Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Whatever happened to the "politics of
glory," anyway??
It's clear now that the rubicon in sabermetric discourse occurred back in 1994, when Bill James's Politics of Glory came out. The peregrinating, multi-tracked, myth-shattering muckraking style that Bill put into play in PoG has cast a deep shadow, not only on those who've followed him into the fray, but on his own work.

And that's still the case today. "Neo-sabermetrics", which turns around the Socratic method and replaces it with post-modern mockery while continuing to present itself as what it once was, stems in large part from Bill's multi-leveled efforts in PoG

Bill James: big.
And though Bill has since recanted some of the biggest howlers in the book, the fact is that despite his still-astonishing energy and creativity, the adage about new tricks and old dogs is as hard to defeat as those damnable hands of Father Time.

Lee Smith: bigger.
Bill doesn't think Lee Smith, the big, raw, man's man reliever of the 80s and 90s, is a Hall of Famer. That's his gut impression. He tells us that in his latest set of essays at his web site--Bill James Online (subscription required: and, yes, even though I love to disagree with him, I'd pay twice as much to read him)--where his essays on the 2011 Hall of Fame voting are chock full of the meandering narrative tropes that he first put on display in PoG. Dave Studemund at The Hardball Times calls this "classic James"--but we'd be really be better off seeing it as a return to the "mannerist" phase in PoG, where the digressive narrative technique (not lost on any of those who've followed in his wake, of course...) can be both bracing and delusory.

The problem is bigger than Bill James (6'5") and Lee Smith (6'6"). It's about relief pitching and its "value" in the game. What vexes James--and all those who've followed him into the wilderness of conflating their value models with the variable "science" of meritocracy--is that relievers are gaining an advantage out of proportion with their actual worth in terms of Hall of Fame voting.

The quote from Bill that gets closest to addressing the issue is as follows:

If a certain set of players is given an advantage, by the role that they play, we typically adjust for that advantage in evaluating the player.   If a player is allowed to bat an unusual number of times with runners in scoring position, driving up his RBI count, we adjust for that when we evaluate him.   If a home run hitter plays in a home run park, if a pitcher pitches in a pitcher’s park, if a starting pitcher pitches for a team that scores a lot of runs, we adjust for that—but where do we adjust for this?

Rollie Fingers--did that moustache
bamboozle the BBWAA??
Bruce Sutter--was his
enshrinement a mistake?
Bill is trying to analogize between "park factors" and "context" and how relievers have come to be used.  Over the past twenty-five years, the save statistic has become something akin to an end unto itself, and has mushroomed in a manner that some might analogize to the rise in home runs that began in the mid-90s. What emerges from Bill's hand-wringing is a forceful cop-out: he doesn't think that we know enough about how to contextualize saves, so he wants to shut the door to the Hall of Fame on closers until we sort it out.

Hoyt Wilhelm: making the Hall of Fame
while barely breaking a sweat...
But what's clear is that we're dealing with folks on one edge of the Hall of Fame spectrum--the group that thinks all the toothpaste has been squeezed out of the tube by a "long march" of bumbling BBWAA writers. Bill and others following in his footsteps see that certain relievers--Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter--represent hasty selections to the Hall of Fame. (Oddly, Rich Gossage and Dennis Eckersley are rarely targeted by "reliever revisionists.")

The first question: is this even true? James is willing to concede Mariano Rivera due to Mo's brilliant ERA+ and his integral association with an insanely dominant team, but his argument is curiously bound to modern times. The BBWAA started out by enshrining Hoyt Wilhelm, which made eminent sense in terms of quality and longevity (if not "value", that pesky term that, in this area at least, seems to trip up the most seemingly agile of minds). As the fearless proponent of a trick pitch who purveyed it into a brilliant but wayward 21-year career, Wilhelm had singularity on his side.

Where Wilhelm isn't singular, however, is in how he was used as a reliever. There is a continuum of what we can call "closer usage" that remained reasonably constant from the 1950s until the early 1990s. Teams entrusted closers with more outs then. In fact, the average number of games where closers recorded four or more outs in order to earn a save actually peaked in the mid-1980s (yes, right about the time that Lee Smith and Dan Quisenberry came into their own, taking over for Sutter and Fingers).

What the chart tells us is that all saves are not created equal, and that those relief pitchers whose careers occurred prior to 1990 worked harder and longer for their saves. It's actually quite an astonishing sea-change in usage when you look at it: the number of saves where the closer goes more than an inning just halves itself over the course of five years.

So Trevor Hoffman (601 saves), Rivera (559), John Franco (424) and Billy Wagner (422) have benefitted from this change in usage. But did Smith (478)? Let's take a look at a table that will show us the actual number of multiple-inning saves recorded by top relievers.

Looking at it this way, it doesn't seem as though Fingers and Gossage and Sutter were such terrible selections for the Hall, does it?

And there's Lee Smith, sitting in the #4 slot.

Meanwhile, Rivera has clearly been the most relied-on closer in his time frame: the Yanks have used him in multiple-inning appearances a good bit more often than what the prevailing school of thought would want you to believe. And look at Hoffman and Wagner--well down the list.

Don't get me wrong: I still personally believe that closers with 400+ saves are Hall of Famers. It's a reasonable threshold, a solid "counting stat" signifier of quality and longevity in the way that 3000+ hits and 500+ homers are (or, apparently, used to be).

There are only five such players in baseball history.

And, you know, there aren't a whole hell of a lot of closers breathing heavily at the door. Aside from Rivera and Wagner, there are no other closers with 300+ saves currently active. The youngest active pitcher with the most saves is Francisco Rodriguez (268 saves, 29 years old in 2011).

Sure, he could go on a rampage and notch 150 saves in the next three seasons. But that would still make him only the sixth pitcher to crack 400 saves.

No, the problem here is that Bill James (and his progeny) find themselves stuck in the molasses of their value models when it comes to closers. While their arguments about the interchangeability of relievers sound good, the fact remains that even with the potential "misuse" of a widely reviled counting stat, we don't have a glut of relievers to put into the Hall. They are not the folks contributing to the anxiety concerning the next five years of Hall of Fame balloting.

Lee Smith's induction into the HOF will not cause the earth to spin off its axis.

The fact is that Bill's analogy is a weak one, and his lack of clarity on this issue is due to the problem of the value model getting in the way of common sense. The Hall of Fame is not meant to be the perfect research project, no matter how hard the numbers cadre tries to twist it into that via their equation-laden ideology. We need that damn Occam's Razor again. (We need that a lot, it seems.)

I think Bill should rethink his position on this just as he's done before. Because I believe that an old dog and a new trick are not necessarily separated by an excluded middle. Because sometimes common sense actually works!