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Jimmy Collins Goes Saberhagen

Jimmy Collins, 3B, 1895-1908

Jimmy Collins, 3B, 1895-1908

A few weeks ago we put George Wright through the Saberhagen List without really coming to a conclusion.  Now, we’re ready to apply it to Jimmy Collins, the third baseman who played most of his career in Boston – with the Beaneaters of the NL and the Americans of the AL.

He’s a difficult candidate because third base is a difficult position. Read on to find out why.

This is how Eric answered the questions as he prepared his 1921 ballot.

1. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? At least 5 seasons of 5.0+ raw WAR. My equivalent WAR (eqWAR) gives him 6.

2. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? None by raw WAR. According to eqWAR, 1898 was an MVP level season, and 1901 was close at 7.2 eqWAR.

3. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime? He played until he was 38, didn’t start until 25, and played regularly through the end.

4. Are his most comparable players in the HoME? It’s a bit early in our process for this question, and also his comps on bb-ref aren’t very accurate. I believe he is compared to inferior players. They all played longer schedules and later in history when their leagues were at a higher offensive levels than most of Collins’ seasons. Pre-War 3B is pretty odd, and others have grappled with this question before us. As a point of reference, Collins is in all three of the Halls I consult (Hall of Fame, Hall of Merit, Hall of Stats). Of those spotty bb-ref comps, Home Run Baker is in all three. George Kell is in the HOF but is a mistake. Paul Hines is in the HOM. JAWS sees him as below the average HOF 3B and as the 17th best eligible 3B. However, it lists Paul Molitor and Edgar Martinez as 3Bs (they’re clearly designated hitters), and it lists Dick Allen as a 3B, which it appears is inaccurate as well. So Collins is more like the 14th best eligible by JAWS. The guys below seem inferior at first blush. But since they also may not be great candidates, we don’t learn much by looking at them.

5. Does the player’s career meet the HoME’s standards? Not currently, though there are only 16 guys enshrined, and they are uniformly top-10 type players at their positions.

6. Was he ever the best player in baseball at his position? Or in his league? Collins crushes all other career-long 3Bs of his era for career value by raw WAR. From 1895–1908, Collins’ 53.1 raw WAR are 14 more than the second-place third baseman. In fact, he’s the best 3B in history from 1871 to 1917 by raw WAR. In 1918, he’s passed by Home Run Baker, the best 3B between Deacon White and Eddie Mathews. Collins’ raw WAR is second best to Baker among all 3Bs from 1871 through 1958. Let’s let that echo for a moment–he’s second best at his position over nearly a 90 year period. There are other legitimate candidates to this faux throne, however. Looking at eqWAR behind White and Baker, we see Ezra Sutton (65) and Tommy Leach (64), who have pretty much the same career value as Collins’ 63 and are near enough that it’s not worth haggling about. Ned Williamson follows close behind at 58 eqWAR. Sutton’s total is much more approximate and came during a time of lesser overall competition. As for Leach, I see him as a third basemen even though he played a few more career games in center field. Because of changes in schedule length during his career, he played a higher percentage of his teams’ games at third base (46% at third; 40% in center). Still that doesn’t say much for his ability to stick at third base. YMMV. That said, Collins’ peak (34 best-5, 44 best-7) ties with John McGraw’s and Williamson’s as the second best behind Baker’s (40 best-5 and 52 best-7).

I think a strong expression of positional dominance is to look at every three-year stretch in a player’s career. How often was he the best for a three-year period? The first year could be a fluke. The second year is the show-me year. In the third year, you get crowned. Here’s his record in such periods:

  • 1895­–1897: #1
  • 1896–1898: #1a (trails McGraw by a tenth of a win, effectively tied)
  • 1897–1899: #2 (McGraw)
  • 1898–1900: #2 (McGraw)
  • 1899–1901: #2 (McGraw)
  • 1900–1902: #1
  • 1901–1903: #2 (Bill Bradley)
  • 1902–1904: #2 (Bradley)
  • 1903–1905: #2 (Bradley)
  • 1904–1906: #3 (Jim Devlin, Bradley)
  • 1905–1907: #5
  • 1906–1908: #7

Two or three times the best in his league over a three-year period. Clearly the best over longer periods. And in the longer term, the best between White and Baker, and the best exclusive third baseman before Baker (White spent many seasons behind the plate and a couple in the outfield).

7. Did he ever have a reasonable case for being called the best player in baseball? Or in his league? No. Ed Delahanty, Honus Wagner, Nap Lajoie, et al were in the leagues he was in.

8. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics? DRA likes his defense better by about 50 runs than rfield. He was regarded as finest defensive 3B of his day and is widely credited with creating the modern style of 3B play. Plus, as we’ve discussed, third base was really different back then. Here’s probably the best handful of third basemen before Eddie Mathews by my methods, ordered by CHEWS, which is my answer to JAWS. (CHEWS values peak more than JAWS does.) The list is somewhat different than what you’d find on the JAWS pages, as you might guess.

  • Deacon White: 85 career eqWAR, 42 best-7, 61.3 CHEWS
  • Frank Baker: 68 career eqWAR, 52 best-7, 58.9 CHEWS
  • Jimmy Collins: 63 career eqWAR, 44 best-7, 52.6 CHEWS
  • Tommy Leach: 64 career eqWAR, 41 best-7, 51.0 CHEWS (Leach could just as easily be a CF)
  • Ned Williamson: 58 career eqWAR, 44 best-7, 50.5 CHEWS
  • Ezra Sutton: 65 career eqWAR, 34 best-7, 47.9 CHEWS
  • John McGraw: 51 career eqWAR, 43 best-7, 46.9 CHEWS
  • Heinie Groh: 54 career eqWAR, 38 best-7, 45.3 CHEWS

Even with all the stuff I adjust for, none of the guys below Baker are likely above average HoMErs. Collins might actually be exactly average. I believe the pittance of third base talent before the War may have something to do with the rougher style of play, so much more base-stealing, and so many more triples. The injury rate of top third basemen in that era is very high and could easily result from more contact plays. Collins’ durability in that rough and tumble day may be something special that is not well captured or well known.

9. Did he have a positive impact on pennant races and in post-season series? His World Series performance in 1903 was mediocre. His teams finished first in 1897, 1898, and 1904, but there was no championship series in those years.

10. Is he the best eligible player at his position not in the HoME? Yes, until Baker. Once Baker gets in, he’ll be the best until the 1970s when Mathews, Ken Boyer, and Ron Santo come along. They are the first wave of the tsunami of modern third basemen.

11. Is he the best eligible candidate not in the HoME? No. The case for Collins is neither weak nor strong. It’s the case of someone who is below the ultimate institutional average.

What happened on the field happened, but it seems strange to me that there’s something endemic to the position that suppresses value for 80 years. Especially when the more difficult defensive position of shortstop simultaneously spawned longer careers with higher quality hitting and better peaks. What I also don’t know is whether or how at an institutional level we address this. It would seem strange also to have only two third basemen (presumably Baker and White) for more than half of baseball’s history.

So once again we run Saberhagen, and there are as many questions as answers. While that’s frustrating in the short term, it likely puts us in a position for a better HoME as we progress.

–Eric and Miller

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