Consistent greatness in sports is incredibly difficult to achieve. There are off years and injuries and aging and all sorts of other factors conspiring to keep athletes from remaining at the very top of their sport for long stretches. And yet in the rare instances when someone comes along and actually does it, they’re often taken for granted eventually. Michael Jordan won “only” five MVP awards despite most media, fans, and players agreeing that he was the best player for perhaps twice that many seasons, because on some level a fatigue set in. The best player in the world being the best player in the world became monotonous.
Spring training has become far more professional and predictable since its earliest days.
While looking toward the future with our comprehensive slate of current content, we'd also like to recognize our rich past by drawing upon our extensive (and mostly free) online archive of work dating back to 1997. In an effort to highlight the best of what's gone before, we'll be bringing you a weekly blast from BP's past, introducing or re-introducing you to some of the most informative and entertaining authors who have passed through our virtual halls. If you have fond recollections of a BP piece that you'd like to nominate for re-exposure to a wider audience, send us your suggestion.
As another exhibition season approaches, revisit some of spring training's wilder times in the following piece, which originally ran as a "You Could Look it Up" column on March 6, 2004.
A trip through our new 1950-and-up leaderboard, including a close look at our new-formula fielding runs.
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.”
Finding a novel way to measure Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.
With Duke Snider's passing this weekend, there's been a lot of discussion of the three great New York centerfielders of the 1950s - the famous "Willie, Mickey, and the Duke" trio. And with good cause: Snider was a great player who, for better or worse, will always be tied to those two all-time greats. The fact that he wasn't the equal of Mays or Mantle is no blemish on his fine career.
There is at least one other metric that we can use to compare the three centerfielders that I think many have neglected. We'll call it the "Charlie Brown Coefficient."
The Mickey Mantle biographer discusses the Yankees legend's and the era he played in.
Mickey Mantle is an American icon, but the Hall of Fame outfielder is also, in many ways, a tragic figure. The “Commerce Comet” was baseball’s golden boy during the 1950s and early 1960s, but his life was far more complex and troubled than the well-chronicled injuries and alcoholism that go with the 536 home runs and 172 adjusted OPS.
Dialing back to 1959, this year's Tigers might take note of the fate of that year's Yankees.
After this afternoon's game the Tigers, a team many picked to contend for the American League Central title, have opened the season 0-7. This has undoubtedly caused panic in some circles, as the Tigers have scored all of 15 runs this year, and many of the usual suspects in the talking head brigade were touting the Leyland men as a potential 1000-run offense after the off-season acquisitions of Miguel Cabrera and Edgar Renteria.
Returning to a subject from this past winter, Dan digs in to discuss the all-time greats.
"It is the best game because the players look like us. They are not seven feet tall, they don’t weigh 350 pounds, and they don’t bench-press 650. We can relate to them. We can see them—they’re not obscured by some hideous face mask, and they don’t play behind a wall of Plexiglas—we can touch them and we can feel them. I see Greg Maddux with his shirt off, with his concave chest and no discernible muscles, and I marvel: This is one of the six greatest pitchers in the history of the game? I see Tony Gwynn with his shirt off and I see a short, fat guy with the smallest hands I've ever seen on an athlete, and I wonder: 'This is the best hitter since Ted Williams?'...They are regular guys, at least most of them, who just happen to be really, really good at something that everyone else is not."
--Tim Kurkjian, from chapter one of Is This a Great Game, or What?: From A-Rod's Heart to Zim's Head--My 25 Years in Baseball
He still had a fantastic career--you can make an argument that Mantle was the most valuable player in the American League for at least 10 years (he was first or second in runs created/game in 1952-1958, 1960-1962, and 1964, while playing a key defensive position), but many, including Stengel, were left wondering what the boy with the power of Ruth and the speed of Cobb would have done had he been completely healthy for even one season. His 1957-1958 performance, 358/.487/.686 in a league that hit .266/.343./.404, seemed only to scratch the surface. No one will ever know if their expectations were too high. Once Mantle's knee was damaged the opportunity to find out vanished. Earlier this week, 20-year-old Twins rookie catcher Joe Mauer tore medial meniscus cartilage in his left knee sliding after a foul ball on the hard Metrodome turf. It is said to be a minor injury, though it still required surgery to repair. The catcher will be back on the field in about a month, and there are not expected to be any lingering consequences to Mauer's assumedly glorious future. Yet, any sudden disruption of a young player's career can have unanticipated consequences.
Last week's rather long-form adventure in defense of critical thinking, peace, love, and Moneyball took us as far back into the past as two Thursdays ago. This week we cast a wider net over the deep and dark, starting with a catalogue of boo-boos and the unknowable ramifications of a castrated future.
There has never been a season when Barry Bonds was obviously the league's best player that he did not win the MVP award. Were he to lose the award this season (he is currently leading in VORP by 17 runs over Albert Pujols) it would be his first real injustice. If Bonds has not been mistreated by MVP voters though, several stars of the past have been. Although it has been 80 years since anyone has hit like Bonds has the past few years, there have been occasions when a player has dominated his league for several years and been ill-served by the voters. The rest of this article briefly discusses a few of the more famous cases. Ted Williams' problem was that he played in a time when it was difficult to win the award without winning the pennant, and his team finished second every year. From 1941 through 1954, Williams led the league in VORP every season that he wasn't either in the military (five years) or hurt (1950). He won two awards: 1946, when the Red Sox finished first, and 1949, when they finished one game behind. Let's run through a few of the more interesting losses:
Leaving aside the 2003 race, which is, after all, still ongoing--and which Bonds might very well win--let's turn our attention to how Barry has been mistreated in the past. To begin with, we have to deal with the fact that Bonds has won the award five times, two more than any other player in history. This is not necessarily a contradiction, of course--if Bonds is the best player in the league every year, then the writers have a responsibility to give him the award every year. Given this, how many MVP awards should Bonds have won?
As you have no doubt gathered, I make no distinction between the "best" player and the "most valuable" player. What could be more valuable than "greatness," after all? The distinction is often used as a crutch; rather than trying to make the case that a candidate is really the best player, one can instead try to cloud the issue with grammatical semantics. We won't do that here.