January 20, 1998
Don't overestimate Bill James' effects on baseball
Arguably, baseball analysis has come a long way since 1982. The Prospectus is one of many examples of baseball fans following James' lead. Even the mainstream baseball media seems to have made advances: the work of Rob Neyer and John Sickels on the ESPN website, for instance, garners a fairly large audience for these old colleagues of James. A baseball analyst in 1998 might feel comfortably proud of the influence of Bill James and his inheritors on the general public. But while there is no denying that the caliber of baseball analysis has progressed in the last fifteen years, it is not as clear if that analysis is working its way into the public, or the minds of the average fan or baseball writer.
Take the following three items:
G BA OBP Clark 1,994 .267 .383 Downing 2,344 .267 .373 Garvey 2,332 .294 .333Or, since this is a discussion of public perception of a player's contributions in the wake of advances in statistical analysis, these numbers courtesy of Clay Davenport. EPEQA (or Effective Park Equivalent Average) is the park- and season-adjusted values where league "average" is set at .260, and whose distribution closely approximates that of batting average; EPER (or Effective Park Equivalent Runs) depends on EPEQA and playing time, and follows the distribution of RBI:
EPEQA EPER Clark .309 1346 Downing .288 1294 Garvey .287 1394First, these are all clearly fine ballplayers. Second, they were comparable in terms of their career value. Clark was the better hitter, but he also played in 350 fewer games. Clark was an underrated right fielder who degenerated into a poor 1B/DH, while Downing was a weak catcher, a hard-working outfielder, and finally a DH. Garvey won some Gold Gloves (for which there is scant statistical justification) at the easiest defensive position.
So, lets say you wanted to draw some conclusions about these players, and how they should be remembered in the context of their careers and the era in which they played. Let's give Garvey some credit for those Gold Gloves and take away a bit of credit from Clark for having a shorter, injury-plagued career. It still looks like these guys are close enough in value to make for some fun hot-stove arguments over which was better. So how do we explain why Garvey got more than 20 times as many Hall of Fame votes as Clark and Downing combined?
You could say Garvey had a better image, but Downing has generally been presented as an upstanding guy, while Steve's reputation took a few hits in the years after his retirement. You could say Garvey had a clutch reputation, but you could say the same for Clark. No, there's probably a much simpler explanation for those Hall of Fame votes. It's in the chart above: Clark and Downing hit .267, but Garvey hit .294 (and hit over .300 seven times in his eight prime years).
You would hope, sixteen years after that first readily-available Abstract hit the bookstores, that a good number of people would realize a 40-50 point difference in OBP is hugely important, or that a first baseman with ok-but-not-great power and an OBP of .333 is far from being a Hall of Fame caliber ballplayer. You could hope that. You'd also be wrong, and that just tells us we have a long way to go. Certain concepts that baseball analysts may take for granted are still far from gaining widespread acceptance.