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January 18, 2012

Changing Speeds

The Hall of Famously Weak Arguments, Part I

by Ken Funck

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In the wake of this year’s Hall of Fame voting season, and to help remove the bad taste left by some of the mind-numbingly bad arguments I’ve heard and read over the last few weeks for or against various HOF candidates, I thought it might be fun to open my very own Hall of Famously Bad Baseball Arguments. To do this, I need your help. I am hereby nominating you for membership in the BBWAA—Baseball Weak Argument Arbiters—and empowering you to nominate and vote for the baseball arguments that you find the most irritating and least convincing.

Below you will find the first seven nominees for enshrinement, gleaned from my own list of pet peeves and from a whip-round on our internal BP mailing list. Each entry includes a description of when the argument is most commonly heard, why I find it unconvincing, and (to be fair) an attempt to highlight situations where the argument could actually be correct. Early next week we’ll publish the final eight nominees, and we’ll post information on how you can vote for up to 10 of the 15 nominees, with the top five vote-getters earning enshrinement as the Hall’s foundational class. I have a tentative list of what the next eight nominees may be, but please feel free to nominate your own favorites in the comments section below, or e-mail them to me, and I may very well include them.

Starting with what I consider the Babe Ruth of unconvincing arguments, here are the first seven:

1.       “Yeah, but still.”

When it’s heard: During the brief interval after you spend ten minutes articulating a cogent, well-supported, and almost certainly correct thesis in opposition to a popular baseball belief, and before passersby are amazed to see you ram your own head completely through a ballpark support column in response to your friend saying “Yeah, but still… Willy Taveras is a much better candidate to lead off than some slow guy with a .400 OBP, no matter what you say.”

Why it’s weak: It’s not an argument; it’s merely abdicating the responsibility to cite any shred of evidence to support a position, as if that is somehow the same thing. It also assumes that all opinions should carry equal weight, regardless of the foundation on which they’re built—which is patently untrue.

When it might be correct: In response to an unfocused, poorly-supported, and almost certainly incorrect argument—though I personally have never heard it used that way.

2.      “Slow players who draw walks merely clog up the bases.”

When it’s heard: In response to a non-baseball-man describing the critical importance of on-base percentage to scoring runs, especially during Dusty Baker press conferences or FOX Sports production meetings.

Why it’s weak: I don’t really need to explain this, do I? It completely misunderstands the comparative value of avoiding an out versus gaining an extra base, which is akin to the difference between the value of magically waking up in London in 1975 and having a ticket to see Bob Marley at the Lyceum during one of the shows recorded for the Live! album, and the value of upgrading that ticket to an aisle seat.

When it might be correct: Ummm… I guess if the game implements a system that disallows runs scored by players who don’t travel at some arbitrary minimum velocity during a scoring play, it might increase run expectancy in some situations for a slow player to make an out rather than reach base.

3.      “I’m against instant replay because it removes the human element from the game.”

When it’s heard: Shortly after some unfortunate umpire makes an obviously wrong call in a big situation, and there’s a hue and cry to expand replay.

Why it’s weak: Ask yourself this: How many incorrect calls make up the optimal dosage of “the human element”? The more umpires you have on the field, the more likely it is that one of them is going to be in a good position to make a given call. Over the years, MLB has expanded from one to four umpires manning the field during regular-season games and adds two more for the postseason. Do the playoffs suffer from this dearth of “the human element”? Or do they instead benefit from a reduced chance for an embarrassing mistake? There may be valid arguments against expanded replay, but this one is clearly the “yeah, but still” position.

When it might be correct: Times and places where game results don’t affect the possible gain or loss of millions of dollars—but that’s not Major League Baseball.

4.      “Home runs are rally killers.”

When it’s heard: Most frequently after a team that’s a few runs behind in the middle innings hits a leadoff home run. Occasionally, the voices in a broadcaster’s head will seize the microphone and argue that a walk or a single would be better in that situation since it would be more likely to unsettle the pitcher, leading to more runs.

Why it’s weak: It’s basically arguing thata bird in the hand is worth less than a bird in the bush, let alone two, because that one bird is going to completely freak the bush out. This presupposes the existence of a species of bush that can be completely freaked out by a bird, which seems unlikely given that bushes and birds interact almost as frequently as pitchers and base runners. Moreover, both mathematics and the Run Expectancy Matrix are beyond reproach.

When it might be correct:

IF (Pitcher is uncomfortable when pitching from the stretch OR is uncomfortable when the bases feel cluttered)

AND (Run Expectancy facing uncomfortable pitcher with the current number of outs and a runner on first IS GREATER THAN (1 + Run Expectancy facing comfortable pitcher with the bases empty))

AND (You’re certain the opposing manager will leave the uncomfortable pitcher in long enough to achieve much of that Run Expectancy)

THEN (Walk IS GREATER THAN Home Run)

ELSE (Home Run IS GREATER THAN Walk).

While there might be a condition where that’s all true, your ability to know it’s true at the time is approximately nil. When I was an IT developer, we would have dismissed coding for that condition as “elegance creep.”

5.      “He wasn’t the most dominant player (on his team/at his position) during his era.”

When it’s heard: When discussing theHall-worthiness of a player who had contemporaries or teammates to whom he was viewed as inferior. Recent examples include Tim Raines (Rickey Henderson), Edgar Martinez (A-Rod, Big Unit, Junior), and Ron Santo (Ernie Banks, Ferguson Jenkins, and Billy Williams).

Why it’s weak: Talent is not distributed evenly across teams or eras, so it’s unfair to punish a player for the random misfortune of being, say, the second-greatest leadoff man in history whose career happened to coincide with the greatest leadoff man in history, or being teammates with three other players whose nicknames will live on decades after they retire. This particular argument grates on me, since I’m convinced it helped keep the more-than-deserving Santo out of the Hall until after his death. There are far better arguments for or against a player’s candidacy.

When it might be correct: Three occasions come to mind—never, never, and never.

6.      “You can’t know how good he was unless you saw him play.”

When it’s heard: Whenever a famous retired player with good counting stats but bad rate stats is dissed by propeller-heads with spreadsheets, you’ll hear a few sportswriters trot this one out.

Why it’s weak: While it’s true that statistics can be made to lie, they’re freakin’ sodium pentathol when compared to even a mountain of anecdotal evidence. Saying you had to have watched a given player on a day-to-day basis to appropriately judge his value is ageist, condescending, and disregards the fact that the opinion being voiced was likely formed in an echo chamber. You’ll usually hear this as an argument of last resort, advanced to help explain why Hall of Fame voters should overlook some deep statistical flaw in a player’s case. Recent examples include Andre Dawson’s low OBP (since he was acting like a slugger, not a table-setter) or the league-average ERA of Jack Morris (since he was pitching to the score). Which begs the fatal question, why did so many other great sluggers manage higher OBPs, and so many other great starters post lower ERAs?

When it might be correct: If you share Kevin Goldstein’s opinion that the Hall of Fame is a place for the famous, not necessarily the best, this argument works fine. The characteristics of players who actually help teams win tend to be less easy to observe than the characteristics that make them famous. Every hitter makes lots of outs, so it takes a lot of “seeing” to notice the difference between a player with a .320 OBP and a .370 OBP, compared to noticing the difference between 10 home runs and 40 home runs. If you want to base your opinion of a player on how good you thought he was while you watched him, that’s fine; just don’t try to argue that you’re certain he was more valuable than another player, because there’s no way you can be sure of that just from observing.

7.      “Money buys championships.”

When it’s heard: Whenever the Yankees are competitive—or, to put it another way, always.

Why it’s weak: It’s incomplete. Money in and of itself doesn’t buy championships, though having money to spend is definitely better than not having money to spend. The problem with this argument is that it overlooks the fact that money is less of a factor than smarts, or perhaps even luck, in determining who wins a championship. It’s virtually impossible for an ignorant, poorly-run organization to win the World Series, while it’s definitely possible for an intelligent, low-revenue team to win one. Add the modifier “well-spent” to the beginning of that sentence, and you’ll be much nearer the truth.

When it might be correct: If you’re talking about Arnold Rothstein’s money.

I’ll be back again next week with the rest of the ballot.

Ken Funck is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ken's other articles. You can contact Ken by clicking here

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