Tuesday, April 20, 2021
"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.
Thursday, October 8, 2020
Because of a deadline on another large writing prospect--about football, this time!--the process of doing a 2020 update on for Baseball Greatness will be delayed, possibly until the new year. Of course, the unprecedently short season will make the process more complicated, and the results less significant, as well. Stay tuned!
Saturday, March 28, 2020
In the post that kicked off this controversy, Bill wrote:
"It is not a perfect and unassailable truth that Offense and Defense are perfectly balanced, that Scoring Runs is half the game and preventing them is half the game. It is not a perfect and unassailable truth, but it is a general and usable truth which can be validated in various ways. If offense and defense are equal then, on a "league" basis—understanding that the league is no longer a completely self-contained entity—but on a league basis, runs prevented are equal to runs scored. If there were 11,449 Runs SCORED by National League teams in 2019, there must also have been 11,449 Runs PREVENTED by National League teams—not perfectly, because the league winning percentage was not exactly .500, but we can adjust for that. The question is, who prevented how many of those 11,449 Runs that were Prevented by Defensive Performance?"
In the comments section to that article, nine different people, including myself stated either that they did not understand this argument or that they did not agree with it. Several others said they did agree with it, but the majority of respondents certainly did not.
Bill replied a few days later with a long rant (there's really no other word) in another post, informing all of us who had questioned this conclusion, in essence, that he had done everything he could to help us understand this argument, about which he evidently had no second thoughts, and that if we didn't get it, it was our problem. He also described any "argument" or "challenge to my work" as an"asshole question" to which he wasn't going to respond, and disclaimed any interest in any opposing arguments that we might make.
If Bill doesn't want to read this post of mine, that's his business. I am writing it for the other posters on his site whom he essentially ordered not to continue the discussion there. I think that the above statement is wrong, as is another follow-up statement he made in a later post that we will get to, and I want to explain why and solicit comments from other reasons on what they think.
Let's start with some simple logic. Let's look at the paragraph above. First I want to clarify something that could be clarified better, which I have run into myself: the reason league runs scored don't equal league runs allowed nowadays is interleague play. One league always scores more runs than the other in interleague play, and that unbalances each league's totals. That's a minor point.
But what about the statement that runs prevented must equal runs scored? That, it seems to me, is obviously wrong, for at least two reasons. The first is the simplest and most important. Runs allowed are not equal to runs prevented. Runs allowed are equal to RUNS NOT PREVENTED. That, to me, is so obvious that any further arguments are extra.
Yet there are further arguments. Bill also argues that what he is trying to do is to disaggregate runs prevented in the same way that the runs created formula disaggregates runs scored. It is true that every run scored is scored as a result of hits, walks, stolen bases, and a few other miscellaneous things, and no runs would be scored in the absence of those contributing factors. But runs prevented or runs saved is not comparable in that respect, particularly with respect to fielders One could argue that it is comparable for pitchers, since they could indeed prevent every single run scored by the opposition by striking everyone out, or by inducing easy chances in the field. But for fielders it isn't true. There are very large numbers of runs that no fielder could prevent, which are scored thanks to walks, to home runs, or--critically--to balls in play which no fielder could possibly turn into an out. The offense is a factor in every run scored. The defense (the fielders) is not a factor in every run allowed--if the offense was good enough, there wasn't a damn thing the defense could do about it. (Come to think to think of it--the same argument does in a sense apply to pitchers as fielders. While pitchers could in theory strike everyone out or pitch nothing but no-hitters, no one has ever been that good, any more than any three outfielders have ever been good enough to turn every ball hit beyond the infield into an out. But that's a side issue.)
Another fallacy in Bill's thinking emerges in a third, most recent post. Analyzing the 2019 Houston Astros, Bill calculates that based on the league averages of runs scored/allowed, they could have been expected to allow 840.32 runs. He then says:
"The 'zero point' for them is twice that number. If they had allowed twice that number of runs, that would be 1680.64 runs allowed. They actually allowed only 640 runs, or 1040.64 runs less than they theoretically might have allowed, had they had zero talent on their pitching staff and in their defensive play."
What Bill seems to be doing here is to find a baseline for calculating actual runs saved that is different from the average number of runs scored/allowed by every team in the league, a method which he repeatedly rejects. (And, for the record, a record which I, along with certain other sabermetricians, do use.) The selection of a "zero point" that is twice the park-adjusted league average, however, seems completely arbitrary. In fact, as one other commenter said on the first post, a team with zero defensive talent would never retire a batter and would allow an infinite number of runs. A team whose pitchers and fielders were half as good as an average team--that is, that walked twice as many men, struck out half as many, and allowed twice as many hits of all kinds--would, it seems to me (I haven't tried to do the whole calculation), allow twice as many runs as the average. That's a very bad team--I don't think there has ever been a major league team that bad--but it isn't an infinitely bad one, or a team with no talent at all.
I am not going to comment on the way Bill has chosen to handle this controversy. I have said many times in print that I understand a great many things thanks to him, that his work has given me many hours of pleasure, and that the baseball books I have written never would have been written without him. I will say, however, that from my own experience in my own career as an historian--which is quite comparable to his career as a sabermetrician, as you can see if you want at ALifeinHistory.com--I know that no level of skill, no amount of work, can exempt anyone, in any field, from criticism, particularly if one's work is genuinely original. And no truly intelligent person should ever be afraid to admit that they might have been wrong, as Bill has many times in the past.
Feel free to comment!
Monday, December 9, 2019
I must begin with a point I made in Baseball Greatness: there is far less variance in the ability of catchers than in the ability of players at any other position, and the greatest catchers in history have contributed much less to their teams' success than the greatest infielders, outfielders, and pitchers. My definition of a superstar season is 4 Wins Above Average (WAA), computed without position adjustments, and with Michael Humphreys's DRA to measure fielding contribution. For a first baseman or an outfielder to have an excellent chance of reaching the Hall, he needs 5 superstar seasons in his career. Quite a few infielders and pitchers have at least that many, and most infielders or pitchers, I believe, have at least 3. An all-time team based on the highest numbers of seasons of 4 WAA or more would include Ruth (17), Barry Bonds (17), and Speaker, Mays or Aaron (16 each) in the outfield; Gehrig (12) at first; Hornsby (11) at second; Wagner (10) at short; Mike Schmidt (11) at third; and a pitching staff of Clemens (12), Lefty Grove (10), Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson (9), and Grover Cleveland Alexander (8). The catcher, however, would be Johnny Bench, with 3 such seasons.
There are two reasons for this. First of all, although some great hitters have become catchers, the physical toll of catching is so great that none of them has been able to sustain year-to-year greatness the way other position players can, and they generally decline much more rapidly. Secondly, as defensive players, there is very little, in most eras, that catchers can do to create more outs than other catchers. They handle very few balls in play. A catcher with a great arm can create substantially more outs than his peers in eras that feature lots of base stealing, but those eras are relatively rare in baseball. Catchers, of course, always get credit for the brilliant handling of pitching staffs, but only when they happen to play on teams with good offenses that allow their pitchers to "win" lots of games. We now know that framing can create additional outs, but we will never have a statistical basis for judging its importance across the history of baseball.
Because top catcher performance lags so far behind that of other positions, I can't even use the yardstick of 4 WAA--a superstar season--to identify the greatest catchers, as will become clear from the following table. Instead I have to add "star seasons" which I have defined as anything from 2 to 3.9 WAA. The following table includes all the catchers in the Hall of Fame based on 20th-century MLB performance, showing their total seasons with 4 or more WAA, with 3-3.9 WAA, and with 2-2.9 WAA.
Of the four catchers with 5 seasons of 2 WAA or more, Fisk and Torre and in the Hall of Fame--Torre, I suspect, largely because of his managerial success--while Munson and Freehan are not. Fisk, whose best season was his rookie year, reached the Hall because he managed to perform at an adequate level for an extraordinarily long period of time, while Munson never got any serious consideration because of his early death. (It is interesting, by the way, that Fisk, Munson, and Bench all were born in the same year, 1947--as was the present writer, who entered this world on the very same day that Munson did.) Freehan will always be underrated because he played in a very low-offense era and his traditional statistics suffered accordingly. Torre was in fact a very valuable catcher, whose playing career includes an astonishing irony. He won the NL MVP in 1971 after the Cardinals moved him full-time to third base, where he hit .371 with 230 hits and 137 RBI. We now know thanks to Michael Humphreys, however, that he had one of the worst years in the history of baseball at third base, surrendering enough extra base hits to account for -36 runs, and thus, his total contribution to his team in that year was only 2.1 WAA. The real 1971 NL MVP, based on WAA, was Tom Seaver, who had his greatest season with 7.5 WAA, and the best position player was Roberto Clemente, with 5.1. Freehan and Munson, along with not-yet-eligible Mauer, are the greatest catchers not in the Hall, and had more impact on their teams' fortunes than many of the catchers who are. I would not have been unhappy if Munson had been elected this year.
Wednesday, November 6, 2019
If you are reading this post you may well be familiar with the methodology of my book, Baseball Greatness. It identified a superstar season as a season of at least 4 Wins Above Average (WAA--not Wins Above Replacement, or WAR.) That figure defines the minimum performance by the MVP on a pennant winning team. Only a very small minority of teams have reached the world series without at least one player that good, and even now, it's quite difficult to reach post season play without one.
What I found was that with respect to position players at least, Hall of Fame voters had a subjective understanding of this concept already which was reflected in the choices that they have made. The vast majority of players with at least 5 seasons of 4 WAA or more are in fact in the Hall of Fame. That includes 19 out of 29 with 5 such seasons, including 5 who are not yet eligible or only recently became eligible. On the other hand, out of 51 players with 4 seasons of 5 WAA, only 18 of them are in the Hall, and 7 of them (Eddie Plank Robin Roberts, Juan Marichal, Rube Waddell, Carl Hubbell, Sandy Koufax, and Jim Bunning) are pitchers. Of 54 players with 3 such seasons, 25 are in the Hall, and only five of them are pitchers. Hall of Famers with just 3 superstar seasons include Home Run Baker, Brooks Robinson, Lou Brock, Dave Winfield, Don Drysdale, Ron Santo, Orlando Cepeda, Tony Perez, Johnny Bench (the greatest catcher, by this measure, in baseball history), Andre Dawson, Alan Trammell, and Cal Ripken. Among the non-pitchers on that list, six of them are third basemen or shortstops--for whom overall standards have always been lower--while Brock and Winfield piled up some impressive lifetime totals without very many truly outstanding seasons.
The figures for this year's candidates are as follows: Dave Parker and Don Mattingy had 4 superstar seasons, Dwight Evans had 3, Dale Murphy had 2, Thurman Munson 1, and Steve Garvey, Tommy John,Ted Simmons and Lou Whitaker had none. To me, this means, first, that none of these men is an overwhelming candidate, and only two or three of them are reasonable candidates whose qualifications match those of many members.
Parker and Mattingly are the strongest candidates, but I doubt that I would vote for either one of them. Parker is a Boomer (b. 1951) and Mattingly is on the leading edge of Gen X (b. 1961.) Other Boomers with 4 seasons of 4 WAA or more who hare not in the Hall include infielders Buddy Bell and Bobby Grich--both outstanding fielders--and outfielders Jose Cruz, Willie Wilson, and Jesse Barfield. It's appalling that Grich is not on this year's ballot, and I don't think anyone should vote for Parker who wouldn't give a look to Cruz and Barfield, anyway, as well. (Fielding was also largely responsible for Wilson's superstar seasons.) The only Boomer outfielder in the Hall with 4 superstar seasons is Tony Gwynn, whose career was clearly superior to Parker's or Mattingly's. Dwight Evans and Dale Murphy rank behind Parker and I think are dubious candidates. (Incidentally, although Parker's teammate Jim Rice trails Evans in lifetime WAR--now a popular stat--Rice had 5 superstar seasons and was thus well qualified for Cooperstown.) Two of this year's candidates are catchers, who have one of the lowest effective standards for the Hall, but their records would also make them dubious choices. Thurman Munson did have one superstar season and four other star seasons of 2-3.9 WAA, but that ranks him below most of the catchers in the Hall. (His early death probably didn't affect his chances; when he died at 32, he was in the middle of his second average season.) Ted Simmons, meanwhile, had six star seasons for the Cardinals, putting him in about the same category.
Lou Whitaker was often linked to his teammate Alan Trammell during his career, but he had no superstar seasons to Trammell's three. That, however, is not the whole story Any statistical guidelines will penalize one or two players who fall barely short of them. Whitaker is such a man. While he never topped 4 WAA, he topped 3 WAA 6 different times over a 15-year period, and he topped 2 WAA on 5 other occasions. He wasn't as good as Joe Morgan or Rod Carew, the greatest second basemen of his Boom generation, and I don't think he was as good as Bobby Grich, but he was much, much better than a number of other second basemen in the Hall of Fame, and I wouldn't be upset to see him get in.
In his extraordinary 25-year career, Tommy John had 6 seasons over 2 WAA, two of which (in 1968-9, pitching for dreadful White Sox teams) topped 3 WAA. That's a significantly better record than Jack Morris's and quite comparable to Don Sutton, and Morris and Sutton have already been elected, but it's way below the real greats of John's Boom generation such as Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Bert Blyleven, and Nolan Ryan. It's also way below poor Dave Stieb, who had six superstar seasons--second to Blyleven in their generation--but who will never get any Hall of Fame consideration because he never won 20 games in a season. John owes his 288 wins (and 231 losses) to longevity. I would not vote for him but I wouldn't have voted for Morris either.
Of the men on the ballot, Marvin Miller, who had more (and on the whole, better) impact on the game than any other executive except perhaps Judge Landis, is to me the obvious choice for inclusion. Most astonishing is the failure to put Keith Hernandez on this ballot. Although injuries cut his career short (his last full season was when he was only 33), he is by my measure one of the best players not in the Hall of Fame with 7 superstar seasons, thanks in part to his terrific fielding at first base. That figure ties him with Eddie Murray and Wade Boggs. He played for two pennant winners and he was the most valuable player on the 1986 Mets. He was a much better player than anyone on this ballot, and I wish some one could tell me why he has been ignored by both the BWAA and the Veterans Committee. He and Grich deserve election to the Hall more than any of the players on this ballot. Among them, I would be happiest were Mattingly to be selected. He was as valuable as Parker, but he took care of himself and avoided serious off-field problems, and thus had a longer career.