Hall of Fame voting, fast and slow

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.

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  1. Scottso said...

    The problem with voters are the ones who say, “I won’t vote for anyone from this era.”
    And several of them did write that yesterday.

    The question to them is, when did this era start and when did it stop?

    No one knows for sure.

    To me, as long as Major League Baseball, the writers, the players and the owners allowed performance enhancing stuff then lets stop being babies.

    PEDs are a disadvantage for those that don’t ‘PED’.  But MLB allowed it.  Guess what?  Armor on your arms, and on your legs, and indestructible helmets are an unfair advantage for those players that played in earlier errors.  Pain medicine is an unfair advantage.  Bigger gloves.  Best Tech, better health, Domes, smaller fields.

  2. Steve said...

    @ Brad Johnson

    Why do Biggio’s numbers not strike you as HOF material?

    How about 5th all time in doubles, and almost 300 HR…….for a leadoff hitter. Those 3000 hits are nice too, but I’m more of a peak guy than a counting guy.

    Wanna talk peak? check 1995-1999 for Biggio.  Monster numbers. Fabulous triple slash. Routinely scoring 120+ runs.

    Oh, and this guy was a gold glove catcher and 2B.  Played a little centerfield too….

    Swiped over 400 bases.

    Tell me, what else could this man have done to make it into your HOF?

  3. Brad Johnson said...

    I don’t think he’s not a hall of famer. I just don’t think he HAS to be in there. He’s a guy who was 15% above league average as a hitter for his career (more around 40% at his peak). A lot of the guys below him on the ballot had a much more potent offensive profile (granted at weaker defensive positions).

    It is very easy to make a case for Biggio. I can do it with one name – Ryne Sandberg. If Sandberg is HoF, then Biggio is HoF. However, I wouldn’t consider the Hall of Fame to be a mockery if Biggio happened to not get in.

    And let’s be honest, the voting results say that Biggio is already in the HoF. He’ll just have to wait a year or two for induction and avoid steroid allegations.

  4. Brad Johnson said...

    I’m not sure I’m anywhere on the small-big hall spectrum. I think there are certain rare generational talents that have to be in the hall of fame for such an institution to have any legitimacy.

    Then there are a bunch of players who could be in the hall but don’t have to be. It’s no skin off my back if they do or don’t make it.

    Really, my above arguments come down to this: I have a contrarian streak. If I had a ballot, I would have filled out all 10 slots.

  5. studes said...

    So you think Bonds, Clemens, Biggio, Bagwell, and Piazza all fall somewhere between the Hall of Very Good and the Hall of Fame?  But you would have voted for ten guys? You’re not only a contrarian, you’re a self-contrarian!

  6. Brad Johnson said...

    When I referred to the backlog, I meant the repeat names, not the first timers. I consider Bonds and Clemens among those players who must be in the Hall and Biggio and Piazza are very strong candidates.

    While I would vote for at least Bagwell, Raines, Martinez, Walker, and McGwire (the latter two could even get bumped for others if I did more research on it), I don’t think they have to be in the Hall. I think their cases are all fringy to some degree with some obviously better than others. I’d like to see them in there, but won’t lose sleep if they fall short.

    Schilling would have been the other name on my ballot besides the 9 above.

  7. Paul G. said...

    Do keep in mind that there are lots of voters involved here.  The aggregate result of all their votes does not necessarily reveal the thought process of each individual voter.  Groups of very serious, analytic, dare I say logical people, when tossed into a group, can produce sub-optimal results.  As they say, none of us is as dumb as all of us.

    As I commented on another article, we may be experiencing a logjam situation similar to what happened in the 1940s.  There are too many qualified candidates and there are sets of voters that refuse to vote for a certain set of candidates.  In the 40s it was the “old timers” gumming up the works, now it is the PED users in particular and, to a less extent, the PED generation in general.

    Whether this is going to be a serious problem or not should become clear next year.  If they enshrine 3-5 players then we should be fine.  If it ends up as Maddux and Glavine only, that’s not a good sign.  If it is Maddux only or, forbid, nobody then do not be surprised if there are reforms forthcoming.

  8. Greg Simons said...

    Greg Maddux is a great example of a player who should be a unanimous first-ballot Hall of Famer.  Of course, he played during the “steroid era,” so he won’t be, but if Maddux isn’t elected next year, it will be the biggest HOF surprise of my lifetime.

  9. Brad Johnson said...

    Personally, I have no problem with the voters essentially saying, “we haven’t decided what to do about these guys yet.” It’s a shame that the backlog generally took a hit, but none of those guys HAVE to be in the Hall. They were all nice players who exist somewhere along the border between the Hall of Good and the Hall of Fame.

    Given that some of the voters aren’t terribly familiar with all of the players on ballot (for example, we’re only just starting to see players who participated in interleague play), it also strikes as reasonable that most players require more than one ballot year.

    Craig Biggio was supposedly “the guy” who could get in this year. His career numbers do not strike me as no-doubt hall of famer let alone first ballot guy. If I had a vote, he probably would have been the 7th or 8th guy on my ballot.

  10. walt kovacs said...

    im sure biggio juiced. why?

    look at what the guy has done off the field…no one is that good unless he feels guilty for something he has done

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