For $100,000, I couldn't tell you why baseball writers vote some players into baseball's Hall of Fame and not others. Year after year, the vote is completely incoherent, and judging by early returns, it will be so again this year. A bit less than a fifth of this year's ballots have been published in advance of next Tuesday's announcement of the annual election results. According to a count made by ESPN's Keith Law, it looks like the great reliever Goose Gossage will be the only player accepting a plaque in Cooperstown this summer. Starting pitcher Bert Blyleven and outfielders Jim Rice and Andre Dawson all have decent chances of meeting the required 75% threshold required for election. No one else, from Mark McGwire to Chuck Knoblauch, looks to be close.
The shame of this isn't who is at the top of the balloting: I would vote for everyone save Rice, who was a great player, but no better than Moises Alou. Rather, the shame is that the best players on the ballot are nowhere near the top of the list. The voting has always been a bit dodgy, but the continued inability of veteran baseball writers to identify the best players in the sport is becoming slightly embarrassing.
As regular readers know, I think Tim Raines is hugely overqualified for the Hall of Fame. He was the best player in the National League for more than half a decade; enjoyed a long career in which he reached base more often than several 3,000-hit men; was a strong defender; ranks fifth in career stolen bases, and played for great teams. You don't have to think he was a better player than Manny Ramirez, as I do, to see that he's obviously a Hall of Famer. Whatever the merits of the cases for Dawson and Rice, Raines was clearly better than either, and yet according to Law's tabulations, he's drawing just two-thirds as much support.
Even worse, though, is the bewildering lack of support for longtime Detroit shortstop Alan Trammell, a truly great player who got 13.4% of the vote last year and doesn't look to be doing much better this year. In brief: Trammell was the best player on the 1984 Tigers, one of the greatest teams of all time, and during his long prime he had many years in which he hit as well as David Wright usually does, all while playing outstanding defense. A World Series MVP and four-time Gold Glove award winner, he was one of the best hitters in the American League for many years at a time when it was difficult to find even a passable hitter capable of playing shortstop.
When you take base running into account, Trammell was at least as good a hitter in his five best seasons as Rice was in his five best ó and he was, again, a shortstop, and a good one, rather than a left fielder and designated hitter. He played for a consistently excellent team that, at its best, had what was to that point arguably the greatest single season in baseball history.
Trammell will likely fall off the ballot sooner or later, and Rice will one day make the Hall of Fame based on his reputation as a clutch hitter. Consider this, though: In 1987, Trammell's Tigers entered September with a one-game lead over Toronto. Down by a game with three left in the season, they ended up winning the division by sweeping Toronto. Trammell, the former World Series MVP, hit .417 AVG/.490 OBA/.677 SLG from September 1 onward. Rice never did anything like that. Trammell hit .333 in the playoffs and World Series; Rice hit .225.
That hundreds of thousands of ponderous words have been written about the candidacy of one player, while the other is essentially ignored, is an even more damning indictment of the basic frivolousness of Hall of Fame voting, more so than the ridiculous fact that Rice has something like four times Trammell's support.
An inability to discern that Trammell was a better baseball player than Rice is something like an inability to discern that Derek Jeter is better than Bobby Abreu. To point this out is not to argue that the Hall of Fame voting should be reduced to an exercise in statistical analysis, or that a player's character and reputation should carry no weight. It is simply to note that when voters prove themselves so incapable of making basic judgments about how good various players were, they lose credibility.
Perhaps the electorate will surprise when the real vote totals are announced next week and actually reward Raines and Trammell in proportion to their greatness. More likely, though, those totals will serve as yet more proof that voters care more about what they think happened in the past than what actually did happen, more about renown than achievement, and more about arbitrary numbers such as 3,000, than about success on the field. This will be bad for the Hall of Fame, and bad for baseball. It will also be what we've come to expect.