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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.