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January 10, 2013

Manufactured Runs

What Hall of Fame Voters are Doing to the Hall of Fame

by Colin Wyers

The writers struck out looking. They were lobbed a fat pitch over the heart of the plate and they failed to even take a swing at it. Defenders will note, correctly, that it isn’t the ninth inning. But it was the last at-bat of the eighth, and they face an exceedingly difficult challenge in coming back to win this thing.

The biggest takeaway is that there is a sizable contingent of voters who will refuse to vote for any player, no matter how qualified, if there’s the barest taint of steroids on him, up to and including “playing the majority of his career after 1993.” Many will cast this as a referendum on Bonds and Clemens, two of the sports’ greatest stars who ended up in legal hot water over the use of performance-enhancing drugs. But a litany of deserving players, including Biggio, Bagwell, Piazza, and others, have been punished too, with little more than hearsay to incriminate them. This was a well stocked ballot, filled with newcomers with impressive resumes and a handful of players (like Raines and Trammell) who have been sadly overlooked. It’s easy for even a seasoned analyst to find himself having to trim his list to meet the 10-player limit established by the voting process.

And the ballot crunch is only going to get worse over time. In 2014, the ballot will grow to include Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas, Mike Mussina, and Tom Glavine. In 2015, they’ll be joined by Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Gary Sheffield, and John Smoltz. In 2016, throw Ken Griffey and Jim Edmonds on the pile. That’s potentially an entire ballot’s worth of players coming onto the ballot in the next three years. Already, nearly a quarter of voters who have published their ballots individually are using the full 10 votes (according to this invaluable guide), and many of them are saying even 10 votes were not enough for this year’s ballot. And yet only two players receiving significant vote percentages (Jack Morris and Alan Trammell) are set to come off the ballot during that time period. If the writers do not begin electing a significant number of players, they will quickly encounter a flood that threatens to overwhelm them.

To be sure, sorting out what did and did not happen in baseball during the past decade and change is a tremendous challenge. Figuring out who has and hasn’t used steroids is a difficult task. We know that not everyone who used has been caught, either in the Mitchell report or through the testing program. What we do know, based upon players who have been caught, is that the stereotype of who juices is not very representative of the typical juicer. As I’ve written previously:

[I]f we look at players who have actually been identified as taking steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs—either through the Mitchell report or suspension by MLB—they aren't any bigger than the average player. The average PED user was 73 inches tall and 193 pounds. The average MLB player over the same time span was 74 inches, 195 pounds. If you cherry-pick a handful of examples (Barry Bonds, for instance), you can get an impression that PED users are larger than the typical MLB player. But considering the entirety of the available evidence, there's no support for the idea that larger players use PEDs at a higher rate than smaller players. Players that used banned substances during the "steroids era" came in all shapes and sizes.

What if [we consider not] body type, but position? Designated hitter has different offensive requirements than shortstop and no counterweighting defensive responsibilities. But let's look at changes in home runs per plate appearance between the two positions in the pre- and post-"steroids" era:

 

SS_HR_PA

DH_HR_PA

1980-1992

0.011

0.031

1993-2011

0.017

0.038

Difference

0.007

0.007

That's right, folks—the increase in home run rates for shortstops and designated hitters was essentially identical. DHs do hit more home runs than shortstops, but that's always been the case. This suggests one of two things:

  • That shortstops took steroids at similar rates to designated hitters, or
  • That steroids were not the primary cause of increased home run rates.

Of course, both could be true - they're not mutually exclusive.

We also find, based on the record of known users, that hitters are not vastly more likely to use PEDs than pitchers. The litany of players who are known users of PEDs looks like a cross-section of MLB, not a profile of any particular kind of player.

What of the notion of guilt by association? Consider this Hall of Fame ballot from Pat Caputo of the Macomb Daily:

Bagwell and Biggio present more interesting cases. They get much more benefit of the doubt from writers, and not without some justification because their names haven’t shown up on lists or in a book.

But look at all their connections to the Astros of that era — Ken Caminiti, Clemens, Andy Pettitte.

Bagwell’s body had an incredible amount of muscle given his frame. It was like Barry Bonds’ head in 2001 — it just didn’t look normal.

Biggio is far less suspected because of his smaller frame, but he was on those teams, and reportedly close to those players, and his power numbers did suddenly and magically rise at one point of his career (not just home runs, but doubles), and before the Astros moved into a more hitter’s friendly ball park. Again, I am very skeptical about there being any “magic” involved.

We can give Caputo some credit, in that he seems to recognize that not all steroid users look the part. (In some sense, he’s paid more attention to the history of the steroid era than those who assert that Biggio is clean beyond a shadow of a doubt.) But the “evidence” he wields here is awfully flimsy.

Past Bagwell’s body type and home run numbers, the case for either of them using PEDs is an increase in power and playing on the same team as some confirmed PED users. Let’s take a look at Biggio’s career, along with the percentage of teams who have had a player who was implicated in PED usage (either in the Mitchell Report, a positive test in MLB’s program or some other source):

 

YEAR

ROID_PCT

1988

46.2%

1989

57.7%

1990

69.2%

1991

73.1%

1992

92.3%

1993

92.9%

1994

85.7%

1995

92.9%

1996

92.9%

1997

92.9%

1998

93.3%

1999

90.0%

2000

93.3%

2001

86.7%

2002

86.7%

2003

90.0%

2004

90.0%

2005

83.3%

2006

90.0%

2007

80.0%

So what you can see here is that if you’re using “played on a team with PED users” as your criteria for suspicion, you’re casting a very wide net indeed.

But what about the boost in power? Let’s look at home runs per plate appearance, before 1993 and after 1993, over the length of Biggio’s career. The average player (weighted by playing time) saw his HR/PA increase by .007, or nearly 5 home runs in 650 plate appaerances. 76 percent of players (weighted by playing time) saw their HR/PA increase between those two samples.

The simple fact was that baseball saw rising offense during Biggio’s career, and a host of factors (from stadiums to equipment) played into that. (Consult Jay Jaffe’s chapter in Extra Innings for a thorough discussion).  And if association with cheaters is your standard of evidence, there probably isn’t a potential Hall of Fame hitter or pitcher from this era you couldn’t cast aspersions on. (How many PED users has, say, Derek Jeter played with in his career?) It’s a license for out-and-out witchhunts.

The troubling truth is that we don’t know who used and who didn’t, not completely. And we never will. And what’s more, we will undoubtedly learn more about players after the induction process has run its course; one way or another, voters are almost assuredly going to make decisions that look worse with the benefit of hindsight.

So nobody should envy voters the challenge in front of them. But the writers of the BBWAA have accepted this responsibility, often are full-throated in their defense of their role in the process, and occasionally very protective of their role in the process. So this challenge is in front of them, and it’s up to them to handle it.

Let’s take a step back and reflect on the mission of the Hall of Fame:

The Hall of Fame's mission is to preserve the sport's history, honor excellence within the game and make a connection between the generations of people who enjoy baseball. Likewise the institution functions as three entities under one roof with a museum, the actual Hall of Fame and a research library. With these parts working together the Museum is committed to fulfilling its mission by:

Collecting, through donation, baseball artifacts, works of art, literature, photographs, memorabilia and related materials which focus on the history of the game over time, its players and those elected to the Hall of Fame.

Preserving the collections by adhering to professional museum standards with respect to conservation and maintaining a permanent record of holdings through documentation, study, research, cataloging and publication.

Exhibiting material in permanent gallery space, organizing on-site changing exhibitions on various themes, with works from the Hall of Fame collections or other sources, working with other individuals or organizations to exhibit loaned material of significance to baseball and providing related research facilities.

Interpreting artifacts through its exhibition and education programs to enhance awareness, understanding and appreciation of the game for a diverse audience.

Honoring, by enshrinement, those individuals who had exceptional careers, and recognizing others for their significant achievements.

At first blush, only the last item seems relevant to the matter at hand. But that’s how the Hall fulfills its mission, not what its mission is – the Hall is dedicated to preserving history, honoring excellence and connecting generations of baseball fans.

The debate over the latest slate of players focuses on the second point, and focuses on the idea of honoring rather than the idea of excellence. Writers seem reticent to honor players who they believe engaged in questionable conduct, and that’s understandable and, to an extent, admirable.

But that narrow focus ignores the other parts of the Hall’s mission. Leaving out a single player, or even a small handful, may still allow the Hall to preserve history. (Although Barry Bonds, as the greatest player the game has ever seen, may in fact be the single player who challenges that notion.) But by refusing to induct hitters like Bagwell and Piazza who are so far merely tainted by association with this period in baseball history, voters would be rendering the Hall incapable of fulfilling that part of its mission fully. And in terms of connecting generations of baseball fans, leaving aside the stars of an entire era of play is actively detrimental to that goal. Fans who grew up watching those players will not forget their accomplishments; the Hall is incapable of conferring fame, merely recognizing it. A Hall without them, without the greatest players of an entire generation, simply delegitimizes itself.

Because for the Hall to continue its mission to connect generations of baseball fans, it needs to bring them there. Last year, roughly 20,000 fans showed up for induction weekend, and that was hardly a high-water mark for them (three times as many fans showed up in 2007). Induction weekend turnout like that could represent nearly 10 percent of the Hall’s annual attendance – those induction crowds are a big driver of visitors to the Hall. And attendance figures have been slipping dramatically in recent years.

As Joe Posnanski put it:

This is not a new phenomenon. In 1939, with the world going into war, the writers en masse made that critical decision that forever shaped the Hall of Fame -- they decided that players were getting into the Hall of Fame much too quickly. I suspect they were worried that if they kept voting in players EVERY YEAR, well, they couldn't trust themselves to keep the pristine standards of the Hall of Fame that they had just invented. They feared that the Hall of Fame could become watered down, filled with mediocrities, men unworthy of being in the same room as the Iron Horse and the Georgia Peach. No, they didn't want the unexceptional in their Hall of Fame -- I'm pretty sure that's how they saw it. Their Hall of Fame. A place with only -- ONLY -- the true immortals.

Well, you know how such efforts usually end up -- by having precisely the opposite happen. The writers did hold to the "true immortal standard" -- from 1940-1946, they elected exactly ONE player into the Hall of Fame. One. Rogers Hornsby. That was it

But here's the thing -- and we writers should be aware of this now too: The Hall of Fame didn't just stand still while the writers put on their shining armor and attempted to bar the doors. No, it doesn't work that way. Nobody wants a stagnant Hall of Fame. Nobody wants a Hall of Fame so exclusive that LEFTY FREAKING GROVE isn't good enough to get in. Starting in 1940, visitors to the Hall of Fame dropped dramatically. Obviously, World War II was by far the biggest reason, but with the writers locked in righteous inaction, the Hall of Fame stopped moving.

And of course the Hall could not and would not stand for this. We got a succession of second chances like the Veteran's Committee, which did elect people like Lefty Grove. But they also elected a succession of most of the Hall’s worst players. Far from keeping the Hall more exclusive, by refusing to engage with the ballots in front of them, the writers indirectly led to a larger and less elite Hall of Fame instead.

Similarly, the Hall of Fame can not and will not allow the entirety of the modern era of baseball to be overlooked. Writers who are sending in blank ballots or one-player protest ballots (there are at least nine who have committed to doing so publicly) aren’t being clever, they are being obstinate. Voters like Jon Heyman and Troy Renck who want more time to think about the candidates on this ballot… après Bonds, le déluge. The choices only get harder from here on out. And a lot of deserving guys, like Kenny Lofton, are going to get entirely overlooked as a result of this kind of a ballot crunch.

Journalists are said to write the first draft of history. Baseball journalists, through the Hall, have been given the rare opportunity to write the second draft. But they don’t get to write the final draft, and their influence on it may not always take the shape they expect. Nobody will deny that the writers had a difficult task placed in front of them. But that shouldn’t stop anyone from recognizing that they failed abjectly at it. Of course, journalists failed at the first draft, too – it took the likes of Jose Canseco to expose the use of PEDs in baseball, while the bulk of the BBWAA reported on them via press release and media scrum, not enterprise reporting. Our nation’s baseball writers have moved from failing to ask tough questions to failing to answer them. The most likely outcome at this point is that the Hall will be forced to step in later and clean up the wreckage that results. And if history is any guide, they’ll leave their own messes, ones much harder to fix.

Yes, there’s another chance next year, but the task gets harder, not easier, from here on out. And right now, the members of the BBWAA seem to be too busy grandstanding to take advantage of it.

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

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