An Application of My Theory

April 25, 2018

Before I continue with my "What If Today’s Players Are Not Only Better than Old-time Players, But a LOT Better?" series, I thought I’d have a little fun and see what a list that reflected that bias would actually look like. I took Bill’s listings from the revised Historical Abstract (2001), more or less arbitrarily (it’s the version I have in Florida, where I’ve been lately), and started with his rankings for second basemen (again arbitrarily—it’s the position I played best in my youth, and the position of my first favorite player, Ron Hunt, and the position I typed out the first time I used a typewriter in 1962) to see what Bill’s rankings would look like if we applied the principle that today’s players could kick previous generations of players’ asses.

I divided baseball history into four periods, the clearest one being the one starting with the lively ball in 1920 and ending with the last all-white MLB rosters in 1946, a twenty-seven year span. Flashforward twenty-seven more years to 1973, and that gives us the DH, so that’s another era. Tack on another twenty-seven years, and that brings us roughly to the time of Bill’s revised Abstract rankings. Subtract twenty-seven years from 1920 and we’re in the early 1890s, which includes most of early baseball that could be considered MLB.  Four eras, then, covering a little over a century.

I decided to demote second basemen who played before 1920 30 places, those who played from 1920 to 1946 20 places, and those who played from 1947 to 1973 10 places.  Bill’s rankings assume that a win in 1893 is as valuable as a win in 2001, which it is when we’re ranking players competing against the quality available in their own day, but my assumption is that a win in 1893 required far less objective competitive ability than a 2001 win required. (I think that’s what I was trying to argue—sometimes I’m not exactly sure what point I’m trying to make, which helps persuade me that I’m not writing polemically, to prove a point, but just to see what I can learn.)  Anyway, this revised ranking is my attempt to see what such a revisionist bias would produce in a list of the greatest second basemen of all time.

Here’s Bill’s original 2001 rankings, through # 50:

1.       Joe Morgan

2.       Eddie Collins

3.       Rogers Hornsby

4.       Jackie Robinson

5.       Craig Biggio

6.       Nap Lajoie

7.       Ryne Sandberg

8.       Charlie Gehringer

9.       Rod Carew

10.   Robbie Alomar

11.   Frankie Frisch

12.   Bobby Grich

13.   Lou Whitaker

14.   Billy Herman

15.   Nellie Fox

16.   Joe Gordon

17.   Willie Randolph

18.   Bobby Doerr

19.   Tony Lazzeri

20.   Larry Doyle

21.   Chuck Knoblauch

22.   Dick McAuliffe

23.   Davey Lopes

24.   Buddy Myer

25.   Johnny Evers

26.   Cupid Childs

27.   Jim Gilliam

28.   Red Schoendienst

29.   Bill Mazeroski

30.   Bid McPhee

31.   Frank White

32.   Lonnie Frey

33.   Gil McDougald

34.   Eddie Stanky

35.   Del Pratt

36.   Bobby Avila

37.   Miller Huggins

38.   Pete Runnels

39.   Hardy Richardson

40.   Tommy Herr

41.   Phil Garner

42.   Robby Thompson

43.   Max Bishop

44.   Steve Sax

45.   Bill Doran

46.   Dave Johnson

47.   Tony Taylor

48.   Jeff Kent

49.   Manny Trillo

50.   Dave Cash

As soon as I began to amend the list, according to the biased principles above, I ran into a problem I knew I’d hit at some point: was Joe Morgan’s era 1947-1973 or 1974-2001? I could just delve into the record books and see which period he had the most plate appearances in, or the most games at second base, or something, but clearly his career had a lot of any stat in each era, so I decided to split the difference, and move him down 5 spots rather than 10 or 0, thus saving myself some tedious work making an arbitrary distinction. (Most players fit neatly into one era or other.) Likewise with #2, Eddie Collins played a lot of seasons both pre- and post-1920, so I dropped him 25 places instead of either 20 or 30.

On the list below, I’ll make my new rankings and numberings, and tack on after each name the number of places that each player got demoted.  

The list kept changing as I demoted various second basemen, naturally, and the modern players kept bunching up at the top of the list, as intended, while the older guys kept competing for the lower spots on the list. What I decided to do was to demote a player to the chosen spot based on Bill’s original list, but let that spot change as the numbers kept changing. That is, I demoted Joe Morgan to #6 (five spots below his original #1) but let him rise as Eddie Collins got bumped from the #2 spot to the #26 spot, allowing Morgan to rise to spot #5, rather than #6. As you can see, Little Joe eventually fought his way back to the #2 spot, just behind the greatest second baseman of all time, whom we all of course acknowledge to be Craig Biggio:

1.       Craig Biggio 0

2.       Joe Morgan -5

3.       Ryne Sandberg 0

4.       Robbie Alomar 0

5.       Jackie Robinson -10

6.       Lou Whitaker 0

7.       Willie Randolph  0

8.       Rod Carew -5

9.       Bobby Grich -2

10.   Chuck Knoblauch 0

11.   Rogers Hornsby -22

12.   Eddie Collins -25

13.   Nellie Fox -10

14.   Charlie Gehringer -20

15.   Frank White 0

16.   Davey Lopes -1

17.   Frankie Frisch -20

18.   Bobby Doerr -15

19.   Joe Gordon -18

20.   Dick McAuliffe -9

21.   Billy Herman -20

22.   Nap Lajoie  -30

23.   Tony Lazzeri -20

24.   Tommy Herr 0

25.   Phil Garner 0

26.   Jim Gilliam -10

27.   Robby Thompson 0

28.   Red Schoendienst -11

29.   Bill Mazeroski -11

30.   Steve Sax 0

31.   Bill Doran 0

32.   Buddy Myer -20

33.   Jeff Kent 0

34.   Gil McDougald -10

35.    

36.   Manny Trillo 0

37.   Eddie Stanky-12

38.    

39.   Bobby Avila -10

40.    

41.   Larry Doyle -30

42.    

43.   Pete Runnels -10

44.    

45.   Max Bishop -20

46.    

47.    

48.    

49.   Dave Johnson -5

50.    

51.    

52.   Dave Cash  -2

53.    

54.    

55.   Lonnie Frey -20

56.    

57.   Tony Taylor  -9

58.    

59.   Johnny Evers -30

60.   Cupid Childs -30

61.    

62.    

63.    

64.    

65.    

66.   Bid McPhee -30

67.    

68.    

69.    Del Pratt  -30

70.    

71.   Miller Huggins -30

72.    

73.   Hardy Richardson -30

 

Now a couple of funny things are going here:

1)      There are all sorts of blank spots opening up, so that Hardy Richardson, a very early second baseman who got demoted the maximum 30 spots for the felony of playing before 1900 ends up on this listing of the top 50 second basemen in 73rd place, which is hard to do. What happened there of course is that Bill’s original extra-crispy recipe had him in 39th place, and I dropped him 30 spots, and then some more spots opened up as other players dropped to spots below #50. But then I decided NOT to close ranks and make him #50 because I knew I would need those empty places for the players after 2001, whom I haven’t (yet) discussed.

2)      And actually if you stop to think a minute, Richardson needs to move down a bunch more, according to the biases being openly exhibited here, because he not only played a little bit of his career before the early 1890s, he played all of it before 1893—I need a whole nother category for him, with an additional penalty for the era before 1893, like 40 points. Or 50. But we’ll let Hardy slide for now.

3)      These lists are pretty top-heavy with the second basemen we’ve all watched play, and very bottom-heavy with the players none of us have seen, but that’s all good. We understood that’s what would happen going in. But it didn’t mean that all early players would suffer equally—I mean,  Eddie Collins and Rogers Hornsby took a big hit, but then they moved up some as other players took other hits, ending up at #11 and #12 instead of Bill’s original #2 and #3, which seems reasonable to me. If you accept my premise, that second basemen (all MLB players) in the 1910s were playing against much softer competition than their counterparts 100 years later, then #s 11 and 12 is pretty good.

4)      Bill included only one player truly in mid-career, Jeff Kent, who ranked 48th on his list and 33rd on mine. Kent would clearly move up some even without a timeline-bias adjustment, so on the next listing, I’m going to move him up a few spots.

5)      Now the fun begins. In addition to placing a larger penalty on pre-1893 players like Hardy Richardson, I’ll consider some names from the post-2001 era that Bill was too ignorant to include in his revised Historical Abstract. Naturally by the standards I’m applying here, playing in the 21st century makes these players godlike in their ability. Who would the post-2001 Gods be?

 

Well, let’s see. I’ll throw out some names of the top second basemen of recent years, and you can add or subtract as you choose. In no special order:

 

Robinson Cano

Chase Utley

Ben Zobrist

Dustin Pedroia

Jose Altuve

Ian Kinsler

Daniel Murphy

Brian Dozier

Bret Boone

 

Some of these guys haven’t played half their careers yet, and of course 2001-2018 isn’t a full 27-year era, so there are bound to be additional names and stats that will go into this era before we’re done, the greatest era of them all for stellar MLB players including great secondbase men.

So Imagine these names (and a few more) interspersed in the rankings, and towards the top. Like Bill, I don’t rank players except when Bill’s ranking players. (That’s a joke—I don’t rank players at all, and no one would care if I did, so I’m just going to intersperse these names without a serious thought as to their quality of play, just spitballing here, for illustration’s sake, precisely because my opinions are irrelevant.) I’m going to fill out the blanks with some other top secondbase men from the most recent era (in bold), and maybe bump up a few guys from the previous (1974-2001) era just to complete the new top 50 secondbase men list:

 

1.       Jose Altuve

2.       Craig Biggio 0

3.       Robinson Cano

4.       Joe Morgan -5

5.       Ryne Sandberg 0

6.       Chase Utley

7.       Robbie Alomar 0

8.       Jackie Robinson -10

9.       Lou Whitaker 0

10.   Willie Randolph  0

11.   Dustin Pedroia

12.   Rod Carew -5

13.   Ben Zobrist

14.   Bobby Grich -2

15.   Chuck Knoblauch 0

16.   Rogers Hornsby -22

17.   Brian Dozier

18.   Eddie Collins -25

19.   Nellie Fox -10

20.   Jeff Kent 0

21.   Charlie Gehringer -20

22.   Frank White 0

23.   Davey Lopes -1

24.   Frankie Frisch -20

25.   Bobby Doerr -15

26.   Ian Kinsler

27.   Joe Gordon -18

28.   Dick McAuliffe -9

29.   Billy Herman -20

30.   Nap Lajoie  -30

31.   Tony Lazzeri -20

32.   Daniel Murphy

33.   Tommy Herr 0

34.   Phil Garner 0

35.   Jim Gilliam -10

36.   Bret Boone

37.   Robby Thompson 0

38.   Red Schoendienst -11

39.   Bill Mazeroski -11

40.   Steve Sax 0

41.   Bill Doran 0

42.   Buddy Myer -20

43.   Gil McDougald -10

44.   Carlos Baerga

45.   Manny Trillo 0

46.   Eddie Stanky-12

47.   Bobby Avila -10

48.   Larry Doyle -30

49.   Pete Runnels -10

50.   Max Bishop -20

The number one slot is based on wild speculation that Altuve ends up with an even better second half to his career than his first half, but I had to put him somewhere towards the top, so what the hell.

The guy who ranked #51 on Bill’s original list was Danny Murphy, who played from 1900-1915, so he’s obviously going to be bumped down to spot #81 and beyond, but the Dan(iel) Murphy who  played second base a century later gets onto this list in position #32, which I mention because, not to steal Bill’s thunder, when he does come out with his next rankings (if he does) we’re going to see a lot of these new names on it. I’ll personally be astonished if the newer Daniel Murphy doesn’t rank a lot higher than the older one on Bill’s next list. This list, however, my list, not only interpolates those new names but implicitly argues that the newer players are simply better than the older players—I’m arguing that Bill’s equation of a win for Daniel Murphy the First with a win for Daniel Murphy the Second is wrong, or more precisely that looking at a 1910 win as being equivalent to a 2010 win is wrong. Bill’s way is totally right, absolutely necessary for evaluating players contemporary with each other, but Win Shares paint a false picture when comparing the absolute quality of players from widely disparate eras. Or so I say.

If Bill ends up assessing Murph the First’s Win Shares in one year at 20 and Murph the Second’s Win Shares in another year a century later also at 20, what that signifies to me is that they were equal contributors to their teams’ success. A win is a win is a win. BUT I also take that data to signify that Murph the Second was a seriously superior ballplayer to his counterpart-- he was playing against much bigger, stronger, faster, more carefully scouted, more racially diverse, more well-trained etc. etc. etc. competition yet producing the same results in that much more competitive environment.

 I want to stress that I’m not trying to equate the talent of Daniel Murphy the Second with that of Tony Lazzeri, whom he appears just behind on the list above, or that of Tommy Herr, whom Murphy appears just ahead of. (From the revised Historical Abstract, p. 535: "The ranking of second basemen past spot 35 is almost impossible. I’ve done the best job I could, but there are just a lot of players who are the same. What is the difference between Johnny Temple and Don Blasingame?") What I am suggesting is that, if you accept my premise that baseball is slowly but very surely getting better over time, the list above would then approximate how such an adjusted list would look, with Altuve very possibly ranking in the top half-dozen when his career is in the books, and with the half-dozen top secondbase men consisting of players whom you’ve all seen play. It’s entirely possible that such standard top picks like Eddie Collins and Rogers Hornsby and even Jackie Robinson will place about where I have them, in the #10-#15 range, instead of the very top tier.

Lists get fossilized. When I was growing up, I read in several places that Pie Traynor was the #1 thirdbase man of all time, and it took some doing for Bill to bleach that notion from my brain. My immediate response to Bill’s 2001 HBA rankings at thirdbase where Mike Schmidt was #1 and Pie Traynor #15 was "What!?" Looking over the Traynor entry, I see that Bill discussed precisely this point, that Pie Traynor’s reputation as the #1 guy was an invention of the 1950s—by the early 1960s, Eddie Mathews had already safely dislodged Traynor,  who had been inferior to Home Run Baker (#5 in the HBA) all along, anyway. I’m thinking that most of us have allowed Bill’s 2001 rankings to get fossilized in our minds, and there may be a new stream of bleach headed our way.

Re-reading the revised Historical Abstract was a pleasure, and in the course of it, I realized that, to my surprise, the fossilized ranking order was less pleasurable than the accompanying mini-essays on the players. I remember being pleased by learning that, in Bill’s informed view, Jackie Robinson was the fourth-greatest second baseman of all time, despite his lack of playing time, but now I realize how little it matters whether Bill ranked Jackie #3 or #23, and that it may well turn out, on Bill’s long-awaited next ranking, that Jackie’s new rating is much higher or much lower than #4. There is no ultimate answer to the question of where players rank, and the ranking is only a jumping-off point for the discussion that ensues.

(Of Bill’s long-awaited next ranking, by the way, it’s been over seventeen years since the revised Historical Abstract, in which Bill pointed out that the revision had been done because the first HA had been published 15 years earlier—so if you think he’s due for another version, you’re correct. Of course, as I contemplate a trip to Yellowstone this summer, the massive explosion of molten lava under Wyoming is also way overdue, so let’s not rush forces of nature unduly.)

To belabor an obvious example of the irrelevance of precise rankings, take the speculations above, positing that 2018 players are markedly more skilled than the previous generation, who were likewise much more skilled than their predecessors, etc.  You might reject such thinking altogether (I’m not altogether sure that I buy the gantse megillah, as we Semitic types refer to the "complete tale") but as a premise for this ranking, we can consider it provisionally valid.  Where, after all, is the harm in humoring me? If it offends you to think that post-2001 players constitute the greatest 2b-men of all time, then go ahead and argue the basis for your offendedness, and maybe we’ll all learn something from your argument.

It's the argument that forms the interesting part of the ultimate answer, the reasoning behind your thinking that my rankings stink or that they’re wonderful. And it’s the reasoning behind Bill’s ranking that makes them worth reading, even if we disagree at times. I suspect that’s why Bill has explicitly reserved the right to disagree with himself whenever he issues new rankings—he offers us a whole new rationale for each ranking, making the point that our best conclusions are always subject to revision as long as we look at issues with open minds, from a fresh perspective. Bill’s rankings, like any rankings, are always in danger of getting fossilized, so Bill leads the charge in resisting that all-too-human tendency.

One very strong counter-argument to my bias towards contemporary players is "Yeah, right. The players YOU happened to see also happen to be much better players than the players you never saw, Goldleaf. Self-serve much?" And of course it’s logical that I would enjoy seeing the names I remember very well presented high in the rankings. I admit to reading with special delight the names of Mets from my childhood, and I do regret that Ron Hunt and Felix Millan appear just beyond Bill’s first 50 players (#s 57 and 60) and so are ineligible for bumping up in my new pantheon. But I’d counter that counter-argument with the notion that I actually don’t follow the game being played today with anything like the fervor with which I followed the game of the 1960s and 1970s, and I probably more know about the players of the 1950s (through reading) than I do about the players of today, which kind of sinks the argument about my self-interest here. It’s just a very interesting concept, that players are growing increasingly, perhaps almost exponentially, more skilled, and as such can’t really be compared to players of earlier times.

Someone (forget who—sorry) brought up the point that if Babe Ruth were competing against pitchers in 2018 in a contemporary ballpark etc., he also would have the advantage of scouting the pitchers via recorded footage, modern weight-training techniques, state-of-the-art equipment,  better nutrition (!), and so on, but that misses my point here. I’m not seeking to demonstrate that Ruth sucked, not at all. It’s that Ruth’s superiority to other batters of his day benefited from the advantage of the pitchers not having footage on him—he must have often faced pitchers who had no idea whether it was better to pitch him low and away or high and tight, who just threw him their best pitches and hoped and prayed for the best. Of course he could have adapted to the contemporary game just fine, but his records were compiled when those advantages weren’t available, so the game of baseball, the quality of play in the 1920s, was degraded from the higher standards later on. (And that 1920s pitcher would, of course, be able to study footage of Ruth.)

It’s not that there’s a gigantic advantage in having pre-game footage of the pitcher you’re about to face, or his having footage of where to pitch you—it’s a small advantage for the both of yuz, which roughly evens out. (If it were known in Ruth’s day that his OPS+ was .025 lower on fastballs high and tight than fastballs elsewhere, then a pitcher could save up his high and tight fastball for a 3-and-2 pitch against Ruth, and that advantage might disappear as Ruth came to expect that pitch in that spot—like I say, most such advantages are small and temporary, but they are advantages.) You can’t see the differences between Ruth hitting a HR against Charlie Root and Joey Votto hitting one off Justin Verlander—a HR is a HR is a HR—but the quality of play is, nonetheless, higher and more competitive than it used to be. That’s what’s so pernicious about this theory—the fact that offense and defense is improving at roughly at same rate yields results that look almost identical over time but in fact are far different.

The prose in Bill’s 2001 rankings is a marvel of readability—as I re-read the mini-essays, I found myself chuckling or being surprised by some long-forgotten data point. I even noted with pleasure that Bill had, in passing, loosely endorsed the principle of increasing quality of the competition in MLB when, justifying ranking Mickey Mantle above Ty  Cobb, he pointed out that Mantle "came along 45 years later when (in my opinion) the quality of the competition was tougher" (p. 348).  Ultimately, he ranked Cobb above Mantle, but I have taken that principle to the extreme to see what fruits it yields.

As I perused the 2001 rankings, I did find a point or two that I differed from. Bill kind of ragged on Ron Hunt, calling him "about as bad a player you can be with a .400 on-base percentage," which is accurate, but he also described Hunt’s lousy personality and his unpopularity with both opposing players and fans, the last of which simply isn’t true. Hunt was an asshole, true, but he was OUR asshole—Mets fans in the mid-1960s loved Hunt’s surly aggressiveness, his edginess, his competitive spirit, and we were absolutely distraught when the Mets swapped him out for Tommy Davis, which was on the surface a pretty fair deal. (Less than two years older than Hunt, Davis was a recent two-time batting champ, World’s Champion,  MVP runner-up, and All-Star, and he was a Brooklyn native to boot.) But the selective anecdotes Bill told about most players are the best reason to re-read the Historical Abstract—he managed to find stories about players’ careers, often ones that hardly relate to the players’ rankings, just interesting, colorful, oddball stories about their peculiar characteristics, that elevate the rankings sections to the level of literature. Even with Hunt, whose story I’ve followed closely since his MLB debut, there were juicy details that were new to me, such as future Congressman Larry Jackson warning Hunt about the equally-unpopular infielder Daryl Spencer who got driven to Japan (flown, probably) by his opponents going out of their way to collide with him on the basepaths, and Hunt’s pithy rethponthe to Jackson’s warning.

 
 

COMMENTS (24 Comments, most recent shown first)

Rich Dunstan
My evaluation of Wilt the Bat would depend in part on whether history has moved on to a point where the rest of the league's players were Bill Russell height and some of them routinely hit 580-foot homers. My comments are aimed at a situation in which the answer is "yes".
6:04 PM Apr 27th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Riceman--I welcome others inventing a more precise methodology than this crude metric. Have at it. I notice on Bill's chart of the greatest SSs of all time that 4 out of his top 5 (and something like 11 out of his top 15) have all played in the past four or five decades, and that's without a radical timeline adjustment. But Honus Wager remains at the top of the list, which is hard to do with as severe an adjustment as I'm operating under, and is an issue with this method. But I'm confident that as severe a timeline, only more nuanced than this one, could be devised.
1:54 PM Apr 27th
 
Marc Schneider
Steven,

I don't think I'm being disrespectful to Grant. Having B-1 bombers would have ended the Civil War sooner. Even Grant would have admitted that. :) Although drones might have been more useful to avoid wiping out the entire area.


9:10 AM Apr 27th
 
Riceman1974
I think we all agree that the quality of play has always increased over time, and hence it's far more difficult to dominate today than it was for stars of the past. The problem is how do we account for it once we decide to do so in a rankings format. Bill has a timeline adjustment. Baseball Prospectus has one. Most who write in this industry do, or should. Steve's effort is a noble one, and I can't really say it's wrong. It's a nice attempt dealing with a difficult nerd porn subject. Personally I think it's ludicrous to list Craig Biggio #2 all time, but I have no idea what the perfect adjustment should be. I wonder if you cut Steve's in half would the rankings look more "normal"? 15 points pre-20, 10 points pre-Jackie, and so on. Anything to remove Biggio from the top.
5:16 AM Apr 27th
 
Steven Goldleaf
But isn't greatness greatness, Rich, regardless of its etiology? If you're taller than your father, doesn't that help you accomplish specific things like being able to reach a higher shelf? If we someday have a slugger who's Wilt Chamberlain-size and who hits 600-foot homeruns routinely, can't we say that he's the greatest slugger ever? Or must we say, "Oh, he's only a foot taller than Babe Ruth, is all, and that's just nutrition and genetic factors, he's really not any better than Ruth?"
4:28 AM Apr 27th
 
Rich Dunstan
OK. I was coming from the perpective that generalized improvements over time in size, speed, nutrition, coaching etc. benefit everybody and so probably do not belong in the discussion of greatness, interpreting greatness as individual merit. In that sense, later player are greater only in the trivial sense that I'm taller than my father. It isn't very interesting. But changes that bring more of the best players into the majors or help keep them there, like integration or TJ surgery, do belong because they mean the best recent later players have succeeded against tougher opponents, or rather a higher proportion of tough opponents, than earlier stars. It's as if my father had been best in his class in a one-room schoolhouse while I was valedictorian at a fancy prep school (counterfactual example, of course). It's a much more significant difference.
11:27 PM Apr 26th
 
Steven Goldleaf
And to answer your specific question, Rich, ALL of the factors, competitive and social, that improve the quality of play are in play here, equally, as if I have any idea what any of them are worth. (Ploughmen dig my earth.)

9:12 PM Apr 26th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I could begin, Rich, by explaining that I'm not actually ranking these players. (I have no more idea than you or anyone else has where Bret Boone ranks among all secondbase men ever, much less where Jose Altuve will rank someday.) I'm trying to suggest what a ranking of secondbase men COULD look like if we were (somehow) able to apply all the factors (TJ surgery, better groundskeeping etc) that contribute to 2018 being much more competitive than 1918. I think it's pretty shocking to most people's systems (certainly to mine) to look over a list of names that actually asserts that the six greatest players of all time at a position are the guys we've been watching these past few seasons, but if my thesis is true, then that shocking truth is what we need to adjust to. Does that make any sense to you?
9:00 PM Apr 26th
 
Rich Dunstan
Steven, could you clarify for me how much of your higher ranking of recent players is due to the factors you mentioned in your previous article, from integration to improved groundskeeping and Tommy John surgery, that improve the quality of competition by cutting the mediocrities off the bottom of big league rosters; and how much is due to the evolutionary and social forces that make all players, the great and the mediocre alike, bigger, stronger, better coached, etc. etc., than previous generations?​
8:43 PM Apr 26th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Sorry, Gary. It goes something like this: Suppose that baseball is growing more competitive (i.e., better) by about 1% or 2% per year, so that every succeeding generation is markedly superior to the previous generation ( a generation representing 20 years or so, or 20-40% improvement every generation in the quality of play). We can't see it, because 1-2% is very small, and the improvement is irregular anyway, maybe 4% one year and 0% the next, and it often looks like the pitchers or the batters have improved in a particular year but actually they're both improving irregularly all the time. So Mike Trout might not only be better than Mickey Mantle but a LOT better, and Mantle might be a lot better than Joe Dimaggio. So Mike Trout might be so much better than Ty Cobb or Tris Speaker that there's really no basis for comparison, and as far as the 19th century goes, fuhgeddaboutit.

How's that?
7:02 PM Apr 26th
 
Gfletch
I'm not trying to be a smartypants (it comes naturally), but...what was your theory?
4:47 PM Apr 26th
 
mrbryan
In Ruth's time, players had something better than footage to watch - they got to see the opposing pitchers again and again. Pitchers spent more time on the mound each game - Ted Lyons in 1927 started 34 games, completed 30 of them, and relieved an additional 5 times, while in 2017, the American League had 32 complete games - but they faced each team 18 times a year. This resulted in Lyons, in 1927, facing Ruth (and Gehrig) 27 times each, and for Ruth to watch Lyons facing his teammates 207 additional times. That's a lot of exposure.
9:11 AM Apr 26th
 
bbbilbo
"...the fossilized ranking order was less pleasurable than the accompanying mini-essays on the players."

Yes. That's what brought me (and I suspect most of us) to being a a baseball Jamesian. I can do math, it's what I do for a living. But it has always been Bill's words and the (sometimes disputable, but that's part of the fun) logic he uses that brings me back again and again.
6:50 AM Apr 26th
 
MarisFan61
......correcting what I just said:
I suppose it wouldn't necessarily change your results. Because -- maybe the way you arrived at your adjustments was somewhat tailored to a notion of how much you wished to adjust those rankings of Bill's that you were seeing, and it would have been about the same even taking into account that those already included a timeline adjustment.
8:07 PM Apr 25th
 
MarisFan61
Sure -- but your quantification, and therefore your results, would be totally different if you allowed for how Bill used quantified timeline stuff in the rankings that you started with.
6:03 PM Apr 25th
 
Steven Goldleaf
MarisFan--I was obviously aware that Bill had done something of the sort when I wrote that "Bill had, in passing, loosely endorsed the principle of increasing quality of the competition in MLB when, justifying ranking Mickey Mantle above Ty Cobb, he pointed out that Mantle 'came along 45 years later when (in my opinion) the quality of the competition was tougher'(p. 348). " I just didn't remember that he had actually incorporated it into his 2001 rankings. I go on to say that I'm taking the principle that Bill alluded to there to an extreme, and that's the point of this exercise, the extremity. Bill allowed for a slight bump for players as the quality of the competition grows tougher, and my thesis is that the bump may not be so slight at all.
5:32 PM Apr 25th
 
MarisFan61
My immediate reaction was exactly what Bear said: It seemed as though you didn't realize Bill had a timeline adjustment, which was surprising enough -- but it's even more surprising that you so much didn't know it that you didn't get what Bear meant.

A firm grasp of the starting data base is important. :-)

Sorry to bring this back up, but I had a similar take on what you wrote about the 'draft' system a few weeks ago: You went to town about it without really having an idea of how valuable the various levels are, which wasn't that hard to check on.

Sorry also to take a little leap here, but it's very little of a leap and maybe, just maybe, it'll be helpful: It's well worth taking the extra thought and effort to make sure you know the relevant details of whatever you're starting from.
5:15 PM Apr 25th
 
Steven Goldleaf
You're being VERY disrespectful, Marc, to General Grant even to pose that question. Of course you're right--the clear implication of what I'm trying to say is that the greatest player in any sport is ALWAYS far into the future, which is infinite. I don't even see where there's any doubt that the axiom that the greatest player hasn't been born yet is in the slightest doubt, even without the implication of sports growing ever-more competitive. The future lasts billions of years and MLB has lasted, so far, for fewer than 150 years, so how can you presume to equate those two quantities? This doesn't do us any good, since we can't even rate players for the full 150 years--the greatest 2B-man ever, I speculate, Jose Altuve, hasn't put his numbers into the book yet, so we're limited to ranking the players up to about, what, 2010 or so?

On a more serious note, the concept of fossilization, the reaching conclusions that are then difficult to revise and dislodge, is really what this article is about. We grow up indoctrinated with the idea "Babe Ruth--best slugger ever--pretty good pitcher, too--ugh--Ruth #1 all-time!!--grunt--maybe Williams? UGH! no, couldn't pitch--Ruth greatest" etc. but there are bound to be MANY players coming along who will outstrip Ruth (although i understand the Babe was pretty good with the tassels) but they will have to overcome the fossilization of Ruth's supremacy. I'm just trying to lay the groundwork for that eventuality.
5:04 PM Apr 25th
 
Marc Schneider
Steven,

With all due respect because I do enjoy your articles, isn't this a bit like saying what if Grant had had B-1 Bombers in the Civil War? I think it's likely true that current players are significantly better than those in the past and that future players will be much better than today's players (although the difference might not be as great given the huge jumps in nutrition, training, etc. between, say the 1940s and 2000s. But, so what? Maybe Mike Trout is better than Babe Ruth on a time-adjusted basis, but it doesn't really address the question of whether we should evaluate players against their contemporaries or against some absolute standard that would obviously favor more recent players. (I don't want to get into the issue of the color barrier which introduces another set of problems.) It seems to me, though, grossly unfair to compare a player against some future standard that he had no chance to meet. Babe Ruth was the best player of all time because he was the most dominant player against his contemporaries. There is no way of projecting how well Ruth (or anyone else) would have done against modern players-presumably not as well. What your method really say is that at any time the greatest player in a sport has likely not been born.
4:26 PM Apr 25th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Thanks. That's helpful--I'd forgotten about Bill's timeline, and I haven't read the whole book in years, just the 2B section recently. But you can think of this article as positing a much more extreme timeline adjustment than the one Bill used. In fact, since he wasn't basing his timeline on much more than his gut feelings, as he describes it on p.344, let's just consider my gut as much bigger than Bill's.

He describes his technique in employing it pretty similarly to my description--he uses it so that players from the past don't get weighted too heavily. I'm also using to ensure fairness, only my premise is that a fair weight really favors the contemporary much more than most people think, including Bill in the revised HBA and even including me sometimes.
11:42 AM Apr 25th
 
bearbyz
On page 340 of "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract" Bill goes through his six factors which go into the rating. Number 5 is "An "era adjustment" based on the player's year of birth."

On pages 343 and 344 he describes why the timeline adjustment is used and gives the formula. "The time line is figured as Year of Birth minus 1800, divided by 10." Ken Griffey Jr. had a seven point advantage over Babe Ruth and a ten point advantage over Cy Young. Unfortunately I can't remember what a seven and 10 point advantage mean to the overall formula.
11:17 AM Apr 25th
 
Steven Goldleaf
As to your second point, bearbyz, I agree--but if the rumor mill were as helpful to pitchers (or batters) as film, we wouldn't need film, would we? My point is that film is more precise than the rumor mill was (and we still have a rumor mill, anyway, so we have both that AND film to help players looking to exploit to their opponents' weaknesses. Isn't two better than one?)
10:34 AM Apr 25th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Not sure what you mean "Bill had a timeline"--could you specify where he describes this timeline? I'm certainly imposing an additional (and approximate) penalty on earlier players--that's the whole point here. But this article isn't trying for very much precision--obviously, the quality of play went backwards during WWII, and quite possibly during other brief periods, as it jumped powerfully forwards during other periods, much faster than in normal years, so just deciding that each 27-year period is worth 10 or 20 or 30 places is going to be very crude at best.
10:31 AM Apr 25th
 
bearbyz
Bill already had a timeline in his study, so now you added a second timeline. I don't like the fact you are just lowering the ranking. A fairer way to do this is to develop a ranking and giving a timeline boost to the people who play later. I think you have a point, but I don't like your execution on proving your point.

Ruth's pitchers might not have had film, but they had the rumor mill. Plenty of players were knocked out of baseball when a weakness was exploited. Baseball is a game of adjustments. I remember John McGraw hooted after the 1922 World Series just throw slow curves and Ruth was an easy out. Apparently no one listened to him in the American League in 1923 and his pitchers forgot the advice in the 1923 World Series.
10:06 AM Apr 25th
 
 
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