Posted tagged ‘Honus Wagner’

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.

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.

What Can You Learn from Fantasy Baseball?


Once upon a time, I was a fantasy baseball player.  It was fun, and I enjoyed playing it with a group of friends.  After I moved away from where they lived, I drifted away from the game, but this year I plan to jump back in with a group of people with whom I work.  On the whole, I am like everyone else:  I play fantasy baseball because it is fun.  I enjoy the interaction with the group and the raw competition.  However, as a connoisseur of baseball statistics and history in all of its forms, fantasy baseball has a secondary appeal.  It is useful in answering a particular sort of question:  how valuable is a player in the abstract?  That question is an intriguing one, and I’d like to dig into how fantasy baseball helps us answer it.

When considering the value of a player in the real world, you must take into account more than just his baseball talent. In this vein, I am particularly excited about the Twins signing of Orlando Hudson to play second base. He fills a whole in the Twins lineup, making him more valuable to them than to most other teams. Second, he earns a reasonable salary. At only $5 million, Hudson is a good value pick that fits well within the Twins budget constraints. All of this adds to Hudson’s real world value. None of it, though, says much about his baseball talent. Is it possible that Hudson could be more valuable to his team than Chase Utley is to his? When you factor in all of these extraneous factors, it might be. Utley, though, is the much better player. Any fantasy draft will reflect this basic fact.

Fantasy baseball is great at evaluating raw hitting. It probably places a larger premium on power hitting than is justified, but it recognizes the basic truth that Albert Pujols is a better hitter than Derek Jeter. For pitching, it tends to focus on things within a pitcher’s control, usually giving extra preference to high strikeout pitchers and hurting pitchers that walk a lot of batters. In discussing talent in its simplest forms, fantasy cuts players to their most important baseball attributes and evaluates them alone.

Fantasy baseball, unfortunately, has limits on its ability to consider value in the abstract. Consider Chase Utley once again. Utley is the best hitting second basemen in baseball, and that accounts for his high fantasy draft position. However, in the world of fantasy he barely nudges ahead of players like Dustin Pedroia, Robinson Cano, and Ian Kinsler. In terms of pure hitting, Utley is only slightly better than that group, and that is all that fantasy statistics reflect. In this sense, ignoring fielding undervalues Chase Utley. Similarly, ignoring fielding overvalues players like Adam Dunn and Manny Ramirez. Nevertheless, by ignoring otherwise critical variables like age, contract, and team depth at a position, fantasy can teach us something.

Outside of raw statistics, fantasy also emphasizes the value of scarcity. Hanley Ramirez is certainly in the argument for the ten best players in the major leagues. As a shortstop, though, he is leaps and bounds better than anyone else at his position. For this reason, Ramirez is likely to trail just Albert Pujols in the world of fantasy drafts. If we ever began doing widespread historical fantasy drafts, you would see Honus Wagner climb to the top of draft boards for the same reason. The drop from Lou Gehrig to Jimmie Foxx is small, as is the drop from Ty Cobb to Willie Mays. The drop from Wagner to Cal Ripken, Jr., though, is substantial. Is Wagner, in the abstract, better than Mays? Probably not, but he is harder to replace.

Why play fantasy baseball? Because it is fun. You really need no other reason. For those with intellectual pretensions who need pseudo-intellectual excuses before we can enjoy ourselves, consider my points above. Fantasy baseball gives an interesting approximation at value in a vacuum, when scarcity and talent are the only relevant considerations. That, I like to tell myself, excuses what can otherwise be called pure fun.

The Myth of the Negro Leagues


Joe Posnanski gives us a long article on the Negro Leagues, honoring the creation of a Negro League card set for Strat-o-Matic. As one of the few places that talks much about the Negro Leagues, I felt a sort of duty to comment on it. Posnanski, author of a classic book on Buck O’Neill called The Soul of Baseball, gets at many of the complexities of looking back on the Negro Leagues. We know that many of the best players in the Negro Leagues would have been the best players in the major leagues; at the least, I hope my series on the first people to integrate baseball has made that clear. Robinson, Doby, and Irvin, Hall of Famers and superstars all, were not considered the best players ever to play in the Negro Leagues, yet they lit up the majors. But the question is, why are the Negro Leagues so hard to grasp?

Three reasons explain why the Negro Leagues are so easy to forget. First, they are old. Modern baseball fans forget the Negro Leagues, but they also forget Honus Wagner. We forget Buck Leonard, but we also forget Jimmie Foxx. We forget Mule Suttles, and we forget Mel Ott. People rarely remember things that happened 60 years ago, and that is the timeframe for the end of the Negro Leagues. The last World Series was in 1948, followed by the collapse of the Negro National League. The last recognized champion of the Negro American League were the Kansas City Monarchs in 1957, long after the Monarchs had ceased to be anything more than minor league team. It has been 50 years since the Negro Leagues existed in any form. Sadly, that means they have been forgotten.

Second, the Negro Leagues lack statistics. As Posnanski notes, the genesis of the Strat-o-Matic card set was a collection of 3,000 Negro League box scores that Scott Simkus had. That is one of the largest collections in the world. In contrast, I can go to Retrosheet and see box scores for nearly every MLB game back to 1952, with a sprinkling of earlier games, without leaving my house. Baseball is defined by its statistics. Look at the forgotten names listed above. Many have forgotten who Mel Ott was, or that he hit a home run in the 10th inning to win the 1933 World Series. Anytime someone looks at a list of 500-home run hitters, though, his name appears. The same cannot be done for Negro League stars. What did Turkey Stearnes hit from 1933-1935? “Unofficial records” put him at .342, .374, and .430, but the record is too spotty to put much faith in those numbers. Was he a great hitter? Yes, but it is hard to prove by pointing at his statistics.

Third, the Negro Leagues are almost overwhelmed by their myths. According to Posnanski, Buck O’Neill considered stories about the Negro Leagues essential to keeping them alive in the popular imagination. The stories lend depth to otherwise faceless players on a sheet of paper. But the clearly mythical content, i.e. Cool Papa Bell was so fast he could turn out the lights and be in bed before the room got dark, cast some unfair aspersions on all of these stories. Are these stories any more outrageous than stories about Babe Ruth? Of course not. Exaggeration is inherent in story-telling, but the lack of statistics or box scores makes it easy for the exaggeration to overwhelm the history. Ruth stories are certainly exaggerated, but I can see that he hit 714 home runs, regardless. I cannot do the same for Cool Papa Bell. Despite the best efforts of people like the late-Buck O’Neill, we lose sight of the real human beings that played the game.

This is a charitable interpretation of why we forget the Negro Leagues. It can also be blamed on racism, and that surely is a part of the story. Why wouldn’t leagues that existed primarily because of the racism of white baseball owners be forgotten at least partially because of the racism of white baseball fans? Yet racism is no more than part of the story. In order to capture the richness of baseball history, we must remember the Negro Leagues.  They are an essential part of our past and our pasttime.