Why I Can’t Ignore Stats

If some of you have been active in following your Hall of Fame voters, you probably read this post on Jon Heyman discussing his ballot. He spent the majority of this piece stating why he didn’t vote for Bert Blyleven, and then he explained why he voted for Jack Morris instead. I promise this is not intended to be a “Vote Blyleven, not Morris!” post, because I’m more interested in something else. Heyman claims that Morris had a bigger impact in his games than Blyleven. Well then, what happens if I never experienced this impact?

I’m not quite going to go all Fire Joe Morgan over Heyman’s post like I’m tempted to do, but I will pull out some excerpts and comment about them.

In filling out my ballot, I go more by impact than career numbers.

If you put Blyleven’s lifetime numbers through a computer, the computer would probably determine that he (and Abreu, for that matter) is a Hall of Famer. But the game is about human beings, not just numbers. It’s about impact.

One quote that I have seen a few times is that we induct players into the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Stats. This argument is usually used in tandem to what Heyman says in these quotes, where impact is more important than the sheer numbers. But to be honest, the numbers contribute to the impact. You cannot have a positive impact unless you do one of two things: You accumulate stats, or you do the little things.

Many people disapprove of the heavy usage of statistics, and I feel that this is wrong. Sure, it feels nerdy, but statistics are records of what happened. Commenting on someone “doing the little things” is purely anecdotal unless you can provide a record of what this player did that you consider to be above and beyond, and that would bring us back to the first point that you would need the statistics to show this player actually had an impact on the game.

A more recent example is this idea that the Twins are scared of the Yankees. I feel this is a bunch of crap, because while the Twins have performed poorly against the Yanks, a simple explanation is that the Twins employ soft-tossing strike throwers which simply does not match up well with having to face a lineup of power hitters that can also work the count. It’s just like the belief that Jim Thome, Orlando Hudson, and J.J. Hardy fell under this “curse” even though they just joined the team this past season. Do you honestly think they have been “scared” of the Yankees their entire lives? Yes, the Yankees have an impact on the Twins, but it can be explained by more than just how the players that don Twins uniforms feel.

Blyleven’s backers sometimes will also act astounded or even apoplectic over the fact that some, including myself, support Jack Morris over Blyleven. Morris’ career totals generally aren’t as good as Blyleven’s. But with Morris, to some degree, you had to be there.

And here is my biggest issue with Heyman’s article. “You had to be there.” I was not there. I was only alive for Morris’ last six seasons. The first three were with the Twins, the other three with the Blue Jays and Indians. I never got to experience how Morris could supposedly take over a game. If I am someone in the future that never even got to hear about this brouhaha between inducting Blyleven and Morris, I would look at Morris, see that his career ERA was nearly 4.00, and I would wonder, How did this guy get in?

This is not just a knock on Morris, it also goes to anyone else that is or is under consideration for the Hall of Fame that did not have the stats, but was still a game-changer. Derek Jeter is the current poster boy for intangibles, except he’s also had the offense to boot. Swap out his offensive stats with someone like Omar Vizquel, and I feel that we would have an equivalent to Jack Morris.

Look at his presence of mind to cut off that poor throw to get Jeremy Giambi at home!

He’s such a leader!

He embodies the Yankee image!

These are all actual or similar to current quotes about Jeter. These alone could probably get him into the Hall of Fame, even if he hit like Vizquel. Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it feels like that, and that’s almost how it feels with Morris.

For years, I believed that Roberto Clemente was inducted into the Hall of Fame simply because of his death. As a kid, I knew he was good, but the plane crash while he was going to Nicaragua to donate supplies to earthquake victims overshadowed his career to the point that I didn’t know how good he actually had been. Then I finally looked up his stats last year (I’m not kidding) and I was shocked. He wasn’t just good, he was great!

Even now, I still pull up stats of random major leaguers whenever they come to mind. Last week, Micheal Nakamura was one of them. Benj Sampson was another. While typing up this post right now, I opened up Jackie Robinson’s in addition to Morris’ and Clemente’s statistics. I don’t discredit the notion that players could impact the game with their speed, their bat, their arms, whatever. It’s just that watching the players on TV or in person doesn’t always give us the whole story.

Our eyes can deceive us. I have friends that were nervous when Joe Nathan – of all people – entered a ballgame. They would claim that he would make the ends of games interesting by allowing too many baserunners. Despite this belief, Nathan’s WHIP as a reliever is 0.95 since 2002. In the same time frame, Mariano Rivera, arguably the best reliever of my generation, is at 0.94. A similar thing happened when one of my friends swore that Matt Capps had an ERA around 9 with the Twins (it was actually 2.00, though I do think she was speaking with a little bit of hyperbole). Many fans thought Jesse Crain was a terrible pitcher. This isn’t just my friends, we all know people that swear that what happens on the field is different than what’s put on the back of the player’s baseball card or FanGraphs profile.

This is why I believe in a player’s statistics (and there are even other statistics that can point out when we shouldn’t believe in certain ones), and why I think it’s a mistake when people say that we should look beyond them. Well sure, I can accept it when someone points out that signing Jim Thome helps not only because of his hitting ability but also because of his positive attitude. My issue is when these positive intangibles* start replacing the player’s on-the-field contributions. such as with Morris.

* However, I do believe negative intangibles can outweigh on-the-field contributions, and I’m ok with this. Why? Because even if you have a good player, if he treats everyone else like crap, why would you want him around? Conversely, if you have a player that’s a good guy but can’t play at all, then is the positive attitude really worth keeping?

So, no matter how many times I read that the Hall of Fame is not the Hall of Stats, I won’t care. Yes, many people that did not play or coach professional baseball are in the Hall of Fame, and they didn’t accumulate any stats at all. Yet there’s still evidence of their impact, whether it’s from the integration of blacks into baseball, or the creation of a new, significant rule. Statistics may not tell the whole truth, but in my eyes, they paint a more accurate picture of a baseball player than a baseball writer’s anecdotes ever will.

Andrew Bryz-Gornia writes at Off The Mark.

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11 years ago

Good read. Didn’t expect references to Michael Nakamura and Benj Sampson. BTW Jack Morris only played one season with the Twins.

11 years ago

Wow, somehow I misread “Tigers” as “Twins” on the two previous seasons before he actually was with the Twins. Sorry for the typo.