Abe and Manny

June 30, 2013

                Since I wrote about this ten days ago Manny Machado has hit five doubles in ten games.   This increases his chance of breaking the single-season doubles record from 3-4% to 6 to 7%, using essentially the same method outlined in the other article.    This is through games of Friday, June 28. 


                About two years ago I introduced here something called the Abe Lincoln Score, which is an evaluation of a hitter’s ability based on just four stats:

                Plate Appearances

                Walks/Hit By Pitch


                Home Runs


                Actually five, since I count Hit By Pitch as Walks, but as Abe Lincoln once said, don’t sweat the small stuff.   Essentially, the Abe Lincoln Score zeroes out differences on balls in play, and asks the question How well does this hitter pay off his strikeouts with walks and homers?     If a player strikes out 150 times but draws 80 walks and hits 30 homers, that’s fine; we don’t care about the strikeouts.   If he strikes out 150 times but draws 40 walks and hits 20 homers, then we wish you would stop striking out so much. The original article about Abe Lincoln Scores was posted on July 11, 2011. 

                I had a thought, a few months ago, that Abe Lincoln Scores might be a better predictor of future offensive performance than past hitting ability.    I probably had this thought two years ago, but I finally got around to checking it out in January, 2013, doing a matched-set study which I won’t describe in any detail because I was kind of brain dead when I set that one up.

                To summarize the study, it clearly is not true that the Abe Lincoln Score is a better predictor of future offensive performance than is past offensive performance, and, to expand on that thought, it was stupid of me to imagine that that might be true.    That study contrasted, for example, Andres Galarraga in 1990 with Don Mattingly in 1990.     Both players were 29 years old.   Galarraga had a higher OPS than Mattingly did (.715 to .643—both players had bad seasons), but Mattingly had a higher Abe Lincoln Score than Galarraga did (1.047 to .882).

                The study contrasted Will Clark with Mark McGwire, 1989.   Both players were 25 years old.   Clark had a higher OPS than McGwire (.953 to .806), but McGwire had a higher Abe Lincoln Score than Clark (1.131 to 1.047).    The study paired Kevin Elster with Manny Lee (1988), Ozzie Smith with Andre Dawson (1982), Dick McAuliffe with Willie Stargell (1970), Cookie Lavagetto with Vince DiMaggio (1940), Gregg Jefferies with Mo Vaughn (1997), and 93 other such pairings.  

                But that was kind of dense on my part, because. . .well, obviously an advantage in Abe Lincoln Scores would not and could not overpower an advantage in hitting performance.   To illustrate the problem, the study contrasted Lou Brock, 1964, with Mike Brumley, 1964,  Dick Allen, 1969, with Ken Harrelson, 1969, and Jim Rice, 1975, with Dan Meyer, 1975.   These are their hitting stats:




                Brumley’s strikeout/walk ratio (and Abe Lincoln Score) is much better than Brock’s, Harrelson’s better than Allen’s, Meyer’s better than Rice’s.    But obviously, Brumley’s advantage is nowhere near substantial enough to outweigh the things that Brock could do, nor was Harrelson the equal of Allen or Meyer the equal of Rice.   These are extreme examples, but it is not a close contest.    In the 100 matched pairs, there are only 20 in which the player with the higher Abe Lincoln Score goes on to a better subsequent career.

                I realized, with the failure of that study, that I had studied the wrong question.   It’s not a real question whether the Abe Lincoln Score is more important than OPS; obviously it is not.   The real question is whether Abe Lincoln Score has any independent predictive significance.      In other words, if you take two players who are the same age, with the same OPS and with the same career OPS, is there an advantage to betting on the one with the higher Abe Lincoln Score?

                The answer to that question turns out to be both interesting and unexpected.    I actually learned something, from doing that study, that I did not know before, and which I suspect that none of you know.    The short answer is "No, there is not a net advantage to the player with the better Abe Lincoln Score", but that isn’t what is interesting.   I will get to what is interesting in a moment.

                Here is the study.    I identified 250 sets of players, all playing from 1920 to 2000, who

                a)  were the same age,

                b)  had the same season’s OPS, or within the same 25-point bucket,

                c)  had the same career OPS, or within the same 25-point bucket, and

                d) played in the same four-year window (such as 1920-1923, 1924-1927, 1928-1931, etc.), but

                e)  one of whom had a much better Abe Lincoln Score than the other.


                The question is, would the players who had better Abe Lincoln Scores go on to better careers than the players with poor Abe Lincoln Scores?   And the answer to that question is, "No.   Overall, the players with better Abe Lincoln Scores do not go on to better subsequent careers."   It is almost dead even between the two groups. 

                But here is what is interesting.    In plugging through the data, marking the matched sets, it seemed to me that there was an advantage to the player with the higher Abe Lincoln Score among older.   But among younger players, it seemed like the opposite was true.   Among younger players, the player who went on to the better career was the player with worse Abe Lincoln Score—in other words, the player who did not command the strike zone and did not pay off his strikeouts with home runs, but who overcame this with raw ability.

                That’s what it seemed to me, but is that really true?

                Not exactly.   Actually, among the youngest players in the study, those who were 23 to 25 years of age, the career advantage actually belonged to the players with higher Abe Lincoln Scores.   They outperformed those with lower Abe Lincoln Scores, in the rest of their careers, by 10%.

                But among players 26 to 28 years of age, a strong advantage rested with the players with lower Abe Lincoln Scores; they outperformed their mates in the study by 22%.    Then, after the age of 29, the advantage begins to swing back toward the players with higher Abe Lincoln Scores.  

                How do we explain this data?

                It’s old player’s skills versus young player’s skills, with a second effect.   The high-Abe Lincoln Score players, in general, had Old Player’s Skills.  They commanded the strike zone and hit for power.   The low-Abe Lincoln Score players were faster and more likely to play demanding defensive positions. 

                Among the youngest players in the study, players often washed out as regular players because of their inability to command the strike zone and their inability to pay off their strikeouts with home runs.    I think we can illustrate the point with the series of young center fielders the Twins have targeted to replace Torii Hunter since 2008—Carlos Gomez, Ben Revere and now Aaron Hicks.   Very talented players, but so far none of them has been able to pay off his strikeouts with walks and power.  

                But once players were past that stage of their careers—that is, once they were established players—then the advantage was with players who had "young player’s skills" rather than players who walked and hit homers.    That advantage lasts for a few years, and then, once the player is no longer fast enough to compensate on defense for his flailings at the plate, then the percentage starts to swing back toward the player who has the John Kruk-type skills:  Hit the ball hard, take a walk and don’t strike out too much. 

                That, at least, is the way that I interpret it.   I could be over-analyzing the data, I suppose, but at least we know this much.    A good Abe Lincoln Score is not a "dominant" trait in shaping a player’s future.   Rather, it competes with other skills—such as speed and defense—and is no less important than those skills in projecting a player’s future, but also no more important. 

                Thank you.


                Bill James


COMMENTS (8 Comments, most recent shown first)

So Voros McCracken's name spelled backwards is actually ABE LINCOLN?

7:36 PM Jul 10th
Manny Machado Update, July 6. Manny has now not hit a double in his last five games, and his chance of breaking the record has now dropped to 5%.
11:20 AM Jul 6th
I'm a little confused about Bill's comment below. Although fielding percent might be an old player's skill, it's a pretty trivial part of most player's overall value. As a player ages, more of his value normally becomes concentrated into power hitting and strike zone judgement (i.e. the Abe Lincoln/Gorman Thomas skills), as his contributions decline on hits-in-play, baserunning, and fielding range.

So he's losing value outside the batter's box, while hopefully improving within it.​
7:44 AM Jul 2nd
Thanks for the comment about Chris Davis.

I wouldn't endorse the equation between old player's skills and plate appearances resolved in the batter's box; I don't think that is even close to right. The most essential young player's skill is speed. Another is durability/recoverability. . .the ability to stay in the lineup. Old player's skills include a high fielding percentage (as veteran players tend to know what plays they can make and which they can't). It is just that players with old player's skills do tend to walk more and hit more homers.
12:54 PM Jul 1st
One minor quibble, although it doesn't affect the overall thesis: Carlos Gomez had a good year last year and his having a tremendous one this year.

There is a potentially interesting article in how the Twins went from one of the strongest organizations in the game dollar-for-dollar to one of the weakest. The sequence that ended up receiving a bunch of guys who aren't even especially good AAA players for Johan Santana would be where to start. No one of these moves, except maybe giving Hardy away for nothing with nothing to replace him, was indefensible -- I understand why they didn't think Gomez was going to hit -- but it ended up being pretty catastrophic. And had they held onto Gomez the Santana trade would look really good...
12:50 PM Jul 1st
Actually I look at it this way. In Poker, if you start out your playing career playing "bad" you will often be in trouble in hands and therefore lose. If you then study and adjust to playing good, you will carry over the knowledge of what got you into trouble, how you can extricate yourself, and the knowledge that you cant get yourself out of the hole most of the time.

To me, that's what Chris Davis did. He struggled and realized that he cant hit certain pitches and more importantly, realized he will NEVER be able to hit certain pitches, and laying off them was way better. He actually defined his skill set in his mind.
11:20 AM Jul 1st
Dunno if anyone mentioned this with the earlier article (I don't think they did).....there's a 4th reason you might call this 4-stat thing the Abe Lincoln Score. You mentioned 3; I'm glad to give you a 4th reason for the 4-stat thing to be named for the 4-score guy. And in fact, it was the first thing I thought of when I wondered: THE POSTAGE STAMP. When I was a kid, the usual postage was the 4-cent Lincoln, and as I imagine is the case for quite a few others of my general vintage, it's one of my most dominant associations to Lincoln.
12:25 AM Jul 1st
Old Player's Skills = Plate Appearances resolved in the batter's box

Young Player's Skills = F(Athleticism, as well as skills)

Another way to look at the data would be to translate Gettysburg (Happy Sesquicentennial) into Win Shares, and ask "How much of a player's value comes from the Abe scores at different points of his career."

1:52 PM Jun 30th
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