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September 23, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

Albert the Great

by Christina Kahrl

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A couple of weeks ago, in talking about Jim Thome's shot at immortality Jay Jaffe dealt with a topic we all reliably love to bandy about, the Hall-worthiness of one candidate or another. Who doesn't like to go back and forth on whose ticket to Cooperstown is already punched, and who will have to settle for winding up in what we might call the Vada Pinson wing of less-worthy greatosity? As these things go as subject material, it's solid winter fare, reliably hearty and filling, the sort of stuff that leaves you milling through memories and switching over to the mind's eye, toward moments you treasure—Jim Thome, Terror of the Bronx in the '98 ALCS, does quite nicely for me.

However, we're in September, and the needs of the present outweigh the obligations to the past. When we get on the subject of all-time greatness and first base, I'm less interested in talking about those with one foot in their professional grave. Instead, I'd start any conversation with an acknowledgment that the bar for all-time greatness has been changed, changed forever, and changed by one of Thome's contemporaries no less. The standard has been changed forever by Albert Pujols.

Consider the top end of the table Jay ran then:
 

Rank

Player

Career

Peak

JAWS

1

Lou Gehrig*

104.3

63.0

83.7

2

Albert Pujols

85.5

71.2

78.4

3

Frank Thomas

90.2

58.1

74.2

4

Jeff Bagwell

91.2

56.3

73.8

5

Roger Connor**

87.0

48.2

67.6

6

Jimmie Foxx*

81.9

51.6

66.8

7

Dan Brouthers**

82.4

50.4

66.4

8

Ernie Banks*

69.4

57.5

63.5

9

Johnny Mize**

73.6

50.7

62.2

10

Cap Anson**

81.6

42.1

61.9

11

Mark McGwire

71.6

48.7

60.2

*BBWAA-elected Hall of Famer
**VC-elected Hall of Famer

The most impressive thing in that table certainly wasn't Thome, but it also wasn't Lou Gehrig. Instead, it's the fact that peak value at first base already belongs to Albert the Great. Since JAWS is calculated using a player's seven best seasons to calculate his peak, that number is never going to go down—the man has already set the all-time record for value at first base. If anything, do you really want to rule out the possibility that he might not improve upon it, considering that he's only just now finishing his age-30 season? Expanding the standard beyond seven seasons wouldn't hurt him—if his seventh-best season so far via WARP was in 2004, with 8.5, keep in mind his eighth-best was his rookie season in 2001. His WARP that year was 8.4.

Of course, there is career value. There was a point in time when I thought Mark McGwire could mount a challenge to the Iron Horse, but the limitations of his body, with or without or perhaps because of any betterment built by chemistry, made certain he'd not endure long enough to make it. Instead, from the recent past we can take up the cases of the Big Hurt and Jeff Bagwell, to argue for in Gehrig's place. Frank Thomas is a bit of a stretch, given the amount of time he spent at DH, but you can see the shape of a case for Bagwell for career value, if you favor present-day performance over that of the past.

But arguing the value of the present over the past isn't a favor we'll need to do for Pujols. Even if his pace slackens in the second decade of his career, how many years away is he from knocking Gehrig off of even that perch for all-time value three years? That was PECOTA's expectation before this season, in its 10-year forecast, projecting WARP tallies of 9.6 in 2011—boosting his peak value—and 8.7 in both 2012 and 2013.

That's a bit speculative, of course, but there are other reasons to take Pujols over the luckiest man on the face of the earth:
 

All-Timer
TAv
WARP2
WARP2/G
FRAA2
Pujols .343 90.9 0.6 113
Gehrig .341 98.9 0.5 -12

Of course, these tallies includes Gehrig's abbreviated decline and foreshortened career, compared to Pujols' first 10 years. If you lop off Gehrig's career after his first 10 seasons—carrying him through his tremendous 1934 campaign—you shave off 26 points of WARP2 without doing him any favors on defense, and you don't massively boost his TAv, since he was better than his career clip in two of his four full subsequent seasons. If anything, what the exercise suggests is that Pujols isn't just a little bit better, but that without even allowing that much for the more dynamic competitive ecology of today's game, he compares favorable to the Iron Horse. Barring any tragedy that interrupts his enjoying his 30s relatively normally, Pujols should end up being an insurmountable edge in career value over the rest of humanity, let alone Gehrig. I'll leave it to somebody else's great-grandchildren to fidget about asterisking a genemod Ken Griffey V in the far-off future.

This is without getting into all of the other, more dynamic reasons to prefer the performances of the present to those of the past. I admit, there was a time when I tried to uneasily straddle the line between the two. For a good chunk of my 20s, back in the days before we elected Bubba, I'd enjoy innumerable debates with friends on this very point, emptying one pitcher after another at Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap while trying to skate a balance between those guys in our circle who would generally put everyone on the same plane, and the one among us, Drew, who adopted the deliberately controversial position that, “the quality of play and players has never been better.”

This is essentially the NFL's sales pitch to this day, and that was a pretty tough sell in the late '80s, even among a crowd that was reading Bill James and Stephen Jay Gould and Pete Palmer and Craig Wright and everything else we could get our hands on, even the Elias books or the Bill Mazeroski pre-season guides. It's easy to wax nostalgic about that past, but I wouldn't—we simply knew a lot less then than we do now. It wasn't a golden age; at best it was the beginning of the end of common ignorance. Where I used to get in knock-down, drag-out arguments favoring Mark Grace over Randy Milligan with one friend—one of the few instances back then when I need cop to a kind word for a Cub—we can resolve these things a lot more easily.

More fundamentally, what we know now does a pretty good job of suggesting that Drew was right, then and now.* Integration, internationalization, a better distribution of talent across the industry in a world without the reserve clause... in the end, the reasons why the feats of the past need knocking off their perches are legion. But even without heavily discounting the numbers of Gehrig, or Dan Brouthers and Cap Anson for that matter, because of the anemic competitive balance of the game's more distant past, you still wind up with a fairly straightforward demonstration of Pujols' value.

* On the other hand, his other favorite observation, that everything evens out in the end, remains total rot. To borrow a phrase from Colin Wyers, seasons and lifetimes are too short for things to really "even out"—Aaron Hill isn't going to magically recover toward something closer to his career rates within 2010 by going 40-for-40, just because he's due for evening out. Time, as ever, is the enemy, one that Hill will not defeat this year. The best he can hope for is to do something more with next season's clean slate.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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22 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

MWSchneider

I agree generally with the idea that the game (and all sports really) are more competitive today and the players are better. People, in general, are healthier, bigger, and more fit today (despite the obesity epidemic). But if you take that to it's logical conclusion, you can never judge players from different eras. It's likely, for example, that the game will be even better in 2030 that it is today so what does that do to Pujol's standing, even if his record remains unsurpassed. At some point, it seems to me, we lose something by trying to compare the conditions from one era to another and downgrading historic players because conditions were easier. I'm quite comfortable with the conclusion that Albert Pujols may well be as good or better than Lou Gehrig. But I'm a bit uncomfortable with imputing simple superiority because of the time he played in. We don't know, obviously, how well Gehrig or Babe Ruth would have performed in today's environment. Maybe they would not have done so well. But, personally, I don't really see the need to "knock the feats of the past off their perches." Without those feats of the past, we would probably not even be talking about baseball today.

Sep 23, 2010 06:46 AM
rating: 0
 
akodobill

BPro's numbers are the only ones that have the offensive comparison even remotely close. Is there a timeline adjustment already built in?

BBref and Fangraphs WAR both have Gehrig with a pretty big lead on peak, even with a big edge to Pujols on defense.

Sep 23, 2010 07:01 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

I like using the *2 iterations, like WARP2, FRAA2, and what was EqA2 (now TAv), in that these have adjustments for era. Even that doesn't go as far as I might in my more caustic moments of reflection.

Take a good look at the staffs during the '30s. Gehrig only has to face seven different collections of opponents, including some of history's sad sacks: the Philly A's after '31, the St. Louis Browns, both flavors of Sox. He never has to face one of the best pitching staffs in the league (his own), instead getting to mash against the likes of Sugar Cain and George Blaeholder... when he's facing the better pitchers on the worse staffs.

In 1934, for example, Gehrig goes up against teams .500 or worse in 110 of his 154 games. He slugs .786 in those 110 contests, and .462 against the two other good teams besides the Yankees, the Tigers and the Indians.

Sep 23, 2010 08:23 AM
 
akodobill

Pujols doesn't have to face Carpenter and Wainright, and plays a large part of his schedule against the Pirates, Cubs, Brewers, and Astros. Those teams don't exactly have top level pitching.

Sep 23, 2010 10:34 AM
rating: -2
 
BillJohnson

Of course, he doesn't get to face Suppan, Lohse, Garcia (a very good pitcher, but AP eats good left-handers for breakfast) and so on, either.

These things even out. Houston had some excellent pitching earlier in AP's career, what with Oswalt in his prime, Pettite, etc. Likewise Chicago with pre-injury Prior and Wood. The actual average rankings in pitchers' VORP for the NL Central teams during AP's career, among the 16 NL teams, are:
CHN: 6.4
CIN: 12.3
HOU: 6.7
MIL: 11.5
PIT: 13.2
STL: 5.8
So you're right that AP has benefited by not having to face his own team's pitching, on average. The other part of the argument does not withstand scrutiny: the rest of the NL Central, on average, has had worse pitching than the league average over that time period, but not dramatically so, and Houston and Chicago *have* had "top level pitching" for large parts of that time.

Sep 23, 2010 11:27 AM
rating: 2
 
ofMontreal

Nice work CK, it's good to have you back regular like. I've long seen those 15-2 games against the Browns as an achilles heel for sluggers of the 30's & 40's.

But you've got me thinking about comparisons not so much on a purely statistical edge. What if, the increasing size of bullpens and diminishing innings of starters is a response to technology. The growth in the use of video and subsequent technology coincides with the expansion of bullpen usage to a fair degree. This also coincides with the general elimination of terrible teams: the rise of parity. Suddenly going 27 outs is far more taxing against a better prepared opponent and match-up play is the smart way to go. A small point for Albert on that.

Sep 23, 2010 11:44 AM
rating: 1
 
ddrezner

The important thing is that the neighborhood surrounding Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap has definitely improved with age... though not perhaps back to its 1920's heyday.

Sep 23, 2010 09:10 AM
rating: 0
 
Hoff

Is he really 30? Its clearly not important for his past achievements, which are worthy of any sort of praise. But there do remain two issues: Where will he end up in the top (small number) players of all time? And how much money should he be offered.

The whole age speculation is of course a little unfair. But he's got the opportunity and his performance would be slightly more comprehend able if he was actually 33-34ish? Maybe not. I don't mean to sound like a birther.

I guess the US government did grant him citizenship and accepted whatever sort of high level documentation he offered at that point. So maybe its b.s.

Sep 23, 2010 09:43 AM
rating: 0
 
Richie

Like jesse, if forced to bet on '30/over 30', I'd wager the over.

If you accept the argument that baseball up until 1939 got just about all the best athletes, which subsequently got increasingly sopped up by football/basketball/golf (yes, I'm serious on that one)/etc., then that evens out era adjustments significantly. Just worth noting, I'm saying.

Sep 23, 2010 10:06 AM
rating: 0
 
BillJohnson

I have a two-word response to that. The first word is "Jackie." You can guess the second.

Sep 23, 2010 10:58 AM
rating: 5
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

Exactly, Bill. And with only seven opponents for any team, what would have happened to competitive balance if each team had the benefit of one quality pitcher who wasn't white? What if you replacing the worst quarter of pitching talent with the best of the Negro Leagues or Latin America? In leagues this small, that doesn't require many individuals. What if Gehrig can't hit half of them?

To expand on the point, there's also the need to repeat the Reserve Clause's prevention of much in the way of a more equitable distribution of the majority of white, non-Latin talent. And since you also had players who stayed in the semi-free minor leagues of the '20s and '30s, you can't even say that all of the best white talent was in the major leagues. Most of it, yes, but not all.

Package all of that around the lack of seriousness with which several teams in these small leagues were operated as competitive enterprises, and in ways that might make even a Lorian blush.

Sep 23, 2010 11:47 AM
 
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

Lorian Blush: An inexpensive, unsatisfying, sweet pink wine that costs $5 per bottle but provides the purchaser with only $2 worth of flavor.

Sep 23, 2010 12:10 PM
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

Pretty much the definition of every rosé in my experience.

Sep 23, 2010 12:22 PM
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

I don't think this comes up enough, and not just the specifics in this comment. The mechanisms by which talented young amateur baseball players becomes talented MLB players have evolved. Now, if you can play baseball, they'll find you and you'll end up developed and if you're good enough, in the majors. I don't think there's some large pool of untapped baseball talent in the U.S.

Seventy, eighty years ago, the process was much less certain. I have no doubt that MLB-quality ballplayers probably ended up nowhere near the majors, or even organized baseball, simply because the net had too many holes in it. Those holes have been closed over time, and IMO, have added to the depth of the talent pool.

Sep 23, 2010 13:26 PM
 
Richie

Not disagreeing with a single one of those observations. Wait, lemme check. ... OK, not one.

But in everyone's rush to exalt our time over theirs', you're all ignoring countervariables. The biggest being, just about all great US athletes of the 20s took up baseball for a profession. Now, what? 20%? I suspect less? Given that we're still the biggest player-producing market, that's a whole lot.

I don't differ with the idea that the quality of play is higher than ever. But through citing all the reasons why and no reasons why not, I believe it's being badly overstated here.

Sep 23, 2010 14:10 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

Against that, the present is much better incentivized in terms of compensation to encourage people to choose professional sports at all, and there's a massively larger population of whites today, even without the massive influx of foreign and black talent that entered the game in the last 60 years.

Sep 23, 2010 14:46 PM
 
Hoff

Yeah, just demographically there were 140 million americans in 1940. There are now ~310. Plus there is overseas recruiting. Albert Pujols of course is a pretty good example of this.

Sep 24, 2010 07:15 AM
rating: 0
 
mglick0718

What I really notice on this chart is how eerily similar Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas's career stats are -- starting with their same birthdate (5/27/68) and finishing, more or less, with their teams facing off in the 2005 World Series when each was an injured shell of themselves (though Thomas had a couple of productive seasons left). Thomas had slightly more power and walks, Bagwell better defense and baserunning, and that's about it. I imagine they are as similar as any two good players in history.

Sep 23, 2010 15:56 PM
rating: 0
 
Richie

The present is not much better incentivized for the choosing of professional baseball. It's been a massively attractive way to try to make a living for about a century now. Maybe more. Probably overall a little less incentivized, given that other $$$ sports compete directly for that same incredibly narrow talent pool in a much larger way than they did way back.

Ignored countervariable #2: League(s) size. Conceding that demand creates supply, I don't see this as particularly significant. But again, it factors in some.

Sep 23, 2010 16:11 PM
rating: -3
 
BillJohnson

The only problem with these arguments is that they are wrong.

First, league size. The number of teams has doubled since Lou Gehrig played. But the population of the United States has much more than doubled, as a quick look at census numbers will make clear. And that's without taking into account the massive explosion of the international resource pool, let alone the obvious disenfranchisement of black players pre-1947. MLB is a FAR more exclusive profession today than it was when Gehrig was alive.

As for incentives, the top salaries today are well over one hundred times what they were when Gehrig played; indeed, with the exception of Babe Ruth, the figure is closer to one *thousand* times -- literally. Gehrig's CAREER earnings were under $400k, according to multiple sources. Yes, there has been inflation since then. There hasn't been *that* much inflation.

Richie, look. We get that you think that Pujols is overrated. He isn't. Trust us on this one.

Sep 23, 2010 18:46 PM
rating: 1
 
Richie
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

Not saying Pujols is overrated. You wanna call him the 2nd best 1B of all time and gaining on Lou, I'd tend to agree.

I'd also agree the quality of competition is higher now than back in the 30s. But I'm interested in a full examination of that, and you folks just very badly want to assert that Pujols'/our current time is so much much very very better than Gehrig's lily-white time. Such that you wave away any and all factors that militate against that. Like they're evil because they move us away some from the incredibly desired conclusion.

Sep 23, 2010 20:10 PM
rating: -4
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

Actually, no. I don't want very badly to assert this, as much as I think it's an inevitable problem with evaluating Gehrig, where we have no such problems evaluating Pujols. I'd be a lot happier evaluating Gehrig's status if we knew what he might have done against the full field of possibilities, instead of against the Browns.

Sep 24, 2010 14:51 PM
 
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