On the Outside Looking In: First Basemen

Looking at those on the outside looking in is normally an exercise in identifying value where others have not. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the first base class is no exception. However, these players each hit on their own category of bias. It’s almost an exercise of opening up our minds to all different kinds of value.

We could certainly expand our list over a number of eras, but we will focus on the immediate list of players that could theoretically be selected by the new version of the Veterans Committee. The committee has been more destructive than helpful historically, but they have eliminated a large part of their largesse and have minimized their errors. Of course, their process is still less desirable than the BBWAA process.

When you picture a first baseman you normally don’t picture a gap hitter that is slick around the bag, but in this section we will look at two such players. Keith Hernandez and John Olerud challenge our very sensibility in what makes a first baseman valuable. We think of guys that hit 30 home runs or more a season and drive in 100 or more runs. If we haven’t found out by now then this article will hopefully prove that value can come in many different forms. A run saved is as good as a run produced.

The third member of our team had the type of numbers that we normally like to see, but his career was brief. Unfortunately, the BBWAA didn’t quite recognize all of his greatness because they were not clued into the importance of OBP and they were distracted by his prickly nature. Dick Allen labored in the 1960s and 1970s when players were not free to move yet. Instead, he was shipped from team to team when he had worn out his welcome. Since the media votes for the honor, relationships with the media matter. Sadly, many were not dispassionate enough to set aside his nature.

Career Value 

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Dick Allen 58.7 61.3 68.4 188.4
Keith Hernandez 60.4 59.4 62.2 182.0
John Olerud 58.2 57.3 61.0 176.5

We begin with Allen because he appears on top of our list and we have an immediate issue to address. Allen stands here because he played more games at first base than any other position. However, he did play a number of games at third and it could be argued that he belongs there. More of his valuable seasons came there and you could argue that more of his peak value came there.

How much it matters is debatable. In the index we compare players with players from their own position. Our standard floats from position to position and it is likely that the standard at third won’t be as rigorous as it is at first base. The fact that he clears the bar here indicates that he would likely clear the bar there.

Hernandez and Olerud are clearly first basemen, but they don’t have the kind of counting numbers that most of the voters look for. Yet, they played on very good teams that utilized their skill sets to create wins. As Billy Beane famously said in Moneyball, “are we finding players or selling jeans?” Whether they looked the part or not matters not. As we will see when we break down the numbers, they have a strong case.

Peak Value 

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total Index
Dick Allen 54.5 54.9 59.0 168.4 356.8
Keith Hernandez 51.3 50.9 51.0 153.2 335.2
John Olerud 46.8 47.1 46.4 140.3 316.8

As you can see, Allen clears the bar with plenty of distance. Any time you clear the 350 win plateau your place in history is secure. If you stack his numbers up against the likes of Willie McCovey, Tony Perez, and Harmon Killebrew you will see that his name is missing in Cooperstown. All three are a testament to the importance of on base percentage. Stealing first base is the most important skill in the game and it is the one skill that the BBWAA often overlooked 40 and 50 years ago.

If we were into following straight mathematical guidelines we would say Hernandez is in and Olerud is out. While that would be easy, the index was never designed to make quick and easy decisions. There are a number of players I have gone back and forth on and he is one of those. Often, it takes time for a player like Hernandez or Olerud to be fully appreciated. Both players have considerable defensive reputations, but we should be systematic in our approach. So, we will begin by looking their offensive numbers.

Offensive Production

Dick Allen .400 155 .741 .899
Keith Hernandez .365 131 .668 .786
John Olerud .377 130 .638 .857

We had been using OPS+ and wRC+, but they are largely redundant statistics. Plus, wOBA (weighted on base average) describes their on base skills more. The problem with all of these numbers is that they measure different things. They are also weighted differently. Weighted runs created plus and offensive winning percentage are measured against the league average. wOBA and bases per out are not.

It is pretty clear that Allen is a cut above the other two across the board, but the debate between Hernandez and Olerud may rage on forever. Hernandez played in the 1970s and 1980s where offensive numbers were depressed, so we would expect his numbers to be a little worse. As we can see, when compared to the leagues average he is either equal to or superior to Olerud. When we combine this with the fielding data we get a justification for taking one and not the other. This ignores the importance of some of the numbers and what they mean in practical terms.

Offensive winning percentage is an easy number to wrap our head a round. A team of Dick Allens would win 120 games with average pitching and fielding. He isn’t the most valuable player ever, but he might be the best offensive player not in the Hall of Fame. Of course, fielding can’t be ignored, but that’s a staggering number. A team of Hernandez’s would win 108 games. That doesn’t even consider his defense which would make a team slightly above average overall defensively. Olerud would produce 103 wins and when think back to the actual list of Hall of Famers we see he would be in line with the bottom of the list.

Simply put, I love bases per out. Outs are blood currency of baseball. If you look at the majority of strategy development in the game it is in the development of strategies to either get more outs or prevent outs. We’ve seen the sacrifice bunt go by the wayside. We’ve seen extreme shifting on the defensive end to garner more outs. Teams have slowly caught on to the benefit of having players that get on base more often and accrue more value per out. The only group that moves slower than teams are the fans. We are often stuck in the batting average and home runs paradigm. Walks matter. They matter a great deal and each of these three demonstrate that in spades.

Ignoring the players from the Live Ball Era, we can see that these three players belong simply by looking at these two numbers. In many cases, the players in the Hall of Fame embody both the power numbers and the production that we look for. Still, if someone gives you the production then who cares how they do it?

Eddie Murray .624 .787
Willie McCovey .718 .900
Harmon Killebrew .706 .899
Tony Perez .619 .737
Dick Allen .741 .899
Keith Hernandez .668 .786
John Olerud .638 .857

Every time I look at Tony Perez the worse he looks. Numbers take on more meaning when we have a larger frame of reference. In other words, when we can compare players to a standard that is accepted as good enough then we have a better idea whether new candidates are good enough. Clearly, Dick Allen should have been in all along. It is fair to point out that all four players in Cooperstown enjoyed longer peaks and longer careers. Still, when someone is as good if not better it is a glaring omission.

Hernandez and Olerud are not as good as some but are better than both Murray and Perez. Granted, those players did enjoy lengthy careers, but placing these players together gives us an inkling that both might belong. Naturally, we haven’t even mentioned defense and this is where Hernandez supposedly shines.

Hernandez Fielding Contemporaries

Keith Hernandez 1.3 34.9 117 8 1 11
Eddie Murray -11.6 36.9 61 1 6 3
Steve Garvey -11.6 37.9 0 0 7 4
Don Mattingly -6.2 29.0 33 1 3 9
Pete O’Brien -1.3 29.6 69 1 5 0
Chris Chambliss -7.9 29.1 31 1 1 1
Wally Joyner -5.1 28.9 52 0 2 0
Tony Perez -6.6 24.2 13 1 0 0
Kent Hrbek -7.7 28.8 16 1 1 0

When someone has the reputation of a Keith Hernandez we have to first compare him with his contemporaries to see if that reputation is warranted. Here we see a hodgepodge of numbers that all mean something different, but we see Hernandez on top of the heap for most of them. There are a few notable exceptions that we should look at. First, we have win shares. Win shares are compared to replacement level and no one has negative value in win shares. So, the players that play the most have the most value. Steve Garvey and Eddie Murray enjoyed much longer careers, so their place on top is more a testament to their durability than their greatness.

The win share Gold Gloves are relevant (more relevant than the actual Gold Gloves) but they are largely tied to durability and whether a player played on a good team or not. Interestingly enough, while Pete O’Brien did not play long he got short-changed by the Rawlings company. He was a shade better than Don Mattingly at the same time, but Mattingly won the nine Gold Gloves. Life isn’t fair.

Whether Hernandez is the best defensive first baseman in history as some claim remains to be seen. The numbers above demonstrate that Hernandez was objectively the best of the time period and definitely deserves a spot in Cooperstown based on the combination of his fielding and hitting. Since Allen and Olerud played in different eras we have to check in and see how they stack up.

Defensive Production

Dick Allen -16.3 -110 26.8 -109.0
Keith Hernandez 1.3 117 34.9 119.0
John Olerud -1.4 103 39.1 98.8

Dick Allen was a butcher by all accepted standards on fielding. That might be one reason why he is not in the Hall of Fame. The thing is that fielding’s value is relative depending on the position. First base is just not that important as compared to the other positions on the diamond. That leaves us Hernandez and Olerud. Both were very good fielders and it enhances both of their overall values when it comes to Cooperstown.

Fangraphs (the last column) had numerous iterations of fielding numbers before they adopted UZR. They ended up being very similar to total zone runs (which they also kept). The addition of these numbers say the same thing as the other categories, but we include it because we include fWAR and we want to make sure Fangraphs is represented on the table.

My first inclination is to put all three in the Hall of Fame. Allen and Hernandez definitely deserve their spot while Olerud is more debatable. Still, he was a very good all-around player for a number of years. He also has a prominent place on the best regular season team of all-time. I’m not sure how much extra credit that affords him, but if it breaks a tie then so be it.

First Base: The Juicers

Nothing has caused more problems for the Hall of Fame than the specter of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs. It creates a legalistic, moral, and problematic statistical argument all at the same time. So, navigating through these requires that we do some compartmentalizing. Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro have both reentered the news in the past year for ludicrous reasons. Palmeiro made some noise about returning to the game nearly 15 years after he left. McGwire commented that he thought he could hit 70 home runs without the help of steroids.

Both developments were likely motivated by the desire to reboot their Hall of Fame chances. In Palmeiro’s case, the clock would start over and he could potentially enter the ballot fresh at a time when voters were more sympathetic. McGwire’s comments were more transparent and pathetic in a way. All that being said, that likely muddies the water. If we follow that down the rabbit hole we will come away more confused. The case for confirmed users is three-fold. First, you consider their numbers on their own without adjustment as if they were normal. Secondly, you consider the historical account of their use and try to find a reasonable adjustment based on those facts. Finally, you consider the moral implications.

The Raw Numbers

The beauty of the index is that it allows us to distill out the noise and focus on the facts. Granted, the addition of use creates quagmires because many of the statistical arguments are colored by our feelings about the use. This is particularly true of McGwire. His detractors often look at batting average, a low hits total, and few contributions outside of the batter’s box. This is true but is largely irrelevant when looking at the overall value. Overall value according to the index considers all of those factors.

So, an argument against him based on a lack of speed, defensive value, or ability to hit to all fields or in small ball situations is just a mask for the disdain of the cheating. He wouldn’t be the first guy in the Hall of Fame to have significant weaknesses in his game. He wouldn’t be the last one either.

Palmeiro was more well-rounded, so his problem is that the perception of the drug use clouds more of his career as a whole. This has little to do with the facts of use and more to do with the nature of his numbers. Palmeiro never had a signature season, so his signature was his consistency. Even without the drugs, a vote for Palmeiro would be a vote for 3000 hits and 500 home runs and not necessarily any specified greatness.

Career Value 

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Mark McGwire 62.2 66.3 68.4 196.9
Rafael Palmeiro 71.9 70.0 68.4 210.3

Joe Morgan released a letter on behalf of the living Hall of Famers in opposition of any known user getting into the Hall of Fame. I suppose we shouldn’t be shocked by his black and white views on the subject and we should give him some benefit of the doubt. After all, he was representing not only himself, but those that feel they have a stake in the debate. However, while my views have changed some over the years, they have always been pragmatic in nature and it is why I use this approach.

A player that is a borderline Hall of Famer can easily be dismissed if he has the stain of PEDs, but someone that is clearly superior cannot be dismissed so easily and really shouldn’t be. So, were Palmeiro and McGwire clearly superior? We won’t know for sure until we look at the peak value, but based on the numbers above we have to say they appear to be pretty solid Hall of Famers based on the numbers alone.

Peak Value 

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Mark McGwire 46.7 48.5 48.8 142.0
Rafael Palmeiro 49.6 50.7 39.4 139.7

Before we consider drugs we must look at the numbers because there are interesting things going on here. The index changed some from the book version. The book called on us to find the ten best seasons in their career where here we are looking at the best consecutive ten seasons. That seems like a battle of semantics, but it had an impact on McGwire because of his frequent injuries. He lost a couple of productive seasons with this model. That might seem unfair, but it probably correctly categorizes his career. Attendance matters and these numbers reflect his problems with staying healthy.

As for Palmeiro, his numbers reflect a tremendous consistency and durability, but also demonstrates a noticeable lack of greatness. The win shares deficit can be explained through methodology. WAR is based on runs while win shares are based on wins. The Rangers and Orioles were decent clubs, but they never had the success of the Athletics or Cardinals during McGwire’s career. Is it fair to penalize Palmeiro for the shortcomings of his teammates? That’s certainly one way to look at it. Another would be to simply demonstrate that he was never good enough to carry a team to anything.

The Historical Account

McGwire and Palmeiro are clearly Hall of Famers according to the basic numbers, but the next question comes in how much the drug use helped them. This is a two-fold discussion. The first asks us to determine when use started. This can be difficult when the players and witnesses aren’t being particularly helpful. It often involves looking at their numbers and offering our best guess.

Palmeiro famously wagged his finger at Congress and said he had never ever used steroids. He tested positive later that same season. He still has never admitted to long-term use, but the numbers would seem to say otherwise. The Cubs traded Palmeiro because they also had Mark Grace. They felt Grace would develop more power. The two were similar players when Palmeiro left and the two brought similar skills the table when you remove power. So, a simple look at Grace’s career value would give us some clue.

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Mark Grace 46.4 45.5 58.8 150.7
Rafael Palmeiro 71.9 70.0 68.4 210.3

Grace was a heck of a player. He brought good defensive value to the table and was a productive hitter for more than a decade. However, his numbers don’t quite add up and that would have likely been the same fate for Palmeiro. Palmeiro had enough of a defensive reputation to win a Gold Glove at first when he played more than 100 games that year at DH. Still, it is pretty clear he wouldn’t have been Hall of Fame worthy without the power.

McGwire’s case is a lot murkier. His recent comments were obviously aimed at making the case that much more debatable. If we assume that he began his heavy use in the 1990s then we have enough seasons before that to demonstrate that he did have the potential to hit 40 plus home runs without the drugs. In his case, the drugs served two purposes. Yes, they made him stronger, but they also helped him stay healthy. The best evidence of that comes when he broke down so quickly following the use.

Anyone that watched him during that 1998 season had to know something wasn’t kosher. In batting practice he would hit home runs to parts of the ballpark no one could touch in a million years. So, he could claim that he would have hit 70 home runs without the PEDs, but that just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense given what we saw.

The Moral Argument

I have a few major problems with the Joe Morgan (I realize it is more than him) view of PEDs. The most obvious problem is the obvious hypocrisy from at least a few of those players. Players from Morgan’s era popped “greenies” like they were candy. So, hearing from at least some of those folks is like the guy smoking a pack of cigarettes looking down on the drinker. Granted, I’m not going to pretend to know who in that group partook of the greenies, but the point is that it is highly unlikely that none of them did.

Then, you get the idea that one could go into a GNC or other major supplement store and buy many of these substances. They can also buy legal supplements that have many of the same effects (although in different proportion). Add in the surgical advancements of the age (Tommy John surgery) and it is hard to look at the modern game in the same light as past.

All of this is to say that we have to take each player on an individual basis. Why did they begin using? When did they begin using? What exactly did they use? Some players wanted to recover from injury. Yes, that absolutely affects their numbers (thus the need for the second part of the test) but they didn’t necessarily turn in Paul Bunyun. In other cases they may have been attempting to prolong an already Hall of Fame caliber career.

All of this is to say that I think the drug use excludes McGwire and Palmeiro, but it doesn’t do it for moral reasons. We simply cannot say that they would have been worthy without the use. However, other players we will cover along our journey could have a different result. Specifically to these two, their use started early in their career and was designed to boost performance in addition to health.

First Base: The What Abouts

It’s often difficult to give every candidate for the Hall of Fame their just due when considering them at the same time. Most fans are stuck on one or two and are not ready to hear anything about the rest until we address those few. These are the guys I call the “what abouts”. In other words, “what about Gil Hodges?” or “what about Fred McGriff?” Those two tend to dominate the conversation, so we will focus on them this time around.

The focus on these two are based on similar considerations that we can generally place under the guise of counting numbers. Fans are fixated on home runs, runs scored, RBI, or the number of hits a player collected. This isn’t to say that those numbers are completely useless, but there is usually something else going on behind the scenes that skews are perception of those players. Hodges might be the most egregious offender. Naturally, this isn’t his fault. He didn’t ask for this and passed on long before this debate raged on. He just happens to be Ground Zero for the debate between a strict adherence to numbers or the happenstance of history.

As everyone knows, Hodges was a beloved part of one of the most beloved teams in baseball history. The Boys of Summer Dodgers won 92 or more games nine times between 1946 and 1956. Those seasons came in the days when teams played 154 games. In an 162 game schedule they might have eclipsed the 92 win mark one or two more times. However, there are a few facts that elude us this many years later. First, they won 100 or more games only once. Granted, the 154 game schedule had an effect on that fact. Secondly, they won only one World Series title during those years. Naturally, many will point to the three titles they won between 1959 and 1965, but he was hardly a big part of those teams.

The fact people hold onto are the seven consecutive 100 RBI seasons Hodges had during that first stretch. That means he was the most consistent force that team had during that stretch. That would be true if RBI were the most important statistic in baseball, but we are more sophisticated these days. To provide for an illustration I’m going to do something I lovingly call the Player A and B test. I’ve plucked another player that played for a similar dynasty and compare him with Hodges using traditional numbers.

Player A .273 .359 .487 .846 370 1105 1274
Player B .271 .344 .471 .815 339 1009 1271

Obviously, there are a number of caveats here, but that’s kind of the point. We don’t know when these two players played and we don’t know where they played. We just know that they played for great teams that experienced a ton of success. However, that success is always relative. Player B joined his team for six of the seasons in question and drove in 100 or more runs in five of those six seasons. He drove in 91 runs in that other season, so we could argue that he had a similar statistical impact on those teams?

How did those teams do in those six seasons? They won the World Series four times in six seasons including three times in a row. They won 100 or more games only once like the Dodgers, but that season was a doozey. They won 114 games and set the modern record that would go down only a few seasons later. Hodges’ defenders will claim that he had much more to do with his team’s success in those seasons than the other player. Each player played in a similar number of World Series during their respective spans. The other player has a divisional round and league championship experience, but we will only include World Series play to keep it fair.

Player A .267 .349 .412 .761 5 15 21
Player B .268 .355 .390 .745 3 11 14

If playoff performance is a tiebreaker then we have to give Player A the slight edge. He has better playoff numbers and better regular season numbers. However, no one can deny how close the numbers are before we consider the effects of time and space. I don’t want to get accused of cherry-picking, so here are the overall playoff numbers for Player A and Player B. Player B comes out looking far worse, but it could also could be argued that he performed better during the brighter lights and was more instrumental in his teams winning four rings.

Player A .267 .349 .412 .761 5 15 21
Player B .233 .321 .351 .672 9 44 38

No one would argue that Player B was a superior player and that really isn’t the point of the Player A/B test. We remove names and find someone that might be more similar that we might have previously thought. Player A is Hodges and Player B is Tino Martinez of the Yankees. No one in their right mind would trumpet Martinez’s cause for the Hall of Fame, but that kind of begs the question of why so many do so for Hodges. Martinez was almost as good for a team that experienced far more success. Fortunately for Hodges, he benefits when we apply our usual adjustments for time and place. Yet, he is still a great example of how a happenstance in history can vault someone up the ladder when their performance doesn’t necessarily warrant it. As usual, the index will ultimately solve this case.

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Career 44.9 42.1 52.6 139.6
Peak 42.1 39.4 45.0 126.5
Total 87.0 81.5 97.6 266.1

These results alone should put the issue to bed, but some Hodges defenders will also bring up his place as the manager of the Miracle Mets in 1969. The argument is somewhat compelling on a certain level. You take someone that would never make the Hall of Fame as a hitter or as a manager but combined could be said to have contributed enough to the history of the game. If he doesn’t die prematurely maybe he would have been good enough as a manager. Maybe if he had two or three more prime years he might have made it as a player. Unfortunately, that kind of sentiment can be attached to any number of guys.

Fred McGriff has similar statistical issues, but his shortcomings are wholly different. His career value ends up being fairly similar to guys on the bottom of the Hall of Fame list. He is very comparable with Tony Perez, Hank Greenberg, and George Sisler. He is also very comparable to other guys on the outside looking in that get more support. So, some are overwhelmed by 493 home runs and more than 1600 RBI. He is so close to 500. If he had 500 or more home runs he likely would be in. That kind of thinking is more and more faulty the more we break it down. Does seven home runs really generate that much value? Does an additional 100 RBI over a twenty-year career create that much more value?

I can fully appreciate how that argument might extend to the index, but there is a very subtle difference. Especially when we get to peak value, the numbers do describe something else entirely. McGriff’s fairly strong career value makes him a borderline candidate but consider his case even if we compare him with Hodges above.

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Career 52.6 56.9 65.1 174.6
Peak 38.6 43.2 46.0 127.8
Total 91.2 100.1 111.1 302.4

Getting to the 300-win barrier is fairly significant when we compare him historically to every Hall of Famer. Unfortunately, we aren’t comparing to every Hall of Famer. We are comparing with first basemen in the Hall of Fame. In that environment he comes up a tad short. Simply put, he was good for a very long time, but he was never really great. Even Hodges had a higher peak value and he wasn’t even good for a solid decade. The BBWAA themselves settled this issue when they played. Following are their collective finishes in the MVP races.

  MVP Top 5 Top 10 Top 30
Gil Hodges 0 0 3 6
Fred McGriff 0 1 5 2

We should be careful not to read too much into awards voting. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they were treated fairly by the writers, but it does indicate where those writers view these players in history. Nine and eight seasons registering on the ballot is impressive on some level, but neither player had a signature season we could hang our hat on. At the end of the day, that is often the difference between glory and coming close.

First Base Hitting

When people think of first basemen they think of hitters first and for good reason. You could argue that they are the best hitters overall in baseball. Certainly, outfielders will have a huge say in that, but most teams have a better hitter at first base than at any other position. As we saw with the catchers, there are different metrics that we use. Some of them compare with the league average, so they can be compare players over time. Others exist on their own, so it is more difficult to compare players across eras.

We will be adding base running runs from Fangraphs this time around. While it may not mean a lot in the grand scheme of things, it does help us differentiate between OPS+ and wRC+. wRC+ includes base running, so it ends up being a lower in most cases. However, there are a few notable exceptions. It may not make a huge difference, but when the overall picture is close, every little thing helps.

Lou Gehrig 179 173 .803 1.205 -27.2
Jimmie Foxx 163 158 .781 1.125 -18.9
Jeff Bagwell 149 149 .722 .975 6.5
Frank Thomas 156 154 .732 1.033 -38.2
Eddie Murray 129 127 .624 .787 3.4
Jim Thome 147 145 .713 1.020 -35.2
Willie McCovey 147 145 .718 .900 -0.4
Harmon Killebrew 143 142 .706 .899 -0.1
Hank Greenberg 158 154 .765 1.086 -2.3
Tony Perez 122 121 .619 .737 -0.7
George Sisler 125 123 .672 .756 19.4

We could break this down in any number of ways, so we will look at the metrics themselves. Four of the five are normalized by comparing the player with the average player. The lone holdout is a statistic called bases per out (BPO). Even though it isn’t normed, it is an incredibly valuable statistic. Sure, the top three guys all played in the Live Ball Era, but you can still compare players from the same period.

Tony Perez didn’t play at exactly the same time as Willie McCovey and Harmon Killebrew, but they were contemporaries. You can see that both were vastly superior to Perez. It’s to the point where you have to question his place in the Hall of Fame. Couple that with his offensive winning percentage and it’s enough to raise the question again. Offensive winning percentage assumes all eight position players produced the same as he did and the team gave up an average number of runs.

The three Live Ball Era first sackers would win well over 120 games if all the hitters produced like they did. A team of Perez’s would win 100 games on the nose. Even a team with that record is usually one of the favorites to win the World Series. Obviously, all eleven guys produce numbers that would make a team full of those guys favorites to win the World Series.

These numbers tend to make a lot more sense when we place the players in groups from the same era. Even though most of the numbers are normed, it is still hard to compare players from the Live Ball Era with the players that played in the 1960s and 1970s. The current era might be comparable to the Live Ball Era, but there is still some separation. We are taking the fielding out of it, so these rankings are not complete, but many would swear by them.

Live Ball Era 

Lou Gehrig 179 173 .803 1.205 -27.2
Jimmie Foxx 163 158 .781 1.125 -18.9
Hank Greenberg 158 154 .765 1.086 -2.3

These numbers demonstrate how good Hank Greenberg really was. Give him his three full seasons he lost to the World War and his career numbers would have been almost as good as Foxx and Gehrig. When you look at the rate statistics you can see that he was just a cut beneath Foxx. Gehrig is in a league of his own. Even when we throw Albert Pujols into the equation, he still winds up better than the rest.

Expansion Era 

Willie McCovey 147 145 .718 .900 -0.4
Harmon Killebrew 143 142 .706 .899 -0.1
Eddie Murray 129 127 .624 .787 3.4
Tony Perez 122 121 .619 .737 -0.7

It’s always interesting to see how similar players are from various eras. You could argue that McCovey and Killebrew are practically the same player based on this profile. Both Murray and Perez enjoyed longer careers, so you could argue that their overall value was suppressed by playing longer. Murray played in over 3000 games (around 400 more than McCovey and 500 more than Killebrew). Perez really only played in about 200 more games than McCovey and 300 more than Killebrew. So, it is harder to make that excuse for him.

Both Murray and Perez drove in more runs than Killebrew and McCovey in that span of time and that is why they are in the Hall of Fame. Of course, in addition to the increased number of games, there is no accounting for the number of opportunities those players had. However, ignoring that we could look at the number of games they played and then take the number of runs and RBI on a per game basis.

  Games Runs RBI TRP TRP/G
Willie McCovey 2588 1229 1555 2784 1.075
Harmon Killebrew 2435 1283 1584 2867 1.177
Eddie Murray 3026 1627 1917 3544 1.171
Tony Perez 2777 1272 1652 2924 1.050

It’s hard to take these numbers at face value. They are raw numbers that don’t account for the hitting environment or the quality of the teams around them. With the exception of Willie Mays, there were no Hall of Famers that surrounded either McCovey or Killebrew. Perez had Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, and Pete Rose. Murray had Cal Ripken Jr. on his team for most of his time with the Orioles. Even still, this is just another spot where Perez comes out a bit behind his colleagues.

Steroid Era 

Frank Thomas 156 154 .732 1.033 -38.2
Jeff Bagwell 149 149 .722 .975 6.5
Jim Thome 147 145 .713 1.020 -35.2

Again, we notice how similar these players are when we break them down by era. Bagwell’s base-running keeps him in the conversation. He also spent a good portion of his career in the Astrodome where power was suppressed. However, you could put a blanket over all of these guys offensively. As we saw in the last article, the fielding numbers were not necessarily this close.

Daily fantasy baseball is taking the world by storm. While total points (and total points per game) is not as scientific as the sabermetric numbers, it is a lot of fun to play and looking at the historical numbers can be fun. The total points formula changes depending on the source, so we came up with our own.

Total Points= TB + Runs + RBI+ SB + BB + HBP – SO – CS- GIDP

  Games TP TP/G
Lou Gehrig 2164 9661 4.46
Jimmie Foxx 2317 8715 3.76
Jeff Bagwell 2150 7005 3.26
Frank Thomas 2322 7801 3.36
Eddie Murray 3026 8510 2.81
Jim Thome 2543 6982 2.75
Willie McCovey 2588 6626 2.56
Harmon Killebrew 2435 6628 2.72
Hank Greenberg 1394 5436 3.90
Tony Perez 2777 6262 2.30
George Sisler 2055 6726 3.27

These numbers confirm what we already saw from the sabermetric numbers, but they reveal them in another way. Gehrig comes out on top in total points and total points per game. Perez comes out lacking again. Naturally, someone has to be the worst of the group, so it doesn’t mean he doesn’t belong in yet, but it will be interesting to see once we start comparing him with the guys on the outside looking in.

First Base Fielding

When we look at fielding at any position we must differentiate between terms like greatness and value. Even the most discerning fans often interchange those terms as if they mean the same thing. Greatness is an esoteric term that often gets debated at sports bars and on television shows on the MLB Network and ESPN. We can look at a number like the index because all three platforms use like terms. Unfortunately, the fielding numbers compare players with the replacement level player and the average player. Putting those together is problematic.

Even the same platform can treat players differently depending on the metric being used. For instance, total zones appears in multiple platforms, but is primarily used by baseball-reference. It compares players to the average fielder at their position. It makes it easy to understand with zero being average. Their dWAR statistic is intriguing to say the least. It compares players with the replacement level performer, but it doesn’t compare them with the replacement level first baseman. It compares them with an overall replacement level player and since first base is the least valuable defensive position, most first basemen are automatically worse than a replacement level performer at another position.

So, we treat the data like ordinal data. The idea is to see if the various sources agree on who the best fielder is and who the worst fielder is. So, we cannot combine the numbers and get any real idea from them. We just show them all to see if the various sources agree on the value of the fielder.

  Innings TZ DWS DWAR DWS/1000
Lou Gehrig 18831   2 33.0   -8.9 1.75
Jimmie Foxx 16775 21 35.6   -5.5 2.12
Jeff Bagwell 18523 46 32.4   -7.9 1.75
Frank Thomas   8383 -68   6.5 -23.4 0.78
Eddie Murray 21151   -3 36.9 -12.8 1.74
Jim Thome   9539 -24 15.1 -17.2 1.58
Willie McCovey 16718 -65 23.6 -21.8 1.41
Harmon Killebrew   7810   -6 14.0 -18.8 1.79
Hank Greenberg   9999  21 20.5   -4.3 2.05
Tony Perez 14366  16 24.2   -6.9 1.68
George Sisler 17441    6 23.8   -7.6 1.36

We include the innings because the difference between some of these players in terms of productivity is tremendous. The win shares per 1000 innings has a way of evening those numbers out. This is particularly true when looking at the value numbers. Win shares compares with the replacement level first baseman (unlike total zone runs). Before we look at the year by year data we can get a better idea of where these guys are if we look at the rankings in each category. If we can get universal agreement then we have a good idea of what value each player’s fielding adds to their overall value.

Lou Gehrig 6 3 6 4   4.8
Jimmie Foxx 3 2 2 1   2.0
Jeff Bagwell 1 4 5 5   3.8
Frank Thomas 11 11 11 11 11.0
Eddie Murray 7 1 7 6   5.3
Jim Thome 9 9 8 8   8.5
Willie McCovey 10 8 10 9   9.3
Harmon Killebrew 8 10 9 3   7.5
Hank Greenberg 2 9 1 2   4.5
Tony Perez 4 6 3 7   5.0
George Sisler 5 7 4 10   6.5

Here is where the rubber meets the road. Recently, I got into a long drawn out discussion on social media given the need for complex metrics and data. As the usual argument goes, we don’t need complex statistics to tell us who the best player is. Of course, this is true to a certain extent, but it ignores a few things and is certainly not true all the time. More often than not, it is simply an overreaction to developments either we don’t understand or don’t have much need for. We see it in other walks of life and all of us are guilty of that thinking to one extent or another.

Those that argue against the use of statistics often use statistics to argue their point. They use batting average, home runs, RBI, and runs scored. They use fielding percentage, errors, putouts, and assists in fielding. It’s incredibly ironic for anyone to use statistics to argue against the use of statistics. Now, we certainly can argue as to which statistics are the most descriptive and accurate, but we should at least be honest about what we are talking about.

That being said, we don’t need statistics to tell us Jeff Bagwell was a better defensive first baseman than Frank Thomas. You could look at them with a glove in their hand and decipher that much. However, looking at them doesn’t answer the question of how much better one is than the other. What is the relative or precise value of Bagwell’s glove in comparison with Thomas? How does that interact with their overall value? Then, we get to more complex questions like how fielding value compares at positions like first base versus say a shortstop or catcher. Is a team better off with a Thomas type or should they go after a Keith Hernandez type?

Whether this kind of data interests the common fan is certainly debatable. No one really needs to know what someone’s secondary average is to really enjoy the game. However, teams increasingly need to be on the leading edge on data to put together the best rosters and determine how much each player should be paid and whether they should be invested in long-term. So, those of us that enjoy looking at data enjoy looking at it because we want to know not only who was the best, but how much better were than they someone else.

Lou Gehrig 4
Jimmie Foxx 5
Jeff Bagwell 0 1 1
Frank Thomas 0 0 0
Eddie Murray 1 5 3
Jim Thome 0 0 0
Willie McCovey 0 0 0
Harmon Killebrew 0 1 0
Hank Greenberg 2
Tony Perez 1 0 0
George Sisler 1

When we look at awards breakdowns like these we usually see a discrepancy between the total zone and win share awards and the Gold Gloves. Gold Gloves are voted in by the coaches. Rafael Palmeiro won once after a season where he played over 100 games at DH. This isn’t to say that the coaches are always wrong, but given the fact that they may see an opposing fielder a maximum of 19 times during a season, we can’t really take their suggestions all that seriously. It’s not that they can’t identify a good fielder. They know more about baseball than most of us. The problem is a lack of evidence. So, their voting is largely based on reputations that may or may not be deserved.

The problem here is value at first base is overwhelmingly proportioned on the offensive end. The best fielders are rarely ever the most valuable unless they also happen to be great hitters. We don’t see that very often because the skills needed to be a good fielder (quickness, speed) are not present in power hitters. There are notable exceptions, but if you think of the best fielding first basemen in history they usually did not hit for prodigious power. So, while some of us find fielding fascinating and love to see how players are rated with the glove, in terms of value it is not particularly important in finding out which first baseman was the best in history.

Lazy Analysis

Every once in awhile I stumble on to something on the internet that interrupts my train of thought. I’ve been trying to go through the positions in an organized fashion. I posted the first base index earlier in the week and should be moving to fielding shortly. The great thing about having a website instead of a book is that I can respond to things in real time. So, today I’m interrupting the process to respond to something that I read on the interwebs.

It was innocent enough really. Someone posted a link on Facebook to an article they had written about Jimmy Rollins and his chances of getting into the Hall of Fame. I read the article because I am obviously interested in the Hall of Fame and arguments surrounding it. I won’t mention the author or all of the specifics because I don’t believe in snark as a general rule. I highlight the arguments because they are something you see quite often.

The two arguments that came up are similar, but they are enough differences that  we should point them out separately.

  1. In 2007, Rollins won the MVP award with a season where he had 20 triples, 30 home runs, and more than 40 steals. He is the only person in history to produce such a season.

I could call these what my wife calls them (“random ass statistics”) but that would serve to cheapen the argument and add the kind of snark I usually detest. The closest comparison I could make here is the so-called triple double in basketball. If someone scores 12 points, has 11 rebounds, and 11 assists did he have a better game than a player with 28 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists?

In the baseball vernacular we could look at that individual season and the shortstops involved. Keep in mind, I’m leaving out WAR and win shares out of this discussion. It’s disingenuous to use a term to justify it’s utility. In other words, we are talking in general about the need for more rigorous analysis. So, Rollins was the only player to put together that particular statistical profile. Unfortunately, that presupposes that each of those events carries the same value. What we have learned is that stolen bases are not all that valuable in comparison with other events. It is much more valuable to steal first base then it is second or third.

Most of you are familiar with OPS. It stands for on base percentage plus slugging percentage. It is said to explain 90 percent of the variance in run production. It is much more descriptive then simply looking at runs scored, RBI, home runs, steals, and triples. Considering his MVP award and high fluting statistical profile we would expect Rollins to be the best shortstop in baseball that season. However, if we look at OPS+ (OPS normalized with home ballpark effects removed and compared to the league average) then we see that is not the case.

  1. Hanley Ramirez: 145
  2. Edgar Renteria: 124
  3. Carlos Guillen: 122
  4. Derek Jeter: 121
  5. Jimmy Rollins: 119

Does this mean he was the fifth best shortstop in baseball in 2017? Of course it doesn’t. We haven’t even looked at fielding and OPS+ doesn’t explain everything. It does explain a whole lot more than that analyst was attempting to explain. In essence, it just means that putting together a list of the number of times a player meets specific statistical markers is an inexact way of arriving at value.

2. Jimmy Rollins had a similar number of hits, runs, RBI, home runs, stolen bases, and Gold Gloves awards as Alan Trammell and Barry Larkin.

I will simply leave Gold Gloves where they are. That requires a whole separate article that we will likely get to someday. That day won’t be today. Suffice it to say that Gold Gloves have about as much to do with identifying fielding greatness as good penmanship has to do with stock car racing. The other comparisons seem compelling and that is why we have to spend more time on it.

Basic statistics have three separate issues that make using them problematic. The most obvious area of bias is one we identified with the first problem. Scouts love to talk about the five tools and love to swoon over guys they call “five tool players.” This is where a guy can hit, hit for power, run, throw, and field. Even ignoring the fact that those tools ignore plate discipline (which might be more important than all of them) we have to recognize that not all of those tools are equally valuable or important. A home run is more valuable than a stolen base. A run scored is more valuable than a hit. So, stacking these numbers next to each other can cloud our judgment as to how valuable a player really is.

The second issue is the issue of place. Where a player produces these numbers can further be divided into two different considerations. First, we have the ballpark the player played in. Coors Field and Petco Park are two very different environments, so we would expect that environment to impact each player differently. You cannot simply stack those counting numbers next to each other without considering how those environments impacted those numbers. Hitting .300 in the Astrodome for instance is far different than hitting .300 in Fenway Park.

The second issue with place is the team that the player played for. Insert any player onto a team like the 1970s Reds, late 1990s Yankees, or 1950s Dodgers will impact their numbers in a very positive way. Do the same for the 1960s Mets, Senators from any period, or the 1930s Phillies and you would see those numbers depressed in comparison with players from the same period that were on good teams. Geography matters. In the instance of Rollins, we have to acknowledge that the Phillies were good throughout that period. Sure, Rollins has a hand in that, but so did Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Bob Abreu, and others.

This brings us to the bias of time. Time is simple. When did the player play? An average player in 1930 would produce far different numbers than an average player in 1968. This is even if we normalize it for the quality of the team he played on and the ballpark he played in. One cannot compare Alan Trammel, Barry Larkin, and Jimmy Rollins and not account for those three areas of bias. To simply say that they have similar totals in runs scored, RBI, and stolen bases ignores a great deal.

I know I said I would not include WAR or win shares, but I feel the point has been made. What those metrics do is distill the affects of time, place, and the randomness of how much each unit means in terms of helping his team win. They are all included in the secret sauce. Below are the bWAR for each player.

  • Alan Trammell: 70.4
  • Barry Larkin: 70.2
  • Jimmy Rollins: 46.0

I’m not saying that Rollins is not a Hall of Famer. I haven’t done the full analysis on that yet, but it certainly isn’t looking good right now. I find the above a little more compelling than comparing how many bases each stole. In short, this is why something like the index is so valuable. We miss a lot when we only play around with the basic numbers.

Restarting the Index

Some people love to tinker. They tinker with cars in their garage. They tinker by fixing things around the house, or they tinker by building things. Others tinker with a more artistic flare. The women in my life love to sew. Unfortunately, time constraints get in our way and we aren’t able to do the kind of tinkering we would like.

Publishing the index back in 2011 was a difficult process. Writing the book was fairly easy. Statistics have a way of writing the book for you. However, the questions always came up each time I started the writing process: are they the right numbers? The concept of a Hall of Fame Index began a decade before it was published, but it looked far different. The formula kept changing. I’m not even sure if the results were all that different in reality, but they certainly felt different.

The idea of a website became more and more intriguing as I thought about. The concept of the index has changed since the book was published. Sure, some of this can be attributed to the improvement of information in that time, but most of it lies with me. Either my understanding of statistics has improved or my understanding of the game itself has improved. I’m not even sure that’s it.

One of my lasting memories from college was serving on our newspaper’s editorial board. I was the only one that wasn’t a journalism major. The others used to tease me about this and would claim I didn’t know what I was talking about because I wasn’t one of them. The funny thing is that I usually ended up being right. I have no idea whether this was just dumb luck or something else was going on. I’d like to think it was because I had a perspective they didn’t. This story serves to illustrate my relationship with numbers as well.

I’m not a mathematician. I work as a teacher during the day. I help students mostly with writing, but I have been sent to other classes to support the students there. So, mathematical principles often come slower to me. Therefore, my conception of the index continues to change over time. I suppose from the outside looking in it must look like I am indecisive. I tend to focus more in growth than anything else. I love having a website for that reason. It allows me to continue to tinker without having a finite publishing date on my work. My work can continue to grow and the understanding we have of players can evolve with it.

The funny thing about restarting is that it always comes with an abundance of energy. There is new excitement that comes from re-configuring the index. I have always been a big believer in tailoring my conclusions on players after the data has said it’s piece. Many analysts work that backwards. They come up with their conclusions and search for numbers to justify it. There’s no fun in that for me. My analysis of some players has changed over the years because of the changes in data and my methodology. Some would consider that weakness. I consider it to be growth.

So, I welcome everyone to the restarting of the index. Those of you that have followed my work will be surprised to see what opinions change, but most of the time I suspect they will stay the same. Data is data after all and as long as your methods make sense they should produce the same results. Of course, data is only evidence. So, feel free to use the evidence to disagree with me. I would love to hear from you if you do.

via Daily Prompt: Restart

First Base Index

Every time we start a new position we end up rebooting the index. We use the same methodology, but the dividing line between who is in and who is out changes depending on the position. The index was never designed to find a firm dividing line based on a certain number of wins. We look first for gaps in the data and then determine whether there are extenuating circumstances behind those gaps.

So, the first thing we do is look at the BBWAA list of Hall of Fame inductees and see if there are any gaps we can identify. We start with career value and then move on to peak value. Since we have already outlined how this works in earlier articles, we will jump right in and then comment on individual players as we see fit.

Career Value 

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Lou Gehrig 112.4 116.3 97.8 326.5
Jimmie Foxx 97.4 101.8 87.0 286.2
Jeff Bagwell 79.6 80.2 77.4 237.2
Frank Thomas 73.7 72.0 87.0 232.7
Eddie Murray 68.3 72.0 87.4 227.7
Jim Thome 72.9 69.0 76.6 218.5
Willie McCovey 64.4 67.4 81.6 213.4
Harmon Killebrew 60.4 66.1 74.2 200.7
Tony Perez 53.9 58.9 69.8 182.6
Hank Greenberg 57.5 61.1 53.4 172.0
George Sisler 57.0 51.9 58.4 167.3

We can look at different data points, but it makes most sense to set the dividing line at 200 wins. Three players fall below that point and their stories are all very different. In some cases, we can easily give them a pass and ignore their shortcomings. In other cases we need to look at them a lot more closely. Of course, in practical terms we can’t remove anyone from the Hall of Fame and that would be repugnant to even consider. However, we can consider whether they should be included in the standard moving forward.

This past week, I had the privilege of talking with my local SABR chapter about the index. The issues surrounding the three players on the bottom came up. I love their perspective. None of them are sabermetrically bent, but they all have a keen understanding of the history of the game and their experience and perspective was invaluable. In short, they offered ideas behind some the extenuating circumstances involving specific players.

Hank Greenberg’s case is easiest to explain. He missed three full seasons serving his country in World War II, but he also missed most of the 1941 season due to injury and a part of the 1945 season in service to his country. Those were three prime seasons that would have not only added to his career value (likely in the neighborhood of 40 to 50 index wins) but he also missed out on some peak value as well. As it stood, he won two MVP awards and arguably was the best first baseman in baseball following Lou Gehrig’s retirement. Give him at least those three seasons and he is easily in the middle of the above group.

Tony Perez is a different story altogether. He is a polarizing force amongst those that love the Hall of Fame. For some, he was the glue that held the Big Red Machine together. That was further buoyed by his presence on the Phillies in 1983 when they advanced to the World Series and the fact that the Reds couldn’t seem to advance once he left is further evidence. Of course, that all might be a coincidence or explained through other means.

I tend to be a pretty evidence-based guy. So, let’s look at the evidence. Usually, we would look at the success the Reds have and assume he was integral to that success. In the 1975 and 1976 playoffs (when they won back to back championships) Perez went a collective .258 with four home runs and 17 RBI. That’s pretty impressive production in a combined 17 games. In 1970 and 1972 the Reds advanced to the World Series and lost. He went a combined .221 in those games. He hit only two home runs in those games with eight RBI. So, maybe there is something to that clutch business in terms of his success when the Reds won.

The whole idea behind the definition of clutch is that players somehow play bigger when the chips are down and their team needs them the most. Baseball-reference and other sites have managed to break down performance between low, medium, and high leveraged situations. They do this because sometimes players do perform better under pressure. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes our memories of players are spot on. Often they aren’t. The people at that meeting seemed to believe Perez was a clutch hitter.

Low .270 .331 .456 149 349 406
Medium .277 .340 .455 145 410 532
High .300 .359 .491 85 508 709

So, chalk one up for those with long memories. Perez really was better when the chips were down and that is one of the metrics that Bill James talked about in his criticism of WAR. When you produce can be very important and the assumption that it all works out in the end can be overly simplistic. Talking about things like chemistry can be overly simplistic, but when a team is looking at the difference between 90 and 95 wins, things like this can be really huge.

On the flip side, George Sisler’s tale is actually fairly common in the history of the game. His career was relatively short, but he had some really brilliant seasons thrown in there. A member asked if anyone that had hit over .400 and not been elected to the Hall of Fame. Fred Dunlap hit .412 in 1884 and led the league in nearly every statistical category. The fact that his name didn’t roll right off the tongue is a testament to his point. Sisler had two such seasons where he virtually dominated the sport. In 1920, he hit .407 and set the modern record for hits in a season with 257. If it weren’t for Babe Ruth and his 54 home runs he would have been the story of baseball.

He was arguably better in 1922 when he hit .420, led the league in steals and triples, and won the Chalmer’s Award for the league’s best player. Yet, what happened to Sisler has happened to so many. He had a debilitating eye condition that caused him to miss the 1923 season. He came back after that, but he was never quite the same. He never had an OPS above .851 in any season following his return. That was after having six straight seasons with an OPS of .843 or higher.

Couple that dip in production with the explosion of production throughout baseball and he really didn’t add a ton of value following his eye injury. These things happen. Every fan has their favorite example of that player that looked like he was on his way to stardom and just didn’t make it. Astros fans have more than their fair share. He had only 6.6 bWAR after that eye injury and he enjoyed more than that in 1920 and 1922 alone. Heck, just one or two other seasons would have made this kind of treatment academic.

Of course, this is why we included a peak value element. This is where there is some separation in the industry. A popular method called JAWS used primarily bWAR and uses a seven-year prime. If you use that kind of system then Sisler comes out looking a lot better. Let’s see what happens with the ten year peak.

Peak Value 

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Lou Gehrig 90.4 92.5 76.0 258.9
Jimmie Foxx 77.8 78.0 63.6 229.4
Jeff Bagwell 63.0 64.1 57.6 184.7
Frank Thomas 56.4 57.3 58.8 172.5
Jim Thome 52.3 51.9 51.2 155.4
Hank Greenberg 51.5 55.1 47.8 154.4
Harmon Killebrew 47.5 51.4 53.4 152.3
Willie McCovey 49.3 50.6 51.2 151.1
Eddie Murray 49.7 49.2 51.4 150.3
George Sisler 49.9 49.0 46.0 144.9
Tony Perez 45.6 48.1 49.6 143.3

After Thomas we see a very tight distribution. That tends to lend credence to the idea that all of these guys deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. However, we do see some slight differences as compared to the career value. Greenberg for one shoots up the list and that is considering the fact that he lost three prime seasons serving his country. We could conservatively guess that his peak value would have approached Thomas with those three seasons uninterrupted.

This leaves Perez and Sisler on the bottom of the list in both categories. So, your opinion on them depends largely on how you view the Hall of Fame itself. Is it a spot for only the very best of the best or is it a museum that celebrates the game’s history? Both have points in their favor and both have points that go against them. Sisler did not enjoy the same length of success as those above him. Perez enjoyed playing with guys like Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Johnny Bench. All three are among the top ten players in history at their position. Depending on the position, all could be in the top five. So, were they that good because of Perez or was Perez made better because of those three? Logic would clearly point to the latter, but as we pointed out, he was a clutch performer according to the numbers, so he can claim to be better than what the index indicates.

Hall of Fame Index 

  Career Peak Index
Lou Gehrig 326.5 258.9 585.4
Jimmie Foxx 286.2 229.4 515.6
Jeff Bagwell 234.2 184.7 418.9
Frank Thomas 232.7 172.5 405.2
Eddie Murray 227.7 150.3 378.0
Jim Thome 218.5 155.4 373.9
Willie McCovey 213.4 151.1 364.5
Harmon Killebrew 200.7 152.3 353.0
Hank Greenberg 172.0 154.4 326.4
Tony Perez 182.6 143.3 325.9
George Sisler 167.3 144.9 312.2

The index works because it preserves the best thing about the Hall of Fame: the presence of debate. Some people see changes of opinion as weakness. I don’t. It means we allow new information or refined arguments to sway our thinking when necessary. Often, the competing views of tangibles vs. intangibles is not necessarily competing. Sometimes, intangibles are just things we were unable to define in the past. Clutch hitting was much that way. It still isn’t perfect, but we have a better sense of what that is.

The same is true of fielding. Of course, we will look at fielding in more detail in another article. Both WAR and win shares have come under fire because their fielding values are not nearly as defined as the offensive ones. At any rate, we will see definite outliers at other positions that make any ones at first base seem tame by comparison.

Active Catchers

We can get carried away when looking at current players and the Hall of Fame. At the catcher position we can say that after two seasons, Gary Sanchez looks like a Hall of Famer. The history of baseball is littered with guys that got off to great starts and for one reason or another (usually injuries) just didn’t sustain it. So, the first rule we follow is that every player must qualify for the Hall of Fame as they currently sit. In other words, they have to have played at least ten years in the big leagues.

That eliminates one very prominent catcher. Buster Posey is the best in the business right now, but he doesn’t have ten seasons in. That might seem like a formality, but we have seen crazy situations before. So, at every position there will be omissions that seem glaring, but we want to profile players that are closer to the end than to the beginning. Secondly, we try to consider players that have a realistic chance for the Hall of Fame. So, fans of Kurt Suzuki and A.J. Pierzynski will have to go somewhere else.

We should keep in mind that the index is not about specific numbers, but we have found that 300 index wins seems to be the general benchmark. So, keeping that in mind we should go ahead and dive on in. Since this is an abbreviated list we will also include the fielding and hitting metrics after we look at the overall index.

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Joe Mauer 53.4 48.1 58.0 159.4
Yadier Molina 35.4 35.4 48.6 119.4
Russell Martin 36.5 36.6 36.8 109.9
Brian McCann 30.2 36.6 42.0 108.8

There might be a bit of a controversy in that Mauer has been at first base for several seasons now. However, each player is compared with the replacement level player at his position. So, Mauer is now compared to first basemen. So, it is more difficult for him to accrue value offensively and defensively. In other words, while he might accrue more counting statistics than his catching counterparts he is not really accruing additional value.

All four catchers (or players) are in their early to mid-thirties, so each is a lot closer to the end than to the beginning. Reputations obviously go a long way in helping guys in their Hall of Fame bids. Mauer may not have the same cache as Molina because of Molina’s defensive prowess (which we will get to later) but he has more value. Incidentally though, Molina is the only one that could still conceivably add to his peak value because he is in the midst of a strong ten year stretch.

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Joe Mauer 44.8 43.5 46.8 135.1
Yadier Molina 31.8 29.2 40.6 101.6
Brian McCann 27.8 33.2 37.0 98.0
Russell Martin 33.3 32.9 32.6 97.8

This is where Mauer truly shines. He is the only one of the bunch that has an MVP award and in fact did better across the board in the awards voting. This is important because the BBWAA also votes for the Hall of Fame. It is clear that the other three are coming up short at this point in their careers. If each had two or three more five win seasons they may somehow force their way into the conversation, but that doesn’t seem likely at this point.

  MVP Top 5 Top 10 Top 25
Joe Mauer 1 1 2 1
Yadier Molina 0 2 0 3
Russell Martin 0 0 0 3
Brian McCann 0 0 0 2

Before we take a look at the total index we should probably go here. The BBWAA votes for the MVP award. The BBWAA votes for the Hall of Fame. Anyone see the connection? We could break this down further and see how well the BBWAA pegs the MVP vote according to WAR or win shares, but it really doesn’t matter. This is where they perceive the catchers to be, so we can assert without stretching that they just don’t see Russell Martin and Brian McCann as Hall of Fame quality. Sure, they aren’t done and anything could happen, but it just doesn’t seem likely.

On the flip side, Yadier Molina is in a murky area at this point in his career. He signed a new three-year contract that he says will be his last. If he continues to produce in the last three seasons like he has over the past decade he could have a compelling case. This is particularly true when we start breaking down performance between offense and fielding. Voters often ignore overall value and focus on its parts even when those parts contribute to the overall value. In other words, they love to count fielding twice when it suits them. Before we break into fielding, let’s take a look at the overall index scores.

  Career Peak Index
Joe Mauer 159.4 135.1 294.5
Yadier Molina 119.4 101.6 221.0
Russell Martin 109.9 97.8 207.7
Brian McCann 108.8 98.0 206.8

It should be noted that while Mauer has already eclipsed Gabby Hartnett with his current index score, it does not mean he is definitely a Hall of Famer. He could produce a few more seasons like has the last few and still not get in. He is in what we might call the borderline zone. We have no way of knowing how the BBWAA will react to his career given his switch to first base. It is highly likely that if he plays three or four more seasons at first base then they might see him as a first baseman rather than a catcher.

The others are clearly on the outside looking in. There are a number of catchers living in the zone where those catchers currently are. Some of them enjoyed long careers and were on good teams to boot. So, while we could give Brian McCann and Yadier Molina some extra credit for being on World Series championship teams, that shouldn’t be enough to get them over the top. Of course, other factors will be in play like they are for Molina. So, let’s take a look at the various sources for fielding with defensive runs saved (DRS) thrown in for good measure.

Defensive runs saved is a new one we haven’t used before. That is primarily because it began in the early 2000s (The Fielding Bible), so most of the historical catchers were never rated. Much like baseball-reference’s RTot, it rates players against the average. So, zero would actually mean you were an average fielding catcher. Of course, dWAR and defensive win shares are rated against a replacement level player. So, they are scaled differently. Therefore, we take each metric on its own. Combining them would create all kinds of mathematical issues I don’t have the training to get out of.

Yadier Molina 171 22.1 141 113.7 5 8
Russell Martin 117 14.9 10 66.6 3 1
Joe Mauer 32 2.3 45 65.4 0 3
Brian McCann 22 5.5 -8 63.3 0 0

Let’s start with the obvious. Anyone that bases any analysis on the number of actual Gold Gloves a player wins is a fool. Are we really to believe that Mauer was a better defensive catcher than Martin is because he won two more Gold Gloves? The numbers are a bit across the board and that is due to pitch framing. Some platforms consider it and others don’t. Those that do have different weights for it.

We have not considered Baseball Prospectus for a number of reasons. The primary one is that it does not rate players before World War II according to their WARP (wins above replacement player) statistic. However, they are further along the pitch framing timeline than most of the others and this has thrown McCann’s value up a ton. We don’t see that here.

However, the most interesting thing here is that conflation between value and greatness. Value is built in. Molina is not more valuable than has already been shown because he was such a valuable fielder. Yet, there are those that will consider the greatness and give him extra credit. They are certainly entitled to their opinions and those opinions are not completely out of whack given the data above. The trouble is that players should be evaluated on their ability to help their team win games. We could break that down to producing and preventing runs, but it all winds up in the same place. If we focus on one or the other (hitting or fielding) then we are splitting hairs on exactly how a player helped his team win. That’s cosmetic. As you will see with our hitting information, when Molina gives in one hand, we take away in the other.

Joe Mauer 126 .361 124 .631 .795
Brian McCann 113 .343 112 .558 .740
Russell Martin 102 .333 106 .503 .696
Yadier Molina 98 .323 100 .483 .628

We chronicled what each of these metrics mean in an earlier post about catcher offense. Most of these scores are scaled against a league average. OPS+ and wRC+ are scaled with 100 being average while offensive winning percentage is scaled with .500 being average. wOBA is also scaled, but the average tends to vary with the times. Suffice it to say, Molina is somewhere around average offensively depending on the metric.

It should be noted that average has value. If you put together an average team they will win around 80 games. That’s considerably better than a team full of replacement level players. My hometown Houston Astros were essentially a team of replacement level players at the beginning of the decade. It wasn’t pretty. So, we shouldn’t scoff at being average.

Secondly, when we say average we are talking about the big-league universe. We aren’t talking about the catcher universe. If Molina is average as a big-league player then he is above average offensively for a catcher. So, combine superlative fielding with above average (for the position) offensive performance and you have a very good player. The long and short of it is that I really don’t feel the need to give him more credit for the fielding.

Martin finds himself in a similar circumstance, but his fielding numbers don’t immediately jump off the page. So, he is a little better with the bat and somewhat less valuable with the glove. The end result is that he is not as good as Molina. McCann ends up on the other part of the scale where his fielding is not quite as good as the others and his offense is just a little better. Finally, you get Mauer with his seemingly awesome offense. In reality, that offense most approximates those that are already in the Hall of Fame.

The last thing we will look at are the total points for each of these players. No, total points are not a scientific Hall of Fame tool. It’s something gamblers and fantasy baseball players know about and care about. That being said, it’s interesting and could reveal something we didn’t see before.

Total Points = TB + Runs + RBI + SB + BB + HBP – SO – CS – GIDP 

  Games TP TP/G
Joe Mauer 1731 3883 2.24
Brian McCann 1607 3754 2.34
Yadier Molina 1747 3491 2.00
Russell Martin 1520 3161 2.08

So, does this mean that McCann is a better hitter than Mauer? I really don’t know how much weight you can put in this. Keep in mind this isn’t scaled for home ballparks and some of the data is dependent on the quality of teammates around each player. Also, it presupposes that strikeouts are a negative event. There certainly isn’t universal agreement on that amongst statisticians in the game.

What was interesting last season, is that the Astros limited McCann’s exposure more than the Yankees or Braves had and he produced more total points per game than he had in the previous five seasons. It is always interesting to see how different data sources follow each other. Teams have certainly have relied more on data in recent seasons and simultaneously, the proliferation of gambling in the fantasy world has sparked a need for more data. Often these worlds run parallel to each other, but occasionally we see an intersection. While teams may not use total points per se, they certainly probably borrow some of the concepts. Then again, it might be the daily fantasy sports industry borrowing concepts from the teams.

The Curious Case of Roy Campanella

You can dance around the subject in a number of ways. Roy Campanella did not make his major league debut until he was 28 years old. This wasn’t because he wasn’t good enough. You could credibly argue there was only one catcher in the time period that could hold a candle to Campanella. 28 for catchers is virtually ancient. Catchers reach their peaks a lot earlier than other position players and their peaks don’t last nearly as long. By the time most reach their early thirties they are virtually done.

There are notable exceptions of course and luckily for Campanella he was one. His career lasted ten seasons, but you could see the affects of age on him as well. In three out of his last four seasons he failed to reach one bWAR, 1.5 fWAR, or 2.5 win shares (after the adjustment). He won the NL MVP in 1955, but most people would acknowledge that he really wasn’t the best player in the league that season.

Those three MVP awards serve to cloud his place in the history of the game. Historians correctly assume he would have achieved a lot more had he been called up at the same time as most catchers. When we look at the average of the other Hall of Fame catchers we find that he lost five seasons to racism. We could go wild in our assertions of what he would have done, but a more conservative approach is probably best. So, what we will do is take his first five seasons and assume those would have been replicated in the previous five. However, we will adjust his 1948 numbers because they are artificially low being his first season in the big leagues. He did not play immediately, so he suffered in value. We will instead take the worst of his first four full seasons and assume that level of production.

  bWAR fWAR WS/5
1943 1.7 1.6 2.4
1944 4.4 4.3 4.8
1945 4.1 4.4 4.4
1946 6.7 7.1 6.6
1947 3.7 4.2 4.4
1948 3.7 4.2 4.4
1949 4.4 4.3 4.8
1950 4.1 4.4 4.4
1951 6.7 7.1 6.6
1952 3.7 4.2 4.4
1953 7.1 7.7 6.6
1954 0.1 0.7 2.0
1955 5.3 5.7 5.8
1956 0.6 1.2 2.4
1957 0.7 1.2 2.2
Total 57.1 62.3 66.2

This is pretty simple. We can take this career total and compare it to the other catchers in terms of career value. The total adds up to 185.6. That places him behind Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Gary Carter, Ivan Rodriguez, and Carlton Fisk in terms of career value. It places him in the same neighborhood as Mike Piazza. It places him a little in front of Mickey Cohrane, Bill Dickey, and Gabby Hartnett.

I think there are good reasons for that beyond what we see above. There are reasons why he never achieved huge value numbers in any one season. Simply put, the running game throughout the 1920s-1950s were not the same as the 1960s and 1970s. That’s a primary reason why those four catchers find themselves at the bottom. Berra enjoyed a longer peak than the rest or he would have suffered the same fate.

This brings us to the downside of Campanella’s legacy. He was seen at the time as the key cog in the pennant winning teams in 1951, 1953, and 1955. Even if we allow for the biases of the MVP voting at the time (you had to be on the winning team) we would discover those awards came in vain. Win share rankings are easy to track, so let’s track the seasons he actually did play and track his ranking amongst his teammates and the league.

  WS Actual Team LG
1948 12 21 9
1949 24 15 3 8
1950 22 13 3 16
1951 33 1 2 4
1952 22 10 5 17
1953 33 1 2 4
1954 10 11
1955 28 1 2 7
1956 12 11
1957 11 11

Given the relative lack of defensive value of any catcher at the time, the fact that he would have finished in the top ten four times is something. I’m sure if we went back and looked at any of the catchers we would struggle to find any actual MVP awards deserved based on value statistics like WAR and win shares. This has nothing to do with catchers per se. They just have a difficult time matching value with other position players that play far more often during the season.

Even a durable catcher will only play 130 to 140 games in a season where outfielders and first basemen play the full 154 or 162 games. We certainly could boil it down to a wins per game kind of metric and go from there, but that seems to intricate to pick out a player that is the most valuable player in the league.

While we did rain on Campanella’s parade in terms of peak value, the numbers do help him here as compared to his actual ten seasons. The new peak would run from 1944 to 1953 when most catchers would experience their peak performance. The new peak value adds up to 153 wins on the nose. That obviously was a huge boost over his past peak value. Three of those four final seasons killed him in terms of value. It’s something we see from most of the catchers, but he just didn’t have the luxury of a phase out.

  Career Peak Total
Johnny Bench 221.0 174.9 395.9
Gary Carter 206.7 172.2 378.9
Mike Piazza 187.9 167.7 355.6
Yogi Berra 198.2 153.9 352.2
Ivan Rodriguez 204.9 145.0 349.9
Roy Campanella 185.6 153.0 338.6
Carlton Fisk 210.2 120.1 330.2
Bill Dickey 174.7 131.1 305.8
Mickey Cochrane 157.7 142.0 299.7
Gabby Hartnett 172.6 112.0 284.6

All in all these results seem reasonable enough. I think they put Campanella in a historical context that makes sense. We could go overboard and assume he would have produced nine and ten win seasons, but that would be horribly unrealistic. We have to take the player he was an extrapolate that outward. Of course, this is a guess. We cannot assume seasons he did not produce, so we cannot assume he would have been more valuable than Carlton Fisk or not as valuable as Ivan Rodriguez. Still, this seems like a comfortable place to put him when we make some common sense adjustments.