Last week the National Baseball Hall of Fame announced changes to their rules governing the election of players and others via the veterans committee process. This is not the first time those rules have been altered. The rules for election by that committee have changed many, many times over the eight decades since the Hall opened in Cooperstown. It’s more common that the rules change than to stay the same.
Fans of the Detroit Tigers will want to pay attention to this development. This latest change will directly impact at least three former Tigers, all members of the 1984 World Champions.
Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, and Lou Whitaker remain three of the most controversial candidates for the Hall. All three have their camps of support, but none of them can be elected by the baseball writers, for separate reasons.
Morris and Trammell each spent 15 years on the BBWAA ballot, the maximum time one could be considered at the time their names first appeared. Sweet Lou Whitaker fell off the BBWAA ballot after only one year, in one of the most highly criticized decisions by that voting body.
But thankfully for the three former Detroiters, there’s a “second door” to the Hall. The veterans committee is a group of 16 voters who consider players, managers, executives, owners, pioneers, and even umpires who were not elected by the baseball writers. While some of the veterans committee elections have been misguided, most of the recent selections have been palatable. However, the veterans committee has been notoriously stingy in recent years, and because there was no mechanism to have a run-off and because there the makeup of the committee was often changing, it’s seemed that worthy candidates have been getting shortchanged. Things really came to a head when Ron Santo, one of the best third basemen to play the game and clearly one of the greatest third basemen in the National League in the 1960s, waited decades for election, missing time and again, only to be voted in by the veterans committee a year after his death.
Fans are hopeful that the new rules will make it easier for candidates to be judged and for deserving candidates to earn election. Here are the new rules:
1. Four committees have been established to judge different eras. The new committees are Today’s Game (1988-present), Modern Baseball (1970-1987), Golden Days (1950-1969), and Early Baseball (1871-1949). As the Hall pointed out in their press release, there are currently “twice as many players in the Hall of Fame who debuted before 1950 as compared to afterward, and yet there are nearly double the eligible candidates after 1950 than prior.” This is a big problem that makes the Hall of Fame feel like a club of old, dead, white guys. As a consequence, modern players are being judged against standard-bearers who played a much different game. Splitting the committee into four groups (it was previously three groups based on eras), helps the voting body look at players against their peers. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Hall instructs members of the committee to look at the roster of Hall of Famers and keep that in mind. For example, there are currently 22 shortstops in the Hall of Fame, but only six of them played in the last 50 years.
2. Committees votes will be staggered and an emphasis will be placed on recent years. The Early Baseball committee will only vote once per decade, not meeting again until 2020 and again every ten years after that. Today’s Game will vote later this year, and again in 2018, 2021, and 2023. They will always convene three times in ever five year stretch. Same with the Modern Baseball group, which will convene in 2017, 2019, 2021, and 2023. The Golden Days committee will vote every five years starting in 2020. This is a very crucial change. In the most recent past, the committees alternated every three years. This obviously meant the old players had the same number of chances as modern players. Under the new arrangement, the folks at Cooperstown are basically acknowledging that players before 1950 (about when the game was first integrated) have been looked at enough and don’t need to be evaluated very often. I’d be surprised if we see any players from prior to the 1940s inducted again, unless someone builds a big campaign around someone like Wes Ferrell or Lefty O’Doul. In contrast, the genius of the change here is that the Modern Baseball and Today’s Game committees will meet more often which it makes it more likely that momentum may build for one or more candidates. With more elections, the press and fans will have more to talk about with these committees. I’m hopeful that consistency of the voting body will also occur.
3. The one-year waiting period has been waived. It used to be that a player like Alan Trammell, who spent the maximum 15 years on the BBWAA ballot without being elected, would have to wait one year before his name could appear on a veterans committee ballot. Now, that nonsensical rule has been erased. It makes sense for players to have to wait five full seasons between their last season and their first appearance on a baseball writers ballot. Time is needed to properly assess many of those candidates in an historical context. While we know right away that Ken Griffey Jr. is a Hall of Famer, it takes longer to understand how a John Smoltz, for example, fits in.
How will this impact Morris, Trammell, and Whitaker?
Morris was one of the most debated (if not the most debated) candidates in the history of BBWAA voting. Outside the hot-button cases of Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose, probably no other player has had as many words written about his Hall of Fame candidacy than Morris, who was Detroit’s ace for more than a decade and won two games for the Tigers in the 1984 World Series. Later he was an ace for both the Twins and Blue Jays when they also won championships.
Critics cite his high ERA (at 3.90 it would be the highest for any pitcher in the Hall), and also point their fingers at his advanced metric stats, like WAR (wins above replacement), which rate Morris as the 138th best pitcher in baseball history. According to WAR, Morris ranks behind Steve Rogers, Jimmy Key, and Brad Radke, three hurlers no one is advocating for Cooperstown.
But supporters of Morris tout his status as the pre-eminent #1 starter of the 1980s, an ace who completed more games, pitched more innings, and won more games than any other pitcher in that decade. They point to his seven postseason victories, a no-hitter, and the epic 10-inning shutout in Game Seven of the 1991 World Series for the Twins, when he outpitched Smoltz. Morris was the unquestioned ace for three teams that won the Fall Classic: the ’84 Tigers, the ’91 Twins, and the ’92 Blue Jays. Plus, his fans say, Morris won 254 games, the highest total for any pitcher who debuted between 1971 and 1984. He was his era’s big-game pitcher and winner.
Morris nearly earned election via the writers in 2013 when he got 67.7% of the vote (75% is required). In all, Morris received more than 1,800 votes in his years on the ballot, the most of any player not in the Hall. he’s still a polarizing figure, mostly because the statheads don’t like his advanced metrics numbers and some traditionalists don’t think he reached enough “milestones” like 300 wins or 3,000 strikeouts.
Morris will be eligible for the veterans ballot this winter for the first time. No other player not elected by the BBWAA has received as much attention in terms of speculation and votes. If he is judged against his contemporaries, Morris will have a very good chance. No other pitchers who had the bulk of their careers from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s can match his resume. He’ll probably be on the Modern Baseball ballot, since Morris pitched 18 years and 11 of them occurred before 1988. That means we won’t see Morris on a Hall of Fame ballot again until 2017.
The former Detroit shortstop spent 15 years on the writers ballot, but only jumped over 40% once, that was in his final year of eligibility last year. Under the new rules his name should be eligible right away. But where will the Hall put him? Trammell debuted in 1977 and became a regular in 1978. He played ten years in the 1970-87 period and ten years in the 1988-2016 period (retiring after the ’96 season). His best seasons came in the 1980s, and he should be placed there, which means he’d join Morris (and probably Whitaker, but more on him later) in 2017.
The argument against Trammell comes mostly from the traditonalists, who don’t think Trammell accumulated enough counting stats. He fell short of 2,500 hits and 200 home runs. He didn’t hit .300 for his career (though his .285 career mark is higher than that of contemporaries Cal Ripken Jr. and Robin Yount.
In contrast to Morris, the sabermetric crowd loves Tram. His WAR of 71.8 is surpassed by only seven of the 22 Hall of Fame shortstops, and it’s ahead of Phil Rizzuto, Lou Boudreau, and Pee Wee Reese. Notably, it also ranks ahead of Barry Larkin, the 1990s star who is in the Hall of Fame despite (like Trammell) not having reached major statistical milestones.
It’s important to note that the HOF’s screening committee selects the names for the ballot and they have a lot of influence on the process. In the past, the committee has consisted of 8-10 baseball writers and statisticians. Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau has been the screening committee chair for years. To get an idea of what that means, consider that Elias was founded in 1913 and in the ensuing century they’ve only evolved with the times reluctantly. They are slow adopters of technology and new metrics. Even in 2016, the Elias Sports Bureau is most interested in publishing books and providing data to ESPN. Most of the other members of the screening committee are holdovers from a time when batting average, home runs, RBIs, and pitcher wins were the only numbers anyone cared about. They’re the type of people who still use fax machines.
As long as Hirdt and a bunch of old baseball writers are the group deciding who makes the vet committee ballots, we’ll be stuck with mediocre candidates. Trammell and Whitaker can’t be elected if they don’t make the ballot. Until the Hall of Fame changes the screening process and opens it to progressive baseball authors, historians, and statisticians, deserving candidates like the three Tigers and others like Dwight Evans and Bobby Grich, won’t stand a chance.
Most baseball historians believe that Whitaker falling off the ballot after receiving only 15 votes in his first year is the dumbest thing the BBWAA has ever done. I would agree. Hell, former pitcher Dave Stewart, who won 168 games and only started as many as 25 games in a season eight times in his career, got 38 votes in the same election and stuck around for a second look. Sweet Lou got no respect.
The lack of respect for Whitaker from the baseball writers is puzzling because Whitaker’s career numbers measure up very well. His 244 career home runs ranked fourth among second all-time when he retired, and his hits, total bases, RBIs, and slugging percentage also ranked in the top ten among players at his position when he retired. For traditionalists, how about this: only two second basemen, Rogers Hornsby and Joe Morgan, had collected 1,000 runs, 200 homers, 1,000 RBIs, and 1,000 walks before Sweet Lou did it. Since then, only Roberto Alomar has joined that group among players who were primarily second basemen.
The sabermetric community loves Whitaker, pointing to his career WAR that ranks seventh all-time at his position. The six players ahead of Lou are all legends: Hornsby, Morgan, Eddie Collins, Nap Lajoie, Charlie Gehringer, and Rod Carew. Whitaker also won several Gold Glove Awards, Silver Slugger Awards, and he batted leadoff for a world championship team. Add in that he and Trammell set a record by playing 19 seasons together and Whitaker’s credentials are very strong. Yet, the BBWAA shunned Whitaker, for the simple reason that they were ignorant.
Like Trammell and Morris, Whitaker should be placed under review by the Modern Baseball committee, making him eligible in 2017 for the first time. This should be seen as a good thing, since he and Trammell can both be considered at the same time by that voting body, which is only 16 people. Can their case be made strongly enough to persuade a dozen of them to vote YES? I think it can, though it might take more than one try.
What will it mean to these three Tigers that they could all be eligible for the same veterans committee ballot at the same time? Will the voting body be reluctant to vote in three Tigers who played at the same time? If so, it might be Morris who suffers most. It’s hard to think the voters could separate Trammell and Whitaker. The two played more than 1,900 games together in the same uniform, only a few feet from each other on the same diamond. For most part their successes mirrored one another. Whitaker stayed healthier, but Trammell had bigger individual seasons. Lou seemed steady and consistent, but brilliantly naturally talented, while Trammell was a consummate professional, a fundamentally sound player, and a team leader. In spite of their differences, the two are forever linked.
Could Morris, Trammell, and Whitaker all be elected by the same voting body? I find it doubtful. I suspect that we’ll see the double play duo get in together (after a few times on the ballot), while Morris waits and waits. It won’t be fair, but the voters may avoid looking like they are favoring one team from the same era.
Only time will tell what the fate of Morris, Trammell, and Whitaker will be, but let’s hope the suspense doesn’t last too long. It would be nice to see these three Tigers get their deserved inductions while they still have many years to enjoy it.
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