Friday, January 15, 2010

The Ballot Question and Mark McGwire

With the latest round of Hall of Fame voting behind us, and Andre Dawson on his way to Cooperstown, there's been quite a bit of recent discussion about why it is that certain players are forced to wait considerably longer than others to get elected. There seem to be two major questions raised regarding this subject. The first has to do with the issue of what constitutes a first-ballot Hall of Famer, while the second tries to make sense of how a player such as Bert Blyleven could go from 14.1% support in 1999 to 74.2% in 2010.

I'm not going to bother with the first ballot issue. The fact that certain voters are of the belief that no player, or only a certain caliber of player, deserves to get elected in his first year of eligibility makes no sense to me. Fortunately, though, it's kind of a moot point, because any candidate who receives 73.7% of the vote in his first year on the ballot, as Roberto Alomar did, is not going to have to wait nine years to get in, as was the case with Dawson.

I am going to discuss the second question, however. That is, what could Blyleven possibly have accomplished over the course of the last 11 years to convince 60% of the voting membership of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) that he is, in fact, worthy of the Hall of Fame? First, let me say that I have no argument against Blyleven's candidacy. I'm just using him as an example for topical reasons, but also because his increase in support is somewhat inexplicable.

In 2001, Blyleven received 23.5% of the vote, while Dale Murphy received 18.1% and Dave Parker 16.3%. Don Mattingly, in fact, received greater support than Blyleven, at 28.2%. All four of these candidates have remained on the ballot through 2010. This year, Blyleven received 74.2%, Mattingly 16.1%, Parker 15.2% and Murphy 11.7%. So, while Blyleven's vote total was tripling, Parker's remained virtually the same, and both Mattingly's and Murphy's dropped by over one-third.

Why is this? I'll admit that my opinions of certain candidates have changed over time as I've listened to certain arguments that have effectively persuaded me. In fact, Blyleven is one of those whom I've come around on. So, I can understand changing your mind about a candidate, but it is difficult to explain why that many voters can be so fickle, and why it is that every year more and more writers are swayed in favor of his candidacy.

I'm not sure what this proves except that perspectives change, particularly as they're influenced by newer and better information. I don't think this entirely explains the Blyleven phenomenon, but it does make for a good segue to the discussion of Mark McGwire's recent confession.

Ever since the first major steroids scandal reared its ugly head, my contention has been that I would need more information before I'd be able to determine how it would affect my opinion of the candidacy of certain potential Hall of Famers. This week, McGwire's admission that he used steroids shocked no one. But, it did help me to see the light—a lot sooner than I expected—regarding how such players' Hall of Fame candidacies should be treated.

Let me first emphasize that this is just my opinion. Essentially, it represents what my philosophy would be if I was a Hall of Fame voter. This is not intended to be a prediction, nor is it something I think everyone should believe.

I don't really have a probably with those who insist on taking the hard line stance that anyone who took performance-enhancing drugs not be allowed in the Hall. But, I will contend that, if you're going to stand behind an opinion that is so absolute, then you need an absolute way of determining how you plan to apply it. In other words, if you're going to say that anyone who took steroids does not belong in the Hall of Fame, how do you expect to know who did steroids and who didn't?

Among Hall of Fame candidates, Mark McGwire was as close to a one-dimensional player as there could be. He obviously accumulated some impressive numbers, but most of his statistics are buoyed by the 583 career home runs he hit. Simply put, if not for that home run total, we wouldn't be discussing his Hall of Fame worthiness. If not for his use of performance-enhancing drugs, we can say with a high degree of certainty that he wouldn't have hit nearly that many homers.

If we could adjust for the home runs he hit artificially, we would be weakening the only argument supporting McGwire's candidacy. I'm not going to attempt to quantify this, but it might reduce his performance to below Hall of Fame standards, or it might not. But, the one thing we certainly don't owe steroid users is the benefit of the doubt.

Essentially, what I'm saying is that the punishment for using steroids is the loss of our trust and, therefore, the forfeiture of the benefit of the doubt. Without the benefit of the doubt, Mark McGwire is not a Hall of Famer.


  1. Hi Charles,

    I'd have to argue there's another dimension to Big Mac's candidacy. In my view, McGwire almost single handedly saved baseball as a major American sport. Go back to the mid-90s in your mind. Think about the strike, the empty stadiums, the emergence of basketball, thanks to MJ, as a top tier pro sport surpassing baseball in TV ratings. Baseball was on its way to something like the current status of ice hockey.

    McGwire and Sosa's race for the HR record put baseball back in America's living room. The combo of performance enhancing drugs, smaller parks, and better strength training gave the American people what they wanted - more dingers, more drama.

    This should be taken in to consideration. I wonder if my own kids would be so excited about baseball if the pro game had continued on its downward spiral. McGwire deserves credit for the being the key player in the revival of America's passtime.

  2. You make an interesting point, Joey. On the other hand, there's this: Myth of men who saved baseball

    Regardless of who's right, I'm not considering this an argument for McGwire's Hall of Fame candidacy. Intangible factors such as this are reserved for people like Jackie Robinson. If McGwire "saved baseball," it was the accidental outcome of a purely selfish attempt at improving his own performance.

  3. Thanks for the link. That's interesting. I stand by my point, however. Mr. Leonhardt does not give enough weight to the regular season TV numbers, which in my view are more important than the stadium figures.

    I agree that from a pure numbers point of view, McGwire's a marginal candidate, that's why we need to look at the context of his career. All players are selfishly pursuing improved performance. That's a given. Coming through at the right time and place is one of the intangibles to consider. McGwire gave Selig and the fans what they were looking for. I think he needs to be viewed in that context. He's a key part of the history of the sport. In his day, baseball was considered too slow and cerebral compared to basketball. It's the time when ballparks were shrinking to create more home runs and players were doing everything they could to generate them.

    While we want baseball to be "pure" so we can compare eras and records, I feel that it's something of a conceit to think we can do so. Too many things change from generation to generation. Can we factor in how amphetimines helped Willie Mays' numbers? I'm not gonna try.

  4. Yes, all players are selfishly pursuing improved performance. My point was just that McGwire wasn't on some benevolent mission to save the game.

    There's no doubt that period contributed to the resurrection of the game's popularity, and I agree that the idea of purity in the game is an impossible goal. That's why I'm trying to figure out a way to sort it out in my mind.

    Regardless of whether we agree on this one or not, it's good to hear from you again, Mr. Pants.