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Monday, January 05, 2004

Lessons of 2003

Knowing Not What We Don’t Know and Vice-Versa

As you struggle with that most recursive of subtitles, let?s look back on what the year in baseball in 2003 AD has added to our perspective on the National Pastime?and facets thereof.

I?m going to call these items ?lessons,? though some of these will doubtless be taken in some other light.

1) It?s time to discard (or completely overhaul) the current popular concepts of ?competitive balance.?

2) The Great Rivalry is alive but not well?and it will get more of each, possibly at baseball?s expense.

3) Collusion is dead; long live Collusion!

4) Steroids or no steroids, Barry Bonds has put himself on a par with Babe Ruth?but we?ll never admit it.

5) ?Advanced analysis? is still mired in its predictive slump, and might need to be sent down for more seasoning.

 

6) A great post-season can almost redeem a boring regular season, but a great off-season is an end unto itself.

7) It may be longer than the number of years Leonard Koppett lived before we are able to find a suitable replacement for him in the mainstream press.

OK, those are the ?slug lines? for the ?lessons of 2003? (and you can take that phrase any way you choose?); now let?s elaborate (and, quite possibly, belabor).

1) Remember a few years ago, when the most recent labor war was full of smoke and brimstone, and Budzilla enjoyed telling everyone that baseball?s ?competitive balance? was so bad that a small-market team couldn?t even win a single game in the post-season?

Those comments were fighting? words back in 2000-01, but you?ve probably noticed that such ideas are suddenly conspicuous in their absence as we head into 2004. The reason? Mid-market and low-market teams have been making it into the post-season and knocking off the hated Bronx Bombers with regularity over the past three years.

No, the Arizona Diamondbacks were not a low-budget team, but they were a leveraged mid-market expansion franchise that seized its moment via a myriad of player acquisition strategies?and, by cracky, they put a stop to the Devilish Dynasty.

In 2002 (the year of the healing palindrome, as we called it here, prior to the last-minute labor settlement), the Anaheim Angels sent George, his boys, and his bankroll home early, lifting one of the game?s less fabled ?curses? in the process by winning the World Series.

And, of course, this year, we were treated to the phenomenon of Flying Fish; the Florida Marlins effected a Lazarus-styled resurrection after what appeared to be a stagnating youth movement was ostensibly left gasping for breath in a tiny dinghy. Here, at last, is the small-marketeer?s vindication, but from the most unlikely source possible.

And this doesn?t even include the fact that two other small-market teams, the Oakland A?s and the Minnesota Twins, have made six post-season appearances in the past four years.

We can only conclude that our original notion was correct: Budzilla?s comments were disingenuous and superficial, and that in baseball, it?s not cream that rises to the top, but the man willing to live more or less permanently with egg on his face.

In many respects, baseball may have evolved into a more-or-less ideal version of ?competitive balance,? where a perennially strong Yankee franchise galvanizes the rest of the teams into various incarnations of innovation and largesse in an effort to frustrate the so-called ?evil empire.? Having moved past the suffocating purity of the single pennant race into a more free-wheeling post-season, baseball has opened up the role that chance can play?and this fact cannot be demonstrated more strongly than by noting that for the first time in baseball history, two wild card qualifiers have won the World Series in consecutive seasons.

Of course, this perspective isn?t the only one, but it?s arguably more reasonable than the popular view pining for a return to the pre-1996 free agency period, when the Yankees weren?t so much a factor. However, that particular nostalgia trip into a utopia of competitive balance, like many so-called ?sabermetric? concepts, has been somewhat oversold.

When we examine the 1982-95 time frame, during which the Yankees made no post-season appearances, and the 1996-2003 time span, when they didn?t miss the post-season at all, we see that the number of teams winning at least ninety games once isn?t all that much worse than in the so-called ?golden age of parity.? In the AL from 1982-95, twelve of the fourteen teams won 90+ games at least once, and ten won 95+ games at least once. In the AL from 1996-2003 (about half the time span as in the earlier period), ten teams have won 90+ games at least once, and eight have won 95+ games at least once.

So the lesson here really is: don?t be too hasty to judge, and don?t decide that ?drastic measures? are necessary to solve ?problems? that may work themselves out on their own.

 

2) While baseball as a whole is better off now than it was in 2001?mostly due to the (temporary) elimination of the Damoclean labor/management impasse?the same may not be the case after 2004 as a result of the re-heating of baseball?s biggest, baddest rivalry, and the actions being taken by the two teams in question (the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox) who are now fully within its thrall.

After having started out with a ?sabermetric? approach to beating the ?evil empire? with undervalued talent and arcane insights, the Red Sox appear to have been so agitated by their Game Seven ACLS defeat that they are either downplaying or outright abandoning such a strategy.

Perhaps the Sox management realized that despite all of the effort and attention given to ?advanced analysis,? and in spite of some short-term gains in generating offense (most of it in Fenway Park), that the actual amount of improvement achieved as a result was small (two more wins than in 2002).

Knowing this, and aware that the Yankees would move boldly to shore up areas of their roster that were vulnerable due to potential free agency and/or age, the Red Sox apparently felt justified in making Yankee-like trades (i.e., prospects for proven veterans).

The likelihood of a snowball effect from this toe-to-toe showdown isn?t as great as it was in the early days of free agency, because the business aspect of baseball has become more clearly stratified since the 1994 strike. But it is now possible to object to such actions on aesthetic and ethical grounds; the spectacle of grown men indulging themselves in such an obsessive pursuit is already unseemly, and it only threatens to get worse.

And that it did, with the Alex Rodriguez affair, an overwrought mess that came about in large part due to the clashing of the Red Sox? ?two constituencies? (see a related article at the Big Bad Blog for more details). Having apparently decided that the middle-of-the-lineup players who carried them within a single game of the World Series were no longer ?operational? (and, yes, that is a reference to a Nixon other than Trot...), the Sox inner ellipse then embarked on a series of intricate but inept negotiations designed to squeeze a few million dollars from a pinched-dry turnip. (The Sox were apparently trying to keep under the payroll limit for the ?luxury tax.?)

As a result, the dormant animosity between the owners and the Players Association was re-awakened. Fortunately, what has issued from this is, for the moment at least, little more than the baring of fangs; but one can see a multitude of ways the matter could have been handled that would have avoided this.

In any event, the main result of all this is that the Red Sox, so intent on beating the Yankees, are falling victim to one of life?s most common and chilling ironies: they are turning into what they profess to hate.

That?s why separating the two teams from each other?via a badly-needed redesign of baseball?s leagues and divisions?is becoming less and less unthinkable.

3) Despite the feather-ruffling that has occurred as a result of the Alex Rodriguez affair, it is almost certain that in the emergent new age of labor-management relations in baseball, we will never again see litigation concerning owner collusion.

Why? Because both sides have demonstrated that they now understand and at least grudgingly accept their mutual interdependence, and that it will only make their still-tenuous ability to work together that much harder if they cannot settle their disputes without litigation.

That said, we are still living in an age of collusion, where teams will look for every contract loophole available to them, and will do their utmost to use the rules in a way that will decrease the potential value of free agency without challenging it directly. The flowering of the ?non-tendered? free agent in the 2002-03 off-season is a phenomenon that is almost certain to become more prominent over the next few years, and it?s possible that the Players Association will decide to live with it instead of looking for ways to counteract its impact on salaries.

In fact, it will be more evidence of what we might term ?meta-collusion? if, in 2006, there is nary a peep from the Association concerning this issue.

The internal pressures over what will eventually amount to so many ?backroom agreements? between labor and management will eventually build until there is another cataclysm, but it appears likely that this ?meta-collusion? will keep the lid on things until shortly after 2010 or so.

4) I?ve written a lot about Barry Bonds already, but thanks to another stellar performance in 2003, there?s still more to be said.

First, Barry managed to have a greater season at age 38 than the former late peak champion at that age?Ted Williams. Barry?s OPS+ for 2003 dialed in at 231, which not only edged Teddy Ballgame (a 226 OPS+ in 1957) but also made him the first player since Babe Ruth to post three consecutive seasons with > 200 OPS+ at such an advanced age.

All of which means that as time marches on, Barry Bonds is becoming more and more comparable to the Sultan of Swat. While it?s hard for many to accept such a fact?for cultural reasons if nothing else?it?s nonetheless true, and those who want to nitpick about it are probably just having trouble reconciling those facts with their feelings.

What will Barry do in 2004? Here?s a list of the ten players with the best OPS+ at age 38, showing their OPS+ from age 35 to age 40:

Player             35   36   37   38   39   40
BARRY BONDS       191  262  275  231          
TED WILLIAMS      192  203  164  226  173  113
BABE RUTH         212  223  205  180  165     
TY COBB           171  134  126  170       131
WILLIE STARGELL   148  125       155  138
CY WILLIAMS       131  136  132  155  130  119
HONUS WAGNER      168  131  154  146  115   94
FRED CLARKE       128  125  105  146          
FRANK ROBINSON    156  130  153  144     
HANK AARON        179  147  190  143  173  126

As you?d expect, eight of the other nine players on the list are in the Hall of Fame, and the other guy (Cy Williams) is one of the game?s most notable late bloomers. As you can see, however, age 39 was a bit problematic for those who did well at age 38: Ruth, Williams, and Hank Aaron thrived, but everyone else either declined or had their season severely shortened by injuries.

Here?s one more list, which shows the best OPS+ performances at age 39 in baseball history:

Player             38   39
HANK AARON        143  173
TED WILLIAMS      226  173
BABE RUTH         180  165
WILLIE MAYS       128  142
EDDIE COLLINS     137  141
BRIAN DOWNING     119  138
WILLIE STARGELL   155  138
JOE KUHEL         118  136
JIM OROURKE       127  133
WILLIE McCOVEY         131
REGGIE JACKSON     94  130
EDDIE MURRAY       85  130
CY WILLIAMS       155  130

As you might have expected, the list is topped by four players who can have credible claims made on their behalf as having been the greatest hitter of all time.

If Barry beats out Hank and Ted for best at age 39, it?s going to get even harder to hold out on the idea that he is the greatest hitter of all time. As it stands, he is firmly in the top five, probably ranked number three at this moment, with his late finishing kick probably pushing him past Williams and aiming him squarely at Ruth. We?ll know for sure in the next two to three years…

5) As we move further and further into the ?neo-sabermetric? age, it becomes clearer and clearer that the precepts inherited (some would say ?transmogrified?) from the great eighties popularizers have not provided any advances in predicting the outcome of pennant races. While we have a glut of ?projection systems,? mostly for hitters, the last several years have made it clear that ?advanced analysis - at least in terms of predicting the fortunes of teams as opposed to individual players - remains at best a matter of hindsight.

The number of people who predicted the rise of the Angels in 2002 was something that could be counted on the fingers of one hand; for the Marlins in 2003, a lone middle finger?from yours truly?was the only hint of such a transformation prior to the start of the season. Rob Neyer can tell us how clear it is (in retrospect, of course) that the Angels would decline in 2003, while carefully failing to note that it was virtually impossible for anyone slavishly using the ?sabermetric toolkit? to have anticipated their rise in 2002.

The problem is that the two fronts of ?sabermetrics? as it is currently constituted?pure research and applied insiderism?are becoming increasingly incompatible.

What should be clear now is that the rush to bring ?advanced analysis? into the mainstream is more about careerism than it is about credibility, and that snake oil is snake oil no matter what one uses to cover the scent.

It is probably best for us to simply avert our eyes from all this, and wait for the piranhas to devour themselves. The overselling of ?advanced analysis? will almost certainly produce a backlash that will be as unanticipated by those stalwart careerists as the rise of franchises such as the Angels and Marlins was to those selfsame ?analytical experts.? As always, this is both the hardest lesson to learn, and the most difficult one to swallow.

6) In some respects, the special class of baseball fan that has come to populate sites such as this one is often more interested in the off-season machinations of teams than in the actual results of on-field play. In that subculture, a great off-season, with its ever-increasing chaos of player movement, is far more enjoyable than witnessing the actual results that ensue from the thicket of transactions (mostly due to the ramifications of lesson #5).

Truth be told, the 2003 season was pretty boring, unless you are a devotee of East Coast soap opera, baseball style (the Red Sox). As the year progressed, it turned into a virtual repeat of 2002, with four of six divisional races winding up in the hands of the incumbent champion, with one 2002 wild-card team (the Giants) gliding past a snake-bit Arizona squad. It was only in September when things started to get interesting, as the Marlins and Cubs emerged from a sizable group of solid but unspectacular teams to make the post-season.

And the extent to which baseball is now dependent on a post-season that rises to the occasion has never been better demonstrated than in 2003. (Miraculously, that makes three years in a row when the drama of the unexpected has charged in on a white horse to galvanize the game; even with that, baseball?s box office receipts are still relatively stagnant.)

Would baseball have been better off, market-wise, had the Cubs and the Red Sox made it into the World Series? Possibly, but in some respects the Marlins made a clearer and more interesting story?though it?s one that barely poked its head above the collective noise of narcissistic nostalgia. (Witness the grand old man of the New Yorker, Roger Angell, simply discarding the Marlins en route to a tired and predictable wallowing in the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry.)

Amidst all of the fixation over the Red Sox and the Cubs, there were other stories that deserved more attention. Baseball?s apparent reliance on a matte-painted mythology, however, left us woozy in contemplation of two teams that play in the two oldest remaining ballparks, with the most collective baggage in baseball history.

How fitting, then, in terms of our continued ?metaphysical comfort,? that they both were forced to carry their bags home again prior to the Big Show.

How perfect, in fact, for the ongoing fodder needed for future post-seasons, that these two franchises remain on the outside looking in, leaving intact their auras (however misshapen they may actually be).

And how perfect for the off-season, where each team can retool for what is apparently their Sisyphean function in American popular culture.

The off-season, however interesting, really should not command more attention than the actual season itself. In the mainstream world of baseball fandom, we?re not quite at that point?yet?but in other circles, we are already well past it. Those who have crossed over to the other side of the teeter-totter may be lost forever?in fact, they may not care if they never come back…

...but that doesn?t mean that the rest of us have to follow them.

7) The biggest baseball publishing event in February 2004 will not be the arrival of any ?baseball annual,? but instead will be the unveiling of an affordable paperback edition of the most valuable one-volume history of baseball yet created.

Unfortunately, it will be the last such effort from a baseball analyst/historian who single-handedly bridged an ever-widening gap between art and science in the swirling sub-universe of ?baseball literature.? That man, Leonard Koppett, died last June at the age of 79?and there is no greater gap in baseball today as a result. The distance between team payrolls is miniscule by comparison to the gap between Koppett?s theoretical understanding and historical sweep and those who would presumably inherit his mantle. Koppett?s perspective was one mostly unburdened by the ideological warts afflicting subsequent generations of baseball writers/analysts.

The book?Koppett?s Concise History of Major League Baseball?has appeared before, in a 1998 Temple University Press hardcover edition that was shamefully overlooked. The new version, which features updates through 2002, deserves to be on the top shelf in the library of any well-tempered follower of baseball, and will remain the definitive history of the game for the foreseeable future.

Koppett?s understanding of baseball as a game and as a business is shaped from having been present as both elements evolved into what they are today; unencumbered by pre-conceived notions, he is the best possible guide for those in search of a clear-eyed, as-objective-as-possible chronicle of the game and the business as it evolved from its pre-Civil War underpinnings into a monolithic and often self-contradictory media monopoly.

While we were robbed of Koppett too soon, this final legacy is as good a payoff as we could hope for in the wake of his all-too-conspicuous absence. It will probably take another 79 years?as long as Leonard was here with us?to produce another baseball writer with his unique combination of abilities, so you?d better start hunkering down with the Concise History of Major League Baseball as soon as you can, if only to have digested its lessons, which are far, far greater than any of the ones we?ve covered above.

Don Malcolm Posted: January 05, 2004 at 06:00 AM | 13 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. CFiJ Posted: January 05, 2004 at 04:02 AM (#614295)
How fitting, then, in terms of our continued ?metaphysical comfort,? that they both were forced to carry their bags home again prior to the Big Show.

How perfect, in fact, for the ongoing fodder needed for future post-seasons, that these two franchises remain on the outside looking in, leaving intact their auras (however misshapen they may actually be).

And how perfect for the off-season, where each team can retool for what is apparently their Sisyphean function in American popular culture.


For most baseball fans, for whom the Cubs and BoSox are simply opponents du jour and part of the general baseball background scenery, probably very fitting.

For us real people who root for the real teams, not at all.
   2. Jason Posted: January 05, 2004 at 04:02 AM (#614298)
I think it a mistake to simply pass over competitive balance as a red herring from Bud. That's analogous to saying the threat of terrorists is badly overblown because we haven't been hit again. Was it as bad as they made it sound? No and the fight generally had more to do with owner vs. owner than the players union, but it was still a problem one that has been addressed enough that it isn't serious anymore. But because the post season never got to always being 8 of the top 10 large market teams every year doesn't mean it wouldn't have.
   3. ChuckO Posted: January 05, 2004 at 04:02 AM (#614304)
So-called advanced analysis will never be able to make predictions that are satisfying to most fans. The reason lies in the nature of probabilities. Based on a player's past performance, one might be able to predict that he'll have an OPS+ of .800. However, assuming a binomial distribution of the statistic, this will merely be an average and it isn't really meaningful unless one knows what the standard deviation is. That way, for example, one could say that, assuming the standard deviation is .25, that the player has a 68% likelihood of putting up a OPS+ between .775 and .825. The same sort of situation applies to all of the performance statistics of all the players on the team. Hence, the only kind of model that could be made would be one in which you might conclude, say, that a team has an 75% chance of winning 100+ games, 85% chance of winning 90+ games,etc. Only the most devoted fans, with stathead tendencies, would find such analyses satisfactory.
   4. Steve Posted: January 05, 2004 at 04:03 AM (#614309)
Why is Bonds not the equal to Ruth?

OPS+ - Ruth = 207, Bonds = 179
OPS - Ruth = 1.164, Bonds = 1.035

Even with three outstanding years from Bonds, he has a ways to go to be considered the equal to Ruth. The eras in which these numbers occured are significant. Ruth changed the game and put up huge numbers in a small ball era. Bonds has been incrementally better (see Helton, others) than his competition in a big ball, pitching diluted era.
   5. Old Matt Posted: January 05, 2004 at 04:03 AM (#614310)
Babe Ruth - .342/.474/.690
Ted Williams - .344/.482/.634
Barry Bonds - .297/.433/.602

Remind me again why Bonds is in this group? So Bonds has one of the greatest offensive three year runs in history and suddenly that makes up for the rest of his career (which was Hall of Fame cliber anyway) and puts him on par with Ruth or Williams? I don't think so.
   6. Mattbert Posted: January 05, 2004 at 04:03 AM (#614312)
If Barry beats out Hank and Ted for best at age 39, it?s going to get even harder to hold out on the idea that he is the greatest hitter of all time. As it stands, he is firmly in the top five, probably ranked number three at this moment, with his late finishing kick probably pushing him past Williams and aiming him squarely at Ruth.

Reasonable Response:
The title of greatest hitter is always going to boil down to a subjective argument unless somebody comes along who is *substantially* better than Ruth and Williams as measured by a healthy number of metrics. Until that hypothetical day arrives (and it may never), this will forever be a question of aesthetics, particularly when one remembers that Williams missed out on a signficant amount of playing time for reasons that had nothing to do with his athletic skill or health (inconvenient to one's argument as it may be).

Homer Response:
Peter Gammons has a scathingly vitriolic 'Please' here with your name on it. Go take a look at the four seasons bookending the Splinter's WWII service time and then come back and regale me with another warm 'n fuzzy yarn about Bonds' finishing kick. Get a grip.
   7. Marc Posted: January 05, 2004 at 04:03 AM (#614313)
A lot of dichotomies to think about. Sabrmetrics vs. more traditional thinking. Post season vs. regular season.

Putting those two together, the fact is that where sabrmetrics is concerned the regular season remains god. The discussion of Barry Bonds being the greatest hitter of all-time, just as an e.g. (a meta-example), the numbers are all from the regular season. Well, of course, they are. The post-season is such a small sample, after all. And so it shall remain.

Sabrmetrics vs. post-season, perhaps?
   8. Jon Daly Posted: January 05, 2004 at 04:03 AM (#614314)
Enjoyed reading this, Don. I'll look forward to the paperback version of Koppet's book. I just have one question: you frequently use the term neo-sabermetrics in your work, without defining it in comparison to "paleo-sabermetrics." What do you mean?

I assume that you would consider some of the tenets of neo-sabermetrics to be:

1.) Patience at the plate (or, Play offense the Earl Weaver way)
2.) Don't overwork your pitchers; especially the youngsters
3.) Old age and treachery don't beat youth
4.) Develop from within

I've only listed a few. I'd be interested to see what the "New Sabermetric Manifesto" is compared to the "Don Malcolm Manifesto." I'm not saying this to bust on you, Don. Generally speaking, I agree with you that study of baseball should be more heterodox than orthodox.

Jon
   9. Robert S. Posted: January 06, 2004 at 04:03 AM (#614320)
When Bonds has three consecutive seasons over 120 ERA+ as well, then we can talk about Ruth. The Babe is really untouchable; someone will have to be a significantly better hitter to ever have an argument against him. Bonds is only maybe-equivalent.

Bonds stands head and shoulders above the competition at a time where it is significantly more difficult to do so.

Ruth's pitching feats are a product of his immense baseball talent and the talent level of his era. Simply put, players were too good after his time for anyone not to specialize and have success. His achievements are amazing (no one else did it!)

When Ruth plays in an integrated league and faces pitchers who throw more than two pitches, I'll happily re-evaluate him.
   10. Mike Emeigh Posted: January 06, 2004 at 04:03 AM (#614346)
On a software testing mailing list to which I subscribe, one of the members wrote this message concerning the life cycle of software development methods, which I think applies to statistical analysis as well:

"I think the cycle goes:
1) Someone working within a specific context discovers something is
useful
2) The useful thing becomes broadly misapplied to all contexts
3) People using it in the wrong context start to broadly mischaracterize it as useless in all contexts
4) Someone determines it may still be useful but in certain contexts
5) Some people start to make intelligent choices as to when to apply it."

Right now, in the analytical field, I think we're somewhere in the transition between stages 2/3 and stages 4/5. We've discovered a lot of useful *things*, many of which (like DIPS and MLEs, to name two) have in fact been broadly misapplied, and many of us are now trying to determine in which contexts the things we have learned are useful and when it makes sense to apply them. I think that Don's "neo-sabermetricians" are mostly people who haven't yet gotten beyond stage 2, and perhaps don't realize that they are, in fact, taking useful things and (mis)applying them broadly. Taking a step back, looking at what we've developed, and making intelligent choices as to when to apply it is very difficult to do - but I think it's absolutely essential.

-- MWE
   11. Mark Field Posted: January 06, 2004 at 04:03 AM (#614348)
I think it?s possible to make a reasonable argument that Bonds was a better player than Ruth. Not hitter, player. In making the case, I?m going to use Linear Weights. That?s because I have access to them, their easier for me to use than formulas like WS, and I think there?s general agreement that it is reasonable to use them. I am missing a few totals, so I?m going to estimate them (and I?ll make that clear when I do). For purposes of the estimations, I?m going to use 10 runs/win. I should note that this favors Ruth, because he played in (believe it or not) an offensive context in which more runs were scored.

Let?s start with what we can measure with good accuracy, hitting and stolen bases. Ruth had 130 adjusted batter wins (ABW). He also had 6.5 pitching wins, for a total of 136.5 wins above average. Through 2001, Bonds had 86 ABW. I don?t have the numbers for Bonds in 2002-3, but I?m estimating 20 (11.5 for 2002, 8.5 for 2003). That brings him up to 106.

For stolen bases, Bonds had 5.7 through 2001. He gets another .2 for 02-03, making a total of 5.9. Adding his SB wins to his batting wins brings him to 111.9.

Ruth?s SB/CS data are incomplete because we?re missing 2 years of CS data. Making a reasonable assumption about Ruth?s CS totals for the two missing years, Ruth?s baserunning cost his teams about 3.3 wins. That leaves Ruth at 133.2.

Stolen bases are not the only aspect of baserunning. The ability to go from first to third, to score on a single, etc. all can add up. In any given year, the best baserunners in the league will generate about 5-7 runs above average, while the worst runners will be about 5-7 below average. See Tom Tippet?s discussion of this issue at http://www.diamond-mind.com/articles/ichiro.htm and MGL?s 2003 best and worst list at http://mb2.theinsiders.com/fbaseballfrm8.showMessage?topicID-522.topic.

We don?t have the data for either Bonds or Ruth here (at least I don?t). We do know two things, though: Bonds has always been an exceptional base stealer, while Ruth was a poor one; and Bonds never got fat. For purposes of this estimate, I will assume that Bonds was regularly near the league lead early in his career, dropping to average later on. I also assume that Ruth was average early on and dropped to the bottom of the league as his weight increased. Given these 2 assumptions, the latter of which is IMHO generous to Ruth, Bonds gains about .5 wins per 162 games over Ruth. Over the course of his career, that gives Bonds an additional 7.9 wins, for a total of 119.8. Ruth remains at 133.2.

Alternatively, tangotiger has attempted to estimate baserunning runs from SB/CS data (I can?t find the URL right this minute). Using his formula would give Bonds not 7.9 wins but 10.8. Ruth would be roughly -.2. I?m going to be conservative and stick with the 7.9 and 0 for Ruth.

Now let?s turn to defense. Michael Humphreys recently posted a series of estimates for defensive runs saved above average. Humphreys? data showed that Bonds was an exceptional outfielder, saving 134 runs above average for his career through 2001. This translates to 13.4 wins, bringing Bonds to 134.2 and passing Ruth.

I don?t have the numbers for Ruth?s defense. Again, however, that does not mean estimates are impossible. Ruth did not play much outfield until the age of 24. His defense as a pitcher would not have added any meaningful wins (or losses) to his teams in the 4 seasons he pitched, so we can ignore those seasons entirely. As an outfielder, Ruth may have been average or above for his first 5-6 seasons; after that he got both older and increasingly obese. Given the strong correlation between youth/speed and defense, and considering Ruth?s weight gain, I think it hard to justify any conclusion that would treat Ruth, for his career, as better than average. He gains no wins for his team as a defender. Frankly, I think this conclusion is generous to Ruth.

The argument has been made that Bonds got a late spurt from steroid use. Without getting into that subject, we can account for that too, up to a point. Suppose that we throw out all Bonds? batting totals from 2001 on (his baserunning totals are small and likely unaffected much either way by steroids). That takes away 31.9 wins, dropping him to 102.3. Instead of Bonds? actual totals, we?ll substitute those of Frank Robinson, his most similar player both at age 33-34 and overall according to b-ref. Robinson generated 8.7 wins from age 35-37, plus 6.8 more for the remainder of his career. That would leave Bonds at 117.8, short of Ruth.

This doesn?t end the inquiry, however. Ruth played at a time when the population base was much smaller than it is today. Not only were black players not allowed, not only did he not have to compete against Dominicans, Koreans, Japanese, etc., but the white population of the US itself was about one third what it is now.

A few weeks ago, MNP and I estimated that the exclusion of blacks probably reduced competition by about 5% (see http://baseballprimer.com/clutch/archives/00009957.shtml). Since blacks were only about 10-12% of the population, that suggests that the adjustments we?d need to make for population increase are quite large. In this case, an adjustment for Ruth of 10% would leave him just barely above Bonds. My personal view is that the adjustment should be larger than this; in any case, we are now within the margin of error of the estimates we?ve made.

To summarize the Ruth/Bonds comparison, Bonds has not yet put up the offensive numbers that Ruth has. However, Bonds has a much wider talent base; his career numbers already surpass Ruth and the gap will only get larger in the next few years. Even if we take away Bonds? last three (spectacular) seasons, and even if we make assumptions that are relatively generous to Ruth, Bonds and Ruth are even.

A similar analysis could be done with two other candidates for all-time greatest, Mays and Williams. Williams can join this group if we restore the time he lost to the military (we?d have to do that for Mays also if we go down that road). If we don?t do that, Williams can?t compete. Mays, on the other hand, would likely pass Ruth before any level-of-competition adjustments due to his vastly superior defense. Mays would need about 35 defensive wins to pass Ruth. Michael Humphreys hinted that Mays? defense may have been worth as much as 30 runs per season above the average center fielder in some years, and noted that top center fielders like Garry Maddox could sustain 20 runs above average. These numbers put Mays well within range. Mays would receive an additional boost because he played center, not a corner outfield. These considerations result in a three way tie at the top. Once we adjust for the level of competition, the only real contest is between Bonds and Mays.
   12. Robert Dudek Posted: January 10, 2004 at 04:04 AM (#614398)
Don,

Perhaps you might want to adjust your pre-Yankee dominance period a bit. The Yankees did indeed make the playoffs in 1995, and they would have in 1994: 1982 to 1993 is the period you're after.

As far as non-tendering goes - that makes player acquisition MORE like a free market rather than less. These players are now FREE AGENTS - the fact that many of them find they are worth much less than they were getting paid previously is not an indication that the market for their services isn't operating properly.

   13. KronicFatigue Posted: January 14, 2004 at 04:05 AM (#614472)
Erik,

So, in other words, since you said the angels had as good a chance of making the playoffs as either the a's or mariners, then would you have been "right" if those other two teams had won the world series? It sounds like you broadly picked ALL the teams that had a SHOT at making the postseason and then cover your bases by saying "once you get in the post season, it's a crapshoot."

Really, aren't you just saying that the texas rangers had no shot at the ws in 2002. Do you deserve credit for that statement? I imagine your other division picks had either (read: both) the redsox or yanks in the east and probably the twins and whitesox in the central. does that mean that if any of those teams had won the ws you'd be tooting your own horn?

and i'm sure with your pick of the phillies in the east this year you threw in a "but don't count the braves out". Your NL central probably included 3 teams or so, and who knows about the west.

Regardless, good job on getting the past two ws winners right.

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