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Jason Giambi

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The Best 40 Designated Hitters Ever

I suppose you’ve heard by now that Harold Baines is going to the Hall of Fame. Well, his election got me thinking about all things Baines. Back in my day (humor intended), it was a bad thing to be a career DH. Voters even held such things against you. Well I have good news for you, Jason Giambi. Those days are over!

Today we’re going to rank the best 40 designated hitters in history. Now, anytime I undertake a project such as this, one of the first things I do is head to the Play Index over at Baseball Reference (you should subscribe) and start filtering. I decided to look at all players with 5,000 plate appearances and at least 25% of their games at DH. There are exactly 50 players who fit those parameters. Perhaps you prefer a different number of plate appearances or percentage of games at DH. If so, okay.

As an aside, there are just eight players ever with more than 5,000 trips to the plate and at least half of their games at DH. Alphabetically, they’re Harold Baines, Don Baylor, Billy Butler, Edgar Martinez, Hal McRae, Kendrys Morales, David Ortiz, and Frank Thomas.

Anyway, we have out 50, so let’s get crackin’.

The first thing I did was narrow by getting rid of the ten guys on the list who I haven’t ranked yet. So goodbye to Alvin Davis, Cecil Fielder, Ruben Sierra, Larry Parrish, Jorge Orta, Matt Stairs, Morales, Dimitri Young, Adam Lind, and Butler. If we went by straight WAR, I’d have the 38 “best” along with #41 (Dave Kingman), and a guy tied with Davis for #38 (George Bell). I suppose I could just chart Davis and feel a little more complete. Then again, it’s not like he has a shot at the top-25 list.

Once I got my list together, I referred to my MAPES+ post and did almost everything the same way I did for every other position player. Just two differences. First, I put anyone with the requisite plate appearances and percentage of games at DH at the position. Second, since we have 5.11 careers at DH in the HoME, I looked at the medians of the best 10 at the position for each of peak, prime, consecutive, and career.

So here are the results.

#25 Rico Carty (64th in LF): The Beeg Boy won a batting title and an OBP title in a nice 1970 season. His only All-Star campaign, I translate that season to almost 5.3 WAR, better than Harold Baines ever did.

#24 Edwin Encarnacion (80th at 3B): E5 is still at it and still a good enough hitter, so this ranking may rise in the next year or two. He has 30+ homers in each of the past seven seasons, something Baines never did once. I wouldn’t put money on number eight, but you never know.

#23 Greg Vaughn (60th in LF): In 1998 and 1999 he hit 50 and 45 home runs for the Padres and Reds, respectively. In each of those seasons he finished 4th in the MVP voting. He was very impressive in 1998, but he was just good, not great, for the Reds. His second best season was 1993 for the Brewers, when he played good defense. Two seasons of at least 5.3 WAR. Not bad. And not something Baines did even once.

#22 Harold Baines (79th in RF): He’s the reason for this post. He’s also the reason my original plan to name the best 20 turned into the best 25 and then 40. American novelist William Gaddis once said that stupidity is the deliberate cultivation of ignorance. If you refuse to learn anything beyond what you knew when you were twelve years old about evaluating baseball players, I think Gaddis would have called you stupid. And I’d agree with him. Baines had a better top season than only five designated hitters of the 40 on this list. Only eight have fewer 3-win seasons than his four. Maybe you’ve heard this already, but Baines is the single worst Hall of Fame choice ever.

#21 Mickey Tettleton (48th at C): Five times Tettleton walked 100+ times in a season, and he posted a career .369 OBP despite a BA of just .241. Baines had a career OBP of just .356. With the help of a tiny bit of rounding, Tettleton had three All-Star-level seasons in his career. That’s three more than Baines.

#20 Chili Davis (75th in CF): Chili’s position is center field? That’s hilarious. The truth is that he wasn’t miserable there as a young man, and he transitioned fairly quickly to DH. Each of his best five seasons were better than the seasons Baines put up.

#19 Victor Martinez (44th at C): Now retired, V-Mart won OBP and OPS titles when he was 35. He also led the game with 28 intentional walks and finished second in the MVP voting to Mike Trout. Martinez retires with seven seasons I convert to over 3.2 WAR. Baines had one such season.

#18 Juan Gonzalez (#69 in RF): Gonzalez is a lot like Harold Baines in that his stats were so wildly misunderstood that he won awards he never should have, specifically the AL MVP trophies in 1996 and 1998. Sure, he averaged 46 HR and 150 RBI in those campaigns, but there were better players in both seasons. By WAR, Alex Rodriguez would have been a fine choice in both of those years. Ken Griffey, Edgar Martinez, Ivan Rodriguez, Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez, Rafael Palmeiro, Robin Ventura, Albert Belle, Bernie Williams, Mo Vaughn, Paul O’Neill, and even Scott Brosius out-performed Gonzalez in both of those years. I remember 1996 and 1998 quite well. Many were up in arms about how the BBWAA did such an awful job. Sadly, those on the Era Committee haven’t progressed beyond where the BBWAA was more than two decades ago. When does Juan Gonzalez hit their ballot?

#17 David Justice (67th in RF): With rounding, he had six seasons of 4.0 WAR. Baines had just one. Justice was better in each of his top seven seasons than Baines. Plus, he hit 14 post-season home runs and drove in 63 runs in the playoffs. Baines had just 5 and 16.

#16 Kirk Gibson (63rd in RF): Gibson never hit 30 homers and never drove in 100 runs. He won the 1988 NL MVP with just 6.5 WAR, yet it’s an award he may have deserved. Gibson owns one of the most iconic home runs in baseball history. Can you name one Harold Baines homer?

#15 Nelson Cruz (62nd in RF): He’s in the midst of a ten-year run with 20+ homers in each campaign, including a 2014 HR title and a 2017 RBI title. Baines never had either of those. Cruz’ seventh best year in homers equals Baines’ best. At this point on the list, I can say with some confidence that we’re a level above Baines in terms of value to a team. Actually, I’m pretty confident in Justice and Gibson too.

#14 Ken Singleton (47th in RF): Singleton finished second in the MVP voting in 1979 and third in 1977. While voting wasn’t done very well back then, Singleton was better in both of those campaigns than Baines ever was. I think it’s interesting that he led the game in intentional walks in his penultimate season. He was still a real threat then, as his 131 OPS+ shows. But man, he lost it quickly. Singleton had four seasons better than Baines’ best, and he was better than the Hall of Famer in each of their best eight seasons.

#13 Brian Downing (38th in LF): There he is, the man who wrestles with Tim Wakefield and Mookie Betts for the title of my all-time favorite. Had he been born 40 years later, we’d see what a star he was. Downing had nice power and got on base at an incredible rate. Bear with me on a concocted statistic for a moment. Baines was so well thought of when he played that the White Sox retired his number while he was still active. Downing was never thought of similarly, not even close. However, both had exactly three top-20 finishes in the MVP voting. Downing only played 110 games with the White Sox once, yet his best season with the Pale Hose was better than Baines’ second best. And overall, Downing was better than Baines in each of their top ELEVEN SEASONS (yes, I’m yelling). Baines had a career WAA of 1.8; Downing’s was 21.1. If only one could be in the Hall of Fame, it’s not Baines.

#12 Jose Canseco (46th in RF): Maybe you’ve heard that Canseco used PEDs. Yet, he didn’t hit a single home run after his age-36 season. Baines is one of only 37 players to top 80 long balls in his age-37 season and later. As opposed to the 37 who topped his HR count after 36, there are 119 players who topped his HR count through that age. Baines and Canseco became teammates in 1990. Interesting. No, I’m not trying to imply that Baines used PEDs. I’m just saying that we don’t know what we don’t know. What we do know is that Canseco and Baines were teammates, lots of Canseco’s teammates used, and Baines was a more prolific home run hitter after playing with Canseco than he was in the years before. There’s smoke. I’m not saying he used PEDs. After all, people inject those, they don’t smoke ‘em.

#11 Jim Rice (35th in LF): Rice may be the modern player whose rating gives me the most pause. The Baseball Gauge has moved Rice’s DRA numbers back and forth in the last few years. That means I sometimes apply an adjustment for Fenway Park’s left field that Michael Humhreys, DRA’s creator, suggests – and sometimes I don’t. When The Baseball Gauge readjusted DRA numbers last off-season, I didn’t update mine. That’s because Rice rises and falls with DRA adjustments, except he shouldn’t as long as the Fenway factor in left field correctly adjusts the slugger’s defensive numbers. All of this is to say that I don’t know. What I do know is that Rice doesn’t belong in the Hall. Yet, he had five years better than any single one Baines ever had.

#10 Tim Salmon (41st in RF): With my adjustments, Salmon has seven 4-win seasons compared to one for Baines. He’s tragically underrated and underappreciated. Of those position players with greater WAR for the decade from 1993-2002, they’re either all in the HoME, not yet eligible, or named John Olerud, Robin Ventura, or Luis Gonzalez. Each of his best ten seasons are better than those of Baines.

#9 Tony Oliva (38th in RF): Oliva had eight 4-win seasons and then nothing. Injuries destroyed his career, a career with five hit titles, four doubles titles, and three batting titles. He was an elite hitter, a good fielder, and a helpful baserunner. Baines was none of those things. He had eight years that were worth almost 1 WAR more than Baines put up in any but his absolute peak.

#8 David Ortiz (38th at 1B): The following things are true: 1) David Ortiz was miles better than Harold Baines; 2) I am a Red Sox fan; 3) I do not believe David Ortiz is worthy of the Hall of Fame. What does that say about how far off Baines is? Each of Ortiz’ twelve best seasons are better than those of Baines. Oh, and he was kind of good in the playoffs too. Compare his 17 HR, 61 RBI, and two series MVP trophies to 5 HR, 16 RBI and a record of 2-6 in playoff series for Baines.

#7 Jason Giambi (31st at 1B): Don’t look too closely, Sox fans. Yes, I do prefer Giambi to Ortiz by a little bit. Giambi won three OBP titles and the 2000 MVP Award that should have gone to Alex Rodriguez (if you didn’t want to give it to Pedro Martinez). He is the only player on this DH list with two MVP-level seasons, and his third-best season is better than anyone else’s #3 campaign. I’d say it’ll be interesting to see his level of support a year from now, but I expect it to be close to zero. Of course, he deserves more votes than Baines did.

#6 Vlad Guerrero (24th in RF): Is this the year Vlad gets into the HoME? Vlad has eight seasons better than Baines’ best.

#5 Edgar Martinez (13th at 3B): It’s stunning that Baines was voted into the Hall before Edgar. Edgar has nine seasons better than any one season Baines ever put up.

#4 Paul Molitor (10th at 3B): Molitor played 21 seasons. He’s better than Baines in his best, his second best, and every other one through his twenty-first.

#3 Jim Thome (19th at 1B): Thome played 22 seasons. He’s better than Baines in his best, his second best, and every other one through his twenty-second.

#2 Frank Thomas (15th at 1B): He has eight seasons a full win better than Baines’ best. He has nine seasons two wins better than Baines’ second best.

#1 Reggie Jackson (8th in RF): I forget how great Jackson was. Maybe it was the strikeouts, maybe his big mouth. He’s one of the all-time greats. Same as Harold Baines. At least that’s what the Hall of Fame tells me.

Hal McRae, Mike Sweeney, Andre Thronton, Aubrey Huff, and Lee May failed to make the top-25 designated hitters of all-time. Still, if we rank every one of their first four seasons, each would beat Baines every time.

Here’s the MAPES+ DH list.

Designated Hitter

Perhaps I’ll stop talking about Baines soon.

Miller

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All-Time HoME Leaders, First Base – 21-40

Today we continue through our journey around the diamond listing the best ever to play the game at each position. Well, actually, we’re still at first base. A week ago, we revealed our top-20 at the position, today it’s 21-40, and in a week we’ll name the top-20 second basemen ever. All rankings are based on Eric’s CHEWS+ and my MAPES+ lists. And we won’t stop until we give you the top-40 at every position and the top-120 pitchers.

First Base – 21-40

1B, 21-40

Where do we project the active player to finish in our rankings?

Joey Votto: Eric doesn’t address Votto because he did so last week as the 20th ranked guy on his list. For a player with six OBP titles and almost 55 WAR, Votto is criminally underrated. Unfortunately for him, he’s only hit 30 homers twice and only drive in 100 three times. On the other hand, just looking at straight WAR, he’s never had an 8-win season. But I digress. This question is about where he’ll end up. My adjusted numbers gave him 7.47 WAR a year ago. But he will be 34 this year. Imagine a graceful decline of 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 WAR. He’d pass seven guys and move into 17th place on my list. But maybe the decline will be even less pronounced, seeing him fall to 6 WAR this year and then age gracefully. He’s now fighting George Sisler for 10th in history. I’m not saying it’ll happen, but it certainly could. —Miller

Where do our rankings diverge the most from the conventional wisdom?

It’s an easy enough call to say that it’s David Ortiz. After all, conventional wisdom says he’s going to waltz into the Hall. But I think nearly 100% of the writers for vote for Papi will do so noting his specialness or clutchiness or Papiness or all three. Ortiz deserves the Hall based a lot more on Fame than on greatness. And if you’re thinking his playoff greatness puts him over the line, well, maybe it does, though I did contribute a meandering post about the incredible amount of value you’d need to give playoff excellence to get the Sox great over the line. —Miller

It would be easy to spotlight old timers like Harry Stovey or Jack Fournier or even Dolph Camilli here. But there’s two guys on this list where I see divergence. First, no one during his career ever thought that John Olerud was a Hall-caliber player. He got attention when he took a run at .400 early in his career. He got some kudos as the slick-scooping glue that held the Mets’ infield defense together in the Piazza era. He was also known for the piano he carried on his back when he ran the bases. But his case for the Hall is actually pretty damned good thanks to a combination of good hitting and excellent fielding. Then there’s Harm Killebrew. The 500 homers pretty much starts and ends the conversation on him, and, ipso facto, he’s a Hall of Famer. Well, he was an abysmal fielder, a bad baserunner, and hit into a lot of double plays. The entire package isn’t nearly as good as the gaudy homer figures would indicate, and if you only stop at 573, you won’t agree with us.—Eric

Where do we disagree with one another the most?

Nothing to see here. There’s no meaningful disagreement.

Are there any players that MAPES+/CHEWS+ might overrate or underrate? 

 In this group, not especially. So I’d like to take just a moment to talk about how a team might have underrated a player. In 1967, the Reds moved Tony Perez to third base. He’d never played an MLB inning at the hot corner, but during his minor league apprenticeship, he’d played a vast majority of his games there. Arriving in Cincy in 1964, Perez played nothing but first base for three years, and he was slightly below average (-3 runs) in 174 games. The Reds realigned their infield for ’67, moving Perez off first base, pushing incumbent Tommy Helms to second base, putting Pete Rose to pasture in left field, and putting defensively inept left fielder Deron Johnson at first base where he could do less damage (and they were right). In 1966, these players combined for -24 runs. In 1967 they combined for -10. Bob Howsam and Dave Bristol saved themselves at least a win’s worth of runs just by putting their players where their skills made the most sense. Perez was the weakest link at -9 runs in 1967, but over the next four years, he accumulated positive value at third base.

Prior to the 1972 season, the Reds acquired infielder Denis Menke who had at one time played a decent shortstop, but whose glove faltered badly. He could hit a little, and the Reds picked him up in one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history.

November 29, 1971: The Houston Astros trade Ed Armbrister, Jack Billingham, Cesar Geronimo, Denis Menke, and Joe Morgan to the Cincinnati Reds for Tommy Helms, Lee May, and Jimmy Stewart.

Morgan alone brought back 58 WAR, with Geronimo returning 13, Menke 4, Billingham 2, and Armbrister none. For their efforts, the Astros got 4 wins from Helms, though they later flipped him for Art Howe who earned 13 WAR with the ‘Stros; 6 from Lee May who they later made part of a trade for Enos Cabell and Rob Andrews; and -1 from Stewart whom they later cut.

For Perez’s part, however, the departure of May and Helms opened holes at first base and second base. Morgan, of course, would man the keystone sack. Who would play first base? They had options on hand. Obviously Perez had played there previously and was fine. Menke might also be stationed there. He had, in fact, been the Astros’ primary first baseman the year before and played there about as well as Perez had in the past. Pete Rose had moved from left field to right field in deference to rising youngster Bernie Carbo. Cabo had been worth 4.4 WAR in 1970, faltered in 1971, and after a slow start was dealt in 1972, pushing Rose back to left. The young Hal McRae got a lot of playing time and might have been an option. George Foster was on the roster but didn’t play much and hit poorly when he did. The Reds chose to stick Menke at third base and slide Perez across the diamond.

I wasn’t there, and I don’t know what all happened, but here’s the thing. Menke was a short timer however you looked at it, and the Reds had more good hitters than the WBA, WBC, and IBF combined. But Perez looked like a first baseman and hit like one, so the move made sense. But in retrospect, leaving Perez be would have given the Reds many more opportunities and made Perez more valuable. During his time at third base, Perez earned 12 positional runs (he did appear other places from time to time). Perez left Cincinnati after 1976, but in those five years, the positional adjustment for third base was three runs a season, or 15 runs over those five years. At first base it was -45 runs. If Perez played every day, the difference between the positions was 60 runs without factoring in defense or anything else. Perez was a good first baseman from 1972–1976 and picked up 17 fielding runs. So the net of his positional adjustment and fielding was -28 runs. Perez could have been a -42 run fielder at third base over that same time and still have earned out at the hot corner.

The worst defender with 50% of his games at third base in that time as Richie Hebner who “earned” -37 runs. Bill Madlock placed with -32 runs. Dave Roberts to show at -30. Bill Melton next at -29, and the only other player over -20 was Paul Schaal at -30. Whether contemporary observers saw it or not, Perez played a good enough third base to have likely avoided that kind of disaster artistry.

And that’s just the BBREF Rfield side of the story. DRA pegs him at 8 runs instead of 17 from 1972–1976, and it likes his defense a lot at third, to the tune of 22 runs from 1967–1971. I understand why Sparky Anderson and Bob Howsam made the move they did. It seemed like a good baseball move based on the understandings of the game in 1972. Looking backwards, though, it’s possible that the difference between Tony Perez first baseman and Tony Perez Hall of Merit third baseman came down simply to a trade, a decision, and 100 years of soon-to-be-obsolete conventional baseball wisdom.—Eric

What if Harmon Killebrew had been a DH?

Oops.

Oops.

Harmon Killebrew is in our backlog. You’re likely surprised to see someone in every other hall of fame, someone with 573 homers, outside our proverbial candy store looking in. One of the biggest reasons we haven’t voted for him is his defense. It’s really bad.

It’s too bad for him that the designated hitter wouldn’t be adopted until 1973. He might have avoided all that bad fielding and let his bat do all the talking for him. Right? Maybe, maybe not.

BBREF’s WAR breaks out its components so we can play around with them. One of those components, abbreviated Rpos, is an adjustment made to account for the relative difficulty of each position. For example, in today’s game, BBREF adds about 8 runs to a shortstop’s ledger. First basemen have about 10 runs subtracted from theirs. To put it simply, the difference in fielding difficulty between shortstop and first base is around 17 runs, or about 1.5 wins. That’s a lot when an average player is worth two wins.

What this means is that we can answer a question such as “What if Harmon Killebrew had always played DH?” For Killebrew we know the following information:

Batting runs: 487
Base running runs: -24
Grounding into double play runs: -27
Fielding runs: -78
Position adjustment runs: -77
Total runs above average: 284

All we have to do is replace Killer’s position adjustment runs with the adjustment he’d get as a DH in the same playing time and then remove his fielding runs.

Unfortunately, BBREF doesn’t give us the by-position breakdown of Rpos for a player, so we need a hack. Killebrew is a great example to work with because he straddled the DH era. We can figure out a player’s Rpos at every fielding position using the table on BBREF’s WAR Explained for hitters page. We know Killebrew’s innings at each position, and the values on the table are all rates per 1350 innings, so some simple algebra will do the job. If we sum our results at each position he played in a given year and subtract from his total Rpos for the year, the difference is his runs as a pinch hitter, pinch runner, or DH. We then replace his by-position Rpos with the value if he’d been a DH (using the defensive innings) and add it to his non-fielding Rpos to get our estimate of what his DH-only Rpos would be. Then we can plug it into the Runs Above Average above.

Here’s an example from Killebrew’s 1974 season. He appeared at DH 57 times and played 223.67 innings at first base. First basemen in 1974 are debited 9 runs per 1350 innings, which means Killer is adjusted downward by about 1.5 runs. His total Rpos for the year was -7, which means his DH and pinch hitting appearances totaled -5.5 runs. Switch that first base Rpos to DH Rpos, and he would be debited -2.5 runs for those appearances. Which added to the -5.5 DH Rpos is a total of -8 runs. Now we return to his runs above average:

Batting runs: -4
Base running runs: -1
Grounded into double plays runs: -1
Fielding runs: -1 0 (notice, we have removed his fielding)
Position adjustment runs: -7 -8 (notice we have substituted the Rpos we calculated above)
Total runs above average: -1.5 (which is identical to what he produced as a part-time fielder)

In this case, it’s a wash. But when I took Killebrew’s career as a whole, season by season, the story was very different:

Batting runs: 487
Baserunning runs: -24
Grounding into double play runs: -27
Fielding runs: -78 0 (removing fielding runs)
Position adjustment runs: -77 -215 (swapping in DH-only runs)
Total runs above average: 284 221

Just being able to stand at a position without fielding as poorly as I would was worth about 60 runs to Killebrew and his teams! Unquestionably, Killebrew was better off in the field. Probably at first base, but the Twins had Don Mincher at the same time. That’s how much being a DH takes a bit out of a player’s value. Why? Because, generally speaking, a replacement level DH is a league-average hitter. That’s why David Ortiz, despite his 385 batting runs and 139 OPS+ in 8851 PAs, has only mustered 16.9 wins above average and 47.7 WAR in his career. His debit for DHing is 183 runs.

But all this brings up two questions. All other things being equal, how bad a fielder would a player have to be for his team to be better off DHing him? Well it depends on his position, of course. Derek Jeter’s defense is much maligned, but he’s nowhere near DH-only. During his career, shortstops had a positional adjustment of +7.5 runs per 1350 innings. So the break even appears to be -7.5 fielding runs. Except that DH is 22.5 runs easier per 1350 innings than shortstop is. Jeter is boosted +135 positional runs as a shortstop, even though he’s worth -220 runs in the field. If he were a DH, he’d have no fielding value, but his positional adjustment would be more than -250 runs. Let’s lay this out:

Batting runs: 353
Base running runs: 56
Grounding into double play runs: 8
Fielding runs: -246 0
Position adjustment runs: 138 -251
Total runs above average: 305 166

See, the positional adjustment totally swamps the gain in fielding runs. Now as to whether Jeter should have stayed at shortstop his entire career….

The question, then, is whether anyone is worth making a DH-only because he is that bad with a glove on? The answer is yes. Gary Sheffield, for example, has the second worst career fielding runs (after Jeter) of anyone in history with -195. If we swap in DH positional adjustments and remove the fielding, look what happens.

Batting runs: 561
Base running runs: -1
Grounding into double play runs: -11
Fielding runs: -195 0
Position adjustment runs: -84 -227
Total runs above average: 270 322

Sheffield’s teams would have been better off were he a full-time DH. By like five wins’ worth of runs.

Danny Tartabull is a similar story. Another infielder turned outfielder who was good at neither. When I put him through the process above, he leapt up by 70 runs. Jeff Burroughs would have been about five-wins better as a DH-only.

But rather than go through this lengthy process for a whole bunch of plodding defenders, we can use a quick and dirty inequality to see who other candidates might be

(Rfield + Rpos) < (fldINN * (-15/1350))

This isn’t perfect for someone like Adam Dunn who spent a good chunk of time at DH, but it identifies guys well enough. Here are some with long careers:

  • Adam Dunn
  • Frank Howard
  • Matt Stairs
  • Greg Luzinski
  • Preston Wilson
  • Jason Giambi
  • Raul Ibanez
  • Ken Singleton
  • Dante Bichette
  • Jorge Orta

Realistically, Jason Giambi is the only one for whom this might be an interesting what-if scenario as regards his case for the Hall of Miller and Eric. I used the long method to see if that’s so:

Batting runs: 444
Base running runs: -15
Grounding into double play runs: -10
Fielding runs: -83 0
Position adjustment runs: -136 -191
Total runs above average: 199 228

When I plug DH-only Giambi into my personal evaluation system for the HoME, the extra 30 runs would likely slide him just beneath Mark McGwire. He would end up just above Will Clark and John Olerud who are very close to the line indeed but just below it. He’d be a really tough call, especially for someone who prefers a candidate with strong peak performance.

Overall, what we find is that many players whose value we think might benefit by being lifetime DHes actually wouldn’t. At least not in a theoretical vacuum. Of course, teams push their chess pieces around to best meet their real-life strategic needs—platooning, rotating regulars through the slot to keep their legs fresh, putting a brittle hitter there to keep him whole, or simply playing the lesser fielder at DH even if his fielding may not be that bad. We don’t really do what-ifs at the HoME, but we do enjoy thinking about them. Luckily, we don’t have to worry about them like real teams do.

—Eric

Positional Talent Clusters, Part I: Knowing Your ABCs

 

English: Dan Brouthers, Detroit Wolverines, ba...

English: Dan Brouthers, Detroit Wolverines, baseball card portrait (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cap Anson, Dan Brouthers, and Roger Connor (the ABCs!) played concomitantly from 1880–1896 (17 years). All no-doubt all-time greats. Connor (84) Brouthers (79), and Anson (74) combined for an amazing 237 combined WAR in those 17 years. Are they the best trio of first-base talent in history? [By first base, I mean guys who really were first basemen, not guys who moved there after a while or due to injury. Musial, Perez, Banks, Allen, and Jack Clark aren’t who we’re talking about.]

I’m no databaser, so I eyeballed the career WAR leaderboards to see what trios might compete.

  • Gehrig (100), Foxx (68), Terry (54): 222 from 1925 to 1936
  • Gehrig (108), Foxx (72), Bottomley (28):  208 from 1925 to 1937
  • Bagwell (80), Thomas (67), and Olerud (56): 203 from 1991 to 2005
  • Pujols (92), Helton (47), and Thome (38): 177 from 2001–2012
  • McGwire (62), Palmeiro (58), and Will Clark (56): 176 from 1986 to 2000
  • McCovey (62), Killebrew (61), Cash (52): 175 from 1959 to 1974
  • McCovey (62), Killebrew (61), Cepeda (47): 170 from 1959 to 1974
  • Helton (62), Thome (56), and Giambi (50): 168 from 1997 to 2012
  • McGwire (62), Palmeiro (58), and Fred McGriff (47): 167 from 1986 to 2000
  • Bagwell (70), Thomas (52), and Delgado (40): 162 from 1993 to 2005
  • Pujols (72), Teixeira (45), Gonzalez (31): 148 from 2004 to 2013

There are probably other groups, or other permutations of these trios that I’ve overlooked in my hasty zip through history, please add any you come up with.

The ABCs dominate their own era in a way no one can even get close to, especially when you see how evenly the performance was distributed among the three of them.

But…the 1880s were an easier time to dominate. Easier than the 1920s. Plus the first Gehrig Group did its work in only 12 years, a significantly higher rate of production than the other threesomes we’ve listed. So we should crown the Twenties Trio as the best cluster.

But…the roaring 1920s was a time of pinball offense, with each league usually having a couple doormat teams among the merely eight in its league, and with zero farm systems to procure and develop talent consistently. Not to mention no relief pitching.

So, there is a reasonable argument that the Bagwell Bunch is the most impressive of the lot: they faced tougher competition—the spread from the best performers to the worst (or standard deviation to our statistically-minded friends), was likely lower than the 1920s and the 1880s. And although offense was way up in the 1990s, those guys face numerous competitive conditions (such as relief pitching) that made out-and-out domination more difficult than in previous eras.

—Eric

Institutional History

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