Bobby Grich is the Rosetta Stone between the old baseball world and the new age baseball world. If you’ve read my baseball writing before you’ve probably heard me talk about this issue before. The standard response from the old baseball world is that they know a great player when they see one. I give you Bobby Grich. Grich is a mostly forgotten man in traditional baseball circles, but for stat heads he is the Holy Grail.
The irony of the debate is easy to see. Traditionalists love to say that they know great players when they see them. I would argue that we all do, but let’s leave that aside for a moment. Invariably, those on the traditional side will use numbers to their defense. In these cases we use the traditional counting numbers instead of the new numbers. We don’t need to the new numbers to tell us who was great. That’s just a crutch.
Of course, really smart people have reservations about some of these metrics. Those reservations are based on well thought out objections to the math involved. This diatribe is really not aimed at them. We should always check ourselves and our assumptions so we grow in our analysis. There are far too many people that dismiss all of this out of hand. So, let’s take a look at Grich’s career and see why these two groups see him differently. Then, maybe we can decide who is right after all.
This isn’t to say the traditionalists are completely unsystematic. They have a few things they look at in addition to brute, raw numbers. The first test they often take is the black ink test. This is simply the number of times a player led the league in a statistical category. He led the league in home runs and slugging percentage in 1981 and played in every game in 1973. That was it. The second test was basic awards voting like Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers, and all-star game. Grich played in six all-star games, won four Gold Gloves, and a silver slugger award.
There are no hard and fast rules on either test, but those results usually mean you’ve ended up short. Most voters look for players that play in around ten all-star games. He had a good fielding reputation based on the Gold Gloves, but the voters usually like more. Obviously, winning only one silver slugger is not all that impressive comparatively.
The third and final test was where a player finished in the awards voting. Grich finished with two top ten finishes in the MVP voting. He finished in the top 20 three other times. Usually a player that finishes no higher than eighth has no business being in the Hall of Fame. Yet, this is where traditional wisdom and the new methodology differs. He finished in the top ten four times in bWAR including 2nd in 1973 and 5th in 1981. Two top five finishes to go with those two top ten finishes would have made him look considerably better. Ironically enough, he had only two seasons where he was the best fielding second basemen according to total zone runs. He did finish in the top ten four other times.
The long and short of it is that Grich looks better when you start comparing him with the replacement level or average player. Grich was at the very least above average offensively and defensively simultaneously. Sometimes it is easy to overlook the combination effect of being better than average or merely good at every facet of the game. The pundits saw an above average player, but the numbers reveal a very good player. So, let’s take a look at how he fared in the index.
If this is the first article you are reading on this site then the numbers above are meaningless to you. All statistics must have a context. The best thing we can do is look at his contemporaries and see how they fared. Grich played in both the 1970s and 1980s, but he was considerably better in the 1970s. If we take a look at their index scores we might see what the above numbers mean.
We will cover the Hall of Fame cases for Randolph and Whitaker in a subsequent article. However, the other guys were all fair country ballplayers and they were all significantly worse than Grich in the index. How does this happen? Well, that can only be explained by looking at some other numbers. We will get to those in a minute. That being said, we should talk a little about how these numbers should be interpreted.
It would be fair to point out that we did not include anyone currently in the Hall of Fame that played in the same period (Morgan, Sandberg, Carew). There were a few other players we could have included that we did not. The entire idea around the index is not to completely rank players with that information alone. Whitaker may be better than Grich or he might not. The same is true of Randolph. That’s not really the point. The point is that they are similar. The others are not. So, they are not in the same league as those guys. Now, we will look at some offensive numbers to determine why.
We could conceivably stop with OPS+ because most people understand that and we already see separation. However, that would ignore some other compelling numbers. We’ve used offensive winning percentage before and it bears repeating for those that have seen it before. We assume all nine hitters in the lineup produce exactly like the hitter in question. Grich and Lopes are both above average, but a majority of Lopes’ added production came with his legs. Both secondary average (SEC) and wOBA demonstrate the same thing. Too many people focus on batting average. Grich wasn’t special in that deparment, but he combined a good batting eye and some surprise power to produce good numbers in those categories. Lopes used speed to produce a good secondary average. The rest of the players fall further behind in all of the categories.
Remember, we are excluding Morgen, Randolph, Whitaker, and Sandberg. So, it might seem like we are stacking the deck in Grich’s favor, but we are also excluding a ton of guys that just didn’t last and never put up huge numbers. The point here is that Grich might not be called a brilliant hitter, but he was a good one and certainly a good one for a second baseman. Others were better (notably Morgan) and some were as good (Whitaker, Lopes) but the value comes in being better than most. So, now we should compare Grich to that same group defensively.
So, again we see that Grich is not the best of the bunch. Frank White was a perennial Gold Glove performer, so it is no surprise that he should come out looking so good here, but it is a lot closer than people think. In many instances, we dismiss a fielder if he doesn’t win a ton of Gold Gloves. An above average fielder has value. Someone consistently above average has more value than you might think.
Yet, here is where the rubber meets the road and this is where traditionalists sometimes miss the mark. When we expand the second base list to include the likes of Joe Morgan, Lou Whitaker, Willie Randolph, Ryne Sandberg and even a guy like Steve Sax we find individual skills that some did better than Grich. There were players that hit for better average. There were players that ran the bases better. There were players that hit for more power. There were some that had more patience. Obviously, White and Randolph were superior fielders. There weren’t many that did it all as well as Grich. So, those that focus on individual categories miss the point.
The numbers above represent Grich’s peak value. This is arguably where Grich shines. The biggest problem for the traditionalists is that he simply didn’t play long enough. It took some time for him to break into Earl Weaver’s lineup and the two sometimes did not get along. This gets us to a philosophical question. Should a player be penalized when those in charge of playing him didn’t fully understand his value? Weaver was a great manager, but sometimes even great managers make mistakes.
When he was at his best, Grich was more valuable than both Lou Whitaker and Willie Randolph. In fact, he was superior to Roberto Alomar from the previous article. So, he arguably has the best case for anyone on the outside looking in to get into the Hall of Fame. That might be for every position when things like PEDs are thrown into the conversation. Unfortunately, his name hardly ever gets mentioned outside of these circles. It’s really too bad.
The index was never designed to be used to rank players. Grich’s final index score puts him squarely in the neighborhood of Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar, Lou Whitaker, and Craig Biggio. Some have higher scores and some have lower scores but they are all fairly close. Grich belongs in that conversation. Where that conversation goes depends on who you are with at the sports bar, but he belongs in the Hall of Fame.