How to fix Hall of Fame voting: Be smarter

The baseball Hall of Fame voting came and went this week, and as has been the case for the last several years and likely will be for the foreseeable future, it was met with all sorts of scorn, controversy and hand-wringing.

Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas were all inducted, and Craig Biggio came up two votes short. He’ll almost certainly get in next year.
Jack Morris failed to gain enshrinement in his final year on the ballot.

In my opinion, Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Alan Trammell, Curt Schilling, Mike Piazza and Tim Raines all should have been inducted as well, and while the ‘steroid problem’ comes with some understandable moral ambiguities, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds are also both Hall of Famers. I’m less inclined to get behind Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, but I wouldn’t be opposed to their induction, either (Palmeiro, despite being one of just four players in history with over 3,000 career hits and 500 career homers, is now off the ballot entirely, and that is much more amazing than it is being given credit for).

Still, the BBWAA didn’t do such a bad job this year. Maddux, Glavine and Thomas are all more than deserving. And if just two more voters had picked Biggio, the Hall would have its first four-member class since 1955.
So a lot of the writer-bashing going on is probably a bit over the top.

That said, there are enough ballot embarrassments out there to warrant the criticism that is again being levied at the BBWAA.

There’s Ken Gurnick, a Dodgers writer for MLB.com, who voted for Jack Morris and Jack Morris only.
That’s dumb on its own, but his reasoning was even dumber. Gurnick said he wouldn’t vote for anyone who played in the steroid era, so he didn’t vote for Greg Maddux. Even though Maddux and Morris’ careers overlapped by nine seasons.

There were the writers (so far unidentified, to my knowledge), who voted for JT Snow, Jacque Jones and Armando Benitez. Moises Alou, Hideo Nomo, Luis Gonzalez, Kenny Rogers and Eric Gagne received votes as well.

Then there’s Murray Chass, a cranky, semi-retired former baseball writer with a seething hatred for all things electronic, who said he was going to stop voting for the Hall, but then changed his mind to spite a couple bloggers who have been critical of him (Chass didn’t vote for Biggio because he said he has a source who ‘felt’ Biggio did steroids. Great journalism right there).

There are Hall voters who no longer write about baseball, who don’t cover the sport. They’re allowed to keep their vote.

For a long time now, this has led to a lot of stuff being written about how the voting process is broken and outdated. That the BBWAA is unqualified to decide on the sport’s highest honor.

This is the theory that led to the controversial sports blog deadspin.com concocting a plan to ‘buy’ a vote from a BBWAA member.
As it turned out, such an act of journalistic malfeasance wasn’t necessary, as ESPN personality (and former Miami columnist) Dan Le Batard gave his vote to the website for no compensation.

Deadspin readers voted on who they thought belonged, and the 10 players (the maximum number of players a voter can select) to receive the most votes from readers were chosen on Le Batard’s ballot.

This isn’t nearly the ethical crime that many of the BBWAA establishment are claiming it to be (Le Batard was stripped of his vote for life Wednesday).
Had Le Batard, say, held a poll on his radio show, or solicited email votes from fans in a column, then agreed to honor the results on his ballot, I don’t think the BBWAA would be punishing him, and there wouldn’t be nearly as many pearl-clutching newspapermen out there demonizing him.
But because deadspin is at times an enemy of mainstream media, one of the first and most vocal critics of lazy sportswriting, many veteran writers see Le Batard as a traitor. They won’t say it, but they’re less offended that Le Batard gave up his vote as they are that he went to bed with the enemy.

I don’t really have a strong opinion on what Le Batard did. I’m more offended that someone like Chass can be openly hostile to fans and other writers, and brag in his columns about how he doesn’t need stats because he knows everything about the game.
I’m more offended that someone like Gurnick can be a perfectly effective reporter, and yet be such a failure when it comes to critical analysis.
I’m more offended that there are people out there who cover golf for a living and haven’t written about baseball for years that are still allowed to vote.

And that is where we get to the real issue here.
The process, despite what Le Batard wrote in his explanation, isn’t broken. If you take the voting away from the BBWAA, who do you give it to?
Fans, players, ex-players, living Hall of Famers, MLB staffers, bloggers?
Turning to any of those groups will more than likely lead to similar results. Because after all, as silly as many of this year’s ballots were, the writers elected three (and almost four) very deserving candidates. And just like there are ignorant writers, there are ignorant fans, bloggers and even players (seriously, I know players who will tell you that some guy who batted .220 in Triple-A was ‘the best player I ever went up against’ because of one game where he went 4-for-4).
No, the problem isn’t that the writers vote. The problem is that too many of the writers suck at their jobs.

I don’t say that flippantly or with smarm. I mean it literally.

You won’t hear this very often from someone who actually works in journalism, but it’s true: A journalism degree does not make a sportswriter smarter than the average fan.

Journalistic training teaches reporters how to contstruct stories, how to write coherently, informatively and, to a lesser extent, in an entertaining fashion.
We are taught how to conduct effective interviews, how to work a beat, how to ask good questions, how to develop story ideas. We are taught objectivity, fairness. Ethics.

You know what we are not taught in journalism classes?
How to analyze baseball statistics. How a quarterback is supposed to execute the read-option. How the triangle offense works (I still have no idea!).
Why hockey refs give game misconducts and instigator penalties (I still have no idea!).

Good journalists go out of their way to learn as much of this stuff as they can. Some of it is important. Some of it isn’t. But none of it is required.

Seriously, be it myself, Terry Vandrovec, Stu Whitney or Bob Ryan or whoever, we can write column after column full of uninformed opinions, and we won’t be punished for it, so long as we stay within the journalism rules.

'The Twins will win the 2014 World Series. The Vikings should sign Christian Ponder to a six-year contract. Jack Morris is a Hall of Famer but Greg Maddux is not.'

I can write any of that, and while it would clearly illustrate that I’m a moron, it wouldn’t cost me my job.

On the other hand, I could be a BBWAA member and correctly predict 10 consecutive World Series winners, but if I allowed readers of an edgy, profanity-friendly website to have input in my vote, I’d face discipline.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m firmly on the side of the journalists. Too many people working in sports media today are fans first and journalists second, particularly on-air media. I’m tired of feeling like many of my peers are more interested in commentary than reporting.

But we can and should do better. I don’t want the writers to be fired, I want them to get it right. I don’t like it when other journalists are dumb. I don’t like it when other journalists write dumb things.
I really can’t stress this enough. If there’s one thing I try to do on this blog and the various social media formats, it’s to combat stupidity and point it out when I see it, even if it results in others finding me rude or confrontational. From sports to politics, too many people take pride in being stubborn and anti-intellectual. In shunning information because they’re afraid something might actually change their mind. I hate that.

As idiotic as Ken Gurnick’s ballot is, I feel kind of bad for him. He’s taken a tremendous amount of heat for his ballot, and he now says he’ll abstain from voting in the future. While some accused him of voting as he did for attention, he made it clear in an interview with the MLB Network that the attention has been anything but fun.
While Gurnick is a respected baseball reporter (the stuff he learned in journalism class) he basically outed himself as an extremely poor baseball analyst (the stuff they don’t teach you in journalism class). I doubt that’s been fun.

But you know what? That’s Gurnick’s own fault.
He wouldn’t be facing this scrutiny if he hadn’t voted so stupidly. I imagine many of his peers are privately angry with him for embarrassing them and the BBWAA.
I admit the steroid era is difficult to evaluate when it just ended (if it has ended at all), but denying a vote for otherwise worthy players without any evidence they ever used (Jeff Bagwell, for example) goes against all the journalistic principles so many writers cling to so stridently.
Denying the fact that there are likely already steroid users in the Hall, pretending to know who’s clean and who isn’t — that’s stuff that any trained journalist should be smart enough to know doesn’t fly.

Baseball writers lost the battle with the stat nerds. They were crushed, in fact.
ESPN now regularly discusses league leaders in WAR, VORP and OPS+. TQBR has replaced quarterback rating as the go-to passing stat in the NFL, and in the NBA, PER (player efficiency rating) and EWA (estimated wins added) are becoming mainstream.

This isn’t a fad. This is progress. Advancement.
Baseball hasn’t been taken over by math, or nerds in their mothers’ basement. It hasn’t been ruined by the alphabet soup of new statistics.
It’s been revolutionized by intelligent people — some of them mainstream sportswriters, some of them fans, some of them baseball executives and some of them bloggers — who are smart enough to recognize that a pitcher who goes 8-13 with a 3.21 ERA is better than a pitcher who goes 16-11 with a 4.43 ERA.
That a shortstop who has a .389 OBP is more valuable than a right fielder with a .308 OBP and 100 RBIs. That the sacrifice bunt is almost always dumb.

To be fair, most writers have, if grudgingly, adapted and accepted that maybe Topps baseball cards don’t tell you everything you need to know about the game.

Others have not. They’re free to continue their transition from sports columnist to perpetual Oprah Book Club candidate.

So no, I don’t think the system needs an overhaul. I don’t really want to see a ‘fan vote’, nor do I think the Hall should extend voting privileges to bloggers, broadcasters, ex-players or writers in South Dakota who cover minor league teams (though reader Rich offers an idea I really like, in which the BBWAA remains in charge, but the same voters don’t get to vote every year).

I just want the writers to get better at their jobs.
Stop being afraid of stats you’ve never heard of. Stop pretending to be morally superior to players who took drugs that were not even against MLB rules.
And if you no longer cover or pay attention to the game, give up your vote.

Because you know what?
That horribly offensive and attention-seeking ballot that Dan Le Batard gave away to the unwashed masses? It was better than yours.
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