A Bert Blyleven near miss may have cost Jack Morris a shot at the baseball Hall of Fame

Jon Heyman has arguably been the most prominent advocate for Jack Morris’ Hall of Fame candidacy among higher-profile baseball writers. Heyman currently works for CBSSports.com and also appears on MLB Network. After Morris did not get 75% of the vote in this year’s election, Heyman tweeted the following:

Time to start pro Jack Morris hall campaign. Guy can’t get break. All-AL SP in dh era hurt by roid guys and ‘net negativity

Heyman has been the de facto campaign manager for Morris over the last few years anyway, so this tweet wasn’t particularly surprising. There is some angst for Morris backers, as he will only be the ballot for one more year. If he isn’t elected in 2014, he will have to wait and hope for the mercy of the Veterans Committee.

I wanted to point out one piece of bad luck that may have really hurt Morris’ chances. This is going to be a little bit involved, and is somewhat speculative. Nevertheless, here goes…

Bill James, from The Politics of Glory:

Writers tend to balance their ballots. A writer, making out a Hall of Fame ballot, normally looks to include one or two starting pitchers, a reliever maybe, a middle infielder or two, a couple of slugging outfielders, a first baseman or third baseman, a catcher. He looks for the best in each little pocket.

This natural tendency of the BBWAA voters has the effect of occasionally causing a “cratering” of certain players’ vote totals. James pointed to Jim Bunning as a good example of this. Bunning received 74.4% of the vote in 1988, just missing election, but in 1989 Gaylord Perry and Ferguson Jenkins appeared on the ballot, and Bunning’s support declined. He would have to wait to be elected by the Veterans Committee. (Something similar also happened to Luis Tiant.)

A more recent, if less dramatic, example of writers “choosing” between players at the same position involved Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage. Both were relievers, and both drew considerable support from the electorate. However, Sutter appeared on the ballot first (in 1994), six years before Gossage became eligible. In Gossage’s first year of eligibility, the two actually drew similar vote totals (192 for Sutter, 166 for Gossage).

That pattern continued for a few years, then Gossage’s totals began to stall. It appeared the writers were struggling to separate the candidacies of the two relievers, and collectively needed to focus on just one of them. Sutter, with more history on the ballot, continued to draw more votes and was finally elected in 2006, in his thirteenth year of eligibility.

With Sutter out of the way, that cleared the decks for Gossage, who then became the leading candidate among relievers. Gossage had to wait one “extra” year when Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. appeared on the ballot, but he was eventually elected in 2008.

By 2008, Bert Blyleven was receiving 61.8% of the vote from the BBWAA and was the top candidate among starting pitchers for enshrinement. It had been a long journey up the ballot for Blyleven, but he was getting closer. In 2009 he finished fourth overall, receiving 62.7% of the vote.

By that time, the next-most-supported pitcher was Jack Morris. This had been the case since Jim Kaat’s final year on the ballot in 2003. In 2009, Morris got 44% of the vote.

In 2010, Blyleven came very, very close to being elected. He was only five votes short of election. Morris moved up to 52.3% of the vote, fourth overall, third among those not elected (Andre Dawson got the nod that year).

Blyleven finally made it in 2011, gaining election. And Morris?

Well, he stalled a bit, at 53.5%. Blyleven’s breakthrough probably cost Morris some momentum, as writers who might have been inclined to vote for just one starting pitcher may have chosen to select Blyleven, then in his fourteenth year on the ballot and on the precipice.

With Blyleven finally off the ballot, Morris became the top choice among starting pitchers on the ballot. He received 66.7% of the vote in 2012, a sizable improvement from 2011.

However, in 2013, his fourteenth year on the ballot, he stalled again, just like practically all the other ballot holdovers, as the writers tried (and seemingly failed) to come to grips with “the steroid era”. Morris now has one more shot, and it won’t be easy for him to gain election. He has to have a historically large jump in support despite being joined on the ballot by several starting pitchers with much better credentials (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Mike Mussina).

Here is where I speculate…

I think Blyleven just missing out in 2010 really hurt Morris’ chances. If Blyleven had been elected that year, it would have given Morris a clear field, in terms of viable starting pitching candidates.

Instead of only getting 53.5% of the vote in 2011, I think it’s likely Morris would have had vote totals similar to what he eventually got in 2012 — and if he had been sitting at 66.7% after 2011, then I think he would have had a very good chance of joining Barry Larkin in Cooperstown in 2012.

As I stated earlier, Blyleven missed election in 2010 by only five votes.

There were writers who voted for Blyleven and Morris that year. There were some who obviously just voted for Blyleven (and some who voted for neither).

There were a few, though, who voted for Morris and not Blyleven, despite Blyleven having demonstrably superior statistical credentials in both standard and sabermetric pitching categories (including wins, ERA, strikeouts, shutouts, innings pitched, ERA+, and WHIP). Blyleven also had a better overall postseason record than Morris, the latter’s outstanding performance in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series notwithstanding.

I wonder if any of those writers who voted for Morris but not Blyleven have ever considered the possibility that by not voting for Blyleven in 2010, they may have cost Morris a later shot at election.

One of those writers, by the way, was Jon Heyman

Next year’s Hall of Fame disaster scenario: a party in Cooperstown with no guests of honor

Today, Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice were elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the former with near unanimity and the latter with a fair share of controversy.  With their election, along with the earlier selection of Joe Gordon by the Veterans Committee, there will now be 289 members of the Hall, 201 of whom were elected based on their playing careers.  The wait for Hall of Fame player #202 may be a while…

First of all, there won’t be any players elected next year by the Veterans Committee, because the committee won’t vote again on players eligible for selection by the VC until 2010 (and that’s just for post-World War II eligibles; the pre-World War II players won’t be up for consideration again until 2013).  That means that the only players who can be elected next year will be those on the BBWAA ballot.  The players on this year’s ballot who will return to the ballot next year (with this year’s voting percentage in parenthesis):

Andre Dawson (67.0%); Bert Blyleven (62.7%); Lee Smith (44.5%); Jack Morris (44.0%); Tim Raines (22.6%); Mark McGwire (21.9%); Alan Trammell (17.4%); Dave Parker (15.0%); Don Mattingly (11.9%); Dale Murphy (11.5%); Harold Baines (5.9%)

Now, here is a list of players who next year will be eligible for the BBWAA ballot for the first time and are likely to be on the list (courtesy of the Hall of Fame website):

Roberto Alomar, Kevin Appier, Andy Ashby, Ellis Burks, Dave Burba, Andres Galarraga, Pat Hentgen, Mike Jackson, Eric Karros, Ray Lankford, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff, Mark McLemore, Shane Reynolds, David Segui, Robin Ventura, Fernando Vina, Todd Zeile

There are several serious candidates for the Hall on the list on newly-eligibles, most prominently Roberto Alomar, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez, and Fred McGriff.  I could also see some support (greater than 5% of the vote, at least) for Andres Galarraga and Robin Ventura.  However, none of those players is a “lock”.  I think the best candidate of the group is probably Alomar, and I would expect him to get a lot of votes — but I would be surprised if he received more than, say, 60% in his debut on the ballot.

That means that if anyone is to be elected, it has to be someone from the “holdover” group, and I think the only one of those players with a shot is Dawson.  He’s going to get in eventually, but I’m not sure if his support will jump from 67% to 75%+ in one year, especially since he’s not that close to his final year of eligibility, as was the case with Rice this year (who managed a 4% increase in his vote total from last year to this year).  At 63% of the vote, and with his support essentially unchanged from last year, Blyleven’s chances of being elected next year are remote.

Compounding the chances for the holdovers and the newly-eligible players is that there is a surplus of serious-but-not-automatic candidates who will almost certainly split up the vote.  Over the last two elections, an average BBWAA ballot has listed 5.35 names (last year) and 5.38 names (this year), historically low vote totals.  I don’t see that changing much, and so the “competition” for votes (a ludicrous concept, but unfortunately applicable in this situation) will likely depress individual vote totals across the board.  I think the only player with a shot next year is Dawson (unless I am seriously underestimating Alomar’s chances), and I don’t know if Dawson can make that big a leap in the voting.  I tend to think he won’t.

The last time the BBWAA failed to elect anyone was 1996 (Phil Niekro came closest; he was elected the following year).  However, in 1996 the Veterans Committee elected Jim Bunning, along with Negro Leagues star Bill Foster.  Earl Weaver and Ned Hanlon were also elected that year (as managers), so the traditional ceremony at Cooperstown had two living honorees (Bunning and Weaver).  At least one player has been elected by either the writers or the VC every year since 1960.

The committee that selects Hall of Fame managers, umpires, and executives does vote next year.  I think there will be some pressure on that committee to select somebody (Whitey Herzog?  Doug Harvey?) because that’s probably the avenue most likely to produce an enshrinee in 2009.  It won’t result in a player being elected, but it would be better than nothing.  Induction weekend is a boon to the local economy.  No enshrinee = no boon.

Cooperstown has already lost the annual Hall of Fame Game, which has been discontinued.  It may be time for the folks at the Hall to think of another attraction for next year (an Old-Timer’s game?) in case  its showcase event has no one to showcase.