Monday, December 9, 2019

The Catchers in the Hall of Fame

The unfortunate selection of Ted Simmons to the Hall of Fame yesterday has led me to do something I have never done before, a thorough comparison, using my standard methodologies, of all the catchers in the Hall of Fame, as well as a few that are not.  I have decided to present the results.

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.

Player Over 4 3-3.9 2-2.9 Stars
Bench 3 3 3 9
Carter 2 4 3 9
Piazza 2 4 3 9
Rodriguez 0 4 4 8
Berra 0 4 3 7
Dickey 0 4 2 6
Cochrane 2 1 3 6
Mauer 1 2 3 6
Freehan 0 2 3 5
Munson 2 1 2 5
Fisk 1 1 3 5
Torre 1 0 4 5
Bresnahan 0 1 3 4
Hartnett 0 2 2 4
Lombardi 0 1 2 3
Campanella 0 2 1 3
Simmons 0 0 3 3
Ferrell 0 0 1 1
Schalk 0 0 0 0
The four greatest catchers in history come from the Boom (Bench and Carter) and X (Piazza and Rodriguez) generations.  Bench, one could argue, edges out Carter and Piazza, but only because he topped 4 WAA three times, while they did only twice.  Yogi Berra was marginally superior to Bill Dickey, but not markedly so, as Bill James argued in his Historical Abstract.  Tied with Dickey we find his contemporary Mickey Cochrane--whose best seasons were the best posted by any catcher until 1970--and not-yet-elibible Joe Mauer of the Millennial generation.  While Yogi was indeed a great catcher, I pointed out in Baseball Greatness that he was never close to the best player in the AL in his three MVP seasons, and his last selection, in 1955, was truly absurd. Then, things get interesting.

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.

Roger Bresnahan and Gabby Harnett represent the beginning and end of the Lost generation, in which they were indeed the most valuable catchers.  Ray Schalk made the Hall of Fame because he was one of the honest White Sox in 1919--there really is no other explanation.  Ernie Lombardi and Rick Ferrell were contemporaries of Cochrane and Dickey, but nowhere near as good.  Lombardi is probably in because he won one batting title, and legend has it that the Veterans' Committee confused Ferrell with his brother Wes, who is one of the greatest pitchers not in the Hall of Fame.  Roy Campanella's low place on the list is rather surprising.  Uniquely among ballplayers, he won an MVP award in every one of his star seasons, even though he was never even close to being the MVP on his own team.  He didn't reach the majors until he was 26 because of segregation, he had a lot of injuries and mixed very poor seasons in with his good ones.  Like Munson, however, he had fallen below the star level for two seasons by the time that a tragic accident ended his career.  And his three best seasons were better than Simmons' three best.

Ted Simmons, like Carlton Fisk, continued to catch for major league teams into his late thirties.  That, not his peak performance, is his biggest claim to fame.  He will not be the worst catcher in the Hall of Fame, but he is not in the class of the other three catchers from the Boom generation who preceded him (Bench, Carter, and Fisk), nor of another contemporary, Thurman Munson, who was on the same ballot.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The 2019 Veteran's Committee nominations

The "Modern Baseball" division of the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee has just issued its ballot for 2020, composed in theory at least of players "whose primary contributions to baseball came between 1970-87."  On the ballot are Dwight Evans, Steve Garvey, Tommy John, Don Mattingly, Marvin Miller, Thurman Munson, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker, Ted Simmons and Lou Whitaker.  Do any of them belong in the Hall?  I will try to answer this question.

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.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Update for the 2019 season

Five years ago, in 2014, American league teams averaged 144 home runs and 677 runs scored.  This year they averaged 232 home runs and 791 runs scored.  That’s a 61% increase in home runs per team, but just a 17% increase in runs scored.   Average team hits are almost identical—1410 to 1402— and the league batting average was .253 in 2015 and .253 again this year.  Average doubles plus triples were 301 in 2014 and 314 in 2014.  Thus, the increase in home runs corresponds quite closely to a decline of 93 in the average number of singles.  Average slugging percentage has increased accordingly, from .390 to .439. The OBP is up a little from .316 to .323, because  walks have gone up to 528  per team from 473.  So, 10% of hits were homers then, 16% of hits are homers now.  Strikeouts, however, are up from 1216 per team to 1428.  Combining 212 new strikeouts with 88 new home runs, the average team puts 300 less balls in play every season, or two less per game.  This makes sense: while the obvious alternative to a single is a ground ball out, the obvious alternative to a home run is a strikeout.

This very large increase in home runs, however, can make traditional statistics even more misleading than usual.  Homers are so plentiful that hitting them has become a less valuable skill relative to the league.  31 American Leaguers hit 30 or more home runs in 2019. Remarkably and significantly, Jorge Soler, who led the league with 48, earned just 3.3 WAA, a very valuable performance but short of the 4 WAA superstar level.  Minnesota’s Max Kepler hit 36 homers and earned 1.2 WAA; Gary Sanchez of the Yankees hit 34 (in 106 games!) and earned only 0.6.  Jose Abreu of the White House hit 33 and was an utterly average performer, and Rougned Ordor of Texas hit 30 with -1.8 WAA.  8 of these 31 players earned less than 1 full WAA. 

And thus, despite the escalating home run totals, the shortage of superstar performances in the two leagues continued.  In 2018 the AL had 9 such performances of 4 WAA or more and the NL 7. This year the corresponding figures were 10 for the AL—four of them with the same team!—and only 4 in the NL.  We now turn to the best teams in each league.

Although their lineup was four games better overall and their pitching four games worse, the Houston Astros in 2019 finished with essentially the same run differential as they had in 2018.  This time their luck improved, and they won a full 107 games, one less than their projected 108.  Once again their strongest offensive players were Alex Bregman (6.4 WAA) and George Springer (4.7), and Bregman edged out Mike Trout as the MVP of the AL, and indeed, of all baseball.  The lineup included three other stars: first baseman Yuri Gurriel (3.7 WAA), DH Yordan Alvarez (a remarkable 3 WAA in just 369 plate appearances), and Jose Altuve (2.4)  Outfielder Michael Brantley, catcher Robinson Chirinos, and oft-injured shortstop Carlos Correa were also above average.  On the mound, Justin Verlander (4.9 WAA) and Gerrit Cole (4.3) were two of the top four pitchers in the American League, and accounted for the entire positive value of the pitching staff.  Thanks to Bregman, Springer, Verlander and Cole, the Astros became only the eighth team since 1901 to have four genuine superstars in the same season, the last being the 2001 Seattle Mariners.

In a remarkable, injury-wracked season, the New York Yankee lineup, with only four players with more than 120 games played, still earned +15 WAA and enabled the team to finish with 103 wins.  D.J. LeMahieu just missed superstar status with 3.9 WAA, and second baseman Gleyber Torres (2), right fielder Aaron Judge (3.1 in just 102 games), third baseman Gio Urshela (2.4), and outfielder Mike Tauchman (2.1 WAA in just 82 games) were stars, while several other players performed at an above average level.  The team’s fielding was average, but the pitching staff contributed another +5 WAA, evenly divided between the starters and relievers.  While LeMahieu cannot be expected to replicate his 2019 contribution, the team’s many injuries suggest that they should be able to perform at least as well in 2020.  The Yankees lost a very close ALCS to the Astros in six games.

Helped by three games worth of luck, the Minnesota Twins, in an amazing turnaround from a sub-.500 2018, became the third team in the league to top 100 victories with 101. Despite poor fielding (-4 WAA), their lineup posted +9 wins in classic small market fashion.  Their best player, 38-year old DH Nelson Cruz, earned only 3.6 WAA, but their top 16 players did not include a single man worse than -0.5 WAA, while six of them earned more than 1.  Catcher Mitch Garver and outfielder Byron Buxton, although each limited to less than 95 games, starred with 2.1 WAA apiece, while poor fielding kept shortstop Jorge Polanco, second baseman Jonathan Schoop and outfielder Eddie Rosario from stardom.  The pitchers—whose contribution was somewhat obscured by their fielders’ problems—earned a combined +9 WAA as well, led by starters  Jose Barrios (2.1) and Jake Odorizzi (2.5).  Luck seems to have played a significant role in the overall pitching record, suggesting that the Twins will give up more runs next year.  On the other hand, the team, which set a new season record with 307 home runs, had 8 players with 22 home runs or more—only one of which appeared in more than 137 games.

A great deal went wrong for the defending champion Boston Red Sox, who declined from 108 wins in 2018 to just 84, both times with -4 wins worth of Pythagorean luck.  8 -1.  Their lineup was almost exactly as valuable as in 2018, with +8 WAA instead of +9.  While Mookie Betts and J. D. Martinez could not be expected to match their amazing 2017 seasons, they still posted 5.3 and 3.4 WAA, respectively.  In other bright spots, third baseman Rafael Devers performed adequately in the field and hit very well, finishing with 2.9 WAA at age 22, and catcher Christian Vazquez more than rebounded from a terrible 2018, with 2.8 WAA.  Shortstop Xander Bogaerts, however—a star in 2018—had a dreadful year in the field, giving up -26 runs, and finished with just 1.7 WAA.  Several second basemen once again cost the team badly, the first basemen were average, and outfielder Andrew Benintendi fell all the way to average after his excellent 2018 season.  Center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. was below average both at bat and in the field and cost the team -1.3 WAA again.  The real disaster, however, was on the mound, where a staff that earned +13 WAA in 2018 fell to average.  Starter Eduardo Rodriguez posted an excellent 3 WAA, but 2018 stars Chris Sale, David Price, and Rick Porcello were average or (in Porcello’s case) worse. As a group the relievers were below average.  The team now wants to cut its payroll, but both Price and Sale have many years to run on long-term contracts totaling $45 million a year.  Another 2018 division winner, the Cleveland Indians, suffered a bizarre season. Their omens were good, since they had won 91 games in 2018 despite -8 full games of bad Pythagorean luck, and despite some injuries, their pitching staff led the league again at +11 WAA.  Their lineup, however, fell from +3 WAA to average thanks to wretched hitting, and their 93 wins left them short of a wild card.

Only luck allowed Tampa Bay to beat Cleveland for the wild card with 96 wins.  The Rays’ lineup lacked a superstar but included outfielder Austin Meadows (3.5 WAA), first baseman Ji-Man Choi (2.8), and second baseman Brandon Lowe (2.3).  The rest of the lineup was weaker—outfielder Tommy Pham was only average because of poor fielding--and overall it was barely average.  Their pitching staff, however, earned a full +10 WAA, led by Charlie Morton (3.5 WAA), Yonny Chirinos (1.4), and relievers Emkilio Pagan, Tyler Glasnow, and Oliver Drake (4.2 among them, in 187 innings pitched.)  Three games worth of luck gave them an edge over the Indians.  Oakland had much better balance and won 96 games, one below their projection, with promise for the future.   Great fielding produced tremendous performances from shortstop Marcus Semien (6.3 WAA), third baseman Matt Chapman (4.8), and first baseman Matt Olson (3.6), and star turns from outfielders Mark Canha (3.2) and Ramon Laureano (2.5)  Alas, the lineup also included DH Khris Davis (-1.2) second baseman Jurickson Profar (-2.3), and catcher Josh Phegley (-1.1) and overall it earned only 11 WAA.   A remarkably consistent set of pitchers added +6 WAA more, even though only Liam Hendricks topped 2 WAA, with 2.1 in just 85 innings.  While their top players cannot be expected to do quite as well next year, Billy Beane has often managed to find average ones to strengthen his weak spots.  With Houston to contend with, however, they are unlikely to do better than another wild card birth and a 50-50 chance of advancing.

The American League had 10 superstars in 2019, including four Astros; the National League had only five, including two Mets, top rookie Pete Alonso (5.3 WAA) and top pitcher Jakob DeGrom (4.9).  Despite that one-two punch, New York won only 86 games, far short of the playoffs.  Once again the Los Angeles Dodgers far outshone the rest of the league, winning 106 games despite -2 games worth of bad Pythagorean luck.  Their lineup improved its fielding from -4 WAA in 2018 to +2, and its overall performance from +10 to a whopping +16.  Cody Bellinger, the league MVP, led the way with 6.1 WAA, followed by second baseman Max Muncy (3.6), third baseman Justin Turner (2.9), and John Pederson, Corey Seager, Alex Verdugo, Will Smith, and David Freeze (about 1 WAA each.)    Their pitching meanwhile held steady at +10 WAA, led by starters Hyun-Jin Ryu (a near-superstar at 3.9 WAA), Clayton Kershaw (2.7), and Walker Buehler (1.5).  But the Dodgers fell to a much weaker Nationals team in the NLCS.

The Atlanta Braves improved their 2018 record from 90-72 to 97-65 for one reason: their Pythagorean luck earned them an extra 5 wins, having cost them 2 wins the previous year.  Their lineup (+6 WAA) was a little better, even though first baseman Freddie Freeman, now 29, fell off from 4.2 WAA to 2.2.  21-year old outfielder Ronald Acuña posted a fine 3.2 WAA, and new acquisition Josh Donaldson added 2.3.  Among the pitchers Mike Soroka, also 21, just missed superstar status with 3.9 WAA in 175 innings, and starters Julio Teheran, Max Fried and Dallas Keuchel contributed 4 WAA among them, although the rest of the staff pulled the  moundsmen down to just +4 WAA overall.  The Washington Nationals began the campaign with a wise decision not to sign the erratic Bryce Harper, who earned just 1.8 WAA in his first $11.5 million season with the Phillies.  Third baseman Anthony Rendon turned in a 4 WAA superstar season and 20-year old sophomore Juan Soto posted a very promising 3.4, allowing the lineup to improve slightly from +4 WAA to +5.  The pitchers (+8) remained the strength of the team, with starters Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez posting a combined 11.9 WAA, the best rotation in the majors.  In this case as in a number of others, the rest of the staff—a combined -4 WAA—pulled the team down.  In the NL wild card game the Nationals rallied to beat the Brewers, one of the luckiest teams in recent memory, who squeaked into the playoffs with just 89 wins—thanks only to a full +8 games of Pythagorean luck.  Then their pitching allowed them to sneak beat the superior Dodgers in the NLDS, and they swept the Cardinals quite easily in the NLCS.

St. Louis won 92 games thanks mostly to their fielding, which earned them a full +5 WAA.  Second baseman Kolten Wong and shortstop Paul DeJong saved +37 and +15 runs, respectively, allowing them to earn 1.4 and 4.6 WAA.  One must ask whether those figures owed something to the very effective use of infield shifts, and to a good deal of luck, as well as to the skill of those two men.  The Cardinals found their way to first place in the NL Central despite very disappointing performances from veteran Matt Carpenter (-2.4 WAA) and free agent acquisition Paul Goldschmidt (0.6).  Yadier Molina (1.6 in 113 games) had another good year behind the plate in limited duty.  The pitching staff evidently was not quite as good as it looked thanks to the fielding, and earned only +2 WAA overall.  Only starter Jack Flaherty (3.6 WAA) and reliever Giovanny Gallegos (1.4) earned more than 1.

After four consecutive seasons of 92 wins or more, including a 103-win world championship in 2016, the Cubs fell to 84-78 and missed the playoffs.  Among their long-time leaders, Anthony Rizzo lead the lineup with just 2.7 WAA, while Jason Heyward, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber fell to average—in Heyward’s and Bryant’s cases, because of wretched seasons in the field.  The lineup earned just +3 WAA and the well-balanced pitching staff +5—even though Kyle Hendricks led the staff with just 1.9 WAA, trailed by Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels with 1.5 each.

On the all-time list of Millennial position players, only Mike Trout added to his total of superstar seasons, posting his eighth consecutive one, with 6.5 WAA in just 134 games.  He has never been below 4 WAA in a full season, but sadly, has appeared in postseason play just once.   Ted Williams also posted at least 4 WAA (and usually much more) in his first eight seasons, and Trout is two shy of the all-time record of 10 in his first 10 years, set by Albert Pujols.  The other great Millennials from the 1980s seem to be in the decline phase of their careers.  Robinson Cano has not added to his four superstar seasons since 2016 (though that total would normally get a second basemen comfortably into Cooperstown), Miguel Cabrera, with seven such seasons, has been average for the last three years, and Joey Votto, who also has seven, has been only a star, not a superstar, for the last two years.  Josh Donaldson hasn’t added to his total of four in the last three years.  The very unlucky Paul Goldschmidt—by this measure—posted his second 3.9 WAA season in 2018, to go with four other seasons comfortably over 4, but we have seen that he slipped all the way to average in his first year as a Cardinal, even though he is only 31.  Shin-Shu Choo had the last of his four great seasons in 2014.  David Wright, whose career is over, and Andrew McCutchen, both seem to have burned out very early, well short of Cooperstown.  Among younger Millennials born in the 1990s, Mookie Betts topped 5 WAA for the third time in four years at age 26, and Matt Chapman, Alex Bregman, and Christian Yelich all posted their second consecutive superstar seasons.  For the second year in a row, Aaron Judge, sadly, was only a star because injuries cost him a good chunk of the season.

Among the pitchers, Justin Verlander posted his fifth superstar season (4.7 WAA) at the age of 36, while Max Scherzer (3.7), while missing his sixth, posted a seventh consecutive season with at least 3.7 WAA. Clayton Kershaw (2.7) posted at the star level for the third consecutive year, but he, like Verlander and Scherzer, already looks like a cinch for Cooperstown.  Jakob DeGrom posted his second consecutive superstar season.  If the Mets can take care of their weak spots, DeGrom and Alonso should be able to lead them into postseason play in 2020.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

How valuable was Mariano Rivera?

Yesterday, Mariano Rivera became the first player ever to be elected to the Hall of  Fame unanimously, and on his first try to boot--something that players like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Mike Schmidt, and many others, failed to achieve.  He was elected because he was (as we shall see) a very effective pitcher, who played what many people believe to be a key role for the New York Yankees for many years, during most of which they enjoyed extraordinary success.  He certainly proved, over a long period of time, that he had Hall of Fame ability.  Yet for reasons having nothing to do with his ability, he actually contributed extraordinarily few extra wins to his team over the course of his long career.

The principle of reductio ad absurdum has solved a number of problems in mathematics, both theoretical and applied.  Essentially, it suggests that if the logical extension of a premise leads to an absurd conclusion, the premise itself is false.  For several decades now fans and writers have believed, and baseball organizations have acted as if, a pitcher who can reliably protect a lead of 1-3 runs for one inning (the ninth) plays a critical role in his team's success.  In 2016, in a typically thorough and insightful presentation at the SABR Convention in Miami, Dave Smith of proved that that assumption is false.  An analysis of the career of Rivera--generally regarded as the greatest closer of all time--will confirm that conclusion in spades.

After a year as the Yankees' set-up man in 1996--a year to which we shall return--Rivera was the Yankees' closer for 16 of the next 17 years.  He was an extraordinarily effective pitcher for most of those seasons.  In Baseball Greatness, I use the measurement of Wins Above Average to measure the value of all players, and by that measure, Rivera appears to be the best relief pitcher of all time. Only once did he ever come close to the 4 Wins Above Average figure that represents a superstar season, but no other reliever has ever pitched enough to reach that figure either.  He exceeded 2 WAA in four out of five seasons from 2003 through 2008--seasons in which he pitched between 70 and 80 innings.  No other reliever--including those from earlier eras who pitched well over 100 innings a year--has been over 2 WAA that many times.  That means that if he could have pitched 220 innings, let's say, at the same rate of effectiveness, he would  have earned about 6.5 or 7 extra wins for his team, which represents an outstanding season for any of the greatest pitchers in history, such as Lefty Grove or Bob Feller or Roger Clemens.  I have no doubt that, given the chance, and if he could have stayed healthy for long enough, Mariano Rivera might have pitched his way into the Hall of Fame as a starter.  But we will never know.

Yet the New York Yankees, as it turns out, got remarkably little value, in terms of games won, out of this great pitcher.  The reason is that, as a closer, Rivera only came into the game when the Yankees already had an overwhelming chance of winning it.

I have not been able to find a thorough year-to-year record of Rivera's saves and blown saves, but an article by Jim Caple of ESPN written on the eve of his retirement has good aggregate data.  Rivera, he reports based on data from Elias, had 652 saves and 80 blown saves. That is a percentage of 89.1.   Unfortunately, I don't know how many of the blown saves resulted in  Yankee defeats.  They obviously lost all the games on the road in which Rivera actually surrendered enough runs to lose the game, and the vast majority--around 90%--of the games in which he fell behind in the top of the ninth at Yankee Stadium.  They should have won about half the games in which he allowed the other team to tie the game.  I'm going to be generous, for reasons that will become apparent, and guess that the Yankees might have won 20 games in which Rivera had blown the save.  That would mean that the Yankees won 92% of the games in which Rivera came into the game in a save situation.

How would an average pitcher have done?

Dave Smith's presentation provides some answers.  Team winning percentages in games in which the team enjoyed a 1-, 2- or 3-run lead going into the ninth inning are extraordinarily consistent from 1912 to 2015.  A 3-run lead gives a winning percentage of 97%, a two-run lead 93%, and a one-run lead,  84%.

Now the Caple article does break down Rivera's saves into 1-run, 2-run, 3-run and 4-run situations, but it doesn't do the same, alas, for his blown saves.  (Caple states, in effect, that even an entrance with a 4-run lead can result in a save, while Smith did not.  I don't know where this discrepancy came from, but I'll count 3- and 4-run leads together for the next calculation.)  I'm going to assume, generously I think, that Rivera blew 2/3 of his blown saves with a lead of just 1 run, and 1/3 with a two-run lead.  Adding that estimate into Elias's figures for successful saves, we would find Rivera entering with a one-run lead 263 times, with a two-run lead 241 times, and with a 3- or 4- run lead, 226 times.  Applying Smith's figures for success in those situations, we find that the Yankees with average 9th-inning pitching could have expected to win 664 of the of the 732 games that Rivera entered in a save situation, or 91% of them.  With  Rivera, we have estimated that they actually won 672 of them, or 92%.  That's 8 extra games in 16 full-time seasons as closer--exactly one-half a game a year.

Now as I have said, Rivera actually exceed 2 WAA a year four times as a closer--the most of any reliever--and he also exceeded 1 WAA on ten other occasions, implying that he was worth more than half a win a year to the New York Yankees.   But he wasn't, because the Yankees used him as a closer.  They used him in games in which the rest of the team--the hitter/fielders, starting pitchers, and other relievers--had already established a win probability of 91%.  There was no way that he could improve on that probability very much, given the way that he was used.  The same is true, obviously, for very other talented pitcher who is wasted as a closer.  Rivera's most valuable year for the Yankees, ironically, w 1996, when he pitched 107 2/3 innings as a set-up man and earned 3.4 WAA, more than he ever did as a closer.

There is, alas, another question that we really need to ask about Rivera and other closers.  Rivera's best seasons as a closer, when he earned more than 2 WAA in four years out of five, occurred at ages 33-38.  It certainly seems reasonable to assume that he managed to sustain that level of effectiveness at that age in part because he pitched only 70 innings a year.  What we have shown, though, is that that reduced his value to his team to a very marginal level.  Rivera was a very fine pitcher, in the very few innings that he pitched, for a very long time.  But based on the actual number of wins that he and other closers contribute to their teams, none of them should even be considered for the Hall of Fame.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The election of Harold Baines to the Hall of Fame

The selection of Harold Baines to the Hall of Fame has excited a great deal of comment, most of it negative, because so few people, apparently, have ever regarded him as a potential Hall of Famer.  Once some one is in, of course, they are in forever, and there's no point ranting and raving about any mistakes that voters have made.  Yet it is worthwhile, it seems to me, to ask a few questions that situate this choice within the pantheon of the Hall, and help place Baines accurately among baseball's greatest players.  I shall focus on three questions:

1.  How exactly was Baines selected?

2.  How does Baines compare to broadly similar players already in the Hall?

3.  How does Baines compare to the other players who were on the ballot this year?

Baines was chosen by one of the subcomittees, one might say, of the old Veterans Committee.  Called  the Today's Game Committee, it "considers retired Major League Baseball players no longer eligible for election by the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA), along with managers, umpires and executives, whose greatest contributions to the game were realized from the 1988-2016 era."   The committee membership included  Hall of Fame members Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven, Pat Gillick, Tony La Russa, Greg Maddux, Joe Morgan, John Schuerholz, Ozzie Smith and Joe Torre; major league executives Al Avila (Tigers), Paul Beeston (Blue Jays), Andy MacPhail (Phillies) and Jerry Reinsdorf (White Sox); and veteran media members/historians Steve Hirdt, Tim Kurkjian and Claire Smith.  The other players on the ballot were Albert Belle, Joe Carter, Will Clark, Orel Hershiser, and Lee Smith. Smith also won election.

2.  I am going to compare Baines's record to others using the method I developed in my book, Baseball Greatness.  That method ranks players by the number of seasons of 4 or more Wins Above Average they had during their careers.  For hitters like Baines, WAA is computed using the offensive numbers from, but substituting Michael Humphreys's DRA fielding statistics for the ones baseball-reference uses, and eliminating position adjustments, which tend to be arbitrary.  These differences of approach help Baines.  DRA shows him to have been a significantly better fielder than baseball-reference does in the early years of his career when he played the outfield, and baseball-reference routinely subtracts about 10 runs above average for DHs, which of course was what Baines was for most of his career.  4 WAA is my definition of a superstar season because it turns out that it defines how good you have to be to be the MVP on a pennant-winning team.  The vast majority of pennant winning teams have had at least one player that good.

Now the number of seasons of 4 WAA or more that a player has does correlate reasonably well with lifetime totals, since a player who is great enough to have five such seasons (stand by for more explanation) will generally have a long career including a number of seasons in the 2-3 WAA range, as well.  As it turns out, 5 seasons of 4 WAA or more has in practice been the definition of a solid Hall of Famer, according to the actual voting results.  Of the 29 players with exactly five such seasons, 19 of them--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.  Three much older players from this group--Charlie Keller, Gil Hodges, and Wes Ferrell--are not in.  The remaining 7 players with 5 WAA are Roy Halladay, Curt Schilling, Larry Walker, Mike Mussina, and Jim Edmonds, who are on this year's BWAA ballot, and David Ortiz and Clayton Kershaw, who are not yet eligible.  On the other hand, of the 51 players in history with exactly four seasons of 4 WAA or more, only 17 of them are in the Hall of Fame--and many of them are pitchers, for whom the actual standards, by this method, tend to be a good deal lower.

There are, of course, a good many players in the Hall of Fame who do not have even 4 seasons of 4 WAA or more, but the vast majority of them are catchers or middle infielders, and they are not, therefore, good comparisons to Harold Baines, who began his career as an outfielder and spent most of it as a DH.

By this method, Harold Baines has no claim to the Hall of Fame, for the simple reason that he never, in his whole career, had a season of 4 WAA or more.  Not one.  Here are his annual WAA totals (I have combined the individual team totals for the several years in which Baines played for more than one team.)

1980     -2.1 WAA
1981       0.9 WAA (strike-shortened season)
1982       0.8 WAA
1983      1.3
1984      3.5
1985      2.2
1986      2.4
1987      0.5
1988      0.6
1989      2.5
1990      1.3
1991      2.1
1992     -0.3
1993      1.8
1994      0.1
1995      1.8
1996      2.6
1997      1.1
1998      0.3
1999      1.9
2000     -0.8
2001     -1.3

In 21 years, Harold Baines never had a superstar season.  He had 6 seasons of 2.0-3.9 WAA, all but one under 3 WAA, which I define in my book as "star seasons."  He had five seasons of 1-1.9 WAA, making him a modest asset on a winning team, six seasons in which he was essentially average (from -0.9 to +0.9), and his last season was below average.  For an outfielder/DH this is a very poor record for a Hall of Famer.

Are there any outfielders in the Hall whose records are very comparable to Baines'? Yes, at least three.  One, indeed, is indisputably worse than Baines, and ranks as a candidate for the weakest non-pitcher in the Hall of Fame.  That is Lloyd Waner, who got lots of base hits, played in a high-offense era, and benefited from the glow emitted by his brother Paul, a genuine all-time great.  Lloyd Waner also had a long career (18 seasons to Baines' 22) without ever having a season of 4 WAA or more, but his record is much weaker than Baines's.  He topped 2 WAA only once (in 1931) and 1 WAA only four times.  He was an average player, or worse, for nearly his whole career.

It is interesting to compare Baines to some of the other weaker outfielders who have reached Cooperstown.  Those most similar to Baines in terms of the length of their careers are Sam Rice (2404 games to Baines's  2830), Max Carey (2476 games), Zack Wheat (2410 games), and Heinie Manush (2008 games.) Rice was elected for a reason that apparently played a big role in Baines's selection as well: both of them finished their careers with close to 3000 hits, which has traditionally meant certain inclusion in the Hall of Fame.  As it happens, Rice was also rather unlucky insofar as he did not reach the majors until he was 25 and had his first full season at 27.  Nonetheless he played in 20 seasons, like Baines, but he was an outstanding center fielder, as it turns out, and he had much more impact on his teams than Baines did.  He had one superstar season (5.6 WAA in 1920, when he saved a remarkable 37 runs in center field.)  He was over 3 WAA five more times (compared to once for Baines), and over 2 twice more.  He was a star, although not the MVP, on the Washington Senators' pennant winning teams of 1924-5.  He is one of the weaker outfielders in the Hall, but he was significantly better than Baines was.  Max Carey had three superstar seasons of 4 WAA or more and three more seasons over 3 WAA (he too was an outstanding outfielder.)  Zack Wheat had three seasons in which he topped 5 WAA, and four seasons over 3 WAA.  Manush's two best seasons are better than Baines's two best (4.7 and 3.5 WAA), but Baines's record is better than his after that.  Outfielders with much shorter careers whose status as Hall of Famers is questionable include Chick Hafey, Ross Youngs, Earl Averill, Chuck Klein, and Hack Wilson.  Hafey is the only one of that group without a superstar season and he was definitely a less valuable player than Baines.  Youngs had two seasons over 4 WAA and three more over 2; Averill topped 4 WAA just once, and 3 WAA three times (his fielding hurt him badly; and Klein had three superstar seasons. Wilson, another fielder, never topped 4 WAA for a season, even in 1930, when he hit 56 homers and drove in 191 runs but cost the Cubs -33 runs in the field. He was over 3 WAA four times, however.  Combs is one of many players who were elected to the Hall of Fame thanks to their teammates.  He had a relatively short career with the Yankees--12 years, including 3 with less than 100 games--and he topped 4 WAA only once, in 1927, with 6, thanks largely to by far his best season ever in the field.  He had three star seasons, and thus, with the exception of that one big year, he was not as good as Harold Baines.  One could therefore argue that Baines ranks above Lloyd Waner, Chick Hafey,and Heinie Manush among outfielders in the Hall, but that's about it.

Baines is, I believe, the first selection to the Hall who spent the vast majority of his career as a DH.  Two other similar candidates are Edgar Martinez, who is on the ballot this year, and David Ortiz, who is not yet eligible.  Both are in a completely different league than Baines.  Martinez had an outstanding 7 seasons with 5 WAA or more, making him statistically overqualified for the Hall (although his career path, as I mentioned in an earlier post, raises some questions), and Ortiz finished his career with 5 such seasons.  Indeed, it is an interesting question as to why, in the high-offense era of the 1990s, several AL teams were willing to play Baines as their regular DH even though he was contributing only marginally to their success.

3.   Among the players on this year's ballot, Albert Belle had much better Hall of Fame credentials than Baines did.  Belle played only 10 regular seasons but he performed at a superstar level in 4 of them.  That is not enough, as we have seen, to give him a better than 50% chance of reaching the Hall, but Belle was the MVP on the Cleveland Indians' dynasty of the late 1990s for several years. Lee Smith was elected as a closer--but no closer, including Mariano Rivera, has ever had 4 WAA even once. They do not pitch enough to have that much impact.

The old Veterans Committee was responsible for most of the worst selections to the Hall of Fame, and the new committees look like they will do just as badly.  They have failed to elect the players that the  BWAA  unfortunately ignored despite ample credentials, such as Charlie Keller (whose great career was shortened by injury), Gil Hodges, and Keith Hernandez, while adding some players whose credentials are weak.   They do not seem to be in the least interested in any modern sabermetric measurements.  But in an era where rationality is under attack on many fronts, this is not surprising.