Posted tagged ‘Johnny Bench’

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.

A Different Kind of All-Time Team


I’m going to depart from the traditional all-time team format for a minute. Instead of looking at the best players at particular positions, I want to highlight the players who had the most impact on the way the game is played. Some of these are the best, i.e. Babe Ruth, and others are clearly not, i.e. Charlie Comiskey. Some of these achievements are closer to the realm of legend than that of fact. Nevertheless, consider this a transformative all-time team:

CatcherJohnny Bench – His career began at about the same time modern catching gloves were invented. He popularized the one-handed style of catching, while he also put a premium on discovering the most efficient way to dispose of baserunners.
1st BasemenCharlie ComiskeyLegend has it, Comiskey was the original first basemen to play off the bag. He was also an influential manager, scumbag owner, and early supporter of the original Player’s Association.
2nd BasemenJackie Robinson – Hard to say how much he changed the playing of second base, but he sure changed the entire game of baseball.
Short StopCal Ripken, Jr. – Proved that shortstops did not have to look like Marty Marion, Ray Oiler, Mark Belanger, or Ozzie Smith. Ripken ushered in the age of big, power-hitting shortstops. It is tough to imagine Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, or Miguel Tejada without Ripken first.
3rd BasemenBrooks Robinson – Proved third basemen could do things never done before. Invented the play where a third basemen charges the ball, barehands it, and throws to first for the out. Now players run drills to practice the play.
Right FieldBabe Ruth – Similar to Robinson. Ruth made right field a bastion of home run. His biggest innovation was probably the introduction of the uppercut swing. Regardless, Ruth changed the game irrevocably by bringing about the Lively Ball Era.
Center FieldKing Kelly – We have large chunks of the modern rule book to make King Kelly‘s plays illegal. Legally, he supposedly invented the hook slide, the hit-and-run, and backing up first base by the catcher. Illegally, he was known to sub himself in during a pop fly and catch it from the bench. To stop this, now substitutions can only be made during timeouts. He also would allow runners to pass him on the basepaths, which is now an automatic out. He was also instrumental in the creation of the infield fly rule.
Left FieldTed Williams – Proved conclusively that defense was nearly irrelevant to the world of left fielders. Consider him an important first step on the path to Manny Ramirez. If you can hit, nobody cares about anything else.
Designated HitterDon Baylor – The first serious, in-his-prime player to spend most of his time at DH. Prior to Baylor, DH’s were mostly afterthoughts and often platooned. Baylor made the DH an integral part of the Angels lineup in the late 1970’s.
Starting PitcherTom Seaver – Gil Hodges and Pitching Coach Rube Walker invented the five-man rotation in large measure to save the arm of a young Tom Seaver. Unlike many pitchers of the 1970’s, Seaver never topped 300 innings in a season. He never led the league in starts or innings pitched.
RelieverBruce Sutter – The first true closer.
ManagerHarry Wright – The first manager.

Most of these players were great, though few were the absolute best. They did, however, dramatically impact the way we play the game today. Who else fits this criteria of transformative? Who else changed the way we play baseball?

Introducing Statistics: Catching


Prompted by yesterday’s post, I would like to spend some time about catcher-specific statistics. Given that three of weakest hitters in the postseason are catchers, it seems worth asking if I am approaching catchers, as a class, in the wrong way. Let me raise a series of questions and pose some incredibly tentative answers to the problem of catching.

Catchers’ hitting is measured in the same way as all other hitters, but it has two confounding factors. Catchers, as a group, have less plate appearances and play less games than other positions. When they do play, they are more likely to play through injuries, given the physical demands of the position. Because of this, Hall of Fame catchers always have career stats substantially lower than the best at other positions. Even great hitting catchers, like Mike Piazza, has an OPS+ of 142. In comparison, Frank Robinson’s is 154 and Mel Ott‘s 155. Robinson and Ott, though great players, are at best the third and fourth best hitters ever at their position. Catching downgrades production.

The defense of catchers is nothing like that of other position players. The website Fangraphs is the best acknowledgment of this; they do not have any catcher stats in their advanced defensive categories. Others have attempted to fill in where stats like Ultimate Zone Rating leave off. A recent post attempts to put some statistical effort into catchers’ defense. The author rates catchers in three areas, errors, wild pitches/passed balls, and stolen bases/caught stealing.

Stolen bases are one of the trickiest areas to analyze. If one simply looks at caught stealing, one misses the impact a catcher has on the decision to attempt a steal. As Bill James pointed out in The New Historical Baseball Abstract, runners did not run on Johnny Bench after his rookie season. From that point on, his caught stealing rates were below average, because the only people running on him were extremely fast, had a great jump, were desperate, or all three. James proposes using catchers’ independent putouts (i.e. total putouts – strikeouts) as a better measure. While this gets at the range of catchers, it is heavily park-dependent. It is easier to get lots of putouts in the cavernous foul territory of the Oakland Colosseum than anywhere else.

The defense of catchers is still something of a statistical black box. Some attempts have been made to bring some light to the darkness. The Driveline Mechanics post is one of the best attempts, as it tries to assimilate a variety of data and comes up with rankings that make some intuitive sense (i.e. that Gerald Laird is a good catcher and Mike Napoli atrocious.) These results help explain why Napoli is not in the lineup everyday and why the weak-hitting Laird is still employed.  This area is still murky enough, though, that there is plenty of room for constructive suggestions about how to measure catching better.

Any ideas?