Thursday, December 30, 2010

Rosenthal on Steroids, Hall of Fame

Ken Rosenthal is an incredibly smart, well respected baseball writer.  While he's by no means perfect, he's one of the best (if not the best) reporter around.  He researches his articles well, and usually digs up the most reliable of sources to corroborate his stories.  I guess this is why I was so irritated with his most recent article for Fox Sports titled "Steroids Change Game for Hall Voters."  Instead of being based in logical or rational reasoning, Rosenthal prefers to use innuendo, suspicion, and paranoia as his the cornerstones of his argument.

I picked a few passages from his argument that I wanted to comment on.  While I understand if most of you disagree with me (and that's fine--that's the joy of debate), I hope that you'll understand where I'm coming from.  Just to clarify, I do not condone steroid use in anyway. 

The Hall of Fame vote never was simple. Distinguishing between players from different generations never was apples-to-apples. But at least before steroids, the comparisons were baseball comparisons.

Now it’s, “Who did what? For how long? To what extent?” No one knows the answers. It’s likely that no one ever will. But if you believe, as I do, that the questions matter, you can’t help but be torn.

My first problem with Rosenthal's argument is his use of the word "believe."  Beliefs are not fact.  They're not based off of rationality or logic.  They're not truth.  Instead, beliefs are based on faith.  Faith is a flawed entity that exists solely because a person wants (not knows) something to be true.  Rosenthal believes the answers to those questions matter because he want to think they matter--not because they actually do matter.  Rather than doing the research to determine whether his hypothesis holds water, he chooses to make dangerous assumptions.  To him, and most other observers, it seems logical and obvious that steroids would improve a player's ability to hit more home runs.  The correlation between steroid use and home runs does exist.  While this certainly helps his argument, it does not prove it.  As I pointed out yesterday, correlation does not equal causation.  Steroids may have caused the spike in home runs, but it's also possible there could've other reasons contributing to the spike.  Factors like smaller ball parks, improvement in equipment, changes to the composition of baseballs, and/or evolution of strength and flexibility routines are all viable contributing factors, yet he's ignoring these favor in favor of the "silver bullet theory"--steroids.

I’m not comfortable wiping out almost an entire generation of players, not when the use of performance-enhancing drugs — while illegal in many cases without a prescription — was part of the game’s culture.

I’m also not comfortable ignoring the excesses of the era, not when the playing field was uneven. A certain baseball morality was violated. Users had an unfair, and undeniable, competitive advantage.

I'm also not comfortable with wiping out an entire generation of players.  It's both ridiculous and unfair.  That's why, if I had a vote, I would treat all players in the same manner.  We don't know which players did steroids, so I would treat everyone as if they had.  Then, I'd adjust their statistics for era and park factors accordingly.  Is it fair to the non-users of the era?  Maybe not.  But we don't have a way to prove who those non-users were.  Therefore, in the absence of proof, adjusting everyone's statistics is the most fair manner in which to handle the situation.

Furthermore, the playing field has always been uneven in baseball.  Maybe it's just me, but I don't see a line of distinction between so-called performance enhancing drugs and other forms of cheating like spitballs, corking bats, sign stealing, game fixing/betting, and using greenies for a little extra pep.  Cheating is cheating, and it's has long been part of the sports--not just baseball.  Steroids are just the next step.  Claiming that a "certain baseball morality has been violated" comes off as preachy and sanctimonious. 

Many sabermetricians, in particular, ignore this aspect of the discussion — heaven forbid anyone suggest that their sacred numbers aren’t pure. But the non-users were the true victims of the age.

Reputable SABR/stat guys always adjust statistics for era, league, and park factors.  While analysts might dispute the magnitude of the effect steroids had on the overall numbers during the steroid era, I doubt anyone would claim that the numbers of the era weren't largely overvalued.  It's a fact that hitting 40 home runs was not as valuable in 1999 as it was in 1968.  A 2.50 ERA is far more valuable in 2010 than it was 1918.  Baseball statisticians are aware of these realities more than anyone.

Let’s be clear: This is not a trial by jury. A voter does not need to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that a player used performance enhancers in determining his choice. The Hall, in fact, invites subjective views, instructing us to consider character, integrity and sportsmanship, as well as a player’s record, playing ability and contributions to the team(s) on which he played.

Rosenthal is right.  This is not a trial buy jury.  Sadly, a voter doesn't need to establish that a player is guilty of using PEDs beyond a reasonable doubt.  Still, this doesn't this make it right?  Should we be passing judgment on certain players based on body type and/or home run totals?  And why are we, as fans and baseball writers, inconsistent in who we decide is either guilty or innocent of this supposed crime  We are making judgments based on weak circumstantial evidence.  Isn't it a bigger crime to keep someone who didn't use steroids out of the Hall of Fame based on mere suspicion, rather than allow someone who did use steroids get inducted?

Yes, the Hall of Fame argument is largely a subjective one, even if objective measures are used.  Yes, the Hall instructs voters to consider character, integrity, and sportsmanship, in addition to on-field performance when casting their votes.  That still doesn't change in the inconsistent manner is which votes have been cast over the years with regards to the character clause.  Ty Cobb, who was a belligerent racist, was elected into the Hall of Fame despite having obvious character flaws.  Gaylord Perry, who openly championed his use of the illegal spitball, is allowed in despite breaking the moral bonds of sportsmanship.   Babe Ruth was a womanizer, cheater, and drunk.  Are these considered to be characteristics of morality and character?  Not to my knowledge!  That's my problem.  Members of the BBWAA have decided that certain aspects of character, morality, and cheating are acceptable, while others are not.  The rules of voting allow the writers to be the morality police, and that shouldn't be their role.  I can't speak for the writers, but I know that I'm certainly not without flaws.   As someone who isn't without flaws, should I really be casting stones at those who have less than savory morals?

Some voters choose to ignore the use of performance enhancers entirely, voting as if the drugs never existed. What they’re saying is, “We don’t know what exactly happened. We can only vote on what we do know.” It’s not an unreasonable viewpoint. But in the end it’s a cop out.

I don't think it is a cop out.  We don't know exactly what happened.  We don't know the true impact steroids had on each player.  We don't know who did or did not use steroids outside of a select few players.  How can anyone make an informed decision based on the facts when we only have a small percentage of the facts available?  It's impossible!  It's not a cop out if you look at the situation rationally.  That said, it's a cop out to assume you know all the answers, while passing moral judgments on players when you don't have all of the available facts. 

Some argue that players from previous eras used amphetamines; those drugs also were performance enhancers. I can’t dispute that. I just feel that steroids created a far greater imbalance. And in the end, a voter’s feelings on the matter, like a fan’s feelings, are personal.

Yes, I understand that you feel steroids had a greater impact on performance than amphetamines, but that's very different from knowing the truth.  Do you see the distinction?  You're making an assumption based on little to no evidence.  I feel that chocolate is better than vanilla, but does that make me right?  No, of course not.  It's an opinion--not a fact.

Furthermore, while I understand the feelings of a voter and fan are personal, maybe that's part of the problem.  You're allowing emotion to influence your vote, rather than rational thought.  Perhaps if you tried to remove your emotions from the process, your votes could become consistent and more objective, rather than purely subjective.

It’s not a matter of being sanctimonious; baseball writers — beat writers especially — are among the least sanctimonious people you will ever meet. It’s a matter, simply, of wanting to do the right thing.

Really?  Let me introduce you to Mike Lupica, Dan Shaughnessy, and Bill Plaschke.

We did not, as a group, do the right thing with our initial reporting on steroids in baseball. Most of us whiffed pretty badly and were rightly criticized for it.

I was among those who failed to properly recognize the problem. I feel a special obligation to pay particular attention to the issue, both in my writing and my Hall of Fame votes.

While I respect his humility in admitting for shortcomings during the steroid era, I don't feel it's appropriate for the writers to hold players accountable after the fact.  Baseball writers had their opportunity to blow the steroid story wide open during the late 1990s and early 2000s.  They chose not to.  Rather than do their job, and report the scandal that was supposedly destroying the sport, they chose to sit on the story out of fear of retribution.  Their lack of courage during that period is telling.  They're just as immoral of hiding the truth as those in the game were of using steroids.  

I think Craig Calcaterra said it best in one of his articles for Hardball Talk earlier today.  The steroid issue and the Hall of Fame have created a "McCarthy Era" type state in baseball where we "blackball" certain players as steroid users despite having little or no proof.  It's a very sad state of affairs.  Hopefully, something happens to change this state of affairs before too many lives become destroyed by BBWAA's witch hunt.  The future success of the Hall of Fame depends on it.

1 comment:

  1. Not only are the BBWAA holding the 'offenders' hostage based on their own admission of guilt ('we didn't do our job then so we are going to make up for it by doing our job now and holding you out based on the way you look.') They are being disingenuous when across the board a guy like Dale Murphy is not inducted. If you are going to say that: "The Hall, in fact, invites subjective views, instructing us to consider character, integrity and sportsmanship, as well as a player’s record, playing ability and contributions to the team(s) on which he played."
    then it follows that someone, like Murph, who had borderline Hall numbers and gave to their community (and in Murph's case their country)well beyond their contemporaries should walk in first ballot.
    The whole vote makes me tired.