What’s the Deal with the BBWAA?
Congratulations to Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar. It’s good to see two deserving players elected to the baseball Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association of America. However, the BBWAA failed to elect several members clearly deserving of enshrinement: Barry Larkin, Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines and Alan Trammell. The reason is simple. Many members of the BBWAA do not view baseball in an appropriate manner.
You see, many members of the BBWAA evaluate baseball players in the same way that judges in gymnastics or figure skating evaluate participants in those events. Many writers given the privilege to vote judge players on whether players look impressive on the baseball field. Jim Rice hit a lot of homeruns and it seems he was feared, so he eventually is inducted. Andre Dawson hit a lot of homeruns, played with bad knees and had an impressive arm so he eventually is voted in.
Many members of BBWAA view the game as a contest in artistry rather than as a game and a sport. When someone views the game as a contest in artistry (much like gymnastics and figure skating), that person overrates things like how scary a player’s swing might have been or how great an arm a player had or how high a batting average or how many runs a player drove in. That person underrates the important stuff. The things that a player does that actually helps a baseball team win baseball games.
Sure, the members of the BBWAA that make this mistake think they are viewing the game appropriately. Those members think that how pretty a player looks on the baseball field is the same thing as how much that player is helping his team win. Those members aren’t intentionally ignoring the important things a player does to help his team win baseball games. They’ve been trained to view all sports as contests in artistry, whether it be artistry in what a player does on the field or artistry in some arbitrary statistic that is meaningless or doesn’t tell the full story of how valuable a player was. For some sports this works. And for baseball this often works, otherwise the writers would get it wrong more often than they do when voting for Hall of Fame.
Many have been taught to view sports in such a way that greatness means a series of impressive feats. This is why the rather unspectacular Jack Morris garners more support than more deserving players. Morris won 7 postseason games including a 10-inning shutout in a Game 7. He had a handful of seasons in which he was one of the top 10 pitchers in his league but he was never one of the top 2 or 3 pitchers in his league. Many voters just see his impressive feats (if not the one impressive game) and his seemingly impressive 254 wins and they give him more support than they should.
But in sports, and especially in baseball, greatness is not always defined by a series of impressive feats. A player can be one of the most valuable in history without the prettiest swing or without grace in the field; without constantly contending for the highest batting average, the highest homerun total, the highest RBI or run scored total, the highest win total in the league. Sure these things are all fine and dandy and it’s even hard for a player to be great without at least some of the aforementioned things.
But most of us know by now that much of the greatness in baseball is hidden from the very casual fan by tradition and by players who more look the part but who aren’t necessarily any more valuable than the less graceful, the less impressive with regards to more traditional measures of supposed greatness (like batting average, RBI, pitcher wins). Greatness is truly defined by things like how often a player gets on base, how often a pitcher causes the hitter to miss bats or hit off-balanced grounders, how many fly balls in the gap that a fielder gets to without a highlight reel catch, how many routine doubles a player hits.
Most of us know the game has changed over the past decade. Most front offices aren’t as wedded to traditional measures (batting average, RBI, pitcher wins) and players who look the part (tools) as they once were. Change started to take hold when the baseball establishment let in more and more of the readers of Bill James and those of the Branch Rickey/Allen Roth tradition. Even the BBWAA opened their doors to more enlightened writers. Eventually enlightened writers will outnumber the less intellectually curious, the writers who aren’t all that concerned with finding out what a player does to help his team win baseball games and are more concerned with grace, style and the statistics that tradition (rather than fact) tells them are the measures of greatness.