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January 25, 2012

Changing Speeds

The Hall of Famously Weak Arguments, Part 2

by Ken Funck

Last week in this space, I unveiled the first seven nominees for the Hall of Famously Weak Baseball Arguments, my fictional museum of unsupportable or outdated baseball beliefs. Below you’ll find those initial seven listed without further comment, along with the final eight. As before, I’ve essayed to describe the times and places where you’ll hear these groaners, why I believe they’re weak, and situations in which they may actually be correct.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to act as a member of the BBWAA (Baseball Weak Argument Arbiters) and vote for up to 10 of the 15 nominees. You can do this by e-mailing me your votes using the e-mail link in my byline following the article. Votes should be formatted by listing the numbers associated with the nominees you’re voting for, separated by a single comma. For instance, if you wanted to vote for only “Yeah, but still,” “Home runs are rally killers,” and “Money buys championships,” you would type this into the body of your e-mail:

1,4,7

Simple, right? I’ll accept votes through 12:01 a.m. CST on Sunday, January 28, with the top five vote-getters earning enshrinement as the Hall’s foundational class. I, for one, can’t wait to hear their acceptance speeches.

1. “Yeah, but still.”

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

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

4. “Home runs are rally killers.”

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

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

7. “Money buys championships.”

8. “Money doesn’t matter.”

When it’s heard: Usually from a fan of a successful large market franchise, trying to convince you that the only reason their team wins more than the Padres or Pirates is intelligence, tradition, a commitment to excellence, and the support of a fervent fan base.

Why it’s weak: Any external factor that provides one franchise with a continual competitive advantage over another absolutely matters. Last week I nominated the argument that “money buys championships,” on the grounds that money alone does not guarantee a trip to the World Series. However, as BP Idol alum Brian Oakchunas pointed out in a comment, pretending that money isn’t a factor at all is perhaps even more egregious. Money can function as a giant safety net. Every GM makes trades or signs expensive contracts he eventually regrets; for some franchises, those decisions can be crippling, while deep-pocketed teams can sometimes spend their way out of purgatory.

The next time you hear, say, a Yankees fan insisting that money doesn’t matter, ask her if Brian Cashman should then unilaterally decide to cut team payroll and send the amount saved to the Rays. Baseball is akin to draw poker, but with big-market teams being dealt seven (or more) cards and small-market teams receiving five. Skill and luck will still win many hands, but willfully ignoring the fact that some players start with a large advantage is self-imposed blindness.

When it might be correct: When it’s not your money we’re talking about.

9. “He’s one of only a small number of players to reach this random collection of stat thresholds.”

When it’s heard: In support of a player who doesn’t really rank among the all-time greats, but when data is filtered in a certain way can appear on a short list alongside a handful of all-time greats. Extra points if the argument involves an arbitrary time period (the nineties) or an arbitrary collection of teams.

Why it’s weak: Joe Shlabotnik may happen to be one of only three second basemen with 1,000 hits, 50 plunks, 100 stolen bases, and 100 errors for a team in each league, and that might be a fun trivia question. Of course, by definition that makes it trivial. If you need to choose a disparate collection of statistics and time ranges to argue a player’s greatness, you’ve already lost the argument. After all, the platypus may be the most interesting of mammals, but the fact that it lays eggs and is venomous doesn’t prove it’s the greatest.

When it might be correct: If the timeframe considered is “ever,” the number of stats considered is small, and the thresholds are truly monumental. Like, say, “one of only four first basemen with 400 home runs, 1500 RBI and a .400 OBP,” though of course with a player that great you shouldn’t need to cherry pick your arguments.

10. “He’s a winner!”

When it’s heard: With regard to a player who has spent most of his career on winning teams, whether or not he was a major contributor to those wins.

Why it’s weak: The Mary Tyler Moore Show won 29 Emmy Awards, 16 of them for individual acting performances by Ed Asner, Ted Knight, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, Betty White, and MTM herself. Though he may be a fine actor in his own right, how exactly does that prove Gavin MacLeod was a winner? Baseball is a team sport, and the players on winning teams contribute to those wins, but there are plenty of individual metrics that show quite clearly how large those contributions were. Any argument that supports the idea that Jason Marquis has some mystical value beyond his ability to eat innings is a non-starter in my book. Moreover, the “he’s a winner” argument can lead to classifying players on losing teams as losers, which is exactly the sort of guilt-by-association that should have gone out of style with penny loafers, DAs, and McCarthyism.

When it might be correct: If (a) the player actually was a significant contributor to those wins; and/or (b) that player is Derek Jeter.

11. “Baseball players are overpaid.”

When it’s heard: At the water cooler the morning after a star player signs a big contract.

Why it’s weak: Because as a fan, you’re totally complicit in this. You all understand the laws of supply and demand, so I don’t need to explain how rare (and thus valuable) the talent of a major-league player is. Players earn that much because the pot of money split between players and owners, which would just go to the owners if player salaries were lower, is based to some extent on how much fans are willing to pay to attend games, watch them on TV or online, or wear league-licensed merchandise. If we all decide that prices are too high and stop going to games or buying our kids Tigers jerseys, there will be less money to go around. Unless you fit that description, however, you shouldn’t complain.

When it might be correct: If you’re describing the amount they’re paid to endorse products. I can understand endorsement deals for sports equipment, but seriously, who in their right mind would have bought Arm & Hammer Ultramax Deodorant just because Jason Giambi pimped it? Marketing departments must have proven time and again that there’s a positive ROI for these kinds of deals, since they’re a permanent part of the advertising landscape—yet I still find it hard to believe. I’ve yet to find one, but I’d like to meet a few people who make their buying decisions based on using the same products Albert Pujols does, since I suspect they make up the same demographic as those who’ve forwarded the “Bill Gates and Walt Disney, Jr.” e-mail tracking message just in case it’s true.

12. “He was feared in his day.”

When it’s heard: Similar to the “you had to see him play” argument, this one is brought out in support of players with questionable statistical credentials, often to support their Hall-worthiness.

Why it’s weak: I’m in no position to comment on how much fear a given hitter, say Jim Rice, elicited in the hearts and minds of pitchers. I could argue that no sportswriter is in position to comment on such a thing, but since so many of them have apparently heard contemporary players comment on this fear, I’m willing to shrug my shoulders and accept their anecdotes as evidence. But even after setting aside the question of whether players themselves are the best arbiters of player value, there’s still the fact that being “more feared” is not the same thing as being “more dangerous.” Fear is not necessarily rational. Flying is generally feared more than driving, and sharks are generally feared more than hippopotami, but in both cases the latter is statistically more dangerous than the former. Pitchers may have been muttering “fear is the mind-killer” when Rice stepped to the plate with runners on base, but they could have better overcome their fear by remembering that “double plays are the rally-killer.”

When it might be correct: It certainly may be true in and of itself and would be a valid argument in support of someone’s candidacy for the Hall of Feared. Just don’t use it alongside other statistical arguments for the Hall of Fame.

13. “He was a clean player competing in the steroid era, so imagine what his numbers might have been.”

When it’s heard:  In support of players like Craig Biggio and Greg Maddux who have squeaky-clean reputations despite the era in which they played. While Biggio and Maddux don’t need their Hall of Fame credentials burnished in this way, less-deserving future candidates may benefit from mental adjustments based on what they might have achieved had they not been forced to compete against the chemically-enhanced.

Why it’s weak: I’ve shared my opinions about steroids in the past, so it should be no surprise that there are a lot of steroid-related arguments that I find completely unsupportable. However, since most of them have at least some level of popular support, I don’t see the point of even nominating them. However, the idea that we can know to a certainty that any player was clean is amazingly naive. If you believe that you can know that, ask yourself why you’re so sure. It can’t be because someone doesn’t “look” like a steroid user—remember Alex Sanchez? Ask yourself what you thought of, say, John Edwards or Joe Paterno or some other public figure before their humiliating scandals. People in the Chicago Bears locker room were quoted as saying that Sam Hurd was the absolute last person they would have expected to be a drug dealer. Nobody knows anybody; not that well. If you want to downgrade someone for being a convicted or suspected user, I can’t agree with you, but at least I somewhat understand the logic. Upgrading someone for being what can only be described as a suspected non-user is far less supportable.

When it might be correct: It might often be correct, but the point is there’s absolutely no way of knowing for sure. It’s usually difficult enough to prove a negative, but in this case I would argue it’s impossible.

14. “Anyone can close.”

When it’s heard: Whenever Kevin Gregg is signed to pitch the ninth inning.

Why it’s weak: Setting aside the snarky response that neither you nor I could close, internal discussion on this topic spawned a Prospectus Roundtable article last week. I’ll just sit here and enjoy an ice cold Fresca while you read through it

There are many cases on record of relievers struggling when thrust into the closer role. Often this is a small-sample fluke, or would soon be corrected if the player were allowed some time to adjust to that role, but the quick-hook nature of the position leads to many more pitchers being branded non-closers than should be. Nevertheless, as KG likes to intone, players aren’t Strat cards. It takes brass balls to close, and to deny that some players don’t come equipped with the appropriate alloy is to deny the variability of human nature. Derek and Tommy correctly noted in the Roundtable that outsiders who believe they can know in advance who will or won’t succeed in that role are just kidding themselves, but lack of prior knowledge doesn’t equal non-existence.

When it might be correct: Okay, I’ll admit it. I think this one is pretty close to true, at least if by “anyone” you mean a pitcher who has shown effectiveness in the middle innings. But I’m not the only one with a vote.

15. “Sabermetrics takes all the fun out of the game.”

When it’s heard: As a response mechanism to statistical arguments with which the speaker disagrees.

Why it’s weak: If metrics aren’t your thing, I’m totally fine with that. There’s plenty to love about baseball without having to understand its statistical underpinnings. It shouldn’t be hard to avoid articles or websites or conversations on the subject of sabermetrics, and on the rare occasion that you hear someone discussing WARP or UZR during a broadcast or at a game, you can just choose to ignore it. Just be sure to ignore discussions of RBI or Batting Average or Saves as well, since those are merely less-insightful variations of the metrics you’re objecting to. Some fans enjoy the increased discussion and use of better metrics, but objecting to one set but accepting the other misses the whole point. Also, most people discover in the end that their appreciation of something increases the more they understand it.

When it might be correct: When you’re caught sitting between two statheads at a ballgame and find that for the moment you’re more interested in what’s happening on the field than the number of plate appearances needed until a player’s home run per fly ball rate stabilizes.

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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