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.

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.

Sincerely,

Jay Jaffe

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