Sunday, June 01, 2008

Cooperstown

There are always arguments to be made about who deserves to get into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but in honor of Manny Ramirez's 500th home run, ESPN.com has a poll in which you get to vote on who will get into the Hall of Fame. Or, more accurately, you get to gauge the chances of 25 major-leaguers over the age of 35 of getting into the Hall on a 4-point Likert scale, from "First-ballot lock" to "Nice career but no chance."

I voted and compared my choices to the other voters' choices, and was happy to see that my choice was either the first- or second-most popular choice for each player listed, and when my choice was not the most popular, I was never more than one degree away from the leading choice. The meaning of this, is not that I think I'm some kind of baseball guru, but that the amount of consensus that develops around the abilities of baseball players is fairly strong.

Compare with, for example, movies. Sure, every damn poll since the beginning of time lists Citizen Kane as the best movie ever, but beyond that there are plenty of movies deeply loved by some people and loathed by others. Gone with the Wind has been a perennial popular favorite, but among hard-core cineastes, it's something of an afterthought. But that's art, which is totally subjective, while baseball can be quantified.

That's not to say there are no arguments in baseball, of course! Far from it; beyond the comparisons between individual players, there's the old small ball vs. long ball argument, the current debate between traditionalists and Moneyball devotees, etc. But while people might argue the relative merits of, say, a slugger like Man-Ram vs. a slap hitter like Ichiro, nobody's going to look at one of them and say, "Ehh, he's a lousy player; I wouldn't want him on my team... the real best outfielder of this decade is Scott Hairston."

Even at the high end, as seen in this poll, baseball fans can see a clear distinction between the value of, say, Billy Wagner's career and Mariano Rivera's. Or even between Rivera, seen as a lock*, and Trevor Hoffman, who's expected to eventually get a plaque in Cooperstown but not necessarily on the first ballot, despite being the career saves leader.

Moreover, take a look at the distribution of the results. No player has votes that would chart with more than one peak. In other words, you either have a peak at one end of the scale that tails off monotonically from there, or a peak in either of the two middle positions that tails off monotonically in either direction. Nobody has a binomial distribution, with a lot of people thinking he'll definitely get in and a lot of people thinking otherwise, but few in the middle. I suppose you might see that if you included currently-out-of-work guys like Roger Clemens who are under a cloud of suspicion. But that's related to off-the-field activities, like Pete Rose.

*Considered a lock by the poll respondents, that is. I considered him likely to eventually get in, but not a first-ballot lock. Not because he doesn't deserve it, but because the HOF voters have, to date, had a big blind spot for relievers. Goose fricking Gossage had to wait for his ninth year of eligibility to be voted in. I wouldn't really be surprised if by the time Rivera is eligible the voters would have come around on relievers, but I also wouldn't be surprised if it took him a few years.

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