Apologists vs. Deniers: What voting -- or not voting -- for Bonds and Clemens says about you

BySam Miller ESPN logo
Wednesday, January 17, 2018

We're all aware we live in a divisive time and a divided culture. Folks with the best intentions have split themselves into two tribes, unable to agree not just on common values but common facts.

Of course, I'm talking about the Hall of Fame voting, where close to half the electorate believes the Hall should deny entries to perhaps the greatest hitter and the greatest pitcher in baseball history, and where the other half is willing to apologize for blatant, distortive corruption.

In truth, though, the Bonds/Clemens question might be among the least important. Bonds and Clemens will both be remembered, in all their complicated dominance, for centuries, no matter what happens. As Bill James once wrote of the superest superstars, "the Hall of Fame has lost the capacity to honor Carl Yastrzemski. It can only insult him." Similarly, you can't really honor Bonds and Clemens by inducting them into a group of players literally half as good as they were; you can only insult them by keeping them out. I wouldn't choose to do so, if I had the vote, but they did some bad stuff and it's an understandable position. So there we are.

More important are those players for whom the Hall can honor, the ones whose status in the historical record really does depend on 400 or so baseball writers. Should Omar Vizquel be passed down to our great-grandchildren? Should Scott Rolen? Should closers, should sluggers whose reputations have been tarnished only by innuendo, should designated hitters? In key ways, these questions also seem to come down to that crucial party-line split. You can surmise a lot about a voter based on whether they voted for Bonds and Clemens or didn't. We'll call these parties the Apologists and the Deniers.

Using Ryan Thibodaux's invaluable Hall of Fame Ballot Tracker-- which has already collected more than 40 percent of ballots cast this year, and published more than 70 percent of last year's -- we can dig into the more nuanced splits suggested by that central one. (Caveat: We're drawing these conclusions only from public ballots, a self-selecting group.)

If You Didn't Vote For Bonds and Clemens ...

1. You really like closers.

Over the past three years, three closers have been credible candidates on at least one ballot: Lee Smith, who last year got 33 percent of the vote in his 15th (and final) year of eligibility; Billy Wagner, who has drawn around 10 percent "ayes" in each of his three years on the ballot; and Trevor Hoffman, who is hovering just above 75 percent (the threshold for entry) in his third year on the ballot.

In all three cases, the Deniers have been the stronger supporters. Smith got 40 percent support from these voters in his final two seasons, compared to just 25 percent from the Apologists. For Wagner, the split has been about 6 percent from Apologists to 15 percent from Deniers; Wagner quite possibly would have fallen off the ballot, shy of 5 percent, in his first year on the ballot if the electorate were only Apologists.

But Hoffman would be the most consequential collateral here. In 2016, Hoffman got 75.1 percent of the Denier vote, which might have put him in the Hall had it not been for the more ambivalent (55 percent) Apologists. The latter group has been steadily coming around on Hoffman, reaching 67 percent last year and 72 percent of published ballots this year, but they remain below the threshold -- and they're a growing share of the electorate. If Hoffman doesn't make it this year, it will again be because he was left off so many Bonds/Clemens ballots.

2. You like the anti-Bonds candidates.

Other than closers and players tarnished by PED accusations, the two biggest disagreements involve Jeff Kent and Omar Vizquel, both of whom were teammates of Bonds during his most controversial seasons, and both of whom fall short of Hall of Fame WAR standards.

  • Kent, 2016-2018: 11 percent among Apologists, 23 percent among Deniers
  • Vizquel, first ballot: 18 percent among Apologists, 50 percent among Deniers

For Kent, his status as Bonds' frenemy seems almost to be part of his appeal to Denier voters; he's not just not Bonds, but he actually fought with Bonds. Voting for Kent but not Bonds is almost a middle finger to Kent's (far, far) superior teammate. And if you believe Bonds was responsible for some of Kent's success, by providing him copious RBI opportunities some years and terrifying lineup protection in others, then voting for him but not Bonds takes on layers of satisfying spite.

Vizquel, meanwhile, stands in as the antithesis of the Bonds era: personable, diminutive, and with barely as many home runs in a 24-year career (80) as Bonds hit in 2001. Some Deniers have rallied around perceived "clean" power hitters, like Fred McGriff, but if you really want to protest the chemical bulk of the steroids era, it's even better to protest the very premise of it -- the home run.

Even in a world of all Deniers, Kent would still almost certainly be left out of the Hall. (In a world of Apologists he might fall off the ballot this year, as his support among that group has fallen by two-thirds since last year.) Vizquel's chances of joining Ozzie Smith and Cal Ripken in the Hall would look pretty strong -- almost every candidate who reaches 50 percent early in his eligibility ends up getting inducted.

3. You don't like anybody remotely connected to PEDs, but you also contain multitudes.

Bonds and Clemens are easy to judge -- there are books and indictments and testimony and records tarnished. But regardless of how convincing or flimsy the evidence of innuendo around a player is, you're likely to withhold some of your enthusiasm for him:

  • Manny Ramirez, suspended multiple times for PEDs: 38 percent from Apologists, 3 percent from Deniers over past two years
  • Sammy Sosa, reportedly tested positive during anonymous "survey" testing in 2003: 16 percent from Apologists, 1 percent from Deniers over past three years
  • Ivan Rodriguez, accused by Jose Canseco, but denied it: 92 percent from Apologists, 60 percent from Deniers in 2017, when he was inducted
  • Mike Piazza, accused by anonymous players and by reporters who covered him, but never tested positive and was never directly linked: 94 percent from Apologists, 77 percent from Deniers in 2016, when he was inducted
  • Jeff Bagwell, got really big and sometimes said weird things, but denied using PEDs, never tested positive and was never directly linked to them: 88 percent from Apologists, 76 percent from Deniers in 2016 and 2017. He was inducted in 2017.

Any rumors hurt a player's support from Deniers, but the stronger the evidence, the more Deniers, relative to the Apologists, withhold their support. This suggests the Denier party includes many different beliefs about how seriously to take innuendo: Some are ideological purists, unwilling to allow anybody in who might compromise the Hall's integrity. Others reserve their protests for proven crimes and clear cases. Most notably, though, is only one of these players -- Ivan Rodriguez -- would be in under one party but out under the other. Even the Apologists mostly reject Manny Ramirez and Sammy Sosa; even the Deniers mostly rallied to Piazza and Bagwell.

If You Did Vote For Bonds and Clemens ...

1. You have most likely changed your stance on Edgar Martinez.

In 2014, Martinez bottomed out with just 25 percent of the total vote. At the time, we would have considered him a favorite of the Deniers -- 28 percent who published their ballots supported him, while just half as many Apologists did. His support among both groups then began going up, but far more among Apologists. This year a whopping 84 percent of Apologists have checked yes for Martinez, compared to 72 percent of Deniers.

Martinez has been aggressively pushed in recent years by statheads who successfully campaigned for Tim Raines and have adopted Martinez as the new hero. But it might not be that Martinez has more champions as much as his champions have more room on their ballot. Writers have inducted 12 players in the past four years, the fastest rate of inductions since the first four years of the Hall. That has eased the space-crunch, particularly for Apologists, because if you voted for Bonds and Clemens ...

2. You're probably a Big Hall voter.

Over the past three years, Apologists have used, on average, 9.4 of their 10 ballot spots. Deniers have used, on average, only 7.4 ballot spots per year. Now, Bonds and Clemens are two people, and 7.4 + 2 = 9.4, so you might figure that explains that. But a whopping 73 percent of Apologists used all 10 ballot spots, which strongly suggests (as do many voters' public columns and tweets) that they'd vote for 11, 12, 13 or more candidates if they were allowed to. Only a quarter of Deniers used the full ballot, though.

That means most Deniers who left Edgar Martinez off their ballots wanted to leave him off their ballot. (Many have changed their minds.) And it leaves open the probability that many of the Apologists who left Edgar Martinez off their ballots wanted to fit him on, but couldn't. Either way: Edgar's on the cusp of getting in, in a way that would have looked absurd four years ago.

3. You might be more friendly to analytics but you definitely don't vote by WAR.

A number of the differences we've noted could be broken down to Stathead/Traditionalist positions -- the value of closers, for instance, or Eye Test vs. Metrics in evaluating Omar Vizquel's defensive value. And we know that newer, younger voters are much more likely to join the Apologist party -- Bonds and Clemens have run at about 90 percent among first-time voters the past two years -- which one might surmise would also correlate to belief in advanced metrics like Wins Above Replacement.

But! There's also evidence that, beyond Vizquel and closers, WAR is not much more of a voting factor for Apologists than it is for Deniers. Consider three players who are at or above Hall of Fame standards by WAR alone: Scott Rolen, Larry Walker and Mike Mussina.

  • Rolen: 10 percent from Apologists, 11 percent from Deniers this year
  • Walker: 25 percent from Apologists, 21 percent from Deniers since 2016
  • Mussina: 59 percent from Apologists, 55 percent from Deniers since 2016

Furthermore, while it's not surprising Apologists don't vote for Billy Wagner -- he's a closer -- it's interesting that the huge gap between his vote totals and Trevor Hoffman's vote totals is just as large among Apologists as it is among Deniers. Hoffman and Wagner had nearly equal career WARs, but most Apologists are willing to support Hoffman and deny Wagner.

Part of this might go back to the ballot-crunch factor, which is more specific to Apologists than Deniers; Walker, for instance, has gained more among Apologists this year, and Mussina has gained more among Apologists over the past two years, as the crunch has eased up. But the evidence suggests Apologists and Deniers do have one thing in common: They both define the Hall of Fame as much more than a leaderboard sort. To wit:

If You Did or Didn't Vote For Bonds and Clemens ...

1. You probably voted for Vladimir Guerrero this year.

Now, almost everybody on both sides voted for Ken Griffey Jr. two years ago, and almost everybody on both sides is voting for Chipper Jones this year. Guerrero, who didn't reach 75 percent in his first year on the ballot, is more interesting.

Last year, his first on the ballot, he got 71 percent of Apologist votes and 73 percent of Deniers. There are lots of players Apologists and Deniers broadly agree on, but they're usually the sort of players either too obvious to argue about or too fringe to take seriously. Guerrero was unique: divisive in almost exactly the same proportions on either side.

This year, both parties have rallied around him, again at almost equal rates: 93 percent of Apologists have supported him, and 97 percent of Deniers. He will make the Hall of Fame. His case, by WAR, isn't very strong. He didn't reach any of the almost-automatic-inclusion benchmarks -- no 500th homer, no 3,000th hit -- that traditionalists might have rallied around. And yet, he won't be controversial. He was, simply, a dominant player and a joyful experience who, for a generation, represented a lot of things baseball fans wanted to see in the sport. Not some baseball fans, but pretty much all of them.

Maybe we're all not so different after all.

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