Is it time to build a new road to Cooperstown?

(originally published at https://cpi.asu.edu/it-time-build-new-road-cooperstown)

This coming weekend, baseball writers, dignitaries, 56 of the best baseball players to have ever played the game and over 15,000 fans will gather in upstate New York to witness for 71st induction ceremony that will admit the newest members into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Retired players Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas – elected by the members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) in their first year of eligibility – and former managers Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, and Joe Torre – elected by the Expansion Era Committee – will join “Club 306“, one of the most exclusive clubs in sport.

The “veteran’s committee” route is one method by which managers, umpires, executives, long-retired players and players from the Negro Baseball Leagues have been inducted into the Hall. But for most players, the Road to Cooperstown goes through BBWAA Junction. Since the first “Class of 1936” – which featured names such as Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth – being recognized by the professional journalists who cover baseball has been the method by which “hall worthiness” has been judged. (The BBWAA members also pick baseball’s annual MVP, Rookie of the Year and best pitcher, amongst other awards).

Here in the Center for Policy Informatics, we are limited to looking at baseball as interested outsiders. We read with great interest the statistical analysis of sites such as FiveThirtyEight and the inside knowledge of Grantland, but the Hall of Fame process, and recent events, give us the opportunity to combine our amateur’s interest with our academic perspective in open governance. When we look at governance – the process by which any group makes a decision – we’re essentially concerned with two things: effectiveness (that is, is the decision a good one?) and legitimacy (do the people who will be affected by the decision support how the decision was made?).

As gatekeepers to the Hall, few would argue that the writers have been too lenient in granting access to the Club. The writers as a group clearly take their responsibility seriously (though there are many cases of writers behaving capriciously), preferring to err on the side of caution. Since there are usually 15 years for a player to be considered for election through the BBWAA process, a no vote from many writers can also be seen as a “not yet”. With no process existing to remove players from the Hall, the writers would prefer to make the right decision rather than a quick decision. While there are many who would like to see their favorite player elected to the Hall sooner rather than later, if there are problems with the BBWAA it is not one of effectiveness.

But this conservatism has meant that the Hall of Fame waiting list has continued to grow. There will likely be twenty-six new candidates on the ballot for the 2015 Class, joining the 17 players remaining on the list from last year’s ballot. And given the voting rules that limit BBWAA members to selecting up to 10 candidates, and the well-known stance of many writers to refuse to vote for any player from the so-called PEDs (performance enhancing drugs) era, that waiting list will continue to grow.

The growing waiting list, the arbitrariness of some writers to refuse to consider any player who played during the PEDS era, individual writers failing to take their responsibility seriously, and the election process itself have come under increased scrutiny and criticism. This is what we’d call a legitimacy problem (or more accurately a perceived legitimacy problem – which is really the same problem). And we think this problem is going to grow rather than go away.

The question we’re asking – and one that the Hall and the baseball writers will eventually have to address – is whether there is an alternative process for determining hall-worthiness that is effective and legitimate. That is, is it time to build a new Road to Cooperstown that goes through Crowdsourcing Junction?

This past November, the sports website Deadspin announced that it was seeking to acquire the 2014 Hall of Fame ballots of one or more of BBWAA voting members. Their primary objective was to mock what they claim is “an increasingly ridiculous election process.” But the exercise was also an example of the type of participatory democracy and open governance that we study here in the Center for Policy Informatics. Rather than spoiling the ballot, Deadspin noted, it would let its readers decide who should be selected.

We’re not interested in getting in between Deadspin and the BBWAA. Rather, our interest here is in comparing how the crowdsourcing approach that Deadspin facilitated compared in terms of effectiveness (results from a poll on the NPR website are also available for comparison). While the percentage numbers cannot be compared across the different methods, in each case the voting processes yield a preference ranking that can be compared. The ranking of players based on the percentage of votes cast in their favor in each process is as follows (the full data table is available).

Ranking by Voting Percentage Obtained

What is remarkable is how comparable these lists are. Except for some minor re-ordering, the NPR list is very similar to the BBWAA list. And except for the low ranking of Jack Morris in the Deadspin list (the reason for which bring us deep into the esoteric world of Sabermetrics), and a preference for Edgar Martinez and Curt Schilling, there is also much overlap between this and the BBWAA list. That Maddux, Glavine and Thomas were the top three selected players in all three processes should cause the BBWAA leadership to at least consider the possibility of wisdom in the crowd. It should also cause the writers at Deadspin the re-evaluate whether the members of the BBWAA are universally-idiotic.

The results of the Deadspin crowdsourced vote, as compared to the BBWAA process, reveal that there is indeed a comparable wisdom to be found in the crowd. And while it involves a leap of faith, a procedurally secure, Internet-based voting process with a large number of voters will likely yield a result comparable to what an expert panel would conclude, and lend the process greater perceived legitimacy. There are indeed special circumstances at play in this case, not least of which includes the impressive “inside baseball” knowledge of baseball fans who appear to spend significant amounts of time reading and commenting in baseball blogs. Not every governance setting is so fortunate to have an electorate that both has a detailed knowledge of the substance of the topic under debate, and a focused belief of the importance of the outcome. Investigating where these special circumstances can be found in other settings is part of a larger research agenda here in the Center for Policy Informatics, seeking out the conditions under which crowds can be counted on to make wise decisions. But beyond our academic interest, we see little risk in running a crowdsourcing approach in parallel to the BBWAA process. If the two approaches are comparable in terms of effectiveness, an open approach to identifying hall-worthiness can only improve the legitimacy of the process.

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