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January 27, 2009

You Could Look It Up

The Nose Knows

by Steven Goldman

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I recently received a note from a reader noting that I had left Baseball Prospectus. This came as something of a shock, as I had neither resigned nor been fired. I can only assume that the reader had inferred from the lengthy absence of "You Can Look It Up" on the site that I was no longer around. However, long-time readers know that after November this feature usually goes on hiatus so that I can help mastermind our annual book. The book being safely in the hands of the printer, it is time for YCLIU to saddle up and ride again.

First, allow me a few late comments on the various Hall of Fame debates that have coursed around us since the announcement that Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice had been elected to the Hall, and on the subsequent arguments that have attended the retirement of Jeff Kent. In recent days there has been much said about the "sniff test"-the supposed can't-miss-it visceral reaction that a true Hall of Famer is supposed to provoke in an unbiased observer.

The problem, of course, is that it's possible something might be wrong with your nose; it might be desensitized to the point of ignorance. The possibility of damaged nasal apparati was certainly raised by the 2009 vote, in which the noses of 28 voters could not discern the bouquet of Rickey Henderson, while another 412 thought that they could smell something worthy of historic preservation in Jim Rice. In 1992, there were five voters who left Tom Seaver off of their ballots, either because of the nonsensical idea that no player should be elected in his first year on the ballot (as Murray Chass has sensibly pointed out, if all voters followed this rule, every player would be disqualified after his first election), or because they just didn't get it, and yet Seaver has among the most impeccable credentials of any pitcher ever to apply for membership. For five guys, though, he didn't have the scent.

More demonstrative of the misleading power of "scent" is not those few voters who missed on spectacularly obvious candidates (27 on Reggie Jackson, 20 on Steve Carlton, 16 on Mike Schmidt), but rather those Hall of Truffle hunters who were confused into casting votes for players who had no business being in the Hall. One example who comes easily to mind is Doc Cramer, also known as "Flit." In 1964, Cramer's last year on the ballot, 12 voters thought that Cramer possessed the immortal aroma, and at one time came up often enough in Hall of Fame discussions that Bill James cited him in The Politics of Glory/Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? Why was Cramer attractive to those 12 noses? We can make some educated guesses: he was a .296 career hitter who lasted 20 years (1929-1948); he played a key role on his teams, batting leadoff and playing center field; and he made five All-Star teams, and though he never won a batting title, he did bat over .300 in a full season seven times.

The package doesn't sound half bad, but Cramer was actually a devastatingly poor player. He was basically Willy Taveras without the speed and power, and yes, I'm aware that Taveras has very little of the latter. During the period of time that Tom Yawkey and Eddie Collins of the Red Sox were treating Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's in a fashion that anticipated the way that the Yankees would later make a farm club of the same franchise after it had moved to Kansas City, the Bostonians acquired Cramer and shortstop Eric McNair from Mack for a veteran fringe pitcher, an unlikely second-base prospect, and $75,000. Unlike earlier deals where they had picked up Lefty Grove and Jimmie Foxx, the joke was on them-Cramer spent five years in the Fens and batted .302. He even had some big run-scoring seasons, totaling 116 in 1938 and 110 in 1939. The part that no one noticed was that he never walked, so his on-base percentage was actually far below average at .349, and since his bat produced almost nothing but singles, he slugged only .378. His Red Sox home-run total for 3,111 at-bats: one.

We should note Cramer's one moment of glory, the 1945 World Series. He played for the winning Detroit Tigers and-it hurts to write this-batted third in their lineup ahead of Hank Greenberg. He had a very good series, going 11-for-29 (.379), all singles. Cramer was also known as a terrific ballhawk, hence the nickname "Flit," after an insecticide of the day (Dr. Seuss first came to prominence not as a children's author but, among other things, as an illustrator of Flit ads). Our Davenport Translations don't quite see it that way, leaving Cramer's portfolio rather naked; playing for the Washington Senators in 1941, Cramer batted .273/.317/.338, which works out to a .239 EqA, and we also figure he was 36 runs below average in center field. "Flit" couldn't have done much more harm to the club's chances had he gassed the clubhouse with cans of his namesake poison.

More recently, three voters wafted some eau de Vince Coleman towards their waiting nostrils and concluded that he had that thing (or maybe it was Cole Porter's thing). Rick Aguilera got three votes in 2006. How about Larry Bowa and his overrated glove? Good for 11 votes in 1991. Joe Carter and his RBI? Nineteen votes in 2004. Bert Campaneris, his versatility, stolen bases, and bat-throwing? Fourteen votes. These are good players. They're not Hall of Famers, but some fraction of voters thought they were. Were their noses defective?

Actually, their noses were absolutely dead-on. They were as unerring as that of Toucan Sam, as all-encompassing as Jimmy Durante's. They interpreted their olfactory input correctly: their noses said that Vince Coleman smelled like Hall of Famer even when their peers perceived tuna casserole. The tuna casserole guys, in their legion 500-strong, were clearly correct on the facts. The problem is that first impressions are a pathetic basis on which to make complex evaluations. Were they not, fellas, we'd all be married to the first woman we found attractive, and without asking any further questions. I don't know about you guys, but for me that would have been an epic mistake. Similarly, passing or failing a potential Hall of Famer because he somehow lacked some indefinable fragrance is an abandonment of those faculties of reasoning that evolution and several generations of philosophers, writers, and artists have tried so hard to refine for us.

My son Clemens is now three years old. If you ask him the reason he wants to do something, he says, "Because." "Because what?" you might ask, only to get the same response: "Because." This is the pint-sized version of the argument, "you just know." Is Jeff Kent a Hall of Famer? Yes. Why? Because. Is he not a Hall of Famer? No. Why? Because, I just know that he isn't; he doesn't pass the sniff test. And thus are 5,000 years of critical thinking thrown out the window, because there are some who are just too lazy to work through the arguments, and who instead must appeal to some undefined ethereal thing that obliviates all thinking.

The purpose here is not to argue whether Jeff Kent deserves enshrinement or not. Jay Jaffe made the cases for and against today, and I may yet put myself through my own paces on the subject. The point is, if you're going to make an argument, then make it, and leave your protuberant body parts out of it, because they lead you astray. Your eyes are weak, your nose is easily misled, and you can't believe what you read. You've got to work it through with your brain, or you've abandoned your only responsibility in this life-to think. Forget ranking Hall of Famers-maybe you could do a sniff test on ranking your anatomy, and consider where the neglected brain should be on the list.

While y'all work on that, I'm sniffing around for Hall of Famers in hopes that one day I get a vote. Should it come, Willie Bloomquist, that's your lucky day, because you selfless utility guy you, you smell right to me, and the nose knows.

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

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