Why there may never be a unanimous Hall of Famer

Last year, I asked readers to vote on an inner circle for the Hall of Fame. I’ve run a few voter-driven projects, and while I enjoy getting to look at everyone’s ballot, it’s generally the same story. I doubt any two ballots are alike. Voters use a variety of rationales. And most every ballot has a glaring omission or imperfection– in the case of my inner circle project, no player received 100 percent of the vote, not Willie Mays, not Babe Ruth, not Honus Wagner. We’re not fools, it’s just the way these things work. Some voters consciously omit players. Others simply forget them. I don’t think this is a a bad thing. I set very few rules for voters, by design. If enough people vote independently, the right thing seems to happen. Unanimity’s a nice ideal, but it’s never been necessary here.

I’m reminded of all this by a piece Buster Olney has up at ESPN Insider, advocating that retiring New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera be the first unanimous Hall of Famer. In the piece, mostly hidden behind a paywall link, Olney recounts the bizarre, implausible, unpalatable truth through more than 75 years of Hall of Fame voting– there’s never been a unanimous selection. Never. Ty Cobb, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, and others have come within a handful of votes, but something always seems to prevent unanimity. One writer left Ryan off his ballot, for instance, because he wanted to make a stand about Don Sutton’s candidacy.

Olney writes:

Maybe it’s time for this embarrassing tradition to end. Maybe it’s time for this small handful of writers who want to turn themselves into a speed bump at the gates of the Hall Fame to stop making themselves the story….

Five years from now, there is no reason for any voter to not put a check mark beside Mariano Rivera’s name on a ballot, because his candidacy is pristine.

It’s a great idea, and I support it wholeheartedly, but it seems highly unlikely it will happen, not in five years, probably not ever. I imagine people responding to Olney’s piece will make this about Rivera, fixating on his worthiness or lack thereof as a relief pitcher, but the broader debate isn’t about Rivera or any other player. So long as the current process for Hall of Fame voting remains, I doubt there will ever be a unanimous selection. And I’m cool with that.

If an algorithm determined picks, it would stand to reason that a player could get in satisfying every requirement. But voting is still done by humans, through an electorate that continues to grow, with a record 581 ballots cast in 2011 and another 573 last year. Few requirements exist for making picks, with a basic set of rules that concern eligibility. Beyond that, voters are invited to set their own criteria. One writer from last year’s election told me he didn’t vote for Tim Raines, in part, because he only logged 13 full seasons. Again, I’m fine with this. I’d shudder if any one voter got to determine all the plaques in Cooperstown using this mindset, but I assume that with enough people casting ballots, the right thing will generally happen.

It doesn’t mean that questionable candidates won’t sometimes be enshrined, be it on the first pass or the 10th, with 98 percent of the vote or 75.2. But the point of the Hall of Fame isn’t perfection or unanimity. It’s about honoring the best moments in baseball history. More often than not, Cooperstown and its voters have honored this ideal.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Dick Groat

Claim to fame: Dick Groat and the question of his Hall of Fame worthiness has popped up twice on this website in recent months. First came a comment at my annual project on the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame. Someone wrote:

Bobby Grich (6x-AS, .266 avg.)
Dick Groat (8x AS, 1960 MVP, .286 avg)

Groat played in a pitcher’s era and still hit .286. Groat was voted MVP in 1960. Grich never ranked higher than 8th in MVP voting during his career. I guess it helps to have played more recently.

Last month, I posted my personal Hall of Fame, which includes Maury Wills. Longtime reader Brendan Bingham posted a long comment, which included:

3) If Maury Wills, why not Dick Groat?
I have commented on this site about the similarity between Wills and Groat. Their careers were of similar length (8306 PA for Wills; 8179 for Groat). The biggest difference between them is that Wills stole more bases, 572 more (586, versus Groat’s 14). But Wills hit only 177 doubles, while Groat hit 352. That’s a difference of 175 bases that Groat did not need to steal, because he was already on second base. The down side of attempting to steal bases is getting caught stealing. Wills was caught 208 times, versus 27 for Groat. Wills had a few more walks; Groat had a few more home runs. Wills earned more WAR (39.8 to Groat’s 36.8), but is he really worthy of enshrinement? With all due respect to Groat, the multi-sport Duke graduate, can a compelling HOF case really include the phrase, “he was marginally better than Dick Groat”?

I found both comments thought-provoking. I’ll reply momentarily.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Groat last played in 1967 and appeared on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot for Cooperstown six times from 1973 through 1978, peaking at 1.8 percent of the vote. Now eligible for enshrinement through the Veterans Committee and considered to have played in what the committee dubs the Golden Era between 1947 and 1973, Groat could theoretically next be voted in in two years.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? In a word, no. I’ve hesitated to write this column in part because Groat’s an easy “No” for me. While I respect that Groat was an integral member of two championship teams (the 1960 Pirates and ’64 Cardinals) and was a rare man to play both MLB and NBA ball, he simply doesn’t have the numbers for Cooperstown and trails behind legions of worthier candidates. But I don’t mind spotlighting older players, however briefly, and there are a couple of broader points I’d like to make here.

The first excerpted comment above, comparing Groat to Bobby Grich took me back. Before I got into sabermetrics, I treated batting average as the overall measure of a batter, and I believed that Grich’s era, the 1970s and ’80s was significantly more of a hitter’s era than the 1960s. I was wrong on both counts. There’s this misnomer that the lowering of the pitcher’s mound in 1969 and the adoption of the designated hitter rule in the American League in 1973 dramatically changed the offensive landscape. In reality, except for the occasional outlier such as 1987, run totals in games didn’t spike consistently until the 1990s. The sooner this is better understood, the easier it will be for players like Grich, Dwight Evans, and Dale Murphy to get enshrined. They simply played in a tougher offensive era than they’re being credited for.

For evaluating offensive production, I’ve come to prefer comprehensive stats that don’t just look at a hitter’s ability to make contact with the ball but also incorporate things like run production, on-base percentage and total bases. I also like stats that are weighted to adjust for ballpark and eras. For all of this, I find stats like wRC+ (weighted run creation) and OPS+ (weighted offensive production) much more useful than batting average. Grich trumps Groat 125 to 89 in OPS+ and 129 to 90 in wRC+. If we simply look at raw stats that aren’t adjusted for eras, such as wOBA or OPS, the differences are more pronounced. A 20 point advantage in batting average may be impressive at quick glance, but it doesn’t mean that much in context.

I take a different approach, however, comparing Groat and Maury Wills. When it comes to Wills, I value his contribution to baseball history more than his somewhat pedestrian career stats. My rationale is admittedly somewhat arbitrary and selective, but I think a certain degree of that is okay when it comes to the Hall of Fame. It’s not the Hall of Algorithmically-Determined Statistical Superiority, after all. (My friend Adam Darowski has a cool site for this.) I like Wills’ role in popularizing the stolen base in the 1960s (though he was arguably no more important than Luis Aparicio or Lou Brock.) I like that he shattered Ty Cobb’s 47-year-old season record for stolen bases in 1962. For me, that’s enough for a plaque.


Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? has been a past regular feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian BeltreAl OliverAlan TrammellAlbert BelleAlbert PujolsAllie ReynoldsAndy PettitteBarry BondsBarry LarkinBert BlylevenBill KingBilly MartinBilly PierceBobby GrichCecil TravisChipper JonesClosersCraig BiggioCurt FloodDan QuisenberryDarrell EvansDave ParkerDick AllenDon MattinglyDon Newcombe,Dwight EvansGeorge SteinbrennerGeorge Van HaltrenGus GreenleeHarold BainesHarry DaltonJack MorrisJeff BagwellJeff KentJim EdmondsJoe CarterJoe PosnanskiJohan SantanaJohn SmoltzJohnny MurphyJose Canseco,J.R. RichardJuan GonzalezKeith HernandezKen CaminitiKevin BrownLarry WalkerManny RamirezMaury WillsMel HarderMoises AlouOmar VizquelPete BrowningPhil CavarrettaRafael PalmeiroRoberto AlomarRocky Colavito,Roger MarisRon CeyRon GuidryRon SantoSammy SosaSean FormanSmoky Joe WoodSteve Garvey,Ted SimmonsThurman MunsonTim RainesTony OlivaVince Coleman, Vlad GuerreroWill Clark