WAR (What is it good for?)

Occasionally, you see something or get involved In a discussion that changes your thinking. I started this site because it allows me to react to these things in real time. So, today we are taking a step back from the index briefly so we can address a debate that has been raging on the internet. Essentially, there has been a backlash against WAR. It has been going on for a lot longer than I’ve been making out, and I won’t be avoiding WAR for too long, but since I have the platform I’ll try to put my own spin on the subject.

Last time, we introduced total runs as an alternative number to use. It has its advantages. First, it’s easy to understand because the components are right there in front of you. With the components being there you can also manipulate them. We certainly will do that. Second, it accounts for longevity. That’s one of the hallmarks of the Hall of Fame. The longer you play the more likely you are to get in. Of course, there are some that debate the merits of longevity as it compares with quality. One compares players that compile numbers and others compare players with the average.

WAR and win shares attempts to marry the two by comparing players with a replacement level player. So, one can accrue value over time by being average or even below average. That becomes important when looking at a total runs metric. We will look at the findings for those in the Hall of Fame at second base along with four players that some people think definitely should be in the Hall of Fame. As promised, there will be no WAR today, but there will be two iterations of total runs. The first combines runs created, Rfield, and Rbaser. That’s a direct reenactment of the formula seen on billjamesonline.com

  RC Rfield Rbaser Total
Rogers Hornsby 2045 54 -9 2080
Eddie Collins 1811 35 40 1886
Joe Morgan 1804 -48 80 1836
Craig Biggio 1832 -100 54 1786
Nap Lajoie 1690 83 -11 1762
Charlie Gehringer 1715 34 9 1758
Rod Carew 1595 14 26 1635
Frankie Frisch 1460 140 28 1628
Roberto Alomar 1575 -36 54 1593
Lou Whitaker 1395 77 32 1504
Jeff Kent 1497 -42 1 1456
Ryne Sandberg 1342 60 33 1435
Willie Randolph 1138 114 41 1293
Bobby Grich 1127 82 4 1213
Jackie Robinson 951 81 30 1062

Depending on your familiarity with these numbers, some of you are either soaking it in or yelling at the computer screen. First, I should mention that I don’t Bill ever intended for his total runs metric to be used this way. His are always shown through the eyes of a single season. There is an important reason for that and it has to be mentioned before we move forward. Runs created are not normalized throughout history. Simply put, 100 runs created in 1968 is far different comparatively to 100 runs created in 1998. So, comparing a player like say Ryne Sandberg to Jeff Kent or Rogers Hornsby is nearly impossible using runs created.

This becomes problematic when trying to reach any conclusions from this particular formula. Looking at runs created ignores the quality in which these runs were created. In other words, while a Craig Biggio was second all-time at the position in runs created, we cannot assume he was the second-best hitter at the position. He produced the second most runs partially because he spent most of his career in a great hitter’s era and also because he played for a really long time. So, some would question his placement in the fourth spot in history and rightfully so.

When one considers WAR they would consider that at a certain point, Biggio was no longer providing value. Yes, he was creating runs, but if the Astros put someone like Chris Burke in his spot they might have gotten a better rate of runs created, baserunning runs, and fielding runs. So, in a table like above, Biggio was continuing to add value. In reality, he wasn’t. That’s where statistics like win shares or WAR are more descriptive than numbers like above.

Of course, we can make adjustments above by replacing runs created with baseball-reference’s Rbat statistic. It is the number of runs created above average. This does a number of things for us. First, it brings more fidelity because Rbat, Rfield, and Rbaser are all compared to the average player. Secondly, it helps solve the problem of different eras because each player is compared with the average player from that era. Finally, it doesn’t reward longevity nearly as much. You only get extra credit if you are actually good. It is interesting to see how the rankings with the same players differs when switching methodologies.

  Rbat Rfield Rbaser Total
Rogers Hornsby 861 54 -9 906
Eddie Collins 629 35 40 704
Nap Lajoie 576 83 -11 648
Joe Morgan 450 -48 80 482
Rod Carew 407 14 26 447
Charlie Gehringer 379 34 9 422
Jackie Robinson 261 81 30 372
Bobby Grich 256 82 4 342
Frankie Frisch 159 140 28 327
Lou Whitaker 209 77 32 318
Ryne Sandberg 192 60 33 285
Willie Randolph 120 114 41 275
Roberto Alomar 242 -36 54 260
Jeff Kent 297 -42 1 256
Craig Biggio 257 -100 54 211

One of the joys of living with a scientist is that I get to see this kind of work poked fun at because of all of the rules we break. Most baseball statisticians are guilty of something called confirmation bias. It is defined as the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs. James himself demonstrated this when he asserted that any metric that did not say have Ruth on top was inherently inaccurate. That may or may not be true, but it obviously doesn’t rigorously follow the scientific method.

I say that to point out that the above list probably matches most people’s beliefs about second basemen closer than the first one. That would tend to get most to say that the above method is more accurate. The problem is that average performers have value. According to the above chart they don’t. So, there is an inherent problem here. The first chart asserts that everyone has value. The second says you have to be above average to have value. What we need is something that marries the two.

This is where metrics like WAR and win shares come in. Craig Biggio is not the worst player in the group and he isn’t the fourth best player in the group. He is likely somewhere in between. The same is true of a player like Bobby Grich in reverse. Some credit has to be given for longevity, but we have to be careful about how much. If we learn anything it is that one set of numbers (no matter how carefully compiled) can tell us the whole story. That includes WAR.

What about: Jeff Kent

The nature of the what about series developed when we consider players that the public clamors for, but really aren’t quite Hall of Fame worthy. There are few second basemen that fit that description. The players that are passionately argued for are tend to actually belong in the Hall of Fame, so we move onto the borderline candidates. The one that seems to get the most attention is Jeff Kent.

That makes sense because up until Robinson Cano, Kent was the all-time leader for home runs as a second baseman. Obviously, leading in one of the major categories is compelling, but the key is whether he is a good enough all-around player. There are two reasons why players aren’t elected to the Hall of Fame. Either the BBWAA doesn’t think they were good enough or they simply didn’t like him. Either one could be true of Kent.

Kent and Barry Bonds were the two star players in San Francisco. It was said that Kent was the only player that could get 23 guys to unite behind Bonds. Since Bonds was notoriously prickly, that gives you an indication of how disliked Kent was. When he came to Houston, he reportedly told Jeff Bagwell that his goal was to leave baseball without any friends. Bagwell said, “so far, so good.” All of this is to say that Kent is a very unlikable guy by all accounts. So, maybe that spilled over to the Hall of Fame voting.

We start with the index and move on from there. The index doesn’t definitively tell us anything, but it does help eliminate players that obviously should not be considered. From there, we can take a look at the offensive and fielding numbers individually to see if we are missing anything the basic information is not providing.

Career Value 

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Jeff Kent 55.4 56.1 64.8 176.3

The career value doesn’t necessarily reveal whether he is worthy candidate one way or another. 300 tends to be the minimum score for Hall of Fame fitness. Obviously, we don’t know the peak value score, but the career value scores show he was good, but something is missing. We can’t know what that is until we break down the offensive and defensive numbers. Like with Craig Biggio in the last article, he had a significant advantage in win shares because of the consistent competitive nature of the teams he played on. Given that fact, we should probably look at the postseason numbers too.

Peak Value 

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Jeff Kent 42.8 43.8 47.0 133.6

There is nothing wrong with being a four win player, but when that is where you are when you are at your peak then there is something missing. If we add the career and peak value together we get 309.9 wins. That squarely puts Kent in the borderline category. As my fellow teachers tend to say, attitude can be the difference between and A and a B (or worse). It also means we need to start looking for tiebreakers. So, we start with the postseason and move on from there.

Kent 189 .276 .340 .500 9 25 23

According to the postseason numbers, he was roughly the same hitter he was during the regular season. At first blush this would seem to give him no more of an advantage as if he had done nothing. However, if we assume that you are playing superior competition then your numbers should be worse theoretically. So, give a bit of a bonus point to Kent. His OPS was higher in the World Series than at any individual level of the playoffs. So, he got better as the chips were down.

WAR and win shares have their detractors and the Hall of Fame is way too important to boil down to just those metrics. Kent’s index scores get him in the ballpark and his postseason record is a credit as well. Based on those numbers alone he has an excellent argument but we should compare him to the bottom of the second base BBWAA group. First, we will look at their offensive numbers and then their defensive numbers. Finally, we will introduce a new metric that might shed some light on the issue.

Offensive Numbers 

  OPS+ Rbaser OW% wRC+ wOBA
Craig Biggio 112 54 .597 115 .352
Ryne Sandberg 114 33 .620 115 .351
Roberto Alomar 116 54 .600 118 .359
Jeff Kent 123 1 .604 123 .367

These numbers are very revealing. Overall, these players are fairly similar even though Kent has a superior OPS+. As we can see, the baserunning numbers are definitely off kilter. Often times it is the little things that makes a big difference. However, based on these numbers alone Kent definitely belongs in the Hall of Fame. Of course, the index scores say something else, so we should look at the fielding numbers to see what is going on.

Fielding Numbers 

  Rfield DWAR TZ DWS
Craig Biggio -100 -2.9 -33 86.0
Ryne Sandberg 60 13.5 60 89.0
Roberto Alomar -38 3.3 -3 95.5
Jeff Kent -42 -0.1 9 71.8

The defensive win shares tell a tale here. The tale they tell is that Kent did not enjoy the same length of a career as the others. In terms of quality he rates somewhere between Alomar and Biggio. In terms of reputation he was nowhere near any of those guys. He probably deserves better than what he has gotten. To give the perspective of time in addition to quality we can use a modified version of Bill James’ total runs. It includes most of the elements of WAR and win shares, but it is broken down and transparent. It includes runs created for the offensive element, Rfield for the fielding, and Rbaser for baserunning.

  RC Rfield Rbaser Total Runs
Craig Biggio 1832 -100 54 1786
Ryne Sandberg 1342 60 33 1435
Roberto Alomar 1575 -38 54 1591
Jeff Kent 1497 -42 1 1456

This is certainly interesting. These numbers put Kent somewhere in the neighborhood of Sandberg. Of course, the problem is that a run created in 2000 was not worth the same as a run created in 1985. So, maybe we should take these results with a grain of salt. Still, the results are what they are. He is in the neighborhood according to the index and he is in the neighborhood on the offensive numbers and he is in the neighborhood here.

He and Sandberg are similar in that they did not enjoy lengthy careers. You could say they are roughly equal offensively when all things are considered. Sandberg was obviously superior defensively. For some that is the difference. For others Kent is thrust over the threshold when you consider his postseason numbers. My personal take will probably change every time you ask me.

Biggio vs. Alomar (and Sandberg)

There are few players that are as polarizing as Craig Biggio. Obviously, this is through no fault of his own. Through most accounts, he played hard and he played the game right for 20 seasons. The reasons for his polarizing nature are based on how people perceive his career. Naturally, Astros fans think he is one of the all-time greats based on some impressive counting numbers. People on the east and west coast think he is one of the more overrated players in the history of the game.

Chief among these was professional talking head Mike Francesa. He steadfastly believed that Biggio shouldn’t get in and called him a glorified singles hitter. The numbers say something else as they almost always do. That is the defense against the “I know them when I see them” crowd. On top of that, systems like the index reveal the problems with the counting numbers that see below. Here are Biggio’s career ranks amongst primary second basemen in history.

Hits: 3060 (3rd)

2B: 668 (1st)

HR: 291 (4th)

TB: 4711 (2nd)

BB: 1160 (7th)

SB: 414 (6th)

RC: 1832 (2nd)

Much of the debate in Francesa’s case was a Craig Biggio vs. Roberto Alomar debate. Of course, the numbers here clearly point to Biggio as any Houston fan would attest, but they aren’t necessarily completely right either. Counting numbers can be deceiving. Add in runs and RBI and it becomes that much more of a stacked deck. It might lead you to believe he was a top five second basemen in history. As we will see, that’s a bit far fetched.

Career Value 

bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Craig Biggio 65.5 65.8 85.3 216.6
Ryne Sandberg 68.0 60.9 69.2 198.1
Roberto Alomar 67.1 63.6 67.0 197.7

The index is different from counting numbers because one must have value to accrue career value. Well duh. However, it is easy to miss how this differs from even sophisticated counting numbers like runs created. Would anyone in their right mind really suggest Biggio was the second best second sacker in history? The fact is that playing for 20 seasons (and most of them healthy seasons) has a way of helping you accrue those numbers. Unfortunately, his last few seasons saw him add very little if any real value.

Of course, Francesa was quick to point out that Biggio was not as good with the glove as Alomar. This is both true and misleading. Biggio was not a good defender by most metrics, but neither was Alomar. Alomar won Gold Gloves because Alomar made it into the highlights almost every night. Defensive metrics don’t add up Web Gems. They add up assists, putouts, double plays, and yes even errors. More advanced systems use video to determine how many plays a player should have made in comparison with the plays he did make. You don’t get extra credit for diving stops or acrobatic throws.

The index includes both offense and fielding. If we go only according to the index we would have put him in our last grouping with the likes of Charlie Gehringer, Rod Carew, and Frankie Frisch. As we will see, there are reasons not to include him in that group. However, he compares favorably to Sandberg and Alomar. Before we go to the offensive and fielding numbers we should probably look at peak value numbers.

Peak Value 

bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Ryne Sandberg 56.7 51.6 55.6 163.9
Craig Biggio 52.2 51.3 57.1 160.6
Roberto Alomar 50.4 47.6 48.9 146.9

One of the things we notice when looking at this data is Biggio’s significant advantage in win shares. Why does this happen? Simply put, the Astros were consistently competitive throughout Biggio’s career. Their only real down seasons came in 1991 and 2000. Otherwise, they were usually in the playoff hunt every year. Since win shares are based on wins that would give him that advantage.

Sandberg famously missed two seasons after a premature retirement that didn’t take. He tried to save his first marriage and it wouldn’t be saved. Give him even two mediocre seasons and he likely would be in Biggio territory in career value and might have surpassed his peak value. Of course, he isn’t the focus of this particular debate. Most of us know what Sandberg was and there isn’t a particular amount of debate there. Before we move onto the meaty part of the debate we will clean up the index with the totals.

Hall of Fame Index 

Career Peak Total
Craig Biggio 216.6 160.6 377.2
Ryne Sandberg 198.1 163.9 362.0
Roberto Alomar 197.7 146.9 344.4

The index scores put Biggio in the group that we mentioned last time, but he also hung out for a long time. We will ignore counting numbers because counting numbers tend to get skewed as players play for a long time. Biggio probably played two or three years past his usefulness in order to get to 3000 hits. The Astros obliged because of all he did for them and they got some marketing out of the deal. Let’s tear all that away and look at the facts.

Offensive Numbers 

OPS+ Rbaser OW% wRC+ wOBA
Biggio 112 54 .597 115 .352
Alomar 116 54 .600 118 .359
Sandberg 114 33 .620 115 .351

 Francesa argued that Biggio didn’t belong in the Hall of Fame period. The numbers above show that point to be ludicrous on its face. Alomar was better, but these are career numbers and were based on all 20 years for Biggio. While he added singles, doubles, and home runs down the stretch, he also added strikeouts and suffered through down OBP and SLG years. The Astrodome was already accounted for, so fellow Astros fans can rest assured Biggio wasn’t punished here.

Still, you can argue that Alomar was a better player based on these numbers. I have to wonder if we looked at the peak value numbers whether that would still be the case. Yet, when all things are considered if you admit one you have to admit them all based on this data alone. They are just too close. Since we can go back to the peak years, let’s check it out.

OPS+ Rbaser OW% wRC+ wOBA
Alomar 127 36 .634 128 .383
Biggio 125 32 .646 129 .373

We can start with the obvious comparison, but these numbers are proof of something else. When you look at these players you must look at them over the course of their careers and when they are at their best. Biggio held on longer, so his numbers took a bigger dive. Considering that each of them were better in some categories than others we can only conclude that they are very close if not equal when they were at their best. At least offensively that is.

Fielding Numbers

Sandberg 60 60 13.5 89.0
Alomar -38 -3 3.3 95.5
Biggio -100 -33 -2.9 86.0

By all accounts, Alomar was not as brilliant a defender as people seem to remember. The numbers say something else. What’s more, he almost exclusively played at second base. Biggio played behind the dish for a few years, in left field for a few seasons, and in center field. He was not particularly good at any of them admittedly, but he might have been had he been given the opportunity to play their exclusively. This is likely wishful thinking though.

This brings us to the ultimate question. Who would you rather have on your team? This is an impossible question to ask definitively. If you want longevity it’s Biggio. If you want top end performance it might be Alomar, but that is closer than it appears. Alomar was the better defender, but Biggio offered more flexibility. The choice is yours.

Second Basemen: The Next Tier

When the book was published, I broke down players into groups within the Hall of Fame. Of course, that was back when we included the players from the Veteran’s Committee. We haven’t had to do that this time, but occasionally we see pretty clear divisions amongst the BBWAA selections. Second base is one of those instances. We’ve already taken a look at the top four guys at the position and we have four more who were very close.

The index usually reveals this, but we have Jackie Robinson as a part of our list this time around. He did not make his debut until he was 28, so he obviously did not put up the kind of career numbers as the other three guys. We will look at the offensive numbers and fielding numbers as well to see how similar these players were.

Career Value 

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Charlie Gehringer 80.7 78.6 76.6 235.9
Rod Carew 81.3 72.3 76.8 230.4
Frankie Frisch 70.4 74.8 73.2 218.4
Jackie Robinson 61.4 57.2 51.4 170.0

Let’s assume that Robinson had four additional seasons. If we take his first four seasons in the big leagues and simply repeat them then we get some idea of how valuable he would have been over the course of a full career. So, if we look at the numbers we can go ahead and add them in.

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Adjusted 25.6 24.7 22.2 72.5
New Total 87.0 81.9 73.6 242.5

Of course, this is our best guess. There are any number of factors that could effect where Robinson would have ended up. Even if we assume he would have had four full seasons more on the front end, that doesn’t mean he would have finished at the same time. You also have the adjustment period at the beginning of every career. Seasons five through eight may have been even better. These push and pull factors make it impossible to guess accurately, but the above score is a pretty good estimate.

So, from here on out, we can see that all four of these players are fairly close in terms of overall career value. How they produced that value was somewhat different. That’s always part of the fun of these sorts of studies. As you might imagine, their peak values are far different and obviously put their careers in different lights.

Peak Value

  BWAR FWAR WS/5 Total
Charlie Gehringer 62.2 60.9 55.6 178.8
Jackie Robinson 61.4 57.2 51.4 170.0
Frankie Frisch 55.8 59.1 50.6 165.5
Rod Carew 59.3 52.3 50.0 161.6

You’ll notice that these players flipped positions. That obviously means the combined scores will end up being closer than the career values appeared. Gehringer is clearly the standard bearer of this group when we take Robinson’s career at face value. However, we see that the rest of the list is inverted. Before we consider the total index, we should probably take a look at the award voting to see how these players were perceived during their career.

  MVP Top 5 Top 10 Top 25
Charlie Gehringer 1 2 4 3
Rod Carew 1 2 3 2
Frankie Frisch 1 2 1 5
Jackie Robinson 1 1 2 4

So, these players are still rather similar when we compare their finishes in the awards voting. Robinson finished in the top 16 in the awards voting in eight out of his ten seasons. That includes his last season when he played in only 117 games. Frisch finished in the top 25 nine times, Carew eight times, and Gehringer ten times. That’s a pretty tight grouping, so we don’t learn much in terms of finding separation. We will have to look at the offensive and fielding numbers for that. First, let’s combine the career and peak value.

Hall of Fame Index 

  Career Peak Total
Charlie Gehringer 235.9 178.7 414.6
Rod Carew 230.4 161.6 392.0
Frankie Frisch 218.4 165.5 383.9
Jackie Robinson 170.0 170.0 340.0

So, we have three players that are relatively close and we have Robinson who is obviously in a different category. However, when we look at the offensive and fielding numbers we see he really does belong in this group. Even if we set the index at 350 we would still take all of them in the Hall of Fame, but it is still fun to break them down according to their numbers.

Offensive Production 

  OPS+ RBaser OW% wRC+ wOBA
Gehringer 124 9 .665 124 .405
Carew 131 26 .670 132 .369
Frisch 110 29 .603 112 .370
Robinson 132 30 .687 135 .406

So, when we dial away the index and look at it’s components we find that Robinson has a very definite claim as the best performer of the bunch. He was the best hitter and the best base runner of the bunch. It should be no surprise that he had the best wRC+ and offensive winning percentage of the bunch. Even more impressive, he had the best wOBA even though he did not play in as good a hitting era as Gehringer and Frisch.

Carew played in a more depressed offensive time and he was not as dynamic offensively as the others (save for Frisch). Many that saw him play later in his career remember the brilliant singles hitter that couldn’t do much else. Early in his career he was a brilliant base runner as well. Robinson and Frisch were good runners as well. Even Gehringer was good comparatively. It’s a group without any major weaknesses.

Scouts and fans are mesmerized by the five tools and assume that every tool is created equal. So, they compare the base running totals along with the power and on base numbers as if they are equal. That goes for fielding as well. Frisch is a cut below offensively, but always had a stellar defensive reputation. Let’s see if it is warranted.

Fielding Numbers 

Gehringer 34 86.8 4.49 10.7
Carew 16 39.3 4.19 -1.7
Frisch 140 83.9 5.42 21.6
Robinson 81 37.7 5.94 10.1

Let’s start with win shares. We had to add the per 1000 innings category because most of these players played other positions for a good portion of their careers. The defensive win shares represent their numbers only at second base. So, Carew and Robinson look worse than they really are. When we switch over to the per 1000 innings category we see that Robinson is actually the best defender.

Unfortunately, these numbers aren’t interval in nature. In other words, they really don’t build on each other. We use them to get a general sense of how each player compares with each other. With the exception of win shares per 1000 innings, Frisch appears to be the best fielder of the bunch. That particularly comes into focus when looking at total zone runs (and baseball-reference’s Rfield) and defensive WAR.

If you are looking at defensive WAR for the first time you should know some of the peculiarities in how it is compiled. Players are compared in one universe of value, so middle infielders are more important than corner infielders. This is important because Robinson and Carew spent time at third base and first base in their careers. Carew comes out negative because most first basemen come out negative. Frisch shifted over to shortstop on occasion, so he wins on degree of difficulty.

Frisch obviously has to be considered the standard amongst these four and might look that way when compared to the elite group as well. However, how would he look when compared to the guys with stellar defensive reputations that are in the Hall of Fame. So, we include Bid McPhee, Nap Lajoie, and Bill Mazeroski into the conversation.

Bid McPhee 154 16.2 98.7 5.25
Nap Lajoie 83 10.1 85.7 4.69
Frankie Frisch 140 21.6 83.9 5.42
Bill Mazeroski 147 24.0 112.2 6.13

This is one of the few times where reputation and evidence meets. Mazeroski has the reputation as the best fielding second baseman in history and the numbers seem to reveal the same thing. Of course, the others played other positions which affected the numbers up or down. The total defensive win shares were those only compiled at second base. So, they likely would have finished closer, but the win shares per 1000 innings indicate that Maz is the king with the glove.

As we saw in the book though, Hall of Famers have to be great players overall. Maz’s entire value came with the glove. Frisch was very valuable defensively and at least brought some value with the bat. When you add his fielding and hitting he becomes as valuable as Gehringer, Carew, and Robinson.

What About: Jorge Posada

In 2000, Eddie Epstein and Rob Neyer wrote “Baseball’s Dynasties: The Greatest Teams of All-time.” The book is the definitive outlook on the game’s greatest teams. Fifteen teams were selected from the 20th century. Nearly half of those teams had a Hall of Fame catcher. Of course, I’ve mentioned this before, but no other single position is more represented in Cooperstown amongst the teams in that book.

You may be wondering what this has to do with the price of tea, but it should be no surprise that the 1998 Yankees were the last team covered in that book. In addition to the six Hall of Fame catchers, the other teams were represented by some darn good ones. Johnny Kling, Chief Meyers, and Gene Tenace have their champions in the baseball community. Elston Howard was a darn good one during his prime as well. Some people even champion Walker Cooper of the Cardinals as well.

This brings us to Jorge Posada of the latest Yankees dynasty. Dynasties have to have some serendipity on their side. You obviously have to have great players, but sometimes you need good players that happen to play great. Then, you get unsung players that come out of nowhere and have a great season. Every championship team has those guys. So, was Posada a great player, a good one that was great at the right time, or was he one of those guys that came out of nowhere?

The comparisons with Howard are probably apt, but Posada was a really good catcher for about a decade. For whatever reason, he likely will not muster the value needed to be seriously considered by the BBWAA. It was to the point where I did not seriously consider him when looking at the modern candidates. However, considering his place on one of the greatest teams in history, he deserves a longer look. Let’s start with the index.

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Career Value 42.8 44.7 51.6 139.1
Peak Value 39.8 40.4 43.0 123.2
Total 82.6 85.1 94.6 262.3

It would be easy enough to drop it right here, but that would be disrespectful to a pretty darn good player. When you get to 260 in the index you are a very good player in the history of the game. There are those that would claim that good players should be inducted into the Hall of Fame. It is a museum after all and if they were instrumental in the success of a good team then you can make that argument. The trouble there is that you have others that were also good players that didn’t have the opportunity to play on a good team. When you mention Howard you see a really good historical comparison.

Elston Howard .274 .322 .427 167 619 762
Jorge Posada .273 .374 .474 275 900 1065

Howard has fame because he hit .348 with 21 home runs for the 1961 Yankees. He is the perfect example of a good player having a great season at the right time. Posada was good for longer, but the career numbers above show he probably came up just a little short. Of course, the interaction between the career and peak value numbers show you that as well. Still, his 121 OPS+ compares favorably to the other catchers in the Hall of Fame. So, why are his numbers so lackluster. Fortunately for us, Posada played at a time when we had a better understanding of all that went into catcher defense. Below we look at the numbers that compose defensive runs saved since they were compiled in 2003.

  ADJ ER Strikes SB Bunts GFP/DME Total Rank
2003 -5 0 3 0 0 -2 29
2004 -3 0 -2 -1 -6 -12 35
2005 -2 0 0 0 2 0 5
2006 -3 0 4 0 -4 -3 19
2007 -1 0 -6 0 -6 -13 35
2008 -1 0 -4 0 0 -5
2009 -10 0 -1 0 -5 -16 35
2010 -2 -16 -6 -1 -5 -30 35

The Fielding Bible system remains the most comprehensive system that is available to the average fan. Teams likely have more complex data to go by, but recent seasons have seen pitch framing data (strikes here) added since 2010. It is likely Posada would have been substandard going back to the late 1990s in that department. Add to that his deficiencies in calling a game (Adjusted ER) and you can see he has an uphill battle. He showed some ability to throw out would be basestealers, but he also was not good at blocking pitches in the dirt. The end result was that he was the worst defensive catcher in baseball in three out of his last four seasons as a regular catcher and once more in 2004. Again, we have no idea of what happened before 2003, but judging by the other numbers it wasn’t pretty.

This is usually where one of those old-school guys comes out and says, “well I’d like to see you catch in the big leagues.” I agree. I could never do it. This isn’t saying that Posada was a bad catcher. Good and bad are comparative in nature. We have to look at what value he brought to the table and that can only be done by comparing him with other catchers. So, he may have been a good catcher, but compared to the other catchers in the game he was not as valuable defensively.

Baseball-reference had him rated at -60 Rfield runs and Fangraphs had him rated him at -7 total zone runs. So, add in the -80 defensive runs saved and you can see that no one was a big fan of his work. So, yes, Posada was a really good hitter and you could compare him with his teammate Derek Jeter. The difference is that Jeter enjoyed a few more prime seasons.

Second Basemen: The Elites

One of the more fun activities in sports is debating who the best player is at a particular position. The index can play a part in that debate, but it was never really designed to be a definitive answer to that question. Second base is one of those positions where the answer is not necessarily universal. It all depends on what you want out of a second baseman and how important level of competition is. We will begin with the index and expand our search outwards to include the various parts of the game.

Career Value

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Eddie Collins 124.0 120.5 114.8 359.3
Rogers Hornsby 127.0 130.3 100.4 357.7
Nap Lajoie 107.4 102.2 99.2 308.8
Joe Morgan 100.6 98.8 102.4 301.8

The results here are shocking enough. Most people naturally assumed that Hornsby would top the list and I did too when I first compiled it. The difference is slight obviously, but it comes in Collins’ major advantage. He was a major player for nearly two decades. Hornsby didn’t last nearly as long, but he was legitimately an all-time great for more than a decade. However, that will come when we look peak value.

Lajoie is an interesting player because he is the first player we have that straddles the19th century and 20th century. In some cases this throws value into question because the competitive nature of the league was uneven in the early years. However, by the 1890s we can assume there was some uniformity. Most of his value came after the turn of the century, so we can logically keep him here. Lajoie becomes more intriguing when we start breaking down the individual components.

This leaves us with Morgan. Morgan obviously the only player from the modern game and as such played in a multi-chrome environment. This is where terms like greatest and most dominant can be conflated. Morgan was clearly not more dominant than the other three but given arguments about the quality of play we could claim he was the greatest. Then, those arguments are based on certain assumptions too. Let’s move onto peak value and quickly put the index part of the argument to bed.

Peak Value 

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total Index
Rogers Hornsby 93.1 96.2 72.4 261.7 619.4
Eddie Collins 78.3 77.2 75.4 230.9 590.2
Nap Lajoie 75.0 72.6 64.2 211.8 520.6
Joe Morgan 77.2 66.5 63.0 206.7 508.5

One of the notions of the index is the notion of separation. It is designed to separate players as much as possible for Hall of Fame fitness analysis. You take career value and peak value for instance. One is part of the other, but when you put it together it often separates players purposely. The same is true when we use three different statistical sources. Occasionally, we get some honest disagreement and that is where it pays to shine a light and see what is going on.

Eddie Collins had more win shares for his career and during his peak than Hornsby. That begs the question why. WAR exists in a runs environment. Wins are parceled out on a ten-run basis. The idea is that performance occurs in the aggregate. Over a long enough time period all of the hiccups of clutch performance will even themselves. At least that is the idea behind. The creators will tell you that it isn’t necessarily meant to be leant on over a year to year basis. It becomes more accurate the further away you stand.

Win shares are parceled out based on wins. This creates a bit of an issue itself. Players are rewarded based on their placement on a good team. In an aggregate environment, when individual performance improves team performance improves. Unfortunately, it isn’t an exact ratio though. So, it is possible that some players benefit from collective performance or suffer from a lack of support. Yet, it is also possible that when a player performs is more important than simply leaning on the aggregate. Proven clutch performers deserve credit for performing in those situations and WAR simply doesn’t do that. Does Collins benefit simply by being on better teams or he was he honestly a better performer when it mattered? That remains to be seen.

Offensive Numbers

 When we distill out counting numbers we often see a very clear picture of who was the more valuable offensive player. The trouble is that we are really only considering what occurred in the batter’s box. Historians, statisticians, and scouts all agree that what occurs in the batter’s box trumps everything else most of the time, but we can obviously debate to the percentages involved. Here, we see mostly how each player performed against the league with the exception of bases per out. We will cover that down the line.

Rogers Hornsby .459 173 .815 1.049
Eddie Collins .409 144 .715 .796
Nap Lajoie .401 144 .758 .777
Joe Morgan .372 135 .702 .818

To give us some idea we will start with offensive winning percentage. In a 162 game schedule, a team made of these players would win at least 113 games a season. The 2001 Mariners set the modern record with 116 wins in 2001. So, these players in their prime were better than the 2001 Mariners even with average pitching and fielding. A team made up of nine Rogers Hornsby’s would win 132 games on average. That is patently ridiculous.

Quite frankly. Hornsby is in the conversation for best right-handed hitter in the history of the game. It really isn’t fair to compare the other players to him, but they do compare favorably to each other. Morgan comes a little short, but we have to keep in mind that it is more difficult to separate yourself in the modern game. Expansion watered down the league and mitigated the effects of deviation. In other words, the standard deviation would be lower, so he might have been better.

Bases per out is a hybrid number meant to show how valuable a hitter was. It unfortunately is not normed like the other numbers, so the raw scores can be misinterpreted. Lajoie and Collins played in the Dead Ball Era when offensive numbers were depressed overall. So, seeing Morgan end up a little higher can be somewhat deceiving. Still, this is just one more category where Hornsby dominates. Naturally, this would lead most to just assume that he was the best of all-time, but there is more to the game than what happens in the batter’s box.

Fielding Numbers

Nap Lajoie +83 +79 85.7 4
Rogers Hornsby +54 +30 59.6 1
Eddie Collins +35 +40 107.5 8
Joe Morgan -48 -43 90.8 0

Yeah, but but but Joe Morgan won five Gold Gloves! Again, we see the folly of relying on Rawlings to tell who us who the most valuable fielder was. The system is rife with bias first of all, but more importantly only one of our players was eligible for the awards. In the past, we have looked at total zone awards and Fielding Bible awards for the modern players, but here will have to stick win shares on an individual year in and year out basis.

Based on his finish here, we can safely eliminate Morgan from the discussion of who would be the most valuable second baseman of all-time. Of course, the discussion on the greatest second baseman rages on. Morgan combined power, speed, and patience like no other player at the position. Unfortunately, he wasn’t quite dominant enough with the bat or the glove.

Of course, win shares are indicative of value over time. Morgan is second all-time in defensive innings at second base, so it makes perfect sense for him to be second in defensive win shares. The win share Gold Gloves are more indicative of defensive value from year to year. Hornsby had some defensive flexibility, but he was not valuable at any position he played according to win shares. The baseball-reference and Fangraphs metrics said he was better than the average second baseman.

This is the primary reason why we do not compile fielding statistics like we do with the index. Fangraphs and baseball-reference compare players with the average at the position while win shares compiles from the replacement level. When you have two different frames of reference you end up having two different results. The take away is that Eddie Collins was likely the best of the four and the most valuable over time. Lajoie was second in terms of greatness but had fewer innings than the others.

While it would seem prudent to eliminate Morgan at this point, those that watched him play would harp on his baserunning as an advantage. One of the peculiarities of scouting is that scouts often salivate over the so-called five tool player. Since fielding and throwing go hand in hand, that often means hitting, hitting for power, and running. The trouble is that they assume every tool is equal. That being said, we should look at baserunning before we write off Morgan.

Baserunning Statistics 

  BsR Rbaser
Joe Morgan 79.0 80.0
Eddie Collins 42.3 40.0
Rogers Hornsby -1.8 -9.0
Nap Lajoie -3.0 -11.0

There is a distinct difference ordinal and interval data. Your ranking of these second baseman largely depends on your adherence to either ordinal or interval data. Ordinal data simply ranks each player in order. In that case, Eddie Collins would be your man. He ranks either first or second in every category individually. So, while Hornsby was the best hitter, he was clearly deficient in fielding and running.

Morgan becomes viable when you consider each facet of the game individually, but when you consider it altogether you get to interval data. That asks how much better someone is than someone else. This is where we discover that hitting is more valuable than fielding which is more valuable than baserunning. So, we can salivate over the five tools, but we need to keep it all in perspective.

Rogers Hornsby’s advantage with the bat is probably enough to carry him when we add in fielding and baserunning. However, the finish is a lot closer than it would appear. In a qualitative way, people might prefer a more well-rounded player and Eddie Collins is the most well-rounded second baseman.

Modern First Basemen

First base is always a position that is loaded with Hall of Fame candidates. So, when we look at modern first basemen we have to divide them into two distinct groups. There are those that are retired, but are not yet eligible to be on the Hall of Fame ballot and then there are those that are still active. Players must wait five years to become eligible for the ballot. As it happens, there are a few interesting candidates in addition to David Ortiz who we profiled last time.

Recently Retired candidates

Two of the three candidates for the Hall of Fame have serious issues getting in the way of their candidacy. Todd Helton retired after the 2013 season after 17 seasons in Colorado. Most critics point to the fact that he played half of his games a mile above sea level. Coors Field has a way of inflating numbers. Of course, that is one of the reasons why we employ something like the index to distill out the effects of the home ballpark. Just to be sure, we ought to take a look at what the critics are talking about.

Home .345 .441 .607 227 874 859
Away .287 .386 .469 142 527 547

In some ways, you could say that the hullabaloo over Coors Field is overblown. Some people think the hitters are ordinary outside of Denver. That might have been true of players like Dante Bichette and Vinny Castilla, but Helton was a cut above. An .855 road OPS is nothing to sneeze at. If you multiple the road numbers by two you see a guy with 284 career home runs, 1054 runs scored, and 1094 RBI. That’s not Hall of Fame worthy, but it also assumes completely neutral home statistics. It is not uncommon for players to enjoy a little bump at home.

Jason Giambi was of course implicated in the whole steroids era as a user. Late in his career, he came out and made a tearful apology for doing wrong without specifically mentioning steroids. Unlike Helton, he won an MVP award and probably should have won two. By any accounts, he was the best player in the American League in 2001 by a significant margin, but the world was captivated by Ichrio Suzuki.

Giambi supposedly admitted to using human growth hormone and steroids for three seasons beginning in 2003. If that is true then we can surmise he was clean for the last ten years of his career and the first six years of his career. If we buy his timeline then his best two seasons were played clean. Of course, as we know from the Mitchell Report, Oakland was one of the epicenters of the steroid culture. Heck, it was where Balco was housed.

For the time being, we will buy his timeline and say he only used when he was in New York. Still, we can’t help but question his account because it sounds eerily similar to Alex Rodriguez’s account. They were clean until they got paid tens of millions of dollars. That doesn’t remotely seem plausible, but whatever. We will consider the index scores for these two players and Mark Teixeira.

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Todd Helton 61.2 54.8 63.6 177.6
Jason Giambi 50.5 49.7 65.0 165.2
Mark Teixeira 51.8 44.5 53.2 149.5

Helton looks awfully good when we look at career value. We can discount the numbers all we want, but he produced with the bat and the glove. In fact, when we look at the fielding numbers for all three players we can definitely see why Helton was a cut above according to the value numbers.

Todd Helton -5.5 25.7 43.7
Mark Teixeira 0.2 -4.9 37.5
Jason Giambi -19.8 -31.8 15.5

Teixeira played some at third base in his career, so when you take the defensive WAR methodology you can see why he comes out ahead. An average third baseman is worth more than an average first baseman in terms of replacement level performance. Add in win shares proclivity to give extra credit to players that played on winning teams and we can see why it would appear that Helton is not as good as people claim. UZR started in 2002, so Helton likely would have an even bigger advantage had we started from the beginning of his career.

Add it all up and we can see why Helton is a cut above the others in career value. In spite of all of that, he had only one top five finish in the MVP voting. He led the National League in bWAR in 2000 and finished in the top ten five different times in addition to that. Clearly, the BBWAA didn’t quite grasp his greatness. At least they didn’t in comparison with Jason Giambi. Of course, peak value is often the tiebreaker in these situations.

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total Index
Todd Helton 55.0 50.5 49.2 154.7 332.3
Jason Giambi 44.8 46.2 50.0 141.0 306.2
Mark Teixeira 47.9 42.0 46.2 136.1 285.6

We can comfortably eliminate Teixeira from Hall of Fame consideration. Like many others, he wasn’t healthy enough for long enough. However, it would appear that Helton should be in the Hall of Fame based on his index numbers. Giambi is a somewhat intriguing candidate given his MVP and career numbers, but the PED use and borderline score combine to do him in.

The Absurdity of Counting Statistics

There is one modern candidate who really doesn’t qualify as significant Hall of Fame candidate, but he does serve as a cautionary tale to the gods of counting numbers. Sports fans are captivated by round numbers. It’s easy to see why. In football, it’s the 1000 yard season for running backs and wide receivers. In basketball, it’s 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists per game. In baseball, it is our fascination with the .300 batting average, 100 runs scored, and 100 RBI. For pitchers, it is 20 wins and 300 strikeout seasons. Even if those numbers are universal throughout time, holding steadfastly to them seems foolish at times. Is there a remarkable difference between say 99 RBI and 103 RBI? Let’s bring back our Player A and Player B test. Numbers represent the beginning of the 2018 season for the modern player.

Player A .273 .359 .487 370 1105 1274
Player B .288 .359 .488 311 982 1176

That is about as close as two players can get in terms of OPS. Of course, we are talking two different eras and these numbers are crude, but you would be hard pressed to call either one a significant Hall of Fame candidate. Are they good players? Clearly, most players don’t get to 300 career home runs and 1000 RBI. Furthermore, both players hit for a decent average and showed the ability to get on base.

We would surmise that Player A is slightly better, but Player B isn’t done playing yet. If he puts up one or two more decent seasons then he could be right there in all three run producing categories. As we have seen in the last two seasons, Player B is likely done as a productive player, but we are still early in the 2018 campaign. Stranger things have happened.

Player A is Gil Hodges. He had seven consecutive 100 RBI seasons when the Dodgers were at their best in the 1940s and 1950s. When you produce matters, but Player B is the Mets Adrian Gonzalez. In 2009, he hit .277 with a .407 OBP. He had a career high 119 walks and had the highest OPS in his career at .958. He also hit a career high 40 home runs. By all accounts it was a great season. Unfortunately, he only drove in 99 runs. Had he collected one more RBI he would have had nine consecutive 100 RBI seasons.

This isn’t to say that Gonzalez should be considered for the Hall of Fame. Quite the opposite, he hasn’t done nearly enough to warrant that and no self-respecting analyst is suggesting he should be. However, with that one more RBI you could claim he has a stronger case than Hodges. He matches those offensive contributions with four Gold Glove awards. By all accounts he has enjoyed a very good career. He’s also fallen off the table in the last two seasons. In other words, he just wasn’t good enough for long enough. Yet, with similar credentials you have seemingly brilliant analysts that will swear that Hodges is a Hall of Famer. At least one of their selling points are those seven consecutive seasons. Absurd? Yeah, I would agree.

Modern First Basemen

First base is usually a loaded position and now is no different. There are two absolute legends currently active and one more that probably will be should he remain healthy. One of the reasons for compiling lists like this is that it forces us to acknowledge greatness when it is right in front of us. Sometimes, we have to acknowledge greatness when it isn’t readily apparent.

Joey Votto is absolutely one of the greatest first basemen in history. Some people don’t see it. That might be because Cincinnati is a small market. It also might be because the Reds are practicing a scorched earth plan that will keep them near the basement for the forseeable future. It isn’t like they have enjoyed a lot of success in his career. That’s not his fault, but it is easier to recognize greatness when it is enjoyed on a great team. The biggest factor is that the skill that makes him great is not universally recognized as a skill. He gets on base more often than any player in the modern game. Walks aren’t sexy, but they matter. They matter a lot.

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Albert Pujols 98.4 89.1 92.0 280.5
Miguel Cabrera 68.9 67.6 75.6 212.1
Joey Votto 55.3 53.4 54.6 163.3

No, that is not an index total for Pujols. That is just career value. Of course, he is also a cautionary tale for projecting career value midway through a career. His Cardinal numbers are enough to get him by themselves, but he has been a very different player in Los Angeles. It is hard to argue that he has been worth the investment the Angels put in him. Naturally, it is hard to calculate what he has meant in advertising and marketing. He will get his 3000th hit probably by the time you finish reading this. I’m certainly not a public relations expert, but that has to be worth a ton. The simple numbers tell a different story.

Cardinals .328 .420 .617 445 1291 1329
Angels .262 .317 .459 174 443 603

As bad as these numbers look, the reality is worse. He was one of the best fielding first basemen in the National League throughout his career in St. Louis. He is barely replacement level over the course of his time in Los Angeles. He will still go down as the second best first baseman ever, but we would have sworn he could have chased down Gehrig when we take just the Cardinal numbers. Even with two or three more prime years it might have been possible. That’s what you get for predicting the future.

Still, he should pass Willie Mays on the all-time home run list next season and he should pass 2000 career RBI this season if he plays most of the time. He has an outside chance of reaching 2000 runs scored and 700 home runs if he finishes out his contract with the Angels. So, make sure you get your commemorative promotional stuff at the ballpark as he approaches those milestones.

Cabrera gets lost in the shuffle because of Pujols. In the early going of 2018 he appears to be back on track. Since he is a few years younger than Pujols, he has an outside chance of reaching the same career milestones. Baseball hasn’t seen that level of production since Gehrig and Foxx were going back and forth in the 1920s and 1930s. Naturally, this leaves us with Votto. Votto is considerably younger and so he barely reaches the ten-year minimum. It also means his peak value and career value will be very similar. For obvious reasons I don’t feel comfortable projecting his career, but it seems fairly obvious that he is already there in terms of where the index pegs him.

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total Index
Albert Pujols 81.3 76.5 67.6 227.4 507.9
Miguel Cabrera 55.7 50.5 56.8 163.0 375.1
Joey Votto 55.2 53.5 54.0 162.7 326.0

Keep in mind that Votto is still technically in the midst of his ten-year peak. So, all he can do is add to his peak value at this point. It doesn’t seem outrageous to assert that he will be a superior peak value player when compared to Cabrera. It’s harder to assert career value since Cabrera is still adding to that total, but if Votto continues on his trajectory that could end up being the case. Thanks to baseball-reference.com we can compare where Votto is coming into 2018 to where Pujols was when exiting St. Louis. For fun, we will consider Cabrera’s tally as well through 11 seasons.

Pujols .328 .420 .617 445 1291 1329
Cabrera .321 .399 .568 365 1064 1260
Votto .313 .428 .541 257 863 830

There are a couple of reasons why Votto’s totals are lower. First, he was called up late in 2007, so while that technically counts as his 11th season, he really has only had ten full seasons. Secondly, he missed considerable time in both 2012 and 2014 due to injury. Yet, he is as good a reason why we can’r rely on runs and RBI to tell us how good someone is as anyone in the history of the game. He is essentially as good as Cabrera was with the bat over those first eleven seasons, but both Cabrera and Pujols were surrounded by better teammates, so both players scored and drove in far more runs.

Runs and RBI are essentially opportunity statistics. You need someone on base to drive in and you need someone at the plate to drive you in. The Reds just have not been a good team over the totality of Votto’s career. Others would claim he is selfish to take all of those walks. He should swing the bat when there are runners on base. Simply put, this is backwards thinking. Your job as a hitter is to create runs. You create runs first and foremost by getting on base. Swinging at pitches out of the zone to drive in runs is not an efficient way to create runs.