Running Local

This Train of Thought Makes All Stops

Quantifying Fame

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 12, 2009

cooperstown-babe-ruthAnother January, another day of waiting for Jim Rice. Another day of listening for the phone for Bert Blyleven. Another midwinter day wondering for Tommy John, Dale Murphy, Jack Morris & Don Mattingly.

The Baseball Hall of Fame process has been and continues to be a mess. In the old days, a bunch of tenured newspaper baseball writers got their ballot, filled it out to reflect their homerism, to pay back a guy who always gave a good quote and to punish the guy who used to talk to the rival beat reporter first. Then the Veterans Committee would convene and go through their own very separate, seemingly silly process– who were the guys who always invited you to their country club for a round of golf? Who paid for drinks and who had alligator arms whenever the check came? Who spiked you once in Chicago, who helped you up when you blew your hamstring in Philly? As a result we have Hall of Eh guys like Jim Bunning, Kirby Puckett & Gary Carter amongst legion others.

Fast forward to 2009 and we have a very different problem rearing its head amongst the favoritism and grudges. With the advent of sabermetrics, a series of formulas and equations designed to statistically quantify a baseball player’s contribution to the game and actual levels of value and play, some are in the process of reducing the game of baseball to a calculus class. Those mathematically-minded individuals are demanding with flaring nostrils and a sense of superiority that can be seen  with the naked eye from the orbit of Saturn the inclusion of  players like Bert Blyleven, Jim Rice or Jack Morris in Cooperstown as the result of their achieved Runs Above Replacement, their Neutralized ERA, their OPS Over League Average. Now, these are all useful tools if, like me, you are semi-obsessed with fantasy baseball and deem it a right of spring that you should have a comprehensive, self-made spreadsheet of player values computed to the third or fourth decimal place so that when you ultimately fail to win your league that September you can look back and opine that you had it pegged on paper.

And that’s the essence of what’s wrong with the Hall of Fame– people are trying to peg it on paper.

The Hall of Fame is, to me, very specifically named. It is the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Wothy Statistical Outcomes. Fame itself is a transitory, nebulous concept, hard to quantify but easy to recognize. Babe Ruth was a player who embodied Fame, as were Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle. Steve Carlton was Fame in his day; so too Rickey Henderson and Reggie Jackson. They were dominant names in the game– they were the guys who put up the numbers, yes, but who also consistently stood out from the roughly 700 to 1200 players who appear on Major League rosters every year, depending on the era and the number of teams. When my father lit up to tell me about the games of his childhood, it was to tell me about Mickey and Yogi and Whitey and, across town, Willie. All of those guys retired what, between 35 and 40 years ago… and you didn’t need me to give you their last names, right? They had attained immortality through their play, through their larger than life personas, through their Fame.  When I bore my kids with stories of my youth watching baseball, I tell them about watching Reggie and Rickey, or that SOB Roger and Bug Eyed George having his HR taken away. I’m guessing you all know who they are, too. They’ve achieved Fame.

Baseball is a game that revolves around the anecdotal; I apologize to my brother statheads, but it does. These numebrs that we love so much for analytical purposes– they’re great for that, for anlayzing. They suck for watching, for remembering, for enjoying and, most of all , for sullying fond memories of days years before at the ballpark watching what we knew to be greatness before us.

We don’t have a “Best Player” award every year, we have a “Most Valuable Player”; is there a more ethereal concept than value? Perhaps we should have a “Best Offensive Player” award, perhaps we should also have a “Hall of Merit”, as they do at a website called Baseball Think Factory, for the guys like Bert Blyleven or Tony Gwynn who played through statistically very good but unremarkable careers– if you were in the top 5% at your position in Zone Rating and OBP, you’re in! As I’ve argued before with a friend who is, ahem, passionate about Tony Gwynn… will anyone in Chicago be telling their kid in 2021 that they were there the day that Tony Gwynn slapped three singles though the infield and followed it up with a double into the ivy with the bases empty and the Pads ahead by four in the ninth? Will anyone be sitting around KaufmanField twenty years hence with a wistful smile on their face remembering that great day that Bert Blyleven lost a shutout and only walked two? Aside from my buddy Brian and a few scribes at various fantasy sports sites, I don’t see it.

Let’s leave the Hall of Fame to those who exhibited true greatness, who penetrated the nation’s psyche for their feats on the field and who have earned their Fame. Some might say I’m building an awfully small museum, and to that I say “Outstanding”. Give me a collection of the greats to regale, not the obscure slap hitter to recall, and I will be a happy baseball fan.

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3 Responses to “Quantifying Fame”

  1. I get what you’re saying but we cannot turn this into such an exclusionary group. Are we only going to put in #1 starters and cleanup hitters? At some point, we have to start considering stats in different era’s because it is becoming increasingly more difficult to compare players across generations. I’m starting to look at players 1960 and later as parks grew, new pitchers were introduced, and pitching staffs became more specialized. How anyone can put in Rice over Dawson is beyond me when you factor in parks and defense.

    For Blyleven, he retired as the 3rd best strikeout artist of all time and is 9th overall in career shutouts – 3rd since 1960 behind only Ryan and Seaver. His 10 closest comps on baseball-reference.com include 8 HOFers, Tommy John, and Jim Kaat. If you’re telling me that Blyleven doesn’t belong than you have to start advocating taking some of these other jokers out 🙂

    The entire process is beyond broken because players gain and lose votes each year despite the fact that their stats do not change. Nothing will change until these guys stop voting by paper and are given a Web-based method for voting that would include the ability to view presentations, reports, and the ability to compare player against their peers.

  2. Chancellor said

    Much as it pains me to agree with the aforementioned Gwynn fan, but based on your definition of “fame” and some career numbers to back it up, Gwynn’s got it. He was nationally known – even coming from the Pads. Winfield, arguably, had a much better set of years in San Diego, but he really wasn’t famous until he hit New York. Gwynn was bigger than life – figuratively, early in his career, and literally later in his career. Gwynn rates almost a quarter of a best selling baseball book (Men At Work), was in at least one movie, had commercials, TV segments, broadcasted….oh, yeah, and he could hit a little. And early in his career, he could run, too.

    IMO, you can make the statistical argument to keep Gwynn out of the Hall – but the fame part….no way. Gwynn was to hitting as Ozzie Smith was to fielding – real baseball players simply stopped and watched these guys do what they did best. He was a “face” of baseball, and the heart of the Pads.

    Your point about fame is undoubtedly why Blyleven didn’t make the Hall. Good as he was, he never had that special moment, like Morris did in Game 7 in 1991.

  3. mickey said

    Interesting concept for admission, but surely fame itself can’t be the deciding factor. If so, wouldn’t Jose Canseco, Bo Jackson, and even Eddie Gaedel be in? And low-key greats (even someone like Greg Maddux, whose fame certainly does not extend beyond the game in any way, and who often flies under the radar of even today’s casual fans) might be excluded. Focusing on fame would also likely privilege big-market players (Yanks, Red Sox, Dodgers, Cubs) over small-market guys, whose publicity and public exposure is often commensurate with their team’s, unless they blow-up on scandal, or good looks, or dating the right supermodel, or whatever.

    I certainly agree that admission is capricious and political – I’d say the same for the Oscars, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and every other club designed to canonize some while excluding others, which is why I think the less credibility and cachet these institutions have, the better. I cheer every bad decision these organizations make (Bobby Darin and Gene Pitney in the Rock HOF? Sure! “Crash” Best Picture? Of course!) since it undercuts the notion that inclusion is in any way meaningful.

    Anyone who has been to Cooperstown knows that about 90% of visitors focus on the same dozen or so players. People rush past the hundreds of plaques for lesser-known (but typically great) players looking for Ruth, Gehrig, Williams, Mays, Mantle, etc. Inclusion in the Hall has not made lasting stars out of Eppa Rixey, Elmer Flick, or Zachariah Wheat – despite their memorable names. (And no, Bob, the fact that you know who these guys are means nothing in this context, ya friggin’ baseball geek.) But I suppose the fact that they are there to be discovered if anyone ever wants to is some kind of salute to the game. Recalling obscure, great players, for me, is kind of neat and despite all my caveats about any Hall of Fame, I do appreciate that aspect of the baseball inductees. You just can’t take membership as the be-all-and-end-all of greatness in the sport.

    So maybe inclusion in the Hall is really just a way for a small percentage of baseball fans – the true wonks, the Bob Kohms – to learn some history and compare stats. And a way to humble the players themselves and get them to jump through PR hoops. Jim Rice was so actively campaigning to rehabilitate his image with baseball writers that this past summer, he participated in an exhibition game in Scranton, PA that pitted ‘70s Red Sox against ‘70s Yankees. Jim Rice!! I was happy to see that in the clubhouse, alongside chatty colleagues like Bucky Dent and Spaceman Lee and Fred Lynn and Chris Chambliss, Rice was just as dyspeptic and sour as ever, God love him. He knew he was there to be nice, but he just didn’t have it in him. However the strategy worked. Fifty years from now, visitors at Cooperstown will be saying “who was Jim Rice?” as they scan the list of plaques looking for Babe Ruth.

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