Ticket to Cooperstown

This year, veteran ballplayers Wade Boggs and Ryne Sandberg were admitted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Both infielders had played for at least 10 seasons, been retired for at least 5 years, and received 75 percent of the votes cast by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) to earn a place in the elite institution.

In a 1996 Washington Post article, veteran player Tony Perez declared, “I think it’s getting harder and harder every year to get into the Hall of Fame. You have to have really super numbers or whatever. You’ve got to be Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron.” Perez himself was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2000.

Is it really getting harder to get into baseball’s Hall of Fame? That’s the question that economist Paul M. Sommers and students Richard B. Barfuss and Robert C. Howard of Middlebury College set out to answer. Their findings appear in the current Journal of Recreational Mathematics.

To get a sense of whether the Hall has become more (or less) exclusive, Sommers, Barfuss, and Howard compared selected performance statistics from the careers of Hall of Fame hitters inducted between 1936 and 1979 to those of hitters inducted since 1980 through the year 2003.

For the 40 Hall of Fame hitters inducted before 1980 and the 26 hitters inducted later, the researchers looked at lifetime at bats, batting average, slugging average (total bases divided by total at bats), number of runs scored per 100 times at bat, the number of runs batted in per 100 times at bat, and the number of home runs per 100 times at bat.

The data reveal that, of the old-timers, Babe Ruth dominated the categories of slugging average and runs scored, runs batted in, and home runs (per 100 times at bat). Among newer inductees, Hank Aaron has the highest slugging average, Frank Robinson the highest runs scored, and Harmon Killebrew the highest runs bated in and home runs (per 100 times at bat). Interestingly, only four inductees since 1980 have had career batting averages above .300; 31 old-timers achieved that mark.

Sommers and his coworkers applied a series of statistical tests to the data to see if there’s a statistically significant difference between the two groups.

Notably, the average numbers of at bats and home runs of recent inductees are significantly higher than the corresponding numbers of the old-timers. Yet, when the higher totals are adjusted for the larger number of plate appearances, those players inducted since 1980 have significantly lower batting averages, lower slugging percentages, and, on average, fewer runs scored and runs batted in per 100 times at bat. No significant difference was found between the two groups of Hall of Famers when comparing the number of hits or the home run percentage.

Comparison of Inductees, 1936–1979 (40 players) versus 1980–2003 (26 players), averages:





At bats
Home runs
Batting average
Slugging average
Runs (%)
Runs batted in (%)
Home runs (%)

“The evidence presented here may not settle the question of whether a ticket to Cooperstown is getting any cheaper,” Sommers, Barfuss, and Sommers conclude. “Modern Hall of Famers have enjoyed longer careers than Hall of Famers of earlier generations. However, longer most certainly does not mean better.”

Overall, newer inductees are generally less productive than previous inductees, the researchers say. Indeed, the BBWAA voters nowadays appear to focus less on offense and to reward defense.

Does the controversial Pete Rose deserve to be in the Hall of Fame? He’s certainly the leader in career hits. Nonetheless, the data show that, when compared to all 66 other Hall of Famers, Rose’s lifetime marks (excluding hits) are all below the group average.

The statistics computed by Sommers and his students, however, don’t definitively settle the matter. It isn’t easy to compare performance statistics of different baseball eras. The rules and the game itself have changed over the years, and the standards of one age don’t necessarily apply to another.

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