Archive for January 2010

Putting Together a Perfect Team

01/30/2010

This will be the last post that draws explicitly on Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball. In the book’s last chapter, Simmons constructs what he calls his “wine cellar” team. The team consists of individual seasons by players put together to make the perfect basketball team. This idea, though interesting, is not novel. Simmons, however, does put a particularly unique spin on this. He does not just collect the 12 best seasons ever, or even the 12 best seasons portioned out by position and with a caveat that no player can make the team twice. He puts a focus on how this team would really work. In basketball, team success depends on having players that are good at all of the necessary skills of the game: shooting, rebounding, passing, and defense. For this reason, Simmons includes Bill Walton’s 1977, Scottie Pippen’s 1992, and Ray Allen’s 2001. They fill important niches on a basketball team. How, I wonder, would this concept translate to baseball?

The most important consequence, I think, of this sort of team is to preclude the inclusion of Ty Cobb. The virulent and violent racism of Cobb could not be combined with a team that included Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. I find this particularly problematic, given that I am in the camp that thinks Cobb was the single greatest center fielder ever to play the game. However, a lily-white 25-man roster is even more problematic, so Cobb would have to go.

Second, you emphasize great peak players. Imagine which Warren Spahn year you pick: the year he won 20 games, lost 10, and stuck up an ERA in the upper 2s, or one of the other 15 years he did the exact same thing. In contrast, Ron Guidry‘s 1978 has to get serious consideration, even though Guidry never really came close to Hall of Fame induction.

Finally, you have to emphasize balance. You can’t pick a collection of pure power hitters, just in case you are stuck playing in Dodger Stadium in the 1960’s. You can’t pick a Whitey-ball Cardinals team from the 1980’s if you have to play in Coors Field in 1996. To be a truly perfect team, you need to be able to win under all conditions. To give an example, consider Jim Rice’s 1978. In 1978, Rice hit .361/.416/.690 at home, but he hit only .269/.325/.512 on the road. Rice’s road numbers are certainly respectable, but on an all-time team his road numbers are enough to exclude him.

This post just works out parameters about how you would put together such a team. I would encourage everyone to give it a try for real. What else do you need to consider? Who would make it? Stick up a post on your blog or in the comments. I’ll try and put together my own team in the next few days.

Signing Jim Thome

01/27/2010

Yesterday, the Twins completed a deal for Jim Thome. He signed for 1 year, at $1.5 million. It is tough to resist a 39-year-old coming off the worst season of his career, and the Twins fell for his charms. To be serious, though, what should a Twins fan make of this signing?

First, consider Thome in terms of position. Thome, because of his age, his back, and his never spectacular defensive skills, can do nothing but DH. Last season, the Twins used Jason Kubel at DH, a tantalizing prospect given that Kubel can both hit and play a horrific left field. The Twins current outfield, prior to the Thome signing, looked like Michael Cuddyer in right, Denard Span in center, and Delmon Young in left. Now, one of these five players will always be on the Twins bench. That adds serious punch to the Twins bench, but I am not sure if it is optimal use of roster space. Regardless, the Twins have no great hitting prospects being pushed out of the lineup for Thome, so it does not seem ridiculous.

Second, consider Thome in terms of likely playing time. Last season, Thome came to the plate 434 times, his fewest since an injury-ravaged 2005. This number was depressed because he only had 17 plate appearances in 17 games spent with the Dodgers in the non-DH league. Given this track record, Thome is likely to stay healthy, especially in limited playing time.

Finally, consider production. What sort of production should the Twins expect from Jim Thome. He will likely have a batting average just south of .250, given his last two seasons he hit .245 and .249. He should stick up an OBP in the .360 range, given last 2 OBP’s of .362 and .366. Slugging percentage should likely hover in the upper .400s. Last year he recorded his lowest slugging ever at .481. His counting stats are much tougher to predict, given how contingent they are on his amount of playing time. Production-wise, Thome appears to be a useful hitter, especially given how little he makes.

I think evalutations of Jim Thome on the Twins come back to evaluations of Ron Gardenhire as a manager. For Thome to be useful, Gardenhire must successfully juggle five players playing time. If he can do that, Thome should be a good pickup. If not, Thome will be one more poor-fielding deadweight, along the lines of Young and Kubel. I think Gardenhire can handle it, so the Thome signing leaves me cautiously optimistic.

Are Modern Players Better?

01/26/2010

In The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons argues that modern basketball players are substantially better than their historical predecessors.  This view is common across sports.  In baseball, Bill James has been known to advocate a weak version of the thesis, and anyone who listens much to sports talk radio can hear its football-based proponents weekly.  But is it true?  Here, the key is defining the question carefully?  What precisely do we mean by saying that modern players either are or are not better than players that have gone before?  We need to dig into this question in all of its permutations before we can begin to give it a satisfying answer.

Claim #1: Modern leagues are better at getting the best players to the big leagues.

This claim is simply true. Reason #1 is integration. A league that excluded all members of non-white races is not getting the same amount of talent as an integrated league. In the NHL and NBA, leagues that allow European players are drawing from a substantially larger talent pool than leagues that do not. Other reasons also abound. In baseball the decline of the minor leagues as separate sources of baseball power increased the quality of play in the major leagues. As an example, Joe McGinnity won 246 games in the major leagues in only 10 seasons. He then moved to the minor leagues and won another 207 games. The National League without McGinnity was not as good as the National League with him.

Response #1: The claim does not prove as much as it seems like it would.

Just because the current leagues are better in aggregate, because they funnel talent more efficiently, does not mean that individual players are better. Old ballplayers, it is likely, have inflated stats because they get to spend more time playing against weaker players. That says nothing about raw talent, though it does form an important part of evaluating statistics.

Claim #2: Players today are bigger, faster, and stronger.

This claim is trickier. In one sense it is clearly true. Compare two left tackles, Jonathan Ogden and Forrest Gregg. Ogden was listed at 6’9″, 340 lbs., making him one of the largest players ever to play in the NFL. Gregg, one of the largest players of the 1960s, was 6’4″, 249. The discrepancy is astounding. As a matter of fact, the discrepancy is so astounding as to undermine the point of the claim.

Response #2: Players are bigger, faster, and stronger, yet they do not possess appreciably more natural talent.

Gregg was 6’4″ and weighed 249 lbs. Nate Newton was 6’3″, 318. Walter Jones was 6’5″, 315. The change is in weight. Did Newton have extra talent that helped him gain 70 more pounds? Of course not. Instead, Newton had better weight training, nutrition, and supplements. Gregg did not have access to the wonders of BALCO, protein shakes, and regular weight training. To get at the question of talent, imagine time travel. What happens if Walter Jones was transported to 1962? He begins by dominating, and then he would shrink. I mean that literally. Walter Jones, upon losing access to modern weight training and nutrition would literally watch the pounds fall off him. Gregg comes forward? Watch the pounds get added to his frame. What would Lebron James look like in the early 1960’s? Probably a lot like Elgin Baylor. The changes cannot be ascribed to something internal to the player, and because of that they cannot be ascribed to talent differences.

Claim #3: Modern players have better stats.

This claim is only sporadically true. Modern quarterbacks have substantially better statistics than their older counterparts. Fielders in baseball commit half of the errors of players a century ago in more games.

Response #3: Stats do not exist in a vacuum.

Why do modern quarterbacks have better stats? They play with laxer passing rules during seasons with more games. Why do fielders commit fewer errors? They play on carefully manicured fields. The 1924 World Series was decided by a ball that took a funny bounce off a rock. That would not happen today. Along with these changes, some older players did have better stats. Consider Wilt Chamberlain or Cy Young as the obvious examples here.

These are three possible ways to answer the question posed in the title. I think #1 is the strongest point. Nevertheless, I don’t think that modern players are more talented. They simply have more favorable circumstances. What are other possible ways of interpreting the claim? Do you think the question is true in any sense?

These Men Changed Baseball: Ernie Banks

01/25/2010

Unlike the A’s Bob Trice, the Chicago Cubs integrated with one of the greatest players in baseball history.  The Cubs were in one of their standard down spells, a team that had shown no promise since making the World Series in 1945.  They were about to make one of their rare good decisions of the era because they had just begun a relationship with a Negro League manager they would hire in 1955.  That manager was Buck O’Neil of the Kansas City Monarchs.

In 1950, the Monarchs had signed a shortstop from Dallas by the name of Ernie Banks. The Negro Leagues were in the process of collapsing. The last Negro League World Series was played in 1948, followed soon thereafter by the collapse of the Negro National League. The Negro American League survived for another 3 seasons as little more than another minor league. Given the slow progress of integration, teams like the Kansas City Monarchs were still able to attract occasional top talent, most notably Banks. Banks was scouted by future Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell and joined the team in 1950. He then spent two years in the military before rejoining the Monarchs in 1953. In 1953, the Cubs signed Banks directly as a 22-year-old top prospect and brought him directly to the majors. On September 17th, Banks became the first African-American to play for the Chicago Cubs, replacing previous Cubs shortstop Roy Smalley, Sr. (father of the immortal Roy Smalley Jr.) Banks went 0 for 3 with a walk in his first game, but he would soon get it all figured out. For the season, Banks played in 10 games, hitting .314 with 2 home runs in 39 plate appearances. He would just get better.

In 1954, Banks would come in second in Rookie of the Year balloting, losing easily to Wally Moon of the Cardinals. Banks peaked from 1958-60, winning consecutive MVP’s in 1958 and 1959 and leading the league in home runs in 1958 and 1960. He led the league in RBIs in 1958 and 1959, along with slugging percentage and total bases in 1958. He won a Gold Glove in 1960 in his last year as a full-time shortstop. By 1961 his knees had given out, and the bus moved him to first base where he would play the most games for his career (1,259 at first to 1,125 at short). He would finish his career with 512 home runs and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977 with 83.8% of the vote. (Consider that: More than 16% of Hall of Fame voters did not consider Banks worthy of Hall of Fame induction.)

Banks is unusual in the list of integrators for several reasons. He does not really lose any major league time to segregation. (Apparently, there is some question as to his birth year. He could have been 6 years older than he claimed, which would change this paragraph dramatically.) The two years prior to his debut, he was in the military because of the Korean War. His biggest obstacle, from a playing standpoint, was knee problems that kept him from being probably the second best shortstop in major league history. He still faced racism, though, as a white scout for the White Sox refused to consider him for their opening at short. This led to his signing with the Cubs. (The White Sox found their own Hall of Fame shortstop in 1956 with Luis Aparicio. Given the White Sox integrated with Cuban-born Minnie Minoso, it appears they were much more comfortable moving into Latin America than into the African-American community.) Despite these barriers, Banks is easily one of the best players ever to play the game. Given his sunny personality, it is easy to forget the challenges he must have overcome. Nevertheless, we should remember Banks not just for his on-field greatness but also for his off-field historical significance.

Predictions, Again

01/24/2010

Last weekend I again went 2-2, meaning one of the teams I pick today is going to the Super Bowl. Without further ado:

Colts over Jets
Vikings over Saints

Book Review: The Book of Basketball

01/24/2010

Following on the Elgin Baylor post, I recently finished Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball. Though it is not Book of the Month time, I thought I’d toss up a review. The next few days, the posts will probably reflect some thoughts sparked by Simmons. But first, the book.

The closest comparison to The Book of Basketball is Bill James’ Historical Baseball Abstract. James covered the history of baseball, then he did detailed player rankings both by position and overall. Simmons, similarly, gives an introduction to the history of basketball through 1984, then he follows by ranking the top 96 players of all time. Along the way, Simmons mixes a couple of separate essays, including one of the better in-depth treatments of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. The book revolves around one theme and one idea. To get Simmons’ point, we need to delve into each for a bit.

According to Simmons, by way of Isiah Thomas, the key to basketball is players dedicating everything to winning basketball games. Individual statistics must be subsumed in order to pursue the ultimate goal of winning championships. Players’ greatness, then, is measured by how well they pursue team success. Who are the greatest players ever? They are the players who won. Simmons is not completely captive to the notion that the players with the most titles are the best, but he comes pretty close. This view, which I find ridiculous in baseball and football, makes some sense in basketball. Basketball players play every aspect of the game, and each member is 20% of his team. In football, you are one of 11 and play only half the game. In baseball, you are one of 9, and if you are a pitcher you pitch every five days. In basketball, one great player can have a bigger impact on his team than any other sport.

Second, Simmons aspires to transform the Basketball Hall of Fame. He sets up a pyramid of great players, ranking them in 4 levels before progressing to the Pantheon, the 12 greatest players ever. This system is similar to that used in our last book of the month, Stat One. I liked it then, and I like it now. Simmons can accurately get at the distinction between legitimately great players. Sure Gail Goodrich (#88, Level 1) was great, but he was not nearly the player Bob McAdoo (#61, Level 2) was. Kevin McHale (#35, Level 3) cannot stack his career up against John Havlicek (#13, Level 1). Finally, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (#3, Pantheon) was qualitatively better than the players in the lower categories. The Pyramid gives Simmons an excellent and thought-provoking way of organizing his rankings.

How is the execution? Given the two key points, the commitment to winning and the Pyramid, Simmons writes an interesting book. I would not recommend reading it all at once. After a while, his style, heavy as it is on jokes and pop culture allusions, can be taxing. In smaller doses, the book is particularly enjoyable. It has weaknesses, of course, including too strong a belief that modern basketball players are better than those who went before, but it also has strengths, including a passion for the game of basketball that matchless. I’ve already written appreciatively of Simmons’ respect for Elgin Baylor, and he also shares my belief that Hakeem Olajuwon was the best center since Abdul-Jabbar. His rankings, though, are lopsided. His pantheon (top 12) includes 6 centers (Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, and Mose Malone), while it has 4 guards (Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Jerry West, and Oscar Robertson) but only 2 forwards (Larry Bird and Tim Duncan). It is possible that forwards are not really that important, but it seems unlikely that 40% of a basketball team is so dramatically worse than the rest in the all-time rankings. I think the list would make more sense if he elevated Baylor (#14) and Julius Erving (#16) and dropped O’Neal and Malone, but those debates are the joy of the book.

I would highly recommend The Book of Basketball to anyone who likes basketball or is interested in the history of the game. The book is by no means perfect, but it is interesting enough to be worth a read.  he debates are fun, and Simmons make a legitimate contribution to them.

The Most Transformative Goalie

01/23/2010

A few weeks back, I briefly waded into the debate about the greatest goalie in NHL history.  My sympathies rest with Martin Brodeur, as his career long excellence is unmatched even by other greats like Terry Sawchuk, Patrick Roy, and Dominik Hasek.  In comments on that post, Verdun and I briefly recapped the merits of Ken Dryden, who might have had the best peak of any goalie.  But one great goalie was conspicuously left out:  the great Jacques Plante.  Though Plante is not the greatest goalie ever, he is the one who truly transformed the position.  I once posted on the all-time transformative baseball team; if I did the same for hockey, Plante would have to be the goalie.

First, Plante was a great goalie, regardless of anything he contributed to the game. He won 7 Vezina Trophies in his time, an all-time record approached only by Hasek’s 6. As a goalie, Plante led his team to 6 Stanley Cups, including an NHL record 5 straight. Nevertheless, as good as his numbers are, he does not quite match up with the other legendary goaltenders. For his career, he is 6th in wins, 5th in shutouts. and 7th in adjusted goals against. Great, but not Brodeur. At this point, we must remember the transformation he wrought on the game of hockey.

In 1959, Plante changed the game of hockey forever. In 1956, Plante had suffered from sinusitis. In order to protect the illness, Plante wore a primitive mask in practice, but in games he went maskless like all other goalies that had ever played. On November 1, 1959, his nose was broken in the first period of a game on a shot by Andy Bathgate. After getting stitched up, Plante returned to the game wearing his old practice mask. With this, Plante introduced the world to the goalie mask. Imagine, for a second, a world in which hockey goalies do not wear masks. In 2009, Zdeno Chara set the record for hardest shot ever, with a shot of 105.4 mph during All Star festivities. Goalies would be facing hockey pucks harder than baseballs shot directly at them at speeds faster than Nolan Ryan’s fastball without a mask. Goalies would die regularly. Instead, Plante changed everything with the most common sense bit of safety equipment in all of professional sports.

Was Plante as good as Brodeur? Probably not. Has Brodeur lived longer because of Plante’s invention? Almost certainly. It is tough to imagine the NHL surviving without someone inventing the hockey mask. For that, Jacques Plante earned our thanks and respect. Greatest ever he is not, but no one changed the position quite like Jacques Plante.