They are baaaaack.
Last winter, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were not elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame for the tenth time, ending their tenure on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot (the primary vehicle for electing players to the Hall of Fame). But that doesn’t mean the end of the bitter debate over whether her suspected steroid use disqualifies her from the anchor. Thanks to a quirk in the calendar, Bonds and Clemens are once again in line for the hall via a backdoor voting method this year – and the results will be announced this Sunday.
The Baseball Hall of Fame has long recognized that worthy players occasionally slip through the cracks of the BBWAA election (whose results are, as usual, announced in January). So each year, she sets up a special committee of 16 Hall of Famers, team leaders, and journalists to hold her own election. Under current rules, there are three of these so-called “era committees,” and the hall rotates through them every three years: This year, the Contemporary Baseball Era Players Committee will consider players whose “greatest contributions to the game” have come since 1980; next year, the Contemporary Baseball Era Non-Player Committee will consider managers, umpires and executives from that era; and in 2024, the Classic Baseball Era Committee will consider players and non-players from before 1980.
Each committee considers eight candidates, and a candidate must receive at least 12 votes — 75 percent of the voters, the same percentage required for a candidate to be elected by the BBWAA — to earn a spot in the hall. Along with Bonds and Clemens, the other six candidates in Sunday’s vote are outfielder Albert Belle, first baseman Don Mattingly, first baseman Fred McGriff, outfielder Dale Murphy, first baseman Rafael Palmeiro and starting pitcher Curt Schilling.
But unfortunately for those hoping to see a crowded stage at July’s induction ceremony, there’s a good chance the Contemporary Baseball Era Players Committee will be elected none this player. That’s because the candidates with the strongest statistical cases for the Hall of Fame, by both traditional and advanced metrics, are also those with the most extracurricular baggage.
There are almost unlimited ways to quantify (try to) a player’s statistical fall for the Hall of Fame, but two of the most useful are Bill James’s Hall of Fame Monitor and Jay Jaffe’s JAWS. Hall of Fame Monitor assigns points to a player based on various milestones that have traditionally been used to assess Hall of Fame worthiness, such as: It’s good shorthand for how attractive a player is to the kind of old-school voters that tend to crowd era committees. JAWS, on the other hand, is the average of a player’s career winnings over replacement (Baseball-Reference.com version) and his WAR over the seven best years of his career; for us sabermetric types, it’s a better measure of who actually deserves to be in the arena.
As you can see in the table above, Bonds and Clemens both score off the charts – no surprise since on purely statistical basis they are arguably the best positional player and starting pitcher in baseball history. But its ties to performance-enhancing drugs are likely a deal-breaker for some voters. At least two of the committee’s members, Jack Morris and Ryne Sandberg, have said in years past that steroid users shouldn’t be in the hall. And a third, White Sox manager Ken Williams, said in 2008 that he would not sign any player he suspected of doping. It’s possible they’ve softened their stance since then, but if not, Bonds and Clemens could only afford an extra “no” from the other 13 voters.
Hall of Fame Monitor and JAWS are both pretty high on Palmeiro and Schilling, but they have their own issues. We know for a fact that Palmeiro was on steroids – he actually failed a drug test, which neither Bonds nor Clemens ever did. It’s hard to see anyone voting for Palmeiro but not Bonds or Clemens when the latter pair’s stats are so much better. And Schilling has burned his bridges with BBWAA voters with his far-right political views, including support for the January 6 rioters and lynching journalists (who happen to make up the members of the BBWAA!). It is possible, however, that committee voters are more willing to overlook Schilling’s policies.
That leaves Belle, Mattingly, McGriff and Murphy – at least three of whom have pristine reputations as “nice guys,” but none of them have terribly strong statistical cases for the hall. That’s never stopped Era Committee voters, though (look at you, Harold Baines), and if they choose one from that group, it’ll likely be McGriff. Belle, Mattingly, and Murphy have all been in the Era committee elections before and never received more than a handful of votes, nor did they ever get more than 30 percent of the vote in the BBWAA elections. On the other hand, McGriff is standing before the era committees for the first time and received 40 percent of the vote in his last BBWAA election. McGriff also has personal ties to four members of the committee, including his longtime Atlanta Braves teammates Chipper Jones and Greg Maddux, and he could benefit from the contrast with Bonds and Clemens as one of the few stars of the 1990s believed to have been have played clean. Voters could also choose to round his 493 career home runs to 500 (a commonly cited threshold in Hall of Fame debates), as he likely would have gotten there had the 1994 season not been cut short by a strike.
But the most likely outcome on Sunday could be a shutout, and the reason is simple: cold, hard math. The committee does not independently vote up or down for each player; Instead, each voter can choose a maximum of only three candidates. That is, the eight candidates compete for a pool of at most 48 votes (16 voters times three votes). This voting system makes it very difficult to achieve a 75 percent supermajority — at least in a vacuum.
Let’s assume for a minute that every player is equally qualified and has an equal 3-in-8 chance of voting a given voter (3-in-8 because a voter has three votes and eight players to choose from). According to simulations by FanGraphs, each player would have less than a 1 percent chance of being chosen! Of course, not every player is equally qualified, but FanGraphs also calculated that even if two or four players stand out from the rest, it’s still basically a coin toss if they get chosen.
The result is that committee members are essentially forced to coordinate their votes if they are to be sure of producing an award winner. That’s perfectly legitimate, but this year it might be easier said than done. This is not a vote with an apparent consensus choice. Some members of the committee might strongly support Bonds and Clemens, but the anti-steroid block would be just as adamantly opposed. Others might support Schilling, but Liberal committee members couldn’t stand him. Jones and Maddux could make their case for McGriff, but saber metricians (or small hall purists) on the committee might balk. The result could be no consensus and everyone chooses their conscience – and that would likely mean no one would be voted into the Hall of Fame on Sunday.