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?