Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Baseball Hall of Fame 2007 Election and the Wisdom of Crowds

In his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki (a New Yorker business columnist) posited the counter-intuitive theory that "under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them." The premise was supported in cases of economics (market predictions), politics (voting for candidates), and even logistics (traffic patterns or walking on sidewalks). It’s the kind of premise that underpins sites like Yahoo! Answers (besides, of course, the underpinning of 11-year-old kids with too much time on their hands after school).

Surowiecki admits that the theory breaks down in a number of situations, namely when the crowd is too emotional, imitative, or centralized. Which is exactly why it was interesting to me that, this year, the ESPN fans, with their well-known hometown (and east-coast) biases and herd mentalities, were reasonably predictive in predicting the votes of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s votes for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Let’s look at the Top Eleven vote-getters in the Baseball Hall of Fame election, whose results were announced today:

Player BBWA rank BBWA % ESPN fans' rank ESPN %
Cal Ripken, Jr. 1 98% 1 76%
Tony Gwynn 2 98% 2 75%
Rich Gossage 3 71% 4 42%
Jim Rice 4 64% 6 39%
Andre Dawson 5 57% 3 50%
Bert Blyleven 6 48% 7 36%
Lee Smith 7 40% 5 40%
Jack Morris 8 37% 12 23%
Mark McGwire 9 24% 10 28%
Tommy John 10 23% 9 29%
Steve Garvey 11 21% 15 14%

Don Mattingly came in 15th in the BBWA voting with a scant 10% of the vote. The BBWW put Alan Trammell, Dave Concepcion, and Dave Parker ahead of Mattingly, the only other player in the ESPN fans’ top ten. With the exception of Mattingly, though, the fans nailed the rest of the top ten vote-getters, with minimal differences in rank order.

Just as the fans overvalued Mattingly, they undervalued Jack Morris and our namesake Steve Garvey, the latter of whom will have his fate decided by a Veterans Committee from here on out. Sorry, Steve.

Also, on the one “judgment call” on the ballot, the referendum on the steroid era proxied by Mark McGwire’s candidacy, the fans (28%) came pretty darn close to reflecting the writers (24%).

The ESPN fans had over 200,000 votes, relative to the BBWA’s 545 votes. Wisdom of crowds, indeed.