Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Vizquel, Award Voting, and the Importance of Consistency

Those who know both me and my baseball reading habits know that I have a huge non-sexual man crush on ESPN’s Rob Neyer.  His articles are thoughtful, logical, rational, and occasionally humorous.  What’s not to love?  Plus, I very rarely disagree with his opinions.  In fact, I’d probably go as far to say that I agree with him 99% of the time. 

Why do I bring this up?  Today happens to be one of those times where I disagree with him.  Let me start out by saying that I rarely will start an argument where I feel (not necessarily know) that I’m not the smartest guy in the room, or at least on equal footing.  In situations where that criterion is not met, I take the opportunity to observe, listen, and make constructive points where I can.  In any theoretical situation where Rob and I are the same room, I am definitely not the smartest guy in the room—not even close.  Still, I’m going to put my best foot forward (insert Rex Ryan joke here), and give it the old college try.

Yesterday, Rob wrote a tremendous article about Omar Vizquel, and his chances of one day making the Hall of Fame.  When discussing Vizquel’s chances, most writers and fans compare him to another defensive wizard, Ozzie Smith.  Neyer cites numerous reasons why comparing the two is grossly unfair including stolen base efficiency, defensive value, offensive “prowess”, and success in the annual MVP voting.*  He made a pretty convincing, well constructed argument in the process.  His argument was nearly flawless, except for one point, which I’ll get to in just a second.

* Using Sean Smith’s Total Zone rating, Ozzie Smith saved 239 runs in 2573 games defensively.  Omar Vizquel saved 138 runs in 2850 games.  Yes, you read that right.  Smith saved 101 additional runs in 277 fewer games.  That makes the comparison between the two look pretty ridiculous right off of the bat, and we haven’t even gotten to the other two factors.  Omar was great, but Ozzie was in a world of his own.

After posting his article, ESPN cohort Jim Caple, fired back an email arguing that Neyer’s argument was slightly flawed.  Based on the quality of Caple’s argument, Neyer revisited the topic in an article he posted today.  Caple had this to say:

“I realize this was only a small part of your piece but I think you make a faulty argument by equating Hall of Fame voters and MVP voters. I'm not sure there's that much overlap.  The majority of Hall voters (which I hope will include you one day) seldom have an MVP vote because most of us are no longer daily beat writers. I've been a Hall voter for 13 years but have had only one MVP in the past 18 and probably will never get another.


You're also holding Omar to the same suspect standard that other voters applied to Blyleven for so long. Just because an MVP/Cy Young voter (who may never have a Hall of Fame vote) doesn't vote for a particular player or pitcher in any particular season doesn't mean we don't value them over the course of a career. This is particularly true with position players.”

Neyer replied:

“I anticipated the Blyleven argument, but didn't address it Monday because I'm not yet comfortable with the million-word blog post. I'll work on that.

Today, I will say that I am absolutely not holding Vizquel to the same standard that other voters applied to Blyleven. For one thing, it's not at all apparent that voters applied any standard at all to Blyleven, who got 14 percent in his second year on the ballot and 80 percent in his last year. What's the standard, exactly?”


Bert Blyleven, the suggestion goes, fared poorly in the Hall of Fame balloting for so many years because when he pitched he wasn't considered one of the game's dominant pitchers. Perhaps he wasn't. But Blyleven still managed to finish seventh, fourth, and third twice in the Cy Young balloting.

While I understand Neyer’s point of view, I have to side with Caple on this one.  Neyer spent quite a bit of time discussing how the writers thought so little (and I use that term very loosely) of Vizquel during his career, that the highest he ever placed in the MVP voting was 16th.  While there is some merit to using voting criteria in one’s argument regarding a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy, I have to wonder if it’s really relevant. 

First of all, the MVP and Cy Young Award voting pool is significantly smaller than the Hall of Fame electorate.  Whereas 500+ writers vote in Hall of Fame elections, only two members from each baseball market in each league vote for the year end awards.  While I’m not suggesting we open up year end awards to all card carrying BBWAA members, I’m merely pointing out that the vote of a few today may one day have a significant influence on a vote by the many.

Secondly, haven’t we already proven that MVP and Cy Young voters are frequently either flawed, inconsistent, or even incorrect in their method of voting?  Do we need to look any further than the 1987/1989 NL Cy Young, 1973/1990/2002/2005 AL Cy Young, 1992/1996/1998/1999 AL MVP, 2006 NL MVP, etc. to see that major mistakes have been made?  Yet, despite these mistakes, we continue to site these awards as supporting documentation for Hall of Fame cases. 

Despite what we’d like to believe, these votes really do matter in the hearts and minds of Hall of Fame voters.  The primary argument of many of Bert Blyleven’s detractors was that he wasn’t one of the most dominant pitchers in his era.  The statistic they most frequently pointed to when justifying their argument was that Blyleven only placed in the Cy Young voting four times in 22 seasons, while never once winning.  Rather than examine the situation further to determine if the voting was correct (in 1973, in particular, Blyleven was the most valuable pitcher in the AL, and should have beaten out Jim Palmer for the CYA), many voters took the award voting at face value.  In other words, a large cross section of Hall of Fame voters (i.e. Blyleven’s detractors) was willing to accept the voting outcome of a very small sample of voters as an indisputable fact, not an opinion. 

Furthermore, despite having numerous seasons during the 1970s in which he was more than qualified to appear on the CYA ballot, the writers left him off entirely.  Why?  His won-loss record wasn’t considered to be good enough.  Obviously, that was during the days where a pitcher’s won-loss record was considered to be the most important statistic in measuring a pitcher’s performance.  We know better than that now, yet many, more than 20% of the Hall of Fame electorate, still held him to that same outdated standard.  It seems a bit unfair.  Yes, he’s in the Hall of Fame now, and that’s a great thing.  It’s obvious that many of the voters decided to re-evaluate Blyleven’s career based on the new statistical information that’s now available.  Still, you have to wonder if there hadn’t been a huge internet campaign constantly singing Blyleven’s praises, would anyone have  re-evaluated the merit (or lack thereof) of those Cy Young votes? 

My point in this nearly 1500 word diatribe is to point out that we need to be consistent in how we view Hall of Fame candidates.  We can’t use one criterion for Player A, and then claim that criterion is unfair to use for Player B.* In a very small way, that’s kind of what Neyer is doing here.  He’s not doing so maliciously.  Unlike most writers, he’s willing to have an open discussion and defend his position or even (gasp) show humility if he finds his thought process was flawed.  For that, I give him a tremendous amount of credit.  Still, I feel it’s unfair to use the voting results of any award (whether the voting appears to be correct or not) as a pro or a con in any player’s Cooperstown case—especially when for several years, many of us pointed out the voting flaws when defending Blyleven’s case.  To me, this is more about consistency, than anything else.

* For example, we can’t tout Greg Maddux’s impressive 355 win total as a reason for him being enshrined into Cooperstown, while claiming Blyleven’s 287 wins are irrelevant because too many things factor into wins that are outside of a pitcher’s control. 


  1. Good article again. One thing I just thought of in terms of re-examining old stats as you say is how voting is going to be for awards and the HOF 20 years from now. What with die hard baseball fans/writers who are our age or younger being exposed to things like WAR, WHIP, Sabermetrics, The Fielders Bible and the like (hopefully) the most deserving players will receive the awards such as MVP and CY. Who knows maybe GG will even become relevant again. lol

  2. @Corrye This has been true recently, but this won't always be the case. While most of the younger generation of baseball writers have been exposed to the fruits of Sabermetrics, there are still many who reject the idea that RBI, wins, and errors aren't the most important stats. In most years (at least recently) the voters get it right, but what do we do if they don't? We can't blindly assume that they're going to vote for the right player every time.