Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Hall of Fame Controversy Part 2: SABRmetrics and the Hall of Fame

Last week I gave everyone a reason to hate me, or at least question my sanity and moral compass.  This week I will give you a reason to question my intelligence as we continue exploring the Hall of Fame controversy.

SABRmetrics and the new statistics defining our analysis:
For over a century baseball players have been judged based on their numbers.  Where did this come from?  This is a team game.  The point of the game is, and always has been, for one team to score more runs than the other team and win the game.  If we can all agree that the purpose of sending your top nine players against their top nine players is to work as a unit and win the game, why does it matter what individual stats a player reaches?

Simple.  Money.  Despite what we all love to believe, that at one time baseball was played for the love of the game and not for the money, this is mostly a myth.  From the time the Cincinnati Red Stockings fielded their all professional team in 1869 to the present day, statistics have been kept for the same reason: management's evaluation of salary.

As more and more professional teams developed, more and more players were paid salaries.  As an owner, how do you judge who gets a salary, a bonus or a raise and who doesn't?  You could simply say Player A is a good player and Player B is not as good as A but is better than C and fix a pay scale for one year for those three players based on that scale.  Then what?  How do you tell Player A that although he was better than Player B last year, Player B has improved and now is better than Player A so A needs a pay cut and B needs a raise?  Statistics.

The owners first started using basic statistics.  How many hits (walks were counted as hits) and how many runs did you accumulate in the season.  Cap Anson wants a raise? Sorry Cap.  In 1872 you scored 60 runs but in 1873 you only scored 53.  Your performance slipped by 7 runs so you get a pay cut.  Pure and simple. Statistics were developed by management to control salary.

The statistics developed over time and were retroactively applied.  Runs Batted In were calculated, bases on balls were moved to a separate category, then Intentional Bases on Balls were broken into their own category.  Pitchers were judged on wins and losses.   Then they were judged on how many runs they gave up.  Then they were judged an average of how many runs they gave up every nine innings.  Then just on how many runs they gave up that were earned by the other team and not allowed by fielding errors.

As each statistic developed management had a new way of evaluating the player's performance and arguing against giving a raise, or limiting how much of a raise they had to give.  While ownership used these numbers to keep the business running and profits high, baseball writers used it to sell papers.  With each new statistic that was developed they could compare performances based on numbers.  Who was better Nap LaJoie or Ty Cobb?  Just look at the stats and write an article to argue your point.  Everything that was written was analyzed by the baseball crazy society. The Detroit Free Press might run an article stating they had definite proof that Cobb was better.  Oh, by the way, Cleveland is playing the Tigers today.  Don't believe us?  Why not go to the stadium yourself and compare Cobb against LaJoie.  Who got more hits?  Who scored more runs?  Who came out on top?

Ownership and the papers came out on top.  More people bought papers and more people packed the stadium. 

Years went by and statistics became obsession.  Frank Baker hit two Home Runs in one World Series?  My god! Imagine that.  Two Home Runs.  "Home Run" Baker is amazing.  Discussion of the power displayed by Baker in the 1911 World Series brought up questions of how impressive it was.  Seven years later a man known for being a great pitcher hit 11Home Runs in a season.  The next season the same player hit 29.  It was unheard of, what next?  30?  In one season?  The public loved it.  They flooded stadiums to see how many Home Runs would fly out of the park.  The fans who couldn't get to the stadium read about it in the papers.  Then came 54 Home Runs in one season.  Home Runs were now the major statistic in the game.  It was nice that Cobb, Hornsby and Sisler could hit .400 but people came to watch the ball fly.  There's a reason Yankee Stadium was called the house that Ruth built.

The Home Run was the dominant statistic until the late 1960's when Koufax, Drysdale, Gibson, Seaver and Carlton became the dominant players in the league.  For decades pitchers were graded based on their number of innings pitched, wins-losses, and Earned Run Average.  As Koufax began to absolutely dominate hitters the number of strikeouts became the dominant stat for pitchers.  Walter Johnson was the definition of a speed pitcher until Koufax and Gibson came along.  As they racked up the strike out numbers the power pitcher became the star of the game.  Pitchers like Nolan Ryan, Mark Fidyrich and Ron Guidry emerged as stars.  Unfortunately, the draw back of the power pitcher was the stress that was put on the arm and the damage that was done in a short period of time.  With the power displayed by the pitchers the strikeout became the number one focus.  K's (the shorthand for strikeouts on a score card) started hanging in stadiums as the free swinging hitters sat down.  This led to pitchers who routinely threw over 100 miles per hour and routinely needed off season surgery to repair the stress put on their arms. 

With the birth of Tommy John surgery and the realization that the new flame thrower may not have a long lasting shelf life, the birth of the relief pitcher came about.  The bull pen had, to this point, been viewed as the place to put your pitchers who aren't good enough to start but can be used in an emergency.  As the study of the effect of hard throwing developed, so did the realization that every pitcher on your staff needed to have a purpose.  Sparky Anderson is generally acknowledged as the first manager to fully utilize his bullpen.  Of course, other managers had bullpens before that, however, Sparky was really the one who saw the bullpen as a full unit to be used as part of the game plan and not as an emergency stop gap.  As Sparky's use of the pitching staff gave him the nickname of Captain Hook, the rest of the league started to realize Sparky had something.  Thus developed the position of the closer and the emergence of pitchers like Rollie Fingers, Sparky Lyle, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter.  With the development of a new position came the development of new statistics to evaluate their effectiveness.  The save became the popular term in the 1980's.  This was followed by the blown save.  Eventually relief pitchers who were not in a save situation were judged by a hold, the ability to hold the lead until the closer could come in and get the save.

The 1970's also saw the emergence of a new organization that looked to further investigate and advance the study of the game.  They have infinitely improved statistical analysis and introduced countless new ways to analyze the game.  The Society for American Baseball Research has introduced new statistics like the Hold, OPS (On Base Percentage), Slugging Percentage, OPS+, WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and the PECOTA rating (Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm). 

These statistics were around for years (the PECOTA only since the early 2000's) but with the success of Billy Beane and the A's "moneyball" system, the focus on the use of these statistics has become more intense.  This leads me to the point of  all this.  My problem with SABRmetrics is not with SABR.  My problem is the way that we use these statistics and the way we apply the statistics that SABR compiles.

The issue is that many of the people voting for the Hall of Fame appear to use the new SABRmetrics as their sole basis for voting.  Like any statistic (RBI, Stolen Bases, Batting Average, ERA, etc) statistics are not the only way to judge a Hall of Fame calibre player.  Career WAR is a clear example of the issue that the misuse of these stats creates.  If we were to use WAR (the newest miracle stat for voters) as the sole statistic then we would say that Joe DiMaggio was a far inferior player to Ken Griffey, Sr, Brooks Robinson, Jeff Bagwell, Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken.  Don't get me wrong, I am the biggest fan of both Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken but I would never claim that either was a better player than DiMaggio.  If I am a manager and you tell me my team is in the bottom of the ninth with two outs in a playoff game and I need a hit or my season is over I would choose Joe DiMaggio over almost any other player in history to be at the plate.

An analysis several years ago showed that Derek Jeter was the worst defensive shortstop in the Major Leagues.  This analysis was done prior to the recent injuries that Jeter has suffered through.  As great as the statistical analysis is (and the teams love them because they can use them in the contract negotiations) is there anyone who truly believes that Derek Jeter is a poor fielder?  He may not have the range of some other shortstops.  His arm strength may not be the same as it used to be.  But seriously, when you watch Derek Jeter make a spectacular play that no one else would even try to make have you ever thought, that is the worst Shortstop in the league?

The problem is not with the development of these statistics.  I love the work that SABR does because it advances our understanding of the game and promotes further analysis of historical figures.  It keeps the history of the game alive and allows us to continuously evolve the baseball society.  SABR is an important part of our understanding of the game.  The problem is the way some people use the information that SABR give us.

One of the best examples for misuse of statistical data that I can think of is Joe Jackson in the 1919 World Series.  There is often a great deal of sympathy for Joe Jackson as a victim of the gamblers.  The argument is always that Jackson had a higher average and more hits than anyone in the series and hit the only Home Run and if he was that far superior he could not have been part of the conspiracy.  The statistics were impressive but there is no substitute for drilling down and looking at the situation of the hitting.  Players can pad their average in a meaningless situation and make their statistics look better and get the rewards later because many people look at statistics alone but is it fair to punish another player because in a tight situation he bunted to move the runner or purposely grounded a ball to the right side of the infield to advance the runner to third instead of swinging for the fences?

The bottom line is SABR metrics are great.  The way many of the experts are using them when voting for the Hall of Fame is not.

Just as with last week's article, I am sure that many of you readers disagree with me.  Please send me your views so we can continue to discuss the situation.

Don't forget to check back next week for part three of the Hall of Fame Controversy.

In today's article, it was mentioned that baseball fans are very in tune with numbers.  Some examples given in today's article were Maris's 61 Home Runs in a season as well as DiMaggio's 56 game hitting streak.  With this same idea in mind what does the number 2632 mean to baseball fans?

Answer to Last Week's Trivia Question:
Carl Erskine pitched a no hitter on June 19, 1952 against the Cubs.  Erskine also pitched a no hitter on May 12, 1956 against the hated Giants.  Sandy Koufax pitched his first no hitter on 6/30/1962 and pitched his second one year  later on 5/11/1963.  On 6/4/1964 Koufax pitched his third no hitter.  Koufax pitched his masterpiece on 9/9/1965, a perfect game against the Cubs.  The correct answer to last week's question is 6.


  1. I was close with last week's trivia because I said 9. I know I got this week's trivia right though. If I've learned ANYTHING from ANYTHING you've said to me about baseball is that that number is related to Cal Ripken Jr. Is it the number of games he played? I remember seeing the footage of the people in the stadium dropping that banner when he was at bat. :)

    As far as the topic at hand, I never understood statistics and don't really understand how to translate numbers in a book into action on the field. So if that shouldn't be used as criteria for the Hall of Fame, then what should? Is there anything else out there that would allow an unbiased nomination?

    1. thanks for commenting. Your trivia answer is correct in that it relates to Cal Ripken but it is not the moment you thought.

      Numbers definitely should play a part in the decision of Hall of Fame but numbers only without context are not the best thing. Next week I will give you two great examples of this. Many times it is not just a straight number that makes someone a Hall of Famer but the impact those numbers had on the player's team and the team's success.

  2. Thank you for the origin of the reason for the stats. Great reason to use stats.
    Like you, I'm not a big fan of how some of these stats are used. I think that stats like WAR and PECOTA and some of the others are too complicated. They take away from the beauty of the game. The calculation of the WAR is similar to the QB rating and putting man on the moon. The average fan or even most enthuastic fans has trouble understanding the formula.
    The debate over who was MVP the last 2 years, Cabrera or Trout was interesting. As good as Trout is, who do you want at bat with the game on the line Trout or Cabrera. That's want they call the award the MVP and not the WAR award.
    That said, when I put my Fantasy team and APBA lineup together I use OPS and WHIP.
    My guess on the trivia is Cal Ripkens' number of consecutive games played. I don't remember if this his total or if this is the total that broke Gehrich's record.



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