September 21, 2007
Lies, Damned Lies
The Best Player in Baseball, Part Two
This is the resumption of the discussion of the best player in baseball, season by season throughout history, that began with yesterday's article. If you missed Nate's handy field guide and spreadsheet from yesterday's piece, you can download it here.
1954-1955 Willie Mays 1956-1957 Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle 1958 Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, or Ernie Banks 1959 Ernie Banks 1960 Ernie Banks or Hank Aaron 1961 Hank Aaron 1962-1963 Hank Aaron or Willie Mays 1964 Willie Mays
Willie Mays has the longest gaps of any player who achieved BPIB status; he was the best player in baseball between 1954 and 1958, and again in 1963 and 1964, but not in the intervening years. Although Mays had plenty of competition during this period in the form of Mickey Mantle, Ernie Banks, and Hank Aaron, there was some systematic decline in his WARP scores in mid-career; his SP-WARP was 12.88 in 1955, went down to 11.45 in 1960, and then crept back up to 12.79 by 1964. Mays was a remarkably consistent hitter and almost always stayed healthy, so essentially all of this boils down to his defense. WARP suggests that Mays went through a prolonged fielding slump between about 1957 and 1961:
Could this be an artifact of the way that the DT fielding numbers are constructed? Absolutely. Nevertheless, the pattern is fairly robust, crossing one continent and three ballparks. Ordinarily, we'd attribute this sort of a pattern to a player who lost something of his raw athletic ability, leading to a temporary decline in his fielding abilities before he made up the gap with improved technique. However, that story does not quite fit the data; Mays' speed scores begin to show a material decline as of about 1962, which is right when his FRAA numbers were picking back up.
What about the ballpark issue? The following shows Mays' home/road range factor splits (putouts per nine defensive innings) from 1954 through 1970 (TGFR), excluding the 1955 and 1956 campaigns that Retrosheet has not yet filled in:
Year Park HomeRF RoadRF 1954 Polo Grounds 3.12 2.88 1957 Polo Grounds 2.80 2.78 ------------------------------------ 1958 Seals Stadium 2.83 2.87 1959 Seals Stadium 2.54 2.40 ------------------------------------ 1960 Candlestick 2.40 2.84 1961 Candlestick 2.43 2.79 1962 Candlestick 2.47 3.06 1963 Candlestick 2.47 2.71 1964 Candlestick 2.41 2.43 1965 Candlestick 2.23 2.49 1966 Candlestick 2.63 2.54 1967 Candlestick 2.32 2.35 1968 Candlestick 2.54 2.35 1969 Candlestick 2.03 2.27 1970 Candlestick 2.42 2.71
At the Polo Grounds, Mays was a little bit more productive at home; that's what we'd probably expect given how big that ballpark was in center field. At Seals Stadium, there was no real difference. But in his first several years at Candlestick Park, Mays had some very severe fielding splits-he was making about two plays per five games on the road that he was no longer making at home. Here, let's break his Candlestick seasons into a graph:
We see that the home/road split starts out strongly in Mays' first few seasons at Candlestick, and then pretty much evaporates over time. Mays experienced a fairly steady decline in his road fielding numbers, about what we'd expect from a player in his thirties (although this trend was exacerbated by the fact that the league was starting to strike out more and more hitters over this period, reducing the number of balls that Mays had the opportunity to catch). At home, on the other hand, there was just about no decline. What was probably happening is that Mays was gradually learning to adapt to the swirling winds of Candlestick, and this was helping to offset the decline in his athletic ability. This factor does not entirely explain the patterns in Mays' FRAA numbers, but it goes a long way toward creating some signal through the noise. It's also a reminder that we, as analysts, might be too quick to dismiss the notion of learning curves; we tend to assume that a player can adapt to a new environment more or less instantly. Willie Mays was the greatest center fielder of all time, and it took the man four years to master the outfield winds at Candlestick Park. Remember that the next time that you're angry because your favorite prospect is hitting .170 in his first couple of dozen major league at-bats.,/p>
We should briefly touch on the other BPIBs during this era, because somewhat true to its reputation, it featured an unusually robust group of superstar talents. Bill James was of the opinion that Mickey Mantle was better than Mays at his peak, even if Mays had more career value. These numbers would somewhat call that into question; Mantle's highest SP-WARP was 12.73 in 1957, whereas Mays' was 12.88 in 1955. More properly stated, Mantle was as good as Mays at his peak, and his peak did not last nearly as long; if you've downloaded the color-coded spreadsheet, you'll see Mantle's pink color dart briefly into the #1 slot and then dart right back out again.
Ernie Banks's reputation has been sullied by the last eight or so years of his career, when he was little more than a league-average first baseman. Before that, at his peak and as a shortstop, he was very, very good. Then there is Hank Aaron, who appears in the top five in his league in SP-WARP for 13 consecutive seasons, a figure bested only by Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds.
1965 Willie Mays or Ron Santo 1966-1967 Ron Santo
The first question on the Keltner List is "was [so-and-so] ever regarded as the best player in baseball?" I don't know whether Ron Santo was ever regarded as the best player in baseball, but he probably was the best player in baseball for a couple years during the late 1960s. All that Santo did between 1964 and 1968 was win five consecutive Gold Gloves while posting an OPS of 150+. A 150 OPS+ is very good-that's about the number that Alex Rodriguez has averaged over his past five or six seasons-and Santo was saving an additional 15 or 20 runs a season in the field. He did not have that one signature season, though; he never hit better than .313 nor did he ever hit more than 33 home runs, but he was third in baseball in VORP in 1964, sixth in 1965, third again in 1966, and fifth in 1967.
The Cubs, it should be pointed out, were not the megabrand during the 1960s that they are today. Between '64 and '68, they averaged less than 10,000 fans per game (9,964 to be exact). The White Sox, on the other hand, were a frisky club that consistently drew in the top three in their league in attendance. Playing on the North Side of Chicago in the 1960s was not much better than playing in Omaha. Santo's one potential moment in the sun came in 1969, but he did not help himself by hitting .245 over the season's final two months, contributing to the Cubs' famous collapse.
1968 Ron Santo, Hank Aaron, or Bob Gibson 1969 Bob Gibson 1970 Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, or Fergie Jenkins 1971 Tom Seaver
The period coming at the end of the Neo-Deadball Era in 1968 looks like it's sort of the last hurrah for great pitchers; Tom Seaver's 1971 season is the last year when a pitcher had an undisputed claim to the BPIP crown. But really Seaver and Bob Gibson, while great players in their own right, were just sort of the last men standing in a somewhat awkward era in which expansion, Astroturf, and the designated hitter were becoming the norms, and the stars of the 1960s were aging. Gibson's 10.39 SP-WARP in 1970, which led the league that year, is identical to Johan Santana's 10.39 SP-WARP today in 2007, which ranks well behind Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols.
In fact, even though modern starters throw fewer innings than their counterparts, there is remarkable consistency in the highest SP-WARP score posted by a pitcher in any given decade since the close of the Deadball Era:
1920s Pete Alexander 10.87 (1920) 1930s Lefty Grove 11.26 (1931) 1940s Hal Newhouser 12.37 (1946) 1950s Robin Roberts 11.54 (1953) 1960s Bob Gibson 10.71 (1969) 1970s Tom Seaver 10.80 (1970) 1980s Roger Clemens 10.65 (1989) 1990s Greg Maddux 12.26 (1995) 2000s Pedro Martinez 11.44 (2000)
This pattern (or lack thereof) occurs because WARP is a well-designed system, and it recognizes that although pitchers are throwing fewer innings today, they are also doing more of the work in the form of higher strikeout rates. Thus, more credit for the run prevention component of baseball is assigned to the pitcher, and less to the other eight fielders.
You'll sometimes hear it said-and I hope this is not true-that each human heart has a given number of heartbeats before it expires; use them up by smoking or eating fatty foods and you have that much less time to live. Pitchers are sort of that way with respect to strikeouts; you can live life to the fullest, go after every hitter, and use them up more quickly, or you can relax a bit and spare your arm. One other statistic that has been fairly consistent over the past fifty years or so is the average league-leading strikeout total:
Average League-Leading K and IP Totals by Decade
Decade K IP 2000s 267 246 1990s* 270 256 1980s* 252 278 1970s 292 327 1960s 260 303 * 1994 and 1981 are excluded
In the 1960s, it took an average of 260 strikeouts to lead the league. Thus far in the 2000s, that number is virtually identical, at 267. But in the 1960s, the top pitchers threw about 300 innings, whereas today they might throw 250. Yesterday's pitcher and today's are driving on the same road, but yesterday's is driving a Honda, and today's a Hummer.
1972-1976 Joe Morgan
No, I don't like him as a broadcaster any more than you do, but Morgan embodied everything there was to love about the balanced game of baseball in the 1970s.
1977-1983 Mike Schmidt
I got into an argument many moons ago on rec.sport.baseball that I'm pretty sure resulted in Gary Huckabay making fun of me. My contention was that there was a relative lack of truly great, inner circle Hall of Fame-type players during the 1980s. There actually seems to be some truth to this, although the focal point appears more toward the beginning of the decade in what might be called the Mike Schmidt Era. If you chart the average of the five highest SP-WARP scores in any given season, you can in fact see a little bit of a lull at right about when Ronald Reagan was elected:
Don't get me wrong-Schmidt was a great player, and he is certainly an inner circle Hall of Fame-type guy. But at most points in the game's history, there has been a better best player in baseball than Mike Schmidt. And the thing is, he didn't have that much competition. There was a year during the Schmidt Era when Phil Niekro was the second-best player in baseball according to SP-WARP, a year when Bobby Grich was the second-best, and a year when Dave Concepcion was the third-best. Good players all, to be sure; Niekro is already in Cooperstown, and Grich and Concepcion can make their cases, but none are all-time greats.
Why did this happen? I don't know; perhaps a lot of ballplayers were into drugs. But another plausible explanation is the Baby Boom. The number of live births in the U.S. peaked in 1957-there were more babies born during the 1950s than there are today-while birth rates peaked in 1954. Someone born between 1954 and 1957 would have been at his baseball peak during the early 1980s.
The argument, then, is somewhat flipped on its head-it is not that there was a lack of great players during the 1980s, but that there were too many of them. As a result, it was harder for guys like Schmidt to stand out from the competition. If you look at the historical difficulty charts that Clay and I prepared for Baseball Between the Numbers, you'll see that there's a quite upswing in league quality during the 1980s. League quality improved by four percent between 1950 and 1960, remained essentially unchanged between 1960 and 1970, improved by three percent between 1970 and 1980. And then, between 1980 and 1990, it shot up by 10 percent, but since that time it's been quite flat. Why? My guess is that this was probably the result of the Baby Boom.
1984-1985 Cal Ripken 1986 Cal Ripken or Wade Boggs 1987-1988 Wade Boggs 1989 Wage Boggs or Roger Clemens
You could pretty well define yourself as a baseball fan in the 1980s by whether you were a Cal Ripken guy or a Wade Boggs guy. Did you prefer mind-numbing consistency, or sex scandals and weird rituals involving the equally consistent consumption of chicken? I was firmly in the Wade Boggs camp.
1990 Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds 1991-1994 Barry Bonds 1995 Barry Bonds or Greg Maddux 1996-1998 Barry Bonds 1999 Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, or Pedro Martinez 2000-2001 Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez 2002 Barry Bonds 2003 Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez 2004 Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, or Albert Pujols
You know, if Barry Bonds had suffered a career-ending injury on the last day of the 2000 season, and everything else had remained more or less unchanged, and you were reading this article today, you'd be looking back and saying "man, I realized that Barry Bonds was good, but I never realized that he was that good". Barry Bonds was the best player in baseball from every year from 1990 through 2004. He received a couple of challenges from pitchers-Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez at the very tippy-top of their peaks-but basically his reign was unchallenged until Alex Rodriguez came along. Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas never quite came anywhere close enough.
2005-2007 Albert Pujols
These rankings are deliberately designed not to rate any one individual season too highly, so Rodriguez is still a fair bit behind Albert Pujols. The thing to keep in mind is that Pujols' first base defense is so good that he has as much defensive value as A-Rod even though he plays an easier position, so you can pretty much make a straight comparison of their hitting statistics. There, Pujols has a .349 EqA since 2003 to Rodriguez' .333.
Very briefly, let's take a look at some historically significant players who never rated as the BPIB.
Player Lifetime WARP Eddie Collins 181.4 Rickey Henderson 177.3 Tris Speaker 177.1 Frank Robinson 164.5 Pete Rose 160.1 Warren Spahn 156.7 Randy Johnson 146.3 Jim O'Rourke 143.5 Eddie Mathews 143.5 Bert Blyleven 141.8 Phil Niekro 140.8 Carl Yastrzemski 140.6
It's the first four names that are interesting; Pete Rose does well in WARP because he had a long career and WARP sets the replacement level bar pretty low, but even his staunchest advocates would be hard-pressed to defend the argument that he was the single best player in baseball at any point in his career. Eddie Collins had a fairly simple problem; his peak came between 1912 and 1916, which is right when Walter Johnson was enjoying what was probably the most dominant sustained stretch from a pitcher in baseball history. Henderson's omission is puzzling, but he actually never reached higher than the fourth slot on the BPIB chart in any single season, but there is a distinction to be made between the Best Player in Baseball and the Most Complete Player in Baseball. In addition, the three best seasons of Henderson's career came in 1981, 1985, and 1990, which were spread pretty far apart and didn't give him much momentum to build up a fantastic peak. Tris Speaker never got all that close; he played the first half of his career in the Walter Johnson Era, and the second half in the Babe Ruth Era, so it was very difficult for anyone else during that period to break through, including Ty Cobb. And everything that Frank Robinson did, Henry Aaron did just a little bit better, because let's face it, being the Notorious B.P.I.P. ain't easy.