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Oscar Charleston

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Election Results: Negro Leagues Election #3

Oscar Charleston in the early 1920s.

The difference among our next five honorees is so slight that we aren’t even sure it merits trying to split hairs any further. There’s any number of ways to look at these guys and rank them, so instead of attempting to persuade you that we’re “right” about their sequencing, we’ll simply present them in alphabetical order. That means our third honoree is Oscar Charleston.

Charleston had the whole package, much like his near temporal peer, Tris Speaker. They both played an aggressive, shallow centerfield and went back on the ball amazingly well. They both had outstanding arms. They both hit for outstanding power by the yardsticks of their times as well as for high averages. Building-block players, the kinds you tank in the draft to get because they are THAT good.

Indeed, Charleston’s twenties are a marvel. Unlike Speaker who never transitioned fully to the power game, Charlie made it his own. He slugged over .600 regularly in the Negro Leagues, and appeared on more leaderboards than peak Tiger Woods. We estimate seasons at or near 10 WAR and several more at an MVP level. Put it together with plus defense from an up-the-middle position and steals, and you’ve got one heckuva player. Or, you might say, that when it comes to Charleston, there’s a lot to chew on.

Unlike the redoubtable Speaker, it looks like Charleston had a tendency to put on weight. This hampered him in his thirties, decreasing his durability while also eating away at his speed and defense. He moved off of centerfield into the corners and finally to first base. Charleston proved a good first baseman, but his hitting also declined in his thirties. In this way, Charleston reminds me of Junior Griffey.

Thing is, the first twelve to fifteen years were super duper, and Charleston played at a high level for a long time. He debuted at age eighteen, was quickly a regular, and soon after that a star, and widely acknowledged as the best player in the black baseball.

Badass.

Charleston was also a badass. Just look at the pictures of him: Big chest, tough mug, and hands that could crush you by themselves. He also had a reputation, deserved or otherwise, for a hot temper. Regardless of how much truth is in his reputation, I wouldn’t cross him.

Scouts, historians, and analysts have identified him as either the Negro Leagues’ GOAT or in the running. My own research suggests that’s no far at all from the truth. That’s why he’s in this gang of five we’ll elect over the next several weeks. That he’s the first is simple variation, but it might very well be apt.

So huzzah for Oscar Charleston, our third Negro Leagues honoree. Next week, come on back to see whether we return to the mound or whether we look up the middle again for our fourth honoree. The answer might be both.

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Negro Leagues Legends Wrap Up

[This page is not being updated with the latest MLE information.]

So we’ve been taken a tour of the diamond, introducing all of the Negro Leaguers honored by the brick-and-mortar Baseball Hall of Fame and the online only Hall of Merit. In doing so, we created Major League Equivalencies (MLE), estimates of what a player’s achievements might reasonably look like in an MLB setting.

Today, we’re going to put these 36 players on the same page so that you can compare and contrast them all you want in one spot. This will also help you develop mental benchmarks for the players we’ll be translating going forward, the best of the rest among blackball stars. We’ll show you the career component stats we’ve presented in our previous posts, along with some commentary about how reliable our estimates might be given the information that’s missing and our confidence in the specifics underlying the numbers. And for the eagle-eyed out there, we’ll drop a couple hints about some players we haven’t talked about yet who might be challengers to these 36 players.

First we’ll recap by position, then we’ll run a table sorted by career MLE WAR. Italics indicate the player is already a member of the Hall of Miller and Eric.

Negro Leagues legends by position

CATCHER


NAME               PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos  RAA   WAA   WAR 
===================================================================
Roy Campanella   7315  218  - 3   -19    25    61  283  27.9  54.9
Josh Gibson      8010  577  - 7     0    26   - 6  591  61.3  88.7
Biz Mackey       7000  253  - 7     0    18    50  315  30.8  53.1
Louis Santop     6560  231  - 4     0     2    73  302  33.1  56.2
Quincy Trouppe   7140  248  - 8     1     0    49  290  28.8  52.0

Let’s remember that our MLE for Gibson has him transitioning to first base during his peak years. Aside from Josh, we could toss the other four catchers into a hat and pick any one at random to come up with pretty much the same player. Some of them hit more than the others. Some field better than the others. Some played at a time when runs were more plentiful or scarcer. One slight advantage accrues to Louis Santop whose 1918 and 1919 seasons are placed into the war-shortened MLB schedules of those years. For those who prorate up to 154 or 162 from there, he’ll pick up another 30 to 50 games. Also, let’s remember that much of Trouppe’s career remains to be updated once the Negro Leagues Database (NLDB) uploads data for the post-war seasons. As for our elections, initial research into the best of the rest at catcher suggests that however many catchers we choose, the four unitalicized names above will be the sole candidates to merit strong consideration.

FIRST BASE


NAME             PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos  RAA   WAA   WAR 
=================================================================
Buck Leonard   9830  537  -15     0    27   -95  453  47.1  80.5
Mule Suttles  10190  374    0     0    39   -98  315  31.1  63.9 
Ben Taylor    10130  344  - 8     0    67   -84  319  34.6  69.9

There’s a bit more separation here than at catcher. Buck Leonard wins in a walk, and Ben Taylor finishes a clear second. Like Santop above, his career includes those 1918 and 1919 seasons, giving him still another edge on Suttles. We should note, however, that several of Suttles’ and Leonard’s seasons remain outside the NLDB. Looking forward, a few candidates that dang near nobody has ever heard of could make some noise at first base and challenge for a ballot spot. Let’s just say, we’ll send you the bill.

SECOND BASE


NAME               PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos  RAA   WAA   WAR 
===================================================================
Frank Grant                      ?????
Jackie Robinson  6953  332   36     4    97    36  500  50.2  76.4

Jackie was awfully good, and Grant’s career totals so far consist of very, very few plate appearances, so we just can’t do too much with him just yet. But the pickings at second aren’t robust. Outside of Grant, candidates simply don’t fall out of trees as they do at shortstop and centerfield. One fellow appears like an outside shot to rise up in challenge, but we have some work to do before we decide whether he’s marvelous enough to make it.

THIRD BASE


NAME              PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos  RAA   WAA   WAR 
==================================================================
Ray. Dandridge  7690  212   18     1   144    10  385  41.0  68.0
Judy Johnson    5400    2    0     0    24    31   57   5.7  22.7
Jud Wilson      8400  456    0     0    43    24   24  51.2  77.9

There’s a clear winner and clear loser here. Then there’s Ray Dandridge. This is probably the maximum value Dandridge could end up with. But we’re still working through how to best evaluate the fielding contributions of players whose primary source of fielding data is the minor leagues. Stay tuned, but know that Dandridge’s value is more likely to decrease than increase. Among the unheralded players we’ll be looking at in the near future, at least one has a puncher’s chance of a candidacy, and maybe a couple depending on what data becomes available and when. More on that later.

SHORTSTOP


NAME                PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos  RAA   WAA   WAR 
====================================================================
John Beckwith     7530  403  -17     0   -64    36  358  34.6  58.8 
Grant Johnson     9080  157  - 5     0    66   108  327  34.4  65.7
John Henry Lloyd  9490  410   40     0    39   112  601  67.7 102.5
Dick Lundy        9380  227   19     0    35   126  407  41.0  71.5
Dobie Moore       5380  239  - 1     0    99    75  412  43.8  62.2
Willie Wells     10780  229   20     0   100   149  497  50.6  85.9

Quite a melee here! Beckwith trails considerably due to his stone glove, while Lloyd and Wells are clear yesses. In between them is a very competitive trio. Dobie Moore lacks career length, but like Jackie, he packed a whale of a punch into his short tenure. He also would pick up some value due to the shortened war schedules of 1918 and 1919. But so would Dick Lundy! However, Grant “Home Run” Johnson gets even more with several turn of the century seasons that require proration. Once you account for all this, it’s a very close ranking. Well, lucky we get to pick 29 guys, because it’s possible that five of these six could end up with a plaque. Then again, two or three other, less well-known names are emerging in our research into the best of the rest. At a minimum, John Beckwith should be worried about losing his seat on the bus.

LEFT FIELD


NAME             PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos  RAA   WAA   WAR 
=================================================================
Monte Irvin    7817  356   36   -13    76   -43  412  42.5  70.1
Minnie Minoso  9952  360   18     5    21   -75  325  32.4  62.7

We really see Irvin more as a centerfielder, but his MLB career in left field gets him plunked here. Both he and Minoso have several seasons of missing data that could provide a little more jet fuel for their candidacies. Then again, Minoso is so close to the borderline that not-so-hot performances in the missing years could also set him back. Which leads to the larger point that Minoso probably shouldn’t be considered a Negro Leagues at all candidate because he played just a handful of his seasons in them. However, because we ran the numbers, we felt it was important to show his totals. In the future, left field looks like it has some depth among the also rans with the possibility of a couple borderliners. We’re just starting to pick at these guys, and while it wouldn’t be surprising in the least if we don’t elect a single Negro Leagues left fielder (if we call Irvin a centerfielder), some names could bubble up high enough to make a play. Sometimes betting against heavy odds pays off.

CENTERFIELD


NAME                  PA  Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos  RAA   WAA   WAR
======================================================================
Cool Papa Bell      10370  209   57     0   -13   -34  430  22.1  55.7
Willard Brown        9560  176    9   - 7    18   -41  155  15.6  49.4
Oscar Charleston     9910  626   37     0    31   -75  619  62.8  95.5
Larry Doby           7530  332   16    22    22   -19  375  38.5  62.4
Pete Hill           10330  419    5     0    26   -69  381  43.7  81.7
Alejandro Oms        9970  409    0     0   -12   -49  348  35.0  71.1
Turkey Stearnes     10500  600    6     0    35   -54  587  57.8  91.6
Cristobal Torriente  8380  486   20     0   -18   -57  432  46.8  76.1

Charleston and Stearnes, news at 11:00. But beyond them a bed vein of center field treasure. Pete Hill, Cristobal Torriente, and Alejandro Oms have compelling cases. Larry Doby and Cool Papa Bell are lagging behind, but in both their cases, some missing seasons could improve their odds. Then there’s Willard Brown. Need to reiterate here that his MLE is highly provisional. We have the missing seasons, and we have the fact that outfield defense is more difficult to figure than infield defense when most of the data comes from minor league seasons. Don’t count Brown out quite yet, but his case needs a lot of help. Again, this is a very deep position, and we have a ton of other quality candidates to check in on. We’ll give you pole to pole coverage, don’t worry.

RIGHT FIELD


NAME              PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos  RAA   WAA   WAR
===================================================================
Martin Dihigo*  10700 526    0     0    120  -65  581  59.0  94.1
Bullet Rogan*    9780 539   20     0     22  -99  481  50.1  83.0  
*Assumes the player did not have a pitching career

Again, we’re seeing Dihigo as more of a centerfielder than we are a right fielder, but that’s just the way his record fell out. With the exception of shortstop and catcher, you can put him at any old position you want, including on the mound, and he’s a Hall member in the making. That said, he’s probably a better hitter candidate than pitcher candidate, but he’s hardly a slouch on the mound. Rogan is more limited as a position player, really only a right fielder. But he sure could hit. He plays up better as a pitcher, but as you can see, he’s got some serious sting in that bat. Looking into the future, there are very few high quality right field candidates in general, so we think we’ll be lucky if even one strong candidate emerges.

PITCHER


                          PITCHING          |   BATTING  | TOTAL
NAME                  IP  RAA   WAA     WAR |  PA    WAR |  WAR 
=================================================================
Ray Brown            3940  160  18.0   57.9 | 1314   7.6 |  65.5 
Andy Cooper          3100  320  33.5   65.0 | 1034  -4.9 |  60.0
Leon Day             2860   68   8.2   37.2 |  954   5.3 |  42.5
Martin Dihigo-a*     4335  297  32.1   75.9 | 1446  12.4 |  88.2
Martin Dihigo-b*     3865  267  29.1   67.9 | 1289  10.4 |  78.3
Rube Foster          3420  159  20.9   54.6 | 1140   5.0 |  59.6
Willie Foster        3220  363  37.7   70.3 | 1075  -0.1 |  70.3
Jose Mendez          2420  317  39.7   62.3 |  807   1.3 |  63.9
Satchel Paige        4825  686  70.9  119.8 | 1584   1.5 | 121.4
Bullet Rogan*        4241  447  49.3   91.5 | 1414  12.6 | 104.1
Hilton Smith         3260  261  28.6   61.2 | 1088   5.5 |  66.7
Smokey Joe Williams  5210  545  63.7  114.6 | 1732   8.2 | 122.8
a: MLE created from scenario where Dihigo follows normal pitching career arc
b: MLE created more directly from Dihigo’s stats, which are heavily influenced by his two-way play
*Assumes the player did not have a position-player career

The only guy here whose case is on life support is Leon Day, but even has a ray of hope since one of his biggest seasons isn’t yet accounted for in the NLDB. As we’ve noted before, Andy Cooper’s MLE feels a little puffy. He’s missing a few tail-end seasons that we’ve had to fill in with league-average performance that may be making him look as though he finished stronger than he did. He’s also going to face a tough challenge and needs some good news to appear on the NLDB. Jose Mendez has a very short career, especially for his time, but man it’s a dandy. Pound for pound he might be the best guy on this list, but there’s just not enough bulk for him to get in the ring with Satchel or Smokey Joe.

Every one else is in the great middle until you reach Rogan, Williams and Paige. These three appear to be the cream. I’ve argued before that Paige is the clear choice as the #1 Negro Leagues pitchers, and quite possibly the best pitcher between the world wars. Joe Williams comes up behind him in overall value, but I would caution against getting too onto that bandwagon. The difference in pitching WAA is huge between them. Williams makes up some of the difference in bulk value that’s below average and above replacement, but a huge part of his run at Paige is from batting. Now if we only looked at this table, we’d think nearly every Negro Leagues pitcher was a star hitter too. They played the field and swung the bat a lot more than their more specialized MLB counterparts. It’s an open question whether their outstanding hitting bats would remain so potent in organized baseball. I’m guessing probably not, and that right there puts more separation between Paige (who wasn’t a great hitter anyway) and Williams who benefits more from his bat.

Most of the Negro Leagues pitchers we honor will come from this list. Maybe all of them. But there’s a whole lot of pitching talent that we haven’t begun to scratch the surface of understanding yet. Tons of talent, so much that we’re worried it will feel like a volley of cannonballs, so we’re going to alternate between pitchers and hitters. We don’t want to nuke you into a winter’s worth of pitching headaches.

We’re a zillion words into this post, so we’ll leave you with one final table. This time we’ll just list out all the guys above in order by their WAR, separating hitters and pitchers. By the way, in the hitters table, the position will reference the spot on the field where our MLE says they would have played the most, which doesn’t necessarily correspond to where we lumped them above.

Negro Leagues legends ranked by MLE WAR

HITTERS


RK  NAME           POS     PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos  RAA   WAA   WAR 
===========================================================================
 1  J. H. Lloyd     SS   9490  410   40     0    39   112  601  67.7 102.5
 2  O. Charleston   CF   9910  626   37     0    31   -75  619  62.8  95.5
 3  M. Dihigo*      CF  10700  526    0     0   120   -65  581  59.0  94.1
 4  T. Stearnes     CF  10500  600    6     0    35   -54  587  57.8  91.6
 5  J. Gibson     C/1B   8010  577  - 7     0    26   - 6  582  60.4  87.8

 6  W. Wells        SS  10780  229   20     0   100   149  497  50.6  85.9 
 7  B. Rogan*       RF   9780  539   20     0    22   -99  481  50.1  83.0   
 8  P. Hill         CF  10330  419    5     0    26   -69  381  43.7  81.7
 9  B. Leonard      1B   9830  537  -15     0    27   -95  453  47.1  80.5
10  J. Wilson       3B   8400  456    0     0    43    24  523  51.2  77.9 

11  J. Robinson     2B   6953  332   36     4    97    36  500  50.2  76.4
12  C. Torriente    CF   8380  486   20     0   -18   -57  432  46.8  76.1
13  D. Lundy        SS   9380  227   19     0    35   126  407  41.0  71.5
14  A. Oms          CF   9970  409    0     0   -12   -49  348  35.0  71.1
15  M. Irvin        CF   7817  356   36   -13    76   -43  412  42.5  70.1

16  B. Taylor       1B  10130  344  - 8     0    67   -84  319  34.6  69.9
17  R. Dandridge    3B   7690  212   18     1   144    10  385  41.0  68.0
18  G. Johnson      SS   9080  157  - 5     0    66   108  327  34.4  65.7
19  M. Suttles      1B  10190  374    0     0    39   -98  315  31.1  63.9 
20  M. Minoso       LF   9952  360   18     5    21   -75  325  32.4  62.7

21  L. Doby         CF   7490  332   16    22    22   -19  375  38.5  62.4
22  D. Moore        SS   5380  239  - 1     0    99    75  412  43.8  62.2
23  J. Beckwith     3B   7530  403  -17     0   -64    36  358  34.6  58.8 
24  L. Santop        C   6560  231  - 4     0     2    73  302  33.1  56.2
25  C.P. Bell       CF  10370  209   57     0   -13   -34  430  22.1  55.7

26  Campanella       C   7315  218  - 3   -19    25    61  283  27.9  54.9
27  B. Mackey        C   7000  253  - 7     0    18    50  315  30.8  53.1
28  Q. Trouppe       C   7140  248  - 8     1     0    49  290  28.8  52.0
29  W. Brown        CF   9560  176    9   - 7    18   -41  155  15.6  49.4
30  J. Johnson      3B   5400    2    0     0    24    31   57   5.7  22.7

PITCHERS


                          PITCHING        |  BATTING   | TOTAL
RK  NAME            IP   RAA  WAA   WAR   |  PA   WAR  |  WAR 
===============================================================
 1  J. Williams    5210  545  63.7 114.6  | 1732   8.2 | 122.8 
 2  Satchel Paige  4885  686  70.9 119.8  | 1584   1.5 | 121.4
 3  Bullet Rogan*  4241  447  49.3  91.5  | 1414  12.6 | 104.1
 4  M. Dihigo-a*   4335  297  32.1  75.9  | 1446  12.4 |  88.2
 5  M. Dihigo-b*   3865  267  29.1  67.9  | 1289  10.4 |  78.3

 6  Willie Foster  3220  363  37.7  70.3  | 1075  -0.1 |  70.3 
 7  H. Smith       3260  261  28.6  61.2  | 1088   5.5 |  66.7 
 8  Ray Brown      3940  160  18.0  57.9  | 1314   7.6 |  65.5 
 9  Jose Mendez    2420  317  39.7  62.3  |  807   1.3 |  63.9
10  Andy Cooper    3100  320  33.5  65.0  | 1034  -4.9 |  60.0 

11  Rube Foster    3420  159  20.9  54.6  | 1140   5.0 |  59.6
12  Leon Day       2860  368  8.2   37.2  |  954   5.3 |  42.5

See you next time when we get into the first five Negro Leagues pitchers who haven’t been elected to a Hall!

Evaluating Negro Leagues Center Fielders, Part 1

[All MLEs updated 7/4/18 to include (a) new 1938 and 1947 data (b) new baserunning-runs estimates (c) new, more objective playing-time estimates]

No position in the Negro Leagues was a stacked with talent as centerfield. Which, when you think about it makes all kinds of sense. In leagues where the most talented players would later turn into outstanding major leaguers, and everyone else ranked from big-league regular to lower-minor-league fodder, the levels of talent and athleticism will vary considerably more than in the pro game we know today. Your best athletes would play shortstop if they threw with their right hand, centerfield if they threw lefty. Centerfielders such as as Willard Brown and Monte Irvin and threw right handed and still ended up in center after a break-in period at shortstop. And with still more good reason. Negro Leagues teams carried many fewer players than teams in organized baseball. They ran on tight budgets, and hauling, feeding, and hoteling a team of men was expensive. The fewer, therefore, the better. That meant that a lot of pitchers played the outfield on their off days. Especially right field. That means you need a centerfielder with excellent range because, hey, pitchers aren’t selected for their fielding ability. So the middle pasture oozed talent, and as we will see now, and again in a few months when we look at other high-profile centerfield candidates, probably no place else in the Negro Leagues did so much talent gather in one place. We refer you to our Major League Equivalencies (MLEs) for Negro Leagues batters for all the gory details on how we reframe Negro Leagues performance into an MLB context.

Cool Papa Bell

[Updated 4/3/18 with general improvements.]

If Satchel Paige ranks as the most well known and mythologized Negro Leaguer, then James “Cool Papa” Bell probably places second. Besides a cool and memorable nickname, we’ve discussed elsewhere the many tales of his blazing speed. The numbers may not quite support the lore, and that may well be debatable, but what info we have on Bell tells a story of his overall play that may seem a little backward compared to his legend.

Bell hit for a good average (.319 in the Negro Leagues), with walks (.386 OBP), and just enough power to keep the pitchers honest (.109 ISO). It sums up to a 121 OPS+, not bad for your leadoff man and centerfielder. Bell kept himself in great shape throughout his career, almost never missed a game, played for bloody ever, and maintained a high level of play late into the autumn of his playing days. Back to the base running again. What we do know about him shows that he stole 81% more often than his leagues, adjusted for his team’s tendencies to run. That’s very strong, but it is not near to all-time levels. Despite his stats not living up to the legend in terms of steals, we’ve given him a really good speed profile anyway, but nothing like Rickey, Raines, or Willie Wilson.

In the field, however, the data for Bell is all broken up, and it doesn’t jibe with the speedy reputation. The data we’re missing for him generally comes from the heart of his career, ages 23 and 24 then 26 to 28. He appears for the moment like a plus defender as a young player, but from 29 onward, decidedly below average. Without the several years of missing data, it’s problematic to make too hasty a call on that, but we’ve noted that pivot year in our MLEs and showed him as positive through age 28 and negative thereafter.

James "Cool Papa" Bell
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1922–1946
Destination: NL 1924–1943
Missing data: 1926, 1927, 1929–1931
Honors: Baseball Hall of Fame, Hall of Merit

Year Age Lg Pos   PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos RAA   WAA Rrep  RAR   WAR
===========================================================================
1924  21 NL CF   330    4    1    0    -1   - 2    2   0.2   10   12   1.3
1925  22 NL CF   600   12    1    0    -1   - 3    8   0.8   19   27   2.6
1926  23 NL CF   640   15    1    0    -1   - 4   12   1.2   20   32   3.3
1927  24 NL CF   640   17    1    0    -1   - 3   14   1.4   20   34   3.5
1928  25 NL CF   650   22    1    0    -1   - 3   19   1.9   20   40   4.0
1929  26 NL CF   660   17    1    0    -1   - 3   15   1.3   21   35   3.2
1930  27 NL CF   660   16    1    0    -1   - 3   14   1.2   21   34   3.0
1931  28 NL CF   640   14    1    0    -1   - 2   12   1.3   20   32   3.4
1932  29 NL CF   650   14    1    0    -1   - 2   12   1.2   20   32   3.3
1933  30 NL CF   630    9    1    0    -1   - 2    7   0.8   20   27   3.1
1934  31 NL CF   650   11    1    0    -1   - 2   10   1.0   20   30   3.1
1935  32 NL CF   650   12    1    0    -1   - 2   11   1.1   20   31   3.1
1936  33 NL CF   590    0    1    0    -1   - 2  - 2  -0.2   18   17   1.7
1937  34 NL CF   640   12    1    0    -1   - 2   10   1.0   20   30   3.1
1938  35 NL CF   640   16    1    0    -1   - 1   15   1.6   20   35   3.7
1939  36 NL CF   510   16    1    0    -1   - 1   16   1.6   16   31   3.3
1940  37 NL CF   490   16    1    0    -1   - 1   16   1.6   15   31   3.3
1941  38 NL CF   410    8    1    0    -1   - 1    7   0.8   13   20   2.2
1942  39 NL CF   380    6    1    0    -1   - 1    6   0.7   12   18   2.1
1943  40 NL CF   350    8    1    0    -1     0    7   0.8   11   18   2.1
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
               11410  245   22    0   -17   -39  211  21.4  356  567  58.4

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 8th
Rbat: 87th
WAA: t-104th
WAR: 49th

With the information we have now, Bell looks more like Brett Butler or Johnny Damon than he does like an all-time great. That may change. With five years of data missing, and prime years at that, we could well find ourselves revising this MLE upward in times to come. We currently fill in his batting profile with a career-average performance. If as data rolls in his career average lifts because of strong peak-season batting lines, he could well become a much better candidate. Bell probably also suffers by dint of his player type and his times. What I mean is that double-play avoidance could add a couple wins or more to his ledger, a la Damon or Ichiro. But we don’t have his GIDP data, and we aren’t estimating it at this juncture so that our data looks like what his data would look like on BBREF. At a later time, however, we will revisit it as we work through our less well-known Negro Leagues candidates and start narrowing down the blackball backlog.

Willard Brown

[Note: Updated 1/14/18 to include 1946 data.]

[Updated 4/3/18 for park-factor correction.]

I’m not sure this MLE is even worth posting. It’s highly provisional, but I’ll share it so that you can see why I’m a little iffy on it.

Think of Willard Brown as Andre Dawson 1.0. He could hit the long ball. Everywhere he went he led the league in homers and/or set season records for them. His nickname was “Home Run.” If he’d come up in the 1980s or 1990s, they’d have called him “Downtown.” You know, you don’t hear people use that word in a baseball context very often any more. Used to be folks would say, “Brown took Paige downtown on a hanging slider” or something like that. Well, slang always changes. Anyway, he had light tower power. He could also run like the wind, and had a decent to good glove with a strong arm. Like Dawson, he also never saw a pitch he didn’t offer at. Walks weren’t his thing. And like Dawson, he lost his speed in mid-career, reducing him to a lesser, below average, player.

The big issue with MLEs for Brown, however, is that much of his career isn’t fully documented. His peak years with the Monarchs after his time in the service aren’t yet on the Negro Leagues Database. His year in the Canadian Border League (1950) is similarly missing from BBREF. God knows where his info and his league’s info are for his 1952 Dominican Summer League play. Well, that and some of his most dominant performances occurred in the Puerto Rican Winter League. For example, hitting 27 homers in a 60 game season. Those leagues haven’t yet made their way into any systematic database. So until we get more info, Brown’s case is open but doesn’t look very good.

Related to this and to his drop-off in play in his thirties is the offensive environments he played in. Brown played a lot in the minor leagues in the 1950s, mostly in the AA Texas League. From age 38—41 he hit 91 homers in 536 games, about 26 per 154 games. Not bad for an oldster. But when you discount for the quality of play at that level, and you do all the other adjustments necessary, his 351 runs created goes down to 234 in translation, lopping off a good third of his hitting value, and basically translating him to a very slightly below average MLB hitter. Which makes sense when you’re a late-thirties player who’s lost his speed and doesn’t walk. It’s precisely what happened to Andre Dawson. But these seasons are contributing to the known career average we use for missing seasons. So at this point, until we have more on his big years in the 1940s, this MLE looks pretty meh. I strongly suspect it will improve with time.

Willard Brown
Negro Leagues Stats | Minor League Stats | Bio
Career: 1935–1956
Destination: AL 1935–1955
Missing data: 1948-1950, 1952
Honors: Baseball Hall of Fame, Hall of Merit, Caribbean Baseball Hall of Fame
Year Age Lg Pos   PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos RAA   WAA  Rrep RAR   WAR
===========================================================================
1935  20 AL  CF  290   14    0    0     2    -1   15   1.4   10   25   2.4
1936  21 AL  CF  430    9    1    0     3    -1   12   1.0   15   26   2.3
1937  22 AL  CF  630   33    1    0     4    -2   37   3.4   22   58   5.4
1938  22 AL  CF  620   29    1    0     4    -1   33   3.0   21   54   4.9
1939  24 AL  CF  600   29    1    0     4    -1   33   3.1   21   54   5.0
1940  25 AL  CF  580   21    1    0     4    -1   25   2.4   20   45   4.4
1941  26 AL  CF  610   18    1    0     3    -1   21   2.1   21   42   4.2
1942  27 AL  CF  610   27    1    0     2    -1   29   3.1   21   50   5.4
1943  28 AL  CF  610   23    1    0     1    -1   25   2.8   21   46   5.3
1944  29 AL  CF      MILITARY SERVICE: WORLD WAR II
1945  30 AL  CF      MILITARY SERVICE: WORLD WAR II
1946  31 AL  CF  590   13    1    0    -2    -1   11   1.2   20   31   3.5
1947  32 AL  CF  550    7    1    0    -3    -1    4   0.5   19   23   2.6
1948  33 AL  CF  600   10    1    0    -4    -1    7   0.7   21   27   2.8
1949  34 AL  RF  600    8    1    0     2    -6    5   0.5   21   25   2.6
1950  35 AL  RF  600   11    1    0     1    -6    7   0.7   21   28   2.7
1951  36 AL  RF  530    9    1    0     0    -5    5   0.5   18   23   2.4
1952  37 AL  RF  480    8    1    0     0    -5    4   0.4   16   20   2.3
1953  38 AL  RF  410    4    1    0    -1    -4    0   0.0   14   14   1.5
1954  39 AL  RF  300    0    0    0    -1    -3  - 3  -0.3   10    7   0.8
1955  40 AL  RF  260  - 2    0    0    -1    -3  - 5  -0.5    9    4   0.4
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
                9900  272   16    1    19   -43  265  25.9  338  603  60.9

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 24th   
Rbat: 69th
WAA: 75th  
WAR: 47th

When we compared Brown to his leagues in stolen bases per opportunity, beginning about age 27, he lost his speed. So you can see that we project him as having average base running for several years and declining fielding numbers in center prior to a switch to right field. He played right late in his playing days in the Texas League.

Oscar Charleston

[Updated 4/3/18 with general improvements.]

As we mentioned when we discussed John Henry Lloyd, Oscar Charleston is one of the four players with the best case as the  Greatest Negro Leaguer of All Time. It’s not only that he had a long and very productive career, but as a peak performer, he’s essentially unmatched by any other position player that we’ve looked at so far. Charleston was a lefty thumper who could run, hit, go get the ball, draw walks, throw, and hit the long ball. At the beginning of his career, he played as shallow as anyone dared and stories abound about how he nonetheless caught everything hit behind him. At the plate, the big lefty terrorized the league to the tune of a 179 OPS+. He swiped 313 bags. For good measure he pitched some games too.

Most of all that great work happened by age 32. James Riley noted that Charleston put on weight as his career went along, losing a step or two afield and on the bases. His bat slowed as well. After age 32, he appears to be a shell of the player he was in his twenties, spending more and more time injured or at first base and contributing less and less. In this regard, Junior Griffey is something of a parallel. Griffey’s demise began after age 30, with injury and fitness being issues. He could still hit a little but the legs and glove had become liabilities even when he could take the field.

But Charleston was so good in his twenties and early thirties that we shouldn’t lose that part of the story in the telling. We’re showing 85 translated WAR through age 32. I’m not familiar with any person who scoff at that. Charleston could do it all and did, and the list of players with big-time talent whose bodies give out on them in their thirties is much lengthier than the list of those who don’t.

Oscar Charleston
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1915–1941
Destination: NL 1915–1936
Missing data: 1929
Honors: Baseball Hall of Fame, Baseball Hall of Merit 

Year Age Lg Pos   PA Rbat Rbaser Rfield  Rpos RAA   WAA Rrep  RAR   WAR
========================================================================
1915  18 NL  CF   10    0    0       0     0    0   0.0    0    0   0.1
1916  19 NL  CF  200    6    1     - 1   - 1    5   0.6    6   11   1.4
1917  20 NL  CF  310   12    1     - 1   - 2   10   1.2   10   19   2.4
1918  21 NL  CF  490   40    1     - 2   - 3   37   4.4   15   53   6.3
1919  22 NL  CF  520   38    1     - 2   - 3   35   4.0   16   51   6.1
1920  23 NL  CF  590   50    2     - 2   - 3   46   5.1   18   64   7.2
1921  24 NL  CF  620   65    2     - 2   - 3   62   6.1   19   81   8.1
1922  25 NL  CF  600   75    2     - 2   - 3   71   6.6   19   90   8.4
1923  26 NL  CF  610   56    2     - 2   - 3   53   5.0   19   72   7.0
1924  27 NL  CF  610   84    2     - 2   - 3   80   7.9   19   99   9.9
1925  28 NL  CF  630   44    2     - 2   - 3   40   3.7   20   60   5.7
1926  29 NL  LF  610   39    2       1   - 6   36   3.7   19   55   5.7
1927  30 NL  LF  610   37    2       1   - 6   34   3.5   19   53   5.4
1928  31 NL  LF  630   31    2       1   - 6   28   2.8   20   48   4.8
1929  32 NL  LF  610   30    2       1   - 6   27   2.5   19   46   4.2
1930  33 NL  1B  610  - 1    2       1   - 6  - 4  -0.4   19   15   1.3
1931  34 NL  1B  610   18    2       1   - 6   15   1.5   19   34   3.6
1932  35 NL  1B  600   14    2       1   - 6   11   1.1   19   29   3.0
1933  36 NL  1B  600   23    2       1   - 6   20   2.3   19   39   4.4
1934  37 NL  1B  440   13    1       1   - 4   10   1.1   14   24   2.5
1935  38 NL  1B  420    5    1       1   - 3    3   0.3   13   16   1.6
1936  39 NL  1B  240    4    1       0   - 2    3   0.3    7   10   1.0
------------------------------------------------------------------------
               11170  683   31     - 5   -87  623  63.1  348  971 100.0

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 9th 
Rbat: 11th 
WAA: 12th  
WAR: 12th

Yeah, that’ll play.

Charleston’s data on the Negro Leagues Database does not support a positive fielding rating for his centerfield range. I’ve chosen to use a positive, but not too positive, figure here as a nod to his defensive reputation. Particularly because we are missing numerous seasons of his centerfield play during the stretch where we are placing him there. His left field rating is based on even less data, but it and his right field data are both above average. His first base rating comes from 274 career games from age 33 onward where he was a little above average.

In general, this is the C.V. of a Hall level player, for sure.

Larry Doby

[Updated 4/3/18 with minor park/league corrections.]

Doby came up as a teenager, played a little in 1942. He started in 1943 and was an immediate sensation, then got called up by Uncle Sam after a handful of games in 1944. Back to the states in 1946, he starred for the Newark Eagles, then early in 1947 signed with the Indians. He never played a minor league game, but the Tribe used him only sparingly in ’47 and mostly for pinch running. Then in 1948, it’s off the races, and from opening day of 1948 he’s one of the best centerfielders in baseball for a decade before he collapsed in his early thirties.

As a little aside, Doby, in a sense, inherited Earl Averill’s role as the great, lefty-swinging All-Star centerfielder for the Indians. Doby played top-level ball from age 18 onward and tailed off badly after age 32. Averill got a very late start to his career and didn’t reach the big leagues until age 27 and starred for the Tribe for years, tailing off at age 37. Fairly similar players:

  • Doby: 6299 PA, 253 HR, 871 BB, 47 SB, 136 OPS+, 269 Rbat, 13 Rfield, 30.6 WAA, 49.6 WAR
  • Averill: 7221 PA, 238 HR, 774 BB, 70 SB, 133 OPS+, 318 Rbat, -32 Rfield, 22.8 WAA, 48 WAR

If you took Doby’s career through age 32 (31 wAA, 47 WAR) and added the rest of Averill’s career from 33 onward (8 WAA, 19 WAR), you’d end up with one hell of a ballplayer: 39 WAA and 66 WAR’s worth. His name might be Duke Snider (35 WAA, 67 WAR) or Kenny Lofton (38 WAA, 68 WAR) or Reggie Smith (35 WAA, 65 WAR) or Billy Hamilton (40 WAA, 63 WAR). Based on their MLB stats alone, neither Doby nor Averill quite makes the Hall of Miller and Eric. Together they’d be among the top 15 to 20 centerfielders ever.

The question for Doby is whether additional understanding of his Negro Leagues data helps enough to get him over the line for the Hall of Miller and Eric.

Larry Doby
Negro Leagues Stats | Major League Stats | Bio
Career: 1942–1959
Destination: AL 1942–1959
Missing data: 1947
Honors: Baseball Hall of Fame, Hall of Merit, Hall of Stats

Year Age Lg Pos   PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos RAA   WAA  Rrep RAR   WAR
===========================================================================
1942  18 AL  CF   10    0    0    0     0    0     0   0.0    0    1   0.1
1943  19 AL  CF  200    7    0    0     1    0     9   1.0    6   15   1.7
1944  20 AL  CF   20    1    0    0     0    0     1   0.1    1    2   0.2
1945  21 AL  CF           MILITARY SERVICE: WORLD WAR II
1946  22 AL  CF  570   33    1    0     4   -1    37   4.0   18   54   6.1
1947  23 AL  CF  520   35    1    0     3   -1    39   4.2   16   55   6.0
1948  24 AL  CF  499   19    1    3    11   -3    32   3.2   16   47   4.6
1949  25 AL  CF  637   22   -1    2     0   -3    20   2.0   20   39   3.8
1950  26 AL  CF  609   45    2    2     4   -1    52   4.9   19   71   6.7
1951  27 AL  CF  551   40    3    2     4   -1    48   4.8   17   65   6.4
1952  28 AL  CF  611   41    3    1     5   -1    49   5.2   19   68   7.1
1953  29 AL  CF  617   26    1    3   - 6   -1    23   2.3   19   42   4.3
1954  30 AL  CF  630   22    1    2    10   -1    34   3.6   20   54   5.7
1955  31 AL  CF  560   16    1    2     0   -1    18   2.0   17   36   3.7
1956  32 AL  CF  619   22    2    3     5   -1    31   3.1   19   50   4.9
1957  33 AL  CF  477   17    0    1   - 9   -1     7   0.7   15   22   2.2
1958  34 AL  CF  276   10    1    0   - 3   -1     7   0.7    8   15   1.5
1959  35 AL  RF  124  - 5   -1    1   - 7   -2   -13  -1.3    4  - 9  -1.0
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
                7530  349   16   22   22   -19   393  40.5  235  626  63.9

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 113th 
Rbat: 42nd 
WAA: 26th  
WAR: 36th

With Doby’s 1946 stats now available on the Negro Leagues Database, we see a nice uptick in our initial estimate for 1946. Doby came back from the war swinging. It helps. A lot.

Because Doby needs the help. Even his Negro Leagues play, he’s fighting to reach the borderline. A telling number is 7,530. That’s a pretty small number of plate appearances for a HoMEr, and it hurts his ability to rack up the kind of overall value that would boost his cause up a little.

* * *

Next time out we’ll look at more centerfielders, this time including Pete Hill, Alejandro Oms, Turkey Stearnes, and Cristobal Torriente.

Evaluating Negro Leagues Shortstops Part 1

[All MLEs updated 7/4/18 to include (a) new 1938 and 1947 data (b) new baserunning-runs estimates(c) new, more objective playing-time estimates]

[Note: These MLEs were updated 12/7/17 to correct formula for Rrep, which was over crediting players by one to two runs per season.]

The Negro Leagues developed more excellent shortstops and centerfielders than any other positions. The best athletes gravitated toward those positions, especially with the smaller rosters and wide ranging quality of blackball teams. Generally, the best right-handed throwing athletes found their way to shortstop, and the lefties to centerfield. The Halls of Fame and Merit have honored six shortstops, and today we’ll look at John Beckwith, Grant “Home Run” Johnson, and John Henry “Pop” Lloyd. We refer you to our Major League Equivalencies (MLEs) for Negro Leagues batters for all the gory details on how we arrive at our numbers.

John Beckwith

Discussions of John Beckwith seem to revolved around his personality problems. He had them, for sure. But let’s first look at his plusses on the field because that’s our primary interest here at the Hall of Miller and Eric.

Beckwith could really swing the bat; that’s why they called him “Boom Boom.” Our MLE shows the big righty as a world-class hitter with more than 400 batting runs in a relatively short career. He hulked over the men of his time at 6’3″ and 220 pounds. That bulk may have cost him some athleticism. He bounced between third and short and first for much of his career without much acumen for any of them. His best position was hitter. He doesn’t appear to have run well on the bases either. But man, could he hit, to the tune of a .344 average, a .580 slugging percentage, and a 166 OPS+ that ranks 11th all-time among players with at least 500 Negro Leagues plate appearances. He was one heck of a player even with his flaws.

Now for the personality. Like Jud Wilson, Beckwith was one of the the Negro Leagues’ four Bad Men. There’s an interesting comparison to be drawn between the folk music of white folks and that of African Americans. In songs like “Jesse James” and “Pretty Boy Floyd” white songsters celebrated these bad men as Robin Hood like figures. They tended to romanticize these criminals into heroes. African American folk songs such as “Stagger Lee” (also known as “Stagolee,” “Stackolee,” and many variants thereof) don’t do so. Its famous chorus tells it like it is, “He’s a bad man, O, Stagolee.” These songs demonstrate respect (if not admiration) for forceful men not by varnishing their stories but by just telling them.

This is how I see a certain strain of Negro Leagues lore, the part that retells the worst of what some men did in the pursuit of the game, a living, and a place in the history of their community. This isn’t to say that Beckwith or Wilson stampeding an umpire or beating an opposing player senseless makes them great ballplayers or anything less than appalling in their behavior. No, indeed. Instead, it may well describe their drive, what made them stand out from the crowd. It explained, in part, why they bucked the odds and competed at the highest levels.

Beckwith’s career is peppered with incidents that would make Milton Bradley blush. He was suspected of killing a man in Chicago, which forced him to switch teams in 1924. He hooked on in the east, beat up an umpire and had to jump town again. He went to Harrisburg, made some scenes, bounced around some more. Once when a teammate made a public demonstration of his frustration with a Beckwith fielding error, the burly brawler knocked him cold. Negro Leagues researcher James Riley goes to great pains to describe Beckwith’s issues, in fact,

The numbers he accumulated during his career are impressive but, unfortunately, his contributions to a team with his natural ability were offset by negative intangibles. Beckwith was moody, brooding, hot-tempered, and quick to fight. Combined with a severe drinking problem, and an often lazy, unconcerned attitude about playing, his character deficiencies often negated his performance value.

There’s a certain danger in talking about someone’s character, especially someone you’ve never met, and there’s more danger in taking third-party descriptions like this at face value. I don’t doubt that Beckwith wasn’t a great guy, and that he had some bad people problems. Was he a Milton Bradley? Was he a Mitch Melusky? Was he a Gary Sheffield? A Kevin Mitchell? I would bet no one really knows, especially given how different the baseball culture of today is compared to the baseball culture of the Negro Leagues. But the interesting line here is that these “character deficiencies often negated his performance value.” Hmmm. Rube Foster tried to sign this guy a bunch of times. Beckwith never lacked for work while his skills stayed sharp. Was he really a “lazy” player? He wasn’t much in the field, but was that because he was dogging it or because he wasn’t a good fielder?

John Beckwith
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1919–1937
Destination: NL 1920–1934
Missing data: 1927, 1929
Honors: Hall of Merit

Year Age Lg Pos    PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos RAA   WAA Rrep  RAR   WAR
===========================================================================
1920  20 NL SS     70    2    0    0     0     1    4   0.4    2    6   0.7
1921  21 NL SS    360   19    0    0    -1     5   23   2.3   11   35   3.5
1922  22 NL SS    470   31    0    0    -1     6   37   3.4   15   51   4.9
1923  23 NL SS    460   19    0    0    -1     6   25   2.4   14   39   3.8
1924  24 NL SS    520   38    0    0    -1     7   44   4.4   16   60   6.1
1925  25 NL SS    510   25    0    0    -1     7   31   2.9   16   47   4.4
1926  26 NL 3B    490   26    0    0    -4     3   26   2.6   15   41   4.2
1927  27 NL 3B    510   22    0    0    -4     3   21   2.1   16   37   3.8
1928  28 NL 3B    540   10    0    0    -4     3    9   0.9   17   26   2.6
1929  29 NL 3B    520   30    0    0    -4     3   29   2.6   16   46   4.1
1930  30 NL 1B    460   53    0    0    -6    -4   43   3.7   14   57   4.9
1931  31 NL 1B    470   40    0    0    -6    -5   30   3.0   15   45   4.6
1932  32 NL 1B    450   33    0    0    -6    -4   23   2.3   14   37   3.8
1933  33 NL 1B    430    9    0    0    -5    -4    0   0.0   13   13   1.5
1934  34 NL 1B    390  - 1    0    0    -5    -4   -9   0.9   12    3   0.3
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
                 6650  355    5    0   -49    24  336  32.1  207  543  53.3

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 181st
Rbat: 41st
WAA: 46th
WAR: 64th

Some notes, especially on fielding. With this post, I’m running a new version of fielding value for each player. I had been making educated guesses previous, but now I’m basing fielding on an objective system. You can read about that in the MLE methodology post cited in the intro to this post. I’m going to go back and change the fielding results for those players this will affect. It won’t affect most who had a significant MLB career because we’ve used their MLB rates wherever appropriate.

Clearly, Beckwith was challenged defensively. Specifically regarding  defense at first base, Boom Boom snapped an ankle in 1930, limiting his mobility severely, and his baserunning shows a marked decrease after that season. I haven’t made any specific changes to his defensive rating at this time, though one could argue for that. Also, I considered capping Beckwith’s defense at -50 runs. Before PBP, virtually no throwing infielders drop below that mark. On the other hand, once PBP comes around, some players do drop below that threshold. At this point, we’ll have to consider that as an open question for his candidacy.

I mentioned a couple guys above that I think have a certain aptness to them as latter-day versions of Beckwith: Gary Sheffield and Kevin Mitchell. Both came up as shortstop/third-base types, struggled defensively no matter where they played, were righty hitters who smoked the ball, and had really questionable attitudes. Body-type wise, and career-length wise Mitchell might well fit the bill better than Sheff, but the latter’s controversial ping-ponging from team to team fits well in its way.

Grant Johnson

[Updated 4/3/18 for minor park-factor correction.]

Johnson got his nickname, “Home Run,” reportedly by hitting 60 homers for a semipro team in 1894. Later, in the second act of his career in the Negro Leagues, he’d go by “Dad.” The Hall of Fame overlooked him, much to their detriment. The smart middle infielder kept himself in good shape and played a long time at a high level at the top levels. He went on into his fifties among the lower-tier leagues and teams. His play among the top teams and in winter ball featured high averages, decent line-drive power for the deadball era, and a discerning batting eye. While not a top run producer, he hit more than enough to be an asset in a championship lineup. While not a prolific base stealer (we’re showing as an average baserunner), he nonetheless had enough speed and quickness to make an outstanding fielder on either side of second base. He shifted to second while teamed with the younger John Henry Lloyd, making them probably the best keystone combo in Negro League’s history or very high on the list. Sadly, however, Johnson appears to have received scant attention from the Hall voters, and his absence is glaring. He played a very long time ago, and the lore from his days didn’t travel nearly as well as that from those still alive to tell the tales.

Grant "Home Run" Johnson
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1895–1914
Destination: NL 1995–1914
Missing data: 1895, 1896, 1898
Honors: Hall of Merit

Year Age Lg Pos    PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos RAA   WAA Rrep  RAR   WAR
===========================================================================
1895  22 NL SS    450    8    0    0     3     6   17   1.3   14   31   2.5
1896  23 NL SS    510    8    0    0     3     7   18   1.5   16   34   2.9
1897  24 NL SS    500    1    0    0     3     7   10   0.9   16   26   2.3
1898  25 NL SS    570   11    0    0     4     8   22   2.1   18   40   3.9
1899  26 NL SS    570   18    0    0     4     8   29   2.7   18   47   4.4
1900  27 NL SS    520    9    0    0     3     7   19   1.8   17   36   3.4
1901  28 NL SS    520    8    0    0     3     7   18   1.8   17   35   3.5
1902  29 NL SS    510  - 1    0    0     3     7    9   1.0   16   25   2.9
1903  30 NL SS    520    8    0    0     3     7   18   1.8   17   35   3.5
1904  31 NL SS    550   14    0    0     4     8   25   2.8   18   43   4.9
1905  32 NL SS    560   15    0    0     4     8   26   2.9   18   44   4.9
1906  33 NL SS    500   16    0    0     3     7   27   3.2   16   43   5.2
1907  34 NL SS    560   14    0    0     4     8   26   3.2   18   44   5.6
1908  35 NL SS    480    7    0    0     3     8   17   2.2   15   33   4.2
1909  36 NL SS    460  - 7    0    0     3     7    3   0.3   15   17   2.1
1910  37 NL 2B    430    2    0    0     5     7    7   0.8   14   21   2.4
1911  38 NL 2B    340    7    0    0     4     0   11   1.2   11   22   2.3
1912  39 NL 2B    300    7    0    0     4     0   11   1.1   10   20   2.1
1913  40 NL 2B    280   14    0    0     3     0   17   1.9    9   26   2.9
1914  41 NL 2B    200    9    0    0     2     0   12   1.3    6   18   2.1
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
                 9330  168  - 4    0    68   110  342  35.9  299  641  68.0

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 39th
Rbat: 150th
Rfield: 15th (shortstops only)
WAA: t-38th
WAR: 32nd

Johnson’s fielding numbers are good. We’re seeing him as an average baserunner, and the kind of player whose ability to stay at a key position throughout a long career makes him a star. Alan Trammell with a better glove and less value on the bases isn’t a bad comparison. Since we easily elected Tram, Johnson’s got a great shot with us.

John Henry Lloyd

They called him “The Black Wagner.” Honus was still in fine form when Lloyd made the scene, and the comparison made great sense. Like Wagner, Lloyd hit a lot more than most shortstops and stood out defensively. Like Wagner, Lloyd was 5’11”, though the former had about 20 pounds on the latter. Both came across to observers as rangy, and contemporaries told the same story about Lloyd in the field that they did about Wagner: often when he threw the ball to first, it came with lots of dust because he shoveled balls out of the dirt with his big hands.

Perhaps most importantly, the name suggested that Lloyd stood atop the black baseball pyramid, the number one player in the Negro Leagues. Indeed, we can defensibly include only four men in the GOAT discussion for the Negro Leagues. With apologies to Martin Dihigo, Bullet Rogan, Smokey Joe Williams, and Turkey Stearns, the big four are: Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and John Henry Lloyd. At risk of spoiling our centerfield MLEs for you, here’s how we see these players. All batters figures are in 162-game notation. [Note: The following chart is not being updated.]

The Best of the Best
                 WINS ABOVE AVERAGE | WINS ABOVE REPLACEMENT
NAME               CAREER   BEST7   |   CAREER   BEST7 
============================================================
Oscar Charleston      66      47    |    103      61
Josh Gibson           63      37    |     92      52
John Henry Lloyd      71      39    |    110      58
Satchel Paige         69      32    |    118      50

I don’t claim to have an answer for you. This list boils down to the questions of peak versus career, pitchers versus hitters, and one’s interpretation of the defensive spectrum. Still, no matter how you slice it Lloyd belongs in this argument and has some bona fides for winning it. Really, what more do we need to know about him?

John Henry Lloyd
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1906–1932
Destination: NL 1907–1925
Missing data: 1927, 1929
Honors: Hall of Fame, Hall of Merit

Year Age Lg Pos    PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos RAA   WAA Rrep  RAR   WAR
===========================================================================
1906  22 NL SS    500  - 3    0    0     2     7    6   0.8   16   22   2.7
1907  23 NL SS    570    6    0    0     2     8   17   2.1   18   34   4.4
1908  24 NL SS    530   16    0    0     2     8   26   3.3   17   43   5.5
1909  25 NL SS    580   41    0    0     2     8   51   6.0   18   69   8.2
1910  26 NL SS    590   28    0    0     2     8   39   4.3   18   57   6.4
1911  27 NL SS    600   39    0    0     2     8   50   5.1   19   69   7.1
1912  28 NL SS    610   32    0    0     2     9   43   4.3   19   62   6.3
1913  29 NL SS    580   30    0    0     2     8   40   4.3   18   58   6.4
1914  30 NL SS    590   15    0    0     2     9   26   3.0   18   44   5.2
1915  31 NL SS    570   22    0    0     2     8   33   3.9   18   51   6.1
1916  32 NL SS    600   23    0    0     2     9   34   4.2   19   53   6.6
1917  33 NL SS    590   14    0    0     2     9   25   3.1   18   44   5.4
1918  34 NL SS    470   13    0    0     2     7   22   2.6   15   36   4.4
1919  35 NL SS    450   14    0    0     2     6   22   2.6   14   36   4.4
1920  36 NL SS    480   14    0    0     2     7   23   2.6   15   38   4.3
1921  37 NL SS    440   14    0    0     2     6   22   2.2   14   36   3.6
1922  38 NL 1B    350    9    0    0     2   - 3    7   0.7   11   18   1.7
1923  39 NL 1B    260    5    0    0     1   - 2    3   0.3    8   11   1.1
1924  40 NL 1B    290   11    0    0     1   - 3    9   0.9    9   18   1.9
1925  41 NL 1B    200    2    0    0     1   - 2    0   0.0    6    7   0.6
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
                 9850  344    0    0    40   115  499  56.3  307  806  92.4

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 24th
Rbat: 42nd
Rfield: t-45th (shortstop only)
WAA: 13th
WAR: 14th

Lloyd did everything well. He hit very well, he ran the bases very well, his fielding numbers are nicely above average at shortstop and at first. An often overlooked attribute that separates GOAT players in any baseball setting from the second-tier candidates is durability and its cousin longevity. Lloyd has them in spades and kept his game at a high level deep into his career. Our MLE gently decrements him into retirement, but his actual numbers remained playable into his forties.

Let’s talk about 1906 for a brief moment. In that, Lloyd’s real rookie year, he would project as a slightly below average hitter, and in 1907, as we see above, he projects as an above average batter. He truly hits his stride in 1909 at age 25. We could have also projected 1906, and probably tagged on an extra one to three WAR with below average hitting and above average running and fielding. This is just what we did this time around, and we could easily see it either way. Heckuva’ player.

In our July, 2018 update, we added Lloyd’s 1906 season back in. He was a below average hitter but well above replacement overall. Our new baserunning estimates don’t show Lloyd a much of a baserunner. The data on stolen bases is known to be a little suspect, so it’s possible we don’t have a complete picture at this time of his ability to steal above the league’s rate. And, really, we just threw a dart and picked 40 runs when we made our initial estimate because of his reputation for speed.

* * *

Next time we continue with part two of our short stop at shortstop with Dick Lundy, Dobie Moore, and Willie Wells.

Major League Equivalencies for Negro Leagues Hitters

About a month ago, we told you about our Major League Equivalency (MLE) protocol for Negro Leagues pitchers. That 26-step protocol, swelled as it is by subroutines of all sorts, will seem genuinely straightforward compared to this what we’re about to unleash. But stick with it, the truth is out there, and we’re trying to use every tool we can to get at it. And, hey, we’d like to know if we can make it better, so your feedback is super helpful. On the other hand, this monster of a post is about 6,500 words, so if you want to just trust us, you can. But this sucker is here for your reference and ours if we ever need it.

As we go along, discovering  more nuances, nooks, and crannies, we may have occasion to edit this methodology. When we do, edits will appear in red, and those elements affected will be shown in gray to indicate that they are no longer up to date.

The Big Picture

Our goal in creating MLEs is twofold. First, we want every Negro Leagues player’s records to be recontextualized onto a level, neutral platform. That’s because in the Negro Leagues, the different teams, leagues, parks, seasons, whathaveyou, were not of uniform quality and behavior. In fact, they varied far more than the majors did. So just among the Negro Leaguers themselves, we need this to help us make wise electoral decisions. On top of that, however, we want to get a sense of how these guys compare to MLB players so that we can place their achievements into a context that’s more familiar to us.

We don’t have a lot of interest in creating component stat lines: homers, RBI, strikeouts, HPBs. That stuff is all fascinating in its way, but we don’t place specific importance on those figures here at the Hall of Miller and Eric. We prefer to look holistically at what the combination of those recorded events meant in context—value, if you prefer. So we’re after WAR, just as we are with pitchers.

The process of locating a Negro Leaguer’s value in his collected statistics (at the Negro Leagues Database and elsewhere) follows a similar path to what we did with pitchers, in as much as we find his rate of production, recontextualize it with z-scores, adjust for Quality of Play and park effects, then apply it to an MLB playing-time estimate. Simple enough, right? But we also want to pay attention to things like what position the player would have played in the majors, his fielding value, his baserunning value, and, depending on what seasons in MLB history we’re talking about, his double-play-avoidance value.

The work we do initially as we translate performance and arrive at an initial playing-time estimate requires very little manual intervention on our part. It’s when we get into running and fielding that we are forced to make some decisions on our own. That’s where the human element comes in and careful judgment becomes our watch-phrase.

But when we get done, we have an estimate of what kind of value a fellow would rack up in the big leagues. It’s not a perfect estimate, though it’s the best we currently know how to do. We would also express the caveat that MLEs are likely best absorbed first at the career level then, with careful discernment, at the seasonal level. Due to shorter schedules and concomitantly increased volatility in stat lines, and despite some effort on our part to dampen that volatility, year-by-year MLEs simply won’t be as reliable as a career value. Which itself is an estimate, not the holy gospel of the Negro Leagues.

But other than that, they are perfect indicators of performance and value….

Before we get going, let’s define our terms

This is just going to go down easier if we use the same lingo. And since I can’t hear you to agree to a particular jargon, you’ll just have to use mine. These terms will pop up a lot.

  • Originating League/Team: The team he actually played for
  • Destination League: The league we are translating his stats into and creating an equivalency for
  • Quality of Play (QOP):  Which assumes that MLB is 1.0, and everything else is discounted from it
  • Translated: Stats that been transformed from the originating league into the destination league’s run and league-quality context; an intermediate step en route to the fuller equivalent performance
  • Equivalent: Stats whose basis is in translated figures but that include further adjustments to place the player into a broader MLB context and ensure that small samples don’t overly skew the results.

There’ll be the usual alphabet soup along the way, and we’ll define the acronyms as we go.

The Process…in Prose

So let’s begin by my explaining this protocol in English, then we’ll run through a real-life example from the career of the great Oscar Charleston.

Translating Actual Performance

1) Find the rate of player’s offensive performance.
2) Compare to his own league.
3) Place into MLB context.
4) Adjust for the quality of his league.
5) Adjust for his park.
6)Adjust for his strength of schedule.

Creating an Initial Estimate of Playing Time and Batting Runs Above Average (Rbat)

7) Express as RC, then figure his translated Rbat,then express the result per PA.
8) Create a rolling average of Rbat to create the final MLE rate of batting performance.
9) Estimate the player’s games played into an MLB schedule based on his in-season and career durability records.
10) Apply the destination league’s PA/game to those estimated games.

So, now we have an initial estimate of the player’s MLB Rbat for the season. But before we go any further, we need to fine-tune our playing-time estimate because everything else after this depends upon it.

Fine-tuning Playing Time

11) First, we look at any batting seasons at the beginning or end of a player’s career. If they are well below average, we will not consider them part of his MLE—either he’d have been in the minors or, at the other end of things, aged out of the game. A general rule of thumb is that after age 38, two seasons well below average batting is probably enough to retire someone.
12) Next, we look at the player’s biographical material. If there are any injuries that would keep him out of the lineup, we see if our PA estimate reflects it appropriately. Because of the less stable nature of the Negro Leagues, we also look for league/team jumping, and other oddball movements that would affect playing time but didn’t occur in MLB. We adjust accordingly.
13) Now we look for players with similar careers and styles to our man. We look for players at his position (or a similar one), roughly during his time, with similar offensive and defensive profiles (OPS+ and Rfield are good barometers here), and who fall roughly within a similar number of seasons as a regular. Once we have a bunch of them identified, 10–12 is best when possible, we look at their playing time, especially for and across the ages that we are including in our MLE. We look for a rough number of plate appearances to shoot for.
14) Armed with the information in #11, we adjust very early and very young seasons first to fit both general trends among all players and specific trends among comps. This should get us pretty close to our goal. Beyond that, we can add or trim as necessary to get to a career with a reasonable playing-time approximation.

So, now we have an initial estimate of the player’s MLB Rbat for the season and a more realistic estimate of his playing time. We can move on.

Estimating Baserunning

BBREF uses a regression-based formula derived from stolen-base information to estimate baserunning for seasons prior to 1953 (after which they have complete play-by-play data to rely on). But we don’t have quite the same level of information they do for our Negro Leagues players. We do, however, have enough to take a swing at it in a different way. We can do something along the lines of the investigations of prewar baserunning we did for Sam Rice and others. Here’s how we’ll do it.

15) For each season with the necessary information, find a player’s stolen bases per opportunity.
16) Find the same for his teams.
17) Find the same for his originating leagues.
18) Adjust his rate for his own team’s tendency to run or not.
19) Compare the team-adjusted rate to his league and figure his percentage of steals above or below league average.
20) Now, find MLB players from the PBP era with similarly long careers and find similar percentages of SB above the league. Because Negro Leagues boxscores may not always have carried stolen base info, it’s OK to pad this by as much as double for players with very speedy reputations, so, for example, 125% of league becomes 150%. (This is kind of a pain, so we’ve only used four to six at a time, 10 would be better.)
21) Find the average Rbaser/PA of those MLB comps and apply it on a per-season basis to the player’s estimated PAs.
22) If the candidate has a pronounced decline in his net steals versus the league, sculpt the trajectory of his running runs appropriately.

Estimating Double-Play Avoidance

We only estimate runs from double-play avoidance (Rdp) from 1948 onward because this is when BBREF’s data kick in.

23) Identify lots of MLB batters of the same handedness, similar Rbaser, and similar career length, and calculate their Rdp/PA.
24) Apply the group’s average in Step 17 to each season of the player’s career.

Estimating Fielding Runs

The samples in the Negro Leagues are pretty small, so we need to mix together the DRA information we see in the Negro Leagues Database with a good dose of real MLB careers. This will give us a value to plug into the column called Rfield on BBREF, though we aren’t using Total Zone or Defensive Runs Saved as they do because the Negro Leagues Database helpfully uses DRA (Defensive Regression Analysis) instead. But first, we need to determine our man’s position.

25) Determine the player’s position for a given season or career by examining where he played in the originating league and how well he played there. If he started at shortstop, was bad at it, then moved to another position and was average or good, we might consider putting him at the latter position all the time. This is a subjective judgment, and we should look at real big-league careers for examples.
26) Find the player’s DRA/G rate in his originating league at whatever position or positions he will be placed at in our MLE.

November 26th, 2017: Please note that we’ve created a more objective means to generate fielding estimates, so step 26 is now out of date. Here’s what step 26 looks like now:

26) Find the player’s career DRA/154 games.

26a) Find the fifty players with the highest number of appearances in the Negro Leagues at the player’s position (because the Negro Leagues Database lacks DRA for some seasons where it lacks games, only count the appearances in seasons that include DRA), and for each figure their career DRA/154 at that position.

26b) Find the standard deviation of DRA/154 among the 50 players in 26a.

26c) Repeat the process in steps 26a and 26b for the major leagues for the same period of time the Negro Leagues Database covers (1887––1945 as of this writing), substituting BBREF’s Rfield for DRA. (Technically, I used the BBREF Play Index, setting it to seek shortstops with more than 50% of their games at the same position, and returning their career Rfield. This will have to be close enough because otherwise, we’d be at it for weeks.)

26d) Divide the player’s DRA/154 (step 26) by the standard deviation of the Negro Leagues players at his position (step 26b) then multiply by the standard deviation result for MLB players in step 26 c. This is the player’s MLB career Rfield/154.

27) Apply that rate to the number of games in a season imputed by the estimated PAs we’ve assigned earlier in this process.
28) Check whether his defensive performance declined over time, and make any seasonal adjustments necessary to mirror that.
29) Double check against real MLB careers to see if the number of fielding runs generated are reasonable.

Determining Positional Runs

30) We do this exactly the same way that BBREF does here, based on the position we have assigned the player.

Calculating Runs and Wins Above Average

31) Now for each season we add the player’s Rbat, Rbaser, Rdp, Rfield, and Rpos to get his Runs Above Average (RAA).
32) To convert that to Wins Above Average, we follow BBREF’s instructions here.

Calculating Replacement Runs and Wins Above Replacement

33) We calculate replacement runs (Rrep) just as BBREF instructs us here.
34) Next we turn those Rrep into the player’s replacement-level wins per BBREF’s instructions here.
35) Finally, we add the WAA and replacement-level wins to get WAR.

The last thing we need to do is simply make sure that the MLE isn’t out of whack with real players and leagues. If we’ve estimated Josh Gibson for 1000 Rbat, we’re making a mistake. We are also making a mistake if we estimate him at 200. It’s always good to double check our work.

We’re now topping 1600 words. Are we there yet? No. Now we’ll get into the dirty-finger-nail details. Let’s take Oscar Charleston for a spin, and see how this all plays out in reality. There’s going to be a lot of moving parts, and if you’re following along at home, you’ll want to get another beer now.

A real example: Oscar Charleston, 1921

Now, we’ll run through this with Oscar Charleston’s 1921 season. This will reveal some nitty gritty details about what performance measures we use, and how we place players into an MLB run-context. I’ve only given you a framework, but you can use any old measurements or transformations you want to.

OSCAR CHARLESTON 1921
Originating league: Negro National League (NNL)
Originating team: St. Louis Giants
Destination league: 1921 NL

We have chosen our default destination league as the National League. We use the AL only when a player’s first appearance is in it.

1) Find the rate of player’s offensive performance

I’ve chosen to use Bill James’ Runs Created (the 2002 version) due to its relative simplicity. Not that any run estimators are all that simple, and we’re going to turn it into RC/PA. But first I need to address three small things: strikeouts, grounded into double plays (GIDP), and reached on error (ROE). BBREF creates estimates for these and/or simply includes them in its batting-runs estimate for players. Although we want to maintain some degree of compatibility with them, very little of the data we will work with includes this information. To keep things as simple as we can, we will not be assigning a player an estimate of what the average hitter in his league would accumulate in those categories. By not including them, we simply assume the player in question and every other player in the league are average in these categories. By doing so, when we place the player into an MLB context, we won’t need to make any further adjustments for the lack of this information. We just assume once again that he is average in these regards in MLB. For most hitters, these are not a huge source of credits or debits, but it will help or hinder certain types of hitters. Sometimes you go to translation with the data you have. It’s worth noting, however, that we will estimate player’s GIDP-avoidance value for seasons after 1948, as you’ll see below, so at least there they can recoup or de(?)coup some value.

We will only be using Charleston’s 1921 NNL season, and we will not include his play in five games against Major League players. That might sound odd, but with such small samples involving only two teams, and the MLB team not always comprised solely of MLB caliber players, it gets dicey fast.

 

Now we can run the RC2002 formula. BBREF does not include steals and caught stealing in batting runs (Rbat), nor intentional walks and sac bunts, so we don’t either. This has gone on plenty long, and you can find James’ equation at the link I shared.  Charleston bashed his way to 93 runs created in 339 PA, or 0.273/PA. Hitting .433/.512/.736 (249 OPS+) will do that.

2) Compare to his own league

As we did with pitchers, we’re using z-scores. Charleston’s 0.273 RC/PA came in a league with a 0.109 mean RC/PA. The league’s Standard Deviation in that department was 0.092:

( 0.276 – 0.109 ) / 0.092 = 1.78

3) Place into MLB context

The NL of 1921 had a mean RC/PA of .099 and STDEV of .083, therefore:

( 1.78 * .083 ) + .099 = 0.246 RC/PA

4) Adjust for the quality of his league

We rate the NNL of 1921 at just above AAA level, 0.85 of MLB. But we use it at two-thirds strength. I ran a wimpy little regression (says the untrained statistician) in excel that suggested the length of the schedule was perhaps responsible for a third or so of the variation observed in the Negro Leagues. Thus:

( ( ( 1 – 0.85 ) * 0.33 ) + 1 ) * 0.246 RC/PA = 0.221 RC/PA

5) Adjust for his park

Using the same park-factor calculations as we showed you in the article on our MLE process for pitching, we get a 1.13 park factor for the 1921 St. Louis Giants. We use it at half strength since teams typically play half their games at home.

( ( ( 1.13 – 1 ) / 2 ) + 1 ) * 0.221 RC/PA = 0.208 RC/PA

6) Adjust for his strength of schedule

If this information is available, we multiply by the strength of schedule discount if the player’s RC/PA is positive, or we divide if it is negative. We don’t yet have that information available, so we needn’t take action here.

We have now translated Oscar Charleston’s 1921 batting performance into a neutral 1921 NL context. Now we need to create an initial estimate for his playing time.

7) Express as RC, figure his translated Rbat, then express the result per PA

Charleston batted 323 times, so we multiply by his 0.208 RC/PA to get 70.6 RC. We turn that into Rbat by subtracting the number of runs an average 1921 NL hitter would accumulate in 339 PAs. The NL mean in step 3 was .099 RC/PA, which in 339 PA is 33.6. So Charleston picked up 37.1 Rbat in those 339 PA. That boils down to .109 Rbat/PA.

8) Create a rolling average of Rbat to create the final MLE rate of batting performance.

Same thing we did with our pitchers’ performance. 5-year rolling average centered on the year in question.

( Year N * 0.60 ) + ( Year N+1 * 0.15 ) + ( Year N-1 * 0.15 ) + ( Year N+2 * 0.05 ) + ( Year N-2 * 0.05 )

In Charleston’s case:

( .109 * 0.60 ) + ( 0.120 * 0.15 ) + ( 0.072 * 0.15 ) + ( 0.048 * 0.05 ) + ( 0.06 * 0.05 ) = 0.100 Rbat/PA

9) Estimate the player’s games played into an MLB schedule based on his in-season and/or career durability records.

We will credit the player all the games he actually played then apportion the rest of the destination league’s schedule based on his career games played per team game.

( ( 154 – team games ) * career games / total team games ) + games

The St. Louis Giants played 79 games, and Charleston appeared in 77 of them. At the career level, we only count those games in seasons we will include in his final MLE. We are not counting 1915 and 1916, so Charleston played 1132 games among his team’s 1233 contests, or 92%. Thus

( ( 154 – 79 ) * 0.92 ) + 77 = 146

We cap this at 95% of the destination league’s schedule to avoid having too many seeming iron men.

10) Apply the destination league’s PA/game to those estimated games

The 1921 NL had 4.26 PA per game per lineup slot, so 146 * 4.256 = 621 PA

If we stopped here, Oscar would have 62.3 Rbat, which is a healthy total. No we’re going to fine-tune our playing time estimates and then work on running, DP avoidance, and fielding.

11) First, we look at any batting seasons at the beginning or end of a player’s career. If they are well below average, we will not consider them part of his MLE—either he’d have been in the minors or, at the other end of things, aged out of the game. A general rule of thumb is that after age 38, two seasons well below average batting is probably enough to retire someone.

Charleston got a lot of playing time at ages 18–20. As we’ve demonstrated previously, almost no one appears very often at that age. But players do appear. Charleston’s equivalent production for those years isn’t bad, so we’ll include them, but instead of as a full-time player, we’ll give him a very small number of PAs at 18 and 19, with an increasing number at age 20, then roughly full-time play from age 21 onward.

Charleston also played deep into his forties. Most players start to sputter badly around 37 or 38. But his last productive equivalent year is probably age 37. So we’ll wind up his career at age 39 with sharp decreases in his playing time.

12) Next, we look at the player’s biographical material. If there are any injuries that would keep him out of the lineup, we see if our PA estimate reflects it appropriately. Because of the less stable nature of the Negro Leagues, we also look for league/team jumping, and other oddball movements that would affect playing time but didn’t occur in MLB. We adjust accordingly.

Charleston rarely missed a game, and we could find no evidence of extended absence due to injury. His 1919 season does have a weird two-team element to it that sheds light on how careful we need to be. The amazing Gary Ashwill told us that in 1919, Charleston played in 24 of the Chicago American Giants’ 24 league games through August 3rd. However, in the last days of July, race riots broke out in the city, and the American Giants’ home field (Schorling Park) was occupied by the Illinois state militia, forcing the cancelation of a series with the Atlantic City Bacharachs. The Giants were in Detroit when the riots erupted and stayed put but had no games scheduled elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Detroit Stars and Hilldale Club were about to kick off a series. So the three clubs ended up played a three-way doubleheader on August 3rd. Charleston played in the first game for his own team versus Detroit, then for Detroit in game two, while other Chicagoans played for Detroit as well. He played in three others for Detroit as well. Charleston rejoined his own club for a contest with the Stars on August 9th, and overall played 17 out of their final 18. If you just looked at the stats, it would appear that Charleston played 41 of 42 for Chicago and 5 of 41 for Detroit, or 46 out of a possible 83 games. Or perhaps you’d split the dfference and call it 46 of 63 or something. In fact, he played 24 of 24 for Chicago, 5 of 5 for Detroit, and 17 of 18 for Chicago, for a grand total of 46 of 47. Only in the Negro Leagues.

It would be good for us to quickly discuss winter league play here as well. We include it for sure, and we ultimately combine it with summer play. First, however, we work it through all the steps for translating offensive performance. Right before step 8, however, we combine any same-season stints by taking an average weighted by PAs. For purposes like this, we consider Opening Day of the Negro Leagues season as day one of a given calendar year. So the 1927–1928 winter ball season, or any winter ball played in the first three or four months of 1928 all counts toward 1927’s batting record.

13) Now we look for players with similar careers and styles to our man. We look for players at his position (or a similar one), roughly during his time, with similar offensive and defensive profiles (OPS+ and Rfield are good barometers here), and who fall roughly within a similar number of seasons as a regular. Once we have a bunch of them identified, 10–12 is best when possible, we look at their playing time, especially for and across the ages that we are including in our MLE. We look for a rough number of plate appearances to shoot for.

Charleston is a little difficult because the only centerfielders prior to the 1960s who hit like him are Cobb and Speaker. Charleston’s record doesn’t suggest that he was able to keep the high-octane performances of his twenties going into his thirties. More like Ken Griffey, Jr., in this regard than Cobb and Speaker. So centerfielders actually don’t provide a useable set of comps.

So we turned to heavy-hitting corner outfielders who aren’t on the Ruth level: Rbat greater than 300 but not above 600. Defensively, Charleston wasn’t great anywhere in the outfield, at least according to DRA. We take DRA’s arm runs out of the picture entirely because they aren’t all that trustworthy. But Charleston was a good first baseman. So, in general, we’re not overly worried about comping defensive performance, except we don’t want any slow-footed sluggers because Charleston was athletic, at least until he put on weight in his late twenties and thirties.

The list that BBREF’s Play Index spat back included: Al Simmons, Paul Waner, Sam Crawford, Jesse Burkett, Fred Clarke, Goose Goslin, Willie Keeler, Zack Wheat, Sherry Magee, Joe Kelley, Harry Heilmann, Joe Medwick, and Ed Delahanty. These guys had a median 9519 career PA. But we also need to account for differing schedules, especially prior to 1904. When we adjust everything to a 154 game slate, these come out at 9622 on average and a median of 9992. So our target looks like 9600–10000 PA.

14) Armed with the information in #11, we adjust very early and very young seasons first to fit both general trends among all players and specific trends among comps. This should get us pretty close to our goal. Beyond that, we can add or trim as necessary to get to a career with a reasonable playing-time approximation.

Among the comps we’ve selected, none played at age 18, four at age 19 (averaging 60 PA), seven at age 20 (average 145 PA, median 57). At age 21, they stepped up to about 350–400 PA, then from age 22 through 34 were full-time players. They began to sputter at 35, at age 36, as a group, their playing time is in full decline, and we can start to hear the death rattle at 37. Just three of them appeared after age 39. So this gives us a good idea of the shape of a career, and we’ll use Charleston’s actual production in concert with this information from comps and our info on very old and young players noted above to create estimates for his time. In 1921 specifically, Charleston was 24, and the 621 PA initial estimate we created is solid.

Now for baserunning.

15) For each season with the necessary information, find a player’s stolen bases per opportunity.

With no play-by-play information, we calculate opportunities as times on base minus extra-base hits. So for Charleston in 1921 we get:

32 SB / ( ( 123 H – 44 XBH ) + 41 BB + 5 HPB ) = 0.256 SB/OPP

16) Find the same for his teams.

By the same formula, the St. Louis Giants stole 0.161 bases per opportunity

17) Find the same for his originating leagues.

The league’s SB/OPP was 0.12.

18) Adjust his rate for his own team’s tendency to run or not.

( lgSB/OPP / tm SB/OPP ) * SB/OPP

For Charleston:

0.12 / 0.161 * 0.265 = 0.198 adjSB/OPP

19) Compare the team-adjusted rate to his league and figure his percentage of steals above or below league average.

0.198 adjSB/OPP / 0.12lgSB/OPP = 159%

Charleston stole 59% more bases than his leagues.

20) Now, find MLB players from the PBP era with similarly long careers and find similar percentages of SB above the league. Because Negro Leagues boxscores may not always have carried stolen base info, it’s OK to pad this by as much as double for players with very speedy reputations, so, for example, 125% of league becomes 150%. (This is kind of a pain, so we’ve only used four to six at a time, 10 would be better.)

Charleston was known as a fast player, at least early on, so we’ll give him a little padding. We located a few long-career players in MLB’s play-by-play era who stole 70% to 90% more than their leagues: Barry Bonds (+79%), Paul Molitor (+88%), Craig Biggio (+74%), and Omar Vizquel (+82%).

21) Find the average Rbaser/PA of those MLB comps and apply it on a per-season basis to the player’s estimated PAs.

We figured this and expressed it per 10,000 PA to give us some context. As it turns out, these guys averaged 35 Rbaser/10,000 PA. We decided to push up to +40 because these fellows’ lines include a lot of seasons after age 37 (when Charleston is going to get his last big hit of playing time) and Gant broke a leg in the middle of his career.

22) If the candidate has a pronounced decline in his net steals versus the league, sculpt the trajectory of his running runs appropriately.

That said, Oscar’s stolen base totals went into the toilet after age 31, so we’re going to need to stack up most of his baserunning value in the first half of his career then decrement him after age 31. When we did this, we got 37 total, and for 1921 he earns 3 runs on the bases.

Now for GIDP avoidance.

23) Identify lots of MLB batters of the same handedness, similar Rbaser, and similar career length, and calculate their Rdp/PA.

We only take this step for seasons after 1948. BBREF uses play-by-play data to determine how man double play opportunities a player had and then compares the player to the league’s average. We can’t do that, so we do our best. Handedness, speed, ground ball/fly ball rates, and strikeout rates are the main determinants for GIDP rates. Most of the time, we only have the first two, so we find comps with the same career length based on handedness and our Rbaser estimation. We see how many Rdp the comps had per PA.

24) Apply the group’s average in Step 23 to each season of the player’s career.

We don’t need to do this for Charleston since 1921 is before our 1948 cutoff. In fact, in most cases, we won’t need to do this. But if BBREF should add more PBP and calculate Rdp for pre-1948 seasons, we’ll follow suit.

Now, for fielding, things are going to get really mushy.

25) Determine the player’s position for a given season or career by examining where he played in the originating league and how well he played there. If he started at shortstop, was bad at it, then moved to another position and was average or good, we might consider putting him at the latter position all the time. This is a subjective judgment, and we should look at real big-league careers for examples.

Charleston was known to play a very shallow centerfield and was often compared to Tris Speaker. However, he put on weight and was essentially done as a top-flight outfielder by his late 20s. Seeing this, we’ve kept him in centerfield until age 28, shifted him to leftfield until age 32, then to first base for the rest of his career.

26) Find the player’s DRA/G rate in his originating league at whatever position or positions he will be placed at in our MLE.

For an outfielder, we probably need to disregard DRA’s arm value. In fact, Charleston’s arm value is negative, but he was known for having a rifle, so we need to build that into our estimate. In addition, Charleston’s career range value for centerfield is negative, but we are missing six seasons of defensive stats for him. When the numbers and the stories of a career don’t match, we can’t dismiss the narrative. So we’ve given Charleston an average of 0.05 fielding runs per game, which figures to around 6 or 7 runs in a full season. For a sense of scope, Andruw Jones and Kevin Keirmeier rack up 20+ runs in their best seasons. Let’s run through the rest of his career too.

We are going to place him in left field beginning at age 29. We learned earlier that Charleston was slowing down rapidly around this age due to putting on weight, so in leftfield, he’ll start out above average by about the same rate he was in center, then quickly drop down to below average in four years. Finally when he moves to first base, where he had decent DRA totals, we’ll make him a little above average. He ends up with +51 defensive runs.

November 26th, 2017: Please note that we’ve created a more objective means to generate fielding estimates, so step 26 is now out of date. Here’s what step 26 looks like now for Charleston:

26) Find the player’s career DRA/154 games.

Charleston’s career DRA/154 games in centerfield through age 29 (when we’ll move him to left field) was 14.8 runs.

26a) Find the fifty players with the highest number of appearances in the Negro Leagues at the player’s position (because the Negro Leagues Database lacks DRA for some seasons where it lacks games, only count the appearances in seasons that include DRA), and for each figure their career DRA/154 at that position.

26b) Find the standard deviation of DRA/154 among the 50 players in 26a.

That standard deviation is 17.01.

26c) Repeat the process in steps 26a and 26b for the major leagues for the same period of time the Negro Leagues Database covers (1887––1945 as of this writing), substituting BBREF’s Rfield for DRA. (Technically, I used the BBREF Play Index, setting it to seek shortstops with more than 50% of their games at the same position, and returning their career Rfield. This will have to be close enough because otherwise, we’d be at it for weeks.)

For MLB it is 3.14.

26d) Divide the player’s DRA/154 (step 26) by the standard deviation of the Negro Leagues players at his position (step 26b) then multiply by the standard deviation result for MLB players in step 26 c. This is the player’s MLB career Rfield/154.

14.8 / 17.01 * 3.14 = 2.73 runs/154 games

27) Apply that rate to the number of games in a season imputed by the estimated PAs we’ve assigned earlier in this process.

We mentioned just now that we’re giving him 0.50 Rfield per game, which in 1921 will net him 7 Rfield in 146 games.

With our new method, Charleston will get 2.73 runs / 154 games * 146 games = 2.6 Rfield

28) Check whether his defensive performance declined over time, and make any seasonal adjustments necessary to mirror that.

We covered all of this a little earlier.

29) Double check against real MLB careers to see if the number of fielding runs generated are reasonable.

Yes, we think so. From 1871–1960, among players who played at least 40 percent of their games in centerfield, +31 runs would place 24th between Steve Brodie and Terry Moore. The true greatest like Speaker, Carey, Ashburn have more than 80 Rfield, and many of the players with higher Rfield totals have many fewer PAs. Additionally, some 19th Century players, playing under shorter schedules, would rank higher than Oscar given a 154-game slate, or if they already rank higher, would put much more distance between them and him.

Now we’ve got all the difficult stuff out of the way, and we’re on the WAR express.

30) Figure positional runs. We do this exactly the same way that BBREF does here, based on the position we have assigned the player.

In 1921, Oscar accumulates -3 of these. Centerfield was a much more offense-oriented position then than now.

31) Now for each season we add the player’s Rbat, Rbaser, Rdp, Rfield, and Rpos to get his Runs Above Average (RAA).

In 1921, we estimate equivalent values of 62 Rbat, 3 Rbaser, 3 Rfield, and -3 Rpos, which total to 65 RAA. Recall that we didn’t calculate Rdp, but if we did, we’d include it here.

32) To convert that to Wins Above Average, we follow BBREF’s instructions here,

That reckons to 6.4 WAA.

33) We calculate replacement runs (Rrep) just as BBREF instructs us here.

21 of those Charleston in 1921.

34) Next we turn those Rrep into the player’s replacement-level wins per BBREF’s instructions here.

2.2 of those.

35) Finally, we add the WAA and replacement-level wins to get WAR.

And 17 hours later, we’ve got him at 8.6 WAR. That figure would have placed second in the 1921 NL and third in MLB among hitters. Here’s the leaderboard if we include pitchers:

  1. Babe Ruth: 12.6
  2. Red Faber: 11.0
  3. Rogers Hornsby: 10.8
  4. Oscar Charleston: 8.6
  5. Urban Shocker: 8.5
  6. Burleigh Grimes: 8.0
  7. Dave Bancroft: 7.4
  8. Sad Sam Jones: 7.3
  9. Carl Mays: 7.5
  10. Frankie Frisch: 6.9
  11. Harry Heilmann: 6.8

At the career level, among all hitters from 1871–1960, Charleston ends up with:

  • 9910 PA (22nd)
  • 626 Rbat (14th)
  • 62.8 WAA (13th)
  • 98.8 WAR (12th)

Given Charleston’s reputation as among the very elite of Negro Leagues players, this MLE could be conservative. And that’s OK if it is because we’re still missing a little bit of data for him (1929 summer plus some winter seasons), and because we’d always rather underpromise and overdeliver, at least metaphorically speaking. What I mean is that if we come in with numbers that are sky high, they aren’t going to be credible. We need to arrive at estimates that resemble real MLB players. It’s too easy to trumpet someone’s greatness on the basis of our figures then realize we’ve made an embarrassing error in logic or computation or data entry. When a player has less data attached to him than Charleston (for example, see our write up on Bullet Rogan), we can’t go all-in on half a career. We need to temper our estimates in the absence of data that could just as easily deflate them as inflate them. In general, we got to be careful. We want this to be about the players, not about us.

We’re exhausted from mansplaining all of this. We can only begin to imagine the depth of horror you’ve experienced reading along. If you have suggestions for improvements, we are all ears. We aren’t perfect at this, we’re just trying our best. Next, we’re going to evaluate position players whose Negro Leagues careers launched them into the Hall of Fame or Hall of Merit. We’ll begin with catchers, so fans of Josh Gibson, Biz Mackey, Louis Santop, and Quincy Trouppe should tune in for that one. And we’ll also give you a delightful bonus surprise.

Very young players in the Major Leagues…and what it means to Negro Leaguers

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.

Little Big Leaguers

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:

  • 2 16-year-olds—0.3% of the group, and 0.03 per year
  • 24 17 year-olds—4.2% of the group, and 0.3 per year
  • 78 18-year-olds—13.8% of the group, and 1.1 per year
  • 152 19-year olds—26.9% of the group, and 2.1 per year
  • 309 20-year-olds—54.7% of the group, and 4.2 per year

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:

  • year of MLB debut
  • age of MLB debut
  • position with most games played during career
  • career MLB PAs
  • career MLB rBat
  • MLB PAs and rBat at each age from 16–25.

The group included:

  • 0 16-year-olds
  • 7 17-year-olds
  • 16 18-year-olds
  • 51 19-year-olds
  • 74 20-year-olds.

It further included:

  • 22 catchers
  • 23 first basemen
  • 14 second basemen
  • 14 third basemen
  • 20 shortstops
  • 12 left fielders
  • 23 centerfielders
  • 20 right fielders.

Here are some general characteristics of these players.

  • dPA = PA in debut season
  • drBAT = batting runs above average in debut season
  • +ROY = exceeded current MLB rookie definition (1 PA/scheduled game)
  • qual = qualified for batting title (3.1 PA per scheduled game)
    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:

  • Usually, a player takes about two to four year to first qualify for a batting title
  • Usually, a player first reaches above-average offensive performance sometime in his first four years in the league.

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:

  • 2 17s: Foxx and Ott
  • 5 18s: Bresnahan, Cobb, Kaline, Killebrew, Sheckard
  • 14 19s: E. Collins, Crawford, Cronin, Greenberg, Heilmann, Hornsby, Magee, Mantle, Morgan, Powell, Ruth, Speaker, Staub, Torre
  • 19 20s: Aaron, Cepeda, Clemente, Doyle, Gehrig, Goslin, J. Jackson E. Mathews, Medwick, Musial, F. Robinson, Roush, Santo, Snider, Trosky, Vaughan, D. Walker, T. Williams, Youngs

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.

What about catchers?

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.

The young and the rest of us

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.

The HoME 100: #20–11

Okay, we’ve finally reached the top-20, the elite of the elite, the inner circle, if you will. Today, you’re going to see ten of the twenty best players who ever stepped onto a diamond (and a few ESPN threw in there because their mainstream readers aren’t familiar with Oscar Charlton and Pete Alexander. If you’ve missed any of our comparisons to ESPN’s lists along the way, they’re all here: #100–91, #90–81, #80–71, #7061, #60-51, #50-41, #40-31, #30-21.

#20–11

20.Alex Rodriguez (ESPN Rank: 21)

ERIC: Well, at least we agree with ESPN on one thing.

19. Mike Schmidt (ESPN Rank: 27)

ERIC: But since we have A-Rod and Schmidt back to back, let’s take a moment to answer a question posed to me about 15 years ago by a Philadelphia lawyer named Bill who as an avowed Phillies Phan: Is Mike Schmidt the best infielder since Lou Gehrig? At the time, I was about 70% sure the answer was yes, but 30% that it could be Joe Morgan. They were the only candidates, really. What do I think now? Especially with A-Rod’s career fully in the books?

As usual, I’ll take the long home on this one. First of all, was Lou Gehrig a fair starting point? Yes, pretty much. If you don’t count Stan Musial as a first baseman. Stan the Man had a superior career, in my opinion, to Lou Gehrig, and he played first base the most of any one position on the diamond. But Musial also only played it as a plurality of all his games, and he played the outfield more often than he played the infield in any capacity. So let’s set him aside and say that, yes, Gehrig is a great starting point.

In the 60 or so years between Gehrig’s retirement and when lawyer Bill asked me this question, who were the best infielders in the game? I’ve been only referring to BBREF’s WAR calculations so far in this series, but now I’m going to break out the numbers I used to analyze HoME candidates, the figures with all the little extra adjustments I like to make, especially the inclusion of Michael Humphreys’ DRA. Here’s what Lou Gehrig looks like by my calculations:

Lou Gehrig
Best 7*: 68 WAR
Career: 113 WAR
*That’s non-consecutive for those playing along at home.

Who at the four infield positions were the prime candidates up to 2001?

FIRST BASE
To be honest, there’s no one close to Gehrig at his own position. Rod Carew and Jeff Bagwell are the next best pair, and they are incredibly far behind.

SECOND BASE
There’s just one guy here.

Joe Morgan
Best 7: 56 WAR
Career: 96 WAR

THIRD BASE
Schmidt is the best third baseman who ever lived by a country mile, so there’s little point in listing anyone else at the hot corner.

Mike Schmidt
Best 7: 64 WAR
Career: 116 WAR

SHORTSTOP
You probably know this guy. He was incredible, and he doesn’t hold a candle to Mike Schmidt.

Cal Ripken, Jr.
Best 7: 52 WAR
Career: 89 WAR
In retrospect, at the moment the attorney deposed me on the matter, Mike Schmidt was clearly and obviously the best of the candidates to be best-since-Gehrig. Given how close his numbers are to Gehrig’s, and given the timeline factors we’ve discussed elsewhere in this series of articles, Schmidt could have been more aptly described as the best infielder since Rogers Hornsby.

Of course, since that time a couple fellows have come along to challenge Schmidt, one of whom is still building his resume.

Albert Pujols (through last year)
Best 7: 63 WAR
Career: 104 WAR

That’s awfully impressive, Mr. Pujols. He’s very close to Schmidt, though he trails by enough career-wise that it’s not an automatic. Thirty years is enough time for a small amount of timeline factors to come into play and perhaps push Pujols over Schmidt. But, boy, it’s not at all clear. Also, Pujols is looking fork-tender this year, so it’s unlikely he’s got anything more to help him surge ahead.

Alex Rodriguez (through last year)
Best 7: 64 WAR
Career: 119 WAR

A-Rod’s misery-laden 2016 season will press that career figure down by one. He’s even in peak WAR with Schmidt, and he’s ever-so-slightly ahead in career WAR. And his career started 25 years later. So, yes, I would say that the mantle has been passed from Gehrig to Schmidt to Rodriguez. And it’s going to stay that way for a while. Manny Machado’s amazing and probably the best bet out there to contend for this distinction. Through age 23, he’s got 24.0 BBREF WAR (and might finish the year with 25 WAR). A-Rod had 27.7 WAR through age 23 with about 40 or 50 or more games. Good luck, young Manny.

18. Oscar Charleston (ESPN Rank: NR)

MILLER: Why include Negro Leaguers on your list if you’re not going to include Charleston? Maybe you put Satchel Paige in front of him. Maybe Josh Gibson. But nobody else. Oh, I see, ESPN readers haven’t heard of Oscar Charleston. And introducing the most dynamic player in Negro League history to casual fans is more than they were willing to do.

17. Nap Lajoie (ESPN Rank: 67)

ERIC: It’s unclear to me how ESPN could separate Lajoie and Eddie Collins by 15 spots. They’re as similar as can be value-wise. A little more career for Eddie, a little more peak for Nap.

16. Eddie Collins (ESPN Rank: 82)

MILLER: A couple of posts ago when I was talking about Gary Carter vis a vis Johnny Bench, I mentioned how underrated Collins is historically because he was a contemporary of Rogers Hornsby. Well, Eric and I are looking at the stats, and we see that they’re very close historically. The folks at ESPN underrate Hornsby, and they underrate Collins ridiculously. We’re talking about a guy with 17 4-WAR seasons by my numbers. Ruth, Bonds, Cobb, Mays, Aaron, Ott, Wagner, and Collins. That’s it. No, Collins doesn’t have a claim that he was better than Hornsby, but like Carter versus Bench, it’s a lot closer than people say.

15. Rickey Henderson (ESPN Rank: 22)

Stats can be strange things. Both Luis Gonzalez and Dave Parker, as well as a dozen others, can say that they doubled, tripled, and homered more times in their careers than Rickey Henderson. His surprisingly low total of 66 triples ties him for 437th in history. Again, surprisingly, Derek Jeter shares that tie. But as we throw in another stat, singles, for the all-time leader in steals and runs, as well as the runner-up in walks, only Hank Aaron and Stan Musial top Rickey in every base knock category.

14. Pete Alexander (ESPN Rank: 97)

ERIC: As I look at ESPN’s silly underranking of Alexander, non-ranking of Perry and Niekro and others, and dramatic overranking of Koufax and Pedro, I’m utterly confused. We know they used a bracket-like system to put players head to head (and how that works, God only knows), but how is it possible that a pitcher with three 10-WAR seasons gets stuck at the back of the bus? As my grandfather used to say to me all the time, “Eric, I just don’t know.”

MILLER: I often claim to know when I don’t. This list is about fame, not talent.

13. Stan Musial (ESPN Rank: 10)

MILLER: I’d pay a fair amount of money to watch Stan Musial play baseball. Still, it’s kind of surprising that he was as respected as he was. Much of his value came from drawing walks, a skill that wasn’t embraced in the 20th century. And his power was more doubles and triples than homers even though he knocked 475 out of the park in his career. He never hit 40 homers in a season, and he never led the league. Heck, he only twice led the league in the once-coveted run batted in. He’s also a bit of an oddity in that I call him the best 1B in history, though he’s much more a corner outfielder than a first baseman. See, I decided I’d classify a player by the position he played most, not the position at which he was most effective. Thus, Ernie Banks is a 1B rather than a SS. And Musial is a 1B despite not playing there regularly too much until his very best days were over. It’s nice for our lists when greatness and fame intersect. ESPN gets things right then.

12. Rogers Hornsby (ESPN Rank: 25)

ERIC: Hornsby might be the best third baseman in history. Which is interesting since he’s a second baseman. Hear me out. Bill James document the jump in the defensive spectrum that occurred between the introduction of the lively ball and roughly World War II. Before that, thanks to prodigious amounts of bunting and lower double-play rates, third basemen had to be very good defenders. They were like second shortstops in some ways. Fellows such as Ossie Bluege could have a nice, long career with the kind of offensive numbers that would get today’s third basemen sent to AAA. Second basemen, on the other hand, had the short throw and didn’t need to make the pivot as frequently as today’s keystoners do, and they didn’t have to charge bunts. So managers often put the good-hit/so-so-fielding right-hand-throwing players there. For example, Larry Doyle or George Grantham. But the defensive spectrum jumped, and after the war, Ossie Bluege turned into Bill Mazeroski, and Larry Doyle turned into Harm Killebrew or Dick Allen. What this meant was that the offensive requirements of the position switched places. While today we might expect that the average second baseman to create about 4 to 6 runs below the league average, we’d expect a third baseman to be at least a league average hitter and perhaps a couple runs better than that. Well, that’s the inverse of how things were before second and third base swapped places on the defensive spectrum. If Rogers Hornsby had come along after 1945, he’d have been the best third baseman of all time. Him or Mike Schmidt. Of course, had Schmidt come along in 1993 instead of 1973, he’d have been one of those big Cal Ripken like shortstops.

11. Honus Wagner (ESPN Rank: 13)

MILLER: Fewer and fewer folks want to call Honus Wagner the third best position player ever. That’s because they’re dying. I remember lists that included Ruth, Cobb, and Wagner, with the latter two flip-flopping. And honestly, I find that far from an unspeakable ranking. See, I list Wagner #6. To get ahead of #5, Tris Speaker, all you need to do is embrace Rfield rather than DRA. To get him past Barry Bonds, all you need to do is mention steroids. Getting him past Mays isn’t easy at all, so the thing to do is to try to get him past Cobb. Here’s how. You can rate the game’s second best centerfielder ahead of its best shortstop. Right? So there, Honus Wagner, if you twist things just a little may still be the third best position player ever. The truth is that I like him anywhere from 5-8.

THE WORLDWIDE LEADER IN SPORTS’ 20–11
Bob Gibson
Roger Clemens
Roberto Clemente
Cy Young
Sandy Koufax
Joe DiMaggio
Ken Griffey
Honus Wagner
Greg Maddux
Pedro Martinez

ERIC: I’m taking one more whack at this one. Any list purporting to rank players by their greatness on which Sandy Koufax appears ahead of Roger Clemens is not credible.

Koufax led the league in wins three times, winning percentage twice, ERA five times, complete games twice, shutouts thrice, innings twice, strikeouts four times, ERA+ twice, and WHIP four times. His best seven pitching WAR totals from BBREF are 10.7, 10.3, 8.1, 7.4, 5.7, 4.4, and 2.1.

Clemens led the league in wins four times, winning percentage three times, ERA seven times, complete games three times, shutouts 6 times, innings twice, strikeouts five times, ERA+ eight times, and WHIP three times. His best 7 seasons by BBREF’s pitching WAR are 11.9, 10.6, 9.4, 8.9, 8.8, 7.9, and 7.8.

Dudes, seriously! Stop smoking crack before you make a list like this.

MILLER: One of the really funny things for me is that they stuffed DiMaggio and Griffey onto this group. We rank them #54 and #62, respectfully. But ESPN had to get them here. You know, because of popularity. And because if they weren’t this high, there’s no way they could get Mickey Mantle so foolishly high in their next post.

Institutional History

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