Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Baseball Greatness: The Best Players and Teams according to Wins Above Average, 1901-2017,  was published on March 1, 2018.  It may be ordered here.   Here are some pre-publication comments:

"Whatever you already think about measuring baseball greatness, Kaiser's tour de force will blow your mind…. In these days of websites and statistical black boxes and faith-based beliefs, we owe our gratitude to Kaiser, who shows all his work and doesn't flinch when the facts call for popping a few balloons." --Rob Neyer, author Power Ball: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game

"Baseball Greatness honors under appreciated all-time great players by better incorporating fielding value for everyday players (e.g., Jimmy Wynn and Keith Hernandez) and filtering out team effects on perceived pitcher value (e.g., Wes Ferrell, Luis Tiant, and Dave Stieb). But more than that, author and real-world historian David Kaiser gives baseball fans a new and sophisticated history of the game: how owners and front office managers have built (and failed to build) great teams; how rare it has been that team greatness has relied on great pitching; and much more." --Michael Humphreys, author of Wizardry: Baseball's All-Time Greatest Fielders Revealed

"The Sabermetric revolution in baseball analysis is no longer in its infancy and the basic principles are now embraced widely in the press, on the air, and by average fans. David Kaiser has done a fine job in clearly explaining the logic behind the calculations and has provided a very welcome synthesis across the various era of Major League Baseball. This book is recommended for those who wish to have a better understanding of the context of modern (and future) baseball analysis."--Dave Smith, founder, Retrosheet.org

"Baseball's stately pace encourages discussions, with 'Who was better?' being a favorite topic. David Kaiser's nominations, making full use of Michael Humphrey's authoritative solution to the 'is it fielding or pitching' defensive dilemma, are presented in a delightful style." --Richard Cramer, Ph.D., founder, STATS INC.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Hall of Fame ballot for 2019

In addition to the annual season update, below, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to use my methods to analyze the current Hall of Fame ballot based on my methods.  A little introduction, or refresher for those who have read Baseball Greatness, is in order.

As many will recall, I defined a superstar season as a season of at least 4 Wins Above Average as I compute it.  That, I found empirically, is the measure of how good you have to be to get an affirmative answer to the question, "If this guy were  the best player on your team, is it likely that you could win the pennant?"  To identify the greatest players I focused on how many times individuals had exceeded that threshold.

It turned out that both I and several generations of Hall of Fame voters have agreed, interestingly enough, that the key number, particularly for hitters, is 5 such seasons.   Very few players with 6 or more such seasons are not in the Hall of Fame, and a number of those who are not are Gen Xers tainted by steroid accusations, led, of course, by Barry Bonds and  Roger Clemens.  The 29 players with exactly five such seasons include Phil Niekro, Cy Young (1901 and later), Stanley Covaleski, Rod Carew, Jim Thome, Dazzy Vance, Harry Heilmann, Goose Goslin, Charlie Gehringer, Joe Gordon, Jackie Robinson, Hal Newhouser, Joe Morgan, George Brett, Jim Rice, Tim Raines, Ryne Sandberg,  Harry Hooper, and Tom Glavine--19 players who are in the Hall of Fame--and
Charlie Keller, Gil Hodges, and Wes Ferrell,. who are not in.  This list also includes some people on this year's ballot, as we shall see.

On the other hand, 51 players have exactly 4 seasons of 4 WAA or more, and most of them are not in the Hall.  The  17 of them who are in the Hall are Eddie Plank, Robin Roberts, Juan Marichal, Frank Chance, Rube Waddell, Frankie Frisch, Carl Hubbell, Luke Appling, Arky Vaughn, Robin Yount, Lou Boudreau, Bob Feller, Ralph Kiner, Duke Snider, Sandy Koufax, Tony Gwynn, and Kiki Cuyler.  Long-time eligibles (or players who normally would have been eligible) in this category include Nap Rucker, Hippo Vaughn, Jack Fournier, Art Fletcher, Minnie Minoso, Ken Boyer, John Callison, Tony Oliva, Jose Cruz, Bobby Grich, Buddy Bell, Luis Tiant, Dave Parker, Willie Wilson, Jesse Barfield, Don Mattingly, and Brett Saberhagen, as well as a number of Gen Xers on this year's ballot.   Hall of Fame voters pay far more attention to lifetime totals than they do to peak value, which I am focusing on, but in the aggregate it does seem that both methods tend to reach the same conclusions more often than not.

OK.  Now it's time to rank the candidates on this year's ballot by seasons of 4 WAA or more.  Here are the people most mentioned as possible candidates on this year's ballot.

Barry Bonds         17
Roger Clemens 12
Edgar Martinez 7
Todd Helton          6
Larry Walker         5
Mike Mussina       5
Curt Schilling       5
Roy Halladay        5
Sammy Sosa         5
Jim Edmonds        5
Andruh Jones        4
Lance Berkman 4
Manny Ramirez 4
Gary Sheffield      4
Scott Rolen           3
Fred McGriff        3
Andy Pettite          2
Jeff Kent               2
Roy Oswalt           1
Miguel Tejada       1
Mariano Rivera 0
Omar Vizquel       0

Barry Bonds' 17 seasons of 4 WAA or more ties him with Babe Ruth for top on the all time list, and Roger Clemens' 12 tops the list for pitchers.   We all know why they are not yet in the Hall of Fame, and I am glad that I don't have to cast a vote on either of those two.

Moving down the list, it's fair to say that based merely on raw performance, Edgar Martinez and Todd Helton are overqualified Hall of Famers.  With respect to Martinez, however, there is, I think, a catch.  Martinez did not become a regular until he was 27, which is very late for a great player, and he had his first superstar season (5.1 WAA) when he was 29.  He slumped badly during the next two seasons, and then, starting in 1995 when he was 32, he had six seasons of 4 WAA or more in seven years.  No other great player has ever had his superstar seasons so concentrated in his late thirties, raising legitimate questions, in my opinion, about how Martinez managed it.

Moving down the list, we find that Mike Mussina, Roy Halladay, and Curt Schilling have 5 seasons each of 4 WAA or more, which is more than Sandy Koufax or Juan Marichal, and appears to make them overqualified selections.  This however also raises a broader question about Gen X pitchers.  No less than eight of them (Clemens, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and those three) had at least 5 seasons of 4 WAA or more, and that is way above any other generation.  One is really forced to the conclusion that many of them managed to sustain peak performance for so long with the help of PEDs--but of course, there is no way of knowing exactly how many, or which ones.

Larry  Walker, Jim Edmonds,  and Sammy Sosa also have 5 seasons each of 4 WAA or more, which normally would qualify them for Cooperstown, although Sosa, for obvious reasons, is unlikely to make it.  Edmonds was also something of a late bloomer. The example of Sosa, however, raises a critical point about evaluating Gen X players. They played in one of the highest-offense eras in history.  Sammy Sosa hit 609 home runs to Frank Robinson's 586, but Robinson had 11 seasons of 4 WAA or more to Sosa's 5.  Robinson was a much more dominant player who did much more to help his teams win pennants.  We will run into this problem as we move down the list.

Thus, despite their often impressive lifetime totals of home runs and base hits, based on peak value and the contribution these players made to helping their teams win pennants, there is no compelling reason, in  my judgment, why Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez, Lance Berkman or Andruh Jones should be in the Hall of Fame.  Each of them topped 4 WAA only four times and as we saw above, most of the players from the past who had four such seasons are not in.  Their lifetime totals also allow for some interesting comparisons.  Manny Ramirez had 555 career homers to Reggie Jackson's 563, but Jackson had 9 superstar seasons (4 WAA or more) while Ramirez had only 4.  Gary Shefiield's 509 homers rank between Mel Ott (511) and Eddie Murray (504), but his 4 superstar seasons trail Murray's 7 and Ott's 12. Jeff Kent, despite his home run totals, is not remotely comparable in his impact to second basemen like Rod Carew or Joe Morgan or Ryne Sandberg.

During the last half century we have invented a new stat, the save, and a new role, the closer. Both have caught the imagination of the press and the nation, and thus, we have concluded that lifetime leaders in saves and distinguished closers belong in the Hall of Fame.  Now Mariano Rivera, as it happens, was the best reliever ever based upon WAA, with many seasons in the 2-3 range, but it is simply impossible for a closer to have the same impact on his team's fortunes as a great starting pitcher or hitter.  Still, he is going in. As for Vizquel, it turns out that he, like Rey Ordonez, was very overrated as a shortstop--not bad, but nothing spectacular--according to Michael Humphreys' DRA, and other measures. 

I shall look forward to the voting and will analyze the Veterans' Committee ballot if I can get information about who is on it.

Meanwhile, I would also like to alert readers to the appearance of my autobiography, A Life in History. It combines a detailed account of my education and career as an historian (and sabermetrician!)  with a commentary on what has happened to higher education over the last half century.  More information and a link to order it are available here.


                               


Monday, October 29, 2018

2018 Season Update

This is the first annual update of my book, Baseball Greatness, The Best Players and Teams according to Wins Above Average, 1901-2018.  Each update will include a survey of the successful teams of the season just past, and a progress report on the careers of our greatest players.

Under rookie manager Alex Cora, the Boston Red Sox improved by a full 15 games, from 93 wins to 108, for three different reasons.  Their superb pitching staff was nearly as good as in 2017, earning +13 WAA  compared to +15 in the previous year.  Although injuries limited Chris Sale to only 158 innings, he still managed to finish at the top of AL pitchers with 4.7 WAA.  David Price added 2.6, Eduardo Rodriguez and Rick Porcello combined for 3 WAA more, and Hector Velazquez, Steven Wright, and Craig Kimbrel all had more than 1.  Their lineup improved substantially from -3 WAA to +9, although its positive value was almost completely concentrated among four players.  Mookie Betts finished with 8.1 WAA, giving  him a 5.6 average over the last three years, and easily topping the American League.  Free agent signing J. D. Martinez contended for a triple crown and finished with 6.8 WAA, by far the best  year of his life, even though he had just moved to a stronger league.  Last but not least, Xander Bogaerts improved his defense all the way up to average and finished with an excellent 3.2 WAA, while 23-year old Andrew Benintendi added 1.8.  With those four players accounting for 20 WAA, however, the rest of the lineup cost the team -11 WAA.  The biggest culprits were infielder Eduardo Nunez, disastrous at bat and in the field with -3.2 WAA;  catchers Sandy Leon, Christian  Vazquez, and Blake Swihart, who combined for -4.7 WAA; and utility man Brock Holt, -1.2 WAA in 109 games.  Center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. had an average year in the field and hit poorly, costing the team -0.9 WAA overall. First baseman Mitch Moreland and 21-year old third baseman Rafael Devers--who had a fine year in the field--were average.  Last but hardly least, the team benefited from 5 games of Pythagorean luck.  The Red Sox marched triumphantly through the post season, losing one game each to the Yankees in the ALDS, the Astros in the ALCS, and the Dodgers in the World Series.  Jackie Bradley Jr. had three critical hits against the Astros, but manager Alex Cora held him out of two games in the World Series and fielded the team's strongest outfield of Benintendi in left, Betts in center, and Martinez in right.


The Houston Astros failed to equal or surpass Boston's record because they fell 6 games of bad luck behind their projected percentage and finished with 103 victories--a superior pennant winner--instead of 109.   Although their hitting fell of badly from 2017, their fielding and pitching were much stronger, and their lineup earned +16 WAA while their pitching staff brought home another +12.  Third baseman Alex Bregman, with 5.6 WAA, led the team, with center fielder George Springer (2.8) and 2017 MVP Jose Altuve (2 WAA, in part because of below average fielding), right behind.   Josh Reddick, Carlos Correa (who missed about 1/3 of the season), and Marwin Gonzalez were average.  On the mound, 35-year old Justin Verlander, acquired late in the 2017 season, earned a remarkable 3.8 WAA in 214 innings, and starters Gerrit Cole (3.1) and Charlie Morton (1.8) also performed well.  Bad luck and an outstanding Red Sox peformance took them out of the playoffs in the second round, after they had made short work of the Indians in the first.

The Yankees won 100 games with one game's worth of luck.  That looked very similar to their performance in 2017 when they won only 90 games while projecting to win 100, but the team changed.  Injuries plagued their lineup, which fell from +12 WAA to just +4.  Their fielders, led by terrible performances from third baseman Miguel Andujar (-25 runs), center fielder Aaron Hicks (-18), outfielder/DH Giancarlo Stanton (-10 in limited outfield duty), and catcher Gary Sanchez (-12), dropped all the way from +3 WAA to -4.   An injured Aaron Judge fell to 3.2 WAA in 112 games, remaining the team's best player, and Stanton earned only 1.2 WAA despite hitting 38 home runs.  No other player reached star status, and Sanchez cost the team -2.2 WAA.  Their pitchers on the other hand tied with Boston and Cleveland for the league's best with +13 WAA.  This was a team effort: Luis Severino led the team with 3 WAA,  six other pitchers had between 1 and 2, and only one pitcher was marginally below average.  The Yankees could certainly challenge the Red Sox in 2019 if they remain healthier.

After three sub-.500 years, Billy Beane's Oakland Athletics improved by 22 wins to finish with 97 and a wild card spot.  They combined very poor pitching (-5 WAA) with the league's best lineup, earning +9 in the field and +11 at bat.  One quarter of that value--5.7 WAA--came from one player, third baseman Mark Chapman, whose value was evenly divided between his hitting contribution and his remarkable +28 runs saved in the field.  The lineup had four other stars:  Marcus Siemen, the shortstop, with 2.9 WAA; DH Khris Davis, whose poor on-base percentage limited him to 3 WAA despite a league-leading 48 home runs; second basemen Jed Lowrie with 2.2 WAA, and first baseman Matt Olson with 2.2.  Center fielder Mark Canha, a very versatile player, and left fielder Chad Pinder combined for 2.9 WAA , and catcher Jonathan Lucroy made up for terrible hitting with outstanding defense.  Most of these players were in their mid to late twenties, suggesting that Beane might once again field a contending team for several years to come.  This year, they lost to the Yankees in the wild card game.

For the second year in a row the Cleveland Indians won their division thanks to a remarkable pitching staff.  While its +13 WAA were only a little more than half of the hurlers' truly extraordinary performance in 2017, it accounted for most of the team's positive value, which projected to win 98 games rather than the 91 they actually recorded.  Starters Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber just missed superstar status with 3.9 WAA apiece and Mike Clevenger and Carlos Carrasco added 5.5 between them.  Among the lineup, only shortstop Francisco Lindor, (3.7 WAA), third baseman Jose Ramirez (also 3.7), and outfielder Michael Brantley (1.6) had any positive value at all.

                                                         The National League


Fresh off of a superb 104-win 2017 season, the Los Angeles Dodgers survived the loss of their outstanding young shortstop Corey Seager for nearly the entire season and -10 games worth of bad Pythagorean luck to edge out the very fortunate Colorado Rockies for the NL West division championship with just 92 wins.  Although their defense cost them -4 WAA, outstanding hitting still left their lineup with +10 WAA.  Third baseman Justin Turner was the team's MVP with a remarkable 4.4 WAA in just 103 games, including a superb +16 runs saved at third base, while all-purpose infielder Max Muncy added 3.4 WAA in 137 games and young center fielder Cody Bellinger turned in 1.4 more.  The team apparently benefited from several games worth of run luck, as well, and several players, including outfielders Enrique Hernandez and Yasel Puig, hit well but lost much of their value in the field.  The pitchers turned in another strong year with +10 WAA, with starters Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Ross Stripling and Huyn-Jin Ryu earning from 2.9 to 1.9 WAA each.  Reaching the World Series for the second straight season, they lost to the Red Sox in just five wild games.

Although the Milwaukee Brewers' Pythagorean projection trailed the Dodgers by 10 games, they finished with the league's best record,96-67, thanks to 4 games worth of luck.  Their lineup contributed +6 WAA, +2 of them in the field, and their pitches just +3.   The lineup's three major assets were right fielder Christian Yelich, who joined the team after years as a star in Miami and earned 5.9 WAA, easily the league MVP, at age 26; center fielder Lorenzo Cain, signed as a free agent, who earned 3.1; and first baseman Jesus Aguilar, who earned 2.5.  One-time MVP Ryan Braun was now average, but with several below-average players in the lineup, the Brewers could easily improve.  On the mound, two slightly above-average starters, Jhoulys Chacin and Wade Miley, and relievers Jeremy Jeffress and Josh Hader were their only superior pitchers.  They did well to force the Dodgers to a seventh game in the NLCS before bowing.

The Brewers edged out the Cubs for first place in an extra game.   Despite excellent fielding, the Cubs' lineup continued its decline from +22 WAA in 2016 to +13 WAA in 2017, to +11 this year, +6 of it in the field.  Two extraordinarily versatile players, Javier Baez and Ben Zobrist, led the lineup with 3.5 and 2.3 WAA, followed by Anthony Rizzo with 2.1 and Kris Bryant, who missed more than 1/3 of the season with 1.3.  Jason Heyward was only average thanks to his fielding, and shortstop Anthony Rizzo cost the team -1.1 WAA.  Starting pitchers Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and late-season pickup Cole Hamels earned about 1 WAA each, but the staff overall had just +1 WAA.  The Cubs lost the wild card game to the very fortunate Colorado Rockies, who won 91 games with the help of 6 full games of Pythagorean luck.

The 90-72 Atlanta Braves were the weakest of the four division winners, with a +8 lineup and +4 pitching staff.  The lineup featured superstar first baseman Freddie Freeman (4.2 WAA) and stars outfielder Ronald Acuna (2.3) and very promising second baseman Ozzie Albies (2.2).  Every other member of the lineup was at least average.  With the exception of ace Mike Foltynewicz (2.3 WAA) and starter Annibal Sanchez (1.8), every pitcher on the Braves' staff was average.  They won one game against the Dodgers in the NLCS

                                           General Observations and Great Player Updates

The general shortage of superstar performances continued, as the two leagues had a total of only 16--a little more than one for every two teams--compared to 18 in 2017 Mookie Betts comfortably bested Mike Trout as the AL MVP with a remarkable 8.1 WAA, the highest total since Albert Pujols in 2004 and thus the best single season by a member of the Millennial generation. Among the pitchers, Chris Sale and Blake Snell of Tampa Bay posted identical 4.7 WAA seasons, the only superstar performances by AL moundsmen.  The two most valuable NL players were pitchers Jacob de Grom of the Mets (6.6 WAA) and Aaron Nola of the Phillies (6.0), while Christian Yelich topped league hitters with 5.9.  Only the Red Sox, with Betts, Martinez and Sale, had more than one superstar.

Generation X did not come close to adding another superstar performance in 2018, suggesting that David Ortiz's 4.2 WAA in 2016 marked the close of their era of greatness.  Older Millennials such as Josh Donaldson, Miguel Cabrera, and Joey Votto also fell far below that level, although Cabrera and Votto have already done more than enough to secure a plaque in Cooperstown.  Robinson Cano's career took an untoward turn when he failed a drug test and was suspended for a good deal of the season.  Mike Trout's 6.5 WAA gave him 7 consecutive superstar seasons, one shy of Ted Williams' record of 8 such seasons in his first 8 years.  He is still only 26 and looks a very good bet to reach double digits.  And Max Scherzer's 5.4 WAA tied him with Clayton Kershaw for five superstar seasons, nearly ensuring that he, too, will wind up in Cooperstown.  Mookie Betts's remarkable season was only his second over 4 WAA but he will be only 26 next year and looks headed for a Hall of Fame Career. 

Here is the current table of Millennials of 4 or more seasons of 4 WAA:
Player
Seasons over 4 WAA
Best Season,
WAA


Miguel Cabrera
7
5.5(2013)
Joey Votto
7
6.1(2011)
Mike Trout
7
7.5(2012)
Paul Goldschmidt
4
6.8(2013)
Shin-Soo Choo
4
5.3(2015)
Josh Donaldson
4
5.7(2015)
Robinson Cano
4
5.6(2014)
Clayton Kershaw
5
5.6(2014)
Max Scherzer
5
5.4(2018)

See you next year!  Comments welcome.









Friday, June 1, 2018

Monday, March 26, 2018

Podcast interview

To listen to my podcast interview with Justin McGuire of Baseball by the Book, click here. Be sure to click "show more" to see all options for accessing the podcast. Enjoy!