Old Guys; New Stats

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.


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2 Responses to “Old Guys; New Stats”

  1. Glen Russell Slater Says:

    Nice picture. I’m glad you didn’t put Sarah Palin up there.

    As for me, I’m from the old school, and I don’t bother with the OPS and WAR stuff at all. I’m too damn lazy to figure it out. I’m set in my ways. I judge players by batting average, home runs, RBI’s, On Base Percentage, Runs Scored (100 in a season is GREAT), the ability to move the runner over (never a wasted at-bat), stolen base percentage, slugging percentage, total bases, ERA (I never put much stock into won-lost record; see Tom Seaver’s career with the Mets for an ideal example of a guy who would have won thirty in a season at least once had he gotten the run support), and other “old school” statistics.

    I think that another statistic that’s gotten ignored, however, is runs batted in per home run. Solo homers aren’t worth very much compared to ones hit with runners on base.

    You enjoy both holidays, too. I’m not much of a fan of New Years, though. I find New Years to be very depressing. I call it “New Month”. So happy January to you and yours.


  2. William Miller Says:

    Hey V, Sorry it took me so long to get to this post. Just catching up after a couple of weeks of non-stop kids. Great pic! And your point is well-taken. Stats can only get you so far in comparing players across eras when the game was so very different. I look at it more as a constant evolution in the world of stats. I think we’re far from saying what we have now is good enough, but to me, it’s better than what we had to rely on 40-years ago.
    Hope the holidays went smoothly enough for you.

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