Thursday, January 06, 2011

All-Time Player Ranking Project Part 1 & 2


I was recently leafing through my New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, easily my favorite baseball book ever and one that I've read so much it is now being held together with duct tape, when I realized how badly it was in need of an update. The bulk of the book was James' ranking of the top 100 players ever at each position and that was the part that felt somewhat dated to me, even though it was released only 10 years ago. I made it my mission to update that part of the book in several ways.

First of all I should mention that I stopped my lists at the 10 best players ever for each position, save pitchers, (although I will throw a couple other interesting names on the back end) to save time. Maybe someday I will continue working on this and take each to 100 but that seems extremely unpractical right now.

James used Win Shares as his primary statistic for evaluating a player. While I still consider win shares to be a major breakthrough, I think most experts would agree that WAR (Wins above replacement) has surpassed it and is now the yardstick for overall player evaluation. War expresses a player's value in a single number that is logical and easy to work with. The first way I updated James' lists was to use WAR instead of win shares.

I also disagreed slightly with the methods James chose to come up with his way of evaluating the "best" player. For each player, James combined their top 3 seasons, their best 5 year stretch, their win shares per game played and their total career win shares, as well as a subjective element to come up with their ranking.

I liked the concept of a multi-pronged approach like this and kept some elements (I used a player's top 3 seasons and career value in terms of WAR as well as the subjective element) but changed others. I dropped the best five year stretch in favor of a best eight year stretch, because I wanted the gap between that measure and a players top 3 seasons to be greater. Five years to me is a small stretch in a players career, and eight would hypothetically represent the entirety of their prime. I also removed the value per game played element because it seemed superfluous to me.

A brief word about the subjective element before I continue. This is my personal adjustment of a players value for obvious reasons that cannot be evaluated in statistics. Examples of this would include increasing Jackie Robinson value because he was not allowed to play in the majors for a chunk of his career, increasing Ted Williams' value because he missed several prime seasons while fighting in a couple of wars, or lowering Cap Anson's value because he was playing a game without modern rules and against lesser competition. This is also where I can give players some credit for post-season statistics that would not show up in the raw numbers.

Finally, and perhaps the biggest update is the inclusion of all the recent players on my lists. There are some obvious ones like Albert Pujols but there are a couple that might surprise some people. This was the tipping point that finally made me decide to sit down and start doing this, I wanted to see where guys like Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter stacked up against the all time greats.

Part 2


1. Johnny Bench - One of the most predictable rankings in the entire list, Bench was an outstanding hitter and defender. I was actually surprised just how close some other players were to him, I thought he would have a much larger lead.

2.Mike Piazza - The best hitting catcher ever by a huge margin. Although never a great thrower, Piazza was underrated as a receiver and game caller throughout his career, masking some of his value.

3.Gary Carter - From age 23 to 33, Gary Carter was remarkably productive. He was the total package as a hitter and excellent behind the plate as well.

4.Ivan Rodriguez - The exact opposite of Piazza defensively, one of the best throwers ever but overrated otherwise, Rodriguez' offense has been helped by playing in friendly hitting environments for most of his career.

5.Carton Fisk - Fisk had double digit home runs in 19 different seasons and earned more WAR in his three best seasons than Rodriguez did.

6.Yogi Berra - Berra did strongly on a rate basis but his career is not long enough to match up with those ahead of him and he is also hurt by playing 1/6 of his below average defensive innings in the outfield.

7.Bill Dickey - Berra's equal as a hitter and a little better defensively, but Dickey's career is shorter, even if we give him credit for time missed during the war. The gap between Berra and Dickey is the largest gap between any two players on the list.

8.Joe Torre - A better hitter than several ahead of him, but Torre's defense bordered on problematic, he actually spent more time as an infielder than a catcher, but this is where he was most valuable.

9.Mickey Cochrane - Played at a level comparable to those in the 3-6 range but only 65% as long and never had the monster seasons to make up for it.

10.Ted Simmons - Simmons was a solid all around player who often gets lost a bit in the Bench/Carter/Fisk generation.

Other players of note: Joe Mauer (11), Jorge Posada (12), Roy Campanella (15), Thurman Munson (16) - Mauer has only played seven years and is a lock to jump into the top 10 with even a mediocre 2011 season. Posada may creep into the top 10 but probably needs two more productive years. Short careers partially hurt Campanella and Munson but both were hurt more by being very inconsistent.

I was surprised how highly Carter ranked. I don't think there are many that would consider him top three all time. His raw stats do not jump off the page but when you dig deeper there are some really impressive performances in there. Berra ranking at six is a shock to me, I would have thought he'd be top three somewhere. He could really hit but not better than Bench, Torre or Dickey and certainly nowhere near the level of Piazza. Once you factor in career length, I think he ended up pretty much where he belongs, even with his post season statistics.


Anonymous said...

Decent analysis of all. I do disagree with one aspect, if you take away value from Ivan Rodriguez for hitting in Texas you should add value for playing in 100 plus heat for 10 plus years. If you used Comerica for reference, by no means is it considered hitter friendly. I would put Ivan at #2. Good post.

James Esatto said...

I think I'm going to have to disagree with you on that one. Playing in that weather is certainly taxing but given modern amenities in particular I think it is only a minor issue. I think other players having to play games in frigid weather early and late in the season might actually have a more negative impact but I have no way of backing that up.

Regardless we have many years of evidence showing that playing in Arlington greatly helps your numbers and Pudge played more than 2/3 of his career games for Texas, and all of his prime was there.

Anonymous said...

What modern amenities are you talking about? in the 90's? On the field?

Brian Mangan said...

Hahahah I have to say, that last comment really cracked me up. I'm picturing Pudge crouched behind the plate with one of those mini handheld fans.

James Esatto said...

Air conditioned clubhouses? 5 different trainers giving you gatorade and spraying you with fans and water every half inning? Pretty sure they didn't have that in the old days.

Brian Mangan said...

Steroids is a modern amenity.