Baseball Smarts: The Best Percentage Players in the Game

Who do you think is the smartest player in baseball? That’s kind of a
difficult question to answer, because it depends on what you mean by
“smartest.” Miguel Batista writes poetry and reads books on Mahatma
Gandhi and Josh Phelps is into calculus, but that’s not the kind of
intelligence I’m after. I’d like to identify the players who use their
heads to win ballgames, guys that are in the right place at the right
time, who throw to the right base, who know what to do when the ball
is hit to them.

If you watch a lot of baseball, you may have an idea of who these
players might be. And you also probably have thoughts about which
players are not very heads-up. I have my own opinions on the subject. But can we
measure baseball smarts from a player’s statistics? Are there parts of a
player’s stastical record that might indicate he is a good percentage
player?

Well, Bill James thinks there is, and who I am to disagree? In the New
Historical Baseball Abstract
, James suggests a method for measuring
baseball intelligence. Actually, James is reluctant to use the word
“intelligence” for what he is measuring, but prefers the term
“percentage player.” That makes sense to me, although I will use
“intelligence” or “smarts” below, simply because “heads-up-ness” or
“percentage-ness” don’t work very well.

Before we look at James’ method, take a minute
and write down a couple of names of good percentage players (playing
today), based on
your own observations. And go ahead and write down a player or two who
you think is not so “heads-up” on the field. We’ll compare the
stastical method with our observations at the end. Done? Okay, let’s see how
James would like to indentify his “percentage players.”

The Method

James considers four different statistics to identify the best and
worst percentage players:

  • stolen base percentage;
  • fielding percentage;
  • strikeout-to-walk ratio;
  • overall walk rate.

He gives the
walk rate category only one-third the weight of the other three. It
is legitimate to ask if these stats really have anything to do with a
player’s baseball smarts. I’ve thought about it a bit, and I think
they probably do, at least to some extent. Stolen base and fielding
percentage say something about a player’s judgement, for example, when
to steal or when to avoid the rushed, risky throw. The other two
categories are about plate discipline, and one might consider the
struggle for control of the strike zone one of the brainier parts of
being a ballplayer.

In any case, James applies his method and comes up with the best percentage player
in history, who happens to be Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan. Pretty good result, if you ask me, and I’m sure many would agree that Little Joe was a smart
ballplayer. Morgan rated
excellent in stolen base percentage and the two plate discipline
categories and above average in fielding percentage. I should note that
James’ method can’t be applied to many players because “caught
stealing” only became an official statistic in the National League in
1954.

Another Look at the Best Percentage Players

The New Historical Baseball Abstract came out five years ago
and James was mostly interested in the best percentage players in
history. I thought it might be interesting to update that analysis and
look at the best (and worst) percentage players in today’s game.
In implementing James’ method, I decided
to compare each stat to league average over a
player’s career. So, essentially, I’m ranking players on normalized stats,
like OPS+ or ERA+ (without park adjustments, though).

Here’s how I selected the players to look at. First, I looked at all
player seasons since 1954. Then I considered any player who had at least
4,000 plate appearances and 1,000 defensive games in his career. This gives me 555 players to which I give an overall
“percentage” ranking based on the four statistical categories. Of
those players, 100 were active through last season, meaning they had
at least a handful of plate appearances in 2005. Note that the plate
appearance and defensive games requirements amounts to requiring about
seven full seasons played.

Ok, so who’s the best percentage player in the game today? The answer
is … (drum roll, please) … Barry Bonds. Ugh, there’s just no
getting away from Barry these days. But, hey, he earned the top spot,
so let’s see how he did it. Stolen base percentage? Barry has a
career success rate of 78% compared to the league average of 69%, worth 91
points on a 100 point scale for stolen base percentage. Bonds scores
98 and 100 points, respectively, in K/BB and BB/AB, which shouldn’t
surprise anybody. He is also pretty good in fielding percentage,
scoring 64 points. Applying the 3:3:1:3 weights mentioned earlier,
Barry gets an overall intelligence score of 86 out of 100.

Here are the Top 10 percentage players in baseball today:

Top Ten Percentage Players in the Game Today
                   SBpct     K/BB    BB/AB     Fpct   |    Total
------------------+-------+-------+--------+----------+----------
Bonds_Barry         91.0     98.0    100.0     64.3   |     86.0
Alfonzo_Edgardo     83.4     87.2     58.7     92.3   |     84.8
Vizquel_Omar        68.3     87.6     49.5     97.8   |     81.1
Damon_Johnny        91.2     79.5     45.4     73.8   |     77.9
Jones_Chipper       80.4     91.3     94.8     47.6   |     75.3
Rolen_Scott         71.7     53.3     80.0     98.6   |     75.1
Cabrera_Orlando     89.7     70.1     17.3     84.4   |     75.0
Walker_Larry        84.1     64.5     77.8     73.8   |     74.5
Rodriguez_Alex      93.2     42.2     65.4     86.6   |     73.1
Abreu_Bobby         82.3     79.3     97.7     44.4   |     71.6

These are some interesting names, some of the best players in the game
and some, ummm, lesser players. I haven’t personally seen enough of
all these guys to judge from observation whether they are good
percentage players or not, although I’m not surprised to see Vizquel,
Damon, Jones, Rolen or Walker on the list. You might be curious about
other players, I’ll include results for everybody at the end of this
article.

Ok, those are the heads-up players; what about the trailers, the guys
who score worst on our baseball IQ test? Here are the bottom 10:

Bottom Ten Percentage Players in the Game Today
                   SBpct     K/BB    BB/AB     Fpct   |    Total
------------------+-------+-------+--------+----------+----------
Burnitz_Jeromy      25.4     37.5     78.4     13.2   |     30.6
Rodriguez_Ivan      54.0     12.1      7.2     33.0   |     30.5
Sosa_Sammy          60.5     13.3     54.6      6.1   |     29.5
Cruz_Deivi           2.2      3.4      0.2     85.6   |     27.4
Clark_Tony           4.7     20.4     60.7     35.0   |     24.1
Matheny_Mike         2.0      5.8     16.4     64.3   |     23.3
Lopez_Javy           1.3     10.4     15.0     47.6   |     19.3
Alomar_Sandy        16.4     16.9      2.7     29.5   |     19.1
Santiago_Benito     28.1      4.1      9.7     20.8   |     16.9
Hernandez_Jose      17.3      0.9     30.8     24.1   |     15.8

There are five catchers on this list and I think this indicates a
weakness in the method: it does not apply any positional
adjustments, except for the fielding percentage category. This
certainly penalizes catchers in the other three categories. Still, a
method that identifies Jose Hernandez as a poor percentage player is
doing something right.

All-Time Percentage Players

And where does Barry rank on the list of all-time percentage players?
We can answer that question, although “all-time” in this case really
means “since 1954.” Here is the list of the top 20:

Top Twenty Percentage Players All-Time (since 1954) 
                   SBpct     K/BB    BB/AB     Fpct   |    Total
------------------+-------+-------+--------+----------+----------
Smith_Ozzie         95.7     98.7     65.9     95.4   |     93.5
Raines_Tim          98.9     96.0     89.0     85.3   |     93.0
Dykstra_Lenny       94.2     93.7     83.8     81.6   |     89.2
Morgan_Joe          99.3     98.4     98.9     66.2   |     89.0
Kaline_Al           84.7     91.5     75.0     87.7   |     86.7
Larkin_Barry        97.1     91.7     66.5     76.8   |     86.4
Bonds_Barry         91.0     98.0    100.0     64.3   |     86.0
Mantle_Mickey       99.8     84.3     99.6     67.5   |     85.5
White_Roy           72.3     93.3     85.4     90.0   |     85.2
Alfonzo_Edgardo     83.4     87.2     58.7     92.3   |     84.8
Herr_Tom            84.9     86.1     69.0     88.3   |     84.7
Lollar_Sherm        89.2     91.2     65.8     79.9   |     84.7
Aparicio_Luis       99.6     83.4     20.5     90.5   |     84.1
Butler_Brett        61.8     92.6     83.1     94.5   |     83.0
Landis_Jim          95.0     58.0     84.0     94.1   |     82.5
Gilliam_Jim         77.8     99.8     85.2     68.2   |     82.3
Vizquel_Omar        68.3     87.6     49.5     97.8   |     81.1
Robinson_Frank      93.9     76.4     86.7     70.0   |     80.8
Mathews_Eddie       78.4     78.9     96.4     79.0   |     80.5

Wow, several of my favorite players of all-time top this list,
including Smith, Raines, Morgan, Kaline and Mantle. I’m not suprised
to see Frank Robinson on this list, nor to see that he ranked very
high in stolen base percentage. Earl Weaver, in his book Weaver on
Strategy
, praises Robinson for his smarts in 1) picking the right
time to steal (late in close games) and 2) having a very good success
rate.

The astute reader will notice that Ozzie Smith is not Joe Morgan; in other words, I did not get the same result as Bill James regarding the top all-time
percentage player. That is because James didn’t fully explain how he assigns points in the various categories, which left me to invent my own method
for that. Seeing that I rank Morgan very high (fourth overall), I’m sure that what I’m doing is pretty close to what James actually did.

I must confess, I had to look
up a couple of unfamiliar names on this list. Sherm Lollar and Jim
Landis
were teammates on the 1959 Go-Go White Sox, the only American
League Champs not named the Yankees during the period
1955-1964. Lollar, the catcher on that team, was a seven-time All-Star
who finished in the top 10 of MVP voting twice. Landis was a center
fielder and a good one; he won five Gold Gloves and in 1959 finished seventh in the MVP
voting. It’s interesting that another Top 20 Percentage Player, Luis
Aparacio
, also played for that same White Sox team. And Nellie Fox was no dolt, either (top 20% in baseball intelligence). Hmm, the 1959
White Sox: smartest team ever?

I believe that many of the non-stars on the above list were
considered good percentage players: Herr, Gilliam, Butler and White
come to mind.

Here are the worst percentage players in history:

Top Twenty Percentage Players All-Time (since 1954) 
                   SBpct     K/BB    BB/AB     Fpct   |    Total
------------------+-------+-------+--------+----------+----------
Lopez_Javy           1.3     10.4     15.0     47.6   |     19.3
Alomar_Sandy        16.4     16.9      2.7     29.5   |     19.1
Maldonado_Candy     16.8     16.0     47.2     14.1   |     18.8
Heath_Mike          32.8     12.4     16.0     10.5   |     18.3
Armas_Tony          13.7      0.2      5.4     45.4   |     18.3
Lopez_Hector        11.0     30.3     40.4      3.5   |     17.5
Santiago_Benito     28.1      4.1      9.7     20.8   |     16.9
Parker_Dave         34.2     11.0     21.4      1.4   |     16.1
Hernandez_Jose      17.3      0.9     30.8     24.1   |     15.8
Ramirez_Rafael      38.6     10.3      4.0      1.8   |     15.6
Wilson_Glenn        18.6      5.4     10.4     17.7   |     13.5
Thomas_Frank        14.6     18.4     20.0      5.4   |     13.5
Horton_Willie        2.9     17.5     38.2     11.9   |     13.5
Kennedy_Terry        1.1      9.6     22.5     26.3   |     13.3
Alou_Jesus           8.3     29.9      0.4      4.3   |     12.8
Incaviglia_Pete     26.3      0.5     35.3      1.3   |     12.0
Brooks_Hubie        22.2      6.8     14.6      2.3   |     10.9
Sprague_Ed           1.4     15.5     34.1      5.0   |     10.0
Parrish_Larry       11.5      4.5     28.5      4.1   |      8.9
Stuart_Dick          0.5      2.2     26.7      5.8   |      5.2

Boy, was Dick Stuart a lousy percentage player, or what? Famous for his
inept play at first base, Stuart had one of baseball’s all-time great
nicknames: Dr. Strangeglove. He stole two bases in nine attempts for
his career, struck out a ton (especially for those days) and did not
walk much. Stuart was a pretty good hitter, but he sure didn’t do much
else to help his team win.

I was surprised to see Dave Parker on this list. Despite the rifle arm,
he had a very poor fielding percentage relative to the league. It
would be interesting to see if a large fraction of his errors were due
to ill-advised throws. By the
way, that’s not the Frank Thomas, it’s the other Frank
Thomas
. The Big Hurt did not qualify for this study because he didn’t
play enough defensive games.

Interesting Things I Came Across While Doing This

I found it interesting to learn who were the best and worst players in
the individual categories. So, here are the top three players and one
worst player in each category. Remember, the stats are normalized to
the league average during the player’s career.

Final Thoughts

Before doing this study, I wrote down two names of players who I think of as
being good percentage players: Derek Jeter and Larry Walker. I didn’t
think about it long and hard; these two just popped into my head as
guys that seemed to be heads-up players. As we’ve seen, Walker ranked
eighth out of 100 active players (although he’s actually retired now) and
Jeter ranked 19th. Somehow I came up with reasonable picks. My
choice for baseball dunce went to (unfortunately, for I am a fan)
Manny Ramirez, who ranked 72/100 using the James method. If you feel
like it, shoot me an e-mail with your own picks for best and worst
percentage players.

I was very curious to see how Ozzie Guillen ranked based on the James
method. It turns out he ranks 385 out of 555 players, in the bottom
third. I actually expected him to rank lower, because
on June 23, 1989, Ozzie fell for the ol’ hidden-ball-trick, getting
fooled by Brewers first baseman Greg Brock.
It’s hard to imagine a less heads-up play that you can make on a baseball diamond. That’s alright, Oz, anybody can get surprised once.
The amazing
thing is, just a couple of months later, on August 5, Ozzie was
caught napping on first base again (yep, hidden-ball-trick again), this time by the Tiger
first-sacker Dave Bergman.
Well, it appeared that Ozzie had finally learned the lesson, since he avoided being embarrassed for the next season and a half or so. But, no, in May 1991 he fell victim to the hidden ball trick a third time. So, yes, sometimes a player does contribute in a way
that does not show up in the box score. Based on Ozzie’s
intangibles, I believe he deserves an honorary position
alongside none other than Dr. Strangeglove as the worst percentage
player of all time.

[Author ducks to avoid rotten tomatoes en route from the South
Side.]

References & Resources

  • James’ method for identifying percentage players is explained in the Joe Morgan comment of the New Historical Baseball Abstract.
  • Among the many amazing things that Retrosheet does is keep track of hidden ball tricks. Check out the full list here.
  • The complete list of percentage player rankings can be found here.
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