PITTSBURGH - JUNE 01: Neil Walker #18 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits a two-run homerun, the first of his major league career, against the Chicago Cubs during the game on June 1, 2010 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Might there be good reasons for baseball awards voters to submit ballots that seem irrational?
A minor Twitter firestorm erupted Monday afternoon after the National League Rookie of the Year ballots were revealed, showing that Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Pirates beat writer Dejan Kovacevic included Neil Walker and Jose Tabata on his ballot, and left off second-place finisher Jason Heyward. (Kovacevic did have Buster Posey, the award winner, first on his ballot.)The negative backlash against Kovacevic was predictable, with terms ranging from "homer" to "attention-seeker" being thrown around online, raising numerous questions about the motives behind Kovacevic's unique ballot, the only to include any Pirates player.
Several writers have risen to defend Kovacevic, though not necessarily for his specific selections as much as for the worthiness of his line of thinking. Pat Lackey of WHYGAVS.com offers a possible rationale for Kovacevic's ballot, calling it a likely message vote after Andrew McCutchen - a highly defensible but overlooked '09 ROY candidate - failed to receive national attention. Dave Cameron of Fangraphs offers another partial-defense, citing Kovacevic's credibility and saying that a beat writer's potential unique insight shouldn't outwardly be dismissed as stonefaced bias.
While I too disagree that Neil Walker and Jose Tabata had better seasons than Jason Heyward (Heyward maintained an outstanding OPS of .849 over 623 plate appearances, outslugging both Pirates while playing practically an extra third of a season), I will offer a third defense for Kovacevic's ballot: Voters frequently use their ballots in imbalanced ways to create what they believe is a more just overall result.
The most blatant example? No player in Major League Baseball history has ever been elected to the Hall of Fame unanimously. Because of this, certain baseball writers continue to deliberately not vote for certain Hall of Famers - Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. as recent examples - in a deliberate effort to uphold this arbitrary standard. The website FireJoeMorgan.com explained why this rationale is illogical in a 2007 post responding to one of these voters, writer Paul Ladewski:
Ladewski: Based on the standards set by the Hall of Fame voters decades ago, is there a neutral observer out there who can honestly say Gwynn and Ripken should be afforded an unprecedented honor?
FJM: People don't vote "yes" for dudes because they think they should be unanimous, they vote "yes" because they personally believe that dudes belong in the Hall of Fame.
Let's look at it this way: voter A decides to vote "No" on player Z because he doesn't think player Z should be voted in unanimously. However, voter A really likes player Z, and does think player Z belongs in the Hall of Fame. It turns out later that everyone else voted "Yes" for player Z. Every single person believed that player Z belonged in the Hall of Fame. Now, doesn't that mean that player Z should've been voted in unanimously?
Basically, it is not the decision of the individual voter to determine whether or not a certain player deserves unprecedented unanimous induction, but rather to determine simply if the player deserves Hall election based on the criteria at hand, and if all the writers independently conclude "yes", then the player is unanimously elected.
How does this relate to the National League ROY balloting?
Monday afternoon, Kovacevic Tweeted this about his ballot:
Feeling always has been with voting that broadest variety of perspectives bring best results. Few can argue final overall tally, I'd think.
Without overanalyzing Kovacevic's 140-character intent, he appears to believe that having Walker and Tabata in the ROY discussion is a just, defensible result of the collective ROY balloting, even if he had to bend the criteria of his own personal ballot to make this happen. Whether or not this balloting approach was legitimate, we cannot overlook the fact that this type of voting happens all the time, as evidenced by the above anti-unanimous Hall of Fame rationale, as well as countless other hometown writers voting for (and lobbying for) their own players for specific distinctions, and ultimately attempting to create what they believe is the most just possible ends with the means afforded them.
As I said above, I personally do not believe Kovacevic's ballot is objectively defensible, as the individual voter's job is technically to turn in an accurate vote, not to anticipate and counterbalance the votes of the collective. However, these illogical imbalances are more the fault of a very limited voting process that only allows each voter three selections, and Kovacevic likely believed that Walker and Tabata ending up on the list of Top 10 ROY finishers was a just enough ends to a slightly illogical, controversial means. Kovacevic's vote was an attempt to foresee and rectify a minor collective oversight on a list of runners-up; he's hardly the first writer to ever employ his line of reasoning, and he certainly shouldn't be dismissed as an irrational, hopelessly partial homer.
Besides, it's not like people don't intentionally vote like this all the time. Do 5.9% of us honestly believe that The Godfather is the worst possible movie?