Posted tagged ‘Babe Ruth’

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.


Tiger’s Comrades


Apparently, Tiger Woods and his wife, Elin Nordegren, have gotten divorced.  As we all well know, this came about as result of Woods serial affairs and wild living.  In turn, we also know that these facts prove that Tiger Woods is the worst person ever to have walked the face of the planet.  I read a recent post by Joe Posnanski that helped put the Woods story in a bit of context, comparing him to golfer Hal Sutton. This post emphasizes just how quintessentially contemporary the Woods story is. In a world before the internet, text messages, and a 24-hour news cycle, the Woods story is not the story that we all know today.

Now, I am a baseball fan, and I think that this story, like all others, is best understood in the context of baseball. Along with being a baseball fan, I have a strong streak of pessimism. I think it is important for all pessimists to be pessimists not only about today, but about the past as well. In honor of Tiger Woods, let me present an all-time team that would never leave the gossip pages if they played today:

C – King Kelly
1B – Jimmie Foxx
2B – Pete Rose
SS – Arky Vaughan
3B – Wade Boggs
RF – Babe Ruth
CF – Mickey Mantle
LF – Hack Wilson
RHP – Grover Cleveland Alexander
LHP – Rube Waddell

This is a lineup heavy on alcoholism, with a nice mix of womanizing to give us some diversity, and the only non Hall of Famer is prevented from receiving votes. The Tiger Woods story is nothing new; sadly, it has been with us always.

The Forgotten Alexander Mogilny


This article is primarily of local interest, but I find it interesting in a larger sense how great players are sometimes forgotten. What distinguishes those who are remembered from those who are lost? I can’t say. Nonetheless, I want to highlight one example from the world of hockey, Alexander Mogilny. Given that all of my readers have just gone, who?, consider my point made.

Alexander Mogilny is first of all important historically. He was one of the earliest young Russian players to come to the NHL, defecting in 1989 and joining the Buffalo Sabres. Before that, he had been a critical part of dominant Russian Juniors teams and the 1988 Olympic Gold Medalist, with linemates Sergei Federov and Pavel Bure. From there, he would become the first European to lead the NHL is scoring. The game as we know it today follows in Mogilny’s footsteps.

Second, Mogilny is the greatest pure scorer ever to play for the Buffalo Sabres. In the 1992-93 season, Mogilny put up 76 goals in 77 games, primarily because he cooled off after scoring 50 in his first 46 games. This is the fifth highest single season total in NHL history. The next highest total in Sabres history? 56. Yet when the local sports radio station unveiled their “Buffalo Brackets” to honor, among other things, the greatest players in Sabres history, Mogilny couldn’t crack the top 16. Why? What happened to the memory of Alexander Mogilny?

Third, Mogilny was painfully inconsistent. This, I think, became his great legacy. Mogilny put up 76 goals in a season but never again scored more than 55. He had only one great playoff run, when he put up 7 goals in 7 games after the 1992-93 season. He won a single Stanley Cup, with the 2000 New Jersey Devils, yet he finished tied for 10th on the team in playoff scoring on a Cup won on the back of Martin Brodeur. Despite that inconsistency, he still has the 49th most goals in NHL history, surrounded by players like Federov, his former Sabres teammate Pat Lafontaine, and Doug Gilmour. He is the one already forgotten. He ranks 36th all-time in goals per game and 65th in career points, yet he is lost to the sands of times a mere four seasons after his last game.

What happened? Mogilny was always a bit of a disappointment. His ridiculous 76-goal season set the bar for his future impossibly high. The baseball comparison I think of is Eddie Mathews. In his first four seasons, Matthews hit 153 home runs with an OPS+ of 157. He never again approached such lofty heights, which proves that he was not Babe Ruth. He remained an outstanding player, and he should be in the argument for best to ever play third base. Yet Mathews is largely forgotten. Similarly, Mogilny was not Wayne Gretzky. Oh well. He was a remarkable scorer anyway. Why has he disappeared from the collective imagination? I don’t know.

Who are other great players that are surprisingly forgotten? I don’t mean old players. It is no surprise that few people remember Eddie Collins, since he retired 80 years ago. It is surprising how quickly Eddie Murray (just to give a series of Eddie’s) has been forgotten in less than 20. Who has struck you as tragically forgotten?

What Does WAR Have Against Catchers?


Consider, for a minute, Sean Smith’s ranking of the top 500 position players by career WAR.  The list, for the most part, makes sense to me.  I think it computes fairly well with many fans intuitions about who the best players ever were.  Next, break the list down by position.  It looks a little like this, if you look at the top 5:

  • 1B: Gehrig (13), Foxx, Bagwell, Pujols, F. Thomas (43)
  • 2B: Hornsby (9), Collins, LaJoie, Morgan, Gehringer(34)
  • 3B: Schmidt (16), A. Rodriguez, Mathews, Boggs, Brett (30)
  • SS: Wagner (6), G. Davis, Ripken, Yount, Vaughan (44)
  • C: Bench (52), Fisk, I. Rodriguez, Carter, Berra (97)
  • OF: Ruth (1), Bonds, Cobb, Mays, Aaron, Speaker, Musial, Williams, Mantle, Henderson (14)

Which of these is not like the others? Judging by career WAR, the best catcher ever ranks behind the 5 best at every other position, and the 10 best outfielders. This does not seems to fit the way baseball is really played. Let me explore this for a bit to see what we can learn about the way WAR works and the careers of catchers.

First, let us look briefly at the components of WAR. Look at this chart for Johnny Bench, WAR’s best catcher ever. To get WAR, you add together Batting Runs, Baserunning Runs, Grounded Into Double Plays, Reaching on Error, Fielding Runs (measured by Total Zone), infield Double Plays, Outfield Arm, a generic adjustment for Catchers, a positional adjustment, and the replacement adjustment. That gives you Runs Above Replacement, which converts to WAR by dividing by a number close to 10. None of this seems to disadvantage catchers, until you look a bit deeper. Two components challenge catchers, Batting Runs because of its heavy plate appearances component and Total Zone because of the difficulties of measuring catcher defense. Now these points are fairly obvious. So how does Smith, in particular, try to correct for this bias?

Smith adds an adjustment for catcher defense, first of all. This is necessary when you look at Bench’s numbers. By TZ, Bench is a defensive liability, but the catching adjustment makes him above average. Nonetheless, the adjustment strikes me as questionable. Compare Bench to Gary Carter or Ivan Rodriguez. For their career, Carter is 107 fielding runs above replacement (TZ + Catcher), while Rodriguez is 154 runs above replacement. Bench lags well behind at 72, though a large portion of the deficit comes from late in his career when he played 3rd base poorly. Stripping those years out, Bench still sits at 88, a substantially weaker defensive catcher than Gary Carter. That strikes me as idiosyncratic at best, and nonsense at worst.

Second, Smith adds a positional adjustment. This adjustment attempts to account for the relative scarcity of catchers, shortstops, etc. when compared to left fielders and first basemen. For his career, the positional adjustment adds 98 runs to Bench, 135 to Rodriguez, and 118 to Carter. In contrast, it subtracts 81 runs from Babe Ruth and 129 runs from Barry Bonds. Look back at our top fives, and you can see the logic behind the positional adjustment. Great outfielders are on every street corner, while great shortstops are substantially rarer. Nevertheless, the fact that catchers trail every other position by a substantial margin suggests that the positional adjustment is not large enough for catchers. The catching adjustment needs to correct for the difficulty of the position, but it also needs to account for the plate appearances lost solely because a player catches.

Finally, the replacement level for catchers is probably set too high. It is very hard to find a great catcher. Given that fact, which Smith’s chart clearly supports, it should necessarily be harder to replace the production of a great catcher. Until WAR does a better job recognizing how difficult the production of a great catcher is to replace, the position will be undervalued.

So what should do when you look at WAR, especially for catchers? First, recognize how little we can quantify catching defense. Until that is more accurately measured, the fielding component of WAR is borderline useless when comparing other positions to catchers. Second, adjust for position in your head. Looking at the list, I think Smith does a good job adjusting for most positions. His list recognizes the added value of a great shortstop like Honus Wagner over a more replaceable great left fielder like Rickey Henderson.  The best catcher ever at #52? That seems like a positional adjustment that needs some tweaking. Finally, replacement level needs to be carefully pegged to each position. In the case of scarce positions like catcher and shortstop, replacement level needs to be lower than it is for more common positions like left field and first base. WAR already does this, but the gap needs to be accentuated.  I still like WAR, and I consider it one of the best comprehensive stats around, as you can see from my frequent use of it on this site.  Nonetheless, catchers sit in WAR’s blindspot at the moment, and until that problem can be adequately corrected WAR will not be quite as comprehensive at its aims to be.

The Mickey Mantle Rule


Consider this a follow-up to my previous post on prospects.  In that post I mention the Tom Seaver Rule, a rule based on the premise that any projection of a pitcher to be better than Tom Seaver is flawed.  Let me add a version for position players:  Any projection of a player to top Mickey Mantle at his peak is necessarily flawed.  Now in reality, this post is an excuse to delve into the greatness of Mantle in his absolute prime, but the point still holds.  In the era of modern baseball, which I am dating from integration in 1947 to the present day, no position player had a two season stretch as good as Mickey Mantle in 1956-57.  (If you want to talk about baseball before 1947, then the exception to the Mantle Rule is Babe Ruth.  That’s it.)

For starters, let me narrowly focus on stats that prove my case. If you are looking for a comprehensive stat that takes account of everything a player does, you will be hard-pressed to find one better than Wins Above Replacement. WAR has the advantage of accounting for both hitting and fielding, a point that helps players like Ozzie Smith who derived much of their value from their defense and hurts players like Ted Williams whose skill with the glove remains infamous. Now let’s look at every year by every position player not named Babe Ruth. Which seasons are the best? In 1956, Mantle stuck up 12.9 WAR, and he followed it up with a more pedestrian 12.5 in 1957. Who are his rivals? Barry Bonds‘ three best seasons are worth 12.5, 12.4, and 12.2 WAR. Lou Gehrig‘s best season was worth 12.0 WAR. Willie Mays‘ best comes in at 11.0. Ted Williams never tops 11.8. All of those numbers are outstanding, but none match up to Mantle at the height of his powers.

What pushes Mantle past all of the other comparable players for those two years? Why is that only Barry Bonds on enough steroids to swell the size of his head to a small blimp could match the weaker of the two seasons? Here, we need to break down Mantle’s greatness. For starters, remember that Mantle was a center fielder. Center fielders are harder to find than left fielders, giving him an automatic advantage over players like Williams and Bonds. The position has more defensive value than first basemen as well, pushing him ahead of Gehrig, Albert Pujols, and others. Second, Mantle ranks as an excellent baserunner both seasons. For 1956, he is credited with 5 base running runs, and he gets 7 in 1957. Compare this to Bonds’ 0 and 1 in 2001 and 2002. For his entire career, Mays only surpasses those numbers once. Mantle’s knees still allowed him the speed to be a dangerous weapon on the basepaths, both in stealing bases (10 and 16, when the league leader had 21 and 28) and in taking extra bases. He was also thrown out only 4 times, giving him an 87.5% success rate. Those same two years, Mays led the majors in steal but was thrown out more than 20% of the time each season.

This is Mickey Mantle we are talking about, so it is time to move past things like fielding and base running and focus on his primarily claim to greatness, his hitting. In 1956, Mantle won the triple crown, and he won it so convincingly he led the entire majors in each category, a feat only accomplished 5 times in the 20th and 21st Centuries. He played 294 of a possible 308 games, and he also played 13 games in the World Series. Staying on the field led to ridiculous numbers. With a league batting average of .260, Mantle hit .353 in 1956. In 1957 when the league dipped to .257, Mantle rose to .365. Batting average understates his dominance. In 1956, league OPS was at .735 and it dipped to .708 the next season. Mantle stuck up OPS of 1.169 and 1.177 in contrast. Those numbers produce OPS+ of 210 and 222. He did all of this at ages 24 and 25. That fact is the basis of considering Mantle baseball’s greatest might-have-been.

For two years, nobody not named Ruth was better. Unlike Ruth, Mantle played in a down era for hitting against integrated competition on an integrated team. While I can’t bring myself to make the claim that Mantle was better, I can easily claim he was better than anyone else who ever stepped on the field for that two-year prime. In judging other players, Ruth exists in a separate stratosphere, much like Hoss Radbourne does when considering single pitching seasons. Mantle, though, sits just beyond the realm of the possible, in a place many have approached but none have achieved.

What to Make of Mark McGwire?


Today, Mark McGwire admitted to using steroids. According to him, he used them in the offseason between the 1989 and 1990 seasons, and again from the conclusion of the 1993 season sporadically until the end of his career. What do we make of this?

First let us get the history of steroids straight. Steroids were banned in the United States in 1990 as part of the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990. MLB banned steroids in 1991, though they were not subject to testing until 2002. Given this, I think that McGwire’s early steroids use should be forgotten. It was neither illegal in the United States or against the rules of major league baseball. I see zero reason why I or anyone else should care. The later usage, though, is more problematic.

When McGwire used steroids from 1993 on, he violated both US law and MLB policy even though he retired before baseball cared enough to test for steroids. Steroids are different than other things against MLB policy in that outside law also regulates their usage. When Gaylord Perry doctored baseballs, he violated the rules of the major leagues but not the laws of the United States. So how do we judge Mark McGwire?

The BBWAA, as in Hall of Fame voters, have little logical ground to be concerned about Mark McGwire. They have already elected players who corked their bats, illegally cut baseballs, and doctored them with foreign substances. They have also elected players that violated US drug law. They have even elected players known to have taken illegal drugs that were intended to help their performance on the baseball field. I am incapable of distinguishing McGwire from the legacies of Babe Ruth, Gaylord Perry, Whitey Ford, Paul Molitor, and Willie Mays.

It cannot be argued that McGwire’s usage further tarnished baseball’s beloved statistics either. Did Ruth used a corked bat to hit some of his 714 home runs? Almost certainly. Did he use it to hit 60 in a season? No one knows. Did Perry cheat in order to win more than 300 games? Yes. Did Mays use amphetamines to hit 660 home runs? Almost certainly. Did Molitor use cocaine on the way to 3,000 hits? Yes. All of baseball’s great numbers have some degree of tarnish on their pristine beauty. As a devoted lover of statistics and of baseball, I find that sad. But I cannot be a true devotee of the game and ignore its many flaws.

Mark McGwire, sadly, fits into baseball’s long and distinguished history of players that broke the rules of baseball in order to receive a competitive advantage. He is certainly no saint, but I find it hard to call him the worst of villains. McGwire, as far as anyone knows, cheated in order to win baseball games. Baseball has true villains, and it is they alone that deserve the heaviest of baseball’s scorn.

Book of the Month: Stat One


In talking about Stat One by Craig Messmer, I am really talking about an entire genre of books. Particularly in baseball, there is an entire class of books in which an author invents a superstat and proceeds to rank the greatest players ever to play the game. Most famous of these, because it also does so many other things, is Bill James’ The New Historical Baseball Abstract, in which Win Shares are integral to his player ratings. Stat One is representative of the genre at large, so I’d like to give it a bit of consideration here in January.

Messmer’s book came out in 2008, and his statistical invention fit into a long line of statistics based on the number of bases advanced divided by the number of outs made. Messmer’s version is called Offensive Production and Efficiency Average (P/E), and it varies from earlier stats like Tom Boswell’s total average because of its production measure. To compute it, you take [2(Net Runs) + Complete Bases]/Plate Appearances. Net Runs = Runs Scored + RBI – Home Runs. Complete Bases = Total Bases +BB + HBP + SB – Caught Stealing. Net Runs are Messmer’s production factor, complete bases are the measure of efficiency. As his complete bases factor tends to be about twice as large as the net runs factor, Messmer doubles net runs in order to make them roughly equal in his P/E average. At this point, we already have a serious flaw. The only justification of the doubling is to make the numbers look more even. It has no real logical grounding or any basis in the way baseball works. It simply makes the stat look better.

From laying out his stat, Messmer moves on to ranking the best players at each position. But he does not rank them by his stat. His stat, which is so boldly claimed to be stat one, is only a small part of his overall ranking. If Messmer does not trust his stat’s results, why should anyone else? Regardless, Messmer does interestingly break players down into 5 categories. The Category 5’s are the best ever to play, the Category 4’s are Hall of Famers a slight cut below. The Category 3’s are the Hall of Fame dividing line: Some make the Hall, some don’t, and the difference between the two probably has more to do with the voters than the players. Category 2’s played a while but were nothing special, and Category 1’s are the classic players just called up for a cup of coffee. This basic system I like. I think it captures a good way of looking at players. I wish he had better justifications of who fit in each category, but that does not challenge the basic insight.

Finally, what is the payoff? The best player ever is Babe Ruth. Shocking, I know, but it helps give the stat some grounding in the real world. Interestingly, Joe DiMaggio comes in third, just behind Lou Gehrig. This is one of the classic examples of Messmer ignoring his own stat. His stat places Ted Williams third and DiMaggio sixth. For some reason, Messmer argues for the opposite. If you happen to see his top 25 as ranked by his stat, they are almost all from high offense eras like the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1990’s. Without any corrections for era, park, league, etc., his stat gives more misleading information than it should. Nevertheless, if you enjoy debates about the best players ever, Stat One is an entertaining read. Messmer writes well enough to hold a reader’s attention, and his work should spark some further thought. As part of its genre, it is distinctly one of the best.