In an article on the CBS Sports website, an argument is made as to the impropriety of certain baseball players residing in Baseball’s Hall of Fame. This was written as the Hall of Fame considers which players will be the new inductees in 2013. The writer, Matt Snyder, takes various players whom he regards as undeserving and uses statistics to prove that each is unqualified, and better players have been excluded, thus battling the supposed meme that the Hall is choosing less deserving players nowadays.
This kind of criticism relies entirely on statistical analysis, a la Bill James, the mathematician turned baseball guru who is lionized in books like Moneyball as well as his own heavy and bulky tomes.
Snyder names Ray Schalk, the turn-of-the-century catcher who caught four no-hitters, but was a poor hitter. Then he asserts, “When Bill James updated his historical abstract in 2001 and ranked players by position, Schalk checked in at 35th among catchers, behind the likes of Jim Sundberg and Tony Pena.” Yup, Bill James is da man.
He names Red Schoendienst, calling him a brilliant defender but subpar hitter, Freddie Lindstrom: “Also, I mentioned Bill James’ historical rankings earlier — Lindstrom was ranked 43rd at third base …”, and Tommy McCarthy:
McCarthy hit .292/.364/.375 (102 OPS-plus) with 1,493 hits, 1,066 runs, 732 RBI, 191 doubles, 53 triples, 44 homers and 468 steals. Here is Kenny Lofton’s career line: .299/.372/.423 (107 OPS-plus), 2,428 hits, 1,528 runs, 781 RBI, 383 doubles, 116 triples, 130 homers and 622 steals. Compare. Discuss.
Jesse Haines: “His top 10 statistical similars via Baseball-Reference.com is a murderer’s row of average-type pitchers: Freddie Fitzsimmons, Charlie Root, George Uhle, Milt Pappas, Lew Burdette, Larry French, Silver King, Jim Perry, Dolf Luque and Hooks Dauss.”
Astonishingly, he picks Catfish Hunter, acknowledging he won at least 20 games in five consecutive seasons, but caviling that “four of those five teams made the playoffs and three of those teams were World Series champions.” He also picks Bruce Sutter, though he admits he was a great closer for five or six seasons. For anyone who saw Sutter in his prime, it was a mystifying sight. At his best he was more unhittable than Mariano Rivera; I remember one All-Star Game where he made the American League hitters look ridiculously pathetic.
I don’t have an argument against someone cherry-picking players from the Hall of Fame’s list; I do have a problem with the present-day Bill James-type of worship of statistics that refuses to acknowledge subjectivity as a part of accurate analysis. Where Bill James once argued that there wasn’t such a thing as a clutch hitter, (which he later retracted) he spawned an obsession with statistics well-beyond what had existed heretofore. James did write in 2007:
One reason that I have been reluctant to write about clutch hitting, in the absence of hard data, is that I am reluctant to interpret sporting events as tests of character. If you write that Johnny Baseball is a poor clutch hitter, what you are implicitly saying is that Johnny Baseball lacks courage. I am extremely reluctant to impugn the character of any player based on what could be a random data outcome.
That’s a straw man argument; the ability of fans to ascertain which players come through in difficult situations does not necessarily carry with it the stigmatizing of those who don’t succeed as cowards; it simply acknowledges some players have more talent than others.
But talent is God-given, something that cannot be reduced to statistics. The subjective nature of choosing those who are the best at what they do can be guided by statistics, but those who have witnessed greatness rarely forget it. Numbers don’t necessarily lie, but they can obfuscate the kernel of truth that only can be transmitted through actual experience.