Last week, I presented a ranking of everyday players based on a new twist on Win Shares: Win Shares Above Bench. I believe this is a definite improvement over basic Win Shares (as discussed last week). Although it’s not perfect, it’s pretty darn good for ranking the all-time best.
I’ve inserted a graph on the right that shows the distribution of the top 200 WSAB careers in our sample (everyday players, beginning in 1900). See how the players get squashed as you go down the list? The difference between the first player and the 20th is 222 WSAB, but the difference between the 20th and the 100th is only 107. And the difference between the 100th and the 200th is only 37 WSAB.
So when it comes to ranking players, we can feel pretty good about our top 20. But with each additional group of 20 players, our confidence dwindles a bit. With such small differences in WSAB, you can’t clearly say that the 100th best player was “better” than the 200th. Win Shares aren’t perfect, and the player rankings can change substantially if you change the baseline.
The BBWAA has voted about 70 post-1900 everyday players into the Hall of Fame, and 16 of the top 80 players in WSAB haven’t qualified for Hall of Fame voting (due to the fact that they’re still playing or they have been declared ineligible). Combining the two, you’d want a list of 86 players to test WSAB and Hall of Fame voting. As you’ll see, with a few notable exceptions, the BBWAA votes do correlate very well with the WSAB list until we get to the 70s. And, as our graph shows, once you hit the 70s, you’re talking about some pretty small differences.
But that’s not really the point, anyway. This is all just plain old good fun, after all. Let’s look at the crop of players who fall between 40 and 80 on the WSAB list, most of whom I think we can safely say should definitely be in the Hall. I’ll add comments based on the wonderful work of Fangraphs and Baseball Reference.
Players in the Forties
41. Charlie Gehringer (204 WSAB/383 WS): Known as a great fielder and a high-average hitter, Gehringer also had a phenomenal batting eye. By the end of his career, his walk rate was over 15% of plate appearances. You can’t say Gehringer was unappreciated, however: He finished in the top ten in MVP voting six straight years and was elected to the Hall of Fame easily.
42. Alex Rodriguez (204 WSAB/343 WS): In the city of New York, A-Rod may be the least appreciated player ever. Looking at all players as of the age of 30, A-Rod ranks 15th in total Win Shares. My guess is he’ll have a longer career than some of the players ahead of him and easily finish in the top 10.
43. Willie Stargell (204 WSAB/370 WS): Pops had that weird tie for the NL MVP (with Keith Hernandez) in 1979 at the age of 39, but he also had three straight years from 1971-1973 when he finished either second or third in MVP voting. You may think of Stargell as the “old man” guiding the 1979 Pirates with his wisdom, but he was also a fierce hitter in the early and mid-1970s.
44. Tim Raines (203 WSAB/390 WS): It will be interesting to see how the Hall voters handle Raines. By our list, he’s a no-brainer Hall of Famer; the only player ranked higher than Raines rejected by the voters was Dick Allen, who carried a lot more baggage than Raines will. One thing to add about Raines: he was “clutchy.” He batted .294 overall, but .303 with runners in scoring position (batters usually do worse with RISP because managers save their best pitchers in those situations) and .315 in “late and close” situations.
45. Mark McGwire (203 WSAB/343 WS): We are running into some controversial players, aren’t we? There should be no doubt: based on his statistics alone, McGwire belongs in the Hall.
46: Eddie Murray: (203 WSAB/437 WS): As the left-hand graph (runs created per game) shows, Murray’s career had two phases: young and productive and old and hanging on. Thanks to the hanging-on years, he ranks 25th in Wins Shares, but his WSAB ranking is a better indication of his true performance.
See how closely these players are bunched? We’ve gotten to our sixth player, but moved only one WSAB.
47. Duke Snider: (202 WSAB/352 WS):Can you even imagine what it was like in New York in the 1950s with Willie, Mickey and the Duke roaming center field? Snider hit 40 or more home runs five years in a row in the mid-50s, and learned to take a walk as his career progressed (see the graph on the right). This enabled him to remain a valuable hitter even late in his career after he lost his power.
48. Wade Boggs (201 WSAB/394 WS): When most of these players first reached the majors, they were widely recognized as potential All Stars. Not Boggs. He didn’t reach the majors until he was 24, and it sometimes felt like the Sox only promoted him reluctantly. Still he had a legendary batting eye and sprayed line drives all over the field—and off the Green Monster. Boggs batted .369 at Fenway.
49. Ken Griffey Jr. (200 WSAB/371 WS): There is a tendency to think of Junior’s career as a disappointment, but that’s only compared to what he might have been: an all-time Top 10 Great. It looks like Griffey will have to settle for Top 50, which ain’t too shabby. Don’t forget: he hit 56 home runs two years in a row and has the 27th highest MVP totals ever.
Griffey and Snider make for an interesting comparison. They were similar in many ways, as you can see in this comparative graph of their Isolated Power. The difference is that Griffey had two awesome years at ages 24 and 25.
50. Robin Yount (199 WSAB/423 WS): Yount’s totals look a lot like Murray’s. His career was both long and good. Yount had a career year in 1982, at the age of 26, and pitchers pitched him differently forever after, as you can see in the right-hand graph.
Players in their Fifties
51. Manny Ramirez (198 WSAB/339 WS): And then there is Manny, only 34 years old, already the 51st-best everyday player since 1900 by our reckoning. You may think of Manny as someone who has taken extra advantage of Fenway, but that’s not really true. He’s batted .318 at Fenway; .314 overall. He’s just an extraordinary hitter. David Ortiz may be the King of Clutchiness, but Manny ain’t too shabby either. He’s batted .332 with runners in scoring position in his career.
52. Zack Wheat (197 WSAB/380 WS): Zack Wheat was voted into the Hall by the Veteran’s Committee 30 years after he retired, and he’s never ranked high on these lists. Bill James rated him the 23rd best all-time left fielder in the new Historical Abstract; conversely, we have him 52nd all-time best among all position players (post 1900). What gives?
The controversy with Wheat involves the offensive “surge” of the 1920s. You know how Babe Ruth reinvented the game around that time, the spitball was banned and scoring rates soared? Well, Wheat batted .299 before 1920, when he turned 32, and .339 for the rest of his career. In particular, he batted .375 two years in a row, when he was 35 and 36. So he did indeed seem to benefit much more than other players from the scorin’ roarin’ ’20s.
James quotes Casey Stengel, who said that Wheat’s line drives were often caught during the deadball era but that they ripped around the stadium when the ball changed. But why should that detract from Wheat’s standing? His skills were apparently well suited for the times in which he played. That can be said of virtually any great ballplayer.
I can tell you something else about Zack Wheat: his strikeout rate declined throughout his entire career. In 1910 (his rookie year), he struck out in 13% of his plate appearances. After that year, his strikeout rate declined steadily year after year until it was down to 2% in 1927, his final year. That’s an extraordinary accomplishment and indicates (to me, at least) that he improved his batting as he aged, regardless of what was happening around him.
Perhaps there was also something about his batting game that benefited particularly from the apparent changes in the game, but I personally think he belongs in the Hall. The Veterans Committee has made much worse choices.
53. Paul Molitor (196 WSAB/414 WS): Wheat and Molitor have something in common: they both played better in their 30s than their 20s. When Molitor was 30, he had a career year (1987, when George Bell won the MVP and Alan Trammell should have) and seemed to reach a new performance plateau as a result. Also, like Wheat, a key to his success was a lower strikeout rate (see the graph on the left).
In preparing this article, I developed four different ways of counting Win Shares: total Win Shares, Win Shares Above Bench, Win Shares Above Average (in which the baseline is set at an average player instead of replacement level) and something I’m calling All Star Win Shares (which was suggested by a reader like you). The idea behind this last version is to give players credit for great years (I used 150% of expected Win Shares), but no deduction for years of lower production. It’s the sort of system that would rank Sandy Koufax highly by giving him credit for his outstanding years but no deduction for his below-average early years or premature retirement.
Paul Molitor is the first person on this list whose standings in the different systems vary widely. He’s 34th in total Win Shares, 53rd in WSAB, 85th in Win Shares Above Average and 182nd in All Star Win Shares. He had a long, consistently good career but he didn’t achieve the peaks of most of the players on our list.
54. Luke Appling (196 WSAB/378 WS): By WSAB standards, Appling is the third-best shortstop of all time. Win Shares includes the impact of fielding, of course, but it doesn’t distinguish good and great fielders as well as it should. This might affect Appling; I don’t know. But he ranks very highly no matter how you cut his Win Shares. For instance, he’s 47th in total Win Shares 59th in Win Shares Above Average and 80th in All Star Win Shares.
55. Johnny Bench (195 WSAB/386 WS): Bench is the second-best catcher on our list (Yogi Berra was first). Bench may be the archetypal catcher; he seemed born for the role. At the age of 22, he hit 45 home runs with 148 RBIs and was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player. Bench might have had an even more spectacular career if the Reds had stayed in Crosley Field. He batted .303 there but only .264 in Three Rivers/Cinergy, where the Reds moved in the middle of his MVP year.
56. Harry Heilmann (195 WSAB/386 WS): Heilmann is another player whose batting average soared in the ’20s. In fact, he batted over .390 in four different full seasons in the ’20s after batting over .300 only once (.320) in five seasons prior to 1920. As you can see in the left-hand graph, the results showed in his batting average on balls in play. If you look closely, you can see that the overall league average rose, but not nearly as much as Heilmann’s. Zack Wheat’s graph exhibits the same trend, but not so dramatically.
57. Sherry Magee (195 WSAB/354 WS): I’ve been waiting for this one. Sherry Magee is the first eligible person on this list, other than Dick Allen and Mark McGwire, who hasn’t been voted into the Hall of Fame. In fact, Sherry Magee never received more than two votes for the Hall.
Magee didn’t have issues like Allen’s or McGwire’s, although he did have a bit of a temper and was once suspended 30 days for assaulting an umpire. In The Glory of Their Times, Hans Lobert said that Magee had been drunk the night before and was hung over. He also claimed that Magee suffered from epilepsy (as did his teammate Pete Alexander).
Still, I don’t think these are the reasons the writers and Veterans Committee kept him out of the Hall. They just felt he didn’t deserve to be there. What happened? Well, he played left field for one thing, an overcrowded position. But the real reason is bad timing. Sherry Magee played from 1904 to 1919. Yes, he retired just before the scorin’ roarin’ ’20s. He was a “slugger” before slugging became an honor, finishing first or second in extra-base hits in the NL five straight years from 1906 to 1910.
There’s a fun little test you can play at Baseball Reference. At the bottom of each player’s page, BR lists all the categories in which the player finished in the top 10, including youngest and oldest players each year. Most of the truly great players ranked among the 10 youngest players when they started and 10 oldest when they resigned. Babe Ruth was in the youngest group once and the oldest group four times. George Brett was in the youngest group once and the oldest group once. The record may be held by Ty Cobb, who was in the youngest group three times and the oldest group eight times.
Sherry Magee was in the youngest group twice and the oldest group once. Says here he belongs in the Hall.
58. Cal Ripken (193 WSAB/427 WS): Ripken ranks 28th in total Win Shares, but WSAB puts his ranking at 58. His total WSAA is 106th and his All Star Win Shares rank 131st. He obviously belongs in the Hall; as befits the player with the record for consecutive games played, his resume is based on longevity more than peak value. Not surprisingly, he was in the top 10 youngest players twice and the top ten oldest players twice.
59. Rod Carew (192 WSAB/384 WS): Carew’s batting average on balls in play, in the graph on the right, is a beauty to behold. Like a lot of great hitters, Carew’s batting eye improved as he aged; his walk rate increased and his strikeout rate decreased. It’s fun to compare Carew and Gwynn. In general, Carew walked and struck out more often, and also had a higher BABIP.
60. Gabby Hartnett (191 WSAB/325 WS): Hartnett, the third-ranked catcher, is 29th all-time in MVP voting even though there was no MVP voting in 1930, his best year. He had a long career for a catcher, playing until he was 40. He’s also 48th overall in All Star Win Shares.
Sixty is the new Fifty
61. Joe Jackson (190 WSAB/294 WS): Like Pete Rose, Jackson was ineligible for the Hall of Fame, though he still received a couple of write-in votes. It’s said that Jackson compares favorably to Ty Cobb as a hitter, though Tris Speaker is a better comparison. Of course, Jackson wasn’t Speaker’s equal in the field. Still, just think where he would rank if he hadn’t been banned from baseball at the age of 30.
62. Roberto Clemente (190 WSAB/377 WS): Clemente’s career was also tragically cut short, at the age of 37. That may seem old, but Clemente kept getting better as he got older. In his 30s, he slugged for higher averages, walked more often and even increased his batting average on balls in play (always outstanding to begin with). He was certainly past his peak when he died, but he probably had several good years still in him.
63. Harmon Killebrew (190 WSAB/371 WS): In 1966, when I was eleven, the Twins played a Hall of Fame game against the Cardinals. After the game, I waited with a bunch of other kids outside the Clark Gymansium, where the players dressed, hoping to snag some good autographs. When Killebrew emerged, he went straight to the bus and opened his window. This really worked to my advantage, cause I was a pretty tall kid, so I stuck my program right up there and got his John Hancock. Killebrew was a pure slugger, one of the all-time best. And I’ve got his autograph.
64. Roberto Alomar (189 WSAB/376 WS): Alomar should make the Hall, no question, but his career sure dropped off a cliff, didn’t it? Take that Runs Created Per Game graph—could anyone have seen it coming? He was only 34 at the time.
65. Dave Winfield (189 WSAB/415 WS): Contrast Alomar with Dave Winfield, who seemed to play (and play well) forever. Winfield falls into the Molitor/Ripken camp of players who are valued more for their consistency and longevity than their peak performances. He ranks 33rd in total Win Shares, 65th in WSAB, 92nd in WSAA and 147th in All Star Win Shares.
66. Mike Piazza (187 WSAB/322 WS): A no-brainer Hall of Famer and a personal favorite. Piazza’s ranking actually rises as the Win Shares metric focuses more on peak performance: 94th in Win Shares, 66th in WSAB, 46th in WSAA and 33rd in All Star Win Shares. His career effectiveness was cut short by his catcher’s knees. By the time he was tried at first base, it was too late for him to learn on the job.
67. Bill Dickey (187 WSAB/314 WS): Dickey was a left-handed batter who learned to hit home runs in Yankee Stadium. According to Bill James, he had one of the most phenomenal home/road home run differentials ever in 1938 (the year he finished second in MVP voting), when he hit 23 at Yankee Stadium and four on the road. As a result, Win Shares probably overvalues Dickey.
68. Frankie Frisch (185 WSAB/366 WS): Frisch is another case of longevity more than peak, ranking 130th in All Star Win Shares. He had a good, long consistent career and was evidently very popular with the press, leading to an MVP in 1931 (when he was 16th in WSAB). As far as I know, the Frisch/Hornsby trade was the only (almost) straight trade of two Hall of Famers.
69. Carlton Fisk (184 WSAB/368 WS): Fisk had a remarkably long career for a catcher (he played until he was 45!), but he also had some outstanding peak seasons, too. He ranks among the top 80 players on all Win Shares measures and clearly belongs in the Hall.
70. Goose Goslin (182 WSAB/355 WS): Goslin, another left fielder, was an excellent all-around hitter in the 1920s and 1930s. He was the opposite of Mel Ott; when he was in his prime, his home park (Griffith Stadium in Washington) reduced his home run totals significantly (22 home runs at home and 82 on the road) but really increased his batting average on balls in play. As a result, his batting average was consistently in the mid-.300s. When he was traded away, his home run totals increased but his batting average fell. The graph shows you what I mean.
That ’70s Show
71. Billy Williams (181 WSAB/374 WS): Williams’ career was similar to Winfield’s; it was all about consistency and longevity (exemplified by the 1,117 consecutive games he played in the 1960’s). Williams did have two peak years (1970 and 1972) when he finished second in MVP voting, but he only ranks 177th in All Star Win Shares.
72. Barry Larkin (181 WSAB/346 WS): I wonder how the voters will handle Larkin’s Hall of Fame qualifications? Really, they should be unassailable. He had a long, productive and consistent career and had a number of peak seasons too. He was a great fielder, had fine speed, won an MVP and was an upstanding person and role model. He stole 51 bases in 1995 and hit 33 home runs in 1996. I’d suggest we start the campaign, but no campaign is really needed.
73. Will Clark (180 WSAB/331 WS): Here’s the guy who needs a campaign. In the most recent Hall of Fame election, Clark garnered only 23 votes and didn’t even qualify for future ballots. That’s too bad, because he deserves more consideration.
Clark was a slick fielder and a tremendous hitter who had some powerful years (he’s 46th in All Star Win Shares), and he was also clutchy at his best. In 1989 (his best season) for instance, he batted .435 with two outs and runners in scoring position.
Unfortunately, Clark lost his power stroke due to injuries halfway through his career (as you can see in the graph) when he became a high-average batter in Texas. The fact that he lost his power shortly before home run slugging came into vogue probably works against him. If he had been able to hang in there for a few more years, more sportswriters probably would have noticed. The “Clark for Hall” case isn’t ironclad by any means, but it’s very strong.
74. Frank Baker (179 WSAB/301 WS): Which leads you to think, “Well, if Frank “Home Run” Baker is in the Hall of Fame, Clark should be too.” And it’s true: Baker’s Hall of Fame case is very similar to Clark’s. He had three excellent peak seasons from 1911 through 1913, but never quite hit that well again. He’s 39th in All Star Win Shares but 130th in total Win Shares. Say this for consistency, however: the writers didn’t vote Baker into the Hall, the Veterans Committee did.
75. Rafael Palmeiro (177 WSAB/395 WS): Palmeiro, Clark’s old teammate, has the exact opposite Hall of Fame case. He was a consistently excellent hitter for virtually every one of his 20 years, but he didn’t reach the heights that Clark reached. He’s 239th in All Star Win Shares, the lowest total of anyone we’ve talked about so far.
The writers were certainly going to give more Palmeiro strong Hall consideration before he apparently lied before Congress (As the McGwire case shows, hell hath no fury like a sportswriter fooled). There’s a trend here: the writers seem to value longevity over peak except in a few extreme examples (like Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax).
76. Reggie Smith (177 WSAB/325 WS): If you thought Clark was an interesting case, what about Reggie Smith? Smith’s rankings are really interesting: 88th in total Win Shares, 76th in WSAB, 63rd in WSAA and 125th in All Star Win Shares. In other words, he had a lot of excellent seasons but not many really, really excellent seasons. He rarely led the league in a hitting category and only received significant MVP consideration for the Dodgers in the 1970s, when he was fourth twice.
In his only eligible year for the Hall, Reggie received three votes and was subsequently dropped from the ballot.
77. Joe Cronin (177 WSAB/333 WS): Cronin certainly associated with a lot of good shortstops. When he first arrived in the majors, his path was blocked by Arky Vaughan, the second-greatest shortstop of all time, according to WSAB. When he was playing for the Red Sox, and not fielding very well, he refused to cede the position to a young kid named Pee Wee Reese so Boston traded the kid to Brooklyn. Cronin finally made way for Johnny Pesky in 1942.
78. Bobby Grich (177 WSAB/329 WS): If Grich had become a regular major leaguer at 21 instead of 23, he would be in the Hall of Fame today. When he was 21, he batted .383 in 235 at bats in Triple-A and played a fine shortstop. The next year, still blocked by Mark Belanger and Davey Johnson, he was the International League MVP, hitting .336 with 32 home runs. Put him in the majors those two years, and his WSAB ranking would probably be around 50 or better.
As you can see from the OBP graph, he was a remarkably consistent performer but never had a breakout year, never finished higher than 8th in MVP voting. Still, he’s ranked 102nd in All Star Win Shares and you can make a very good case that he belongs in the Hall. Add those two years at 21 and 22, and he’s in for sure.
79. Ryne Sandberg (176 WSAB/346 WS): Sandberg started playing full time a year younger than Grich and earned an MVP, so he’s in the Hall and Grich isn’t. The difference is in their All Star Win Shares: Sandberg ranks 62nd and Grich ranks 102nd.
80: Gary Carter (169 WSAB/337 WS): Gary Carter was ranked among the top 10 youngest players twice and the top 10 oldest players twice, which is pretty good for a catcher. By the time he was traded to the Mets, the best of his career was over but he still managed to remain a productive major league player for quite a while.
That’s our list of the 80 best everyday players since 1900. It included 15 left fielders, 14 right fielders, 11 first basemen, 11 second basemen, eight shortstops and seven catchers, third basemen and center fielders. Of the 64 players eligible for the Hall, 58 are in (52 were voted in by the BBWAA and six by the Veteran’s Committee). Allen and McGwire are special cases, obviously, which leaves only four players that are on our list but not in the Hall. Of those, Sherry Magee’s Hall of Fame case is the strongest.
Of the next 10 players (81 through 90), two are still active and only three of the remaining eight are in the Hall. Next week, we’ll look at some of the more “interesting” inductees into the Hall of Fame as well as a few other fascinating player careers.
References & Resources
If you were to rank the top 80 players by total Win Shares, you’d find that nine of the players eligible for the Hall haven’t been elected. Leaving out Allen and McGwire, that means that the Hall voters have clearly rejected seven vs. four of those in the top 80 in Win Shares Above Bench. This is a little example of why something like a replacement level, or “Loss Shares,” is required to make Win Shares a more legitimate system.