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Can Bagwell's accusers meet their burden of persuasion?

One storyline dominates Astros news: Jeff Bagwell and PEDs. In the last 48 hours, the baseball media elite have tripped over themselves trying to rationalize their aversion to voting for Bagwell because he hit homeruns in the 1990s or rush to his defense. Objectively speaking, the latter camp has the cogent and compelling case. The "character clause compels us" camp, however, is likely succeeding at playing on people's lingering doubts about 1990s sluggers.

As someone who grew up idolizing Bagwell, I find myself stewing in vitriol when reading factually and logically weak indictments of Bagwell's accomplishments. But then I find myself pausing, and reflecting on the doubts I have wrestled with in the last five years. It reminds me that there is validity to doubt, but also reminds me that there are many ways of accessing the validity of doubt.

Remarkably, Jeff Bagwell has never found his name on a list, report, or a congressional committee hearing transcript. But as we have learned in the last five years, that fact alone does not absolve a player from any doubt—and that's a shame. In fact, sometime in 2008, I resolved myself to just believing that every player (including Biggio) injected something not on the up-and-up into their bodies for at least half a season. That way, I wouldn't continue to find myself disappointed when another name leaked. It was extreme response to a very protracted and strange series of events, though.

The few months that I tried to operate under that assumption, I allowed myself to believe that Bagwell juiced. But even then, my boyhood sense of hero worship wouldn't let the belief sit well. My belief in the validity of the belief began to waiver (as it should have). During this time, my dad and began to discuss whether or not Bagwell should be free from suspicion. My dad's nearly unshakable belief that Bagwell juiced rests in his extreme drop in muscle mass towards the end of his career.

There is certainly validity to that kind of eye ball test. Bagwell did hulk up and then stopped lifting and dropped a ton of muscle mass fairly rapidly. But if that's the only evidence that sticks, what kind of case is there to believe him to be a "juicer?" 

There are three burdens of persuasion in the American judicial system: preponderance of the evidence, clear and convincing evidence, and beyond a reasonable doubt. Preponderance of the evidence can pretty much be thought of as you feel the probability of guilt is 51%. It is the lowest threshold. HOF voting is not a trial, but there is certainly fact finding, an instruction the fact finder is to follow, and then a judgment is rendered. So it does mimic the essential procedure of a trial.

Typically, HOF voting has not been about guilt or innocence on character issues. Instead, it has been about what HR/RBI/Career Hits/Career Wins threshold is appropriate for enshrinement into the HOF. For better or worse, though, the next decade, or so, of HOF ballots will include a massive amount of character judgment. While the members of the BWAA who get to cast their votes are not obligated by a burden of persuasion, I think I would find it very hard to do my job honestly with out at least paying it credence.

Why? Because Jeff Bagwell is likely going to be denied the honor of being elected to the HOF on his first ballot because of the following evidence:

  1. He played during the 1990s.
  2. He hit homeruns during the 1990s.
  3. Although well framed and "cut" as a younger player, he added a lot of muscle as he got older and worked out really, really hard—during the 1990s
  4. When his arthritic shoulder prevented him from lifting weights, he lost his muscle mass.
My indulgence of just about anyone with a URL and opinion's discussion of Bagwell, PEDs, and the HOF has turned up that list. Usually, though, the list wasn't complete in anyone person's analysis. That means writers, including those given the honor of casting a HOF vote, form(ed) their judgment on a weaker case than those four "facts." Yes, an inference can be made to support believing Bagwell used PEDs. But it's a inferential step that requires background knowledge and circumstantial evidence. 

Burdens of persuasion are for the individual fact finder to access, and I understand that there are some out there who will size that list up and think "juicer" and truly believe it. But perhaps it would be instructive, and beneficial, for the HOF ballot casters to be reminded that the lowest evidentiary threshold in the legal system requires the evidence to make it more probable than not. While I like to imagine that such a reminder would change some writers minds, at the very least, we could be assured that there was an honest attempt at weighing the evidence before Bagwell's name was left off a ballot because of the character clause.

If I were reading of a whole slew of stories that concluded "listen, after thinking long and hard about all facets of this issue, I can't shake the belief that Bagwell probably juiced," then I'd probably be ok with it. I still would question whether that doubt should result in him being denied election to the HOF, but there would be something substantive about the recent indictment of Bagwell's credentials in such reasoning. Instead, we have been subjected conclusions of Bagwell's guilt based on something like "I have some doubt stewing about Bagwell and PEDs, because I have some doubt, I just have to withhold my vote on principle." Sadly, something falling short of what it takes for us to successfully sue someone over a car accident is going to not only keep Bagwell out of the hall this year, but also assassinate the character of player who had managed to rise above suspicion the last fifteen-twenty years.