Saturday, September 19th, 2009
My general attitude towards statistics is summarized in the saying: “The figures don’t lie, but liars sure can figure.” Nevertheless, the name of Bill James as author grabbed my attention and I decided to dive into what I knew would be a statistical roller coaster ride.
The book in question is titled “Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? – Baseball, Cooperstown, and the Politics of Glory” (Previously published as “The Politics of Glory”). It’s not a new book, with a copyright of 1994,1995 (by Bill James).
Prior to reading this book, I never gave much thought to the Hall of Fame (HOF). I just assumed it was an arm of Major League Baseball (ie. “…without the express written consent of Major League Baseball”). And I didn’t pay much attention to who got in and who didn’t, or how and why. So this book was an eye opener for me.
Author Bill James addresses the political dimension of the HOF thusly:
- “In political discussions, I am absolutely dead center. It is my observation, in listening to political partisans, that there is some truth in what everybody says, but that they will almost all distort the truth to defend their position. In my judgment, everyone on the political landscape, from David Duke and Rush Limbaugh to Howard Metzenbaum and Louis Farrakhan, is right about some things; I will listen to any of them and think that there is some truth in what he or she is saying. But at the same time, they all bullshit. They all wear blinders. They all say things that they know or should know are not true, but which they feel they must say to defend the extreme positions they have taken. This paralyzes the process. If Alan Simpson would just admit that Barbara Boxer is right about 30 percent of the issues, and he has just been bullshitting to avoid acknowledging this, and vice versa, we could reach a consensus on the remaining issues.
The Hall of Fame discussion is like that: There is some truth in what almost everybody says, but almost everybody will distort the record to advance their own candidate.”
- “In the politics of baseball, the numbers advocates represent the right wing, the Republican side of the discussion. The “throw away the numbers” crowd represent the liberal, or Democratic, position. As I see it, there is some truth in what everybody is saying, and there’s a lot of bullshit on both sides.”
On the subject of statisticians:
- “You know the old saying about a statistician…if you have one foot in a block of ice and the other in a fire, a statistician will tell you that on average you’re comfortable.”
One observation which strikes close to home:
- “As I’m sure you know, a .500 team winning and losing games at random for a year won’t often go 81-81, nor even necessarily stay close to 81-81; they will routinely win anywhere from 71 to 91 games, and occasionally will win (or lose) as many as a hundred or even more, just by luck.”
Ron Santo’s name is mentioned a number of times in this book, and his non-selection (to date) to the HOF is analyzed in detail.
Here’s a Bill James observation about statistics:
- “We use statistics the way a drunk uses a lamppost – for support, not illumination.”
There is a chapter titled “Arguments”, in which the false arguments attending the HOF discussion are divided into eight essential fallacies, which are then subsequently countered with eight solid approaches. The important thing to realize, for me, is that these statistical fallacies and corrections apply to free agent signings, player trades, and for making out the everyday lineup, as well as to HOF selections. One of those eight critical corrections is: ”We are looking for the best candidate, not merely a qualified candidate.”
Here’s a thought to consider: “The fundamental problem is that we can’t measure everything in statistics, and for that reason statistical comparisons will only be accurate sometimes.”
In a discussion about Jerry Priddy and Phil Rizzuto, the concept of a player having a “salutary” (ie, beneficial) effect on the teams for which he played is introduced. I can only surmise that a player might possibly have the opposite effect on a team as well.
Here’s something to consider: “the average player isn’t going to hit at age 37 the way he does at 27”.
Here’s something else to consider: The Hall of Fame has exactly the same attitude toward the public as any other business: “What we really want is your business, not your advice”.
Mr. James retells the classic conversation between a growing company and their new accountant:
“What was our profit last year?”
“What did you want it to be?”
- “What is the Hall of Fame? It’s a museum run by an accountant.”
- “If I were in control of the Hall of Fame’s selections, the first player I would choose would be Ron Santo.”
- A multipage analysis of Dick Allen’s HOF status ends with the following observation: “He did more to keep his teams from winning than anybody else who ever played major league baseball. And if that’s a Hall of Famer, I’m a lug nut.”
There is a chapter devoted entirely to Don Drysdale, in which the author argues very effectively for both points of view (he should be in the HOF, he should NOT be in the HOF) using statistics very effectively. By the end of the chapter I was totally convinced to support both points of view. And that gets confusing.
By the way, did you know that in his lifetime Don Drysdale lost four out of five starts against Ernie Broglio?
“Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?” is a very well written book. Bill James is an intelligent, very organized, very coherent, very persuasive author. By the end of the book my head was spinning.
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