January 22, 2008
How to Write a Letter of Complaint
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:
…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 Blyleven, that 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.