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Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Intellectual Cowardice Of Rob Neyer And The New Hall Of Fame Voting Rules

Rob Neyer has long been one of the sabermetricists' darlings, being as he was a Bill James protegé. The essence of sabermetrics is supposed to be the rationality it brings to the discussion, attempting to actually find how things are (and preferably, quantifying them) rather than merely parroting received wisdom. For that reason, it was not a little incoherent to see his oddly crabbed response to the new BBWAA voting rules for induction to Cooperstown. The main thing changing is that the eligibility period goes down from 15 years to 10 years, with those presently on the ballot who would be in years 11-15 grandfathered in — but none others. This, of itself, may make little difference; as Joe Posnanski recently pointed out, the entirety of the players chosen in years 11-15 since the beginning of the Hall are
  1. Bert Blyleven (2011, 14th year)
  2. Jim Rice (2009, 15th year)
  3. Bruce Sutter (2006, 13th year)
  4. Duke Snider (1980, 11th year)
  5. Bob Lemon (1976, 12th year)
  6. Ralph Kiner (1975, 13th year)
  7. Dazzy Vance (1955, 16th year)
  8. Gabby Hartnett (1955, 12th year)
  9. Rabbit Maranville (1954, 14th year)
  10. Bill Terry (1954, 14th year)
  11. Harry Heilmann (1952, 12th year)
That's it. You could certainly make a case for Blyleven getting in as the exception that largely proves the rule; Bert's inclusion was mainly due to sabermetric agitation, i.e. the slow and steady erosion of dogma with simple, straightforward, and unimpeachable arguments. Heck, even Rob Neyer himself was obliged to come out and decry Blyleven's omission as "a testament to the stubbornness of the voters who can't see past their own prejudices."

I fear Neyer has succumbed to something very similar with his rant, because his response to the idea that the truncation of eligibility is an attempt to send all the steroid-tainted players into the memory hole is to say, Good:

4. It’s been said this is largely a ploy to get the steroids guys off the ballot sooner. Well, good! Has there been some public good served by having them on the ballot? They get the same support (i.e. not much) from the voters every year, and every year the same voters write the same columns explaining why they did or (mostly) didn’t vote for Bonds, Clemens, and the rest. It’s one thing to have a healthy and spirited debate, but all we’ve been getting is the spirit. It’s not healthy if nobody’s willing to change their minds, and it seems like 98 percent of the minds are made up, if not cast in steel-reinforced concrete.
But weren't you saying exactly the same thing about Blyleven? How can you omit Bonds, the man who owns the single-season and career home run marks (while playing in exceptional pitcher's parks, too)? What of Clemens, with 354 career wins and multiple 20-win seasons, third all time in career WAR, 31st all time in single-season WAR (but the leaderboards are littered with 19th century pitchers), third all time for career strikeouts... the mind boggles.

Strictly as a retreat from a perceived unwinnable war (so to speak), I understand the point, but it also elides the possibility of changing people's minds. Read another way, it amounts to a form of intellectual cowardice: here, let's punt the hard work of changing minds and making the kinds of simple, coherent arguments that will move the tallies, and leave it to...

7. Will the steroid guys ever get in? I believe they will. At some point, the Hall of Fame might come to seem irrelevant, terribly out of touch, if the best players from an entire era aren’t honored in the Hall. I believe that the crimes of that era will eventually be seen contextually, today’s overheated emotions largely drained from the conversation. At which point the Hall of Fame’s various committees will reverse the BBWAA’s collective decisions.
At which point, we have created a "separate but equal" door to the Hall, a sort of Jim Crow imposed by drug prohibitionists, whose cause even now runs out of steam. It represents the triumph of superstition over rationality, and once upon a time, everything that Rob Neyer supposedly stood for.

I close quoting Christina Kahrl's vastly more sensible review of the consequences of this rules change:

All of which makes me ask again the question I always put to myself every time we get on this subject: Whose Hall of Fame is it? Who does it serve?

If you say “the players,” which ones? Those already elected, as often seems the case when you have guys on the various recent iterations of the Veterans Committee keeping players out? Or should it serve those who belong?

If you say “the fans,” here again, who? Today’s fans, or those who enjoyed the players in their heyday? That would seem to ill-serve someone such as Raines, a marquee player for a franchise that no longer plays in Montreal. Or are the fans a proxy for something amorphous, like the history of the game? If so, how do you tell the story of the game’s history by excluding many of the guys who made the biggest impact on the field?

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Comments:
Shortening the eligibility window to ten years is not the triumph of superstition over reality. It is the sweeping of reality under the rug.
 

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