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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Balancing Peak Value vs. Career Value

It’s the eternal question when it comes to evaluating players for the Hall of Fame: peak or career? Are a few years of true greatness worth more than a long, consistent career? One even occasionally hears those who enjoy debating such matters describe themselves as “peak” or “career” guys.

There are many metrics available for gauging the value of a player’s career that use a bar of replacement level (like Baseball Prospectus’s WARP3) or lower (like Bill James’s Win Shares). Yet many, including myself, feel that these statistics give too much weight to a long period of mediocre performance and not enough to a superstar-level peak—in fact, it’s fairly common for people to compare players’ peak years along with their overall career numbers when using these stats. A stat with a bar of average will give more weight to a great peak, but it will (in my view, unfairly) penalize a player like Rickey Henderson, who stuck around for a number of years after he was no longer a very good player.

There have been several attempts to find some middle ground between peak and career, the most notable probably being Jay Jaffe’s JAWS. However, I recently thought of an approach to the question that I haven’t seen implemented elsewhere: to use a metric with an average base—and then only include those seasons in which a player was above average.

For this exercise, I didn’t use the most sophisticated metrics: I simply calculated Runs Created Above Position (RCAP) for hitters and Runs Saved Above Average (RSAA) for pitchers. (Both park-adjusted, of course.) I then used James’s

Pythagorean Formula to convert these runs into wins above or below average for the average team each season. Then I added together the win values for each year of a player’s career that this value was positive, ignoring the years when it was negative. I christened the resulting career total Net Wins Above Average, or NWAA.  It’s a pretty colorless name, except for a few potential NWA jokes, so feel free to suggest a better one.

(As an aside, I’m well aware of the flaws of both RCAP and RSAA. Probably RCAP’s biggest flaw is that, while it adjusts for position, it does not include defense; it also has that same problems as a run estimator that regular Runs Created does. But they’re both easy to calculate and accurate in the broad strokes, and I don’t think that anyone has a lot of confidence in any of the available fielding metrics, at least for years before the most recent. Besides, it’s more the approach that I’m interested in demonstrating here, rather than the stats themselves. It would be great if someone were to use this methodology with some more sophisticated average-based stats.)

I don’t have the league positional averages needed to calculate RCAP for years prior to 1972, so I only calculated NWAA for players whose careers began in or after this year, or for players whose careers began earlier but still had rookie eligibility in 1972, most notably Carlton Fisk and Bobby Grich. (For these players, I did a rough estimate of their wins above average for their cups of coffee prior to 1972; this should have a very small effect on their career stats.)

Of the players in this group, fourteen have been elected to the Hall of Fame:

name              nwaa

Mike Schmidt      54.09
George Brett      53.89
Wade Boggs        47.59
Robin Yount       43.62
Paul Molitor      41.97
Eddie Murray      36.79
Carlton Fisk      35.66
Dave Winfield     35.39
Ryne Sandberg     30.69
Kirby Puckett     28.45
Gary Carter       26.71
Dennis Eckersley  26.13
Ozzie Smith       17.35
Bruce Sutter      14.13

The only thing I’d note here is that the reason Ozzie Smith scores so low is because, as I said, RCAP doesn’t include defense, and there are very few players in history who would suffer more from such an omission than Ozzie.

With a stat like this, the question now becomes: where do we draw the line between players who are qualified for the Hall of Fame and those who are not? Since there are really no objective criteria to determine Hall of Fame worthiness, all we have to go on are the players who have already been deemed worthy of the Hall. But if we simply were to let in all the players better than the Hall’s weakest member, we’d end up with a Hall far too big by anyone’s standards. I like the approach used by the

Hall of Merit, where they keep their Hall essentially the same size as the actual Hall of Fame, but fill it with the players they believe to be the most deserving. So, since there are fourteen players in the post-1972 class in the Hall, let’s look at the fourteen Hall-eligible players in this group with the highest NWAA scores:

Mike Schmidt    54.09
George Brett    53.89
Wade Boggs      47.59
Robin Yount     43.62
Paul Molitor    41.97
Eddie Murray    36.79
Carlton Fisk    35.66
Dave Winfield   35.39
Alan Trammell   33.97
Albert Belle    33.91
Lou Whitaker    33.22
Bobby Grich     32.76
Ryne Sandberg   30.69
Pedro Guerrero  28.74

(Players not in the Hall of Fame in italics.)

Nine of the fourteen players—as well as the top eight—are the same on both lists (and Kirby Puckett just misses the second). There are some surprising names on this list: Pedro Guerrero, despite being among the most dominant hitters of the 1980s, is rarely thought of as a Hall of Famer: he received only 1.3% of the vote his only time on the ballot. Guerrero’s Hall of Fame case is based almost completely on his excellent peak—his career was quite short, with only 6115 plate appearances.

But before deciding that Guerrero’s inclusion on the list means that this metric is overrating peak as compared to career value, take a look at the high score for Lou Whitaker. Like Guerrero, Whitaker only lasted a single year on the Hall of Fame ballot, although his candidacy has gained some support in sabermetric circles. Whitaker’s career profile is almost the exact opposite of Guerrero’s: he gained most of his value from a long, consistent career, but his peak was comparatively quite low—he only cracked the league’s top ten in Wins Above Average (WAA) once in his career (a fifth-place finish in 1983). The list has Albert Belle, another player with a dominant peak and short career, but also Carlton Fisk, who played for an extremely long time but only had a couple of really great years. It’s a very small sample of players, but from this list it doesn’t look to me like the stat is placing too much weight on either peak or career. You can decide for yourself when you’ve seen a few more lists.

These players represent a very small slice of Hall of Fame history, but, just for now, why don’t we think of Pedro Guerrero’s 28.74 score as representing the dividing line for Hall of Fame worthiness when it comes to NWAA? Here are all the players in the post-1972 group—including those not yet eligible for the Hall—with NWAA scores through 2005 above the “Guerrero bar”:  (Players active in 2005 are in bold.)

Barry Bonds        120.27
Roger Clemens       69.27
Greg Maddux         61.70
Mike Piazza         58.90
Frank Thomas        54.17
Mike Schmidt        54.09
George Brett        53.89
Rickey Henderson    53.43
Ken Griffey Jr.     52.55
Randy Johnson       51.61
Gary Sheffield      51.23
Alex Rodriguez      51.20
Edgar Martinez      50.81
Jeff Bagwell        48.12
Wade Boggs          47.59
Manny Ramirez       47.35
Pedro Martinez      46.99
Barry Larkin        46.58
Cal Ripken Jr.      45.39
Tony Gwynn          44.94
Mark McGwire        44.01
Robin Yount         43.62
Paul Molitor        41.97
Craig Biggio        39.67
Tom Glavine         37.60
Chipper Jones       37.06
Roberto Alomar      36.93
Eddie Murray        36.79
Jim Edmonds         36.53
Kevin Brown         36.38
Carlton Fisk        35.66
Tim Raines          35.54
Dave Winfield       35.39
Bernie Williams     35.18
Larry Walker        34.90
Jeff Kent           34.42
Alan Trammell       33.97
Albert Belle        33.91
Jim Thome           33.26
Lou Whitaker        33.22
Bobby Grich         32.76
Curt Schilling      32.27
Jason Giambi        31.30
Fred McGriff        31.28
Ivan Rodriguez      31.21
John Smoltz         31.20
Sammy Sosa          30.70
Ryne Sandberg       30.69
Vladimir Guerrero   30.64
Derek Jeter         30.45
Brian Giles         30.44
Albert Pujols       30.26
Mike Mussina        29.32
Pedro Guerrero      28.74

A few points of interest about this list:

  - There were thirty-one players active in 2005 above the Guerrero bar. Astoundingly, eight of these players spent the year with the Yankees. (And that doesn’t even include Mariano Rivera [19.69 NWAA], who is generally considered a lock for the Hall.) No other 2005 team had more than three players on the list.

  - The bar will probably be raised higher in coming years, as there are a number of not-yet-eligible players above the line who seem unlikely to be elected to the Hall, and very few below the line who have a good shot at induction. This could represent a flaw with the stat, that it’s overrating more recent players—but, even though there have been a handful of historically great performances over the past decade or so, the number of Wins Above Average needed to rank among the league leaders in any given year has essentially remained stable since the 1970s. The other possibility is that the voters are simply becoming more strict. It seems to me that there are only two active players below the Guerrero bar that (based on their statistical records to date) have a really strong possibility of being elected to Cooperstown:

    - The aforementioned Mariano Rivera: even though relievers fare better on an average-based metric than one with a replacement-level base, they still do not score very highly on RSAA. Applying some sort of leverage index to a reliever’s stats might be called for, but I think that in that case one should also adjust for the fact that the average ERA of relievers tends to be significantly lower than that of starters, so I question how much of a difference the adjustment would really make. Also, a great deal of Rivera’s Hall of Fame case—perhaps more than any other candidate’s in history—rests on his postseason performance, which of course is not accounted for here.

      - Rafael Palmeiro (26.81 NWAA): his case for the Hall is now in serious jeopardy due to some recent events, the details of which I don’t seem to recall, but, even though there was some cursory examination of his credentials around the time of his 3,000th hit, there is little doubt that Palmeiro would have easily sailed into Cooperstown if his statistical record were the only thing in question. Yet his comparatively low NWAA score rather starkly illustrates the shape of his career: he was a pretty good player who played for a very long time (and played most of his best seasons in very good hitters’ parks), but who could rarely be thought of as a superstar. Whether this makes him a deserving Hall of Famer is up to you—although it is interesting to note how his overall score stacks up against other career-over-peak guys like Whitaker or Schilling, or even how it compares to Palmeiro’s close contemporary, Fred McGriff.

- Barry Bonds: damn. It’s true that RCAP tends to overrate players with very high OBPs and SLGs, so this list probably overstates Bonds’s dominance somewhat, but still—damn. And since I know it will come up, even if you take away everything Bonds did after 1998, he still comes in with an NWAA of 62.84, second only to Clemens on the list. The top five (and six of the top seven) WAA seasons since 1972 are all held by Bonds.

And finally, one last table: it’s a little late, but here are the NWAA scores for all the players on the last Hall of Fame ballot. Now, there are four players on the ballot whose careers began prior to 1972: Tommy John (debuted 1963), Steve Garvey (1969), Dave Concepcion (1970), and Bert Blyleven (1970). Neither Garvey or Concepcion were full-time players before 1972,  and neither was likely enough above average in those early years to have much of an impact on their overall scores: after three PAs as a pinch-hitter in 1969, Garvey put up OPS+ numbers of 81 and 95 as a third baseman in 1970 and 1971, while Concepcion was at 73 and 43 (!) as a shortstop those same years. As for John and Blyleven, I can calculate their RSAA for their early years, just not their offensive numbers, so that shouldn’t make a great deal of difference in their career scores either.

Without further ado, the ballot:

Bert Blyleven    41.88*
Alan Trammell    33.97
Albert Belle     33.91
Tommy John       27.61*
Will Clark       27.38
Jim Rice         25.76
Dale Murphy      24.98
Andre Dawson     24.80
Orel Hershiser   24.03
Rich Gossage     22.62
Dave Concepcion  21.48*
Dave Parker      20.94
Don Mattingly    19.87
Dwight Gooden    18.88
Jack Morris      17.14
Steve Garvey     14.50*
Doug Jones       14.33
Lee Smith        14.20
Bruce Sutter     14.13
Alex Fernandez   12.56
John Wetteland   12.17
Rick Aguilera    11.15
Willie McGee     10.77
Gregg Jefferies   9.36
Gary Gaetti       6.44
Hal Morris        5.96
Gary DiSarcina    1.75
Walt Weiss        1.30
Ozzie Guillen     0.00

(* = estimated. Bold = elected to Hall. Italics = dropped off ballot.)

It’s almost enough to make you feel a little sorry for Ozzie.


Daniel Wind Posted: May 09, 2006 at 12:36 PM | 41 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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