Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Best First Basemen By Season, 1954-2008

I thought my idea was so original. I did. No one else seemed to have the idea of making seasonal best-by-position lists. Wouldn't you know it? Just when I start publishing my findings someone else comes along and steals my thunder. How dare he! In all seriousness though, Baseball By Positions looks like the start of something good, and it should prove useful to researchers. It's too reliant on Win Shares for my liking though, a stat of which I'm no fan. If you're still interested in my results after knowing there's already something out there which attempts to do the same thing with different methodology, continue reading.

Last time we did catchers, this time it's first basemen. Let's see what we got.

Remember how I said I saw a certain player's Hall of Fame credentials in a new light after this project? That player would be none other than Keith Hernandez. I'd always regarded him as little more than a Hall of Very Gooder, but between 1977 and 1986 he was the NL's best first baseman eight times. In 1982 he was a close second to Jason Thompson. All-time elite player? Perhaps not, but when defense and era are accounted for, perhaps a Hall of Famer.

Stan Musial truly was "The Man," as he managed to be the best first baseman in the NL even late in his career. After Musial's run ended, Frank Robinson took over briefly (nope, he wasn't always an outfielder). The Giants had a dilemma in the early '60s: Both Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda were capable of being the NL's best first baseman. Cepeda had to be traded so that McCovey could shine at the position. Each of those four have plaques in Cooperstown today. All-in-all, the NL was a good league for first-sackers in that era. Even the second-tier guys who show up at the top carved out strong careers (Ted Kluszewski, Joe Adcock, Bill White).

Over in the AL it was a much different story. Only one player who shows up at the top made it to the Hall of Fame, and Harmon Killebrew moved around the field too much to identified with any one position. Norm Cash shows up four times, Bill Skowron and Boog Powell each show up three times, Vic Power and Norm Siebern each show up twice, and the rest are filled in by Mickey Vernon, Vic Wertz, Gail Harris, Roy Sievers, Mike Epstein and Don Mincher. Have you ever even heard of Gail Harris? 1958 was the only year he qualified for one of these lists. It's possible that Vernon would've shown up a few more times if the data went farther back, but I wouldn't consider him an all-time great even if he did. Is this just a positional fluke or the sign of a weak league? My guess is the latter.

The '70s were a little better for the AL, as Dick Allen put up an MVP season in 1972. I personally think he should be in the Hall, even if his poor fielding reduces his value somewhat. Rod Carew also moved over from second to top the league at first in both 1976 and 1977. George Scott, John Mayberry and Andre Thornton all turned in topper years, and Eddie Murray showed the beginnings of what he'd be capable of in the next decade.

Steve Garvey may be the most hatable player of all time, but four out of five years from 1974 to 1978 he was the NL's best first baseman. His overall career wasn't strong enough to make him a Hall of Famer in my opinion, but his elite reputation during his playing days may not have been as undeserved as many of us think. The Reds traded away Lee May after the 1971 season and never missed a positional leadership beat, as Tony Perez flourished there the next two years. Bob Watson's two-time tying deserves a mention too, and it's interesting to note that Willie Stargell's 1979 co-MVP came the year after he was the best at his position.

First base leaders got a little more consistent in the '80s. Don Mattingly and Cecil Cooper each had nice little three-year runs, and Fred McGriff and Will Clark also had their moments at the top. Of course, I've already discussed Keith Hernandez.

Frank Thomas was considered by many to be the best hitter in baseball during the '90s, but with fielding factored in, he only came out on top for his position once. Mark McGwire actually provided more value three times during the decade. John Olerud has an interesting place in the '90s. In 1993 he was better than the MVP winner (Thomas), and in 1998 he was better than the guy who hit 70 home runs (as if I need to tell you who). Is it safe to call him underrated?

Since Jeff Bagwell's rise to the top, the title of best NL first baseman has almost become a torch to be passed. Except for Olerud's outstanding 1998, Bagwell was the best from 1994 to 1999. In 1993 he only barely got beaten out by a career-year Gregg Jefferies too. Bagwell handed off that torch to Todd Helton for the next four years, and Helton's handoff to Albert Pujols in 2004 brings us into the current era.

Once again, the AL has become the less stable league for best first basemen. Jason Giambi had an incredible three-year run from 1999 to 2001, and Rafael Palmeiro and Jim Thome pop up here and there. On those great Yankee teams of the late '90s I usually considered Tino Martinez a good-enough guy who no one would care about if he weren't a Yankee. My opinion hasn't really changed on that, but I was surprised to find out he was co-best in 1997. Mark Teixeira looked poised to be the next great one after 2004 and 2005, but outstanding years from Justin Morneau and Carlos Pena overshadowed him. Had Teixeira spent all of 2008 in the AL, he might've done it again though.

The NL team with the most best first basemen is the Cardinals, with seven. A distant second is the Reds, with four. The Athletics lead the way in the AL with five, with second place a four-way tie at four between the Orioles, Indians, Senators/Twins and Senators/Rangers.

Next time we'll be looking at second base, a much more glorified position for the grace and athleticism usually expected. Should be fun.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Best Catchers By Season, 1954-2008

Here's the first installment of my series on the best players at each position using Sean Smith's WAR and Fangraphs' Value Dollars. You can read my previous post for more details. First up: catchers.

No other position on the diamond requires a more unique skillset than catcher. A player who can master every element of the game from behind the plate is rare indeed. Catchers are often taken for granted, but the ones who truly excel manage to find a place in the hearts of fans. Let's check out the best catcher list by league and season.

Well, we have a few of Hall of Famers who live up to their reputations, namely Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench and Gary Carter. I wasn't expecting to see Bench beaten out by Manny Sanguillen or Joe Ferguson during his prime, though. To be honest, when Gary Carter was up for induction I had a hard time thinking of him as worthy, despite the fact that everyone else seemed to take for granted that he belonged. When comparing him to his positional peers it's easy to see that his place in Cooperstown is well-deserved. Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez are both future shoo-ins, which this chart only confirms. As you can also see, Joe Mauer is on his way to greatness.

Yankee and Red Sox fans loved to debate the merits of Thurman Munson vs. Carlton Fisk back in the day, as they were two of the best catchers of the '70s. While Fisk got into the Hall of Fame on just his second try, the honor eluded Munson. Many fans (particularly Yankee fans) argue that he deserves to be in, and for a long time I was firmly in the anti-Munson camp. After doing this project I'm tempted to rethink that position. The data shows that from 1970 to 1976 he was the AL's best catcher an astounding five times. I'm not 100% in support of him, but I no longer write him off as another overrated Yankee either.

As for Fisk, he was injured in 1975. Had he played enough innings he might've taken that year instead of Munson. Injuries seem to have prevented Fisk from qualifying several other years too. Despite his reputation, he was never the AL's best catcher between 1979 and 1988. Of course, I will concede that Butch Wynegar (yes, Butch Wynegar) only barely qualifies for 1983. Fisk was second-best that year, so if Wynegar had played more he might've fallen behind Fisk. Fisk does deserve some credit for his resurgence in 1989 and '90, though. How often is baseball's best backstop over the age of 40?

Ed Bailey, Del Crandall, Johnny Romano, Elston Howard, Joe Torre, Bill Freehan and Darren Daulton all show up three times. Some of them are borderline Hall of Fame candidates while others have mostly been forgotten. Smoky Burgess, Earl Battey, Darrell Porter, Ted Simmons, Jim Sundberg, Rich Gedman, Craig Biggio, Mickey Tettleton, Chris Hoiles and Jorge Posada each show up twice. Battey and Gedman seem the most unlikely of that group to me.

While Craig Biggio is better known for his exploits at second base, he was twice the NL's best catcher, including his final season there. As you'll see throughout this series, it's not unheard of for a player to be moved off a position the very season after he was the best in the league at manning it.

Terry Steinbach was the best catcher in baseball his rookie year, yet he failed to garner a single Rookie of the Year vote. He was overshadowed a bit by a certain teammate who hit 49 homers that year.

Ellie Rodriguez tied as the AL's best in 1974. If you've never heard of him, don't feel bad. Even a baseball fanatic like me didn't know who he was before I did this project. Would you have believed that Johnny Edwards, Duke Sims, Ron Hassey, Bob Brenly, Rick Wilkins, Brian Schneider or Ryan Doumit were once the best catchers in their respective leagues either?

The White Sox had to be kicking themselves at the end of the 1960 season. Earl Battey and Johnny Romano had emerged as the AL's two best catchers...a year after the Sox traded both of them away.

The NL team with the most best catchers is the Dodgers, with six. The Braves and Pirates are tied for second, with four each. Over in the AL the winner is (unsurprisingly) the Yankees with six. Like the Senior Circuit, two teams are tied for second place with four: the Indians and the Tigers.

In the next entry we'll take a look at the first basemen. Like Thurman Munson, another player I never regarded as Hall of Fame-caliber has significantly increased his stock after I saw the results of this project. Check back next time to find out who it is!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A New Series to Announce

For those of you who've been disappointed at my recent lack of updates, I have some exciting news. I'm finally ready to release the results of my research project where I've attempted to find the best player at each position for each season. No, I haven't abandoned Profiling the World Series Winners, I've just set it aside temporarily.

It all started at the end of last season, when the debate over Albert Pujols vs. Ryan Howard for MVP raged. Those in the "traditional" community favored Howard, as he led the league in homers and RBI, and his great September gave the appearance that he led his team to the postseason. The "stathead" community, on the other hand, favored Pujols. Pujols, as most of us know, had much, much better rate stats, was a vastly superior defender, and provided more overall value despite the fact that his team missed the Playoffs. I thought it'd be fun to find a first baseman who offered comparable value to Howard in order to demonstrate that he wasn't all that. Originally I just ranked all the first basemen in baseball by OPS+, but I eventually realized defense had to be taken into account. I found a stat that showed Pujols was far ahead of the pack there on Beyond the Box Score, but I never got around to posting my findings over at my old blog (probably because the debate had run its course by the time I was finished compiling my stats). Still, it's telling that Joey Votto provided more value than Howard in 2008.

After that I thought it'd be fun to see what results I got at other positions, which then progressed to me looking up other years. Eventually I discovered Sean Smith's Wins Above Replacement and Fangraphs' Value Dollars, which made determining a player's overall value much easier. I only have them from 1954 to 2008, since that's as far back as Sean Smith's data goes. I use Value Dollars for seasons after 2002 except for catchers, since WAR gives a more complete picture. Since the entire project began as a way of emphasizing rate over counting stats, I decided to rank the players by value stat per game.

To qualify for consideration at his position, I used the criterion that infielders must have played 58.7% of their team's innings at the position, and catchers and outfielders must have played at least 50.9%. I know those numbers seem fairly random (there were rhyme and reason to them at the time I set them), but they were better than the minimum number of innings I originally set. I basically wanted to avoid letting platoon players come out on top and to find guys who did more than get off to a hot start (I may have ended up with a few of those anyway, but nobody's perfect). If it's clear that a player's value is skewed by a significant amount of time at another position, I attempted to account for that as well. If the per-game values were close enough that rounding off could've made a difference, I called it a tie.

Check back soon to see the results. You might find them interesting.