Seeing as, "Numbers can be presented so many ways, folded into so many origami shapes," so it's understandable a baseball writer might twist it around after being bombarded with an "avalanche of numbers" during the lead-up to Wednesday's Baseball Hall of Fame election results. Jeremy Sandler should get the BBWAA honour for being a wee bit off-base.
"The obsession over numbers 'proving' Hall of Fame worthiness also leads to inauthentic comparisons. Tony Gwynn was a first-ballot selection with a .388 on-base percentage, 1,383 runs and 319 steals. Thus, one could argue Tim Raines should not be languishing with 22% support with his .385 OBP, 1,571 runs and 808 stolen bases."Did anyone else see that? It seems as if (and please don't read this as a personal attack, it just happens to be one article that came to attention) the argument is for wanting to one day live in a world where we rate each ballplayer against the best players of his era, but without making "inauthentic comparisons" such as one between Tim Raines and Tony Gwynn. You should just be able to find "what lies beyond what the mere calculations can show."
(Two paragraphs later)
"Every player needs to be evaluated on his own merits against the best players of his era and of all time. To do this, numbers will tell part of the story, but will never tell the whole story."
From the department of, "yeah ... no," you cannot compare Raines to Gwynn just because one was a National League outfielder born in 1959 and the other was a National League outfielder born in 1960, a whole eight months apart! You may not compare a player who was a MLB regular from 1981-98 with someone who was a regular from 1984-99 just because they each:
- Played a corner outfield spot and some centrefield;
- Spent their peak years in the NL at about the same time (1983-87 for Raines, '84-89 for Gwynn);
- Usually batted in a similar place in the lineup (91% of Gwynn's career plate appearances and 90% of Raines' were hitting first, second or third);
- Hit similarly well in the leadoff spot (Gwynn OPSed .823, Raines OPSed .813)
- Hit similarly well in the 3-hole (Gwynn OPSed .860, Raines .856)
- Had similar short-and-squat builds (Raines was listed at 5-foot-8, 178 lbs.; Gwynn, 5-11, 199);
- Batted from the left side (Raines was a switch-hitter);
- Had a son of the same name make the major leagues;
- Had a son of the same name make the major leagues as an outfielder;
- Went into coaching after retiring as a player. Yep, totally inauthentic.
Staying barely on-point, the argument is not that Tim Raines was better than Tony Gwynn.
The point is that they had contemporary careers where they each fulfilled the same role about equally well. Except Gwynn was not just a first-ballot inductee, as Sandler describes it, he was elected with 97.6% support three years ago. If you picture the Baseball Hall of Fame as the trendy new nightspot, Gwynn was let inside the velvet rope post-haste. Raines is standing out in the cold while the doorman pretends to scan a clipboard. Raines ... Raines ... Raines ... don't see it.
As Joe Posnanski, whom Sandler cites in his column without even a hint of irony, noted,
Gwynn had the high batting average and the 200-hit seasons (a hitting feat you know is vital since Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams accomplished it a combined never). Raines had the bases on balls, sick stolen-base success rate and scored more runs. Same aims, different means.
Raines' argument is not airtight; no one's is. However, the same out clauses that are applied to him have been overlooked for other players. For instance, one sympathetic sportswriter said of Raines, "Should get more votes than he does, but unfortunately his peak years were mostly spent on mediocre teams." Raines' teams finished above .500 in 12 of his 15 seasons as a regular, compared to 8-of-16 for Gwynn. For pity's sake, Ryne Sandberg played on only three winning teams in his whole career. No one ever mentioned that when he was on the ballot, since he played for the Chicago Cubs and was a clean-cut white guy.
Anyway, the song remains the same with Tim Raines. He received 24.3% support in 2008, 22.6 in 2009. Billy Williams, the 1960s and '70s Chicago Cubs outfielder, received similar support (23.4%) in his first go-around in 1982 and was elected five years later. For some reason, he kept gaining about 10% each year. It has not happened for Raines. It needs to this year or next.
The second part of this is feeling personally frustrated at working in the media and being surrounded by people who are rigid when fluidity is needed, especially when people can call BS so conveniently. It is disappointing to hear Jeff Blair, who is always a great read, say he "will not vote for a player on subsequent ballots if I didn't vote for him on the first."
There are issues with how some ballplayers have crept up to around 20% support to eventually getting the necessary 75% (Jim Rice was a classic example), but come on, Jeff. What, no one should ever re-evaluate their critical opinion, especially if new shit has come to light, man? In other fields, academe, film and literary criticism, people change their minds all the time. They decide they liked a book or movie, or that they hated it. about a book or movie they didn't like the first time around. It's called being human.
Getting back to baseball, you have to be careful not to beat people over the head with sabremetrics. It has found its rightful place. It is just a gas to see poor Jeremy Sandler projecting that he's threatened. Sorry to come off like a graduate of the Harry Neale School of Knowing What Everyone Is Thinking, but here is a grown man who says, "People do not live and die with their favourite players because of mathematical formulae. Adjusted ERA or VORP never made a kid put a poster on his wall." One, as if that proves anything and two, did anyone argue that we should hang our arses on trying to see the world through a child's eyes?
Yeah, when you were a kid, you were drawn to specific ballplayers for all sorts of reasons, but no one voted to put George Bell into the Hall of Fame because he had an awesome Jheri-curl and once tried to do a flying karate kick on a Boston Red Sox pitcher named Bruce Kison.
You grew up, kind of, and you learned to use your mind, instead of losing it when faced with complexity.
Enjoy election day. Please keep an eye on how big a leap Mark McGwire takes. By 2 p.m., Roberto Alomar should be a Hall of Famer. Sweet.