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Final thoughts on the 2015 Hall of Fame election

With four players selected for the first time since 1955, there's much to discuss.

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About the last thing a batter wanted to see for a long, long time
About the last thing a batter wanted to see for a long, long time
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The Hall of Fame results were announced Tuesday. Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, and Craig Biggio will be heading to Cooperstown at the end of July for induction. This is my last post discussing some of the trends behind the voting, some of which amused me, others caused me alarm.

Voters are casting more votes

With a maximum of ten candidates allowed per ballot, most voters should have been able to select all the candidates they wanted. It's difficult now with a backlog of qualified candidates building up due to small classes between 2008 and 2013, but this is the second consecutive year in which writers placed an average of 8+ players on their ballots:

HOF Voting

There are no guarantees going forward, of course, but voters are beginning to recognize there are more players worthy of selection. The voters missed by a couple of votes selecting four players in 2014, and by doing so in 2015 demonstrated that they can vote in larger classes.

The PED issue isn't going away

It's becoming increasingly clear that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are facing an uphill battle for enshrinement. This was the third year on the ballot for both, and they received almost the same number of votes, with Clemens getting 206 and Bonds 202 votes. Of the 220 ballots that had been made public via Ryan Thibs' Hall of Fame Tracker, this is how voters treated Bonds and Clemens:

Player Votes Other?
Bonds 97 95
Clemens 96 95

That's lockstep voting and demonstrates a very clear line of demarcation for the voters in that players are either in or they aren't. I don't see anything changing this, and I frankly don't have an answer -- it's simply impossible to close a chasm this stark and gaping. I've written it numerous times that I have little doubt they will be enshrined by some future Veterans' Committee (and quite likely along with Rafael Palmeiro), and I'm willing to leave it at that.

For them. I'm not willing to drop it regarding Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell. The line is just as clear with them, since voters who voted for Piazza and Bagwell also voted for Clemens and Bonds in similar patterns. Neither Bagwell nor Piazza were listed in the Mitchell Report, and the only charges of PED use are innuendo and guilt by association. I'm not stating categorically they didn't use PEDs -- Piazza has admitted using androstenedione prior to it being banned. Two articles, one by Bill Madden on Piazza specifically and the other by Bob Nightengale more generally, show how big the divide is.

I understand the issues with Bonds and Clemens but am puzzled by Bagwell and Piazza. It appears the standards are extremely malleable, suggesting there is no standard at all. I suspect Bagwell and Piazza can make it in next year, since there's only one certain candidate (Ken Griffey Jr.) on the ballot, but there will be more players coming (Manny Ramirez and Ivan Rodriguez) who will undergo the same scrutiny. Every voter has the right to make up his or her mind -- I just hope they begin to separate fact from innuendo.

The rise of advanced stats

I wasn't particularly worried about Pedro Martinez being selected, but at the same time I was a little bit concerned. Living in the alternate universe of different statistics like Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) and the like, I sometimes lose track of how far these types of analysis have seeped into the general baseball discussion. Martinez' record is good even on its superficial surface -- his wins (219) are 76th all-time and his .687 win percent is fifth all-time among pitchers with at least 200 starts. But those numbers don't even begin to define his dominance.

Martinez' stretch between 1999 and 2003 was beyond ridiculous when viewed in terms of newer measures. I like using FIP- since it breaks down what a pitcher can control, the number of strikeouts, home runs and walks he gives up, as well as normalizing those numbers by year, league and park. It's not perfect since it rewards pitchers of recent vintage who strike out more batters, but no single number is. These are the best five-year stretches by FIP- in baseball history:

Pitcher From To W L GS CG SHO IP K BB HR FIP- ERA- K/9 BB/9
Pedro Martinez 1999 2003 82 21 135 18 5 931.6 1205 181 51 43 45 11.6 1.7
Pedro Martinez 1998 2002 87 24 139 18 7 978.6 1250 201 70 49 48 11.5 1.8
Pedro Martinez 1997 2001 84 28 140 29 11 1020.6 1316 228 73 50 47 11.6 2.0
Pedro Martinez 2000 2004 75 26 139 14 5 935.5 1119 205 68 54 54 10.8 2.0
Randy Johnson 2000 2004 86 40 157 24 12 1116.6 1468 289 102 54 59 11.8 2.3
Randy Johnson 1998 2002 100 38 173 41 17 1272.7 1746 374 121 56 58 12.3 2.6
Randy Johnson 1997 2001 96 37 167 38 15 1225.7 1703 380 115 56 57 12.5 2.8
Pedro Martinez 1996 2000 90 35 155 32 12 1120.6 1375 273 87 57 54 11.0 2.2
Randy Johnson 1999 2003 87 35 157 32 12 1142.6 1542 315 114 57 58 12.1 2.5
Randy Johnson 1995 1999 79 26 136 33 13 1003.5 1363 323 93 59 58 12.2 2.9
Greg Maddux 1994 1998 87 32 155 39 14 1139.4 890 147 45 59 50 7.0 1.2
Greg Maddux 1993 1997 89 33 157 38 10 1155.4 883 154 46 60 51 6.9 1.2
Pedro Martinez 2001 2005 72 28 141 11 2 935.5 1043 220 70 60 62 10.0 2.1
Randy Johnson 1996 2000 80 31 141 35 13 1037.6 1416 334 104 60 59 12.3 2.9
Randy Johnson 1994 1998 75 23 124 30 15 904.3 1203 325 77 60 61 12.0 3.2

To explain, in his 1999-2003 stretch Martinez had a FIP that was fifty-seven percent better than the American League. At the height of the best offensive era baseball has seen since at least the 1930s (and possibly ever), Martinez put up the best five-year span of pitching dominance, and the top four spans of all-time also belong to him. I first noticed this last year in a different regard when I saw that he had several of the best ERA+ seasons ever and was curious how well this would translate into HOF voting. It appears I had nothing to worry about.

This table shows how many five-year spans pitchers have had with FIP- of 79 or lower, suggesting they were twenty percent or better than their league over a sustained period of time (min 750 IP):

Pitcher Spans
Roger Clemens 19
Randy Johnson 14
Lefty Grove 12
Greg Maddux 11
Curt Schilling 11
Roy Halladay 11
Pedro Martinez 11
Walter Johnson 11
Cy Young 10
Christy Mathewson 9
Rube Waddell 9
Tom Seaver 9
Kevin Brown 9

I show this also to place Curt Schilling and Roy Halladay in context. I'll return some time in the future to new ways to measure pitcher performance other than wins, because that time is upon us. I'll show this table until I'm blue in the face, the career wins leaderboard among active pitchers, led by Tim Hudson at 214 (and probably not many more) and CC Sabathia at 208. And before I leave the subject, Sandy Koufax between 1962-1966 had a 66 FIP-. He's "hurt" by having "only" 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings and playing in very pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium. I'm not diminishing it, just placing it in context (see more of seasons like this in this Google Docs sheet or in this Tableau data viz).

Final Thoughts

I really appreciated Ryan Thibs' tracker and will definitely return to it again next year, and I also give kudos to the 200+ voters who were willing to make their ballots public. I don't pretend to understand them all -- one voter returned a blank ballot, another voted for only Alan Trammell and Lee Smith, and I'm lost as to what point was being made.

This graph shows the number of ballots for each possible number of votes for the publicly released ballots:

2015 HOF Votes per Ballot 2

Voters with nothing to hide will release their ballots, voters who vote for zero or one candidate probably won't, but it's still heartening to see the trend toward more names on a ballot.

Magic numbers also seem to be going away, particularly on offense. Carlos Delgado dropping off the ballot didn't surprise me much, but the complete lack of traction for Gary Sheffield caught me off-guard. Noted baseball analyst Tom Tango had this to say:

Voters aren't just looking at numerical thresholds and selecting those who surpass them, and I consider that a good thing.

The Hall of Fame is a museum that's taken on outsize influence, but it provides a conversation piece for baseball when the temperature won't get above zero in Iowa today. It also facilitates my favorite type of discussion, one that compares and contrasts players, since that's what I've done ever since I held my first baseball card (1966 Topps). I looked at the stats on the back and said to myself "I wonder how that compares to someone else?" It's fun and generates discussion, and there was no shortage of it yesterday. Congratulations to the inductees, and thanks to the voters for recognizing their excellence.

Data from Baseball-Reference. 2015 voter data from Ryan Thibs' HOF Tracker.

Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.