Right Field

Maybe It’s Because Bonds Was Boring

When did this begin, the sourness that the annual Hall of Fame vote provokes? Fans and even baseball writers, for that matter, complain that baseball writers cast their ballots incorrectly. Then the BBWAA, the Hall, and MLB are said to be corrupt, incompetent, dumb, and other pejorative adjectives.

Too much, all this passionate intensity and arm waving, as I see it. The Hall is like the All-Star Game: It’s an honor to be voted in, but it’s only an exhibition, after all, not to be confused with baseball itself. If you can’t help from taking it more seriously than it should be taken, however, at least be fair to the writers who happen to be of the mind that, when voting, they should in some cases elevate a player’s character or other non-quantifiable attributes over his statistical record. That’s their judgment. If you disagree with it, feel free to explain why, but to get angry about it and call them “sanctimonious” is sanctimonious.

Overly earnest statistical arguments about who belongs and who doesn’t rest on the premise that objective standards for Hall membership exist, and hence the indignation that MLB lets Cooperstown let the BBWAA invest in a few hundred fallible mortals the power to veto truth. “Player A is in while player B isn’t and that’s wrong,” we read, “because B’s career performance was obviously better when you consider these metrics and those, unless you weight .OBA more heavily than BA/RISP by this amount, but you’d be wrong to do that, because . . . ”

By this point, you probably think that I’m driving down Murray Chass Road, that I’m badmouthing numbers and about to invoke the importance of intangibles. True, I’m about to invoke the importance of intangibles, but no, I won’t badmouth numbers, because the value that we place on them is high. It’s also intangible. The statistical language in which we talk about the game is an essential feature of baseball as we know it. Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of baseball had better learn sabermetrics.

Amateur (in the noble sense of the word: “loving”) baseball researchers sent many remarkable manuscripts my way when I edited The Baseball Research Journal for a few issues a few years back. One guy wrote maybe 5,000 words, accompanied by tables, to explain various formulas he had developed for determining which players should be enshrined in Cooperstown. I suspected he had reverse-engineered his argument by devising complex statistical standards that a favorite player of his conveniently met, but no matter. The paper was nicely done and in its own way engrossing. I didn’t run it, however, because the question that his application of sabermetrics raised was fundamental and he didn’t address it: By his reasoning, shouldn’t the Hall of Fame work out a deal with the Elias Sports Bureau — or Baseball-Reference, if you prefer — instead of outsourcing to the BBWAA this problematic business of drawing up the Hall’s roster?

And if the Hall did contract with a statistical-services outfit for that purpose, wouldn’t the debate still continue pretty much as before, on different terms but the same plane? Whereas now we argue whether Jack Morris belongs or doesn’t, or Mike Mussina, we would instead argue over the validity of the official statistical standards that they met or fell short of, but the essence of the exercise would remain untouched. The debate would still be interminable, because there is no mathematical formula for proving the superiority of this or that mathematical formula for determining the Hall-worthiness of players and managers, to say nothing of executives, sportswriters, broadcasters, goodwill ambassadors, what have you.

Barry Bonds put up staggering career numbers, some of them better than anyone else’s in the history of the game. Baseball writers who didn’t vote for him on their Hall of Fame ballots have attracted criticism. The assumption is that they think he cheated by taking PEDs and that in allowing that consideration to affect their voting they violated an ideal of objectivity. But Hall of Fame voting isn’t meant to be objective. Even if it were, the criticism that it wasn’t objective wouldn’t be objective. The decision to place, or not to place, determinative value on any metric or set of metrics — even VORP or WAR, with all their promise of being the final word — is ultimately subjective, a judgment call.

Forget about PEDs for a moment. After Bonds lost some of his five tools and hyper-developed those that remained, he continued to be outstanding and grew yet more spectacular. But no one who had grown up knowing the mystique surrounding “61” and “755” ever imagined that players would surpass those statistical monuments by so much, so often, and in such quick succession — or that to watch it all would soon turn out to feel so anticlimactic. It was like watching adults win at chess against children. 

The offensive inflation of the period, the late 1990s through early aughts, wasn’t Bonds’s fault. Still, the admiration he now elicits is mostly theoretical: We admire that he achieved a level of performance we’re supposed to admire. In retrospect, his career looks too much like a Home Run Derby that went on too long, a sustained virtuoso performance related to but somehow spun off from the business of trying to win ballgames. Ditto Sosa and McGwire.

What would Henry Chadwick say? A sportswriter and the “Father of Baseball,” he introduced the box score in the late 19th century and did more than anyone to instill in baseball culture the importance of appreciating statistical measurements of performance. He saw them as a check on the tendency of a player’s mere “flash,” or lack thereof, to distort our assessment of his skill and value to his team.

“It is preferable,” Chadwick wrote in 1860, “to play the game manfully and not without resorting to any such trickery — for it is little else — as this, which not only tires the spectator, but detracts from the merits of the game itself.” He was referring to the practice of hitters’ working the count, but the underlying principle applies to the question of how the premier stathead of early baseball would consider the Hall of Fame candidacy of some of the juiced sluggers on this year’s ballot. Would he join this spectator in observing that they just “tired” us? That they wore out our interest with too many home-run chases and not enough pennant races? That, in the end, they bored us? 

Chadwick, who hit 762 fewer home runs than Bonds, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1938, for “contributions to the game.”