What’s wrong with “innocent until proven guilty” for PEDs?

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Several writers who have defended excluding Jeff Bagwell from their Hall of Fame ballots have said that they don’t have a problem doing so even though there’s no evidence that he used steroids because the Hall of Fame is not a court of law, and the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” does not apply. The latest to do so was Ed Price yesterday.

I have a serious problem with this because even if it’s not a court of law, innocent until proven guilty is a fair and decent concept. There are a lot of places that aren’t courts of law that respect the concept that you actually, you know, have to be shown to have misbehaved before punishment attaches. School. Your office. Even a baseball field.  No one expects a criminal standard of proof — evidence beyond a reasonable doubt — but some modicum of a burden would be nice before one is punished. Or, in the Hall of Fame debate, one’s name and reputation is sullied. I don’t think “at least a shred of credible evidence” is too daunting.

Newsday’s Ken Davidoff dealt with this yesterday, and he hit on another reason why requiring some evidence is a good idea: consistency. As in, how can voters possibly be consistent if they don’t demand any evidence before throwing someone in the PED pile:

Price, with whom I’m friendly enough that we’re currently working together on BBWAA matters, writes, “This isn’t a court of law. Innocent until proven guilty does not apply.”

I used to feel exactly the same way. In fact, I referenced that here. But the more I thought about the haphazard way in which we learned about players from the pre-testing era, the less I could identify with such logic. I say, why not apply the “court of law” standards to Hall of Fame morality issues? Otherwise, there doesn’t appear to be an equal application of justice across the spectrum. No, we’re not deciding on people’s freedoms. But the Hall of Fame is taken extremely seriously by people both inside and outside the baseball industry. That’s why I’ve grown most comfortable with a consistent line of thinking.

There are a couple of great concepts there. The first being that one about our haphazard knowledge of PED use in baseball.  A couple of years ago I wrote an article for the Hardball Times Annual explaining how deeply flawed and under-inclusive the Mitchell Report was, and thus why using it as a go-to resource for PED use in baseball is a fool’s errand.  The point is that even with the Mitchell Report and the subsequent things we’ve learned, we have no idea who used and who didn’t, and thus pretending that we do without anything more (i.e. evidence of a specific player using) is madness.

The second great idea in Davidoff’s passage is how serious the Hall of Fame is taken by people in the industry.  I don’t think the Hall of Fame is hallowed ground or anything, but I do take it seriously. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have written 50 posts on it in the past few weeks. The voters take it seriously too, as is evidenced by the fact that every writer who goes on to hold Bagwell off their ballot has noted how important their task is and how difficult it is to approach the voting process.

It seems to me, however, that a serious undertaking requires an intellectually-serious approach. And to the extent I’ve taken issue with someone’s Hall of Fame ballot, it’s not because of their choices per se. It’s because they exhibit a fundamental incoherence of approach. Just some of the examples:

  • Applying different standards to two different but similarly-situated players;
  • Exhibiting blatant biases without any attempt to explain or to reconcile them;
  • Importing their own rules over and above that which the Hall of Fame itself sets forth;
  • Demanding, in effect, that players prove a negative in order to meet the voter’s standard;
  • Explaining away their votes by saying “it’s totally subjective, so I can vote how I want;”
  • Admitting that their reasons for voting in a certain way are too irresponsible to voice in public, yet continuing to adhere to and honor those reasons when casting their ballots.

If, as Davidoff says, as most voters say and as I believe, voting for the Hall of Fame is a serious undertaking, none of these things are acceptable. Because no serious undertaking allows for such intellectually unserious behavior.

But more important than any of that, no serious person flings a serious accusation at someone, either expressly or by implication, without at least having a single shred of evidence.

A scout thinks the Astros strike out too much. The Astros have the lowest strikeout total in baseball.

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Great moments in scouting. MLB.com’s Richard Justice spoke to an unnamed scout about the Astros, currently holding the American League’s best record at 76-47. The scout said that the Astros strike out too much and it will catch up with them. Justice pointed out that the Astros have the lowest strikeout total in baseball. The scout responded, “I don’t believe that.”

Justice, of course, is correct. The average major league team has struck out 1,006 times entering Sunday’s action. The Astros have by far the lowest total at 827, followed by the Indians at 881 and the Pirates at 882.

This scout doesn’t represent all scouts, but this is one of the major problems that advocates of statistics were trying to highlight before Sabermetrics became popular a decade ago. It’s a pattern. Person believes thing. Person either cherry-picks evidence to defend belief or is shown evidence that belief is not factually true and ignores it. Person refuses to change belief, using one of many excuses.

The other problem this highlights is the fallacy of “the eye test,” which is shorthand for treating a scout’s observations as sacrosanct due to his or her experience and knowledge of the game. In this case, the scout ignored easily accessed information, went with his gut, and turned out to be completely wrong. Furthermore, if “the eye test” were legit, the scout would’ve known that, for example, Yulieski Gurriel and Jose Altuve hardly ever strike out (11.1 and 12.4 percent strikeout rates, respectively). In fact, no one on the Astros’ roster (min. 230 PA) has a strikeout rate above 21 percent; the league average is 21.5 percent.

This isn’t to impugn the practice of scouting as a whole. There are a lot of things scouts can tell you about a player that data cannot and that has value. But for easily-researched claims like “the Astros strike out too much,” there’s no reason to trust a scout over the stats.

Mets acquire Jacob Rhame from Dodgers

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The Mets acquired right-handed reliever Jacob Rhame from the Dodgers, the team announced on Sunday. Rhame is the player to be named later in the trade that sent outfielder Curtis Granderson to Los Angeles on Friday night. He’s expected to report to the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate.

Rhame, 24, pitched through his second Triple-A campaign with the Oklahoma City Dodgers in 2017, collecting two saves in 41 appearances and logging a 4.31 ERA, 1.9 BB/9 and 10.3 SO/9 through 48 innings. While his ERA saw a sharp spike from its modest 3.29 mark in 2016 (perhaps thanks in part to a midseason DL stint due to an undisclosed injury), he’s controlling the ball better than he has in several years and has drawn some attention with a fastball that occasionally touches 98 MPH on the radar gun.

The Mets’ bullpen hasn’t been at its finest over the last few weeks, ranking 16th among its major league competitors with a collective 4.50 ERA and 2.4 fWAR, but likely isn’t looking to add an extreme fly ball pitcher to its staff just yet. Until he gets his big league break, Rhame will beef up Triple-A Vegas’ relief corps alongside fellow right-handers Yaisel Sierra, Joe Broussard and Josh Ravin.