With the success (as judged by my immediate family) of my last article picking apart the differences in career value of three Hall-worthy catchers, I thought I’d stick with that approach, this time highlighting the careers of three superstars of the 1980s and 1990s who were all inducted into the Hall of Fame within the past four years: Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn, and Cal Ripken, Jr. Thanks to Sean Smith for providing the data.
Ripken debuted first, with a cup of coffee in 1981. All three players were full time by 1984 and retired within two years of each other, Boggs going first after the 1999 season, with Gwynn and Ripken bowing out after 2001, although Gwynn only collected 249 plate appearances over his last two seasons. In total, Ripken accumulated 2000 more plate appearances than Boggs and 2500 more than Gwynn, which shouldn’t shock anybody — The Streak is to two-word phrases as Madonna is to one-worders. 100 extra plate appearances in a season is worth one-third of a win over replacement, so Ripken’s ability to play every days gives him an advantage not only in providing additional above-average production, but in his ability to worse players out of the lineup.
Boggs holds the advantage in peak hitting performance, with six seasons from 1982 through 1989 worth at least 40 runs above average. Gwynn doesn’t have as many great years, but he managed to remain a +30 hitter far longer than Boggs. In total, Boggs holds a slight advantage in career hitting runs above average, +454 to +434. His years batting in Fenway are adjusted for park, but not run environment, so it’s pretty much a draw between these two on offense. (Run environment is accounted for when converting to WAR later, however.) On a per-600 plate appearances basis, both players check in at +26 runs.
While he was a good hitter, Ripken just can’t compare to these other two guys, although that’s not really a knock against Ripken. Take, for example, Boggs’ 1985 through 1988 seasons, when he posted four straight years of .360/.460/.500 production. Gwynn owns a .338 career batting average, which, while perhaps a bit overrated, still can’t be a bad thing. Compare to those two, Ripken’s career +181 runs above average seems pedestrian, even though a 112 OPS+ is really impressive for a shortstop (we’ll get to the “for a shortstop” piece later). On a per-600 PA basis, he was +9 runs.
Popular opinion holds that all three players were good fielders for their position (again, “for their position” is coming up later), as evidenced by the Gold Gloves they won. Boggs won two (’94, ’95), Gwynn won five (’86, ’87, ’89-’91), and Ripken won two (’91, ’92). Looking at TotalZone, Boggs actually was a good fielder well before he joined the Yankees, hovering around +5 runs above average his entire career. While people say he was a much better fielder with the Yankees, TotalZone disagrees. Ripken was up an down at the beginning of his career, but really took off in 1989, two years before his first Gold Glove. From 1989 through 1995, he averaged +16 runs above average. Gwynn was all over the place, going from -28 runs in 1989 to +30 runs in 1991. Now, some of that is likely due to the seasonal error bars of TotalZone. TZ paints a much bigger picture over long careers, however, and these three players rank, from best to worst compared to their own position, Ripken (+141) / Boggs (+91) / Gwynn (-8). Gwynn also gets credited with +13 runs for his career for throwing arm in the final analysis.
Now it’s time to consider the fact that Ripken wasn’t merely good at hitting and fielding, he was exceptionally good for a shortstop. It’s just more difficult to find talented players who can hit and also handle shortstop competently. With these three players, the relative difficulty of their positions is obvious — the defensive spectrum puts shortstop as the most challenging, followed by third base, and then right field. The gaps aren’t equal, however. (For specifics, read this. For a handy graph, try here.) The difference between shortstop and third base is about five runs over a full season, while the difference between third base and a corner outfield position is about ten runs. Gwynn faces a pretty large penalty relative to Ripken, and fifteen runs per season is enough to close the huge advantage Gwynn held in the hitting department. The variations you see in the above graphs are due to different levels of playing time, a slight change in position adjustments from the 1980s to the 1990s, and the fact that Gwynn spent some time in center field Boggs spent a little time at first base, and Ripken eventually moved to third base full time.
Wins Above Replacement not only includes hitting, fielding, and the position adjustment, but things like baserunning, turning double-plays, and credit for playing above replacement-level for each of a player’s plate appearances. Runs are converted into wins based on the run environment the player was a part of, based on ballpark and league. From the graph, both Boggs and Gwynn peaked in the early third of their careers, then held on as productive players until just before the end. Ripken also peaked early, but threw in two 4ish WAR seasons between two 6ish WAR seasons that in turn were bookended by three 8+ WAR seasons. He finished his career like the other two by trailing off towards league-average and a couple forgettable seasons.
If we’re looking to compare the careers of these great players, it helps to sort their season WAR totals from best to worst, left to right. Ripken posted the best season, an awesome 11 WAR campaign in 1991 that deserves a display in Cooperstown even beyond the plaque that’s already there. He hit .323/.374/.566 (compared to a park-adjusted league average of .256/.324/.388) in 708 plate appearances, rated +20 runs at shortstop by TotalZone, and won the American League MVP award. However, after also bettering Boggs in their second-best seasons, Ripken’s production falls below the third baseman for their next five best seasons. In total, Boggs accumulated 92 career WAR to Ripken’s 91, a dead heat. In my opinion, greatness is determined by a player’s peak ability, so I’d give the edge to Boggs who was a star longer, but your mileage may vary. And it’s funny how Gwynn almost doesn’t belong in the conversation, with only 71 career WAR. Well, maybe that’s not fair — he can toss in one-liners when the other two guys stop talking. All three players are deserving Hall of Famers, but Boggs’ combination of stellar hitting and good defense and Ripken’s combination of good hitting and stellar defense both trump Gwynn’s combination of stellar hitting and below-average defense.