There is a whole cottage industry around comparing players from different eras in every sport. NFL fans want to compare Jim Brown to Walter Payton while basketball fans want to compare Magic Johnson to Oscar Robertson. Often times these players don’t overlap. So, how do we allow for different eras where the level of play was different? It could be enough to make you throw up your hands and give up.
Yet, there is something to be gained as well. We can compare two very similar players and get a glimpse of the past. People of this generation grew up watching Nomar Garciaparra, so even mention the name Vern Stephens and they may glaze over in a lack of recognition. However, their numbers get more and more similar as we peel the onion.
You’ll notice we haven’t included the rate statistics. The fact is that these players are comparable not only in their quality but also in the length of their careers. They spent a good portion of their careers in Boston and arguably both enjoyed the majority of their success there. Their peaks arguably lasted the same amount of time. However, having similar numbers doesn’t prove anything in terms of being similar or picking which guy was better. At first blush, we would say it was Stephens, but we know nothing about the era in which each played in. At least we don’t based on the numbers above.
Here, we have normalized the data by comparing each player with the average hitter in the eras in which they played. We see that Garciaparra comes out ahead in some categories and Stephens is ahead in others. However, they are more or less equal offensively. Seeing these numbers creates a snapshot of what it must have been like to experience Stephens’ career firsthand. Sure, they aren’t similar stylistically, but in terms of production relative to the league they are extremely similar. Now, let’s check out the defense.
Who was the better fielder? Well, we have to keep in mind that win shares and WAR compares players with the replacement level player while the baseball-reference and Fangraphs numbers compare players with the average. This is an important distinction when evaluating players with careers of varying lengths. Stephens had nearly 15,000 defensive innings total as compared to Garciaparra’s 11,642. An advantage of 3000 innings is roughly equivalent to three additional season’s worth of innings. So, we can argue that Stephens accrued more defensive value that way, but defensive value and quality are not the same thing.
That being said, even when we look at quality we are not talking about a huge separation here. Garciaparra might average a run or two more per season defensively. That means they were both mediocre defenders for the most part when compared with their contemporaries. So, they are roughly equal offensively and defensively. So, they should come out relatively equal overall in the index. That is until we consider that Stephens did enjoy that additional time.
The Hall of Fame Index
So, in terms of peak value they are very similar, but the extra few seasons gives Stephens the slight advantage overall. What does all of this mean? Well, it means that fans of both generations have a frame of reference for their guy. Modern Boston fans have a handle on Stephen’s place in history because they can compare him with Garciaparra. The same is true for the old guard of Boston fans. For the rest of us, we can get a handle on each player’s Hall of Fame credentials when we compare them with the rest of the Hall of Fame register. We’ll do that now with the modern shortstops (minus Derek Jeter who we have already covered).
It’s a testament to the times we are living in that there is doubt as to whether ARod will be voted into the Hall of Fame. He finds himself in the same category as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. They are known PED users that had Hall of Fame careers outside of the use. So, we put them into some kind of separate stick in the butt moralistic category. We could provide tons of historical precedent of cheaters moving on to Cooperstown, but that’s a different article for a different day.
Tulowitzki is still active, but he has missed much of the past two seasons with various foot issues. His career is like many before him. He is a Hall of Fame quality player that hasn’t been able to stay on the field enough. That being said, he still has the opportunity to add to his resume, so we will largely ignore him for the time being and focus on the other two guys. At first blush, they would seem to be a little short of the standard, but we haven’t seen their peak value numbers yet.
We just got through with our discussion about comparing players from different eras. Notice that the bottom three compare favorably with the dynastic shortstops of the previous post. Those three will have just as many (including Garciaparra) argue for them as the previous generation of shortstops. Hopefully, the value of the index comes into focus when we start comparing the numbers in larger groups.
That being said, we can go back to the MVP points we introduced in the previous article. Just a reminder, each player is awarded a point for finishing in the top 25, three points in the top ten, five points in the top five, and ten points for winning the MVP. We can’t necessarily compare players across eras because it is harder for the modern players to gain MVP points in a 15 team league than an eight team league. However, we can compare them with themselves.
|Top 25||Top 10||Top 5||MVP||Points|
In a 15 team league we can assume there are either 120 or 135 regulars depending on whether you are in the National League or American League. That would have been 64 in the previous article. So, finishing in the top 25 players in the league has to be seen through that prism. This is of course eliminating any pitcher that may sneak into the top 25. So, we should take a step back and marvel at how ARod managed to finish among the top 25 players in the AL in fourteen different seasons.
The MVP points are lower across the board than their counterparts from the 1940s and 1950s. Again, that makes perfect sense. The point of the MVP points are to compare players from their own generation. Here, we see where the breakdown between BBWAA Hall of Famers probably should be without diving deep into the index. Yet, insert a player of Tejada’s quality back in time and anything could happen. We would likely break into a huge debate over level of play and watering down of expansion that we really wouldn’t get anywhere. We will ultimately know more when we look at the offensive and fielding numbers.
People love to use statistics to prove their point, but statistics have two separate issues. First, we have to be careful to use them how they are intended. Secondly, we have to make sure we quote them correctly. I hate to pick on the president, but he recently bragged that GDP was higher than unemployment for the first time ever. He’s also said that we had a negative GDP before he became president. Huh?
GDP is measured either in total dollars or dollars per capita. That number can’t be negative. It also can’t be less than the unemployment rate because that is expressed as a percentage. Similarly, I ran into someone on the internet that grades hitters by the total number of hits that they collect. Jimmy Rollins collected 2455 hits which is certainly Garciaparra and narrowly more than Tejada (2407). So, he was the better hitter right?
I don’t mean to demean anyone, but all numbers have their proper context. Hits are nice, but going with that number alone ignores so many other numbers that are meaningful. How often did the hitter walk? How many of those hits were extra base hits? How many at bats are we talking about here? The numbers above do a much better job of encompassing the offensive value a player brought to the table. Rollins is bringing up the rear in this group. Both he and Tejada end up being a tad better than the guys from the previous post, but they aren’t that much better.
Again, comparing win share gold gloves (or Fielding Bible Gold Gloves) is not all that fair. Being the most valuable fielder among eight teams is a little easier than doing it amongst 15. So, I’m not sure how those numbers should be interpreted. What we do know is that Tejada likely has taken himself out of the running with these numbers. He was a prolific player, but not a particularly valuable one. Rollins on the other hand comes out above average offensively and defensively. There is an argument there for that kind of player to get into Cooperstown.
That leaves ARod and his place in the history of the game. His index score puts him second in history to Honus Wagner. I acknowledge the moral quandaries of the day and that it is difficult to honor someone that has admitted to cheating. It’s time to remove Gaylord Perry’s plaque then. If Cooperstown is meant to be a museum then it is difficult to fathom a few of the greatest hitters and pitchers being out. We can acknowledge their greatness and acknowledge their flaws at the same time. You don’t have to like him to acknowledge his greatness.