Quick Take: The Original Bambino

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pike-lipmanOk, so maybe Lip Pike wasn’t really a “Bambino” level hitter, but he did lead his league in home runs four times, and finished his career with a 158 OPS+.

The reason that those numbers won’t impress us as much as they might – and the reason we haven’t ever heard of Lip Pike before – is that he played his entire career between 1866-1878. He was part of the first wave of ballplayers we have statistical records for. Still, though the rules were different, the seasons shorter and the professionalism lacking, we have to admit that he must have been a darn good hitter to stand out with the numbers listed above.

According to Wikipedia:

  • “He was a great slugger and one of the best home run hitters, so much so that stories about balls he hit were told for quite some time after he stopped playing.”
  • “On August 16, 1873, he raced a fast trotting horse named “Clarence” in a 100-yard sprint at Baltimore’s Newington Park, and won by four yards with a time of 10 seconds flat, earning $250 ($5,100 today).”

Anybody with a sense of late 19th century local “history” will take the above with a grain of salt, but it’s obvious that he was one of the better athletes in the league at the time.

Here is a look at his peak, via Baseball-Reference (numbers in bold indicate league leader):

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2018 Hall of Fame Ballot

As far as I see it, there are only four new names on the ballot that should be seriously considered for the Hall: Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Andruw Jones and Scott Rolen. There are others that will get some votes, and who were excellent ballplayers, and might deserve a second look… but who almost surely do not deserve to be in the Hall, like Johan Santana, Johnny Damon, Omar Vizquel and Carlos Lee. Here, I want to take a quick look at the four players who have the strongest case for election.

Chipper Jones

chipper-a-4_3I probably don’t have to twist many arms to convince people that he should be voted in. Besides having excellent stats, he was popular among fans, teammates and the media. There were never any accusations of PED use and no personal scandals. He was on one of the most successful teams of the last thirty years. He will get in, probably on his first try. Still, let’s take a quick look at exactly why this is the case.

First, Jones currently ranks 5th all-time among third basemen in fWAR. He is Top 50 among all position players in: OPS, HR, RBI, Runs, Total Bases, and Doubles. The stat WPA (Win Probably Added) began in 1974. Since then, Jones is #1 for third basemen in that stat.

He played in the playoffs in 12 of his 18 full seasons, including three World Series. He was part of the 1995 Braves team that won it all, and finished his career with a .287/.409/.456 slashline in 417 postseason Plate Appearances. In 1999, he won the NL MVP Award. Here are his career numbers:

AVG OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR
0.303 0.401 0.529 141 84.6
Chipper Jones
Hits HR RBI Runs ASG
2726 468 1623 1619 8

VERDICT: YES

 

Jim Thome

The best comparisons I can come up with for Jim Thome are Willie McCovey and Williethome Stargell (both HOFers). All three were slow running, home run hitting lefties. Perhaps most telling is that all three are tied for 31st all-time in wRC+, an impressive 145 for all of them. Thome has the slight lead over the other two in fWAR, but all three are in the 60’s in that statistic. So far these are very similar players.

Thome had significantly more homers than the other two: 612 to McCovey’s 521 to Stargell’s 493. Thome did play in a better home run hitter environment, but still, he hit around 100 more homers than either of the other two.

Where Thome falls behind the other two is in the accolades. Both McCovey and Stargell won an MVP award, Stargell also winning and NLCS and WS MVP. McCovey won a World Series ring and Stargell two. Thome never had any of that. Both Willies were voted to more All Star Games than Thome, and McCovey won the Rookie of the Year, something Thome did not do.

Thome has always had a “good guy” reputation, and is beloved by many fans and the media. He never had the name recognition of Bonds or McGwire, but certainly most baseball fans knew his name. He hit more than 40 home runs six different times, notable even during the Steroid Era. Perhaps one of the reasons that Thome wasn’t voted to more All Star Games, and perhaps why his WAR isn’t a bit higher, is that he played over 800 games as a DH. Designated Hitters almost never get as much fan recognition, especially if a player (like Thome) plays half his games at first base and the other at DH. Fans aren’t sure how to label him. Be that as it may, Thome was popular but not a superstar during his peak.

At the time this year’s ballot was submitted, Thome ranked 8th all time in Home Runs, 7th in Walks, 18th in OPS and 26th in RBI.

BA OBP SLG wRC+
0.276 0.402 0.554 145
Jim Thome
HR RBI BB fWAR
612 1699 1747 69.0

Though he didn’t get the accolades during his playing days, it is really hard to ignore 612 HR and a 145 wRC+. Those are HOF numbers. And although he was never on a WS winning team, he had is playoff moments. In 1998, he hit four homers in a six game ALCS against the Yankees. The next year, he hit four homers in just five games in the ALDS against the Red Sox. Seeing as how there are no real strikes against him, and his numbers indicate that he was one of the great sluggers in the game’s history, I would like to see him elected to the HOF.

VERDICT: YES

 

Andruw Jones

andruw-jones-7df1c6abadb4177dThis is a tough one. By most defensive measurements (UZR, FRAA, TZ), Jones was one of – if not the – greatest outfielders ever to play the game. He also won 10 Gold Gloves, showing that his ability wasn’t buried in advanced metrics. He hit 434 HR, and during his 10 year peak (1998-2007), he averaged 34 HR, 103 RBI, 6.0 fWAR and won a GG every single year.

On the other hand, he never won an MVP or World Series, and was voted onto only five All Star teams. His career BA of .254 and .337 OBP are hard to overlook, and his 111 wRC+ and 67.1 career fWAR aren’t overwhelming.

At least part of the argument against Jones stems from his lack of longevity. He only played 12 seasons of 100 or more games. Thus, other than his HR and defensive stats, his numbers aren’t typical of Hall of Fame outfielders. He didn’t get to 2000 Hits, and, for traditional voters, his 1289 RBI is nothing special (it’s fewer than Gary Gaetti and Chili Davis).

BA OBP SLG wRC+
0.254 0.337 0.486 111
Andruw Jones
HR ASG GG fWAR
434 5 10 67.1

What it comes down to is how much we value defense. Jones doesn’t have the counting numbers or the awards (beyond Gold Gloves). But he was legitimately one of the greatest ever to play the outfield, all the while slugging 434 home runs on the way to a respectable 111 wRC+.

Overall, I think – for now – that I wouldn’t vote for him. I’m very much tempted, and I might change my mind next year, but for now, I think he falls just short.

VERDICT: NO

 

Scott Rolen

In some ways, Rolen is a similar case to Andruw Jones. He was a brilliant fielder whocould hit, but didn’t have a whole lot of accolades or counting numbers. However, Rolen does seem to have the edge on Jones. He was in more All Star Games, won the Rookie of the Year, and was part of the 2006 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, a series in which he hit .421. He won eight Gold Gloves (just short of Jones’ 10), but had a higher career wRC+ of 122. Rolen ranks #10 all-time among third basemen in both fWAR and rWAR.

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It might be difficult to really appreciate Rolen these days, when the league is packed with great third basemen like Adrian Beltre, Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado. To put Rolen in perspective then, we will look at his peak-7 years (1998-2004). This includes both leagues and all position players:

Name G PA fWAR
Barry Bonds 974 4181 66.8
Alex Rodriguez 1078 4862 55.7
Scott Rolen 1002 4319 43.8
Chipper Jones 1080 4656 39.6
Vladimir Guerrero 1061 4519 38.2
Jeff Bagwell 1103 4898 37.8
Manny Ramirez 983 4315 37.2
Derek Jeter 1035 4791 35.5

With a similar number of PA, Rolen outscored current HOFer Jeff Bagwell and soon-to-be HOFers Chipper Jones, Vlad Guerrero, and Derek Jeter. His career numbers look like this:

BA OBP SLG wRC+
0.281 0.364 0.490 122
Scott Rolen
HR ASG GG fWAR
316 7 8 70.1

VERDICT : YES

 

So that does it for the new players on the ballot. There are several returning players who deserve to be in. Find my complete “ballot” HERE.

Barry Bonds and the HOF

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bondsbeforeandaftersteroidsThe most Home Runs in a career. The most Home Runs in a single season. The most MVP Awards ever. The most Bases on Balls and the third most Runs scored in baseball history. A career OPS+ higher than Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle. It’s difficult to like Barry Bonds, but you cannot deny that his accomplishments are among the greatest of all time.

We all know that he was implicated in the Mitchell Report, that he put on suspicious amounts of muscle late in his career, and that given all of the evidence, he almost surely was on some sort of steroid for the peak of his career. I, for one, hope that he does not get voted into the Hall of Fame by the writers. Instead, I hope he gets in via Veterans Committee, maybe ten or fifteen years from now. Make him wait. But I’ve come to the conclusion that he was just too darn good to not be in the Hall. The drugs may have boosted his numbers to ridiculous heights, but he was an MVP even before he started using them. Steroids alone don’t make a Hall of Famer.

Anyway, most baseball fans already know all this. What I want to do is get a reminder of how good he really was. So if you will, set aside the “steroid” cloud in your mind and just see what kind of player he was on the field. Here he is compared to four of the most famous outfielders ever to play the game. At least according to these numbers, he’s no Babe Ruth. But then again, he has a higher wRC+, fWAR and rWAR than Willie Mays, Ty Cobb and Hank Aaron. Ruth is the only other player in history to be able to say that.

Name wRC+ rWAR fWAR
Babe Ruth 197 183.7 168.4
Barry Bonds 173 162.4 164.4
Willie Mays 154 156.2 149.9
Ty Cobb 165 151.1 149.3
Hank Aaron 153 142.6 136.3

Disregarding the on-field stats, how did Bonds fare in terms of popularity? By this, I don’t only mean fan support, but also the yearly recognition of peers, writers and others who vote for the various awards. In other words, what about his “fame”? I won’t use Ruth or Cobb in this comparison, because both played their peak years before there was an all-star game, before their was a Rookie of the Year award, and before the MVP Award was a standardized, yearly event.

ASG GG MVP Top5* Years**
Bonds 14 8 7 12 15
Aaron 25 3 1 8 19
Mays 24 12 2 9 15

*Number of top 5 finishes in MVP voting.       

**Number of years receiving MVP votes.

We can see that Aaron and Mays look really good in this category. Both were in many more all star games, Mays had more Gold Gloves, and Aaron had more seasons in which he received MVP votes. On the other hand, the league was much smaller during Mays’ and Aaron’s time, so the ASG voting was concentrated on the same stars every year. And Bonds won seven MVPs, more than twice as many as both Aaron and Mays combined. Even if you still give Mays and Aaron the edge in this section, you would have to admit that Bonds belongs in the same discussion.

When it comes to the “Rings” debate, it usually doesn’t matter as much when you reach this level of talent. Nobody is asking for Ted Williams or Ernie Banks to be removed from the HOF because they never won a World Series. Similarly, people don’t often bring up the fact that both Hank Aaron and Willie Mays won only a single Ring during a quarter century of play. The same goes for Bonds. His accomplishments far outweigh the lack of a championship.

2017 Three Finger Brown Award

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corey-kluber-dallas-tigersGoing into the final two weeks of the regular season, there was quite a lot of debate about who should win the AL and NL Cy Young Awards. There were good arguments for Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber… But as I look on the group as a whole, it is immediately obvious to me that Corey Kluber is the best pitcher of 2017, and therefore the winner of the 2017 Three Finger Brown Award.

Take a look at Kluber’s numbers, and the corresponding MLB rank:

totWAR 23.3 1st
rWAR 8 1st
RA9-WAR 8.5 1st
ERA 2.25 1st
ERA- 50 1st
FIP- 57 1st
xFIP- 57 1st
WHIP 0.87 1st
WPA 4.72 1st
WPA/LI 5.31 1st
RE24 53.46 1st

And the other impressive numbers he put up that weren’t quite the best in the league:

fWAR 7.3 2nd
xwOBA 0.248 2nd
K-BB% 29.5 2nd
AVG 0.192 2nd
K’s 265 3rd

It should be mentioned here that the other candidates for Cy Young (and this award) had some amazing stats too. Clayton Kershaw brought in another minuscule ERA (2.31), Chris Sale had 7.7 fWAR and 308 K’s, and Max Scherzer had a 2.51 ERA and 268 K’s.

Justin Verlander, after turning in a respectable 86 ERA- and 3.0 fWAR in Detroit, reverted to Cy Young form after he was traded to Houston. In five starts for the Astros, Verlander struck out 43 in 34 innings and recorded a 1.06 ERA. Luis Severino, the 23-year-old ace of the Yankees, had a 2.98 ERA while striking our 230 on his way to a 5.7 fWAR.

 

Hall of Fame Value

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roberto-alomar-baseball-hall-of-fame-plaque-framed-print-toronto-blue-jays-1An easy trap to fall into (I would know) is to lean too heavily on modern advanced metrics when evaluating a player’s worthiness to enter the Hall of Fame. Using various forms of WAR, OPS and wRC+ are all valuable ways to judge a player’s value, but they aren’t really the answer to whether or not a player should or should not be in the Hall. After all, “fame” in sports isn’t based solely on performance. Flashy players, eccentric players, likable players and players on successful teams always overshadow their peers, even if some of those peers are almost as good as they are (or better).

Of course, popularity or “fame” is extremely subjective. How popular was Barry Bonds in his prime? The answer would be very different if you were to ask a Giants fan versus asking a Dodgers fan. Likewise, generational popularity is extremely difficult to gauge. How popular was Willie Randolph in his prime? Well, beats me. I was a toddler when that happened. But I know exactly how popular David Ortiz is, seeing as how I witnessed his prime years and I live near Boston. We might call this subjective view of popularity as the “perspective deficit”. No two cities or generations are going to agree on all players.

ryno02

Ryne Sandberg in action

However, if we use a slightly less subjective formula, we might find a way to measure fame. Right up front, we should establish that everything we talk about next is still subjective. We’re talking about fame, not statistics, so while we don’t want to be too widely subjective (i.e. every fan’s individual perspective), we do want to balance out the extremely objective (i.e. stats) in order to better gauge who might belong in the HOF. With that in mind, we will take a look at the various awards players might get during their careers. Every single award below is a subjective consensus by one group of voters or another. All Star Games are probably the most subjective, as they include fan voting, so players from big cities often get the edge. Popular players from previous years often get re-elected to the ASG even if they are having a bad first half. On the flip side, a player with a great first half might make the team, but then have a terrible second half. It really is all about popularity in that moment. You will see below that because of this relatively high level of subjectivity, ASG are given the least value of the awards.

Below is the formula (though it isn’t really as fancy as it sounds). I am experimenting in order to build an overall “Hall of Fame Value”. In addition to the Awards Points, Total WAR (totWAR) will be the other aspect.

Awards Points:

All-Star Games, LCS MVP, WS MVP x 0.5

Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers, Rookie of the Year, World Series Rings x 1

MVP Award x 3

After you add up the above, you add it to (totWAR/3). The sum = HFV (Hall of Fame Value).

This is certainly not a perfect way to judge – I expect that there isn’t a perfect way – but I think it might be a better way than simply picking one of the versions of WAR and comparing based on that alone. Let’s take a quick look at some second basemen to see if this formula makes any sense.

Below you will see a comparison of three HOFers, three excellent players not in the HOF, and one player currently on the ballot. The left side orders them according to one version of WAR (fWAR) and the other by HFV. Which one jibes most with your concept of which second basemen were the best?

fWAR HFV
1 Bobby Grich 69.2 Roberto Alomar 85.9
2 Lou Whitaker 68.1 Ryne Sandberg 79.5
3 Craig Biggio 65.8 Lou Whitaker 77.9
4 Roberto Alomar 63.6 Craig Biggio 76.2
5 Willie Randolph 62 Bobby Grich 73.6
6 Ryne Sandberg 60.9 Jeff Kent 66.5
7 Jeff Kent 56.1 Willie Randolph 64.8

Here it is again, using outfielders; three Hall of Famers and three HOF hopefuls:

fWAR HFV
1 Frank Robinson 104 Frank Robinson 126.2
2 Larry Walker 68.7 Dave Winfield 85
3 Tim Raines 66.4 Larry Walker 84.6
4 Dave Winfield 59.9 Andre Dawson 80.3
5 Andre Dawson 59.5 Vladimir Guerrero 74.6
6 Vladimir Guerrero 54.3 Tim Raines 74.1

As one would expect, Frank Robinson is light years ahead of the rest of this particular crew, no matter how you cut it. But Tim Raines loses his sizable fWAR lead over Vlad Guerrero, perhaps explaining why so many voters seem to believe that Vlad will make it into the Hall, but Tim Raines has been on the ballot for years and years. It also draws into question my inclusion of him on my own “ballot”, while deciding that Vlad Guerrero does not belong. And as much as I would love for this formula to be as simple as possible, a problem has already popped up: Robinson, Winfield and Dawson all played many or all of their prime years before the Silver Slugger Award was initiated. So while Larry Walker is a notch above Dawson and just barely behind Winfield, it’s not a stretch to think that if there had been a SS award in the 70’s, the numbers might look different.

Findings:

  • Maybe Vlad Guerrero belongs in the Hall… or maybe Tim Raines doesn’t.
  • Maybe Jeff Kent does not belong.
  • Maybe Larry Walker does belong.

And that’s the point. Including a hefty portion of both objective and subjective achievements might help us look at the process of Hall of Fame voting just a little differently, perhaps changing our minds on borderline players. I’m not sure it would ever justify Jim Rice, but it might.

 

2017 Hall of Fame Ballot: Vladimir Guerrero

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BA OBP SLG wRC+
0.318 0.379 0.553 136
HR fWAR rWAR WARP
449 54.3 59.3 63.8
9 All-Star Games 1 MVP 8 Silver Sluggers

115223There was a ten year period of time (1998-2007) in which Vlad Guerrero was an elite hitter. Of the 203 players with at least 3000 plate appearances during that time, Vlad ranked 5th in BA, 7th in SLG and 10th in wRC+. He had 200+ hits four times and joined the 30-30 club twice. He lead all right fielders in Assists three times (and finished top five in five other seasons). It was an impressive peak.

But was his career worthy of the Hall of Fame? I don’t know. Lots of baseball analysts on TV seem to think so. He was very good, and between his rocket arm and unorthodox batting style, he certainly was memorable. Let’s do a pro/con.

PRO:
All-Time Ranks
56th in BA
24th in SLG
34th in OPS
49th in Total Bases
38th in HR
45th in Extra Base Hits
CON:
All-Time Ranks
90th in wRC+
138th in fWAR
125th in rWAR
Lead League in Errors for an OF 8 times
SB success rate was below 70% in both of his 30-30 seasons

What these lists seem to tell us is that Vlad was an outstanding hitter, with an emphasis on slugging, but his overall value (i.e. the era in which he got his big hits, his fielding, base running) demotes him from elite status. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that being ranked in the top 150 players is something to dismiss. But when we’re talking about the HOF, “138th” doesn’t sound very special.

vladimir-guerrero-2008-angelsOn the other hand, Vlad had the “Fame” part on his side. From 1997-2008, he received votes for at least one award in every single season. He got votes for Rookie of the Year, MVP, ASG, and Silver Slugger. In addition to winning the MVP in 2004, he finished 3rd two other times, 4th once and 6th another time. Baseball Reference has an interesting stat called “MVP Shares”, which calculates how many “shares” of MVP ballots every player accumulated over the years. Vlad ranks 39th on that list, above popular Hall of Famers like Johnny Bench, Roberto Clemente and Al Kaline. (NOTE: MVP awards were given differently – sometimes not at all – in the first third of the 20th century, so the list is more of a “Modern Day” rather than an “All Time”.)

When we debate a player’s eligibility for the Hall, I think we should look at both ends of the spectrum: players that have made it in already, and then players that did not make it in, but who might have deserved to. For me, Lou Whitaker and Kenny Lofton both come to mind, particularly because both players were eliminated from the ballot on their first try, despite having WAR scores significantly higher than players who got in fairly quickly. I agree with those who say that WAR isn’t the only (or best) way to judge a player’s entire career, but on the other hand, if a player ends up with 10 WAR higher for their career than another player, there are usually good reasons for it.

vladx-inset-communityIn the cases of Whitaker and Lofton, both players earned their greatness through excellent fielding at important positions, while Whitaker added above average hitting and Lofton added exceptional base running. But neither had the ASG or Awards numbers that Vlad had, or the gaudy power numbers that are the quickest way to identify a good player. To me, Vlad is not far from their level, falling into the Fred McGriff maybe/maybe not column.

In some ways, Vlad’s career was similar to Larry Walker’s, a player who I think should be in the Hall. And Vlad had more Hits, more HR, and more Awards. But Walker had significantly higher WAR scores, a slightly higher wRC+, and – possibly most importantly – positive scores in both fielding and base running, making him a complete player. When I look at Vlad’s career, he looks like a one dimensional player (ok, maybe two, if you count his Arm; but not his overall fielding). He was a crazy good hitter in an era chalk full of crazy good hitters.

I won’t say that Vlad unequivocally shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame, but at this point I wouldn’t be able to vote for him. Maybe someone can convince me next year.

2017 Hall Of Fame Ballot: Larry Walker

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PA 8030
HR 383
BA/OBP/SLG .313/.400/.565
wRC+ 140
1 MVP
7 Gold Gloves
5 All-Star Games

e590776752636b56342b2baaf5387a6eFor years, I have written off Larry Walker’s accomplishments. After all, how much credit can you give a guy for hitting .366 with 49 home runs when he played half his games at Coors Field (pre-humidor) at the height of the steroid era? I mean, who gives Harry Heilmann credit for hitting .403 in 1923 (the beginning of the Live Ball Era)? How many people even know his name?

But now that Walker is entering the last part of his eligibility range on the Hall of Fame ballot (this will be his 7th year), I think we should take another look at him. One of the perspectives we can take is the “relative stats”. All this means is the handful of valuable stats that rate a player compared to others in his league, in his era, and accounting for ballparks. Ideally, this approach would cancel out the effects of Coors Field and steroid-fueled home runs. Realistically, it gives us an imperfect yet better idea of his accomplishments. We’ll use wRC+, OPS+ and various versions of WAR.

JAWS is a fairly well-known rating system for prospective Hall of Famers. It uses rWAR, and calculates a combination of a player’s 7-year peak rWAR and career rWAR, which allows us to compare them to actual Hall of Famers who played the same position. With the exclusion of steroid-users, it’s a pretty good indicator. If we look at Walker’s score, we see a couple of things: first, his JAWS score (58.6) is higher than any other Outfielder on the ballot besides Barry Bonds. Second, we see that the average HOF outfielder has a JAWS score of 58.1, meaning that Walker’s score is very much on par for the Hall.

So far, he looks good.

Next, we’ll take a look at fWAR. Walker had 68.7 fWAR for his career. That puts him at #66 all-time (1871-present), #58 since 1900 and #39 since 1947. He’s higher on the list than HOFers Willie McCovey, Harmon Killebrew and Tony Gwynn. He is also higher on the list than Tim Raines and Edgar Martinez, two players that I have had on my ballot for several years now.

Again, things are looking good.

560eaac1b770333e253229fb2e91734aWe can also take a look at his performance before he played in Coors Field, and before what is generally considered to be the steroid era. From 1989-1994, he had 2690 plate appearances for the Montreal Expos. He had a slashline of .281/.357/.483, good for a 128 wRC+. Standing out specifically was his 1992 season (a year before league-wide power numbers started to suspiciously rise), in which he slugged .506 and hit for a 142 wRC+. In his final one and a half seasons, he slugged .560 in 178 PA for STL in 2004, and .502 in 367 PA in 2005, again for STL. He was 38 years old that year.

And check this out: his power numbers with the Rockies indicate that, while he unequivocally benefitted from Coors Field,  he wasn’t dependent on that infamous dry air to be an excellent power hitter.

His four best home run years with Colorado:

1995 1997 1999 2001
Home (HR) 24 20 26 20
Away (HR) 12 29 11 18
Home (SLG) 0.730 0.709 0.879 0.687
Away (SLG) 0.484 0.733 0.519 0.625

Those “Away” SLG numbers range from good to excellent to truly great. To be thorough, we need to look at Walker’s career numbers in Coors and in other ballparks.

PA HR BA OBP SLG
Coors Field 1796 154 0.381 0.462 0.710
Everywhere Else 2501 229 0.282 0.357 0.496

So we see that yes, Coors made a big difference. In Coors, Walker was Babe Ruth. Everywhere else, he was an all-star. Yet it still isn’t so simple. In the aggregate, he was just an all-star “everywhere else”. But take a look at how he performed in these other particular ballparks:

PA SLG
Montreal 1369 0.518
STL 558 0.536
SD-Qualcomm 322 0.573
CHC-Wrigley 304 0.551
CIN-Cinergy 250 0.586
Arizona 170 0.550
ATL-Fulton 144 0.545
ATL-Turner 118 0.624

For quick reference, Eddie Mathews’ career SLG was .509, Mike Schmidt’s was .527 and Mickey Mantle’s was .557. So at least in these 3235 non-Coors plate appearances, Walker was a serious HOF-caliber slugger.

But let’s say you aren’t impressed by his .282/.357/.496 slashline in non-Coors games. Does an .853 OPS mean much in the 1990-2005 run scoring environment? Well, of the 318 players who came to the plate at least 3000 times between 1990-2005, Walker’s .853 would have landed him 59th. That’s in the top 20% of hitters, and probably something like a 120-125 wRC+ (based on the wRC+ of players with a similar OPS). Of course, while top 20% is nice, it’s not overly impressive, putting him right next to guys like Trot Nixon and Cliff Floyd (though higher than Kirby Puckett and Derek Jeter within that period). Here is where the other aspects of his game might make his case.

Los Angeles Dodgers vs Colorado Rockies - July 26, 2004Walker was an excellent right fielder. So much so that, from 1990-2005, he was 3rd among all RF (min 4000 innings) in Total Zone Fielding, and won seven Gold Gloves. Unfortunately, we don’t have the improved metrics UZR or DRS for his prime years, but he had extraordinary Arm ratings and positive UZR in his final two seasons with the Rockies (age 35 and 36 years). We can extrapolate from those late-career numbers and high Total Zone rates that he was an exceptional fielder with a truly great arm. Baseball Prospectus supports this argument, giving Walker a positive FRAA score in every season except 1997 and his final two years with St. Louis, ranking him 10th in career FRAA among all RFers since 1950.

He was also an outstanding baserunner. He stole 230 bases in his career at a 75% success rate. At his peak (1993-1999) he ran at an 80% success rate (slightly higher than the speedster Kenny Lofton had during that same stretch). Again, we don’t have the advanced base running data for those prime years, but we know that he ranked 13th in all of baseball in UBR in 2002 (age 36), hinting that he was probably a valuable base runner during his prime (i.e. running 1st to 3rd, 2nd to Home, etc.) Baseball Prospectus ranks him ahead of Tony Gwynn in Base Running Runs, and very close behind Hank Aaron.

walker_450x407Since we don’t have any evidence that Coors Field is beneficial for fielding or base running, we have to give Walker full credit for these accomplishments.

On a lighter note, when we talk about the Hall of Fame, we sometimes shy away from players who racked up stats but didn’t do anything memorable. Well, Walker was not one of those guys. Check out his famous All-Star Game backwards helmet stunt.

I think what we see here is a player who, no matter where he played, would probably have been a career .500 slugger with all-star level fielding, an outstanding throwing arm, and above average base running. Stats that adjust for ballpark and scoring environment indicate that he was one of the top Right Fielders of the last 50 years. He impressed contemporaries enough to win seven Gold Gloves and an MVP award. I believe he belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Focus On: Ty Cobb, pt. 3

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859fd906a9690a86944e804ef170190dI mentioned in part two of this series that Cobb wasn’t only a talented ballplayer; he was also a dedicated student of the game. While his enthusiasm and daring often gave him an edge in the lower professional leagues, it wasn’t until he learned how to thoughtfully train himself to be a better player that he showed signs of his future greatness.

In Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, author Charles Leerhsen describes Cobb’s experience with George Leidy, a man who has no other claim to baseball success, but who was instrumental in creating one of the great hitters in the game. Leidy took over as manager of Cobb’s low-pro Augusta Tourists in 1905. (They didn’t have real farm systems or the “A” ratings we have now.) He was known as a disciplinarian, and because of the terribly rowdy bunch on the Tourists, he didn’t have much success… except with Cobb.

As Leerhsen describes it, Cobb had hit a low point in his young professional career. He was hitting somewhere in the .230 range, and had picked up careless habits from his lackluster teammates, like snacking while in the outfield (!) The night after Cobb missed an easy fly ball because he was busy eating, Leidy took Cobb on a long walk, talked some sense into him, and convinced him to meet him first thing in the morning at the ballpark.

What happened the next morning (and many mornings afterward) wasn’t anything that seems remarkable to us today, but was hardly the norm at the time. Leidy had Cobb practice bunting into a sweater, which Leidy placed at various points on the infield. Over and over and over. He made him practice pulling the ball, hitting the opposite way… in other words, he took long, repetitive batting practice. This was something Cobb’s teammates almost never did, at least on this scale. What Cobb learned wasn’t only discipline, but also that a player could really change what was wrong on the field, if he wanted to take the time. By June, he was hitting over .300.

c1a7c5d630a9ff0aca2d187002dde238Cobb was eventually spotted and signed that year by the Detroit Tigers, who were looking for any help they could get. Cobb hit .438 over the four game series witnessed by the Tigers’ scout. Cobb ended up playing in 41 games for an average Tigers team that ended 15 games out but with a winning record. He hit only .240, but was exciting enough on the base paths to gain some recognition among fans.

But it was around this same time that an infamous tragedy occurred. Cobb’s father W.H. Cobb was shot and killed by his wife – Ty’s mother – Amanda. W.H. had come home a day or two early from a conference, and it was past 11 p.m. when he arrived.

Leerhsen clarifies several myths about this terrible night. There is little to no proof that Amanda had been cheating on Ty’s father; Amanda almost surely did not know that it was W.H. trying to enter the house; she used a pistol, not a shotgun; and Cobb was far away in another town when it happened: he did not witness any of it.

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W.H. Cobb

It seems more likely that W.H. had been doing some amateur detective work for a local judge. The two men had decided to try and gather hard evidence against a couple of supposed prostitutes who were a “blemish” on the small town of Royston. W.H. may have been attempting to peer into the windows of the nearby house where the women lived. Coming home, he would have been coming in from the side yard, rather than the front, which is why Amanda would not have assumed it was him. Without going into all of the sordid details, Amanda was eventually acquitted, and no mysterious lover ever surfaced.

The psychological effect on Ty is hard to measure. Surely it caused him great heartache, and he did return home for the funeral and the court proceedings. But there isn’t any direct correlation between the shooting and Cobb’s play or his temperament. It’s certainly possible that those feelings lay dormant until later years, when his anger was more pronounced, but that it more of a guess than anything based on evidence.

Part 1

Part 2

… continued in Part 4

Focus On: Ty Cobb, pt. 2

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60fc688acfd251c7b9b5e1923fd3c16bIn the first part of this short series on Detroit Tigers outfielder Ty Cobb, I talked a little bit about his statistical accomplishments. This time, I’d like to do a brief overview of some of my favorite parts of the early chapters in the recent biography on Cobb titled Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty.

The Georgia Peach, an intellectual? Well, maybe not in so far as college degrees and general lifestyle go. Yet Cobb was not a dumb hick raised by ignorant farmers, running around beating up black folks. That’s a myth perpetuated by such fictional (and damaging) productions as Al Stump’s 1962 biography and the lame 1994 film starring Tommy Lee Jones.

Instead, Cobb’s father, W.H. Cobb, was a college graduate and a respected teacher. A former student once said of him, “He had a very cosmopolitan mind”. He was known for confronting locals who spoke in favor of “Jim Crow brutality”. Serving in the Georgia state Senate for two years, a W.H. speech saved funding for negro schools in the state. He probably got many of his ideas from his own father (Ty’s grandfather), who was an abolitionist before the Civil War.

Cobb Ty 132.46aa PDTy’s mother was known as the disciplinarian of the family. Uneducated but savvy, she was known as a very attractive woman. She kept a tight household that included Ty’s brother and sister. It was a relatively middle class home in an unremarkable small town in Georgia, the kind of old southern town where cursing in public wasn’t the norm. Cobb often took offense when, after going north to join the Tigers, he found that the supposed “mature men” of the major leagues cursed at will.

Early in life, Ty Cobb used a thoughtful approach to baseball. He saved every penny – working extra jobs to come up with extra cash – to always keep himself stocked with a ball, glove and bat. He spent hours practicing and many hours reading pamphlets and articles like “How to Sprint” from the back of The Police Gazette. He hated being called a “natural hitter”, because he spent so many hours over the course of his career studying and working on being a better hitter. He once said, “I had the gift of being able to appraise myself, even at that age [twelve]. It has been the greatest asset of my life.”

He was also a reader of other things besides baseball. His favorite book was Les Miserables, and he carried (and reread) it several times in his first years with the Tigers. He loved biographies, favoring books on Napoleon Bonaparte and Thomas Jefferson. Like Cobb, neither of those men were famous for simple brute strength or thoughtless natural talents. Perhaps Cobb used some of what he learned from those two savvy men when, upon entering the big leagues, he used a deliberately psychological approach to defeating physically superior opponents.

… continued in Part III

Focus On: Ty Cobb, pt. 1

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220px-ty_cobb_1916-restoreTy Cobb doesn’t need much of an introduction, at least in terms of his legend. Sure, most baseball fans know that he was the all-time Hits leader for most of the 20th century, and most have heard the stories (real and mythic) about his temper. Yet it might help refresh interest in Cobb to look at him from the point of view of some of the newer, advanced statistics. Was he really that good? The answer to that is yes, most especially when viewed in relation to his era (which is really the only way we can fairly judge). Check this out:

  • Ranks #4 all-time in both fWAR and rWAR
  • Ranks #8 all-time in career wRC+
  • Had a season wRC+ of over 160 in 16 different seasons, covering an 18 year range (he hit 161 in 1907 and 166 in 1925)
  • He lead all of MLB in OPS+ nine times, and lead the AL three other times

Comparing Cobb to later great players is difficult. First, many of the rules have changed, the quality of training has improved in every decade, and the league has progressively grown in size and become more integrated, changing the dynamics of greatness. Second, and perhaps in some ways just as challenging, is that we don’t know almost any details about his base running and fielding. For the bulk of Cobb’s career, we have literally no 635695383870925505-cobb-01records of how many times he was caught stealing, let alone how good he was at going from 1st to 3rd or 2nd to Home, etc. Fielding has a similar veil: all we have are Assists, Putouts and Errors. Did he have good Range? Did runners try to advance on his arm more or less often than other centerfielders? We have no idea. Still, there can be no doubt that he was, relative to his own era, one of the greatest hitters ever to play the game.

Cobb’s popularity at the time isn’t as apparent as it would be for players in later generations, either. There were no All-Star Games, Gold Gloves or Rookie of the Year Awards to win. He did win the MVP Award in 1911, but there was an odd rule that disqualified previous winners from winning again. What we do know is that, when the Hall of Fame had its first induction in 1936, Cobb lead all vote getters, beating out Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson. People knew he was great.

In Part II, I will begin to highlight the most interesting parts of the recent biography on Cobb titled Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty. In the early chapters of this book, author Charles Leerhsen sheds light on some truly fascinating and surprising facts about Cobb’s youth, intellectual life and progression as a ballplayer.