There is, I think, embedded deep within the American culture, an unyielding sense of destiny. It’s in not only the nation’s history, its self-determination and expansion and rise to globalism, the manifest kind taught in eighth-grade social studies textbooks. It’s also in the individual. The personal arc, the Horatio Alger-branded developmental arc of youth, so similar to the typical baseball player, so deeply embedded into their individual narratives: determination, hard work, sacrifice, and then glory and denouement by 35, the long victory lap of wealth.
There’s an inevitability to it all, the mechanical precision of an economic structure at full speed: Success is available to anyone. Work hard enough and you will attain it. If you do not attain it, you did not follow the steps correctly. It’s so easy this way. Socrates paced his life away seeking justice when it was the default setting all along. Just make money, look out for yourself, follow the rules, advance. Justice isn’t blind; she just doesn’t need to look. Everything that happens was already destined through the strength and the characters of the actors, wheeled along by the conveyer belt of practice.
And yet. One of the things I find most appealing about sports, and particularly baseball, is how apparent they make the injustice within them, and in turn ourselves. The inning of Dustin Fowler, or further back, the non-inning of Larry Yount; the lost opportunities of Roberto Petagine; the postseason-less plights of Felix Hernandez and Adam Dunn; the six-foot-nothing kid pitcher who gets his arm ruined by a shortsighted college coach. Baseball, an activity designed around a rule set, is a never-ending parade, not just of failure, but of unfairness.
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Before I fell in love with baseball, one of my first connections with it was the fictional, nameless Joe Shlabotnik, of Peanuts fame. Shlabotnik was no regular to the strip, just a punchline tossed in each April when Charles Schulz could no longer repress his excitement for the upcoming season. Shlabotnik was the worst player in baseball history, proud owner of a .004 average. It didn’t take me long as a kid to realize that this lone fact also made Shlabotnik the luckiest player in baseball history, having somehow been gifted 250 big-league plate appearances. Eventually I started thinking about the guy on the bench, the one who had to watch. There was the real tragedy.
Not everyone, it turns out, is given such an opportunity to reflect their true talent on the back of their baseball card. Not even some of the greatest.
Everyone knows Jim Thorpe, or at least knows of him; if nothing else he’s one of those orange answers that always came up in the old Trivial Pursuit game. Thorpe was the greatest athlete of a generation, college football star, gold medalist in the pentathlon and decathlon in 1912, pro football Hall of Famer. Almost everyone also knows that he was stripped of his medals in 1913 for playing a summer of independent-league baseball on a part-time salary, only to have them restored 30 years after his impoverished demise.
Interestingly, his sudden exile from amateurism, combined with the disbanding of his former low-level team, made him a rarity of the early 20th century: an actual free agent. And so the man whose athleticism dwarfed all others, the greatest specimen of his time, signed a contract to become a replacement-level baseball player for the New York Giants. Football was in its pre-NFL days, and was mostly a collegiate affair; the pro leagues couldn’t pay. Basketball (which he also played later, barnstorming with Native Americans) was likewise in its infancy. Baseball was the only way to make a living as an athlete. And so all attributes, all of those skills, were hidden underneath one: Thorpe was a 26-year-old rookie in the major leagues, unable to put the bat on the ball. He spent six years at it (more in the minors, after the NFL came about), carving out a living just short of enough, stuck 10 years before his time.
As baseball undergoes its lunar phases, the tides of hitting and pitching washing over each other, there are always players born out of season. Some straddled eras, some were large enough to create their own wake, like Babe Ruth with his power, or Ross Barnes with his fair-foul bunt. We’ve designed safeguards against this, installed league-adjusting elements into certain stats (although not others) with plusses after them, baked them into WAR. But while it does some good for the forgotten, those statistics can never erase the watercolor that our fading memories have left us. Steve Garvey will always be 10-Time All Star Steve Garvey, and Frank Tanana will always be a perennial third starter.
We are in one of these eras now. The juiced ball, or, if you prefer to withhold judgment, the Random Home Run Spike of the Late Teens, has led to a rapid sea change for a sport that relies so much on intuition for evaluating its statistics. Matt Kemp would appear to be enjoying a minor revival in Atlanta, slashing .298/.342/.500—but while these numbers are nearly identical to his .287/.346/.506 season in 2014, his wRC+ this season (117) is far closer to his disappointing 2015 and 2016 (108 and 109, respectively) than his “mirror” year (141). These numbers are there, but they often bounce off our intuition, get rejected by their foreignness.
Such a shift forces fans into a strange, cognitive dissonance. While most fans might agree that something is up with the baseball, and that everyone seems to be hitting home runs, it doesn’t stop people from celebrating the insane rookie production of Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger, even though with that backdrop, the numbers are, in fact, sane. There’s something visceral in the home runs themselves, in the excitement, the feeling that these are incomparable performances. The wind-assisted footrace, much like the wind-assisted 480-foot home run, is still spellbinding to witness.
But all sports are, at the root, a zero-sum game, and for every Judge and Bellinger, there is a pitcher defeated. We can fight, often unsuccessfully, to maintain perspective on the greatness in front of us. We rarely make the effort for the lack thereof, for greatness hidden. So with that in mind I’d like to look at some of the players whose careers were swallowed, to some degree, by the tide.
It’s relatively easy to know a thing; to know it in context requires knowing everything. It’s a calculation beyond our capacity. Even the things we do know require constant reappraisal as the world swirls and eddies around us. There’s no time for it all; between the bouts of reflection, we have to live. And even when we do have the context, when we remember that this player was gutting out an injury or another player was going through a divorce … that context vanishes so quickly. The reasons disintegrate, and only the numbers on the stat line remain.
There are only so many tools, so many shortcuts to boost our intuition and hold perspective in place. If we need to compare offensive output, we have wRC+. For pitchers … well, given how much more we know than in the age of CRT televisions, it’s pretty foolish to ever compare anyone, but DRA will do what it can. Ask more than that, and the trail gets overgrown.
Guyer, already 31, will likely never grace the counting stat leaderboard (he has 106 to go, which would require 1,762 more plate appearances). But for what he is, for the sheer “talent” of getting hit by thrown baseballs, he’s unsurpassed. Except, well, he isn’t. Home runs aren’t the only thing that waxes and wanes.
After a crackdown on the beanball in the 80s, we’ve seen an explosion in league-wide plunking, and Brandon Guyer has been among the “beneficiaries.” There’s also an aging curve to HBPs, which merits its own article and is relatively minor in comparison. But even in a stat like HBP, one that would seem relatively safe (if pointless) to compare across eras, only serves to deceive. A leaderboard of league-adjusted HBP rates (HBP%+, if you will), would include names like these:
The true king of the HBP is the original king, who got hit 10 times as often as his colleagues. If Ron Hunt were around today, well, at least he’d have some body armor.
If you do a WARP leaderboard sort for hitters, there’s a strange soft spot just below the 70-win range. Ahead of that are the clear inner-circle Hall of Famers, your Ripkens and Fisks and Carews. Below are some recognizable sluggers, usually defensively-challenged, like Killebrew, Murray, Thome, Snider. And then there’s this pocket of guys, the names folks got sick of arguing about 10 years ago, and will 10 years from now. The former: Dwight and Darrell Evans, Santo, and Raines. The latter: Rolen, Beltran, Larry Walker. And there, not really belonging to either side, is Jimmy Wynn.
Wynn is the lost superstar. Every element of era-adjustment goes against him: the miserable expansion team he played for, the cavernous Astrodome that stunted his 291 career home runs, the high walk rate and low batting average that would frustrate contemporary fans and managers, and a peak that came at the height of baseball’s second deadball era of the late 60s. His small stature, and the color of his skin, also inhibited his star power.
Even attempts to explain him fail: on his Baseball Reference wiki page, it says: “His 128 Adjusted OPS+ puts him in a tie with Goose Goslin, Mickey Cochrane, John Olerud, Keith Hernandez, and others.” Brutal. A better attempt: his .312 career True Average slots him alongside Orlando Cepeda, Jason Giambi, Reggie Jackson, and Gary Sheffield. Unlike most of those players, he also contributed a solid center field.
Leaderboard sorts are, in my opinion, interesting opportunities. You can look at them as a chance to break a system, expose its flaws for failing to align with common sense. Or you can use it as a tool to re-evaluate common sense. We were wrong, terribly wrong about Jim Wynn. He made fewer All-Star teams than Randy Myers. He received zero votes for the Hall of Fame in 1983; Felix Millan, this Felix Millan, earned one. It’s a mistake so dreadful, so complete that a reappraisal seems utterly pointless, especially when there is always someone so close, a Raines or an Edgar, to throw support behind. His numbers are so diminished that there’s no cause, no rallying point to even begin. So instead, the only alternative is willful ignorance, to chalk his modern value as compiling or the favoritism of modern statistics, cite a lack of fear aroused or leadership displayed. The alternative is that not all things are as they were meant to be.
And now we return to the present. Like all other crops, rookies go through years of feast and famine; 2016 was a particularly strong sample for pitchers, not because of its stars (Fulmer, Maeda, and Gray top the list) but through its unusual depth. This season is on pace to supply the worst collective freshman pitching numbers in more than a decade, perhaps far longer. More than halfway home, only two starters, Jordan Montgomery and Kyle Freeland, are on pace to accumulate even average major-league starter value.
This is the invisible price we pay for the concrete factories that have helped players like Judge, Bellinger, and friends to become overnight stars. Without a sample of work to rely on, new pitchers have had little beyond era adjustment and abstraction to base their reputation. They don’t have down years to be explained away, just bad (short) careers.
Dinelson Lamet is a particularly dramatic example of this phenomenon. A symbol of the new two-pitch, two-times-through-the-order starter (he averages a hair over five innings and 88 pitches per start), Lamet’s fastball/slider combo can approach the stuff of highlight reels. Like any live-armed youth, control is a nominal issue (3.8 BB/9), but his low batting average against (.225) has limited baserunners to a decent amount, and his strikeout rate (31 percent) is excellent even by today’s cynical standards. Even playing for the miserable Padres, Lamet’s young season is the kind you’d expect to be accumulating a fair amount of buzz.
The trouble is that Lamet is a fly-ball pitcher right now (a hair under 50 percent so far, though lower in the minors), and 2017 is a pretty crummy time to be a fly-ball pitcher. It’s a tired chart at this point, but one that is always applicable:
All this adds up to to an ERA of 6.40. Sure, his strand rate is 52.6 percent, second-worst among starters with at least as many innings. But Lamet gives up home runs, one every 18 batters or so, and that’ll sink a stat line no matter how silly he can make the other 17 look. Just as the 2017 ball would have given 2014 Chris Carter and his league-adjusted 54 home runs job security for his 30s, the 2014 ball would have given 2017 Dinelson Lamet headlines. He may still get them—none of Lamet’s 10 home runs have come on hitter’s counts, and only two on the nascent changeup—but in that alternate universe, everyone would already know how to pronounce his name, and spend their nights making “Full Dinelson” puns. It’d be a different era.
We can control many things in life, and do much to guide our way toward success. The athlete, with his climate-controlled on-field society, is better equipped than most to command his or her own victory. But no one can control the time and the place in which they are born, of whether they exist within, or outside of, their times. Sometimes we call these players “throwbacks” or “trendsetters,” at least if they succeed enough to earn our notice. But others are merely lost, like Democritus preaching atomic theory to men who saw aether in the wind.
Because every player has these shared bonds, the language of their statistics, it’s inevitable that we’ll try to compare them. Sports like basketball and football have transformed so much as to render the exercise pointless, but as I wrote last week, there is a loss when we abandon it. I feel this more than most, I suppose: I am old, and so I tend to look at history as always being somewhat sad, something continually being lost. We can do our best, adjust the eras and scrape the leaderboards. But in the end, our gut tends to make the final decision, and the numbers that run counter to it get thrown out. Guts are good for many things, but not history. All we can do is push forward against what we feel we know, and use the statistics as our walking sticks.
Thank you for reading
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