BAGWELL RISES ABOVE ‘WAR’

By Murray Chass

January 2, 2011

The deadline for voting for the Hall of Fame came and went Friday, and since I like to work on deadline – I have worked on deadline my entire life – I submitted my ballot by fax Friday evening.

A year ago I waited until the deadline day, Dec. 31, and wrote in a column that I almost forgot to send in my ballot. A few confused souls took that to mean that I had waited until the final day to think about whom I was voting for. That was an incorrect assumption, just as it would be wrong to think that I waited until Friday to ponder the candidates I would vote for this time.HOF Logo 225

I have given my ballot plenty of consideration, maybe more than usual. That’s because I had an idea I wanted to explore and maybe even try out.

I have thought about the value of my vote and the votes of more than 500 other writers.

With the proliferation of supposedly sophisticated statistics that have flooded the baseball landscape, are we still relevant? Are voters even necessary any longer? Why not just establish statistical rankings and decide where the cutoff point is, the players over the line making the Hall of Fame and those under it, well, everyone can’t make it.

Do we really need to be poring over career records of the 33 players on the ballot when there are simpler ways of selecting Hall of Fame players? And while I’m at it, does the ballot really need all 33 players whose names are on it? Lenny Harris? Bobby Higginson? Kirk Rueter?

Why are they there? Is there something magic about the number 33? Is that a Hall of Fame requirement? I would guess that players are flattered to have their names on the ballot, but aren’t they embarrassed when they receive no votes?

Last year Mike Jackson, Ray Lankford, Shane Reynolds and Todd Zeile received no votes. Not one of the 539 writers who cast ballots deemed those players worthy of a single vote. Good for the voters. But what about the writer who voted for David Segui? His brother-in-law perhaps?

Having statistics instead of writers determine Hall of Famers would solve the problem I have with writers voting. I don’t think we should be voting. I just don’t think that’s our job. We write about baseball players. We can comment on the merits of players vis a vis the Hall of Fame. But should we be determining the makeup of a private enterprise, which the Hall is?

About 20 years ago I tried to get the Baseball Writers Association to sever its ties with the Hall. Pete Rose had been banished from baseball, and the Hall’s board of directors, in a move to make sure Rose would not be voted into its hallowed halls, changed the rules. No one who was permanently ineligible from baseball, the board decided, would be eligible for the Hall of Fame.

That act bothered me. It’s not that I wanted to vote for Rose for the Hall of Fame; I never would have. I believed he had forfeited his right to be elected. But I didn’t care for the way the Hall’s directors handled the matter. They didn’t trust the writers to do the right thing so they took the vote away from us.

Their action demonstrated to me that the writers really had no say in the system and shouldn’t be a part of it. I made a motion to that effect at a BBWAA meeting, and I was surprised to find that it had a chance to pass. A Chicago writer, Dave Nightengale, sensed the same possibility and moved to have the motion tabled so that it could be submitted to a mail vote of the entire membership.

Once he did that, I knew my motion had no chance. It lost handily, and the writers have continued voting, thanks to Nightengale’s sharp, quick thinking.

But would statistics now offer a better system? In the same way, on a single-season basis, should the most valuable players and Cy Young award winners be determined by statistical rankings?

Albert Pujols 225This past season, for example, Joey Votto (National League) and Josh Hamilton (American) were elected most valuable players by the BBWAA panels, but Albert Pujols (N.L.) and Evan Longoria (A.L.) had the top ‘WAR’ ratings in their respective leagues.

What are WAR ratings, the uninitiated might ask? The Web site, Baseball-Reference.com, which I have used for this, offers this statement:

“Sabermetricians have always been on the search for the best way to measure wins contributed by players. Baseball Prospectus has WARP, Bill James has win shares and now we are presenting Sean Smith’s Wins Above Replacement or WAR data on the site.”

In a glossary of terms, and believe me, a glossary is needed, the site defines wins above replacement as “a single number that presents the number of wins the player added to the team above what a replacement player (think AAA or AAAA) would add.”

Although I have serious doubts about this replacement guy – he sounds more mythical than real, and myths don’t play baseball, though Joe Charboneau turned out to be a myth – the definition seems to lend WAR to mvp more than anything else.

But in 2010 the writers didn’t agree with WAR. Votto, the N.L. winner, ranked fifth in the WAR ratings with a 6.2 to 7.2 for Pujols. Votto also trailed Ubaldo Jimenez 6.5, Roy Halladay 6.5 and Adrian Gonzalez 6.3.

Hamilton, the A.L. mvp, was only sixth in the A.L. WAR rankings. His 6.0 rating lagged behind Longoria 7.7, Shin-soo Choo 7.3, Miguel Cabrera 6.9, Robinson Cano 6.1 and Adrian Beltre 6.1.

With pitchers, however, the writers and WAR were more closely attuned. Felix Hernandez won the A.L. Cy Young award and was No. 1 in the A.L. WAR rankings. Halladay, on the other hand, won the N.L. Cy Young award but was second in the WAR rankings with a 6.9 to 7.1 for Jimenez, who was a distant third in the Cy Young voting.

The Hernandez outcome was easily understandable because the writers who voted for him for Cy Young based their judgments on statistics other than won-lost record (his was a meager 13-12).

But I have strayed from the primary point of this exercise, which is whether these statistics should play a role in the voting for the Hall of Fame. The easy answer to that issue is each voter should use whatever factors he is most comfortable using or that enable him to make an intelligent, enlightened decision.

I might debate the wisdom of voting for certain players, and I will disagree with critics of my position on Jack Morris who say that he doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame but Bert Blyleven does.

I know voters who don’t believe that either one belongs. But I will not insist, as some critics do, that they are wrong and I am right. There is no right and wrong here, only opinion.

That’s one of the fun things about Hall of Fame voting. It fuels debate, which if conducted civilly can be a worthwhile pursuit.

Some players have actually made the Hall without my assistance, and I haven’t begrudged them their success. On the other hand, I don’t think much of uncivil comments I have received about some candidates.

What about this year’s ballot? It would be surprising if Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar are not announced on Wednesday as the Hall’s newest members. A year ago Blyleven fell 5 votes short of election and Alomar 8 votes short, and historically the voters have elected players in their positions the following year.Bert Blyleven4 225

Morris was third among the players who didn’t make it, and his vote total has been steadily increasing. His total this time will be critical because he has only three years of eligibility left. Be assured that he will get my vote to the end because to me, he epitomizes what a Hall of Famer should be, his 39.3 WAR ranking notwithstanding.

Blyleven’s WAR rating incidentally is 87.6. Does that mean he was twice as good as Morris? I don’t know enough about WAR to answer that question. I had hoped to ask Sean Forman, the founder of Baseball-Reference.com, that question and others, but he didn’t respond to an e-mail I sent him last week.

In the e-mail, I asked, “Have we reached the point where statistical rankings and not voters should determine award winners and HOF inductees? Are voters still necessary, or do they just get in the way?”

With no reply, I move on but not before answering my own question. My answer is based on the same principle that prompts me to question many of the new statistics.

Real people, not replacement players or mythical players, play the game. They should be judged by equally real people who are free to use whatever statistics or other means of decision they choose.

It is just like general managers evaluating players with their and their scouts’ eyes but checking whatever supporting statistics they like to use. In other words, I come down on the side of evaluation over statistical analysis. Give me Bill Lajoie over Bill James any time.

That said, I checked the statistics on Baseball-Reference.com. I found that the highest ranking position player among Hall of Fame candidates is Jeff Bagwell at 79.9.

I actually found a lot of interesting facts about Bagwell while researching his career, enough to prompt me to put an ‘X’ next to his name on the ballot.

I hadn’t expected to do that, but his career made a convincing case for him. I’m not talking about his WAR-like career standings:

  • 8th in base-out runs added (RE24)
  • 10th in base-out wins added (REW)
  • 12th in situ. wins added (WPA/LI)
  • 15th in win probability added
  • 21st OPS
  • 21st adjusted batting runs
  • 23rd adjusted batting wins
  • 33rd power-speed #
  • 34th adjusted OPS+
  • 37th runs created
  • 41st among position players in WAR

Jeff Bagwell2 225You’re on your own in deciphering those hieroglyphics: I have neither the time nor the space to do it for you. Let me assure you, though, whether or not you want to take those seriously, whatever you determine they mean, Bagwell is in good company.

Any time a player’s name is found among such players as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, you have to take him seriously, whether or not you know why he’s there.

But let me simplify Bagwell’s candidacy in good old English. He is one of only 27 players in major league history who scored 1,500 runs and drove in 1,500 runs. Of the other 26 players, 19 are in the Hall of Fame, 1 just became eligible for the Hall (Rafael Palmeiro), 3 are not yet eligible and 3 are still playing.

Just for clarity sake, six other players are included in some lists of 1,500 and 1,500, but they registered all or many of their runs batted in before 1920, when r.b.i. became an official statistic. But no worry. All six are also in the Hall of Fame.

 

PALMEIRO MEETS MCGWIRE

Rafael Palmeiro joined Mark McGwire on the Hall of Fame ballot this year as players at risk. They are at risk in their chances of ever being elected to the Hall because of steroids.Rafael Palmiero6 225

McGwire was on the ballot this year for the fifth time, leaving him 10 years of eligibility. In each of his first four years he fell short of getting 25 percent of the writers’ votes.

Last week Palmeiro emerged from five years of silence to do an interview with SI.com, in which he offered the same denial as he did in 2005 when he tested positive for steroids use and was suspended for 50 games.

The former first baseman said he never used steroids but apparently got trapped by a tainted B-12 vial that he got from a Baltimore teammate, Miguel Tejada. It’s not likely that he will be believed now any more than he was then.

He did not help himself when a few months before the positive test he appeared at a Congressional hearing into steroids use in baseball, wagged a finger at the lawmakers and said forcefully, “I have never used steroids. Period.”

Palmeiro’s positive test created a bizarre circumstance. He was in his last year, he had previously reached 500 home runs and he was fewer than 100 hits from 3,000, which achievement would make him only the fourth player with 500 homers and 3,000 hits.

He had never tested positive for steroids use so why had he turned to them now, if indeed he had? The best guess was he had started the season badly, didn’t want to end his career lamely and was looking for a boost.

If, on the other hand, he was being truthful and had not knowingly used steroids, he was going to pay an excessive price. He may pay it the rest of his life.

That is the other side of the steroids era. Some players benefited from the use of performance-enhancing drugs; others perhaps have been damaged by the incorrect suggestion of their use.

Having the doors of the Hall of Fame shut closed on them is one harsh penalty the guilty and the suspects pay. I’d hate to lump the latter group with the former, but I and other voters may very well do that because no legitimate steroids scorecard exists

All writers don’t have the same outlook on their voting stance on steroids use. I have been consistent in my stance, not voting for users. But it will become increasingly more difficult to maintain that stance, and I may very well have to change it.

I have 10 years in which I could change my position on McGwire and 14 on Palmeiro. Others will follow. The group will only grow.

 

THE WIZARD OF TIGERTOWN

There’s an old belief that people in the same profession die in threes, and sure enough within a few days recently Bob Feller, Phil Cavaretta and Walt Dropo died.

But an even more poignantly linked trio died during 2010. The Detroit Tigers were not the Wizards of Oz, but they lost their voice (Ernie Harwell), their heart (Sparky Anderson) and their brains (Bill Lajoie).

Detroit Tigers Trio 150

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