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Bill James and Calling ‘Trump’ 15 Years Early

February 9th, 2019 · No Comments · Baseball, Sports Journalism

I make a habit of having a copy of The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract in my home.

Never know when you might have a few minutes for reading about “baseball in the 1890s” and I can consume James’s treatment of it, at length (the book runs 998 pages) — or in short bites.

So it was the other day. A nibble. I let the book fall open about halfway through and it landed on James’s rankings of the 100 best first basemen in the history of the game.

The book was published in 2001, and at the time James had Will Clark at No. 14 among all first basemen and his close contemporary Rafael Palmeiro at No. 19.

And while explaining why Palmeiro was behind Clark, in his rankings, James focused on the Gold Glove, and how Palmeiro tended to win said gloves (buffering his reputation) even though he did not always deserve them — such as in 1999, when he was the gold-glover at 1B despite playing only 28 games there.

The voting structure for the award was flawed, James wrote on page 439, because the winner was the player who gained the most votes in a one-round election, and in 1999 Rafael Palmeiro led all American League first baseman — with only 15 percent of the vote. Congrats, Raffy.

James then, to further illuminate how the Palmeiro glove was a function of the voting system, and not widespread stupidity among managers and coaches, suggested that if the U.S. voting system took on the Gold Glove rules for picking the award, it would would fairly quickly produce a situation allowing someoneĀ  named, say, Donald, to become president of the United States.

The managers and coaches who vote for the Gold Glove clearly screwed up, in 1999. It remains perhaps the biggest single mistake in postseason baseball awards history. A laughable mistake. Guy DH’d nearly all season. But James, typically, looks in another direction. Instead of blaming the voters, he suggests looking at the voting system.

He wrote …

The larger point, it seems to me, is that a badly designed voting system will fail sometimes, no matter who votes. The Gold Glove is decided by what could be called an unconstrained plurality, meaning:

1. A voter can vote for anybody.

2. If the top vote-getter gets 15 percent of the vote, he wins, the same as if he had received 80 percent.

A voting system like this is an open invitation to an eccentric outcome. If the United States were to use a system like this to elect a president, the absolutely certain result would be, within a few elections, someone like David Duke, Donald Trump or Warren Beatty would be elected president. If you can win an election with 15 percent of the vote, sooner or later somebody will. An unconstrained plurality vote gives an opening to someone or something who has a strong appeal to a limited number of people.

You saw the name “Donald Trump” there, right?

Remember, the book in which this observation was printed … came out in 2001. And James was throwing out names of people who patently did not deserve to be president — and one of them was Donald Trump. Who, in fact, won the 2016 electoral college and is president.

My reaction? While reading about Palmeiro’s 1999 glove?

“Wow! How did Bill James see that coming 15 years ahead of it happening?”

In part, because “unconstrained plurality” came into play. First, in allowing the noisiest Republican candidate to win the nomination behind an originally small but thoroughly devoted core of support that grew during the campaign. Second, the electoral college allows candidates to win without obtaining a majority of the vote.

James mentioned Trump because he was reaching for three unlikely candidates — worst-case winners. In a blog post he made very, very clear that he loathes Donald Trump, saying he would “vote for anyone put up against him”.

So, I came across the Rafael Palmeiro/unconstrained plurality comment the other night — or 17 years after James wrote it.

An associate of his, Joe Posnanski, did a story back in 2016, for, a few weeks after Trump was elected, pointing out that James had mentioned Trump’s name as a presidential contender back in 2001.

Posnanski’s take? “The Republican Party had a WHOLE BUNCH of candidates (roughly the same number as first basemen in the American League in 1999). And Trump moved to the forefront by getting an unconstrained plurality, first in the 15-20 percent range, then higher, then higher. No matter where you stand on the Trump candidacy, it was this math that paved the way, and Bill saw it many years ago.”

So, I am slow to the news, but I did find it on my own — by rereading a random bit of James’s book.

Anyway, it was weird to see Trump’s name in it, 17 years later. For me.

What other nuggets might be hidden in those 998 pages? Maybe I should read it through, again.


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