Sunday, January 10, 2010

Does the Baseball Hall of Fame Voting Need Reform?

I realize I'm about a year late in getting to one of Erik's resolutions for this blog, but I'd like to go ahead and add a little more on the Hall of Fame. There has been some controversy over the decisions of the BBWAA to elect Andre Dawson alone, let Bert Blyleven and Robbie Alomar fall short, not elect Tim Raines, etc., controversy and outrage in which I myself have participated. While I think this year was particularly silly, I don't think it's so much a year-to-year basis, and rather, a broader institutional problem: the voters of the baseball Hall of Fame simply misunderstand their role, overestimate their importance, or just aren't that familiar with what constitutes "greatness."

A perfect example of these traits is Howard Bryant, an ESPN writer who's just begun his voting in the Hall of Fame process. ESPN published a dual-article series of pros and cons of reforming the voting system between Rob Neyer and Howard Bryant. Neyer briefly explains why there should and will be reform, though his arguments do occasionally have problems. Neyer feels there should be a "culling" of the herd, but believes that this will inevitably lead to lowering the quality of the inductees. Admittedly, that is possible, but A) isn't there debate already that there are some in the Hall who are undeserving (including some who feel Dawson shouldn't be in)?; and B) but given how culling the field of people who don't actually pay attention to baseball hasn't been tried, there's no way to say the quality of inductees will decline with certainty. It's just one of those things you won't know until it happens. Beyond that, though, I agree with Neyer for the most part, and think his observation that the ballots that see Clemens and Bonds on them will lead to some real hand-wringing on the part of the writers and are a potential flashpoint for reform.

Howard Bryant's article is far more interesting, detailed, and ultimately flawed. Bryant stakes out the non-reform angle. His overall argument is, obviously, that there doesn't need to be any reform to the system; it works fine, and this year wasn't an abberation. However, his logic supporting his arguments falls woefully short in a number of regards.

Bryant first suggests that the most recent outrage is a bunch of hullabaloo about nothing, and that bloggers and fans need to calm down. However, he himself doesn't seem to understand the complaints us "non-writers" have. He belittles both technology (via blogging) and statistical analysis as it now exists, declaring that both have "hijacked" the process. The speciousness of this argument should be clear. I'm not sure how bloggers have hijacked the process, since we don't get to vote. And as for the statistics, Bryant strangely points to things like OPS+ to argue that baseball has gotten too burdened with numbers. This is just patently silly; fans and baseball wonks alike are constantly working to find better ways to quantify just what a player adds to a team in numerous facets; OPS+ is just one of these numbers, and I think you can strongly argue that OPS+ does tell us much more about a player's overall worth across the Majors than RBIs, home runs, or runs. That's not to say the latter are useless (and I don't know any serious baseball fan who thinks the older stats are useless); it's simply to suggest we can gain an even better understanding of how well players play, and new metrics are a great way to do that. Bryant may not like it, but those stats exist and are used, not just by wonks, but by GMs and coaches. If writers like Bryant want to refuse to use the statistical analysis available, it's their problem, not the stats'.

Bryant also tries to defend voters' particular choices this year. In the case of Edgar Martinez, he brushes off Martinez's stats glibly, declaring that "Yes, Edgar Martinez joins Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Stan Musial as the only players to have a .300 batting average, 500 doubles and a .400 on-base percentage, but would anyone in his or her right mind actually choose to start a team with Martinez over any of those players?" What? What does that have to do with anything? The Hall of Fame Ballot isn't about picking the greatest player ever at each position if you were fielding a dream team; under that logic, there would only be 10 (11 if you allowed for a relief pitcher; 12 if you allowed for the DH) that would be in the Hall. Worse, this kind of "reasoning" not only does nothing to strengthen Bryant's argument; it actually reifies the worst perception of the Hall, i.e., that old-timey guys are always better than more recent players. This just reinforces a foolish and worse-than-useless "golden-age" type nostalgia that ignores facts like whites-only leagues probably mattered more than they want to acknowledge.

Likewise, saying, "well, they didn't elect anybody between 1942 and 1947, either!" is also painfully specious: A) there was a war going on for much of that time, and baseball fell to the wayside, and B) what kind of argument is "we voted just like they did 62-67 years ago!" Again, this does nothing to actually explain why reform isn't necessary; nor does Bryant's comment that DiMaggio didn't get in on the first ballot provide any useful argument. Anybody with half a brain and an understanding of baseball would know that Joe DiMaggio was a first-ballot hall of famer if there ever was one; suggesting that the screwups of previous generations of journalists makes the screwups of this generation of journalists isn't exactly the kind of convincing argument you want to make to support your case. Indeed, these arguments, like Bryant's "argument" about Martinez, don't do anything to explain why there doesn't need to be reform to the system. The game has changed, and the analysis has changed; yet Bryant feels the writers' duties themselves don't need to change. The BBWAA should stay just the way it's always been, right or wrong, and really, what kind of institution of any sort want to be just like it was 60 year ago? Even the Catholic Church has overseen reforms at a faster pace than the BBWAA.

Bryant's article is actually quite useful in one very important way: it shows just how unseriously many of these journalists take the voting, and how undeserving they are. Bryant is certainly not alone, and his article, while naive, just reflects and reifies the stodgy attitudes of many voters. I don't think anybody would suggest that being a voter makes you all-powerful, all-wise, or a sacred keeper of anything; yet that is exactly how some act, and in doing so, changes in the game and the greatness of some players is unecessarily, foolishly, and even arrogantly overlooked. Ultimately, Bryant ends up demonstrating exactly why reform in the voting process needs to happen. Too bad that wasn't his intention.

...UPDATE: In the thread to Bryant's article, commenter raynor54 points out something else problematic with one of Bryant's arguments:

What a surprise: yet another sportswriter did not do his research on the Hall of Fame before writing an article about it.

Why wasn't Cy Young elected on the first ballot? Because the ballot that passed on him was the first ballot in Hall of Fame history, and the voters had 60+ years of baseball history from which to select candidates. Imagine trying to pick the best players since World War II; there's no question a few all-timers would get squeezed just because of the sheer volume of them.

And the reason that no players were elected from 1942-47 (aside from WWII bringing a lot of things to a screeching halt) is because the Hall of Fame worked under different rules back then. Not only were there a lot of players to choose from, but there was also no waiting period for voting on retired players - heck, active players were allowed to receive votes. DiMaggio wasn't elected on the first try because he received his first HOF vote in 1945 - a full 6 years before he retired. Also, while he wasn't elected on the first ballot after retirement, he did make it in 1955 - 4 years after he retired, instead of the normal 5-year wait that was put in place in 1954.

It's worth noting that a guy who didn't do his basic research for his article and either A) knows very little about baseball and/or B) is a terrible researcher, is also a proud voter for the Baseball Hall of Fame. If that's not dysfunctional, I don't know what is.