Thursday, August 27, 2020

Charlie Pavitt: Open the Hall of Fame to sabermetric pioneers

This guest post is from occasional contributor Charlie Pavitt. Here's a link to some of Charlie's previous posts.


Induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame (HOF) is of course the highest honor available to those associated with the game.  When one thinks of the HOF, one first thinks of the greatest players, such as the first five inductees in 1936 (Cobb, Johnson, Matthewson, Ruth, and Wagner). But other categories of contributors were added almost immediately; league presidents (Morgan Bulkeley, Ban Johnson) and managers (Mack, McGraw) plus George Wright in 1937, pioneers (Alexander Cartwright and Henry Chadwick) in 1938, owners (Charles Comiskey) in 1939, umpires (Bill Klem) and what would now be considered general managers (Ed Barrow) in 1953, and even union leaders (Marvin Miller, this year for induction next year). There is an additional type of honor associated with the HOF for contributions to the game; the J. G. Taylor Spink Award (given by the Baseball Writers Association of America) annually since 1962, the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasters annually since 1978, and thus far five Buck O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Awards given every three years since 2008.  Even songs get honored ("Centerfield", 2010; "Talkin' Baseball", 2011).

But what about sabermetricians? Are they not having a major influence on the game?  Are there not some who are deserving of an honor of this magnitude?

I am proposing that an honor analogous to the Spink, Frick, and O’Neill awards be given to sabermetricians who have made significant and influential contributions to the analytic study of baseball. I would have called it the Henry Chadwick Award to pay tribute to the inventor of the box score, batting average, and earned run average, but SABR has already reserved that title for its award for research contributions, a few of which have gone to sabermetricians but most to other contributors. So instead I will call it the F. C. Lane award, not in reference to Frank C. Lane (general manager of several teams in the 1950s and 1960s) but rather Ferdinand C. Lane, editor of the Baseball Magazine between 1911 and 1937. Lane wrote two articles for the publication ("Why the System of Batting Should Be Reformed," January 1917, pages 52-60; "The Base on Balls," March 1917, pages 93-95) in which he proposed linear weight formulas for evaluating batting performance, the second of which is remarkably accurate.

I shall now list those whom I think have made "significant and influential contributions to the analytic study of baseball" (that phrase was purposely worded in order to delineate the intent of the award). The HOF began inductions with five players, so I will propose who I think should be the first five recipients:

George Lindsay

Between 1959 and 1963, based on data from a few hundred games either he or his father had scored, George Lindsay published three academic articles in which he examined issues such as the stability of the batting average, average run expectancies for each number of outs during an inning and for different innings, the length of extra-inning games, the distribution of total runs for each team in a game, the odds of winning games with various leads in each inning, and the value of intentional walks and base stealing. It was revolutionary work, and opened up areas of study that have been built upon by generations of sabermetricians since.


Bill James

Starting with his first-self-published Baseball Abstract back in 1977, James built up an audience that resulted in the Abstract becoming a conventionally-published best seller between 1982 and 1988.  During those years, he proposed numerous concepts – to name just three, Runs Created, the Pythagorean Equation, and the Defensive Spectrum – that have influenced sabermetric work ever since.  But at least if not more important were his other contributions.  He proposed and got off the ground Project Scoresheet, the first volunteer effort to compile pitch-by-pitch data for games to be made freely available to researchers; this was the forerunner and inspiration for Retrosheet. During the same years as the Abstract was conventionally published, he oversaw a sabermetric newsletter/journal, the Baseball Analyst, which provided a pre-Internet outlet for amateur sabermetricians (including myself) who had few if any other opportunities to get their work out to the public.  Perhaps most importantly, his work was the first serious sabermetric (a term he coined) analysis many of us saw, and served as an inspiration for us to try our hand at it too. I might add that calls for James to be inducted into the Hall itself can be found on a New York Times article from January 20, 2019 by Jamie Malinowski and the Last Word on Baseball website by its editor Evan Thompson.

Pete Palmer

George Lindsay’s work was not readily available. The Hidden Game of Baseball, written by Palmer and John Thorn, was, and included both a history of previous quantitative work and advancement on that work in the spirit of Lindsay’s. Palmer’s use of linear-weight equations to measure offensive performance and of run expectancies to evaluate strategy options were not entirely new, as Lane and Lindsay had respectively been first, but it was Palmer’s presentation that served to familiarize those that followed with these possibilities, and as with James these were inspirations to many of us to try our hands at baseball analytics ourselves.  Probably the most important of Palmer’s contributions has been On-base Plus Slugging (OPS), one of the few sabermetric concepts to have become commonplace on baseball broadcasts.


David Smith

I’ve already mentioned Project Scoresheet, which lasted as a volunteer organization from 1984 through 1989. I do not wish to go into its fiery ending, a product of a fight about conflict of interest and, in the end, money.  Out of its ashes like the proverbial phoenix rose Retrosheet, the go-to online source for data describing what occurred during all games dating back to 1973, most games back to 1920, and some from before then. Since its beginning, those involved with Retrosheet have known not to repeat the Project’s errors and have made data freely available to everyone even if the intended use for that data is personal financial profit. Dave Smith was the last director of Project Scoresheet, the motivator behind the beginning of Retrosheet, and the latter’s president ever since. Although it is primed to continue when Dave is gone, Retrosheet’s existence would be inconceivable without him.  Baseball Prospectus’s analyst Russell Carleton, whose work relies on Retrosheet, has made it clear in print that he thinks that Dave should be inducted into the Hall itself.


Sean Forman

It is true that Forman copied from other sources, but no matter; it took a lot of work to begin what is now the go-to online source for data on seasonal performance. Baseball Reference began as a one-man sideline for an academic, and has become home to information about all American major team sports plus world-wide info on “real” football. 



Here are two others that I believe should eventually be recipients.

Sherri Nichols

Only two women have been bestowed with HOF-related awards; Claire Smith is a past winner of the Spink Award and Rachel Robinson is a recipient of the O’Neill Award.  Sherri Nichols would become the third. I became convinced that she deserved it after reading Ben Lindbergh’s tribute, and recommend it for all interested in learning about the "founding mother" of sabermetrics. I remember when the late Pete DeCoursey (I was scoring Project Scoresheet Phillies games and he was our team captain) proposed the concept of Defensive Average, for which (as Lindbergh’s article noted) Nichols did the computations. This was revolutionary work at that time, and laid the groundwork for all of the advanced fielding information we now have at our disposal.


Tom Tango

Tango has had significant influence on many areas of sabermetric work, two of which have joined Palmer’s OPS as commonplaces on baseball-related broadcasts. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) was actually Bill James’s idea, but James never tried to implement it. Tango has helped define it, and his offensive index wOBA is at the basis of the two most prominent instantiations, those from Baseball Reference (alternatively referred to as bWAR and rWAR) and FanGraphs (fWAR).  Leverage was an idea whose time had come, as our blogmaster Phil Birnbaum came up with the same concept at about the same time, but it was Tango’s usage that became definitive. His Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) corrective to weaknesses in ERA is also well-known and often used. Tango currently oversees data collection for MLB Advanced Media, and has done definitive work on MLBAM’s measurement of fielding (click here for a magisterial discussion of that topic).

There are some historical figures that might be deserving; Craig Wright, Dick Cramer, and Allan Roth come to mind as possibilities. Maybe even Earnshaw Cook, as wrong as he was about just about everything, because of what he was attempting to do without the data he needed to do it right (see his Percentage Baseball book for a historically significant document). Perhaps the Award could also go to organizations as a whole, such as Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs; if so, SABR should get it first.

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