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Dr. Hall or: How I Learned to Stop Complaining and Love the BBWAA

Rather than complain, I'll explain. And celebrate my favorite player on this year's ballot.

Rather than complain, I’ll explain. And celebrate my favorite player on this year’s ballot.

We know that many Hall voters in the BBWAA do a fine job. And many are a total mess. Some of the writers are truly baseball experts, some are not. Some make mistakes in voting because they don’t understand the game. Others make mistakes because they don’t understand their biases. And still others make mistakes because they don’t understand logic.

And now, with the pesky Hall of Fame voting out of the way and with almost everyone with a little space on the Internet having weighed in, I’ll take my turn. When I’m not blogging about the Hall of Fame, I’m a college professor teaching communication stuff. My intention with this post was to offer some logical fallacies committed by BBWAA members on their way to screwing up their votes. And then a friend of mine, scrolling through the web, looking for lord only knows what, stumbled on a Wikipedia page of a list of cognitive biases, which he sent my way. This list seemed to explain mistakes made by voters even better than questioning their logic would.

And oh, do they ever make mistakes!

How Voters Blow It

  • An anecdotal fallacy uses an isolated case to make a point. It’s like talking about the awesome game Jack Morris put up in 1991 against the Braves and ignoring the fact that aside from that start, his playoff ERA is over a third of a run worse than his regular season ERA.
  • Misleading vividness could also apply to Morris. Since we have such strong memories of that one great performance, some can make arguments in his favor based on just that game, or primarily that game.
  • There’s an argument from ignorance, which assumes something to be true just because it hasn’t been proven false. This is tantamount to making the choice to withhold a vote from Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, or some other candidate because it hasn’t been proven that they didn’t use PEDs. In fact, one writer, Claire Smith, seemed to suggest the thing holding her back from voting for Piazza is him not denying PED use. Except that he has…
  • Or perhaps I’m not perfectly describing the above fallacy. You might argue that the Bagwell/ Piazza PED thing is a fallacious argument from silence. That bases a conclusion on the absence or evidence rather than the existence thereof.

    Randy Johnson, SI

    Hiding most of his face. Not a terrible idea for a one of a kind all-time great.

  • Tons and tons and tons of writers use ad hominem arguments when they call out Sabermetric types for using advanced statistics. The proper thing to do would be to attack the statistics themselves. Since they don’t understand the statistics well enough to do so, they attack those who use such statistics in an effort to marginalize those people.
  • There is a ton of confirmation bias that takes place when writers cite statistics like batting average and wins, those that aren’t necessarily telling of anything, while ignoring more meaningful statistics, because the former stats support the players they already like.
  • Incomplete comparisons are used quite frequently – comparing players to Hall of Famers by their similarities while ignoring their difference.
  • Similar to that is cherry picking, where a voter, perhaps a Mattingly voter, points to data specific to his greatness while ignoring significant data that suggests otherwise.
  • An often used fallacy is that of begging the question. It occurs when BBWAA members cite that BBWAA members did or did not support a player for MVP or Cy Young. Essentially they’re saying that they support or don’t support a particular candidate because their organization has supported him or not supported him in the past, making no comment about whether the earlier voting was proper.
  • An ad populum fallacy is one where you conclude a proposition is true just because of its widespread support. You could say writers who use All-Star appearances to justify their votes commit this fallacy. As long as fans vote for All-Star representatives, it’s fallacious to cite those appearances as a Hall measure. Fans don’t necessarily know who’s best, and even if they did, they don’t always vote in that manner. Many simply vote for their favorites.
  • Two wrongs don’t make a right is just a hilarious fallacy, and one I heard Keith Olberman use the other day when discussing Herman Long. Part of his argument was that Long should be in the Hall because he was better than teammate Tommy McCarthy, perhaps the single worst player in the Hall and the 69th ranked player on my list out of 70 at his position. C’mon!
  • The bandwagon effect is doing something because everyone else is doing it. And it’s the thing, possibly, that got Craig Biggio elected. The ballot didn’t get more wide open than it was in 2014. But Biggio was close, and a bunch of writers jumped on his bandwagon.
  • The proper starter from Game 7 gets his just rewards.

    The proper starter from Game 7 gets his just rewards.

    I mentioned the cheerleader effect, people looking more attractive in a group than by themselves, when discussing John Smoltz with Eric on Wednesday. Smoltz got in so easily, I think, because of how attractive his groups were. One such group is Maddux and Glavine. The other is Eck. All are in the Hall.

  • Conservatism is not sufficiently updating one’s opinion based on new evidence. This could describe the writers’ inability to support Alan Trammell when they had previously supported Barry Larkin. That is, they saw Larkin as a HoFer but did not think similarly about Trammell. Once offered evidence that the two are so close, they do move in Trammell’s direction. Just not enough.
  • The contrast effect says that when reviewed in comparison to another, a player may appear better or worse than in isolation. To a large degree, this is the problem Tim Raines has. Simply, he played at the same time as Rickey, and he was no Rickey.
  • The Semmelweis reflex means that we reject new evidence (say WAR) because it contradicts our long-held beliefs (that batting average and wins are critically important when evaluating baseball greatness).

Why We’re So Upset

I’m not upset. And maybe you’re not either. But lots of folks are and have long been upset with the BBWAA voters. Let me try to offer a few reasons why.

  • One reason is absolutely the curse of knowledge. That’s when better-informed people struggle to see things from the perspective of those who are lesser informed.
  • Or maybe it’s the empathy gap, which is underestimating how much someone else’s feelings can come into play. Maybe voters were of a certain age or from a certain part of the country when Don Mattingly was great. Their emotions for him might be high enough that logic can’t penetrate.
  • There’s a focusing effect That’s placing too much importance on one aspect of an event, and it’s what happened after the 2012 election when the BBWAA selected nobody. We didn’t appreciate the progress Tim Raines made, the fact that Jack Morris’ chances were all but over after not getting in that year, or the strong debuts of Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza.
  • The negativity effect causes us keep hating the writers we’ve always hated. We attribute their negative decisions to their nature but their positive decisions to environmental conditions.

    I'd bet Biggio would trade never having gotten an SI cover for his Hall of Fame plaque.

    I’d bet Biggio would trade never having gotten an SI cover for his Hall of Fame plaque.

  • Then there’s the negativity bias. We recall the negative, Biggio missing by only two votes, rather than the positive, Morris falling off the ballot. We can combine that with selective perception. Since we expect a negative result, we don’t see some results as quite as positive as we should.
  • We may suffer from a false consensus effect where we underestimate how much others will agree with us.
  • Then there’s something called naive realism. That says rational people will agree with us. And that those people who don’t agree with us may be irrational, lazy, or uninformed. And it’s super frustrating to think that members of the BBWAA are irrational, lazy, and uninformed.
  • And here’s my favorite. It’s the Dunning-Kruger effect, which explains how those who are incompetent are incompetent because they can’t tell the difference between competence and incompetence. That’s precious.

Overall, I was very happy with the results on Tuesday. The voters elected more guys than they have in any year since 1955. Mike Piazza looks like he may be set up to get in next year. Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina made progress, and now they’ll be on a ballot when they’re the two best pitchers without the PED cloud. Tim Raines continues to make progress, like getting 14 of the 17 votes from ESPN guys. Perhaps when the national guys turn they can influence the local guys. Rock has two more tries. Lee Smith got the second lowest vote total of his tenure on the ballot. And Jeff Kent, Fred McGriff, Larry Walker, Gary Sheffield, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Nomar Garciaparra all remain on the ballot to be considered again (I’m not of the mind that they’re clogging the ballot. Rather, they’re being given additional consideration).

Be happy people. Pitchers and catchers begin reporting in less than six weeks.




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