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One of our readers (and occasional contributor), James Kushner had some
reflections on Steven Rubio’s
Abstract Progress:


Dear Steven Rubio and other Baseball Prospectors:


I'm writing in response to your article "Abstract Progress", which decries the
lack of influence that Bill James and his theories have on "the minds of the
average fan or baseball writer."


It seems to me that the source of Mr. Rubio's discontent is extremely
narrow in focus: Hall of Fame voting. Well, of course the Hall of Fame
voters are going to let you down - the makeup of the voting body practically
guarantees it. Anyone who's been a member of the BBWAA for more than ten
years is likely to have formed some pretty firm views about what determines
quality in baseball, and to have had those views locked in long before the
sabermetric revolution took hold. It takes a very courageous individual to
publicly change one's mind, and sportswriters, as a body, are not typically
known for their courage.


The Hall of Fame voters of today are, by and large, the same people who
overrated Steve Garvey in the early 80's. They have nothing to gain as
individuals by changing their minds now, so they probably won't. A quote
attributed to physicist Max Planck seems apropos here: "A new scientific
truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the
light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new
generation grows up that is familiar with it."


The problems faced by sabermetricians is a lifelong one, but it seems
entriely likely that within ten years, the majority of the active
sportswriting community will see the merits of sabermetrics as a tool.
However, the Hall of Fame voting membership will probably have to wait
until 2015 or so for the sabermetics-influenced generation to rule the
roost. (2015 was chosen because it represents a date thirty years from the
original publication of "The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract." I figure
that only by then could the voting membership possibly have a majority of
voters who read Bill James before they became sportswriters.)


Also, the philosophy of Hall of Fame voting works to perpetuate
contemporary illusions and misconceptions, not to rectify them. In most
questions of the value of the best players (and with the Hall of Fame, we
are theoretically talking about the best players), the opinions of
contemporaries and the opinions of history are the same. (The really tough
questions don't have to get asked--the Hall of Fame doesn't care whether
Mickey Mantle was better than Willie Mays. They're both Hall of Famers, and
that's that.) In the tough cases, the voters will defer to the opinions of
contemporaries. (Indeed, for the Negro League committee, that's all they
have to go on.) The Hall of Fame, in choosing whom to honor, usually opts
to reinforce whatever image of a player's quality was in force at the time
of the player's career. To try and always keep current with historical
opinion would necessitate throwing people out whom history no longer
favors. ("You can't have people wondering if the honor was temporary," Bill
James once noted.)


James argues in favor of using contemporary opinion as a factor in the
historical record of a player's quality in the "Historical Abstract",
notably on pp. 306-307 (the Johnny Bassler/Jimmy Brown segment). Regarding
the Garvey/Clark/Downing example, how better to quantify the opinions of
contemporaries than through the summation of MVP Award Shares?

MVP Award Shares, Career:
Steve Garvey 2.470
Jack Clark 1.155
Brian Downing 0.133


Clearly, the more that voters feel determined to defer to contemporary
opinion, the better Garvey's chances are. Indeed, it appears that the
Garvey-for-Hall-of-Fame question will be a very good test case for the
power of sabermetrics to sway historical opinion. He seems to be right at
the borderline of the area where contemporary opinion alone will get one
into the Hall of Fame:


Garvey ranks 28th in the postwar ranking of MVP Shares. Of the 27 players
ahead of him:

  • 18 are in the Hall
  • 3 are still active (Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr.)
  • 3 are retired but not yet eligible (George Brett, Eddie Murray, Kirby Puckett)
  • 2 are eligible but have not attained induction (Jim Rice, Dave Parker)
  • 1 is Pete Rose


Of the folks on the above list, Puckett and Parker will be interesting to
watch, as they both had a higher perceived value among the sportswriters of
their day than is borne out by sabermetric analysis of their stats. In
addition, two other who are just behind Garvey, Andre Dawson (2.366 MVP
Shares) and Dale Murphy (2.308) will also be important for vote-watchers.


Of course, historical judgement can work in favor of those who have been
unfairly slighted in their own time:

Eddie Mathews: 1.696 MVP Shares
Willie McCovey: 1.645 MVP Shares
Billy Williams: 1.598 MVP Shares


All are in the Hall, with not much controversy. Williams, of course, may
have hurt Ron Santo's chances with his own induction, but it's clear that
voters of the time thought that Williams was a better player. Santo had
1.223 MVP Shares during his career.


Indeed, in my hazy crystal ball, Lou Whitaker, recipient of a puny 0.214
MVP Shares in his career, stands a better-than-even chance of induction.


Regarding the question of whether things are that bad today: well, they're
certainly getting better. ESPN shows on-base percentage routinely as one of
the stats for each batter. The BBWAA has made some perceptive choices
lately, notably Pat Hentgen and Pedro Martinez's Cy Young votes. Indeed, I
think that the sabermetric influence first hit the BBWAA in 1990, when they
made the right pick with Barry Bonds for NL MVP, despite his having a
teammate (Bonilla) with more R and RBI. (Bonds did have a higher batting
average, though, so it may have just been old statistical prejudices
inadvertently reinforcing a correct decision.)


Of course, since then there have been some howlers committed both the the
BBWAA (Terry Pendleton? Juan Gonzalez?) and major league GMs (Joe Carter?
Galarraga's contract??) but the climate is certainly improving.


In a Panglossian vein, I do believe that the sabermetric disciples do
currently live in the best of all possible worlds. The fact that they're
right means that the future of historical opinion does belong to them,
while the present mixed state of acceptance means that they have many
opportunities to vent their spleen at "the conventional wisdom", which is
one of the truest delights of any sports fan.

Yours sincerely,
James Kushner


P.S. Rubio's reference to Bill James' comment that "the on-base percentage of a
team's leadoff man was the most important factor in determining how many
runs a team would score" is largely irrelevant to the debate. Of the three
players he focusses on, only Downing was ever a leadoff man, and then for
only a few seasons. If James' comment had referred to the on-base
percentage of the entire team rather than that of the leadoff man (and he
has made many comments like that over the years; couldn't Rubio find one to
quote?) it would have had more relevance to his argument.


Steven Rubio replies:


James Kushner makes some excellent points in his response to my piece
on sabermetric progress, and it’s just the kind of exchange of ideas we welcome
at the Prospectus. Having read James’ reply here, and after further discussions
with him, I can say we share many ideas about the proper use of sabermetric
techniques to evaluate player production. Ultimately, the primary focus of our
disagreement revolves around definitions of the “mainstream media” and/or the
“average/casual fan.” James is much more optimistic than I about the impact of
sabermetric approaches in the mainstream, and I admit that I hope his optimism
is warranted. As long as triple-crown hitting stats take precedence in the
minds of most fans over even something as elementary as on-base percentage,
though, I will remain pessimistic. Thanks to James for his thoughtful reply;
nothing is more welcome to a writer than to know an audience has taken him
seriously.