I received my copy of The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2010 (THTBA) more than a month ago, but a variety of circumstances have conspired to postpone its review until now. One obvious reason for its delay is the depth and breadth of written coverage within the annual itself, which as you might imagine takes quite a bit longer to read than, say, scanning some tables of stats. While most other annuals rely on dense statistical offerings to sell their product, THTBA features literally dozens of original articles on baseball history, statistical analysis, and general baseball commentary. There are plenty of stats, too, but since most if not all of them are available gratis on the Hardball Times website, I'm going to focus on the original writing (if you dig their online stats offerings, though, you're bound to like them in book form).
In past THTBA reviews I have more-or-less given a rundown of every article with little more than a single line of summation for each. I'm going to switch things up this time and pick out one of my favorite articles from this year's edition to focus on, and then point out a couple of others that I found of particular interest.
"The Content Of Their Character" by Jack Marshall
This timely and important piece by Jack Marshall of ProEthics takes a different approach to defining a player's candidacy for the baseball hall of fame. The locus of Marshall's argument draws its inspiration from the official voting rules placed before the BBWAA.
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.
Apparently, the overseers of the hall never intended its inductees to be granted entry based solely on their on-field legacies. I think we all understand and agree with this tacitly to some extent: given two players of equivalent accomplishment, the boy scout gets the nod over the dbag. Marshall takes this approach one step further by discarding the either-or comparison altogether, arguing that an indvidual's credentials for the hall should be bound, not insignificantly, to his character. His methodology is surprisingly well-developed, too.
For starters, Marshall begins with a 'hierarchy' of character impact, stretching from low -- 'pre-career negative conduct' -- to high -- 'during major league career (during a game)' -- expressly stating that a player's behavior carries with it more gravitas the more closely it coincides with his playing career, the logical conclusion of which is behavior during a particular game (positive or negative). This is to suggest that a shoplifting conviction while a player-to-be was in high school is of less consequence to his hall candidacy than the same conviction occurring while he was an active ballplayer (or, unlikely but somehow worse, in the middle of a game!). How we are to weight incongruous offenses -- pre-career domestic violence versus mid-career tax evasion -- isn't so cut-and-dried.
Marshall goes on to cite specific 'disqualifying conduct' events, such as first-degree murder, kidnapping, and armed robbery, that would instantly nullify any and all on-field accomplishments. Mixed within this list are terminal baseball transgressions like gambling on/throwing a game, which are only meaningfully wrong within the universe of baseball law and are certainly far less destructive to the societal fabric than, say, rape or treason. He also discusses several 'gray' events, like animal abuse, spousal abuse, or 'demonstrable bigotry or racism', which might be candidates for 'disqualifying conduct' but by most ethical measures aren't quite as pernicious as the aforementioned cardinal offenses.
Bad behavior wouldn't be so 'bad' if it weren't juxtaposed against good behavior, so to that end Marshall provides a list of 'good conduct' that could be used to offset non-disqualifying conduct, e.g. community service, special acts of herosim, or even 'unusual hustle', the latter of which is deemed to be second only to 'team leadership' on the descending scale of positive non-baseball contributions. Does running to first base after drawing a walk counterbalance the funding of a dog fighting cartel? Also on the strange side, Marshall lists 'flagrant use of PEDs' to be significantly worse than 'tipping pitches to the opposition', among other things. While I might quibble with the order of the list, there is surely a hierarchy of some sort and Marshall gets credit for at least making an effort to enumerate it here.
Though I'm not sure Marshall's article will incite many to drastically change their perspective on hall of fame evaluations, the fact that the HOF itself includes character traits on its list of entry requirements means we should at least be paying attention to those aspects of each player's candidacy. Non-baseball behavior -- good or bad -- is an important qualifier for consideration to be counted among the game's immortals, but unless we're talking about capital-level offenses I think most would agree that philanthropy (and, conversely, douchebaggery) are of considerably less import than actual baseball accomplishments.
"The Year The Players Were Set Free" by Craig Brown
This article by Craig Brown of Royals Authority (and Hardball Times) is just a wonderful capsule of free agency's incipience in the early-to-mind seventies, beginning with Curt Flood, advanced by Catfish Hunter, and finally achieved by Andy Messersmith. Brown goes into considerable detail in describing the events that led to the dissolution of baseball's reserve clause and the sport's reluctant embrace of the free market, as well as the growing pains and short-term casualties of the new system.
"Hit Tracker 2009" by Greg Rybarczyk
Our friend Greg from Hit Tracker returns to the THTBA with a review of 2009's homeruns (this past season's longballs traveled two feet farther on average than 2008's). Greg also covers the league's new ballparks -- Citi Field and Yankee Stadium III -- and their effects on homeruns relative to the parks they replaced (Shea Stadium and Yankee Stadium II, respectively). We looked at the mid-season Citi Field results back in June, but now we have the final season numbers.
- The Mets hit 27 non-homerun flyballs in 2009 that would have been homeruns at Shea. Only three of those became flyouts.
- Mets opponents hit 37 non-homerun flyballs in 2009 that would have been homeruns at Shea. Thirteen of them became flyouts.
- Two homeruns were hit at Citi Field in 2009 that would have been non-homeruns at Shea Stadium. Both were hit by Chase Utley.
If you have a little bit of Festivus cash lying around and aren't quite sure what to spend it on, there are far worse investments than The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2010. I guarantee if you sit down with this book for a few hours you will emerge a smarter, more knowledgeable baseball fan. Support the authors and the publisher by purchasing directly from ACTA Sports.