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June 6, 2005
Fooled by Context
I'm supposed to finish up my series on surprise teams by writing about the White Sox, but I want to wait until they lose a bit so I can claim I was right all along about them not being very good.
No, I'm kidding. I actually have to gather some data to finish the piece, so that should run tomorrow. Great story, the White Sox, who are already more than halfway to the 71 wins I predicted they would garner, and now have Frank Thomas back to give them a much-needed dose of OBP.
I want to go off on a bit of a tangent today. Saturday afternoon, I was with my friend Jeff Erickson of RotoWire (and BP's Fantasy content) when he had to do a brief radio interview on The Team 990 in Montreal. I only heard Jeff's half of the segment, so I don't know what triggered the subject, but at one point he was prodded into comparing Miguel Tejada and Cal Ripken, Orioles shortstops past and present. I thought it was an interesting idea, actually, one I wanted to explore a bit.
Now, Tejada has been in Camden Yards for just over 200 games, so clearly he has no claim on the title of Best Orioles Shortstop Ever. In fact, the idea of comparing the two is no doubt going to set some keyboards aflame in the mid-Atlantic region. But when you think about it, the similarities are striking. Aside from the quality of their play, Tejada and Ripken were both ironmen in their day. Ripken's streak is better-known, but Tejada has played in 812 consecutive games, the longest active streak and one of the ten longest in baseball history. Both players provided power from a traditionally low-power position, and batted in the middle of the lineup during the peak of their careers. Both players were good defensive shortstops without being flashy, although Ripken's defensive numbers are much better than Miggy's.
Tejada turned 29 years old last month. Here are his and Ripken's WARP2s--Wins Above Replacement Player, adjusted for league difficulty--through their age-29 seasons (1990 for Ripken):
Tejada Ripken Age WARP Age WARP 20 -- 20 -0.5 21 -0.2 21 7.9 22 2.5 22 13.1 23 6.4 23 13.9 24 7.2 24 9.9 25 6.3 25 11.7 26 8.4 26 6.6 27 5.9 27 8.8 28 12.3 28 9.5 29 4.0 29 9.7 Total 41.2 90.6Can you hear the screeching sound of a premise driving off the road, a road that lacks a guardrail separating it from a very steep, very high, very deadly cliff?
I'm surprised. I thought that the two players would have been much closer in value, as I remember Ripken's career as the high early peak, the great 1991 season (at age 30), and a lot of workmanlike performances in between. He was better than that, and while the raw numbers don't look that great to us now, attuned as we are to the lines put up by Tejada and Alex Rodriguez and their ilk, they were terrific in the context of his team. A year like Ripken's 1987, for instance, when he hit .252/.333/.436, had a ton of value, even though the raw line would get little more than a nod in 2005. Ripken's top two season's both dwarf Tejada's best, and if you line up their careers by WARP, you see Ripken's massive edge at every step.
Let's look at the two players in more detail, breaking down their offensive and defensive contributions using Equivalent Average, Equivalent Runs, and Fielding Runs Above Replacement:
Tejada Ripken Age EqA EqR FRAR Age EqA EqR FRAR 20 -- -- -- 20 -.091 0 1 21 .207 8 0 21 .280 94 19 22 .244 43 17 22 .310 124 54 23 .260 80 37 23 .318 128 57 24 .283 95 27 24 .295 112 39 25 .277 94 23 25 .295 109 55 26 .297 112 24 26 .275 96 26 27 .281 98 15 27 .304 111 25 28 .310 124 47 28 .272 94 53 29 .342 53 5 29 .289 103 43 Note; Ripken's FRAR at shortstopRipken wasn't accumulating his advantage on just one side of the ball. Compared to Tejada, he was outhitting him in most seasons and out-fielding him in every single one. Ripken was a terrific defensive shortstop in the 1980s, and a good one pretty much up until the day Davey Johnson moved him to third base.
Like I said, I'm surprised the gap between the two players is as wide as it is. Note that looking forward a year isn't going to help much, as Ripken had a monster season in 1991, winning the AL MVP with a .323/.374/.566 (14.9 WARP2) line. Ripken would go on to be a six-, seven-win player through age 35, then slowly decline before ending his career after the 2001 season. For Tejada to even approach him in career value, he'd have to extend his current peak for another four years, then have a very slow, long, decline phase.
That Miguel Tejada isn't a match for Cal Ripken doesn't tell us much more than that I shouldn't get column ideas from half a radio interview. The lesson we can take from this, however, is that the difference between pre-1993 baseball and post-1993 baseball is something to be taken seriously. We pay lip service to the notion that players who played in the high-offense era have to have their accomplishments put into context, but as you can see, the run environment of the two eras is so different that it can make players who weren't comparable seem so.
Many people take this context gap as reason to support the Hall of Fame cases of the stars from the 1980s, guys like Jim Rice, Andre Dawson, Dale Murphy and Don Mattingly. The argument is that we don't appreciate those players because we've been watching guys like Jim Edmonds and Larry Walker put up better numbers for the past decade.
I think there are very good reasons--short peaks or low OBPs--to leave those guys and others out of the Hall. However, the real challenge will be to not put hitters from the current era in by the barrelful. I'm not concerned about the BBWAA, which has been a stern gatekeeper at the front doors of Cooperstown, and which rarely errs on the side of inclusion. I'm concerned about whatever back door exists in 25-35 years, whatever the Veterans Committee has evolved into. Past editions of the VC have already shown a complete inability to judge a player in context, larding the Hall with guys from the 1920s and 1930s who had no business sniffing immortality. It's going to be very difficult for the committee, in whatever form, to avoid doing so with the stars of the 1990s.
If Miguel Tejada can look a little like Cal Ripken right now, I guarantee you that in 30 years, Larry Walker can look like Willie Stargell, and Juan Gonzalez can look like Duke Snider. The Hall deserves better than that.