Three Cheers For Reason!

From Christmas Eve to New Years Day is as dead of a time frame for baseball news as it is sobriety. The only columns that get churned out by the baseball writing faithful tend to be justifications for personal Hall of Fame ballots (which are due on the last day of 2011) from those members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America who have belonged to the organization for ten or more years, and haven’t been associated with any recent allegations of pedophilia.

For the most part, these columns are frustrating to read through for anyone whose thinking was in any way altered by the Enlightenment. For example, Ron Chimelis recently justified his vote for Fred McGriff, admittedly a very fine baseball player, through the realization that:

The Crime Dog is tied with Lou Gehrig in home runs with 493. Lou Gehrig!

Of course, this rather succinctly ignores the eras in which both players played, as well as the 60 point difference in on base percentage and 123 point difference in slugging that Gehrig enjoys over McGriff. However, ignorance seems to be a running theme throughout Chimelis’ column as he later justifies not voting for Tim Raines by imagining the world to be a slipper slope of a luge track.

My first instinct was to vote for Raines, who ranks fifth all-time in steals with 808. Unlike saves, steals have been been meaningful for 140 years. Raines had six straight 70-steal seasons … But if Raines gets in because he is fifth in steals, what about Vince Coleman, who is sixth? That’s why I talked myself out of it.

Not voting for Raines because of Coleman is much like dismissing a crème brûlée because you’re not in the mood for a Twinkie. A quick comparison:

  • Tim Raines: 170 HRs, 808 SBs, 85% SB%, 385 OBP, .425 SLG, .374 wOBA.
  • Vince Coleman: 28 HRs, 752 SBs, 81% SB%, .324 OBP, ..345 SLG, .320 wOBA.

And, there’s also this:

Source: FanGraphsTim Raines, Vince Coleman

Or perhaps, more impressive, is this:

Source: FanGraphsTim Raines, Andre Dawson, Tony Gwynn

And while it remains disturbing that someone so ill informed of reason and baseball would be counted on to make a reasonable judgement as to properly honouring the best in the history of the great game, attacking all the many areas in which Chimelis and those of his ilk are lacking is ultimately a time consuming and fruitless endeavour.

So, instead, let’s celebrate a few of the writers who got it right. That’s not to say that I wholly endorse their Hall of Fame ballots, but that at the very least, they’re taking their duties seriously enough as to consider reason when when making their decision.

Newsday’s Ken Davidoff chose to put Jeff Bagwell,  Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell and Larry Walker on his ballot. But more important than his selections is this statement:

Perceptions and memories are fun, but numbers have to carry the day. Numbers don’t have to be the whole story, but I don’t see how you can have a story without numbers.

I went to 25 baseball games last season in Toronto. It would be entirely possible that within the 25 games that I went to, Jose Bautista didn’t hit a single home run. If I trusted only the perceptions that I gathered from my visits to Rogers Center, I wouldn’t believe Bautista to be very much of a power hitter.

Think about all of the missed opportunities of observation I had within a season, and then consider all of the missed opportunities of observation that writers might accumulate over a player’s career while they, themselves, likely cover a single team, and due to work constraints, are most likely unable to afford much time to observe a whole lot of players on other teams.

And yet, opinions get formed about those players on other teams that have entirely nothing to do with their actual performance. That’s not due to any incompetence on the part of the writer. It’s human nature to put more weight on your own observations and the group thinking of peers. What’s incompetent is to not realize that bias, and attempt to objectively analyze such things, not just in terms of baseball, but in terms of life.

As Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe shows us, not only is there nothing wrong with changing one’s belief, it’s something that, in the day of stance entrenching arguments in which opinions are made prior to discussions occurring, should be celebrated.

Abraham’s Hall of Fame ballot includes: Jeff Bagwell, Barry Larkin, Tim Raines and Alan Trammell. While, I have no issue at all with any of those four selections, what’s really impressive to me is the Boston writer’s justification for including Bagwell.

Bagwell was not on my ballot last year. I was torn over the idea of voting for a slugger from the Steroid Era and wrote some sort of nonsense about more research needing to be done into that time period.

That was just an excuse. I wondered if Bagwell did some sort of performance enhancing drugs and held back my vote as a result.

Perhaps my view on this will evolve over time. But for now, the fair approach seems to be going on the best facts available, not suspicion.

Apologies to Bagwell for skirting the issue last year.

While, I don’t agree with many of Abraham’s views when it comes to baseball, including his opinion on whether or not PED users belong in the Hall of Fame, I absolutely applaud his very reasonable attitude and willingness to be convinced otherwise on these issues.

In recent years, discussions on the merits of certain players’ candidacy for the Hall of Fame has seemed ridiculous, with little listening being done to arguments that counter one’s own opinion. Abraham’s change of mind gives hope to future discussion, and suggests that making reasonable cases for certain players isn’t as fruitless as it may have seemed in the past.

Of course, this is a two way street. I can’t applaud Abraham for his exercised ability to be swayed by reason, and shut down that same ability in myself. For instance, I would not include Dale Murphy or Larry Walker on my own imaginary Hall of Fame ballot, and yet, I must admit that I would listen to further arguments in favour of both players after Joe Posnanski’s very relevant discussion on the merits of both players in his own Hall of Fame write up.

On Larry Walker:

Playing his prime in Colorado unquestionably inflated Walker’s numbers. Over a career, he hit an absurd .381/.562/.710 in the splendor of Coors Fields’ light air. Away from Coors Field, yeah, he didn’t hit that. Truth is, if you neutralize his numbers — as Baseball Reference will do — they take a big fall.

Actual numbers: .313/.400/.565, 2,160 hits, 383 homers, 1,355 runs, 1,311 RBIs

Neutralized: .294/.378/.530 with 2,040 hits, 357 homers, 1,205 runs, 1,175 RBIs

True, I don’t think he could have had hit .366, .363 and .379 in consecutive years outside of Colorado. I don’t think he could have had a year like he had in 1997 — when he hit .366 with 46 doubles, 49 homers, 143 runs, 130 RBIs, 33 stolen bases, a .720 slugging percentage — outside of Colorado.

But, history is history. Larry Walker did play in Colorado at that time — somebody had to play there. And while I do think you have to keep those numbers in context, I also think they’re pretty amazing numbers.

On Dale Murphy:

I think Murphy’s peak is Hall of Fame-worthy. From 1982 through 1987 — six years — he hit .289/.382/.531, won two MVPs and five Gold Gloves, led the league in home runs twice, RBIs twice, slugging twice, runs once and walks once. I’m not saying, by the way, that he DESERVED all those MVPs and Gold Gloves, but he was a great player and a good fielder, and over that time he might have been the second-best player in the National League.

I do think Murphy was, at his best, a better player than Jim Rice and Andre Dawson, who were both elected to the Hall of Fame over the last few years. I don’t mean that as a knock on either one. I just think that Murphy had more great years than either of them.

To me, this is really all we can ask for: a reasonable justification for one’s Hall of Fame selections. We don’t all need to agree on the players being chosen, but we do need to agree on the terms of which we make arguments for a player’s inclusion or exclusion.

Silly, dimension lacking comparisons of one statistic shouldn’t have a place at the adult table. While the relevance of the Hall of Fame seems to lessen every time such arguments are published, there are a few decision makers who, through their use of reason, give me hope that Cooperstown can maintain and perhaps improve its waning validity after next year’s vote when both the greatest home run slugger and one of the most dominant power pitchers of all time become eligible.