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Come on, Honey, Let’s Play the Match Game

This week, both Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas announced their retirement. Though neither played in a major-league game last season, their retirement provides a useful opportunity to assess how they will be remembered. One way to do so is by comparing them to other players. I’ve chosen one comparable for each player and drawn a comparison between the two. For Frank Thomas, a slugger who spent more time at DH (1,311 games) than first base (971 games), it is only appropriate to choose another player known best for his exploits as a designated hitter: Edgar Martinez. For Glavine, a command expert who pitched to expand the zone, but whose lasting accomplishments were primarily results of longevity, I have selected Bert Blyleven. Though Blyleven was a better strikeout pitcher (and pitcher in general) than Glavine, both pitched into their 40s, and proved remarkably durable.

Dibs All-time Hitter!

Thomas and Martinez are probably two of the three most successful players, along with Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, to play a majority of their games at designated hitter. Their time in the major leagues overlapped substantially, since the older Martinez did not receive significant playing time until his age-27 season. Their career triple-slash lines are also similar: Martinez hit .312/.418/.515, while Thomas hit .301/.419/.555. Thomas had approximately 1,500 more plate appearances, and he hit significantly more home runs (521-309), but, otherwise, the two profiled similarly.
Since each player’s primary job was to hit, let’s look at their ability to do so by age. The following chart tracks each hitter’s EqA (right-hand axis) and EqR (left-hand axis).

Chart 1

Because each player spent parts of different seasons on the disabled list, it can be useful to look at EqA, which is a rate stat, to smooth out some of the variance in EqR caused by playing time. What you’ll notice is that Thomas, who had the earlier (and younger) peak, broke in earlier, and by his age-31 season, was far ahead of what Martinez had done at a similar age. Through that age-31 season, Thomas had racked up a 1,185-414 EqR lead over Martinez. From age-32 onward, however, Thomas did not beat Martinez in EqR in any season except his age-39 season, one in which Martinez actually posted the higher EqA.
For his career, Thomas edges out Martinez in EqA, .327-.317. Both figures are fantastic, but Thomas was a substantially similar player to Martinez in nearly every respect other than home runs (and to a lesser degree, playing time). Martinez, in his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility this year, was listed on only 36.2 percent of ballots. Despite the relatively modest advantage that Thomas enjoys over Martinez, the former is nearly guaranteed to garner a larger percentage of the vote when he becomes eligible. Why the differing treatment? Could it simply be that Martinez and Thomas perfectly straddle the threshold for Hall entry? Or can we simply blame voters’ preferences for home runs over other offensive skills?

Just Dominant Enough, Never Dominating

The comparison between Glavine and Blyleven is more strained. They pitched in different eras, and they had different styles. Whereas Glavine struck out just 5.3 batters per nine innings pitched, Blyleven rung up 6.7 per nine. While Glavine, famed for his ability to control the strike zone, walked 3.1 batters per nine, Blyleven issued a free pass an average of just 2.4 times per nine innings pitched. By nearly any metric, Blyleven was the better pitcher. Except, of course, the most conspicuous one in the box score: Glavine’s 305 wins outpace Blyleven’s 287, but just barely. And here again, our contestants stand on opposite sides of a gulf wider than numbers indicate.

To assist in the comparison, I have this time charted each pitcher’s PRAR (that’s Pitching Runs Above Replacement, a counting stat that helps to normalize the comparison).

Chart 2

Two things become immediately clear. First, Blyleven started his career at a younger age, and more dominantly, than Glavine did. Glavine posted his first 50-run season by PRAR at age 25. By that age, Blyleven had five such seasons. From there, however, Glavine’s consistency becomes apparent. While Blyleven spent most of his age-31 season injured (and the rest ineffective), Glavine was an All-Star having another 40-run season. The following year would prove to be Glavine’s best and also the year he won one of his two Cy Young awards. However, it was Glavine’s last 50-run season; Blyleven had 50-run seasons at ages 33, 34, 35, and 38. Glavine, true to his consistency, aged more gracefully into his 40s.

Glavine’s advantage in the win column stems in part from playing on better teams than Blyleven did. We oughtn’t say this too loudly (we might wake up Rich Lederer), but while Blyleven has appeared on the Cooperstown ballot 13 times, he has only been able to garner 74.2 percent of the vote, just shy of the required 75 percent for admission. On the other hand, Glavine will likely coast into Cooperstown on the strength of his 305 wins. Sometimes, a well-located fastball just off the plate is a strike, and sometimes, a strike-three curveball in the dirt still results in a baserunner.

Question of the Day

Do you think these are fair comparisons? What players do you think make for better comparisons? Is it in fact likely that Thomas and Glavine will have an easier ride to Cooperstown than Martinez and Blyleven? Ought they to?

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Might I suggest comparing WARP3 totals for Thomas and Martinez? Doing so will make it clear that the only real similarity between the two was the triple-slash line. That's a nice little metric, but there's more to evaluating a career than rate stats; one must also look at how long the performance was sustained. The two are really not comparable on that count. Thomas wins by a wide enough margin as to weaken, not validate, Edgar's HoF case, if Frank is the gold standard for DH-type players.
While I don't think a pure WARP3 comparison is completely useless, I think it confuses the issue. Thomas' considerable margin in that category is primarily a result of his longevity. For example, Martinez had 10 4+ WARP3 seasons, whereas Thomas had only 9.

I don't think peak value is the only metric to consider, either, but I think it's closer than you appear to be willing to admit.
"For example, Martinez had 10 4+ WARP3 seasons, whereas Thomas had only 9."

This is misleading, though. Martinez's cumulative WARP3 for those 10 years: 60.2, for an average of 6.02.

Thomas' cumulative WARP3 for the 9 years: 68.5, for an average of 7.61. If you throw in 2006, when he had a WARP3 of 3.8, the average is a 7.23 WARP3 over 10 years.

I would consider 1.25 to 1.5 wins a year to be a significant difference.
I don't think there's any doubt that Thomas was the better hitter. I'm just not sure the difference in their performance won't be overstated by their receptions post-retirement.
I think Tommy John might have been a better comp for Glavine. Especially since their numbers aren't that dissimilar, and both built those numbers on longevity, yet TJ is praying for a VC vote to make the Hall and Glavine is a "first ballot HOFer".
Tommy John is one name I considered, but things get pretty messy there at the end of his career and I didn't want to muddy the comparison. Also I think you'd have more disagreement about whether John deserves to be in the Hall.
Even with the huge disparity in PA, I get the Thomas-Martinez comp: they were contemporaries who both DHed more than they played in the field, and they were both great hitters.

I do not understand the Glavine-Blyleven comp. They weren’t similar pitchers, and they were different handed. Tommy John intuitively seems like a better comp for Glavine even if they weren’t direct contemporaries.
Don't see where 'handedness' should play into the comp. This isn't the Sporting News here.

Upon having said that, I do wonder if a Similarity Scores type comparison might show John as actually more comparable than Blyleven. Which then would just go to show how much a 'Magic Number' (300 wins) and playing for really good teams rather than mediocre ones holds water with BBWA HOF voters.

As Vertumnus shows, Edgar really wasn't all that comparable to Frank even based on peak, never mind longevity. All this 'Edgar for HOF' talk strikes me as mostly an intellectual conceit, 'shows how more sophisticated WE! are because we value him more than you yahoos'. Sorta a 21st Century Rizzuto for sabrmetric eggheads.
I do think Martinez and Thomas are comparable because of the SHAPE of their performance if not the magnitude of it. And because of that, I'm sympathetic to your point that there's a kind of echo chamber around Edgar's Hall chances. But I think he's a good test case, since he's right on the razor's edge for me in terms of his desert.
Pitchers' handedness is one of the factors that goes into Similarity Scores.  I believe PECOTA uses it as a Phenotypic Attribute. 

An essential part of how pitchers are viewed (and, by a natural extension, how they're remembered) is by whether they're a lefty or a righty.  Consequently, when trying to find a comparable pitcher, it only makes sense to look for someone who throws with the same hand. 

You can compare Thomas and Martinez if you want but you are going to have to be pretty tricky with the numbers to say Martinez is a match for Thomas. Even using win shares Thomas is well ahead in career, best ten consecutive years, or ten best years (not necessarily consecutive).

I like Martinez a lot but he isn't Frank Thomas.

Glavine's 300 wins and winning percentage (.600) just overpower any real objection to his candidacy. I prefer Blyleven to him, but that's how it goes.
Simply put, BBWAA dig the longball! Thomas will have higher numbers than Martinez because of it unless we find out about PED use which would void this discussion.

A factor in the pitching debate here is that Tom is known as Mr. Class, while Bert is not much liked (or so it seems). In my opinion, this is what kept Rice from getting in sooner than he did (PED use being revealed in baseball in general also helped I think).
A very interesting aspect of your article is that in each pairing, you've chosen one player that emerged as a star at a very young age, and one player whose emergence took place later in his career.

Moreover, in both pairings, the player who was a "young star" is viewed as a shoe-in HoFer, while the later-blooming player is a marginal HoF candidate.

I think that's assuredly not a coincidence.

Peoples' perceptions of player value are not driven purely by a post-career review of the relevant data, but instead build up gradually over time. First impressions are enduring.

My mental picture of Frank Thomas still centers around "on the short list for greatest hitter of all time", because when he was 28 it looked like that's where he was heading. My mental picture of Edgar Martinez still centers around "who is this guy?", because he didn't establish himself as a star at a young age.

It would take considerable effort for HoF voters to de-program themselves and evaluate candidates on the careers they actually had, rather than the careers they were perceived to be having. Most of what our community consider as "failures" of the HoF process can probably be viewed through this lens, namely a failure among the electorate to adjust their assumptions & beliefs to conform with reality.

It not only assuredly isn't a coincidence, it isn't accurate. It was Byleven, not Glavine who started his career with a bang.
My apologies. The color legend on the Glavine/Blyleven graph is very confusing, and I misread which graph belonged to which player. I'm too young to remember the beginning of Blyleven's career, and old enough to have forgotten the beginning of Glavine's.

Shoot. Another promising theory shot all to hell by the facts.
"blame" voters for a preference of homers over other skills? Like what? Hitting singles? Walking? Homers ARE a better achievement than either of the above.
That's true, but the point is that Thomas' edge in home runs is greater than his overall edge on Martinez. More of Thomas' value was tied up in the home runs, so perhaps this helps to explain why he gets greater recognition.
Thomas>Martinez - the extra early season cannot be ignored.
Blyleven>Glavine - see above.
All that said, there should be room for all four.
I think that the Thomas chart shows how much you can frame your entire decision on a player's hall-worthiness at age 30. I would bet that the majority of hall players had early peaks as opposed to late peaks, and that hall voters had decided on them when they were 30. Remember when Griffey was named to the all-century team and Bonds was left off?
Interesting thought experiment and good article.

However, as much as we prefer context-independent stats, it seems to strain credibility to equate Thomas and Edgar.

Martinez: 309hr 1219r 1261rbi
Thomas: 521hr 1494r 1704rbi

Edgar would have to add SOOOOOOOO much more to the table than Thomas to be within shouting distance.

The comparison with Glavine shows in yet another way what an absurdly good pitcher Blyleven was. It is simply a travesty that he has had to wait so long to get into the Hall. There is no other word for it.
Edgar Martinez was a great hitter. On a rate basis he deserves to get in. But those years he spent in the minors do count against him. You have to play on the field to get credit for the Hall of Fame. The difference between Edgar and Frank Thomas is not just the fairly significant edge in slugging, but it's also the four years of awesomeness Thomas had in his early twenties. I know it's not Edgar's fault they kept him down, but it's not the Hall of Coulda/Shoulda/Woulda.
"but it's also the four years of awsomeness Thomas had in his early twenties,...."
That's the difference- Thomas was great for several years.

I think the other 3 should be in the Hall...but I don't think any were truly great.
Mr. Bennett: A worthwhile exercise, but you haven't made the sale for ,e. I don't think Blyleven and Glavine are comparable at all. Suggestion: try Warren Spahn. For Frank Thomas, the closest comp I can think of are Boog Powell and David Ortiz, but I agree that neither is satisfactory- there is just too little history with the peculiarities of a DH career. Thanks for trying. And I believe both belong in the Hall, but I assume Glavine gets there first.