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The Unique Mr. Cub

banks at wrigley-fieldWith the passing of Ernie Banks this past week, I found myself reviewing his career and thinking about the oddness of its trajectory. Branch Rickey would have traded him. See, Banks’ career divides neatly into two very different halves. Through age 29, Banks delivered outstanding MVP-type seasons. At age 30, he developed a chronic knee problem that forced off shortstop. He ended up at first base just as his bat went south. He went from a good fielding shortstop who hit like an All-Star first baseman to a first baseman with the bat of a good-hitting shortstop.

The change was, in fact, amazing, though not in a good way. By age 30 Banks had amassed 5205 plate appearances, 35.1 Wins Above Average and 54.8 Wins Above Replacement. Outstanding figures, each. Afterward: 5189 PAs, -6.6 WAA, and 12.7 WAR. Ouch! To put this into some context, despite his opening act looking like the first half of Reggie Jackson’s career, the closing act was similar in value to the entire careers of Christian Guzman, Bengie Molina, or Dean Palmer. Pretty weird.

We know this career path is uncommon. But how uncommon?

To the BBREF cave!

Thanks to the miracle of BBREF, we can query its Play Index for similar players to Banks through their age 30 seasons and see how they did afterward. I searched for:

  • retired players
  • whose WAA was within 25% of Banks’
  • whose careers started after 1920
  • who weren’t catchers (who age differently than other hitters)

I also weeded out those whose careers were interrupted by a war.

These are the players most like Banks among the 37 who met the criteria:

               THROUGH 30        |  AFTER 30
NAME           PA    WAA   WAR   |  PA     WAA▾  WAR
===================================================
Ernie Banks    5205  35.1  54.8  |  5189  -6.6  12.7
Eddie Murray   6415  28.4  49.1  |  6402  -1.4  19.1
Bobby Abreu    4962  27.1  41.9  |  5119   1.0  18.1
Reggie Jackson 5616  34.0  53.6  |  5802   1.2  20.1
Andre Dawson   5592  27.3  45.8  |  5177   1.5  18.6
Goose Goslin   6282  27.5  50.7  |  3547   3.0  15.4
Al Simmons     5472  30.3  50.8  |  4046   4.0  17.9
Buddy Bell     6372  28.0  49.6  |  3637   4.3  16.5
Frankie Frisch 5575  33.9  50.9  |  4327   5.6  19.3
Tim Raines     6159  28.5  48.4  |  4200   6.6  20.7
Robin Yount    7743  30.1  55.2  |  4506   6.9  21.8

Looked at in this way, nobody is like Ernie Banks. He and Eddie Murray are the only players in this group who were below average in the second half of their careers, but peak Murray wasn’t nearly as good as peak Banks. And anyway, Steady Eddie was a +1.9 WAA player through the first 5100 PAs of his thirties, it was the other 1300 that dropped him below average.

I tried sifting things a little differently. This time by the ratio of a player’s WAR through age 30 to after age 30. I looked only at retired players with more than 4000 plate appearances through age 30 and 3000 afterward. Again, no catchers or war veterans. Among the nearly 200 hitters in the results, the average ratio was 1.8, and the average hitter earned 33.9 WAR in his 20s and 21.1 WAR in his 30s. Banks has the ninth highest ratio in history of 20s WAR to 30s WAR by this reckoning. Here’s the top 25 for those interested:

                  THROUGH 30  |  AFTER 30    |
NAME              PA    WAR   |  PA    WAR   | RATIO▾ 
=====================================================
Marquis Grissom   4876  27.3  |  4083   2.1  | 13.0
Vada Pinson       7394  48.3  |  3008   5.8  |  8.3
Royce Clayton     4817  17.4  |  3347   2.2  |  7.9
Willie Horton     4588  23.0  |  3464   3.4  |  6.8
Ken Griffey       7319  76.1  |  4161  12.2  |  6.2
Dave Parker       4411  33.9  |  5773   6.0  |  5.7
Bobby Bonilla     4844  25.3  |  3413   4.8  |  5.3
Jim Bottomley     5249  29.4  |  3105   5.9  |  5.0
Ernie Banks       5205  54.8  |  5189  12.7  |  4.3
Bill Buckner      5251  11.9  |  4786   2.9  |  4.1
Jim Rice          5820  37.5  |  3238   9.9  |  3.8
Willie Wilson     5253  36.3  |  3064   9.6  |  3.8
Steve Garvey      5202  29.6  |  4264   8.1  |  3.7
George Hendrick   4795  22.5  |  3039   6.4  |  3.5
Garrett Anderson  5098  19.8  |  4079   5.8  |  3.4
Vladimir Guerrero 5494  45.8  |  3565  13.5  |  3.4
Goose Goslin      6282  50.7  |  3547  15.4  |  3.3
Rusty Staub       6961  34.9  |  4268  10.9  |  3.2
Terry Pendleton   4388  21.1  |  3249   7.0  |  3.0
Buddy Bell        6372  49.6  |  3637  16.5  |  3.0

Griffey represents a nice match for Banks in some ways. In their twenties, Banks and Griffey were very similar on a per-game basis. In their thirties they were equally below average on a per-game rate, though Junior played a little further above replacement than Banks. After them, and with the exception of Bell, Goose, and Vlad, it’s Hall of the Very Good players and sabrmetric punching bags. Through this lens, Banks is a “high” achiever, but doesn’t quite appear to be the anomaly he did in the previous list. Also, Vada Pinson: wow.

What about a qualitative or narrative-focused point of view? Banks

  • was a franchise player at a key defensive position
  • switched positions due to injury right in the meat of his career
  • hung on a long time despite vastly diminished skills
  • retired as an all-time great.

Not too many of those around. Robin Yount might qualify, though he only lasted until age 37 and was much better in his thirties than Banks. Likewise Rod Carew. Andre Dawson? Well, he wasn’t as good a player as Mr. Cub in his twenties, and his position switch wasn’t nearly as dramatic, merely moving to right field from center. Dipping a little earlier into history, there’s Tommy Leach. His move from third base to centerfield is truly unique among long-time players, but Leach, like Dawson, wasn’t the same caliber of player as Banks at their respective peaks.

When you take it all together, Banks’ career has to be one of the most singular in the game’s history. Even if it is a riches to rags story. RIP, Mr. Cub, and if there’s an afterlife, let’s hope you enjoy its friendly confines.

—Eric

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Discussion

One thought on “The Unique Mr. Cub

  1. And hopefully he’s playing 2 in that afterlife.
    Nice bit of research. I’ve always been a big Vada Pinson fan. I knew he dropped off quickly, but didn’t realize it was that sharp a drop.
    v

    Posted by verdun2 | February 6, 2015, 9:31 am

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