There really is no drama around the top spot amongst right fielders. Bill James once said that any rating system that didn’t have Babe Ruth as the top player of all-time was not a good system. Ultimately, that is bad science. You want to come up with a system that makes sense and let the chips fall where they may. However, that doesn’t change the fact that Ruth is likely the most valuable player of all-time according to the index. We won’t know for sure until we crunch the numbers.
Different analysts are fond of using the Player A and B test to prove a point. The general idea is that we discover truths about value when we remove the names involved. The Player A and B test below isn’t meant to hide the identities of those involved. The numbers give each player away, but they do reveal something about counting numbers.
So, who was the better player? Well, this isn’t really fair is it? We know who these players are because we know the underlying numbers. We’ve memorized them as fans of the game. Still, they prove a point. If we went only by the numbers we see above then we would surmise that Player B is the superior player. After all, he bests Player A in every category except runs scored and they tied in that category.
So, we know Hank Aaron had better overall numbers, but no one would consider him to be a better overall player than Babe Ruth. This is why we go through all of the different tests we go through. We ultimately compare the player to the average player from the era they played in. We also look at fielding numbers. Everything has a context and that is why statisticians over 100 years ago included rate statistics. So, let’s put the top six right fielders in the Hall of Fame through the ringer.
Keep in mind that the index was never designed to rank order players. One of the many problems with that concept is that each platform can change the value of players over time as historical averages change. However, it is safe to say that Ruth will retain the top spot as we move forward. Aaron will likely stay in second. From there, we could see some movement depending on peak value and other factors. In terms of who you would rather have, that depends on where a player’s value comes from.
Robinson and Ott were two very different players from different eras, but their ultimate value compared to the replacement level player ends up being very similar. These are based on league averages and other intricate factors that have advanced math involved. Yet, some will sit at a sports bar with an expensive beer and argue vehemently that Robinson was superior to Ott or vice versa. I have no interest in weighing in on that fray.
Kaline and Clemente were roughly contemporaries, so the debate is not as strained between them, but they came to their value in different ways. The peak value results will shed some light on those differences, but we will need to look at the hitting and fielding numbers to see that as well. For now, let’s move on to peak value.
So, according to fWAR, Ruth was worth an average of eleven wins a season during his prime. Imagine that for a moment in the current climate. How much would he be worth on the free agent market? He won only one MVP award because the awards were given out differently back then. Once you won you were ineligible from winning another. Imagine how many awards he would win in this environment.
We see a clumping of the rest, but there are subtle changes in the rankings. Clemente leapfrogs over Kaline. A part of that can be attributed to Clemente’s untimely demise. He may be one of the few Hall of Famers to finish with MVP votes in his final season. Had he continued playing another two or three seasons he likely would have surpassed Kaline in career value as well.
To understand all of this completely we should look at the offensive and fielding numbers for these six players. Often times, our perceptions get the best of us. We picture Ruth as this big fat guy running around the bases. He couldn’t have been that good could he? We saw that Clemente had the great arm. Was he really the best right fielder of all-time defensively?
Hall of Fame Index
These numbers obviously put things in perspective and that is especially true when you compare these guys to players from previous overviews. Ruth and Aaron are head and shoulders above everyone else. If we want to find out why this has happened we have to pay attention to the next few sections.
The Ruth numbers are stupid. In a 162 game schedule, a team of Ruths would have won 139 games in a 162 game schedule. That’s ridiculous. The adjusted (or weighted) OBA is over .500. That’s a ludicrous sum by itself. The rest of them are legendary players and they come nowhere close to those numbers. In fact, you could throw a blanket over the next three guys and you couldn’t tell them apart.
Ironically, four of the six played in the same era. It’s always interesting how different positions have different points in history where they have multiple legendary players. We might be tempted to leave Kaline and Clemente in the dust, but we haven’t looked at the fielding numbers yet.
Gold glove awards (and win share gold gloves) were awarded to the top three outfielders regardless of position. Center fielders almost always have more value than right fielders when compared to the replacement level player. When you compare them with players in their own position groups you see something completely different. Clemente led the National Leagues (all positions) in total zone runs above average four different times. That’s like being the best offensive player in baseball four times. Kaline did the same twice.
None of the others could put up numbers like that even though all of them were better than average fielders. Ruth in particular is a surprise, but we must remember that he wasn’t always that fat guy in the grainy films. The fact that all of them were at least above average will be a stark difference from the next set of guys we will look at.
Before we dive into the MVP points we should note that other than Ruth, the numbers individually for each player weren’t outrageous, but they were very good in both categories. That’s ultimately how value is obtained most times. This becomes important with the MVP vote because the voters don’t consider defensive value most of the time.
BBWAA MVP Points
|Top 25||Top 10||Top 5||MVP||Points|
BWAR MVP Points
|Top 10||Top 5||MVP||Points|
Let’s start off with the obvious. It would be inaccurate to say that Babe Ruth and Mel Ott were underrated. The rules prevented them from winning multiple MVP awards. So, it is likely under current rules that they would have come close to what the BWAR numbers show. However, eleven and five are ludicrous totals for MVP awards. These are major league wide numbers. So, roughly between 1920 and 1940, they were the best player in the league a combined 16 times.
Of course, the others combined for just three such awards between 1955 and 1975. This is usually where someone points out that with expansion and the breaking of the color barrier, there were more really good players. That’s true and the fact that Aaron, Kaline, and Robinson had so many top five finishes is almost as remarkable given the time.
Clemente and Robinson are the only ones to have a lower BWAR total. Clemente fell short by one point. Throw in the top 25 seasons and he would have been ahead as well. Robinson had just as many top ten seasons (counting top five and MVP seasons) in both tests, but they were distributed differently. Robinson is famous for winning an MVP award in each league and he wouldn’t have if we went according to the BWAR voting. Give him his five seasons in the top 25 and he would have come pretty close to matching the BBWAA total as well.
All in all, these numbers illustrate how dominant each of these players were. That’s usually how these things work. Each test reveals the same information in a different way. That is how it should be. When we move on to the second list we will see that this clean data set will likely not continue.