Friday, January 7, 2011

The Common Man Is So Very, Very Wrong

By Bill

The other day, in response to a Twitter conversation/debate TCM and I had, he wrote a piece on why Jack Morris "fits" in the Hall of Fame that basically involved laying out his whole general Hall of Fame theory.  It was a good piece, written well as always, as persuasive as one could make it.  You should read it, if you haven't.

I find myself entirely unconvinced.  Here's why, in a format that'll be pretty familiar if you stopped by yesterday:

According to FanGraphs, his Wins Above Replacement would rank below David Cone, Chuck Finley, David Wells, and Bret Saberhagen.

This comes in the midst of a paragraph that explains perfectly why Morris clearly doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame.  And Baseball-Reference's version of WAR (which goes back further than Fangraphs') agrees as to those four, and also puts him behind Larry French, Tom Candiotti, Wes Ferrell, Brad Radke, Bob Welch, and barely-thirty-year-olds Mark Buehrle and C.C. Sabathia.  He's 140th all time, and is actually the #2 Morris: a nineteenth-century hurler named Ed Morris managed to accumulate more WAR than Jack in just seven seasons.

Just keep that in mind as we continue.

But the point is that there is a place for Jack Morris. None of the above players have the career statistics to justify their inclusion, but were given extra credit by the bodies that elected them for their contributions to the game’s history. A pitcher who has a marginal statistical case for the Hall of Fame can and should be given extra credit, if you will, for their contributions to the game’s history.

Marginal, adj.  (1) fringy: at or constituting a border or edge; the marginal strip of beach
(2) just barely adequate or within a lower limit; a bare majority; a marginal victory

In what way can it plausibly be argued that Morris has a "marginal statistical case"?  TCM pointed out all the reasons he doesn't.  He was slightly above average for a fairly long time (but not that long).  He never had a single great season; in his best year, Morris had a 133 ERA+ (a distant fourth in the league). There is no compelling statistical reason to even consider putting Morris in.

The word "marginal" thus does not apply here.  The sentence should be edited to read: "A pitcher who was just a guy, really can and should be given enough extra credit to get him all the way to the Hall of Fame somehow for his contribution to the game's history."

And, obviously, I'm not OK with that.  I'm all for giving borderline cases extra credit for postseason success, particularly memorable moments, what have you.  I'm not for giving guys with a significantly worse stats-based Hall of Fame case than Kenny Rogers the truly gargantuan extra-credit boost it would take to get them there.

There is are a couple of objections to this position, however. And that is the notion that including Morris in the Hall of Fame lowers the standards for inclusion. However, no one (serious) compares Ron Santo to Freddie Lindstrom when they make a Hall of Fame argument for him. No one tries to argue that Barry Larkin should get in because he’s better than Dave Bancroft or Travis Jackson. Alomar isn’t compared with Bill Mazeroski. These players exist outside of the continuum on which players are judged, either because historians and voters view their induction as mistakes or because they were elected for reasons that go beyond their career statistics. No one seems to have a particular problem doing that. It’s unclear why the practice couldn’t continue with Morris.

This gets disturbing.  Every Hall of Famer named above is viewed almost universally as a colossal mistake.  There is one and one reason alone that they do not become part of the comparisons to potential Hall of Famers: because they have no business being where they are and we never want to make those particular mistakes again.  TCM would have you think of them as being in some set-apart wing of the Hall that is considered totally apart from and based on different standards than the guys who actually have the stats to be there, when the truth is that if they did have their own special wing, it would be called the Wing of Shame or something.  These guys are not part of the continuum because the last thing we want is more guys in who are like them.

(There's one exception to this -- and I think it's the only exception in the whole Hall -- and that's Maz.  I think that laying claim to the "best defender of all-time" title at an important defensive position is enough of a not-entirely-stats-based reason to justify his induction.  But (a) I seem to be in the minority on that--most people just think he was a huge mistake; and (b) that's a unique, career-long special accomplishment, miles beyond the ones Morris has.) 

The other objection TCM anticipates is the idea that allowing voters to use their "feelings" to elevate a particular candidate opens the door to [more bad candidates....  But] 75% is a huge burden to meet.  It's a higher percentage than is required to change the Constitution.  It's beyond a super-majority.  So maybe, if 75% of voters get that "feeling," it's a legitimate one.

But no. 75% of voters got that feeling on Jim Rice and Luis Aparicio and Catfish Hunter.  They've got fifteen years, which is a terribly long time for writers to convince themselves that they've got a feeling.  And what TCM seems to be advocating is that more people should vote for Morris because of his various non-stats contributions, which seems inconsistent with this laissez-faire sort of attitude.

Kirk Gibson could not meet the 75% requirement, even as voters consider his 1988 homerun.  Orel Hershiser didn't do enough to get in, despite his scoreless innings streak.  And Bucky Dent didn't sniff the Hall, despite his homer.

Why?  Gibson had essentially equal rWAR to Morris (37.1-39.3), and his big moment, prior to the big push for Morris to be in the Hall, was certainly more widely and fondly remembered than Morris'.  Hershiser's scoreless innings streak was incredible, and his career stats simply blow Morris out of the water.  It sounds to me like TCM is advocating Morris on a "marginal case + big moment" theory, and then casually dismissing two guys who have, at least, identical cases under the same theory.

Which is really the whole problem with this sort of way of going about it; there's no way at all to obtain the consistency that TCM himself loves so much.  I'm all for considering the little extras, but first there has to be a pretty strong statistical base.  They've got to be somewhere close to the statistical standards -- they have to actually have, as TCM puts it, a marginal case -- or it just becomes a free-for-all, a world in which Heyman and Chass are kings and intellectual consistency is out the window, where up is down, black is white, women are men and men are pencil sharpeners.

Now, while we're talking moments and feel and such, how about Edgar Martinez?  Already at least a borderline candidate, he has the single most memorable moment in his team's history, something so memorable it's referred to simply by the name of the common baseball event it was.  But Morris?  Just not close.

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