Rich and Buster

Rich Lederer and Buster Olney have been debating the Hall of Fame qualifications of Jim Rice in an open manner, swapping points back and forth in their blogs. You can read Rich’s latest post, which includes a fair rendition of Olney’s arguments, at his blog. Their willingness to continue their debate in the open air of the Internets is valuable for all of us.

Now, I’m as sick of the endless Hall of Fame debates as anyone, but something in Olney’s argument stopped me from working on the THT Season Preview for a couple of minutes to investigate something he implied: that Rice shouldn’t be held accountable for his relatively low OBP because people didn’t “know” that walks were so valuable when he played.

This implies a number of things that bother me. One, that a player like Rice could dramatically change his batting approach based on sportswriters’ expectations. Two (and more importantly), that the game was somehow “different” back in the 1970s and 1980s, and a different set of skills was required to be successful. I’m not sure Olney meant to imply either point, but I think they’re both wrong.

Yet I was curious as to his primary point: that teams and batters value walks more than they used to. If true, then might batters be walking more than in the past? That would seem to reinforce his point, wouldn’t it? So I did a little digging…

Here is the walk rate (walks per plate appearance) for the past several decades, going back to the 1950s:

Decade            BB         PA    BB/PA
1950-1959      88,209    952,718    9.3%
1960-1969     100,046  1,209,457    8.3%
1970-1979     130,770  1,510,768    8.7%
1980-1989     131,164  1,551,695    8.5%
1990-1999     148,096  1,667,943    8.9%
2000-2007     129,534  1,502,688    8.6%

As you can see, batters actually walked more in the 1950s than in any decade since. In fact, the walk rate of the current decade is slightly below the overall average of 8.7% (which is also the average of the 1970s, Rice’s prime decade).

Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that walks aren’t more highly valued now. For instance, pitchers may be trying harder to avoid walks than in the past, making the overall average flat. But the point would remain: Rice didn’t achieve a high OBP in a time when batters walked at the same rate they do now.

I’m pretty sure Olney meant to imply something else: that MVP voters didn’t recognize the value of OBP in the 1970s, and they do today. This is the “MVP angle” that you find people using in their Hall of Fame arguments—that we should all use MVP voting as a basis for inducting players into the Hall. In other words, we should perpetuate historic mistakes.

Now, why would we want a Hall of Fame like that?

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Based on all of this, why would we care today that Buster’s going to abstain from HOF voting? It’s not about how the Hall treats roiders or anything other than Buster’s a “big Hall” guy and he’s sad he can’t cram Cooperstown full of borderline players.