Tuesday, December 31, 2013

This Year's HOF Ballot, Part 1

Many have been talking about the ballot this year...and why now more than ever it's time to revise the methods of election - after all, each writer is only allowed to include 10 names on their ballot.  When one looks at the 36 names, there might be half of them who earn some support.  I don't know how writers decide to vote, especially in a year like this, but I presume there are 3 or 4 ways to approach it:

  1. A voter selects those whom he feels are the best.
  2. A voter may choose a few whom he thinks are deserving, and vote for a few others who he is sure won't get enough support but would like them to stay on the ballot to give them a chance in upcoming years (though, with some of the names coming in 2015 or 2016, may be a long shot)
  3. A voter might leave a ballot blank because if Babe Ruth wasn't getting unanimous support, they'll be damned if anyone else does.
  4. Anyone suspected of PEDs will be left off their ballot, whether there is any proof or not.
Let's look at this year's ballot alphabetically and see who might get in, who might stick around, and who doesn't stand a chance in hell. (all WAR comes from Baseball-Reference.com)

Moises Alou (1st year on ballot):  Alou was a hell of a player and may have generated significant support for the HOF if he had stayed in the lineup as much as Barry Larkin did...and Larkin was known for being injured often.  Compared to Alou, Larkin was a Ripken/Gehrig type.  He was a six-time All-Star, finished third two times in the MVP voting...and played in 150 or more games 4 times in his 17 year career, and was forced to miss the entire 1991 and 1999 season due to injury.  What if we added in two full seasons to his career totals to make up for some of his lost time?

  • .303 career average
  • 2490 hits (top 100 all time)
  • 388 HRs
  • 1501 RBIs (top 60 all time)
  • 47 WAR? (ahead of Jim Rice)
  • 128 OPS+
Alas, these aren't his numbers...so he won't get many votes...especially on this ballot

Prediction:  3 votes (out of 570)

Jeff Bagwell (4th):    I don't need to rehash Bagwell's claim to the HOF...but I will.  He was the Rookie of the Year in 1991, MVP in 1994 (2nd and 3rd place finish as well), 4 time All-Star, .297 BA, .408 OBP, 449 HRs even though he played some years in the Astrodome, 1401 RBIs, 202 SBs (impressive for a first baseman), and a career WAR of 79.5.  Each year his support has increased for the HOF - his 1st year on the ballot he got 41.7%, then up to 56%, and last year 59.6%.  Unfortunately, this is a ballot packed with future HOFers.

Prediction:  He will get just under 50% of the vote, and will eventually find his way to Cooperstown, though I expect it will be closer to 2020 than 2015.

Armando Benitez (1st):  2-time All-Star, and 25th in career saves isn't going to be enough to get any support in a year like this one.

Prediction:  No votes

Craig Biggio (2nd):  7-time All Star (at 2 positions), 4 Silver Sluggers (at 2 positions), 3 top 10 MVP finishes, 3060 hits, over 400 SBs, 291 HRs.  In his blog, Joe Posnanski calls Craig Biggio the 93rd best player to have ever played baseball.  In his entry about Biggio, Posnanski references Bill James' Historical Baseball Abstract, in which James argued that Biggio was a better player than Griffey from 1994-99, but because he did so many things well his ability he was overlooked.  It's a great article, in one of the best baseball books around (hell, it's one of the best BOOKS around, period).  So why wasn't he voted in last year (68.2%, tops of all vote getters)?  Because last year the ballot was packed as well, and voters were split among them.  So why will he get in this year, when even more great players are on the ballot?  In my opinion (unfounded), I think BBWAA members are influenced by the votes of others.  As Blyleven's support grew, I feel like voters fell in line and pushed him towards the magical 75% mark.  The same thing has been going on for Jack Morris as well, but Morris' time will run out before he gets there.  This is only Biggio's second time on the ballot, but I think a few of the voters don't vote for first-timers, and the nine ballots left blank will probably have his name on them.  The 3000+ hits gets the old-timers' votes, Bill James' analysis gets the new ones.  The only thing that prevents him getting over 90% is the quality of this ballot.

Prediction:  Biggio is elected with just over 75% of the vote.

Barry Bonds (2nd):   The most polarizing player since Albert Belle, and maybe ever.  If one were to look just at his statistics, he might be considered one of the 3 best players in the history of the game.  The story has been told of Bonds' jealousy over America's fawning of McGwire and Sosa's HR chase in 1998, and how he responded by doing steroids.  As pointed out numerous times, if Bonds' career stopped after 1999 and he dropped off the face of the Earth, he was still a Hall of Famer.  So how can Cooperstown exist as a place where fans can see and read about the greatest players in history, when Bonds/Clemens/McGwire aren't there?  And what is going to be done about it?
  1. Before this year, I always thought they should be left out of Cooperstown - why should the cheaters be rewarded for cheating?  
  2. This year, I've changed my mind:  after seeing LaRussa, Cox and Torre rewarded (unanimously, by the way) for managing during the Steroid Era, and knowing Bud Selig will eventually get into the HOF upon his retirement, I can't hold the players accountable while everyone else comes away from this tainted period in baseball history unblemished.
  3. The current PED policy was implemented in 2005.  
  4. I think that maybe the steroid users should be taken off the ballot until their 15 year eligibility period is over, then voted on by a different group.  Until then, there is going to be backlog and arguments in favor of the Hall of Fame directing the voters how to vote...but as of now, they haven't shown any interest in doing so.
Prediction:   Just under 30%.

Sean Casey (1st):  .302 BA, 3 All-Star games.  Good player, friendly by all accounts, and has found the perfect post-baseball career on the MLB network.  Congratulations on everything.

Prediction:  Due to his good relationship with...well, EVERYONE, someone will give him a vote.

Roger Clemens (2nd):  354 wins, 143 ERA+, 4672 K's (3rd all-time).  See Bonds, Barry.

Prediction:  Got just over 37% last year...that will drop to just over 30% this year.

Ray Durham (1st):  2 All-Star games, 2054 hits, and...nothing particular to make him stand out, especially on this ballot.

Prediction:  No votes.

Eric Gagne (1st):  Cy Young, 3 All-Star games, 187 saves (152 in 3 years).  Eric Gagne is not going to get in the Hall of Fame - we can all agree on this.  But does anyone remember how dominant this guy was?  I picked up Gagne when he was in the Dodgers farm system with the hope he would become a decent starter.  He didn't; in his two years as a starter he was 10-13 with a 4.91 ERA.  Gagne threw hard, and threw two pitches, and doing that isn't going to get you around the lineup a couple of times.  The Dodgers figured it out, moved him to the bullpen where he was lights out for three years.  What I find interesting is how the strikeout rates have increased over the last thirty years or so:  Rob Dibble blew people away when he was strikeout rate was 12 per 9 inning, peaking at 14.1 in 1992.  Five years later Gagne topped 15; today Craig Kimbrel has topped out at 17.4.  When Bill James wrote about a pitcher effectiveness, he estimated that to stay in the majors, a starter needed to average at least 5.5 strikeouts per 9 innings.  This was certainly true when he wrote it fifteen years ago, but I would suggest that number has been increasing for decades.  The average K/9 in the deadball era was closer to 3, so a pitcher could've hung around average 2 strikeouts per game.  With that type of context, Walter Johnson's 5.3 strikeouts per 9 innings is impressive (77% higher than the average).  Today, the major league K/9 is 7.6 - to be as dominant as Johnson was, someone would have to average 13.5 K/9 for their career.

To put that even more in context, Randy Johnson is the all-time leader at 10.6.  Kimbrel career average is 15.1, but he hasn't pitched enough innings.

Gagne is at 10.0.

Prediction:  No votes.

I'll carry on part 2 tomorrow with Tom Glavine.

Monday, December 30, 2013


Most baseball fans my age have an addiction to statistics:  batting average, home runs, runs batted in and stolen bases for hitters, wins, ERA and strikeouts for pitchers.  Over time, we've learned that on base percentage is more important than batting average, wins are more a product of the offense supporting the pitcher, and that there are much better ways to evaluate a player's value to a team.

By the late 1980s, a revolution of sorts was under way, led by Bill James.  Admittedly, he had started doing this years earlier, but it took some time to catch on.  I don't know anyone who thought this was a bad idea, but not everyone accepted it:  after all, Bob Welch won the Cy Young in 1990, going 27-6 with a 2.95 ERA.  A great year, but Roger Clemens went 21-6 with an ERA a full run lower and Welch's teammate Dave Stewart had a 2.56 ERA in forty innings more.  Voters were in love with the 27 wins.

Since then, we've come even further - but that wasn't enough.  Fans/statisticians/sabrematricians/geeks wanted a way to compare players who played different positions, different years, different eras...and so WAR was developed. Unfortunately, while many give lip service to it not being the "end all" stat, they continually use it and refer to it as a way of proving their point.

So - what is WAR, and why is it NOT as good as pundits suggest?

As Baseball-Reference.com states:
he idea behind the WAR framework is that we want to know how much better a player is than what a team would typically have to replace that player. We start by comparing the player to average in a variety of venues and then compare our theoretical replacement player to the average player and add the two results together.
There is no one way to determine WAR. There are hundreds of steps to make this calculation, and dozens of places where reasonable people can disagree on the best way to implement a particular part of the framework. We have taken the utmost care and study at each step in the process, and believe all of our choices are well reasoned and defensible. But WAR is necessarily an approximation and will never be as precise or accurate as one would like.
So there are a number of ways to determine WAR.  What do they include, and why are they questionable?

  1. WAR establishes a base level, called "replacement level".  This assumes what a AAA minor leaguer would accomplish at the major league level.  It usually assumes that a team of minor leaguers would have a 52-110 season.  Why?  It is an arbitrary choice - one of many within WAR that doesn't have a factual origin.  Again, it's not exact - Baseball-Reference uses 48-114 as their base.
  2. Ballpark effects are used to balance a hitter's performance between various ballparks.  We can accept that PetCo is a pitchers park, and Coors Field is a hitters park, but to what level?  Again, the numbers for each ballpark are included, and are NOT an exact number.
  3.  Fielding statistics have come a long way since fielders were merely graded on putouts, assists and errors.  For instance, a shortstop on a team of ground ball pitchers will get more opportunities than a SS on a fly ball staff.  BUT, fielding statistics are still incomplete.  UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) and TZR (Total Zone Rating) are two of the more accepted methods of evaluating fielding, but as it says in its description, "defense is best judged over three-year spans, as a given year contains a relatively small sample and can result in large statistical swings."  In addition, if a fielder positions themselves differently than what UZR anticipates (such as in a shift), it will skew the numbers.
  4. So what is the value of defense vs. offense for a player?  No one has been able to establish the ratio of value - how much value does a no-hit, great fielding shortstop bring in comparison to a Derek Jeter, for instance, who in his career has been viewed as a great hitting, poor fielding shortstop.  How much should defense count in a player's value?  Here too an arbitrary ratio is used.
  5. In addition, values are assigned to each position in the field. Again, from Baseball-Reference:

      1. C: +10 runs
      2. SS: +7.5 runs
      3. 2B: +3 runs
      4. CF: +2.5 runs
      5. 3B: +2 runs
      6. RF: -7.5 runs
      7. LF: -7.5 runs
      8. 1B: -10 runs
      9. DH: -15 runs
         Constants included in the formula designed to give credit to the positions that are more important defensively...or more difficult to play.  For catchers, this does NOT include the ability to "frame pitches", which has significant value and may be included in future WAR formulas, nor does it include the ability to call a game.
6.  For pitchers, the formula is more complex with just as many arbitrary variables.
 So what's my point?

  1. With so many artificial constants placed in the equation, AND variables that aren't quite understood exactly, it is hard to accept WAR as the end-all formula that compares player to player.  It is useful to compare players...but it should not be relied on as the final say.
  2. With our ability to adjust statistics over different years and ballparks, ERA+, OPS+ and others do as good a job of evaluating players.  What those statistics do NOT do is allow the overall comparison between different positions, which is why a formula like WAR is used.
  3. I view WAR as similar to physicists' Unified Theory.  There MUST be a way of uniting all of these other formulas into a nice, neat single method.  Physicists have yet to find the Unified Theory, though much progress has been made.  In that sense, I think baseball is exactly like physics. 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Japanese Posting

This past year, major league baseball came to a new agreement with the Nippon Professional Baseball league concerning the offer of Japanese players to play in the United States.  Before this year, MLB teams were notified of a player being offered, and they would bid for the right to offer the player a contract.  The highest bidder then had 30 days to come to an agreement with the player - as a result, a lot of money changed hands.  For instance, the Boston Red Sox won the right to negotiate with Daisuke Matsuzaka by paying the Seibu Lions $51,111,111 - collectable only if the Red Sox and Dice K came to an agreement.  They did (to the tune of 6 years, $52 million), but there were some parties unhappy with the agreement.  For one, since the bidding process was expensive, it limited the number of MLB teams who were capable of offering that money.  Japanese players weren't happy with the arrangement either - many thought if the posting figure was lower, the rest of the money would end up in the player's contract.  As a result, a new agreement was struck:  if a player were to be posted, the NLB team would be given $20 million, at which point all those offering the $20 million would then compete for the player's services.

The first player to be offered under this new agreement is Masahiro Tanaka, an exceptional pitcher with the Rakuten Eagles.  This past year, Tanaka was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA.  Based on the success of Yu Darvish, I would expect Tanaka's salary to be in excess of seven figures.

Unfortunately, we are repeating history...and I worry that this is the end of Japanese baseball as we know it.  Those who worry about the health of the game should worry, though I think most will not.  About a hundred years ago, we went through the same thing.

The minor leagues as we know them today have been in existence since the 1930s, when Branch Rickey organized one for the St. Louis Cardinals.  Until then, the minor leagues were independent - teams struggling to make ends meet, looking for talent on their own, and trying to win the championship of whatever league they played in.  One of the better "minor" leagues was the International League, which had an owner of incredible scouting talent named Jack Dunn.  Dunn owned the Baltimore Orioles, which had success on the field but none at the box office.  The Federal League was attempting to become a third major league, and their team in Baltimore (the Terrapins) drove Dunn to move his team to Richmond.  To avoid losing money, Dunn was also forced to sell his prize star Babe Ruth to the Boston Red Sox for around $25,000.  After the Federal League folded, Dunn moved the Orioles back to Baltimore and vowed to never sell another player (he believed Ruth was worth much, MUCH more than Dunn sold him for).  Over the next ten years, Dunn accumulated a massive amount of talent, and won seven straight championships from 1919-1926.  His teams won over 100 games each year, burying the competition and causing fans to lose interest early in the season, resulting in lost revenue for the other owners. 

The rest of the league was jealous of Dunn's success...and the major leagues jealous of Dunn's talent.  To thwart his successes (and ability to avoid selling his talent), the International League and MLB entered into an agreement in 1925 to allow the purchase of IL stars for $5,000.  Dunn didn't sign on initially - he sold Lefty Grove to the Philadelphia Athletics for $100,600 that year.

Following that agreement, slowly but surely the minor leagues lost their independence.  While most will believe the health of baseball is better than ever, there are signs that all is not well. 

  • Television ratings are getting worse.  Regular season games on national TV fail to draw 2% of the audience, and among younger audiences draw even less.  The postseason games ratings are lower than regular season NFL games, and they are getting worse.
  • MLB attendance peaked in 2007 before the economic recession, and they haven't come back.  What's worse is as the baseball supporters get older and older, the chances of winning the younger generation's hearts will be more and more difficult.
Why?  Some suggest it's the pace of the game, but Joe Posnanski thinks the issue is much broader than that.   He thinks (and I tend to agree) that the game has become regional - fans are interested only in their local clubs, but at the minor league level (where they don't keep players, try to win, or attempt to build a following) interest is waning.  As Posnanski points out, last year's minor league attendance totaled 41 million...just above where it was in 1949.  1949??!!  The United States population that year was 149 million...while this year it is about 313 million, less than half of what it is today. 

The minor leagues are locked into an agreement with MLB, and this may be causing interest in the sport to wane.  As baseball looks to become a more international game, I don't think MLB should be creating a minor league overseas - a league that has been incredibly successful without selling players to the "major leagues".

If Japan simply becomes a farm system for the MLB, I think this will be bad for the health of the sport...and the MLB.

Friday, December 27, 2013

This year's HOF ballot

For many of the BBWAA voters, this year's ballot for the baseball Hall of Fame will be the most difficult ever.  There are many reasons for it, which has numerous BBWAA voters and outsiders clamoring for a change.  Before plunging into the ballot itself (36 players this year, many of which are qualified), let's take a closer look at those who are voters, what the guidelines are, and where most of the complaints about the current system lay.

Current Guidelines
  1. The voters are current or former members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, who were active for at least 10 years.  
  2. For a player to be elected to the HOF, they must receive 75% of the submitted votes.
  3. Electors may vote for as few as 0, or as many as 10 players.
  4. There is no specific criteria for the players, other than they played at least 10 seasons, had been retired for 5, and were nominated by a selection committee (i.e., no write-in allowed).
So...what are the complaints?

1.  Who gets to vote?
  • The biggest cry I've heard about this is that there are a significant amount of voters who are retired, or no longer follow baseball closely, and therefore how can they be an educated voter? To that point, some have recommended the number of voters be reduced; others suggest the voting should be expanded to include baseball fans.  Others offer that only current baseball writers should be involved in the election process.
    • As for expanding the voting rights to more people, it has been pointed out that it might be even more difficult for a consensus to be reached.  This is probably NOT the answer, unless changes are made to what percentage was needed for a player to get elected.
    • Others have suggested to reduce the number of voters.  The only problem with that is...well, it's been done before.  
    • Jonah Keri has been a bit more specific about his complaints as to who qualifies as a voter - to be specific, he mentions three retired who work for Golferswest.com and no longer cover baseball.  He says:
      • "The most jarring example of this surfaced last year, when three former baseball writers publicized their Hall of Fame votes at their current place of employment … GolfersWest.com. If the BBWAA truly cares about the voting process, it'll stop allowing people who haven't covered the sport since acid-washed jeans were popular to retain voting rights."
    • Let's have a closer look at these three men who are out of date with baseball:
      • Bob Sherwin covered the Mariners for 20 years, and retired from newspaper writing in 2004.
      • Jim Street covered baseball for the better part of forty years before retiring in 2010.
      • Kirby Arnold covered baseball from 1984-2011.  
    • These are the men who Keri wants to revoke their voting rights?  Men who actually covered the baseball players who are on the ballot currently?  What makes a current voter for the Hall of Fame (maybe, a Bob Ryan?) better equipped to evaluate these players than these three?  If we look at the basis of the argument against the current method of voting, the issue is two things:  
      1. Keri (and others) don't like who they've voted for, and:
      2. They are upset that too many qualified candidates aren't getting 75%.
I think we discount the argument against who votes and who doesn't - expanding the voting membership won't improve the "intellect" of the voters, and reducing it might cause a person to have undue influence over the voting.  From Wikipedia:
The Hall of Fame suffered in the 1970s, when Frankie Frisch was a major voice on the committee. The old Hall of Famer, backed by former teammate Bill Terry and sportswriters J. Roy Stockton and Fred Lieb, who covered Frisch's teams, managed to get five of his teammates elected to the Hall by the committee. Additionally, in the three years after his death, two more teammates were elected.
After Frisch died and Terry left the Committee, elections were normalized. In 1978, membership increased to fifteen members, five Hall of Famers, five owners and executives, and five sportswriters. The members would meet in Florida during spring training to elect a player or two every year.
Do we need this?  With a body of 500+ voters, the best are going to get voted in...and some might not, which leads us to the second argument.  This year, we have legitimately 19 players who will garner significant support for their Hall of Fame candidacy.  With the voting limited to a maximum of 10 players, some writers are arguing that some qualified players won't get in, and some might not even garner the 5% needed to stay on the ballot.  The players, in no particular order:

  • Craig Biggio
  • Jack Morris
  • Jeff Bagwell
  • Tom Glavine
  • Greg Maddux
  • Barry Bonds
  • Roger Clemens
  • Mark McGwire
  • Alan Trammell
  • Tim Raines
  • Lee Smith
  • Curt Schilling
  • Edgar Martinez
  • Frank Thomas
  • Fred McGriff
  • Rafael Palmeiro
  • Mike Mussina
  • Jeff Kent
  • Mike Piazza
I haven't included Sosa, Mattingly or Larry Walker, but they do have their supporters as well.

This leads us to:

2.  How many players can a person vote for, and what percentage is needed to be elected to the Hall of Fame?

Again, let's listen to Jonah Keri's stance on the subject:

1. Lift the limit of 10 votes per ballot. Some voters' inflexibility on players linked to PEDs (or even players accused of being muscular) has created a backlog of viable candidates. What's more, the split on those players has caused a negative trickle-down effect for other deserving holdover candidates.
Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Mike Mussina, and Jeff Kent join this year's ballot, meaning writers who want to vote for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and the like have to exclude candidates they might find worthy in order to whittle down to 10. Hell, even writers who definitively refuse to vote for PED guys are running into this problem. But the 10-player ballot limit remains in place because … well, there's actually no reason, other than that's how it's always been. The good news is that some BBWAA members are speaking out. New York Times writer Tyler Kepner broached this at the winter meetings, arguing that the 10-candidate limit does more harm than good. While the idea met with some resistance at the higher levels, many rank-and-file BBWAA members supported Kepner's proposal, and the group voted overwhelmingly to form a committee to discuss this issue and other potential voting reforms.
Others have tried, unsuccessfully, to challenge the ballot limit in the past. But with Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz set to hit the ballot next year, and with no end in sight for the backlog, expect a growing chorus of support for reform.
2. Until no. 1 happens, abolish the 5 percent minimum threshold. With so many deserving candidates, some players who merit consideration are instead ignored, putting them at risk of not earning 5 percent of the overall vote and getting knocked off the ballot for good. We saw this last year, when first-time candidates Kevin Brown and Kenny Lofton were one-and-done; neither Brown nor Lofton was a slam dunk Hall of Famer by any stretch, and the fact that both are criminally underrated played a big role in them missing the cut, but some voters might have given Brown and Lofton the nod if they'd been allowed to go deeper than 10.
This year, players like Sammy Sosa (12.5 percent of the vote last time), Rafael Palmeiro (8.8 percent), and maybe Kent (the all-time leader in home runs by a second baseman) run the risk of suffering the same fate as Brown and Lofton. Again, I'm not saying Sosa and Palmeiro have perfect track records, especially to voters who won't back players suspected of PED use; nor am I denying that Kent's home runs came in an era rife with offense, or that he delivered only two truly elite seasons. But if lesser candidates like Jim Rice and Lee Smith can hang around for years and build support, it seems unfair to deny others that right simply because they became eligible when so many great candidates were also on the ballot.
As long as the 10-player limit exists, the 5 percent rule needs to go.

I think Keri misses an important point here:  change the criteria, and the way voters vote will change as well - how does the saying go?  "Water will always find its level."  To suggest that "all players who achieve 50% of the votes eventually make the Hall of Fame, so we should just reduce the percentage need to 50%" is oblivious to the attitudes voters would have.  Would they be more selective with whom they put on their ballot?  I would suggest it would.

So, where does this leave the candidates on this year's ballot?

I think four players will get elected this year, whom I'll write about in my next post.  This will "relieve" some of the pressure facing the BBWAA, but not all:  2015 is a stocked class as well.  But, should the 19 viable candidates split the voting in such a way that no one is elected again this year, I predict there will be major changes made to the voting process, starting with the ten player maximum (which in turn will allow Tim Kurkjian to vote for all the players on the ballot).  If no one is elected, I think they should institute the following:

  1. The top vote getter each year gets in.  The Hall of Fame has lost money 8 of the last 10 years, and not surprisingly, most of their money is earned during HOF weekend.  When Deacon Jones made it last year, not a lot of people came out to see his great-grandson accept it on his behalf.  By letting the top vote getter in, it would guarantee some type of crowd every year.
  2. I don't think the Veterans Committee is doing a great job.  We can talk about how the three managers elected this year overlooked the use of steroids on their team, and how players are penalized during this era when managers aren't...or not.   Personally, I think the Veterans Committee should be set up as a debate on players who have been off the ballot for a number of years...and the top vote getter gets in.  
But that's just me.  Besides those minor tweaks, I don't have a problem with the criteria for who gets to vote...or who gets in.  

Now if we could just deal with the PED issue...