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.