Sunday, April 15, 2012

Jackie Robinson Day

There's been a ton of pixels spilled over Jackie Robinson Day, and what I want to add is this: One thing many people forget about Robinson is that, in addition to being a pioneer and a hero, he was a hell of a ballplayer. A hell of a ballplayer. By some measures, he was the best player in all of baseball from 1949 through 1952—ahead of Musial, Williams, Campanella, Kiner, Snider, and others. And he was already 30 years old when he began that streak. Imagine what he could have done if he’d come to the majors as a 22-year-old instead of as a 28-year-old. 

Another question I’ve thought about: Could he have played better if he hadn’t had to put up with the beanballs and racist epithets? I say no. I think sticking it to the racists helped motivate Robinson to become the player he was.

Friday, April 13, 2012

WAR: What is it good for?

Please forgive the title, but I couldn't resist. Today's topic is Wins Above Replacement, or WAR. I've been using WAR on this site as a nice shorthand to compare player seasons, but it's still unfamiliar to a lot of fans. So I'm going to reprint the entry about WAR from my new book, The Book of Baseball Literacy: 3rd Edition.

WAR is fairly new sabermetric statistic that aims to quantify a player’s contribution to his team in the field, at the plate, and on the bases compared to that of a generic “replacement player”—meaning a typical player readily available from the minor leagues (which is not the same as an average major leaguer). Like Win Shares, WAR is complicated to calculate, and even among those websites that do make the effort—including,, and Baseball Prospectus—they each make slightly different calculations, so the numbers for any given player don’t exactly match up.

One thing to realize with WAR is that the calculation literally translates to the number of wins a player is responsible for above and beyond the contribution of a replacement player. For example, in 2010, Josh Hamilton registered a WAR of 8.7 (according to Fangraphs), the highest in baseball. That means his bat, glove, and legs personally delivered 8.7 wins to the Rangers more than an average minor league outfielder.

Does that seem low to you? At first glance, it does to me. I mean, Hamilton was the best player in the league that year, and he was only responsible for 8.7 wins? At second glance, however, it starts to make sense. Because of the nature of baseball, a team filled with Triple-A replacement players would probably win at least 40 games. A team filled with Josh Hamiltons would probably lose at least 40 games. The 82 games in between are what separate major league–quality teams from minor league–quality teams, and there are 25 players on the roster all contributing to the club in one way or another. In that context—25 players diving up 82 wins, or an average of 3.28 per player—Hamilton’s 8.7 makes more sense. WAR suggests that he was between two and three times as good as the average player on his team, and that seems about right.

It’s possible to register a negative WAR, but in practice, players who do usually don’t last long in the majors because teams will be quick to replace them with a cheaper, younger alternative from the minors. (However, some veterans do keep their jobs despite scoring poorly; Melky Cabrera, Carlos Lee, and Adam Lind all scored negative WARs in 2010, but still have major league jobs because teams are hoping against hope that they’ll return to their former glory.)

WAR is an exciting new statistic that is accepted in the sabermetric world but has a long way to go before casual fans can believe in it. But it’ll get there.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Are the Cincinnati Reds insane?

It appears that the Reds are locking up Joey Votto until age 40 with a huge contract worth $225 million. My question is: Are they insane? Same goes for the Tigers and Cecil Fielder, and for the Angels and Albert Pujols (not to mention other long-term contracts like A-Rod and Mark Texeira).

Why do I wonder that? Because history tells us that it's highly likely that these players are going to be paid like superstars well past the point when they're producing like superstars.

The fact is that hitters rarely put together productive seasons after the age of 33. If we use 5+ WAR as a guide (that's about All-Star quality), we can do a quick research project to find out how many 1B/DH types have had 5+ WAR seasons after the age of 33. The results are disheartening if you're a Reds/Angels/Tigers fan.

Five 5+ WAR Seasons
1: Edgar Martinez

Four 5+ WAR Seasons

Three 5+ WAR Seasons
7: Paul Molitor, Stan Musial, Johnny Mize, Dolph Camilli, Jack Fournier

Two 5+ WAR Seasons
3: Mark McGwire, Lou Gehrig, Bill Terry

So realistically the best they can hope for is to match Edgar Martinez, with five such seasons. The problem is, ages 33 through 40 is actually eight seasons, so even the best case scenario is that they'll have three lost seasons in the mix.

That's what history tells us, anyway.

Now let me answer the question I posed earlier: No, I don't think the people who run baseball are insane. They're just rich — and about to get richer. With the way baseball revenues are exploding (thanks to inflation and soaring local TV revenues), it's probably going to turn out that those huge contracts won't seem out of place in 10 years. Maybe paying $25 million for 3+ WAR will seem perfectly in line with the salary structure because Jason Heyward or somebody we've never heard of is making $35 or $40 million and the average payroll is $175 million.

All I know is that I wish I were younger and a power hitter and about to hit free agency.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Great Players Who Changed Teams in Mid-Career

Last winter, when Albert Pujols signed with the Angels, he became one of the greatest players ever to change teams in mid-career. How does he stack up historically with other Hall of Fame-caliber players who've switched?* Let's take a look at a few.

*Players who switched early- or late-career don't qualify for this particular study (e.g., Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, etc.)

Shoeless Joe Jackson
Traded from the Indians to the White Sox.
Age and seasons played at switch: 27 / 8
WAR* before switch: 35.4
WAR after switch: 30.7

Tris Speaker
Traded from the Red Sox to the Indians
Age and seasons played at switch: 28 / 9
WAR before switch: 56.2
WAR after switch: 76.8

Jimmie Foxx
Traded from the A's to the Red Sox.
Age / seasons played at switch: 28 / 11
WAR before switch: 61.3
WAR after switch: 32.8

Frank Robinson
Traded from the Reds to the Orioles.
Age and seasons played at switch: 30 / 10
WAR before switch: 61.5
WAR after switch: 45.9

Orlando Cepeda
Traded from the Giants to the Cardinals
Age and seasons played at switch: 28 / 9
WAR before switch: 31.0
WAR after switch: 17.9

Joe Morgan
Traded from the Astros to the Reds
Age and seasons played at switch: 28 / 9
WAR before switch: 27.1
WAR after switch: 76.4

Dale Murphy
Traded from the Braves to the Phillies
Age and seasons played at switch: 34 / 15
WAR before switch: 45.5
WAR after switch: -0.8

Barry Bonds
Signed with Giants as a free agent
Age and seasons played at switch: 28 / 7
WAR before switch: 50.2
WAR after switch: 121.6

Ken Griffey Jr.
Traded from the Mariners to the Reds
Age and seasons played at switch: 30 / 11
WAR before switch: 68.7
WAR after switch: 9.9

Alex Rodriguez
Signed with Rangers as a free agent
Age and seasons played at switch: 25 / 7
WAR before switch: 37.1
WAR after switch: 78.5 (through 2011)

Alex Rodriguez
Traded from Rangers to Yankees
Age and seasons played at switch: 28 / 9
WAR before switch: 61.0
WAR after switch: 43.6 (through 2011)

Albert Pujols
Signed with Angels as a free agent
Age and seasons played at switch: 31 / 11
WAR before switch: 88.7
WAR after switch: ?

Due to Pujols's age (31), the most comparable team switches in history were that of Frank Robinson and Ken Griffey Jr.

Robinson was 30 when the Reds dumped him under the mistaken belief that he was an "old 30." Robinson went on to win the Triple Crown with the Orioles remain a top player for half a dozen years. Griffey didn't have such a great story. He was the same age when he forced the Mariners to trade him ahead of free agency, but a succession of injuries stripped away his skills, and he never came close to approaching the heights he had achieved in Seattle.

Obviously we don't know what Albert is going to do from now on, but we do know that he's the most accomplished player ever to switch teams in mid-career. 88.7 WAR is a Hall of Fame career on its own; it ranks 28th of all time, tied with Carl Yastrzemski and ahead of guys like Joe DiMaggio, Roberto Clemente, Paul Waner, Willie McCovey, and many other Hall of Famers.

Which path will Pujols follow? Considering the money committed to him, Angels fans have to hope for neither. They have to hope for something beyond Robinson and closer to Tris Speaker or Joe Morgan, who were significantly younger when they were traded to their new teams. It's hard to see that happening, but people have doubted Albert Pujols before and he's always proved them wrong.

*WAR = Wins Above Replacement as calculated by Baseball Reference.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Where does Chipper Jones rank all time?

Chipper Jones announced his retirement today, effective at the end of the 2012 season. So now would be a good time to assess his career and see how he ranks among the game's greatest third basemen.

Here's a listing of career WAR among the top third basemen (according to

1. Mike Schmidt: 108.3
2. Eddie Mathews: 98.3
3. Wade Boggs: 89.0
4. George Brett: 85.0
5. Chipper Jones: 82.7
6. Brooks Robinson: 69.1
7. Ron Santo: 66.4
8. Scott Rolen: 66.2
9. Home Run Baker: 63.7
10. Graig Nettles: 61.6

A few notes:
- We'll leave Alex Rodriguez out of this for now. As of now, he's played more games as a shortstop than as a third baseman, so I'm not ready to include him here yet.

- Adrian Beltre is still about 14 WAR behind, but he'll probably shoot up the list to number 6 or 7 before his career ends.

If Jones matches his 2011 season this year (2.8 WAR), he'll move past Brett to claim the number four career spot, but at age 40, he'd have to play out of his mind to surpass Boggs. Not gonna happen.

OK, so fourth or fifth by career value. Now let's look at peak value. How many 7+/8+/9+ WAR seasons did Jones have compared to the top six guys:

1. Mike Schmidt: 9/3/2
2. Eddie Mathews: 8/4/0
3. Wade Boggs: 6/5/1
4. George Brett: 5/4/1
5. Chipper Jones: 3/0/0
6. Brooks Robinson: 3/1/0
7. Ron Santo: 4/2/1

Hmmm, it turns out that Jones only had three 7+ WAR seasons and zero 8+ WAR seasons. Even his MVP year only ranks as a 7.0 WAR. I think the problem is that Jones ranks as an average to below-average fielder, which brings down his overall totals. By offense alone, that 1999 season scores as 8.2 oWAR.

So is this enough information to rank Jones confidently? In my mind, yes. By both career and peak value as a player, Jones clearly ranks below the top three of Schmidt, Mathews, and Boggs. And I think Brett was a much bigger offensive force than Jones ever was, and he was a better fielder to boot.

Which puts Chipper Jones as the fifth greatest third baseman of all time. Not shabby, not shabby at all. Next up: Cooperstown.

If you want to read a couple of other assessments of Chipper Jones, check out Rob Neyer and Cliff Corcoran. (Spoiler alert: They basically come to the same conclusion.)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Great Teenage Hitters

UPDATE: Just hours after publishing this post, the Nationals optioned Harper to Triple-A. We'll see if he comes back up this season as predicted below.

If Bryce Harper makes the Nationals club this year, what can fans expect? If you go by history, not much. Very few 19-year-old position players have made much of an impact in the majors. Here are the best seasons by teenage hitters in baseball history:

Mel Ott - 1928
.921 OPS, 3.5 WAR*

Edgar Renteria - 1996
.757 OPS, 3.0 WAR

Ken Griffey Jr. - 1989
.748 OPS, 2.8 WAR

Ty Cobb - 1906
.749 OPS, 2.6 WAR

Travis Jackson - 1923
.712 OPS, 2.3 WAR

The news gets a lot more encouraging when we expand our search to 20-year-old players. There are too many good seasons to list, but the top 5 by WAR are:

Alex Rodriguez - 1996
1.045 OPS, 9.4 WAR

Al Kaline - 1955
.967 OPS, 9.0 WAR

Ty Cobb - 1907
.848 OPS, 8.4 WAR

Mel Ott - 1929
1.084 OPS, 8.0 WAR

Ted Williams - 1939
1.045 OPS, 6.8 WAR

So should the Nationals hold Harper back a year and wait till he's 20? Only if they have someone better on the roster. You'll see that Cobb and Ott appear on both lists, so the year of seasoning in the majors actually helped them get better. That's how it could play out for Harper too.

Of course, financial considerations play into the decision. They don't want to start the clock on his arbitration eligibility too soon, so what they're probably going to do is the same as what the Giants did with Buster Posey: Wait until late May or June so that this year won't count against his service time and they'll get the rest of this season plus two more pre-arbitration years.

*WAR = Wins Above Replacement provided by

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Great pitcher/centerfielder combos

This year, whenever Clayton Kershaw takes the mound and Matt Kemp mans center field, the Dodgers will boast one of the greatest pitcher/center field combos of all time. Last year, they combined for 17 Wins Above Replacement* — 10 for Kemp, 7 for Kershaw. That's not the highest total of all time, but it's not too far off. In fact, based on my research, it ranks as the sixth highest pitcher/CF total of all time. Here's the top 10:

1. 1912 Red Sox: Tris Speaker (11) / Joe Wood (9.6)
2. 1965 Giants: Willie Mays (11) / Juan Marichal (9.2)
3. 1956 Yankees: Mickey Mantle (12.9) / Whitey Ford (5.8)
4. 1937 Yankees: Joe DiMaggio (9.0) / Lefty Gomez (8.9)
5. 1997 Mariners: Ken Griffey Jr. (9.4) / Randy Johnson (7.7)
6. 2011 Dodgers: Matt Kemp (10) / Clayton Kershaw (7)
7. 1985 Cardinals: Willie McGee (8.5) / John Tudor (7.5)
8. 1964 Dodgers: Willie Davis (7.6) / Don Drysdale (8.2)
9. 1953 Phillies: Richie Ashburn (6.0) / Robin Roberts (9.6)
10. 1964 Dodgers: Willie Davis (7.6) / Sandy Koufax (7.8)

Just a few steps behind: Puckett/Viola 1988, Jones/Maddux 2000, Aaron/Spahn 1961, Wynn/Messersmith 1974, Jones/Glavine 1998, Snider/Newcombe 1956

Some notes:

- No surprise to see Speaker and Wood at number one. Those were two genuinely historic performances, but if you notice, they barely beat out Mays/Marichal, which were simply two great seasons of many for those two all-timers.

- It's great to see Willie Davis, a truly underrated Dodger, on this list. He had numerous good seasons and a couple of great seasons; 1964 was his best but not either Koufax's or Drysdale's best.

- Willie McGee is the big surprise on this list. He really only had one good season, but he won the MVP for it and went to the World Series. That's called great timing.

*I used Baseball-Reference WAR totals. Fangraphs only provides historical WAR for position players, not pitchers, so I couldn't compare the two totals.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Hall of Fame voting

Congratulations to Barry Larkin on being elected to the Hall of Fame this week. When active, he wasn't the kind of player who screamed out as a Hall of Famer. But when you compare his numbers to other great shortstops in baseball history, it's clear he belongs among the greats. Next year's ballot is stuffed with legendary players — Bonds, Clemens, Maddux, et al — so it might be tough for other worthies like Raines and Bagwell to break through. But it should be interesting. More to come.