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May 25, 2011

The BP Broadside

The Annotated WARP Leaders II: Did Ernie Banks Write the Book of Love?

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.

On Monday, I used the newly revised list to take a look at the top 20 seasons of the last 60 years. Due to reader enthusiasm and the fact that I find this kind of thing to be tremendous fun, I’ve expanded the scope to include the top 50, continuing today with the player-seasons that rank 21 through 31.

21. Frank Robinson, OF, 1966: 11.0
Robinson, newly arrived with the Baltimore Orioles after the Reds called him “an old 30,” won the triple crown, joining Mickey Mantle ’56 and Carl Yastrzemski ’67 in the top 50. He picked up a unanimous MVP award, Given how much grief the voters have deservedly taken over the years, it’s reassuring to see how many of these great seasons have won. Of the top 11, the voters rewarded all but three, and one of those was Sammy Sosa's ’01, who the voters passed over in favor of Barry Bonds' ’01, which was even better. Here are the other occasions to this point in the rankings where the voters failed to reward one of the 20 best seasons in history:

Top 20 (Rank)

MVP

Mickey Mantle, 1961: 12.1 (T6)

Roger Maris: 7.5

Mike Schmidt, 1974: 11.9 (T10)

Steve Garvey: 4.4

Willie Mays, 1958 : 11.8 (T12)

Ernie Banks: 10.5

Willie Mays, 1962: 11.7 (T14)

Maury Wills: 7.5

Willie Mays, 1964: 11.4 (16)

Ken Boyer: 5.7

Frank Robinson, 1962: 11.2 (T17)

Maury Wills: 7.5

Hank Aaron, 1967 : 11.2 (T17)

Orlando Cepeda: 8.7

Richie Ashburn, 1958: 11.1 (T19)

Ernie Banks: 10.5

Given the duplications in 1958 and 1962, it’s fair to say they only missed the obvious 29 percent of the time. That .710 batting average is far better than I thought it would be. Note that Banks’ 1958 season is also a top-40 season, so it’s not like naming it is a big miss. It is also interesting to note that in the cases of Maris and Wills, the voters chose to equate breaking a record with a great season, which is not necessarily true.

I should have noted this in the Mike Schmidt ’74 comment, but Garvey was not one of the 20 most valuable players in the National League that year:

#

NAME

TEAM

AVG

OBP

SLG

TAv

FRAA

WARP

1

Mike Schmidt

PHI

.282

.394

.546

.346

28.7

11.9

2

Jimmy Wynn

LAN

.271

.386

.497

.347

6.4

8.9

3

Joe Morgan

CIN

.293

.426

.494

.348

-0.2

8.1

4

Johnny Bench

CIN

.280

.363

.507

.322

0.9

7.5

5

Darrell Evans

ATL

.240

.379

.419

.307

15.4

7.4

6

Reggie Smith

SLN

.310

.388

.528

.337

8

6.6

7

Richie Zisk

PIT

.313

.386

.476

.334

6.4

6.6

8

Cesar Cedeno

HOU

.269

.337

.461

.305

3.1

6.2

9

Willie Stargell

PIT

.301

.407

.537

.348

-6.3

5.9

10

Ralph Garr

ATL

.353

.378

.503

.330

-4.4

5.8

11

Ron Cey

LAN

.262

.348

.397

.297

8.8

5.8

12

Bobby Bonds

SFN

.256

.364

.434

.304

4.5

5.7

13

Pete Rose

CIN

.284

.384

.388

.298

6.1

5.4

14

Dave Concepcion

CIN

.281

.332

.397

.271

14.2

5.4

15

Dave Cash

PHI

.300

.350

.380

.277

15.1

5.2

16

Willie Davis

MON

.295

.321

.427

.281

9

5.1

17

Al Oliver

PIT

.321

.357

.475

.306

-1.8

4.9

18

Richie Hebner

PIT

.291

.358

.449

.315

-9.3

4.9

19

Dusty Baker

ATL

.256

.334

.422

.293

4.8

4.7

20

Bake McBride

SLN

.310

.366

.394

.292

0.5

4.6

21

Joe Ferguson

LAN

.252

.379

.436

.319

0.7

4.5

22

Mike Jorgensen

MON

.310

.440

.488

.343

2.9

4.4

23

Steve Garvey

LAN

.312

.342

.469

.321

-4.2

4.4

22. Alex RodriguezSS, 2000: 10.9
This is the only A-Rod season in the top 100, which isn’t an indictment of Rodriguez so much as a measure of how the debauched offense of the 2000s meant that it was hard for even the great players to separate themselves from the pack. This isn’t a column about MVP voting, but having pointed it out several times now, I feel obligated to note that Rodriguez finished third to Jason Giambi and Frank Thomas. FRAA sees Rodriguez as being worth just 5.6 runs with the glove, so his place was mostly earned by his .316/.410/.637 season.

22. Barry Bonds, OF, 1993: 10.9
Pre-cookies ‘n’ cream Bonds in his first season with the Giants. Given what came later, it is shocking to recall that this was his third MVP season. The real shame of the Bonds situation is that he was a Hall of Famer before jealousy of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa corrupted him, assuming that this nigh-Shakespearian version of his motives is correct.

22. Rickey Henderson, OF, 1985: 10.9
This season was an important part of my own experience of baseball and learning how the game works. I regret that this will require me to talk about MVP voting again, which really isn’t my purpose in writing this column, but in this case it’s required. The short version: Don Mattingly drove in 145 runs in 1985 and was given the award. Henderson finished a very distant third. When I was 14, this seemed right and proper. After all, RBI were important and 145 was, and would remain, the highest total of the decade. Mattingly had hit .324, with 35 home runs, which was also very good for the time—and it still is. I’m not trying to suggest that Mattingly in any way had a bad season back then, but that because of our relative lack of knowledge, we not only missed that several players were far better, but that Henderson in particular had enabled Mattingly to have the year he had. Even then, it should have been glaring—Mattingly drove in 145 runs, Henderson scored 146. Sadly, we were, and to some degree still are, more about effects than causes. 

25. Albert Pujols1B, 2008: 10.8
There are three seasons by a first baseman in the top 50. Two of them were authored by Pujols. Of the top 10 WARP seasons by first basemen since 1950, half of them belong to Pujols. If his career stopped tomorrow, he’d be a Hall of Famer.

25. Joe Morgan, 2B, 1975: 10.8
The best season by a second baseman since 1950, according to our new definitions. I’ll spare you the table this time, but the second baseman list is like the first baseman list in that it’s dominated by one player. The top 10 is four parts Morgan, two parts Jackie Robinson (which pleases me), and one part each Craig Biggio, Roberto Alomar, Jeff Kent, and Ryne Sandberg. But for Kent, all of these were among the most exciting players of their day to watch, versatile stars who could do anything on a baseball field. That’s not to say that Kent wasn’t a good player, but running and fielding weren’t big parts of his game. If you put the peak seasons of the others together, you could throw them up in the air and not know which belonged where:

NAME

YEAR

G

R

H

2B

3B

HR

BB

RBI

SB

CS

AVG

OBP

SLG

TAv

FRAA

WARP

Morgan

1975

146

107

163

27

6

17

132

94

67

10

.327

.466

.508

.366

11.5

10.8

Robinson

1951

153

106

185

33

7

19

79

88

25

8

.338

.425

.527

.353

8.4

9.7

Biggio

1997

160

146

191

37

8

22

84

81

47

10

.309

.415

.501

.328

11.8

9.5

Alomar

2001

156

113

193

34

12

20

80

100

30

6

.336

.409

.541

.332

5.6

8.4

25. Ernie Banks, SS, 1959: 10.8
Here is the third shortstops season in the top 50, coming after Ripken ’91 and A-Rod ’00 and right before Banks’ own ’58. Now that we’ve gone through the holy trinity years and the Ripken Redefinition, it is easy to forget just how shocking these seasons by Ernie Banks must have been. Banks had his first 40-home run season in 1955. Compare the overall single-season home run list to that point with the overall list for shortstops:

All Players

 

Shortstops

Babe Ruth

1927

60

 

Vern Stephens

1949

39

Babe Ruth

192

59

 

Vern Stephens

1950

30

Hank Greenberg

1938

58

 

Vern Stephens

1948

29

Jimmie Foxx

1932

58

 

Vern Stephens

1945

24

Hack Wilson

1930

56

 

Joe Cronin

1940

24

Ralph Kiner

1949

54

 

Alvin Dark

1953

23

Babe Ruth

1920

54

 

Eddie Joost

1949

23

Babe Ruth

1928

54

 

Vern Stephens

1943

22

Johnny Mize

1947

51

 

Glenn Wright

1930

22

Ralph Kiner

1947

51

 

Travis Jackson

1929

21

 

 

 

 

Roy Smalley

1950

21

The shortstop position had produced some terrific hitters, like Honus Wagner and Arky Vaughan, but Junior Stephens aside there just hadn’t been any big-time home-run hitters—through ’54, Stephens’ best was tied for the 56th-best home-run season of all time, 55 non-shortstops having hit 40 home runs from 1901 until that point. The model was Joe Tinker, lithe little guys. Along with being an integration pioneer, Banks shattered preconceived notions of what a shortstop could accomplish.

28. Duke SniderOF, 1953: 10.7
Given that center field is a defense-first position, you would think that Snider’s best would rank higher than this, but in stats, as in life, the Duke is the afterthought in “Willie, Mickey, and.” With WARP, the “and” actually leads to “and also Ashburn,” because as we have seen, Ashburn’s combination of ballhawking with a .350 average gave meant an 11.1 WARP season in 1958. Snider had a run of five straight 40-home run sseasons from 1953 to 1957, at which point the Dodgers took away his power by moving to the Los Angeles Coliseum. He was still a good hitter there, but since the ball needed two connecting flights to get to the right field wall, the numbers aren’t as gaudy. Injuries also set in around that time, so Californians never did see the Duke for more than 126 games in a season, usually less… Snider’s 1954, in which he hit .341/.423/.647 looks a little better than the season memorialized here (.336/.419/.627), but FRAA doesn’t think much of the Duke’s outfield skills, and so the difference is that it thinks he was a better bad center fielder in ’53 (-1.6) than he was the following season (-9.6). The difference takes away roughly a win, knocking Snider’s second-best season down to #58. Worst defensive seasons by a center fielder according to FRAA:

#

NAME

TEAM

YEAR

FRAA

1

Dale Murphy

ATL

1986

-32.4

2

Gus Bell

CIN

1956

-28.2

3

Johnny Groth

DET

1950

-27.3

4

Rick Monday

CHN

1974

-24.7

5

Jose Cruz Jr.

TOR

2001

-23.9

6

Matty Alou

PIT

1970

-22.1

7

Dale Murphy

ATL

1985

-22.1

8

Von Joshua

MIL

1977

-21.2

9

Colby Rasmus

SLN

2010

-18.8

10

Cito Gaston

SDN

1971

-18.4

Murphy, a converted catcher, won five Gold Gloves in his career, including 1985 and 1986.

29. Darrel Evans, 3B, 1973: 10.6
Here is another player whose peak season probably would surprise the average fan. “That .250 hitter from the 1970s that I don’t quite remember had one of the 30-best seasons of the last 60 years?” Yup, that’s it exactly. In his prime, Evans was a low-average, high-OBP power hitter with great defensive chops whose bid for fame was denied because of a combination of his own subtle skill set, low-scoring era, the concurrent careers of a large number of Hall of Fame and near-Hall of Fame third basemen (Brooks Robinson, Graig Nettles, Mike Schmidt, and George Brett, just to name a few) and the free agent tradewinds that blew him to unrewarding Candlestick Park for eight long years. Candlestick didn’t kill Evans, but sapped just enough from his numbers to disguise how well he was playing. Had he gone to Wrigley Field instead of Candlestick, and actually gotten help from his park, the Cubs might have a second third baseman cause célèbre to go with Ron Santo.

The season listed here is the first of Evans’ two 40-home run seasons, this one compiled in the far friendlier confines of Atlanta’s late Launching Pad. That year, he became part of a famous trio of 40-homer sluggers along with Hank Aaron and Davey Johnson. In addition to his slugging, he picked up 124 walks and was worth a cool 22.1 runs on the fielding job. The MVP voting that year was closely split between winner Pete Rose (8.7 WARP) and Willie Stargell (7.7). Evans finished in 18th place. To give the voters some credit, there were a great many strong seasons in the National League that year.

29. Mike Piazza, C, 1997: 10.6
This is the first catcher season in the top 50. Even Hall of Famers such as Johnny Bench, Roy Campanella, and Gary Carter don’t rate any higher than 9.1 wins. This is in part because FRAA doesn’t find a wide range of defense at the position, so the backstops don’t get the big defensive bonuses that push similar defensive seasons up the list. FRAA is focused on the act of fielding, wherein the player in question interacts with a ball in play. We still need to find a good way to account for the other aspects of catcher defense, and as we attack that problem I would expect the rankings to change. This is how they stand now:

#

NAME

YEAR

AVG

OBP

SLG

TAv

FRAA

WARP

1

Mike Piazza

1997

.362

.431

.639

.374

2.9

10.6

2

Johnny Bench

1970

.293

.344

.587

.343

1.9

9.1

3

Johnny Bench

1972

.270

.378

.541

.358

-1.2

9.0

4

Roy Campanella

1953

.312

.395

.611

.353

-0.4

8.8

5

Joe Mauer

2009

.365

.444

.587

.356

-2.9

8.4

6

Gary Carter

1982

.293

.378

.510

.326

2.7

8.2

7

Dick Dietz

1970

.300

.425

.515

.345

-0.2

7.9

8

Mike Piazza

1998

.328

.390

.570

.333

0.9

7.8

9

Mike Piazza

1996

.336

.422

.563

.336

0.9

7.7

10

Roy Campanella

1951

.325

.393

.590

.348

0.8

7.6

Parenthetically, if you said, "Dick Who?" on getting to the seventh place on the list, you're not alone; that season was one of those wonderful flukes, a one-hit wonder.

31. Joe Morgan, 2B, 1976: 10.5
The second consecutive MVP season for Morgan, and defense again makes a difference in ranking what was a superior offensive season lower on the list. The deposed ESPN announcer led the National League in on-base and slugging percentages, walked 117 times, and stole 60 bases against nine caught. Given Morgan’s later small-ball advocacy, I should point out that he went from 1975 to 1978 without executing a sacrifice bunt, presumably because Sparky Anderson was smarter than he was (and Joe Girardi, too).

31. Willie Mays, OF, 1963: 10.5
Ho-hum, another great Willie Mays season, the sixth we’ve encountered here in the top 50. Smarter analysts than I can tell if we haven’t come up with another Mays because Willie was legitimately a once-in-a-century player or the league has improved so much that even a great player can’t stand above the competition to the same degree that he did in the 1950s and ‘60s. As Colin Wyers says, even if the league has risen up to meet the greats, “That doesn’t mean that being Mays isn’t utterly incredible.”

31. Ernie Banks, SS, 1958: 10.5
A second appearance here for Mr. Cub, also the second of his two MVP seasons. The two are nearly identical statistically—in 1958 Banks had a .361 True Average, and a .352 in 1959. Once again, the difference comes down to defense—Banks had a better year with the glove in 1959 than he did the year before, adding roughly 12 more runs, or one win, more with the glove in the Year That Music Died than he did the year before.

We’ll hit the next 10 on Friday. Thank you for your encouragement.

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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