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January 4, 2013

The BP Wayback Machine

How to Write a Letter of Complaint

by Derek Jacques

While looking toward the future with our comprehensive slate of current content, we'd also like to recognize our rich past by drawing upon our extensive (and mostly free) online archive of work dating back to 1997. In an effort to highlight the best of what's gone before, we'll be bringing you a weekly blast from BP's past, introducing or re-introducing you to some of the most informative and entertaining authors who have passed through our virtual halls. If you have fond recollections of a BP piece that you'd like to nominate for re-exposure to a wider audience, send us your suggestion.

Derek offered a handy guide to persuading Hall of Fame voters to see things your way in the piece reprinted below, which was originally published as a "Prospectus Toolbox" column on January 22, 2008.
 

It's been a while since the last Toolbox, so you'll have to forgive me if I'm rusty. I'll start by relating a dream I had recently:

In the dream I was at a sidewalk café in Athens-a place I haven't been in almost 20 years-chewing on the remnants of my cup of coffee, and trying to figure out if it was too early to hit the ouzo, when who should happen by but Tim Raines. "Rock!" I called over. In my dreams I'm always on a first-nickname basis with ballplayers I like. "Pull up a seat, let me buy you an ouzo!"

Raines, who I don't know in real life, came over to my table in the dream. Still, he seemed wary, as if he expected an ambush in the nearly-deserted café. "I was hoping to find you here," Raines said. "I want to talk to you about the Hall of Fame."

"Yeah, sorry about that," I said, even though in real life the results of the BWAA election had not yet been released, in my dream he'd already missed induction. "You know I think you deserved to get in."

"I can't say that I'm not disappointed, but I'm still hopeful. I'd love to get in next year, with Rickey. I think that would be cool, the two leadoff guys getting in at the same time."

"That would be great," I said, even while thinking that Raines getting in on the same ballot as Henderson would be extremely unlikely. "You know that me and most of the folks I work with are behind you all the way."

"You know, I kind of wanted to talk to you about that. I need your help."

"Gee, Rock, I'm flattered, but I don't know how much help I can be. I mean, plenty of bigger names than me have written about how much you deserve to be in the Hall. There's a great crew of Canadian writers who have a site dedicated just to you getting in; at BP, we've been writing about how you deserve induction basically from the minute you hung up your spikes. Dan Fox has some great stats that show how much of an impact your base running made, I can't wait for you to see!"

Raines didn't seem to be paying attention. Instead he was looking around the café nervously, and he hadn't touched his ouzo. Suddenly, it dawned on me: he didn't want to be seen talking to me.

"...unless you're not talking about me writing an article," I finished, puzzled.

"Look, these guys who are voting for the Hall of Fame should love me. I'm a people person. I kept guys loose in the dugout my whole career. I was a team-first kind of guy, and I got two World Series rings as a player, then another one as a coach. I've got a good story, too, since I beat drugs early in my career, at a time when a lot of guys couldn't keep that stuff from destroying their life. So how is it that some of these reporters are saying now I was selfish? I read the other day some guy saying that I could have been more aggressive on the bases, but I was too interested in my stolen base percentage. Stolen base percentage! You see what I'm getting at?"

Rock paused, then added "I got nothing but respect for you guys, I appreciate your support. The only problem is that you fellas don't decide who gets into Cooperstown. Those other guys do. And I'm kind of stuck in between-part of the way they draw the line between you and them is by taking stands of yours and saying that you don't know what you're talking about because your head's in a computer all day. I'm just worried that these guys are messing with me just to get to you."

"So what, then? You don't want statheads to support you? You want us to shut up, pretend you don't exist?"

"No, no. I was thinking, maybe you could make up stats that make me look bad. That way, the voting guys will say, 'Nobody who knows anything about baseball would say that about Tim Raines! The guy was the heart and soul of baseball!' That'd get me inducted for sure."

"You mean, you want me to lie, so that I can be subjected to abuse by the mainstream press, and help your candidacy for the Hall of Fame?"

"Lie is such an ugly word. I prefer argue. Aren't you the guy that's always doing that Devil's advocate, just-for-the-sake-of-argument stuff?"

And then, with a start, I woke up. I'm not sure what that dream means, but I sense that the recent Hall of Fame announcement has caused some discontent in the world of baseball, whether for players people thought should have made it, or those who should have gotten more or less support. So we'll go over a quick guide of how to write a complaint letter to your local Hall of Fame voter.

Be nice: First, and this is basic, you have to decide what the purpose of your complaint letter is. Are you trying to sway the reader's opinion, or are you just venting your anger? If you're venting, pretty much anything goes-profanity, ad hominem attacks, whatever-limited only by the bounds of your personal decency and local harassment laws. However, if you're actually trying to persuade the voter, don't start with the greeting "Dear mouth-breathing Neanderthal who counts on his fingers." Please refrain from jabs ("Your recent Hall of Fame column was childish and painful to read"), personal reproaches ("How dare you leave Player X off your ballot!") or back-handed compliments ("You're really not as stupid as the guys at Fire Joe Morgan say you are") unless you want your correspondent to wish you ill. Write as if you're writing to a stranger (which most sports reporters/columnists are) asking them for a job; keep the tone light and non-confrontational.

Choose your tools wisely: I spent a good chunk of 2007 using this space to introduce some very sophisticated statistical tools for analyzing player performance. Sadly, my message to start off 2008 is that, for the purpose of your letter to a Hall of Fame voter, you're going to have to leave those tools to one side-or at most, use them very sparingly. Why? Because if you're writing someone to advocate for, let's say, Bert Blyleventhat should be your letter's focus. Taking a paragraph or three to educate someone on the replacement level, or on what SNLVAR means—those things distract from that purpose.

These days, Hall of Fame voters come with all different levels of statistical literacy. You have some that are well versed, intellectually curious, and who sometimes enjoy creating their own metrics. You also have others that, well, not so much. An easy way to know if you're going outside of the voter's comfort zone is to search his articles for references to the metrics you want to use. If the voter you're writing to doesn't use the metrics in question, you're probably best off sticking with the basics: batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, earned run average, and the various basic counting stats.

Luckily, you can do a lot with those basic numbers. For example, to give a player's career a sense of context, in lieu of era-adjusted statistics such as Equivalent Average, or position-adjusted statistics like VORP, you can use the League Position Batting Stats customizable report to show how an average contemporary at the position a given candidate played: for example, American League left fielders hit .273/.337/.419 between 1974 and 1989, which could help you establish the quality of a candidate who played that position in those years. In the same vein, the RBI Opportunities report is another relatively self-explanatory, straightforward tool that can help voters gain perspective about a hitter's achievements.

It's important to remember that you shouldn't reduce your argument to any one number, no matter how sophisticated. Even using a state-of-the-art stat designed for the Hall of Fame process like Jay Jaffe's JAWS (say that five times fast) only provides evidence that points to a conclusion, not the conclusion itself. All Hall of Fame candidates fall somewhere on a spectrum, with few absolutes-Babe Ruth on one side of the spectrum, and Brady Anderson on the other are easy calls, the type the voters generally get right without any help. The candidates in between tend to have arguments for inclusion, mainly depending upon how large or small you imagine the Hall of Fame's membership should be.

Be political: Like any election, that to the Hall of Fame election is a political process, so you might do well by co-opting some of the language and tactics of political discourse. Many of Jim Rice's Hall of Fame proponents have adopted a rhetorical stance that seems torn from the land of "job-killing taxes" and "Washington-insider special-interest lobbyists." Their campaign is no longer to get Rice inducted to Cooperstown, it's to keep his detractors from "excluding" him from the Hall of Fame. This "exclusion" language takes Rice's qualifications for induction as a foregone conclusion, and places the burden on his opponents to say why he doesn't belong. It also invites accusations that Rice's detractors are doing something wrong or harmful when they criticize his Hall-worthiness-they're accused of "attacking" Rice or "denigrating" his achievements. Regardless of whether you agree with the sentiment, the tactic seems to be working-Rice has gained votes each of the past five years-so a similar rhetorical stance could help you make the case for your favorite Hall-worthy candidate.

Make your arguments personal: One final piece of advise in trying to bend your local Hall of Fame voter to your will is that where possible, back your analysis with personal recollections of the candidate. The analytical community has plenty of passion for the game, but that passion often doesn't come across well in the search for objective standards and truths. So if you have a memory of the eligible player-a game you attended, a feat you witnessed, an autograph you obtained-share it. While the memory of one moment pales in comparison to the record of a player's career achievements, you might find that the argument that appeals most to a Hall of Fame voter is one that engages his or her heart, as well as mind.

Now, some of you may have noticed that I haven't touched on the request from my dream-that is one challenge that I'm passing on to the collective wisdom of our readers. If any of you want to come up with a statistical argument-serious or humorous-to keep Tim Raines out of the Hall of Fame, and thereby trigger a backlash big enough to convince the BBWAA to induct him, please pass them along. The best entry, as decided by my extremely subjective standards, will not only win the people's acclaim and fame forever for a reverse-psychology triumph, but will also receive a free copy of Baseball Prospectus 2008.

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

Related Content:  Hall Of Fame,  Voting,  Ballot

1 comment has been left for this article.

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Overthinking It: Inter... (01/03)
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The BP Wayback Machine... (12/28)
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