Tommy Leach, the 3B/CF, who was outshined by teammates Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke, is in the HoME. Eric’s piece about Leach on Friday explored how Defensive Regression Analysis (DRA) helped to get him there and how we see DRA vis-à-vis Rfield. Eric splits them at 2/3 for DRA and 1/3 for Rfield. I’m at 3/4 to 1/4. Basically, we both see DRA as the better system, but neither of us is willing to disregard Rfield, a system that clearly has some merit.
Let me explain, in brief, part of why we find DRA more appealing than other systems. Other defensive systems essentially double penalize a player for an error, both calling it a play not made and an error. DRA just calls it a play not made. After all, says DRA, most errors allow the batter/runner only one base, the same number of bases he’d have had if the fielder never laid a glove on the ball. While imperfect to count only one base when some errors create more havoc, it’s much wiser to do so than to count errors double. In short, players who avoid errors are preferred by Rfield, while players who make plays are preferred by DRA. Too crudely explained? Perhaps. But it gets to the point.
What I want to do in this post is nothing groundbreaking, just look at the players most preferred by DRA and those most preferred by Rfield. Maybe we’ll see some trends. Maybe not. Through these charts and over the coming elections, we’ll absolutely see some guys who become HoMErs because of these defensive chops and some who lose that status.
HoF in Bold Rfield DRA Difference 1 Ewing, Buck 74 301.1 227.1 2 Collins, Jimmy 12 220.5 208.5 3 Smith, Germany 160 351.7 191.7 4 Sheckard, Jimmy 77 264.7 187.7 5 Leach, Tommy 67 250.9 183.9 6 Griffin, Mike 66 232.6 166.6 7 Farrell, Duke -11 149.1 160.1 8 Veach, Bobby 30 188.0 158.0 9 Speaker, Tris 92 245.3 153.3 10 White, Roy 34 178.8 144.8 11 Ashburn, Richie 76 218.9 142.9 12 Selbach, Kip 26 166.1 140.1 13 Hooper, Harry 77 212.6 135.6 14 Tinker, Joe 180 314.3 134.3 15 Dahlen, Bill 139 272.0 133.0 16 Fletcher, Art 144 276.7 132.7 17 Evans, Darrell 37 168.5 131.5 18 Clarke, Fred 91 219.8 128.8 19 Latham, Arlie 90 218.2 128.2 20 Frisch, Frankie 140 266.9 126.9
Our DRA hero appears to be Buck Ewing, a stalwart defensive backstop whose career ended before the turn of last century and who is viewed at nearly 23 wins better by DRA. Ewing and each of our top seven on this list played at least a little in the 1800s (as did four others in the top-20). And four of the top five have been inducted into the HoME. Only Germany Smith is on the outside looking in, and will almost certainly remain there.
Eight of the top-20 are in Cooperstown. And we’ve already inducted nine into our HoME. Plus, we’re still considering six others, and we haven’t begun to review the cases of Roy White and Darrell Evans. Would Leach and Jimmy Sheckard be in the HoME were it not for our understanding of DRA? I can say with tremendous confidence that they wouldn’t be in yet. And I’m pretty sure that without DRA we wouldn’t be considering the likes of Art Fletcher and even Joe Tinker so seriously.
Is there a bias on the part of DRA toward players who haven’t been in the bigs in a century? Well, you could say so. But I might explain it more simply that there were many more errors a century ago than today. Thus, it was easier to avoid errors. Some excellent defenders who made errors because their range allowed them to get to more balls than contemporaries maybe don’t see the full greatness of their defense realized until DRA is applied.
What DRA means for more recent players like White and Evans, we won’t know until the 1985 and 1995 elections respectively. What we can say is that with 13 or 14 extra wins, they will certainly vault up in our rankings.
HoF in Bold Rfield DRA Difference 1 Harrah, Toby 96 -123.2 -219.2 2 Blair, Paul 175 12.5 -162.5 3 Jones, Chipper 23 -137.3 -160.3 4 Vizquel, Omar 129 -31.0 -160.0 5 Fox, Nellie 121 -36.1 -157.1 6 Doyle, Larry -22 -174.7 -152.7 7 Manush, Heinie -1 -141.1 -140.1 8 Rice, Jim 24 -109.3 -133.3 9 Yastrzemski, Carl 183 58.5 -124.5 10 Aparicio, Luis 147 22.9 -124.1 11 Snider, Duke -22 -143.6 -121.6 12 Ripken, Cal 179 64.9 -114.1 13 Griffey, Ken Jr. 2 -111.4 -113.4 14 McKean, Ed -48 -160.3 -112.3 15 Boggs, Wade 104 -6.2 -110.2 16 Higgins, Pinky -60 -169.1 -109.1 17 Surhoff, B.J. 111 3.4 -107.6 18 Myer, Buddy -1 -106.1 -105.1 19 Heilmann, Harry -44 -149.0 -105.0 20 Knoblauch, Chuck 26 -77.9 -103.9
The DRA losers are, in many ways, a more interesting group – especially if you were born in the last 100 years. This group is both more recent and more diverse than the former group. First, the DRA beneficiaries were almost all above average or very good defenders who DRA saw as even more above average to great. The DRA losers are all across the board – some were great by Rfield and less great by DRA, others poor by the former and even worse by the latter, and everywhere in between.
You can see for yourself who these players are and what the differences between the two measures are. What I’d like to do is consider a few of these players and try to parse the difference between their reputation and reality.
Chipper Jones: Jones, as I understand it anyway, was always considered a pretty poor fielder. Rfield tells us differently. DRA is more in line with what we’ve been led to believe. No matter what his fielding was line, he’s an easy HoMEr.
Omar Vizquel: We’ve been told by announcers for decades that Omar Vizquel wasn’t just a good fielder, but a great fielder. In fact, that great defense plus 2877 hits have helped some create Hall of Fame arguments for the Venezuelan infielder. The reality is that Vizquel was great in only a couple of seasons, and it’s his flair and error avoidance (which is important, but less important than out conversion) that have helped create the false narrative.
Nellie Fox: A lot like Vizquel on the other side of second base, Fox is nearly as poor a Hall choice as Vizquel would be. He had a couple of seasons where he was a good fielder, but he aged, as we all do, and he regressed considerably. For the last five seasons of his career, he was a bad defender. Combine mediocre to below average defense with a below average bat, and you have, well, Omar Vizquel.
Jim Rice and Carl Yastrzemski: Michael Humphreys, creator of DRA, admits that his system has difficulty with left field in Fenway Park. Let’s ignore this pair other than to say their shared team and position tie them historically more than they should.
Luis Aparicio: If Omar Vizquel had a baseball papa, it’d be the nine-time AL stolen base champ who’s almost as overrated defensively as Vizquel. But Aparicio is actually a little more like Fox; he was good in the field, sometimes very good, but teams kept trotting him out there well beyond his expiration date. And like many things past their expiration date, he stunk. His glove was a bit better than Omar’s, but his bat was just as anemic. I don’t think that bodes well for him in the 1979 HoME election.
Duke Snider: Having not seen the Duke of Flatbush play, I can’t speak so easily to how he was evaluated during his day. I can only say that he was miscast in center field from the start. He started poor and remained that way throughout his career. But like Chipper, he had more than enough bat to carry him.
Cal Ripken: Much of the narrative surrounding Ripken came from George Will’s book, Men at Work, a book that was at times more mythology than fact. Will spoke of Ripken’s brilliant positioning. And indeed that may have been the case. To be fair to Will, Ripken was an outstanding defender in the three or four years before the publication of his book. Then he wasn’t. But the mythology (and the error avoidance at the expense of converting batted balls into outs) lived on.
Ken Griffey: Start a career perceived as a great defender, have a few highlight reel catches, and forever be remembered as a great defender. But I offer you this question. Why is it that Griffey didn’t break every hitting record known to man? It’s because of his balky hamstrings (I exaggerate, but you get the point). Now, if he had trouble getting onto the field and hitting when he was there because of those hamstrings, how is it that he could have possibly been a good fielder?
Wade Boggs: Perhaps the mythology around a player’s defense, at least among recent players, is no more wrong for anyone than Wade Boggs. When Boggs came up, he was considered mediocre. And the stories were told of how he worked and worked to become an average and then an elite defender. His Gold Gloves in his 13th and 14th seasons would seem to support his improvement to the point of greatness. However, Boggs was much more like most players than announcers would have us believe. When he came up, he was young. And fielding is a young man’s game. That’s right, he was easily a plus defender when he came up. As the story goes, he put in tremendous work in the field and got better and better. Well, something also happened over the years. Boggs aged. We all do; it’s not so bad. And as Boggs aged, he slowed. And you know what? His defense got worse. When Boggs was very good, announcers though he wasn’t. When Boggs was below average, he won Gold Gloves.
What does all of this DRA stuff mean? It means that we have to recalibrate. It means we have to reconsider what we always knew to be true. Because just because it’s what we always knew, doesn’t mean that it’s true.