Posts Tagged ‘Derek Jeter’

Nine Reasons to Remember the 2014 Season

December 30, 2014

Well, the year is almost over and so is the baseball season. As there are nine innings to a game and nine players to a side, it seemed reasonable to look back on the 2014 season in “nines”. So here’s nine reasons to remember in 2015 what happened in 2014.

1. Madison Bumgarner is one heck of a postseason pitcher. In World Series play he is 4-0 with an ERA of 0.25 in 36 innings with a save and a shutout. At 20 or more innings pitched, that’s number one. It’s also number one if you start with 25 innings, 30 innings, or 40 innings. To top that ERA you have to push the innings pitched total to over 50 innings (Sandy Koufax at 57 innings pitched).

2. Giants fans can take a breather in 2015. Since moving to San Francisco, the Giants have won six pennants. Five (1962, 2002, 2010, 2012, 2014) have been in even-numbered years. Only 1989 is an odd-numbered year.

3. Mike Trout finally won an MVP Award. It always looks strange to see a player win an MVP in a “down” year for them. Happened this year.

4. For the first time since Bob Gibson in 1968, a pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, won the National League MVP Award. How rare is it? The current NL award goes back to 1931 only Carl Hubbell (twice), Dizzy Dean, Bucky Walters, Jim Konstanty, and Don Newcombe won the award prior to the expansion era. Since expansion (1962 for the NL) only Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, and Kershaw have won. It’s somewhat more common in the American League. Add Newcombe to the expansion list and you have all of the NL pitchers who’ve won the MVP since the advent of the Cy Young Award.

5.  Derek Jeter, the last of the “Core Four” retired.

6. It was year 69 of the Cubs rebuilding. The last time Chicago made it to the World Series was 1945. Harry Truman was President.

7. The Kansas City Royals won a pennant for the first time since 1985. Their rebuilding only took 29 years.

8. For my Dodgers, it’s up to 26 years.

9. The Hall of Fame class of 2014 included three managers, two pitchers, and a power hitter. It was the biggest class since the mass enrollment of Negro League personnel in 2006.

That’s my nine. I presume yours will be different. Have a great 2015 and say it with me “Go Dodgers.”

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The Black Wagner

August 6, 2014

 

John Henry Lloyd

John Henry Lloyd

I’d normally hold this post until my usual look at Negro League baseball in February, but with all the hoopla over Derek Jeter’s retirement and his continued passing of greats like Carl Yastrzemski and Honus Wagner on the all-time hits list, I’m beginning to see a lot of lists trying to fit Jeter into the pantheon of shortstops. You’ve probably seen a few of these. They rank the top 10 (or 5 or 20) shortstops and place Jeter where they think he fits on the list. I’ve seen him number one (which is silly) and as low as ninth (which is also silly). But all these lists (at least the ones I have  seen) manage to leave out one man: John Henry Lloyd.

Lloyd was born in Florida in 1884. He was a superior ballplayer and by 1906 had gotten the attention of the Cuban X-Giants, one of the premier black teams in the country. He was quick and agile, a natural shortstop who could hit. That made him much in demand so he wandered a lot from team to team. It wasn’t that people didn’t want him, it was, as he said, “where the money was.” He played with the Philadelphia Stars from 1907 through 1909 then spent years with the Leland Giants, the Lincoln Giants, and finally with Rube Foster’s American Giants. (Do you note a pattern with the use of the name “Giants” for Negro League baseball in the era?). In 1912 he became manager of the Lincoln Giants and in 1913 led his team to a win over the American Giants in an early version of the Negro World Series (which began officially in 1924).

He spent time also in Cuba beginning in 1907. Between 1908 and 1930 he spent at least parts of 12 seasons playing in Cuba. His team won three championships (1912, 1925, and 1926). He is credited with hitting .329 in Cuba, but the records are sketchy.

Equally sketchy are the US stats. Baseball Reference credits him with hitting .340 and slugging .452 in 810 documented games. Per 162 games, they credit him with 32 doubles, 11 triples, four home runs, and 23 stolen bases. Those numbers are admittedly very incomplete. By way of proof, his Wikipedia page lists his batting average as .343.

He stayed in baseball, coaching local teams as late as 1943. Lloyd died in 1964 (that’s on his gravestone, some reports state his death occurred in 1965) in Atlantic City, New Jersey. His turn in the Hall of Fame came in 1977.

How good was he? It’s tough to tell, but contemporary reports compare him to Wagner. When told of the comparison, Honus Wagner said he was honored to be considered in the same category with Lloyd. That’s a good enough endorsement for me.

 

 

John Henry Lloyd's final resting place

John Henry Lloyd’s final resting place

The Derek Jeter Aura

March 3, 2014

So I see that Derek Jeter is hanging it up at the end of this season. That’s both good and bad. It’s, frankly, time for him to go, but it will cost MLB its face (which isn’t really David Wright, despite the recent poll) and the most recognizable player of his generation. He’ll get to make a grand tour, get lots of gifts (but try to top Rivera’s broken bat rocking chair), a ton of applause and adulation. Then he’ll ride off toward Cooperstown, making it in five years. It’s really a fitting way for him to leave us.

Ever notice how some players just have an aura about them? Ruth had one, so did Mantle. Koufax has it to a lesser degree. Well, Jeter has one too. He is “The Captain” the rock around which the Yankees built their latest dynasty. He’s the man with “The Flip” (which is still probably the best fielding play I ever saw). He is “one of the five greatest Yankees ever.” You hear all that don’t you?

Well, hang on a minute. Without trying to diminish Jeter’s legacy, which is formidable, let’s not get too carried away here. It’s not like he’s the first captain the team ever had. Gehrig was team captain too and Gehrig was a better player. If Jeter was the rock on which the latest Yankees dynasty was built, then he had a lot of other rocks around to hold up part of that foundation. There was Pettitte, Rivera, Posada (the so-called “Core Four”), and there was Clemens, and O’Neill, and Knoblauch, and Martinez too.

Jeter reminds me of Joe DiMaggio. He has the same aura about him. Both are great players, but both seem to be remembered as being somehow greater than they were in actuality. It took twenty-five years for fans to realize that Mantle was a greater player than DiMaggio and Jeter has that kind of aura too. I don’t mean to imply that somehow the Yanks have a greater shortstop in their history, only to point out that Jeter is revered in much the same way as DiMaggio. There’s a reverence about them that is different from the awe that surrounds either Mantle or Gehrig, or for that matter, Ruth. For the latter three it seems that “awe” is more appropriate and with Jeter and DiMaggio the word is “reverence.”

As for being “one of the five greatest Yankees ever” I suppose you could make that case for Jeter, although I’d rank him in the six through eight range, behind Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, DiMaggio, and Berra and in line with Ford and Rivera. That’s not a bad place to be, all things considered. He’s probably a top five to ten shortstop (certainly behind Wagner and Ripken) depending on how you categorize Banks and Yount. He was never Ozzie Smith in the field, but then neither was much of anyone else.

Then it’s good-bye to Derek Jeter. The Yankees will miss him. I think a greater tribute is that baseball will miss him.

Adios, Jorge

January 13, 2012

Jorge Posada

Now that I expended all my Spanish, except for words like Taco, burrito, and refried beans, on the title, it’s time to bid farewell to Yankees catcher Jorge Posada. Never been a great fan of either the Yankees or Posada, but it’s tough to overlook his accomplishments. So now the Core Four are down to the Dynamic Duo (or is that Batman and Robin?).

I’ve always been sure that Posada was overlooked when it came to the great Yankees teams of 1996-2010. This was Derek Jeter’s team. Or it was Mariano Rivera’s team. Posada sometimes seemed to be the guy who wasn’t Joe Girardi. That’s kind of a shame. He was not just good, but was a key part of the team. He wasn’t Bernie Williams cool or Paul O’Neil fiery or Tino Martinez clutch or even Chuck Knoblauch error-prone. He was, however, always there, always contributing, always available.

In some ways he wasn’t a typical Yankees catcher. He wrote children’s books (can you seriously image Yogi Berra doing that?). I read one. It was pretty good (Heck, I even understood it). He was, despite a notable accent, quite articulate. He was a major conduit into the Hispanic community.

Part of  his problem was that he was almost never the best catcher of the era. For the last decade of the 20th Century both Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez were better and for much of the first few years of the 21st that was still true. By the time they were fading there was Joe Mauer. And he was also a Yankees catcher. Consider this pedigree: Wally Schang, Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson. Quite a legacy to live up to, right? By and large I thought Posada lived up to it quite well. So he wasn’t Yogi or he wasn’t Dickey. Well, almost no one else has ever been either, but to be mentioned with them is quite a feat. And that’s not taking into account that his wife  looks like this:

Laura Posada

So from a non-fan of the Yankees, Adios,  Jorge. You were better than we anti-Yankees types wished. You were also better than we baseball fans could have hoped for. Enjoy your retirement.

The First Number Two

July 14, 2011

Mark Koenig

Now that we’ve thoroughly hashed and rehashed Derek Jeter, maybe it’s time to turn and look at another man who played shortstop for New York. There have been a lot of them from Ernie Courtney who started the first game for the New York Highlanders in 1903 (they were in Baltimore in 1901 and 1902) through Tony Fernandez, the guy Jeter replaced. The man I want to look at is Mark Koenig, the shortstop on what is arguably the most famous of all teams, the 1927 Murder’s Row Yankees.

Koenig was born in San Francisco on 19 July 1904 (almost exactly 107 years ago). He was a good ball player in high school, got a tryout with the local team, made the low minors in 1921 (he was 16 when the season started), got to St. Paul in 1924 and stayed there through 1925. His 1924 team won the American Association title and got a chance to play in the “Little World Series”, a post season playoff between the AA champ and the International League champion (those were the top minor leagues of the era). St. Paul won in ten games (5-4 with a tie). Koenig played well enough that the Yankees bought him and brought him to the Major Leagues in 1926. He was a disaster. He led the American League in errors with 52 (and four more in the World Series). He hit OK at .271 with no power and more walks than strikeouts. In the Series he hit only .125 with one double and his fourth error led to the Cardinals’ World Series clinching run in game seven. So far, he wasn’t much.

In 1927, the Yankees produced what many people conclude is the greatest of all teams. Koenig hit second and stayed at shortstop. His error total dropped to 47, still first in the American League, but he was also third in assists. He hit .285, still had no power, didn’t walk much (and struck out less), and had 15 sacrifices (a factor for the two hitter). In the World Series he hit  a team leading .500 with two doubles and scored five runs. In 1928 his errors increased to 49, but he dropped to second in the league (Red Kress of the Browns had 55). His average topped out at .319, with a .415 slugging percentage, an OBP of .360 (all career highs at the time). With the Yanks in the Series for the third straight year, Koenig hit .158. and scored one run in the four game sweep of the Cardinals. During his tenure, the Yankees adopted numbers for the players. They did it by simply giving the first hitter number one, the second number two, the third number three, and so on. That’s why Ruth was number three. So Koenig was the original number two for the Yanks (I wonder if Derek Jeter knows that).

In 1929, he became the backup infielder, playing 116 games and hitting .292. Leo Durocher was the new shortstop, hit terribly, but fielded much better than Koenig. After 21 games in 1930, he was sent to Detroit where he teamed with Charlie Gehringer at second base. Koenig remained there through 1931 and ended up sent to the Pacific Coast League in 1932. Late in the season he was called up by the Cubs and hit .353 with three home runs, and 11 RBIs in 102 at bats. He was considered by many to be the spark that helped the Cubs to the National League title and a World Series matchup against his old team, the Yankees. The Series was controversial for two reasons. First, the Cubs granted Koenig only a half-share of the World Series payout, a not unreasonable act considering he’d only played in 33 games. This got the attention of Babe Ruth, who liked Koenig.  Ruth began riding the Cubs for the entire Series for being cheap, the Cubs returned the favor by referencing Ruth’s ancestry (among other things). All that climaxed in the Series’ second great controversy, Ruth’s “called shot,” which I’m not about to weigh in on.

Koenig stayed with Chicago in 1933, didn’t do much, was traded to Cincinnati in 1934, had a decent year and was involved in one last controversy. The Reds were pioneering using  airplanes to travel to away games. Koenig was one of two players (Jim Bottomley was the other) who refused to fly. It got him into some trouble with the team’s front office, but they arranged to send him by train to away games.

He moved back to New York, this time with the Giants for the final two years of his career (1935-36). He got into one last World Series in 1936 (again against his old Yankees team), went one for three (a single) in a losing effort. He was through as a Major Leaguer after the Series. He played one final season in San Francisco and retired at age 33. He spent his last years running service stations and working in a brewery in the San Francisco area. He retired to Sacramento and died in April 1993, the last of the 1927 Yankees. I remember they made a big deal about it in the papers in ’93.

For his career, Koenig hit .279, slugged .367, and had an OBP of .316 for an OPS of .683 (OPS+ of 80). He had 1190 hits for 1567 total bases, 195 doubles, 49 triples, and 28 home runs. He also drove in 443 runs, and stole 31 bases. In fielding he led the AL in range factor in 1927, but offset that by making a ton of errors (even for his own day he was a terrible fielding shortstop).

He’s remembered now only for being part of the 1927 Yankees, and I guess that’s fair. He wasn’t a star, he wasn’t a great player, but he did contribute to a great team. Ultimately, that’s an acceptable legacy for a ball player.

Tall at Short

July 13, 2011

In my last post I answered Bill Miller’s question concerning my evaluation of Derek Jeter as an all-time Yank. Bill actually asked two questions. The second asked my opinion as to Jeter’s position in the shortstop pantheon. So, as I said earlier, I’m not immune from putting my foot solidly in my mouth, so here’s a reply to that query.

First the evaluations of shortstops are more difficult than a lot of positions. By general consensus Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Rickey Henderson, and Barry Bonds (done in the order they arrived in the big leagues) are the top four left fielders. There record as left “fielders”, as opposed to hitters is a mixed bag. Let me ask this, do you seriously care? Probably not. All are in the lineup to hit and it they can catch and throw then you have gravy. But it doesn’t work that way with a shortstop. You can’t just concentrate on his hitting. Fielding matters and fielding stats are most nebulous and imprecise of baseball stats. So you can’t just look at Jeter and say, “Well, sure, he’s better than Ozzie Smith because Smith didn’t hit nearly as well” (Using Smith purely as an example). That may be true, but Smith was twice the fielder that Jeter is (and that’s true of Smith versus almost anyone at short) and so that must be taken into serious consideration. If you decide that Williams and Bonds are a dead tie as hitters, you can use fielding as a way of picking one over the other, but with shortstops you have to consider this stat from the start. So looking at shortstops requires going into the fielding stats minefield.

Secondly, an inordinate number of truly fine shortstops have spent a lot (and I mean a LOT) of time at other positions. Honus Wagner was up for several years before settling at short, Robin Yount and Ernie Banks were both hurt and transfered to other positions (Yount to the outfield and Banks to first base) for significant parts of their career. In fact Banks ended up with more games at first than short, and Yount ended up with more total games in the outfield (but not at any single position in the outfield) than at short. And to give you a contemporary player, Alex Rodriguez has now spent more time at thrid than at short. All this makes it difficult to view a player as a shortstop rather than as an overall players (although doing so year by year instead of via career numbers makes it easier). Besides what do you call Yount, a shortstop of an outfielder? To solve that I went to the Hall of Fame site and looked how they defined a player. They say Yount and Banks are both shortstops (and Willie Stargell a left fielder as opposed to a first baseman–just to give you some idea of what they do). So I decided to add both to my list. I left ARod off (which I know isn’t great for consistency) because he’s still playing and it is possible he will shift back to short and solve the question or will end up spending twice as many games at third and solve the problem that way. As I don’t know what will happen there (“It is always easier to prophesy after the event.”–Winston Churchill) I left him off.

So here’s my thought on the matter. I’ll list my one and two players, then the next three in alphabetical order. I’m certain who I think is first and who is second. Three through five tend to shift around depending on the day, the stats I’m looking at, the latest book I’ve read (the phases of the moon), but I’m reasonably confident which three go there.

1. Honus Wagner. There are a lot of really good shortstops, but Wagner is still head  and shoulders above the rest. Personally, I think the drop from number one to number two is greater at shortstop than at any other position (no offense to number two, below).

2. Cal Ripken. He set the standard for a new kind of shortstop. He was mobile and he had power. He didn’t have the flash of Smith, but he was very adept at playing the hitter in such a way that he very seldom had to make a spectacular play.

3-5. Ernie Banks, Arky Vaughan, Robin Yount. Banks was the prototype for Ripken. It just didn’t take. All three of these are much alike. They are good enough shortstops (I’d rate Yount as the best) with a glove, but all hit very well; Banks for good power, Yount for occasional power. Both Yount and Banks win double MVPs and Vaughan could well have won one.

So where is Jeter? He’s in the next bunch. There are an entire pack of really good quality shortstops that can be rated 6-10. There’s Ozzie Smith, the underrated Alan Trammel, Barry Larkin, Joe Cronin, both Lu Ap’s (Luis Aparicio, Luke Appling), Reese, Rizzuto, Omar Vizquel, and old-timer George Davis who could take the next five slots (and I’m sure I left off at least one deserving candidate). Jeter is one of those that fit right in with this group. Right now I’d certainly put him in the mix, probably very high in that mix. I’m reasonably sure he’s going to move up my food chain. I expect him to end up a top five, possibly as high as third or fourth. But I’m going to wait until the career ends to drop him into a definite hole.

Having said that, he ought to get at least an extra point or two for standing along the first base line, grabbing a badly thrown ball, and flipping to Posada to nail Jeremy Giambi at the plate during the playoffs. Arguably the greatest play I ever saw. For all the overhyping of Derek Jeter (and I’ve been critical of it) he is the closest we’ve had to a baseball icon since the steroid scandal broke. Baseball could surely use one and Jeter has done a good job of filling that role.

Top 10

July 11, 2011

In a comment on the post below, Bill Miller asked me who were my choices for the 10 greatest Yankees. Well, never being one to shy away from making a fool of myself, I’m going to answer that. Here’s my list of the ten greatest Yankees, 1-5 in order, 6-9 listed alphabetically, and then number 10.

The Babe

1. Babe Ruth–do I have to really go into any detail as to why?

The Iron Horse

2. Lou Gehrig–Is arguably the second greatest player in MLB history (I think that’s too high, but understand people who want to make that argument), the greatest first baseman ever, and the classiest player on any team anytime.

The Mick

3. Mickey Mantle–It’s a tough call over DiMaggio, but I think I want Mantle’s combination of speed, power, and hitting. Sure, he hung on too long and lost out on a .300 batting average. I think if he’d ended up over .300 there might not be a question of who is the greatest Yankees center fielder.

Joltin’ Joe

4. Joe DiMaggio–Like Gehrig, a classy player. In many ways the opposite of  Mantle. Where Mantle was raw and powerful, DiMaggio was elegant and effortless. Still his numbers overall aren’t as good, so I go with the Mick.

Yogi

5. Yogi Berra–OK, he’s become a national comedian with his use of the English language, but I saw him play and God could he hit. He looked funny doing it, but he could do it so well. A lot of people forget he was a very good catcher too. The Yanks used to find all sorts of journeyman pitchers like Johnny Kucks, Don Larsen, and company and they ended up doing superbly, at least for short periods, with New York. I’ve  always thought Yogi had a lot to do with that.

6-9. In alphabetical order, Whitey Ford, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Red Ruffing. These guys I have a personal order for, but I have to admit it varies sometimes and I could be talked into turning the order around. I think they are all close and it’s hard to compare Jeter to the pitchers. It’s also hard to compare starting pitchers with relievers. As a rule I prefer starters over relievers because I’d rather have a guy who is good and can give my team 200-250 mostly quality innings over a guy who’s going to give me 70-100 mostly quality innings, even if most of those 70-100 are the ninth inning. After all, you gotta get through the first 24 outs before you can worry about the last three.

I know the above paragraph sounds pretty wishy-washy, but every time I think I have a list of greats down the way I want them, someone comes up with a new stat or I read something that puts a different nuance onto a player’s career. Then the list goes out the window and I start over. So I’m comfortable knowing 6-9 are the right guys. I’m much less comfortable with the exact order.

10. There are a lot of guys who could go here, Don Mattingly, Bill Dickey, Dave Winfield (and others). My personal choice is Reggie Jackson, but I recognize the difficulty in chosing a guy who was only there five years. But what a heck of a five years they were. Although winning is very much a team stat, I think it matters to a degree in judging a player. That degree has to do with how much impact that player has on the team. Using the four players listed above, Mattingly and Winfield simply never won as Yankees, and although Dickey won in the 1930’s and early 1940s I think that has a lot more to do with having Ruth, Gehrig, and DiMaggio as teammates. On the other hand, the late 1970s Yankees were Jackson’s team. The line used about him was that the was “the straw that stirred the drink.” He was indeed that. So at this point I pick Jackson, knowing that someone reading this is quite capable of convincing me otherwise.

Anyway, there’s my list. First I know it’s pretty standard (except maybe for Jackson). No great surprises, but that’s probably to be expected. I know many will disagree, and that’s OK too. Have at it, team.

Doing it with style

July 10, 2011

All congratulations to Derek Jeter on 3000 hits. As usual for him he did it with style (a home run and 5 for 5) and with class. He now becomes the first player to get 3000 hits as a Yankees player. And that’s what I want to talk about.

There has been so much made about Jeter being the all-time Yankees hit leader and the first to record 3000 hits (a handful of other guys spent time in New York on the way to 3000 hits, but only Jeter got all 3000 with the team) that I think it’s beginning to overshadow the accomplishment. You get the feeling  from listening to the pundits and reading the stories that Jeter has just been crowned one of the five greatest Yankees ever. Frankly he has a better chance of becoming a Top 5 all-time shortstop than he does becoming a Top 5 all-time Yankees player (and I don’t think he’s that either of those). And I think all this adulation and over hyping is detrimental to Jeter and his legacy. What is bound to happen is a backlash (of which this post might be considered one, but isn’t meant to be) as his career winds down and his skills erode. This is a truly great player. They are going to rightfully retire his number and put a plaque in Monument Park (plaque, not monument) in his honor and I don’t want people to say “Yeah, he was great, but look at all the other people out there who were better.” If you get to Monument Park in Yankee Stadium, you’re a fine player and don’t need to be compared to the others out there.

So celebrate the accomplishment, don’t try to pigeon-hole Jeter in the Yankees pantheon (or the shortstop pantheon for that matter). As they like to say around here, “Ya done good, kid.” Keep it up.

The Significance of 500 and 3000

July 7, 2011

Ted Williams

It’s time to join the growing list of people congratulating Derek Jeter on his impending 3000th hit. It’s a milestone. But I remember when Ted Williams hit his 500th home run and I think that helps put Jeter’s accomplishment in perspective.

Williams hit his 500th home run in 1960, over 50 years ago. When that happened, the baseball world went a little crazy. Four men (Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, and Williams) now had 500 home runs. Think of that, four. Now there are 25, or 21 new members in 50 years (about one every other year). There are now as many men with 650 home runs (Ruth, Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays) as there were men with 500 home runs 50 years ago.

It’s the same with 3000 hits. When Williams hit his 500th home run there were eight men with 3000 hits (Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Cap Anson, Honus Wagner, Eddie Collins, Nap LaJoie, Paul Waner, and Stan Musial, who was still active). Now there are 27 with Jeter poised to become 28. That’s 20 in 50 years. Again, that’s about one every other year. There are a lot of reasons for this. The advent of black and Latin ball players, the new training methods, more games played per season, better nutrition, better medicine are a handful of them.

Do you know who has more hits than anyone whose entire career began since the advent of the playoff system in 1969, 42 years ago? I’ll save you the suspense, it’s Paul Molitor (3319). Jeter might catch him. And if he does, just how significant is it? I think it’s much more significant than 3000 hits.

This is not a Jeter bash. There’s been too much of that recently, just as there’s been too much adulation of him. What I wonder is with 25 men over 500 home runs and 28 men over 3000 hits just how big a deal is it to get those numbers? Obviously anyone who gets 500 home runs is a heck of a player (without reference to the steroid issue). Obviously anyone who gets 3000 hits is a heck of a player (again without reference to steroids). But if you have 25 (or more) guys with the number isn’t just a little less special than when there were only four or eight? I think so. I understand how easy it is to rally around nice round numbers like 500 and 3000, but have those two numbers lost a lot of their luster? Again, I think so.

So here’s what I propose. We honor Jeter, but we hold off the celebration until he gets 3500 hits. He’ll be only the sixth man to 3500 (Pete Rose, Cobb, Aaron, Musial, Speaker are the others) and that’s really something to celebrate. And I think we honor Jim Thome when he gets to 600 home runs, but let’s hold off on a celebration until someone becomes the fourth member of the 700 home run club. Now those are two numbers to really celebrate.

OK, so the picture isn’t as good as Tug McGraw’s, but you can’t expect me to score twice like that. 🙂

Comparing Across Eras

May 30, 2011

Nap LaJoie

I have to admit I’m guilty of something. It’s a small thing, not exactly a sin, but I still do it. I’m guilty of trying to compare players across eras. We all do it. We compare Babe Ruth to Hank Aaron. We compare Lou Gehrig to Mark McGwire. We compare Honus Wagner to Derek Jeter. Baseball statisticians have come up with stat after stat that attempts to compare players. Some of them take the time to try to figure out how the eras differ and then try to factor that into the equation. Some of those do a fairly good job of it, and others stink up the joint when they try. So here’s a look at some of the factors that I think have to be considered when trying to compare players across eras.

1. Segregation. This one should be obvious and I have no idea how you factor it in. How much does Lefty Grove not having to face Josh Gibson change Grove’s overall numbers? Got me, coach. And of course it works the other way too. How much does Satchel Paige’s inability to face Babe Ruth in meaningful competition change Paige’s numbers? Again, got me, coach. I think it is important to recognize this is a problem. I simply have no idea how you fix it.

2. Roster sizes. I don’t want to hit this one too hard. If you have Babe Ruth on your team, you’re going to play him a lot. But roster sizes do matter, at least some. The smaller the roster, the less a manager can rest a player and that can create end of season slumps that might not occur on teams with larger rosters.

3. Rules changes. I tend to harp on the pitching change to 60’6″ as a watershed in baseball, but there are a lot of major rules changes that make it difficult to compare players. How would Cy Young do pitching at 50 feet? Well, we actually know he did quite well for a few years, but we don’t know what that means for someone like Walter Johnson. Pud Galvin never pitched a big  league game at 60’6″. Could he have been successful there? Don’t know and don’t know how to figure it out. There are other problems like ball and strike count, stolen base rules, etc. My guess is that some of them can be accounted for by looking at before and after stats and seeing how much change occurs (sort of like figuring out how much expansion changes things), but I don’t know you can account for every situation, particularly the mound. I also know this is a much greater problem in trying to factor in 19th Century players.

4. Equipment. How good was Honus Wagner in the field? A look at his basic fielding  stats shows he was OK, but nothing special. Some of the newer stats begin to show us just how good he was, but many of the older ones don’t take the difference in equipment into account. When you’re playing shortstop with a glove that looks a lot like my winter gloves, you’re not going to put up fielding statistics that equal those of players with modern gloves.  Take a look at modern catching equipment versus the gear of players as recent as Ray Schalk (of 1919 fame). Fielding statistics have gotten better over the years, but much of that is  artificial, brought on by equipment changes. Same for batting. Moderns bats are a far cry from the table legs used by guys at the turn of the 20th Century. There’s a wonderful picture of Nap LaJoie that I stuck in above. Take a look at the bat. Now think about a modern bat. Tell me that one factor doesn’t affect stats.

5. Fields. Modern baseball parks are a far cry from early parks. I’m not talking about the distance to fences, that’s easy to factor in. What I’m talking about is the general condition of the playing surface. Wagner talked about picking up a  ball and watching a cloud of  dust, a handful of pebbles, and the ball all going toward first at the same time. Don’t know how many times that actually happened, but it’s not going to happen at all today. Those uneven fields created more errors and also made normal chances more difficult. I think you can determine the best fielders of the era, but to compare them to modern fielders is difficult enough without worrying about the condition of the playing surface in 1910.

6. Going off to war. Really cuts down on your playing time and is specific to time and place.

Most of what I’ve talked about so far is generally known, and I think statisticians have made good-faith efforts to factor in those things. How much success they’ve had is another question. I don’t know that Win Shares or WAR or anything else adequately accounts for these things, but it’s evident that they are trying. It’s the following two items that I think have been vastly underappreciated by people who try to compare players.

7. Medical advances. You do know that if Tommy John never has the surgery named for him that he never enters a Hall of Fame discussion, don’t you? If that surgery were available in 1935, maybe Dizzy Dean wins another 100 games (or maybe something else goes wrong and he doesn’t). Modern arthritis treatments might give Sandy Koufax another twenty win season. My point is that medical advances change the ability of players to compete just as changes in bats and gloves and fields do the same. I don’t know that anyone has considered this. I also don’t know how you would factor it in, but I think it should be noted at some point.

8. Salaries. Back when I was collecting baseball cards the info on the back sometimes told you what the guy did in the offseason. Most players had to have a “real” job to make ends meet. Most of those jobs weren’t going to enhance your baseball skills. A guy like Richie Hebner dug graves. That might keep him in shape, but didn’t particularly help his batting eye. An old Cardinals pitcher named Ray Washburn sold insurance. Checking  actuary tables probably didn’t hurt his eyesight too much, but I’ll bet it didn’t help his throwing motion. With modern salaries making it less necessary for players to have a “real” job in the offseason they have more time to hone their baseball skills, thus making them better players. This doesn’t mean they all do it in the offseason, only that the opportunity is there for modern players, an option that wasn’t as readily available in 1960. Again, I’m not sure how that’s factored in, but it probably should  be noted.

So the next time you decide to see if you can figure out which was better, Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron, don’t forget to factor in a bunch of things that don’t always show up in the stats. There are others that I didn’t mention above (like advances in training methods), but these will do for starters. Have fun.