07 January 2003

National Baseball Hall of Statistics Removed From Context and Manipulated to Serve My Own Evil, Narrow-Minded Purposes
- by Jayson Stark

Someone must have alerted my favorite empirical scientist to the fact that I had planned to tear apart his columns on a weekly basis, because for a while there, it seemed that he just stopped writing the silly, irreverent, non-contextual jibberish to which I had grown so accustomed to reading. But no more. The Jayson of old is back, today, with his Hall of Fame Ballot and Silly Explanations Column. Let's run through the ballot first. Stark voted for ten players this year, for the first time ever. They were, in the order he reviews their candidacies:

1) Eddie Murray
2) Ryne Sandberg
3) Lee Smith
4) Jim Kaat
5) Gary Carter
6) Goose Gossage
7) Bruce Sutter
8) Jack Morris
9) Andre Dawson
10) Dale Murphy

First of all, let me say that Murray, Ryno, and Goose are all HoFers in my mind. I won't argue much about Smith or Carter, though I think they weren't as great. I understand that Carter was a very good catcher for a long time, just as Smith was a very good reliever for a long time, so I'm OK with them. Dawson I could go either way: His low BA and OBP make me leary of him as a HoF, but his longevity helped him amass some nice career numbers. I'd prefer to leave him off personally, but won't argue much about him either. Kaat, Sutter, Morris and Murphy I would omit, all for the same reasons: Either they weren't excellent for long enough (Sutter, Murphy) or they spent too long not being excellent (Kaat, Morris, probably Dawson too, for that matter).

But I'm not here to take issue with Stark's choices. I'm here to take issue with how he made them. He's entitled to his opinions. No problem there. But as soon as Jayson the Empiricist starts citing reasons, I've got something with which to argue. Let's take the problems in order, shall we? These are quotes from the article, numbered by Stark's voting order.

1) Re: Eddie Murray "It's a funny thing about Eddie Murray. He played 21 seasons, and he never got as many hits, RBI or home runs in any of them as Albert Pujols has piled up in both of his first two seasons."

Jayson, he played 21 seasons in a different era of baseball. Offense is cheaper now. It's a funny thing about Warren Spahn, too. He pitched for 21 seasons without ever winning as many games as Cy Young piled up in his first two seasons. It doesn't mean anything.

4) Re: Jim Kaat
a. "He was an ace-type starter for a World Series team (the '65 Twins) -- and beat Sandy Koufax in a World Series game."

Yeah, but that was the only postseason game he ever won. In his career, he was 1-4 with an ERA over 4.0 in Octobers. You have to take everthing into account. If you're gonna give Kaat credit for beating Koufax, you have to give him demerits for losing to Koufax two other times, and another to Jim Palmer, plus not-so-great appearances against the Reds and Brewers in '76 and '82, respectively.

b. "He had a long period of excellence, winning 18 games at age 23 and 20 at age 37."

He had a long period. Period. In the twelve seasons between his 18-win and 20-win campaigns, he averaged a record of about 15-11, with an ERA around 10-15% better than the league average. Certainly very good, but not "excellence" by any standard. And let's not forget that Kaat pitched both before and after the period he cites, and not nearly as well.

7) Re: Bruce Sutter "...is still the only relief pitcher who ever finished in the top 10 in MVP voting six times in eight years."

This simply isn't true. Baseball Reference indicates that Sutter finished in the top 10 in MVP voting five times (in 8 years). Gotta be more careful.

8) Re: Jack Morris

a. "...his 3.90 career ERA, which would be the highest of any pitcher in the Hall. But Jack Morris wasn't defined by the ERA column, friends. He was defined by the Wins column."

Ah yes, "defined by the Wins column". But as we know, the Wins column has as much to do with what your teammates do while you're on the mound as it does with what you do. I completely agree that Jack Morris's career is defined by the number of wins he had. But I don't give him credit for playing on the second winningest team of the 1980's (The Detroits), and apparently Stark does. But we'll get back to this later.

b. "All you can do is compare a man to his peers. And in his 14 peak seasons (1979-92), Morris won 41 more games than any other starter of his generation. In that same period, he outwon Nolan Ryan by 65 wins (233-168)."

The irony here, of course, is that "comparing a man to his peers" is exactly what Stark did not do in his initial comments about Eddie Murray, as noted above. But that's another story. The real problem here is that he isn't comparing Morris to his peers at all here. Nolan Ryan may have retired within one year of Morris, but he started pitching in the majors eleven years sooner, in 1966, hardly a contemporary, in my mind. By the time Morris reached his prime ('79-92), Ryan's best seasons were behind him. If you're going to compare pitchers, the least you can do is compare their peaks. I seem to have missed where Abner Doubleday wrote that the best 14 seasons of a pitcher's career should be used to judge him, but we'll run with that, since Jayson picked it. Following are the career stats, "Peak 14" stats, Remainder (stats for the remaining seasons outside their 14 best consecutive years) and the team records for both Ryan and Morris during their 14 best consecutive seasons. Ryan's 14 best consecutive seasons were 1972-1985.
Morris      IP        W    L      W%   ERA

Career      3824     254  186   0.577  3.90

Peak 14     3378.33  233  162   0.590  3.46

Remainder   445.67    21   24   0.467  5.31

Team (peak)  ----   1193  1019  0.539  --- 


Career      5386     324  292   0.526  3.19

Peak 14     3426.33  212  180   0.541  3.08

Remainder   1959.67  112  112   0.500  3.40

Team (peak)  ----   1098  1111  0.497

So we see now that during his peak, Jack Morris went 233-162 with a 3.46 ERA, compared to Ryan's peak of 212-180 and 3.08. Not nearly the 65-win difference that Stark would have you believe. Ryan allowed fewer runs, on average, but won fewer games and lost more in essentially the same amount of innings. Ah, but then we look at the team records during those times, and we see that Morris had the benefit of a consistently good team behind him, the Tigers (through 1990) and then two World Series winning teams in Minnesota ('91) and Toronto ('92). Ryan's teams were mediocre, on average, not winning even half of their games during his "Peak 14". Of course, the real difference between them is that Nolan Ryan was a useful, even a good pitcher for about a dozen years besides those in his peak, with a .500 record and a 3.40 ERA, whereas Morris was basically a waste of rotation space in the two seasons each at the beginning and end of his career, going 21-24 with a 5.31 ERA. But then we wouldn't want to look at anything other than a pitcher's peak, would we? Nah...

c. "And his epic 10-inning Game 7 shutout in 1991 Series was the ultimate example of what people mean when they use the word, 'ace.'"

So what? So he pitched a good game when he needed to once. Overall, his career postseason record of 7-4 3.80 ERA isn't so different from his regular season record. There have been better pitchers to pitch badly in the playoffs on occasion, and there have been worse pitchers who occasionally did better than that "epic" performance in the playoffs. That's why we don't put people in the Hall of Fame based on singular accomplishments.

10) Re: Dale Murphy "But when you measure Hall of Famers, you don't measure them against the next generation. You measure them against their own generation."

Umm... Isn't that exactly what you just didn't do with Jack Morris? In baseball, a man eight years older than you, with eleven years more experience, hardly qualifies as part of your own generation.

But besides that, Murphy shouldn't be a Hall of Famer. He was great for about six years, but he played for 12 more years in which he wasn't so great, and having one-third of a great career, in my mind, does not make someone one of the best outfielders ever to lace up a pair of spikes for a major league team, which is what you ought to be to get into the Hall.

Incidentally, Aaron Gleeman takes Stark to task for this article as well, but he then proceeds to argue for Bert "Be Home" Blyleven's HoF case, which Stark just (inappropriately) disregards out of hand. Of course, Stark never said that he was going to defend choices he didn't make on his ballot, but still, I think anyone who votes for Morris and Kaat and doesn't vote for Tommy John and Bert Blyleven has some 'splainin to do. Aaron makes some good points, as Blyleven seems to have a much better case than Morris does, being unfairly penalized by the tough pitchers parks in which he spent most of his career and the bad teams for which he usually pitched.

As Aaron mentions, Joe Carter has a sort of similar perception among a lot of baseball fans and writers: "His Greatness cannot be measured by the conventions of BA/OBP/SLG like you measure most hitters. You have to measure him based on all the RBI he gathered. Look at all the pretty RBI!" Or some such crap.

You know, baseball isn't an exact science. Why, just fifty years ago, they thought that the statistics like RBI for a player like Joe Carter were caused by him being "great". But nowadays we know that Carter's apparent "greatness" is caused by an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in his stomach. No wait, I mean, the fact that he usually hit cleanup for teams with decent table-setters. Yeah. Dat's da ticket!

Anyway, we now know that wins and RBI have a lot to do with your teammates, because of the ground-breaking work of people like Bill James. And if the best thing you can say about a person is that he spent a long time being in the right place at the right time, well, that's not much of a vote of confidence in my book. Or on my Hall of Fame ballot. Which I don't have anyway.

The real problem, as Aaron also points out, is not that Stark has opinoins, but that he purports to ahve reasons for the opinions, whereas really he only has opinions and stats to back up what he always wanted to believe in the first place. Stark is a great journalist, as far as working hard and getting stories and all that. He's even an interesting writer who has (and provides us with) a little fun with his "Useless Info Dept" columns. But apparently he's begun taking this kind of work, which should only be considered light-hearted and silly, a little too seriously, thinking that you can actually do research like that, or build an argument on it. And you can't, at least not a solid one. It's half-assed, narrow-minded and blatantly irresponsible.

I wish Jayson Stark's email were available on ESPN.com like some of the other writers. I guess he just can't be bothered with people correcting him. I wrote to Bill Conlin of the Philadelphia Daily News once a few years ago when he wrote a particularly irresponsible article about the "similarities" between the Phillies and the Yankees (I think it was 1997), and he never responded. Maybe Stark's not as different from Conlin as I thought.

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