The proliferation of new statistics in the last few years has been a mixed blessing. Some of them are pretty good, others not so much. In studying 19th Century baseball I’ve used both the traditional stats (ERA, BA, hits, runs, etc) and the newer stats (OPS+, ERA+, WAR, etc) to look at the players. The newer stats present something of a conundrum.
Below I’ve listed the OPS+ of two players. Their stat is for a five consecutive year period at the peak of each man’s career (all stats below from Baseball Reference.com):
player 1: 186/175/184/147/142
player 2: 211/207/143/176/235
Now the WAR for a five consecutive year period during the career peak for two players:
player 1: 7.9/6.8/8.6/5.7/4.8
player 2: 4.7/5.2/2.5/5.8/6.1
Next the ERA+ of two pitchers, again for a five consecutive year period during their peak years:
pitcher 1: 155/149/185/217/160
pitcher 2: 167/143/135/115/129
Finally the WAR for two pitchers over a five consecutive year period at their peak:
pitcher 1: 7.9/6.8/8.6/5.7/4.8
pitcher 2: 12.3/10.2/11.3/13.4/14.0
First, the obvious question, “who are these guys?” The first player in both OPS+ and WAR is Joe DiMaggio in the years 1939-42 and 1946 (Joltin’ Joe lost two years to World War II). The second player in both stats is Ross Barnes in the years 1872-76. And here a caveat. I realize that Barnes is in the National Association in 1872-75 and the National League only in 1876, but as his stats are available I’m going to use them. The first pitcher in both ERA+ and WAR is Lefty Grove in 1928-1932 and the second pitcher for both stats is Tommy Bond in 1875-1879 (and, again, Bond is in the NA in 1875).
Notice a few things? First, the two hitters are pretty comparable, aren’t they? According to OPS+ Barnes is better than DiMaggio three times, and in WAR is better twice. In fact, other than Barnes’ third number in both lists, they are pretty much a wash. And somehow we all know that’s just wrong. Does anyone seriously consider Ross Barnes as good as Joe DiMaggio, even if for only a five-year period? I doubt it.
Now take a look at the pitchers. The two men are roughly comparable for the first two years of ERA+, then Grove really takes off. In WAR, Bond is consistently better. Really? Would you truly want Tommy Bond over Lefty Grove? Again, I doubt it.
So what’s going on here? Surely a number of things. First, the 19th Century players are involved in a lot fewer games played and anybody can get hot for a few games. Look up Bob Hazle in 1957 if you don’t believe me. Secondly, the nature of the way pitchers are used in the 19th Century, especially early, is so utterly different that it blows statistics completely out of kilter. Sticking with Grove and Bond, if you look at one single stat, batters faced, you see the problem immediately. In his career, the most batters Grove faced in any season was 1191 in 1930. Bond, on the other hand, faced 1408 as his low in 1875 (his high was 2189 in 1879). Think that fact alone doesn’t skew the stats? In the immortal words of Sarah Palin, “you betcha.” (My, God, I’m quoting Sarah Palin. Yutz.)
And these two things alone make it imperative that the newer stats be used carefully when looking at 19th Century players. I’m not suggesting they be ignored. What I am suggesting is that a slavish devotion to any of the stats is a mistake, particularly in the world of 19th Century baseball, where even the word, base ball, is different.