The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Sunday, January 27, 2008


The Steroid Question(s)

If you're like me, you've almost certainly got topic fatigue when it comes to steroids in baseball. Lord knows I do, even given the fact that big steroid-related news tends to put my services as a pundit in demand. Given the way the stories like Barry Bonds' indictment and the releases of the Mitchell Report and the Grimsley Affidavit overshadowed the recent Hall of Fame election cycle, it was inevitable that I'd have to write something regarding JAWS and PEDs; I spend far too much time thinking about the Hall of Fame to avoid the topic, particularly when Mark McGwire remains on the ballot and in the headlines.

My latest piece at Baseball Prospectus (a freebie) covers several steroid-related bases via my responses to various readers. Regarding a question related to the veracity of McGwire's statistics, I began by discussing the phenomenon of writers mailing back blank ballots (I believe there were two this year, including Rick Telander):
Without touching upon the possible effects of PED usage on a player's performance or health — for a moment, at least — from a voting standpoint the issue shouldn't be an insurmountably difficult one to work through. Did Player X ever fail a drug test? Was Player X caught in possession of PEDs? Has Player X been named in a PED-related investigation? If the answer to all of those questions is no, then it strikes me as rather un-American not to give him the benefit of the doubt. He should be considered innocent until proven guilty — even if only in the court of public opinion, based on a preponderance of evidence — and he can't be proven guilty unless he's actually been charged with something.

As flawed as it is, the Mitchell Report should serve as a reminder that we don't really know what impact PEDs have on player performance. For every statistical outlier like Clemens or Bonds whose late-career greatness is supposedly attributable to steroids and/or human growth hormone, there are dozens of named players who allegedly used PEDs but who remained on the fringes of the majors, unable to win regular jobs even with whatever extra help they provided. Either that, or I simply missed the days of greatness of Adam Riggs and Phil Hiatt. Furthermore, there were many more named players who apparently turned to PEDs but simply couldn't reverse the effects of age and injuries, and were out of baseball by their mid-30s. David Justice and Chuck Knoblauch, two players on this year's ballot, come to mind.

Add to that the fact that the rising tide of home runs most commonly associated with "the Steroid Era" is best explained by more fundamental changes in the industry, not by the drugs or the myriad changes that have taken place over the past two decades—newer (but not all necessarily smaller) ballparks, expansion, the changing strike zone, and interleague play. On the one hand there are the well-publicized changes in bat composition; maple bats, as used by Bonds and others, are slightly more dense then the typical ash bats, but also more durable, allowing for thinner barrels and lighter, faster-swinging clubs which maintain the size of the bat's sweet spot. On the other hand, there are the more under-the-radar changes in balls, such as Rawlings' decision to move its manufacturing base from Haiti to Costa Rica in the late 1980s, switching from hand-wound balls to machine-wound ones during the 1990s, and introducing a synthetic rubber ring in the ball's core, one not covered by MLB specifications. A study commissioned by MLB and Rawlings done at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell in 2000 found that balls within the extremes of official tolerances could differ in flight distance by 49.1 feet despite being struck under the exact same conditions. Juiced balls, not juiced sluggers, likely represent the primary reason for those rising home run rates.

None of which is to say that McGwire, the player currently occupying the intersection of the steroid story and the Hall of Fame ballot, is entitled to a free pass from the voters. As his JAWS (109.4/67.5/88.5)shows, his peak measures up to the Hall of Famers at his position, but even with 583 home runs, his relatively short career leaves him a bit shy on career value. The bigger problem is that while he wasn't named in the Mitchell Report, and while his career concluded before the advent of the drug-testing program, he's got no small share of PED allegations surrounding him, from the sordid injection stories in Canseco's book, to the now-outlawed androstenedione discovered in his locker during the 1998 home run chase, to details of his chemical regimen turning up in the FBI's "Operation Equine" investigation, to his tearful "I'm not here to talk about the past" stonewalling during the 2005 Congressional hearing. With the exception of Canseco's book, which is basically one man's word against another, none of this is particularly easy to dismiss; the available evidence does suggest McGwire had help. Even if one believes that the benefits of whatever chemical regimens he may have indulged in are oversold—and here would be a good time to name-drop proto-Moneyball analyst Eric Walker's exhaustive compendium of the best research on the effects of PEDs — there's still the fact that that such alleged usage was illegal under federal law and a violation of baseball's rules, however lackadaisically enforced. As those are issues that fall outside McGwire's statistical case for the Hall of Fame, I see no reason to abandon the numbers when discussing his overall merits.
I can't recommend the Walker site, called simply Steroids and Baseball, enough. The man who put the OBP-is-king philosophy into the head of Oakland A's GM Sandy Alderson back in the early '80s has compiled a tremendous amount of research which takes direct aim at the assumptions of the Mitchell Report and challenges the prevailing wisdom about the effects of steroids (and human growth hormone) on the game. Alan Schwartz wrote about Walker in Sunday's New York Times, but he barely scratched the surface of the site, which summarizes its author's points on the main page, then offers detailed, citation-rich analyses in four main areas:
• the non-effects of PEDs on records
• the medical "risk" issues
• athletes and "role models"
• ethical issues concerning PEDs
Walker's work has caused me to question my own assumptions about PEDs and baseball. As I wrote at the beginning of my piece, within BP my views of Barry Bonds and his home run records are something of an outlier. Here's what I wrote on the occasion of Bonds' 756th:
Even absent a positive test, the mountain of evidence that Bonds used performance enhancing drugs is enough to convince me that his accomplishment is tainted. We'll never know the extent to which Bonds was aided, but the fact that his historically unprecedented late-career surge matches up with the well-documented timeline of his alleged usage is enough for me. However, Bonds certainly wasn't the only player using during this sordid era, and the extent to which the drugs helped him achieve his record will forever remain uncertain. Furthermore, Major League Baseball's failure to address in any meaningful way the pervasiveness of the steroid problem made them complicit in Bonds' use. There's also a growing body of evidence that MLB's decision to introduce a livelier baseball following the 1994 strike played a part in the astronomical home run totals that followed, but that's a story for another day.

This much we know: the three players who topped Roger Maris' long-standing season record of 61 homers have varying degrees of evidence suggesting they had help in the matter, and it's not unreasonable to eye their latter-day accomplishments with some degree of suspicion so long as that evidence remains. I'm not advocating an asterisk in the record books or the expungement of any stats; if the fabric of baseball history can withstand the variable impacts of the spitballers, scuffers, bat-corkers, sign-stealers, and greenie-poppers -- to say nothing of the Black Sox and Pete Rose, rats of an entirely different color -- it can withstand this.
As comforting as it would be for me to cling to my assumptions about Bonds, McGwire and Sammy Sosa (who still has considerably less evidence surrounding him than the other two), I have yet to encounter any studies which convince me that steroids and HGH ARE affecting the numbers to the extent that Walker's work and the handful of other papers linked there (including the work I've done in this field for Will Carroll's The Juice, cited by Walker) convince me that they are not.

This does not mean that I advocate the use of PEDs, think that baseball shouldn't continue its efforts to clean up the game. But I do think it's time that the media and fans drop the outraged cheater-cheater-pumpkin-eater mindset and the adherance to a dogma that says steroids have distorted the statistical fabric of the game and instead take note of the facts. Suffice it to say that if you're an open-minded fan of the game, you really should see Walker's site before expelling another breath of hot air regarding steroids and baseball.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008


White Out

Paul White has taken the extraordinary step of withdrawing the entire scathing post to which I responded:
I'm sorry if this screws up any links that might be out there, but I've decided to remove this post. While I still believe in the substance of what I was trying to say, in retrospect it was not only poorly written, but was also done in an exceedingly inappropriate tone. My apologies to those specifically named and anyone else who may have taken offense.

I've essentially attempted a do-over here if you’re still interesting in this topic, or I highly recommend an article by Mark Armour over at the Baseball Analysts site, which conveys the same point far better than I have.
Gone too are the comments in the aforementioned post; White had written a response to my post apologizing for his previous tone and with a grudging cordiality, the two of us kicked the topic back and forth a couple times before arriving at an impasse. I accepted his apology there, and I do here as well. We move on.

Not to pile on White after he has admitted he was in the wrong, but I am mildly surprised by his decision to actually delete the offending post. On at least one occasion (the Schilling mess) I've considered taking a similar step after the hatchets were buried, only to decide that the post's existence as part of the record was a stern reminder that I owed it to my readers and to myself to do better the next time. It would appear White's placeholder link will provide him with a similar reminder; if so, that's good enough from where I sit.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008


An Open Letter to Paul White (Apparently Not the USA Today Reporter)

The following is a response to a blog entry by one Paul White, a writer I had never heard of until Tuesday afternoon but one who took no prisoners in dishing out the most scathing attack I've received in nearly seven years of writing about baseball. His blog entry went so far as to include the following open letter:
Dear Mr. Jaffe,

Kiss My Ass.

Regards, Everyone Whose Intelligence You Just Insulted
While it was tempting to take either one of two tacks -- simply ignoring this bilious screed lest I afford more publicity to a writer who's done little to merit it, or responding with a curt reply telling Mr. White exactly how far to shove it -- I ultimately settled for what I hope is a more measured approach, one in line with a commitment I made to my readers long ago to focus on the parts of my writing that I enjoy, rather than playing to my Howard Beale side.

• • •

Dear Mr. White,

It's awfully big of you to stick up for the oppressed BBWAA Hall of Fame voters who have the capability of reaching millions of readers with their work, assuming they're still gainfully employed. Heaven knows that the threat posed to its members by a few analysts writing behind subscription-only walls that keep their audience a few magnitudes of order lower is worth the energy of your frothing-at-the-mouth personal attack. Given the penchant some of the BBWAA's higher-profile members -- recent Spink Award winners, even -- have for ad hominem attacks, I can understand your affinity for this august group.

I'd love to respond to you with the vehement discourtesy that you've shown me in your post, and there was a time I might have reveled in the opportunity to score a few easy points by doing so. The sad fact is that while you've actually got a good point about the evolution of sabermetric evidence as it pertains to Rice and to every other player eligible for the Hall of Fame, you've polluted it by leveling personal attacks at Messrs. Law, Neyer, Sheehan and myself. Rather than stoop to your level, I'll simply take a page from my guru, Homer Simpson -- "Blame me if you must, but don't ever speak ill of the program!" -- and focus on defending my point of view as it pertains to my system, rather than what you perceive as my arrogance, since you've clearly made up your mind on that topic. So forgive this lengthy stroll through my thought process.

The JAWS system is designed to compare a candidate for election to the Hall of Fame with the players at his position who have already been inducted. The system was created in response to what I perceived as a gap alongside the nebulous standards applied annually by Hall of Fame voters, the work done by Bill James to create tools designed to compare candidates, and more than two decades of sabermetric progress, not to mention baseball history, since James' initial work in that area. What I have proposed via JAWS is that rather than rely on imprecise arguments which make only passing attempt to reckon with the wide disparity in raw statistics between candidates of different eras, environments, and positions, it is useful to incorporate a more all-encompassing measure of player value that accounts for offense, defense and pitching, and to distinguish between the value of a player at his peak and over the course of his career. Used as designed, JAWS highlights which candidates on a given ballot would raise the standards of the Hall by their inclusion, a goal I feel is worthwhile to counter the dilution of the Hall's ranks via shaky Veterans Committee votes and an overreliance on counting stats that don't do a great job of measuring a player's true contribution to winning.

I've chosen Clay Davenport's Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) as the currency to measure value while conceding that it's not without its flaws. Among them is one that you've hit upon -- the fact that the values do get revised from time to time. Davenport, one of the founders of Baseball Prospectus, is a relentless tinkerer whose system evolves as better information becomes available; the replacement-level value of defense at given positions and the levels of league difficulty appear to be the main areas of change in recent years (the latter also requires annual adjustment with the addition of another year of data to the overall pool), with the result that I have to update my spreadsheets on a frequent basis to stay current from a JAWS standpoint. That shouldn't distract or detract from the matter at hand; even Bill James revised his Runs Created formulas and other measures in his annual Baseball Abstract series back in the day, and if you've done nothing else in your diatribe, you've provided a half-decent roadmap of the evolution of sabermetric thought as it pertains to measuring Rice's qualifications (I'll leave the debunking of the particular measures you've used re: Rice to others). I can assure you that the recent fluctuations in Rice's numbers at BP in BRAA and other such measures are no part of a conspiracy; those of Tim Raines, to use an example from the opposite end of the Hall-worthiness spectrum as far as my system goes, have fluctuated as well, not always to his advantage.

My use of a value metric such as WARP in place of raw statistics is designed to offer an alternative to the statistical selectivity that often gets incorporated into Hall of Fame arguments. For example, in the weeks since the 2008 ballot was released, I've seen that Rice is the only player outside the Hall of Fame with 350+ homers and a batting average above .290, that he's the only player in major league history with three consecutive seasons of 35+ homers and 200+ hits, and that he led the league in grounding into double plays four years in a row and ranks much higher on that all-time list (sixth) than on any other. Those are interesting, superlative feats which provide color and nuance to the story of Rice's career, but they're ultimately rather trivial; none is a particularly accurate gauge that accounts for the number of runs Rice really created or prevented when and where he played, or how we should weigh those feats against the impressive ones compiled by already-enshrined players. By using WARP, one can maintain the focus on player value instead of getting distracted by the granular data which is often tossed around without the necessary context for interpretation (i.e., park and league scoring levels).

I began this response with no intention of rehashing the numbers-based case against Jim Rice at length, but I will provide you with the up-to-date BP metrics you cite, along with relevant rankings among the Hall of Fame left fielders. Rice's Equivalent Average (EqA) is a very respectable .294. The composite EqA I use for my JAWS benchmark -- calculated per Davenport's instruction as (total Outs / total EqRuns / 5) ^ 0.4 -- among Hall of Fame left fielders is .306 (for the broadest group in my system, that of Hall of Fame hitters, it's an even .300). The median of the left fielder group is .301. Of the 18 Hall of Fame leftfielders, only Lou Brock (.282) and Zach Wheat (.292) are lower than Rice, while Goose Goslin is at .294 as well. Fenway Park, the high GIDP totals, the relatively modest offensive levels of Rice's era -- they're all incorporated into EqA. Against Rice's totals of Batting Runs Above Replacement (634) and Batting Runs Above Average (366), the benchmarks are 806 and 531, while the medians are 709 and 453. Among Hall left fielders, Rice's BRAR tops only Ralph Kiner (604), Heinie Manush (496) and Chick Hafey (401), and his BRAA tops only Brock (293), Hafey (252) and Manush (251). Translating those runs into career WARP, Rice is at 83.3, the JAWS benchmark is 116.8, the median is 109.3, and Rice only outranks Kiner (74.6), Hafey (68.8) and Manush (54.5). I also track peak WARP, defined as a player's best seven seasons. Rice's 55.5 falls short of the benchmark (65.8) and the median (63.1), outranking only Brock (49.4), Manush (48.1) and Hafey (45.9). Via Rice's JAWS score (the average of his career and peak WARP totals), Rice's 69.4 falls short of the benchmark (91.3) and the median (85.0), outranking only the familiar company of Brock (68.8), Kiner (68.5), Manush (58.5) and Hafey (50.2). In other words, he falls far short by all of these measures which put his offensive contributions in the context of ballpark and league scoring levels.

As an aside, one of the accusations leveled at me by a critic who holds me in much higher esteem than you apparently do is that my system by definition says that half the players in the Hall of Fame are unqualified. As I've pointed out, that's a mischaracterization. While the Hall's rolls have been compromised by the admission of some dubious players, we can't undo what's done; JAWS isn't a prescription for throwing the bums out. As noted before, the thrust of my entire project is the identification of the candidates who surpass the benchmark at their position (position can be broadly defined for players who moved around the field, since I make note of benchmarks for multi-category players such as outfielders, middle infielders, and all hitters), thus inching the standards upwards.

At the end of the day, however, JAWS is a tool, and as such, it's only as smart as those who use it. Furthermore, it's best used as directed, with an awareness that it excludes volumes of information regarding postseason performance, awards, All-Star appearances, milestones, and nonstatistical evidence. I expend thousands of words and dozens of tables in my efforts to fill in some of those gaps within my annual series at BP, and I'll incorporate some of that information into the following comparison.

In your piece, you've taken offense at my "Amen" to Keith Law's hyperbolic comment about the Hall of Fame doors. I don't know whether his hyperbole was directly informed by my system, but his point appears to be valid. Via JAWS, Rice ranks 91st all-time among Hall-eligible outfielders (i.e., anyone who played up through 2002, the cutoff for this year's class). Of the 90 outfielders above him, 46 are in the Hall of Fame. Thirty-seven of those 46 are concentrated in the top 46 JAWS scores among this pool. Only 12 enshrined outfielders are outranked by Rice; all but one of those are strewn over the 100 ranking slots directly below him. All but two of those 12 were voted in by the Veterans Committee rather than the writers.

If we move beyond JAWS to give Rice special credit for his 1978 MVP award, we'll have to note that among the 44 out of 90 who outrank him but aren't in the Hall are fellow winners Andre Dawson (81.3 JAWS), George Foster (73.9), two-time winner Dale Murphy (73.4) and Dave Parker (69.5). Save for Foster, all of them had as many or more All-Star appearances as Rice. Dawson, Parker and Murphy have multiple Gold Gloves to their credit, where Rice has none. Parker and Foster have multiple World Series rings to burnish their credentials. Yet of this subgroup, only Dawson has ever joined Rice in topping 25 percent of the BBWAA vote. If we compare Rice to the two BBWAA-elected outfielders whom he outranks, we find Brock, one of the select members of the 3,000 Hit Club, and Kiner, who led his league in home runs for seven straight seasons. Rice led his league three times and finished second once, a fair credit to apply given that Kiner accomplished his feat in an eight-team National League, Rice in a 14-team AL. Without belittling the nuances of Rice's fascinating career or the visceral thrill he provided observers (myself included) in his prime, I honestly can't come up with any conclusion other than that Law's hyperbole is valid -- Rice's credentials vis à vis the Hall simply aren't that unique, and to admit him is to suggest that the institution should admit at least a handful of similar candidates whose credentials also fall short.

To move past this longwinded digression and focus on the crux of your attack on me, nowhere have I suggested that my system is the only way to measure Hall of Fame candidates or that I am one of the "exclusive purveyors of the 'right' way to evaluate baseball players" (your words). My placing of the word "right" in quotation marks within the sentence you excerpted -- from a valid point about the BBWAA's unwillingness to police its membership rolls in accordance with its bylaws -- was an attempt to convey the fact that THERE IS NO ONE RIGHT WAY to do so, nor a broad consensus about the Hall's standards. As to the offense taken at the aforementioned excerpt, I can only infer from your screed that you object to my use of the word "educational" in describing my work, and feel as though I'm arrogant either because of my attempt to create a system which could inform Hall of Fame voters as well as interested spectators or because I long for the evolution of a sabermetrically-inclined electorate that no longer clings to Triple Crown stats as the be-all and end-all of the discussion. The two aren't mutually exclusive, and I do what I can with the platform I've been afforded. Despite your diatribe, I can assure you that BP's readers and staff have responded with enough positive feedback and enthusiasm to ensure my project's continuation. Apparently, there are people who find it informative, entertaining, or (dare I say) educational.

If you feel that I've somehow crossed the Mendoza Line of decorum in making my point, well, I'll leave it to the public to decide which of us has been more indecorous, me with the occasional stridency of my arguments (a charge to which I've already copped), or you with your ad hominem attacks and gratuitous, juvenile references to the size and/or location of your targets' testicles (which you mention three times). Nonetheless, I wish to thank you for the kind words, the superlative ("the most condescending remark I’ve ever seen on the subject"), and the open-letter suggestion on behalf of "everyone whose intelligence you just insulted" -- an angry mob that apparently doubles as a silent majority, judging by the dearth of emails I receive to that effect -- that I should be engaging in some ass-kissing. I'll be sure to put all of that in my scrapbook or on my to-do list as merited.

In closing, I'm well aware that there are millions of baseball fans and hundreds of voters out there who have never heard of me and who get along just fine without my efforts to shine a bit of light into this particular corner of the baseball world. Yet to hear you tell it I've practically enslaved the guardians of Cooperstown in an effort to prevent the necessary supermajority from electing Jim Rice. In fact, the concerted efforts on the part of myself and the aforementioned nefarious conspirators have been so successful that Rice garnered 46 more votes than in 2007, and 116 more than when my system debuted at BP in 2004. Clearly, you have pinpointed the reason why my ego is so huge.

I just wish you weren't so obsessed with my balls.


Jay Jaffe

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008


The Big Dodger in the Sky

Johnny Podres, who won arguably the single biggest game in the Dodger history, passed away on Sunday. Just 23 at the time, Podres will forever be remembered for pitching a complete-game shutout against the Yankees in Game Seven of the 1955 World Series, giving the Dodger franchise their first World Championship after seven World Series defeats (the last five to the Yankees) and the only one of their Brooklyn days. As epitaphs go, you could do a whole lot worse.

Buzzie Bavasi claimed that along with Jackie Robinson, Podres was one of the two greatest competitors of the GM's 18-year career with the Dodgers. It's fitting that those two players were responsible for the signature moments in Brooklyn sports history, Robinson with his breaking of baseball's color barrier on April 15, 1947 and Podres for bringing Next Year to Dem Bums. But that was hardly the only thing Podres accomplished in baseball. Over the course of a 15-year career, he went 148-116 with a 3.68 ERA (105 ERA+), including a league-leading 2.66 in 1957. He pitched for the Dodgers from 1953 to 1966, mostly slotting into the middle of the rotation behind Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. Along with Koufax and Jim Gilliam, Podres holds the distinction of being one of the three players who were part of all four of the Dodgers' championships under Walter Alston. Gilliam was the only one to play in each of those World Series (1955, 1959, 1963, and 1965); Podres was on the roster for the latter but didn't pitch, while Koufax wasn't on the 1955 roster (he made up for it later). Podres had such a big-game reputation that Pee Wee Reese nicknamed him "Mr. Clutch." True to that, he came up big in postseason play, going 4-1 with a 2.11 ERA in six World Series starts.

Podres' best pitch was his change-up:
Podres' biggest weapon was a straight change-up that was taught to him and [Carl] Erskine by former Dodgers executive Branch Rickey. [Don] Newcombe and Maury Wills, another Dodgers teammate, said the change-up was the best they'd ever seen.

"No Dodger pitcher has ever used that particular kind of grip since," Erskine said. "You let the ball recess back so that you use your middle knuckles like the ends of your fingers. The wrist had to collapse behind the ball. It had the same rotation as a four-seam fastball, so it was difficult to pick up. But it was also difficult to get over the plate."
Podres was traded to Detroit early in the 1966 season, and wound up his career -- wait for it -- as a member of the expansion San Diego Padres. Later he worked as a pitching coach for the Red Sox, Twins and Phillies, most notably with the 1993 NL pennant winners. No less than Curt Schilling credits him with instilling the mentality he needed for big games.

As former teammate Tommy Lasorda might say, Podres has gone to the Big Dodger in the Sky. Rest in peace.

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Monday, January 14, 2008


The Loose Goose and the Pain for Raines

As you're no doubt aware, Rich Gossage got the call from the Hall last Tuesday, receiving 85.8 percent of the vote. He was the only candidate to gain entry this year. Jim Rice fell just 16 votes shy at 72.2 percent, followed by Andre Dawson (65.9 percent) and Bert Blyleven (61.9 percent). Tim Raines, the candidate I promoted most heavily, finished with a dismal 24.3 percent in his first year of eligibility.

I hosted a chat on Tuesday as the results were announced, and dissected the balloting in an article on Wednesday:
In anticipation of Raines not making it on his first try, I set about to find out what a strong first-year showing for an eventual enshrinee would look like. Using the Hall of Fame's website, I culled the year-by-year voting results back to 1966, when the BBWAA resumed annual balloting after a decade of biennial votes...

Since 1966, the BBWAA has elected 65 players to the Hall of Fame, including Gossage but not including Roberto Clemente, who was elected via a special process in March 1973, less than three months after his death, and Red Ruffing, who was elected in a 1967 runoff which the rules provided for in the case of the writers didn't grant any candidates 75 percent (only the winner of the runoff gained entry). Thirty-two of those 65 were members of one of the three milestone clubs: the 3,000 Hit Club, the 500 Home Run Club, and the 300 Win Club. Of those 32 "marked" players, only six didn't get in on the first ballot: Harmon Killebrew, Eddie Mathews, Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, and Early Wynn. They took an average of 4.33 ballots to gain enshrinement. Only two marked players have thus far failed to gain enshrinement, Pete Rose (who received 41 write-in votes in 1992) and McGwire--a rather incredible precedent.

Of the 33 "unmarked" electees in that span, 10 gained entry on the first ballot... The remaining 23 candidates averaged 6.52 ballots; the distinction between ballots and years is necessary because five of these players, as well as the already-dismissed Ruffing, date back to the 1956-1966 biennial era.

Taking the 18 unmarked, non-first year, non-biennial candidates and the six marked, non-first year ones into consideration leaves us a pool of 24 enshrinees to study for clues as to what constitutes a good start to an eventual Hall of Fame election. It's not a huge sample, but it will have to do:
Yr    #  El    Wtd     Med
1 24 0 47.5% 51.2%
2 24 4 55.3% 58.4%
3 20 5 57.1% 60.0%
4 15 3 59.0% 62.4%
5 12 3 61.2% 66.6%
6 9 3 61.5% 65.0%
7 6 0 57.4% 62.6%
8 6 1 62.2% 58.5%
9 5 2 69.9% 67.0%
10 3 1 66.9% 71.3%
11 2 1 71.2% 73.0%
12 1 0 66.7% 66.7%
13 1 1 76.9% 76.9%
Wtd is the weighted percentage of votes received (based on the actual number of votes cast instead of the simple mean) and Med is the median percentage of votes received. Any way you look at it, Raines received about half the support level of a typical non-first ballot Hall of Famer. Since 1966, only Duke Snider (17.0 percent), Don Drysdale (21.0 percent), Billy Williams (23.4 percent), and Sutter (23.9 percent) have rallied from lower percentages, while Ralph Kiner (24.5 percent), Luis Aparicio (27.9 percent), and Early Wynn (27.9) weren't much better off. Even Gossage got just 33.3 percent his first time out.

As for Jim Rice, his near-miss 72.2 percent has been eclipsed only by four players who failed to gain enshrinement via that year's voting. Three of them -- Nellie Fox (74.7 percent), Jim Bunning (74.2 percent) and Orlando Cepeda (73.5 percent) -- got in via the Veterans Committee a few years later, while the aforementioned Ruffing got in via a runoff. Even with Rickey Henderson appearing on next year's ballot, Rice's eventual election is a virtual lock, which is a head-scratcher given how far below Raines and below the JAWS benchmarks he ranks.

My BP colleage Joe Sheehan did an excellent job of dismantling Rice's case both at BP and on ESPNews, the latter in which he double-teamed with ESPN Insider columnist and BP alum Keith Law. I only wish that he hadn't uncharacteristically pulled a punch in his article by failing to mention that the ESPN colleague and BBWAA writer who accused Neyer of spearheading an anti-Rice campaign was Peter Gammons, who said that Neyer was "obsessed with degrading Rice's career." While I've had my differences with Rob recently, I found nothing in his examinations of Rice's credentials to suggest his look at the evidence and the arguments that had been advanced on the candidate's behalf was biased. Gammons' statement was a thoroughly unprofessional grandstanding maneuver by one of the game's most powerful writers to try to bully and embarrass Neyer. Frankly, it was horseshit, but it was also sadly characteristic of Gammons' recent unprovoked swipes at some sabermetric straw man that's apparently haunting his offseason. Say it ain't so, Peter.

Sadly, the Raines/Rice vote discrepancy seems to provide the take-home message of this year's vote -- that advocacy using advanced metrics like WARP or Win Shares might somehow create a backlash among voters due to the uppity refusal of analysts to take their exalted word as gospel instead of thinking for ourselves. Mark Armour, in a provocative guest piece at Baseball Analysts, made a solid point about such efforts:
Another problem with the analytical arguments is that they are so… strident. The current message from the stat community to the Hall of Fame and its voters goes something like this: "Your institution is riddled with poor selections, and most of the current voting writers are morons. P.S. Please find enclosed my application to join your fine group." It's a bit like saying, "I don't like your wife, but if you have me over for dinner I can give her a few tips on her attitude."

Every time some poor writer released their Hall of Fame ballot last month, unless it had the "right" guys on it, the voter was deemed not smart enough, unthinking. I don’t really want to quote examples because I am in enough trouble already, but, trust me, if you voted for Jack Morris you were mocked.
While Mark, who had mentioned my JAWS work earlier in the piece, doesn't specifically point a finger at me at on the stridency charge, I must admit that there are times when that particular shoe fits -- though at least I've got the occasional excuse to go double-barrel -- and there are times I too gawk and groan in dismay at many of the published ballots. What else can I do? I've devoted a great deal of time to carving a niche in covering the Hall of Fame vote, all the while knowing that there's little chance in hell I'm ever going to get to partake in the process myself. For some of these writers to blithely dismiss certain candidates at the expense of others, or to simply not take their role in the process seriously, is an annual disappointment. As I wrote in my recent piece:
The obstinate and occasionally belligerent innumeracy publicly displayed by many a voter over the past few weeks remains the most frustrating aspect of the annual election cycle. For every analyst at the margins who offers a rational, factually-supported argument about the merits of a particular player's candidacy, there appear to be a dozen voters willing to fall back on the "I saw him play, you eggheads" argument accompanied by cherry-picked statistical measures and selectively applied standards. 'Twas ever thus, and so long as the Stonecutters, er, BBWAA keeps electing somebody so as to funnel a steady horde of tourists to Cooperstown every summer, the Hall of Fame has little incentive to get with the times by revamping its voting process. The best those of us who attempt to call attention to the "right" candidates can do is to persist with our educational efforts while hoping that younger, more open-minded writers gradually replace certain fossilized BBWAA members whose voting privileges apparently hinge on the unwillingness of that body to purge its rolls in accordance with its bylaws. Wait 'til next year, or the year after that, or the year after that...
In any event, while the election results weren't all that I'd hoped, I'm delighted to see JAWS and the Hall of Fame standards becoming a bigger part of the discussion. Onward and upwards, my friends.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008


XM in the AM

Just a quick and almost belated note to say that I'm going to be discussing JAWS and the recent Hall of Fame vote today (Saturday) at 10:25 AM on XM 175's "Minors and Majors" show with Grant Paulsen, the 18-year-old broadcasting wunderkind. Better pound some coffee...

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Friday, January 04, 2008


What a Relief!

The day after my JAWS-flavored take on the starting pitchers on the 2008 Hall of Fame ballot ran at Baseball Prospectus, my take on the relievers is up as well, thus -- to my great relief -- completing this year's series (the reliever portion is free, the starter one is sub-only). For those who have been following the series from year to year, the results among the pitchers shouldn't come as a surprise; my system identified Bert Blyleven, Rich Gossage and Lee Smith as Hall-worthy and the rest... not so much. That trio joins Tim Raines, Alan Trammell and Mark McGwire from among the hitters to make up the JAWS Class of 2008 photo.

As I wrote in the starters piece, Blyleven ranks among the top 20 pitchers of all time according to JAWS. He's the highest-ranked pitcher who's eligible for the Hall but not in:
Pitcher            PRAA  PRAR  WARP3   Peak   JAWS   SUP
Walter Johnson 818 1994 209.6 109.5 159.6 HOF
Cy Young 943 2024 213.8 99.5 156.7 HOF
Roger Clemens 666 2016 199.6 83.9 141.8
Greg Maddux 481 1689 180.3 86.0 133.2
Pete Alexander 593 1520 160.1 91.0 125.6 HOF
Christy Mathewson 480 1285 149.1 92.9 121.0 HOF
Tom Seaver 439 1576 152.2 75.8 114.0 96 HOF
Warren Spahn 324 1598 153.3 72.9 113.1 HOF
Randy Johnson 428 1570 147.0 77.3 112.2
Lefty Grove 520 1456 138.5 81.9 110.2 HOF
Kid Nichols 494 1248 131.2 84.1 107.7 HOF
Steve Carlton 264 1509 137.0 71.6 104.3 104 HOF
Phil Niekro 262 1485 137.7 67.5 102.6 97 HOF
Robin Roberts 304 1448 129.8 74.8 102.3 HOF
Gaylord Perry 266 1512 132.9 68.8 100.9 96 HOF
Tom Glavine 296 1341 137.4 63.7 100.6
Bert Blyleven 323 1546 135.1 65.3 100.2 97
Bob Gibson 329 1260 120.7 76.3 98.5 HOF
Hal Newhouser 311 1109 111.0 83.0 97.0 HOF
Fergie Jenkins 290 1384 125.1 68.4 96.8 101 HOF
Nolan Ryan 210 1661 128.1 59.4 93.8 95 HOF
Jim Palmer 203 1116 100.8 63.9 82.4 109 HOF
Don Sutton 141 1371 112.2 48.2 80.2 105 HOF
Catfish Hunter 1 820 70.0 51.9 61.0 112 HOF
It's true Blyleven has one of the lowest WARP peaks shown above, but he more than holds his own with his enshrined contemporaries. His secondary peak measure, PRAA, puts him 30-60 runs past Carlton, Niekro, Perry, and Jenkins, and more than 100 beyond his other enshrined contemporaries -- Ryan, Palmer, Sutton and Hunter; only Seaver outdistances him. Spoiled by the half-dozen of those aforementioned peers who won 300 games from the mid-'60s to the mid-'80s, when the days of the four-man rotation dominated, the BBWAA hasn't elected a starter with fewer than 300 wins since Jenkins in 1991. Note the last column, which compares the run support of those contemporaries in a park- and league-adjusted index similar to ERA+, where 100 is average; Blyleven got three percent less support than the average starter during his time, comparable to many of those contemporaries but nonetheless something which kept him from attaining 300 wins.
For the relievers, I use some extra information -- BP's Reliever Expected Wins Added (WXRL) stat:
WXRL accounts for the discovery that a reliever at the end of a ballgame has a quantitatively greater impact on winning and losing (a ratio called leverage) than a starter does. It measures that impact by comparing a team's chances of winning based on the game state (bases, outs, score differential) before he enters and after he leaves. For the purposes of measuring a pitcher's Hall-worthiness, it functions as something of a career/peak hybrid; one can accumulate a high total via performing well under high-pressure situations for shorter periods or in more moderate pressure situations for longer. Two years ago, I put aside an earlier kludge and began incorporating WXRL totals into a Reliever's Adjusted JAWS score via the formula RAJAWS: ((0.5 x WXRL) + JAWS).

...Given the small sample size of Hall of Fame relievers, it's worthwhile to check out the RAJAWS leaderboard for some perspective. The list is somewhat incomplete, as our play-by-play database currently only goes back to 1959, so it's missing the first seven years of [Hoyt] Wilhelm's career, four years of Lindy McDaniel, and seven of Stu Miller (all denoted with asterisks below), to say nothing of their forebears. Nonetheless, we can get a pretty solid idea of where this year's candidates rank with regards to the enshrined and the two active pitchers who are likely bets to reach the Hall soon after retirement, Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman. Here's the provisional version of the RAJAWS Top 20:
Pitcher             WARP   Peak   JAWS   WXRL  RAJAWS
Mariano Rivera 93.9 62.6 78.3 62.5 109.5
Dennis Eckersley 120.8 53.7 87.3 35.1 104.8 HoF
Rich Gossage 88.4 56.0 72.2 53.8 99.1
Trevor Hoffman 82.2 49.2 65.7 62.3 96.9
Hoyt Wilhelm 96.5 47.6 72.1 39.0 91.5* HoF
Lee Smith 83.7 47.3 65.5 47.0 89.0
Rollie Fingers 80.1 49.4 64.8 45.8 87.6 HOF
John Franco 80.9 41.2 61.1 44.8 83.5
Tom Gordon 85.5 46.7 66.1 33.8 83.0
Billy Wagner 66.7 49.2 58.0 44.9 80.4
Doug Jones 66.5 48.2 57.4 33.0 73.8
Lindy McDaniel 72.0 44.1 58.1 31.3 73.7*
Bruce Sutter 59.0 47.6 53.3 37.4 72.0 HOF
Roberto Hernandez 66.8 46.5 56.7 28.2 70.7
Stu Miller 63.5 43.6 53.6 34.1 70.6*
John Wetteland 58.5 46.5 52.5 35.0 70.0
Tom Henke 59.9 42.7 51.3 36.8 69.7
Tug McGraw 60.1 38.5 49.3 39.6 69.1
Dan Quisenberry 55.2 48.2 51.7 34.0 68.7
Kent Tekulve 64.7 40.3 52.5 30.3 67.7
Rivera surpassed Eckersley atop this list last year. With Gossage apparently poised for enshrinement after receiving 71.2 percent of the vote last year, the day where six of the top seven relievers via my system are enshrined isn't far off. In that regard, the election of Sutter two years ago may have been the best thing to happen to the Goose. As I said on my XM spot with Chuck Wilson yesterday, Sutter as the save specialist and Eckersley as the ninth-inning specialist represented easily definable data points for the evolution of the modern closer. The recognition of Gossage's transcendence of that ever-narrowing niche has created a groundswell of support such that his vote totals have increased dramatically over the last four votes:
Year  Votes   Pct
2004 206 40.7% Eckersley elected
2005 285 55.2%
2006 336 64.6% Sutter elected
2007 388 71.2%
It's probably just a coincidence that those numbers parallel the widening exposure of my JAWS project, which began in '04 as well, but I can't help feeling a tiny measure of satisfaction at this trend nonetheless.

In any event, I've got a fair bit of Hall of Fame-related media lining up for next week:

• a radio appearance on KTRH 740 AM in Houston, Monday at 7 a.m. ET / 6 a.m. CT, discussing Roger Clemens' appearance on 60 Minutes. You can listen via their website. I may be doing more Fox affiliate "phoners" that morning as well.

• a BP chat on Tuesday, 2 PM Eastern, just as the voting results are announced.

• a radio appearance on Sports Xtra 1360 AM in San Diego, Tuesday at 3:40 p.m. ET / 12:40 p.m. PT. You can listen via their website.

• my regularly scheduled appearance on Sports Radio 1470 in Toledo, Wednesday at 4:10 p.m. ET.

• an XM Radio appearance to be named later.

Should be another busy week!

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Thursday, January 03, 2008


A Few Quick Hits [updated]

Happy 2008, everyone! Just a few quick notes this morning, the first of which is time-sensitive:

• I've been invited to appear on XM 175, Hot Stove with Chuck Wilson today (Thursday) at 12:25 PM Eastern to discuss JAWS and the 2008 Hall of Fame ballot. I'm told I'll be doing a second segment at 12:45. This might be my favorite radio gig of the year, because Chuck does his homewor and gives me a chance to discuss my system at length.

Hopefully by the time I'm on the air, my JAWS take on the ballot's starting pitchers will be up at Baseball Prospectus. UPDATE: it's up.

• Speaking of BP, I've got a quickie Unfiltered post on baseball-themed holiday loot that adds to a staff rundown of my colleagues' hauls. The best items from this awesome bounty might be the DVD burn of the 1975 All-Star Game taped off the local Brewers channel (it was played at Milwaukee County Stadium), and a scan of a photo of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig with a local politician who was the grandfather of a dear family friend, Karen Edson. Quoth my BP colleague Christina Kahrl, "About the only thing missing was a four-day weekend with Sandy Koufax."

Here's a shot of the All-Star Game, with AL starting pitcher Vida Blue resplendent in a full yellow uniform:

• My boy Alex Belth has edited a forthcoming anthology, The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan, which he's understandably jazzed about; the book hits the shelves in late February. Alex has some choice Jordan stuff on Joe Torre (his former batterymate in the Braves' system) dating back to 1996. It didn't make the cut for the book but it's enjoyable reading nonetheless. He's also been pulling some vintage articles on Red Smith and Dick Young. Go get 'em.

• The clearance of my major workload has meant the opportunity to catch up with some of my lighter reading. Amid an epic stint on the couch watching college football bowl games on New Year's Day (more football than I've watched all year combined), I settled in with some excellent entries from Josh Wilker's Cardboard Gods blog which reminded me what I'd been missing: Rickey Henderson, John Urrea, Ray Corbin, Paul Mitchell and Mickey Klutts. Sometimes hilarious, other times philosophical, and often painfully confessional, his stuff is always worth a read.

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