Physician, Heal Somebody Else

May 13, 2013

                In "Hey, Bill" we have drifted into a discussion about Doc Cramer, 1930s/1940s American League outfielder.    How good a player was he or, more accurately, how bad?

                Doc Cramer was kind of a poor man’s Richie Ashburn.  Although he was tall and thin, he was a singles hitter who didn’t walk and didn’t steal bases.  He was a left-handed hitting center fielder who rarely struck out. His batting averages were pretty good. He was a career .296 hitter, and he had 2,705 career hits.   But his walk rates were below average, and he would sometimes go thousands of at bats between home runs.  He didn’t steal many bases, and his stolen base percentage was horrible.  While he did score 100 runs in a season three times and scored as many as 116 in a season, he also made upwards of 450 outs almost every season, with a career high of 501.   Per 162 games played, Cramer would bat 661 times and get almost 200 hits, score almost 100 runs, and strike out only 25 times—all very good numbers.   But he would hit only 3 home runs, per season, with less than 30 doubles, 41 walks, 4 stolen bases, and almost 500 batting and baserunning outs.

                The other rating systems rate Cramer as a pretty awful player.  Retrosheet, using (I think) Pete Palmer’s methods, rates Cramer as 29.6 games below average over the course of his career.   Baseball Reference rates him at 228 runs below average, or 22.6 games below average.  In spite of this, Cramer was named to five All-Star teams, and was mentioned in the MVP voting five times.  Altogether, he either was named to the All Star team or was mentioned in the MVP voting in eight different seasons.

                So he was perceived, while active, by those who saw him play, as a pretty good player, but he is perceived by modern statistical ranking systems as dead weight.   So what is the truth here?

                Well. ..I don’t mean to be arrogant.  I respect the opinions of those who saw him play. However, my methods—while very different from the Baseball Reference methods—reach essentially the same conclusion.  I am also unable to document the good qualities that 1930s sportswriters saw in Cramer.

                Baseball Reference lists Cramer at +12.6 Offensive WAR, but negative 6.2 Defensive War; in other words, they see him as a bad hitter, but a worse fielder.    I see him as a not-very-good fielder, but a much worse hitter.    But adding it together, I have Cramer with a career won-lost contribution (Win Shares and Loss Shares) of 226-288, which is essentially identical to the Baseball Reference rating.  

                Why the difference?   Well… I don’t exactly understand how Baseball Reference does their rankings, but I’ll explain it as best I understand it, and if I’ve got it wrong, I’m sure some of you will be happy to correct me.    Baseball Reference, I think, compares each player to an average hitter at his position, and to an average fielder at his position.   Their conclusion is that while Cramer is below average in both areas, he is further below average as a fielder.

                This method implicitly assumes that an average center fielder is as good a player as an average first baseman or an average third baseman or an average numismatist—in other words, that the average shortstop is as good a hitter as the average first baseman, position-adjusted, and that the average first baseman is as good a fielder as the average shortstop, position-adjusted.    Of course this is not true; the average shortstop is a much better fielder than the average first baseman, but a much weaker hitter.

                My method, on the other hand, assumes that

                1)  All hitters compete with all other hitters, but

                2)  The defensive players at some positions are much better than the defensive players at other positions.

                Given those assumptions, Cramer is further below average as a hitter—because he is being compared to all hitters, rather than being compared to other center fielders—but not as far below average as a fielder, since center fielders are assumed to be carrying a larger defensive load than players at most other positions.

                I like my assumptions better and my method better, but it doesn’t really matter; we wind up, in this case, at exactly the same conclusion.   62 Win Shares below average is 22.7 Wins below average. 

                This chart summarizes Cramer’s Win Shares and Loss Shares:

 

Year

City

Team

HR

RBI

AVG

OPS

Batting

Fielding

Total

Winning

Won

Lost

Won

Lost

Won

Lost

Pct.

1929

Philadelphia

A's

0

0

.000

.000

0

0

0

0

0

0

.000

1930

Philadelphia

A's

0

6

.232

.518

0

3

1

0

1

4

.209

1931

Philadelphia

A's

2

20

.260

.642

3

7

3

1

6

8

.423

1932

Philadelphia

A's

3

46

.336

.828

8

7

4

1

11

8

.574

1933

Philadelphia

A's

8

75

.295

.728

13

15

2

7

16

22

.416

1934

Philadelphia

A's

6

46

.311

.765

13

13

4

5

17

18

.486

1935

Philadelphia

A's

3

70

.332

.789

14

12

3

6

16

18

.474

1936

Boston

Red Sox

0

41

.292

.710

9

18

7

3

16

21

.425

1937

Boston

Red Sox

0

51

.305

.735

10

14

4

4

13

18

.425

1938

Boston

Red Sox

0

71

.301

.734

11

16

5

4

17

21

.451

1939

Boston

Red Sox

0

56

.311

.734

9

15

4

4

13

20

.405

1940

Boston

Red Sox

1

51

.303

.724

11

16

2

6

14

22

.384

1941

Washington

Senators

2

66

.273

.655

9

18

3

7

12

25

.325

1942

Detroit

Tigers

0

43

.263

.631

8

19

6

4

13

23

.373

1943

Detroit

Tigers

1

43

.300

.684

12

12

5

4

17

16

.525

1944

Detroit

Tigers

2

42

.292

.706

12

11

5

5

17

16

.524

1945

Detroit

Tigers

6

58

.275

.702

11

12

5

4

16

16

.500

1946

Detroit

Tigers

1

26

.294

.710

4

4

1

1

6

6

.495

1947

Detroit

Tigers

2

30

.268

.694

2

5

1

2

3

6

.331

1948

Detroit

Tigers

0

1

.000

.429

0

0

0

0

0

0

.338

                     

 

 

 
             

160

220

66

69

226

288

.439

 

 
 

COMMENTS (17 Comments, most recent shown first)

KaiserD2
Looking at the overall stats, particularly the 2700-plus hits, I think we're fortunate that Cramer hasn't had a substantial movement behind him for the HOF!
I think some of these posts exaggerate how ignorant baseball people in the 1930s were. Joe McCarthy certainly understood the importance of walks and I think he had a good sense of the low value of stolen bases as well. Both Yankee and Red Sox OBPs improved a lot under him
Bill, I've always thought it's a bit of a paradox that you made your name illustrating the limitations of the opinions of contemporary sportswriters', general managers', and managers' opinions of players' abilities, and yet you show more respect for the opinions of those same cohorts from the distant past. And yet it seems pretty clear that high batting averages were overrated in those days (in the absence of high OBP or SLG) just as they are today, by many, if not all, sportswriters, mangers and players And fans.
Lastly, have you ever attempted to identify the worst player in history, in the sense of the player who cost his teams the most games--which would have to be a VERY overrated player with a long career?
8:39 AM May 21st
 
craigjolley
Observations that tend to support the consensus here:

1. Cramer was a fourth outfielder until age 27, competing for playing time with a fading Bing Miller (11 years older than Cramer) until Connie Mack started selling off his best players including Al Simmons which finally elevated Cramer into the role of regular.

2. Cramer virtually always played CF with teammates otherwise established in CF moved to LF or RF to accommodate him. He was probably well above average defensively.

3. After a good season in which he led the league in hits his market value was established in a straight-up trade for Gee Walker, another OK-level, singles-hitting outfielder.

4. 1945 (age 39) may have been his most satisfying season. As a key member of the Tigers he hit .379 in the World Series to help them beat the Cubs.

5. He was dedicated to baseball, took care of himself, remained in CF into his 40's, rarely missed games with injuries, maintained a consistent level of play.

6. Maybe the down side of his consistency was his lack of adaptability. For example during his years with the Red Sox, he did not take advantage of Fenway's special hitting environment. Cramer compiled equivalent home/road splits, unlike a typical Sox left-hand hitter who enjoyed a 30-point home-field upswing in batting average.

7. His career was inflated by WWII, during which time he received a some MVP consideration for ordinary play. When the real players came back he was relegated to fourth outfielder.

8. Years ago there was something of a movement to get him into the HOF based partly on the argument he would have achieved the "automatic" 3000 hits criteria and been elected had Mack installed him as a regular by age 24 or 25 as Cramer "deserved". Mack was very aware of Cramer's abilities and imitations from the day he was signed, and this line is not convincing. If anything Cramer probably merited less career playing time given his relatively competition-free 1942-45 opportunities.
2:09 PM May 15th
 
Robinsong
Buckner is a good choice, Bill. I don't think he was quite as bad as Cramer, but he had an even longer career. He was less below average both offensively and defensively than Cramer, but he was on the right side of the defensive spectrum, which gives him a large position adjustment to overcome. His .179 secondary average is remarkable for a 1B (Cramer's was .142). He had 800 games (over 7 years) at the end of his career where bb-ref has him below replacement level - a remarkable achievement!

I think that it makes the Red Sox (it was McNamara, wasn't it?) decision to leave him out there in Game 6 (actually the whole Series) even more painful.

It also shows the dissemination rate of your ideas. I vividly recall your 1982 Abstract and its explanation of Runs Created with Gene Tenace and Duane Kuiper as examples, and your pointed and funny comment on Enos Cabell a year or two later. Buckner's 800 game stretch below replacement started in 1984! His batting average kept him in the league, because your ideas took time to gain traction.
7:21 PM May 14th
 
CharlesSaeger
@bjames: Charlie Grimm, perhaps? Dave Kingman? It would have to be someone who was in the lineup, especially batting high in the lineup as Cramer did (he batted in the first three spots in over 90% of his plate appearances), who didn't leave a record of defensive greatness but his managers had reason to think was a good player, a guy with one central skill (bating average, power) with absolutely nothing else to support it.
5:50 PM May 14th
 
bjames
Responding to Robinsong. ...


Have you ever analyzed a long-career player with Win Share- Loss Shares that were worse than Cramer? I know that you haven't looked at everybody, but is there any one worse that you know of?

No, but I would guess that Bill Buckner might be no better than Cramer, probably.
5:20 PM May 14th
 
CharlesSaeger
smbaker: The high rate of caught stealing in this era is likely due to using the hit-and-run more often. The pure steal or run-and-hit weren't executed as often then as they are now.
9:47 AM May 14th
 
smbakeresq
The whole picture makes sense if you realize the context in which he was playing in. In that time, GMS, Managers, scouts and writers generally didn't value the walk, so they didn't see that as a hole in Cramer's game. My favorite quote from around that time is about Cullenbine: "Cullenbine wouldn't swing the bat, (Browns president Bill) DeWitt recalled. "(Manager Luke) Sewell would give him the hit sign and he'd take it, trying to get the base on balls. Laziest human being you ever saw." Cramer certainly wasn't lazy if you look at it that way.

Caught stealing wasn't viewed as that big of a detriment as it is now, so that was minimized also. Bat control was big, so low batter strikeout totals looked good in that time, even though batter strikeout totals where generally low.

The flaws we see today were not seen in the prism of the 30's and 40's, thus he had a 20 year career. Makes sense if you see it from that viewpoint.

9:12 AM May 14th
 
CharlesSaeger
What was the perception of Cramer's fielding while he was active? It's hard to be utterly sure about his fielding at this late date since Cramer played before the Retrosheet era, with loads of games missing even when Retrosheet does get them into its computers.
7:53 AM May 14th
 
Robinsong
Another feature of bb-ref WAR calculation is that they assign all the "replacement runs" - the adjustment between the average and the replacement players - to offense. That is why a slightly below average defense shows up as negative dWAR and a well-below average offense shows up as positive oWAR. You don't want to double count "replacement runs", but it is an admittedly arbitrary decision of bb-ref. This has led to confusion in Reader Posts as well, with one poster noting that terrible teams tended to have positive oWAR and negative dWAR. This is just an artifact of how the replacement runs are assigned - terrible teams are usually below average in every facet of the game.
11:52 PM May 13th
 
jemanji
'Doc Cramer was kind of a poor man's Richie Ashburn' -- this is my favorite thing you do. This gives him a template which organizes our thinking, and then we can compare him to it, to see how good or bad he was compared to that baseline. Same thing that chess grandmasters do with chess positions: 'This is like an isolated queen pawn position but without the dark-square Bishops, so White is better.' - thanks
5:45 PM May 13th
 
Steven Goldleaf
If a team continues to play a below-average player for many years after he demonstrates clearly that he's not very good, is that an implicit criticism of the team's management? I know "teams need average players" but thinking a weakness is some kind of strength isn't good. We credit Stengel and McGraw for being ahead oftheir time, seeing hidden strengths in OBP and platoon advantages when their contemporaries saw none, so why not criticize those managers who couldn't see a below-.500 ballplayer right in front of their noses?
3:32 PM May 13th
 
Robinsong
Bill -
Have you ever analyzed a long-career player with Win Share- Loss Shares that were worse than Cramer? I know that you haven't looked at everybody, but is there any one worse that you know of?
3:16 PM May 13th
 
tangotiger
I should say the positional adjustments DO change, but only based on the change in talent fielding-wise that year. It's pretty stable for the recent era, but it might change the further back you go.

The most interesting one is the 2B/3B, where they would criss-cross as to which has the better fielders, depending on the era.
2:02 PM May 13th
 
tangotiger
Since BR.com basically uses the same framework that I've developed/championed, I can tell you that it's similar in thought as Win Shares.

That is, compare all hitters to the average hitter.

Compare fielders to their positional peers, but then, have a positional adjustment that is basically a match to Bill's fielding spectrum.

Then, we add in a replacement-level component (which is basically a playing time bonus).

Unfortunately, BR.com confuses things presentation-wise, so I don't blame Bill (or anyone) for not following along to the end.

***

The positional adjustments are basically, per 162G, and setting DH to zero as:
35 C
30 SS
25 2B, 3B, CF
15 LF, RF
10 1B
0 DH

Which seems pretty much in-line with what Bill does.

And these adjustments don't change because of the offense at the position that year. Just as we don't try to make the average QB = average punter, neither do we make any two positions equals.
2:00 PM May 13th
 
joeashp
I once read the book "Baseball when the Grass was Real" and there was a chapter on Doc Cramer; I remember feeling that whatever kind of a player he was, Doc Cramer thought of himself as a great player. He was one of those guys who liked to say how "they can't play today like they did in my day" - you know. guys don't work as hard, never hit the cutoff man, etc. Even as a teenager I found that he came off as arrogant. Consequently I have always smiled a bit when I see the various statistical methods indicate that he was a below average player. He did last a long time though.
1:54 PM May 13th
 
Robinsong
Bill -
I think I am to blame for asking about Cramer, so thank you very much for doing this!

Just for clarification, bb-ref adjusts for position on [i]both[i] offensive [i]and[i] defensive Wins Above Replacement. For this reason, adding oWAR and dWAR does not give WAR. In Cramer's case, since the position adjustment is slightly negative (the average centerfielder during Cramer's time was a slightly above average offensive player), Cramer's WAR is 8.6, whereas the sum of oWAR and dWAR is 6.4. dWAR should really be viewed as Defensive Wins Above Average including Position Adjustment, not defensive Wins Above Replacement. According to bb-ref, Cramer was further below average as an offensive player (-166 runs for batting and running) than as a defensive player (-26 runs).

Bottom line - both you and bb-ref assess Cramer as below average offensively and defensively, and the magnitudes are quite similiar.

Do you take any credit for improving our understanding of value, so that Cramer (or Kuiper) are properly viewed as lousy players rather than satrs?
1:17 PM May 13th
 
mikejenkins
I always assumed Doc Cramer was in the Hall of Fame. Doc Cramer Road is a main crossroad in Manahawkin, NJ; whem I was a kid my dad would always point it out as named after "the longtime great centerfielder for the A's" When I was trying to impress my friends with my knowledge of old-time players, it would be "you know, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Doc Cramer, Ty Cobb."
12:31 PM May 13th
 
 
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