Monday, February 14, 2011

Hall of Fame Voting: Where Groupthink
Pulls a Massive Verducci  

Baseball off the field sometimes pulls a business-quality boehner.

One of the nastiest and most pointless Business boehners is when people who have decision authority come to something it's their job to understand, but either don't have sufficient background (and don't want others to know it) or are just plain lazy, choosing to conserve their ergs to invest in office politics, schmoozing or organizing office pools for the NCAA tourney. 

The most common behavior that results is that people do one of two things or combine them into a big mutant mess:

A) The Decider goes along with the most assertive pundit in the crowd, and this bandwagon effect tends to pull along others of their ilk or

B) The Decider declares facts are irrelevant because perfect knowledge is not attainable, and therefore she openly chooses to base the decision on her feelings.

If the "B)" is the most assertive or apparently-powerful, some "A)" Deciders will follow the "B)". It's the kind of overt Groupstink I see predominantly in large organizations, military & government, but most often in corporate and non-profit settings. I had a client who was taking a bath on employee health insurance every year, but when a group I was consulting with ran the numbers, it turned out the amount of health billings the employees were creating were far lower than what the firm was paying. Their insurer was making a massive profit off of them, so self-insurance was the obvious alternative to explore. On the surface, it looked like the experienced health costs plus the cost of administering a program were enough below the insurers' rates to be a slam-dunk worth at least exploring.. 

But the Business office had no idea how to go through setting up the self-insurance, and no one there had peers who had done it, so instead of learning what what needed, they used (probably) twice the energy researching failed self-insurance schemes, and by digging in and making a major fuss, launched a successful campaign to hack back employee health care benefits. (NOTE: This not unusual approach backfired, as it usually does, because their insurer jacked up their rates, and the firm amplified their previous boehner by further hacking their benefits, which inspired the insurer to raise them again the third year).

We can see a beautiful example of this boehner in the most recent round of Hall of Fame voting, where it's actually quite common. The Poster Boy for "B)" is the intelligent but feeling-based Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated. I had a discussion with this opinion leader a few years back at a Winter G.M.s meeting about Bert Blyleven (when that now-enshrined candidate was still struggling for votes). The core of Verducci's argument wasn't that the numbers didn't support Blyleven, nor that the numbers didn't matter; he wasn't being a Sophist. The core of his honest argument was that Blyleven didn't feel like a Hall of Famer to him. And I respected his intelligence and his honesty, and while I'm comfortable with someone with a Verducci attitude having a vote, I'm not comfortable with someone who's an opinion leader who can drag people along having that attitude.

The challenge is that a Verducci attitude produces unashamedly unfair outcomes in Baseball, which is spitting into the eye of about the fairest arena we get to experience in life. The most recent Hall atrocity was perpetrated on Larry Walker, a perfectly deserving candidate who managed to get only on one in five Hall voters' ballots. It wasn't that they voted against him that is such a boehner, it's the really shallow excuse they used. (Jim Caple left him off his ballot because he didn't have room to include him, but made a beautifully-reasoned argument why Walker career was Hall of Fame).

They didn't like the fact that he accumulated 31% of his offensive cachet playing games in Coors Field, a massive booster of extra-base hits. What they chose to ignore was merely the 69% of his plate appearances away from Coors and his defensive play in Coors Field. The former is ridiculous because for every at bat he had at Coors, he had more than two away from there; the latter is ridiculous and inconsistent because in the perfect double-entry balance that is Baseball, if Coors is an offense-booster, it's a defense-stressor, and Walker earned Gold Gloves playing there. These two things are classic Verducci-feeling kind of decisions. (NOTE: That they ignored the fact that Walker was one of, if not the, savviest baserunners and corner outfielders of his generation is just a massive irritation to me personally, since I care a lot about those skills).

In case you doubt how much of a howler this was, lets look at the hard facts of the 69% of the plate appearances Larry Walker delivered playing away from Coors Field:

WALKER 1391 5529 800 1346 293 31 229 790 156 60 627 940 .282 .375 .501 .876
per 154 g   612 89 149 32 3 25 87 17 7 69 104 .282 .375 .501 .876

Walker had the equivalent of 9 full seasons of games not playing at Coors Field. The argument that he was on the injured reserve a lot evaporates some when you consider that number of games.

Furthermore, other National League players who toiled in the 1995-2005 zone where we are excluding Walker's Coors games got to play some in the Denver park.

So let's ask the question, even punishing Walker by letting him have zero plate appearances in Coors Field:

¿Are Larry Walker's Not-Coors numbers alone comparable to Hall of Fame numbers?

To answer that, let's look at the equivalent playing-on-the-road numbers for the most recent Hall of Fame corner outfielders and corner infielders, (by definition, these are Hall of Fame numbers).

LWalker Away 1002 4034 566 967 203 23 168 41% 4.8% 564 109 72% 25 469 12% 685 .278 .370 .495 .865 1.8% 56
Winfield Away 1501 6369 864 1650 287 47 247 35% 4.3% 941 116 68% 8 601 9% 901 .289 .356 .485 .841 2.4% 13
ADawson Away 1315 5447 676 1406 255 44 231 38% 4.6% 805 141 69% 13 255 5% 777 .278 .316 .483 .800 1.9% 58
Murray Away 1509 6540 825 1660 316 18 262 36% 4.5% 983 49 73% 13 657 10% 776 .286 .356 .482 .838 2.2% 8
JRice Away 1041 4551 568 1148 166 35 174 33% 4.2% 649 26 60% -8 322 7% 732 .277 .330 .459 .789 3.5% 30
Gwynn Away 1220 5233 685 1586 281 36 69 24% 1.5% 596 172 70% 26 397 8% 198 .334 .384 .451 .835 2.7% 17
RHenderson Away 1538 6857 1207 1600 283 34 162 30% 2.9% 589 743 83% 435 1111 16% 892 .284 .404 .432 .836 1.3% 56
Boggs Away 1197 5325 664 1387 216 32 48 21% 1.0% 481 13 42% -23 655 12% 358 .302 .387 .395 .781 2.2% 10

     Source: Baseball.Reference.Com

I've bolded the leader in each category, and italicized the next two best in each.

Walker's numbers away from Coors Field are very competitive with recent Hall of Fame electees. He's the slugging-est of this tribe, even considering zero of his Coors Field work, and even though we've credited some of these players with Coors appearances. His OPS is the highest, his Extra Base Hit percentage and his Homer percentage lead this set of Hall of Famers. He has a gaggle of diverse italicized categories, from speed numbers such as good steal percentage and good grounding into double play avoidance, to on-base numbers. His weakness in this comparison is pure volume...he only played nine full seasons worth of road games, good enough to surpass at least five-dozen Hall of Fame players who got there for their on-field accomplishments.

To be fair, a few of the current voters cited Walker's time on the injured reserve as a reason to exclude him, and while I personally consider his number of games played (more than 98.6% of all major leaguers all time) to be adequate, like a Verducci argument, at least this appears to be an honest objection.

Answer: Larry Walker's Not-Coors numbers alone ARE comparable to Hall of Fame numbers.

Are the voters right or wrong in not voting for Walker? I think they're wrong, but that's just my opinion -- the breathtaking foolishness, though, is not about right/wrong, but the extreme inconsistency of their choices. Since most of the voters who shorted Larry Walker were voting for the most-recent crop that I used for the comparison, it's obvious the played-in-Coors argument, that is, the most-cited one, is irrelevant, either a mere canard or gross, willful ignorance.

¿So what's the real reason? I don't know, but I have one suspicion. While I never interviewed him, I do know people who have, and the feedback I got was he was not a cooperative interview or a quotable-quote guy. Since the voting population is (significantly) writers, I suspect this could be one of his perceived deficits. In an endeavor such as Hall of Fame voting where Verducci-like feelings can take precedence over hard facts, it's possible that a Walker would get downgraded for his off-field demeanor.

In Baseball or business, it rarely pays to ignore facts. My ex-client's generally competent executive management choosing to pour $$ into decreasingly useful health insurance payments by following a noisy objection is one sad example. And while Baseball doesn't come close to competing with non-profits' and corporate silliness this way, perhaps that makes it seem more ugly when a boehner like pimping Larry Walker's Hall of Fame vote springs up.

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