We heard it again this past week. Recently retired outfielder Jayson Werth said, “the supernerds are destroying the game.” There has long been tension between the modern baseball analysts and the old school baseball lifers. Some of them are scouts. Some are former players. Some are old-fashioned fans. Either way, the battle lines have been drawn. Many do not see the benefit of a statistic like WAR or win shares. After all, you can’t boil down someone’s contribution to a number.
That point would not be so insidious if those people didn’t attempt to do the same. We look at hits, home runs, batting average, wins, and ERA as if they are sacrosanct. So, the essence is not whether you boil down a player’s value to a number, but which number? In the scouting world it is a grade somewhere between 20 and 80. They grade the so-called five tools and those that sort of know what they are talking about treat all of those numbers as if they mean something equal. In other words, having a 70 (all-star level) arm would mean the same thing as having 70 power. Of course, scouts know this is bunk, but many casual observers don’t know the ins and outs of how scouts weight all of this.
Furthermore, the most valuable skill in baseball in easily the ability to get on base. Plate discipline isn’t a skill most organizational scouts grade officially. So, if one doesn’t grade it then how do any teams know they have it? I bring all of this up because all six of these remaining shortstops grade out similarly in value. They are all very different in terms of the skills they brought to the table. We will only see that when we break down offensive and fielding numbers, but as always we start with the index.
It is here especially where we remind you that it is not the purpose of the index to rank players in order. Each score is built on three different platforms that all have different opinions of how much weight to apply to specific events. In other words, they will not grade offense and defense exactly the same way. Win shares parcels out wins differently than the two WAR formulas.
What’s important here is that all of these players are fairly similar in the amount of value they brought to their teams. So, Werth can decry the nerds all he wants. Spreadsheets don’t play the game. They never will. Each player accrues value in a unique way. A smart GM or scout will discover a player’s unique quality and will determine if that quality interacts well with the rest of his or her roster. It’s not as simple as plugging in a .360 OBP and considering that to be superior to a .350 OBP. More goes into than that and the same is true with the index.
Again, the key story here is how close most of the numbers are. Boudreau is an obvious exception, but he also appeared towards the bottom of the career value list. Again, the idea here is that players accrue their value differently. Would you rather have 15 good seasons or 11 or 12 very good ones? Everyone has their own answer to that question.
The interesting data always comes in when we break down offense and fielding separately. Each player has his own reputation and they certainly gained a lot of mileage off of those reputations. The numbers often reveal the truth. However, before we get to those numbers we need to clean up the index to see how close they come.
Hall of Fame Index
Keep in mind that the goal of the index is to find to gaps in data. There are virtually no gaps in the data here, so all of these guys are legitimate Hall of Famers. It’s interesting to see players this close in index scores, but it is more interesting to see how each one got there. Those numbers are often more revealing than the index scores themselves.
Smith obviously does not belong with the rest of these guys, but he is an interesting player even when you only look at the offensive numbers. We saw where Luis Aparicio and Rabbit Maranville landed in the last post. The difference between the three is that Smith improved throughout the course of his career. So, his final wOBA reflects that he was just a little better than they were. Combine that with his baserunning and he was able to get to that magical 90 wRC+.
However, he would have needed to produce outrageous fielding numbers to get the rest of the way there. He has the best defensive reputation in the history of the game (13 Gold Gloves) so it wouldn’t be shocking to see the numbers reflect that. Still, we have see other cases where numbers didn’t back reputation. Ironically, the rest fit in a very tight grouping offensively, so there really isn’t much to discuss in terms of offensive numbers.
Ozzie Smith is number one all-time in career defensive WAR. Granted, the deck is stacked in his favor since shortstops play the most difficult position according to the formula, but it is easily defensible to call him the most valuable defender of all time. I’m guessing there are others that would argue for others and that’s fine. For most of my generation there will never be a better defensive player.
The rest are all above average at worst and some were very underrated defenders (Boudreau). Yet, each source ranks them in a different order. This could be a question of disagreement, but more often than not is a question of what you are measuring. If you are comparing to average that is far different than comparing a player to replacement level. One rewards quality while another rewards longevity. Then you get the case of Ernie Banks who played a lot of games at first base.
So, this was a low drama episode in the case that we don’t have any controversy. That’s okay, low drama is good every now and then. It is more instructive to see how value gets put together. When you can accurately peg the past it helps in pegging the future. Or, as a wise person once said if you can predict a crisis then you can usually prevent it.