The Verducci Effect On The Hall Of Fame

Tom Verducci, respected baseball writer and talking head, wrote an article earlier this week about why he won’t vote for any known steroid users for the Hall of Fame. That’s a fine premise, really, and even though I clearly disagree, I can’t rail against the mind-set too vigorously. It’s fair, I guess.

What I can rail against are the specifics of Verducci’s article because, you know, I have both the time and awareness for nuance. Without going full FJM-style, here are a few things to chew on:

At one point, Verducci compares Fred McGriff to Barry Bonds, wondering what would have happened if McGriff went to BALCO and Bonds did not, going so far as to jerry-rig a virtual final stat line for each player. Okay, fine. The kicker is that Bonds would have still out-homered the Crime Dog, 599 to 564, and that’s without mentioning the obvious: that Bonds was a world-class outfielder and base runner and that McGriff, despite his full endorsement of Tom Emanski’s fielding videos, was a sub-par defensive first baseman with 72 career stolen bases.

Later in the piece, Verducci predictably takes some swings at WAR, saying this: “If you blindly believe in a stat that considers Bobby Abreu better than Yogi Berra, Lou Whitaker better than Reggie Jackson and Jeff Bagwell better than Joe DiMaggio, you better do some more homework.”

It took Abreu over 1,700 extra plate appearances to eclipse Berra in WAR by . . . wait for it, 0.4 (sorry about the decimal point, Tom, but you picked the players), and nobody outside of Venezuela considers him a better player because of it. The same playing time argument can be made for Bagwell vs. DiMaggio, with the added note that DiMaggio missed three years of his prime seasons due to an actual war. Look, WAR-based models aren’t the end-all, be-all, and they do include various estimations and assumptions. But they also help put into context a player’s contributions, giving the interested fan (or Hall of Fame voter) a starting point for comparisons. And if you want to criticize WAR, at least come up with a better method than scrolling down the leader board and hollering whenever it seems slightly out of order.

In between there are other strange statements (at one point, Verducci notes that Edgar Martinez‘s stat line looks similar to Moises Alou‘s, without mentioning that Martinez bests Alou in career on-base percentage by a whopping 49 points), but mostly just a tone of arrogance. For someone who did cover the steroids era, Verducci is quick to absolve himself from any responsibility. He did write about ‘roids in 2002 (and he reminds you of that) when he got Ken Caminiti to talk about it, a decade and a half after our best estimates of when rampant usage began.

It’s a complicated issue—we don’t know who did and who didn’t use performance-enhancers. Shoot, we don’t even know what counts as a performance-enhancer really, or when it all started. Do amphetamines count the same as human growth hormone? Do whatever the hell they were probably using the 1920s and ’30s count? Further, we don’t know the effects of using PEDs, and our assumptions that it’s just the big, hulking power hitters that used them are often proven wrong.

Earlier in the article Verducci briefly touches on the little-known story of Dan Naulty. Naulty was the only one of four similar Minnesota Twins pitching prospects to reach the major leagues back in the mid-’90s, in Verducci’s opinion because of the magical powers of performance-enhancers. Naulty lasted all of four seasons in the bigs; 160 2/3 innings, in total, and a shiny 1.55 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Of course, the PEDs almost certainly did make Naulty better, but they didn’t even turn him into a competent big-leaguer.

Ultimately the PED issue is full of grey, but here, Verducci has reduced it to a 2,000-word oversimplification, and each word drips with condescension and a holier-than-thou overconfidence unfit for the murkiness of the subject matter.

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  • Pat

    I really think he’s swinging at writers who use WAR too finely, not WAR in general, or at least not entirely. I guess he’s getting a hack in there on it too by calling it a junk stat, and citling Bill James. Still, the thing which grates is his extreme sanctimoniousness on the Steroid Era, as well as the arrogance you noted. It was my article which started the public backlash against PED use. Right, sure, Tom. Glad he’s come around on Martinez, I think McGriff is just the whip he uses to beat that dead horse of his. Sure, lots of HR, in a big, the biggest, HR era, and it wasn’t all PED driven, but largely a one dimensional player at the far end of the defensive spectrum. No problem voting for him, but nothing to get worked up about if he doesn’t go in, or if he has to wait for the VC.

    • I’m right with you. It’s fair to criticize various WAR models in different ways: how it handles defense (especially catcher defense), how it handles replacement level, how it handles anything really. There are different shortcomings with each model, and I think it’d be foolish to *solely* use WAR for the Hall, or anything else, really. But like I mentioned in the article, it’s still a good starting point, and it’s irresponsible for Verducci to just dismiss it outright, without getting into the weeds.

      And you’re right. To me, too, his steroid takes are more problematic.