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The Most Normal Player Ever

June 1, 2017
 2017-28

 

The Most Normal Career Ever

 

              The initials are "J. R." 

              A few weeks ago Rob Neyer posted a comment on one of my articles saying that he would like to know who had the most NORMAL career ever, the least unusual career.   I worked on that problem for a day or two, put it aside.   I do that a lot; most of that stuff gets lost.   Re-visiting it a couple of days ago, I decided that the answer I had was as good an answer as I was going to get, and also nobody else studies stuff like that.   If I don’t answer the question, nobody will. 

              "Normality" is, I guess, the absence of abnormality.   Abnormality is relatively easy to describe.   Brady Anderson hits 50 homers in a year, that’s a little weird.   Abnormality is doing something that most people don’t do.  Sam Rice scored a career-high 121 runs at the age of 40, missing his career-high batting average by one point; that’s a little odd.   Bill Bergen had an 11-year major league career with over 3,000 at bats despite a career batting average of .170; that’s not normal. 

              You add up the things that AREN’T normal, and whoever has the lowest total is the most normal.    So what are all the things that aren’t normal?

              I decided to count eight actions by hitters as "abnormalities".   

              1)  Uneven Home Run counts.   When a player hits 30 homers one year and 5 the next, there’s always a reason for it.   It doesn’t just HAPPEN; it happens because.  

              We’re not worried about the reason for it; we are worried about the event itself.   The most inconsistent home run totals of all time, relative to career home runs, were by:  Cap Anson.   We know why this happened, but Cap Anson from 1876 to 1883 hit 2 home runs, then zero, zero, zero, one, one, one and zero, then in 1884 he hit 21 homers.   In a 22-year career (not counting his years in the National Association), Anson hit 97 homers, but 79 of them in an eight-year stretch between 1884 and 1891; otherwise he hit only 18 career homers.  

              Other guys with uneven home run counts:  Dick Bartell, Tilly Walker, Steve Finley, Pete Rose, Ned Williamson, Jason Kendall, Rod Carew, Rogers Hornsby, Nap Lajoie, Ted Kluszewski, Lou Brock, Al Cowens, Tony Phillips, Eddie Stanky, Davey Johnson, Ken Caminiti, Bobby Lowe, Jack Fournier, Kirby Puckett, Luke Appling, Frank White, George Brett, Brooks Robinson, many others.   Brady Anderson, yes; Brady is not near the TOP of the list, actually, but he gets 94 points on a 100-point scale. 

 

              2)  Having your best seasons at an unusual age.   Joe Start, 1885, had his best season at the age of 39, which is unusual, and had his best seasons at ages 34 to 42, which is unusual; he would have done it earlier, but he was 32 when the National League was founded.   Anyway, I looked at each player’s nine best seasons, ranked them 1 through 9, and scored them by

              1)  How far the best season was from age 27,

              2)  How far the second-best season was from 26 or 28, whichever was less, and

              3)  How many of the best seasons were before age 23 or after age 33, and how much before and after they were.  

              Johnny Cooney, Sam Rice, Otis Nixon, Hank Sauer, Darrell Evans, Carlton Fisk, Tony Phillips, Barry Bonds, Cy Williams, Edgar Martinez, Paul Molitor, Brian Downing, Davey Lopes, Marco Scutaro, Ernie Whitt and Raul Ibanez had their best seasons late in their careers; Al Kaline, Buddy Lewis, Bill Mazeroski, Ed Kranepool, Sonny Jackson and Butch Wynegar are among those who had their best seasons early.   Cap Anson, by the way, scores at 100 points both on this scale and on the last one.

 

              3)  Having an odd age center to your career.   I located the center of each player’s career, parceling out the games played in the center season.     Players who scan as having an odd age spectrum include Eddie Miksis, Whitey Lockman, Ed Kirkpatrick, Cass Michaels, Phil Cavaretta, Orlando Cepeda, Travis Jackson, Darrell Porter, Tommy Davis, Carlton Fisk, Ray Schalk, Buck Martinez, Ray Fosse, Barry Bonds, Dave Winfield and Jackie Robinson.

 

              4)  Having a longer career or a shorter career than you ought to have given your hitting ability.     Roy McMillan, Ozzie Smith, Mark Belanger and Bill Bergen have very long careers, given their ability as hitters.    Riggs Stephenson, Hank Greenberg, Ralph Kiner, Joe DiMaggio, Hack Wilson, Charlie Keller and Bill Joyce have very short careers, given their ability as hitters.   Either one is considered odd.  

 

              5)  Having imbalanced totals of runs scored to RBI.   Roy Thomas in his career scored more than a 1,000 runs, but drove in less than 300.   That’s extremely odd.     Otis Nixon scored 878 runs, but drove in only 318; that’s not as extreme as Roy Thomas, but it is still really odd.   Bill North was 640 to 230. 

              Ernie Lombardi scored 601 runs but drove in 990, the most extreme ratio on the other end.   Bengie Molina scored 457 but drove in 711.    Dick Stuart scored 506, but drove in 743.     Most guys are about 100 to 90, 100 to 95, somewhere in there.   An imbalanced ratio on either end is considered odd.  

 

              6)  Having a much higher or lower batting average in the second half of your career than in the first half.   Jason Giambi came up in 1995, and had played 1,108 career games through 2002.   He was around a long, long time after that, playing fewer games per season, but he played 1,152 games AFTER 2002.  If you divide his career there (2002) you get a smaller difference in games played before and after than if you divide it after any other season (1108 to 1152), so we divide his career after 2002.

              In the first half of his career he hit .309.   In the second half of his career he hit .238.   That’s very unusual.   Take my word for it; I checked everybody, and that’s the fifth most-unusual divide ever.   If you hit .309 in the first half of your career, ordinarily you hit about .301 in the second half of your career, or 2.5% less than you hit in the first half.   Giambi missed that by 63 points, 64 if you keep the decimals.

              Chuck Klein missed it by 72 points, declining from .359 to .277, and Willie Keeler missed it by 67 points, declining from .376 to .300.   Ray Powell missed his mark by 66 points, INCREASING his batting average in the second half of his career from .237 to .297.   In the first halves of their careers, Willie Keeler out-hit Ray Powell by 139 points, .376 to .237.   In the second halves of their careers, he beat him by 3 points, .300 to .297.

              Wes Parker hit .245 the first half of his career, .289 the second half.   Tom Tresh dropped from .271 to .215, and Bobby Avila from .306 to .251.    Rich Gedman dropped from .278 to .222, and Johnny Romano from .280 to .229.    Paul Schaal increased his batting average the second half of his career from .224 to .261, and Pete Runnels increased from .274 to .309.     Larry Walker increased from .297 to .331; Wade Boggs declined from .352 to .304.    Todd Helton declined from .339 to .293; Joey Cora increased from .260 to .290.   Roberto Clemente increased from .303 to .332—and did that despite the fact that the second half of his career started in 1964, when averages were low.   These are all unusual.

              On the other hand, speaking for normality, Cleon Jones was .284 and .277, Lonnie Smith was .291 and .284, Gil Hodges was .276 and .270, Earl Averill was .321 and .313, Omar Vizquel was .275 and .269, Richie Ashburn was .312 and .304, and Keith Hernandez was .299 and .291. 

 

              7)  Hitting more triples in the second half of your career than the first half.   Most players race to more triples when they are young than when they are older.   Andre Thornton, for example, hit 20 triples in the first half of his career (2,949 plate appearances), but only two triples in the second half of his career (3,344 plate appearances.)   Rich Gedman and Alberto Callaspo hit no triples at all in the second half of their career, whereas they hit 12 and 14 in the first half.    Johnny Mize hit 73 in the first half of his career, ten in the second half.    Dave Parker had 62 and 13; Minnie Minoso had 67 and 16.    Hank Aaron had 79 and 19.

              Eighty percent of players hit triples more frequently per plate appearance in the first half of their career than in the second half, slightly more than 80%, and it is actually more common for the triples rate to be twice as high in the first half of the career than it is for it to be higher in the second half.    The normal ratio is 8 to 5, sixty percent more triples in the first half of the career.  

              And then you have. . .well, Darren Daulton, who hit 4 triples in the first half of his career, and 21 in the second half.   Gene Tenace, who was like Daulton in other ways as well, was at 7 and 13.   Gino Cimoli was at 15 and 33, and Bobby Doerr at 32 and 57.  

 

              8)  Stealing more bases in the second half of your career than the first half.   Stolen bases are like triples in this way, only more so.   The normal first half/second half ratio for stolen bases is 9 to 5, or 78% more stolen bases in the first half of the career.     Jay Buhner stole 16 bases in the first half of his career, none in the second half; Rondell White stole 23 in the first half, one in the second half.   Sammy Sosa stole 217 bases in the first half of his career, 17 in the second half.   Luis Salazar was 103 and 14, Mo Vaughn 26 and 4.    Don Baylor was 240 and 45.  Rogers Hornsby was 104 and 31. 

              In my study there were 474 players who stole bases more than twice as often in the first half of their careers than they did in the second half, whereas there were 366 players who stole more bases (actually stole more frequently) in the second halves of their careers.   Harmon Killebrew stole 6 bases in the first half of his career, 13 in the second half; Nate Colbert was 15 and 37.    Dick Groat was 4 and 10; John Olerud was 3 and 8.    Randy Velarde was 22 and 56; Eric Byrnes was 40 and 89.   Lee Lacy was 52 and 133.  

 

              The most UNUSUAL career is:

              You could probably guess it.   It’s Lefty O’Doul.     Pretty much everything about his career is odd.   He hit 32 homers in 1929, then hit 7—as a regular—in 1931.    He’s really not too unusual on that scale, with home run inconsistency measured at 34 against 113 career homers; that puts him at 49 on that 100-point chart, in the center of the chart.   But, starting his career as a pitcher and switching to the outfield (in the minors) at age 27, he made it to the majors as an outfielder at age 31, then had his best years at ages 32 to 35, which is very unusual, and scores at 97 points on the unusual-peak-age scale.    The middle game of his career was at age 34, which is very unusual, and scores at 100 on the unusual-age-center scale.  

              I considered players eligible for the study if they played at least nine years in the majors and had at least 3,000 plate appearances, and of course I didn’t include players who were active in 2016.   That made 1,648 players eligible.   I ranked the players 1 through 1,648 in career length (considering seasons played, games played and plate appearances), and in career OPS, then I compared the rankings in the two.   Of course, the players who had the highest career OPS generally also had the longest careers.   The two correlate at a high level.   If you’re not a good hitter, you have a short career.

              O’Doul, however, was near the top of the group in career OPS--.945—but near the bottom of the list in career length, so that is very unusual.   The greater the difference between those two rankings, the more unusual it is.   O’Doul, again, scores at 100 on that scale. 

              He had a relatively normal ratio of runs scored to RBI, picking up on 19 points on that scale.    He hit .366 in the first half of his career, .338 the second half, which is actually a pretty large split, so that scores at 80 points.     And in the second half of his career he both hit more triples and stole more bases than he had in the first half of his career.  He is one of the few players who did both, so that is unusual.

              Adding it all together, it is the most unusual career path in major league history, at least as I have figured it, with a U-Score of 593.    These are the twenty most unusual careers in major league history:

 

Weirdness

First

Last

593

Lefty

O'Doul

584

George

Harper

576

Otis

Nixon

565

Brett

Butler

556

Dummy

Hoy

555

Cliff

Johnson

552

Tony

Phillips

551

Rey

Sanchez

545

Bill

Robinson

545

Sherm

Lollar

544

Lou

Brock

540

Ozzie

Smith

538

Ed

Kranepool

537

Wally

Moses

536

Eddie

Mayo

533

Joe

Harris

533

Tip

O'Neill

532

Sandy Jr.

Alomar

531

Jim

Gantner

528

Monte

Ward

 

              One thing I like about the list is that it represents all the eras in baseball history and all the positions on the field pretty well, and also different levels of ability, with three Hall of Famers on the list but other players with very modest careers.   

 

And the winner is

              No, wait a minute; before I can tell you that I have to tease you a little bit more with peripheral information.   It’s just in my blood; I gotta do it.

              The third-most "normal" career in major league history is actually by an inner-circle Hall of Famer who won two Most Valuable Player Awards and a Triple Crown:  Frank Robinson.   Very surprised at that; one doesn’t expect a GREAT career to follow all the rules of normalcy, but he does.    Runs to RBI ratio of 1829 to 1812—normal.   His home run counts are normal throughout his career, without unusual surges up and down.  No fluke seasons.   One of his best seasons was at age 20, so that’s a little unusual (and prevents him from scoring as having the MOST normal career in baseball history), but his other eight best seasons are all between ages 23 and 33.    The middle game of his career came when he was 29 years old—normal.    His career batting average was .304 the first half of his career and .285 the second half, pretty normal.    He had one of the longest careers in the study and one of the highest OPS, so that’s normal.   He hit 45 triples the first half of his career and 27 the second half—exactly the normal ratio.    He stole 148 bases the first half of his career and 56 the second half—normal.   Everything is normal.  

 

But the Winner is

              Johnny Ray.   Second baseman with the Pirates and Angels, 1981 to 1990.   Everything about him is normal.   He literally hit 5 to 7 home runs every season of his career, except for his late-season (post strike) callup in 1981.    Played ages 24 to 33, normal, best seasons were at ages 27 and 31; the "31" is a LITTLE BIT off-center, but not really.   Scored 604 runs and drove in 594, normal ratio.   His career length is about what you would expect it to be, given his OPS.    He hit .285 in the first half of his career and .293 the second half, which is not exactly the normal ratio, but reasonably close.    He stole 58 bases the first half of his career, 22 the second half, and hit 23 triples the first half of his career, 13 the second half.    There is NOTHING about him abnormal.

              Actually, Larry Kopf (shortstop, 1913 to 1923) basically ties Ray for the most normal career, but he wasn’t as good a player, is a hair behind him and played a long time ago, so that didn’t seem like as good an answer.   These are the 20 "most normal" careers in major league history, by the standards I have outlined here:

 

Weirdness

First

Last

93

Johnny

Ray

93

Larry

Kopf

99

Frank

Robinson

100

Ed

Abbaticchio

102

Bobby

Knoop

105

Bill

White

113

Mike

Tresh

115

Sammy

West

116

Keith

Hernandez

118

George

Strickland

127

Mike

Devereaux

132

Ron

Gant

135

Dave

Henderson

135

Kevin

Bass

136

Duane

Kuiper

137

Jim

Delahanty

137

Art

Devlin

138

Deivi

Cruz

139

Gil

Coan

139

John

Shelby

 

 

              

 
 

COMMENTS (18 Comments, most recent shown first)

bearbyz
In Bill's 2009 Gold Mine Book Bill had an "Unusual Player formula". He measured players in 10 categories and Barry Bonds won hands down. He had more than twice as many points as the next player Mark McGwire. That is what led to the question.
12:12 PM Jun 8th
 
smbakeresq
I always wondered who had the most "consistent" or "flattest" win shares wise i.e. the player who had the most seasons between two win share numbers that are close. For example, the player who started at 17 win shares, peaked at 24 win shares, retired at 17 win shares and most of the rest of season between 17 and 24 win shares.

Any ideas?
9:47 AM Jun 7th
 
benhurwitz
This is a fun article. I would like to see the results extended to show most normal career for different career lengths, i.e., 9 year career, 10 year career, etc.
9:04 AM Jun 5th
 
shthar
How much did Brian Downing miss the odd-career list by?

I'd guess not much.
8:29 PM Jun 4th
 
Robinsong
I was not as surprised that Frank Robinson had one of the most normal careers. Years ago, Bill mentioned that Robinson was one of the modell he used for creating his Brock7 (?) system for aging and predicting.​
1:01 PM Jun 4th
 
hotstatrat
It wouldn’t be scientific to create an abnormality metric around a specific player - i.e. Barry Bonds. You solve the question of what makes a player normal first and find ways to measure that - which is what Bill did. However, you can look back at a player like Bonds, who you instinctively feel had one of the all-time freakiest career arcs, and wonder why he didn’t make the top 10. But you also have to compare it to those who did make the list.

So, let’s compare Barry Bonds to Jim Gantner - the bottom modern player on the list. Remember Bonds was consistently about the best player in the game from age 25 through 29 - maybe 32. He had a second life as the best player in the game - maybe the best player ever - from the age of 35 through 39. Averaging those together centers his peak in his early 30s, which is not freakishly unusual. Jim Gantner’s career also centers in his early 30s. However, Bonds’ four best years were, indeed, his age 36-39 seasons, while Gantner’s best was at age 30. Somehow, it is the shape of that career arc that makes Bonds’s career so unusual and that’s what Bill was trying to asses with his opening method of measuring “best seasons coming at an unusual age” metric.

Looking generally at Gantner’s record, it is seems a long stretch to see it as being so unusual compared to Bonds’s. It is hard to say what Gantner’s 2nd best year was. Both players seemed to go down hill at some point in their early 30s only to revive themselves a couple years later. But with Gantner, he goes from a .730 OPS to a .630 OPS, then back up to .700 to .650 range. Bonds never drops below 1.000, where he hovered consistently for 6 years after his early high of 1.136. Then suddenly at 35 he has seasons of 1.127, 1.379, 1.381, 1.278, 1.422. So, no matter how you measure that freakiness, Bonds had to have come out much much higher in abnormality by the best seasons at an unusual age metric.

However, in terms of games played, Bonds’s center was a year closer to the norm.

Bill doesn’t explain in detail how he measures unevenness in home run totals. If it is by percentage of home runs, Gantner might possibly come out higher, because he had 0 home runs some years and highs of 11 and 7. However, if you measure by quantity of home runs, Bonds, well, except for the year he hit 73 home runs, Bonds was pretty consistently in the 33-46 home run range. Hitting 73 home runs, of course, is as freakish as it gets, but over the course of his career, Bonds was pretty consistent in his home run production. Nonetheless, it doesn’t seem unusual at all (I could be wrong) for a player to have a career high of 11 and several years of no homers - although, three years in a row of 0 homers is pretty unusual.

There is nothing unusual about Bond’s long career given how great he was. Gantner wins this category easily as he did have a very long career for such a modest hitter.
Neither player had notably unusual RBI vs. Runs totals.


Bonds hit .311 the second half of his career and .286 in the first half - extremely unusual, while Ganter’s batting average declined from .280 to .269, which is perfectly normal. I would think this more than makes up for Gantner winning the unusual career length metric. Going by gut, which we are not supposed to do here, I think Bonds’ BA improvement is a more unusual achievement. So, his best years metric should still be giving him a major lead here in freakiness.

In triples, Bonds has a 48/29 split - fairly normal. Gantner is 18/20 - somewhat unusual.

In stolen bases, Bonds is 340/174 - a big decline, but close to normal. Gantner is 39/98 - extremely unusual.

So, Gantner’s edge in weirdness in career center and triples and his large weirdness in longevity and stolen bases by Bill’s methods makes up for Bonds’s weirdness in batting average split and best seasons well past a normal prime. The most difficult comparison comes with measuring the unusualness of home run production. I would think jumping from a 33-46 home run range to 73 is more unusual than declining from 2-11 home run range to three years of 0. If anyone else thinks Bonds’s strangeness adds up to something a little greater than all of Gantner’s abnormalities, I welcome help in making a case for it. After all, this might be a case of the attention Bonds received for being a historically great hitter at such an old age, while it may have been just as unusual for a player to have more than twice as many stolen bases in their latter years as their earlier years.
10:14 AM Jun 3rd
 
sprox
Isn't Johnny Ray famous for being pictured on the front of one of (a small portion of) Barry Bonds' rookie cards?
8:37 AM Jun 3rd
 
tigerlily
Hey bear - My guess is that no one had a less normal career than Barry Bonds.
12:13 AM Jun 3rd
 
greg1990
Larry Kopf is actually a member of the Reds Hall of Fame. He was selected in 1965, apparently because he had a decent year as the SS of the 1919 World Champions.
10:05 PM Jun 2nd
 
therevverend
I've always considered guys who make rosters as hitters at one point, and pitchers at another as unusual. Seems like it would skew the numbers towards unusual. Pitchers don't often hit triples or steal bases. To me it's another point in Lefty's favor along with the gap years. Getting a starting job after the age of 30 seems at least slightly odd.
I've always looked at his stats and thought about what he'd have done in the majors instead of getting 300 hits a season in the PCL. I know it's a lively hitting era but those are some numbers.
Lefty had a huge influence on baseball, world baseball, by being basically the father of Japanese baseball. Without him we might not have Ichiro, Sadaharu Oh, etc. His post baseball career was very notable.
Besides gap years, playing at a very early or late age seems unusual. To me Julio Franco had an odd career. The guys who played at 17, 18 seem kinda weird to me.
7:24 PM Jun 2nd
 
taosjohn
Well, I confess, I also didn't think of O'Doul in that context- to my shame. But I did immediately think of Nixon and Ward, and once it became clear how Bill was doing this I thought of Gantner. When the original question came up it was Ray, West, Hernandez, Bass and Devlin I thought of as examples of normality...

When he drops those comments in they seem to me an indication if what is to be expected of a Jamesean disciple or whatever we should be regarded as-- enough familiarity with the game's history to grasp the concept before the exposition...
7:19 PM Jun 2nd
 
wovenstrap
For some reason I'm inclined to pluck Kevin Bass from this list and put him at #1. Journeyman outfielder, career high of 20 home runs, lifetime batting average of .270, could steal a base. Only garnered MVP votes once when his team did really well in 1986. He has a boring name and had very normal facial features (a demure handlebar mustache). Started at 23 and hung on until he was 36. Really everything about him was aggressively normal. I think this is our guy.
5:44 PM Jun 2nd
 
hotstatrat
Oh, Lefty O'Doul - of course, Lefty O'Doul . . . this is a seriously studious crowd if we were expected to think of Lefty O'Doul as having had most unusual career. People think I'm a baseball nut.

Light, but thoroughly delightful. Well, I guess defining normal in a baseball career was the heavy part.

Getting academic, my first reaction to comparing OPS to career length was unfair to catchers and middle infielders relative to other players. However, defense does go first. If a good fielder can really hit, he often becomes a first-baseman or DH in his old baseball age and keeps on going, so it is fair enough.
5:03 PM Jun 2nd
 
RangeFactor
Great work, as always. So, I'm wondering if there's a way to dig deeper into the data to find out which types of players tend to have normal career trajectories [those who hit 20+ doubles as a rookie, or something], and which types of players are inconsistent from year to year. Pretty sure many Yankee fans would like to know if Aaron Judge will be the next Kevin Maas or the next Reggie Jackson. If I wasn't the world's laziest human being I'd put together something myself :-)
4:51 PM Jun 2nd
 
matt_okeefe
I'd move that a weirdness adjustment be made for gap years, which would make O'Doul's weird career even weirder, and would make Ron Gant's career, which is at least a LITTLE odd, in my opinion, weird enough to move him off the normal list.
1:38 PM Jun 2nd
 
cderosa
Thanks for the steady stream of pieces, Bill.

One guy whose career strikes me as irregular is Ian Kinsler. Sometimes a lead-off man type, sometimes a low-average power hitter; 89 walks one time, 29 walks another time. It's like he has many capabilities but doesn't show all of them every season.

I wonder if he figured as abnormal by this measure.
10:39 AM Jun 2nd
 
bearbyz
Frank Robinson being on the normal list might make him weird. The elephant in the room, how did Barry Bonds do?
8:34 AM Jun 2nd
 
DavidHNix
Duane Kuiper at #15? Posnanski is going to love this list!
7:45 AM Jun 2nd
 
 
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