In discussions about Hall of Fame candidates like Jack Morris, writers often claim that watching them play is necessary for understanding how good they really were. But is that really what Cooperstown's founders had in mind?
[Editor's Note: The following piece has won the 2013 SABR Analytics Award for Contemporary Baseball Commentary. Congratulations to Lewie on this achievement!]
More than a fortnight has passed since Barry Larkin was announced as the BBWAA's sole (regular-ballot) choice to be inducted into the hallowed halls of Cooperstown in July, but the memories of this year's version of the annual Hall of Fame debate firestorm remain.
Potential dopers aside, the most controversial candidate on this year's ballot was Jack Morris. In general, he had the support of writers who view the game more traditionally, while sabermetrically inclined analysts seemed to think he fell short. But beyond the tired arguments about whether a great Game 7 is more important than an underwhelming ERA+, there was another issue in play: Many of Morris' supporters cited his alleged intangible aura of greatness that could be understood only by having seen him pitch in a big game. As Jon Heyman so stridently put it:
i love the folks who never saw jack morris pitch who are certain he isnt hall of famer bec their stat guru said so
I bring this up not to malign Heyman but because it betrays a mistaken assumption about the balloting process: that writers' own observations of players were expected to be primary factors in their votes.
Bear with me for a moment as we turn to the official rules for the BBWAA's Hall of Fame election. Here's a snippet from the the requirements for Cooperstown voters: (emphasis mine)
Only active and honorary members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, who ... have been active as baseball writers and members of the Association for a period beginning at least ten (10) years prior to the date of election in which they are voting.
And a couple highlights from the player eligibility standards:
A. A baseball player must have been active as a player in the Major Leagues at some time during a period beginning twenty (20) years before and ending five (5) years prior to election. (...)
C. Player shall have ceased to be an active player in the Major Leagues at least five (5) calendar years preceding the election but may be otherwise connected with baseball.
Follow me now in the story of a hypothetical young sportswriter—let's call him Walter. Walter got a job covering his hometown team for a BBWAA-accredited publication fresh out of high school, when he was 18. At age 28, he'll be rewarded for his first decade of work with a vote in the next Hall of Fame election.
In Walter's first year of voting, one of the players on the ballot is a candidate returning for his 15th and final year of consideration—we'll call him Jon Osterman. Combine Osterman's 15 years on the ballot with the five years he had to wait before he was eligible and he's been out of baseball for 20 years. The last time he took the field in an MLB uniform, Walter was only eight years old.
Now, I considered myself a pretty knowledgeable baseball fan when I was eight. I was already conversant in the flaws of using wins and losses to compare pitchers or RBI to judge hitters. I knew every Indians player's stats and spent the inning breaks in my kid-pitch league calculating my friends' batting averages. To this day I am still immensely proud of the .533 OBP I had that season. But I was still only eight years old, and I certainly wouldn't trust my third-grade self's ability to scout players enough to base a Cooperstown vote on it.
Back to our friend Walter. He was still working for an allowance instead of a paycheck long after Osterman hung up his cleats. He has no real personal observations on which to base his decision about Osterman's candidacy—he might not have ever seen him play, and even if he had, would you trust an elementary school student's scouting reports from two decades ago?
But thanks to the system Cooperstown's founders designed nearly 80 years ago, Walter gets to vote on whether or not Osterman is worthy of the Hall of Fame, regardless of whether or not he had seen him play.
How is Walter supposed to evaluate Osterman's candidacy? That's not for us to say. Maybe he'll dig through the stat sheets. Maybe he'll use awards and All-Star appearances to get an idea of how Osterman compared to his peers. Maybe he'll read up on what other writers had to say about him at the time, or talk to some experienced journalists who had seen him play to get their point of view. But no matter what, his vote can't (or at least shouldn't) be influenced by his own personal observations.
And even if Walter had seen Osterman play, that wouldn't necessarily help him make his decision. Let's say Osterman played for 20 years and retired when Walter was 23. Walter wouldn't just have seen Osterman play, he'd have covered the sport for five years while Osterman was active. But Walter's writing career would have coincided with only the tail end of Osterman's career, when he was well past his prime. Would seeing him then really have given Walter useful insight into Osterman's Cooperstown worthiness?
In Heyman's mind, Walter would not be qualified to fill out a ballot. I can see the argument for such a mindset, which many other voters seem to share (to be clear, I don't mean to suggest that everyone who holds this opinion expresses it with the same holier-than-thou attitude). But regardless of whether Heyman (or anyone else) thinks Walter could accurately pass judgment on Osterman without having seen him play, the BBWAA's rules say he can.
The Hall of Fame's founders could have designed a system in which writers could vote on only those players whose careers had overlapped with their own. Or maybe each writer would have to have been active for half of a given candidate's career in order to have a say in his Cooperstown fate—it would be complicated, but it would definitely be possible.
But they didn't. Implicit in that decision was that personally witnessing players play was not of upmost importance for judging their Cooperstown worthiness. And the fact that the rules still stand contradict the possible notion that the ideals have changed.
What does this mean for Morris? Watching him pitch seems to make his candidacy more attractive—I've seen other voters express similar sentiments, so it's at least a somewhat widespread phenomenon. But regardless of what such writers think should be the standards for voting eligibility should be, there is no mechanism to prevent or discourage writers who did not cover Morris' career—or, perhaps worse, those who remember only his mediocre last seasons—from casting judgment on whether he is worthy of immortality.
I'm certainly not suggesting that personal observations of players should be irrelevant to voters' decisions, and I'm definitely not saying that the balloting process is perfect the way it is. Limiting the electorate for each player to those writers who actually saw him play isn't necessarily a bad idea, but unless and until such a change is codified Heyman's declaring that "the folks who never saw Jack Morris pitch" are unqualified to make their own judgments is against the spirit of Cooperstown.
If you've got a problem with that, take it up with the founders.