Monday, April 17, 2006

The Bane of My Existence

I recently had a fairly passionate email exchange with Bill Ballou, a sports columnist for The Worcester Telegram & Gazette. The subject was Mr. Ballou’s blank ballot that he turned in during this year’s Hall of Fame election. He was not alone, as nearly a dozen other voters did the same thing.

If this was an election where there simply wasn’t anyone worthy of the Hall of Fame on the ballot, I’d be okay with that. I’d even be okay with it if Ballou or the others evaluated the candidates and honestly felt they did not meet the standards at their position set by previous elections to the Hall. That would be fine. After all, that’s their job as voters.

But that’s not what Ballou did. No, instead he justified his empty ballot by saying that none of the players met his personal standards for the Hall of Fame, explaining that, in his view, the Hall should only be comprised of the super elite of past ballplayers, and they have already admitted far too many players he would have left on the outside.

That view is something I have a big problem with.

Hall of Fame voters who think like this are the bane of my existence. Look, I understand that writers are tasked with exercising their individual judgment about whether a player is worthy of being elected to Cooperstown, and I completely agree with that. But I fundamentally disagree with the notion that the writer should apply that judgment against their own set of Hall of Fame standards. In my view, the writer's job as a voter is to compare the players to the standards already established by the Hall of Fame through years of sanctioning prior BBWAA and Veteran's Committee elections. Since it is the Hall that sets the election rules and exercises the power to set the standards for exclusion (like a minimum of 10 years of playing time, not on the banned list, etc.), it follows that they have the power to set the standards for inclusion as well. They have done so by accepting the results of every prior election, even the ones that look like they didn't make much sense. (Rabbit Maranville? Catfish Hunter? Chick Hafey?) And since it is the Hall that grants the writers the power to vote in the first place, I don't think it is the writers’ luxury to ignore those standards and apply their own. It's fair to pass on Jim Rice, for example, on the grounds that, in the writer’s judgment, he doesn't match that collective level of the eighteen left fielders already in the Hall. But if they’re excluding him because he can't compare to Ted Williams and Stan Musial only, that seems like an abuse of the power the Hall has granted the voters.

Ballou went on the claim that he sees no point in maintaining the Veteran’s Committee anymore, since all of the worthy candidates have long since been elected and it’s the Veterans, not the BBWAA, that makes the lion’s share of the mistakes in admitting unworthy players to Cooperstown. While I agree with him that the majority of the poor selections to the Hall of Fame have come from the Veteran's Committee, I'm afraid I can't agree that they no longer have a purpose. The reason is that the BBWAA regularly makes an egregious omission that would have no means of being corrected without the Veteran’s Committee. In it's current state, I sincerely doubt the Veterans will ever elect anyone, but since they revamp their rules about once per decade, I'm pretty confident that they'll be loosening their rules in the near future. And that's necessary because I can name a number of players who the BBWAA have failed to elect despite the fact that each has matched or exceed the standards the BBWAA has already set.

To illustrate, ignore all of the shortstops elected by the Veteran's Committee, since that seems to be Ballou’s preference, and concentrate just on the nine that the BBWAA has elected (Aparicio, Appling, Banks, Boudreau, Cronin, Maranville, Smith, Wagner and Yount). Combined, these nine average a .285 batting average, .353 on-base percentage, and .408 slugging percentage. Their average OPS (on-base plus slugging) was .761, or 10% better than the average of the leagues in which they played. They averaged 143 homers and 1063 RBI.

Now look at Alan Trammell: .285 AVG, .352 OBP, .415 SLG, .767 OPS (10% better than HIS leagues' average), 185 homers, 1003 RBI.

So what's the difference? What keeps his BBWAA vote totals so low every year? Is it defense? It shouldn't be - Trammell won four Gold Gloves, which fits him neatly in the middle of the four current Hall of Famers who played in the Gold Glove era, above Yount and Banks (1 each) and below Aparicio and Smith (9 and 13 respectively). Was it durability? Nope. These nine averaged 2468 games played, just one season's worth of games more than Trammell accumulated in his 20 years. It can't be post-season performance either since Trammell was the World Series MVP in 1984. He never chased trick-or-treaters in his car, never screamed at reporters, never had a drug or sex scandal, and wasn't a clubhouse cancer that bounced from team to team.

And Trammell isn't an isolated case. I could do the same thing for Rich Gossage, for instance. Not only wasn't he elected, but he was passed over for a contemporary, Bruce Sutter, who is demonstrably worse. Here's the averages of the three true relievers elected to the Hall (Dennis Eckersley excluded due to his numbers as a starter): 108 wins, 104 losses, 892 games, 289 saves, 1666 innings, 1257 strikeouts, 2.72 ERA. Then there's Gossage: 124 wins, 107 losses, 1002 games, 310 saves, 1809 innings, 1502 strikeouts, 3.01 ERA.

Or how about Ron Santo? The six third basemen elected by the writers averaged 304 homers; Santo had 342. They averaged 1381 RBI; Santo had 1331. They walked 1132 times; Santo walked 1108. They got on base at a .370 clip; Santo's was .362. They slugged .465 to Santo's .464. They averaged 6 Gold Gloves to Santo's 5. Their collective OPS was 28% better than their leagues, while Santo's was 25% better. Yes, he played only 2243 games compared to an average of 2463, but he played every one of them with diabetes that later forced him to have both legs amputated, so I think it's fair to cut him some slack when it comes to longevity.

Or how about Joe Torre? Eight catchers have been elected by the writers to the Hall of Fame, posting averages of 1944 games, 1004 runs, 1918 hits, 281 homers, 670 extra-base hits, 1180 RBI, .284 average, .358 OBP, .473 slugging and an OPS that was 24% better than their leagues. Torre played in more games (2209), scored just about the same number of runs (996), had far more hits (2342), nearly as many homers (252) and extra-base hits (655), the same number of RBI (1185), a better average (.297), better OBP (.365), and better OPS compared to his leagues (29% better). And yes, I recognize that he played more games at third and first combined than he played at catcher, but he still was a catcher more than he was anything else, and not a bad one either, winning a Gold Glove in 1965.

The really egregious one is Bert Blyleven. I don't think the collective BBWAA has any awareness that the average of the 30 Hall of Fame starting pitchers who they have already elected looks like this: 286 wins, 284 complete games, 51 shutouts, 2573 strikeouts, 1.20 walks-plus-hits per inning, 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings, 2.1 strikeouts per walk and an ERA 22% better than the league average. That's everyone - Cy Young, Lefty Grove, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Warren Spahn, and the other 25 starters selected by the writers. See, if the writer's were really aware of those numbers, they would have already elected Blyleven, because he approaches or exceeds every single one of them - 287 wins, 242 complete games, 60 shutouts, 3701 strikeouts, 1.20 walks-plus-hits per inning, 6.7 strikeouts per nine innings. 2.8 strikeouts per walk and an ERA 18% better than league average (the same as Warren Spahn and Ted Lyons, and better than eleven of the other twenty-eight). Bert Blyleven essentially is the average starting pitcher elected by the writers over the years, but mystically can't get any support unless the BBWAA members are inundated with email from obscure stat heads like me or famous ones like Bill James. I have zero explanation for that.

Omissions of this kind are particularly confusing when the BBWAA has demonstrated in the past that they will occasionally let in a stinker as well. Bruce Sutter is this year's example, but Tony Perez and Pie Traynor and Catfish Hunter and Red Ruffing and Early Wynn and Don Sutton and Ralph Kiner and Kirby Puckett and several others were all elected by the BBWAA despite being nowhere near the standards already set, and despite being no better, and in some cases worse, than other players the writers had already passed over.

So explain it to me, please, Mr. Ballou. And I'm not just talking about your vote, I'm talking about the collective vote of the BBWAA. Why do players like Trammell and Gossage and Blyleven and Santo get passed over when they either match or exceed the Hall of Fame standards at their position that have been set by your own organization? Until that question can be answered well, the Veteran's Committee, or preferably some better organization for correcting these kinds of mistakes, has to be retained.

Why do the Sutter's, Perez's and Puckett's get elected? Until that question is answered well, and as long as the BBWAA requires the Veteran's Committee as a safety net, I'm going to doubt the writers’ collective competence as voters.

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