Every once in awhile I stumble on to something on the internet that interrupts my train of thought. I’ve been trying to go through the positions in an organized fashion. I posted the first base index earlier in the week and should be moving to fielding shortly. The great thing about having a website instead of a book is that I can respond to things in real time. So, today I’m interrupting the process to respond to something that I read on the interwebs.
It was innocent enough really. Someone posted a link on Facebook to an article they had written about Jimmy Rollins and his chances of getting into the Hall of Fame. I read the article because I am obviously interested in the Hall of Fame and arguments surrounding it. I won’t mention the author or all of the specifics because I don’t believe in snark as a general rule. I highlight the arguments because they are something you see quite often.
The two arguments that came up are similar, but they are enough differences that we should point them out separately.
- In 2007, Rollins won the MVP award with a season where he had 20 triples, 30 home runs, and more than 40 steals. He is the only person in history to produce such a season.
I could call these what my wife calls them (“random ass statistics”) but that would serve to cheapen the argument and add the kind of snark I usually detest. The closest comparison I could make here is the so-called triple double in basketball. If someone scores 12 points, has 11 rebounds, and 11 assists did he have a better game than a player with 28 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists?
In the baseball vernacular we could look at that individual season and the shortstops involved. Keep in mind, I’m leaving out WAR and win shares out of this discussion. It’s disingenuous to use a term to justify it’s utility. In other words, we are talking in general about the need for more rigorous analysis. So, Rollins was the only player to put together that particular statistical profile. Unfortunately, that presupposes that each of those events carries the same value. What we have learned is that stolen bases are not all that valuable in comparison with other events. It is much more valuable to steal first base then it is second or third.
Most of you are familiar with OPS. It stands for on base percentage plus slugging percentage. It is said to explain 90 percent of the variance in run production. It is much more descriptive then simply looking at runs scored, RBI, home runs, steals, and triples. Considering his MVP award and high fluting statistical profile we would expect Rollins to be the best shortstop in baseball that season. However, if we look at OPS+ (OPS normalized with home ballpark effects removed and compared to the league average) then we see that is not the case.
- Hanley Ramirez: 145
- Edgar Renteria: 124
- Carlos Guillen: 122
- Derek Jeter: 121
- Jimmy Rollins: 119
Does this mean he was the fifth best shortstop in baseball in 2017? Of course it doesn’t. We haven’t even looked at fielding and OPS+ doesn’t explain everything. It does explain a whole lot more than that analyst was attempting to explain. In essence, it just means that putting together a list of the number of times a player meets specific statistical markers is an inexact way of arriving at value.
2. Jimmy Rollins had a similar number of hits, runs, RBI, home runs, stolen bases, and Gold Gloves awards as Alan Trammell and Barry Larkin.
I will simply leave Gold Gloves where they are. That requires a whole separate article that we will likely get to someday. That day won’t be today. Suffice it to say that Gold Gloves have about as much to do with identifying fielding greatness as good penmanship has to do with stock car racing. The other comparisons seem compelling and that is why we have to spend more time on it.
Basic statistics have three separate issues that make using them problematic. The most obvious area of bias is one we identified with the first problem. Scouts love to talk about the five tools and love to swoon over guys they call “five tool players.” This is where a guy can hit, hit for power, run, throw, and field. Even ignoring the fact that those tools ignore plate discipline (which might be more important than all of them) we have to recognize that not all of those tools are equally valuable or important. A home run is more valuable than a stolen base. A run scored is more valuable than a hit. So, stacking these numbers next to each other can cloud our judgment as to how valuable a player really is.
The second issue is the issue of place. Where a player produces these numbers can further be divided into two different considerations. First, we have the ballpark the player played in. Coors Field and Petco Park are two very different environments, so we would expect that environment to impact each player differently. You cannot simply stack those counting numbers next to each other without considering how those environments impacted those numbers. Hitting .300 in the Astrodome for instance is far different than hitting .300 in Fenway Park.
The second issue with place is the team that the player played for. Insert any player onto a team like the 1970s Reds, late 1990s Yankees, or 1950s Dodgers will impact their numbers in a very positive way. Do the same for the 1960s Mets, Senators from any period, or the 1930s Phillies and you would see those numbers depressed in comparison with players from the same period that were on good teams. Geography matters. In the instance of Rollins, we have to acknowledge that the Phillies were good throughout that period. Sure, Rollins has a hand in that, but so did Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Bob Abreu, and others.
This brings us to the bias of time. Time is simple. When did the player play? An average player in 1930 would produce far different numbers than an average player in 1968. This is even if we normalize it for the quality of the team he played on and the ballpark he played in. One cannot compare Alan Trammel, Barry Larkin, and Jimmy Rollins and not account for those three areas of bias. To simply say that they have similar totals in runs scored, RBI, and stolen bases ignores a great deal.
I know I said I would not include WAR or win shares, but I feel the point has been made. What those metrics do is distill the affects of time, place, and the randomness of how much each unit means in terms of helping his team win. They are all included in the secret sauce. Below are the bWAR for each player.
- Alan Trammell: 70.4
- Barry Larkin: 70.2
- Jimmy Rollins: 46.0
I’m not saying that Rollins is not a Hall of Famer. I haven’t done the full analysis on that yet, but it certainly isn’t looking good right now. I find the above a little more compelling than comparing how many bases each stole. In short, this is why something like the index is so valuable. We miss a lot when we only play around with the basic numbers.