The Greatest Left Fielders of All-time

It would be easy to think of any position as more or less homogenous when considering just the BBWAA voting, but we have seen that hasn’t been the case up until this point. In point of fact, we can divide each position into three separate groups. I did this in the book version of the index with some success. We can start with the legends and then move on the solid Hall of Famers and then the borderline candidates.

Left field has twelve players from the BBWAA list, so it divides up well into groups of four. That rarely ever happens. We have to look at how the data divides them and not at how we want to arbitrarily divide them. Our fortunes have favored us although we had to take some liberties with positional assignments. Let’s dispense with the pleasantries and dive right into the numbers.

Career Value 

  BWAR FWAR WS/5 Total
Stan Musial 128.2 126.8 120.8 375.8
Ted Williams 123.1 130.4 111.0 364.5
Rickey Henderson 111.2 106.3 106.0 323.5
Carl Yastrzemski 96.4 94.8 97.6 288.8

The elephant in the room has to be addressed. Wasn’t Musial primarily a first baseman? Well, he did play in more games as a first baseman than as a left fielder (1016 vs. 929), but he played in 1890 games in the outfield. Most of those came in left field. So, if we consider him an outfielder we have to take the position where he played the most games. After settling that dilemma, we likely are all surprised by the results. This is the reason why the index has a career and peak value element.

No one would be crazy enough to claim that Musial was a superior player to Williams, but there is some defense for that. That will come up when we look at the offensive and defensive numbers. If we ignore the index and simply look at the counting statistics we can see why Musial comes out ahead in this category.

  Games Hits HR Runs RBI BB EBH
Williams 2292 2654 521 1798 1839 2021 1117
Musial 3026 3630 475 1949 1951 1599 1377

These numbers are also deceiving. Williams missed three seasons serving his country in World War II and much of two additional seasons serving in Korea. Musial missed one season in comparison. This isn’t to demean Musial. Anyone that serves their country for any length of time should be honored, but Williams is in a special category here. Yet, even when we consider those seasons we still find that Musial was more durable.

Henderson and Yastrezemski will eventually be four and five when and if Barry Bonds ever gets into the Hall of Fame. Neither hold a candle to these two legends, but they deserve to be mentioned in the same general grouping. Henderson is regarded by many as the greatest leadoff hitter in the game’s history and Yastrzemski might be the best overall fielder at the position. At least he is the best of those in the Hall of Fame.

Peak Value 

  BWAR FWAR WS/5 Total Index
Ted Williams 83.0 88.2 75.0 246.2 610.7
Stan Musial 83.9 76.5 71.0 231.4 607.2
Rickey Henderson 72.0 70.2 58.8 201.0 524.5
Carl Yastrzemski 65.7 67.0 55.2 187.9 476.7

Boston fans enjoyed a Hall of Fame quality left fielder from 1939 all the way through 1990. Mike Greenwell was no slouch in his prime either (however short it was). It was Yaz’s misfortune to follow the greatest pure hitter in the history of the sport. Some will tab Babe Ruth as the best player of all-time. Others will tab Willie Mays. Still others will tab Ty Cobb. All are very worthy picks for the best player in the history of the game. When looking for the title of best overall hitter the list is very short. Of course, that is ultimately a debate we will have to table.

All Yaz did was win a triple crown and combine very good offense and very good defense to come up with solid value numbers. Musial’s resume is well established. He did not have the pure power of Williams, but he hit a ridiculous 725 doubles in his career and won seven batting titles. That totals put him third all-time in doubles behind Pete Rose and Tris Speaker. He is third in extra base hits behind Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds. So, he was definitely no slouch in the power department.

So, this leaves Henderson. If you focus on the steals you are missing the mark. It was certainly his fortune to come up in a time when teams were obsessed with having speed threats at the top of the order. People will remember Vince Coleman, Otis Nixon, and Omar Moreno. Henderson was great because he stole first base and did it repeatedly. He also brought surprising power to the leadoff spot. That is something none of those guys did. Sure, 80 steals are great, but if they are accompanied by zero power and a .300 OBP it’s not worth a whole heck of a lot.

Offensive Numbers 

  OPS+ Rbaser OW% wRC+ wOBA
Ted Williams 190 1 .857 188 .493
Stan Musial 159 -4 .781 158 .435
Rickey Henderson 127 144 .660 132 .372
Carl Yastrzemski 130 -2 .677 130 .375

There is absolutely nothing wrong with Henderson or Yaz’s numbers. A team of nine Yaz’s would win 110 games with average pitching. A team of nine Henderson’s would win 107 games and set an all-time record in stolen bases that would never be broken. Taken in that context, the numbers Willams and Musial put up are just stupid. A team of Ted Willaims would win 139 games in a 162 game schedule. That’s just staggering.

The fact that Musial’s OPS+ and wRC+ are that high and still not in the ballpark is equally staggering. Seeing any hitter near .500 in wOBA is absolutely ridiculous. It doesn’t matter what era you are talking about. He will ultimately be compared to Barry Bonds and those comparisons are unavoidable. He did it without chemical enhancement and while missing nearly five seasons serving his country. Put those years back into play and he would have obliterated nearly every record except career home runs. He might not have eclipsed 755, but 700 would have been a cinch.

Of course, all hitting numbers have to be taken in concert with fielding numbers. Before we look at those we should remember that left field runs neck and neck with first base as the least valuable position on the diamond defensively. This isn’t to demean left fielders, but they just make fewer plays and fewer high leveraged plays than players at other positions. So, the following numbers have to be taken in that context.

Fielding Numbers 

  Rfield DWAR TZLF DWS WS/GG
Carl Yastrzemski 184 1.0 135 61.5 2
Rickey Henderson 65 -2.3 56 56.3 3
Stan Musial 50 -9.2 6 66.8 5
Ted Williams -32 -13.3 -29 44.1 0

This is usually where Williams gets dismissed from any serious GOAT talk. However, we should keep things in proper perspective. In terms of defensive WAR, all of these players are being compared to all defenders at all positions. Of course, they are going to come up short. The fact that Yaz finished above zero is remarkable. We should note that for the entire length of their careers, outfielders were directly compared to each other. So, we wouldn’t expect left fielders to beat out center fielders and right fielders in the win share Gold Gloves (or real ones). Musial won a couple at first base.

At most other positions, defense is a huge consideration. It just isn’t in left field. Williams often lamented after his playing days were over that he didn’t focus enough on defense, but his lead in offensive production is so massive that it really doesn’t matter. Still, we can’t see the whole picture of a player unless we look at both facets of the game.

The Greats of the 19th Century

Electing players from the 19th century carries two very difficult challenges. The first one is merely cosmetic. The Hall of Fame survives and thrives based on the number of visitors it has each year. Induction weekend is the biggest money maker for them by far. Fans from far and wide travel to see their favorite player inducted. That creates revenue for the Hall of Fame. How many people are going to show up to watch the great grandson of someone you’ve never heard of make a speech on behalf of their long lost relative?

Therefore, the votes of the BBWAA and Veterans Committee have always been biased towards the living. This hasn’t completely shut out those from the game’s first century, but they have been few and far between. Bill James successfully lobbied for George Davis in the late 1990s, but since then we have heard crickets.

Public relations is not the only problem. The rules of the game changed drastically between 1870 and 1890. The game we recognize didn’t really come about until that time and even then competition was very uneven. So, when you look at numbers for anyone (even the more sophisticated ones) you have to wonder what you are looking at. Furthermore, a lot of our uber stats have problems because they did not keep accurate records of statistics like caught stealing, walks, or hit bit pitches. So, someone like Davis that played a number of years after the turn of the century comes out looking good. We generally hate to use the if this guy then that guy approach but when you put in Davis it makes you wonder about other guys like Bill Dahlen and Jack Glasscock. Let’s compare them.

Career Value 

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
George Davis 84.3 84.6 79.6 248.5
Bill Dahlen 75.4 77.5 78.1 231.7
Jack Glasscock 62.0 60.1 52.2 174.3

Glasscock is a problematic candidate. On the one hand, his career value is well within the range of those selected by the BBWAA. Admittedly, it is on the lower end, but it is well within the range. However, he suffers from both areas of bias. First, his children’s children are getting long in the tooth. More importantly, he played a good portion of his career in the 1880s. This becomes a quandary when we discuss concepts like replacement level. What does that even mean in the 19th century?

The distance between the best teams and the worst teams was far greater than in the modern game. It stands to reason the same would be true for the players as well. This is particularly true when we look at fielding numbers. Advanced math always confused me in school, but there is a popular notion that performance (or numbers themselves) gravitate towards the mean. This is particularly true on the lower end of performance. Why bang your head against a wall repeatedly with a player that truly sucks? In the modern game, it becomes increasingly difficult to gather high end talent together for an extended period of time because of the cost of keeping that talent together. So, we get a drive to the mean.

Dahlen on the other hand overlapped with Davis. It’s hard to deny that Davis was better overall, but how much better was he really? 17 wins in the index world really amounts to less than six wins overall. Over the course of a 15 to 20 season career that’s not a whole lot. I certainly hate making an argument I normally detest, but Dahlen is ever bit as fit to be in the Hall of Fame as George Davis.

Peak Value 

  BWAR FWAR WS/5 Total Index
George Davis 50.8 51.4 45.6 147.8 396.3
Bill Dahlen 47.3 49.4 43.4 140.1 371.8
Jack Glasscock 50.8 49.8 38.9 139.5 313.8

It can be dizzying following the tortured logic of arguing for or against a 19th centuplayer. We’ve already talked about the problems with competitive balance and with the loss of important statistics we hold dear today. The flip side could argue that it is harder to accumulate numbers like WAR and win shares when those players played in fewer games. Teams back then played in as few as 100 games overall. So, statistics like above can be a bit deceiving and this is particularly true when Glasscock is concerned.

So, I’m not sure what these index scores really mean in the grand scheme of things. Glasscock’s score would put him in the borderline category anyway even without the various considerations on each side. Dahlen is clearly in if we use the same standard as everyone else. So, with Glasscock we have to ask if there is a compelling reason to add him. Is the Hall of Fame really missing something there? I’d argue they aren’t. In the case of Dahlen they are definitely missing someone they probably should add. However, we should take a look at the offensive and fielding numbers.

Offensive Numbers

  OPS+ Rbaser OW% wRC+ wOBA
George Davis 121 19 .624 118 .366
Bill Dahlen 110 12 .578 108 .357
Jack Glasscock 112 16 .574 110 .336

Davis is a cut above the other two, but we also have to remember what we are dealing with. Davis is a top five shortstop in the history of the game according to the index scores. Only Honus Wagner, Cal Ripken, and Alex Rodriguez stand in front of him, so Dahlen’s numbers have to be seen in that context. Dahlen’s numbers place him solidly in the top ten historically. His offensive numbers (and Glasscock’s) may not be overwhelming here, but shortstops aren’t expected to be their team’s best hitters.

Speaking of Glasscock, his numbers are an example of the problem with evaluating the game’s early players. Players came and went from team to team and league to league. Pay for players was horrible, so it wasn’t uncommon for even good players to quit suddenly in the prime of their career. So, we have to ask who we are comparing Glasscock to. That’s decidedly different than Dahlen because he played when the game had at least stabilized to a certain extent.

Fielding Numbers 

  Rfield DWAR TZSS DWS WSGG
George Davis 146 24.6 106 87.5 1
Bill Dahlen 139 28.5 120 128.0 3
Jack Glasscock 149 22.3 153 86.0 3

This is a perfect example of how little we can gleam from some numbers. If you look at the numbers above you might be tempted to think these were some of the best fielding shortstops in the history of the game. In point of fact, a solid defensive shortstop that plays a long time could rack up numbers like these during that time. Being solid for a long time is valuable, but it isn’t going to make anyone forget Ozzie Smith.

So, based on every bit of information we have here we have to come to the conclusion that Bill Dahlen belongs in the Hall of Fame. Whether this situation will ever be rectified remains to be seen. Dahlen’s great grandchildren probably shouldn’t be dusting off their acceptance speech any time soon. If there are any huge Dahlen fans out there they can probably wait too, but we can honor him here.

Modern Shortstops

There is a whole cottage industry around comparing players from different eras in every sport. NFL fans want to compare Jim Brown to Walter Payton while basketball fans want to compare Magic Johnson to Oscar Robertson. Often times these players don’t overlap. So, how do we allow for different eras where the level of play was different? It could be enough to make you throw up your hands and give up.

Yet, there is something to be gained as well. We can compare two very similar players and get a glimpse of the past. People of this generation grew up watching Nomar Garciaparra, so even mention the name Vern Stephens and they may glaze over in a lack of recognition. However, their numbers get more and more similar as we peel the onion.

  Hits HR Runs RBI BB SB
Stephens 1859 247 1001 1174 692 25
Garciaparra 1747 229 927 936 403 95

You’ll notice we haven’t included the rate statistics. The fact is that these players are comparable not only in their quality but also in the length of their careers. They spent a good portion of their careers in Boston and arguably both enjoyed the majority of their success there. Their peaks arguably lasted the same amount of time. However, having similar numbers doesn’t prove anything in terms of being similar or picking which guy was better. At first blush, we would say it was Stephens, but we know nothing about the era in which each played in. At least we don’t based on the numbers above.

  OPS+ Rbaser OW% wRC+ wOBA RC
Stephens 119 5 .636 117 .377 1061
Garciaparra 124 0 .630 124 .376 1043

Here, we have normalized the data by comparing each player with the average hitter in the eras in which they played. We see that Garciaparra comes out ahead in some categories and Stephens is ahead in others. However, they are more or less equal offensively. Seeing these numbers creates a snapshot of what it must have been like to experience Stephens’ career firsthand. Sure, they aren’t similar stylistically, but in terms of production relative to the league they are extremely similar. Now, let’s check out the defense.

  Rfield DWAR TZSS DWS WS/GG
Stephens -1 9.1 -11 62.9 4
Garciaparra 15 6.5 -1 49.0 0

Who was the better fielder? Well, we have to keep in mind that win shares and WAR compares players with the replacement level player while the baseball-reference and Fangraphs numbers compare players with the average. This is an important distinction when evaluating players with careers of varying lengths. Stephens had nearly 15,000 defensive innings total as compared to Garciaparra’s 11,642. An advantage of 3000 innings is roughly equivalent to three additional season’s worth of innings. So, we can argue that Stephens accrued more defensive value that way, but defensive value and quality are not the same thing.

That being said, even when we look at quality we are not talking about a huge separation here. Garciaparra might average a run or two more per season defensively. That means they were both mediocre defenders for the most part when compared with their contemporaries. So, they are roughly equal offensively and defensively. So, they should come out relatively equal overall in the index. That is until we consider that Stephens did enjoy that additional time.

The Hall of Fame Index

  Career Peak Total
Vern Stephens 147.1 132.3 279.4
Nomar Garciaparra 130.4 128.4 258.8

So, in terms of peak value they are very similar, but the extra few seasons gives Stephens the slight advantage overall. What does all of this mean? Well, it means that fans of both generations have a frame of reference for their guy. Modern Boston fans have a handle on Stephen’s place in history because they can compare him with Garciaparra. The same is true for the old guard of Boston fans. For the rest of us, we can get a handle on each player’s Hall of Fame credentials when we compare them with the rest of the Hall of Fame register. We’ll do that now with the modern shortstops (minus Derek Jeter who we have already covered).

Career Value 

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Alex Rodriguez 117.8 113.5 90.2 321.5
Jimmy Rollins 46.3 49.8 56.2 152.3
Miguel Tejada 47.3 39.8 57.6 144.7
Troy Tulowitzki 44.1 38.3 37.2 119.6

It’s a testament to the times we are living in that there is doubt as to whether ARod will be voted into the Hall of Fame. He finds himself in the same category as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. They are known PED users that had Hall of Fame careers outside of the use. So, we put them into some kind of separate stick in the butt moralistic category. We could provide tons of historical precedent of cheaters moving on to Cooperstown, but that’s a different article for a different day.

Tulowitzki is still active, but he has missed much of the past two seasons with various foot issues. His career is like many before him. He is a Hall of Fame quality player that hasn’t been able to stay on the field enough. That being said, he still has the opportunity to add to his resume, so we will largely ignore him for the time being and focus on the other two guys. At first blush, they would seem to be a little short of the standard, but we haven’t seen their peak value numbers yet.

Peak Value 

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total Index
Alex Rodriguez 81.2 78.4 56.6 221.8 543.3
Miguel Tejada 44.3 37.9 46.6 130.8 275.5
Troy Tulowitzki 44.4 38.7 36.2 119.3 238.9
Jimmy Rollins 37.5 41.3 39.2 113.0 265.3

We just got through with our discussion about comparing players from different eras. Notice that the bottom three compare favorably with the dynastic shortstops of the previous post. Those three will have just as many (including Garciaparra) argue for them as the previous generation of shortstops. Hopefully, the value of the index comes into focus when we start comparing the numbers in larger groups.

That being said, we can go back to the MVP points we introduced in the previous article. Just a reminder, each player is awarded a point for finishing in the top 25, three points in the top ten, five points in the top five, and ten points for winning the MVP. We can’t necessarily compare players across eras because it is harder for the modern players to gain MVP points in a 15 team league than an eight team league. However, we can compare them with themselves.

MVP Points

  Top 25 Top 10 Top 5 MVP Points
Alex Rodriguez 4 4 3 3 60
Derek Jeter 4 5 3 0 34
Miguel Tejada 6 0 1 1 21
Nomar Garciaparra 2 4 1 0 19
Troy Tulowitzki 3 1 2 0 16
Jimmy Rollins 2 1 0 1 15

In a 15 team league we can assume there are either 120 or 135 regulars depending on whether you are in the National League or American League. That would have been 64 in the previous article. So, finishing in the top 25 players in the league has to be seen through that prism. This is of course eliminating any pitcher that may sneak into the top 25. So, we should take a step back and marvel at how ARod managed to finish among the top 25 players in the AL in fourteen different seasons.

The MVP points are lower across the board than their counterparts from the 1940s and 1950s. Again, that makes perfect sense. The point of the MVP points are to compare players from their own generation. Here, we see where the breakdown between BBWAA Hall of Famers probably should be without diving deep into the index. Yet, insert a player of Tejada’s quality back in time and anything could happen. We would likely break into a huge debate over level of play and watering down of expansion that we really wouldn’t get anywhere. We will ultimately know more when we look at the offensive and fielding numbers.

Offensive Numbers 

  OPS+ Rbaser OW% wRC+ wOBA
Alex Rodriguez 140 56 .684 141 .395
Troy Tulowitzki 118 -1 .631 119 .368
Miguel Tejada 108 -46 .511 106 .341
Jimmy Rollins 95 67 .518 95 .323

People love to use statistics to prove their point, but statistics have two separate issues. First, we have to be careful to use them how they are intended. Secondly, we have to make sure we quote them correctly. I hate to pick on the president, but he recently bragged that GDP was higher than unemployment for the first time ever. He’s also said that we had a negative GDP before he became president. Huh?

GDP is measured either in total dollars or dollars per capita. That number can’t be negative. It also can’t be less than the unemployment rate because that is expressed as a percentage. Similarly, I ran into someone on the internet that grades hitters by the total number of hits that they collect. Jimmy Rollins collected 2455 hits which is certainly Garciaparra and narrowly more than Tejada (2407). So, he was the better hitter right?

I don’t mean to demean anyone, but all numbers have their proper context. Hits are nice, but going with that number alone ignores so many other numbers that are meaningful. How often did the hitter walk? How many of those hits were extra base hits? How many at bats are we talking about here? The numbers above do a much better job of encompassing the offensive value a player brought to the table. Rollins is bringing up the rear in this group. Both he and Tejada end up being a tad better than the guys from the previous post, but they aren’t that much better.

Fielding Numbers 

  Rfield DWAR TZSS DWS WS/GG
Troy Tulowitzky 97 16.9 42 65.3 1
Jimmy Rollins 32 14.5 37 90.8 0
Alex Rodriguez 26 10.6 33 85.4 1
Miguel Tejada -46 6.9 -45 88.9 0

Again, comparing win share gold gloves (or Fielding Bible Gold Gloves) is not all that fair. Being the most valuable fielder among eight teams is a little easier than doing it amongst 15. So, I’m not sure how those numbers should be interpreted. What we do know is that Tejada likely has taken himself out of the running with these numbers. He was a prolific player, but not a particularly valuable one. Rollins on the other hand comes out above average offensively and defensively. There is an argument there for that kind of player to get into Cooperstown.

That leaves ARod and his place in the history of the game. His index score puts him second in history to Honus Wagner. I acknowledge the moral quandaries of the day and that it is difficult to honor someone that has admitted to cheating. It’s time to remove Gaylord Perry’s plaque then. If Cooperstown is meant to be a museum then it is difficult to fathom a few of the greatest hitters and pitchers being out. We can acknowledge their greatness and acknowledge their flaws at the same time. You don’t have to like him to acknowledge his greatness.

Dynastic Shortstops

One of the offshoots of the Hall of Fame and its discussions are the way we treat players from great teams. We see this during the season every all-star break. The great teams get more all-star teams than the average or bad teams. It makes perfect sense. Good teams are good because they have good players. However, there is a logical extreme there and the same is true with Hall of Famers and great teams.

The aforementioned book, “Baseball’s Greatest Dynasties” lists the dynasties of the 20th century and there is considerable representation for shortstops in the Hall of Fame including:

1906 Chicago Cubs- Joe Tinker

1953 New York Yankees- Phil Rizzuto

1955 Brooklyn Dodgers- Pee Wee Reese

1998 New York Yankees- Derek Jeter

It doesn’t seem like an exhaustive list, but there is another list of guys that the pundits think should be in the Hall of Fame from the list of fifteen teams listed in the book. If we admitted all of those guys then more than half of the teams would have a Hall of Fame shortstop. Throughout his landmark book (“Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame”), Bill James demonstrated that throughout most of history you could find ten percent of the game populated with Hall of Famers. So, half of any listing of teams with a Hall of Famer at a certain position seems out of whack.

We saw the same phenomenon with Gil Hodges and others. Good players can put up great numbers on occasion and when they do it at the right time you can have a dynasty. So, the question is whether someone that puts up great numbers is truly great or whether they benefit from historical serendipity. The index can help us with that, but it ultimately only takes us so far. Many of these players were historically good and they may have had leadership skills that are impossible to quantify. So, let’s see where we stand.

Career Value

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Bert Campaneris 53.1 44.9 56.0 153.0
Vern Stephens 45.5 48.6 53.0 147.1
Dave Concepcion 40.1 39.7 53.8 133.6
Maury Wills 39.7 35.7 50.6 126.0
Marty Marion 31.6 30.0 35.4 97.0

We start with the most obvious player. Marty Marion stands out because he is seemingly overmatched. However, he was prominently mentioned in James’ book. He is a truly great example of the “if…then” fallacy. If Phil Rizzuto is a Hall of Famer then why not Marion? Well, if we follow that logic to its logical extreme we might end up with Rafael Landestoy enshrined in Cooperstown.

Of course, Marion deserves better than that. It’s the main reason why we are even mentioning him here. He was a very talented fielder and a decent enough hitter for a shortstop, but his career comes up short for one reason or another (longevity). The fact that he was a prominent member of the dominant Cardinals team in the 1940s does cloud the question some, but I could handpick a player on every championship that was historically good, but played great at the right time.

The rest of the list comes out reasonably enough on the career value scale, but they are noticeably worse than the BBWAA standard. How does history play into the countenance of greatness? Should good players on great teams get a nod? There are quality arguments on both sides of this discussion. The index does not directly answer that question. It provides evidence that gets weighed in such an argument. Right or wrong, the BBWAA has established a reasonably consistent standard we can measure. These don’t meet it, but it doesn’t mean they should be out.

Peak Value

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total Index
Vern Stephens 40.6 44.8 47.8 133.2 279.3
Bert Campaneris 46.8 41.8 40.2 128.8 281.8
Dave Concepcion 37.1 36.1 41.0 114.2 247.8
Maury Wills 36.6 32.3 43.0 111.9 247.9
Marty Marion 30.9 29.2 32.8 92.9 189.9

Marion’s case is easy enough. His peak value and career value are nearly identical. So, he basically lasted ten or eleven seasons. If he had played 15 full seasons it might have been a different story. The same is true of Maury Wills, but his story isn’t quite so neat. He did not make his debut until he was 27. We are left wondering why. The question is whether he was a victim of institutional racism or just a bad break of playing for a historically great franchise. The facts show he was signed into the Brooklyn system when he was 18 but hit .300 or better in only three of his nine seasons of the minors.

Lack of success in the minors shouldn’t be a disqualifier, but it is hardly evidence of any nefarious dealings either. Perhaps in the modern age he could have left as a minor league free agent and caught on somewhere else in the big leagues two or three years sooner. Perhaps a lot of things. Players are ultimately judged against their contemporaries. Everyone had to survive under the same rules in 1950s baseball.

The top three could be considered Hall of Fame worthy if we didn’t know anything about career value. The trouble is that three or four win players are not particularly special over the course of a decade. The upshot is that those numbers could be due to a shorter peak or simply a lack of dominance. That of course assumes that we put a whole lot of credence into these index numbers in the first place.

In the interest of being as even-handed as possible we can also look at how each player was viewed by the baseball media at the time of their careers. We could run through the whole list, but we will compare Vern Stephens and Marty Marion to their contemporaries that are in the Hall of Fame with something we will call MVP points. Others have used similar formulas, so I can’t claim credit, but we will award ten points for MVPs, five for finishing in the top five, three for top ten finishes, and one for top 25 finishes.

  Top 25 Top 10 Top 5 MVP Points
Lou Boudreau 2 5 2 1 37
Pee Wee Reese 4 7 1 0 30
Vern Stephens 2 3 3 0 26
Phil Rizzuto 4 1 1 1 22
Marty Marion 3 2 0 1 19

The fact that Boudreau and Rizzuto won MVPs is a big deal when it comes to their Hall of Fame fitness. Of course, whether those awards were all deserved is up to debate. This methodology isn’t about what it deserved. It is about what the voters thought of the players then matters. It matters because the same group votes for the Hall of Fame. Few deny the qualifications of Reese or Boudreau, so it is interesting to find Stephens ahead of someone like Rizzuto.

Two of these men did not serve their country during World War II They are the two that are not currently in the Hall of Fame. It is impossible to say whether that is the definitive reason why they are not in, but the three in the Hall of Famer were given leeway as to the lack of adequacy of their numbers. No single test is necessarily worth more than another, but seeing the only BBWAA elected shortstop on top of the list adds some value to this test.

As we have done in the past, we will also look at the offensive and fielding numbers for these players. There is always a context and these numbers often serve to add to the index the context we need to evaluate their Hall of Fame qualifications. Their index scores indicate that none of these players should be in, but their careers deserve too much respect to just simply leave it at that.

Offensive Numbers 

  OPS+ Rbaser OW% wRC+ wOBA
Vern Stephens 119 5 .636 117 .377
Bert Campaneris 89 58 .465 90 .298
Dave Concepcion 88 20 .459 88 .306
Maury Wills 88 55 .481 91 .301
Marty Marion 81 -1 .443 83 .317

Which of these was not like the other? Naturally, offensive production is only part of the equation. How much of the equation depends on the eye of the beholder. Many look at shortstops through a different prism. The question is whether a below average offensive player should be in the Hall of Fame. Statistics like OPS+, wRC+, and offensive winning percentage aren’t broken down by position. So, shortstops are compared to first basemen and outfielders. Obviously, not all of these players might be below average as the numbers appear. They are closer to average amongst the shortstop universe. Therefore, it might be more instructive to ask if average hitters should get in the Hall of Fame. We won’t know until we take a look at the defensive numbers.

Fielding Numbers

  Rfield DWAR TZSS DWS WSGG
Marty Marion 130 25.0 130 97.5 4
Bert Campaneris 63 21.1 71 98.6 2
Dave Concepcion 52 21.4 49 116.9 5
Maury Wills 0 12.2 4 74.7 3
Vern Stephens -1 9.1 -11 62.9 4

Here we get the smorgasbord of numbers that all mean something different. The comparisons with average clearly favor Marion and when you compare him with the replacement level player you get the same result. Unfortunately, his career was a little too short to dominate across the board. Considering his career spanned only a little more than a decade, leading the league in defensive win shares four times is quite an accomplishment.

The reverse is also true. Stephens looks like a mediocre defensive shortstop overall, but he won the same number of win share Gold Gloves. So, we can surmise when Stephens was at his best he was nearly as good as the rest of them. When we add in the offense when he was also at his very best we probably get a superior player. That is reflected in the peak value numbers that we saw earlier.

The others are in the in between zone. They are better than average defensively and charitably could be called average offensively. So, they are above average players looking to get into the Hall of Fame. If you do that long enough I suppose there is a case to be made, but for these guys I’m not seeing it. Dynasties need good players to make a go of it. They need solid players too. Saying they are not Hall of Fame worthy shouldn’t be seen as an insult.

What About: Derek Jeter

I started the what about series primarily to address guys that a lot of people think should be in the Hall of Fame. Usually, we clump players together that are all borderline candidates. This time we are doing something else. No one doubts the fact that Derek Jeter is a Hall of Famer. He was the captain of the best team in baseball in the 1990s and 2000s. He joined the 3000 hit club. He earned the nickname Mr. November. So, we are not here to debate whether he belongs in Cooperstown. We are debating exactly his place in Cooperstown.

There are a few players like Jeter throughout history. Some fans think he is among the best to ever play the game while others think he is among the most overrated players to ever play the game. For Jeter, that usually begins and ends when people start talking about fielding. However, we are getting ahead of ourselves as usual. We should begin with the index and then move on from there.

The Hall of Fame Index 

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Career 72.4 72.7 82.6 227.7
Peak 57.1 47.6 67.8 172.5
Total 129.5 120.3 150.4 400.2

If we look at the total list of shortstops (including modern players) then we find that Jeter’s index puts him fourth all-time. Obviously, the index was never designed to rank order players, but he clearly belongs in elite company. That is almost exclusively because of the offense that he brought to the table and his long record of durability. It is a lot more instructive to compare him with the top five guys on the Hall of Fame board offensively before we even get to the fielding question.

The typical offensive numbers we use show us how dominant (or not) a player was over the course of his entire career. They don’t tell us how long the player did it. We can use different numbers for that. So, to illustrate that we will include runs created as a way to show each player’s durability.

Offensive Numbers

  OPS+ Rbaser OW% wRC+ wOBA RC
Honus Wagner 151 34 .762 147 .408 1888
Cal Ripken 112 5 .536 112 .346 1729
Robin Yount 115 -56 .573 113 .343 1655
Luke Appling 113 0 .597 115 .378 1412
Alex Rodriguez 140 56 .684 141 .395 2274
Derek Jeter 115 56 .593 119 .360 1910

Now we get into one of those famous cases where we ask ourselves what these numbers really mean. Obviously, Wagner and Rodriguez are in a league of their own offensively. The rest were grouped pretty close together. There are two ways to look at this data. The first is that Jeter belongs with the elite performers because he was relatively close to all of them in the numbers we have been using throughout our reporting. However, we haven’t gotten to defense yet and we know his reputation is shaky at best. That is where runs created come in. He is second all-time amongst shortstops in that honor and beaten only by his former teammate Arod.

The upshot is that he had approximately two to three seasons worth of plate appearances beyond what the others were able to produce. Part of that can be attributed to longevity and part can be attributed to durability. Both of those are good things, but none of those make him a better hitter than the rest of them. Now, we look at defense. We really can’t compare him to anyone else as you can see, so we will look at Jeter by himself.

Fielding 

  Rfield DWAR TZSS DWS WSGG
Derek Jeter -243 -8.3 -137 91.6 0

There is an argument to be made for Jeter being the worst defensive shortstop of all-time. Unfortunately, that argument is primarily dependent on the numbers. When you look at defensive win shares (as an example) you find that players typically have fewer defensive win shares per 1000 innings with the fewer innings they play. That makes perfect sense. Teams don’t employ inferior fielders for very long. That was different in Jeter’s case for a variety of reasons.

Jeter was a fan favorite and a powerful player within the Yankees organization. They moved Rodriguez to third so they could keep Jeter at short. This was even though Rodriguez was clearly the better defender. Obviously, they were not using dispassionate analysis there. One could argue that the desire not to rock the boat outweighed a desire to actually have the better defender. They won and won a lot, so obviously they can defend the decision, but there was something else at stake. Let’s compare him with fellow butcher Jose Offerman.

  Innings Rfield Field/1000 Errors E/1000
Derek Jeter 23225 -243 -10.46 254 10.93
Jose Offerman 5065 -67 -13.23 139 27.44

We see two very important phenomena happening at the same time. First, we could yank any other player from history similar to Offerman. Offerman played longer than just those five or six seasons. They moved him around between second base and first base to find a position where he wouldn’t be a liability. This is the way sports work. When you find a player that you like overall, you will keep shuffling him around when he proves to be substandard at a position.

So, Jeter really isn’t the worst shortstop in history. That’s ludicrous. He is the worst shortstop for any that played the position for that long. That could hardly be blamed on him totally. The Yankees simply had a blind spot where he was concerned. However, another more likely blind spot are the errors. Jeter was fairly surehanded when compared to Offerman and most other shortstops for that matter.

This reflects the bias of the previous age. Many traditional fans still think it matters how many errors you have. On an individual game basis it might. It certainly looks worse when you boot one. It matters a lot more how many balls you actually get to. This is where Jeter suffered. He just didn’t get to as many balls as most other shortstops. So, in terms of actual ability and scouting, Jeter was not the worst defender of all-time at shortstop, but in terms of value he was.

In terms of overall value, this definitely has an affect on how we perceive Jeter over time. This is one of the reasons why we look at career value and peak value. Jeter is a top five shortstop in career value. Peak value just might be a different story. All told, he is still a Hall of Famer when he becomes eligible, but where he stands in history will probably be debated for quite some time.

Shortstops Index Part II

We heard it again this past week. Recently retired outfielder Jayson Werth said, “the supernerds are destroying the game.” There has long been tension between the modern baseball analysts and the old school baseball lifers. Some of them are scouts. Some are former players. Some are old-fashioned fans. Either way, the battle lines have been drawn. Many do not see the benefit of a statistic like WAR or win shares. After all, you can’t boil down someone’s contribution to a number.

That point would not be so insidious if those people didn’t attempt to do the same. We look at hits, home runs, batting average, wins, and ERA as if they are sacrosanct. So, the essence is not whether you boil down a player’s value to a number, but which number? In the scouting world it is a grade somewhere between 20 and 80. They grade the so-called five tools and those that sort of know what they are talking about treat all of those numbers as if they mean something equal. In other words, having a 70 (all-star level) arm would mean the same thing as having 70 power. Of course, scouts know this is bunk, but many casual observers don’t know the ins and outs of how scouts weight all of this.

Furthermore, the most valuable skill in baseball in easily the ability to get on base. Plate discipline isn’t a skill most organizational scouts grade officially. So, if one doesn’t grade it then how do any teams know they have it? I bring all of this up because all six of these remaining shortstops grade out similarly in value. They are all very different in terms of the skills they brought to the table. We will only see that when we break down offensive and fielding numbers, but as always we start with the index.

Career Value

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Luke Appling 74.4 72.7 75.6 222.7
Ozzie Smith 76.9 67.6 65.0 209.5
Barry Larkin 70.4 67.0 64.0 201.4
Joe Cronin 66.4 66.6 65.6 198.6
Ernie Banks 67.5 62.3 66.4 196.2
Lou Boudreau 63.0 64.5 55.4 182.9

It is here especially where we remind you that it is not the purpose of the index to rank players in order. Each score is built on three different platforms that all have different opinions of how much weight to apply to specific events. In other words, they will not grade offense and defense exactly the same way. Win shares parcels out wins differently than the two WAR formulas.

What’s important here is that all of these players are fairly similar in the amount of value they brought to their teams. So, Werth can decry the nerds all he wants. Spreadsheets don’t play the game. They never will. Each player accrues value in a unique way. A smart GM or scout will discover a player’s unique quality and will determine if that quality interacts well with the rest of his or her roster. It’s not as simple as plugging in a .360 OBP and considering that to be superior to a .350 OBP. More goes into than that and the same is true with the index.

Peak Value 

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Lou Boudreau 59.7 61.2 51.0 171.9
Ernie Banks 58.5 53.9 44.2 156.6
Barry Larkin 56.3 50.9 48.4 155.6
Joe Cronin 50.3 50.8 49.8 150.9
Ozzie Smith 54.8 50.1 43.2 148.1
Luke Appling 48.5 47.0 49.0 144.5

Again, the key story here is how close most of the numbers are. Boudreau is an obvious exception, but he also appeared towards the bottom of the career value list. Again, the idea here is that players accrue their value differently. Would you rather have 15 good seasons or 11 or 12 very good ones? Everyone has their own answer to that question.

The interesting data always comes in when we break down offense and fielding separately. Each player has his own reputation and they certainly gained a lot of mileage off of those reputations. The numbers often reveal the truth. However, before we get to those numbers we need to clean up the index to see how close they come.

Hall of Fame Index

  Career Peak Index
Luke Appling 222.7 144.5 367.2
Ozzie Smith 209.5 148.1 357.6
Barry Larkin 201.4 155.6 357.0
Lou Boudreau 182.9 171.9 354.8
Ernie Banks 196.2 156.6 352.8
Joe Cronin 198.6 150.9 349.5

Keep in mind that the goal of the index is to find to gaps in data. There are virtually no gaps in the data here, so all of these guys are legitimate Hall of Famers. It’s interesting to see players this close in index scores, but it is more interesting to see how each one got there. Those numbers are often more revealing than the index scores themselves.

Offensive Numbers 

  OPS+ Rbaser OW% wRC+ wOBA
Ernie Banks 122 -6 .612 118 .359
Lou Boudreau 120 -7 .599 122 .375
Joe Cronin 119 -4 .622 120 .393
Barry Larkin 116 80 .627 118 .360
Luke Appling 113 0 .597 115 .378
Ozzie Smith 87 79 .481 90 .305

Smith obviously does not belong with the rest of these guys, but he is an interesting player even when you only look at the offensive numbers. We saw where Luis Aparicio and Rabbit Maranville landed in the last post. The difference between the three is that Smith improved throughout the course of his career. So, his final wOBA reflects that he was just a little better than they were. Combine that with his baserunning and he was able to get to that magical 90 wRC+.

However, he would have needed to produce outrageous fielding numbers to get the rest of the way there. He has the best defensive reputation in the history of the game (13 Gold Gloves) so it wouldn’t be shocking to see the numbers reflect that. Still, we have see other cases where numbers didn’t back reputation. Ironically, the rest fit in a very tight grouping offensively, so there really isn’t much to discuss in terms of offensive numbers.

Fielding Numbers

  Rfield DWAR TZSS DWS WSGG
Smith 239 44.2 239 139.8 10
Boudreau 118 23.4 115 87.2 1
Banks 55 5.1 62 65.1 0
Appling 41 19.0 39 105.3 2
Cronin 28 14.3 26 94.8 4
Larkin 18 14.4 28 92.0 2

Ozzie Smith is number one all-time in career defensive WAR. Granted, the deck is stacked in his favor since shortstops play the most difficult position according to the formula, but it is easily defensible to call him the most valuable defender of all time. I’m guessing there are others that would argue for others and that’s fine. For most of my generation there will never be a better defensive player.

The rest are all above average at worst and some were very underrated defenders (Boudreau). Yet, each source ranks them in a different order. This could be a question of disagreement, but more often than not is a question of what you are measuring. If you are comparing to average that is far different than comparing a player to replacement level. One rewards quality while another rewards longevity. Then you get the case of Ernie Banks who played a lot of games at first base.

So, this was a low drama episode in the case that we don’t have any controversy. That’s okay, low drama is good every now and then. It is more instructive to see how value gets put together. When you can accurately peg the past it helps in pegging the future. Or, as a wise person once said if you can predict a crisis then you can usually prevent it.

Shortstops Index Part One

There are eleven shortstops that have been voted into the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA. One of the issues with the Hall of Fame is that the Veterans Committee has a way of muddying the waters. However, like with the third basemen we also have a mistake or two by the writers. That also has a way of making things more complicated. So, comparing all eleven guys at the same time makes little sense. We will split the group in two and look at the living legends and the mistakes at the same time.

That will leave a group of very similar players in the subsequent piece. It is always more compelling when we have similar players to compare anyway. When we look at mistakes we are not literally saying they should be removed. That’s impossible. We are simultaneously removing them from consideration for comparison sake and looking at the reasons why the writers overlooked their normal qualifications.

Career Value

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Honus Wagner 130.8 138.1 131.0 399.9
Cal Ripken 95.9 92.5 85.4 273.8
Robin Yount 77.3 66.5 84.6 228.4
Luis Aparicio 55.8 49.1 58.6 163.5
Rabbit Maranville 42.9 42.5 60.4 145.8

Books have literally been written about Honus Wagner. Wagner is clearly the best shortstop of all-time and even when you include Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter you could arguably say there is more distance between him and the second best shortstop than any player at any other position. That includes the likes of Ruth, Aaron, Mays, or anyone else you can think of. Sure, that could be a proverbial stacked deck, but value can be defined as the distance between two players.

Ripken stands second for now and that could be underwhelming in some sense. Ripken was always seen as extremely durable, but the general malaise of the 1980s and 1990s camouflage some really good all-around seasons. Part of that is that his stature made you think he couldn’t be a brilliant defensive shortstop. As we will see, the numbers will say otherwise.

Still, the greatest point here belong to Aparicio and Maranville. Both had stellar defensive reputations and matched what many would think should be the prototypical shortstop. They were small, slap hitters that either won Gold Gloves (nine in Aparicio’s case) or would have if they had been around during their career. Gold Gloves are great and if they are truly deserved they are really great. You are measured by your ability to help teams win games and not by highlight reels.

It should be noted that both that both players are more qualified that Pie Traynor, so everything is relative. That ignores the fact that we should have minimum standards and that usually means 300 in the win department. That’s unless there are extenuating circumstances like there were in Roy Campanella’s case.

Peak Value

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total Index
Honus Wagner 84.9 89.1 84.2 258.2 658.1
Cal Ripken 69.3 65.0 54.2 188.5 462.3
Robin Yount 55.1 50.0 54.8 159.9 388.3
Luis Aparicio 36.7 32.3 36.6 105.6 269.1
Rabbit Maranville 33.8 32.6 37.8 104.2 250.0

Both Aparicio and Maranville were prolific players in terms of durability, but neither were particularly dominant during their prime. There is nothing wrong with a three or four-win player, but you don’t typically think Hall of Fame when looking at that sort of player. For most people, the concept of wins or an index is way too cumbersome to consider, so we bring the offensive and fielding numbers out for you.

We haven’t mentioned Yount. Even though he is not a controversial Hall of Famer there is some controversy over whether he should be considered an outfielder or a shortstop. Yount actually played more games at shortstop (1470 vs. 1218) even though it seemed like he was an outfielder for longer.

Offensive Numbers

  OPS+ Rbaser OW% wRC+ wOBA
Honus Wagner 151 34 .762 147 .408
Cal Ripken 112 -5 .536 112 .346
Robin Yount 115 56 .573 113 .343
Luis Aparicio 82 92 .449 83 .296
Rabbit Maranville 82 4 .424 83 .313

These numbers are somehow more meaningful than the index numbers and show how much of an advantage Wagner has. Keep in mind that when you are looking at the wOBA numbers that he played during the Dead Ball Era. Those numbers are ludicrously stupid given that fact. A team of Wagners would win 122 or 123 games in a 162 game schedule. It may not be the highest offensive winning percentage of all time but it’s pretty darn close.

On the flip side, it would be simplistic to say that these numbers disqualify Aparicio and Maranville, but they are pretty damning. It is wrong to assume 100 as average in OPS+ or wRC+ for shortstops. That’s a universal average. You are comparing shortstops with first basemen and outfielders. Maybe 90 is closer to the position average. Great. Should a below average offensive player get into the Hall of Fame?

Offensive winning percentage is always a good place to look as well. Aparicio’s base running gives him a bit of an edge of Maranville, but there is no getting around the fact that they are both below average. The traditionalists will tell you game is 50 percent pitching, 50 percent fielding, and 50 percent hitting. That’s 150 percent. So, it might be closer to 50/25/25. It’s hard to justify a below average offensive player. Let’s see if we can do it.

Fielding Numbers

  Rfield DWAR TZSS DWS GG WSGG
Honus Wagner 85 21.3 67 116.9 1
Cal Ripken 181 35.7 176 115.2 2 6
Robin Yount -48 6.8 25 104.0 1 0
Luis Aparicio 149 31.8 149 122.8 9 5
Rabbit Maranville 130 30.8 115 123.2 5

The most intriguing player here is Yount. The overall numbers are terrible, but when you look at the total zone shortstop runs you see he was an above average shortstop. That affected him in his defensive WAR totals as well. Admittedly, Aparicio and Maranville were legitimately good defensive shortstops. They might even be classified as really good depending on who you are comparing them to.

If you are comparing them to Ripken then they come up short. His defensive win shares did not include his time as a third baseman. So, it is fair to say he would be better in every single category. He won only two Gold Gloves. You look at him and naturally compare him to smaller guys like Ozzie Smith. Smith was legitimately better, but not by as much as people think. You see a six foot four muscle bound guy and naturally assume he’s slow. For Ripken it was the difference between being a good player that played a lot of games in a row and being a great player that played a lot of games in a row.

The BBWAA didn’t blow the Aparicio and Maranville vote as much as the Traynor vote. After all, they were legitimately good defensively. Aparicio was an elite base runner as well. They just didn’t do enough in the batter’s box. It isn’t about a lack of power. As we will see soon enough, Ozzie Smith is more than qualified despite his lack of power. It’s always more important to steal first base than hit an occasional home run.