Since I became a baseball fan (roughly 1975), there have only been one or two ballplayers greater than Joe Morgan. If I were pressed to name the most exciting player I've ever seen, Joe would be on the short list. He was a capable defender at a very demanding position, a patient hitter who hit for excellent power for his position. He was the best baserunner of his generation. Bill James, in The New Historical Baseball Abstract, named him the greatest percentage player in major league history. And although we've had some great second basemen come along since, no one has come close to matching little Joe.
Just a few days ago, baseball writers chose two new members for the Hall of Fame. By my count, that brings the number of players elected by the BBWAA to an even 100, 66 of which are non-pitchers (counting Babe Ruth as a non-pitcher). Many complain about the writers' acts of omission and commission over the years. The writers have had very high standards, much higher than the veteran committees organised in the past. For that we should be grateful, for there is virtually no chance of the writers electing someone like Jay Buhner or Lloyd Moseby to the Hall; the vet committees selected several players roughly with those credentials.
The writers have an inadequate grasp of the defensive spectrum. There are offensive positions - the outfield and first base - where the wear and tear on the body does not drastically limit the length of a career. And there are the defensive positions - second, third, short and catcher - where the toll on the body is greater and defence is of greater importance. It's tremendously difficult to get 3000 hits or hit 500 homeruns playing one of the defensive positions: those who've done it constitute an elite group. Since Morgan (and excluding 2B/1B Rod Carew), no second baseman has been elected to the Hall of Fame by the writers, despite there being three strong candidates. Ryne Sandberg (the most hyped candidate), Lou Whitaker and Bobby Grich would not be among the 40 weakest players in the Hall of Fame were they to be inducted. Bobby Grich, the weakest candidate of the three, received just 11 votes in 1992 and fell off the ballot. Lou Whitaker, a stronger candidate, received 15 votes in 2001 and fell off the ballot. Many thought that Sandberg would make it this year, but he ended up with a little over 60% of the votes, narrowly ahead of a vastly inferior player (Jim Rice 54.5%).
Mike, of Mike's Baseball Rants(scroll down to January 6th entry), looked at how freqently players with various career win share totals found their way to the Hall. All 39 eligible players with at least 400 career win shares are in the Hall (a 40th, Pete Rose, is a special case). From 350 to 399 win shares, 35 of 41 are in the Hall: three of the six that aren't are pre-Babe Ruth players; the other 3 are Rusty Staub, Darrell Evans and Lou Whitaker. In the 300-350 range, just over half of the eligibles are in. Among recent players so far rejected are outfielders Andre Dawson, Dave Parker and Dwight Evans; catchers Joe Torre and Ted Simmons; first baseman Keith Hernandez; middle infielders Bobby Grich, Willie Randolph, Alan Trammell and Ryne Sandberg; third baseman Ron Santo; and multi-position player Dick Allen. Mike concludes one of his paragraphs thus:
"Though there are an odd George Van Haltren or Tommy Leach thrown in, most of the players not in the Hall from this range are from the Sixties until the present. They best represent the chasm between what had previously been the de facto standard for a Hall of Famer and what is the standard today."
If the writers are going to apply such a high standard, then perhaps Grich and Whitaker are just on the wrong side of the line. But it's more likely that the writers don't know what they are doing. The problem as I see it is that many of the writers rely on numbers and, unfortunately, show little aptitude for contextualizing them. Absent compelling numbers, they are attracted to media personalities. How else to explain Ozzie Smith's first ballot election when a player of equal credentials (Alan Trammell) languishes around 10% of the votes. We can only hope that in 40 years all the writers will be thoroughly versed in the core sabrmetric tenets and we'll truly have experts worthy of the term deciding membership in the most prestigious institution in baseball.
Enough about the voting ...
Win shares is a very good system for estimating value, but there are a few important limitations in its application to consider. First, avoid comparing pitchers and position players - there's some evidence that the system shortchanges starting pitchers in particular. Second, avoid comparing relievers to starters - again, it seems that the system favours ace relievers over starters. Finally, and most importantly in the present context, two important adjustments need to be made to compare position players in a fair manner.
The first is to account for the DH rule. Suppose we take a 100-game sample - in that sample an average team will win 50 games, which equals 150 win shares. The system assigns approximately 48% of them to the offense - 72 win shares in this case. In the National League, those shares get divided among 8 positions and some pinch hitters - let's call it 8.5 positions. In the American League, those same shares are divided among 9 positions. Therefore, two equivalent offensive performances by an individial player would result in different win share totals depending on the presence or absence of the DH rule. The NL average would be 72 divided by 8.5 - 8.47 win shares per position; in the AL you'd get 72 divided by 9 - 8 win shares per position. This leads to the first adjustment: for every 100 games played in a DH league, a player receives a 0.5 win share bonus.
The second adjustment is for length of schedule. We ought to adjust seasonal win share totals for 1972, 1981, 1994 and 1995 to account for shortened schedules. This is very important as far as estimating peak value is concerned (a player who peaked around 1981 or 1994 would have his peak value numbers cut drastically if not for this adjustment). For this purpose, I prorated a player's win share total in the shortened season out to a full schedule. When dealing with career value, I gave only 50% credit for the prorated win shares, because of the risk the non-existent games might have had on a player's health and therefore on his career.
Here is a table comparing the career value of some notable second basemen:
|Years||Players||games||Adjusted||adjusted games||Win Shares over replacement|
The first four columns should be self-explanatory. The fifth column is win shares adjusted for DH leagues and work stoppages, and the sixth is career games adjusted for work stoppages.
The final column is a bit more complicated. One of the things apparent in win shares is that the "floor" has been set too low. The "floor" is the replacement level: the level at which new talent can be brought in at relatively little cost without a loss of value. I estimate that a replacement player would earn approximately 6 win shares over 162 games, so I recalculated career win shares using this new "zero" line. This is the win shares equivalent of VORP (Value over Replacement Level)
In his first Historical Abstract, Bill James created two ranking lists: one based on peak value and another based on career value. To my dismay, he shelved this approach in the New Historical Abstract and created a single list.
Joe Morgan obviously ranks first in career value among these players. Biggio and Alomar have passed the others and are so close that we need to bring in other factors. Alomar's excellence in post-season play pushes him ahead of Biggio and Lou Whitaker slots in at 4th. Grich and Sandberg are close too, but Ryno gets the nod for 5th place due to his excellent performance in 10 post-season games.
Next up, a look at a much more complex concept - peak value/ability. Peak means different things to different people - I view it at the highest point on the mountain that is a baseball player's career. Some might think that a single season (or even a single game!) would be the best test of peak value/ability, but I can't agree with that line of thinking. Performance is merely a sample of our abilities. If I were audacious enough I might stamp that on my forehead so I'd be reminded of it whenever I looked in the mirror. A single season is a relatively small sample of a player's abilities; for example, over 550 AB, a player's batting average can easily vary 70 points based on nothing more than chance.
I wasn't completely satisfied with any single measure of peak value/ability, so I used four different measures and combined them on a weighted basis. The four measures (along with their weights) are:
Best year (35%)
Average of best 3 consecutive years (25%)
Average of best 3 years (25%)
Average of best 7 consecutive years (15%)
Here is how the super seven measure up:
|Years||Players||Best||3 c||3 best||7 c||Composite|
Craig Biggio had quite an impressive 7-year stretch, not far behind Morgan's best. Sandberg, Alomar and Biggio have similar composite peak scores. Sandberg's impressive post-season record pushes him past Biggio, but the gap is a little too large back to Alomar. Neither Whitaker nor Randolph were great in the playoffs so no changes there. I'd rank them in this order: Morgan, Sandberg, Biggio, Alomar, Grich, Whitaker, Randolph.
Utilizing 7-year average win shares per season, we can analyze the rise and fall of a baseball career. Some players (like Joe Morgan) reach a very high peak after a relatively pedestrian start to their careers; others (like Lou Whitaker) improve and decline gradually. My method for determining the steepness of rise and fall of a baseball career (SLOPE) consists of taking the average of the first and last 7-year period of a player's career and comparing it to the peak 7-year period. In formula form it looks like this:
The first seven-year is defined as the one which starts when the player first plays 70 or more major league games in a season. The last seven-year period is defined as the one which ends when the player last plays 70 or more games in a season. For active players, 85% of the win shares accumulated in the first 7-year period is used in place of the last 7-year period. I will list the player from steepest to flattest rise and fall, with total adjusted win shares during each 7-year period noted.
|Players||FIRST||LAST||PEAK||SLOPE||Joe Morgan||156.0||140.7||249.4||+68%||Craig Biggio||183.4||155.9||233.4||+38%||Ryne Sandberg||164.0||122.9||194.0||+35%||Roberto Alomar||172.5||146.6||186.1||+17%||Willie Randolph||150.5||112.9||150.5||+14%||Bobby Grich||173.1||178.8||143.4||+13%||Lou Whitaker||150.3||166.1||146.4||+12%|
Lou Whitaker's career is about as flat as any you'll see. He became a very good ballplayer after a few years in the league, inched forward, and inched back as he entered his mid-30's. Of particular note is how the early part of Little Joe's career is unremarkable within this little comparison group.
A final tidbit ... The seven players sorted by age of peak ability (defined as the middle year in the 7-year peak): Randolph 25.0, Grich 27.5, Whitaker 29.1, Biggio 29.6, Sandberg 29.8, Alomar 30.4, Morgan 30.8. Is it possible that great players peak later than non-greats (at the same position)? Tango (if you're reading), what do you think?