Baseball's Hall of Fallacies
It's been well documented that Jon Heyman has a prejudice against, in his words, "younger people on the Internet who never saw [Bert Blyleven] play." This bigotry in and of itself is sad, but it also is a prime example of one of the most effective logical fallacies: the Ad Hominem. Essentially, as a rebuttal to an argument, one attempts to discredit the person or group of people who present the argument, without discrediting the argument.
The power of this faulty reasoning lies in its ability to change the course of the discussion. Politicians love this fallacy because it allows them to place people who disagree with their policies into negative categories. For example, one might state that proponents of gun control are elitist or out-of-touch. "It's easy," one might argue, "to be for gun control when you live in an exclusive, gated-community and can afford a fancy alarm system." "But wait," the proponent of gun control responds, "I grew up on a farm and live in a ground level apartment in a rough area of town." At this point, they have lost the argument because the debate has changed from the possible benefits or consequences of gun control, to defending one's own character.
We have seen this happen in many of the responses to Heyman's comments: "I'm 70, I saw Blyleven and yes, I use the Internet" or "those stories [Heyman] broke are really not very interesting…" These types of responses which either defend one's own character or attack Heyman's only indulge a discussion that is completely irrelevant to the merits of Blyleven's Hall of Fame candidacy. Sadly, this fallacy is often quite successful to that end.
The Ad Hominem rears its ugly head in many forms. The Circumstantial Ad Hominem is when one argues that a person only supports something because it is in their best interest to do so. One might argue that Pitcher A thinks Blyleven belongs in the Hall only because they have similar stats to Blyleven, and thus it will help their own candidacy. Again, this does not address the underlying arguments that Pitcher A may be making. One's own personal interest is irrelevant (or circumstantial) to those arguments.
The Ad Hominem Tu Quoque discredits an argument by pointing out a person's hypocrisy. For example: "Your statement that Blyleven doesn't belong because of his winning percentage is not valid because you voted for Nolan Ryan who had a lower winning percentage." The fact that someone is a hypocrite does not make their argument invalid. In this case, attention is directed away from why winning percentage is a lousy litmus test for the Hall of Fame.
Another similar fallacy is False Dilemma, which is a distortion of the logical truth P or ~P: either P is true or it is false. With False Dilemma someone will argue P or Q, as if there is some causal link between the two. An example of this fallacy is subtly used by Heyman: people either do not think Blyleven is Hall worthy (P) or they never saw him pitch (Q). The purpose of this fallacious argument is really to stop the opposing voices: either you agree with statement A or you are [fill in any insulting, degrading characterization – in Heyman's case he uses ignorance]. Now the stage has been set so that before anyone disagreeing with Statement A speaks up, they are perceived in a negative way or thought of as sympathizers to a negative group. Often, the discussion will skip right to the insulting characterization as in the following exchange: "I disagree with gun control." "Oh, so you're a hick." Notice that the following fallacious statement is implied here, but never actually stated: either you support gun control or you are a hick. Now the argument can move to a discussion of a person's character without ever having to address the reasons why the person disagrees with gun control.
Another common fallacy used in Hall of Fame discussions is the Relativist Fallacy: stating that something is true in certain situations but not others. With Blyleven, we often hear that he isn't Hall worthy because of his low career winning percentage. When it is pointed out that he has a higher winning percentage than Nolan Ryan, the Relativist Fallacy follows: that doesn't apply to Ryan because Ryan got to 300 wins.
My point with all of this is not to further the Blyleven arguments, Rich and Sully have already done a tremendous job of that. My purpose is to point out that it is extremely difficult to engage in ANY Hall of Fame discussion without running headfirst into a logical fallacy. Take the common argument against Blyleven or for Rice: "he just didn’t feel like a Hall of Famer," or "he was one of the most feared hitters of his time." Both of these arguments are the logical fallacy Appeal to Emotion, whereby emotion is used as evidence of fact. Perhaps it really felt that way to some people at the time but feelings are not facts and often run counter to reality (as statistical analysis has shown with Jim Rice).
Consider the argument that, if Jim Rice goes into the Hall of Fame, then dozens of other similar players also have to be considered and presumably, these dozens of other players are not Hall worthy. This fallacy is known as Appeal to Consequences of a Belief. The consequences of Jim Rice going into the Hall of Fame are not evidence that he does not belong. Furthermore, let's assume that BBWAA got it wrong with Rice and he does not belong. That does not mean that the BBWAA now has to get it wrong with the dozens of similar players that do not belong.
I wondered at the fact that Appeal to Emotion, Appeal to Consequences and Relativist Fallacy are so often considered good evidence of Hall of Fame candidacy. I then went to the Hall of Fame website and looked up the BBWAA rules for election. Any player who played for at least 10 years is eligible to be voted on. However, this is the only guidance given with regards to voting: "voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played." It also goes on to state there are no automatic elections for outstanding achievements.
Essentially, there are no base standards for Hall of Fame induction. The election system itself is based on the logical fallacy Appeal to Belief: if a certain percentage of a group believe something to be true, then it must be true. Therefore, if 75% of the BBWAA believe someone is a Hall of Famer, they are a Hall of Famer. It is amazing to me that the previous sentence is both a fact and a logical fallacy.
In some ways, it's disheartening to look at the Hall of Fame in this light. It seems that, when talking about the Hall of Fame, all logical arguments reach a dead end. Lacking any concrete standards, all Hall of Fame discussions are eventually reduced to irrational arguments. Furthermore, because there is no logical basis for Hall of Fame entry, examining those who are already in the Hall offers no help. In fact, relying on the current members would also be a logical fallacy: Biased Sample, whereby conclusions are drawn from a sample that is unreliable.
So how can we change the course of the dialogue surrounding the Hall of Fame? I believe that first and foremost we need a logical basis from which to begin. It's time that we reevaluate what it actually means to be a Hall of Famer. A set of minimum, objective standards would help to mute much of the illogical cacophony out there today. While I would leave the actual standards up to someone more qualified than I; it should probably start somewhere with ERA+, OPS+ and win shares: stats that can be used across the many different eras of baseball. Certainly, the standards will be hard to agree upon in the first place and will probably be heavily criticized and even outright rejected by the BBWAA (if not completely ignored). However, without a logical foundation to the Hall, all emotional and irrational arguments will continue to be relied upon and Jon Heyman's gut feeling will have more influence than statistical analysis.
Heyman is not alone in his hostility toward a growing demand for more concrete and quantifiable measures of greatness. But his comments underscore that there has been a real shift in the way baseball is being viewed. No longer are fantastical, unquantifiable and largely indefensible beliefs (such as Derek Jeter being a Gold-Glove caliber shortstop) acceptable to a growing number of baseball fans. Whether or not this change originated with "younger people on the Internet" is irrelevant. The fact is that the current method of evaluation is based upon flawed logic and is being met with discontent. Any attempt to marginalize that discontent should consistently be met with the very thing it cannot handle: more sound, logical thinking.
Conor Gallagher is a paralegal in Chicago, IL. He is also an aspiring winemaker with dreams of moving to California this summer. His passion for baseball and baseball statistics in particular began at the age of eight or so when his father taught him how to keep box scores and they would play APBA together.