Fearsome Foursomes

Last week, Brian Gunn of Redbird Nation penned a guest column for THT about the first-place St. Louis Cardinals. In it, he discussed how one of the main reasons for St. Louis’ surprising dominance this year has been the outstanding play of their three superstars — Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen.

Brian described it as “like having three MVPs, one after another, in the heart of your order” and gawked over their amazing offensive numbers, which now look like this …

                AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA     2B     HR     RUN     RBI
Edmonds        .302     .417     .654    1.071     .351     31     31      76      80
Rolen          .332     .411     .611    1.022     .338     27     26      81      98
Pujols         .317     .402     .620    1.022     .336     30     32      95      81

Less than 24 hours after Brian’s piece appeared here, the Cardinals went out and made a big trade, acquiring Larry Walker from the Colorado Rockies for minor leaguers Luis Martinez, Chris Narveson and Jason Burch. If you thought the heart of the Cardinals’ batting order had some ridiculous numbers last week, take a look at what they’ve got now …

                               AVG      OBP      SLG
2) Larry Walker, RF           .316     .467     .607
3) Albert Pujols, 1B          .317     .402     .620
4) Scott Rolen, 3B            .332     .411     .611
5) Jim Edmonds, CF            .302     .417     .654

The crazy offensive numbers those four have put up so far this year get only slightly less crazy if you look at what they did from 2001-2003 …

                               AVG      OBP      SLG
2) Larry Walker, RF           .325     .431     .583
3) Albert Pujols, 1B          .334     .412     .613
4) Scott Rolen, 3B            .280     .372     .510
5) Jim Edmonds, CF            .297     .406     .580

Of course, Walker did much of that damage while playing in Colorado, which means his numbers are definitely Coors-inflated. However, even if you completely toss out the work he’s done in Colorado over the years, Walker is still a very good offensive player. For this year, he’s hitting a Bonds-like .298/.515/.723 away from Coors Field, but in only 70 plate appearances. From 2001-2003, Walker hit .279/.392/.494 away from Coors (as opposed to an incredible .370/.469/.668 at Coors).

If you consider that most players, even those who play in normal environments, tend to do better at home, plus the fact that some studies have shown that Rockies’ hitters have a sort of “hangover” effect that hurts their road numbers, I think it’s probably safe to say Walker’s non-Coors level of performance over the past 3+ seasons is about .300/.400/.500 or so.

Here’s how Walker’s OPS+ (which adjusts for home ballparks) compares to his new teammates over the past three years …

                    2001     2002     2003     01-03
Albert Pujols        158      155      189       167
Jim Edmonds          150      163      161       158
Larry Walker         160      146      124       143
Scott Rolen          126      132      139       132
----------------------------------------------------
TOTALS               149      149      153       150

That is some serious hitting. Basically, that foursome has averaged a 150 OPS+ between them over the past three years, and that number will likely be even higher this season. To put that into some context, only 37 players in baseball history with at least 3,000 plate appearances have a career OPS+ of 150 or higher.

But okay, I think we all know these guys can hit and actually, while I was getting together the data and putting the finishing touches on this article, Baseball Prospectus‘ Chaim Bloom and Keith Woolner came out with an article that covers exactly how good the St. Louis foursome has been offensively so far in 2004. You’ll have to read their article to learn the details, but suffice it to say they rank very highly.

However, I think what truly makes the Cardinals’ foursome unique is not only that they are all great offensively, but that they are also all very good defensively. As Brian Gunn wrote while talking about Pujols, Edmonds and Rolen:

On top of [the offense], each of these guys is among the top glovemen at his position. Pujols is fifth in fielding Win Shares at first (a former third baseman, he’s very handy with the leather), Edmonds is second in center (those SportsCenter “web gems” aren’t just hype), and Rolen, of course, is the best third baseman in the league.

Now they’ve added Walker, who is certainly no slouch defensively; he is a seven-time Gold Glove winner and is considered by many to be among the greatest defensive rightfielders in baseball history. Along with Walker’s seven Gold Gloves, Edmonds has six of his own and Rolen has five. The Gold Glove count leaves Pujols as the odd man out, but this is his first season as an everyday first baseman.

Just how good, offensively and defensively, are Rolen, Pujols, Edmonds and Walker? Well, thanks to the wonder of Win Shares, we can actually examine that question in a meaningful way.

First, let’s look at what the St. Louis foursome has been worth according to Win Shares over the past three years …

                    '01      '02      '03     01-03
Albert Pujols        29       32       41       102
Scott Rolen          29       28       25        82
Jim Edmonds          30       29       22        81
Larry Walker         25       26       18        69
---------------------------------------------------
TOTALS              113      115      106       334

From 2001-2003, the foursome was worth an average of 28 Win Shares apiece per season, which is phenomenal. How good is that? Well, Bill James wrote in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract that, “A 30-Win Share season is, in general, an MVP candidate-type season.”

This year, Walker’s Win Share total is low because he’s missed even more time than he usually does with injuries, but Rolen, Pujols and Edmonds are each having fantastic seasons. Right now, Rolen is on pace for an all-time great season of 45 Win Shares, while Pujols (38) and Edmonds (35) are also on pace for MVP-caliber seasons. Walker is on pace for just 10 Win Shares, but that pace should quickly pick up if he remains healthy. And, even if Walker ends up with only 10 on the year, the foursome would be looking at an average of 32 each if the other three stay on their current pace.

With the help of THT’s Win Shares expert, Studes, I looked at the “established” Win Shares for foursomes throughout baseball history. In other words, taking the three-year averages of players together on one team. So, if you’re talking about the 2004 St. Louis Cardinals’ foursome, you take their averages from 2001-2003 and that’s their established Win Shares level. If you’re talking about the 1927 New York Yankees‘ foursome, you take their averages from 1924-1926. Simple enough, right?

What I basically wanted to find was how good the players were at the point they were together. Rolen, Walker, Edmonds and Pujols are all, more or less, in their primes right now (or at least playing at very high levels), whereas there were many combos that included a washed up former star or a future star just getting started. For instance, Hank Aaron and Robin Yount played together on the 1976 Milwaukee Brewers, but Aaron was a 42-year-old hitting .229/.315/.369 in his final season and Yount was a 20-year-old hitting .252/.292/.301. We could find a couple more good players on that team (Darrell Porter, Gorman Thomas) to a make an impressive-sounding foursome, but that’s misleading.

Using the three-year averages for their established level of play, the top foursome in baseball history comes from the 1930 New York Yankees, with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Earle Combs and Tony Lazzeri. Between them, the four Hall of Famers averaged 133 Win Shares per season from 1927-1929. Similarly, the same group from the 1929 Yankees (with the averages being from 1926-1928) came in second all-time, with an average of 131 Win Shares per season.

This year’s Cardinals team (using their levels of play from 2001-2003) come in 40th all-time, which frankly doesn’t sound all that impressive. However, if you narrow the search down to only modern teams, the Cardinals shoot way up the list. In fact, the last foursome to have a higher established Win Shares level than this Cardinals’ group came from the Cincinnati Reds during the “Big Red Machine” days of the 1970s. The Reds bettered this year’s Cardinals’ foursome multiple times behind Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Pete Rose and Tony Perez, all of whom are Hall of Famers or would be if they were allowed in.

The highest established Win Shares foursome of the last 50 years comes from the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, whose foursome of Morgan, Bench, Rose and Perez averaged a combined 127 Win Shares per season from 1972-1974. The other Big Red Machine teams weren’t too shabby either. The 1976 Reds have the second-best established Win Shares total of any team of the past 50 years and the 1974 Reds come in third during that stretch. The 1973 Reds (117 established Win Shares), 1977 Reds (119) and 1978 Reds (115) also rank among the top dozen foursomes of the past 50 years.

Let’s take a closer look at that foursome from 1975 …

First of all, I guess it should come as no surprise that the team with the best foursome of the past 50 years ended up winning 108 games and the World Series. The ’75 Reds won the division by 20 games over the Dodgers, swept the Pirates in the National League Championship Series, and then beat the Red Sox in seven games to capture the World Series.

Here’s what their Win Shares totals looked like coming into the 1975 season …

                    '72      '73      '74     72-74
Joe Morgan           39       40       37       116
Johnny Bench         37       26       34        97
Pete Rose            32       34       27        93
Tony Perez           25       32       20        77
---------------------------------------------------
TOTALS              133      132      118       383

Compare those numbers to the St. Louis foursome who, from 2001-2003, were worth 113, 115 and 106 Win Shares, for a total of 334 Win Shares. The ’75 Cincinnati foursome had an established Win Shares level that was 15% higher than the Cardinals’ foursome, which is pretty astounding.

In the three years prior to 1975 (the years counted for their established levels in 1975), here’s what the Reds’ foursome did …

                   AVG      OBP      SLG     NOTES
Joe Morgan        .291     .416     .474     183 SBs; two Gold Gloves; 4th, 4th, 8th in MVP voting
Johnny Bench      .268     .362     .492     '72 NL MVP; three Gold Gloves; NL RBI champ in '72 & '74
Pete Rose         .310     .389     .414     '73 NL MVP; '73 batting champ
Tony Perez        .287     .358     .494     7th, 6th, 7th in RBIs; 7th in '73 MVP voting

At first glance, those numbers don’t seem all that extraordinary. After all, none of the four slugged over .500 in the three-year period. However, you have to remember that the levels of offense were a lot lower back then, particularly when it came to power. If you adjust their hitting from 1972-1974 to the offensive environment that Pujols, Rolen and Edmonds were in last season, for instance, the numbers come out looking a lot more impressive …

                   AVG      OBP      SLG
Joe Morgan        .301     .429     .533
Johnny Bench      .276     .373     .554
Pete Rose         .320     .401     .466
Tony Perez        .296     .369     .556

Suddenly Morgan is a Gold Glove second baseman hitting .301/.429/.533 and stealing 60 bases a year, Bench is a Gold Glove catcher hitting .276/.373/.554, Rose is hitting .320 and getting on base 40% of the time, and Perez is slugging .556. The Reds’ foursome had at least two players among the top dozen MVP vote-getters each year. They finished 1st (Bench), 4th (Morgan) and 12th (Rose) in 1972, 1st (Rose), 4th (Morgan), 7th (Perez) and 10th (Bench) in 1973, and 4th (Bench) and 8th (Morgan) in 1974.

Also, the one big advantage the Reds’ foursome had over the Cardinals’ foursome is their health, which makes a difference when we’re talking about their total value to a team. From 2001-2003, the Cardinals’ foursome missed a combined total of 157 games, or 8.1% of their total games. From 1972-1974, the Reds’ foursome missed a combined total of 76 games, or 4.0% of their total games (1972 was a 154-game season).

I’ve been very critical of Joe Morgan’s work as an announcer and writer for ESPN and ESPN.com, but there is absolutely no denying his greatness as a baseball player. In fact, I believe Joe Morgan is one of the most underrated and under-appreciated players in baseball history. Looking up some of the numbers for this article just hammered that point home with me.

Consider that, in 1975, he hit .327/.466/.508, led the league in on-base percentage, OPS, walks and OPS+, ranked among the top 10 in the league in batting average, slugging percentage, runs scored and stolen bases, won a Gold Glove at second base, and was the MVP of the National League. Adjusted to current levels of offense, Morgan hit approximately .330 with a .470 on-base percentage and a .570 slugging percentage, while stealing 67 bases at an 87% clip.

And then he went ahead and did even better the next year, hitting .320/.444/.576 while leading the league in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS and OPS+, ranking second in runs scored, RBIs, walks, extra-base hits and stolen bases, and winning another Gold Glove at second base on his way to back-to-back NL MVPs. Translated to today’s levels of offense, that works out to around .325/.455/.660, which is absolutely amazing.

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