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Billy Beane would let ‘Jeopardy!’ champ James Holzhauer ‘ruin’ baseball

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Recently, record-breaking “Jeopardy!” champ James Holzhauer said that his real dream was to work in a Major League Baseball front office.

He loves baseball, of course, but as anyone who is aware of the way Holzhauer has applied an analytical framework and strategy to the popular gameshow is aware, there is a certain logic to that separate and apart from a love for the game. It’s not an exaggeration to say that he has, for lack of a better term, hacked “Jeopardy!” and it’s not an exaggeration to say that the modern baseball front office is largely in the business of hacking baseball, with each trying to get the most out of it they possibly can.

Holzhauer’s comment has sparked a number of baseball-related stories about him. Today Dave Shenin of the Washington Post has a story in which he asked several front office executives, including Oakland A’s president Billy Beane — the first well-known analytical hacker of baseball — if they’d hire Holzhauer: Beane:

“My first thought when I saw him was: We have to get this guy in baseball.”

It could happen I suppose. The guy is smart and his background in sports gambling is likely pretty applicable to various tasks in a big league front office. It’d be a heck of a pay cut for him — front offices pay everyone except the top guys peanuts — but he’s not exactly hurting for money either so maybe he’ll happily do it for the fun of it all.

The bigger part of the story, though, is the conceptual piece: is Holzhauer, as many people say — my mom, a devoted 35-year “Jeopardy!” watcher who is turned off by his playing style included — “ruining” “Jeopardy!” And, given his affinity for analytically-oriented baseball, is it safe to say that Beane and his acolytes in the game have “ruined” baseball?

We’ve had this debate many times around here. On the one hand, baseball is there for the analyzing and simply making smart observations and applying them to the game is not out of bounds, right? On the other hand, it’s possible to optimize a team’s roster and playing style in a way that makes the product less-than aesthetically pleasing. On the third hand, hey, front offices are hired to win baseball games so why should they care what happens aesthetically? And, hey again, baseball revenues are soaring, so if you’re complaining, maybe you’re the one who’s wrong?

The same can be applied to the “Jeopardy!” guy too. My mom, again, a woman whose devotion to “Jeopardy!” is extraordinarily hard to overstate, told me the other day that she was taking a break from the show for a while because it’s no fun to watch Holzhauer dominate everyone. She appreciates his skill and intellect, and does not begrudge him doing what he can to rack up wins and rake in dollars, but it’s just not enjoyable for her. For his part, Holzhauer has his own retort, similar to the revenue argument in baseball, correctly noting that the ratings for “Jeopardy!” are up during his winning streak. “There’s definitely some people who don’t like the product they’re seeing on screen right now,” he tells Shenin, “but I don’t think the producers are complaining.”

When it comes to baseball and revenues, I typically observe that the problem is that, in recent years, the money is coming in from sources that aren’t as dependent upon winning games and fan interest as it used to be. Corporate sponsorships, long term TV deals and side businesses pay the way for the most part. As a result, I’ve asked, is there not a danger implicit in the new way of thinking? Specifically, if fan interest is not as important as it once was, what happens if the financial model shifts and the game which has spent many years alienating fans with aesthetically-unpleasing baseball needs to get them back?

With “Jeopardy!” it’s possibly same: maybe the ratings are up, but how much of that is based on people tuning in out of Holzhauer-specific curiosity? How many are hate-watching, hoping someone will beat him? Will those people still be around when he’s gone? Will my mom come back when he’s gone or will she have found something else to do at 7PM each evening?

I don’t know the answer to those questions. But I also don’t think the people in power are thinking too hard about them. Here’s Beane’s final quote about the matter:

“It’s the same thing [Holzhauer] is doing: It’s bringing order to something that’s inherently chaotic. If he’s ruining Jeopardy, and if we ruined baseball, then ruin away.”

Thats all well and good, I suppose, assuming nothing changes.

Lou Whitaker snubbed from the Hall of Fame again

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Long time Tigers second baseman Lou Whitaker has long been one of baseball history’s most underrated players. He and Hall of Fame shortstop Alan Trammell formed one of the best up-the-middle combos ever, teammates since Whitaker’s debut in 1977 to his final year in 1995.

Trammell is actually a great jumping-off point to support Whitaker’s candidacy. Here are their career counting stats:

  • Whitaker: .276/.363/.426, 420 doubles, 65 triples, 244 homers, 1084 RBI, 1386 runs, 143 stolen bases, 1197 walks (9967 plate appearances)
  • Trammell: .285/.352/.415, 415 doubles, 55 triples, 185 homers, 1003 RBI, 1231 runs, 236 stolen bases, 850 walks (9376 plate appearances)

Whitaker also had slightly more Wins Above Replacement over his career according to Baseball Reference, besting Trammell 75.1 to 70.7. FanGraphs’ version of WAR puts both players slightly lower but with Whitaker still in the lead, 68.1 to 63.7.

Trammell, like Whitaker, did not make the Hall of Fame through initial eligibility on the ballot voted on by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, beginning five years after their retirement. Trammell was elected two years ago on the Modern Era ballot. Whitaker fell off the ballot in his only year of eligibility, earning just 2.9 percent of the vote in 2001. Whitaker was again snubbed on Sunday night, receiving just six of the 12 votes necessary for induction. Trammell became eligible on the BBWAA ballot in 2002 and had a 15-year run, with his support running as far down as 13.4 percent in 2007 and peaking at 40.9 percent in his final year in 2016.

Trammell and Whitaker critics cited things like never leading the league in any important categories and never winning an MVP Award as reasons why they shouldn’t be enshrined. That last reason, of course, ignores that both contributed to the Tigers winning the World Series in 1984, but I digress.

Trammell should have been elected to the Hall of Fame on the BBWAA ballot. And, since the distinction matters to so many people, he should have been inducted on the first ballot. Among Hall of Fame shortstops (at least 50 percent of their games at the position), Trammell has the eighth-highest WAR among 21 eligible players. He has ever so slightly more WAR than Barry Larkin (70.4), who made it into the Hall of Fame in his third year of eligibility with 86.4 percent of the vote.

Now, what about Whitaker? Among Hall of Fame second basemen (at least 50 percent of games at the position), Whitaker’s 75.1 WAR would rank sixth among 20 eligible second basemen. The only second basemen ahead of him are Rogers Hornsby (127.0), Eddie Collins (124.0), Nap Lajoie (107.4), Joe Morgan (100.6), and Charlie Gehringer (80.7). Whitaker outpaces such legendaries as Ryne Sandberg (68.0), Roberto Alomar (67.1), and Craig Biggio (65.5). Sandberg made it into the Hall in his third year on the ballot; Alomar his second; Biggio his third.

Among the players on the 2001 BBWAA ballot, the only player with more career WAR than Whitaker was Bert Blyleven (94.4), who eventually made it into the Hall of Fame. Dave Winfield (64.2) and Kirby Puckett (51.1) were elected that year. Also receiving hefty support that year were Gary Carter (70.1 WAR), Jim Rice (47.7), Bruce Sutter (24.1), and Goose Gossage (41.2) and each would eventually make the Hall of Fame.

WAR is not, by any means, a perfect stat, so the WAR argument may not resonate with everyone. Dating back to 1871, there have been only 66 players who hit at least 400 doubles and 200 home runs while stealing 100 bases. The only second basemen (same 50 percent stipulation) to do that are Whitaker, Hornsby, Morgan, Sandberg, Alomar, Biggio, Chase Utley, and Ian Kinsler. Additionally, Whitaker drew more walks than strikeouts over his career, 1197 to 1099. The only second basemen to do that while hitting at least 200 career homers are Whitaker, Morgan, Hornsby, Bobby Doerr, and Joe Gordon.

Whitaker was not without accolades: he won the 1978 AL Rookie of the Year Award. He was a five-time All-Star and took home four Silver Sluggers along with three Gold Gloves to boot. Trammell took home a similar amount of hardware: though he never won a Rookie of the Year Award, he did make the All-Star team six times. He went on to win four Gold Gloves and three Silver Sluggers.

In a just world, Whitaker would have been on the ballot for the then-maximum 15 years. In a sentimentally just world, he would have gone in side-by-side with Trammell in 2002. Whitaker’s candidacy certainly shouldn’t have fallen to the Modern Era ballot, and it shouldn’t have been further fumbled by a committee that gave him as many votes as Steve Garvey.