Saturday, December 18, 2010

On Rights and Responsibilities in Hall of Fame Voting: Do the Job Right or Don't Do It At All

By The Common Man

A couple of days ago seemed to be Hall of Fame Day around the internets, as SI’s Jon Heyman released his ballot which was predictably non-sensical and haphazard (Update: Heyman has since published a column explaining his voting. While TCM doesn't agree with his vote, nor his criteria ("in some ways you just had to be there" and "impact," and especially his assertions for Morris over Blyleven), it's clear that Jon has put a great deal of thought into his vote and has tried to be as consistent and true to his own criteria as possible.  He also strikes a very consiliatory and reasonable tone, and demonstrates an active interest in rethinking his previous votes.  He is also not trying to enforce a new standard on the Hall.  The Common Man is sorry, Jon, for suggesting otherwise.) and it was commented on here. Also, Hall of Fame voter Paul Leume offered to give readers a chance to have some input on his ballot over on Around the Horn. Paul announced his dissatisfaction that the Hall’s criteria for membership has been less than stringent in the past trimmed his 33 man ballot down to a more manageable number by crossing off players who did not meet his criteria, which he defined as:
“To me there is only one category of ball players that should be considered for the Hall of Fame. That category consists of those once in a generation type ball players that were dominant at their position during the era they played in for an extended period of time. These are players who changed the way the game was played and managed.”
This criteria, however, gave rise to serious objections by Bill and The Common Man, who contributed extensively to the comments section, and who suggested that Leume should face dire consequences for his desire to actively reshape the Hall of Fame’s body through his voting. Bill wrote, “
The Hall is what it is, and I think voters, while obviously totally free to apply their own valuations of players and such, have an obligation to do their best to more or less hold to the Hall's already entrenched standards. If you're going to say 'I know the Hall is this, but I think it should be limited to this instead, so I'm going to vote as though that's what it is,' in my opinion, you should have your vote taken away. You've been given a responsibility to the sport and the institution, and you're utterly failing to uphold it.”
The Common Man echoed, and perhaps amplified, Bill’s sentiments,
“You seem to be announcing a decision to completely abdicate your responsibility to the public and to the Hall of Fame as a voter and is an attempt to substitute your own subjective and arbitrary definition of a 'Hall of Famer' for one that has been previously established by the Hall and your brethren. You have crossed over from an arbiter to a politician…. Voters had to think carefully about these players to parse between them and less worthy candidates and came to the conclusion that, indeed, they were worthy. To hear you say you're not willing to do the heavy lifting is infuriating and sad. If you're not going to do your job, then stand aside so someone else, who is willing, can.”
 All of which gives rise to an important question, what are the responsibilities of a Hall of Fame voter in 2010?

First, an important caveat. No one here is saying that a voter should have his or her vote stripped because they do or do not support a particular candidate. Nor does anyone on this site believe that voters need to use the same criteria (for instance WAR). We, at The Platoon Advantage, believe in no way that our opinions are sacrosanct. And we acknowledge voters are entrusted to make distinctions between the players by the Hall of Fame and the Baseball Writers’ Association of America because of their general knowledge about the game.

Responsibility #1: Respect the process.

Leume writes, “When someone says to you ‘is this guy a HOF player?’ if you even have to think about it and mull it over, he's not…. Albert Pujols IN if he quits tomorrow, no brainer. Jason Giambi, NO - It's really simple when you come down to it.” As Bill points out, however, writers are not asked to answer just the easy questions. If it were easy, every writer would have understood that Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, and Harmon Killebrew were Hall of Famers the moment they appeared on the ballot. Instead, each of them had to wait to be elected. And they had to wait because writers had to re-calibrate what it meant to be a Hall of Famer. They had to understand that Berra and Campanella’s low homer totals were actually incredibly impressive for catchers, who tend to have a shorter career. They needed to understand the incredible value of Killebrew’s power (even if they didn’t yet grasp the importance of his patience). And perhaps at first glance, in their kneejerk response, they missed that.

There will be guys that writers don’t need to research (like Pujols or Aaron or Seaver), but there will always be tougher calls (like Mark McGwire, Barry Larkin, and Bert Blyleven) whose greatness may not be immediately evident at first pass. Just because a writer has been entrusted with a vote, doesn’t mean that writer is the be-all-and-end-all of baseball knowledge, and they owe it to themselves, their colleagues, the Hall of Fame, the players, and fans everywhere to do research and think carefully about their vote. Otherwise, superior players like Lou Whitaker may be forced off the ballot.

Responsibility #2: Know your history.

This goes not just for the history of the players involved but for the history of the Hall of Fame. Regardless of what Leume thinks, the Hall of Fame has never been exclusively for “once in a generation type ball players that were dominant at their position during the era they played in for an extended period of time[, the] players who changed the way the game was played and managed.”

In 1939, the voters decided to induct 19th century players, and chose Willie Keeler and Buck Ewing, along with George Sisler. All of them were, no doubt, fine players, but when stacked up next to the earlier classes that inducted the no-brainers (Ruth, Cobb, Wagner, etc.), it paled in comparison. And the Hall of Fame realized, over the next seven years (in which only Rogers Hornsby was elected) that it was far more important to elect somebody rather than nobody. So in 1945, they elected nine members, including Hugh Duffy, Jimmy Collins, Roger Bresnahan, and Jim O’Rourke. In 1946, they elected another ten, including Tinker, Evers, Chance, Chesbro, and, perhaps the worst player in the Hall of Fame, Tommy McCarthy.

The Hall of Fame hasn’t been what Leume and like-minded writers think it is, therefore, for the past 70 years. Yet Leume wants to pretend that this history does not exist. That the precedent has not been set. Instead, he wants to create his own Hall of Fame that bears no resemblance to the current one. But that’s not noble. That’s not returning the Hall of Fame to its roots. That’s saying, I know what the Hall of Fame is, but I don’t approve and I’m going to do something about it. It’s hubris.

By looking at this precedent, Paul is afraid that “There will be a time in your life...when they are placing every Tom Dick and Harry who ever had an above average WAR rating in the Hall and you will become disenchanted as the honor of getting in looses its meaning.” [sic] But acknowledging that this precedent exists doesn’t mean that we have to open the Hall of Fame to the lowest common denominator of player. Indeed, we can acknowledge that Tommy McCarthy, Ross Youngs, Elmer Flick, and Freddie Lindstrom were terrible selections and not use them in our analysis. We can look at whether a player, for instance, would be an above average Hall of Famer at his position. We can look to see whether a player’s inclusion significantly improves the quality of the membership body compared to who’s already in. We can use some damn common sense.

Voters need to respect what the Hall of Fame body has become, and use their best judgment to make sure that they are honoring both the players and the institution in the manner that both deserve. They cannot choose to ignore the history of the Hall and its membership.

Responsibility 3: Be intellectually consistent.

Look, again, The Common Man doesn’t think that a writer who would vote for Jack Morris is a bad voter. Indeed, if a voter thinks that Jack Morris was a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher, he should have every right to cast that vote. But that voter then needs to be willing to vote for every player who is more worthy than Jack Morris. And there are HOF eligible pitchers who were much, much better than Black Jack.  Such things have been demonstrably proven. Bert Blyleven, for instance, was far superior. He pitched more and longer, he won more games, his ERA was better relative to his league than Morris, he struck out more batters, he performed better in the postseason.
And if you believe in something as stupid as pitching to the score, Blyleven was better at that too. In which his team scored 0-2 runs, Bert had a 3.35 ERA and a .193 winning percentage. In games that Morris pitched, in which his team scored 0-2 runs, Jack had a 4.00 ERA and a .134 winning percentage. In fact, Blyleven has a winning percentage that’s better than Morris in games that his team scored more than 5 runs as well. And the two are virtually tied in winning percentage (.598 for Morris, .595 for Bert) in games where their teams scored 3-5 runs. The only reason Blyleven’s overall winning percentage is so much lower than Morris’s is that Bert’s teams scored fewer than 3 runs per game in more than a third (34.5%) of his starts, while Morris’s clubs scored fewer than 3 runs in only 26% of his. Blyleven lost so many more games, then, because he was more often put in a position to lose. And in every aspect of a pitcher’s job, he was better than Morris.

Likewise, a writer can think Jim Rice is a Hall of Famer. But if he really thinks that, he should be prepared to vote for Tim Raines, who was miles better than Rice was in every aspect of the game except hitting homeruns. And a writer can believe in his heart of hearts that Omar Vizquel is a Hall of Famer. But then he’d better be voting for Barry Larkin and Alan Trammell. The list goes on.

Unless a writer is taking the “fame” portion of “Hall of Fame” literally, they have no excuses for thinking that Morris, Rice, or Vizquel are better candidates. If a writer argues differently, they are either being intellectually inconsistent, intentionally obtuse, or woefully and willfully ignorant for reasons that we can’t really understand.

Responsibility #4: Check your work and have an open mind.

Don’t just rely on yourself to make these judgments. Talk to other voters. Talk to fans (who, other than the players, are the real reason the Hall of Fame exists in the first place). Talk to researchers and historians and writers who don’t have a vote. Talk to former players and executives. Seek out advice. And if it seems as though others might have a stronger argument, it's ok to acknowledge you might be wrong.

This institution is important to baseball fans and important to the game of baseball. And to be endowed with the honor of determining who gets to go into the Hall of Fame and who has to stay out is a sacred trust. You owe it to yourself, to the Hall, to your colleagues, to the candidates, and to the fans to give your best effort. Obviously, voters are busy men and women, who have huge time commitments. But if they cannot devote the necessary time and energy to doing their due diligence, voters should have the common decency to either not submit a ballot or have their rights taken from them and given to someone who does care enough to weigh the decision carefully.


The Oriole Way said...

While I don't particularly agree with Leume's criteria, I don't think they deserve expulsion. The Hall sets only this guideline for voters:

"Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played."

If he chooses to define his Hall as once in a generation, that's entirely consistent with the Hall's actual guidelines. Nothing says that he must consider the relative place of candidates to others already enshrined. Now, if he votes for Jack Morris and not Bert Blyleven...

Link to the election rules:

The Common Man said...

You know, The Common Man can kind of see where Leume is coming from. TCM's a "Big Hall" guy, but he can understand guys who want to limit induction for the best of the best. But the way that Leume interprets his own criteria is pretty ridiculous. If you look at his original post, he eliminates several names off his ballot on the first pass, including Blyleven, Raines, and Larkin. But he inexplicably allows Mattingly, Juan Gonzalez, Morris, and Dale Murphy through. There is no way to justify that distinction, and it's indicative of a man who has no interest in thinking through his ballot.

Anonymous said...

It seems that every year a voter says something like "I spoke with several HOF players and they all agree that player X should/shouldn't be in the HOF." Then the blogosphere erupts at the writer for asking former players whose opinion differs from the blogosphere.

Chris W said...


Link please?

...but wouldn't that be awesomely hypocritical of bloggers it were actually true?

Jonathan C. Mitchell said...

"Indeed, if a voter thinks that Jack Morris was a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher, he should have every right to cast that vote. But that voter then needs to be willing to vote for every player who is more worthy than Jack Morris."

This is my sentiment, exactly. I am more of a small-hall guy but if you are going to vote for a Jim Rice, Andre Dawson, or *gulp* Kirby Puckett, then vote for the players that were better -- even if there are a lot of them, which there are...

LargeBill said...

All we are asking is that voters take the responsibility seriously enough to spend a few minutes on every player on the ballot. Our memories are not perfect. Take the time to actually review their career and verify your memories. That review followed by consistency is all we can ask for.

Anonymous said...

Should transparency be on the list? That is do voters have an obligation to reveal all of their HOF choices (in and out) and the reasons behind them?

Anonymous said...

Nice piece--thoughtless HOF voting should be called out as much as possible.

However, you're unfairly dissing Elmer Flick by listing him with McCarthy, Youngs, and Lindstrom among the Hall's big mistakes. His career WAR, bbref version, is 56.7, a far cry from the 36.2, 29.2, and 19.0 that Youngs, Lindstrom, and McCarthy managed, respectively. He had a short career, yes, which TCM may not like, but he was excellent for virtually his whole career. There are lots of HOFers, many usually thought of as deserving, with career WAR between 58 and 55, including Richie Ashburn, Bid McPhee, Zack Wheat, Hal Newhouser, Willie Stargell, Billy Williams, Jim Bunning, Andre Dawson, Whitey Ford, Hank Greenberg, Ed Walsh, (Flick), Lou Boudreau, Joe Medwick, Three-Finger Brown, Billy Herman, Joe Kelley, Bill Terry, and Mickey Welch.

For a "small-hall" guy, maybe none of these players belong, but even so a distinction should be made between players like these and huge mistake choices like McCarthy, Lindstrom, and Youngs.


Karmadrome said...

I love the concept behind this post, but am I the only one that's bothered by the disconnect between points 2 and 3? I can understand why one would want a voter to understand the history of the Hall and to respect the de facto standards established by voters. But...

If one were to abide by the established standards, one could very easily vote for Jim Rice and not for Tim Raines because, based on the players that voters have traditionally preferred, Rice is a superior candidate for the Hall. The idea that superior players should be considered ahead of players who have done things that the Hall has previously rewarded is every bit as much a break with tradition as what Leume has proposed. As strange as it sounds, electing only the "best" players is not and has never been the standard which HoF voters have employed.

Personally, I really prefer the idea that only the best players make it in (the standard you seem to be espousing in point #3). But I think it's important to recognize that making this the standard is a break with tradition of a similar nature, if not degree, to what Paul Leume has proposed.

The Common Man said...

Re: Transparency

That's an excellent question. It's not technically a secret ballot, since presumably the HOF has access to the votes of each member. But it is kept from the public.

The BBWAA has begun to release the ballots of members for the major awards, so they should be willing to do so here.

TCM doesn't think that this transparency is absolutely necessary, as long as the HOF is keeping track of who seems to be following the guidelines (which TCM doesn't think they are currently doing). It would be, however, greatly appreciated.

Charles Simone said...

I've recently started checking out your blog on a semi-regular basis, and have definitely been enjoying it.

Working my way through the comments to the Paul Leume piece on Around the Horn (hopefully I'll be done by Christmas) and I definitely come down on the Bill/TCM side of the argument.

I have one point to add, though:

Even if we accept the premise that "If you have to think about it, then he's not a Hall of Famer," then as the standard becomes tougher and the bar moves (so to speak), so does the gray area. If everyone's case has to be that cut and dried, then the only guys inducted this past decade who really deserve it are Ripken, Gwynn, Boggs, Molitor, Murray and Ozzie (all guys who got at least 85% of the vote). Even Winfield came up short of that, so does Winfield fall into the gray area? Actually, maybe Molitor belongs there too.

My point is, raising the bar doesn't make this as easy a question as Leume claims. It just moves the bar to a different place. To use a college football analogy, before the BCS came along, #2 team in the country complained that they deserved the national championship over the #1 team. Now that the #1 and #2 teams play for the championship, it's the #3 team who thinks they've been done an injustice.

Anyway, keep up the good work guys. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

What about the voter who considers his ballot and decides Raines and Rice are not Hall of Famers, but that Raines was a superior player. Once Rice gets in, should the voter then decide that Hall has lowered its standards and so should he, or that if Raines missed the cut the year before, he shouldn't make it on in future years as well?

NicoSamuelson2 said...

Interesting point, Anon. If the voter feels Raines is superior to Rice, but that neither are HOFers, and now Rice is in, should they vote for Raines to gain entrance? My feeling would be that this falls into the "two wrongs don't make a right" category, but it nonetheless illustrates how the voting isn't such a clear-cut franchise.

Charles Simone said...

I think the last two comments just point out that responsibility #3 is flawed, or at least not properly worded.

If a voter thinks Jack Morris is worthy, he doesn't have an obligation to vote for anyone other than who he thinks is better than Morris.

If he doesn't think Blyleven is better than Morris, he's not obligated to vote for him, and if someone he thinks is not HOF-worthy gets elected, that doesn't automatically mean he should vote for players he thinks better than that player, even if he doesn't believe them to be HOF-worthy.

Bill said...

I think the problem is that it's impossible to be doing your job and think that Morris was better than Blyleven. If you take your vote seriously and look at it in anything like an objective and reasonable way, there's only one conclusion there. So the other rules above foreclose the possibility you raise. You can't have an "opinion" that the sun rises in the west.

I agree with the point that the induction of a player who the voter doesn't think belongs doesn't mean that the voter has to vote for everyone better than that player. Here's where I would've said it differently than TCM, though; I think you have an obligation to uphold the general spirit of the Hall. I hope you won't just vote for players who are better than the very worst at their positions in the Hall, that's dumb. But if you're an extreme small-hall guy and think the only outfielders who should really be in are Ruth, Mays, Cobb, Mantle and Williams, you cannot vote that way. You're violating the spirit of the insitution, voting as though it were this whole other institution you've created in your head. So however you want to do it -- a reasonable thing for a small-hall person, for one example, would be to see whether the player is above or below the current HOF median (whether they'd raise or lower the current standards, if you will), and this is a great tool for that -- you have to give some consideration to what the Hall of Fame already is, and vote accordingly.

Charles Simone said...

That is an awesome tool, thanks, although relief pitchers are still tough to quantify...but that's a whole other discussion.

I believe that Blyleven is better than Morris, and I agree that the Hall is what it is, and that's what it should remain...not some idyllic place where only Ruth, Cobb and Walter Johnson reside.

But, it's impossible to argue with those who won't let go of the "smell test" or the "eye test" or the "you had to be there" type arguments, although why Jack Morris has become their poster boy is beyond me.

Preaching to the choir, I realize.