The Player Comments, part I

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

SI just did a piece about sports bucket lists, the suggested answers being sporting events one wants to attend before one dies.  As I've gotten older, my interest in attending live events has diminished considerably; I have a big TV and when I'm not working my interest in wading through social interactions is less than zero.  But I do have a list.  Currently on it is reposting my Top 200 MLB Players Ever.  Those of you from the previous blog recognize that at least half of the posts were dedicated to composing the list, putting up player comments and eventually revealing the entire countdown.  In moving material over from the remnants of that site, I have been aflame with repurposing the list; the metrics have changed more than a little bit to enchance defense and I altered my methodology to take peak value into greater account.  The ordering of the Top 200 is now finished, yes, it's taken an obscene amount of time, so as soon as I can get the statistics in place, the new and improved top 200 will be here.  And my bucket will be empty like Bob Novak's. 

Here are some excerpts of the old player comments.  They use the previous version of WARP3 but the updated and revised list will be current.  Sure, I wasn't in love with putting in crazy work and then having the numbers change.  But it's a better list as a result.  No, I don't know why I'm like this, but I always have been. 

RON CEY: The moral of the story - there's no debate that Cey had the best career, and there's no debate that Lopes was 2nd. Garvey's the one you know; he was a glamor player at a glamor position in a glamor town; I don't know if there were 5 better known baseball players on the planet in the late 1970s than Steve Garvey. But he had no power, didn't walk, and hurt you with his glove; he was just another guy. He was nice to me in 2000; as a guy, I have nothing bad to say about Garvey, but he wasn't as good as we were led to believe. If you're a baseball fan about my age, in your (gulp) late 30s, and your sense of baseball was formed in the late 70s, to learn that not only was Darrell Evans a better baseball player than Steve Garvey - but that it isn't even close is a transformative experience. That's a good litmus test, actually, for your local beat writer (or Bob Costas) ask him who was better, Evans or Garvey. If he gets it wrong, literally never listen to another syllable. The science has left him behind.

BOB LEMON An example of where the Pete Palmer stats from the Baseball Encyclopedia (Total Baseball is gone, taken over by Baseball Encyclopedia, which was taken over by ESPN, regardless, I heart it so dearly and my copy sits beside my computer, well, not this computer, since I'm at work, but the other computer, the one I sit at pantsless, which, I know, is creepy to consider) help to balance WARP3 - the Davenport number for Lemon is low; if BP ever puts out a list of the 200 best MLB players ever, Lemon won't be on it - but Lemon's Palmer number is high, and in the wash, Bob comes out, coincidentally enough, right one spot ahead of Chet. In my head I see them sitting over a beverage of some type, a cool refreshing drink perhaps, chuckling at the result. Of course, even this ranking would take Bob clean out of the HOF (dude had a short career, yo) I don't know where I'd cut off membership to the HOF, but I'm thinking I wouldn't invite all 200 guys - maybe only the top 100 make it, the second 100 wind up celebrated in an auxillary unit - actually, concentric circles make sense - as, while all of the guys at this level are real close - once we get higher, there's real separation among the top guys - not hard at all really to find a top 25, for example. Perhaps you have, I don't know, 9 circles, ever widening, of players in the HOF, maybe for a total of 200, maybe fewer, maybe just 180 - and when a player comes into the list, as obviously will keep happening - that means someone gets kicked out. Why not? Kicked out of the HOF - absolutely. Moved down to a new circle. Sure. Right now, the Lemons are on the edge of this list - but five years from now, certainly they can't keep their spots.

Concentric circles for the Baseball HOF, say 9 of them and a total of 180 guys, and you get moved down once you're passed up. How about that? Lemon's worst season from '48-56 was 1954 (WARP 3 6.2), which was, of course, the Indian team with 111 wins. The Indians lost that WS (the Giants last, as of this writing, WS title) but won in '48 (the last time, as of this writing, the Indians won the WS) which, at 11.2, was Lemon's second best season. 3 Indians were over WARP3 11.0 in '48, Keltner was 11.7 and Lou Boudreau - Lou Freaking Boudreau had a WARP3 of 15.7 in 1948. That means the left side of the Indians infield in '48 had a WARP3 of 27.4; that might be (I'm making this up) the best season for a 3B/SS combo ever. Tack on Joe Gordon's 9.6 from 2B and you see why this was the Indian team that won the whole thing. Only one guy, Bobby Avila, had a WARP3 over 8.2 from that '54 team - perhaps the view that the '54 team was superior needs to be reassessed. Bob Lemon's the first HOF'er on the list, the first pitcher on the list, the first player on the list with 2 seasons of 10.0+ WARP3 and he's the 198th greatest major league baseball player ever.

ALBERT BELLE: Dude could rake. He's the first name on the list from the "steroid" era, and he fits the profile. My feelings about steroids, mentioned in other places of this blog are that we can adjust for the offensive inflation of this era the same way we can adjust for the inflation that produced Hack Wilson's 191 rbi or the deflation of the 1960s; era adjustments and ballpark adjustments are not new; it's an easy fix. While the "steroid" era had a spike in offense, it wasn't an unprecedented one; simple research shows that the view that somehow all baseball until 1998 was played on a level field is demonstrably untrue. Offense goes up, offense goes down. Happens. The degree to which a smaller strike zone, smaller ballparks, changes in bat and ball, and other non steroid related factors influenced the most recent offensive spike are hard to quantify, but obviously they play some role. It's reasonable to think that steroids played some role too; all medical science has, be it in training or recovery - be it in radically improved surgical procedures and preventive medcine, be it the incredible monetary increases in the game that allow teams and players to focus 365 days a year in improving their bodies - whether it's Curt Schilling's ability to get his tendon sewed to his sock or Kirk Gibson having gallons of cortisone poured into his body - or player X getting lasik eye surgery, all technology, presumably, plays some role in increasing performance. We do adjustments for era and let the numbers speak. The pre-1947 players on the list are all white - and all Americans; the game not only opened up to African-Americans, but has evolved to mine global talent; the available pool of pitchers against hitters, hitters against pitchers, is exponentially deeper in 2008 than was it in 1988, 1968, 1948 or 1928. To my way of thinking, the reaction that allegations that player Y used some type of performance enhancing drug for some measure of his career invalidates that career is not supportable.

I don't have the slightest idea if Albert Belle took steroids. I don't have the slightest idea if he did take steroids to what extent that increased his performance. I don't have the slightest idea the extent to which we should invalidate any of those performance gains, even if we were able to specifically segregate them. I don't have the slightest idea how we can pretend that a home run hit while a ballplayer was "on the juice" did not happen. Does that mean the pitcher should have it removed from his record? What if the pitcher was "on the juice" - then is it okay? What if the pitcher was - and the batter wasn't? Does Babe Ruth get to keep all the home runs he hit against pitchers who would not have been in the league had African-Americans been allowed to pitch to him? Does Hank Aaron get to keep all the home runs he hit against pitchers who wouldn't have been in the league had all of the Latin American arms which have now been found, been mined, by MLB been available in the 1960s? Does Todd Helton give up home runs because the offensive spike for pre-humidor Coors Field was significantly higher than the leaguewide spike of the "steroid" era? Do we take away home runs hit in small ballparks and add home runs hit in large ballparks?

We make adjustments for era. Good adjustments. Significantly better adjustments to factor in the impact of inflation than does the consumer price index. To single out steroids (and then, just a handful of players suspected of using steroids - as I write this the Yankees just had Jason Giambi moustache day at the Stadium - when does Raffy Palmeiro get his moustache day? Why is it some suspected "users" are pariahs and others are celebrated?) as the one variable which invalidates facts.

Facts are good. They don't disappear because we don't like them.

FRANK TANANA: The best criticism of this list is that the WARP3 number focuses on career value as opposed to peak value; which is why, as mentioned elsewhere, when Baseball Prospectus evaluates HOF candidates each year, they combine career WARP3 with the 7 top WARP3 seasons from each player. My use of the Baseball Encyclopedia number is a nod in that direction; you'll note there are guys on the list like Tanana with 100+ WARP numbers but sub 20 PW (Tanana has the lowest PW number on the list) one of those things reflected there is Tanana's main resume strength is he was able to pitch for 21 years. Only 3 of those years, '75-77 were premium years; Tanana was over 10 in WARP3 each of those seasons, almost a third of his career value coming in that stretch - in the rest of his career, he topped a WARP3 7.o just once and 6.0 just two additional times. That's years of mediocre pitching, which is why his PW is so low, and why he's at the bottom of the list.

But he is on the list - and Sandy Koufax isn't.

And that's intentional, that's a methodological choice that I've made in giving great weight to career value. On his best day, Frank Tanana was not as good as Sandy Koufax on his best day.

For one game, take Koufax.

But Sandy Koufax only had 3 seasons above a 10.0 WARP3, just like Tanana. And while his best season (11.9) was better than Tanana's (10.8) those numbers aren't as far apart as one might think. And then the rest of Koufax's career was one year above a 8.0, another year above 7.0, and seven seasons that look a lot like the rest of Tanana's career - except Tanana had twice as many of them.

So, at their best, Koufax was better than Tanana, but not by a substantial margin - what is substantial is that nearly 2000 innings that Tanana pitched that Koufax didn't. Sandy Koufax retired after 12 years with a WARP3 of 68.3. Through Frank Tanana's first 12 years, his WARP3 was 69.5

If Frank Tanana had pitched for only as many innings as Sandy Koufax, he would have had the same career.

But Frank Tanana then pitched for 9 more seasons. Almost 2000 innings more than Koufax.

So, while I recognize that one is in the HOF, one made the ESPN list of the greatest 100 athletes of the century, one is revered, immortalized, considered one of the half dozen greatest pitchers ever - it's the other one who is on my list.

And should be. Frank Tanana was better than Sandy Koufax. The WARP3 for the '75 Angels was 39.1. Tanana was more than a quarter of the value of the entire club. The WARP3 for the '76 Angels was 38.3. Tanana was more than a quarter of the value for that club. Frank Tanana was the 196th best player in MLB history.

BOBBY ABREU: Abreu benefits from a nudge upward that active players are getting. It's a small nudge for Abreu; I'm trying to project just to the end of the 2008 regular season, given that the list, I'm guessing, will run not only through the remainder of this season, but finish up somewhere over the winter. With how close the math is, what I'd like to avoid is not ranking Abreu today - but then having to say he's 190th three months from now. So, it's not a projection to the end of his career - that's not the nudge active players are getting - just what should be expected between now and October. A guy who just misses currently is Andruw Jones, who, when I first took a pass at this, projected as #199 by season's end - but now, with his BA still under the Mendoza line, it doesn't appear he'll make it. Both Abreu and Jones are good examples of guys who have been in sharp decline since the heightened steroid scrutiny, but who haven't been tarred at all with the "cheater" brush. Abreu's power disappeared seemingly overnight, and Jones is in total freefall. This isn't to say they (1) used steroids or (2) gave up steroids or (3) that steroids are a significant factor in their declines even given (1) or (2). It's to say that even within baseball, the tarnishing of guy X as opposed to guy Y has been capricious. And considering the entire sports landscape - Terry Bradshaw has admitted to prescription steroid use and there is a body count developing from that 70s Steeler team - and why is it that Evander Holyfield gets to keep his reputation as a good guy; look at the evidence connecting him with steroids. One of the tests of any system, be it legal or ethical, is its ability to be applied consistently. The scarlet letters we've thrown onto certain baseball players of this era as opposed to other athletes serve as examples of how wrongheaded our approach to steroids has been; and while I'm largely wishcasting with this next part - I think history will not be kind to this period of sports commentary regarding PED use. The hypocrisy is thick; everytime I have heard a fan or analyst call a Barry Bonds a cheater - or, as Brian Kenny did on his New York radio show, "a villain" I wait for the condemnation of their guys. Andy Pettitte? Jason Giambi? Gary Sheffield and Roger Clemens were Yankees for several years. If you're a Pirates fan, harboring anger at Bonds for leaving in '93 and carrying around a big foam asterisk - my assumption is you feel the Steelers 70s dynasty was tainted.

Sports fans are essentially haters - rooting against whomever they don't root for. But to transpose that impulse to the level of ferociousness that has existed in demonizing a Barry Bonds - who sits unemployed, under indictment, a year after a .480 OBP - has amazed me. Bonds has been squarely placed by sports media and other sports analysts in the same category as OJ Simpson - the anger, the hatred, the vitriol that has been spewed in his direction - while a Jason Giambi gets moustache day at Yankee Stadium - is nothing short of shocking.

DUCKY MEDWICK: Oh yeah, he won the Triple Crown in '37, last time it ever happened in the NL. So there's that. His OPS+ that year was 180.

Not much not to like. A slightly above average glove, 35 runs over for his career in LF. A good, good bat - 3 years over 10.0 and the rightful best player in the NL in '37. The deal with the Dodgers was weird; Medwick broke in when he was 20; he was still 28 when he was moved in '40, and in addition to those 3 years of 10.0+ WARPs he had a total of 15.6 in '38 and '39, so the slip shouldn't have been as noticeable as it was.

As it turned out, Ducky left his big years in St Louis; he was just okay/good for Brooklyn in '40-42. But he and Curt Davis for Koy, Doyle, Nahem, and Haas doesn't seem like good value for the Cards. There are numbers that could be researched, I'm thinkin'.

Research done.

Rickey gave Ducky Medwick away. Twice.

This deal looked bad on its face, dealing a guy just a couple years out from his Triple Crown when he was still under 30 for nobody.

It turned out badly; as Dodgers, Medwick and Davis each put up total WARPs in the low 20s, the 4 guys the Cards got back did a total WARP of under 5 in their Cardinal careers.

Rickey followed Medwick to Brooklyn a couple years later - and then in '43 he sold him outright to the Giants.

Rickey gave away Ducky Medwick twice in 3 years.


JACK CLARK: When I was 14, I was skeptical, but didn't automatically hate the trade that sent Clark to the Cards for Green, Rajsich, LaPoint, and Uribe. As I went to write this, I was set tp make the argument that Clark's treatment in San Francisco was an example of the "blame the best player" syndrome, where the club's superstar gets unwarranted blame when his team never wins anything.Well - Clark was the club's superstar, and the Giants never won anything - but interestingly, Clark was only the best player on the Giants for one season, '78, his best year where he finished 5th in the NL MVP vote. Parker won that year - but had a lower WARP3. Garvey finished 2nd, also with a lower WARP3 (could Jack Clark have been the best player in the NL in 1978?) Reggie Smith finished 4th...again, lower than Clark. 7 year old Jim Jividen is very excited; I attended my first ever baseball game at Candlestick Park in 1978; had I known I was seeing the best player in the National League, my entire personal arc may have been altered! Larry Bowa finished 3rd and got 3 first place votes; it was Bowa's career year by a long way, but still - not as good as Clark. Not George Foster. Not Greg Luzinski. Not Gaylord or Winfield. Not Stargell. That's the top ten - I'll look at Rose before I call it - done.
Jack Clark had the best season in the NL in 1978.But in his 6 remaining Giants' seasons he never hit 7.0 again; they had Jeff Leonard/Chili Davis manning the corners, and after a 96 loss 1984, decided to make a move. Perfectly reasonable.
As a Cardinal:Clark: 17.3As Giants:Green: .8Rajsich -.2LaPoint: 3.2Uribe: 28.9Granted, Uribe was in San Francisco 8 years and Clark in StL only 3, but if you just take Uribe from '85-87, Clark's 3 years in StL - Jose's WARP3 total was 14.1; add in the other 3 from the deal (all only wore orange and black in '85) and what you get is:Cards: 17.3Giants: 17.9Even for just the stretch where Jack was in StL - the Giants got the better end. And then they got 5 more years of Uribe after that. Interesting. Sure, they could have moved Clark to first in '85 - he would have been an upgrade, but he with Will on the way, Jack had to go anyway - getting Uribe for him - I gotta say - sorta turned out to be a good deal.Clark was a bad RF, 40 runs under the league for his career - he's here because of the stick; you see the OPS+, his translated OBP/SLG in a career with 8200+ PA was .390/.551. I'm thinking this is going to lead to a piece dissecting all of the SFG RF.

ELMER FLICK: Flick could mash; that's the 39th best adjusted OPS in MLB history. Just a monster bat; the reason Flick is this low on the list is the short career; 1907 was his last productive year; essentially, Flick just spent his 20s hitting the crap out of baseballs and then quit. He was also a real, real good glove, 47 runs above average as a corner OF. You wanted this guy on your club. His OPS+ in his best season, 1900, was 170. His translated line that year was .340/.427/.672. He had translated slugging percentages over .600 four times. His career translated line is .308/.400/.570.

Which translates to awesome. Just awesome.

The Tigers offered a 20 year old Ty Cobb for him even up and were turned down, Flick got into a fistfight with Nap Lajoie and was the subject of a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision regarding his jumping from Phils to A's. Plus, his name was Elmer. Like Fudd. And that's boss.

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