Tipping Pitches: Sports: Where's Big Muscled Waldo?


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sports: Where's Big Muscled Waldo?

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There has been a lot of talk recently about how a certain former Major League Baseball player to be nameless would have been a definite first ballot Hall of Famer if not for some extenuating circumstances (to put it nicely). I disagree.

I'm not going to go into a tirade in response to this public perception. Nor will I harp on the PED issue as the reason for my opinion (that can be separated in this case). Instead, I want to step you through exactly why I feel the way I do, without even mentioning the extenuating circumstances.

Let's play the Cooperstown Edition of Where's Waldo?

Come with me as we evaluate the careers of three different players with similar styles. Each were power hitters during different, though overlapping, eras. One is a Hall of Famer. One is not, but the player many believe put up numbers that would make him a landslide first ballot kind of guy. The other was never given a sniff of the Hall of Fame.

Now, let's remove their names and evaluate the differences and similarities. Don't cheat and look ahead. It will ruin the suspense.

  Awards Ratios
Player 1 15 7,314   1 1 7   1.17 1.19 1.44 1.33  
Player 2 16 7,660   1 0 12   1.00 1.19 1.44 1.33  
Player 3 18 10,062   0 3 12   1.03 1.17 1.38 1.29  

Analysis: Each of these players were award winners. Player 1 enjoyed winning both the MVP and Rookie of the Year awards while Player 2 won a Rookie of the Year and Player 3 won three MVP's. All were successful collecting hardware, with the first being a bit less popular (making seven All-Star Games as opposed to 12 for the other two).

When evaluating Hall of Fame worthiness, it is always important to take a player's accomplishments in perspective. Hitting 30 home runs isn't the same thing this year as it was 10 years ago... as it was 10 years before that or 10 years before that. We need to compare players to their peers in their respective eras.

Instead of comparing these three players' Batting Average, for example (a dangerous practice), we'll compare the ratio of the players' career batting average to the batting average of their era.

How do these players stack up when compared to their peers? The ratios of Player 1 and Player 2 are nearly identical. In fact, they are identical except for Batting Average. Player 2 was no better than the average player at hitting for average. Player 3, when evaluating the ratios, was no better over the course of his career than Player 1.

However, when it comes to ratios it's important to consider years played and plate appearances. It should be expected that a player that dominates for five or 10 years but sticks around for 18 seasons will see his ratios suffer as a result. Player 3 was in the league for two more seasons than Player 2 and three more seasons than Player 1.

More glaring, though, is that Player 1 and Player 2 averaged fewer than 500 plate appearances per season. By that standard, Player 3 lasted the equivalent of five full seasons longer than either Player 1 or Player 2.

In this context, Player 3's ratios are more impressive than Player 1 or Player 2, given that he needed to sustain his level of play much longer.

Assumption: Too early to know which player is which. They put up nearly identical stats in comparison to their peers (at least when compared as a ratio). Player 1 was slightly more dominant than the other two, while Player 3 sustained his success for a much longer period of time.

I would guess at this point that if there is only one Hall of Famer of the group, it is likely either Player 1 or Player 3.

  Batting Average On Base Percentage OPS
Name #1 Top 5 Top 10   #1 Top 5 Top 10   #1 Top 5 Top 10  
Player 1 0 3 6   2 3 7   4 7 10  
Player 2 0 0 0   2 2 4   2 6 7  
Player 3 0 1 1   3 7 11
  5 12 13  

Analysis: Next, let's look at how each player stacked up versus his peers in the categories of Batting Average, On Base Percentage and OPS in regards to number of dominant seasons. This may give us a better gauge of dominance since some later pre-retirement seasons of a long career can't diminish these accomplishments.

It's clear that Player 2 and Player 3 were very similar in regards to their ability to hit for average. This was shown in the first table as well. They were very average hitters. Player 1, however, was a top-five hitter three times and top 10 six times.

In regards to On Base Percentage and OPS, there's a very clear pecking order: Player 3, then Player 1, then Player 2. While all made their marks in these categories, Player 3 was simply a much more dominant player for many more years.

Assumption: Player 3 has certainly separated himself now. He would appear to be the Hall of Famer, with Player 1 being the next most deserving.

  Home Runs Slugging Percentage Total Bases
Name #1 Top 5 Top 10   #1 Top 5 Top 10   #1 Top 5 Top 10  
Player 1 2 4 8   3 7 8   1 3 6  
Player 2 4 9 10   4 6 8   0 3 3  
Player 3 8 12 13   5 12 13   3 10 13  

Analysis: Player 3 hit a lot of home runs, leading the league or being near the top of the league in the category on a regular basis. Player 2 finally separates himself from Player 1 here, but still does not stack up to Player 3. When it comes to measuring overall slugging (including doubles and triples), however, Player 1 was just as dominant as Player 2 (actually, a little more so).

Either way, Player 3 takes each category quite easily. He dominated the league for more years than either Player 1 or Player 2.

Assumption: It is now becoming quite obvious that Player 3 is a Hall of Famer (or at least the player with the first ballot stats, but denied by the writers). The other two are very comparable, so it would be surprising if one of Player 1 and Player 2 gets support for having the numbers of a first ballot Hall of Famer while the other gets none.

  Hall of Fame Voting
Name # Yrs Highest % HOF?  
Player 1 14 18.9% No  
Player 2 4 23.7% No  
Player 3 1 96.5% Yes  

Analysis: Ah hah! We were right about Player 3, who was a first ballot Hall of Famer, getting induction in nearly consensus fashion.

While Player 1 and Player 2 are receiving similar numbers of votes, it is important to remember that one supposedly had the numbers to be a first ballot Hall of Famer if not for extenuating circumstances. Yet, when compared to their respective peers, there's little separating them.

Behind Door #1
Player 1 is... Ladies and gentlemen, Dick Allen. Allen played from 1963 through 1977, winning both the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards. While his overall numbers aren't eye-popping, tempered both by a career that was modest in longevity and having played during some very dominant pitching years, Dick Allen was a dominating force. He was an all-around player who could run, hit for average, hit home runs, and hit doubles and triples.

Yet, Dick Allen never got a sniff of the Hall of Fame. He was on the ballot 14 times, four of those times receiving less than 10% of the votes. He had no chance.

Behind Door #2
Player 2 is... You guessed it, Mark McGwire. Yes, McGwire set the single season record for home runs. Well, so did Roger Maris. While having a much more dominant career than Maris, McGwire was no more dominating compared to his peers than was Allen.

Like Allen, McGwire's career was relatively short by Hall of Fame standards. Of the 144 hitters in the Hall of Fame, 43 had fewer plate appearances. A lot? Well, do you know how many of those players were active entirely through the 1960s, 70s or 80s, when seasons were 162-games long? None.

Longevity is a major reason why Dick Allen is not in the Hall of Fame. And Mark McGwire could easily get the same treatment, extenuating circumstances or not.

Behind Door #3
Player 3 is... Mike Schmidt. In many ways, Schmidt was a similar player to McGwire. He, too, was a dominating power hitter. However, he was dominating for far longer than McGwire (or Allen, for that matter). Many talk about McGwire having the numbers to be a unanimous first ballot Hall of Famer. Those who say that should look at Mike Schmidt's numbers to see what a first ballot Hall of Famer looks like.

In Conclusion
I hope this study opens the eyes of baseball fans. It's not just the lesson about the importance of comparing players to their peers. Or that Mark McGwire's statistics, when looked at more closely, lack the dominance that we are told qualify his career. McGwire's stats are almost identical to those of Dick Allen's when taken in the context of each player's era. So if you believe that McGwire put up numbers to be a first ballot Hall of Famer, can we recognize that Dick Allen suffered one of the greatest injustices in the history of the game?


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