I admit, when I heard the news that the MLB Hall of Fame changed its voting procedures to reduce eligibility from 15 years to 10, I was outraged. That’s my usual reaction to things the HOF does, since most of them are indeed outrageous. But Joe Sheehan has just about convinced me that maybe this time it wasn’t such a bad move.
The 15-year number stems from a time when we didn’t have the access to the tools to evaluate a player’s career that we do today. Given the number of players eligible for election and the greater reliance on contemporary observation and oral history, a long window for reflection and discussion made sense. Now, it no longer does. We’re not writing letters and publishing columns in newspapers and digging through Total Baseball anymore. For one, the Hall passes judgment on almost all players in the first ten years; in the past 30 elections, just three players have been elected to the Hall past their tenth year on the ballot. That includes two of the BBWAA’s worst picks — Jim Rice and Bruce Sutter — and Bert Blyleven, who may have ended up a ridiculous omission but for the work of Rich Lederer. That’s one par-or-better Hall of Famer elected after the tenth year since 1985. It seems quite clear that the BBWAA doesn’t need those last five years.
(Based on history, you might even want to cut that down to eight years. Hall of Famers elected in years 9-10 on the ballot over the past 30 years include Andre Dawson, Rich Gossage and Tony Perez. With due respect to Dawson, five of the last six players elected after Year Eight on the ballot are among the weakest ever selected by the BBWAA. If they had instituted an eight-year cutoff in 1985, the Hall would be stronger than it is today.)
Think about the conversations we have about these players. Nowadays, we pass judgment on Hall cases 20 minutes after a player retires, and those judgments don’t change much over 20 years. Look at the players on last year’s ballot. Do we need more time to talk about Don Mattingly or Lee Smith or Alan Trammell? This isn’t 1948. We have scads of data, and we have huge video archives, and we have a series of tubes through which we talk about this stuff incessantly. We just don’t need to talk about these players every year for 15 years. As I note above, eight might very well be plenty. I’d actually have gone one step further and shortened the time from retirement to the ballot as well, probably from five to three years in a couple of steps. These arguments can be had, and had well, over 10-15 years. They can generally be had over 10-15 months. This change was a boon to the process.
The one mistake the BBWAA did make is in not grandfathering in more players. Not that Trammell, Smith or Mattingly are getting in, but it would have been unfair to just remove them from next year’s ballot. However, the same courtesy should have been extended to everyone on last year’s ballot. The negative reaction to the change is correlated to the strong feelings many people have about candidates such as Tim Raines (entering his eighth year), Edgar Martinez (sixth) and Larry Walker (fifth). Those players will have less time to advance through the process now, with Raines in particular — a fully-qualified candidate now down to three years with which to advance — getting shafted. The BBWAA undercut its good decision by not extending the grace period to all players who reached the ballot under the 15-year rule. Changing a player’s eligibility retroactively is bad form, and gives support to the idea that this change — which, again, is a good one and long overdue — is actually more about ridding the group of the Barry Bonds Question than improving the process. This is a correctable error, one I hope they will address next year.
Sheehan argues that the logjam created recently by the writers’ mulish refusal to elect anyone one year and to be stingy in the next year after that should work itself out over the next three years (Andrew Mearns disagrees on this), and that the real problem we face continues to be with voters that don’t know how to properly evaluate players. I remain a little skeptical of all this because it’s the Hall of Fame’s job to do stupid and reactionary things, but at the very least Sheehan has tempered my indignation. What do you think?