This is the Colorado Rockies’ installment of our Mount Rushmore series, but one wonder’s if the conceit gets a little fuzzy when we’re dealing with a team named after a mountain range. Wouldn’t the Rockies locate their version of Mount Rushmore on Mount Estes or Pike’s Peak, or any of the zillions of 14ers in the state? But despite the failure of this metaphor to adequately address the team’s nickname, we will carry on.
The Rox have only been at things for a quarter of a century. They still haven’t managed to hire someone to figure out how to win and how to keep players healthy in the thin air of the purple mountains majesty. But they have had their moments, including a World Series appearance in 2007. But with such a short lifespan, they don’t exactly have a long list of heroes to choose from. There’s the Toddfather, Todd Helton, of course. Larry Walker won his MVP at altitude. Current sensation Nolan Arenado is a really impressive player. There’s also a lot of Vinny Castilla and Dante Bichette in the franchise’s past, which is, perhaps, why the Rockies seem to be ever looking toward their future. Toward a day when they solve the riddle of baseball in an oxygen- and moisture-reduced atmosphere.
Sermons on the Mount
The Rockies have tried every which way to assemble talent, including the dubious practice of scouting for religious values. Their Mount Rushmore isn’t too bad for such a young team, despite what’s often seemed like a stagnating front office.
Todd Helton: The former Tennessee Vol’s quarterback ironically played first base. You’d think he’d have been an outfielder if he had a good arm. Well, he wasn’t. Instead, he played first base better than dang near anyone in the game. Of course, Helton, also did great work in the batters box. It being Colorado and all, it can be hard to see his value through a Coors-induced haze, but he created 405 more runs than an average batter through age 32, about 40 a year. He hardly missed a game doing so. Things went south after that with injuries wrecking his bat. He limped over the 60 WAR line, but he’s got a credible Hall case. If you don’t overdo the Coors. He’s clearly the Rockies’ franchise player.
Nolan Arenado: What an exciting young player! He’s got Brooks Robinson’s glove and a very good bat to go with it. Actually, his hitting his improving with age. Now just 26 years old, he’s entering his likely peak years and isn’t eligible for free agency until 2020. He’s earned 25 WAR as of this writing, and could end up with 40 or 50 in a Rockies uniform before the siren song of free agent moolah calls to him. Or the Rockies trade him because they won’t commit to him long term. Or he starts turning into an injury pincushion like former teammate Troy Tulowitzki.
Charlie Blackmon: Blackmon kind of came out of nowhere a few years back and settled in as an everyday player. He’s below average glove and baserunner, so his value is primarily tied to his ability to hit well for an up-the-middle guy while faking centerfield reasonably well. Now age 31, he’s going to start slowing up quickly, but if his newfound power is real, he can add +25 runs to the ledger, and that’s plenty enough to play in a corner.
Trevor Story: The good news about your fourth Rushmore face having only 4.3 WAR is that he’s only in his second year, and there’s plenty of room to grow. The bad news is that three-quarters of that value was last year. Story placed fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2016. While he’s running and fielding better than last year, his bat seems to have gone backwards. He’s walking more often, but his isolated slugging has regressed by 100 points from last year. His BABIP is not really at fault. It’s down a bit but not much. He is striking out a little more, but he’s also walking more. Instead it looks like he’s banging the ball into the ground more often. That’s driving down his line drive rate, so when he puts the ball in play, he’s not doing so effectively. He’s also hitting about two-thirds as many homers per fly ball. In other words, he’s not barreling the ball up very well so far in 2017. The team promoted Story aggressively, and it’s possible that the league caught up to him over the winter, and he’s been unable to adjust so far.
Now, if I had to name my personal all-time favorite Rockies, I’d have to start chiseling Bruce Ruffin’s face onto the mountainside. But then, that’s mostly because I’m an old Phils watcher. But I like Larry Walker a lot, and I definitely include him. Arenado and I share a birthday, so mark him down too. And Ellis Burks who is one of my wife’s favorites and, she tells me, is very cute. Hey, happy wife, happy life…happy Rushmore.
Adrian Beltre sealed his Hall of Fame case Sunday night with a hustle double into left field against the Orioles. It’s an amazing accomplishment for many reasons, and I have thoughts about five of them.
MLB’s first Dominican 3000-hit man
Beltre was the 31st person to reach 3000 hits in MLB history and the first (of many likely to come) born in the Dominican Republic. All but five of the others were born in the US. For me this brings up a larger question: Who are the current leaders among countries that regularly produce major leaguers today? In fact, I wanted to know the same things about a few other figures, such as homeruns, wins, strikeouts, and WAR for hitters and pitchers. Hello, BBREF! [PS: I’m going to count Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands as separate from the US for this purpose.]
BATTERS COUNTRY H HR WAR ======================================================================= Aruba X Bogaerts ( 634) X Bogaerts ( 47) X Boagaerts ( 10) Australia J Quinn (1804) D Nilsson (105) D Nilsson ( 11) Brazil Y Gomes ( 418) Y Gomes ( 63) Y Gomes ( 9) Canada L Walker (2160) L Walker (383) L Walker ( 73) Columbia E Renteria (2327) E Renteria (140) E Renteria ( 32) Cuba R Palmero (3020) R Palmeiro (569) R Palmeiro ( 72) Curacao An Jones (1933) An Jones (434) An Jones ( 63) Dominican Rep A Beltre (3001) S Sosa (609) A Pujols (100) Japan I Suzuki (3060) H Matsui (175) I Suzuki ( 60) Mexico V Castilla (1884) V Castilla (320) B Avila ( 28) Nicaragua M Benard ( 714) M Benard ( 54) M Benard ( 9) Panama R Carew (3053) C Lee (358) R Carew ( 81) Puerto Rico R Clemente (3000) C Delgado (473) R Clemente ( 95) S Korea S Choo (1292) S Choo (160) S Choo ( 30) Taiwan C Hu ( 34) C Hu (2) T Lin ( 1) USA P Rose (4256) Ba Bonds (762) B Ruth (163) USVI H Clarke (1230) E Hendricks (62) H Clarke ( 16) Venezuela O Vizquel (2877) Mi Cabrera (459) Mi Cabrera ( 70) PITCHERS COUNTRY W K pWAR =========================================================================== Aruba S Ponson ( 91) S Ponson (1031) S Ponson ( 11) Australia t-G Balfour/ ( 30) G Balfour ( 571) G Balfour ( 9) t-G Lloyd Brazil A Rienzo ( 6) A Rienzo ( 104) A Rienzo ( -1) Canada F Jenkins (284) F Jenkins (3192) F Jenkins ( 83) Columbia J Tehran ( 54) J Quintana ( 915) J Quintana ( 23) Cuba L Tiant (229) L Tiant (2416) L Tiant ( 66) Curacao J Jurrjens ( 53) K Jansen ( 701) K Jansen ( 14) Dominican Rep J Marichal (243) P Martinez (3154) P Martinez ( 86) Japan H Nomo (123) H Nomo (1918) H Nomo ( 22) Mexico F Valenzuela (173) F Valenzuela (2074) F Valenzuela ( 37) Nicaragua D Martinez (245) D Martinez (2149) D Martinez ( 50) Panama t-M Rivera/ ( 82) M Rivera (1173) M Rivera ( 57) t-B Chen Puerto Rico J Vazquez (165) J Vazquez (2536) J Vazquez ( 43) S Korea C Park (124) C Park (1715) C Park ( 20) Taiwan C Wang ( 68) C Wang ( 394) C Wang ( 13) USA C Young (511) N Ryan (5714) C Young (170) USVI A McBean ( 67) A McBean ( 575) A McBean ( 15) Venezuela F Hernandez (159) F Hernandez (2328) F Hernandez ( 52)
Hey, that’s some pretty snappy company that Beltre is keeping. He must be amazed to be on a list with Marvin Benard and Andre Rienzo! In all seriousness, however, when players reach milestones with round numbers or lists like these that I’ve just drafted, it means big things about their careers. After a while, it’s no longer about the specific number but the weight of that number. No one cares how many hits over 3,000 you get. Once you reach that mark, it’s all gravy.
Soon to be MLB’s foreign-born hit king?
It’s possible that by year’s end Beltre could be the all-time leader in hits by a foreign-born person. If not this summer then next because he’s only sixty knocks away from the current leader, Ichiro. The Japanese star doesn’t play all that often, has only thirty hits this year, and is hitting .234. It sure seems like this is Ichiro’s last season or his penultimate. It will be far more shocking if Beltre fails to capture this distinction.
Albert Pujols will not pass Adrian Beltre in career hits. You heard it here first. Pujols currently trails by about 85, and looks old at the plate. But Adrian Beltre might pass King Albert in career WAR. That would make Beltre the foreign-born player with the most career WAR. (He is currently behind Pujols and Robert Clemente—since we’re counting Puerto Rico as “foreign” for this purpose.)
As of this writing, Pujols has earned 99.9 career WAR. Pujols’ horrible season has caused him to dip back below 100 WAR. He’s hitting .233/.280/.386 for a 79 OPS+—straight out of the Bobby Crosby/Danny Espinoza Collection. The horror of 2017 adds up to -14 batting runs and -1.2 WAR. Now as recently as May, Albert’s bat looked OK: .281/.340/.483. It’s not exactly, well, Pujolsian, but it was in line with his recent batting performances. Unfortunately, that’s his only good month this year, and unless he closes well, he’ll be looking fork-tender in October.
Meanwhile, Adrian Beltre checks in at 92.4 WAR. Just 7.5 WAR separate them. Now, for players nearing 40, that’s a lot to ask, but despite missing a big chunk of the first half, and despite being one baseball year older than Albert, Adrian does not look done. He’s hitting .307/.385/.531, with a performance on par with his recent, excellent seasons. Let’s say he finishes with two more WAR through the end of the year. There’s 94.4. So if he ages out gracefully, say declining half a win per year, he passes Pujols in two or three years. If he has another typical late-career Beltre season, he passes him next year.
Now that all assumes that Albert is done. Maybe, maybe not. He’s still got a big contract attached to him, and surely he wants to reach 3,000 hits. Will the Halos give him the rope to do it? I hope so. But it sure looks like he’s going to cost them wins as he does it. He could make things easier for Beltre to catch up. But I suspect he won’t make it much if any harder.
One of the weirdest career paths ever
Entering his age-30 season, Adrian Beltre had managed six seasons with an OPS+ of 100 or more. In just one of those seasons, his famous 2004 walk year, did he manage an OPS+ above 116. Here was his career line after the 83 OPS+ that led the Mariners to let him go as a free agent after 2009:
12 years, 6877 PA, 1700 hits, 250 homers, .270/.325/.453, 105 OPS+, 44.5 WAR.
Now, that WAR figure is a little unbalanced. His bat accounted for 60 runs above average, and his glove for 142. Those totals looked superficially like the totals at that age of a few marquee from the very low octane 1960s: Santo, Yaz, and Staub. But they played in a time when Yaz won the batting crown by hitting .301. His comps at BBREF also included Ruben Sierra and Aramis Ramirez as well as Travis Fryman. To the good, Cal Ripken made his comp list. But overall, his list is filled with fellows who debuted at an early age and didn’t miss a lot of time, just like Beltre.
Then all hell broke loose inside Adrian Beltre’s bat.
Who knows what caused the explosion, but in the past eight years, in 4604 PA, Beltre has 1301 hits, 204 HR, a .310/.360/.522 line for a 134 OPS+, and 47.9 WAR. This time around, he’s got 193 batting runs above average and 85 fielding runs. Yeah, that’s really frickin’ weird. There are very few players in history whose careers we can consider to be like Beltre’s. Miller and I kicked a few names back and forth, and here’s the before and after lists, including Beltre for comparison.
BEFORE/AFTER PA H HR AVG/OBP/SLG OPS+ WAR ================================================ ADRIAN BELTRE BEFORE 6877 1700 250 270/325/453 105 44.5 AFTER 4604 1301 204 310/360/522 134 47.9 BRIAN DOWNING BEFORE 3080 686 56 264/364/374 109 17.9 AFTER 6229 1413 219 269/374/451 128 33.4 LUIS GONZALEZ BEFORE 4372 1036 107 268/341/432 109 22.0 AFTER 6159 1555 247 294/385/513 125 29.5 CHILI DAVIS BEFORE 5337 1262 156 267/340/422 114 20.2 AFTER 4660 1188 194 283/382/486 128 17.9 TONY PHILLIPS BEFORE 3007 649 33 251/338/350 95 14.0 AFTER 6103 1374 127 273/392/409 115 36.8
There’s probably a few more than we missed, but these guys help make the point. Beltre’s offensive transformation is astounding and perhaps unprecedented in its scope. It’s enabling him to produce value at a rate about 40% higher per plate appearance than he did in his twenties. One big difference between these guys and Beltre is that Adrian had significantly more playing time by age 30 than any of them and more than he has had in his 30s. In other words, it took him longer to become amazing than those guys, and he’s been more amazing than any of them in general and in his 30s. If you spot any other similarly strange career paths among hitters, drop it in the comments!
The end game
This is the big question, right? How long can Beltre keep it up, and how far will he go up the various leaderboards? The answer is I don’t know. How do you forecast a player whose career has been so unusual? The best we can do is look for guidance from the past. Or as I prefer to call “the past,” the BBREF Play Index.
I queried it for all players since 1961 with at least 3500 plate appearances from age 31–38 (and who played in their age 38 season) who weren’t pitchers or catchers, and who an OPS+ between 125 and 145. I then found the stats for those in the group from age 39 onward who accumulated at least 300 plate appearances. Of the 49 my original query returned, 26 hung on for at least another half season or so. These players averaged a 134 OPS+ from age 31–38 and a 109 OPS+ afterward. The longest survivor was Pete Rose, but his circumstances were unique. After him, Rickey Henderson lasted longest at 621 games and 2030 plate appearances. The 26 players in the group averaged 291 games after age 39, 1116 PAs, 264 hits, and 30 homers.
Let’s say instead that we believe that Beltre is in better shape than most of these guys and will keep his skills longer. We’ll take the top ½ of the group by OPS+ to represent this scenario. These guys hit for a 120 OPS+. They averaged 284 games and 1097 PAs. They picked up another 263 hits and 40 homers. Yeah, you can see the influence of Pete Rose here…he skews the overall average toward him.
Before we make any projections, let’s also assume that Beltre simply continues at his current pace for the 2017 season and plays another 50 games. He’ll have another 213 PAs, another 57 hits, and another 9 homers, putting his career totals at 3057 hits and 463 roundtrippers.
So in our first scenario, where we took the group’s average, Beltre would end up with 3322 hits and 493 homers. In our more aggressive scenario, Beltre ends up at 3321 hits and 503 homers. Under both scenarios, Beltre ends up barely edging out Paul Molitor to enter the top ten list in hits. In our less aggressive scenario, his 493 homers tied Fred McGriff and someone named Gehrig for 28th all-time. In our aggressive scenario, those 503 dingers gives him sole possession of 28th place as well as the distinction of being the 28th player to push past the 500 line.
But if history is a guide, then Adrian’s got another year or two in him, and he’s going to make a run at 500 homers. But history may not be a guide, and he might keep on truckin’ for four more years, pick up another 500 hits, another 5 or 100 homers, and maybe cap it off with 120 doubles to move from 13th all time to 3rd all-time as only the fifth hitter to reach 700 two-baggers. The best part? The sky’s the limit because, hey, it’s Beltre!!!
Look, first of all, when the Reds carve out their Rushmore, they’ll need to be sure they also write the Queen City’s name on the thing. Is it nn-n-t? Nn-n-tt? N-nn-t? N-nn-tt? N-n-t? N-n-tt? Who can keep it straight? At least with Mississippi, there’s a rule for the consonants in the follow-on syllables: always use two and stick an i between them.
But I digress. Our topic today is The Reds’ turn in our ongoing Friday Mount Rushmore series. Seems pretty easy to guess what faces contemporary fans would blast into rocky edifice. Billy Hatcher, Billy Hatcher, Billy Hatcher, and Billy Hatcher. When you bat .750 in the World Series you win its MVP and never have to buy a drink in Ohio again AMIRIGHT? Well, no, maybe we could make room for Jose Rijo who was the actual winner of the 1990 World Series MVP with a sparkling 0.59 ERA in his two starts. So Hatcher, Hatcher, Rijo, Hatcher.
I suspect that today’s fan has forgotten both of those fellows and is likely to want the faces of Barry Larkin and Johnny Bench up there too. I’d bet there’s even a fair amount of Pete Rose partisans too. (God knows why. I mean, have you seen him on Fox baseball telecasts? A-Rod’s a smart guy, but Rose makes him look like a Rhodes scholar…and I don’t mean Arthur Lee Rhodes either.) And I’d bet we’d round it out with a little Joseph Leonard Morgan action. Now that I think about it, all four of those Redlegs were baseball TV personalities. Larkin on MLB network, Rose as mentioned (with perhaps the weirdest live blooper ever), Little Joe infamous for his many fireable offenses as an ESPN commentator, and Johnny Bench for The Baseball Bunch. What, you’d forgotten about the Bunch? (My favorite episode appears to encourage stationing brick walls in the middle of the infield, which the Yankees actually implemented from 1995 to 2014.)
Of course, the Reds Mountain Flushmore is pretty gruesome. There’s Rose, of course, as well as bigoted slur-tossing, Hitler apologizing, and penny-pinching owner Marge Schott. Former GM Bill DeWitt isn’t as bad as those two, but assessing Frank Robinson as “not a young 30” and dealing him was, in a word, stupid. Like titanically stupid. And Eddie Cicotte. You know, because of the plot to throw the World Series, which tarnished the Reds’ championship.
But enough of this. We have rules here, unlike the spelling rules in Cincy, and the rules for a given team’s Mount Rushmore are thus: They spent their whole career with the team, and they finished among the top four in BBREF’s WAR for their career among such players.
Of course, we can’t include the likes of Rose (who has the most WAR in a Reds’ uniform of any MLB player ever with 77.8), Morgan, Frank Robinson (obviously), nor Billy Hatcher under our ruleset. But a couple fellows we’ve already mentioned make the grade.
Johnny Bench (74.9 WAR): That’s a pretty good catcher. If you asked me, and you didn’t, Bench was probably the single most important member of the Big Red Machine. How many teams have their catcher batting cleanup? The team started with a massive advantage over everyone else in the NL. The guy played more often than the typical catcher, hit like a first baseman, played outstanding defense, and was above average in handling pitchers. Now about that last one. Game-calling and pitcher handling have been studied by Max Marchi, and I rely on his findings. But I suspect that Bench, in tandem with Sparky Anderson, helped manage the Reds’ staff. The squad didn’t truly have a stud pitcher until it swapped for Tom Seaver in 1977. Anderson seemed to juggle a patchwork and injury-prone rotation with the fastest hook in the league, and you don’t do that by arguing with your catcher about whether a guy has anything left in the tank. But that’s just my guess. The Reds went to the big dance with Joe Morgan, and they went without him. Ditto George Foster. They didn’t go to the World Series with Tony Perez until Bench arrived. Same for Rose. You get my drift.
Barry Larkin (70.2): On the field, the only thing Larkin couldn’t do with consistent greatness was hit for power. The one year he hit 30 homers, he won an MVP. However, the one weakness in his game was a propensity for injury. I blame it on the hard turf at Riverfront Stadium, but whatever the reason, he missed more time than Johnny Bench usually did. That’s the only thing that kept him from being Derek Jeter with a good glove.
Bid McPhee (52.4): McPhee is probably remembered best today as the last important infielder to eschew a glove. He didn’t really need it anyway because he was an outstanding gloveman. Er, handman. Uh, let’s just say he had great hands. But he was on the first team in franchise history (1882 in the then-major American Association), and he stuck around for 18 years. He probably could have hung on longer if he’d wished to. He was still an average player at age 39. Probably his hands hurt. By the way, McPhee is among the least likely players to lead the league in home runs. His eight paced the AA in 1886, and represent 15% of his career 53 roundtrippers.
Now some of you are breathlessly anticipating our final selection. You’re thinking, hmm, it’s not Bruce Beryeni, nor is it Pokey Reese…. You’re probably thinking: DAVE CONCEPION! But no. At least not for now. It all depends on the future of:
Joey Votto (51.4): For all the absolutely lame talk in the area papers about how Votto doesn’t drive in enough runs (what is this, 1960-friggin’eight or something?), Votto has for years now been the axle around which the Reds’ offense turns. When he hits, their offense works, when he doesn’t, it doesn’t. The reason why is this simple: .424. That’s Votto’s career on-base percentage through July 24th when I’m actually writing this article. If you go to a Reds’ game, there’s roughly a 42% chance that Joey Votto will reach base in a given plate appearance. Think about what the means to an offense. The average hitter in Votto’s leagues has a .332 on-base percentage. If an average player bats 600 times during the season, he’ll be on base 199 times. Votto would reach 254 times. Votto bats third for the Reds, almost always does. So Votto, batting third, gets on 55 more times in front of your cleanup hitter than the average batter would. Fifty-five freaking times. Once every three games, your badass cleanup hitter will get one more shot to hit a bomb with at least one runner aboard. Stick that in your RBI pipe and smoke it.
So, now Dave Concepcion and his 39.9 career WAR. After him it’s a long way down to Long John Reilly (a teammate of McPhee’s) and his 24.4 WAR.
For my own little Mount Redsmore, I’d go in a couple other directions. First off, I have a little man crush on Heinie Groh. Yeah, that came out wrong, didn’t it. First off, I’m a retrospective fan of Heinie Groh’s. He’d make my Reds rock wall of fame. I’ve also always dug Jose Rijo. Man, like just one or two more seasons, and he’d be a HoMEr. Same goes for another odd-ball choice of mine, long-time Red Mario Soto. Last, of course, I’d reserve for Schottzie II. Schottzie I was overrated.
Pop Lloyd played in the Negro Leagues until his 48th year. Oscar Charleston played until age 44 or longer depending on your source. Buck Leonard stuck around pro ball through age 48. Cool Papa Bell played into his mid 40s. Smokey Joe Williams? Pitched til he was 47. Satchel Paige, of course, played in the majors in his 50s.
It’s not just that these guys played into their forties. It’s how late into their forties many remained regulars and productive ones at that. As we described in our article on early-debut players, the propensity for very young and old players to hold down regular jobs and to excel at the highest level available to them result from a combination of the lack of a formal farm system and talent-acquisition process and, generally, from having a smaller overall pool of talent to work with.
Miller and I are still debating whether and how to elect Negro League players, but one thing we know: Matters such as these make the interpretation of Negro Leagues careers very complicated. Even if a Negro Leaguer was highly productive in his mid-40s, could we create a credible translation that credits him for those very late-career seasons? For the seven thousand, three hundred, and thirty-second time in the short life of our humble website, we turned to BBREF’s Play Index to help us get something truthy to report. By the way, please subscribe to the Play Index (I make no money on this, I just think it is indescribably wonderful if you’re into geekery).
Mostly the good die old
We queried the PI against the following characteristics:
This yielded a total of 195 players. When we looked at the debut years of very young players with similar conditions in that previous article, we pulled in nearly 600 names. We also weeded out 13 players whose final appearances could only be described as token appearances. These were all fellows whose last games occurred at least three years after their previous appearance and included fewer than a handful of contests. Hughie Jennings, guys like that. Six others had very late token appearances of this sort, but their final legit seasons were 38 or later. I’ve classified them by their legit final season ages (Dan Brouthers, Sam Thompson, Jim O’Rourke, Kid Gleason, Jimmy Austin, and Jack O’Connor). This leaves us with a sample of 182. We recorded several pieces of information about our codgerly MLBers:
Some census information, if you will, about these folks. Here’s the breakdown of late retirees by age in our 73-year sample:
From 1893–1965, the big leagues had, on average, about 1.5 players aged 38 or 39 retire each year. Another 0.8 from 40–42 also retired each year. Which leaves the rare 0.2 forty-three or older retiree per annum. Still another lens for this is to say that from 1893–1965, on average each season, 2.5 players in the league were 38 or older, and that about 1 player a year was a fortysomething. In other words, it’s a young man’s game because this all equates to under 1% of the major league population (who meet our set of conditions) being active in a given year.
A positioning statement on the baseball elderly
That’s pretty interesting stuff. Now check out this demography by position:
David Ross eat your heart out! There’s never enough pitching catching. Twenty-two of those backstops were 38-year-olds. Nine were 39-year-olds. That’s about the same percentage as the total player population of 38 and 39-year-olds in our sample. At age 40 there are six catchers, at age 41 there are nine. At 42 there are four, and then none until Deacon McGuire checks in at 48 years old. That’s all good news for the likes of Biz Mackey, for sure. The news is pretty good for Pop Lloyd, too, because shortstops were well represented in this pool. Not as good for the other throwing infielders, though…. Still, these aren’t the most surprising findings. The most difficult two positions on the diamond last the longest because either, they are catchers, and catchers defy all kinds of rules, or they are shortstops. Now shortstops start with the most athleticism among righty throwers, and because they have many other places they can play as they age, they can stick around, moving rightward on the defensive spectrum. Second and third basemen have a very specific skill set, and those positions were in the process of swapping places on the defensive spectrum for much of the period we’re looking at (second base growing in difficulty as its primary skill became turning the twin killing, while third base became less difficult as bunting declined in popularity). I suppose that centerfielders are the most surprising result here. With so many athletic lefty throwers, you’d think they’d age into left fielders or first basemen, but perhaps not so much.
In general, it was apparently good for one’s longevity to be a shortstop, a slugging right fielder, or a slugging first baseman. Or, of course, a catcher.
As with our prior discussion on younger players, we really need to look at the better players in our sample if we hope to draw any useful conclusions about great Negro Leagues players. I once again filtered out any batters with fewer than 200 rBat so we can look at the best of the best to start with. We’ll return to good defenders in a bit. Our list now includes 38 excellent hitters. And, yeah, it’s a strong bunch. Here they are by the age of their last seasons:
The big takeaway? No one plays past 43, and those that do are the exception that proves the rule. Heck, sixty-six percent of these guys packed it in by age 40. But what kind of playing time and production do older players generate? Let’s start by answering that question only for the year of their retirement:
Median | average | fPA frBAT | fPA frBAT | qual ==============|===========|====== 38s 79 -0.5 | 140 1.1 | 1 39s 117 0.0 | 142 1.0 | 0 40s 142 -0.5 | 178 0.3 | 1 41s 392 4.5 | 325 9.3 | 0 42s 200 -2.0 | 252 -1.5 | 1 43s 140 -3.5 | 136 -3.8 | 0 45s 497 -2.0 | 497 -2.0 | 1
Now, let’s have a look at the progression across ages for players who retired at these various ages:
QUALIFYING SEASONS | AVERAGE SEASONS # 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 | 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 ================================|========================= 38s 8 0 X X X X X X X | 1 X X X X X X X 39s 11 3 0 X X X X X X | 4 1 X X X X X X 40s 6 2 2 1 X X X X X | 4 3 1 X X X X X 41s 4 3 1 2 0 X X X X | 3 2 3 2 X X X X 42s 4 1 2 1 2 1 X X X | 4 3 3 2 0 X X X 43s 4 2 1 2 1 2 0 X X | 2 4 3 2 1 0 X X 45s 1 1 1 1 1 0 1 1 1 | 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 0 ---------------------------------------------------------- TOT 38 12 7 7 4 3 1 1 1 | 19 14 11 7 2 1 1 0
These amazing hitters aged amazingly well on the whole. Forty-four seasons of above-average batting by age 40 among our 38 contestants. And still another 10 thereafter. These guys were great for a reason. In general, we could summarize this table this way: The longer you hit well, the longer you stick around. Stunning, huh? That’s the kind of penetrating insight you don’t pay to get around here. But for our Negro League friends, this has pertinence when combined with the information about the number of players with late retirements.
Two last things. I haven’t shown you these above. A rough estimate of average PA attrition for these elite hitters is about 15% a year beginning with the ratio of PAs in age 39 vs age 38. Even more crucially, the typical hitter gets about one or two seasons of negative rBat in anything more than 100 PA before he’s a goner. The exceptions to this rule: Nap Lajoie. Just Nap.
A defense against premature aging?
Now, wait just a second, you say. What about players who aren’t elite hitters but still maintain good value through defense? How do their careers progress? I’m so glad that I hypothetically asked myself that question in your voice. Among the remaining 144 players in our larger sample, I gathered up the 45 with at least 20 career rField (aka: fielding runs above average) to see what we might glean from them.
Median | average | fPA frBat | fPA frBat | qual ==============|===========|====== 38s 102 -3.0 | 152 -4.8 | 0 39s 49 -1.5 | 142 -2.9 | 0 40s 89 -4.0 | 178 -3.5 | 0 41s 50 -0.5 | 325 -1.5 | 0 42s 133 -4.0 | 133 -4.0 | 0 43s 71 -8.0 | 71 -8.0 | 0 44s 237 -7.5 | 237 - 7.5 | 0
Pretty obvious that these guys can’t hit so good. Fourteen of them exceeded 100 rBat in their careers (which is good, not bad, of course), and eight of those fourteen were fork-tender before age 40.
QUALIFYING SEASONS | AVERAGE SEASONS # 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 | 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 =============================|======================= 38s 21 0 X X X X X X | 1 X X X X X X 39s 10 1 0 X X X X X | 0 0 X X X X X 40s 6 1 1 0 X X X X | 2 1 0 X X X X 41s 4 3 1 1 0 X X X | 1 1 1 0 X X X 42s 1 0 0 0 0 0 X X | 1 1 0 0 0 X X 43s 1 1 1 1 1 0 0 X | 0 0 0 0 0 0 X 44s 2 1 1 1 1 0 1 0 | 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 ----------------------------------------------------- TOT 45 7 4 3 2 0 1 0 | 5 3 1 0 0 0 0
These gold glovers die off much faster than their big-bat relatives. They get a lot fewer plate appearances, and, of course, they don’t have nearly the level of production in their baseball dotage. The information in this table suggests these things about the time period we are looking at:
The PA attrition rate for these guys is about 40% a year. The leash on these guys is just a little looser than for the great hitters. These fielding whizzes might get three bad offensive years before they’re cut loose. But then again some of them were always bad hitters (Mr. Maranville to the white courtesy phone!). So what’s the diff?
Growing old together
So if we are coming up with a way to allocate playing time at the end of a good or great player’s career, how do we use these findings? Well, every player is very different, so we need to use sound judgment and compare a Negro Leaguer to the most similar players we can find. We can use those MLB comps as a means to chart a career path for an older player. We have to make a certain decision, though. As we translate a player’s performance and build a playing-time model do we treat the player as one single individual added to the MLB universe? Or do we assume that all Negro Leaguers are added to it? The reason this matters: If we assume the former, we have more leeway to model a unique or nearly unique career path. If we assume the latter, then not too many Negro Leaguers can be modeled that way since so few individuals in MLB end up with unusual career trajectories. There are much bigger concerns regarding that second assumption that aren’t worth diverting into now, so let’s just say that I choose the former.
Then, we have a little freedom, but we don’t want to create unreasonable translations. So we need to turn the eight bulleted statements above into actionable guidelines:
That’s a pretty decent set of guidelines. It’s part of a developing toolbox for Negro Leagues translations that are starting to gel for us here. Or maybe congeal if you find the assumptions and results too far away from your own thoughts. Regardless, we’re working on this stuff pretty diligently with the hope of understanding the path ahead, should we choose to tread it.
The Cubs don’t exactly have a storied history. More like they have several stories, some of which are storied, some of which are nightmarish, and many of which are the tedious tales of merely another boring losing year.
In 1945, Cubs’ fans, coming off yet another World Series appearance would likely have named a Mount Rushmore (with no limitations like ours) that included the gonfalon Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance trio and Adrian Constantine Anson, himself. The key drivers on a dynasty that produced history’s (then) winningest team, plus the titanic figure of the 19th Century game. (Race relations back then were a little different, and few were likely to decry the latter’s inclusion for his part in the drawing of the color line.)
Flash forward 70 years, and things looked quite different. No World Series appearances, a 100+ year championship drought. Goats, black cats, pennant race flameouts, and a thousand other humiliations beset the Second City ursine nine in the meantime. The heroes, though many had achieved precious little. Whose Mount Rushmore likenesses would better describe this time of aimless wandering? The greats of that supposedly cursed epoch who donned Cubbie blue? Or the College of Coaches?
Today, that little patch of the Black Hills would, perhaps, proudly display the proud faces of Theo Epstein, Kris Bryant, Joe Maddon, and Anthony Rizzo. Or whichever four Bruins felt right in the joyful hangover that accompanied the capture of the 2017 President’s Trophy.
But we have rules here, and many of the aforementioned fellows fail to meet them! We demand one thing and one thing only: loyalty. If you left the team, you’re not a real Cub. No stone-carved face for you! Loyalty and top performance. So two things, actually. Loyalty and top performance and lollypops. Yes, that’s three things, but nothing happens here with lollypops.
So who are the great bears of men who will cast their proud stares down from Mount Cubsmore?
Lets see, Cap Anson? Well, no, because he played for two teams in the National Association who weren’t the Cubs or their immediate predecessors the Chicago White Stockings. Ron Santo! No, he took a brief turn about the AL with the Southside squad. Oh, I know, Billy Williams! They guy never, ever missed a game for like 3,000 straight seasons. Uh, actually, he ended up with the A’s for a couple years. (Stump your friends with that one!) Ooh, ooh, Tinker to Evers to Chance who went to Cincy, to Boston, and to New York. Gotta be Mark Grace, right? Well, there was that little stint in the desert from ages 37 to 39. OK, OK, here are the actual guys who qualify for Cubsmore: Adolpho Phillips, Mike Harkey, Jerome Walton, and Mark Prior. No wait, wrong spreadsheet. (Hey, at least I didn’t include Ken Hubbs in that joke…oh, I just did.) Well, here we go….
Ernie Banks: Well, he is Mr. Cub after all. He has the record for homers by a Cub who didn’t play in the silly ball era, and because he always wanted to play two, the team made double the money. Banks and this next guy have almost exactly the same career value.
Stan Hack: The little remembered Hack was a wonderful leadoff hitter for the Cubs for a long time in the 1930s and 1940s. If he were a good fielder, he might well be in the Hall of Miller and Eric. It’s still possible that pay-by-play might prove him worthy of the honor, but it seems rather unlikely. Still, this guy is very much a member of the Hall of the Very Close to the Hall. If the team could have cloned Hack after Ron Santo left, they’d have won a lot more games and maybe even a playoff series or two.
Charlie Hollocher: This guy is virtually unknown today for his play, but was a fine shortstop of roughly All-Star caliber. That is, until the unrelenting pain from an undiagnosed intestinal disorder destroyed his sanity. He retired from baseball with 23 WAR’s worth of work behind him. Unfortunately what lay in front of him was much worse. Despondent and depressed by the unremitting agony in his gut, he eventually shot himself in the throat, ending his life at age 44.
Bill Lange: Here’s another hard-luck case, though of a different sort. Lange was very fast and a good centerfielder. He had a fine all-around game and was twenty-eight years old when, as Bill James tells it in the New Historical Baseball Abstract, Lange asked for a woman’s hand in marriage. But her father thought baseball an undignified means by which to support his daughter and the family to come. Thus did the institution of marriage rob the institution of baseball of a pretty good ballplayer. In the event, Lange rang up 23 WAR in 7 seasons, which, to put into perspective, would be worth at least $150 million on today’s free agent market.
Who are my personal favorite Cubbies of all time? The four guys I’d toss up on that mountainside? Carlos Zambrano for sure. Good, good pitcher with twenty-four career homers, and lots of cray-cray. I’m also a retro-fan of Hippo Vaughn. That whole double-no-no game with Fred Toney and all. Or a no-no-no-no if you prefer. Also, Doug Dascenzo, right? 64 OPS+, but a perfect ERA+ with zero runs allowed in 5 innings pitched. And finally, the hardest-luck great pitcher around, Rick Reuschel. He pitched amazingly well for amazingly bad Cubs teams whose horrible infield defense must have demoralized the sinker balling righty, and whose Friendly Confines punished the few mistake pitches he made. Actually, I would carve a special face on the other side of the mountain too: Mike Schmidt who would have hit 2,000 homers if he’d played his home games at Wrigley Field. Schmidt played 138 games in Chicago, batting 611 times. He crushed 50 roundtrippers and had an OPS over 1.000. That’s in a span of time when the National League notched a .729 OPS. In 1980 alone, he hit .447/.500/1.211 with 8 homers and 16 RBIs in 9 games. In fact, he had more total bases (46) than plate appearances (42).
Next time out, Miller will chisel the likenesses of the crosstown Pale Hose.
In the late 20th Century, TBS liked to call the Braves “America’s Team.” Well, they are America’s oldest team with continuous operation since the inaugural 1871 National Association season. And they are tied with the Athletics for America’s most wanderlusting team, having now called three different cities home. They are certainly America’s Atlanta baseball team. Maybe Ted Turner and the gang simply meant that they belonged to America. In which case each of the then 26 or 28 teams could be duly carry this sobriquet. With the Canadian teams expanding the definition to North America, perhaps. But let’s not get technical.
So you’d figure that with such a long history, the Braves’ Mount Rushmore would have the faces of many, many famous “local” heroes. Depending on what local means to whichever city you rooted for them in. Of course there’s Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Phil Niekro, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Warren Spahn, John Smoltz, all lifetime members of los Bravos. Where will we chisel all their faces? Que? You say none of those guys played their entire careers for the Boswaunta Brave Red Bean Dove Rustlers? Don’t be ridiculous….
Of course this hypothetical interlocutor I’m jabbering with is right. All of those fellows played elsewhere. If we had a Rushmorian monument for the Braves, Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Warren Spahn, and Phil Niekro would grace its face. But they didn’t. In fact, by our rules which require a one-team career, our maximalist relief sculpture would include:
This somehow doesn’t seem befitting whichever version of “America’s Team” you prefer. But here’s something we can do. This is the Mount Rushmore just for the Milwaukee Braves. Anyone who played all their games from 1953 through 1965 as a Brave in Brewtown is eligible. Here’s your winners:
Of course, that’s all the Mays/Mayes out there since Willie, Joe, and Carl are Mayses, not Mays. And we have Jacob May, a young outfielder playing second, Lee Maye at third with all six of his career games there, and Pinky May at shortstop thanks to his one career game there. But these are the tough hypothetical choices we must make. And our co-managers, Eddie Mayo and Mayo Smith, might want something different.
But getting back to the Braves, who would be on my personal Braves Rushmore? Pascual Perez heads this list for sure. He was that rare breed, a zany righty starting pitcher. You never knew whether he might have no-hit stuff, nothin’ stuff, or just might pull some crazy stunt like throwing between his legs to pick off a runner. Of course, there’s Rick Camp whose exploits we mentioned above. I’m also something of a Wally Berger fan. He wasn’t just the only star of the 1930s Bees, he was the sun around which the team revolved. He was the only offense they had, and he was exceptional. Sadly his career ended too early thanks to shoulder woes, but just another All-Star level season or a few more years as a regular might have pushed him into the HoME. Lastly, there’s George Wright. The one who is in the HoME. Entirely forgotten by nearly everyone except the 8,000 or so people in the country who are rabidly in love with baseball’s long and curious history. The first great player in the sense that we identify it today as someone worthy of a plaque. A player with great individual seasons, a great (if in his case short) career, and widespread acclaim as the game’s top-most shelf talent.
A funny thing happened on the way to an article about standard deviation in the Negro Leagues. I wanted to show you how STDEV affects our perceptions of Negro Leagues stars, but as I tried to demonstrate that effect, I kept finding that even a skimpy, low-wattage way to look at the question required other adjustments. Things like park and league quality also have a big enough effect that they can obscure what’s going on with STDEV.
So I started down those rabbit holes, and by the time I got back out of them, I realized that I’m very close to having an actual translation protocol for offensive output. But then comes the age-old question of, well, age.
For many reasons, the Negro Leagues had a much less efficient talent-procurement and development system than the majors of the same period. In some ways more like the majors of the 1880s. This resulted in a set of players less homogenous in terms of true talent than in the majors. Which, in combination with far shorter schedules, lead to higher standard deviations than the majors. As a knock-on effect of that less efficient talent-development system, very old and very young hitters picked up full-time roles—and in some cases playing very, very well as teenagers or middle-agers.
Josh Gibson, for example played a nearly full league-schedule as an 18 year old and popped out a 198 OPS+. At 19 and 20, he followed on with a 154 and a 138 OPS+ before the first of his many OPS+es higher than 200 at age 21. From ages 18–20 in top-shelf games, Oscar Charleston notched marks of 116, 126, and 148 in essentially full-time play before similarly launching into OPS+ orbit at age 21. It’s not just the super-duper stars either. Dicky Lundy, a good candidate for any Negro League hall of fame though not near an elite hitter like Charleston and Gibson, had a cuppa coffee at 17 then started playing nearly full time at 18, when he notched a 139 OPS+, then followed with 161 and 191 at 19 and 20. A lot of lesser hitters got an early start too. Ray Dandridge was a regular at 19 and 20, glove man Pee Wee Butts played full seasons at 19 and 20.
This isn’t to say that every player or every notable player got an early start. Many got later starts due to the inefficiencies we’ve mentioned. But the ones that jump off the screen are the real young’uns. To me this is anyone under twenty-one years old, an age that precludes recent college grads, or, in terms of white baseball, when a kid would have three to five years of minor league seasoning.
So what does this mean to how we understand the Negro Leagues’ younger players? It means we need to look at MLB data to understand how different the leagues were.
So I did what I always do: I turned to BBREF’s Play Index (subscribe today, you won’t be sorry!!!). I queried for every 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20 year-old debutant from 1893 to 1965. I excluded 1944 and 1945ers (due to premature promotion due to wartime player shortages) as well as any non-pitchers whose career trajectories were hampered by military service. This query returned 565 players in total, or about 8 per the 73 seasons in question. These included:
En toto, about 7.7 players per year fit this description. But we want to know about the good players, not about Teddy Kearns, Ty Pickup, Allie Watt, and Vern Fuller. No offense to them or their loved ones. After all, the Hall of Miller and Eric has a mission, and if we pursue the question of Negro Leaguers, we won’t be zeroing in on the lesser lights.
I cut down the list to all batters with 10 or more career WAR. Ten’s not a ton of value, but it knocked the group down to 148. They included a whole lot of names we all know and love. Among them, I recorded a few pieces of key information:
The group included:
It further included:
Here are some general characteristics of these players.
Median | average | +ROY dPA drBAT | dPA drBAT | elig qual =============|===========|============ 17s 23 0.0 | 23 -0.1 | 0 0 18s 20 -0.5 | 34 -1.2 | 1 0 19s 40 -1.0 | 83 -1.5 | 7 1 20s 29 0.0 | 124 1.0 | 16 8
We can see that the typical early debut player isn’t exactly settin’ the woods on fire. A mere 16% exceed what we now define as their rookie of the year eligibility in year one, and even fewer qualified for a batting title. In fact, no player in this group reached 400 PAs before age 19. The highest was Phil Cavarretta with 363 as a 18-year-old second-year player in 1935. Only two other players in this sample even reached 100 in one season by age 18. Only four players got to 500 PAs in one season by age 19: Rusty Staub, Al Kaline, Mel Ott, and Buddy Lewis. And remember, this is a group of players who went on to do very good things.
Let’s look at it by age group. This time, however, we will pull the catchers out since they skew things.
FIRST QUALIFICATION | FIRST ABOVE-AVERAGE 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 OTH | 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 OTH ==================================|================================ 17s 0 0 2 0 2 0 0 0 0 1 | 0 0 1 2 0 1 0 1 0 0 18s X 0 2 5 3 0 1 1 0 0 | X 0 2 5 1 1 3 0 0 0 19s X X 1 9 11 8 7 5 0 0 | X X 3 7 9 7 8 4 2 1 20s X X X 8 18 20 6 7 5 4 | X X X 10 14 17 11 5 3 8
A good couple of rules of thumb for this bunch of players:
What about elite hitters? Do they need as much ramp-up, even if they start at a young age? From my sample, I culled anyone with 200 or more career rBAT, plus Roger Bresnahan and Ross Youngs who raked in more than 150 but in fewer than 6,000 PAs.
First of all, the most general numbers:
Now, here are those same tables as above, this time only featuring our Top-40 format:
Median | average | +ROY dPA drBAT | dPA drBAT | elig qual ==============|===========|============ 17s 35 1.5 | 35 1.5 | 0 0 18s 55 0.0 | 281 0.2 | 1 0 19s 45 -1.5 | 140 -0.9 | 4 1 20s 99 3.0 | 253 6.6 | 8 6
They may not look like much, but they have it all over the larger group of good players. But it’s this next table that really tells the story:
FIRST QUALIFICATION | FIRST ABOVE-AVERAGE 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 OTH| 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 OTH =================================|================================ 17s 0 0 1 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 | 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 18s X 0 1 2 0 0 1 1 0 0 | X 0 2 1 0 0 2 0 0 0 19s X X 1 3 4 5 0 1 0 0 | X X 2 1 7 3 1 0 0 0 20s X X X 7 5 5 1 0 0 1 | X X X 7 7 4 1 0 0 0
These fellows do, indeed, require less runway to take off. Just one of the 40 didn’t have at least one batting-title qualified season under their belt by 25, and the guy that didn’t (Dixie Walker) had a very unusual career trajectory by anyone’s standards. Only five total players hadn’t qualified for a batting title by age 23, or 12.5%, where as in the larger pool of good players, that number is 36%. Similarly, only five players had their first above-average batting performance after age 22, versus 43% of the larger good group. Elites are elite for a reason, and this shouldn’t surprise anyone at all. This bodes well for many of Negro Leaguers one would consider for a hall of fame.
The Negro Leagues had a catcher factory going. Josh Gibson and Biz Mackey being only the most well known Blackball catchers. What does the MLB data about early-debut catchers tell us?
First off, in our larger sample of good players (10+ WAR) there were 22 early-ascending catchers, more than all positions except first base and centerfield, both of which have handedness reasons for ranking highly (catchers must be righty throwers, lefties flock to first and center since those spots have no handedness requirements and represent the extreme ends of athleticism on the diamond for southpaws). Second of all, those 22 catchers tended to debut just a little earlier than most other positions, though the sample is small enough to ignore. But more significantly, only 10 of the 22 qualified for a batting title by age 25. This isn’t unusual for the times. Catchers rarely accumulated 500 PAs in a season.
Backstops also reached their first batting-title qualified seasons much later than their counterparts at other positions. Ninety-three of the 148 players in this group qualified for their first title by age 21, just one of them was a catcher. Catchers similarly skew older in terms of their first above-average offensive season. Fifty-six players had their first such season by twenty-one years of age, merely two catchers did so. Ten players had that first season at age twenty-five, half were backstops.
Finally, you may have noticed that none of our elite group of hitters was a pure catcher. Roger Bresnahan spent very big chunks of time at other positions, sometimes for full seasons. Joe Torre is barely a catcher. Jimmie Foxx arrived to the majors as a catcher and quickly moved to a place where he could find more time in the lineup. It’s really hard to get 500 PAs a year as a catcher now, imagine how much worse it was back then. We should keep this firmly in mind as we think about the careers of Negro Leagues catchers. Which is fine in so far as someone like Mackey, Qunicy Trouppe, or Louis Santop is concerned. None of them is widely considered the greatest hitter in Negro Leagues history. When we look at Gibson, however, we may well need to color outside the lines a little bit to consider whether we need to presume different playing-time levels or whether Gibson would more likely have followed the Jimmie Foxx model of switching to another position before catching could destroy him.
All of which leads back to the question of how we should consider the very young seasons of Negro Leaguers. Much depends upon the player’s actual performance. Assuming we have at our disposal a rigorous translation protocol, if the player translates into an average or better MLB performer, there’s little reason to believe he wouldn’t appear in the majors. If he translates as an excellent performer, well, now that’s another matter. Are we looking at a Mel Ott? We might be if we are looking at Josh Gibson or Oscar Charleston.
Either way, what about playing time? The cop out here is that every player is unique and should have a customized playing-time estimation. That’s absolutely true. And another cop out is that the better the player, the more MLB PAs he should get early on. There’s no news in that! But other considerations exist. For example, was the player a defensive standout? If so, he might merit more playing time even if his bat took a couple years to catch up to his glove. Especially for catchers, shortstops, and centerfielders, aka: the skill positions.
Now here’s where things get hairy. To estimate playing time, a protocol needs some kind of baseline to work from. If a guy’s Negro Leagues team played only 25 scheduled games, we still have 125 more to account for in an MLB schedule for that era. Do we simply prorate based on how many of his team’s total games he played that season? Do we use a moving, weighted average of that season and a couple surrounding ones? Or do we use the player’s career percentage of team games played to generate a playing-time estimate? Each of these has its own issues. Maybe a combination is best? Or how about comping against similar major leaguers? There are many possibilities, none of which will pass everyone’s smell test. This becomes a big issue if your PA proration technique spits back 532 PAs for an 18-year-old player.
So as with everything Negro Leagues, the answer is complicated. But understanding the limitations expressed in the statistical record can help us build expectations for what would at least have been likely.
And, yes, someday we’ll look at older players too. We might even get back to the Standard Deviation topic. For now, though, one rabbit hole at a time.
Last week, we shared information showing that the standard deviation of offensive performance in the Negro Leagues and Latin leagues was considerably higher than that of the major leagues of the same era. But players in the Jackie Robinson era also played in the white minor leagues, and someone translating their performance to an MLB level would want to know whether the minors were more like the majors or the Negro and Latin leagues. Did those leagues have wider variation than the majors as well?
Before we turn to the record itself, let’s ask this question. Why might the white minors be dissimilar or similar to the majors in terms of STDEV? We explored some of the structural and game-play drivers of a wider standard deviation in the Negro Leagues last time out. Do they hold for the minors?
So we already see that the conditions that made the Negro Leagues’ performances spread out further from the average than MLB’s in most cases either don’t apply to the minors or are muted. But we need to look at the stats to know whether or not STDEV was nonetheless driven by other factors, or whether it mirrored the majors. As we look at this question, we’ll examine the results level by level using the same technique as in our previous article.
AAA and Open Classifications
Although right around Jackie’s time, these leagues got new classifications or jumped a class, they remained the highest rungs on the sub-major ladder. (For a graphic that helps to visualize how the classifications of minor leagues has changed over the last hundred-odd years, check out this article.)
YEAR MLB | PCL | IL | AA STDEV | STDEV ADJ | STDEV ADJ | STDEV ADJ =================================================== 1946 1.55 | 1.24 1.12 | 1.32 1.09 | 1.30 1.10 1947 1.46 | 1.61 0.96 | 1.58 0.96 | 1.52 0.98 1948 1.59 | 1.85 0.93 | 1.13 1.20 | 1.38 1.08 1949 1.50 | 1.44 1.02 | 1.58 0.98 | 1.56 0.98 1950 1.43 | 1.48 0.98 | 1.52 0.97 | 1.13 1.13 1951 1.50 | 1.66 0.95 | 1.22 1.12 | 1.71 0.94 1952 1.17 | 1.09 1.04 | 1.28 0.96 | 1.62 0.86 1953 1.49 | 1.14 1.16 | 1.53 0.99 | 1.52 0.99 1954 1.65 | 1.14 1.22 | 1.54 1.04 | 1.31 1.13 1955 1.43 | 1.18 1.11 | 1.51 0.97 | 1.20 1.10 1956 1.59 | 1.47 1.04 | 1.33 1.10 | 1.37 1.08 1957 1.85 | 1.23 1.25 | 1.24 1.25 | 1.41 1.16 1958 1.50 | 1.74 0.93 | 1.33 1.07 | 1.04 1.22 1959 1.39 | 1.12 1.12 | 1.42 0.99 | 1.16 1.10 1960 1.15 | 1.14 1.00 | 1.16 0.99 | 1.82 0.82 1961 1.64 | 1.54 1.03 | 1.27 1.15 | 1.17 1.20 1962 1.31 | 1.63 0.90 | 1.36 0.98 | 1.16 1.07 1963 1.22 | 1.01 1.10 | 1.08 1.06 | 1964 1.37 | 1.25 1.05 | 1.47 0.97 | 1965 1.29 | 1.36 0.97 | 0.87 1.24 | --------------------------------------------------- AVG 1.45 | 1.37 1.04 | 1.34 1.05 | 1.38 1.07
How about them apples?! The high minors actually had less standard deviation than the majors. Before we draw conclusions, let’s see if that’s how things play out down the ladder.
In each instance as we tour the minors, I’ve only included seasons where I’m aware that a top Negro Leagues candidate played in a given league. Therefore, there may be gaps in the information I’m presenting, especially compared to the AAA/Open leagues. As it turns out, we only have solid information for seasons in question from one league that would currently be considered AA, and that’s the Texas League. Other leagues included Negro League candidates, but their stats aren’t yet on BBREF, so I couldn’t include them.
YEAR MLB | TXL STDEV | STDEV ADJJ ========================= 1953 1.49 | 1.50 1.00 1954 1.65 | 1.59 1.02 1955 1.43 | 1.28 1.06 1956 1.59 | 1.51 1.03 1957 1.85 | 1.19 1.28 1958 1.50 | 1.26 1.10 1959 1.39 | 1.50 0.96 1960 1.15 | 1.44 0.90 1961 1.64 | 1.56 1.03 ------------------------- AVG 1.52 | 1.42 1.04
Yet again, a minor league is actually a little tighter than the majors….
Today we have Hi-A and Lo-A levels, but that split only occurred in 1990. Before that every A-level team was in the same category. Once again, we only have stats for one league (and one season in it) at this level.
YEAR MLB | WES STDEV | STDEV ADJ ========================= 1958 1.50 | 1.83 0.91
If we’re starting to get into the exurbs with B leagues, we’re going to be out past the boonies with C and D leagues. The lower in the classification system we go, the more localized the leagues and teams are.
YEAR MLB | IIIL | NORW | WINT STDEV | STDEV ADJ | STDEV ADJ | STDEV ADJ =================================================== 1951 1.50 | | | 1.39 1.04 1954 1.65 | 1.62 1.01 | | 1962 1.31 | | 1.27 1.02 |
YEAR MLB | AZMX | CAL STDEV | STDEV ADJ | STDEV ADJ ====================================== 1954 1.65 | | 2.12 0.89 1958 1.50 | 2.13 0.85 | 1.24 1.10 1959 1.39 | | 1.00 1.19 -------------------------------------- AVG 1.51 | | 1.45 1.06
YEAR MLB | FLOR STDEV | STDEV ADJ ========================= 1958 1.50 | 1.43 1.02
My boss’ boss has more than a few pearls of wisdom inside her. She likes to say that a good rule of thumb for making decisions says that if something happens once, it’s an occurrence. If it happens twice, it’s notable. If it happens three times it’s a pattern, and you need to take action. So looking at the minor leagues, we see that nearly every league we’ve looked at, and most seasons in each league we examined, show up as having a lower standard deviation than the majors of the same season. This was at first a surprising result. But maybe it shouldn’t have been?
From an anecdotal and qualitative perspective, it does makes sense that minor league standard deviations are closer to the big leagues than the Negro Leagues were. Rarities such as .400 hitters or 60-homer hitters don’t litter the annals of minor league history, but such batting averages and equivalent feats of batsmanship do occur more often in the Negro Leagues. But that’s also a clue to the minors tighter variance.
I initially thought that because the minors tended to employ less experienced players in the farm-system model, play would be somewhat uneven. Similarly, the minors in this time had more independence than today and were at liberty to sign MLB vets who could no longer keep at job in the show. In the case of the PCL, which signed many such players, guys originally from out west may also have opted to forgo the worst of their decline phase in MLB to play out west nearer their homes. Today a so-called AAAA player might be in his late 20s or very early 30s, but back then, fringe types might be older. Indeed, from 1947 to 1954, the average age in AAA/Open leagues was around 27.5 for the AA, 28 for the IL, and 30 for the PCL. The Coast League was the most active in terms of signing ex big leaguers, for example LA-born and Portland native Joe Gordon for his age-36 season. The majors at that time were around 28.5 years old. From 2011 to 2015, the average age in the PCL was this close to 27 and roughly the same in the IL. The PCL lost three years in average age by becoming a development league, whereas the IL had lost only one year because its teams had been mostly affiliated all along.
In fact, the average age of a league tells us something simple and significant about why standard deviations were so tight: Everyone in the league is basically at the same developmental level. In the minors, if you’re too good, you get promoted quickly. If you’re too awful, you get demoted. If you stay the whole year, you’re getting appropriately challenged for your level of experience. That’s the whole point of the minors! Today this is much more apparent because the average the different levels is more highly stratified than ever. Rookie ball is filled with 18–20 year olds. Short season ball is all 20 or 21 year olds, etc. So no matter what other factors may contribute to the variance in a league, age/experience may be the most important. To be sure, this is isn’t ironclad reasoning, but it does pass the smell test for me.
OK, so we’ve now had a look at the Negro Leagues themselves and some of the leagues that Negro Leagues expats played in. Next time out, we’ll take a look at how all of this may change our perspective on the offensive value of some famous blackball heroes.
So our pal Miller had a fine idea: Whose faces would be on the Mount Rushmore of each team. I’ll be your guide through the National League’s Black Hills, and since we’re going alpha by city, we’ll start in Arizona.
The only catch with our Rushmore series is that each face of the franchise has to be someone who only played for that team. Which leaves a club like the Arizona Diamondbacks, extant not quite 20 years as of this writing, in a bit of a pickle. If not for that little hitch in the rules, why they’d be chiseling in the faces of Randy Johnson (51.2 BBREF WAR) WAR, Luis Gonzalez (29.9),…and Curt Schilling (25.4). Well, I’m sure Alex Jones will have a conspiracy theory about our choosing not to include guys with right-wing radio shows. (Hint: It’s the Deep State!)
But, in fact, we decided this is an honor for faithful, loyal soldiers. In which case, things get a little, uh, weird for a team still in early bloom of its flowering. The primary candidates for Snake Mountain are, on offense:
Moundwardly there’s Brandon Webb (31.5), and, well, uh, Patrick Corbin’s 4.5 WAR. And that’s about it. At least for another few years.
So, for the moment, on June 14th, 2017 at 9:50 PM, it’s these guys…until one or more split or get split: Paul Goldschmidt, Brandon Webb, A.J. Pollack, and David Peralta.
Frankly, there’s not a ton to say about these guys that you don’t already know since most are of very recent vintage. Goldschmidt is Bagwellesque, right down to the surprising steals and excellent glove. He’s not quite Bagwell’s equal, but he’s in that mode, and his athleticism bodes well for a lengthy and productive career. Every time I see his name, I imagine Dame Shirley Bassey singing “Gooooooooooooldschmidterrrrrrr.” But, you know, that’s just how I roll.
Webb is a-not-so-old favorite of mine. In fact, if the fates played fair, he’s still be pitching in the big leagues. Webb had this absolutely vicious sinking fastball threw, nearly 1200 innings from age 25 to 29, walked off the mound in his first start of 2009, and never threw another pitch in anger again. Total bummer. Wonderful pitcher who could use that dead, if rapid, fish to avoid the thin-air proclivities of the run-drenched high-desert environment.
As for the others I’ve mentioned, I invite you on the journey of a decade or more as we discover what the future holds for them and the many other players supporting the D’Backs youth movement.
What if we want to take the Dead Presidents approach, however, and force ourselves to only use retirees who were Hooked on Phoenix their whole career? You know what, go ahead and grab a beer or some garlic knots and a Sunny D. I’m going to be a few minutes. It’s OK, I’ll have the answer by the time you get back. Well, and if you need a pee break, might as well go for it. I mean, don’t get into the latest episode of Fargo or anything. I won’t be that long.
[Trawls through BBREF’s Play Index with increasingly hangdog expression and red, bleary eyes.]
Pretty cool, huh?!
That leaves one other question we like to answer. Who would our personal Mount Rushmore for the team be? Well, The Big Unit has to be on there. In fact, I’d gladly use him for all four faces. He’s just awesome no matter what team he played for. Obviously, I’m something of a Brandon Webb partisan. And there was that one great year of Junior Spivey (2002 for those who may have misplaced that particular memory). For a franchise this young, I’m going to bend the rules a little. Because doesn’t this ring a bell? “Reached on E1 (throw to 2B) (Bunt); Dellucci to 2B.” So my fourth for the AZ Rushmore is none other than Mariano Rivera.
A lonnnng time ago now, we presented findings about how standard deviation may color our perceptions of any given MLB season. The rough answer is that for whatever reason, in some years performance is bunched closely together so that the highest WAR total in the land is under 7.0, and in other seasons, it’s practically the wild west, and we see players racking up WAR at every integer between -2 and 12.
I created a seasonal adjustment factor to compensate for this phenomenon, which I use in my home-cooked WAR. As I’ve rolled out a few articles recently about the Negro Leagues, I’ve begun to wonder about the effect standard deviation might have on blackball players.
There are several indicators that suggest player performance varied more widely in the Negro Leagues than in MLB:
That’s a lot of indicators that variance among players, between leagues, and between seasons might have swung wider than the majors. Further clouding the picture is the sheer number of leagues we’re talking about. To properly evaluate Negro League players, we’d need to know not only about the Negro Leagues themselves, but also about various Caribbean leagues (winter and summer), the Mexican League, and, for Integration-era players, the minor leagues as well as certain independent leagues.
So I, your trusty servant, decided to look into things, and I pulled out my trusty spreadsheets, opened BBREF and the Negro League Database, and got to work.
For now, I’ve only worked up hitting stats. To keep this reasonably simple, here’s what I did:
The result is a STDEV factor.
A note of caution. Many leagues, including MLB, did not tally some or all among caught stealing, GIDP, intentional walks, HPB, SF, strikeouts, and even walks in various seasons. We’ve avoided calculations that don’t involve walks, and we’ve worked around the lack of caught stealing by assuming that hitters will be caught stealing 80% as often as they are successful. That’s a 55% success rate, approximately the MLB average for most of the time span we’re dealing with. In some cases, if too little information exists, we haven’t included the season in our researches.
The Negro Leagues
Let’s start with the Negro Leagues themselves. That term refers to a collection of at least 8 different loose affiliations and actual organizations. The Negro Leagues Database does not yet have complete information for all seasons. Nor does it currently have park factors or strength of schedule adjustments. Ideally, these would be made before doing the STDEV calculation, but we didn’t make this adjustment for big leaguers either. We’ll take it in chunks of time so we can fit more information in.
EAST = Independent clubs in the east
NAC = National Association of Colored Professional Clubs of the United States and Cuba
WEST = Independent clubs in the west
YEAR MLB | EAST | NAC | WEST STDEV | STDEV ADJ | STDEV ADJ | STDEV ADJ ========================================================= 1905 1.39 | 3.68 0.69 | | 1906 1.16 | 7.81 0.57 | | 3.53 0.66 1907 1.03 | | 1.96 0.76 | 1908 1.10 | | 2.30 0.74 | 3.40 0.66 1909 1.10 | | | 6.34 0.59 1910 1.24 | 2.96 0.71 | | 7.61 0.58 1911 1.46 | 2.62 0.78 | | 14.55 0.55 1912 1.58 | 4.42 0.68 | | 3.33 0.74 1913 1.31 | 2.76 0.74 | | 6.84 0.60 1914 1.27 | 3.85 0.67 | | 2.87 0.72 1915 1.21 | 2.97 0.70 | | 2.08 0.79 1916 1.26 | 3.09 0.70 | | 3.03 0.71 1917 1.18 | 3.78 0.66 | | 7.90 0.57 1918 1.09 | 2.53 0.72 | | 1.97 0.78 1919 1.41 | 2.47 0.79 | | 4.80 0.65
We can see already the whopping difference in STDEVs, and the proportionally whopping adjustment that can result from it.
Here’s 1920–1932, a very active time for league formation and for league destruction thanks to the Great Depression.
NNL = first version of Negro National League
ECL = Eastern Colored League
EWL = East West League (only played in 1932, for convenience placed in the ECL column)
EAST = Independent clubs in the east
IND = Independent clubs
YEAR MLB | NNL | ECL/EWL | EAST | IND STDEV | STDEV ADJ | STDEV ADJ | STDEV ADJ | STDEV ADJ ======================================================================= 1920 1.90 | 1.89 1.00 | | 3.07 0.81 | 1921 1.81 | 2.30 0.89 | | 3.09 0.79 | 1922 1.78 | 2.29 0.89 | | 4.61 0.69 | 1923 1.89 | 2.13 0.94 | 2.17 0.94 | | 1.74 1.04 1924 1.92 | 1.35 1.21 | 1.94 0.99 | | 1925 1.81 | 2.16 0.92 | 2.34 0.89 | | 1926 1.59 | 1.98 0.90 | 2.12 0.87 | | 1927 1.80 | | | | 1928 1.84 | | 3.04 0.80 | 4.19 0.72 | 1929 1.82 | | | | 1930 2.03 | | | 3.55 0.78 | 1931 1.80 | | | 3.00 0.80 | 1932 1.74 | | 2.20 0.90 | | 4.13 0.71
With more organized leagues bringing a higher level of owner and team into the festivities, the NNL’s and ECL’s STDEVs both dropped rapidly from the independent teams’ of the previous decades. These two leagues and the EWL in 1932 were nearly on par with the majors in terms of STDEV especially compared to the independents and the previous era. But even the Eastern indies in this period moved toward MLB’s level of variance. That said, whiteball moved toward blackball as well. The sudden surge in run scoring in the 1920s increased the variance among MLB hitters’ performance.
Now onto the final phase of the Negro Leagues, the more stable era of 1933–1944.
NNL = second version of Negro National League
NAL = Negro American League
IND = Independent clubs
YEAR MLB | NNL | NAL | IND STDEV | STDEV ADJ | STDEV ADJ | STDEV ADJ ========================================================= 1933 1.73 | 2.07 0.92 | | 7.02 0.62 1934 1.74 | 2.77 0.81 | | 2.48 0.85 1935 1.67 | 2.50 0.83 | | 1936 1.93 | 2.79 0.85 | | 4.62 0.71 1937 1.94 | 3.39 0.79 | | 1938 1.81 | 2.66 0.84 | | 1939 1.62 | 2.70 0.80 | 2.27 0.86 | 1940 1.56 | 1.96 0.90 | 1.83 0.92 | 1941 1.89 | 2.45 0.89 | 2.17 0.94 | 1942 1.59 | 1.92 0.91 | 1.96 0.90 | 1943 1.30 | 3.30 0.70 | 1.73 0.88 | 1944 1.60 | 2.63 0.81 | 2.71 0.80 |
Generally, the NNL and NAL stayed relatively close to the majors. Mexican League defections and World War II probably increased performance variation overall in 1943 and 1944. The big leagues had whole farm systems full of replacements of decent quality and a huge white population (and light-skinned Latino population) to draw from. Black Americans numbered hundreds of millions fewer and so were more difficult in some ways to find reasonable replacements for.
Some of the information that follows includes calculations based on data that won’t be available on the Negro Leagues Database for a little while yet. I happened to have access to it, and it is ultimately all derived from Pedro Cisneros’ Mexican League encyclopedia. The information for the various Cuban leagues is all from the Negro Leagues Database.
CWL = Cuban Winter League (la Liga general de base ball de la República de Cuba)
PV = Cuban Summer League (el Premio de verano)
GP = Grand Winter Championship (el Gran premio invernal)
YEAR MLB | CWL | PV | GP STDEV | STDEV ADJ | STDEV ADJ | STDEV ADJ ========================================================= 1902 1.39 | 1.82 0.91 | | 1903 1.39 | 1.27 1.03 | | 1904 1.39 | 1.53 0.89 | 2.53 0.74 | 1905 1.39 | 1.45 0.98 | 2.06 0.84 | 1906 1.16 | 1.45 0.90 | 2.08 0.78 | 1907 1.03 | 1.66 0.81 | 2.67 0.69 | 1908 1.10 | 1.71 0.82 | 1.99 0.78 | 1909 1.10 | 2.63 0.71 | | 1910 1.24 | 2.19 0.78 | | 1911 1.46 | 2.29 0.82 | | 1912 1.58 | 1.97 0.90 | | 1913 1.31 | 1.70 0.89 | | 1914 1.27 | 2.11 0.80 | | 1915 1.21 | 2.67 0.73 | | 1916 1.26 | 1.88 0.84 | | 1917 1.18 | | | 1918 1.09 | 1.44 0.88 | | 1919 1.41 | | | 1920 1.90 | 1.83 1.02 | | 1921 1.81 | | | 1922 1.78 | 2.53 0.85 | | 1923 1.89 | 2.00 0.97 | | 1.76 1.03 1924 1.92 | | | 1925 1.81 | | | 1926 1.59 | | | 1927 1.80 | 2.74 0.83 | |
The Cuban winter leagues show roughly the same range of standard deviation that the latter-day Negro Leagues did. The early summer league looks similar, if a little tighter than, the NAC did.
YEAR MLB | MXL STDEV | STDEV ADJ =========================== 1937 1.94 | 3.68 0.76 1938 1.81 | 2.28 0.90 1939 1.62 | 1.98 0.91 1940 1.56 | 2.20 0.85 1941 1.89 | 2.24 0.92 1942 1.59 | 2.29 0.85 1943 1.30 | 1.66 0.89 1944 1.60 | 1.74 0.96 1945 1.32 | 1.97 0.83 1946 1.55 | 1.74 0.95 1947 1.46 | 1.23 1.09 1948 1.59 | 1.85 0.93 1949 1.50 | 1.65 0.95 1950 1.43 | 1.67 0.93 1951 1.50 | 1.81 0.91 1952 1.17 | 2.05 0.79 1953 1.49 | 2.02 0.87 1954 1.65 | 2.05 0.90
La Liga comes in consistently close to the big leagues for quite some time in terms of the spread of its hitters’ performance. Drawing on a large native population that only rarely made it to the Big Leagues, taking the cream of the crop from the Negro Leagues, and pinching a few players in 1946–1947 from MLB and the US minors, Mexico reduced its overall spread in talent and performance. It rates as a little more tightly bunched than the NNL and NAL of the same period.
Here’s an overall look at the entire span of time for each of the leagues mentioned above. The MLB column includes only those seasons that correspond to the seasons with available data for each respective Negro or Latin league.
Average Standard Deviation 1902–1954 YEARS | STDEV | MLB STEDEV ===================================== CWL 1902–1927* | 1.94 | 1.38 PV 1904–1908 | 2.26 | 1.18 EAST 1905–1931* | 3.58 | 1.48 WEST 1906–1919* | 5.25 | 1.26 NAC 1907–1908 | 2.13 | 1.06 NNL1 1920–1926 | 2.02 | 1.81 ECL 1923–1928* | 2.32 | 1.81 IND 1923–1936* | 4.00 | 1.81 GP 1923 | 1.76 | 1.89 EWL 1932 | 2.20 | 1.74 NNL2 1933–1944 | 2.60 | 1.70 MEX 1937–1954 | 2.01 | 1.56 NAL 1939–1944 | 2.11 | 1.59 *Indicates span includes discontinuous seasons
Here we see the strong effect of a league structure. The East, West, and Independent teams show a far higher degree of variance (about 50%–100%) than the more structured league setups. Other than those three, however, the rest of the leagues show a fairly narrow range of STDEVs, roughly a half run or less among them. Setting aside the East, West, and independents for a moment, MLB shows a similar overall range but with a little more clumping around the 1.80 level.
Let’s remember that the spread of performance in a league shares many markers with the league’s overall quality of competition. But factors beyond those indicating quality of play influence variance, and others that influence quality may not affect STDEV as much. The long and short of it is this: Standard Deviation is a real thing, and it is a statistical thing. I adjust for it because as a statistical thing, all statistics derived from the league’s record will be influenced by the degree of variance. And that variance is outside an individual player’s immediate control. Just as his park, his league, his run environment, the strength of the schedule he faces, and many other factors that have an impact on his numbers, subtly or not so subtly.
Next time out, we’ll check in on the Integration-era minor leagues to see how they compare to the big leagues. Then in a final article, we’ll recap by showing how adjusting for STDEV may change our perceptions of several Negro League stars.