One of the key differences between the current version of the index and the book version is that we are eschewing the Veterans Committee selections. Our stated goal is to measure those out of the Hall of Fame against a Hall of Fame standard. Simply put, the Veterans Committee selections are too idiosyncratic to include in any kind of standard. Imagine comparing a current player to Harold Baines for instance. I’m sure the current committee had reasons for voting for Baines, but clearly they weren’t following the established standards when you look at right fielders.
So, when we look at the remaining center fielders we are ignoring the Veterans Committee selections. There were certainly some good ones that probably eclipse some of the players we will cover here, but adding some and not others really doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Why Earl Averill and not Max Carey? Why go back and add in a Billy Hamilton for instance? It is interesting that the center field list is show short, but we will get to look at those on the outside looking in subsequent articles.
Keep in mind that we are always looking for gaps. DiMaggio may belong with the top group and when we included Ken Griffey Jr. with the top group we certainly created a glaring issue. Of course, we will illustrating an important point about the difference between counting numbers and the value numbers. So, normally we would include Griffey with this group and if that were the case then this grouping would make sense for DiMaggio.
If DiMaggio hadn’t lost those three seasons serving his country the calculus would likely be different. That’s one of the many reasons why we include offensive and fielding numbers in addition to the index numbers. There are any number of ways to categorize players. Naturally, we have a problem on the other end with Puckett. I have always avoided setting a minimum for the index because it is all about the gaps. Puckett is clearly not in the same class as the other three, but that doesn’t mean he should be out necessarily. It means that we need some compelling reasons to look past the above numbers.
Duke Snider and Andre Dawson are comfortably in the middle. How they got there is part of the lore of baseball. Both players didn’t age gracefully for various reasons. Dawson was probably a victim of Astroturf where Snider just wasn’t the same guy once the Dodgers left Brooklyn. However, their career values seem to be enough to give them enough cushion.
To give you some idea of reference, Bryce Harper has amassed about 30 WAR in his first seven seasons. That would come out to about four WAR per season and give him about 42 or 43 WAR over a ten-year period. He wants more than 300 million dollars and still might get it. So, imagine how much a Joe DiMaggio might have been worth in 21stcentury dollars. Heck, even a Kirby Puckett might have broken the bank.
This isn’t to demean Harper. He looks like a future Hall of Famer in the making. It does illustrate a couple of things we have noticed throughout history. First, the gaps between the best players and worst players have shrunk as time has gone on. So, a four-win player is more special today than in the past as the floor has elevated. Secondly, peak value by itself is a terrific barometer of greatness and shouldn’t be overlooked. Most advanced systems use some form of it because it adds so much context to the argument.
For instance, Dawson and Snider are neck and neck in career value, but the peak value adds a great deal of separation and demonstrates that when Snider was at his best he was a more special player. It also shows that Puckett actually had a fairly strong peak value record. If he had lasted two or three more seasons he might have found himself in Dawson territory. That being said, he falls a little short in the index. As promised, we will take a look and see if we can find other compelling reasons to add him in.
Bill James has said that statistics take on the characteristics of language. I certainly don’t have the juice to interview him, but I would assume he is thinking of adjectives. If you think of numbers as describing a player then it would make sense that some adjectives are more descriptive than others. You could also think of them as strokes of paint by a painter. Some of us paint stick figures while others paint a masterpiece.
Numbers like batting average, hits, runs, and RBI are stick figures. Numbers like those above creates the shadows and dimensions that give a painting (or player) life. Take offensive winning percentage (OW%). A team of DiMaggios would win 120 games in today’s schedule. No team ever assembled has ever won 120 games. A team of Snider’s would produce around 110 wins. That’s also historically good. Meanwhile, a team of Dawsons and Pucketts would be good teams, but like teams we’ve seen before. The other numbers tell a similar story, but they do it in their own special way.
For instance, wOBA spits out a number that looks like OBP. A .350 or .366 is pretty good in any era, but an OBP over .400 is special. One above .430 is outrageously good. For Puckett, the numbers show that he was a better offensive player at his best than Dawson was. Dawson just did it for longer. Longevity is certainly part of the grade. The history of the game is littered with guys that would be Hall of Famers if they could have only stayed healthy.
Offensive numbers tend to tell the same story in a variety of ways. Fielding numbers seem to compete with each other. One of the reasons is that they compare different things. Rfield and total zone runs compare players with the average while DWAR and defensive win shares compare with the replacement level player. An average or even slightly below average fielder can look good when compared to the replacement level player over a long period of time. Duke Snider and Kirby Puckett fit that description.
Joe DiMaggio’s career was relatively short because of the lost war seasons, so his DWS doesn’t look at that good. That is one of the reasons why James added a per 1000 innings number in the book version of Win Shares. The win share Gold Gloves show that when each were at their best they were among the most valuable fielders in the league. Of course, value and greatness are sometimes two different things.
The numbers above are enough reason to think Dawson had a leg up on Puckett as an overall player. So, we are at a loss to explain the BBWAA love for Puckett except that his career ended abruptly and we tend to romanticize that sort of thing. Our last test is the MVP vote test and considering that the BBWAA also voted for the MVP awards that could give us a clue. We use MVP points to tally this up with MVP awards counting ten points, top five finishes five points, top ten finishes three points, and top 25 finishes one point.
|Top 25||Top 10||Top 5||MVP||Points|
If we follow the general premise that the MVP should be the best player on the best team then DiMaggio’s dominance makes sense. The Yankees lived in the playoffs and he was objectively the best player on the Yankees during that time period. Of course, that is only one way of looking at it. Was he the best player in baseball during those MVP seasons? I think most would agree Ted Williams was, but that’s a different argument for a different day.
The fact that Snider doesn’t have an MVP seems somehow criminal. He was a more valuable player than Roy Campanella in each of his MVP seasons. Jackie Robinson was probably deserving of his award, but Snider should have snuck in there at least once if not twice. This is where we get to Puckett. He got as much love as anyone without actually winning the award. 1987 and 1991 certainly make sense as he helped engineer an improbably title in both seasons, but it’s hard to explain his five other top ten finishes.
This is where we apply the second half of the MVP test. We take the baseball-reference top ten seasons for position players and apply the same point systems. Unfortunately, they didn’t provide top 25 lists, so the finish is not the exact same, but such a test tells us who was overappreciated and who was underappreciated.
B-Ref MVP Test
|Top 10||Top 5||MVP||Total|
What exactly does this prove? Well, it proves there was a sizeable gap between what Kirby Puckett really was and what the writers thought he was. Criminologists are often warning us about how unreliable eyewitness testimony is. Our memories play tricks on us. We see a diving catch in Game 7 of the World Series and develop a picture of a player that may not be accurate. The game is made of up moments. Statistics can tell us the rate that these moments occur, but they can’t tell us exactly when they occur and under what circumstances.
The funny thing is that individual players can’t control the weight of the moments they get to play in. Andre Dawson spent most of his career out of the playoffs. Is that his fault? Some people might say so. It’s funny how some casual fans blame the best player on a team for the team’s shortcomings. If only he did more when he had the opportunity. Somehow the crappy player playing on the other side of the diamond isn’t to blame. We do this in football, basketball, and hockey too. It’s nuts when you think about it.
Puckett had an .897 OPS in postseason play. That came with five home runs, 16 runs, and 16 RBI in just over 100 plate appearances. That came with an ALCS MVP Award in 1991. So, there is little doubt that he performed big in big moments. It is called the Hall of Fame and not the Hall of Stats or Hall of Greatness. Take away his moments in 1987 and 1991 and the Twins may not even be in Minnesota. At the end of the day, it is foolish to boil down the politics of glory down to a number. There is always a context to everything, but what we can say is that comparing any player and using Puckett as a standard will lead us down a bad path. Maybe he does belong, but his index score is not a good argument for him.