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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Jon Bernstein: Would Musial Crack the All-Dead Team

I’ll start with the All-Dead Team. Talk about a hard OF to crack! We’ll certainly carry five OFers on the 25-man roster, and I’d think that the selections have been easy: Williams starts in LF, Ruth of course in RF, and then pick ‘em from Cobb, Mantle, and Speaker. Does Musial displace one of them? Yikes! That’s a tough call. By the way, just as a shortcut, that group of six count for six of the top twenty all-time in baseball-reference’s WAR list.

So that’s my roster:

Dickey, Cochrane
Gehrig, Hornsby, Collins, J. Robinson, Wagner, G. Davis, Mathews
T. Williams, Cobb, Speaker, Mantle, Ruth, Musial

 

The Clarence Thomas of BBTF (scott) Posted: January 26, 2013 at 02:07 AM | 121 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: cardinals, hall of fame

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   101. Voros McCracken of Pinkus Posted: January 28, 2013 at 01:35 AM (#4356351)
At the same time, folks raved about what a fantastic player Pie Traynor was, but we're not necessarily beholden to that either because there's a more comprehensive record of his play. And McGraw may have thought Charleston was better, but when was that? Charleston was significantly younger too so Charleston at 25 was likely better than Cobb at 34. And McGraw didn't exactly see all that much of Cobb actually.

From the statistics we do have now, Cobb certainly dominated the AL from 1909-1915 more so than Charleston did in any of the leagues he was in during the 20s. Cobb led the AL in OPS+ for 9 straight years and 11 out of 12 years, and was the best base runner in the game, and was an average to maybe a little above average defender in center. That's just a monster record. Hell, Bonds couldn't even do that kind of stuff. Charleston was extremely well regarded by all, and Cobb was an epic jerk so maybe that enhanced Charleston's reputation some.

Someone could tell me Jim Creighton was a better pitcher and hitter than Babe Ruth. And I suppose he could have been.

But there's just so much we don't know. And that sort of gap in knowledge among the All-Time greats, mathematically speaking, is always going to favor the guys with the more complete record. It's not fair, but trying to guess right is not about being fair, it's about trying to guess right.
   102. Morty Causa Posted: January 28, 2013 at 01:35 AM (#4356352)
In early Nov., the Detroit Tigers received an invitation to visit Havana, Cuba, for a 12 games series of games. The Tigers had gone there the previous Nov., 1909, and lost 4-8 to the Havana black team, which was strengthened by a few US black superstars of the Negro L. The Tigers had lost before, and this time asked Cobb to join them, so they could win their series this time. So, those mean-spirited Tigers of 5 wks. ago, now were asking Cobb for a favor.

Although Ty initially refused on racial grounds, he relented when the Cuban promoters added a $1,000. bonus for him. "I broke my own rule for a few games." Ty went down there, but missed the 1st 5 games. When he arrived, the Tigers were 3-3-1 with the blacks.

With Ty, they finished the series at 7-4-1. With Ty, they did 4-1.


I've heard, and referenced before, this story. Here's the first link to it I found.
   103. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: January 28, 2013 at 08:54 AM (#4356419)
John Holway's Complete Book of Baseball's Negro Leagues gives the most complete account of that Cuba trip that I've seen,** with line scores and cumulative averages and it tells us several things.

First, Cobb didn't perform poorly, as I'd erroneously indicated. He batted .368 in the 5 games he played, which is well below his AL performance for that part of his career, but considering the small sample size it's basically a wash. He also failed in one SB attempt, and though other stories claim it was three times without success, those stories aren't confirmed.

But in that same series, John Henry Lloyd hit .500, Home Run Johnson hit .412, and the "light hitting" Bruce Petway hit .359. My "guess" is that these games, and many others like them where black teams more than held their own against ML competition, hardly lend credence to blanket claims about talent differences at the top. Among centerfielders, Bill James puts Charleston right up there with Cobb, Mays, Mantle, Dimaggio, and "possibly" Speaker, whom he considers a tad below the rest. (NBJHA, pp. 192-93) Bill James isn't the last word in this sort of thing, but then there'll never be any last word.

**It's also the best reference source for black-white competition in general, with year-by-year accounts and averages. Unfortunately the remaining copies on Amazon aren't cheap.

   104. BDC Posted: January 28, 2013 at 10:19 AM (#4356440)
I have no strong opinion on these issues, but it strikes me there's interesting contemplation in this: let's say segregation of baseball had persisted till 1970 (ludicrous, but it's just "let's say"). We'd have a full major-league line for Mickey Mantle, and he'd have had somewhat weaker competition. (There weren't many great black AL players during Mantle's career, but with more jobs for star white players in the NL, the AL would have been some small amount weaker.)

Meanwhile, we'd have fragmentary and/or anecdotal information about Willie Mays. How would we compare them?

As several have indicated, it may be easier to make these comparisons on aggregate (were most Negro Leagues teams like high-minor league teams of their day, with a few great stars mixed in?) than to take a couple of individual outliers and try to rank them 1-2.
   105. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: January 28, 2013 at 10:25 AM (#4356447)
As several have indicated, it may be easier to make these comparisons on aggregate (were most Negro Leagues teams like high-minor league teams of their day, with a few great stars mixed in?) than to take a couple of individual outliers and try to rank them 1-2.

Correct. We can say that there were 3-6 of the best 15 players of that era in the Negro Leagues with a fair degree of certainty. When we try to parse who was better than whom at an individual level, it becomes nearly impossible due to fragmentary data, small sample sizes, and unknown level of strength between the leagues.

I can't see how saying Josh Gibson is one of the top-3 catchers ever (with Bench and Berra), or Paige was one of the top-5 pitchers of his era is unfair in any way.
   106. BDC Posted: January 28, 2013 at 11:00 AM (#4356479)
And now that I actually think about it :) the Mantle-Mays comparison is still vexed, despite the fact that the two were contemporaries and occasional opponents, and the data for them is equally complete and of the same quality. Comparing them involves career/peak considerations, talent/value issues, league strength problems, war credit (for Mays), park factors, and other more-or-less uncertainties. How much more so for (say) Charleston and Cobb.
   107. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: January 28, 2013 at 11:27 AM (#4356495)
And now that I actually think about it :) the Mantle-Mays comparison is still vexed, despite the fact that the two were contemporaries and occasional opponents, and the data for them is equally complete and of the same quality. Comparing them involves career/peak considerations, talent/value issues, league strength problems, war credit (for Mays), park factors, and other more-or-less uncertainties. How much more so for (say) Charleston and Cobb.

The truth is that every time one of these "all-time best" discussions comes up, it always boils down to definitions. Best career or best peak? Best mix of all-around skills or most value added? "Best" against a player's contemporaries or "best" with era adjustments and talent pool expansion considered? Nine times out of ten, people who start out with different premises talk right past one another, and when one side refuses even to acknowledge the validity of any opposing premises, the discussion gets nowhere.

In the case of Mays and Mantle, how much do you allow for the obvious difference in the league strength during their overlapping careers? And in the case of Cobb and Charleston, how can we even begin to measure how their league differences can be reconciled with the fact that NeL players fared quite well whenever they had the chance to play against ML competition? "Small sample size" is usually little more than another way of not wanting to deal with the fact that when blacks and whites competed on the diamond in the Jim Crow era, the top black players more than held their own. It's especially pathetic when it's maintained that the players "weren't trying" in those games, as if either black or white players in the days of Jim Crow would ever like being reminded by their redneck or "race man" friends back home that a bunch of niggers or crackers had gotten the best of them.
   108. Matt Clement of Alexandria Posted: January 28, 2013 at 12:02 PM (#4356512)
I can't see how saying Josh Gibson is one of the top-3 catchers ever (with Bench and Berra)...
Bench and Gibson alone at the top for me. Catching in the 1950s was crazy easy - they played the most boring base-to-base walks and homers game ever. Catchers in the 1950s performed right about at league average at the plate. Once steals came back into the game, catcher returned to its traditional place as one of the weakest-hitting positions. Bench's incredible defense and the difficulty of playing C in the National League in the 70s form a reasonable case for him as the best of all time.

I am very confident that Gibson was a better hitter than Yogi Berra.
   109. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: January 28, 2013 at 12:21 PM (#4356524)
Bench and Gibson alone at the top for me. Catching in the 1950s was crazy easy - they played the most boring base-to-base walks and homers game ever. Catchers in the 1950s performed right about at league average at the plate. Once steals came back into the game, catcher returned to its traditional place as one of the weakest-hitting positions. Bench's incredible defense and the difficulty of playing C in the National League in the 70s form a reasonable case for him as the best of all time.

I am very confident that Gibson was a better hitter than Yogi Berra.


Berra rates among the very best of his era at all the measurable things (CS%, PB, WP), but the real issue is all the stuff we don't know about C defense.

The Yankees had some very nice pitching during Berra's career as a starting catcher, including a lot of guys who improved markedly upon joining the Yankees. I'm inclined to give Berra a lot of credit for that.
   110. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: January 28, 2013 at 12:55 PM (#4356547)
Berra rates among the very best of his era at all the measurable things (CS%, PB, WP), but the real issue is all the stuff we don't know about C defense.

But as Matt points out, base stealing as a strategy in Berra's AL was virtually extinct. That wasn't Berra's fault, but it makes his skill at preventing SBs hard to measure. I saw Berra probably about 50 times in person and many more times on TV, and he wasn't in the same league as Johnny Bench WRT to arm strength or quickness of release. And in terms of dWaR, Bench had 10 seasons that exceeded Berra's best.

The Yankees had some very nice pitching during Berra's career as a starting catcher, including a lot of guys who improved markedly upon joining the Yankees. I'm inclined to give Berra a lot of credit for that.

The excellent Reynolds, Raschi and Lopat book by Sol Gittleman notes that Berra didn't even call the Big Three's pitches until late in the 1949 season. The credit for the Yankees' pitching success beyond those three, and after they'd left by 1954-55, rested in a combination of Jim Turner, Casey Stengel (who set the rotation so as to maximize matchups), and Berra. Berra definitely deserves much of the credit for the way that the Yanks were able to post terrific team ERAs with journeymen pitchers like Bob Grim, Johnny Kucks, and Tom Sturdivant, but that's yet another thing that's hard to assign a number to.
   111. Moeball Posted: January 28, 2013 at 01:02 PM (#4356552)
You know damn well that there's no way (for instance) to prove that Ty Cobb was greater than Oscar Charleston, not in the same way you can prove that Barry Bonds was greater than Ken Griffey Jr.


Unfortunately, this only illustrates further one of the main problems we face here. In the minds of probably 90% of the BBWAA and the general fan population at large, Ken Griffey, Jr. is really truly believed to be a better player than Barry Bonds was. Not just a better person, but a better player. We have all kinds of statistical evidence to prove otherwise, but Griffey was the one picked to the All Century team, not Bonds. Junior was the one all the writers constantly raved about back in the '90s, not Bonds.

Now, if people are incapable of seeing that 2+2=4, when there is a large amount of documentable evidence right in front of them to show this, how in the world do you think they will be able to make any kind of logical judgements about players like Cobb and Charleston, where there is much less evidence?

Would Musial crack the All-Dead team? Yes. No matter which method of measurement you want to use (WAR, WAA, WS, LWTS or make up your own system), Musial is going to be among the top 25 players ever. He's on the roster.
   112. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: January 28, 2013 at 01:10 PM (#4356553)
In the minds of probably 90% of the BBWAA and the general fan population at large, Ken Griffey, Jr. is really truly believed to be a better player than Barry Bonds was.

I their respective 20's, it was very close. I don't think it's crazy to say that at his peak Griffey was as good a pre-steroid Bonds.
   113. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: January 28, 2013 at 01:38 PM (#4356563)
Unfortunately, this only illustrates further one of the main problems we face here. In the minds of probably 90% of the BBWAA and the general fan population at large, Ken Griffey, Jr. is really truly believed to be a better player than Barry Bonds was. Not just a better person, but a better player. We have all kinds of statistical evidence to prove otherwise, but Griffey was the one picked to the All Century team, not Bonds. Junior was the one all the writers constantly raved about back in the '90s, not Bonds.

Now, if people are incapable of seeing that 2+2=4, when there is a large amount of documentable evidence right in front of them to show this, how in the world do you think they will be able to make any kind of logical judgements about players like Cobb and Charleston, where there is much less evidence?


Big difference. In the Griffey vs Bonds case, it's impossible to look at the statistical evidence and not conclude that Bonds was the superior player even if you ignore his steroid-driven years.

But in the case of Cobb vs Charleston, you've not no comparable statistical base for Charleston, and you've got knowledgeable writers making cases for both of them. Forget about meaningless fan-based popularity contests and just read people like Bill James.

------------------------------------------------

I their respective 20's, it was very close. I don't think it's crazy to say that at his peak Griffey was as good a pre-steroid Bonds.

Almost as good, but not quite, not if you go by their numbers and their awards. The pre-steroids Bonds has a clear advantage by any measure you go by.
   114. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: January 28, 2013 at 02:03 PM (#4356590)
Almost as good, but not quite, not if you go by their numbers and their awards. The pre-steroids Bonds has a clear advantage by any measure you go by.

He does, but it's easy to see how it can get washed away in memory. Through 1999 (conveniently when Griffey left Seattle, and Bonds started doing steroids, et al) Griffey has a career 149 OPS+ and was considered an elite glove in CF. Bonds had a 163 OPS+ and was considered a very good glove in LF (didn't have the flash of Griffey).

You can see why some may have though Griffey was better. They were wrong, but it's not like they were just making #### up.
   115. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: January 28, 2013 at 02:24 PM (#4356598)
No argument there. Having visited Seattle every year of Griffey's career there, and having seen many of his highlight moments both in the Kingdome and in Baltimore, I can easily see why someone not similarly familiar with Bonds during his pre-steroid years might have made the same misjudgement. I might well have myself.
   116. Juilin Sandar to Conkling Speedwell (Arjun) Posted: January 28, 2013 at 02:26 PM (#4356600)
The Yankees had some very nice pitching during Berra's career as a starting catcher, including a lot of guys who improved markedly upon joining the Yankees. I'm inclined to give Berra a lot of credit for that.

This is reasonable. If you want the estimates of game-calling we have, Sean Smith's are at +72 runs and Max Marchi's are (you have to go to the attached Google Doc if you want the exact number; he mentions it during the piece) at roughly +57, so that supports your thesis, depending on how much stock one puts into these metrics.
   117. AROM Posted: January 28, 2013 at 03:09 PM (#4356635)
I have no strong opinion on these issues, but it strikes me there's interesting contemplation in this: let's say segregation of baseball had persisted till 1970 (ludicrous, but it's just "let's say"). We'd have a full major-league line for Mickey Mantle, and he'd have had somewhat weaker competition. (There weren't many great black AL players during Mantle's career, but with more jobs for star white players in the NL, the AL would have been some small amount weaker.)


In this world, I think the toughest things to quantify would be Willie's defense and his durability. We already know that Mantle was a better hitter, though Willie is considered the greater player despite that. You'd have tales about Willie Mays playing right behind the shortstop and then sprinting to a right center field fence 450 feet from home plate just in time to leap over a 15 foot high wall and take back a homer. And no idea whether to give that any more credence than Cool Papa Bell hitting himself with a line drive as he slid into second base.

If We had records of Willie playing 20-50 league games per year on baseball-reference, and an estimate that he played 100-150 more against lower levels of competition, we not have a good feel for how much his durability stacked up to Mickey's well documented 130-140 games per year.

As for the batting statistics themselves, it might be interesting to estimate how much error we have in their stats, when looked at from a career perspective. You could try this: Take 40 games per year from Willie's record, randomly selected. Call those his official record. Some years he'll hit .480, others .250. But over a career, how close do we get to his actual OPS+? Simulate this a few times. Is it +/- 5 points? 10? 20?
   118. AROM Posted: January 28, 2013 at 03:22 PM (#4356647)
For the All-Dead team I can't understand any question that Josh Gibson is the #1 catcher. I know there's a lot of uncertainty here, and if I give Josh the least benefit of the doubt you can make cases for Berra, Bench, or Piazza as greatest catcher. But they are all alive.

Josh only has to be better than Bill Dickey or Gary Carter to clinch this honor.

Charleston has got a much tougher hill to climb, as he needs to be better than Ty Cobb. It's possible, if Oscar's defense was at the Willie Mays level while Cobb was closer to average. But I wouldn't say it's likely.
   119. AROM Posted: January 28, 2013 at 03:28 PM (#4356653)
It's hard to compare Williams to Satchel since Smokey Joe was 20 years his elder. Satchel struck out 8.1 per 9 while walking 1.7. Williams was at 5.5 and 2.3. Strikeouts might have been a lot harder to come by when Williams was in his prime though, which would be in the teens. Satchel did strike out many more batters than his contemporaries, generally 50% more than the best of the others. He did this while putting up one the best walk rates. If there's any Negro League pitcher I'd have to put on an all-time team, he's got to be the one.
   120. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: January 28, 2013 at 03:53 PM (#4356685)
For the All-Dead team I can't understand any question that Josh Gibson is the #1 catcher. I know there's a lot of uncertainty here, and if I give Josh the least benefit of the doubt you can make cases for Berra, Bench, or Piazza as greatest catcher. But they are all alive.

Josh only has to be better than Bill Dickey or Gary Carter to clinch this honor.


I don't think anyone was arguing that Gibson wasn't better than Dickey/Cochrane/Carter.
   121. JLAC is engulfed in a harmless burst of flame Posted: January 29, 2013 at 10:32 AM (#4357259)
snapper, Ray was. In fact, he said it would be unfair (not merely incorrect, but actually "unfair") to the white catchers to rank Gibson ahead of them.
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