Foremost among the many subplots of the 2017 round of BBWAA Hall of Fame balloting is the intertwined fate of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
In a vacuum, Bonds and Clemens would be unassailable first-ballot Hall of Famers. Bonds, of course, is the all-time leader in home runs, a seven-time MVP and an offensive force of nature who reached base 5,599 times and stole 514 bags. Clemens won 354 games, struck out out 4,672 batters and won seven Cy Young Awards. That's inner-circle stuff, to say the least.
Alas, there's no such thing as a vacuum when it comes to Bonds, Clemens and the Hall of Fame. Each is strongly linked to the use of performance-enhancing drugs, even though neither has admitted to such behavior. Because of those widespread suspicions -- reasonable suspicions, it should be noted -- Clemens and Bonds have yet to approach the necessary 75 percent threshold for election. Including Wednesday's results, here's how each has fared in what's now been five years on the writers' ballot ...
As you can see, Bonds and Clemens enjoyed their biggest gains on the ballots, and they're now north of 50 percent. Specifically, Clemens registered 54.1 percent in this year's balloting, while Bonds clocked in at 53.8 percent. What's also striking is how similarly they've tracked over the last five years, which stands to reason given the strength of their on-field cases and the similarities of their "moral downsides." The heart of the matter is the road ahead and whether Bonds and Clemens can get to 75 percent before they fall off the writers' ballot. Unscrambling that egg means considering a host of factors. For instance ...
Their time on the ballot is halfway over
Time was when players spent 15 years on the BBWAA ballot. However, recent changes to the process -- changes designed to ease a ballot logjam -- have whittled that down to 10 years. That means less time for minds to change and, perhaps most importantly, less time for the electorate to grow (one must be a BBWAA member for 10 years in order to obtain Hall of Fame voting privileges). While Bonds and Clemens drastically improved their fortunes this year, nothing is certain.
The "Selig Factor" was surely at work
Last December, Bud Selig, arguably the most transformative commissioner in baseball history, was voted into the Hall of Fame by the Today's Game Era Committee. To hear a number of voters tell it, the election of the man who presided over the "steroid era" and perhaps enabled it meant that otherwise deserving players tainted by PED rumors couldn't rightly be kept out of Cooperstown. A significant part of Bonds' and Clemens' ballot gains are likely owing to that recognition. In some ways, Selig's election is a "crossing the Rubicon" moment for voters insofar as PEDs are considered, and it provides the opportunity to re-appraise the players of that era.
However, it wasn't all about Selig
Note that chart above once more. In the second years on the ballot, Bonds and Clemens somewhat counterintuitively saw their support decline. This, certainly, didn't make for a promising outlook. However, they made gains in 2015 and then even larger gains in 2016. That is to say, forward momentum for the duo in question was in place and being sustained even before Selig was elected. That's a meaningful takeaway. If the "Selig bounce" was all Bonds and Clemens had going for them, then the support they gained in 2017 probably wouldn't grow in coming years. That clearly isn't the case, though. Bonds and Clemens were headed in the right direction -- especially coming off the 2016 vote -- even before any Selig effect was realized.
The voting demographic continues to shift
While, as noted above, the 10-year limit gives less time for voter turnover with respect to a given candidate, the BBWAA voting body does change. Without question, adding to the rolls helps Clemens and Bonds. Among publicly released ballots in 2017, first-time voters broke for Bonds and Clemens at a rate of more than 90 percent. Since new voters tend so strongly to favor Bonds and Clemens, they can expect to make gains each on that front. As well, some older voters who don't actively cover the game any longer and haven't for some time are being purged from the rolls. Broadly speaking, these voters aren't sympathetic to the Hall of Fame cases of suspected PED users, and their numbers are being diminished. For Bonds and Clemens, that's good news.
Voter anonymity is going away
The 2017 vote was the final one in which voters have the option of keeping their ballots private. Starting with next year's BBWAA Hall of Fame vote, all ballots will be made public. On that point, this rather stark divide is worth noting ...
Public% | Private% (Diff):— Ryan Thibodaux (@NotMrTibbs) January 19, 2017
Bonds: 64.3 | 40.0 (-24.3%)
Clemens 63.1 | 42.1 (-21.0%)
Mussina 59.1 | 42.1 (-17.0%)
Edgar 65.5 | 49.5 (-16.0%)
That's notable, to say the least. One possible implication is that some anti-Bonds/Clemens dead-enders are made comfortable in their anonymity. If they didn't have such a cloak and thus were held to account for their votes, then perhaps they'd be more open to voting for Bonds and Clemens. You may also see some voters take leave of the process altogether once ballots are, by rule, made public. Needless to say, such voters probably aren't pro-Bonds/Clemens. In any event, the forthcoming demise of the anonymous ballot should benefit Bonds and Clemens to some extent.
Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell and Ivan Rodriguez are in, and that matters
Piazza was inducted in 2016, and Bagwell was voted in on Wednesday. Both were -- unfairly, in this writer's opinion -- informally linked to PEDs by some in the media. While the accusations were gallingly light on evidence, they were there, and the likely played a role in belated role of each player's eventual selection. As for Ivan Rodriguez, he went in on his first ballot on Wednesday, and he's another player who's been the subject of occasional whisper campaigns. Rodriguez was flatly accused of using PEDs by Jose Canseco in the latter's tell-all book. To be sure, the "evidence" against these three -- such as it is -- isn't as strong as the largely circumstantial cases against Bonds and Clemens, but the reality is that contemporary-era players who have been associated with alleged PED use are or will soon be Hall of Famers. Consider this to be a second "crossed Rubicon" for voters looking for a rationale to check the boxes next to Bonds and Clemens.
The road ahead isn't certain for Bonds and Clemens with respect to the Hall of Fame. However, those factors above in tandem with the reality that each is now above 50 percent with five years to go on the ballot bode quite well. Thanks to the 2017 outcomes, it now appears that both Bonds and Clemens will make the Hall of Fame before their time on the writers' ballot is up. If recent trends hold, then this controversial duo may get plaques in 2019. Regardless of you feel about that, it's looking like an eventual reality.