A Q&A with Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated on writing a book, the Hall-of-Fame voting process and the biggest Cooperstown snubs

Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.

This week, it’s with Jay Jaffe, a baseball writer for Sports Illustrated and, now, a published author. His book, “The Cooperstown Casebook,” just came out, and it’s a must-read for anybody interested in the Hall of Fame. Here, we discuss Jay’s rise in baseball writing after starting his career as a graphic designer, the worst players to be enshrined in Cooperstown and whether writers should be allowed to vote for the Hall.

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1.We start all our Q&As in the same way—at the beginning. So: How did you break into journalism, and what led you to where you are now?

It was a very, very roundabout path. In college (Brown University), I started in engineering, switched to biology and fulfilled all the premed requirements with the intention of going to medical school. I kind of caught the writing bug, though, covering the local music scene, and after deciding I at least wanted to put off applying to med school for a while, I did an internship at a music tabloid called Boston Rock. Not only was I writing there, but I also learned how to use the layout software, which at the time was Adobe PageMaker. Soon I got a job doing that and put the writing aside while I embarked on about 14 years in the world of publishing and print design.

In 2001, about eight years into that journey, I wanted to learn some web design, so I made the Futility Infielder site as a container for my baseball blog. The short version is that my annual coverage of the Hall of Fame balloting got me noticed by Baseball Prospectus, for which I debuted in early 2004, became a columnist in 2005 (while still freelancing in graphic design) and finally was all-in on the writing as of late 2007.

2. Hey, you just had a book come out! That’s awesome. It’s called “The Cooperstown Casebook,” and if you care about baseball’s Hall of Fame, you should totally buy it! You’ve been a major voice in Hall of Fame voting for a long time, but why did you think this was the right time to pursue this topic in book form? Without giving away too much — people need to read it! — what do you think you had to say that was better said in a longer format?

The first time anyone pitched me on a Hall of Fame book it was my Baseball Prospectus colleagues, Christina Kahrl and Steve Goldman during the BP 2007 annual book tour. I came up with the title, “The Cooperstown Casebook: Who’s in the Hall of Fame and Who Should Be In.” A colleague, Derek Jacques, supplied the catchy end of that subtitle, “Who Should Pack Their Plaques,” which everyone thought was hilarious and really fit within the spirit of my lobbing grenades at the whole mess. But at the time the book was just a concept and a cover that I designed, like one of those fake album titles.

In the winter of 2009-2010, BP suggested I make the Hall of Fame book a reality, and they would publish it. I went so far as to create an outline and start fleshing it out but realized that — not to put it too bluntly — there wasn’t enough money to make it worth my while, and probably not enough of an audience either. I was generally behind the BP paywall and not yet part of the BBWAA. I figured that I would probably only get one shot to do the book, and so I wanted to do it right, and that meant waiting until my profile was higher and my credibility greater.

Then things started happening to lay the groundwork. At the 2010 winter meetings (which I didn’t attend), I was accepted into the BBWAA. In 2011, MLB Network invited me to audition to be a guest on “Clubhouse Confidential,” a sabermetrics-themed show hosted by Brian Kenny. Suddenly, we were talking about JAWS and my Hall of Fame work on television! In 2012, Sports Illustrated hired me to write for its website on a daily basis, and later that year, Sean Forman agreed to host a WAR-based version of JAWS on Baseball-Reference, whereas I had been using BP’s Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) and couldn’t even get a devoted space for that carved out on the site.

All of this stuff raised my profile and that of my work. SI let me do these 2,000-3,000 word profiles of every key BBWAA ballot candidate, and they dominated the baseball page during December and early January. After a couple years of that, in early 2014, an editor from Thomas Dunne approached me and said, “Hey, do you have a book idea?” As a matter of fact, I did. And I wanted not just to do a New Bill James Historical Abstract-like guide to the players in the Hall and the candidates using my metric, but to tell a few big stories — about the Veterans Committee, about steroids in baseball (which I’d written at length about for BP’s book “Extra Innings” in 2012), about historical levels of representation within the Hall and about the battle to get advanced statistics into the mainstream Hall of Fame conversation. All of those are things that take far more words than my daily dose at SI. I wanted to collect and polish it up with the idea that this would be a 21st century successor to the NBJHA and James’s “Politics of Glory,” his mid-1990s look at the Hall.

3. Before you were a baseball writer, you were primarily a graphic designer. Then you created a system called JAWS that has more or less become the accepted, seminal metric for determining whether a player is worthy of the Hall of Fame. What sort of background or formal training did you have in statistics before creating your own stat? How does somebody go about creating his or her own stat? Does the baseball world need any more stats?

I was always good at math, spent my college years taking science classes of one stripe or another, getting exposure to the basics of statistics, but, really, that’s not a lot of formal training beyond understanding standard deviations, correlations, regressions, etc. My formal training was spending ages 8 to 18 surrounded by piles of baseball cards and baseball books, especially the Bill James Abstracts, learning to program VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet, for the Apple II+, and creating a league for my Strategic Simulations Inc.’s Computer Baseball game, for which I ran every team and recorded all the stats.

(I should add here that I played baseball, too, but wasn’t even good enough for my high-school freshman team.)

I had written about the Hall at Futility Infielder a couple of times and it did exponential traffic relative to my piddling daily flow — thousands, rather than hundreds, thanks to being linked on Baseball Primer. When BP invited me to contribute, as fate would have it I had just undergone surgery to repair a torn labrum, and so I was at my parents’ place in Salt Lake City missing out on ski season. I spent the week around Christmas looking up the career WARP totals of every Hall of Famer via the BP player cards and entering them into a spreadsheet. It was dry and methodical, but I was fascinated, because the numbers brought these guys to life, at least for me.

I also tracked their peaks, which I defined as a player’s five best consecutive seasons, with special allowances for injury and military service. It wasn’t hard science; I was picking up on one of the several ways that James was aggregating his metric, Win Shares, to rank players in the NBJHA, and building off of a distinction he made in his first “Historical Abstract,” which is that in addition to ranking and considering players by their career totals you can define this shorter period when they were at their very best, their peak. It made sense when you think about Hall-of-Famers like Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg and Ralph Kiner. They’re not in there for 300 wins, 3,000 hits or 500 homers; they’re in because they had a shorter period of flat-out dominance. And they’re not the only ones elected because of that.

The metric, which wasn’t self-consciously christened JAWS (Jaffe WARP Score) for another year, averaged the career and peak totals, the idea being that some players are in the Hall for one or the other and the inner-circle guys are there for both. By finding the average at each position (which I did by hand-cranking that spreadsheet), you can figure out if the candidate in front of you is up to the standards of those already in the Hall. For all of the complexity under the hood in WARP or WAR, there’s a simple elegance to JAWS, I think, and I’m very thankful that people caught onto it.

I later the changed the definition of peak from five consecutive years to best seven at large. Again, it wasn’t hard science so much as it was a sort of common sense and aesthetic preference. Go 10 years for peak and you may as well be using career totals; the answers don’t differ as much.

4. Your rise to prominence in baseball writing is clearly a product of the internet. You had your own blog, Futility Infielder, got noticed by other online publications, and the rest is history. There are others who followed a similar path around the same time, but you were clearly one of the pioneers. To what extent do you think this is still a viable model to be noticed, now that there is just so much more content out there? If you were just starting today as an “outsider,” how would you go about trying to rise above the noise and break through?

Man, I don’t know. I do think it’s important to find a venue where you write as often as possible, ideally every day, because writing is a muscle. You have to exercise it to strengthen it, not only to polish your craft but to push through those times when ideas just aren’t coming quickly enough, or coming together at all. Creating a blog is ideal for that, because nobody else is there to tell you what you can’t write. And if you do it long enough, you’ll hopefully catch someone’s eye with a particularly good piece of work and/or produce a body of work that impresses somebody else enough to ask you to write for them, and take it to the next level.

Now, is that the best way to get noticed circa 2017? I honestly don’t know, but I think it’s still a valid one. At least now with social media you have a way to “advertise” what you’re doing that wasn’t there in 2001. You still have to find a way to break out beyond the people in your immediate circle and communicate with total strangers, but ideally that will happen through some combination of persistence and quality rather than — God help us — hot-take garbage that you might do just to scream for attention.

5. Your stat and your book both revolve around voting for the Hall of Fame. You’re something of an expert when it comes to deciding who should be in and who shouldn’t. Yet, you can’t vote for the Hall of Fame, which raises this question: How do you feel about the current process? Should the BBWAA be the sole voting bloc? Should writers vote at all? If so, why? If not, who should be voting?

From a self-interested standpoint, I’d love to be voting for the Hall already, but once I got inside the BBWAA and began playing by its rules, I accepted the fact that I was going to have to pay my dues just like everyone else, putting in 10 years before getting that ballot. They don’t let you vote early just because you’re the big Hall nerd, which is fine.

I get into this in the book, as you might imagine, but it’s important to remember that who votes for the Hall is the Hall’s decision. In 1936, it drafted the BBWAA to vote for recently retired players, because those writers were the ones who had seen them the most frequently. There was no television and even baseball on the radio was relatively newfangled. If you were designing it today, I think you would want to include the broadcasters, but then you run into a potential problem when they’re team employees, so you have concerns about independence and bias. So, what then? Only the national broadcasters, from the networks? And even if you let them into the process, what do you do about the 10-year “dues paying” that the writers go through? It’s only fair that they do that too, right? And so it gets complicated. Same if you were going to expand beyond the traditional baseball media to include, say, SABR scholars. I don’t have a problem if John Thorn or Bill James gets to cut the line, but the number of people deserving of that exception are very few.

But whatever the Hall does, I don’t think it’s a good idea to give living Hall of Fame players the vote. We saw what happens with that in the expanded Veterans Committee from 2003-10, which voted in exactly nobody from among the pool of postwar players. Nobody was good enough for their country club.

As to whether the writers should vote at all, I understand the position that some papers such as the New York Times and Washington Post impose, which is that their writers shouldn’t be the ones making the news. As I’m not a purist, I don’t feel that way. Hell, I wish the qualified writers from those two papers and a few others out there were part of the process. Please, let Tyler Kepner turn in a ballot, because he knows what the hell he’s taking about regarding the Hall of Fame!

6. Why do people get so darn worked up over the Hall of Fame vote? Seriously, every year it’s total chaos on the internet for a month, and some of the rhetoric from fans is ridiculously intense. What is it about this topic that gets to people? And what sort of feedback do you get, especially when JAWS doesn’t bode well for a particular candidate?

Because baseball has such a connection to the icons of its storied past, such as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax, the Hall is a place that transcends the limitations of its geographic isolation. Practically every fan has some strong reaction to the Hall, whether it’s, “I don’t care,” or, “I don’t think [this guy] should be in,” or, “I can’t believe [this guy] isn’t in!” Fans can conjure up those plaques in their mind’s eye every time they take stock of greatness, and they want their experiences validated. They want to say, “I saw [this Hall of Famer] play when he was in his prime,” or something along those lines.

Because of that, and because of the increasing transparency of the voting — with more and more voters revealing their ballots either before or after the results are announced — the annual election season has become a spectator sport unto itself, a companion to the Hot Stove transaction chatter. As I discovered in my first winter of blogging (2001-2002), and particularly when I wrote about that winter’s ballot (pre-JAWS), fans love to read about baseball during the harsh winter months, even if they don’t necessarily agree with you. They want to be reminded that spring, and baseball season, is coming!

With the rise of social media, the process has certainly become more unruly than it was in the past, because readers have access to the voters and not only can tell them that their ballots stink but offer lengthy rebuttals to a given voter’s position. They want to hold voters accountable. To some extent, the expectation isn’t of a democracy but of a republic, with the voters representing the will of the people.

Certainly, not everybody — fan or voter — buys into JAWS. Some who disagree believe that the metric’s position on a given candidate debunks the validity of the entire advanced statistical movement and its adherents; we saw that with the Blyleven/Morris debate just as surely as we did in the Cabrera/Trout 2012 AL MVP race. In both of those, a lot of the rancor and petty, childish name-calling was from those in positions of authority, the voters, even some of the big names. Spink Award winners going on about “sun-starved stat geeks” and the “vigilante sabermetric brigade” and nerds living in mom’s basement. That just poured gasoline on the fire and produced a spectacle that now draws even more people to it.

7. Your entry into the world of baseball writing was certainly more from an analytical/statistical bent. You rose after being noticed by sites that focused on those areas, like Baseball Prospectus. As time has passed, you have moved to more mainstream outlets, like Sports Illustrated, and you have written a book. How important has it been for your career to make that shift? Do you consider yourself a baseball analyst who writes, or a writer who does analysis? Does this distinction even matter at this point?

It was important to make the move mostly because I couldn’t make enough money at BP for that to be my primary endeavor, at least not for very long. I was either a graphic designer moonlighting as a writer or vice versa, whereas I can make a living with SI as my primary outlet, and hopefully continue to supplement that income with more books. While it’s certainly a big deal getting access via my BBWAA card (which happened when I was still at BP), the shift in emphasis of analytics hasn’t been that drastic. SI brought me in less to do reporting and up-close-and-personal feature articles than to supply an analytical bent to the news of the day. As I was reminded just this past week, I’ve still got a ways to go as a reporter, in that I have to do better at getting into the mindset of looking for stories and honing my skill at getting players, coaches, managers or whomever to tell me something interesting and unique.

The bottom line is that I consider myself a baseball writer, perhaps more of an analyst than a reporter but somebody whose goal is to get better at every facet of what that entails.

8. Jared wrote a story earlier this year on the rise of voters revealing their ballots ahead of the Hall of Fame announcement, sometimes even before all votes have been submitted. What has this phenomenon done to Hall of Fame voting? Where is that line between wanting transparency and also wanting to maintain the integrity of the vote.

 As I said before, it’s turned the voting process into more of a spectator sport. You can go back through old newspapers during “ballot season” and see voters chime in on behalf of individual candidates, but it’s rare to find somebody dissecting the whole ballot for readers to see, in part because voters were very reticent to check off more than a few names because of dumb customs like distinguishing between first-ballot guys and the rest or ensuring that nobody is voted in unanimously. Over the past couple of years, thanks to the ballot-aggregating efforts of Darren Viola at Baseball Think Factory, Ryan Thibodaux at the Hall of Fame Ballot Tracker, and even within the BBWAA, we’ve got maybe 50% of the electorate reporting their ballots in advance and 70% reporting once the results are in. In 2018, for the first time, it will be mandatory to reveal ballots after the results are in.

I’m all in favor of transparency. Transparency leads to a better, more fair process, and I don’t think it harms the integrity of the vote one iota unless you’re complaining about another dumb custom, which is writers throwing a personal favorite who’s a non-viable candidate — a David Eckstein — a token vote. Given how crowded the ballots have become thanks to the split in the electorate over how to handle PED-linked candidates, there are more than 10 players who meet the standards on any given ballot, and to waste a vote on an Eckstein-type player when, say, Tim Raines is running out of time in his eligibility is, to me, unconscionable and far more damaging to the integrity of the process.

It’s already true that consensus coalesces around a candidate once he reaches a certain percentage of the vote; Gil Hodges and Jack Morris are the only guys not on the current ballot who received at least 60% of the vote and never got in, and Morris will be up for a small-committee vote this winter. Even at 50% of the vote, you’re only talking about a couple more guys who have yet to be elected, and most of them — all except Lee Smith, if I recall — still have eligibility remaining. What this transparency does is speed up that coalescence, which is a good thing, because we should be honoring these players while they’re alive and around to enjoy it instead of waiting until they’re dead, like the voters did with Ron Santo. The personal vendettas involved there did far more to threaten the integrity of the vote than publishing ballots ever did.

9. Who are the three biggest Hall of Fame snubs? Who are the three most undeserving Hall of Famers? Which active player should be in the Hall of Fame that might surprise the average fan?

 Snubs:

  • Minnie Minoso, a pioneering black Latin American player whose entry into the majors was forestalled by the color line, a player whom Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda called “the Jackie Robinson for all Latinos.” He was simply one of the best ballplayers of the 1950s and early ’60s according to the advanced metrics.
  • Dick Allen, one of the premier hitters from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, very misunderstood by the Phillies organization, which had no clue as to the intense racism to which he was exposed in the minors and majors, and by the middle-aged white writers who couldn’t even be bothered to call him by his name of choice, Dick instead of Richie.
  • Edgar Martinez, the best designated hitter of all time, a player who even after WAR assesses the built-in penalty of DHing (which he did for 72% of his career, playing a very credible third base in the rest of the time), produced more value than the average Hall third baseman and the average Hall position player.

There are more on the current ballot than just Edgar, too. Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling (whose post-career self-immolation shouldn’t be relevant but has become so thanks to his insistence upon attacking the electorate), Larry Walker, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens should all be in. I make the case for all of these guys in the book.

Undeserving:

Tommy McCarthy, a 19th-century right fielder who’s in not for his mediocre stats but for his popularization of the hit-and-run, the outfield trap play and the fake bunt. He should have been recognized as a pioneer, à la Candy Cummings, when the Old Timers’ Committee voted him in back in 1946.

Rick Ferrell, a 1930s-40s catcher who isn’t even close to being as good a candidate (or a hitter) as his brother, pitcher Wes Ferrell.

And then a ton of players voted in by the Veterans Committee during the tenures of Giants and Cardinals second baseman Frankie Frisch (1967-72) and  Giants first baseman Bill Terry (1971-76) — those guys elected several former teammates from their era. Not only was it a high-offense era when .300 hitters were a dime a dozen (the entire NL hit .300 in 1930), but these guys had short-ish, low-peak careers, and the whiff of cronyism is unmistakable. Third baseman Fred Lindstrom, outfielders Chick Hafey and Ross Youngs, pitcher Jess Haines and some others from that wave rank among the worst at their positions according to JAWS.

As for active players, I’d point to Adrian Beltre, who’s now fourth in JAWS at the position and second on the defensive side to only Brooks Robinson. His late-career surge has carried him past the 3,000 hit mark, with over 400 homers (he’s one of 10 such players), so he’s probably a lock, but it’s just that fans and media have taken a long time to note his progress. The other I’d point to is Carlos Beltran, who lost some prime time to injuries and is vilified by Mets fans — and still, some in the media — for taking a single goddamn pitch for a strike.  He’s eighth in JAWS among center fielders, within a rounding error of the averages at the position. One of the rules of thumb with JAWS is anybody who’s in the top 10 at the position, even if they’re a whisker or two below the standards, is almost certainly worthy of enshrinement.

10. A few years ago, you ran in the Brewers sausage race at Miller Park. Wait, let me repeat that: You RAN IN THE BREWERS SAUSAGE RACE AT MILLER PARK. There are 100 questions we could ask about this experience, but in the interest of space: Um, can you please tell us everything about this experience? Like, no detail would be too minuscule.

Oh, that was so cool to do. Not quite as cool as getting to do “The Cooperstown Casebook” and having it receive the reception that it’s gotten but just a great moment that’s earned some bragging rights. I wrote up the whole thing for the Baseball Analysts blog back in 2005, shortly after I ran it. Incidentally, that was the blog of Rich Lederer, who led the grassroots campaign to get Bert Blyleven elected.

I ran as the Hot Dog on a Sunday afternoon, which means that unlike the other days of the week, it’s a relay where you tag a kid who finishes the race. We finished third, with Mark Grant, the former pitcher and current Padres color guy, leaving us all in the dust. Those costumes stink and are awkward as hell to move in and to see out of. Fearing crashes and torn ACLs, me and the other three contestants thought we had agreed that this would be “a Sunday jog,” but Grant, being the jock whose masculinity was apparently on the line, violated the treaty. I inadvertently traded paint with the German sausage, which was being run by the Twins’ CFO. You can see the video here.

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