A lot could and should be improved about how major leaguers are elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. No matter the criticisms of Baseball Writers' Association of America voters, reasonable or ridiculous, the group does a sound job every year of electing the right players. To a point.
If anything, the BBWAA is too conservative. It always has been. The voters should elect more players than they do. (Full disclosure: I am a BBWAA member, but I have yet to vote for the Hall of Fame.)
Take what happened Tuesday, when Hall of Fame president Josh Rawitch announced that Scott Rolen was the only player to make the cut this year. The seven-time All-Star and eight-time Gold Glove winner reached the 75-percent threshold with just four votes to spare. Rolen — a third baseman with the Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and Toronto Blue Jays from 1996 to 2012 — will be inducted into Cooperstown on July 23 alongside Fred McGriff, who was elected in December by a veteran's committee.
It sure would have made for a boring show on the MLB Network had no one been elected. It’s happened before and likely will again.
There were 389 BBWAA voters this year, and no matter who has been in the electorate, the voting members have never all thought exactly alike. Only Mariano Rivera has ever been elected unanimously. Should not Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Henry Aaron also have been elected by the entire body? Of course. It's just not how the BBWAA voters think.
No matter the different brains at work, there's often a kind of hive-mind thirst for efficiency, and conservatism, about how the BBWAA should appear to the rest of the world. It operates with two axioms:
"We can't vote too many players in!”
“We can't put them in by too many votes, either!”
Then again, only hardcore nerds (not using the term pejoratively) pay attention to things like the 75-percent threshold. Are you a Hall of Famer, or not? In 2018, Rolen got about 10% of the vote his first year on the ballot in part because there were so many other deserving players up for election. Four others got in that year — Chipper Jones, Vladimir Guerrero, Jim Thome and Trevor Hoffman. Rolen makes for the fifth additional player from 2018 to eventually make it.
The fact that it took so long for Rolen to be elected wasn't just a matter of a log jam or of the voting rules and procedures. It took a while for baseball experts to figure out he belonged. Call it being conservative — or feeling uptight about looking too permissive, or not fully informed — but Rolen's big improvement over the past five years was a matter of delayed Cooperstown justice.
Rolen objectively is a Hall of Famer. He’s one of the 10 or so best third basemen of all time. He's one of the 100 or 110 best players at any position of all time. There are 341 members of the Hall of Fame. So, in getting back to being a bit of an analytical nerd, Rolen is among the top one-third, or certainly middle two-thirds, of the best players ever. It's not a close call. No standards have been lowered.
You can't say that about some of the players that various veterans committees have elected in the recent or long past. Nobody who thinks there are too many players in Cooperstown can credulously complain that, if that is true, it's because of the BBWAA.
The slog continues for other worthy players on the ballot. Colorado Rockies slugger Todd Helton, whose 72.2% was 11 votes short, would seem to be in good shape for next time. Why not now? Can't tell you. Billy Wagner, one of the great closers of all time, zoomed up to 68.1%. Not enough votes right now, but he's trending like he'll get there. Maybe next year.
Atlanta Braves outfielder Andruw Jones, one of the best defensive players ever at any position, also seems to be trending toward Cooperstown with 58.1% of the vote. He'll have to wait. Same for Carlos Beltrán, who finished with the same career WAR at Baseball-Reference as Rolen but didn't break 47% in his first year on the ballot. He probably got dinged for helping to orchestrate the Astros cheating scandal when he was a coach with Houston in 2017, but his credentials as a player are good enough. Or someday will be. Probably.
There are numerous other examples of players who the BBWAA just missed entirely. Lou Whitaker. Bobby Grich. Alan Trammell. Ron Santo. Kenny Lofton. Trammell and Santo later made it to the Hall by a veteran's committee, but the others — who knows? It's an imperfect, probably incomplete group and system.
Just know this: When they do get around to electing someone to Cooperstown, that person almost certainly deserves it by a significant margin.