The ballots have been sent out to the sportswriters who are eligible to vote on membership in baseball’s Hall of Fame, and while the big issue in last year’s voting (steroids) was debated and resolved pretty clearly (strong suspicion of juicing is a solid reason for non-support), the issue that will result in the biggest arguments this year doesn’t seem to be widely recognized. That issue is post-season performance.
The historical criteria for “automatic” HoF membership were pretty simple: 3,000 hits, 500 home runs, or (for pitchers) 300 wins. Whatever the merits of these criteria, they all had one thing in common: they represented a high standard of performance maintained over a long period of time. This reflected well the nature of the game from its early days through the 1960s: the daily grind of a 154- or 162-game season, in which every game counted equally toward the fundamental goal of finishing the season with the most victories in the league. The prize for this was something called “the pennant,” and if Pop Fisher (in The Natural) is to be believed, winning it was the truly Big Deal, with the World Series a bit of icing on the cake:
I wanted to win that pennant worse than I wanted any goddamned thing in my life. You’d think I could just this once, wouldn’t you? I didn’t care nothing about the Series. Win or lose, I would have been satisfied.
All that changed in 1969, when baseball expanded to 12 teams in each league. With so many teams in a single pennant race, the odds were that most teams in most years would be well out of the running by August, which would depress attendance and viewership in those teams’ home towns. That was a problem baseball didn’t need, for it had been struggling with attendance since the advent of television: nearly 21 million fans bought tickets in 1948, but attendance sagged well below that through the 1950s, and remained stuck in the low 20-millions through 1968.
The way to boost fan interest–and to give a big boost to the value of national TV rights–was to split the leagues into divisions, thereby requiring a round of playoffs to determine the World Series teams. This seems to have done the trick, as attendance exceeded the 40-million mark within a decade. The nature of the game had changed forever.
Today there are really three rounds of playoffs (the wild-card play-in game, the league division series, and the league championship series) to determine the two World Series participants. Some still say that the winner of the LCS has won “the pennant”, but in reality those teams have mostly earned the right to move on to the final round of a month-long tournament. The long regular season in baseball is now simply a quest to gain entry into the “postseason”. Since the addition of a wild-card team to the playoffs in 1994, ten teams that did not finish first in their divisions have gone on to the World Series, and five of those teams have won the Series. Performance in the regular season is still important, but not as important as it used to be. Now, postseason performance matters hugely, but postseason statistics still aren’t a part of the standard evaluation of players’ careers.
The conventional reply to the point I just made is, “small sample size!”* Baseball is a game in which small differences in execution can lead to large differences in outcomes. A ball that just ticks off a fielder’s glove is a hit, while it would’ve been an out if hit an inch closer to the fielder. A difference of a couple of millimeters in terms of where a ball hits a bat means the difference between a fly-ball out and a home run.
But while fans certainly enjoy a team that has a good, but not great, season, championships are what ultimately matter in the Playoff Era. The most memorable moments, the most exciting plays, largely are those that happen in the October spotlight. And if a Hall of Fame is about anything, it ought to be about the greatest performances on the biggest stage.
This year, there’ll be a lot of talk about Jack Morris, who pitched a justly-famous game to win the 1991 World Series for the Minnesota Twins and is in his final year of eligibility for the Hall. There will also be some energetic debate over a guy on the ballot for the first time, Curt Schilling. Neither of these pitchers has the kind of regular-season career stats that demand induction into the HoF. In fact, a huge part of the support for Morris seems to derive entirely from his tremendous performance in a single game. Schilling’s case is in the same category, but much stronger. Basically, his performance in the postseason was legendary: In his postseason career, Schilling allowed less than one baserunner per inning (a WHIP of.968, to be precise). For purposes of comparison, that’s slightly better than the .978 average put up by Pedro Martinez during his seven seasons in Boston, when he had some of the greatest seasons in the history of pitching. And it’s better than Pedro’s own postseason WHIP of 1.08. There’s no question whatsoever that Pedro was the better pitcher over his career–none whatsoever. I only mention Pedro to illustrate how well Schilling pitched in the postseason, against the two or three best teams in baseball.
The time has come for the Hall of Fame debate to recognize how the game has changed since the 1970s. People can–and most definitely will–differ on the relative importance of regular-season vs. postseason performance. I don’t think anyone will ever argue against the proposition that the Hall should recognize individual greatness during the regular season. But there’s plenty of room in the Hall for a different kind of player–someone who was at least Very Good in the regular season and Otherworldly in the postseason.
That’s why Curt Schilling belongs in Cooperstown.
*At this point I’d like to register my extreme dislike of the “small sample size” terminology. What people should be saying is simply that postseason samples are small. Not “small-sized”, which is hideously redundant.