One more grip of Jim Bouton

Wasn’t it true, Don Vito Corleone wondered while commiserating with a fellow Mafia chief in The Godfather (the novel, not the film), that great misfortune often led to unforeseen reward? It proved to be for the late pitcher/writer Jim Bouton, whose sometimes deceptive but nearly-incurable optimism was finally smashed when his youngest child was killed in August 1997.

Driving home in New Jersey, Laurie Bouton stopped short to stay out of an accident in front of her, but a driver behind her didn’t do likewise, smashing into her car. The 31-year-old an uncle described as “Jim all over again” for her free spirit died hours later. It destroyed Bouton’s generally sunny view of life—until it reconciled him to the New York Yankees.

In fact, as biographer Mitchell Nathanson also notes in Bouton: The Life of a Baseball Original, Bouton struggled for months to follow until Laurie’s oldest brother, Michael, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times urging the Yankees to do what had never yet been done and invite his father back for an Old Timers Day. (Father once revealed his son’s essay moved him to tears.)

What nobody including Bouton knew was that his decades-long blackballing from the Yankees—for whom he once starred as a pitcher, before his too-hard throwing style ruined his arm and shoulder, reducing him to the margins and back to a knuckleball he abandoned earlier in his career—had absolutely nothing to do with Bouton’s own longtime prime suspect.

Mickey Mantle was hardly thrilled at Bouton’s Ball Four revelations about him, but six years before Laurie’s death the death of one of Mantle’s sons provoked a sympathy letter from Bouton. That prompted Mantle to call his old teammate to say yes, he was ok with Ball Four at last and, no, he wasn’t the reason for Bouton’s Old Timers Day freeze-outs.

The freeze-outs turned out to be courtesy of former Newark Star-Ledger writer Jim Ogle, whom Bouton zinged in Ball Four for treating players “purely on how much they were helping the Yankees to win. Charm, personality, intelligence—nothing counted. Only winning. Ogle didn’t have even the pretense of objectivity . . . in fact, Ogle’s ambition was to work for the Yankees. But they would never give him a job.”

Until they did. The Yankees hired Ogle to direct their club alumni association in 1975, his duties including, as Nathanson writes, “keeping the Yankees in the good graces of their most iconic alumni and organizing Old Timers Days. In his mind both responsibilities could be best discharged by blackballing Jim Bouton.”

Nathanson’s book unfurls Bouton’s story with both affection and the kind of candor Bouton himself would have appreciated. (And in fact insisted upon, when he and his wife agreed to let Nathanson have access to everything from family doings and undoings to the still-preserved Ball Four notes and tapes that ended up sold to the Library of Congress during Bouton’s final illness.)

It’s the story of an intelligent and sensitive young man who didn’t become a pitcher because he looked to turn sacred cows into steak or to write the book that secured his name and sent baseball and about half the world of sports journalism to the rye bottle, either.

Nathanson’s Bouton is a pitcher who had eyes to see, ears to hear, and a conscience to heed, with no malice aforethought but flying in the face of an establishment unwilling to concede the great and glorious game (A. Bartlett Giamatti’s phrase) was only too human. He couldn’t deny the caprices he saw in front of him, whether front office people engaging one-sided, lopsided, deceitful contract talks with players to players themselves proving unheroic often enough while letting the fans in the stands or with their morning after newspapers worship them as gods.

The fun-loving Bouton loved the game but hated its business and duplicities. The longer his pitching career went despite the arm issues, the less Bouton could turn the blind eye. Unlike most players even then, Bouton talked freely when interviewed and didn’t try to hide the sides of him that were unlike the typical jock of his time. Some respected him for it, others rejected him for it.

When his established sportswriting friend Leonard Shecter suggested he keep a kind of running diary on his 1969 season with the expansion Seattle Pilots, Bouton revealed he’d already begun taking notes. Anyone could do it regarding the old imperial Yankees; who else would have thought about doing it among an expansion team of fellow outcasts just trying to keep their jobs and their sanity?

Many Bouton teammates weren’t sympathetic to his final product. The embarrassments of some kept them from seeing that Bouton humanised them and thus elevated them. He was as observant of their field or mound struggles as their off-field shenanigans, sorrows, and oft-ignored or mistreated injuries. He told the world these were human men when it seemed often enough that baseball ignored or denied their humanness.

Bouton had already stepped beyond the bounds of baseball’s proprieties before starting his Ball Four season. He’d supported publicly a threatened American boycott of the 1968 summer Olympics if South Africa’s then whites-only teams were allowed to compete. He spoke against the Vietnam War whenever asked.

Bouton’s original notes, tapes, and the pages shaped by his editor/friend Leonard Shecter for Ball Four now repose in the Library of Congress.

But with Ball Four he was considered either a revelator by those who loved the book or a traitor by those including then-baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn who tried to suppress it. (Or, in the case of the San Diego Padres, leaving a burned copy of it on the Astros’ dugout steps.) It was enough to seed a followup, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally, about the controversy, his final pitching days before his first retirement, and his early days as a New York sports reporter.

That book wasn’t quite the hit Ball Four was, of course, but it offered a few more insights into what Bouton thought and felt about becoming an unexpected literary star. Not to mention his further thoughts on the real reason the old guard sportswriters resented him: he’d told the stories they thought they should have told but, for assorted and not always edifying reasons, couldn’t or wouldn’t.

Some saw themselves as keepers of the proverbial baseball flame. Others saw themselves as club adjuncts. Jim Brosnan, whose from-the-inside books Nathanson called “tell-some” books, had annoyed them enough. This was too much of enough already.

But Ball Four proved in due course as significant as any other evidence, when it was introduced at the arbitration hearings through which pitcher Andy Messersmith finished what outfielder Curt Flood’s brave but failed prior lawsuit (begun the same year in which Ball Four first appeared) started, ending the reserve era and its suppressions of player pay and rights. Well after its literary stature was affirmed.

The book inspired a rash of further tell-alls from baseball’s insides, from players and collaborators who lacked Bouton’s wit and Shecter’s sensibilities. They hardly understood  that Ball Four‘s success lay as much in Bouton’s ability to show baseball’s humanness as in the, shall we say, steamy revelations on which those subsequent books leaned most heavily. (“More outrageous than Ball Four” was a tellingly typical cover blurb.)

Nathanson goes into fine detail Bouton’s years as a sports reporter, his head-buttings with those who thought sports reporting equaled promoting their teams instead of, you know, real reporting. He also goes deeper into the truest conflict inside Bouton’s psyche and life—the guy who achieved beyond his own expectations but couldn’t resist a challenge because he had something to prove past the challenge itself.

His love of baseball the game prompted him toward a comeback bid in the mid-to-late 1970s, including a spell with the minor league legend Portland Mavericks. He eventually made it back with the Atlanta Braves for a September 1978 spell—he once went mano-a-mano with Houston’s ill-fated howitzer J.R. Richard, pitching him to a draw—then walked away feeling for the first time that he didn’t have to prove a thing anymore.

His first baseball retirement led to the crumpling of his first marriage; Bouton and his first wife, Bobbie, had simply grown apart, though Bouton wasn’t immune to the occasional extracurricular activity, with the emphasis on occasional. (They divorced in 1981.) He didn’t really move to do something about it, though, until he met an attractive academic named Paula Kurman unexpectedly at a fundraiser to which both were invited.

Jim Bouton and second wife Paula Kurman, at a Ball Four retrospective.

It was Kurman (a speech therapist with Ph.d in interpersonal communications) who showed Bouton most of all what even his own family couldn’t, that he no longer had to take up quixotic challenges to prove himself to himself. The deception in his optimism until then was that it masked a man who had a difficult if not sometimes impossible time believing in his own worthiness. They married in 1982.

Bouton promoted Big League Chew (his Mavericks teammate Rob Nelson came up with the idea but Bouton sold and promoted it to buyer Wrigley), became a motivational speaker, helped to renovate an old but somewhat storied minor league ballpark, joined his wife learning and becoming a competitive ballroom dancer, continued writing, and eventually also became a stonemason who’d build walls and other supplementing fixtures for their home in the Berkshires.

In other words, this unfairly reputed miserable smasher of icons for its own sake was as normal, life-affirming, and human a man as his critics didn’t or couldn’t see. (Well, not everyone gets dance lessons from stage and film legend Marge Champion.) That 1978 Old Timers Day appearance simply began Bouton’s return from the ranks of the living dead into which his daughter’s senseless death plunged him.

“Looking up in the stands, at all of the family and friends who were there . . . ,” Nathanson writes (they included a contingent of friends bannering themselves “Laurie’s Girls!”), “[Bouton] understood that life could and would go on. It was what he needed to know at the precise moment he needed to know it most.”

The only thing that could and did knock Bouton out permanently enough was the 2012 stroke he suffered on the fifteenth anniversary of Laurie Bouton’s death. It exposed a condition of cerebral amyloid angiopathy and presented him the first and only challenge he couldn’t take on as successfully as he had others. It didn’t rob his intelligence, but his intelligence made him too aware of what he’d lose.

The most famous single line in Ball Four is the one that closed it: “You see, you spend a good part of your life gripping a baseball, and it turns out that it was the other way around all along.” On the day of Bouton’s death in 2019, his ability to speak gone, “in the netherworld between life and death,” his wife put a baseball into his right hand.

In his final act of life on earth, Bouton did with that ball what Nathanson’s biography will do to you once you open the covers and start reading. He gripped it tight.

You have nothing to fear but fear itself

Baseball fans my age or older tend to quake when you tell them such things as that the traditional batting average is an incomplete statistic. It still has isolated, situational value to a certain extent, such as how a batter does with men on base or in various leverage situations. But as a cumulative view it’s really a false picture.

Why? Think of its basic formula: it divides hits by at-bats. That’s all. It doesn’t account for the actual hits and their actual worth. “That batting average turns a blind eye to so many outcomes,” writes columnist Anthony Castrovince, “is not even the greatest flaw in its role as a batter barometer. No, the greatest flaw is the implied insistence that all hits are created equal.”

For better or worse, I’ve phrased it a little more snarkily in past writings: if you really think a single’s as valuable as a double, a double’s as valuable as a triple, a triple’s as valuable as a home run, a single’s as valuable as all the above, you shouldn’t hang a shingle as a baseball observer or analyst any time soon. Castrovince discusses that and numerous other statistical advances, depths, and challenges, in A Fan’s Guide to Baseball Analytics, in language that’s snarky where appropriate but sensitive, smart, and nuanced all at once.

His book should be required reading for any baseball fan who thinks statistics—the life blood of the thinking person’s sport—should conform to prejudice instead of offering the bigger and deeper picture. Sacred cows be damned to steak.

One of the issues with too many articles and books about baseball analytics is that they can be and too often are, well, too analytical. To the average baseball fan they’re the alphabet soup and you can’t even see the soup. Castrovince gives the alphabet—well, the numbers—the places they deserve without letting the soup disappear. He writes a lot more entertainingly about his statistical beliefs than I could hope to write, and he makes plain that he has no intention of burying baseball fans or dismissing them as dumb.

“I’m here to build you up, not break you down,” he writes in his introduction. “While there is plenty of math in this book . . . I’m presenting it as casually as I can. Plus, when things get super-duper complicated, I’ll give you a brief lay of the land instead of wandering too deep into the woods and weeds.”

He explains the newer, deeper numbers in language plain enough that even Yapper McFlapper in the nosebleed seats, who only thinks that he could out-play million-dollar Swinger Swofford or out-think manager Brainy Boner with one arm in a cast and half his cerebrum in formaldehyde, can get it. Yapper might be pleasantly surprised and entertained at once over how he doesn’t have to matriculate back to college to get it.

Castrovince knows it should be child’s play to debunk the traditional batting average and a passel of other old stats that have more flaws than a glass onion. “Stats such as batting average, RBIs, errors, wins, and saves are all baseball backbones,” he writes in the on-deck circle. ” . . . But not acknowledging their faults and trusting them as the be-all and end-all is a mistake.”

Then, he checks in at the plate. “There have been .400 hitters who weren’t even the most productive players in their league in a given season, and there have been .300 hitters whose performance, at large, did not rate as positively as players whose averages had a ‘2’ right after the decimal.”

I can make that just as simple. Let me give you two players. They both had two decades-plus major league careers. Their lifetime batting averages are within a single point of each other. Knowing going in that the old-schooler is going to say the wrong player was more valuable at the plate, here are the batting averages:

By one batting average point, Yapper McFlapper pronounces Player A the better hitter. Let’s give Yapper a cookie and admit Player A has more lifetime hits than Player B, and Player B has over 3,000 of those. Time to go a little deeper. Player B has a higher on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS, not to mention that Player B also walked more unintentionally and intentionally and hit twelve more sacrifice flies—all in almost four thousand fewer trips to the plate.

If Yapper McFlapper sees from that that Player A wasn’t half the real presence at the plate than Player B, why can’t anyone else? And I didn’t even think about measuring them according to my own Real Batting Average (RBA) measure—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances. Oh, what the hell:

If Yapper looks at that and still clings to the prejudice that a .303 lifetime traditional batting average makes Player A the slightly better player than Player B, then Yapper’s got some splainin’ to do. That’s without showing Yapper Player A’s three “batting titles” against Player B’s one, by the way.

Castrovince lists the ten ways any trip to the plate ends: hit, walk, out, sacrifice bunt, sacrifice fly, hit by a pitch, reaching base on a fielder’s choice, reaching base on an error, a dropped third strike on which you reach first safely, and defensive interference. You know that five of them don’t count as “at-bats.” (If you don’t . . . )

The so-called “batting title” goes to the hitter from each league who has the highest batting average, yet you need 502 plate appearances . . . to even qualify for the title. So the five outcomes that, for whatever reason, don’t matter when tabulating batting average suddenly matter when assessing who has the best batting average.

It’s enough to drive you batty.

(Why didn’t I include sacrifice bunts in my RBA metric? Sorry, but those are outs made deliberately. You shouldn’t get credit when you make an out on purpose. But you should get credit for the sacrifice fly because it sends home a run and you weren’t trying to hit one right into Leather Sackorocks’s glove.)

That’s not the only thing that drives Castrovince batty. Like me, he thinks runs batted in don’t say as much as Yapper McFlapper and Frostie Fingerflipper think they say about a player’s run productivity and clutch ability. Peel yourselves from the ceiling, Yapper and Flappie.

You can’t drive in the runs if nobody else reaches base ahead of you, unless you hit one out. You can’t look at the RBI total alone and conclude a player’s clutch. Good luck, by the way, scoring runs without a little help from your friends—unless you can steal every base including home every time you reach first. (Well, maybe Rickey Henderson could have, if he wanted to . . . )

Some people accuse the Angels’ all-universe Mike Trout of being a little less than clutch because he isn’t knocking 100+ runs in every full season he plays. “The only thing Mike Trout lacked,” Castrovince writes, with the virtue of truth on his side, “was . . . Mike Trout batting in front of him.” Trout at this writing has a .418 lifetime on-base percentage. Would indeed that he’d had a couple of Mike Trouts batting in front of him.

Here’s one instance where the old batting average does make sense: hitting with men on base. Trout through this writing has hit .306 with men on base and .318 with runners in scoring position. His OPS for the former: 1.082. For the latter: 1.013. (Oh, the futility of the “RISP” stat, because it counts guys on second base or better only. Technically, you’re in scoring position the minute you reach base at all, even just first. If you’re a home run hitter, you’re in scoring position the moment you step into the batter’s box.)

Aside from OBP, SLG, and OPS, Castrovince believes the best way to measure a batter’s value is with runs created, isolated power, weighted OBP, weighted runs created and OPS+, and baserunning. He’ll give you the mathematical formulae and conjugate it in language so simple a schoolboy or schoolgirl can comprehend it a lot more readily than they might algebra or calculus. He’ll tell you why they really matter.

Runs created, whose formula factors the same things my RBA does with a little more complexity: “the central job of a hitter is to help his team score runs.” Isolated power: “batting average does not tell you how often a player’s hits go for extra bases, and slugging percentage does not discriminate between singles and extra-base hits.”

Weighted on-base average: “not all methods of reaching base are equal. OBP goes only so far in measuring offensive value, whereas wOBA assigns the proper value to each event in terms of its impact on scoring runs.” Weighted runs created: “while runs created and OPS were both huge steps forward from more antiquated offensive metrics, neither one is adjusted for the context of a given season or a player’s home park.”

Baserunning (BsR): “with stolen base attempts on a continual decline—and the art of baserunning extending beyond stolen bases—it’s better to look at a context-driven and all-encompassing stat.” Sub-stat: ultimate baserunning, crediting a runner “for advancement on the bases relative to the frequency with which the league average runner advances in the same situation.”

In 2020, the major league average for extra bases taken on followup hits was 42 percent. Think about that. Damn near half the time men reached base they were advancing more than the expected minimum when the next guys swung the bat. (The aforementioned Rickey Henderson did it 55 percent of the time he was on base when the next guy[s] swing the bat[s].) Today’s players are smarter than you think when they reach base.

Castrovince doesn’t let the traditional pitching stats off the hook, either. He thinks pitching wins are baseball’s most deceptive pitching stat and should have been put in their grave when Jacob deGrom won the 2018 National League Cy Young Award. (He won the award with ten wins and nine losses.) “Jacob deGrom’s issue,” Castrovince writes, “wasn’t that he ‘didn’t know how to win.’ It was that he didn’t know how not to be on the 2018 New York Mets.”

DeGrom “won” as many games as the White Sox’s Lucas Giolito in 2018. He posted a 1.70 ERA to Giolito’s 6.13. He also posted a 1.99 fielding-independent pitching rate to Giolito’s 5.56. Trained strictly on what a pitcher actually does control (strikeouts, unintentional walks, hit batsmen, home runs), FIP “is a better tool than ERA—which is influenced by the whims of a pitcher’s defense or the rulings of an official scorer—in evaluating a pitcher’s effectiveness. A pitcher has little control over what happens once the ball is put in play.”

Castrovince even exhumes that only six pitchers in the live-ball era qualified for the ERA title while posting ERAs and FIPs below 2.00 in the qualifying season: Hal Newhouser (1946), Sandy Koufax (1963), Bob Gibson (1968), Tom Seaver (1971), Clayton Kershaw (2014), and Jacob deGrom (2018). The Cy Young Award wasn’t invented when Newhouser pitched, but only one of the other pitchers didn’t win the Cy Young Award in his such season: Seaver, who “won” four fewer than winner Ferguson Jenkins who also “lost” four more. How does a guy who lost four more beat the guy who lost four less?

Want to lean on pitching wins that badly, Yapper and Frostie? Show me the pitcher who strikes 27 straight batters out. (Not even Nolan Ryan ever did that.) Uh oh, Flinger Flounder’s team got shut out, too, not by 27 up and 27 struck out, they’re going to extra innings, and Flinger’s 27 straight punchouts left him an arm and shoulder begging for their lives after nine full. Guess who’s going to get credit for the “win” if he happens to be on the mound when the winning run scores even if it’s only in the tenth inning when it scores?

The author also loves walks/hits per inning pitched, WHIP for short, as I do: “Because, as is the case on your morning commute, traffic is bad. WHIP tells us how well a pitcher has performed the very fundamental role of not letting the traffic pile up—obviously an important element in run prevention.” Pitchers and fielders have the opposite job of batters: their job is to keep the other guys from putting more runs on the board than their guys do.

Castrovince gives fielders their propers, too, meaning you can throw away every defensive stat you grew up with, really, including errors, and focus on defensive runs saved in hand with the ultimate zone rating:

[E]rror counts doled out by scorekeepers in the press box barely tell us anything about what makes a successful defender. DRS and UZR are better approximating of defensive value, as they include elements such as range, efficiency on double play chances, and first-step quickness.

The error, he argues, is “the most capricious and arbitrarily (and often unfairly) applied statistic in all of professional sports. The error, which of course generated fielding percentage, tells us not what happened but what an observer of the game felt should have happened. And its uselessness is matched only by its unreliability, because, on a given day, a play ruled an error in one ballpark could very well be ruled a hit in another.”

Would you consider Bill Buckner’s in Game Six of the 1986 World Series the most infamous “error” in baseball history? Do you remember Mookie Wilson’s slow-rolling ground ball up the line taking a wicked skid on the Shea Stadium grass through Buckner’s feet beneath his mitt instead of the tiny hop up into the mitt, leaving Buckner helpless on the play? Do you remember that Wilson would have beaten the play at first base if the ball did get into Buckner’s mitt, because he was about a step ahead of Red Sox pitcher Bob Stanley ambling over to cover first?

It doesn’t let Red Sox manager John McNamara off the hook for failing to do what he normally did, replacing Buckner at first with Dave Stapleton for that should-have-been final inning. (It doesn’t let the Red Sox bullpen off the hook for surrendering the two-out hits that re-tied the game, either.) But it should have made Red Sox Nation and just about all of baseball nation think twice, thrice, and quadruple, before deciding Billy Buck was Beelze Bub incarnate.

Yapper McFlapper and Frostie Fingerflipper haven’t come to terms with wins above replacement, or WAR. Castrovince saves WAR for last in his book, just as I have for this review. Maybe Yapper can’t stop singing the ancient Edwin Starr hit: “War/what is it good for/absolutely nothing.” Maybe Frostie thinks it means baseball during World War II. What the hell is WAR, really?

“A measure,” Castrovince writes, “of a player’s value in all facets of the game by determining how many more wins he is worth than a readily-available replacement at the same position.”

For position players, it’s the number of runs above average Swinger Swofford’s worth through a combination of batting, running, and fielding, adjusted for his field position (some of which are tougher work than others), the league averages thereof, and the number of runs the mere replacement might be worth. For pitchers, it’s either runs allowed per nine innings (earned and unearned) or FIP adjusted to the league averages and the ballparks, relative to Slinger O’Slick’s innings pitched.

Castrovince admits WAR isn’t the final, most perfect measurement, but he knows its best use may be in showing you that there was more than met your eyes when you watched a particular player during a given season. A player with 8 WAR or better is MVP level. A player with 6-8 WAR is a mere superstar. A player with 4-6 WAR is an All-Star level player. A player with 2-4 WAR is a good, dependable regular. A player with 1-2 WAR is a role player. A player with 0-1 WAR is a pine rider. A player under 0 shouldn’t even ride the major league pine.

But WAR has its uses for measuring a player’s career, too. If they measured WAR during Lou Whitaker’s career, that longtime Detroit second base bellwether might have been in the Hall of Fame two decades ago, instead of one-and-done on the writers’ ballot and waiting for an Eras Committee to reconsider him yet again. Whitaker finished his career with 75.1 career WAR. The average Hall of Fame second baseman’s career WAR is 69.5. Whitaker’s entry into Cooperstown would hike the average a tick or three. Still think WAR’s good for absolutely nothing?

What the old-schooler fears, perhaps, is being left for dead in the woods and weeds with the sabermetric advance. The old-schooler may fear that everything he or she ever learned on baseball cards or in those ancient annual pocket-size volumes of Who’s Who in Baseball turned out to be like an old gag about condensing Romeo and Juliet: a couple of moony teenagers ran off together and died.

You might care to note that was the first time I deployed the S-word here. By design. I, too, have no wish to leave you for dead in the woods and the weeds when I talk or write sabermetrically or analytically. Fellow old-timer, I too grew up with Who’s Who in Baseball as my pocket Bible.

But I also collided happily with The Elias Baseball Analyst most years of the 1980s and Total Baseball pre-Internet. Who’s Who in Baseball was rendered irrelevant by and Retrosheet, where the basic stats go deeper than the baseball card, and one or two clicks sends you to the kind of advanced stats for which Total Baseball cost you an arm (and maybe a wrist, if you weren’t careful with a book as heavy as a foundation block), a leg, and the annual updated supplement.

My God, the Internet’s made statistical diving simpler than all that. What’s to be afraid of? Castrovince is the Franklin D. Roosevelt of baseball analytics: you have nothing to fear but fear itself. I was the world’s worst math student in my school days. My teachers then would flip to see me now diving into the deep stats the way oceanic explorers dive for subterranean discoveries. If I can do it, anybody can.

So why should you do it? I was afraid you’d ask. Very well, I surrender—no matter how much of a baseball nut you are, no matter how many subscriptions to ESPN or MLB Network you have and use, you can’t see every last baseball game played when baseball is in season, and you’ve got no other way—not even YouTube clips—to know what the players you couldn’t watch really did above and beyond their surface stats. The box score won’t tell you the whole game story.

You don’t “need” stats to, you know, watch and enjoy the game? Well, you watched and enjoyed the games growing up and couldn’t wait to compare what you saw with what was on those guys’ limited baseball cards or in Who’s Who in Baseball—when you weren’t busy flipping the cards in the schoolyard or on the corner, or clipping them to your bicycle to clatter and fart against the turning spokes.

Pick up A Fan’s Guide to Baseball Analytics without fear, with a wide open and fearless mind, and relax with the idea that you’re actually going to get what you wished for, back when you were bound (and gagged?) once upon a time to slog through high school mathematics. The formulae simplified, the concepts making sense, your game eyes not playing tricks on you, and the entertainment as immense and joyous as watching the merry-go-round go ’round on the bases.

Oh. By the way. Refer back to Player A and Player B. Player A is Pete Rose. Player B is Willie Mays. You are now free to ask yourself whom between nine Charlie Hustlers and nine Say Hey Kids will create more runs and hang them on the scoreboard.

How I vote on this year’s IBWAA Hall of Fame ballot

(Photo of the Hall of Fame by the Hall of Fame.)

The Internet Baseball Writers Association likes to vote for the Hall of Fame, too, even though it’s purely a symbolic vote, and never mind that some IBWAA members are also voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. As an IBWAA life member myself, the exercise is exhilarating and only occasionally frustrating.

Most of the time, the frustration is because there are those candidates still on the BBWAA Hall ballot whom the IBWAA previously “elected.” When an IBWAA vote into the Hall coincides with a BBWAA vote into the Hall, though, it’s a pleasant exhilaration. When we choose a Hall of Famer before the BBWAA does, we get to claim bragging rights for foresight and insight. (Don’t we?)

As I do pretty much every year, I vote in the IBWAA election and give my most reasonable explanations for my vote. Even knowing as I do that my opinion means three things (jack, diddley, and squat) in the big picture, and even knowing it would be easier to glean right reason from a politician’s fustian than to get me an official Hall of Fame vote, we of the IBWAA count for more than something so far as I’m concerned.

So, with six “yes” votes to be submitted to the IBWAA tally this time around—and equal support for the same voting transparency among the BBWAA—this is how I marked my IBWAA Hall ballot. First, my “yes” votes:

Todd Helton—Helton may be hurt by the Coors Canaveral factor even more than Larry Walker was for long enough. Unlike Walker, The Toddfather never got the chance to show what he could do with a park other than Coors as his home park. Even with the width of his home/road splits, though, Helton hit respectably enough on the road that you’d have a hard time convincing anyone that he wasn’t as Hall of Fame as a first baseman gets.

Helton also crosses the average Hall of Famer’s batting threshold according to Bill James’s Monitor and Standards measures, and his peak value is a few points above the average Hall of Fame first baseman.

One of those rare birds who walked more often than he struck out, Helton also struck fear enough into opponents with 185 intentional walks to prove it. He was an on-base machine (.414 lifetime OBP) with power to boot. And he was something else you can look up: he was deadlier at the plate with men on and/or in scoring position than he was with the bases empty.

Defensively, Helton wasn’t quite the second coming of Keith Hernandez, but he was an excellent defensive first baseman, too. All the above sound like a Hall of Famer to me.

Andruw Jones—His too-staggering decline phase, beginning in his final, injury-marred season in Atlanta, turned Jones into a punch line he didn’t exactly discourage when he came across as indifferent as well as ill-conditioned in Los Angeles and ended up being bought out of his deal.

So what makes Jones a Hall of Fame candidate? His peak through age 29. He was an above average hitter whose late-career health issues might have kept him from hitting 450 or even 500 lifetime home runs, but even more is that he was off the charts as a run-preventive center fielder.

Jones had a solid throwing arm and a genius for finding the right routes to balls despite his tendency to more shallow positioning. It might have cost him highlight-reel time but it elevated him where it matters most. The only player with more defensive runs above league average than Jones at any position is Brooks Robinson: +293 for Robinson, +253 for Jones, who’s also +80 ahead of Willie Mays.

Read carefully: I’m not calling Jones a better player than Mays, I’m not even calling him a better player than Ken Griffey, Jr., and I saw all three of them play in or while still in their primes. (Don’t ask about Griffey’s run prevention numbers alone—trust me when I say you’ll be embarrassed.) But I am saying Jones was the most run-preventive center fielder who ever hit the yard.

By wins above replacement-level player, Jones’s seven-year peak WAR is above the peak value of the average Hall of Fame center fielder. There is a large enough contingency of Hall of Famers who got to Cooperstown by their peak value. If the Hall really is giving defense more attention than in the past, Jones would not disgrace it by being there.

Jeff Kent—Yes, he’s the best-hitting second baseman of the expansion era. But despite his late settling-in (traded three times before he found a home with the Giants at 29), Kent was also product enough of a high-scoring era. For middle infielders, defense looms large enough, and Kent wasn’t a particularly great-fielding second baseman despite his deftness on the double play: -42 defensive runs below league average doesn’t bode well.

He was his own worst enemy with a personality often described as “prickly,” but a lot of his issues come down to his health. He incurred enough injuries later in his career that, married to his early-career mishandlings before reaching San Francisco, it puts him just outside the top twenty second basemen of all time.

Still, less crowded Hall ballots may give Kent a jump before his time on the BBWAA ballot ends. So might his 351 home runs as a second baseman, the most for any player playing that position. So might his overall fine postseason record. The question becomes whether Kent’s once-notorious attitude problems remain enough to keep the writers from putting him in no matter the ballot crowd.

I wasn’t exactly Kent’s biggest admirer myself for long enough, but I won’t object if he’s elected to the Hall in due course. If he doesn’t survive on the BBWAA ballots yet to come, a future Era Committee may give him a second and deeper look and elect him.

Scott Rolen—Why on earth would a player who was Rolen’s kind of near-perfect balance between an excellent hitter and a top-of-the-line fielding third baseman be villified and sullied?

If you were the Phillies with whom Rolen came up, and you were the kind of fellow who spoke softly, carried yourself likewise, and let your preparation and play do your talking for you, you just weren’t Loud Larry Bowa’s and Drill Sgt. Dallas Green’s type. They were fool enough to dismiss Rolen as an indifferent player when every teammate he had knew better.

And Rolen’s propensity to hustle himself into injuries actually added to the sullying. After the Phillies shipped him to the Cardinals, Rolen played the same kind of hard, delivered the kind of performances that helped the Cardinals to some postseasons including one ending in a World Series ring, but he ran afoul of Tony La Russa over, you guessed it, injuries.

It galled Rolen no end that his manager might sour on him for being injured in honest competition, and La Russa likely forced Rolen’s trade to Toronto, a trade then-Cardinals GM John Mozeliak publicly came to regret making. Former Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty knew better—hearing that Rolen wanted to play closer to home, he pried Rolen out of the Blue Jays for the Reds and Rolen helped them to a couple of postseasons, too.

The injuries might have kept Rolen from putting up fireworks-spectacular numbers at the plate but he was a great third baseman. Then-Brewers manager Ned Yost wasn’t blowing smoke when he called Rolen “the perfect baseball player. It’s his tenacity, his preparation, the way he plays. He tries to do everything fundamentally sound. And he puts the team first—there’s no fanfare with him.”

He wasn’t the hitter Chipper Jones was, but Jones wasn’t the defender Rolen was, either. (Rolen’s 122 OPS+ is ninth among third basemen all time.) Rolen won eight Gold Gloves and they weren’t given to him by reputation alone; among third basemen, only Hall of Famers Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt have more. He had eleven seasons of averaging ten or more runs saved and three in which he averaged twenty or more; his 140 total defensive runs above league average is the nineteenth-highest of any defender at any field position anywhere and tied for sixth among third basemen.

Rolen’s number one problem his entire career was that he didn’t present himself as a star. He preferred to leave it on the field and at the plate; he wasn’t a publicity hound and never really tried to become one.

His Hall candidacy has received more traction each year he’s been on the ballot. Considering this year’s absolute paucity of first-time candidates who really belong in the Hall of Fame, Rolen’s vote could jump even more profoundly than it did last year. A third baseman whose number one selling point is strong hitting and top of the line defense deserves better.

Curt Schilling (with prejudice)—On the mound: no-questions-asked Hall of Famer. One of only four pitchers to strike 3,000+ out and walk less than 1,000, and he did it in a glandular time for hitting. (The others: Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez.)  He all but demanded the big-game heat and delivered when he got it most of the time.

Off the mound: no-questioned-asked jerk. It only begins with eleven words: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required,” on a T-shirt; “OK, so much awesome here,” in a tweet Schilling deleted swiftly enough when the you-know-what hit the you-know-what and he pleaded sarcasm. He also said of it in due course, “Gotta own the times you go off the rails.”

Let’s let Jay Jaffe have the ultimate word, from The Cooperstown Casebook:

I wouldn’t invite Schilling into my own home, and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to view him as a role model, but in my view nothing in his career leaves a doubt that he belongs in Cooperstown. He ranks among the all-time greats via his run prevention skill, his dominance in the game’s most elemental battle of balls and strikes, and his repeated ability to rise to the occasion when the on-field stakes were highest.

I don’t have to love or respect Schilling as a person to respect what he did on the mound. When you take your children to Cooperstown, and you see Schilling’s plaque, just tell them he isn’t the first and won’t be the last to be a Hall of Famer at the ballpark and a Hall of Shamer away from it.

Gary Sheffield—Strictly by his counting statistics Sheffield has a Hall of Fame case. His talent was as outsized as his reputation for self-centricity.

He was a study in pending destruction at the plate and he had a one-for-one-and-all-for-Gary reputation. He also had a very strange problem for a guy whose career came largely in a high-offense era and who could invoke terror with one swing: he played too much in home parks that didn’t really favour righthanded hitters. (His time in Dodger Stadium was an exception; he hit very well there.)

That plus the nagging injuries he battled for much of his career land Sheffield in a strange position. For all his home runs (509), for all that he sits in the top 25 for walks and runs created, his offensive winning percentage (.687) puts him just inside the top one hundred. A player that talented with his kind of stats should have pulled up a lot higher.

Sheffield played on several pennant contenders and won a World Series ring with the 1997 Marlins. (He also got dumped among the many in the notorious fire sale following that triumph.) His home runs may make you (and him) think he’s a no-questions-asked Hall of Famer, but taken all around his paucity of black and gray (top-ten finishing) ink leaves him at pronounced tweener status. He looks as borderline as borderline gets.

If you look at him according to WAR, Sheffield’s defensive deficiences slaughtered him: he had a fine throwing arm but his -195 fielding runs below league average left him the second lowest of all time. It’s the reason why his peak and career WAR are well below the Hall of Fame standard for right fielders.

In some ways Sheffield was a wronged man. When the Brewers sent him down early in his career after accusing him of faking an injury, he wanted out and badly. He tended to nuke more than burn bridges when he felt he was done wrong. He was also accused falsely of tanking plays with the Brewers after a hard wild throw in the minors caused a rift with a manager who subsequently apologised to him.

He got dinged by the BALCO case when it turned out he really might have been tricked into using an actual or alleged performance-enhancing substance. It’s also important to know that that occurred before baseball finally faced the issue and implemented testings and penalties, and Sheffield didn’t exactly make it his life’s indulgence. Even the hardest-line writers against actual or alleged PEDs inclined to give Sheffield the benefit of the doubt.

So do I. There are worse men in the Hall of Fame than Sheffield, and there are Hall of Famers who were their own worst enemies to a far greater extent. He may end up having to wait for an Era Committee to send him there, but Sheffield wasn’t just a study in likely destruction at the plate, he has a real Hall of Fame case.

And he won’t be even a hundredth as controversial a Hall of Famer as Harold Baines (for his record, not his person) is or Curt Schilling (for his person, not his record) may yet become.

Billy Wagner—Maybe the most underrated relief pitcher of his and just about any time. He was as lights out as relief pitchers got and then some, even allowing that nobody yet has really figured out a final objective and definitive way to rate relief pitchers of any era.

He yanked himself to a pinnacle following a childhood about which “hard scrabble” might be an understatement. (Too-frequent home changes; poverty so profound that peanut butter on a cracker equaled dinner often enough.)

Billy the Kid was a small guy who made himself into a lefthanded assassin (two right arm fractures during his impoverished childhood compelled him to go portside); he finished his fifteen-year career with a 0.99 walks/hits per inning pitched rate; and, when it comes to win probability added, Wagner has only four relievers ahead of him, Hall of Famers all: in ascending order, Trevor Hoffman, Goose Gossage, Hoyt Wilhelm, Dennis Eckersley, and The Mariano.

He was also on his own planet when it came to missing bats. In fifteen full major league seasons (he had a cup of coffee with the 1995 Astros), his strikeouts-per-nine innings rate fell below 10.0 only once; he retired with a lifetime 11.9 rate. Nobody could hit this guy too often: the lifetime batting average against him is .187. Here’s how the hitters did against the other Hall of Fame relievers:

Lee Smith—.235.
Rollie Fingers—.232.
Bruce Sutter—.230.
Goose Gossage—.228.
Dennis Eckersley—.225.
Hoyt Wilhelm—.213.
Trevor Hoffman—.211.
Mariano Rivera—.211.

Would you like to be reminded whom among those men pitched in the most hitter-friendly time? That would be Smith (in the final third of his career), Hoffman, The Mariano, and Billy the Kid. It’s to wonder how much more stupefying the record might be if Wagner could have avoided assorted injuries including late-career Tommy John surgery.

If Wagner had any flaw, it was his almost Sheffield-like tendency to nuke bridges once he left town, though for very different reasons. Neither player came up the easy way before entering baseball, but Wagner waged war against those he thought didn’t share his competitiveness and determination.

When the Astros traded him to the Phillies and subsequently remade their roster for their run to the 2005 World Series, Wagner lamented publicly that he wished they’d done it the year they traded him. With the Phillies in 2005, he questioned the team’s commitment publicly and ripped them after leaving for the Mets.

In due course, though, Wagner admitted in his memoir, A Way Out, “I learned a lot about criticism and how not to be a leader when I was traded,” he wrote, specifying leaving the Astros but applicable to the rest of his career, too. When he walked away after 2010, he decided his family was a lot more important to him than whatever else he could accomplish as a pitcher.

“There’s nothing left for me to do in baseball,” Wagner admitted thinking the final time he drove away from the ballpark but into retirement. “I’m not going to change anyone’s mind about whether I’m a Hall of Famer. People are either going to like me or hate me, and I can’t change their minds. Besides, life is about a lot more than this game.”

His Hall vote from the BBWAA jumped from 16.7 percent in 2019 to 31.7 percent last January. The guy from whom The Mariano swiped “Enter Sandman” as his entrance music just might have a surprise or three left that just might finish with him standing where he belongs in Cooperstown.

Now, the no votes. First-time ballot entrants are marked with an asterisk.

Bobby Abreu—When Abreu retired, I noticed that he was a lot closer to being a Hall of Famer than people thought. He was a five-tool player; he was one of the most disciplined hitters of his time; he had power and speed to burn together; and few players in his time were as good at wearing pitchers down as he was.

He didn’t quite cross the thresholds to Hall of Fame performance in the end, unfortunately, even if he managed to remain an on-base machine. Defensively, he was the least appreciated top-of-the-line right fielder in his first eight seasons, yet he didn’t win a Gold Glove until 2005 when his defense already turned to the negatives for run prevention.

Abreu’s career deserves second, third, even fourth looks regardless. He may not quite be a Hall of Famer after those, either, but he was a terrific player.

Mark Buehrle*—A no-hitter and a perfect game enhance his career, and he was a fine pitcher who was excellent on more than a few occasions. (He was also a pretty sharp fielder at his position.) But neither the traditional nor the advanced analyses get him through the door, nor does his postseason record overall enhance him. Buehrle shakes out as the number 90 starting pitcher of all time.

He might linger a little past the five percent threshold in year one of his Hall eligibility, but I can’t see him going past that.

A.J. Burnett*—It’s not a stretch to guess that the injury-prone Burnett reached the Hall of Fame ballot purely because he’s retired five years. He had a seventeen-year career that landed him number 352 on the all-time starting pitching survey, and it’s to wonder whether his injuries—including Tommy John surgery that cost him most of 2003 and a third of 2004—kept him from performing equal to his talent.

Burnett’s career was also stained when the Marlins asked him to leave the team down the stretch in September 2005, after he ripped the faltering Fish to reporters saying, “We played scared. We managed scared. We coached scared,” after a 5-3 loss to the Braves. He apologised in due course, but he went on to the Blue Jays, the Yankees, the Pirates, and the Phillies. The injuries continued.

Michael Cuddyer*—Dependable hitter, a fan favourite in Minnesota, but nowhere within rear-view visual distance of a Hall of Famer. He has a place in baseball history, though: he’s the only major leaguer to hit for the cycle and hit two home runs in the same inning during the same season. (He turned that trick in 2009.)

Dan Haren*—Sure looked like a Hall of Famer in the making early in his career. It didn’t stay that way, although the oft-traveled pitcher did post a fine career in the end.

LaTroy Hawkins*— A Hall of the Gold Watch candidate, but that’s all. He was good enough to be in bullpens for sixteen major league seasons after spending his first five as a fifth starter. The enemy batters hit .257 off him lifetime when he came out of the pen, though with 78 home runs against him lifetime as a reliever he wasn’t a pushover for the long ball out of the pen, either.

Tim Hudson*—He looked even more like a Hall of Famer in the making when he was making his bones in Oakland, but he didn’t look that much like one after leaving Oakland. But he could be and often was a terrific pitcher who worked in quite a bit of hard luck.

Torii Hunter*—He looked more like a Hall of Famer at the peak of his career than he really was, and he might survive a ballot or three before falling away. But Hunter was a terrific player who hit well and played center field around the league averages on the plus side, though not well enough to save as many runs as his skills and Gold Gloves suggested. He was also well respected in his clubhouses.

Andy Pettitte—Turn away permanently from the actual or alleged performance-enhancing substance issue and face the fact once and for all: Pettitte used human growth hormone briefly and to recover from an elbow injury. He wasn’t looking for another edge on the mound.

In 2002 I was injured. I had heard that human growth hormone could promote faster healing for my elbow. I felt an obligation to get back to my team as soon as possible. For this reason, and only this reason, for two days I tried human growth hormone. Though it was not against baseball rules, I was not comfortable with what I was doing, so I stopped.

Everybody with me? Good. Now hear this: Pettitte was practically the same pitcher in the regular season as he was in the postseason—what Jaffe has called a plowhorse rather than a racehorse. Regular-season ERA: 3.85. Postseason ERA: 3.81. World Series ERA: 4.06. He was durable and dependable, and that was all.

The lefthander was famous for his look of peering out over his upraised glove while taking his signs, while living on the ground ball with his sinkers and cutters. But he piled Hall of Fame-looking win totals as much on high run support as his own ability (his run support was 10 percent better than the park-adjusted league average before his first attempt at retirement, Jaffe has recorded), and he wasn’t as good at missing bats as a lot of contemporaries who won’t be seen in Cooperstown except among the guests.

Pettitte’s a classic example of truly tenacious competitor who was really an above-average pitcher and occasionally great. But the Hall of Fame isn’t just about “above average,” unfortunately. Which is a shame because Pettitte was one of those Yankees who earned respect even from those to whom just the mere mention of the team’s name is enough to send them through the ceiling.

He ends up at this writing as number 91 among all-time starting pitchers. Didn’t I mention Mark Buehrle is number 90?

Aramis Ramirez*—He looked most like a Hall of Famer during his first five seasons with the Cubs. For an eighteen-season career that’s not even close to enough. He actually out-homered a few Hall of Fame third basemen in the end, but he played in a higher-offense time and he wasn’t that good a defensive third baseman.

Manny Ramirez—His Hall of Fame case is entirely in his bat. He’s got the numbers at the plate for enshrinement. No questions asked. He also has the attitude history (Manny Being Manny) and issues that made him as big a pain in the butt to his own teams as he was to opposing pitchers.

The amusement factor of Manny Being Manny died long before his career did. He was deadly in the regular and the postseason (and a World Series MVP for the 2004 Red Sox, where he said memorably through his exhaustion, “I don’t believe in curse, I believe you make your own destiny”); he was arguably the worst such enemy of any player who was his own worst enemy.

There’s also that little matter of his using actual or alleged PEDs after the so-called Wild West Era during which the rules were that there were no rules. Ramirez got suspended  twice for them after baseball’s belated crackdown, and the second drove him out of the majors once and for all. And, away from reaching the Hall of Fame.

Sammy Sosa—Does it seem at times as though he’s baseball’s forgotten man? Sure it does. It seems surreal to those who saw Sosa in his prime becoming one of the game’s most popular players. Even to those who saw him turn into a player divisive enough to alienate his clubhouse before his time with the Cubs, where he became a gigastar in the first place, was done.

Remove every suspicion you ever had about Sosa and actual or alleged PEDs, every moment of his infamous Congressional appearance, every doubt the leaked 2003 test results planted even if you, too, suspect he might have been a false positive as some of those results turned out. Look at Sosa the player objectively.

His biggest claims to fame and the Hall of Fame are his home run prowess. If you assumed the PED thing inflated his numbers, reasonable analysis says Sosa might have joined the 500 home run club without them, whether or not he’d have run with Mark McGwire in the 1998 home run chase.

That would put him in the Hall of Fame regardless, until you consider that when Sosa blossomed at last as a power hitter he shrank in just about all other aspects of his and the game—and I once saw him hit a pair of monstrous home runs in one game at Dodger Stadium.

And he’s still the only player in history to hit 60+ homers in three out of five seasons without leading the league while leading it twice hitting 50 and 49, respectively. That’s surreal no matter how you look at it.

If he’s not the best player on the ballot, he’s not getting a Hall of Fame vote. (Defensively, Sosa flipped entirely: he’d been an above average right fielder before his power plant finally went online and a below-average one after it.) And his time on the BBWAA ballot is running out.

Sosa’s career WAR are 1.4 below Bobby Abreu. Believe it or not. If anything, that makes more of a case that Abreu was better than we think than that Sosa’s a Hall of Famer. I’m not voting for them now, but I could be persuaded in the other direction in the future, even if it means Sosa’s case going to an Era Committee’s consideration and Abreu really was the kind of Hall of Famer who sneaks up on you.

Nick Swisher*—He was useful enough, well liked in his clubhouses, and had good power while switch hitting. He had a career year in 2005 and was useful enough as a Yankee to win his only World Series ring in 2009. But he’s not going to the Hall of Fame. Some think it might be a shock if he gets even one sentimental vote, but such a vote wouldn’t surprise me.

Shane Victorino*—He played at elite or near-elite levels when he could play. The Flyin’ Hawaiian was something of a late bloomer, and late-career injury issues took care of his Hall of Fame prospects. But when he could play Victorino was something to behold.

Tell me that you didn’t also love Victorino’s contributions to the Phillies’ 2008 World Series triumph or (especially) what he did for the 2013 Red Sox—the Game Six grand slam in the ALCS; the three-run double off the Monster in World Series Game Six to start the Red Sox toward the Promised Land. And he has his place in baseball history: one of only two players (the other: Hall of Famer Jim Thome) with two postseason salamis.

Omar Vizquel—I sketched a rather elaborate take recently on why you should vote for him if you’re going to vote for him. It hooked mostly around a) he wasn’t as close to being the second coming of Ozzie Smith as people remember him being though he looked that way; but, b) he was the outstanding defensive shortstop of the 1990s.

He was just that—if you’re talking about players whose major or sole selling point is defense and enough of it and have the highlight reels to back them up. He was a highlight reel often enough to convince lots of Gold Glove voters in those years. But the bad news is that Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. was better with the glove in that decade . . . and he didn’t play the position past 1996 except for three games in 1998.

Even playing less of the decade than Vizquel, Ripken was worth a lot more defensive runs above the league average. He wasn’t the acrobat Vizquel often was, but Ripken in the field did the job very well above league average. Vizquel was worth +128 fielding runs lifetime; Ripken was worth that just from 1990-96.

If you want to put a defense-first lineup out there, take the shortstop worth +181 lifetime fielding runs (third in history behind Mark Belanger and Ozzie Smith) over the one worth +128. Now, think of the two-way lineup. Who are you going really to choose at shortstop—the guy with the 112 OPS+ (Ripken) or the guy with the 82 OPS+ (Vizquel)?

Vizquel turned up a few hits shy of 3,000 in 22 seasons, but it isn’t just milestones or totals that make a Hall of Famer. His real other apparent selling point is his longevity, and I’ve bumped into only too many people around the baseball forums who want to put him in on the Harold Baines factor: that the Hall of Fame won’t be soiled if it’s the Hall of the Gold Watch.

Well, yes it will, and yes it is. That argument doesn’t fly. Just because one Era Committee was foolish enough to elect Baines it doesn’t mean Baines should be a Hall of Fame standard. It’s rare enough for a player to get two decades in the big leagues, but by itself that isn’t and shouldn’t be enough for the Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Fame is supposed to be about greatness, not time in service, other than the ten-season minimum for eligibility. Greatness, not mere acrobatics. (Anyone who thinks Brooks Robinson or Ozzie Smith got to Cooperstown merely by being acrobats on the left side of the infield doesn’t know their actual run-prevention records.) Greatness, not merely showing up for work every day. (Once and for all: there was a lot more to Cal Ripken, Jr. than just breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak.)

Vizquel shakes out as the number 42 shortstop of all-time. Ripken, in case you wondered, shakes out as number three. Alex Rodriguez shakes out as number two, but bank on it: he’s there strictly because of his hitting—he wasn’t anywhere near Vizquel or Ripken defensively. I’m not entirely convinced that being just inside the top fifty by eight equals a Hall of Famer.

Even if I believe the Hall should pay a lot more attention to run prevention, and I do, I’m not settled firmly on either side of yes or no regarding Vizquel. And if I’m not firmly on the plus side of yes, I can’t vote for him.

Barry Zito*—Did any pitcher of his time have a sadder-looking story? (Maybe Tim Lincecum and Dontrelle Willis.) He looked like a no-questions-asked Hall of Famer in the making in Oakland, pitching like one with his array of off-speed breaking balls (and a Cy Young Award in the bargain), and with a delightfully quirky personality to match. Zito was many things, but boring wasn’t one of them.

Then he signed his notorious big deal with the Giants . . . and collapsed with no apparent reason or rhyme. He didn’t look anything like what the Giants paid for until the 2012 postseason, when he pitched 7.2 shutout innings in NLCS Game Five and (with a lot of help from Pablo Sandoval’s three home runs) out-pitched Justin Verlander in Game One of the World Series sweep-to-be.

Remarkably, Zito kept his head up, offered no excuses, and carried himself like a professional during his Giants seasons. If there was a Hall of Fame where class and musical pedigree alone matter—he’s a self-taught guitarist who’s had his music turn up in film; he’s the son of a one-time arranger for Nat King Cole—Zito would be elected in a walk.

The right reason to send Vizquel to Cooperstown

Omar Vizquel leaping over Charlie Hayers to avoid getting clobbered while possible thinking double play turn in 1997.

Omar Vizquel’s Hall of Fame candidacy sometimes seems a product mostly of the perception that he was the second coming of a Hall of Fame shortstop whose career overlapped his for a few seasons. The perception comes mostly from Vizquel’s more voluminous presence on highlight reels.

It’s not that the Other Guy was obscure, of course, but the continuing metastasis of cable sports in the 1990s showed Vizquel’s acrobatics far more often than they showed the Other Guy’s—and the Other Guy got exposure enough by way of fans watching his teams play against three cable superstation teams, the Braves, the Cubs, and the Mets. (Not to mention a few World Series.)

When Sports Center and Baseball Tonight metastasised in the 1990s, so did the looks at Vizquel’s own acrobatics. They were real enough. And shown frequently enough, more so than the Other Guy got despite his teams’ contests against the superstation teams. That ubiquity of the highlight-reel plays made it simple to forget that Vizquel—who got to play in a few postseasons himself—had a modest throwing arm who made up for it with his field positionings and his marshmallow-soft hands.

What made him more delightful to watch, too, was that he was a not-so-huge guy (well, he’d resemble Hercules if positioned next to Jose Altuve) who played like a pest. He was at least as much fun to watch in the field as the Other Guy was, and it proved worth only two fewer Gold Gloves than the Other Guy won.

The perception of Vizquel also comes, I think, from people understanding how long it took the Hall of Fame and its voters to grok (with one or two exceptions) that preventing runs is just as important as producing them, and that Vizquel looked like one of the greatest run preventers you ever saw at his position. No point in your team putting up crooked numbers if they can’t keep the other guys from putting up just as many, right?

Right. And when it comes to what he did at the plate, Vizquel wasn’t exactly of the Cal Ripken, Jr. breed of big-hitting shortstops, but he was as close as you could get to the Other Guy. They were both slap-and-tickle hitters who knew how to reach base by hook, crook, and practically anything else available to them. They played with brains as well as arms, hands and legs.

Look at Vizquel and the Other Guy by way of their Real Batting Averages—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances. (Sorry, sac bunts aren’t included: these two guys were smart bunters, but I don’t give credit for surrendering precious outs deliberately.) This pair could be fraternal twins, practically.

If you disallow that Vizquel played mostly in a far more hitter-friendly time than the Other Guy did, the Other Guy hitting his mid-30s by the time his career careened into that hitter-friendlier time, there’s only a hair between Vizquel and the Other Guy. (The Other Guy hit most of his career in a far tougher park for hitters, too.) They both used up just about the same number of outs to produce at the plate, even if the Other Guy was a little better at taking walks:

Omar Vizquel 12,013 3,727 1,028 25 94 49 .409
The Other Guy 10778 3,084 1,072 79 63 33 .402

I don’t care that Vizquel came up 123 hits short of 3,000 lifetime. For one thing, the Other Guy would have crossed the 3,000 threshold if he’d gotten to play 24 seasons. Bank on it. For another thing, how many hits you get matter less than what you and those hits really did to help your teams win. Vizquel averaged 72 runs created a year; the Other Guy averaged 73. They were practically the same batter.

Did you know that once he reached base Omar Vizquel was worth +8 runs lifetime but the Other Guy was worth +102? Did you also know that Vizquel took extra bases on followup hits 42 percent of the time . . . but the Other Guy did it 53 percent of the time? Did you know Vizquel has a .707 stolen base percentage . . . but the Other Guy has a .797?

And we haven’t yet gone deeper into the number one factor that keeps people comparing Omar Vizquel to the Other Guy—defense. Vizquel was an above average defensive shortstop in his prime, but we need to remind ourselves this isn’t the Hall of Above Average. (It sure as hell isn’t the Hall of the Gold Watch, either, Harold Baines’s election notwithstanding.)

Vizquel’s prime didn’t last quite as long as the Other Guy, and he spent his final four seasons as a utility man while the Other Guy was kept strictly as a shortstop even when he became a part-timer in his final three or four seasons. So let’s look at whether Vizquel really was the second coming of the Other Guy at shortstop.


Vizquel totals +128 putting total zone runs and defensive runs above average together—but the Other Guy totals +110 more. Vizquel’s range factor is 0.1 above league average—but the Other Guy is 0.44 above average. It isn’t even that close between Vizquel and the Other Guy, and close counts only in horseshoes, hand grenades, nuclear weapons, and bad plate umpire pitch calling.

It’s even less close between Vizquel and Mark Belanger, a shortstop whose prime preceded the Other Guy’s but whose all-time high of +241 total zone/defensive runs above average (113 more than Vizquel) still won’t put him into the Hall of Fame because of one problem: compared to Belanger, Vizquel and the Other Guy hit like Cal Ripken, Jr.

(It’s the same thing that keeps Clete Boyer out of the Hall of Fame: Boyer may have been the greatest defensive third baseman ever, even better than Brooks Robinson, but 1) Robinson could and did hit a lot more than a little; and, 2) Boyer couldn’t hit if you paid him by contact frequency.)

And I haven’t even thought about wins above replacement-level player until now. Well, now. Vizquel’s 45.6 career WAR are 1) 31.3 fewer than the Other Guy; and, 2) 21.9 below the average Hall of Fame shortstop. His 26.8 seven-season peak WAR are 1) 15.7 below the Other Guy; and, 2) 16.3 below the average Hall of Fame shortstop’s seven-season peak. (For the record: Vizquel broke into his league’s top ten WAR only once; the Other Guy did it six times.)

The Other Guy, of course, is Ozzie Smith.

(And we didn’t even think about Smith’s famous cartwheeling back flips out to his position for the home fans.)

I’m not arguing against Vizquel being elected to Cooperstown. The Hall of Fame should continue recognising run prevention as equal to run creation and run production. (If nothing else, it’s the number one reason Rabbit Maranville made it into the Hall of Fame on deep thought: he couldn’t hit if you set the ball on a tee for him, but Maranville was a reputed gazelle at shortstop.) Vizquel was the best defensive shortstop of the 1990s and the early Aughts.

But electing the Little O to the Hall of Fame on the grounds that he was the second coming of the Wizard of Oz would be false. There hasn’t been a shortstop yet who’s that second coming, and you don’t have to be the new Wiz to earn a Cooperstown plaque. Elect Vizquel for who he really was, not for whom you only think he was.

Kim Ng, inside the box

Kim Ng (right) with Don Mattingly, when Mattingly managed the Dodgers and Ng was their assistant GM. Ng is now, among other things, Mattingly’s new boss in Miami.

Whatever you do otherwise, please don’t call Kim Ng’s hiring as the Miami Marlins’ new general manager “outside the box” thinking. It’s an insult to hers and the Marlins’ intelligence, and it should be to anyone else’s, too.

Yes, Ng is the first woman and the first Asian-American to hold such a job. But yes, she also has three decades worth of experience in baseball operations which only began when she joined the White Sox as a front office intern and worked her way to becoming the team’s assistant director for baseball operations.

The Marlins hired her away from baseball government itself, where Ng just finished her ninth year as the Show’s senior vice president for baseball operations, focused specifically on tightening up and administering MLB’s international baseball reach and operations, working with MLB front offices and international organisations alike, and enforcing international signing rules.

In between her term with the White Sox and in the Show’s government, Ng became the youngest assistant GM (at 29) ever when she took that job with the Yankees, then joined the Dodgers as an assistant GM, her performances of which jobs plus her performance in MLB’s organisation itself put her on several team radars as a GM to be.

Outside the box? Ng is about as inside the baseball box as you can get with her experience and reputation. The only thing outside the box about her is that, well, she’s a lady, and she’s the daughter of a Chinese American father who worked as a financial analyst and a Chinese Thai mother who worked as a banker.

She’s Indianapolis born but New York raised, and she grew up among other things playing stickball on the Queens streets before going to the University of Chicago, earning a degree in public policy, and, oh yes, winning a Most Valuable Player award as an infielder on the university’s softball team.

“[I]t is the honor of my career to lead the Miami Marlins as their next General Manager,” Ng says in a formal statement. “We are building for the long term in South Florida, developing a forward-thinking, collaborative, creative baseball operation made up of incredibly talented and dedicated staff who have, over the last few years, laid a great foundation for success.”

When was the last time you heard terms like “forward-thinking” or “collaborative” or “creative baseball operation” applied to the Marlins? OK, so that might be outside-the-box—the Marlins’ box, that is.

“This challenge is one I don’t take lightly,” she continues. “When I got into this business, it seemed unlikely a woman would lead a Major League team, but I am dogged in the pursuit of my goals. My goal is now to bring championship baseball to Miami. I am both humbled and eager to continue building the winning culture our fans expect and deserve.”

It’s a recent enough expectation, of course, but one that doesn’t lend itself to gags now that manager Don Mattingly was named the National League’s Manager of the Year for shepherding the Fish to a second-place irregular season finish in the National League East and as far as a division series in the postseason.

Ng has knocked on history’s door more than a few times in her career. With the White Sox, she was the first woman and youngest human to present and win a salary arbitration case, for pitcher Alex Fernandez. When the Yankees hired her as an assistant GM, Ng became one of only four women ever to hold the position, joining Elaine Weddington Steward and Raquel Ferreira of the Red Sox and fellow Yankee Jean Afterman.

She started showing up on team radars as GM material in 2005, when the Dodgers interviewed her. They handed the GM job to Ned Colletti, but Colletti almost immediately kept her as an assistant GM. She’s since been interviewed for such jobs by the Angels, the Giants, the Mariners, and the Padres.

When she left the Dodgers to take her MLB job, there were those pondering aloud whether Ng had a chance to become the first woman ever named as baseball commissioner. So much for that idea, so far. She’s content to have gotten where she is now. But would you really object to the idea down the road apiece?

Ng won’t exactly be wading into virgin territory with the Marlins. Chief executive officer Derek Jeter was en route his Hall of Fame career as a Yankee shortstop while Ng worked in their front office. Mattingly’s playing career ended a few years before the Yankees made her an assistant GM, but he was a coach for them while she was there. And, he managed the Dodgers while Ng was still their assistant GM.

Jeter’s own formal statement cites Ng’s “wealth of knowledge and championship-level experience.” The Yankees won three straight World Series while she worked there; the Dodgers challenged for or won a few NL Wests while she worked in their front-office brain pool. As a front-office executive Ng has gone to eight postseasons total.

“Her leadership of our baseball operations team will play a major role on our path toward sustained success,” Jeter continues. “Additionally, her extensive work in expanding youth baseball and softball initiatives will enhance our efforts to grow the game among our local youth as we continue to make a positive impact on the South Florida community.”

The lady is a champ who just might deliver when it comes to making the Marlins champs. Just don’t accuse the Fish of going that far outside the box by hiring her in the first place.