Tipping Pitches: Sports: The Project


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sports: The Project

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The quest begins to find the greatest 300 baseball players of all time. Step one: Find the very best.

I've worked on several projects covered by these very blog pages. I'm on a mission to embark on a much bigger one.

"The Project" is multi-layered. Many steps. May take months, if not longer.

The ultimate goal? Rank the top 300 offensive baseball players of all time.

The reason for this is pretty simple: I want a clearer view of the game's greatest. Cutting across eras, I want to answer some of the game's brain-numbing questions. Not necessarily to solve any global historical dilemma. Just for me. I expect to learn quite a bit from this exercise.

I want to be able to tell you who the greatest player of all time was and why. I want to be able to explain, with facts, why Willie Mays was better than Mickey Mantle (or vice versa).

I've gone through several scenarios in my head to determine how I would accomplish this. I keep coming back to one, simplified start:

Who is number one?

So we'll start with the very best baseball player of all time and go from there. Since I will need to consider several players to make the first declaration, my initial pool will help me make future declarations as well.

Who is number one? Well, I have my ideas. Probably rather obvious, but maybe not. Before I can make such a decision, I'd need to first narrow the field.

It's always important to make a such an analysis without bias, so I'm narrowing the field entirely based on strict statistical requirements.

The Natural is not eligible for this project
In order to qualify, a player must be retired and in the top 10 all time in career hits, home runs, or one of my recently developed peer-based qualitative categories: AVG, OBP, SLG, or OBP when taken as a ratio over the average player of their era. Note that I am only using Major League stats, so those who played part, most or all of their careers in the Negro League, for example, will have incomplete stats for this comparison. Only starring in The Natural will also not be enough to qualify.

When I was done, I ended up with 32 players. Some will obviously not be the best ever player, but I want to make sure I don't miss anyone. And this also helps me set a field for the top five later on.

Here are the "prime" 32 (in alphabetical order by first name, thanks to Excel):

Babe Ruth
Barry Bonds
Billy Hamilton
Cap Anson
Carl Yastrzemski
Dan Brouthers
Eddie Collins
Frank Robinson
Hank Aaron
Hank Greenberg
Harmon Killebrew
Honus Wagner
Jimmie Foxx
Joe DiMaggio
Lou Gehrig
Mark McGwire
Mickey Mantle
Nap Lajoie
Paul Molitor
Pete Rose
Rafael Palmeiro
Reggie Jackson
Rod Carew
Rogers Hornsby
Sammy Sosa
Stan Musial
Ted Williams
Tony Gwynn
Tris Speaker
Ty Cobb
Willie Keeler
Willie Mays

And Babe Ruth is listed first! Funny that Willie Mays is last, too. Nice bookends, who will likely be on the short list of final names to consider. Purely coincidence, I promise.

Let me be clear about how these players will be analyzed. I will not give consideration to whether they are or are not eligible for the Hall of Fame. I will try very hard not to let use of performance enhancing drugs lead my decisions. And defensive position played means absolutely nothing in this analysis.

For the most part, everyone is on an equal playing field. That said, era will be considered -- which is what will make the era-based qualitative stats valuable. But totals will be part of the equation. I will also consider awards won, All-Star appearances, times led the league in categories, and overall dominance of one's era. A long, dominant career will be helpful, though not required.

What do you think? Is there an obvious number one player? Are there certain players we can immediately remove from this discussion?


Anonymous said...

You didn't mention Mark McGwire, did you? I have a feeling if you mention him in your top 300 list, there will be an asterisk next to his name due to cheating. But of course, if you're not going to consider that, you will have to include at some point, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson in your list.

Probably top choice has to be Ruth. Not only as he provided the stats offensively, but changed the era of baseball from the dead-ball to the live ball era. I believe he had a lot to do with the history of baseball.

(Note, I'm not sure of Jackie Robinson's stats, but you may want to include him in your 300 list for his influence on the game.)

greebs on February 19, 2010 said...

I've never known what to think of Hornsby so I'm taking a pass on him - aside from him, I think whatever analysis you use, as long as it's decent, should yield a final contest among these guys, in no particular order:

maybe Ty Cobb

Anyone else there would really suprise me. And honestly, I break it down like this:

Babe Ruth to Ted Williams to Willie Mays to Barry Bonds.

I also suspect that in 15 years or so, Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez will deserve to be in this discussion.

phill said...

Without researching numbers at all, I'm voting for Ted Williams. The toughness, the mystique, the flying of Marine planes over enemy territories, twice. The .400 season. The career .344 BA, and, primarily, the high combo of career BA and HRs.
Plus, a nickname like The Splendid Splinter?!?!! And the possibility his head was frozen?
All tremendous. Would you send anyone else up to bat if you had a choice?

Jon Loomer on February 19, 2010 said...

Wow, some great comments! Love the feedback.

slxception: Trust me, it hurts me more than anyone to take away the steroid consideration. However, I think it's necessary for the purpose of this analysis. You go down a slippery slope when you start talking about who took what. Even so, I do not expect McGwire to be very high on this list. He is on the original 32, but only because he is in the top 10 all-time in home runs. When taken in context with his peers (and also considering his comparatively short career), his dominance and all-around play are comparable to Dick Allen. I know that sounds crazy, but I wrote a blog entry on that very subject.

You bet, Shoeless Joe will be on this list eventually. While a great player, his short career will keep him out of immediate discussion.

Note that I will focus on statistical impact only. So while I agree with you on Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, I will not be making any "what if" statements. Ruth may be #1, but his stats will be handicapped by the fact that he wasn't a full time hitter immediately in his career (he'd certainly be considered the best "baseball player" in my book). Jackie Robinson, when looked at purely statistically, is still a great player, but his short Major League career will force him to be listed lower than one might otherwise expect.

Jon Loomer on February 19, 2010 said...

Greebs -- thanks for the comments. Looks like a very good list. I actually gained more respect for Ty Cobb's (physical) achievements when taking a closer look at his stats recently. He was a dominant player, and a dominant player for a long, long time. I actually expect Cobb to be on the very short list. I'd be surprised if he is not in the final three or four. In fact, he may even be #1. We'll see though.

You make a good point about A-Rod and Pujols. I should run some numbers on them just for fun because I'm curious if their gaudy numbers hold up when compared to their peers. I still expect them to be great, but I wonder if they are suitable for the "best ever" discussion.

Jon Loomer on February 19, 2010 said...

Tough to argue with Ted Williams, Phil. I think if you look purely at skill, he'd likely be the guy. However, keep in mind that I'm only looking at statistics. So my analysis will not consider things like "toughness, the mystique, the flying of Marine planes over enemy territories." Or his frozen head, though that is pretty cool.

He and others from his era will be handicapped by World War II. It's amazing, really, that Williams is still likely a top five candidate considering all of the time he missed. Though they missed time for different reasons, think of this analysis had Williams and Ruth not had any "what if" time without the bat?

Thanks for the comments.

Derek on February 19, 2010 said...

Greatest offensive player? Babe Ruth and its not close.

phill said...

Looking back at this again, and I think, perhaps, the hardest part may be removing emotion from the answer of "Who is the greatest baseball player?" Ty Cobb has only gotten a "maybe" so far, and I wonder if that's because we've grown up hearing what an asshole Mr. Cobb was. On the flip side, Babe Ruth had the likable personality and heroics like the Called Shot. And Willie Mays had The Catch. We eat up that stuff.
I've started looking up stats, and have been looking at baseball-reference.com. They have this 162 game avg line -- basically dividing career stats by career games played to give an "avg" year. It's interesting, so far, how similar an "avg" year looks from Williams to Ruth to Cobb to Aaron to Musial.

Jon Loomer on February 20, 2010 said...

Derek -- Maybe, but I don't want to prejudice my research by assuming it will be Ruth.

Phil -- I agree with you, such analysis isn't easy and the general public is notorious for allowing emotion to cloud judgment when rating our finest athletes. That's why I am going to rely so heavily on stats. There are no "what if's." I won't be making any vague statements about someone's guts, hustle, or social impact on the game. This is all statistics.

I wish you could see what I've got cooking in the back room right now. You may have more faith.

By the way, I expect Ty Cobb to be near the top, if not the top. He is by far the most dominant player ever when it comes to batting average vs. the league average. Considering he had a long career, this is an amazing feat.

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