” situation, and doesn’t seem likely to ever happen. A BBWAA committee asked a couple of years ago for the limit to be raised from 10 to 12, but the Hall didn’t grant even this modest request. I think voters who are tasked with the responsibility of voting for the Hall should be given the leeway to vote for whomever they’d like, but it seems like the Hall is sticking with a 10 player per ballot maximum for the foreseeable future. Even with this limitation, the voters have done a good job the last few years electing worthy candidates.
Is there a player on the current ballot you’re most rooting for?
Despite my obvious rooting for Bagwell in the past (I couldn’t help it!), I honestly do try to remain as neutral as I can on most players. My own particular biases are perfectly obvious to people who follow me closely on Twitter, and I’m fine with that, but I try hard not to wade too deeply into arguments for or against anyone. That said, Larry Walker has polled WAY, WAY too low for WAY too long and is running out of time. I hope voters give him one last good look before it’s too late. Also, #EdgarHOF. Okay, I’m done.
Who’s your favorite Hall of Famer?
As I’ve said, Bagwell is certainly among my favorites. I watched him his entire career when I was growing up, and I’m elated that he finally got the honor he deserves. Craig Biggio certainly is right there too, of course. My other favorite is Nolan Ryan. I only really remember the last 8 or so years of his career, but he was my first true baseball hero. I used to tell kids in school that I was named after him (I wasn’t). He was also my first autograph. My grandfather used to work on Nolan’s boat motors in Texas, and Nolan was nice enough to sign a ball and picture for him in the late 80s. After years and years of teasing me about it (“maybe when you get accepted to college,” “maybe when you’re old enough not to lose them,” etc.), my grandfather finally gave them to me when I was about 10 years old. They’re prized possessions.
Hope that works for you! Let me know if you need anything else.
I suppose if I were a veteran of stuff like this, I might not include Ryan’s last line above. But I kept it just to point out how gracious the guy is. I’m nobody to him, and he didn’t just answer my questions, he answered in tremendous depth. I thought I was pushing it with the number of questions, so I made the last four a lightening round, suggesting he could answer with just a couple of words. Either he’s unfamiliar with lightening, or he’s just a fantastic person.
Thank you so much for your time, Ryan! And thank you all for reading.
Long live the Tracker!