A way forward for the Hall of Fame

Last time we talked about Harold Baines and the Hall of Fame. My reaction was probably more emotional than it should have been. When a controversial selection happens we usually bust out our numbers and throw in a little snark for good measure. The amount of snark usually depends on the commentator. I try to steer clear as much as possible, but as time has crept on I’ve realized that simply shooting down Lee Smith or Harold Baines really doesn’t help the situation any.

Ultimately, we want two things. First, we want a process that makes sense and the Veterans Committee process has never really made sense. Secondly, we want the best players to be in the Hall of Fame. That seems simple enough and it feels perfectly reasonable to ask whether any player is a Hall of Fame caliber player. However, what we realize is that it’s not that Harold Baines is the wrong answer. The problem is that it’s the wrong question.

Jon Heyman asked Jack Morris and Dave Stewart whether Harold Baines was a Hall of Famer. The answer he got shouldn’t surprise anyone. Of course he is. This is usually where the snark enters the proceeding. I’m not going to bag on Morris or Stewart. Morris shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame himself, but that’s not really the point. The point is that when we respect someone we are going to stick up for them when given the chance. Morris claimed that Baines hit .400 off of him in his career. The implication is simple. If I’m a Hall of Famer and this guy hit .400 off of me then he too is a Hall of Famer. 

Let’s ignore the breakdown in logic here. The fact is that he is wrong on the facts. Baines didn’t hit .400 off of Morris. Again, the point isn’t to pick on Morris. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. Memories fade and often get distorted. That’s why courts of law deal in facts and science a lot more often than they deal in what witnesses remember. It’s a lot easier for me to say yay or nay on a player when I don’t know them. Ask me the fate of someone I know and respect and I will probably err on the side of allowing them admittance to whatever they want. So, I have no problem with Morris or Stewart saying he should be in.

So, if we are to avoid asking whether someone should be in the Hall of Fame or not then what should we ask? The history of the Veterans Committee is a history of how harmful this question has been. Each time they elect someone  they know and they find a reason to say yes. The problem is not the fact that they said yes, but the fact that they never bothered to ask a different question. That question is whether any certain player is the best player not currently in the Hall of Fame. When you think about it, that is a lot more precise and creates a far different answer.

Asking that question does two things for you. First, it limits the scope of your search. If you wanted, you could expand it to include the best pitcher as well, but even then you are only including two names. Tack that on the BBWAA list and you have a healthy Hall of Fame class every year. Secondly, it puts players like Baines in a lot more positive light. Instead of asking whether he was good enough or not, I ask whether he was better than a particular player. So, we aren’t calling Baines the second coming of Jim Pankovits. We are saying he isn’t quite as good as Bobby Grich, Dick Allen, or Keith Hernandez or anyone else.

Worthy players get left off of the BBWAA ballot every year. The new incarnation of the Veterans Committee could serve a very good purpose if it simply refocused itself to the new question. Who is the best player not in the Hall of Fame? Since players will always fall off the ballot, this new mission would be never ending. If they inserted a little more transparency it could even be more fun for the fans. So, I make the following modest proposal.

Stage One

A steering committee currently takes the players with ten or more years of experience and whittles it down to a ballot. Yadier Molina will certainly be on the ballot someday, but all of his brothers don’t need to be. The VC (or whatever it wants to call itself) will simply take any player that has ever appeared on a ballot and has cycled off. They then will have a preliminary vote and vote for the best player at every position who is not in the Hall of Fame or currently on the BBWAA ballot.

This will undoubtedly include 19thcentury players, but I would imagine that most of them will never see the light of day. The commercial aspect of the Hall of Fame will always favor living players. However, based on our preliminary results in the index we could imagine the results at each position.

The criteria changes based on the voter and the names available. I use the index. Someone else uses something else. The players with the most votes are released and become the best players not in the Hall of Fame at that position. From year to year this will change depending on who drops off the BBWAA list and who gets selected from the previous list.

This is only phase one. I’d imagine with a number of people voting we would reach a consensus on each spot enough to feel comfortable that any of these nine players would be worthy selections for the Hall of Fame. That’s when we move on to phase two.

Phase Two

Phase two is a simple process. Each voter selects the best position player and best pitcher from the list. Here is where the new committee can alter the process to their liking. They can choose a starting pitcher and relief pitcher and choose between the two or simply have something like the top three or five pitchers on a phase two ballot. Either way, you get two new Hall of Famers every year and you’d imagine the number of glaring omissions would evaporate over time.

There certainly would be controversy and there would be hysteria over omissions and questionable additions. That’s the politics of glory. However, the reframing of the question makes the argument much less personal. The question isn’t whether Harold Baines (or anyone else) is good enough. It is whether he is better than someone else.

Author: sbarzilla

I have written three books about baseball including The Hall of Fame Index. I also write for thefantatasyfix.com. You can follow me on twitter @sbarzilla.

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