Hall of Fame voting, fast and slowby Dave Studeman
January 10, 2013
The people who hold the keys to the Baseball Hall of Fame have decided to move slowly. They're not sure what to think, what with all the crazy home runs and questionable substances floating around the game a few years ago. So they're taking their time. They're not going to vote any of these big galoots into the Hall just yet.
The times were confusing; the evidence is gray. Pimpled backs and shady teammates. The voters are quite happy to let things stew for a while.
Truth is, these voters have always been slow. Only 39 players have made it into the Hall on their first ballot (outside of the initial class and a couple of special cases). Voters seem to like to use the balloting process as a way of gaining consensus—like talking over a beer, but just once a year for just a second each time. Ralph Kiner went from about 1 percent of the vote his first year to immortality his 15th year. Don't understand it? Me, neither. That's just the way these guys roll.
So we shouldn't be surprised that no one from this greatest, albeit most controversial, class ever didn't pass the threshold. Our voting representatives like to take their time, and these times were terrifically confusing. Some of the fallout was interesting, though.
Jack Morris, who seemed to be a lock to make it into the Hall after last year, stayed about even. Alan Trammell, Lee Smith and Fred McGriff lost ground. Surprisingly, Tim Raines picked up some votes. Perhaps Raines can cut through the morass in the next few years and stand for induction, along withMike Piazza, Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell. These should be easy decisions, and I think eventually they will be inducted. Or perhaps not. The backlog is going to get really jammed real soon. In the next three years, Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas, Mike Mussina, Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Gary Sheffield, John Smoltz, Ken Griffey Jr. and Jim Edmonds will be joining the fray. All of these pros have the right credentials for the Hall, and most don't have the taint of steroids around them. I really do wonder what will happen.
They say there are two systems in our brain. System 1 is the intuitive side of the brain. It's the part that doesn't require much conscious thought and that governs our automatic activities, like picking up a pencil or judging people by the clothes they wear. It is fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic and subconscious (thank you, Wikipedia). It is the part that fills in 2+2=___
Watching a baseball game is a System 1 activity. You make instant judgments about pitches, plays and the game in general. You sit back and take it in, have a beer and relax. It is one of life's pleasures.
System 2 is the analytic part of your brain. You use it when solving complicated problems, filling out tax forms or concentrating on how the pitcher pitches to a batter. It is slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating and conscious. It is the part that fills in 24*17=___
Managing a baseball game is a System 2 activity. You think about your lineup, your bench, whether to bunt, when to get your bullpen ready.
Daniel Kahneman calls System 1 "thinking fast" and System 2 "thinking slow." We improve our System 1 thinking over time through experience, by recognizing common patterns and applying them to new situations. Most of the time these patterns are correct and errors in judgment don't hurt too much, so we stick with our System 1 thinking and hone it further over time.
Think of driving a car. When you first learn to drive, it is an extreme System 2 approach. As you learn to drive, it becomes more automatic, more System 1. When you have your first accident, you move back to System 2 for a while, learn a few more things and then move slowly back to System 1. Hopefully, your System 1 has learned enough by now to keep you out of more accidents.
This is how chess masters and baseball scouts can quickly identify correct moves and good players. They have become experts in their field who rely on System 1 thinking much more than most of us, and they are often correct.
The problem is that System 1 thinking can overwhelm System 2 thinking. In fact, we often believe we're engaged in System 2 thinking when System 1 is really in charge, with its preconceptions and biases overwhelming the rational part of our minds. To quote someone rather poorly, when we use our brain we believe that we're driving a car, but we're really riding an elephant. We think we're in control, but we're really just riding along. System 1 is powering the System 2 thinking.
It seems to me that the Hall of Fame voters move slow but think fast.
Ralph Kiner wasn't a Hall of Famer to me originally but all these other guys seem to think he is so now I'll vote for him? That's associative, System 1 thinking.
What are we to make of pitcher wins? Everyone knows that teams win games and individuals help their teams win. In fact, we usually admire those who are team players, who give themselves up so the team can win. So why do we assign wins to pitchers and judge them by those wins, even when their other stats tell a different story. It's lazy thinking, System 1 thinking.
What does it mean when a hitter is "feared?" Does it mean that pitchers are afraid to throw to him, or at him? Does it mean he has a surly demeanor, or that he knows a guy who knows a guy? Even when a clear look at his statistics show that his hitting wasn't usually among the very elite of his game and his fielding was subpar? It's a heuristic. It's System 1.
What evidence is there that Craig Biggio took steroids? He had a "suspicious" increase in power at age 27 and had teammates who were associated with PEDs? That's associative, System 1 thinking, not logical System 2 thinking. Pimply back? System 1 says steroids. Lots of muscle on a small frame? System 1 again.
The steroid era was an era of collusion, in which virtually everyone involved in major league baseball implicitly encouraged the use of performance-enhancing drugs. This was an extension of a competitive frame of mind that had existed for decades. It's not that the ethical frame of mind changed in the 1990s, it's that the technology changed. Things got out of control and we are now suffering from the backlash.
The next few years will be a mess without clearer thinking. We need to change the rules. Keep players on the ballot longer, force voters to make choices (blank ballots need not be counted) by using an MVP/ranking approach and widen the voting base by including other worthy baseball observers. If you're not willing to do that, then cut down the amount of time players stay on the ballot so they move onto the Veteran's Committee more quickly.
Do something. Force System 2 thinking into the process. Get a system that will think slow and act fast.
Dave was called a "national treasure" by Rob Neyer. Seriously. Comments about this article can be sent to him through the miracle of e-mail.