“You hear that Mr. Anderson?… That is the sound of inevitability…” – Agent Smith, The Matrix (1999)
Short of being inducted, obviously, the news yesterday for Jeff Bagwell and his Hall of Fame candidacy was tremendous. After five frustrating years of starts and stops, yesterday’s results essentially moved Bagwell into the on-deck circle for Hall of Fame induction, a mere 15 votes shy of crossing the mandatory 75% needed for election.
His final total (71.6%, up from 55.7% last year) places him among a select group of players who crossed 70% without getting elected. Of those 16 players, 15 were elected the very next year and, in a divine gob of “Of course it is…,” the last player to do so was, yep: Craig Biggio last year*.
(Technically, I suppose, you could argue one of this year’s two new inductees, Mike Piazza, is the last player to accomplish this feat as he finished with 69.9% last year. But, as we learned when Biggio finished with 74.8% in 2014, the Hall of Fame does not follow the round-up rule that essentially saved my grades in high school.)
That places Bagwell’s election firmly in the “inevitable” category. With three players coming off the ballot next year who received at least 180 votes (Ken Griffey, Jr., Piazza and Alan Trammell, who failed in his 10th and final ballot), and with no Griffey-like monsters joining next year’s ballot (the most notable newcomers are Vlad Guerrero, Jorge Posada, Manny Ramirez and Pudge Rodriquez), 2017 is perfectly set-up for Bagwell.
We know there’s likely some bitter disappointment this year among fans (especially after early returns looked far more promising) but keep in mind: when and how a player is elected isn’t remotely important; getting elected is. No one ten, five, two years from now will ever remember any of the circumstances around Bagwell’s election. They’ll just know that he’s a Hall of Famer and that’s all that matters.
Interestingly, despite a significant increase in voting percentage (up 15.9% from last year), Bagwell only picked up nine additional votes, with his overall total rising from 306 last year to 315. Obviously, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s decision to purge inactive Hall of Fame voters had a seismic impact on this year’s results.
Prior to this year, once a writer had earned a Hall of Fame vote, they kept that privilege for life. It did not matter if they still covered baseball, or sports – heck, it didn’t matter if they still wrote for a living or even worked, for that matter – that vote was theirs literally until the day they died.
After last year’s election, the BBWAA instituted a minimum requirement to continue voting in for the Hall of Fame; beginning this year, a writer must have written about baseball in some professional capacity within the last ten years. That decision thinned the ranks considerably.
Last year, 549 ballots were returned; that number fell to 440 in 2016.
And we know, thanks to the tireless efforts of Ryan Thibodaux and his F5-addictive Hall of Fame tracker that Bagwell, at least these past two years, fares much better with voters who announce their ballots ahead of the Hall’s official announcement than he does with those that never reveal their ballots.
In 2015, Bagwell stood at 61.8% on public ballots prior to the announcement. His final total fell to 55.7%. Even this year, for all the percentage points he gained, Bagwell still fared considerably better on the pre-announcement public ballots. In fact, his total stood at 77.5% – enough for election – as the Hall of Fame prepared to officially welcome Griffey, Jr. and Piazza to Cooperstown.
What does all this have to do with the purge? Writers are not required to reveal their ballots (last year, 40% of the voters did not), and while there are several reasons why, the most obvious is that many of writers, granted lifelong voting privileges, no longer have an appropriate forum, or a forum at all, to reveal their ballots. They’re now covering other sports or not covering sports at all. And, some… well, some are old and they don’t understand those darn kids with their tweetering. Why, in my day, if we wanted to reveal our ballots, we opened a window and shouted, see?…
Therefore, it would be reasonable to conclude that a large chunk of the purge came from the unpublished block, which, again, has traditionally – for whatever reason – slighted Bagwell (last year, he failed to register 50% with that group; this year, so far, it’s 65%).
Further, along with Bagwell, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling, Edgar Martinez and Mike Mussina – players whose candidacies don’t necessarily hit revered milestones that the old school voters love but resonate with younger and/or more progressive baseball writers who embrace advanced statistics – made significant jumps this year. As did Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, arguably two of the greatest players in the history of baseball who are being kept out of the Hall of Fame because of strong connections to performance enhancing drugs. Again, younger, more progressive voters tend to be far more open-minded when it comes to PEDs, choosing to (rightly, in our opinion) treat the Hall of Fame for the museum it is rather than some exalted place of impeachable morality.
So while the BBWAA takes a lot of heat (some of it, deserved), let’s give them some credit for instituting the purge. And, while we’re biting our tongues and slapping the writers on the back, let’s also commend them for loosening the logjam that has been the Hall of Fame ballot these past several years, another obstacle that has stalled Bagwell’s candidacy.
They’ve now elected nine candidates in three years, the largest three-year stretch since 1954-1956, when they also elected nine. Keep in mind, in the eight years prior to 2014, they elected 10 total, including none in 2013 and just one in 2012, 2010, 2008 and 2006. And last year’s total of four was the most for a single year since 1955.
That’s incredibly significant. Look at last year’s ballot: four were elected and three more (Piazza, Bagwell and Raines) collected at least 40% support. When you look at this year’s results, another six additional holdovers from last year’s ballot (not including Piazza, Bagwell and Raines) received at least 40%.
Altogether, that’s 13 players on the 2015 ballot with a strong Hall of Fame case (based on voting results the past two years). Conceivably – especially if you’re voting for players with PED connections/suspicions – you could 100% think Bagwell was Hall of Fame worthy and still have him ranked 11th on a ten-man ballot.
That the writers voted in five (+ Griffey) over a two-year stretch (plus lost Jack Morris and now Trammell when their eligibility ended) has cleared the way for Bagwell to have his story told without having to compete with a dozen-plus other worthy stories.
In fact, next year, it’s likely Bagwell (and Raines, on his final ballot) will dominate the Hall of Fame discussion, raising even greater awareness and making his inevitable election an even greater certainty.
Yes, 2016 was again disappointing. But making a 20% jump in a single year isn’t easy (though Bagwell darned near pulled it off) and no one should have been expecting it. But now, Jeff Bagwell is poised to take his rightful place in Cooperstown and that, as we said, is tremendous news.