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Ben Lindbergh

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A Q&A with Ryan Thibodaux of the BBHoF Tracker

Jeff Bagwell, 1988It’s a fan, just a regular fan who has become one of the most important people in baseball every January. His name is Ryan Thibodaux. Maybe you know him as @NotMrTibbs. The way I got to know him is through his Baseball Hall of Fame Tracker. That’s where he keeps tabs on actual Hall of Fame votes as they come in and provides tremendous fodder for conversation during an otherwise slow time in the baseball world.

Eric and I cite him and the Tracker regularly, like here, here, here, here, and here. In fact, it seems I can’t refer to him without using the word “great”, which is both an indictment on my writing and an indication of just how impressive his work is. Eric calls the Tracker crack for Hall junkies, and I couldn’t agree more. We keep it open all day and just hit refresh. It’s the beginning of so many of our conversations each December and January, and it’s simply indispensable for us and many others.

If you missed a piece highlighting his work this past January on mlb.com, I’m proud to introduce you to him here. Ryan was kind enough to give me more than a few minutes of his time and sit down to chat. Sure, it was both asynchronous and I think bicoastal, but the meaning of “chat” has morphed over the years, right?

I hope you enjoy.

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What made you start the Tracker?

I didn’t so much start the Tracker as continue the fine tradition of ballot tracking done by people like Darren Viola (Repoz) on Baseball Think Factory and @leokitty on Twitter. For me, it was just a way to pass the time in the offseason. When I started, I was particularly interested in Jeff Bagwell’s candidacy since I grew up in Houston. I didn’t think it would ever be the all-consuming thing it has become for me for two months every winter, but here we are.

Have you had contact with any players on the ballot because of it?

The only real contact I’ve had with players is on Twitter, mostly from a few players who seemingly follow the balloting. Billy Wagner, Vlad Guerrero, and Curt Schilling follow me on Twitter and chime in from time to time (as do some others like David Cone). By far though, the coolest experience I’ve had with a player (indirectly) was when one of Jeff Bagwell’s representatives sent me a “Class of 2017” poster autographed by Bagwell: https://twitter.com/NotMrTibbs/status/839665329915621376

Who’s the most famous/interesting/surprising non-player who’ve you’ve talked to because of it?

That’s easily been the best part of this hobby over the years, to be honest. Baseball writers have always been heroes to me in much the same way that baseball players themselves are, so I’m extremely lucky for all the things I’ve gotten to experience. I’ve gotten to meet and talk to Susan Slusser from the San Francisco Chronicle, who I’ve been reading for years and years and consider one of the best ever at her job. She’ll be in the Hall of Fame someday as a Spink Award winner, I hope and suspect. I’ve done phone interviews with some greats like Larry Stone and Evan Grant. I’ve had the writer and voter who runs the BBWAA website, Jeff Fletcher, solicit my help adding what I’d collected to BBWAA.com. I’ve had long email discussions with Jonah Keri and Jerry Crasnick. I’ve gotten out of the blue direct messages from Buster Olney. I’ve had the Hall of Fame expert of our time, Jay Jaffe, ask me questions. Can you imagine!? I did my one and only podcast interview on my favorite baseball podcast, Effectively Wild, with Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh. I’ve had my name plastered all over MLB Network for uncomfortably long stretches of time. Insane! Any one of those things would be amazing and an honor, but the fact that they’ve all happened is still surreal to me.

Since you’ve started, do you have an opinion as to whether the writers are submitting ballots of higher, lower, or about the same quality?

I think the average ballot has probably “improved” a bit in recent years, though I don’t make much of a habit of criticizing individual ballots or voting philosophies. The “improvement” that I do think has occurred probably has something to do with many former voters who haven’t actively covered game in the last decade getting “purged” from the voter rolls. Votes per ballot has increased, which I think is important since we still have such a backlog of deserving candidates. Voters seem to be willing to consider candidates who don’t have traditional Hall of Fame resumes more and more (Tim Raines, for example, whose case is largely based on advanced statistics and the modern understanding of what makes players valuable, as opposed to meeting traditional milestone numbers of hits/home runs/etc.). There are fewer objectively ridiculous ballots and fewer votes cast for players who have little to no real case. There are fewer voters not voting for obvious inner-circle Hall of Famers like Griffey and Maddux. I suspect we may actually get a unanimous Hall of Famer sometime in the next few years, which would have been impossible as recently as a couple of years ago. So overall, I think there are fewer “bad apple” voters who historically have given the process a worse reputation than it probably deserves.

How do you think the Tracker has influenced ballots? If it has, do you think it’s a good or a bad thing?

I think the impact on voters is fairly minimal. The primary thing the Tracker provides voters is an easy way to easily access other voters’ rationales for their ballots through the links I include on the sheet. That might have some impact, in that I believe voters influence each other far more than fans and observers do. Of course, a criticism of that is that the Tracker might contribute to a “hive mind” situation, where there’s less variability among voters and the votes they cast. I’m happy to leave it to others to decide if that’s good, bad, or both.

Beginning with the 2018 election, the BBWAA will start making every Hall ballot public once the election is over. How do you foresee that affecting the Hall vote? And just as important, the Tracker?

That’s a very open question at this point. On my end, I expect it to be business as usual. Voters are still free to reveal their ballots whenever they choose, and when they do, I’ll be there to log them. It might be that more voters choose to reveal their ballots later (after the results are announced), so I may have less “work” to do in the pre- announcement period. It may be that some voters who have historically kept their ballots private may stop voting to avoid the attention and the often aggressive criticism that comes with publicly sharing a ballot. Like you said, this is the first time the BBWAA will make all ballots public (which won’t occur until one week after the results are announced), so I’ll be as interested as anyone to see how that affects both voting as well as how voters decide to reveal their ballots.

Do you prefer players having ten years or fifteen years of ballot eligibility?

I can see why the Hall changed it to 10 years, and it makes sense in plenty of ways, but I feel for players who might be hurt by it like Edgar Martinez and Larry Walker. Of course, we all thought that change was the knife in the candidacy of Tim Raines, too, and we know how that turned out.

Do you prefer a cap of ten votes per writer, something more, or no cap?

The Hall, I don’t think, will ever go to an unlimited ballot, but I wouldn’t be opposed to it. Derrick Gould from the St. Louis Post Dispatch has proposed what he calls a “binary ballot” where each voter votes yes or no on every candidate. I like the idea, but that’s essentially a “no cap” situation, and doesn’t seem likely to ever happen. A BBWAA committee asked a couple of years ago for the limit to be raised from 10 to 12, but the Hall didn’t grant even this modest request. I think voters who are tasked with the responsibility of voting for the Hall should be given the leeway to vote for whomever they’d like, but it seems like the Hall is sticking with a 10 player per ballot maximum for the foreseeable future. Even with this limitation, the voters have done a good job the last few years electing worthy candidates.

Is there a player on the current ballot you’re most rooting for?

Despite my obvious rooting for Bagwell in the past (I couldn’t help it!), I honestly do try to remain as neutral as I can on most players. My own particular biases are perfectly obvious to people who follow me closely on Twitter, and I’m fine with that, but I try hard not to wade too deeply into arguments for or against anyone. That said, Larry Walker has polled WAY, WAY too low for WAY too long and is running out of time. I hope voters give him one last good look before it’s too late. Also, #EdgarHOF. Okay, I’m done.

Who’s your favorite Hall of Famer?

As I’ve said, Bagwell is certainly among my favorites. I watched him his entire career when I was growing up, and I’m elated that he finally got the honor he deserves. Craig Biggio certainly is right there too, of course. My other favorite is Nolan Ryan. I only really remember the last 8 or so years of his career, but he was my first true baseball hero. I used to tell kids in school that I was named after him (I wasn’t). He was also my first autograph. My grandfather used to work on Nolan’s boat motors in Texas, and Nolan was nice enough to sign a ball and picture for him in the late 80s. After years and years of teasing me about it (“maybe when you get accepted to college,” “maybe when you’re old enough not to lose them,” etc.), my grandfather finally gave them to me when I was about 10 years old. They’re prized possessions.

Hope that works for you! Let me know if you need anything else.

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I suppose if I were a veteran of stuff like this, I might not include Ryan’s last line above. But I kept it just to point out how gracious the guy is. I’m nobody to him, and he didn’t just answer my questions, he answered in tremendous depth. I thought I was pushing it with the number of questions, so I made the last four a lightening round, suggesting he could answer with just a couple of words. Either he’s unfamiliar with lightening, or he’s just a fantastic person.

Thank you so much for your time, Ryan! And thank you all for reading.

Long live the Tracker!

Miller

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Negro Leagues: Measuring the Quality of Competition

How good were the Negro Leagues? If you’re considering translating Negro League statistics to a Major League setting, you have to have an answer to this question. If you want reasonable translations, you have to have a really good answer to the question. If you want all your translations to line up systematically, you have to answer that same question for many, many leagues. So today, that’s what we’re considering.

In some sense, organized baseball has answered parts of the question for us. Under the National Agreement, the minor leagues have been classified since the early 1900s. We’ll soon see how those classifications have changed repeatedly over the years, but fans today recognize this structure:

  • MLB: The AL and NL
  • AAA: The Pacific Coast and International Leagues (and the Mexican League)
  • AA: The Eastern, Southern, and Texas Leagues
  • Hi-A: The California, Carolina, and Florida State Leagues
  • Lo-A: The Midwest and South Atlantic Leagues
  • Short-Season A: The New York-Penn and Northwest Leagues
  • Rookie (non-complex): The Appalachian and Pioneer Leagues
  • Complex Rookie: The Arizona Summer and Gulf Coast Leagues
  • Foreign Rookie: The Dominican Summer League

Today, the classification of these leagues represents a ladder that young players climb on the way to The Show. In past eras, however, the National Agreement based classification on the size of the population the league served. But when you think about, this was a strong proxy for quality. Of course, the larger the area you drew from the more talent you could scout locally, the more ticket sales you could do. But remember, unlike the organized minors of today, until the 1960s or so, most minor league teams were trying to win their league’s pennant. So fans of the time also exerted more pressure on minor league squads to win. The point is this: The ladder existed then and exists now.

So what’s this got to do with Black Ball? Simply put, if we can figure out the quality of play at each minor league level, we may be able to place the Negro Leagues and other independent leagues that signed dark-skinned players into the framework. It’s a method that can produce a reasonable and familiar estimate of play.

Here’s a timeline of minor league classifications presented for puzzlement/enjoyment. The hashed arrows indicate that a league shifted to a new level. It’s a pretty wacky timeline, so…this is a blues riff in B, watch me for the changes, and try to keep up. Okay?

What if we knew the discount (if you will) off of major league performance for each of these leagues? That is, if we knew that a person created 100 runs in AA, what percentage of those 100 runs created would he give back by moving up to the majors?

Luckily for you and me, others have plumbed these very depths and done the math. I pieced together information from an excellent article by Ben Lindbergh at the former Grantland as well as some of Clay Davenport’s work to reach some SWAGs for conversion rates for leagues in the current minor-league classification system. To the best of my ability to use Google, I haven’t been able to find an updated table that includes all levels and indy and international leagues and their conversion rates to MLB.

To provide some context, let’s see how the discount structure works using two players’ 2016 seasons. Mike Trout led the AL with 148 runs created, 64 more than average in his 681 plate appearances. Lorenzo Cain created 52 runs in 434 PAs, exactly average for a player in his playing time in the AL of 2016. What would we expect these guys’ major league performance to be if they had created the same number of runs in AAA? Or in AA?


                   CONV
LEVEL LEAGUES      RATE  TROUT CAIN
======================================
MLB   AL  NL       1.00   148   52
AAA   IL  PCL      0.80   118   42
AA    EL  SL  TXL  0.72   107   37
Hi-A  CAL CAR FSL  0.62    92   32
Lo-A  MWL SAL      0.58    86   30
SSA   NYP NWL      0.50    74   26
NCRK  APP PIO      0.50    74   26
CXRK  AZS GCL      0.50    74   26
FNRK  DMS VZS      0.50    74   26
AAA   MXL          0.49    73   25

When you are as good as Trout was in 2016, you can be playing as far down on the farm as LoA and still produce an approximately average MLB season. Even down in Rookie ball, you’re not yet at replacement. On the other hand, Cain plummets to roughly replacement level in Hi-A. Now, obviously, this bootstrapping-like method has limitations. Guys in the Arizona Summer League have probably never seen a great breaking ball and won’t until they hit A ball. But on the whole, it appears defensible because it’s telling us that a Trout-like season by a veteran player in Lo-A would only appear as about average in the bigs. As we’ll see below, this may make good sense.

Let’s bust thing out a little further to include some foreign and independent leagues.


                          CONV
LEVEL LEAGUES             RATE  TROUT CAIN
============================================
MLB   AL NL               1.00   148   52
INT   NPB                 0.90   133   47
AAA   IL PCL              0.80   118   42
WINT  DMW                 0.80   118   42
AA    EL SL TXL           0.72   107   37
IND   ATLANTIC            0.72   107   37
WINT  AZF PRWL VZWL MXWL  0.72   107   37
INT   CUBA                0.63    93   33
Hi-A  CAL CAR FSL         0.62    92   32
IND   AA CANAM            0.62    92   32
Lo-A  MWL SAL             0.58    86   30
IND   FRONTIER            0.58    86   30
SSA   NYP NWL             0.50    74   26
NCRK  APP PIO             0.50    74   26
CXRK  AZS GCL             0.50    74   26
FNRK  DMS VZS             0.50    74   26
AAA   MXL                 0.49    73   25
INT   KBL                 0.49    73   25

That’s a pretty reasonable spread to work from, right? So how would the Negro Leagues fit into this? The Negro Leagues are variously described as anywhere between Nippon Pro Baseball and AA quality. That would put them in the range of 0.75–0.90 of MLB. I suspect the truth is they come in at both ends of this spectrum at different times in history. Did I mention that the Negro Leagues are complicated?

The Negro National League and Eastern Colored League of the 1920s were probably close to NPB level leagues. The talent was well concentrated in those leagues, and while the cream of the crop were Hall-level players, the very bottom end were probably Hi-A or Lo-A players. The spread of talent was larger than in MLB, but the cream got more playing time, and the really bad teams with mostly nobodies tended to play fewer games and/or fold quickly. Compare that to the early 1940s. At that time, the league’s biggest names jumped to Mexico and/or went to war. Pending further research, the combination of the two seems likely to me to have lowered the quality of play to AA quality. Once the color line was broken and the exodus of talent hastened, the quality of play sank rapidly.

On the flip side there’s the Mexican League. With so many black stars jumping to it, the league’s quality rose steeply in 1940 and 1941 and ebbed and flowed in the 1940s. It imported several quality MLB players in 1946–1947 before Happy Chandler started handing out suspensions for signing a contract with la Liga. Although this requires more investigation, we can make some initial guesses. Today’s Mexican League draws primarily from Mexico and surrounding countries. Despite its AAA classification, Clay Davenport’s studies show it’s at about a Rookie ball level. Mexico’s best have rarely proven to be superior quality major leaguers. Fernando Valenzuela being an exception that proves the rule. So, add to that Rookie-level league a couple dozen high-profile MLB stars and some veteran AA and AAA players, and what would happen? The ceiling would absolutely rise, but so would the floor because the lesser native players would garner fewer appearances. So the guess here is that the league of the 1940s rose to about an overall AA level. Maybe a tad more, maybe a tad less depending on how much talent it imported for any given season.

Now here’s a kicker. In some seasons, the Cuban Winter League might have been NPB level or better. The Cuban leagues only included three or four teams each season. Numerous Negro Leagues stars made the trip south (or returned to their homeland in Martin Dihigo’s case), their numbers were augmented by the very best Cuban and Latin American players, as well as occasional white minor league or major league players (especially native sons Dolf Luque, Armando Marsans, Rafael Almeida, and Mike Gonzalez). The number of players who appeared for a team fluctuated from small (15) to large (25), and the championships were hotly contested. Talent burst at the seams of the league, though, like the Negro Leagues, this may have been more true some years than others.

Now, finally, we arrive at the organized minor leagues themselves. They are of concern for players who transitioned into organized baseball during integration. If Negro Leagues expat Marv Williams hit .401 at the age of 32 with 45 homers in the 1952 Arizona-Texas League, what does that mean? His stats (with an extrapolation for his walks and other peripherals at known career rates) probably compute to a runs-created total around 150, very close to Trout’s 2016 total. The Arizona-Texas league was a C-level league. Consulting my chart above on the history of league classifications, Williams probably played in a context around Hi-A or Lo-A level by our current nomenclature. It might well mean that Williams’ performance translates to very near the major league average despite the gaudy numbers (especially because the AZTX league was a very high-octane loop with 7.1 runs/game. Yeah, you read that right, 7.1). And that makes sense, doesn’t it? If Lorenzo Cain played all of 2016 in the Midwest League, wouldn’t we expect him to destroy it just like Williams did the AZTX?

So at the very worst, bootstrapping from today’s minor league setup gives us a strong foundation to build conversion factors from. There are issues with it, though. Leagues, especially lower level leagues, from the Integration era were typically populated with older players than they are today. As much as two or three years older. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are as talented as today’s younger players. But it’s a thing. Also, with so many more and more localized leagues back then, we can’t say for sure that something like the Arizona-Texas league wasn’t worse (or better) than other leagues at the same classification. This is also true today in some measure, but the spread must have been much wider back then. Still, despite these issues, we can probably work with some confidence because baseball as a game hasn’t changed much. The minor leagues are minor for a reason, and the big leagues have always used them as a means for procuring and developing talent.

No one has ever said that the translation of Negro Leaguers stats into a major league context will provide highly accurate assessments of performance. Not possible given the limitations of the data. We would instead hope to achieve a reasonably accurate assessment. The definition of accurate remains open in this context, and details like the difference between A and AA ball require attention and a flexible concept of “correct.” But if we go down this path, we could only do our best to arrive an answer that passes the sniff test and doesn’t have any glaring mathematical errors.

Institutional History

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