Tipping Pitches: Sports: Hall Voting Out of Position


Friday, January 15, 2010

Sports: Hall Voting Out of Position

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As you probably know already, I've been digging deep into historical baseball stats during the past few weeks...

The Completed Third Grade Project
Where's Big Muscled Waldo?
The Magic Number is Dead

I've spent a lot of time comparing players, both to peers and players from other eras. It's a major challenge, and one I've always been interested in taking on.

Something that really bothered me was the focus on defensive position. Generally when you hear Hall of Fame voters talk about a player's Hall candidacy, they'll talk about how that player stacks up offensively compared to other players who played his defensive position.

My question: Why?

I don't get it. And as I dug more into the statistics, it made less and less sense.

1) Most baseball players will play multiple positions throughout their careers. Why compare Robin Yount to other shortstops when he only played part of his career at shortstop? Or do you compare part of his career to shortstops and part to center fielders? Do you only compare the part of his career to other center fielders that he played in center field and the part that he played at shortstop to other shortstops? Just gets too unnecessarily confusing.

2) Why does the defensive position played matter when evaluating offensive output? I get this when you talk about catchers because they can't play every day due to the rigors of the job. So it makes sense that a catcher should not have the same offensive standards as other positions. But why must we compare the offensive output of shortstops to other shortstops? Does the fact that they play shortstop affect how they perform with the bat? There is no relation, other than the fact that teams have generally pigeon holed a certain style of offensive player into certain defensive positions (ie, light hitter plays shortstop or second base). Shortstops play every day, just like outfielders and first basemen. Why do we have lower standards for them? Just because, by default, teams have historically (less common lately) put their lightest hitting players at those positions?

3) Focusing on defensive position when evaluating the worth of a player as a hitter waters down value in the Hall of Fame. If a guy who played an average defensive shortstop is one of the top 10 offensive shortstops of all time (due to a very weak set of peers with the bat) but only top 300 overall, does he really belong in the Hall of Fame? You'll find many who say he does. As a result, other average defenders at deeper positions but with deserving bats will get overlooked because they didn't stick out at their position. Aren't we looking for the best baseball players? Why should defensive position really matter when evaluating offensive prowess? As a result, a few things happen. First, players who don't really deserve it will get into the Hall of Fame. Second, others who deserved it more won't get in because they just happened to play defense at an offensively rich position. And third, because those weak offensive players got in, the bar lowers for entry.

4) Other than catcher and pitcher, defensive position is mostly arbitrary when evaluating an offensive player. Again, certain player types have been pigeon holed, but how is this practice any different than comparing players who batted eighth in the lineup? Or best pinch hitting left fielders? Should we put the best hitting pitcher in the Hall of Fame? He was average as a pitcher, but great as a hitter, so does he belong? Believe it or not, some voters have actually made arguments for a player because they were one of the best hitting designated hitters. They talk about the DH like it's a defensive position that somehow affects their ability to hit.

When you think about it, it's this type of over classification that has ruined relief pitching. We invented the save statistic, so now the one inning closer is revered. Next up is the middle reliever and their holds. Don't laugh, next we'll be putting middle relievers in the Hall of Fame because they were the best at their position. In reality, though, this almost makes more sense than putting an average hitter into the Hall of Fame who happened to play at an offensively challenged defensive position. At least when you put a middle reliever into the Hall of Fame (God, no), you're basing it on that player's direct responsibilities. By changing the standards per position, you're saying that players who play different positions have different responsibilities. That may have happened, to an extent, over time, but it doesn't make it right.

5) Compare it to Little League. I like to make things less complicated by comparing them to the simpler things in life. When we were in Little League, we put our worst players in right field. No one hit it there, so they were shielded and safe in that position. If you were to create a Hall of Fame of Little Leaguers, would you be obligated to select a right fielder and compare right fielders to other right fielders? Of course not. You put in the best baseball players, regardless of position.

6) Ultimately, the cream rises to the top. Was a baseball player one of the most dominant hitters of his era? Put him in the Hall of Fame. Was he a great (but maybe less dominant) but also one of the finest defensive players of his era? Put him in the Hall of Fame. Voting has gotten too complicated over the years. You start comparing players from different positions when all of these factors like era and number of games at different positions come into play, voters get confused real fast. Suddenly, it becomes really easy to make an argument for just about anyone. It's why guys like Ellis Burks, Robin Ventura and Eric Karros somehow get votes. Voters tie themselves up in statistical knots. Keep it simple.

Bill Mazeroski is in the Hall of Fame, and I have no idea why. He was a second baseman who was no better than average with the bat. But I guarantee that he doesn't get a vote if he played first base.

I've seen many make the argument that Barry Larkin is a Hall of Famer because he is one of the best offensive shortstops ever. Well, he probably is. Shortstops have historically sucked. It wasn't until Yount and Ripken (and then the Steroid Era that included Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra) that shortstops started hitting home runs like the big boys.

This may be a shock to you, but Larkin wasn't a dominating offensive player. He was good. He was above average. He flashed greatness. But he was merely very good during an era pumped up by steroids.

Larkin is a borderline guy who gets Hall of Fame lock discussion, but there are others who make similar arguments for guys like Alan Trammell. Stop. I beg you.

Meanwhile, much more deserving offensive players who were more dominating during their eras like Dwight Evans, Dave Parker, Tim Raines, Dick Allen, Ron Santo, Sherry Magee, Bob Johnson, Vada Pinson, Al Oliver, Reggie Smith, Norm Cash, Frank Howard and Dale Murphy are neglected. Notice a common theme here? They were all outfielders or corner infielders, playing a defensive position rich in offensive talent. Had they played shortstop (even a below average shortstop), they'd be enshrined.

Have I harped on this enough? A player's defensive position only matters when evaluating his performance at that position. If we're going to evaluate hitters, evaluate them all as hitters. They have differing styles -- some are fast, some are slow; some are power hitters, some hit for average. But in the end, great players are great players. They are great in different ways, but don't let something completely unrelated affect how we view offensive greatness.


Bill Miller on January 15, 2010 said...

You make a very interesting argument regarding how a player's position affects his HOF vote-status. The vast majority of players who are voted into the Hall are voted in due to their offensive abilities, and First Base and OF are where most of the heavy hitters have historically been found. But a significant part of being a Great Player is how you field your position. Therefore, if you are the greatest fielding second baseman of all-time (Mazeroski is, according to some defensive metrics), you are going to gain some support among Hall voters, especially if you hit a huge homer in a World Series.
We pay attention to a player's position because that's how we identify them on the field, on the back of baseball cards, and everywhere else. Look at it this way, could we play an All-Star Game with only the best overall hitters in both leagues? We might end up with an All-Star team of 11 Outfielders, Six first basemen, one third basemen, no catchers or shortstops, and a single second baseman (not including pitchers.) It might be interesting to watch, but it wouldn't really be an All-Star team, it would just be a bunch of hitters taking batting practice.
The HOF is like a giant All-Star team. I agree that position can be over-rated to some degree. But taking Barry Larkin's value, while playing a tough position extremely well both offensively AND defensively, and comparing him negatively to Norm Cash undermines the credibility of this theory.
But, then again, making Paul Molitor or Pete Rose "fit" a defensive position is beside the point. As you stated, a great player is a great player.
Thanks for a thought-provoking read.

Jon Loomer on January 15, 2010 said...

Thanks for the comments, Bill. Defensive prowess should absolutely be part of the decision process. Given it isn't quite as easy to assess as offensive abilities, still believe it should be weighed less than offense (which it is).

My complaint isn't with rewarding a great defensive player (and if Mazeroski truly was the greatest defensively and was more than the big home run, my argument on him crumbles a little). My complaint, though, is putting defense aside and saying Player A should be in the Hall of Fame because he is one of the best hitting shortstops. Or second basemen. Or whatever.

I get your point on the All-Star team, but I see this as being very different. There is a requirement to fill an All-Star team with certain positions. You have to have about the same depth at all positions. There is no such requirement for the Hall, and I don't think anyone is consciously thinking that they need to maintain that depth (for example, we never hear that there are X first basemen in the Hall, so we need more or less).

Is he an All-Time great fielder? Or is he an All-Time great hitter? If he is, put him in. But comparing someone's hitting ability to 1/9th of his peers just because he plays a certain defensive position makes little sense to me.

Regardless, you make good points and I appreciate the response.

Bill Miller on January 16, 2010 said...

Hi, Just to follow-up. I do agree with you that offensive stats do, and should, matter more than offensive stats, although it's interesting that suddenly, this year, teams like the Red Sox& Yanks are suddenly discovering the importance of defense (notice no one is jumping on free-agent Johnny Damon, regarded as a poor defensive outfielder.) Meanwhile, the BoSox have gone out of their way to sign Defense guys this off-season: Beltre for 3rd and Cameron for CF. I guess we'll see how this works out.
Also, I personally do not believe that Mazeroski belongs in The Hall, although many others do. If he's in, then so,too, should Keith Hernandez, the best Defensive first baseman of all-time be in the Hall. But for some reason, defense is only really prized up-the-middle.
Anyway, good discussion. I have shared your blog site with my Facebook crowd. Looking forward to future posts. Bill

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