Category Archives: Sports

Who Belongs in the Hall of Fame?

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.

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*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.

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What Makes a Baseball Player “Most Valuable”?

It happens at the end of every baseball season: the argument over what “valuable” means in the context of the sport’s Most Valuable Player award. I enjoy a good argument, especially over relatively minor things like awards to multimillionaires (or, in the case of very young players, imminent multimillionaires). But I don’t enjoy reading sports columns in which the writer sets himself up as the One True Arbiter, dismissing as a fool anyone who disagrees with his value judgment. There are plenty of examples, such as this one, by Dave Cameron at Fangraphs (a site that has consistently mismeasured the value of a win, btw).

Another example of an off-puttingly high ratio of self-regard to actual merit has been written by NBC Sports columnist Joe Posnanski. Now I’ve got to stipulate up front that Posnanski is a good writer, especially when the subject is his family. But when it comes to the MVP award, Joe’s writing turns into a caricature of internet commentary. His opinion is not only correct, but it’s the only logical opinion. Anyone who disagrees with him is a fool or a knave. Sometimes that’s true, of course–you’ll find plenty of those arguments in the archives of this very blog–but it’s silly to think that considerations of “value” could possibly be inarguable.

There are two distinct parts to the question of value. Essentially, they are quantity and quality. In the case of baseball, the “quantity” aspect is a player’s level of performance. For hitting, this is pretty measurable, although there’s still a split between those who cling to the measures used in the past (particularly batting average and runs batted in) and those currently in vogue such as “offensive WAR” (don’t ask). The measurement of players’ value as fielders is recognized as imprecise by pretty much everyone.* Evaluating defense still relies heavily on direct observation, which means it’s somewhat subjective.

What’s the “quality” aspect of player value? To answer that question, you’ve first got to answer the question, How does a baseball player create value? To his employer, of course, a player’s purpose is to help sell tickets. What sells tickets? One obvious answer is a winning team. There’s plenty of evidence that that’s true, anecdotal and otherwise. During Boston’s legendary “Impossible Dream” 1967 season, for example, attendance more than doubled relative to the previous year. But there’s also the “Ted Williams” answer. Once Ted went off to fight in the Korean War, the Red Sox entered a period of mediocrity that got even worse after he retired. The main reason people bought tickets to Red Sox games after he returned from Korea was to watch Williams hit. Attendance hit rock bottom after he retired (from over 1.1 million in Ted’s last season to 733 thousand two years later). So there’s obvious value in a player’s pure performance level no matter how good or bad his teammates are. The precise balance between these two aspects of value can be debated by reasonable people, but it’s clear that the value of an additional win to a team’s fans is entirely context-dependent. This is a point that is completely missed by Fangraphs.

The Posnanski/Cameron position is either that the value of a win isn’t context-dependent, or that a player’s “value” should be measured without regard to the value of the wins he contributed to his team. (They never specify which position they’re taking, because they never show any awareness of the distinction at all.) I think of the first view as the Gertrude Stein position: A win is a win is a win. And for the same reason that Stein is wrong, so is Posnanski. The evidence supports anyone’s intuition that an extra win is worth more to a team that’s in contention for a championship than it is to a team that’s out of the running. In fact, the data show that an extra win is worth a lot more to a team that’s already likely to win 90 games than it is to a team that’s likely to win only 80 games.

The second interpretation of Posnanski’s opinion is that a player’s value should be considered independently of his team’s record. It’s not fair, in this view, to give a player credit for what his teammates do. This view is simply a personal judgment, but Posnanski claims that his position is somehow more logical than the other.** That’s not merely completely, utterly, incontrovertibly wrong. It’s also illogical.

Dave Cameron implicitly recognizes this. He doesn’t like the fact that people can argue over “value”, so he wants “MVP” changed to “Best Player”. The counterargument to this is that Major League Baseball already has many “best player” awards: the Cy Young award for best pitcher and the Hank Aaron award for best hitter. In addition, the MLB Players’ Association bestows an Outstanding Player award. There is a Gold Glove award for each fielding position, and recently a Platinum Glove award has been introduced (although it’s not an official MLB award) to honor the best overall fielder regardless of position.

So what’s left to recognize with an award? Value, in all its debatable glory.

Let the debate continue, but in complete awareness of what the fundamental issues are.

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*Unnecessary detail: “Errors” have long been  understood to be unreliable statistics because a fielder who manages to get close to a relatively small number of balls in play can have a low error total but still be of low value. “Assists” are equally unreliable. Many infielders’ errors are due to errant throws, which means that a really good first baseman will improve the stats of his fellow infielders. The credit for his performance is misallocated by “assists”. For outfielders, “assists” are earned by throwing runners out on the bases, but when an outfielder develops a reputation for strong, accurate throws runners are much less likely to try to advance an extra base. Recent attempts to improve on these statistics are clearly unreliable, since the same player’s rating can fluctuate wildly from year to year.

**The adherents to the Gertrude Stein view of value often claim that the alternate view means that only players from first-place teams can be the “most valuable”. This is complete nonsense. A player’s contribution to team value is the product of his individual performance in terms of additional wins and the value of additional wins to his team. Clearly, a player on a 70-win team won’t have the highest value unless his performance vastly exceeds anyone else’s, but it’s logically possible for that to happen. The Gertrude Stein types who commit this error, and consequently dismiss those they disagree with as dolts, are a particularly annoying subspecies.

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Hail to the DC NFL Franchise!

The name of Washington’s NFL team is once again an object of criticism in the media. ESPN is appalled. Slate has announced it will no longer refer to the team by its official, racially insensitive name.

The team’s fight song is one of only two in the NFL that anyone’s ever heard of (the other being “Bear Down, Chicago Bears”). DC fans love to sing their team’s rousing song at every opportunity, and are undoubtedly reluctant to surrender that pleasing pastime for the sake of mere political correctness. On the other hand, this is the 21st Century, and the team name does seem a little bit, er, dated.

I’d like to help solve this problem.

I’ve got a proposed team name in mind that not only keeps the fight song in (almost) all its glory, but also represents far better Washington, DC as we know it today. So, in the spirit of progress and fairness for all, I offer–at no charge whatsoever, I might add–team owner Dan Snyder the perfect new name for his football team: The Washington Reds’ Kin.

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