BBWAA Watchdog is dedicated to exploring the voting records of the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Their general secrecy about their members, their refusal to open their ranks to journalists outside of the print media, and, primarily, their awful voting history for baseball's highest awards, demand that their collective words and deeds be documented and critically examined.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Case Study - Tracy Ringolsby

Okay, enough playing nice. Time to get the muscles working again by dissecting another flawed Hall of Fame voter. Today's selection: former BBWAA president and 2005 recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, Tracy Ringolsby of The Rocky Mountain News. That's right; we're taking on a Hall of Famer. Hey, just because he has credentials as a writer doesn't mean he's got credentials as a voter.

I decided to target Ringolsby after reading
his take on the outcome of the Veterans' Committee voting earlier this year. In short, Ringolsby is one of those guys who feels that the VC's failure to elect anyone validates the past work of the BBWAA. Clearly, according to Ringolsby, the BBWAA must have been doing a stellar job if the Veterans couldn't find a single player worthy of election.

That, my friends, is what I call a crock of crap.

Look, I'm sure Tracy Ringolsby is a nice man who works hard at his job as a writer and puts honest effort into his Hall of Fame ballots. I don't get the sense that he exercises personal vendettas against players he didn't like, and I greatly admire the fact that he has chosen to remain a beat writer and attend games in person on a regular basis. Baseball is clearly his sport, and it's nice that he recognizes that.

That said, I think he's pretty much the poster child for why writers shouldn't be allowed to vote. The fact that his fellow voters not only don't agree with that sentiment, but consider him such a model of sports writing and Hall of Fame voting to elect him president of their association AND elect him to the Hall of Fame, tells me that the BBWAA, collectively, doesn't know a damned thing.

In the future, there will be a post about exactly how moronic it is to argue that the Veterans Committee’s recent actions validate the BBWAA’s past results. For now, let’s look at Ringolsby himself. Here are
a few direct quotes from Ringolsby about some of his past voting practices, followed by a bit of commentary from me on each.

"I feel (Dave) Concepcion was a dominant player at his position in his time, very underrated for intangibles…"

Ringolsby must have a funny definition of "dominant". Looking at a 30-year period, from 1965 through 1994, which encompasses Concepcion’s entire career plus a few extra seasons before and after he played, Concepcion just doesn't have any kind of case for being the "dominant" shortstop in his time. For example, he didn't lead his position in, well, anything. There is not one positive offensive statistic in which
Dave Concepcion was at the top of the list of all the shortstops who played in his era.

The one thing he did better than anyone else was just stay on the field. He played a lot of games, 2488, to be exact, more than any other pure shortstop of this time period, trailing only
Robin Yount among players who were classified as shortstops for their careers. And all of those games did, in fact, let him rack up lots of counting numbers. Among his shortstop peers, he was third in hits and fourth in several categories, including doubles, extra base hits, RBI, stolen bases, and total bases.

But it should also be noted that despite playing the most games of any shortstop of this era, Concepcion was just 9th in home runs, 7th in walks, 6th in runs, 5th in runs created, and tied for 15th in triples. His career batting average was worse than eight other shortstops of this period, including
Rick Burleson and Garry Templeton and Tony Fernandez. His career on-base percentage was 16th, trailing such offensive juggernauts as Ivan DeJesus, Spike Owen, Chris Speier, and Bud Harrelson. His career slugging percentage of .357 was twelfth, behind world-famous boppers like Burleson, Templeton and Leo Cardenas. His OPS was .679, good for just tenth among his peers. Rico Petrocelli’s was better. So were Roy Smalley’s and Jim Fregosi’s.

What’s more, while Concepcion was an outstanding fielder (6 Gold Gloves, 107 career Rate and 134 career Fielding Runs Above Average according to
Baseball Prospectus), he wasn’t the dominant defensive shortstop of his day. That would be Ozzie Smith, who won all 13 of his Gold Gloves in this time period, including nine while Concepcion was still active, and had better career Rate (111) and Fielding Runs Above Average (270) scores. Heck, Mark Belanger has similar defensive stats during this era (8 Gold Gloves, 107 Rate, 112 RAA) and I don’t see anyone calling his defense “dominant”. The same could be said for Tony Fernandez (4 Gold Gloves, 108 Rate, 119 RAA).

Sorry, but "dominant" just doesn’t apply. Great fielder, good clubhouse guy, a winner in the post-season. All true. But "dominant"? Puh-lease.

"A left-handed hitter at Fenway Park probably has as much a stat edge as any hitter at Coors Field."

This came up in the context of Ringolsby explaining why he didn’t rate
Wade Boggs as highly as most voters. More on that in a moment, but for now let’s explore just this statement by itself. Maybe this is the Cheyenne-born and -bred Ringolsby’s “homer” moment, born of a love of all things in the Mountain Time Zone, but what a dumb statement.

Let’s start with the obvious fact that Coors Field is widely considered
the most hitter-friendly ballpark in history. It has been open for 13 years, and has never had a park factor for hitters lower than 107 and has been as high as 131. It has averaged a park factor of 120, which means that the park boosts offense in general by 20%. For Wade Boggs’ 11 seasons in Boston, Fenway Park never had a park factor higher than 107 for a full season. The average was 105, so already we see that for Ringolsby’s statement to be true there has to be a massive difference between how Fenway plays for righties versus lefties.

Thankfully, studies on this subject exist.
One analysis of Fenway from 1992-2001 showed that while lefties’ batting averages surged by 8% in Fenway, their home run numbers suffered by a much larger amount, about 14% on average. So while Fenway might help with a lefty’s total number of hits, it will sap his slugging percentage by a great deal. In an article earlier this year on the Baseball Prospectus web site, the following was noted: “Fenway rates as a 903 for left-handed power (with 1000 being average); Only AT&T Park has a lower score.” This was confirmed in The Bill James Handbook 2007, where it was noted that during the 2006 season, lefties’ batting averages are helped 5% in Fenway, but their home run power is reduced by 31%.

So, in essence, while lefties do have some advantages in Fenway Park, notably in their batting average and in the number of doubles they hit, they come nowhere close to the average advantage gained by hitters in Coors Field. And that’s before we account for Fenway’s tendency to sap left-handers’ home run power. In other words, Ringolsby couldn’t be more wrong.

"I don't think of Boggs among the dominant players at his position during his era, much less all time."

Before getting into Ringolsby’s iffy definition of “dominant” again, let’s address Boggs specifically when it comes to the Fenway Park factor discussed above. There is no doubt that Wade Boggs was greatly helped by Fenway Park. Not being a power hitter, the disadvantages of being a lefty in Fenway largely didn’t affect him, while he was better able than most to take advantage of Fenway’s benefits. For his career,
Boggs stat line in Fenway was .369/.464/.527, compared to .306/.388/.398 everywhere else. Clearly, he loved the Fens.

Now, let’s note exactly what that means. It means that Wade Boggs was a .300 hitter even when he didn’t play in Fenway Park. It means that if you extrapolate his non-Fenway numbers out to the full length of his career (2440 games), you still have a player with 2826 hits (44th all-time, between
Charlie Gehringer and George Sisler), 1383 runs (tied for 85th all-time with Tony Gwynn), 440 doubles (tied with Roberto Clemente, among others, for 92nd all-time), 1289 walks (38th all-time, ahead of Al Kaline, Ty Cobb, Dave Winfield, Cal Ripken and a host of other Hall of Famers), a .306 average and .388 on-base percentage. His career OPS would have been .786 at a time when the normalized league average was .750, and that’s without the benefit of playing a single home game.

He would still have a pair of Gold Gloves, would still have a slew of All-Star appearances and would still have a World Championship ring. In his Fenway seasons, here is how some of his road batting averages would have finished in the league standings:

1982 – 1st
1983 – 2nd
1985 – 3rd
1986 – 1st
1988 – 2nd

Gee, “only” two batting titles to go along with three other top-3 finishes. What a sham. He also still would have led the league in on-base percentage twice, with several other top-10 finishes. And, again, this would be on the presumption that he played every single game on the road.

I think it’s pretty clear that if Wade Boggs had never set foot in Fenway Park, his career numbers still would have been worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. At the time of his election, the average third baseman in the Hall of Fame had played 2097 games, with 2289 hits, 1192 runs, 404 doubles, 227 homers, 1210 RBI, 804 walks, a .292 batting average, .359 on-base percentage, .455 slugging percentage and .814 OPS. With the exception of the power numbers, Boggs comfortably exceeds all of those figures. And that brings us to Ringolsby’s next point.

"Boggs was a corner infielder. For him to be dominant, in my opinion -- and it's just my opinion -- he had to be a power guy."

So, in Tracy Ringolsby’s world, only third basemen with power numbers provide enough value to be serious Hall of Fame candidates. Without that, their case is fatally flawed.

This is exactly the kind of thinking that kept Boggs in the minor leagues for so long to begin with. He didn’t fit the stereotype for bashing hot corner players, so the Red Sox didn’t give him any regular playing time until he was 25-years old, despite massive minor league success. In Boggs’ last five minor league seasons, these were his on-base percentages - .424, .403, .422, .401, .438, and these were his batting averages - .332, .311, .325, .306, .335. By the way, the last two of those seasons were full years in Triple A, so I’m not sure where else they expected him to prove he wasn’t a fluke. It could fairly be argued that the Red Sox cost Boggs another 200-300 hits for his career by not calling him up and giving him the third base job when he was clearly ready to play.

But Ringolsby apparently agrees with this logic, feeling that Boggs had the fatal flaw of not having home run power, making him a poor man’s third baseman. According to Ringolsby, these namby-pamby on-base guys can only be afforded at third base if the team is getting power from an unexpected source, like catcher, shortstop or center field. Of course, he then failed to do his homework and uncover that the Red Sox were getting exactly that. In Boggs’ first year as the regular third baseman, the Red Sox got 36 homers out of their center fielder,
Tony Armas. They got 43 from Armas the next season, along with 24 from their catcher, Rich Gedman. This was a regular trend. During Boggs’ 11 seasons in Boston, here’s how the team finished in slugging percentage each year:

1982 – 7th
1983 – 7th
1984 – 1st
1985 – 2nd
1986 – 7th
1987 – 3rd
1988 – 2nd
1989 – 1st
1990 – 3rd
1991 – 4th
1992 – 13th, after which the club promptly dumped Boggs.

Gee, that no-power third baseman really sapped the club’s power numbers, didn’t he?

See, it’s this kind of crap I find so irritating about Ringolsby and voters like him. They take a stance on a player, based on some personal set of criteria, and then they never both to check whether those criteria are valid. According to Ringolsby, Boggs didn’t get his Hall of Fame vote because he was a creature of Fenway and didn’t provide enough power for a “power” position. And yet the actual facts, had he bothered to look them up, would have pointed to Boggs having Hall-worthy numbers even if he never played a game in Fenway Park and would have shown that the last thing the Red Sox were lacking during Boggs’ playing days was power.

In other words, he’s just plain wrong, but he’d rather blindly stick to his silly personal criteria than actually give his role of Hall of Fame voter the work and respect that it deserves.

“I never felt Boggs was a threat in game situations, much like
Rod Carew, and I'm sure this will be another black mark against me, but I didn't vote for Carew either.”

You’re right Tracy, that is another black mark against you. How can anyone who knows anything about baseball claim that Rod Carew wasn’t a “threat in game situations”? In exactly what kind of situations was Carew somehow not threatening?
Here’s a few. I wonder if they meet Ringolsby’s criteria for “game situations”:

  • Being a lefty, I can envision opposing managers regularly bringing in a left-handed pitcher to face Carew when they needed an out. Carew hit .310 against lefties for his career. Maybe that isn’t threatening enough for Ringolsby.

  • On the road, where clubs typically have a harder time scoring, Carew’s career numbers were .323/.385/.425.

  • In September and October, when the games typically have more meaning, Carew’s career numbers were .318/.384/.410.

  • When leading off an inning, an obviously key game situation, one in which Carew could have been particularly useful given his speed, his career numbers were .319/.381/.430.

  • With runners in scoring position, perhaps the very “game situation” Ringolsby was referring to, Carew was an obvious threat, posting career stats of .339/.428/.438.

  • With the bases loaded, a pretty critical game situation, Carew was even better, .366/.382/.546.

  • With two outs in an inning, again, an obviously critical game situation, Carew’s career line was .318/.396/.409.

  • Regardless of the score, Carew was eerily consistent in his success. When the score was within 4 runs either way, Carew hit .328/.393/.427. Within three runs he hit .325/.392/.423. Within two runs, .327/.394/.426. Within one run, .322/.391/.420. When the score was tied, he hit .323/.391/.417.

  • With two outs and runners in scoring position, perhaps the most critical, clutch “game situation” a player can face, Carew hit .310/.427/.394.

  • In extra innings, Carew hit .333/.441/.438.

  • Versus relief pitchers, who are specifically sent in to retire people like Rod Carew, he hit .332/.410/.424.

  • In 1969, when the Twins won the AL West crown, their primary competition was Oakland. Carew hit .329/.365/.543 against Oakland that season. The following year, when that beat out Oakland again for the division title, Carew hit .474/.500/.474 against the A’s.

  • In 1976, when the Twins were in a pennant race with the A’s and Royals for most of the season, Carew hit .379/.453/.515 against Oakland and .367/.415/.500 against Kansas City.

  • In 1979, when Carew’s Angels team won the AL West title by just three games over the three-time defending division champion Royals, he hit .348/.483/.391 against Kansas City.

  • In 1982, when he Angels again beat out the Royals by just three games for the division title, Carew hit .333/.400/.500 versus Kansas City.

Maybe Ringolsby is thinking of other “game situations”, or maybe he sees the above numbers and doesn’t consider any of them “threatening”. Either way, it doesn’t speak well of his voting record to leave a man like Rod Carew off his ballot.

"Jack Morris has always been an easy choice for me. He was the pitcher that you wanted on the mound in a big game throughout his career. He had that extra sense of how to win. He didn't let big games get away from him."

Jack Morris didn’t let the big games get away from him? Then, I guess Game 5 of the 1992 World Series wasn’t a big game. You remember that one, right? It was the game where Morris gave up a first inning run to put his team in a hole, only to have them tie the score an inning later. After that, he promptly put his team down again by giving up a lead-off homer to David Justice in the fourth inning. After his team picked him by tying the score in the bottom if the fourth, Morris promptly put his team down for the third and final time the very next inning. He retired the first two hitters and was one out away from getting his team to the plate in a tie ballgame when the next five guys up went single-steal-single-double-walk-grand slam.

The common story that Jack Morris was a money pitcher whose mediocre career ERA was due to him "pitching to the score”, who could turn it on and be a bulldog in big games, is just a myth. To be sure, Morris absolutely had his moments. In seven career World Series starts, he had six quality starts, with just the one 1992 game mentioned above being a bust. But it should be noted that Morris had just two quality starts in six tries in the League Championship Series. (In fact, in one of his poorer ALCS starts,
Morris was soundly outpitched by Bert Blyleven. More on him in a moment.)

Morris also failed numerous times in late-season, pressure-filled pennant races. On September 25th, 1981, the Tigers woke up with a one-game lead in a tight AL East race. Morris took the mound that day and gave up eight runs to Milwaukee, the eventual division champion. His horrible outing included him surrendering four runs in the top of the first, only to see his team battle back and take a 6-5 lead into the ninth, whereupon Morris, one out away from victory, plunked
Paul Molitor with a pitch and then gave up a game-winning three-run homer to Robin Yount. The Tigers lost their one-game lead and never got it back, ultimately missing the playoffs.

In 1987, with his club holding the slimmest of leads over the
Toronto Blue Jays with just a couple of weeks to play, Morris turned in a series of stinkers. On September 20th, be gave up 6 runs and took the loss against Milwaukee, cutting Detroit’s lead to just a half-game. Four days later, with his club having surrendered their lead to Toronto, Morris faced the Blue Jays in Toronto with first place on the line. He walked an astounding eight hitters and after his club had taken a 2-0 lead with two runs in the top of the third, Morris promptly surrendered the lead by giving up four runs on four hits, two walks, and a wild pitch in the bottom of that inning. The Tigers couldn’t recover and lost the game, falling to 1.5 games out of first. Four days later, with his club now trailing by 2.5 games and desperate for a win, Morris took the mound against a bad Baltimore team that was just 2-17 in their previous 19 games. Morris surrendered the lead in the third inning and walked five on his way to a loss to the far-from-immortal John Habyan. In his final game of the season just five days later, after the Tigers had clawed their way back to a flat-footed tie with the Blue Jays, Morris promptly put his club behind in a head-to-head matchup with their rivals by surrendering a run in the very first inning. When his team tied the score an inning later, Morris promptly put them behind again by surrendering another run in the fifth. Though the Tigers eventually tied the score again, and hung on to win the game in twelve innings, Morris was soundly outpitched by Mike Flanagan. Morris gave up eight hits and five walks in nine innings, while striking out just six, compared to Flanagan’s yeoman 11 innings of work, with only eight hits and two walks surrendered while striking out nine. If not for Mike Henneman shutting down the Blue Jays for the final three innings, Detroit likely would have fallen a game out of first with just one to play.

The very next year,
Detroit held the lead in the AL East for most of the summer, and on August 21st their record stood at 73-50, in first place by four games over Boston. The team then went 5-19 over their next 24 games, surrendering the lead and falling five games out of first. During this stretch, Morris started five games and posted an abysmal ERA of 5.57. He allowed 52 baserunners in just 32.1 innings.

Yup, a real big-game pitcher that Jack Morris. Never let those big games get away from him.

Ringolsby is guilty of a classic case of selective memory. He recalls Morris’ finer moments, like his
ten-inning shutout of the Braves to clinch the 1991 World Series, and stamps him with the “big-game pitcher” label, despite the fact that there really isn’t any difference at all between Morris’ regular season stats and his “big-game” stats, and despite numerous, documented instances of Morris screwing the pooch in big games.

A little research would be a marvelous curative, but I guess Ringolsby don’t need no stinkin’ research. Nope, he’s got Jack Morris slotted for immortality, comfortably oblivious to the fact that the most similar pitcher to Morris in baseball history is
Dennis Martinez.

Wins: Morris, 254; Martinez, 245
Starts: Morris, 527; Martinez, 562
Innings: Morris, 3824; Martinez, 3999.2
ERA: Morris, 3.90; Martinez, 3.70
ERA+: Morris, 104; Martinez, 106
Strikeouts: Morris, 2478; Martinez, 2149
Shutouts: Morris, 28; Martinez, 30
WHIP: Morris, 1.296; Martinez, 1.266
Post-Season ERA: Morris, 3.80; Martinez, 3.32

Hey, who knows? Maybe Ringolsby is one of the 16 voters who thought Martinez belonged in the Hall in his
only year on the ballot in 2004. In fact, that wouldn’t surprise me at all.

"I felt Blyleven was a pretty darn good pitcher but never felt he was dominating or intimidating or the best in the game."

There’s that word again, “dominating”. Apparently it’s one of Ringolsby’s primary criteria when he casts his Hall of Fame votes, and he doesn’t feel that
Bert Blyleven had it.

Now, keep in mind that Ringolsby admits he voted for
Luis Tiant. That's Luis. Tiant. Now, I loved Luis. Wildly entertaining. Gutsy. But was Luis Tiant dominating, or intimidating, or the best in the game? Umm, let me just say "no" for all of us and move along.

Also keep in mind that Ringolsby admits he voted for
Jim Kaat. Jim “No One In My Life Ever Called Me Dominating or Intimidating” Kaat. I’ve pointed out this discrepancy between Kaat and Blyleven before, but let’s do so again for the sake of clarity.

Wins: Blyleven, 287; Kaat, 283
Starts: Blyleven, 685; Kaat, 625
Complete Games: Blyleven, 242; Kaat, 180
Shutouts: Blyleven, 60; Kaat, 31
Innings: Blyleven, 4970; Kaat, 4530.1
Strikeouts: Blyleven, 3701; Kaat, 2461
ERA: Blyleven, 3.31; Kaat, 3.45
ERA+: Blyleven, 118; Kaat, 107
WHIP: Blyleven, 1.198; Kaat, 1.259
Top-10 Cy Young finishes: Blyleven, 4; Kaat, 1
Oh by the way: Blyleven, two World Series titles; Kaat, one.

For good measure, these are their respective post-season records:

Kaat: 9 games, 5 starts, 1-3, 4.01 ERA, 1.541 WHIP, 10 strikeouts in 24.2 innings
Blyleven: 8 games, 6 starts, 5-1, 2.47 ERA, 1.077 WHIP, 36 strikeouts in 47.1 innings

(Quick aside: Isn’t it funny that Jack Morris’ career post-season mark of 7-4 with an ERA of 3.80 and a WHIP of 1.245 gives him the title of “big-game pitcher”, but Blyleven’s 5-1, 2.47 ERA, 1.077 WHIP gets him nothing?)

Clearly, Blyleven had better numbers than Kaat (I’m not even going to bother with Tiant’s), and there’s no way in the world Jim Kaat fits the Ringolsby criterion of being “dominant” or “intimidating”. So, in essence, he decided to vote for an inferior pitcher for the Hall of Fame because he made one extra All-Star team during his career and
won a ton of Gold Gloves. That’s neat, and I’m sure Jim Kaat is every bit the gentleman I’ve always heard, but given the insignificance of defense from the pitcher, I’m afraid I just don’t see how Ringolsby’s stance is justified.

In fact, I think that this kind of random voting pattern, where a good player doesn’t get his vote while a lesser player does, is an abuse of the voting power Ringolsby and the other writers have been granted. In a private moment, I think Tracy Ringolsby, the hardcore baseball fan and personal witness to thousands of games, would tell you that Bert Blyleven was a better pitcher than Jim Kaat. If that’s the case, then he’s abusing his voting power by not casting his vote for the player he thinks is better.

And if he doesn’t admit that Blyleven was better than Kaat, then he’s either lying (which I doubt), or he just has no clue how to evaluate the career accomplishments of baseball players.

Either way, he should have his voting privileges pulled.

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