I had an epiphany today (appropriate, I guess) about the Hall of Fame. Many of you, particularly those who have been interested in the Hall of Fame since before the SABR era, have probably looked at the Hall this way before. I hadn’t. Here goes:
The Hall of Stats is an improvement on the Hall of Fame because the Hall of Fame is too focused on stats.
If you’re not familiar with Adam Darowski’s Hall of Stats, get familiar. Lose a day or two there. You’ll thank me. Anyway, the premise of the Hall of Stats is that certain subjective biases have kept the Hall of Fame from representing, thoroughly and exclusively, the best players in baseball history. In response to this, the Hall of Stats starts with baseball-reference’s Wins Above Replacement and Wins Above Average, makes a few important adjustments, ranks every player who’s ever played Major League Baseball, and pegs the rankings to include exactly as many players as the Hall of Fame does. Adam is clear that the Hall of Stats’ formula is not a perfect way to build an actual Hall of Fame. It’s obvious that, even though Adam makes all the right adjustments to the raw data, certain players are more worthy of enshrinement than their Hall Ratings, while Hall Rating is a little too kind to others. Of course, one need not be a sabermetrician to recognize that the Hall of Stats better represents the game’s best players than the Hall of Fame.
Is this because stats are better than voters at identifying greatness? No. It’s because voters have always used stats to evaluate players’ Hall cases, only they’re using the wrong stats and ignoring context.
None of this is new to you, is it? So what made this such an epiphany to me?
The BBWAA, it seems, is about to elect four players- Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, and Craig Biggio- to the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Stats ranks those players 3rd, 11th, 7th, and 14th, respectively. Those players are all worthy and I’m glad someone will get elected this year and the ballot backlog problem will at least not be further exaggerated next year. But doesn’t it seem ridiculous that the players who will get in, according to objective analysis, are far inferior to the players who won’t get in? Jeff Bagwell is the fourth- or fifth-best first baseman ever, a more rounded and more valuable player than Thomas. Mike Piazza is the best-hitting catcher ever. Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina were both better at run prevention and fielding-independent pitching than Glavine. Thirteen players on the ballot brought more value to their teams than Biggio. If the backlog has been created by voters’ differing opinions on steroid use, why are superior “clean” players failing to gain support, while inferior players get voted in?
Every eligible player with 3,000 hits, 500 home runs, or 300 wins is either in the Hall of Fame or currently on the ballot. Here are the players on this year’s ballot who reached one of those milestones:
Craig Biggio- 3,060 hits
Rafael Palmeiro- 3,020 hits, 569 home runs***
Barry Bonds- 762 HR***
Sammy Sosa- 609 HR***
Mark McGwire- 583 HR***
Frank Thomas- 521 HR
Greg Maddux- 355 wins
Roger Clemens- 354 wins***
Tom Glavine- 305 wins
I think you know what the asterisks mean. Take them away and we’ve got four players- Maddux, Glavine, Thomas, and Biggio.
In 2014, Hall of Fame voters are electing guys because of shiny, round numbers. If Bagwell trades 200 stolen bases and his excellent first-base defense to Frank Thomas for 51 home runs, Bagwell’s a Hall of Famer and the now superior Thomas isn’t. If Mike Mussina gets enough run support to win 30 more games- even if he strikes out 200 fewer batters and walks 700 more, as Glavine did, he’s a Hall of Famer. Instead, he’ll get something like a quarter of the vote.
Inconsistent treatment of steroid users is a problem with Hall of Fame voting. The 10-name ballot cap is a problem with Hall of Fame voting. Inability to understand park factors is a problem with Hall of Fame voting. Lack of perspective regarding the relative percentages of ancient and recent players in the Hall is a problem with Hall of Fame voting.
But the biggest problem with Hall of Fame voting might be that voters care too much about stats- three big, fancy, round numbers that meant something in 1955.
The Hall of Stats is a brilliant exercise in objective analysis. Adam and his team have considered everything relevant to the issue and come to very strong conclusions. But couldn’t we have come to similar conclusions by focusing less on stats? Bagwell could hit for power, take a walk, steal a base, and play great defense. He’s a Hall of Famer. Lee Smith didn’t pitch a lot of innings, and was above average at run prevention, but several of his peers were just as good. He’s not a Hall of Famer. Sure, we need stats to understand the attributes I’m assigning to these guys, particularly for players who played before our lifetimes, but those arguments are more about all-around greatness than they are about focusing on a single stat and rewarding a player who reaches it, but not one who misses it by a small margin.
I’m not asking the BBWAA to stop looking at stats, just imploring for the use of context. Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling may not deserve it, but Mike Mussina does.