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Waiting for that call from the Hall

It’s that time of the year again. This afternoon at 2:00, the Hall of Fame will announce its inductees for 2011. And even though the election process has its share of detractors and valid criticisms, the Hall of Fame is still a near mythological institution and easily the most important of its kind in sports. For whatever reasons, I still care about who is and is not elected.

I’m sure all of our interest in HOF voting rose last year when the eminently qualified Barry Larkin first appeared on the ballot. Larkin won 51.6% of the votes – a pretty solid start. I think that puts him on track to gain votes this year and win induction in the near future. But that’s just my amateur opinion. In the Enquirer earlier this week, John Erardi reported that voting analyst Bill Deane does not expect such a rise for Larkin and predicts a mere 53% of the vote for Barry. The Hardball Times’ Chris Jaffe disagrees and predicts Larkin to collect 61% of the vote.

Doing my best to put my homerism aside, I agree more with Jaffe than Deane. For one, the ballot is not and will not be crowded with historically strong candidates this or next year (Bernie Williams will be the only player of note to debut next year, and I don’t see him getting anything near 50% of the votes). More importantly, Larkin is not facing any serious competition at Shortstop (Alan Trammell has been criminally underrated by the voters, but that’s not my battle). And assuming Alomar gets in this year, there won’t be another credible Secondbaseman on the ballot until Craig Biggio in 2013. Meanwhile, there will be plenty of competition among Firstbasemen and Outfielders, who unlike Larkin face questions about the inflated offensive era and steroids.

Second, Larkin’s at a sweet spot in his candidacy – a slight majority of writers have voted for him, but there are still plenty of reasonable writers to be won over. In 2008 Jaffe looked at the "over the top" effect by reviewing the gains for each group of players divided by their HOF vote percentages. He found that those candidates who had won between 50% and 55% of the vote in the prior year gained an average of 5.87%. As a group, that’s significantly better than those that received less than half the votes. Jaffe concluded that 50% is the threshold which almost always predicts future induction. Deane, on the other hand, seems to be overly pessimistic about the likelihood of winning new votes. He goes so far as to say that Blyleven, who fell just four votes shy out of over 500 last year, will not reach the magic number because "'[t]here's more growth potential in the second year' for Alomar than for Blyleven in his 14th year." That may be true, but with so few extra votes necessary I find it hard to believe that Blyleven won't make it. Back to Larkin, I think he should be able to capture a higher share of the vote this year because writers who did not vote for him last year, seeing now that a slight majority of their peers disagreed, will take a closer look at Larkin's record.

Finally, the ballots published online thus far show that Larkin is well ahead of last year's pace. Repoz's vote gathering machine over at Baseball Think Factory has Larkin receiving 67% of the vote, counting 132 full published ballots out of roughly 500 total (I felt a little better about this on Monday, when he was at 69%. Stupid ESPN voters.). Last year, Repoz's total was pretty close what Larkin received - 54.7% of the published votes versus 51.6% actual. Anything over 60% would be good news for Larkin.

Still, there are reasons to be concerned. For one, the Hall of Fame discussions have been so thoroughly dominated by steroids that I wonder how many voters have actually taken the time to seriously assess Larkin’s case. Larkin doesn’t have Tony Gwynn’s batting average, Ozzie Smith’s defense, or some other skill that screams "Hall of Fame" to the casual fan. But by doing everything well, and as a Shortstop, he was an incredibly valuable player. Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe summarizes what I hope a lot of other writers are now thinking: Larkin was an acquired taste for me because he is not the kind of player you automatically ascribe Hall of Fame status to. Some voters believe that if you have to think about it, the player isn't worthy. But we owe it to the process to think about it. Any voter not willing to consider all the facts shouldn't vote.

But my main concern is ballot-crowding in 2013 and beyond. Writers may vote for up to ten candidates in each election, but the average ballot checks about six candidates. This could be a problem in a couple of years. In 2013, we will see Barry Bonds, Mike Piazza, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Curt Schilling, and Craig Biggio debut. Mostly because of steroids, I don’t see any of them as slum dunks for first-ballot induction. But they will all get a significant share of the vote. It gets even more crowded in 2014, when Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Jeff Kent, and Mike Mussina will appear on the ballot for the first time. Larkin needs to make a push this and next year to get to 75%. After that, it will be more difficult to get new votes simply because of the strength of the rest of the ballot.

Oh yeah, other than Larkin there’s a few other characters on this year's ballot. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • The likely inductees are Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar. Last year they both were incredibly close to getting in with 74.2% and 73.7%, respectively. I think Alomar will see gains from voters who did not want to vote for a spitter the first time around and should cruise in. Blyleven is getting closer to tapping out his potential voters, but he’s made enough strides over the years that I think he’ll gain the last few votes necessary. Without any strong first-time candidates on this ballot, these two stand an especially good chance. Only crazy Jim Bunning crossed the 70% threshold and did not gain induction through the writers (the Veteran’s Committee later did the honors). And this happened only because the year after he crossed 70% a trio of strong pitchers debuted on the ballot – Gaylord Perry, and Fergie Jenkins, and Jim Kaat – along with two other first-ballot locks (Bench and Yaz).

    It's a pointless game of "what if," but had Blyleven and Alomar gained induction last year it would've been interesting to see if Larkin could have made the final leap this year. It would've been a huge jump. I don't know if there's any player that went from ~50% to 75%+ in one year. But the writers are also known for trying to agree on at least one guy. They haven't pitched a shutout since 1996, when Phil Niekro topped the balloting with 68%.
  • The other returnees are, in order of their vote totals from last year: Jack Morris, Lee Smith, Edgar Martinez, Tim Raines, Mark McGwire, Alan Trammell, Fred McGriff, Don Mattingly, Dave Parker, and Dale Murphy, and Harold Baines. Morris received a few more votes than Larkin last year, with 52.3%. Not that they're directly competing for votes, but I expect Larkin to pass Morris this year because Morris has been around on the ballot for over a decade. Morris also seems to be a litmus test on pitcher clutchiness, the kind of guy people have a strong opinion about one way or the other.

    Aside from Lee Smith, the others fell under 40%. A tip of the hat to Dave Parker, who was the Reds first successful free agent acquisition, the team’s primary run producer in the mid-‘80s, and the trade bait for Jose Rijo. Parker appears for the final time on the Hall of Fame ballot.
  • The main debuts in this year’s ballot are Jeff Bagwell, Rafael Palmeiro, Kevin Brown, and Larry Walker. All are credible candidates, Bagwell in particular. But the whiff of steroids will depress the vote totals for at least the first three (which is completely unfair to Bagwell, by the way), and it will take some time for voters to assess how much Coors Field affected Walker’s career. Poz’s take on these guys, as well as the rest of the ballot, is of course a terrific reference.