Posted tagged ‘Alex Rodriguez’

The Drop Off to Second Best


This morning Buster Olney of ESPN tweeted, “Because of the difference between Rivera and others at his position, for me, he should be part of NYY’ Rushmore, with Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio.” I find this an interesting claim in a lot of ways. First note the 4 players: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Rivera. I would without a second thought shove Mantle ahead of both DiMaggio and Rivera. Second, I take his claim to be that the dropoff from Rivera to others refers to all other relievers, not just all other Yankee relievers. That follows an earlier tweet which said, “The difference between Rivera and any other player at his position in history is the greatest of any position.” That is a more interesting question. To get a quick and dirty look at the drop from the best to the second-best at various positions, I’m going to do a bit of fiddling with WAR, as measured on Baseball Reference. I will also summarily exclude 19th-Century Players. (This means I excluded both Cy Young and George Davis.) The method is simple: Take the WAR of player 2, divide it by player 1, and multiply by 100. This gives the second player’s production as a percentage of the first player. So, is the dropoff from Rivera the biggest? Let’s turn to the stats.


Player 1 WAR 1 Player 2 WAR 2 Percentage Total Drop
Gehrig 118.4 Foxx 95.2 80.41 23.2
Hornsby 127.8 Collins 126.7 99.14 1.1
Wagner 134.5 Ripken 89.9 66.84 44.6
Schmidt 108.3 Rodriguez 105 96.95 3.3
Ruth 190 Aaron 141.6 74.53 48.4
Cobb 159.5 Mays 154.7 96.99 4.8
Bonds 171.8 Musial 127.8 74.39 44
Bench 71.3 Fisk 67.3 94.39 4
W. Johnson 139.8 Clemens 128.8 92.13 11
Rivera 55.8 Gossage 39.5 70.79 16.3
Eckersley 58.3 Rivera 55.8 95.71 2.5
Rivera 55.8 Hoffman 30.4 54.48 25.4

First, these are full career WAR stats, so Ruth has a serious bump from being a pitcher, and Walter Johnson gets a nice little bump from his hitting. Second, I calculated relievers three different ways. First, I ran Rivera against Gossage, the two highest pitchers who accumulated almost all their WAR in relief. Next I did Rivera against Eckersley, because Eck had the highest WAR of any pitcher who is in the Hall of Fame as a reliever. Nonetheless, his WAR is so high because he gets a giant boost from all of his years as a starter. Finally I compared Rivera to the next highest modern closer, that is the highest WAR from a reliever since the advent of the modern closer circa 1980. That would be Trevor Hoffman. So where does this get us?

First, the drop at shortstop is gigantic. Even adding George Davis back in doesn’t help much. That is the lowest percentage drop among position players. Next, the drop from Ruth to Aaron is impressive. It is the largest raw WAR drop, and the third lowest percentage. Quite a drop considering this is Hank Aaron we are talking about. Finally, relievers are tricky. First, if Eckersley is included, Rivera isn’t the best ever. Next, if you include higher inning relievers from the 1970’s, the percentage is not the lowest, but it is second. Finally, if you limit Rivera to his most comparable group, other closers, you see Buster Olney’s point in big numbers. Rivera is nearly twice the pitcher of any other closer, when measured by WAR. I find that fact astonishing.


Titles as a Measure of Greatness


Many people consider the titles the ultimate measure of greatness. Did a player win a title? Then he might be great. If not, he clearly was not. Classic examples of this are the contrast between Dan Marino and Tom Brady, or Bill Simmons‘ preference for Bill Russell over Wilt Chamberlain. For starters, I think this measure is nonsense. Given that all of these sports are team games, it is tough to argue that any one player determines a championship. With that point acknowledged, I do not see how championships are an appropriate measure of greatness. However, that is not my point today. Rather, I want to pick at another consequence of this line of thought. When does a player become great?

If championships are the measure, a player cannot become great before winning a title. Sometimes, this makes sense. Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Patrick Roy, Ken Dryden, Babe Ruth, and Derek Jeter all won titles as rookies. They, then, become instantly eligible for greatness. Look at the flipside, though. Alex Rodriguez became officially great in 2009, almost certainly after he has reached the downside of his 3-time MVP career. Wayne Gretzky became great in 1984, two years after he set the single season goal record. Wilt Chamberlain became great in 1967, 5 years after averaging 50 points/game for a season and scoring 100 points in a game. Jerry West became great in 1972, his 12th season, at age 33.

Think about that very brief list for a minute. Gretzky and Chamberlain had established scoring records that stand today, yet they were not officially great. Jerry West had become the logo of the NBA, but he was not great. Rodriguez had become one of only 10 players in MLB history to win 3 MVP’s, but he was not great. Does that make any sense? Ignore, for a minute, the obvious counters to titles as a measure of greatness (i.e. Ernie Banks, Carl Yastrzemski, Dan Marino, Dick Butkus, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, etc.). Even for players who have won titles, the titles say little about these players claim to greatness.

Titles are important, clearly. In the end, teams play in order to win a title. Players, as part of a team, are supposedly united by this common goal. Nonetheless, titles make a poor measure of greatness.

Prospects: A Feline Perspective


I have two cats, Apple and Toni.  Being cats, they both believe that daytime is for sleeping and night is for fun.  (I also have a little girl, and she more than a touch of cat in her as well.)  One consequence of the feline lifestyle is that I rarely sleep through the night.  When the cats wake me up, each espouses a fundamentally different view of what my being up at 3 am means.  When Apple sees me, she thinks it is likely that I am up to feed her.  But, she is not sure.  She thinks there is nearly as good a chance that I have decided to change the litter box at 2am.  I might even be under a strong compulsion to give her water.  Toni, on the other hand, has an unshakable faith that I am up in order to pet her. There is no other option. While Apple considers food, litter, and water all viable options, Toni knows that I am to pet her. My daughter, to give a third perspective, considers all things equally possible. Watch a little child, and you will see what I mean. Little kids alternate between a state of pure surprise, i.e. everything is shocking, and a state of complete complacency, i.e. nothing is astonishing. At that age, little children lack the track record against which to measure shock value. Now what does this say about prospects?

First, Toni prospects don’t exist. There are no sure things. Consider this article from Beyond the Box Score on the top college pitching prospects of the last 30 years. The highlights are Neal Heaton, who had a long and mediocre career, and Mark Prior, whose career was briefly brilliant. If anybody was a sure thing, you would think the very best college pitchers would be. They were not. Prospects, by definition, are prospects. Their value is in the future (prospective), and the future is uncertain.

Second, Apple prospects are common. The Apple perspective embodies the statistical notion of a confidence interval. When you make a statistical prediction, you should always report the confidence interval. You predict an ERA of 2.75 for Stephen Strasburg? What are the odds that he actually posts an ERA of 2.40 or 3.05? That is your confidence interval. For an example, look at this piece on Mariano Rivera’s save total. A prediction of 28 saves for Mariano Rivera gives an interval of 22 to 42 as a likely range.

Third, always keep a touch of my daughter when you look at a prospect. You are attempting to project people at ages 18-22. Think back to those ages. Would anything particularly surprise you? Josh Hamilton was an outstanding talent, until addictions crushed his career. That is not especially uncommon with people the age of most prospects. Mental makeup, so far, seems poorly scouted and even more poorly measured. Given that fact, consider this list of #1 overall draft picks. Ken Griffey, Jr. is an all-time great, but he proceeds the immortal Brien Taylor by four years. Taylor never made the majors. For supposed top prospects, notice how weak that list is. After 45 picks, you have no Hall of Famers. Of course, Griffey, Chipper Jones, and Alex Rodriguez are likely Hall of Famers, but no one has made it to the Hall of Fame as a #1 overall pick since 1965. Nothing should surprise you.

What can we learn about prospects? There are no sure things. Consider the range of any projection. Do not be surprised at anything done by wealthy males in their lower 20’s. These rules, derived from immortal scouts Toni, Apple, and my daughter, will help keep you from years of frustration at failed prospects.

Postseason Greatness and the IBB


Tom Tango recently questioned the wisdom of the Angels intentional walk of Alex Rodriguez in the 9th inning of Game 5. He pointed out that the statistical break even point to justify that managerial move is if A-Rod averaged 1 home run in every 8 plate appearances. Underlying this argument, of course, is a question about sample size. Only with a sufficiently large sample can we conclude that a hitter will consistently hit a home run on 12.5% of his plate appearances. Nevertheless this got me thinking about justified intentional walks in the postseason. Using the breakeven point Tango identified (a point he carefully limited to the situation at hand), when should a batter be intentionally walked?

For starters, let us look at Alex Rodriguez. The question is how big a sample is big enough. Since Tango identified 1 in 8 as the important cut off, what does A-Rod done in the postseason? He has hit 5 home runs in 37 plate appearances, or 1 every 7.4 plate appearances. Scioscia, it is safe to assume, considered that the relevant sample. While he may be wrong about the appropriate reference group to use as a basis for his decision, we should at least be clear about what he used and why he did what he did.

Second, let us look at the real comparison. In World Series play from 1923 to 1932, 5 different series, Babe Ruth hit 14 home runs in 113 plate appearances, or a home run in 12% of his plate appearances. Ruth, then, neared the cutoff for automatic intentional walk in late and close situations in more than 100 plate appearances. I suspect that in the modern world, the Cubs would have walked Ruth to face Gehrig regularly in the 1932 World Series. Happily, we got the Called Shot instead.