January 28, 2014
The 2014 Hall of Famously Weak Arguments, Part Two
Last week I presented Part One of the list of 14 nominees for the “Hall of Famously Weak Arguments,” a compendium of the most annoyingly wrong positions we sometimes hear baseball fans or commentators defend. The first seven nominees will be listed below without further comment from me; the final seven nominees are then listed, along with descriptions of when they’re heard, why they’re weak, and (in the interest of fairness) when they might be correct.
Now it’s up to you. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to act as a member of the BBWAA (Baseball Weak Argument Arbiters) and vote for the nominees you feel are worthy of enshrinement. You can do this by e-mailing your votes to email@example.com. Votes should be formatted by listing the numbers associated with your choices, separated by a single comma. For instance, if you want to vote for “Yeah, but still,” “He pitches to the score,” and “He was feared in his day,” you should type this into the body of your e-mail:
There is no limit on the number of candidates you can put on your ballot—the last thing I want is to artificially create a backlog of worthy candidates. I’ll accept votes through 12:01 a.m. CST on Saturday, February 1st, and post the results next week.
1.“Yeah, but still.”
2.“He pitches to the score.”
3.“Of course he was an All-Time Great! Remember that one time he did that one great thing?”
4.“He was feared in his day.”
5.“He was great because he did the little things/played the game the right way.”
6.“See, I TOLD you that sacrifice bunt was the right play—we scored a run!”
7.“You should never steal second with a great hitter at the plate, since it opens up first base for an intentional walk.”
8. “He’s a proven closer.”
When it’s heard: Whenever a team adds a relief pitcher with lots of saves on his resume, but middling-at-best peripherals and run prevention. Bonus points if he takes the closer job ahead of a younger pitcher with better stuff and more impressive results.
Why it’s weak: Setting aside the wisdom of using your best reliever to pitch a single inning against the bottom of the order with a three-run lead (because really, we should set that aside), let’s assume that for some reason a team needs to name a full-time, one-inning closer, and said closer should be the team’s best reliever. There are countless statistical ways to determine who that reliever is, and one of the worst ones is to count how many times in his career a player did something Jerome Holtzman once said we should count. While I’m not going to deny that relievers may exist in the wild that let tum-tum-flies get the best of them in the ninth inning, the winnowing process that determines which pitchers reach the majors in the first place means they’re likely to be rare, and in any case virtually impossible to identify ahead of time. With very few exceptions, the pitchers who are most likely to get outs in the ninth are the same ones who are likely to get outs in the eighth and seventh, whether or not they’ve already earned a “proven closer” merit badge. Also, Kevin Gregg.
When it might be correct: When the “proven closer” is also a fantastically effective reliever.
9. “Home runs kill rallies.”
When it’s heard: Not to put too fine a point on it, but when Steve Lyons witnesses a home run with men on base that doesn’t tie the game or take the lead, he’s liable to share his belief that clearing the bases will relieve pressure on the opposing pitcher, allow him to pitch from a windup, kill the rally, and lessen your chances to win. “I want one more base hit and then a home run,” Lyons once explained.
Why it’s weak: Yeah, and I want a friendly unicorn that’s consistently funnier than Louis C.K. to fly me to work each day in my adamantium-plated hover-car. Unless you’re trailing in the ninth inning or extras, in which case I’m willing to entertain the notion that situations may exist where the marginal advantage of having runners on base slightly increases win expectancy, you need to take runs whenever you can get them. As Voltaire once said to Steve Lyons, don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. (Voltaire’s opinion of dropping your drawers after sliding into first base has never been made clear.)
When it might be true: In Strat-O-Matic baseball, if the next batter has a +12 clutch rating, and it’s your team’s last raps, and getting a single will bring Clutch Cargo to the plate with a much better chance of delivering than he would with the bases empty and two outs, then hoping for a double instead of a home run is absolutely the right thing. Of course, unlike Strat, real baseball can’t always be reduced to a math problem with quite that level of precision.
10. “I’m against instant replay because it removes the human element.”
When it’s heard: During every discussion of replay over the last few years. Expect to hear more of this as MLB’s replay challenge system goes into effect.
Why it’s weak: Human fallibility is incontrovertible. That doesn’t mean it’s charming, or beneficial, or that we shouldn’t take steps to mitigate random, avoidable errors that could unfairly result in the gain or loss of millions of dollars. The question I asked two years ago still stands:
How many incorrect calls make up the optimal dosage of “the human element”? The more umpires you have on the field, the more likely it is that one of them is going to be in a good position to make a given call. Over the years, MLB has expanded from one to four umpires manning the field during regular-season games and adds two more for the postseason. Do the playoffs suffer from this dearth of “the human element”? Or do they instead benefit from a reduced chance for an embarrassing mistake?
Replay merely continues the path MLB has followed for years: adding eyes to ensure bad calls are less likely to cost someone a game. There may be good arguments against instant replay—I don’t like the challenge system—but this definitely isn’t one of them.
When it might be true: If you’re an amoral gambler who wants to pay off umpires to throw a game, this would be true for you since replay adds an additional roadblock. Hey, look, we’ve found another argument in favor of expanded instant replay!
11. “Money buys championships.”
When it’s heard: Whenever a big-market team wins the World Series, or signs a big-name free agent, or beats your team in the playoffs.
Why it’s weak: If it were true, only big-market teams would ever win the World Series. Of course, big-market teams don’t win every World Series. QED. While it’s certainly true that money can help win a championship, other factors—smart management, outstanding player development, lucking into a generational talent or two—matter more.
When it might be true: If you modify it to “Money can help buy championships.”
12. “Money doesn’t matter.”
When it’s heard: Whenever a big-market team wins the World Series, some of their fans deny that having more money to spend could have had anything to do with it.
Why it’s weak: While money doesn’t guarantee championships any more than being born into wealth guarantees success, it certainly provides greater opportunity. Teams with Amazonian revenue streams can afford to paper over bad long-term contracts or sub-par player development systems by purchasing top-notch talent off the rack, and rarely have to go into long-term rebuilds. Everyone remembers Moneyball, but not everyone remembers the subtitle: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. If you believe that baseball has anything that even remotely resembles a level playing field, you might as well believe that vampires play baseball during thunderstorms to mask the sound.
When it might be true: When someone else is picking up the tab.
13. “He was a clean player competing in the steroid era, so imagine what his numbers might have been.
When it’s heard: When the greatness of likable, human-scale veterans of The Steroid Era are discussed.
Why it’s weak: Repeat after me: I do not now, nor will I ever, know who actually used steroids. Nor do I know how much steroids did or didn’t help any particular player. Believing that you can be sure who did or didn’t use is an act of pure self-delusion. How many unfortunate news stories have to include the line “and they were the last person we would have imagined to do something like that” before we all understand this? Even if you could somehow be sure that a player was “clean,” how can you have any idea how much a player’s career was affected by the “dirtiness” of others? It’s hard enough to put baseball statistics into some sort of comparative context without muddying the waters through some vaguely omniscient belief about the prevalence and ultimate effect of steroids. Voltaire, again: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”
When it might true: When you’re talking about Craig Biggio. No, wait, I used him as a “squeaky clean” example two years ago, but now Murray Chass has sewn a scarlet “S” onto Biggio’s Astros uniform. See how tricky this can be?
14. He was better than (insert name of mediocre player already in the Hall of Fame, probably inducted by the Veterans Committee), so he should be in the Hall of Fame, too.
When it’s heard: As a last-ditch argument in favor of a not-even-quite-borderline Hall of Fame candidate.
Why it’s weak: I’m unabashedly a Big Hall guy, since allowing borderline candidates into the Hall of Fame increases the quotient of human joy at little to no cost. However, there has to be a limit, and if your admission standard is based on clearing the lowest bar imaginable—think Lloyd Waner—pretty soon being admitted loses all meaning. Imagine that wheat flour is allowed to have one rodent hair per 50 grams sold (actually, you don’t have to imagine that, it’s true). Then lobbyists argue that 75 insect fragments should also be allowed, since they’re not really any worse than rodent hair. (That one’s true, too.) Then the same comparative argument is made to allow small amounts of rabbit droppings, poison oak stems, gravel, green paint chips, and lark’s vomit. Keep that up, and the next think you know, your shredded wheat is 10 percent wheat and 90 percent nastiness. That’s not the kind of Hall you want in your breakfast bowl, is it?
When it might true: When you own a motel in Cooperstown.
Remember to send your votes to firstname.lastname@example.org!