Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Redistributing the Wealth

Joe Posnanski's recent column about exchanging walks for hits fascinated me. Numbers have long been an integral part of baseball (perhaps now moreso than ever before), and the very idea of re-imagining a player's career with a different statistical profile is sure to start a history geek's pulse racing. If you haven't read the piece yet, click on that link above and enjoy it for yourself before continuing any further.

Joe openly admits that he isn't the most technically-proficient stat-manipulator, and indeed, it does seem a little awkward that in his exercise 175 plate appearances simply vaporize from each player's career. Sabermetric legend Tom Tango left a comment though, stating that one could keep the plate appearances constant by exchanging 500 walks for 400 singles and 100 outs, leaving the player's overall value unchanged. Hey, I'm all for precision when possible, so it occurred to me that I could improve on Joe's work by making more precise calculations; that turned out not to be necessary, as Joe's calculations were pretty close to the ones I got. As long as you don't mind a few percentage points being off, you're fine if you stick with the original piece for the players he mentioned (it's much better-written anyway).

Even so, I knew there was further potential in this concept. If you shuffled the hits and walks from some other players' career lines, who would they be comparable to, if anyone?

One fascinating, statistically-quirky player is Eddie Yost, who demonstrated only one skill consistently in eighteen Major league seasons: the ability to draw walks (hence his nickname, "The Walking Man"). He finished his career with a truly unique line of .254/.394/.371. Even stranger, this production was coming from a third baseman! Could you imagine getting that type of production from the hot corner today? So how does Yost look if we exchange 500 walks for 400 singles and 100 outs?

New line: .288/.383/.399
Comparable: Kevin Seitzer (.295/.375/.404)

Chuck Knoblauch (.288/.378/.406) is actually a bit closer in batting line, but Seitzer works better as a comp because he played the same position. Let's take it a bit further though, and do another 500-for-400 swap.

New line: .319/.372/.423
Comparable: Cecil Travis (.314/.370/.416)

Travis was primarily a shortstop, but he also played a significant amount of third base.

There's an interesting development here though: Yost is suddenly better in each category than Hall of Famer George Kell (.306/.367/.414)! Now, I realize the general consensus these days is that Kell was a poor selection, but if Yost had put up this line, might he have been inducted instead? My first instinct says no, as Kell had a prominent broadcasting career and was selected to ten All-Star teams (Yost only made the All-Star team once). However, considering they were both lifetime American Leaguers from the same era at the same position, it's possible Yost would've taken some of those selections away from Kell. The mind wonders.

Just for fun, let's put another 400 singles on Yost's resume.

New line: .346/.361/.444
Comparable: None

At this point Yost has only 114 career walks and 3,063 career hits, making him the anti-Walking Man and the emptiest .340 hitter of all time. If he had managed to put up this line he either would've been elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot or he would've initiated the discussion about the true value of 3,000 hits sooner.

Personally, I associate Yost with the other walking Eddies of his era. We might as well take a look at each of them too.

Eddie Joost

Real line: .239/.361/.366
New line: .285/.346/.401
Comparable: Tony Fernandez (.288/.347/.399)

Not bad company.

Eddie Stanky

Real line: .268/.410/.348
New line: .324/.391/.395
Comparable: Luke Appling (.310/.399/.398)

As you can see, doing this exercise with short-career guys like Stanky affects their numbers more drastically. At least that .324 batting average would've left him unable only to run and throw, and it would've won him a comparison to a Hall of Fame infielder.

Eddie Lake

Real line: .231/.366/.323
New line: .323/.334/.400
Comparable: None

OK, now we're getting to a really obscure guy, but he was one of the four eagle-eyed Eddies. With an even shorter career than Stanky, he simply becomes his own inverse with a 500-for-400 swap. What if we only go halfway, deducting 250 walks and adding 200 singles?

New line: .281/.350/.365
Comparable: Dave Bancroft (.279/.355/.358)

Not bad. Now he compares to a lower-tier Hall of Famer, except his career was less than half as long.

As long as we're on the subject of patient infielders, how about Max Bishop, who probably would've been named Eddie had he been born about 20 years later?

Real line: .271/.423/.366
New line: .324/.405/.409
Comparable: Luke Appling (.310/.399/.398)

Pretty good. Very similar to Stanky and the same Hall of Fame comparable (albeit at a tougher position). With that .324 average Bishop might've been a Hall of Famer himself. Of course, when you think of Max Bishop you probably think of his awesome nickname "Camera Eye," so would the tradeoff really be worth it?

At this point, some of you are probably getting bored looking at these scrubs. You probably want to see the guys who are in the Hall of Fame debate. Fair enough. Let's look at some of them.

Not that anyone questions the eye-popping nature of Barry Bonds' numbers, but let's see how they'd look with a higher batting average attached to them:

Real line: .298/.444/.607
New line: .322/.436/.616
Comparable: Jimmie Foxx (.325/.428/.609)

Still a no-doubt inner-circle Hall of Famer. How about another swap?

New line: .344/.428/.625
Comparable: Albert Pujols (.331/.426/.624)

Yes, Pujols is still active, but let's be honest, Pujols could retire today and make the Hall on the first ballot. Say what you will about Bonds, you can't deny that he put up some incredible numbers (and I suppose his critics could use the word "incredible" multiple ways).

Ron Santo

Real line: .277/.362/.464
New line: .307/.352/.484
Comparable: Tony Oliva (.304/.353/.476)

Well, it's not the best comparison, but considering Oliva has a Hall of Fame argument with those numbers as a right fielder, how much better is Santo's case with slightly better numbers as a third baseman? I'm sure Santo would take this new line, and that .300 average would've gotten him inducted long ago.

How about another Cub third baseman, Stan Hack?

Real line: .301/.394/.397
New line: .333/.382/.423
Comparable: Rod Carew (.328/.393/.429)

Since Carew played both second and first, we can split the difference, as third falls between them on the defensive spectrum. Hack probably would've made the Hall with that line, and guys like George Kell probably would've been overlooked later on because they didn't measure up to Hack's standard.

As long as we're discussing third basemen, how about some others who manned the tweener station?

Graig Nettles

Real line: .248/.329/.421
New line: .277/.319/.441
Comparable: Shea Hillenbrand (.284/.321/.440)

Has anyone ever noticed what an odd career Shea Hillenbrand had? Seven seasons, two-time All-Star (starting in 2002), six different franchises, out of the bigs at age 32. He may be the least-distinguished comp so far, but there was definitely some talent there. If he hadn't been such a difficult personality, who knows what might have been?

As for Nettles (the guy we really should be talking about), his value was tied almost entirely to his defense and slugging, but he was good enough at both that his Hall case is stronger than many people realize. I'm not sure if this new line would've drastically improved his chances, but it might've bought him a few extra years on the ballot (Nettles dropped off after his fourth year).

Darrell Evans

Real line: .248/.361/.431
New line: .277/.352/.450
Comparable: Ken Caminiti (.272/.347/.447)

As you can see, Evans is basically Nettles with better on-base skills. His glove was only average, though, so like Nettles, this new line might not have done anything but buy him a few extra years on the ballot. What if we made another tradeoff?

New line: .303/.342/.468
Comparable: Cecil Cooper (.298/.337/.466)

I'm not a proponent of Evans for the Hall, but with 414 homers and a .300 average he likely would've made it. Of course, with that .342 OBP, he'd probably be considered overrated today rather than underrated.

Who's that comp? Cecil Cooper? No, it's not entirely fair, as Evans betters him in each category, had a longer career and played third base too, but even if Cooper had been a third baseman he probably would've gone down in history as good-but-not-great. As long as we're here, let's do something a little different. Let's add some walks to Cooper's line, take away a few singles and see who it compares to.

New line: .262/.349/.442
Comparable: Ron Cey (.261/.354/.445)

Perfect. A third baseman. Ron Cey was a very good player, but I don't think anyone would argue he's a few average points short of being an all-time great. Speaking of D. Evans though, what about that other one, Dwight Evans?

Real line: .272/.370/.470
New line: .300/.360/.488
Comparable: George Brett (.305/.369/.487)

Wow! Who knew that Dwight Evans' offensive numbers were potentially just a notch below George Brett's? He'd probably have a plaque in Cooperstown right now with this line.

Dick Allen

Real line: .292/.378/.534
New line: .329/.364/.553
Comparable: None

.329? During the Second Deadall Era? What personality issues?

Bobby Grich

Real line: .266/.371/.424
New line: .302/.358/.449
Comparable: Roberto Alomar (.300/.371/.443)

Boy oh boy, do you think Grich wouldn't love to cash in those walks right about now? True, Alomar was a better baserunner, but Grich was better defensively, so let's call it even.

Even though he's nothing close to a Hall of Fame candidate, how about the patron saint of the Three True Outcomes, Rob Deer?

Real line: .220/.324/.442
New line: .255/.313/.464
Comparable: Joe Carter (.259/.306/.464)

Well, at least he resembles a well-known, popular player. What if we did it again?

New line: .286/.302/.483
Comparable: None

He looks more respectable with that .286 batting average, but that .302 ain't gonna cut it. It would seem that the only thing that makes Rob Deer interesting is the extreme nature of his stats; he and Gorman Thomas are the only players with over 200 career homers and a batting average lower than .230 (it should come as no surprise that Thomas has an almost identical batting line to Deer's: .225/.324/.448). Just out of curiosity though, what if Deer were an even more extreme Three True Outcomes type? What would happen if we took away 400 singles, 100 outs and added 500 walks?

New line: .134/.346/.390

Now, that's just ridiculous. He has fewer career singles than doubles at this point! Besides that, if he were this bad at getting hits he probably wouldn't draw as many walks, since pitchers wouldn't be afraid to pound the zone against him. What if we went halfway and added only 250 walks and took away only 200 singles?

New line: .180/.335/.418

Still ridiculous, but at least closer to realistic. If Deer had put up this line for his career he'd be legendary.

As long as we're going the other way now, let's see how some well-known hitters who could stand to walk more would look if we took away some singles and added a few base on balls?

I've tried to avoid active players in this post, but I know Ichiro Suzuki's name was the first one that popped into many heads, so we'll make an exception for him.

Real line: .331/.376/.430
New line: .294/.389/.400
Comparable: Mike Griffin (.296/.388/.407)

So if Ichiro Suzuki drew more walks and hit fewer singles he'd be a 19th-Century outfielder. It doesn't account for his defense and baserunning, of course, but it gives you a good idea of how old-school a player the guy is.

Al Oliver

Real line: .303/.344/.451
New line: .274/.354/.431
Comparable: Rusty Staub (.279/.362/.431)

Question: Would Al Oliver's career have lasted as long as it did if he weren't such a good singles hitter? Oliver stuck around for 18 seasons trying to make a run at 3,000 hits, a mark he missed by 257. If he'd put up this type of line he might've retired earlier knowing he didn't have a shot.

Juan Gonzalez

Real line: .295/.343/.561
New line: .254/.357/.541
Comparable: Adam Dunn (.250/.381/.521)

Juan Gone suddenly places in the top ten all-time in Isolated Power. Not bad, but it doesn't make him any more Hall-worthy. I know the Dunn comp is a slight stretch based on numbers alone (and I'm violating my attempted no-active players policy), but Gonzalez with the new line is the perfect example of a Dunn type.

Dave Kingman

Real line: .236/.302/.478
New line: .190/.315/.452
Comparable: None

Is it really worth going below the Mendoza line just to be able to say you're patient at the plate? That OBP is still nothing special. Like we did with Deer, let's try another swap of singles-for-walks.

New line: .137/.329/.421

When you have to bring your BA down to .137 just to get your OBP up to league average, you probably aren't that great of a hitter.

How about we turn to some Hall of Famers? Let's see how the careers of some immortalized players would appear if we monkeyed with their stats.

Mickey Mantle

Real line: .298/.421/.557
New line: .327/.410/.571
Comparable: Stan Musial (.331/.417/.559)

Mantle was disappointed that he didn't finish his career with a .300 batting average (spending your final years during the Second Deadball Era will do that for you), so I'm sure he would've made this tradeoff if he could've.

Brooks Robinson

Real line: .267/.322/.401
New line: .291/.313/.419
Comparable: Garry Maddox (.285/.320/.413)

Robinson was such an outstanding defensive player that his Hall of Fame credentials aren't in doubt. However, he could hit a little too, a fact that often gets overlooked. With his new .291 batting average would he be remembered for greatness on both sides of the ball rather than just one? Given that his (admittedly imperfect) comp was remembered mainly for his defense too, it's possible his offense would remain underappreciated.

Luis Aparicio

Real line: .262/.311/.343
New line: .234/.320/.319
Comparable: Monte Cross (.234/.316/.313)

While this new line is equally valuable on a pure linear weights basis, might it have been more valuable in actuality, because Aparicio batted leadoff for much of his career? Granted, his OBP is still below league average, but if you had to bat him leadoff, wouldn't you rather have the second option?

Andre Dawson

Real line: .279/.323/.482
New line: .252/.333/.465
Comparable: Jesse Barfield (.256/.335/.466)

Amazingly, Barfield and Dawson were very similar players. Both were outfielders who played right and center, and both had great arms. If Barfield hadn't had his career cut short by a wrist injury, he might've found his way into some Hall of Fame arguments.

Jim Rice

Real line: .298/.352/.502
New line: .266/.363/.483
Comparable: Rocky Colavito (.266/.359/.489)

The walking-er Jim Ed is very respectable, but not exactly all-time great material.

George Sisler

Real line: .340/.379/.468
New line: .311/.391/.447
Comparable: Mark Grace (.303/.383/.442)

OK, so he's actually a bit ahead of Grace. It's just funny to put these two together. We all know Sisler's incredible peak is the real reason he's in the Hall, while Grace put up these numbers more consistently throughout his career.

Ernie Banks

Real line: .274/.330/.500
New line: .245/.340/.483
Comparable: Cecil Fielder (.255/.345/.482)

Banks is an interesting case. Most of his career value comes from the first half, when he played shortstop and put up numbers above and beyond the expectations for the position. The second half he spent as an average-to-below-average first baseman who padded his resume by compiling power numbers (I once saw someone call it "Alex Rodriguez turning into Eric Karros halfway through his career," a description that really nailed it). Those 500 homers may have helped Banks get into Cooperstown, but it's his early peak that makes him truly worthy.

Tony Gwynn

Real line: .338/.388/.459
New line: .312/.398/.439
Comparable: Elmer "Mike" Smith (.310/.398/.434)

Like Suzuki, an obscure 19th-Century outfielder is Gwynn's best comp.

Wee Willie Keeler

Real line: .341/.388/.415
New line: .313/.399/.391
Comparable: Richie Ashburn (.308/.396/.382)

Keeler's a bit ahead of Ashburn offensively, but it's the least we could expect for putting him in right field rather than center.

Harmon Killebrew

Real line: .256/.376/.509
New line: .287/.365/.525
Comparable: Willie Stargell (.282/.360/.529)

Two poor-fielding Hall of Fame brethren.

Rabbit Maranville

Real line: .258/.318/.340
New line: .284/.309/.361
Comparable: Garry Templeton (.271/.304/.369)

Maranville's defense must've been a lot better than we have the ability to measure, since his offense doesn't compare to anyone particularly great. Where was UZR when we needed it?

Roberto Clemente

Real line: .317/.359/.475
New line: .290/.369/.457
Comparable: Bruce Campbell (.290/.367/.455)

Like Brooks Robinson, Clemente is hardly a questionable selection, though a big portion of his value comes from his stellar defense. This new line is almost a dead ringer for a journeyman right fielder from the 1930's, but of course, the comparison isn't exactly fair, as the 1930's were a notably higher-scoring era than Clemente's 1960's. Clemente is considered overrated to a degree because his OBP was very BA-dependent, but he might actually be underrated today if he put up this line for his career.

Al Kaline

Real line: .297/.376/.480
New line: .321/.367/.495
Comparable: Joe Medwick (.324/.362/.505)

I don't have much to say here. I just thought it was cool that his best comp was a Hall of Famer (albeit a less-glorious one, due to the same issues as I mentioned above).

Willie McCovey

Real line: .270/.374/.515
New line: .300/.364/.531
Comparable: Hal Trosky (.302/.371/.522)

Once again we see a player whose peak came during the Second Deadball Era compare to a lesser player from the 1930's. Maybe we could try it the other way around?

Heinie Manush

Real line: .330/.377/.479
New line: .297/.389/.456
Comparable: Minnie Minoso (.298/.389/.459)

Well OK, Minoso's peak was during the 1950's, not the '60s, but it's still a good example of how out-of-control offense was during the Roaring 20's and subsequent Depression. I think most people would agree that Minoso, while not a sure-fire Hall of Famer, is more deserving of the spot Manush currently occupies.

As I've acknowledged throughout this piece, I'm aware that there are flaws to this exercise, and that I'm not much better than Joe Posnanski at playing with numbers, if at all. Still, hypotheticals are fun, and if baseball can't be fun, what's the point?

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