Friday, March 11, 2011

The Royals Hall Of Fame.

One of the (many) things that baseball has on all other sports is its capacity to stimulate arguments. The combination of history – the National League begins its 136th season this year –  and meticulous record-keeping provides a bottomless well of argument starters. Nowhere is this more clearly displayed than the Hall of Fame. I’m sure that somewhere in this favored land, two men are having an argument over who should be inducted into the Football Hall of Fame. It’s just that I’ve never met either of them. Baseball is a little different. Hall of Fame Debate Season pops up on the calendar every December, even if you don’t know exactly what day it’s going to start, sort of like Hanukkah.

The Royals have their own Hall of Fame, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year – the original class of Steve Busby and Amos Otis was inducted in 1986. The Royals’ Hall of Fame ought to stimulate some baseball arguments of its own here in Kansas City, but for the most part it hasn’t. Unlike the National Hall of Fame, which conducts annual elections run by the Baseball Writers Association of America, and which publishes those results every year, the Royals’ Hall of Fame process has been largely opaque for the last quarter-century.

One of the reasons why baseball fans spend so much time arguing about the Hall of Fame is the expectation that those arguments won’t fall on deaf ears. Everyone knows what the score is, and anyone who is sufficiently passionate about their cause can learn who the voters are. In the old days, fans would campaign for their favorite candidates by mailing their arguments to each and every voter. In the modern age, Rich Lederer takes to the internet to stump for Bert Blyleven in 2003. This summer, Rich will probably be in the first row at Blyleven’s induction, if not on stage.

The Royals’ Hall of Fame selection process has never had that aura of inclusiveness, the sense that the fans are a part of the process, even if that part is limited to saying that so-and-so is a moron for not voting for Mark Gubicza. Voters sent in their ballots every so often, but we never knew who the voters were, and we never learned what the exact results were. If they were released publicly, I never saw them.

Every few years, the Royals would hold a press conference to announce that John Mayberry or Jeff Montgomery had been chosen to join the team’s Hall of Fame. That summer, the team would hold an induction ceremony at the ballpark. The new inductee would get his moment in the sun, a large framed portrait of himself at the ballpark, and that was it. I doubt if most Royals fans, even diehards like myself, could name all the players who had been inducted. It was simply never a topic of discussion.

Until now. Two weeks ago, the Royals sent out a press release that unveiled a radically altered balloting process. Most notably, the fans are a part of the process – literally. You can vote right now – the election closes on March 18 at noon – by clicking here. The Royals have even included a running tally of the fan vote; you can see that Kevin Appier is (deservedly) running away with it, while Al Fitzmorris and John Wathan are in a dead heat for second place.

In conjunction with giving fans an opportunity to participate, the Hall of Fame has made the entire process a lot more transparent. From the press release:

“Fans will be joined by other voters, including all living members of the Royals Hall of Fame and select members of the Royals Board of Directors, Kansas City Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, Kansas City electronic media representatives and Royals front office staff, in selecting Royals Hall of Fame inductees. The online fan ballot will account for four votes with two assigned to the highest vote getter and one each to the second and third highest vote getters. Any candidate receiving 75 percent of the vote will be elected and scheduled for induction during the 2011 season. Candidates must receive a minimum of ten percent of the ballots cast to remain eligible for inclusion on the ballot for the next RHOF voting cycle. In even-numbered years, a separate Veterans Committee vote will consider the candidacy of non-player personnel and players who received Royals Hall of Fame Voting (Regular Phase) votes, but are no longer eligible for election in that manner.”

This is pretty straightforward information, but until now I had no idea whether the threshold for election was 75%, 50%, or somewhere in between. I had no idea what minimum number of votes a candidate needed to keep his name on the ballot the next time around. I didn’t even know how often elections were held. And I suspect I’m not the only one.

I had some questions regarding the process, though, so I got on the phone and spoke with Curt Nelson, the Director of the Royals Hall of Fame. (Yes, I know – I conducted actual journalism. Don’t get used to it.) We had a long conversation and he explained the process in detail, which I will now try to explain to you here.

First off, unlike the National Hall of Fame, where anyone who has been a member of the BBWAA for 10 consecutive years gets a ballot, the number of ballots that are cast for the Royals Hall of Fame is capped at exactly 40. Of those 40, four of those ballots are set aside for the fan vote, and the other 36 ballots are given to individuals – members of the media, member of the Royals’ front office, as well as current Royals Hall of Famers. In order to be elected, a player needs to be named on three-quarters of the ballots cast, or 30 out of the 40.

If an elector submits a blank ballot, it will be counted as an official ballot; however if an elector does not submit a ballot at all, then that ballot will not be counted and the denominator will be reduced by one. However, because the number of ballots issued is divisible by four, the way the math work is that if someone forgets to submit a ballot, a player will still need to be named on 30 of the 39 remaining ballots. (If he is named on 29 ballots, 29/39 = 74.4%.) This is a feature, not a bug; there’s really no way to avoid the problem when you cap the number of ballots. In any case, if two people did not turn in ballots, then the number of votes needed for election would go down by one, to 29. If three people didn’t turn in ballots, only 28 votes would be needed.

Capping the ballots at 40 has the effect of giving the fans a fixed percentage (10%) of voting power. I think 10% is a reasonable share – enough to impact a close election, but only enough to impact a close election. The mechanism by which fans can vote is interesting – at least for this year’s election, you have to vote through your Twitter or Facebook account. The advantage here is that each fan can only vote once – in order to stuff the ballot box, you would have to create multiple Twitter or Facebook accounts, which isn’t impossible but is just inconvenient enough to dissuade most would-be ballot stuffers. There are a couple of obvious disadvantages, though. The first is that you need to have a Twitter or Facebook account to vote. The second is that if you have both a Twitter and Facebook account, you can vote twice.

I’m not sure there’s an elegant solution here. The easier the Royals make it to vote, the easier they’ll make it to vote often. When in doubt, I think you have to err on the side of conservatism. It may be unfair that some people won’t be able to vote, but that’s a preferable outcome than having the voting process be hijacked by someone voting 1000 times. If someone has a better solution, I’m sure the Royals would love to hear it, and technology moves so fast that there very well may be a better solution by the next election. But for now, I can’t find fault with the voting mechanism.

I did find fault with one specific part of the press release, however: “The online fan ballot will account for four votes with two assigned to the highest vote getter and one each to the second and third highest vote getters.” This sentence, in fact, prompted my call to Nelson – if I understood it correctly, the highest vote getter in the fan vote would be awarded two votes out of the four ballots assigned to the fans. That’s less than 75%, which meant that if, say, Kevin Appier got 27 of 36 votes (exactly 75%) cast by electors, and won the fan vote, he would wind up with only 29 of 40 ballots overall, or 72.5%, and fall one vote short. The fan vote, in other words, would keep Appier from being inducted – even though he finished in first place.

Fortunately, that is not the case. “The press release was poorly worded on this point”, Nelson reassured me. The way it will work is this: whichever player finishes first in the fan vote will be awarded four votes, i.e. he will appear on all four fan “ballots”. The players who finish second and third in the fan vote will be awarded two votes, i.e. they will each appear on half of the four fan ballots.

Because a player needs three out of four votes just to keep pace with the 75% requirement, in essence, this means that whoever finishes first in the fan vote will get an extra vote to his name. The first-place finisher will therefore need to be named on only 26 of the 36 votes submitted by individual electors, instead of 27. The second- and third-place finishers, however, will need 28 of 36 votes, and everyone else will need 30 of 36 votes.

I think this is a little harsh. While the fans’ #1 selection will be helped by the process, everyone else on the ballot will be hurt. If this system had been in place in 1989, when both Dennis Leonard and Hal McRae were inducted, the fan vote would have had the perverse effect of hurting either Leonard’s or McRae’s chances of induction.

The problem with the fan vote is just a subset of the bigger problem, though, which is that the 36 individual electors are allowed to vote for a maximum of three players. I think that is a restrictive limit, and I am worried that at some point in the future, when there are multiple worthy nominees on the ballot, this limitation will keep a worthy candidate from being inducted.

By comparison, the National Hall of Fame allows electors to submit a ballot with up to 10 names. Even with that generous allowance, some electors run out of space. This January, a total of 3474 votes were cast by 581 voters, an average of 5.98 votes per ballot. Some voters are notoriously conservative with their ballots, voting for one or even no players some years, which means that other voters are ticking the maximum number. Jayson Stark wrote an article this winter about the dilemma of not having enough space on his ballot, a problem that will only worsen as Steroid Era-players become eligible and hang around the ballot, never getting enough votes to be inducted but always getting enough votes to stay eligible. (For some reason, Stark’s original article has been removed from ESPN’s website, but you can read Craig Calcaterra’s take on Stark’s article here.)

But even with an average of six players listed on each ballot, only two players (Blyleven and Roberto Alomar) reached the 75% threshold. That’s a pretty typical performance. Going back to 2000, in the last 12 elections only 20 players have been inducted into the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA, even though the electors have averaged between 5 and 6 votes on their ballot throughout that span. For the Royals Hall of Fame, electors can vote for a maximum of three players, which means the average will be a lot smaller – probably around two players per ballot.

Then remember that the Royals Hall of Fame will only vote on players every other year – the Veterans Committee will be voting in even-numbered years. With the current rules, I fear that we will see a number of elections in which several players get 50-70% of the vote, but because the electors can not agree on which three players are most worthy, no one clears the 75% barrier. Which means we may only see two or three players inducted in a decade.

That might be fine for some people, who believe in a small Hall and would rather err on the side of making worthy players wait for induction than allow an unworthy candidate to sneak in. One of the beauties of the National Hall of Fame process is that it allows voters to decide whether they’re a “Small Hall” or a “Large Hall” kind of person – whether they believe that only the absolute best players in baseball history should be inducted, or whether they believe that the purpose of the Hall is to celebrate the game, and the best way to celebrate the game is to memorialize as many players as possible within reason.

My basic concern with the ballot limitations the Royals have proposed is that it doesn’t allow the Small Hall/Large Hall argument to take place. No one is allowed to vote for more than three players. If you believe in a Small Hall, you have the option of voting for no one. (Although if you don’t vote for Kevin Appier, your definition of a “Small Hall” is a lot smaller than mine.) But if you believe in a Large Hall, you can make a decent case to vote for as many as nine guys on this year’s ballot – Appier, Al Cowens, Mike Macfarlane, Kevin Seitzer, Joe Randa, Bo Jackson, Darrell Porter, Al Fitzmorris, and John Wathan. Unfortunately, you can only vote for three.

So if there’s one change I would make in the voting process, it’s this: allow electors to vote for up to five players on their ballot, instead of three. I would also change the way the fan votes are apportioned slightly, from the current 4-2-2 format to a 4-3-2-1 format, giving three votes to the second-place finisher and one to the fourth-place finisher. That way, the #2 vote-getter would neither be helped nor hurt by the fan vote, an important consideration in a year where there is more than one worthy inductee.

Other aspects of the voting process:

- Any player who receives votes on 10% or more of the ballots (i.e. receives at least 4 votes) will remain on the ballot in the next election.

I think this is reasonable. This year’s ballot is massive, with 18 players listed, but that’s only because it’s the first time they’re running the election under the new rules, and a bunch of players have been grandfathered onto the ballot. I expect at least half of those 18 players to finish with less than 10% of the vote this year, and no more than two or three new players will qualify for each new ballot going forward, so I expect future ballots to contain somewhere between 8 and 12 names.

At the current time, Nelson informed me that the Hall has not decided whether to limit the number of times a player can be on a ballot before his name comes off. (The National Hall of Fame kicks a player off the ballot after 15 years.) No decision needs to be made on this question for some time, of course, but I would favor limiting a player’s eligibility to five elections, meaning over a 10-year span.

- “To be eligible for the first time, players must have been active with the Royals for at least three (3) seasons and accumulated a minimum of 1,500 plate appearances or 150 innings pitched. Candidates shall have ceased to be an active on-field member of the Royals (or for any other Major League organization) in the role for which they are being considered for at least three (3) calendar years preceding the election.”

Waiting until a player (or manager) has been retired for three years before they are eligible is perfectly sensible. But I think the playing time requirements are a little skewed. A position player needs 1500 plate appearances, the equivalent of nearly three seasons of everyday play, to be eligible. A pitcher needs 150 innings, though, which is silly. Yeah, if you’re a reliever you might need close to three seasons to notch 150 innings, but let’s be honest: if you’re a reliever, you ought to need a lot more than three seasons before you should be considered for this kind of honor.

And if you’re a starting pitcher, you can get there in just one season, which is how Brian Anderson is on the ballot. Anderson technically pitched three seasons for the Royals – but he made just seven starts in 2003, when he was acquired down the stretch, and made just six starts in 2005 before the hitters made it clear he was done. In less than a season-and-a-half with the Royals, though, Anderson threw 246 innings. He’s on the ballot, and Scott Service (175 IP) is on the ballot, and Kris Wilson (235 IP) is on the ballot. But both Rey Sanchez and Greg Gagne, both of whom were the starting shortstop for the Royals for three seasons, narrowly miss the cutoff for eligibility.

In Royals history, 46 players have batted at least 1500 times. Ninety-four players, including Scott Elarton, have thrown 150 innings or more. It strikes me as silly that twice as many pitchers as hitters should be eligible for consideration. The solution, I think, is pretty simple: increase the innings requirement from 150 to 300. (Forty-nine Royals have thrown 300+ innings.) I could be persuaded to lower the innings requirement to 250 innings, with the argument that Joakim Soria has thrown 255 innings in his career, and I think we’d all agree that he’s a Royals Hall of Famer at this point. But any threshold that allows Scott Service and Kris Wilson to appear on the ballot is too low.

Also, Nelson told me that while the plan is for managers to be placed on the regular ballot as well, none were placed on the ballot this year. A threshold for managers has also not been determined yet. Using the standard set by position players, where almost three seasons of full-time play is sufficient for making the ballot, I would propose that any manager in Royals history who has managed 450 or more games be placed on the ballot.

That might not seem like a high threshold, but only five managers in Royals history have lasted that long – and two of them are already in the Royals’ Hall. Trey Hillman fell short, as did Buddy Bell. In any case, if the Royals mean to let the fans vote on managers as well, there’s no point in delaying the process any further. If we have the option to vote for Scott Service and Kris Wilson, we ought to have the option to vote for Tony Muser – the winningest Royals manager who’s not in the Hall of Fame! – as well.

- Nelson told me that while the Royals intend to announce the vote totals for the players who win induction into the Hall of Fame, they have not decided yet whether to release the complete vote total or not.

I would suggest that they release the entire vote, on the premise that the more transparent the process is, the more faith fans will have in the process, and the more interest the fans will have in the Hall of Fame as a whole. The one argument I can see against full disclosure is that you wouldn’t want to embarrass a player who got completely shut out of the voting. What I would propose, then, is that all of the players who got less than 10% of the vote would be grouped together, so that no one will know whether Darrell May got three votes or none. There’s no point in hiding it – we’ll know that these players got less than 10% of the vote when they don’t show up on the ballot in two years.

I think it’s absolutely crucial that the players who do qualify for the next ballot have their vote totals published, precisely so fans can track how their favorite players are trending from election to election, can work to politick for players who are on the cusp, etc.

- Nelson stressed that the Royals are still evaluating the system that’s been set up, and the system is not set in stone yet. In particular, the details regarding the Veterans Committee are still being worked out, as the first election won’t be until next year.

What we do know is that the VC will consider all non-field personnel – GM’s, coaches, trainers, George Toma, you name it – as well as players who are no longer on the regular ballot. In that sense, it is very similar to the National Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee – it serves the dual purpose of honoring off-field contributors as well as serving as a second chance for players. I’m leery of the second part of its mandate – the National Hall of Fame would have been better served if they didn’t allow players in through the back door – but it’s hard to criticize the Royals for following the exact blueprint that the National Hall of Fame uses.

The composition of the VC has not been determined yet – it’s likely to be a mix of front office types and the media, and perhaps some ex-players as well. There is a thought towards having individual electors nominate a candidate and present their case to the rest of the electorate, sort of the way the Football Hall of Fame does it, but that’s not set in stone either.

In conclusion, I think the change that’s been made to open up the Royals Hall of Fame selection process is a fantastic one. I’ve probably written well over a million words about the Royals over the last 15 years, and yet I think I’ve written more words about the Royals Hall of Fame in this post than in the past 15 years combined. The ultimate purpose of the Royals Hall of Fame is to remind Royals fans of the history of their franchise, and sparking a debate about which players deserve to be honored serves that purpose. Consider that debate sparked.

But to reiterate, in case anyone associated with the team might be reading this, allow me to make a few simple suggestions that I think will significantly improve the process:

1) Allow electors to submit up to five names on each ballot, instead of just three.

2) Allow the four ballots devoted to the fan vote to list 10 players instead of eight. Instead of awarding four votes to the fans’ #1 vote-getter and two votes each to the #2 and #3 vote-getters, award four votes to the #1 vote-getter, three votes to the #2 vote-getter, two votes to the #3 vote-getter, and one vote to the #4 vote-getter.

3) Increase the innings requirement for ballot eligibility from 150 innings to 300 innings OR 100 games finished (the Joakim Soria clause).

4) Publish the complete vote total for all players who were named on at least 10% of the ballots.

5) Limit players to appearing on a maximum of five ballots; if they are not elected after their fifth ballot, they are removed from the regular voting process, at which point they may be considered by the Veterans Committee.

6) In the next election, allow all managers who managed 450 or more games in a Royals uniform to be eligible for the ballot.

In my next column, I’ll break down the ballot, and let you know which players I would vote for. I’ve been waiting half a lifetime for the chance to vote on who goes into the Royals Hall of Fame. After all these years, even if only as a fan, it will be fun to finally do so.

6 comments:

Nathan said...

With this article, Rany tacitly makes a convincing case that he should be given a ballot for the Royals Hall of Fame. Seriously, is there anyone who would cast a more carefully considered, intelligent, and heartfelt ballot?

starrynight said...

I was looking for Charlie Leabrandt. Don't you think he should be considered? Appier and Sweeney(when he is eligible) should be automatics, after that...

Chris said...

First of all, Rany, THANK YOU for four posts in a week! It truly feels like baseball and spring are coming.

What I was curious about how is Danny Tartabull not on the ballot? Then I see that previous post about Leibrandt also not being on the ballot. How do errors of omission like this happen? Could you talk to the Royals and get an explanation? It boggles the mind that these two players are not even considered but Kris Wilson is. I am glad to see that Bo Jackson, after an initial early lead, has been surpassed by Ape and others. Although he deserves future induction, I believe others such as Tartabull, Ape, and Leibrandt deserve it before him. Bo may have been a national icon, Tartabull's numbers as a Royals baseball player, which the HOF should be about, exceed his. I believe the order should be Appier 1st, Tartabull or Leibrandt 2nd/3rd, Sweeney (when eligible 4th) and then Bo can be considered.

bbxpert said...

Royals continue to tear up Spring Training. Scored 122 runs; nobody lese has scored more than 90. Team OBP is .377. I'll take that any day. Most encouraging sign - Alex Gordon with an OPS of 1.180. May this carry over until about September.

goetzo said...

Great article, Rany. Though I'd suggest a couple of different ideas. Instead of using game finished and innings pitched as the qualifying factor, I'd suggest using games started and games for pitchers. The whole point to this is to select players who were significant contributors for at least three seasons. If you pick reasonable numbers here (say 90 GS or 150 G), you'd have that.

Seth Feldkamp said...

I have both a Twitter and a Facebook account. I want to vote, but I chose not to because "liking" and "following" someone is a much greater commitment than simply voting for someone.

Why not host the poll at kcroyals.com and let us login to vote there? I'm baffled, the only reason I can think why they chose not to do that is the WANT to get their hooks into my facebook and twitter feeds. No thanks.