Posted tagged ‘Barry Bonds’

The Drop Off to Second Best

09/14/2011

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.

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What Does WAR Have Against Catchers?

03/30/2010

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

03/29/2010

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.