Factual Assertions Are Not Opinions

This time of year, we generally get three things: Christmas presents, cold weather, and arguments about the voting for baseball’s Hall Of Fame. For a few reasons, I generally try to stay out of the arguments about the Hall of Fame; I think the divide that is created between traditional media and the statistical community on this issue is unfortunate, and in general, both sides end up just talking past each other. The conversations do more to alienate people who should get along then it does to advance the cause of quality Hall Of Fame voting.

I do, however, want to use the voting process – and one article in particular – to highlight a point that I believe drives a large portion of the vehement disagreement that we see every year. The following is the introduction to the most recent by piece Danny Knobler, senior writer for CBSsports.com, where he lays out his reasoning for his personal ballot.

The Hall of Fame vote is never easy. Nor should it be.

The Hall of Fame ballot is always a great topic for debate. As it should be.

I vote for Jack Morris. You vote for Bert Blyleven.

I can’t say you’re wrong, just that I don’t agree with you. You shouldn’t say I’m wrong (although many of you will).

Knobler quickly asserts a common refrain – the right to have his own opinion. And he’s absolutely correct that he has the right to weigh the facts as he wishes, give more credence to certain things than others, and come to his own conclusions. But where he goes off track – and where I believe a lot of voters miss the mark – is to mistake a factual assertion for an opinion. Classic opinions cannot be wrong, but what many people label as opinions are really not that at all.

Preferring chocolate to vanilla is an opinion. No one can argue about your personal preferences or tastes, or tell you that those are incorrect, even if their tastes differ greatly. But when someone begins to make claims like “Jack Morris pitched to the score” or “Designated Hitter is not a position”, they are no longer offering opinions – they are making factual claims about something which is either true or false. And no one has the right to their own set of facts, and people who make illegitimate factual claims should expect to be told that they are indeed wrong.

Saying that Morris’ ERA does not represent how valuable he was to his teams because he often allowed meaningless runs in games where his team was likely to win anyway, and then held opponents scoreless when need be to preserve close games, is an assertion of fact. It is no different than claiming that he was behind the JFK shooting or that Morris was actually the first person to walk on the moon. It is a claim about something that either did or did not happen. It is not a matter of opinion.

Every person who has actually studied the issue comes to the same conclusion: Morris didn’t effectively pitch to the score more than any other pitcher. There is essentially no evidence that the narrative is true. It’s a matter of fact, not opinion.

Likewise, those who claim that they cannot vote for designated hitters because it is not a position are not holding to an opinion, but rather making a factual statement that is easily shown to be wrong. A cursory glance at any official scorecard will reveal a box next to the players name with the words “Pos” written in the heading, and the letters “DH” will appear in that box next to the designated hitter, denoting his position for that game. Whether the DH is or is not a position is not a matter of opinion – taking that stance is a factual assertion, and one that is demonstrably wrong.

There is certainly room for opinion in the Hall Of Fame voting discussion. Whether you’re a Big Hall or a Small Hall guy is a matter of personal preference. But, too often, factual assertions are passed off as opinions, which causes the statistical community to have something resembling a coronary, and both sides end up just dismissing each other’s credibility, leading to no real progress. If we could separate fact from opinion we could avoid a lot of the hyperbole that ends up being tossed around every winter.

It is not that the statistical community wants to tell certain voters that their opinions are wrong; it is that they’re trying to tell them that what they have are not opinions at all.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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Mark
Guest
Mark

So, does “pitching to the score” mean that a pitcher will have a lower ERA in games that he and his team wins – and a higher ERA in games that his team loses? Um, isn’t that part of the definition of how one wins or loses?

suicide squeeze
Member
Member
suicide squeeze

No, pitching to the score supposedly means that if a pitcher has something like a 7-1 lead in the 6th inning, they’ll pitch more to contact, which will generally give up more runs. Thus, if a pitcher gives up 3 runs in that inning, they’ll say he was “pitching to the score.” Of course, it’s been shown that this phenomenon doesn’t actually exist, and even if it did, the pitcher would be doing his team an obvious disservice.

aweb
Guest
aweb

But, if a pitcher was able to pitch “reasonably” well while only putting in 90% of the effort, then he’s doing a great service to himself in the long run. Pitching at less than full out effort is a lot less stressful on an arm (at some point, there’s essentially no stress at all, but I don’t think many shut it that far off), and would have some possible longevity benefits.

If you are up 5 runs as a pitcher, maybe putting that hard slider away for a few innings is a good thing. I’d be stunned if every pitcher didn’t do this – much has been made about old-time lineups and how they let pitchers cruise at less than max effort for stretches. The only way to manage that now, aside from playing the 2010 Mariners, is to let up when you get way ahead.

This would be offset by the slight mental letdown of some players who would concentrate less in the same situations while hitting, and the overall effect might disappear into the fog.

Playing less hard when the game isn’t close -football teams do it, basketball teams do it, hockey teams do it, why wouldn’t we expect baseball teams to do it. And the end result is typically the same when two teams/people stop trying 100% – the better player wins anyway, and it’s hard to tell it’s even happening.

So, long winded way of getting to a question – in lop-sided games, do pitchers throw different pitches or softer pitches than they do in identical innings in close games? Pitch F/X would show this, even if results might not.

DrBGiantsfan
Guest

How is a pitcher doing his team a disservice if he wins 7-4 vs 7-1? It does make intuitive sense that a pitcher would be less concerned about getting strikeouts, for example, than pitching to contact to cut down on the number of pitches thrown even if it means he gives up a dinger or two that doesn’t factor into the W-L.

I listened to the famous Tony Cloninger game where he it two grand slam HR’s and won the game 17-3 against the Giants. I recall in the post-game interview, Cloninger said that once he got the big lead, he threw only fastballs for the rest of the game. Maybe that meant he won the game 17-3 instead of 17-0 or 17-1, but maybe it meant he threw fewer pitches with less stress on the arm and it may have gotten the game over more quickly.

I don’t have an opinion on whether Jack Morris was able to do that enough to make a difference over the cours of a career, but it is theoretically possible, and would not be doing his team a disservice if he did.

suicide squeeze
Member
Member
suicide squeeze

There isn’t really a difference between winning 7-4 and 7-1…the difference would be the pitcher leaving the sixth inning with a 6 run lead or a 3 run lead. At that point, the other team has a much better chance of winning the game if the pitcher pitched to the score and had bad results. Yes, there’s a good chance it won’t make or break the game at that point, but you would still be hurting the team by giving up 3 runs.

I would say that it is possible that some sort of pitch to contact philosophy could work, but you’d have to have some way to suppress hitters’ babip, and I don’t think there are proven, reliable ways to do that. I know Roy Halladay has said he tries to induce grounders in lower leverage situations, but he still has a career babip around .300, and still relies on strikeouts for a lot of his outs. Also, he’s superhuman and probably shouldn’t be used as a general example.

Danmay
Guest
Danmay

@aweb & DrBGiantsfan

You both make the point that pitching to the score (i.e. pitching to contact & throwing more fastballs) could be benefial in that it can save your arm. So what?

If Jack Morris saved his arm by pitching to the score and that made him more effective in his next start (or helped extend his career) then that added effectiveness has already been accounted for in his career pitching stats.

[I don’t mean to attack either one of you, as you both brought up an interesting point, and I doubt either of you are using Morris’s ability to pitch to the score as your basis for your support of his HOF induction.]

DrBGiantsfan
Guest

Danmay,

Personally, I’d be fine with both Blylevin and Morris in the HOF. As far as I’m concerned, Morris deserves it for his WS game 7 that he pitched for the Twins against the Braves alone. Well, maybe not alone, but when you put that game up along with the rest of his very good career, that’s enough to tip the balance for me.

Anyway….

If, and I’m not saying this is a fact, but if Morris pitched in a lot more lopsided games in his career and Blylevin pitched in a lot more tight games, then you may not see the “payoff” you refer to from Morris’s low leverage innings. Of course, you could argue that Blylevin deserves more credit for pitching in more tight games.

All I’m saying is that I can see a theoretical reason why Morris might have a higher ERA over the course of his career and still be a great pitcher, because he pitched in significantly more lopsided games where he didn’t have to bear down the whole game.

Whether or not you can prove it statistically, I’ve heard enough pitchers say that once they got a big lead in a game, they went to more of a fastball only/pitch to contact strategy that I believe it happens a lot and it posssibly could be a factor in Jack Morris’ career numbers.

DrBGiantsfan
Guest

BTW, I’m basically a “big tent” guy when it comes to the HOF. As far as I’m concerned, the purity of only allowing in the best of the best was violated a long time ago.

Also, it’s the Hall of FAME, not the Hall of Statistics. Players can be famous and not necessarily put up classic HOF numbers. IMO, it would be a shame if HOF voting came down to nothing more than an analysis of statistics.

merizobeach
Guest
merizobeach

DrB, as a Giants fan you know that a six-run lead is far different from a three run lead because of the effect on the bullpen: even if the starter ends up pitching a complete game and winning by three, Bochy would likely have gotten the bullpen up and throwing at least twice, and I’d guess more.

Mat
Guest
Mat

@ DrB,

We are aware it’s not the hall of statistics, but it’s a lot easier to measure things via statistical analysis than by having Tim McCarver ascribe a scrappiness factor to a player and decide that way who is inducted. I am not sure why you do not think that because, in your opinion, the purity of voting in the best of the best was violated that voters can not correct their mistakes and do not learn from them. Even today voters have expressed dismay over past selections (look at all the pitchers from the 1930s in the hall!) and are unwilling to vote for comparable candidates.

“You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

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