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January 2, 2014

Skewed Left

Better Versions of Bad Hall of Fame Arguments

by Zachary Levine

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You probably don’t have to do much guesswork to figure out what my Hall of Fame ballot will look like when the staff puts out its hypotheticals. You’d probably think that as a Baseball Prospectus writer and general citizen of the baseball internet, my ballot would be predictable down to that last spot or two, and for the most part, you’d be right. I’m not far off from the consensus saberballot.

As such, I get a little annoyed when I see an outlandish outlier ballot. But I really don’t want to. I want to banter in a space where contrary opinions are well thought out and lead to good, respectful debate, not dismissal and name-calling. To be frank and overgeneralizing, I hold the opinions for the undeserving candidates and against the deserving candidates to be bad opinions. And that could be as much on me as it is on the opinions themselves.

It made me think about whether I am—or whether we as the sarcastic internet are—able to draw any distinctions between a bad argument and an argument that we just disagree with.

So I tried my hardest to come up with some arguments for the other side that I would respect and would see as a jumping-off point for good discussion. You might find these terrible and laugh them all down like you do with those Sunday columns we all hate. None of these is taking a stance for someone like Ryan Klesko to make the Hall of Fame because nobody would ever argue that.

But if I were reading columns against Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, for Lee Smith, against Alan Trammell and for Jack Morris, to pick a few contrary arguments, I’d like to think I can come up with bits of reasoning I would disagree with but would respect and try to debate constructively.

***

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are Hall of Famers. I mean, look at them. You have one of the two or three (or maybe one) best hitters of all time and a top-five pitcher who was voted best in his league seven times. Let’s not overthink this. But here’s what I would like to read from somebody who does not vote for them:

On performance alone, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are Hall of Famers. However, the Hall asks us to consider more than just performance in voting on each candidate. The list of criteria incudes six categories: “record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”

Integrity, sportsmanship and character. Not to steer this too close to biblical scholarship where each word is analyzed to try to decipher meaning from its presence (there are no extraneous words, according to some traditions) and placement in that precise spot, but these things that all mean pretty much the same thing are all in there. It sure seems like it’s being emphasized.

Bonds and Clemens both have flaws in integrity, sportsmanship, and character. When put up against their tremendous record, playing ability, and contribution to their team(s), those flaws don’t wipe out the positives completely. But in my opinion, with no exact percentage weights on the qualifications, they do bring their overall candidacy below a Hall of Fame level.

I know what the arguments against this are. One is that you can’t have a Hall of Fame that ignores a whole era of baseball’s history. This is dumb. Greg Maddux will get in. Ken Griffey Jr. will get in. Plenty of guys who either didn’t cheat or we didn’t know cheated will be in. And even if none of them is, the story of this era of baseball is told wonderfully at the museum, which is just other rooms in the same building. Seriously, it’s like 100 feet away. You don’t even have to walk outside.

The other one is that the Hall of Fame has been around for 75 years now, and we’ve inducted some bad eggs before. We’ve inducted segregationists and other misanthropes. We’ve inducted spitballers and scuffers and greenie poppers. The way it’s always been done is that the character clauses don’t disqualify people.

Well, if we’ve gotten to justification from tradition like “the way it’s always been done,” then we passed my exit a long time ago. Seriously, try that at work sometime. See how far it gets you. If the Hall of Fame wants us to consider different things, then change the rules. Until then, I can’t do anything about whom my predecessors put in, only what I am being asked to vote for in 2014. And in 2014, given the rules I’ve been assigned, I can’t vote for someone who went to these lengths to cheat. Because that’s what they did. They played a game professionally and cheated to help them win it, or at least to try to help them win. That reflects the character and integrity flaws that we found in all the unsavory characters, but it’s also a severe lack of sportsmanship—a blow to the ability to have a fairly played game, which is professional sports’ greatest asset. That’s a little too much in the negative columns, even for great players.

***

Lee Smith is not a Hall of Famer. Last year he received 47.8 percent of the vote on account of lots of saves (an unprecedented 478). While Lee Smith is not a Hall of Famer, and that statistical achievement, since surpassed twice, does not make him one, here’s what I’d like to read from somebody who votes for him:

This isn’t about Lee Smith’s talent or that of relievers in general. Relievers are usually relievers for a reason, whether they don’t have the stamina for a full innings load or don’t have a third pitch to let them face a lineup multiple times.

It’s also not about how many saves he had, aside from the longevity that’s suggested by it and the talent we can infer from his security in that job. After all, protecting a three-run lead in the ninth and getting out of a bases-loaded jam with nobody out and a one-run lead both count as one save.

What those two scenarios are not, however, is the same win probability added, and that’s the argument for Smith, and more generally, for all relievers. I understand the shortcomings of win probability added.

According to Baseball-Reference.com, the league leaders in pitchers’ WPA are often relievers. Greg Holland led the AL in 2013. Craig Kimbrel and Jim Johnson both led their leagues in 2012 with numbers in the 4-6 WPA range.

Relievers pitch fewer innings, and yes, all runs count the same, but because of the way their managers use them, they pitch much more important innings, which should be reflected in the Hall of Fame voting. The argument is that anybody can pitch the ninth, which in a lot of ways is true, in that the “closer mentality” quality is vastly overrated. But put an average pitcher in those situations, and you don’t get the same thing. You get, by the very definition of WPA, the expectation of 4-6 wins fewer.

This is a terrible way to evaluate a player for a future contract in a role where he’s simply asked to get outs. Look at Johnson’s 2013, the year after he led the league in WPA. But Smith did it over a whole career, putting together a higher WPA than Hall of Famers like Bruce Sutter, Phil Niekro, and Catfish Hunter. Based on what he actually did in the roles that he was actually given, he is a Hall of Famer.

***

Alan Trammell should be a Hall of Famer, but last year he received 33.6 percent of the vote. I’d like to read the following from voters who don’t vote for him this year.

Alan Trammell should be in the Hall of Fame, but he’s not in my top 10, and I’m only allowed to vote for 10. I hope that changes next year, and if it does, I’ll vote for him.

Absent that, this would be an interesting thing to read:

A comparison, if you’ll allow it:

Statistic

Alan Trammell

Player B

Position

Shortstop

Shortstop

Games played

2,293

1,678

Career OPS

.767

.769

Fielding runs above avg. (FRAA)

-28.2

+108.9

Ballot status

Alive, going on Year 12

Did not MAKE a ballot

Man, if only Player B had stuck it out three or four more years, eh?

Player A is Alan Trammell, which you might have been able to guess from his name being in the chart. Player B is Jose Valentin, who last played in 2007, making him eligible for the 2013 ballot, which he was not selected to appear on at all.

This isn’t to say that Valentin, who in addition to similar offensive numbers was measured as a much better fielder, should be the one sitting at 33 percent. Trammell was better. But so much of why there’s a difference between them, in addition to the longevity gap, is that Trammell gets a much more favorable adjustment for his era.

I understand why it’s important to adjust for era and not just take the most talented players. Double-A players today would dominate early baseball. But can we accept that the 1980s might not have had very good position players, and thus shouldn’t necessarily adjust them all up because offense was bad? They might just have been bad.

We obviously have to adjust for things like rule changes, but if one era is better than another in a certain phase of the game, shouldn’t that be reflected in Hall representation, not used to prop up the guys from the lesser era? Trammell was good, but there were plenty of shortstops who came later who were better and shouldn’t be punished for all coming along at the same time.

***

Jack Morris is not a Hall of Famer. Last year, he received 67.7 percent of the vote on account of some memorable playoff performances and always being the best pitcher on the field, among other nonsense. While Morris doesn’t deserve induction for those or any real reasons, here’s what I’d like to read from somebody who votes for him.

As much as it would be easy to ignore the playoffs and go to the numbers on which WAR and WARP and JAWS and everything are based, all of those count things that happen in the playoffs not even as 1, but as 0. Henry Aaron had 755 home runs, not 761. Barry Bonds had 762, not 771.

In reality, baseball wants us to overweight these things. One at-bat in April or yes, even September, counts so little in determining who advances to the playoffs. But one at-bat in a best-of-five means so much. (Rob Neyer writes about this effect here.)

So yes, Jack Morris is under the Hall standard if you count only only what he did during the regular season—the pedestrian 3.90 ERA is just the beginning.

But in doing that, you’ve forgotten his postseason greatness, which is conveniently left out of WAR and the like and is exponentially more important per inning than what he did during the regular season.

Just look at the impressive postseason resume he put together. 3.80 ERA.

Wait… 3.80? That’s what we’re going batty over? And that 1992 World Series—woof. We finally quieted down about that pitching to the score thing this year, and now we’re going with this?

Haha, yeah, no, I can’t do this one.

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

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