Blu Mar Ten’s “Natural History” album came out this week, and I couldn’t be more excited. Its excellence in experimental drum’n’bass reinforces that they’re one of the best two-way bands out there, as their previous albums developed their other strength of evocative chillout music. Few bands are equally good in two genres, and it’s one reason Blu Mar Ten is one of my top 10 groups.
What do three British musicians have to do with baseball? Simply, we’re drawn in baseball, as with life at large, to people with multiple disparate talents. Bill James’ Power/Speed number is an excellent example of measuring these combinations, even though it tells us little about productivity. The Power/Speed number takes the harmonic mean of a player’s home runs and stolen bases [(2 x HR x SB)/(HR + SB), or the inverse of a normal mean multiplied by the numbers that went into the mean] to weigh the mean in favor of the lower number. That way, only players proficient in homers and steals will get high marks. Obviously, if a player has zero steals, the mean goes to zero, weeding out the Mark McGwires in favor of the Jose Cansecos.
In the spirit of the Power/Speed number, I present to you the Offense/Defense number. Using a player’s batting and fielding Win Shares, we can take the harmonic mean and get a rough idea of how much he was contributing each half of the inning. This week, I’ll break down infielders by position ranking. Doing this by position is important, as different spots on the field produce vastly different fielding Win Shares. For example, the best season at first base is 2,472nd in Offense/Defense number (O/D for short, though not Odie) since 1901. Random seasons just above it include Ira Flagstead‘s 1924, Duffy Dyer‘s 1972 and Ernie Young‘s 1996. Of the top 50 O/Ds since 1901, half are by shortstops. The numbers are unbalanced until you rank by position, where they make sense in context.
Each position will be listed to 25 spots. Although players are listed by primary position, all fielding endeavors are counted in fielding Win Shares. On a large scale, this only affects Gene Tenace in the first base rankings, since he had significant time at catcher, but a couple of other seasons get boosts from playing more challenging positions in small doses.
BWS and FWS are batting and fielding Win Shares, respectively. I’ve also given total Win Shares to highlight the differences in sum contribution and the balanced effort we’re seeking.
Seasons run through 2008.
A pretty colorful list to start off with, abounding in interesting seasons. Tino Martinez’s five fielding Win Shares atop the list is an absurd amount; I haven’t seen another first baseman contribute that much with the glove in any season. As mentioned, Tenace’s time at catcher boosts him some, as does Jeff King’s time at second, and Wagner’s and Foxx’s jaunts at third. (Before this, I didn’t know that Wagner played no games at shortstop in the 19th century. Wouldn’t have guessed.) That 1929-1930 produced the same component breakdown for Foxx is an eerie coincidence.
Greenberg’s final Tigers season is a major surprise, but this list is primarily who you’d expect through the years.
As second base increased in defensive importance over third base, the opportunities for fielding Win Shares came with it. All this goes to show how amazing Lajoie and Collins were; from 1906-1910 they made the top five seasons to date, and they’re still on the list. And in between Collins and wartime, only Frankie Frisch’s mark at the top has survived.
More than half the seasons on here come from Collins, Lajoie, Grich and Sandberg. Being too young to see Grich play, I never have fully understood his Hall of Fame candidacy, but I see it a lot more when three consecutive seasons put him on this list. Unlike the first base list, where slight variations in fielding mean a bit too much, this is some heady company. That Grich is on this list thrice while Morgan and Alomar make it once apiece may be good evidence of outstanding performance.
Stirnweiss’s season is a reminder that in wartime, finding anybody with multiple skills of any stripe was of increased value. Every position but catcher and first base has at least one wartime season.
And Fernando Vina in 1998? Really? That’s the fun of making lists like this. 1998 produced a lot of excellence in these lists: Ivan Rodriguez at catcher, Olerud at first base, Vina here and Andruw Jones in center field. 1999 had more, with I-Rod and Jones repeating, Biggio and Alomar here, and Robin Ventura at third base. This isn’t the famous part of those years, but it’s certainly historically significant. It’s at least something else to remember the era by if the juiced bits weren’t your cup of tea.
|Pee Wee Reese||1942||15.6||11.7||27.3||13.37|
I think we can agree that Honus Wagner was good. Along with his first base performance, his record six spots on the lists aren’t going to be topped for a while, although Joe Mauer has a relatively decent chance. Cronin makes this list from three Senators years, a section I know little about save for the 1933 pennant. Washington’s success with prime-of-career middle infielders becoming managers is highly unusual. Perhaps the Nationals can do that with Ryan Zimmerman. . . . I’d like it.
This is the only list not to feature any seasons from the last 20 years, which seems odd. Of the famous AL shortstops of a decade ago, only Omar Vizquel generated at least eight fielding Win Shares, which he did twice but without sufficient hitting to matter. While everyone was looking at them, Orlando Cabrera‘s 2001 season broke the fielding Win Shares record, his 13.5 surpassing Rabbit Maranville‘s 13.3 from 1914. But as with Vizquel in 1991, his fielding outproduced his hitting, keeping him off this list. Although this is a defense-driven list, it’s much less driven by defense than at other positions, as there have been several great defensive shortstops over the years.
That Schmidt hit the top spot in his second full year is all kinds of remarkable. With fewer bunts, third base was a tougher place to earn Win Shares as the years rolled on. Not only did Mr. Schmidt outhit his contemporaries, he outfielded them and several deadballers. Wartime aside, there’s a gap from the ’20s to the ’60s on here, but Schmidt added to the emerging talent at third—Boyer, Santo, Nettles—with an exclamation point that nobody’s approached since, even as Schmidt established himself as the best third baseman of history. George Brett would rival him with the bat, but in most every year Schmidt was a win better on defense. In terms of what we’re investigating, Schmidt is up there with Wagner in terms of accomplishing some stunning results . . .
. . . which may have obscured Darrell Evans a bit. Evans had a fine season himself in ’74 and again with an honorable mention the next year, but who was going to notice when there was Schmidt’s accomplishments to gawk at? Evans was prodigious in his own right, but he would be second stringed instrument (didn’t want to discriminate against fiddles) to Schmidt in all of them. Although there are many reasons Evans is underrated, Schmidt may be the biggest one of all.
For infield positions, Shindle’s 1889 season is the only one that early, and it was also accomplished as a second-year player. As odd as it can be to parse out seasons that early, Shindle’s clearly belongs on the list, as it doesn’t suffer from the usual maladies of the era. The American Association of that year was high-scoring, but not abnormally so, at least not worse than when they moved the mound back 10 feet a few years later. And while the league did have a 27-111 team in it (Louisville), the rest of the teams were spread out about right. It wasn’t balanced by any means, but neither was the National League at the turn of the century, and the pennant winners didn’t benefit abnormally from Louisville’s presence. For purposes of Win Shares, Shindle particularly didn’t benefit, as his Baltimore team went 70-65. It just happened to be a fairly shallow team, with only seven players accumulating at least 10 Win Shares. Shindle led his position in putouts, assists and errors, which I’m guessing is a rather rare feat. At any length, he performed similarly in the Players’ League the next year, then saw his offense decline as overall offense was inclining and was never remotely as useful again. (I’ve never heard anybody use it this way, but if decline goes one way, shouldn’t incline go the other way?)
Outfielders and catchers
References & Resources
Baseball Reference covered in Bill James and marinated for 5 hours.