The Hall of Fame Debate That The Press Is Missing
It’s not a benches-clearing brawl. But as the ballots are sent out for the 2013 Baseball Hall of Fame election, controversy is most definitely brewing.
The ballot will include the most controversial names of the steroid era like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens as well as players like Jack Morris and Tim Raines, who are perennial figures in the debate over whether old-fashioned counting stats or advanced sabermetrics are the best way to determine a player’s value.
But while the press buzzes over whether to allow admitted (or all but admitted) steroids users into the hall or ponders whether a much-vaunted ability “to pitch to the score” trumps a sterling on-base percentage, it’s not just the baseball writers selecting Hall of Famers. Baseball’s Veterans Committee is also meeting this year to select from 10 nominees from the “pre-integration era.” This committee will have the option to fully ratify the statistical revolution taking place in baseball by adding Bill Dahlen to the Hall of Fame.
Bill who? Bill Dahlen was one of the best shortstops in the history of the game, who played 20 season from 1891 to 1911. He was one of the finest shortstops during that period and widely considered the best-fielding player at his position. Measured by Wins Above Replacement (or WAR), Dahlen is the 47th best position player in baseball history, which puts him above bold faced names like Derek Jeter and Reggie Jackson. However, Dahlen was a cantankerous personality, nicknamed Bad Bill, who grated on teammates and umpires. He was ill-tempered and prone to skipping games or getting ejected if he bothered to show up.
Now, more than 100 years after he last stepped onto the diamond and when there is likely not one person who alive who can remember watching him play, Dahlen may make the Hall of Fame. It raises the question about whether we can evaluate an athlete we have never seen,–can numbers tell the story? How do we know that Dahlen’s value on the field wasn’t impeded by his personality without contemporaneous evidence? Well, we have the numbers, and that’s enough.
Just as Nate Silver was able to use data to predict the results of the 2012 presidential election, the data give us a clear picture of Dahlen’s actual value. He may have been a jerk but the Baseball Hall of Fame is littered with unsavory human beings from Ty Cobb to Roberto Alomar. The Hall of Fame doesn’t celebrate virtue off-the-field, it’s about skill on the field. And it’s clear from the numbers that Dahlen was worthy of induction.
This debate may not have the sizzle of steroids allegations–after all, Henry Waxman never investigated Bill Dahlen–but it is one well worth having and that the press is missing so far.
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