September 16, 2010
Checking the Numbers
Chipper, Eddie, and Pete
A little over a week ago I wrote an article on switch-hitters, focusing on a simple question: Do we evaluate switch-hitters based on their self-platoon split, or based on overall numbers regardless of the split? A case can be made for each side, as those in the self-platoon camp would argue that a good switch-hitter should be able to produce from both sides of the plate. These advocates certainly wouldn’t consider someone like Gary Matthews Jr. a solid switch-hitter, as his numbers are terrible even if his split is small. On the other side of the spectrum, it also makes sense that the best switch-hitter would be the best hitter who happens to bat from both sides of the plate. Mark Teixeira might favor one side more than the other, but his numbers from each side are far and away superior to the league average. The differentiation would be whether switch-hitting is considered a niche in which a separate definition applies. Can a good switch-hitter be a relatively underwhelming overall hitter?
The article was framed around Chipper Jones, whose career may be over after sustaining a season-ending injury. While I might not consider Jones the best switch-hitter of all time, I certainly think he is hovering around the top of the list. My efforts then also suffered from data restrictions, as without accurate split information prior to 1974, and with my desire to keep data on the same plane, I decided to explore the idea of minuscule TAv splits as opposed to the highest TAvs for switch-hitters no matter what. The title of the article probably did not do the topic justice, as it suggested the goal was to define the best switch-hitters of all time, when it was actually to see who had the smallest splits. Because of the data restrictions as well as the scope of the article, players like Mickey Mantle, Pete Rose, and Eddie Murray did not show up in the tables and were not mentioned too much throughout, even if they are in fact three of the best switch-hitters in baseball history.
But in the comments here and over at ESPN Insider, as well as in e-mails I received, there was an overwhelming opinion that if I even considered Chipper Jones in the same league as Rose and Murray, I would need to remove my head from my ass, or stop looking at spreadsheets and start watching games. If someone wants to suggest that any article discussing switch-hitters needs to mention Mickey Mantle, I am certainly on board. If someone wants to suggest that an article on switch-hitters is not complete without at least a passing mention of Steady Eddie and the Hit King, I’ll even give them that one. But when someone is adamant that Chipper Jones has not had a career anywhere near the level of Rose or Murray, I immediately get off at that stop, as I am in fervent disagreement. In fact, the discussion of Chipper vs. Rose vs. Murray provides the perfect platform for a tangent centering on the idea of milestones being used to gauge value or elevate a player above another.
Before getting into more of the discussion, here are some of the numbers:
Keep in mind that the goal here is not to claim that any of the three players had a bad career or anything along those lines. This is more of a better-of-the-best discussion in the hopes that many will realize just how fantastic Chipper Jones has been. Chipper easily sports the best slash line of the three, and his offensive numbers come out on top even when we adjust for the context of the times in which the players played. His TAv is 22 points above Murray’s and 27 points above that of Rose. In terms of WARP, he bested Murray despite playing in five fewer seasons, and came within a dozen wins of Rose despite playing in eight fewer seasons. I realize that the last few sentences probably could have been written differently to frame an argument in favor of the other two switch-hitters, but it is very difficult for me to take in all of the numbers above and come away with the conclusion that either is somewhat better than Jones, let alone markedly better.
The last four rows of the table are particularly interesting. Rose has a higher WARP score after the age of 30 primarily because he played until he was 46 years old, but on a rate basis, Jones blows both of them out of the water in that category. In terms of the number of seasons with a WARP of three or more, it should be evident that Jones has rarely had a poor season. The only seasons in which his total fell below three wins above replacement were his rookie season in 1995 (0.6 WARP), and in 2004 (1.7 WARP). Putting everything together, Jones has better offensive numbers from a slash line standpoint, more value from a per-year perspective, and better numbers during his decline period. Additionally, he produced these numbers over 16 seasons, which is no small feat; it isn’t like we’re comparing three brilliant seasons from Ben Sheets to the career of Greg Maddux.
So what do Rose and Murray have over Chipper? It seems that what separates these two players from Chipper is twofold: they have more seasons under their belt and they have milestones. The first point might suggest that they were more durable, staying on the field more often than not. For the second point, Rose has the all-time record for hits at 4,256, while Murray is a member of the 500 homer-3,000 hits club. Each of these feats usually results in an automatic election to the Hall of Fame. The two points are intertwined as the milestones were not achieved without the aid of many extra years on their resumes. If Murray had retired in 1993, after 17 seasons, his slash line would have been .290/.364/.483, he would have tallied 2,820 hits, and he would have knocked 441 balls out of the park. Maybe he isn’t a Hall of Famer with those numbers, but if not, that likely speaks more to his worthiness overall if he needed four or five seasons of “meh” performance to get inducted.
If Rose ducked out at age 38, his line was .312/.381/.432, and he still would have racked up 3,372 hits. In other words, both of these players had stellar lines when their production had reached the point of no return, yet we give them credit as being markedly better than players like Chipper because they hung on and produced poor numbers in the attempt to reach an arbitrary point. Does the fact that Pete Rose hit .274/.354/.333 over 3,685 PAs from 1980-86 in order to become the all-time hit king give him a better career than someone like Chipper, who may retire while still producing four-win seasons? Or does it make Murray, who hit a meager .272/.328/.436 from 1994-97 in order to achieve two milestones, that much better of a player than Jones?
The overall point here is that Chipper Jones should not have to stick around for another five seasons, hitting .265/.340/.420, and with poor defense to boot, in order to reach 3,000 hits or 500 home runs, when he is already worthy of a Hall of Fame induction right now. Pete Rose had a fantastic career from 1966-79, producing just three seasons below three wins above replacement, and his ability to shift positions was tremendously valuable from a long-term roster construction standpoint. He might not have been a superlative defender, but he got the job done, and was an excellent table-setter. He was a Hall of Famer in 1979, just like Murray was a Hall of Famer in 1992 or 1993.
Reaching arbitrary career numbers that have been made famous by the media does not make a player worthy of the Hall of Fame, as those who are even in the vicinity of the categories (300 wins, 500 homers, 3,000 hits) are usually no-doubters anyway. Eddie Murray and Pete Rose had great careers, but it is folly to suggest that they were head over heels superior to Chipper Jones. If all that separates one player from another, in terms of perceived value, is four or five seasons of subpar production, then I would argue that nothing separates them and the numbers need to be more closely examined. I know it might seem strange to suggest that two legends are not as good as a player who has been underrated for most of his career, but I hope the evidence presented throughout can make a good enough case on its own. This site was predicated upon answering the tough questions or writing about topics that others are afraid to touch, and yet I still don’t consider my point here to be overwhelmingly controversial.
Eddie Murray is in the Hall of Fame, Pete Rose is a Hall of Famer on performance regardless of his extracurricular activities, and Chipper Jones belongs in there without question right now. Let’s just hope he doesn’t decide to return and put up below-average numbers over five seasons in order to reach two tallies that don’t make any stronger of a case for his Cooperstown worthiness.