With the announcement a couple of weeks ago of the players who would be appearing on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot this year, thus began one of the baseball offseason’s most frustrating traditions – the endless debate over who does and does not belong in the Hall of Fame (with the recent years’ conversations served with a side of moralizing).
With the latest rules change allowing no more than ten players allowed to be named per ballot, along with the backlog of players still appearing on the ballot due to their first or secondhand association with steroids, this year’s class will fully deserve their enshrinement in Cooperstown. However, this writer can’t help but wonder if even more players should be enshrined in Cooperstown.
Starting with 1936 (the first year players were elected into the Hall of Fame), the chart below shows the share of all plate appearances made each year by a player who would eventually go on to join the Hall of Fame.
Share of Plate Appearances Made by Hall of Famer
For example, in 1936 there were a total of 16,927 plate appearances made by players who would join the Hall of Fame out of 97,893 plate appearances made in all of 1936, representing 17.3% of the total (thanks to the Baseball Reference Play Index for the data needed to create this graph). The share of plate appearances made by a Hall of Famer has not since reached this peak, as it dropped to 16.5% the following year and hasn’t been back above 16% since. The dip represents the early 1940s when many of the best players were called to military service.
A decline of some kind over time is not particularly surprising, but what is rather surprising is the rate of decline. As baseball has expanded its total teams and players over time, it would stand to reason that the number of players who meet Hall of Fame criteria would increase as well. However, that simply hasn’t been the case. In 1936, a fan going to a game could expect to see on average over 3 Hall of Fame batters in the starting lineups. However, by 1977 a fan could only expect to see just over 1 Hall of Fame batters in the starting lineups. Even as more players were added to the game, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America has collectively decided that the Hall of Fame needed to become even more exclusive. In 1967, 12.2% of all plate appearances were made by Hall of Famers; ten years later that percentage declined to 7.1% (Major League Baseball also added six new teams during this time frame).
It makes sense that in recent years the share of plate appearances made by players in the Hall of Fame is negligible; most of those players have not been retired long enough yet to qualify for the Hall of Fame ballot (such as Derek Jeter), or may still be playing (such as Miguel Cabrera). However, in more recent years the steroids scandal has further suppressed the percentage of plate appearances made by Hall of Famers.
In the graph above, where the blue and red lines deviate represents the share of plate appearances made by Hall of Famers if the following steroids-tainted players were inducted:
While it seems likely that Piazza will eventually be elected (and he has the “least guilty” association with steroids of any player on this list), his inclusion is no sure thing given the latest rules changes and the crowded ballot. If these five players were elected, and it seems likely they would have been by now had there been no generational steroids scandal, it seems pretty clear that the share of plate appearances by Hall of Famers would have leveled off, at least in the late 1980s and early 1990s. And as it becomes more accepted as “normal” that 6-7% of plate appearances should be made by Hall of Famers, it seems increasingly likely that fewer batters will be elected going forward.
It’s a reasonable argument that the Hall of Fame should not become the “Hall of Very Good” and that good but not great players should be kept out; however, it seems that our definition of a “good but not great” player has evolved over time to the detriment of players (Alan Trammell, anyone?) who belong in the Hall.