Thursday, January 06, 2011

On Bert, Zealotry and Jack

Sometimes The Debate Isn't Just About The Player

I don’t get into MVP, Cy Young and Hall of Fame debates too often, and there is a reason for that: too often the debate isn’t really about the player. Instead, it’s a disguised debate between evangelists about their philosophies. And the prize becomes recognition of a paradigm (a view of the world), rather than recognition of a player.

That was especially true about the election yesterday of Bert Blyleven to the Hall of Fame. When Blyleven was first on the ballot, back in 1998, he only received 17.5% of the vote, and it went DOWN on his second try in 1999, when he received the 15th most votes. That’s not necessarily a death sentence, but consider the names at #10-#14: Jim Kaat, Dale Murphy, Tommy John, Dave Parker, Minnie Minoso. None of those guys are likely to make it to the Hall of Fame very soon.

So what changed? Why was Bert different? The cynics slyly ask how Blyleven became a much more deserving pitcher without throwing another pitch? The upbeat way to view Bert’s turnaround is that the process bought the voters some time. And during that time, voters and the public gradually recognized in Bert’s body of work what they didn’t recognize when he was pitching – that he was very, very good for a very, very, VERY long time.

That’s part of the answer, but there’s a more contentious subtext to this election that drove a lot of the passion over it.

Mostly what has changed over the fourteen years of Bert’s candidacy is our philosophy about baseball and some of its statistics. And in this case, the one that found itself on the front line of the battle was the “Win” statistic for pitchers.

A “Win” is basically awarded to a pitcher who is on the mound when his team takes the lead for good. It was a statistic that was considerably more valuable a long time ago, when relievers weren’t such a big part of the game. (It also compensated when pitchers more regularly faced extreme conditions that could significantly impact the ability of the teams to score. For instance, in a crazy high scoring environment - like the old Athletic Park in Minneapolis - a pitcher might give up a lot of runs, but so would the opposing pitcher. A Win was a way of balancing that out.) Like any statistic, it has its limitations, but it still serves as sort of a shorthand gauge of whether a pitcher is generally effective enough to pitch late into games.

Blyleven was perceived by those who have embraced newer pitching as having been wronged by the Win statistic. He had a career 3.30 ERA and was an absolute work horse on the mound – exactly the kind of guy who should have racked up a ton of Wins. But he didn’t, in part because he was often on teams that didn’t score a lot of runs.

Because he didn’t have many wins, he wasn’t perceived as being particularly valuable. That led to not getting a lot of Cy Young voting attention, finishing in the top 10 just four times (including three times in the top 5). Because he didn’t have those credentials, he was in danger of being overlooked for the Hall of Fame.

But along with enlightenment comes a touch of ugliness. Inherent in that attitude is that the sportswriters of the 80s, the first arbiters of history, got it wrong. First, there is a righteousness to those who believe that the evolving understanding of baseball has reached its zenith, instead of a phase that could be proved just as flawed 15 years from now. And second, for a group that has often been mocked and blocked by the Old Guard of writers, this comeuppance is especially appealing. It’s easy to get lathered up and write a scathing “We’re right, they’re wrong” story using Blyleven as the instrument of destruction.

That’s true on the other side, too. The Old Guard responds saying that “internet zealots” are driving the candidacy, and that isn’t so far from wrong. But it removes the focus from the real question: did we under appreciate Blyleven during his career? The battle becomes much larger than that - and much more personal.

The battle doesn’t end with Blyleven. In fact, the next battle might involve a name equally dear to Twins fans: Jack Morris. But roles may be reversed because in many ways Morris is the exact opposite of Blylelven.

Morris WAS appreciated during his career by the Old Guard, finishing his 18-year career with seven top 10 finishes in Cy Young voting and five finishes in the Top 5. That’s one less in each category than Nolan Ryan, a no-doubt Hall of Fame inductee, and Ryan needed a 27-year career to reach that mark.

However, Morris’ career ERA is 3.90 which is considerably higher than that of Ryan (3.19) and Blyleven (3.31). It’s also likely that much of Morris’ recognition was a result of having so many Wins: from 1979 through 1992 he averaged almost 17 wins per year. And that’s partly because he was on very good and strong offensive teams. Finally, Morris wasn’t particularly good at striking people out, another darling stat.

So now it’s the Old Guard’s turn to attack. In particular the question is whether runs is a flawed way to measure Morris. Morris has always admitted he pitched to the score, and we know that pitchers are coached to do so. That certainly explains why his ERA, innings pitched and win totals were so high but his K rate was so low. Perhaps he was as good as he needed to be. A little thing called “Game 7 of the 1991 World Series” might support that.

That’s the sort of argument that could generate a reaction that dwarves anything we saw with Blyleven. When you start messing with runs allowed and runs scored, you’re messing with the lifeblood of most of the advanced metrics. Runs link to wins and losses via Bill James “Pythagorean” Theorem. Then they link to Runs Created, which is the bridge from team performance to individual players performance. That leads to more stats, like WAR and VORP and umpteen others. When you question whether runs accurately evaluate a player’s performance, you call into question the basis of about 80% of new statistics.

The Old Guard doesn’t need to recognize this. They just need to say “Don’t try to tell us Morris wasn’t great. We were there. He was great. And if your new statistics can’t tell you that, maybe the problem is the new statistics.”

Which, of course, is what the debate was really about all the time.


TT said...

"Mostly what has changed over the fourteen years of Bert’s candidacy is our philosophy about baseball and some of its statistics."

I think that is true, but lets not forget that Blyleven has become a popular broadcaster. He is now a media colleague of many of the voters. And he has used his public platform to relentlessly promote his own candidacy.

"But he didn’t, in part because he was often on teams that didn’t score a lot of runs."

That isn't true. The teams Blyleven played for scored more runs than the league average.

The claim is that he personally got weak run support from those teams. If true, in the games Blyleven pitched both teams scored fewer runs than average. You can consider the potential reasons for that. But some of them mean that Blyleven's numbers were enhanced by the situations he pitched in, rather than that he won fewer games for that reason.

I agree there is a broader debate. But it is not just about wins. I think the difference is whether accomplishments or ability are most important when choosing HOF members. And what accomplishments do we value.

How important is it that Blyleven pitched so many years? Which put him on the leader board in strikeouts. He isn't even in the top 50 in percentage of strikeouts when you look at the number of batters he faced. Clearly it has some value.

Likewise, how important were those big games where Morris took the opportunity to shine. Obviously by themselves they are not enough.

What is really going on here is a claim to some rigid single standard for who should be in the HOF. Nolan Ryan is in the HOF because he struck out over 5000 batters, 2000 more than Blyleven. He really doesn't have other numbers to support his position. It may well be that Blyleven's combination of longevity and counting stats should make him a HOF. And it may be that Morris's seventh game of the World Series is enought to push him into a spot. There is not one rule for everybody.

jesse said...

Great read, John.

Anonymous said...

They should vote once. Either you are in or you are out. The idea that you can get 14% of the vote one year and 75+% years later is ludicrous.

BeefMaster said...

John - the "pitching to the score" argument has been largely debunked. While Morris may have claimed that (and his supporters certainly have), statistical analysis of his results correlated with the scores of his games show pretty much no pattern at all.

It's funny how important perception is - we all think of Morris as an "ace", and he got Game 1 starts a few times (although he was the Game 2 guy against the Twins in '87 and was awful), but he wasn't the best starting pitcher on any of his playoff teams - Dan Petry was better in '84; Doyle Alexander was better in '87; Kevin Tapani (and maybe Scott Erickson, at least before he missed time with his injury) was better in '91; Jimmy Key and Juan Guzman were better in '92 (although in fewer innings). He was perceived as the ace, but perception isn't always backed up by reality (although I suppose "ace" and "best pitcher" aren't necessarily the same thing).

Also, while I will agree that his performances in '91 and '84 were terrific, I'd also point out that Morris' career postseason ERA was 3.80, just slightly better than his regular-season 3.90. As good as he was in those two postseasons, he was equally awful in '87 and '92.

I do appreciate TT's point at the end, about the idea of a "rigid standard". While I don't believe Morris qualifies as one of the greatest players of all time, I'm not necessarily opposed to having players enshrined for "very goodness" combined with extraordinary feats, like Morris' Game 7 or Maris' 1961. The problem is that the Hall so far hasn't done that, and a change (clarification?) like that would probably be a hard sell.

TT said...

"John - the "pitching to the score" argument has been largely debunked"

No, it hasn't. The fact that people who don't want to believe its possible can't find any statistical evidence for it doesn't mean much.

"The problem is that the Hall so far hasn't done that"

Actually the sports writers have. Players who shined when in the spotlight have, until recently, had preference over players who didn't.
The Hall of Fame is for the famous players of each era.

That, not any of his numbers, is the reason why Blyleven was not initially getting votes. And, its the reason he finally got elected. He finally made himself famous after his career was over. When he was playing most players, fans and writers thought of him as good, but not great.

walter hanson said...

I hate to ask a silly question, but what role did steroids play here. Bert who did give up a lot of homers gave up a lot to players who are considered cheaters. And when people compare greatness of pitchers everybody says look at how great Roger Clemens is compared with Bert. But Roger is considered to be a cheater.

Something not mentioned that I think played a wrong since players who were associated with steroids on this ballot did very bad!

Walter Hanson
Minneapolis, MN

Large Canine said...

I have gone back and forth on Bert over the years. I grew up watching him play. If you asked me in the 70's or 80's if he should be in the HOF I would have probably said NO. Today, I say yes. A set of stats I have not looked at in detail is the year by year ranking for Bert in all statistical categories for pitchers. No, not CY voting or All Star apearences. I'm taking K/9, K's, BB/9, ERA, etc... In my mind a player has to rank very high in those categories against his peers year to year. So when Bert was getting all those innings, what were the other pitchers doing? When Bert was getting the low 3 ERA's, what were the other pitchers doing? If Bert retired after say 15 years would he have gotten into the HOF? Doubt it. I like longevity and I do think Bert belongs but I will never consider him a great pitcher. Just a very good pitcher for a very long time.

hoffrey said...

Anonymous said:
They should vote once. Either you are in or you are out. The idea that you can get 14% of the vote one year and 75+% years later is ludicrous.

Completely agree

SoCalTwinsfan said...

I think a great stat for evaluating "Pitching to the score" is Win Probability Added. If Morris truly gave up runs more in blowout situations, WPA would barely be affected, and if he was dominant in tight games, then WPA would get big boosts for each out he got in those games. However, Morris was only in the Top 10 in WPA just twice in his career (1986 and 1987) with a career high of 3.6 for a fourth-place finish in 1987. Morris' career WPA of 15 is only 95th all time, just mere thousandths of a point ahead of Rick Reuschel. Meanwhile, Blyleven, who his detractors claim couldn't come up big in the big situations, was in the top 10 in his league seven times and he topped 4.0 three times, including a career-high of 4.5 in 1989, good for second-best in the AL. His career WPA of 30.6 is 26th all time, ahead of Hall of Famers Hoyt Willhelm, Robin Roberts, Steve Carlton and Ferguson Jenkins.

TT said...

Win probability added is a particularly useless stat for the purpose of determining big game pitchers. Unless I am mistaken, it looks at game situations based solely on the score, inning, outs, and base runners. I doubt anyone thinks having runners on first and second with Mauer and Morneau coming to the plate is the same as with Punto and Tolbert the next two batters.

In any case, I think it misses the point to suggest you can answer that question statistically. By definition, truly big games are unusual. They aren't subject to statistical evaluation. How many complete game shutouts in the 7th game of the world series did Blyleven pitch?

BTW, I haven't heard anyone suggest Blyleven wasn't a big game pitcher. The argument against Blyleven is that he is in the top 15 all time in losses, hits, walks and home runs. I have heard people claim the reason he had so many losses was that he lost a lot of one run games.