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Todd Helton and the “just vibes” Hall of Fame voting process

Colorado Rockies News and Notes for Tuesday, January 2, 2024

As a college writing teacher, grading rubrics are a key part of my evaluative toolkit. A rubric sets the criteria that will be measured in an assignment and assigns weight to each of those criteria based on the degree to which a student succeeds in meeting those outcomes.

It’s a key tool for a number of reasons.

First, it makes clear my expectations for any given assignment and clarifies how much weight will be given to each element. It also has the benefit of keeping me focused on what I’ve said in class is important. If, for example, I’m irritated that a student hasn’t been coming to class, the rubric doesn’t allow me to factor that into my grading. Either the paper has, say, correct documentation or it doesn’t. I don’t get to change the criteria based on my mood.

A rubric, then, keeps everyone honest, which is important when evaluating a subject that may lack clear evaluative criteria. It puts a stop to what I think of as “just vibes assessment,” which occurs when an evaluator’s criteria become subjective and, by extension, arbitrary.

That brings us to former Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton’s vanishing Hall of Fame votes, which were reported last week in Ryan Thibodaux’s indispensable HOF Vote Tracker. Helton finished 2023 in the Baseball Writers’ of America Association voting only 11 votes short of making it into the Hall of Fame. Induction in 2024 seemed certain.

And then something curious happened.

Mike Vacarro went first:

Here’s Shaun Powell:

And now this from Mark Saxon:

In addition to Helton, Saxon dropped Carlos Beltrán, Andy Pettitte, Francisco Rodríguez, and Billy Wagner. If these writers have offered explanations, I’ve been unable to find them.

To be clear, I’m not interested in trolling any of these writers; rather, they provide examples of a larger problem. I would argue they owe baseball fans an explanation. After all, Todd Helton did not become a worse player in 2023 than he was in 2022. So, what changed?

Clearly, it was nothing in Helton’s performance; rather, the shifted occurred in the voters’ evaluation.

I’m not going to make the case for Todd Helton since that’s been done eloquently by Manny Randhawa (here), Mike Lupica (here), Patrick Lyons (here), Clint Hurdle (here), Travis Rowland (here), Evan Lang (here), and many others.

My focus is on Helton because he’s the player I know best of those on the ballot. But he’s also one example of a larger problem in the Hall of Fame voting process: A lack of clear methodology and explanation on the part of some (to be clear, not all) BBWAA members.

These voters are, after all, selecting those who will be inducted into one of the most elite institutions in sports. For sports writers to explain their thinking seems like a reasonable expectation on the part of fans.

This, then, raises a question of consistency. Again, consider what’s known so far about the Helton vote as an illustration.

Here’s a sampling of rationales given by some of those not voting for Helton.

Will Graves, a self-identified “small Hall guy,” writes:

Helton - I have read the metrics and the arguments for and against. A great player. I just couldn’t get there. Only one top 5 finish in MVP. Not a Hall of Famer on my ballot but on plenty of others and if he gets in, that’s a great thing for Rockies fans.

Tony Massarotti voted for only two players, Manny Ramírez and Álex Rodríguez, and then tweeted this:

It’s difficult to square “Lots of serious candidates” with a ballot that supports only two of them.

Here’s Bill Ballou:

Wagner and Todd Helton are close enough to probably get over the top. Helton was a great player without that intangible and completely subjective “wow” factor.

I’m not sure what the ‘wow’ factor is, but if it’s too vague for Ballou to define, then it probably shouldn’t be one of his voting criteria.

Jon Heyman explains his decision to pass:

7. Todd Helton: Nothing against overheated Coors Field, but the bulk numbers aren’t quite there for a first baseman in that atmosphere.

Can we get a #Coors in the chat?

In other words, this feels like the kind of capriciousness that happens when an assignment is graded without a rubric — and it’s a bad practice because it moves the focus away from the objective accomplishments of the players to the subjective opinions of the writers themselves.

To be clear, none of this is to say that every writer should have the same criteria: The differences in the qualities writers value make for important discussions. But those criteria should be objective and their explanation transparent.

Here’s a case in point: Todd Helton is inevitably criticized for his home-road splits.

Fair enough.

But if a sportswriter is going to make home-road splits part of their evaluative criteria for Helton, then, in fairness, they need to apply it to all other hitters as well. How does Álex Rodríguez compare? Manny Ramírez? And if the answer is, “But those guys didn’t play half their games at Coors Field, so it’s less important,” then it’s a bad answer. Either home-road splits matter or they don’t because if a measure isn’t applied consistently, then it’s just a vibe. And vibes make for poor evaluations.

If being a Top 5 MVP finalist matters for Will Graves in doing Todd Helton’s evaluation, then it should be weighted for all candidates as well — and players on the ballot who have met that criteria should be rewarded for it. The same is true of Ballou’s “wow” factor. (Good luck measuring that.)

When a writer says, “I just couldn’t get there,” what does that mean? Which part of your evaluative criteria did a player fail to meet? It’s not unreasonable for fans to expect an explanation — and I assume these writers would be eager to provide it.

Trust me: If more sports writers took a consistent evaluative approach to their ballots, we’d be done with the ballots with zero selections or two. When any evaluator is forced to objectify their evaluation, the results change dramatically — for the better.

The BBWAA should also require their members to explain their ballots. (Hey, they’re writers!) Why did they vote in the way they did? They need to show their work.

Currently, that is not the case: According to the BBWAA Voting FAQ, voting members are not required to make their ballots public, much less explain them:

In December 2016, members of the BBWAA present at the annual meeting at the Winter Meetings voted 80-9 in favor of making it mandatory that all Hall of Fame ballots be made public. The Board of Directors of the Hall of Fame rejected the BBWAA’s proposal. Since then, the Hall has given voters the option to choose whether to have his or her ballot released on this web site, following the election. In 2022, 78.4 percent of voters chose to reveal their ballots.

That seems problematic.

And let me add a serious thank you to writers who provide thoughtful and detailed explanations. They are appreciated, even if fans don’t always agree. And in this, every season, Jay Jaffe offers a master class. Clearly, not all explanations need to be so detailed, but it’s not too much to ask that the BBWAA voters offer a consistent, clear rationale for their selections.

The players, the fans, and the Hall of Fame deserve more than just vibes.

★★★

Postscript

Here’s how Nathaniel Rakich is projecting the final vote based on what has happened historically:

He adds this:

★★★

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★★★

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★★★

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