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January 21, 2014

Changing Speeds

The 2014 Hall of Famously Weak Arguments, Part One

by Ken Funck

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One of the enduring joys of baseball fandom is the ability to engage in spirited debates on baseball topics both great and small—award voting, lineup construction, in-game strategies, anything and everything that makes up the game we all love. Baseball fandom without arguments would be like baseball without keeping score—aesthetically pleasing, but devoid of the passion that makes it worth paying attention to.

However, not all arguments are born equal. Sometimes you’ll hear or read otherwise reasonable people taking positions that are so demonstrably false, so allergic to reason, that they make you throw up your arms, or even your lunch, in despair. And if there’s one time of year that provides ideal growing conditions for a bumper crop of head-scratching opinions, it’s Hall of Fame Voting Season. This year was no different, as the Twitter-verse came alive with impassioned deconstructions of Ken Gurnick’s ballot, a new episode of “$#*! Murray Chass Says,” and all manner of outrage at the decision-making process used by HOF voters that dared to reveal their votes. It wasn’t pretty.

In the hopes of helping to channel all that negativity into something a little more positive (but not much, since it’s still pretty snarky), I present to you this year’s nominees for the Hall of Famously Weak Arguments. Two seasons ago I granted all BP readers membership in the BBWAA (Baseball Weak Argument Arbiters) and listed 15 misguided chestnuts for readers to vote on. Five of them were elected to the Hall’s foundational class, as listed in a blog post here. It’s time to provide them with some company.

In the space below you will find seven nominees for your consideration; I’ll list seven more in another article soon to follow. These 14 include six holdovers from the last vote and eight more nominated by BP readers and staff members over the last week. If you’re game, give them a read and determine which ones irk you the most and are thus most deserving of enshrinement. Part Two will provide information on how to send in your vote.

For each nominee, I’ll describe when that particular weak argument is most frequently heard, why it’s weak, and (in the interest of the fairness) when it might actually be correct.

1. “Yeah, but still.”

When it’s heard: There are those who believe that man’s highest purpose is to serve the cause of reason, to shine a beacon that can lead others through the obscuring mists of ignorance and doubt to the far green shore of truth and fulfillment. When those admirable seekers, inheritors to the spirit of Socrates and Descartes and Townshend, spit Cracker Jack fragments and Bud Lite foam onto the fans seated in front of them while explaining that RBI totals are highly dependent on RBI opportunities, their chucklehead friends have been known to reply “Yeah, but still, if a guy doesn’t drive in 100 runs he must be pretty bad in the clutch.” As if that’s a rebuttal.

Why it’s weak: It only purports to be an argument, the way Bud Lite purports to be a beer. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of putting your hands over your ears and going “Na Na Na Na Na” to avoid hearing a painful truth, then continuing on with your understanding of life as if you were never taught differently. Embrace the reality that surrounds us, people.

When it might be correct: When it’s emotionally important to you not to embrace the reality that surrounds us, since simplicity can be comforting in a world that is otherwise harsh and complex and frightening. Then it’s as good a response as any, I guess, since it allows you to embrace the steak without having to consider the slaughterhouse.

2. “He pitches to the score.”

When it’s heard: You know exactly when.

Why it’s weak: For centuries, humans have developed myths to explain complex phenomena that are beyond their current comprehension. The ancient Greeks explained the seasons by telling the story of Persephone, who was kidnapped by Hades and tricked into eating pomegranate seeds and was thus forced by Zeus to return to the Underworld for part of each year, during which the depression of her mother Demeter caused the onset of winter. Of course, seasons are actually caused by the earth’s tilt as it orbits the sun, but no one would tell that story around a campfire—okay, I actually have, but you can take that up with my kids’ therapists—since math makes for far less compelling tales than those that assign human motivations to the gods. Similarly, math has shown time and time again that there is no evidence Jack Morris or anyone else “pitched to the score,” or more accurately, that their ERA was inflated by this tactic. Math also tells us that players with high ERAs who also compile high win totals do so because they receive excellent run support. Show me some numbers that prove otherwise, and then we can talk.

When it might be true: When Zeus was up by five runs in the middle innings, the cruel omnipotent bastard probably gave up a few runs just to breed a little hope for him to eventually revel in crushing.

3. “Of course he was an All-Time Great! Remember that one time he did that one great thing?”

When it’s heard: Whenever discussing a borderline All-Time-Great whose case for All-Time-Greatness needs to be creamed and buffed with a non-statistical chamois.

Why it’s weak: For every anecdotal argument for greatness, there are usually just as many conflicting anecdotes not being recounted. Want an example? Read this piece by Ken Tremendous, which happens to be my favorite thing written during this winter’s Hall of Fame debate. Did you read it? Good. Now that I’ve given you one example, my point is clearly proven, and you’re a soulless jerk if you disagree.

When it might be true: When you stack so many positive anecdotes together that they actually become data. But that stack would have to be so high that you would have to become a statistical analyst to make heads or tails of it, making you lose the ability to appreciate what makes for an All-Time Great in the first place.

4. “He was feared in his day.”

When it’s heard: As with (2) and (3) above, and several more to follow, this one is used as an additional subjective embellishment when arguing in favor of a player’s greatness.

Why it’s weak: While it may be true that a player was feared in his day, “fear” is often irrational and doesn’t necessarily correlate to “danger.” I’m going to stick with what I wrote in 2012 when referencing Jim Rice’s Hall of Fame argument, since I’m not sure I can do any better today:

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 true: Actually, it might always be true. But it isn’t a compelling argument for greatness.

5. “He was great because he did the little things/played the game the right way.”

When it’s heard: When discussing players who may not even be borderline All-Time-Greats, but whose grittiness and association with winning teams makes some people want to elevate them to that level. This also includes statements like “I’d take my chances with a roster full of guys like him any day.”

Why it’s weak: Think about what you just said. You said “little things.” There’s a reason why people consider them “little.” Hitting behind a runner, or laying down a sacrifice bunt, or decoying a runner out of taking an extra base are all “little things.” They can certainly help a team win, but the amount they help pales in comparison to “big things” like getting on base or hitting home runs. When deciding on bonuses at work, what kind of manager hands them out based on a person’s likelihood to remember to make fresh coffee? A soon-to-be-ex-manager.

When it might be true: If for some reason you think drawing walks, stealing copious bases at a high rate of success, and playing superlative defense are “little things.”

6. “See, I TOLD you that sacrifice bunt was the right play—we scored a run!”

When it’s heard: Shortly after a sac bunt by a position player is followed by an RBI single to center, seemingly invalidating the several minutes you spent patiently explaining the Run Expectancy Matrix.

Why it’s weak: I don’t need to explain this to readers like you. You all know the math of the Run Expectancy Matrix, and how even if volunteering to trade an out for a base may in some cases increase the probability of scoring a single run, it significantly reduces the chances of scoring multiple runs and thus costs you runs over time. What’s truly annoying about this one, however, is how the person who says this has now come to the conclusion that their untenable position was correct all along. It’s like someone who hits on a hard 17, draws a four, and loudly exclaims that every blackjack expert in the world is wrong. What’s worse, the counter-examples that occur after a poorly-timed sacrifice bunt are never as compelling. Team didn’t score a run? “Oh well, they could have, and you can’t prove that the extra plate appearance they gave up by laying down the sacrifice would have led to more runs.” Next batter hits a home run? “Hey, we scored two runs! What’s so bad about that? Who knows, maybe having the runner in scoring position unnerved the pitcher, who then served up a meatball. Prove to me that I’m wrong, Mister Doctor Numbers Man.” Aargggghhhhh.

When it might true: There are places for the sac bunt, e.g., in the late innings of a close game. But they’re rarer than people think.

7. You should never steal second with a great hitter at the plate, since it opens up first base for an intentional walk.

When it’s heard: Even when a runner isn’t being held and the chances of being thrown out are negligible, most game announcers will decry a stolen base that might lead to the bat being taken out of a key slugger’s hands.

Why it’s weak: Let’s say there’s a runner on first, Casey is up, and Neifi is on deck. If the opposing manager thinks having runners on first and second with Neifi at the plate will lead to fewer runs than having a runner on first with Casey at the plate, he should intentionally walk Casey. If he doesn’t, then he clearly thinks a stolen base followed by an intentional walk is worse than the status quo, so why not go ahead and steal the base?

When it might true: If you have a higher opinion of Casey, or a lower opinion of Neifi, than the opposing manager. The variables that go into this calculation are similar to those that should be used to determine whether or not to lay down a bunt, and can be difficult to calculate in your head—even for Joe Maddon. But clearly the word “never” shouldn’t apply here. Also, if Casey is that much better than Neifi, you should probably reconsider your lineup construction.

Back soon with the final seven, along with information on how to vote.

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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