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Monday, August 12, 2002

Missing McGwire

Where have you gone, Mark McGwire? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Untitled Document


Late in the evening on September 3, 2001, I was driving around St. Louis, trying   to find a place to stay. It was my first time to the city, and I was surprised   to find myself on a road called the Mark McGwire Expressway—I’d never been   on a road named after a baseball player before. I admired the civic display   of adoration, but I couldn’t help wondering how strong it would remain—for   while at that time, the eponymous McGwire’s record of 70 home runs in a single   season still stood, the 2001 season was not going well for him.

Earlier that day, in San Diego, McGwire had gone 0-4 for the Cardinals in his first start since August 23; he had been sidelined with a hamstring injury.  Fortunately, he was on the right end of a no-hitter, thrown by rookie Bud Smith against the Padres.  Unfortunately, both the injury and the 0-4 were typical of his season.

And that same day, in San Francisco, Barry Bonds had hit his 58th home run of the season against the Colorado Rockies, on his way to 73.  McGwire’s record would be broken after just three years, and as his reign as the King of the Home Run ended, so did his baseball career, as he quietly retired without the fanfare that marked the departures of Cal Ripken, Jr. and Tony Gwynn.

What a shame. For all the praise and renaming of limited-access highways, McGwire   was probably underrated. And while I don’t begrudge anyone their decision to   retire, whenever a player seems to do so out of a sense of duty, I have to wonder   if their team wouldn’t have been better off if they’d stuck around. Tino Martinez,   McGwire’s replacement in St. Louis, has a lower OPS than McGwire posted in any   of his final ten seaons. Of course, OPS isn’t everything, but it’s also not   hard to think that a healthy McGwire could have done a lot better than his 2001   numbers.

And while Bonds breaking McGwire’s record had many positive consequences—first   among them was Bonds finally getting some credit for being one of the greatest   hitters in baseball history—it also had the effect of diminishing McGwire’s   accomplishments to some degree. Though McGwire could never rightfully claim   a spot among the top echelon of all-around great hitters, it is my belief that   he was the most powerful hitter ever to play.

One measure of power I’m fond of is home runs per ball in play.  It shows how often a player hits a home run on a ball he’s hit into fair territory.  That provides a better measure of opportunity than simply using at bats, because using balls in play doesn’t penalize the hitter for striking out.  Between 1901 and 2001, there have been only seven times that a player with at least 300 plate appearances has had a rate higher than .15—which means they hit a home run more than fifteen percent of the time that they put a ball in play.  Here are those seven seasons:

NAME             HR/BIP       YEAR
Mark McGwire      .200        2000
Mark McGwire      .196        1998
Barry Bonds       .190        2001
Mark McGwire      .169        1999
Mark McGwire      .167        1996
Mark McGwire      .159        1995
Mark McGwire      .155        2001

(It’s noteworthy, by the way, that the next two highest marks were also set in
2001, by Sammy Sosa and Jim Thome.)

McGwire utterly dominates this category. In 2000, one in every five of his   balls in play resulted in a home run. He was able to hit 32 home runs despite   putting only 160 balls in play—the fewest balls in play any other player   had while hitting at least 30 home runs was 256 by Kevin Mitchell in 1994. McGwire   appears three more times in the top 50 in home runs per ball in play, for a   total of nine appearances. Babe Ruth and Sammy Sosa are tied for the second   most appearances at four apiece, and Bonds has three.

The same seasons listed above appear in the top ten of some other leaderboards:

Home Runs Per Hit
RANK  NAME              HR/H        YEAR
1     Mark McGwire      .518        2001
2     Barry Bonds       .468        2001
3     Mark McGwire      .461        1998
4     Mark McGwire      .448        1999
5     Mark McGwire      .448        1995
6     Mark McGwire      .444        2000
7     Mark McGwire      .394        1996
8     Dave Kingman      .387        1973
9     Roger Maris       .384        1961
10    Barry Bonds       .366        1999

Total Bases Per Hit
RANK  NAME              TB/H        YEAR
1     Barry Bonds      2.634        2001
2     Mark McGwire     2.625        2001
3     Mark McGwire     2.520        1998
4     Mark McGwire     2.503        1999
5     Mark McGwire     2.494        1995
6     Mark McGwire     2.444        2000
7     Dave Kingman     2.355        1973
8     Barry Bonds      2.355        1999
9     Mark McGwire     2.341        1996
10    Don Mincher      2.309        1964

They also appear in the top ten of OPS divided by batting average, which—while far from being a perfect stat—provides a quick and interesting glance into which players are better than their batting average might indicate.  (Interestingly, among the leaders in this category are both Jay Buhner and Ken Phelps.)

RANK  NAME            OPS/BA        YEAR
1     Mark McGwire     4.312        2001
2     Barry Bonds      4.206        2001
3     Mark McGwire     4.100        1995
4     Mark McGwire     4.093        1998
5     Mark McGwire     4.027        2000
6     Mark McGwire     4.025        1999
7     Rob Deer         3.918        1991
8     Barry Bonds      3.841        1999
9     Mark McGwire     3.838        1996
10    Dave Kingman     3.831        1964

Last year was a notable one for McGwire.  His .808 OPS in 2001 was the highest ever by a player hitting below the Mendoza Line, followed by Roger Repoz and his 1971 mark of .707.  It may have been the most underrated season ever by batting average.  Hits didn’t come easily for McGwire, but when they did come, over half of them were home runs.  And he averaged more bases per hit than anyone else ever except Bonds in 2001.

Given the possibility of healthier times for McGwire, and the flukish nature of batting average, it’s tempting to speculate as to how he might have done in 2002 and beyond.  In any case, he had a spectacular career putting up some of the best power numbers ever.  For that, he deserves a great deal of credit.

Dan 'The Boy' Werr Posted: August 12, 2002 at 06:00 AM | 15 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Dan 'The Boy' Werr Posted: August 12, 2002 at 12:40 AM (#605803)
One thing I should have made clearer: the HR/BIP stat, unlike other BIP stats, includes HR in the denominator as well. Not that it makes all that much difference.
   2. Dan 'The Boy' Werr Posted: August 12, 2002 at 12:40 AM (#605806)

It's for that reason I left strikeouts out of the denominator. With strikeouts in there (i.e., using HR/AB), a hitter will have a lower rate the more often he strikes out. That would treat the strikeout as though it correlated inversely with power. By leaving the denominator as times the hitter made contact, and seeing how often that resulted in a home run, I think power is better represented.

Using HR/AB lowers the rankings of high strikeout hitters such as McGwire, Sosa, and Thome, and promotes lower strikeout hitters such as Bonds, Ruth, and Maris. I think that less accurately reflects power, because putting the ball in play more ups the home run totals of the latter hitters.

Here are the leaders there anyway:
Home Runs per At Bat
RANK  NAME             HR/AB        YEAR
1     Barry Bonds       .153        2001
2     Mark McGwire      .138        1998
3     Mark McGwire      .136        2000
4     Mark McGwire      .125        1999
5     Mark McGwire      .123        1995
6     Mark McGwire      .123        1996
7     Babe Ruth         .118        1920
8     Babe Ruth         .111        1927
9     Sammy Sosa        .111        2001
10    Babe Ruth         .109        1921

It doesn't make all that much difference regarding the general point anyway.
   3. Dan 'The Boy' Werr Posted: August 12, 2002 at 12:40 AM (#605810)
Ray, I'm not sure where we're missing each other here. In your example, I would agree that Player B had a better season and is more valuable. But when they do hit the ball, they both are equally likely to hit it out of the park. Therefore, I wouldn't say that Player B is more powerful than player A. He's better, but he's not more powerful.

It's not a bonus for striking out, it's defining opportunity as making contact. A player can't hit the ball with power if he doesn't hit it. So I don't see why we should take the times he doesn't hit the ball as any kind of indicator of his power.
   4. John Posted: August 12, 2002 at 12:40 AM (#605814)
Interesting, for sure, and well thought-out--and conclusive, if the goal is to show that when McGwire makes contact, he's more likely to contact the ball all the way out of the park than anyone else. As the TV ads say, True. Although maybe not surprising. But don't these results, rather than pointing to McGwire's underrated-ness, actually open him up to a fair amount of criticism? I.e., shouldn't someone with that kind of prodigious power do all he can NOT to strike out, since ANY kind of contact is so much more likely to result in a home run than for any other player? Shouldn't he slap-hit with two strikes, just to ensure contact, since contact is more valuable for him than for any player in history? Of course, the inverse of that argument is that slap hitters can (relative to Mac) more justifiably disregard strikeouts, since they're less of a negative than for Big Mac, but that doesn't make ANY sense--if Placido Polanco swung-and-missed like a latter-day Deer/Inky/Kingman, that would almost surely lead to worse overall (e.g., OPS) results for him, even if his power numbers (HR/BIP) artificially inflate as a result. So, then, isn't the main argument, in removing K's, somewhat circular? Mac gets a lot more HR/BIP *because* he cares not about striking out, and thus does it quite often, but at the same time, *because* of his unparalleled HR/BIP, each strikeout by Mac is the most damaging strikeout in the history of baseball, in terms of "isolated power" (which I know has another meaning but seems to fit HR/BIP pretty well). How can that be? Or am I completely missing the point?
   5. Dan 'The Boy' Werr Posted: August 12, 2002 at 12:40 AM (#605818)

Sure, a strikeout is never a good thing, and you're right in your insight that McGwire's strikeouts are worse than they are for most people (in a way)?though remember that there are others with higher H/BIP rates for whom strikeouts might be worse.

My argument that McGwire is underrated were based on the player that he was. He could have been more valuable if he'd struck out less. But given that he did strike out a lot, it's notable the damage he did when he didn't. (I'd also point out that there was more to my assertion that he was underrated than the HR/BIP rates.) And I would add that I had two main points were that McGwire was the most powerful hitter and that he was underrated, without necessarily the same reasons for each.

Personally, I never knew how much McGwire dominated these power categories, nor how often. Just looking at the basic stat HR/AB above, for example, I had no idea that McGwire set a new record in that category in 1995 (or 1996, depending on your PA requirements) when it happened (seems like a big stat to me...HR/AB is to HR as BA is to H).
   6. Zen Student Posted: August 13, 2002 at 12:40 AM (#605819)
Well, this is all good, but doesn't this penalize a hitter who hits for power AND average?

Ruth won't appear on this chart because he hit TOO WELL. WIth a .340 average, Ruth hit doubles and singles as well.

HR/contact seems like complication for the sake of complication.
   7. Dan 'The Boy' Werr Posted: August 13, 2002 at 12:40 AM (#605820)
Okay, first of all, I need to stress that being higher up on the HR/BIP list doesn't make one a better hitter. So no one is being "penalized."

Second, no one is lowered for hitting for average. You could theoretically set the HR/BIP record while hitting .500.

Ruth is lower on the list because when he hit the ball, it was less likely to go over the fence than when McGwire did. (Which means it was more likely to be a single or a double.) Since that is exactly what the metric is intended to measure, it's not a problem.

The reason I wanted to measure that is because I think there's a value in knowing of all the people who hit balls with bats, who tends to hit them the hardest. Of course, there are far better metrics to measure a player's value, but that's not what I was looking for.

In all honesty, Zen Student, I have no interest in complication for complication's sake.

I'll also point out here that I'm not trying to push a pro-McGwire agenda. I was messing with these stats for different reasons altogether, and happened to notice his dominance, and thought it was worth writing up. None of this was done with the intention of making him look better.

Thanks for the good feedback, everyone. I hope I've been able to clarify myself a little.
   8. good_ol_gil Posted: August 13, 2002 at 12:40 AM (#605822)
So what exactly are you trying to say when a player is "powerful". If being "powerful" isn't an attribute of being a good hitter (as I think you just said) then what's the point of it?

I guess Russel Branyan would rank high on the list. Well at least the Clevland version of him.
   9. Dan 'The Boy' Werr Posted: August 13, 2002 at 12:40 AM (#605823)
Oops... let me rephrase that, then. Being powerful is an attribute of a good hitter, but it's not end-all, be-all. In other words, McGwire's being above Ruth doesn't mean he's better. What I'm doing is just looking at one component of good hitting?there are many others to consider. If you still want to know what the point is, there are two: one, I think it's interesting in and of itself. Two, my own personal bent in analyzing player performance is to break it down into different components; I think it's more informative.

Russ Branyan's 2001 season is 83rd all-time. Since there are 16,789 total seasons under consideration, you're absolutely right that he's up there.
   10. Don Malcolm Posted: August 13, 2002 at 12:40 AM (#605825)
First things first--all you fans of "Mrs. Robinson" (and I'm not talking about Frank's wife...) will probably blanch at our webmasters' appropriation of the line from the Simon and Garfunkel classic, if only for its lack of euphony in this context. Guys, it just doesn't scan...

I think the only problem with this suite of stats is that they can't work well across eras, due to the significant rise in K rates since WWII. You could probably adjust Ruth's numbers in some way for the league K rate back then, but this would likely fall under the rubric of "complication for complication's sake."

It's important to note that the type of player McGwire represents is a product of this change in the game over time--that "second-order evolution" that Stephen Jay Gould overlooked.

I had similar thoughts about McGwire's decision to retire, though I didn't sit down and develop these stats to assist in articulating them (which they do quite nicely). It's interesting to note the human differences in players as they reach the twilight of their careers--those who hang it up swiftly when they feel they can no longer perform at a level acceptable to their personal standards vs. those who hang on at all costs.
   11. Doug Posted: August 13, 2002 at 12:40 AM (#605838)
I think overlooking extra base hits leaves out part of a player's power. It penalizes players who played when ballparks were bigger and balls weren't juiced. It would be interesting to do something like Extra Base Hits / BIP

Would this not be a better indicator? Granted it equates a HR with a double, but you could always fix that by multiplying doubles by 1/2 and triples by 3/4 (or some other multipliers) and then divide, thereby not leaving out a large part of power.

   12. Dan 'The Boy' Werr Posted: August 13, 2002 at 12:40 AM (#605839)
Don, you've mentioned this about Gould a few times now. Have you ever written up a critique of his analysis? If not, might you do so either here or on your site? I'd be very interested in reading it. Are you saying that his conclusions were incorrect, or just that his analysis was incomplete?

Your point about varying K-rates is well-taken; however, I'm not convinced that it had more effect than simply giving Ruth more HR opportunities. In either case, given McGwire's dominance in HR/AB and HR/H, I think the point holds, and I'd still take McGwire over Ruth for a home-run derby. Which ties in to DB7's point: any single metric is somewhat problematic, but they're relatively unanimous that Bonds in 2001 was the only player to do at all what McGwire was capable of on a regular basis.


There is more to power than home runs, of course, though I think they are a good indicator. I did include total bases/hit. It's debatable whether that's better than TB/BIP, because it's conceivable that a very powerful hitter might be inclined toward high, deep flies that frequently result in outs... these, of course, would lower his rating in a stat supposed to measure power. But I'm always happy to provide easy-to-produce data like TB/BIP and then another stat of (.5*2B + HR)/BIP. I don't include triples in the latter stat, because they are now inversely correlated with HR, and the best HR hitters are worse than the league at triples, which have become a speed stat. Anyway...
Total Bases Per BIP
RANK  NAME            TB/BIP        YEAR
1     Mark McGwire     1.100        2000
2     Mark McGwire     1.070        1998
3     Barry Bonds      1.068        2001
4     Babe Ruth        1.013        1920
5     Mark McGwire     0.990        1996
6     Babe Ruth        0.987        1921
7     Sammy Sosa       0.975        2001
8     Jim Thome        0.953        2001
9     Mark McGwire     0.943        1999
10    Manny Ramirez    0.939        2000

(.5*2B + HR)/BIP
RANK  NAME        (.5*2B+HR)/BIP    YEAR
1     Barry Bonds      0.231        2001
2     Mark McGwire     0.225        2000
3     Mark McGwire     0.225        1998
4     Mark McGwire     0.200        1996
5     Mark McGwire     0.196        1999
6     Babe Ruth        0.188        1920
7     Sammy Sosa       0.186        2001
8     Mark McGwire     0.185        1995
9     Jim Thome        0.180        2001
10    Babe Ruth        0.175        1921

It somewhat dilutes McGwire's presence, though he's still dominant.

Two other things I've been struck by: One, Ruth, of course, showed levels of power that wouldn't be reached again until the past few years. Two, Jim Thome had a pretty historically good power season in 2001 that's gone pretty unnoticed.
   13. Lest we forget Posted: August 15, 2002 at 12:41 AM (#605860)
This is a fun stat. I'm not sure what it means other than what it measures, and am not convinced (yet!) that it's a 'good' method for measuring pure power. I need mulling time..

One thought: why did you choose to exclude sacrifice flies from the equation?
   14. Dan 'The Boy' Werr Posted: August 15, 2002 at 12:41 AM (#605862)
One thought: why did you choose to exclude sacrifice flies from the equation?

That's an intriguing question. I never really said that I did (though I did basically say that adding in strikeouts would make it HR/AB). Yet, like you, I was under the impression that I did exclude them.

As it turns out, I did not. They're in there. But I'm not sure that was a good idea, because I don't have the data for key older players like Babe Ruth. For the data presented above, this doesn't make any difference, except in the two charts in my last post, Ruth gets an extra bump upward by not having SF in his denominator.
   15. Dan 'The Boy' Werr Posted: August 15, 2002 at 12:41 AM (#605866)
Oops... because McGwire's 1997 was broken into two parts, I inadvertently left it out. Here's his numbers from that season, and his ranks if they change the charts I posted:

NAME          YEAR   HR/BIP   HR/H    TB/H   OPS/BA   HR/AB  TB/BIP  (.5*2B+HR)/BIP
Mark McGwire  1997    .149    .392   2.358    3.79     .107   .899        .184
                       8th     8th     7th                                 9th

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