Bill Deane is a former senior research associate at the Baseball Hall of Fame but is probably better known to serious baseball fans as the guy who is brilliant at predicting who is going to make it into the Hall of Fame each year. Over 33 years, Dean has an 80 percent success rate at, as he puts it, "guessing the fate of men who finish within 10% either way of being elected (i.e., who receive between 65-85% of the vote)." That's terrific. Last year, he was one of the few who clearly saw that no one was getting in; he's someone who can be trusted.
So pay attention to what he says is going to happen this year, and be afraid. According to Deane, Greg Maddux will make it into the Hall of Fame. And that's it. In fact, he only has one person (Tom Glavine) within 10 percentage points of the 75 percent threshold. No one else comes even close. Frank Thomas? 63 percent. Craig Biggio? 61 percent. Jack Morris, in his last try? 58 percent. Mike Piazza, at 54 percent, is the only other player to crack 50 percent.
Smart people have recommended lowering the percentage standard to 60 percent, but even if that happened (and it's not going to), that still wouldn't make much difference. At 75 percent, though, the well-publicized overstuffed ballot problems voters are struggling with this year not only aren't going to get fixed, they're going to get worse.
If you're comfortable omitting Mark Mulder from Hall of Fame consideration, we can look at precisely who's going to be on the ballot for the next half-decade from the pool of players who have already officially announced their retirement or are essentially retired. The general consensus, and probably the rooting interest, is that these packed ballot issues will resolve themselves with time, particularly as the voting bloc gets younger and more progressive. (This always seems strange. The only way a voting block gets younger over time is by people dying. Something to cheer for.) But I don't see any way this actually happens.
Here's who will be added onto the ballot over the next five years (each year reflects possible induction date, not when the ballot is first introduced):
2015: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Gary Sheffield, John Smoltz
2016: Ken Griffey Jr., Trevor Hoffman
2017: Jorge Posada, Manny Ramirez, Ivan Rodriguez
2018: Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel (the next endless Jack Morris debate, I'll bet)
2019: Roy Halladay, Todd Helton, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera
Reasonably speaking, the only slam-dunk first-ballot Hall of Famers on that list are Johnson and Martinez in 2015, Griffey in 2016, Jones in 2018 and Rivera in 2019. That doesn't mean there aren't others on there who belong -- I'd vote for Smoltz, Manny, Sheffield, Halladay, and I-Rod, personally, and others have cases -- it just means those are the ones who, traditionally, would have a chance to get in their first year. And in an age where even Roberto Alomar had to wait a year, those "sure things" may not be so sure after all.
Let's go even further. Which potential Hall of Famers might retire in, say, the next five years? Here's a list of current active WAR leaders, and their ages:
Alex Rodriguez (37): 115.7
Albert Pujols (33): 93
Derek Jeter (39): 71.6
Adrian Beltre (34): 70.5
Carlos Beltran (36): 67.5
Ichiro Suzuki (39): 58.5
Chase Utley (34): 58.2
Tim Hudson (37): 57
CC Sabathia (32): 55.4
Miguel Cabrera (30): 54.6
Unless you want to make a strong case for Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman or Jason Giambi in addition to these players, that's probably it for the Hall of Fame-worthy candidates. Of the names listed above, Pujols, Sabathia, Beltre and Cabrera are unlikely to retire in the next five years. A-Rod's going to have the Bonds/Clemens problem, but worse. Jeter's the only first-ballot in, though Ichiro has a chance. The point is: For all the talk about these matters supposedly shaking out in due time, we can actually look into that "due time" now. We can project 10 years out. We're all getting old enough now that time is now longer slipping slipping slipping into the future: It done slipped. It'll be a decade before you know it.
In ten years, of the people whose numbers Deane analyzes, Tim Raines, Mark McGwire, Alan Trammell, Jack Morris, Edgar Martinez and Lee Smith will be off the ballot. Jeff Bagwell will have one year left. Biggio, Piazza, Schilling, Clemens, Bonds and Sosa will have three. Some people might make it in that time: Biggio, Glavine and Thomas seem like the best bets. But that's not assured either. Deane makes a compelling case that as more and more people pour onto the ballot, it's likely to compress voting numbers rather than expand them. In the past, numbers have gone up over time at a rate that allows players to eventually get in. But that's going to happen less often now. (Ask Lee Smith about this.) The complaints about ballot crowding are only an issue for the next decade: After that, it doesn't appear that there will be a backlog of candidates. This is in large part because of the structure of today's game and the way careers play out now (short version: players have less of a peak than they used to, and a steeper decline, the precise formula for producing fewer Hall of Fame careers). In ten years, once the current catalog of players are off the ballot, there won't be a ton of people to vote for. This could be a one-decade problem only.
Which should increase the urgency. The only way it seems like this logjam is going to be resolved would be to vote in one of the PED players, likely Bonds or Clemens, whose credentials are so overwhelming that you have to be a particularly fierce moralist to deny them. Because if they're not in during the next five or six years, it's possible that no one from this time other than the obvious, non-PED-accused, get in. It'll be the smallest Hall of all. We keep talking about history judging this era down the line. But it's not down the line anymore. It's right now.
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