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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

25 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

drmorris75

Great article. As long as three of the six HOF criteria are subjective virtue judgments, the debates are beyond meaningless. HOF voting reduces baseball to the level of figure skating, with crusty writers standing in for the East German judges.

Jan 02, 2014 05:00 AM
rating: 8
 
backwardgalaxy

This is a really fun article. I'd love to see more content just like it.

Jan 02, 2014 06:26 AM
rating: 3
 
mdangelfan

Before anybody mistakes this for a real argument, here are some relief pitchers with more WPA than Lee Smith:

Tom Gordon
Tug McGraw
Troy Percival
Billy Wagner
Joe Nathan
Francisco Rodriguez
Jon Papelbon

Jan 02, 2014 06:58 AM
rating: 7
 
edwardarthur

This is great. Heard Jay Jaffe on the radio yesterday when Mike Ferrin asked him to make the argument for Jack Morris -- it was painful to listen to ... he just couldn't (though he came up with a couple of flimsy arguments that he could barely say with a straight face)....

Jan 02, 2014 07:19 AM
rating: 0
 
sykojohnny
(225)

If you had ever worked for a major newspaper you would know how the baseball beat writer or the music editor was selected."You're young. You can go out at nights. Cover the baseball team or the concert scene". Knowledge of the sport or of music not required.

Jan 02, 2014 07:25 AM
rating: 2
 
delatopia

This has not been true of any of the metros I've worked at. Not by a long shot.

Jan 02, 2014 23:33 PM
rating: 0
 
fantasyking

Just to play devil's advocate a little bit, isn't the argument written here against Bonds and Clemens essentially the same argument many people are making elsewhere -- "I don't like the way these guys conducted themselves, so I choose not vote for them" -- just said in a different, possibly more eloquent way?

Jan 02, 2014 08:19 AM
rating: 0
 
fantasyking

to wit: http://espn.go.com/new-york/story/_/id/8814011/barry-bonds-roger-clemens-do-not-belong-baseball-hall-fame

Jan 02, 2014 08:37 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Zachary Levine
BP staff

Yes, I hadn't seen that one, but it is very close. The part about the six qualifications was never intended to be new, but the piece you linked did have a lot of the same things about shooting down the usual counter-arguments to leaving them out. Thanks for posting.

Jan 02, 2014 08:42 AM
 
TonyinAsia-Pacific
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

It's not that complicated - if a player is guilty of negatively impacting the integrity of the game, defined as outcome, then they do not get the vote (and are subject to being suspended/banned). The fact that last year's NL HR champion had a little more than 50% of the totals of the Sosa/McGwire era indicates that steroids impacts the integrity (outcome) of games. No vote on cheaters I say.

Jan 02, 2014 08:47 AM
rating: -6
 
Dodger300

Why did you ignore the AL home run champion?

How can you in good conscience be so committed to supporting your own beliefs, that you hope no one might notice how easily you threw out half of baseball just to make such a selective argument?

Jan 03, 2014 12:46 PM
rating: 9
 
FastballVelociraptor

Best argument I've ever heard for Morris is the complete games, argued passionately by my Tigers-fan friend who believes Morris, Trammell and Whitaker should all be in. Surprised you don't hear that more.

Jan 02, 2014 09:47 AM
rating: 0
 
AWBenkert

Cheating has long occupied an inglorious place in the history of baseball. The miracle comeback of the 1951 Giants may have been abetted by a confederate perched in the centerfield scoreboard relaying signs stolen from opposing catchers. Gaylord Perry is safely ensconced in the Hall of Fame despite owing much of his success to an illegal pitch. Teams routinely try to decode the signals given by third base coaches or figure out what pitches an opposing hurler is throwing.

With respect to the steroid users, and notwithstanding the difficulty of ascertaining who took what for how long, my standard would be what in the law is called the "but-for" test. If a prospective inductee into the Hall of Fame would have achieved the requisite level of success without resorting to steroids, he should be voted in; if not, he shouldn't. Using this standard, I would vote to admit Bonds, Clemens and A-Rod, while others such as Sosa, McGwire and Palmeiro may fall short. The problem with applying an amorphous term such as character is that it inevitably must include the player's life off the field. Would players get extra credit for visiting sick children in the hospital? Would they be docked for vices such as infidelity or unethical business dealings? There is no perfect way to apply a subjective standard, but determining whether the player would have qualified without PEDs seems to me to be the best we can do.

Jan 02, 2014 09:59 AM
rating: 0
 
Dodger300

"Stealing" signs is a misnomer, unless you can show me the rule against intelligent observation, and then making signs for your own teammates to see.

Due to tradition it might be considered unsportsmanlike, but "stealing" signs is not against the rules.

Jan 03, 2014 12:52 PM
rating: 1
 
Brad Clark

I agree, if you are able to steal the opposing team's signs then you are guilty of nothing more than beating them at a mental aspect of the game.

Jan 05, 2014 22:41 PM
rating: -1
 
lmarighi

I guess my issues is that I really have very little faith in anyone's ability to say how many home runs were from steroids, or how many fewer strikeouts a "clean" Clemens would have hit. To me, that idea seems just as nebulous as "character".

Jan 03, 2014 16:09 PM
rating: 1
 
Chiefsnark

I don't have the figures to argue with the assessment of Trammell's glove. But I did watch him a lot, I have some knowledge of the game, and I have trouble agreeing with the claim that he was a below average fielder. Baseball Reference's dWAR for him is about +22, and overall WAR is 70.3. Barry Larkin's overall WAR is about the same.

And Lou Whitaker's is about four WAR over both of them.

I also saw Morris a lot and I just don't see a case for the Hall. He was a very good pitcher on mostly very good teams and since we've dispensed with the "he pitched to the score" claim, I don't see any compelling case for him. I wish I did.

Jan 02, 2014 10:19 AM
rating: 2
 
Johnston

I watched Trammell a lot and always thought he was average plus defensively. But him or Morris in the HOF? No.

Jan 02, 2014 10:41 AM
rating: 0
 
papafain

As far as I am concerned the HOF voters casual dismissal of Lou Whitaker from consideration reflects that they are not qualified to make these decisions. Morris was a good but not great pitcher. The Tigers of his era were a good team, but I am not really sure any of them are HOF quality, especially if Sweet Lou is not.

Jan 02, 2014 10:58 AM
rating: 2
 
nberlove

It really is unfortunate that the cases for Bonds and Clemens comes down to each voters subjective take on the PED controversy. MLB/NBHF should really step up and give specific guidelines regarding this. I am much more comfortable with Pete Rose being banned for life by MLB than his induction coming down to what a bunch of baseball writers know (or think they know) about his gambling.

Jan 02, 2014 11:37 AM
rating: 3
 
JusitnG

Ignore PEDs in the voting process, and asterisk the crap out of any proven PED guys who get in. I think that's the best compromise.

The history of the game is incomplete without Barry Bonds in the hall.

Jan 02, 2014 13:16 PM
rating: 0
 
ravenight

History of the game != hall of fame. The history of the game has to include Pete Rose too.

I think character should be paramount: someone who brought major benefits to the game should be in regardless of stats. Someone who brought major controversy to the game should be out. It isn't the hall of stats.

I was a fan of Bonds before the PED controversy, but I find it very difficult to see his achievements with anything other than an asterisk, and his prominent place in a field of folks who really hurt the integrity of the game makes him an important symbol. The same is true for all potential hall of famers - the standard should be high.

And arguments like "Bonds would deserve entry based on what he did pre-steroids" are irrelevant - he's not being left out because we doubt his achievements. He's a no-doubt, top-tier HoF caliber player statistically given any reasonable "steroid adjustment". But the very fact that we have to question what the "real" record is across a bunch of the sport means that his impact, specifically, has been quite negative.

Jan 02, 2014 16:08 PM
rating: 1
 
Lyford


I don't see how the PED argument against Bonds and Clemens is a bad one, and I've never seen anyone argue that either of them didn't have adequate performance to justify enshrinement. I'd vote for both of them, but I've got no issue at all with someone who wouldn't. The evidence that they each broke the rules is quite strong enough for me to accept that it happened, and if you want to prioritize that strongly enough to keep them out, that's a legitimate interpretation of the qualification rules.

Jan 02, 2014 17:53 PM
rating: 5
 
DNicholas

"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."

I agree! On my one visit to the HOF about 7 years ago, I noted Pete Rose's name in several locations, including at the top of the list of all-time hits leaders. Pete Rose is in the HOF - he's just not enshrined. Clemens and Bonds are already in the HOF for their achievements; they don't need to be enshrined.

Jan 03, 2014 00:56 AM
rating: 5
 
lopkhan00

I would also argue with regards to Bonds that I don't believe it is mere coincidence that they were titleless with him, as oppose to having won two in the short time since.

Jan 06, 2014 15:25 PM
rating: 0
 
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