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May 23, 2011

The BP Broadside

The Annotated WARP Leaders

by Steven Goldman

Our collection of BP-flavored single-season WARP scores currently goes back to 1950. Now that we’ve added fielding runs to the sortable choices, you can easily see the combination of offense and defense that made the top players during this period so valuable, and in some cases dragged them down from even higher perches. Herein we traipse quickly through the 20 best players of the Truman-Eisenhower years and onward.

The fielding runs featured here are the product of our new revised formula developed by Colin Wyers. As Colin says, “The difficult part of any defensive metric is estimating the batted-ball distribution among fielders. Old FRAA used season-level data about things like pitcher handedness to figure out the distribution on a seasonal level, and prorated it out to individual fielders. Now, FRAA uses play-by-play data, which allows us to use more variables (like whether or not a fielder has to hold on a runner) and to assign responsibility to each fielder based on the games he actually played in.”

This version of FRAA avoids the pitfall of subjectivity inherent in zone-based ratings. “In contrast to other popular metrics,  FRAA does not use any stringer-recorded observational data,” Colin explains. “Serious discrepancies have been noted between data providers, and research has shown that in larger samples use of that sort of batted-ball data introduces severe distortions in the metrics that impede accuracy. Without evidence that the batted-ball data has redeeming value in the short term, it seems imprudent to use that sort of data in our evaluation of player defense.”

1. Barry Bonds, 2001: 12.9
This was his record-setting 73-homer year, a great season even in the inflated context of the time. A miserable defensive evaluation (-12.6) dings his overall standing and drags the season into a two-way tie for first place.

1. Mickey Mantle, 1957: 12.9
Not Mantle’s triple-crown year, but the one after, and that shouldn’t be surprising—batting average and home runs mean something in terms of overall production, but RBI are contextual. There is a solid argument to be made that Mantle was the greatest player of all time, at least in terms of his overall profile and peak value. He was a switch-hitting center fielder who was capable of playing the position in a huge ballpark. He was a tremendous producer despite playing in a pitcher's park, hit for average, power, was extremely selective, and despite injuries had great speed. If only he had had better luck and better judgment when it came to his body, his peak would have been longer and higher—as Casey Stengel said, he did it all on only one leg.

3. Mickey Mantle, 1956: 12.6
The triple-crown year. One thing that is often forgotten about WARP scores is that these figures are approximations, not literal truths—can we really credit a player with .1 wins more or less than another and believe it to be a definitive accounting? No. As such, if you want to argue that Mantle's 1956 was better than his 1957, I'm not going to put up much of a fuss. Further, if you want to argue that Mantle deserved the MVP roughly every full season of his career, I’m not going to argue that, either. He won three trophies and finished second three other times, twice to Roger Maris, once to Brooks Robinson, and the voters’ batting average was still miserable. Mantle WARP rank by year, 1952-1968:

1952

2

1953

7

1954

4

1955

1

1956

1

1957

1

1958

1

1959

1

1960

2

1961

1

1962

1

1963

29

1964

3

1965

28

1966

7

1967

9

1968

21

4. Barry Bonds, 2004: 12.5
Whatever Bonds was on, whatever effects those substances might have had, no one forced pitchers to walks him 232 times that year.

4. Carl Yastrzemski, 1967: 12.5
This is the first season I'm surprised to see this high on the list; as celebrated as it was in its time, you don’t often see it listed as one of the 10 great seasons—although that could be because I’m in New Jersey and not Boston. This was Yaz’s triple crown, MVP season, the campaign in which he almost personally drove the Red Sox to a “miracle” pennant, hitting .417/.504/.760 in September. It was one of the great finishes, allowing Boston to edge the Twins and Tigers by one game.

6. Mickey Mantle 1961: 12.1
Maris who? Roger earned the MVP nod because at least he didn't miss breaking the home-run record due to an abscess inflicted by a quack doctor.

6. Sammy Sosa, 2001: 12.1
It hasn’t even been five years since Sosa retired, and yet I sense he has been almost dismissed as a great player because of the unsubstantiated belief that he was part of the whole PED mess. Enhanced or not, the instinct isn’t wrong—Sosa was always overrated, and this is his only season in the top 100. That said, given all the crazy hitting going on in this period, ranking this high up is a real accomplishment.

8. Willie Mays, 1965: 12.0
One of five Mays seasons in the top 20, this is the second of his two 50-homer seasons. He led the National League in that category as well as on-base percentage and slugging as he hit .317/.398/.645 in a league that averaged .249/.311/.374. We credit him only 5.2 runs for his defense in center field this season; his best defensive season is coming up not too much further down the list.

8. Albert Pujols, 2009: 12.0
Note how hard it is for a first baseman to make this list; the offensive competition is just too stiff for a first sacker to tower above his peers even at Pujols’ level of production. However, we credit Pujols for being worth nearly three wins on defense alone, which is unusual given that this is the position at which Kingmans and Dunns go to hide. Amazingly, this was (fractionally) only his second-best defensive season. Here are the top 10 for first basemen:

1. Albert Pujols

2007

26.7

2. George Scott

1974

26.5

3. Jeff King

1997

26.2

4. Albert Pujols

2009

26.0

5. George Scott

1973

25.9

6. Todd Helton

2000

22.3

7. Darin Erstad

1999

22.2

8. Mike Hegan

1970

22.1

9. Lance Berkman

2008

21.8

10. Mark Grace

1991

20.8

What is fascinating here is that the top five seasons were turned in by converted third basemen, with two other seasons coming in from former outfielders. Only Helton, Hegan, and Grace are your “actual” first basemen. Parenthetically, the two best first basemen of my youth, Keith Hernandez and Don Mattingly, don’t check in until #25 (15.5) and #111 (9.5), respectively.

10. Barry Bonds, 2002: 11.9
Bonds hit .370/.582/.799, which might have made even Babe Ruth weep. He also picked up 198 walks, the second-highest total of his career. At 37, his lack of defensive ability took away almost a win from his total, or this season would be right up at the top.

10.  Mike Schmidt, 1974: 11.9
Somehow it is easy to forget just how brilliant Schmidt was. He won three MVP awards, 10 Gold Gloves, and dragged the Phillies kicking and screaming into the light in the mid-1970s. He generally didn’t hit for high averages, but when you combine incredible defensive ability with eight home-run titles, you have the greatest third baseman of all time. The season in question was Schmidt’s first great campaign, compiled at 24. He hit .282/.395/.546 with 36 home runs, and we also credit him with 28.7 FRAA, fifth-best season hot-corner fielding season in the survey. Here are the top 10:

1. Graig Nettles

1971

33.6

2. Brooks Robinson

1967

32.4

3. Clete Boyer

1962

32.1

4. Buddy Bell

1979

29.8

5. Mike Schmidt

1974

28.7

6. Tim Wallach

1985

27.8

7. Clete Boyer

1961

26.1

7. Terry Pendleton

1989

26.1

9. George Brett

1979

24.7

10. Graig Nettles

1976

24.3

The 1970s truly were the golden age of third basemen.

12. Willie Mays, 1954: 11.8
12. Willie Mays, 1958: 11.8
14. Willie Mays, 1962: 11.7
The Say-Hey Kid was pretty good, he said, enjoying the irony of understatement. The first and third seasons are boosted by approximately 15 FRAA each, which is not to say they weren’t MVP-quality seasons on offense alone. Mays won the award in ’54, finished second to Maury Wills in ’62, which nearly 50 years later seems like a sick joke; at least it was a close vote. Mays also finished second (distantly) in 1958, trailing Ernie Banks. Mr. Cub had a great year and neither club was in contention; Hank Aaron, the best player on the pennant-winning Braves, finished third. Aaron makes his first appearance just a bit further down the list.

14. Al Rosen, 1953: 11.7
Rosen was a ridiculously good player who had a lot go wrong in his career. He was held up by World War II, blocked by his predecessor, Ken Keltner, and then finished young due to injuries. In between, he mixed in some of the best seasons ever put together by a third baseman. Only 14 third basemen have hit .300 with 40 or more home runs. Rosen and Eddie Matthews (who somehow doesn’t show up on this list until #79) became the first in 1953; Rosen’s .336 average remains the highest among such players.

16. Willie Mays, 1964: 11.4
What, him again? I might have to reconsider what I said about Mantle having the highest peak value. Mays hit a league-leading 47 home runs and also led in slugging percentage while hitting “only” .296. He finished sixth in the MVP voting, well behind winner Ken Boyer, who was roughly half as good.

17. Frank Robinson, 1962: 11.2
Robinson should be more celebrated; he was Miguel Cabrera with better defense and an admirable character. In this season he hit .342/.431/.624, leading the league in the latter two categories as well as doubles, with 51. The Reds finished just 3.5 games out with 98 wins, but all the focus was on the Giant and the Dodgers, so no one noticed.

17. Hank Aaron, 1967: 11.2
Hammerin’ Hank won just one MVP award, that coming for his .322/.378/.600 season with the champion 1957 Braves. The 1967 edition of same finished in seventh place, so this season, better in context, got passed by. The key here is that Aaron hit .307/.369/.573 in a league that averaged .249/.310/.363, and played strong defense in right field and occasionally center.

19. Richie Asburn, 1958: 11.1
This is another season that surprised me, though it shouldn’t have. The future Hall of Famer hit .350/.440/.441 and caught 494 balls in center field. We credit him with 24.6 fielding runs. This was only Ashburn’s third-best season in that regard and only the 11th-best overall:

1. Andruw Jones

1999

37.8

2. Chet Lemon

1977

30.4

3. Richie Ashburn

1956

28.9

4. Richie Ashburn

1951

28.4

5. Darin Erstad

2002

28.1

6. Coco Crisp

2007

27.8

7. Mike Cameron

2003

26.2

8. Gary Pettis

1986

26.0

9. Jim Landis

1959

25.2

10. Kirby Puckett

1984

24.8

11. Richie Ashburn

1958

24.6

Erstad, who I think of as the miserable player who hit .355 as a 36-year-old and then spent the rest of his career hitting .267/.319/.367 (and once got very hostile with me for suggesting that this was not helpful) shows up on two different defensive top-10 lists.

19. Cal Ripken, 1991: 11.1
Ripken picks up only 11.5 runs of defensive value here, a fielding season which doesn’t rank in our top 100 at the position (though still quite good). Ripken turned 30 in 1991 and dropped off hard right after; he never had a season over 3.0 WARP again, in part because his defense declined rapidly. Here are the worst FRAA seasons by a shortstop:

1. Derek Jeter

2000

-24.4

2. Derek Jeter

2002

-24.3

3. Rafael Ramirez

1989

-23.4

4. Derek Jeter

1999

-23.1

5. Pat Meares

1996

-22.7

6. Derek Jeter

2003

-22.0

7. Larry Bowa

1974

-21.7

8. Derek Jeter

2001

-21.6

9. Ernie Riles

1986

-20.3

10. Jackie Gutierrez

1984

-20.0

11. Cal Ripken

1992

-19.9

This section could also be titled, “Derek Jeter: Why He’s Not On This List.”

Assuming sufficient interest, I’ll review #25-50 at a later date.

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

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