Don't look to Hall voters for consistency

December, 29, 2009
12/29/09
11:46
AM ET
Sunday night, Jon Heyman revealed his Hall of Fame ballot in a tweet. Just six months ago, this would have been unthinkable. Today it doesn't even qualify as news. No, what was interesting was Heyman's willingness, again via Twitter, to defend his ballot, and particularly his decision to vote for Jack Morris but not Bert Blyleven. Here's Craig Calcaterra:
    At the outset, let me give Heyman some credit. After tweeting that, a cubic crap-ton of people like me came out of the woodwork to attack him, and he basically took on all comers. As I'll note below, his arguments were weak, but he stood in the box all night and that's worthy of some respect.

    --snip--

    But even if you're making a broader, shape-of-career case -- which voters often do -- Blyleven and Morris profile rather similarly: they are good, durable but rarely-considered-great pitchers without Cy Young awards. Morris has the rings, but he had a lot of help and they are at the very least equaled in weight by Blyleven's overall career value. I wouldn't approach the matter this way, but for those who do, I can see voting for neither of them. I can also see voting for both of them. I can even see -- if voters go to big stats like wins and strikeouts as tiebreakers -- voting for Blyleven and not Morris. I cannot, however, fathom a vote for Morris and not Blyleven.

    But that inconsistency is not the most galling. No, the most galling inconsistencies were volunteered by Heyman himself. First, in response to me lodging the objection from the last paragraph, Heyman said "regarding bert, 86% voted "no'' his 2nd yr. unlike others, i'm consistent. he never led league in wins, ERA but led in HRs, earned runs, Ls"

    This sort of cherry picking is so common I rarely get outraged anymore, but that doesn't make it any less outrageous. Ignore all of Blyleven's stats in his favor and dismiss him as merely a stathead's pick as so many writers do, but then use the negative stats to hammer his candidacy. It's simply not legitimate in my mind to look at the dingers he gave up and not even consider his 287 wins and 3701 strikeouts. You have to take his overall stats and weigh them, and guys like Heyman never do that. "Stats are overrated," they often say when dismissing Blyleven, and then they use stats to twist the knife. And by the way: Jack Morris led the league in earned runs once. Steve Carlton led the league in homers, ERA and losses on occasion as well. What's your point?

    But the worst part of Heyman's case comes in the "86% voted "no'' his 2nd yr. unlike others, i'm consistent" comment. Setting aside what some smart people have said about such consistency, Heyman isn't even consistent about his consistency. Later, in what became a wide-ranging debate among a good dozen or more people, Heyman said that he would (a) look at Tim Raines' candidacy again; and (b) that he had voted "no" for Mattingly eight times before changing his mind. If you're going to reevaluate for Mattingly and Raines, why not Blyleven? Why not just shorten the Hall of Fame voting window to one year per player?

    Maybe Heyman was just joking with the consistency crack. Maybe he's just so moonstruck with Game 7 of the 1991 World Series that no logical case against Jack Morris would ever dissuade him.

    Then again, maybe he's just shooting darts out there, making up his standards as he goes along.

If we demand consistency, we might be parried with Ralph W. Emerson's famous saying, "Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

Except that's not what Emerson said. There's one word missing, and it's a very important word. Here's what he said, really:

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

Now, when it comes to defining foolish we're left to our own devices. But here's an example, from the top of my head ...

1. Ozzie Smith was not a good hitter.

2. Omar Vizquel was not a good hitter.

3. Ozzie Smith won (roughly) a dozen Gold Gloves.

4. Omar Vizquel won (roughly) a dozen Gold Gloves.

5. Ozzie Smith is in the Hall of Fame.

(ergo)

6. Omar Vizquel belongs in the Hall of Fame.

That line of reasoning strikes me as foolish consistency, because it ignores the degree to which Ozzie and Omar were not good hitters (Omar was less good) and the degree to which they deserved their Gold Gloves (Ozzie was more deserving).

There's absolutely nothing wrong with consistency, when applied with logic and some degree of sophistication. On the other hand, arguments made with little consistency are little more than jabs at the wind, exercising for the jabber but with little effect on the wind.

Now, one might explain foolish consistency (and dart-shooting) with something called "confirmation bias," which is very real and incredibly pervasive. Essentially, confirmation bias describes our tendency to see things that confirm what we already believe, and (mostly) ignore the rest. I have a fairly dim view of human nature, and every day I see things that confirm this view. While I do see many things suggesting that humans are wonderfully generous and thoughtful, those things just don't make a big impression.

Confirmation bias.

Similarly, one often gets the impression that Hall of Fame voters weigh the evidence for a candidate after they've made up their minds. Many years ago, a large majority of voters decided that Bert Blyleven was not a Hall of Famer. And to this day, many of those voters maintain that he doesn't belong, no matter how much contrary evidence they're given.

Or not. Because there's often little consistency in the voting. Jim Rice secured 30 percent of the writers' support in his first appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot; last winter he got 76 percent. In Luis Aparicio's first appearance on the ballot, he got 28 percent; five years later he got 85 percent. Other examples abound. If you're looking for consistency, whether in arguments or results, you'll just have to look elsewhere.

You may, on the other hand, find just about anything else.

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