Posted tagged ‘Lou Gehrig’

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.


The Events You Missed


Yesterday, Dallas Braden threw the 19th perfect game in major league history, and I did nothing more than follow the 9th inning online.  That is one of the consequences of a great pitching performance on Mother’s Day:  Almost no one will be able to watch.  This does not make Braden stand out in my life as a baseball fan, though.  In all my years of baseball viewing, I have never seen a perfect game.  I watched one no hitter live, and given that it was thrown by the immortal Bud Smith it helped to de-mystify that particular genre. Nonetheless, I have missed every perfect game in my lifetime, and there have now been a number. This leads to my question for today: What baseball event that you did not see do you most wish that you had seen?

Baseball is full of great moments, but most of those are single instants. I did not see Willie Mays’ catch live, but I can easily pull it up on You Tube anytime I want. The same is true for Bobby Thompson’s home run. As a Twins fan, I recognize that the most significant events in baseball history were Kirby Puckett’s home run to end Game 6 of the 1991 World Series and Gene Larkin’s single to win Game 7. Those two I saw live, so they can’t be the answer. Given how easy it is to find highlights for single events that have happened in the last 60 years, I will by default exclude them, even if I did not see them live.

For me, then, that leaves four events that for whatever stick out to me. I will count them down in reverse order.

#4: Addie Joss’ perfect game.

Three things stick out for this game. First, and most obviously, Addie Joss threw a perfect game. This has only happened 18 other times in baseball history. Second, Joss only threw 74 pitches. You simply cannot be more efficient. The next closest is the 88 pitches thrown by David Cone in his perfect game. Third, you can make the case that Joss was outpitched. In defeat, Ed Walsh struck out 15, and he gave up only a single unearned run. He allowed 5 total baserunners. To me, this is the pitcher’s duel of all pitcher’s duels, slightly ahead of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game, when the loser only gave up a single hit.

#3: The Speech

This is the classiest moment in baseball history. Even knowing that Gary Cooper probably did it better in the movie, I get chills even thinking about this moment. If you have a spare moment and some tissues handy, click on the link and listen to Lou Gehrig. That is how it is done.

#2: Jackie Robinson’s debut.

This moment changed baseball. When Robinson stepped out onto Ebbets Field for the first time, he changed the game forever. In terms of significance, this one tops the list. The only reason I put it #2 for me is that as a game it is nothing special. The Dodgers lost to the Braves 5-3, and Robinson went 0-3. For history alone, it makes it to #2.

What does your list look like? What is the best baseball moment you ever saw live and the one you wished you had seen?

#1: Don Larsen.

Done only once. Never been seriously approached on another occasion. Done against a lineup with 4 future Hall of Famers and other excellent players like Gil Hodges, Jim Gilliam, and Carl Furillo. (Sandy Amoros couldn’t hit, so he doesn’t count.) Series was tied 2-2 at the time, just to add to the pressure. The game was even well-celebrated. Imagine your reward for pitching the only perfect game in World Series history: You have to carry Yogi Berra off the field. If I could have seen any baseball moment live, this one would be at the top of my list.

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 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.

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.

The Impact of Teammates


The impact of Bobby Abreu on the Angels has drawn attention throughout the season.  He is credited with increasing the propensity of Angels hitters to take walks and thus improve the teams on-base percentage.  In particular he has changed the approach of Angels leadoff hitter Chone Figgins.  Bringing in new teammates correlating with fundamental hitting changes is not a new thing.  I would like to highlight the careers of Lou Gehrig and Joe Sewell to give a comparable case to that of Abreu and Figgins.

In 2008, Figgins walked 62 times in 520 plate appearances, a rate of once every 8.4 PA’s. In 2009, he walked a league-leading 101 times in 729 plate appearances, a rate of once every 7.2 PA’s. To compare, Abreu walked 94 times in 667 PA’s, or once every 7.1 PA’s. Though correlation does not prove causation, the most likely explanation of Figgins improved walk rate is the beneficial impact of Bobby Abreu.

A similar effect can be seen on the strikeout rate of Lou Gehrig in 1931. In 1930 Lou Gehrig struck out 63 times in 703 plate appearances, or once every 11.2 PA’s. In 1931, he struck out only 56 times in 738 PA’s, a rate once every 13.2 PA’s. This improves even more in 1932 as he struck out 38 times in 708 PA’s, a rate of 18.6 PA/K. Gehrig’s strikeout rate hovers in that range until illness overtakes him in 1938. What changed from 1930 to 1931? The Yankees acquired Joe Sewell to play third base.

Sewell was the hardest person to strike out in major league history. In 1930, he struck out 3 times in 414 plate appearances, or 138 PA/K. Moving from the Indians to the Yankees, Sewell became strike out prone, striking out a shocking 8 times in 571 PA’s, or 71.4 PA/K. In 1932, he increases his rate to a much more reasonable 167.7 PA/K (3 strikeouts in 576 plate appearances). Again, correlation does not prove that Sewell convinced Gehrig to strike out less, but it is suggestive.

When sabermetricians discuss true talent levels, they act as if it is something that can be discovered. Teammates, however, are a fundamental part of the game of baseball, and they can dramatically change the way an individual performs on the field. Which was Gehrig’s true talent level, the slightly more strikeout prone early version or the strikeout-phobic later version? Who knows? What we can say is that somehow Gehrig began to strike out dramatically less at the time he was paired with the hitter least likely to strikeout ever. Similarly, Figgins began walking substantially more upon the acquistion of Abreu. This combination of pairs of teammates deserves much more serious study by students of the game of baseball.