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So What is a Superstar?

May 10, 2018
                                          So what is a Superstar, zactly? 

              I wandered into this discussion about what is a Superstar.  OK, it’s an argument; if I had known it was going to be an argument I would have stayed out of it, but you know how things go. 

              Let us begin with the observation that if you say that something is a "star type accomplishment", that very rarely would encounter any resistance, but if you say "superstar" anything, somebody will want to argue about it.    If I were to say, for example, that hitting .300 is a star-type of accomplishment, or that driving in 100 runs is a star type of accomplishment, or playing in an All Star game, or winning an MVP Award, or leading the league in stolen bases, no one would be inclined to argue with me who isn’t a sick bastard who just likes to argue about stuff.    These are the things that make players stars.   No one is a star, I don’t think, who doesn’t do any of these type of things.  

              The most hyped rookie in the world, I think, would not very often be described as a "star".  You may say that he has superstar potential, but you will wait until he actually performs at a "star" level before you say that he is a star.   These are observations; they are not controversial assertions. 

              From this it appears that the controversial element of the "superstar" claim is the "super" part, but there is another pattern here.   It is actually the term "star" that divorces us from hard-grounded realities.   "A good ballplayer" is to the term "star" as "a great ballplayer" is to the term "superstar".   Being a good ballplayer, however, is a perfectly objective thing, although we lack perfect understanding of it, but there is a clear purpose to playing baseball, which is to win.   Whatever you do that helps the team win, makes you a better ballplayer.  From this fact, hard knowledge can be derived. 

              "Star", however, is a little bit different.   Being a star involves the recognition of success, rather than merely success itself.  It invokes the concept of how others react to your success—or, in some cases, anticipate it. Hitting .300 is a star-type accomplishment.   Drawing 100 walks is not a star-type accomplishment.  If you steal 50 bases and get caught 20 times, that actually doesn’t do anything to help the team win, but announcers and drunks on barstools will still say "Omar Moreno stole 60 bases in 1982" as if this was proof of value, although he was caught stealing 26 times.   Drawing walks does not make you a star—hence, the guy on twitter just a couple of days ago who was mystified that Mike Petriello would dare put Joe Morgan in a group with Mantle and Mays.  There is a great deal of overlap between "good player" and "star", but there is also some space between them.   That space, I would argue, is the doorway into this confusion, this consternation and conflict, about what is a SUPER star. 

              As a beam of light will widen after it passes through a doorway, there is a vector pattern in the growth of confusion, so that "superstar" is a much muddier concept than "star", although logically it would seem to be a clear derivative of it.  If there are 100 stars, there MUST be 15 or 20 or 25 superstars, right?   You can argue about the number; you can argue that it should be 5 superstars for each 100 stars or 40, or you can argue that it should be one to a hundred, but you can’t really argue that "superstars" are not a derivative subset of "stars".   Can you?   I don’t see how you can debate that premise.   It’s inherent in the words. 

              I wandered into this discussion. . . .I was watching a game on TV and the announcer described somebody that I didn’t think of as a superstar as being a superstar, don’t remember who it was, Joe Mauer or Charlie Blackmon or Corey Uber-Kluber or somebody.  I thought "Wow; to get HIM as a superstar you have to cast a pretty wide net", so I sent out a tweet, "How many players in baseball today would you regard as Superstars":


              1 to 3

              4 to 10

              11 or more


              1,954 people responded to the poll.   2% said "none", 24% said "1 to 3", 62% "4 to 10", and 12% said "11 or more".  

              I was just trying to move the discussion forward by getting a consensus understanding of how many players people wanted to designate as superstars.  The consensus, based on the poll, is that people think of about seven players as superstars, or one for each four teams. 

              I then started on a line of research designed to answer the question "Who in baseball was a superstar in Year X"; in other words, a list of the superstars of 1927, 1938, 1949, etc.   It advances the discussion if we assume that there is one superstar for each four teams.  We can work with that.

              You can make a relatively clear determination as to how many players in baseball are considered "stars".   It’s 2 to 5 per team.   It is very clear, from the way that the word is used, that every team has stars.  Baltimore has not been winning a lot of games this year, but you can still say who the stars of the team are (Manny Machado and Adam Jones).   They had more stars a few years ago; they had Chris Davis, who was an MVP candidate twice, and Zach Britton, maybe Chris Tillman. 

              An announcer will say about an opposing team that "There are a lot of stars on their roster" or "there are not many stars on this team", but he will very rarely say that there are NO stars on the team.   I grew up rooting for the Kansas City A’s, who were the worst team in baseball, but someone was always the star of the team—Dick Howser in ’61, Norm Siebern in ’61-’62, Rocky Colavito in ’64, etc.   On the other end, the upper boundary of the term, even the best team in baseball is not 60% composed of "stars".   Even the best team in baseball has maybe 8 or 10 stars.   The number of "stars" per team has to be somewhere between 2 and 5, so let’s say that it is 3 or 4.

              I’m not trying to tell you how many players should be considered stars; I am merely observing how the term is used.   If you want to say "That is too many players to be considered stars; there should only be about 20 players in baseball considered ‘true stars’,", that’s fine, but what you are really saying is that "I want to define the word differently than everybody else uses it."   Define it however you want, but don’t expect other people to pay attention to you.  

              If there are 3 or 4 stars per team, that means 90 to 120 in baseball.   Let’s say 100.   If we have 100 "stars" in baseball, and 7 players who are superstars, then we have an answer to one of the questions which causes confusion in this discussion: What percentage of stars should be considered superstars?   It’s about 7%.   My best guess.

              Having reached that realization, I then thought that maybe it would be fun to draw up a list of who exactly was a superstar at each moment in baseball history.   If there is one superstar for each four teams, that means that when there were 16 teams in baseball (1901 to 1960 except 1914-1915) there were four superstars.    When there were 20 teams (1962 to 1968) there were five superstars; when there were 24 teams (1969 to 1976) there were six superstars.   So who were they?

              My idea was, for each season, to frame the question in this way:   assuming that there are X number of superstars in year Y, which X number of players are best qualified to hold that title?    I put three days of research into trying to answer that question.  This was, as it turned out, a waste of three days of my life.   I couldn’t reach any publishable conclusions.  

              Occasionally, it is clear who the X number of superstars are.   Let’s take the years 1946 to 1949, for example:  Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, done.   That’s the exception, rather than the rule, and even then it isn’t all that clear and certain.  By 1949 Bob Feller was not much more than a .500 pitcher, honestly, and in the 1947-1949 period Ralph Kiner hit 50 home runs twice. . .hit over .300, drew a ton of walks, led the league in home runs every year and hit 50 homers twice in three years.   Then there is Hal Newhouser, 26-9 with a 1.94 ERA in 1946, and then there are the other MVPs (Bob Elliott, Lou Boudreau), and then there is Jackie Robinson.  

              OK, so we really don’t know who the four superstars are in those four years, either, but it’s easy compared to, let’s say, 1915 to 1919.   The two best position players in baseball are Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker; add in Walter Johnson and Pete Alexander, you’ve got four. 

              Then there is that Babe Ruth feller, and Shoeless Joe Jackson having his best years, and Honus Wagner is still playing, and Home Run Baker, and Rogers Hornsby, and Eddie Collins, who was clearly a better player than Rogers Hornsby in my opinion, and George Sisler, and about 40 other Hall of Famers who are active somewhere in that period.  There were six problems within this study, which made it impossible for me to finish and publish that research.  

              First, if you use a strictly rational approach to the issue of "Which X players in Year Y have the best claim to be considered superstars", then—even if you use multi-year measurements of performance—players pop on and drop off the list in ways that make no sense.   A player will be listed as a superstar in 1924, 1926 and 1929, but not listed in 1925, 1927 and 1928.   This is inconsistent, to borrow a phrase from Bill Clinton, with the meaning of the word "is".    Saying that a player did superstar-type things in 1924, 1926 and 1929—or in concentrations of years centering in 1924, 1926 and 1929—makes sense.   Saying that he IS a superstar in 1924 and 1926 but is not a superstar in 1925 makes no sense.  "Is" is not something you can take off and hang in the closet like a coat. 

              Second, there is the tricky problem of what to do with players who clearly used to be superstars and still have huge name recognition, but who are no longer dominant players.  Is Albert Pujols still a superstar, because he used to be the best player in baseball, or is he not?    If you approach the issue the way that I was approaching it, which is to say "Which X players in the Year Y". . . .if you approach the problem in that way, then you are forced to say that Albert Pujols in 2018 is no longer a superstar.

              But it is far from clear otherwise that this is the better answer.   Satchel Paige drew 57,000 people to a minor league game in 1956, based mostly on things that he had done in the 1930s.   Is Miguel Cabrera still a superstar, or is he not?   It’s not actually clear.   If you adopt an analytical approach which forces you to say that he is NOT a superstar, you are being driven by the assumptions of your research toward a conclusion which may not be true.

              Third, the problem of when exactly a player becomes a superstar is actually more problematic than the issue of when he no longer is.   If you are trying to define who is a superstar and who is not, it seems reasonable (and it becomes necessary as a practical matter) to require that a player have a certain duration of success or a certain period of success before you say that he has become a superstar.   But this will very often lead to a situation in which a player will have the two best seasons of his career in, let us say, 2022 and 2023, but we don’t designate him as a superstar until 2024 because until then he has not had the period of sustained success that we need to see.   What you will wind up doing is back-dating the player’s stamp of superstardom to the moment that he began playing at a high level, thus saying that the player who didn’t meet all of the criteria until 2024 was a superstar beginning in 2022—but then does he push somebody else OFF of the list for 2022?   How do you logically justify that?

              Fourth, I was defining a superstar in baseball by a player’s greatness, which, for reasons that I understand more clearly now than I did a week ago, doesn’t quite work, since "Superstar" involves the recognition of others, and "great player" does not.  In the 1981-1987 period, for example, Dwight Evans is one of the very best players in baseball—number three in the majors in that era in home runs, and also high on the list in On Base Percentage, OPS, runs scored and RBI, and a perennial Gold Glove outfielder.

              But while Evans performed like a superstar, he wasn’t.   At some point in that 1981-1987 period he pushes Reggie Jackson off the list, or Jim Rice, or George Brett or Fernando Valenzuela.   You can’t ask people to accept that Dwight Evans was a superstar, merely because I say that he should have been a superstar. 

              Fifth, there is an unresolved conflict in my own mind and, I believe, most other people’s as well, between how many people we think of as superstars and how many superstars we think there should be.   If I say that there should be four superstars in the year 1916, I think "Good, that’s enough; four for sixteen teams is enough."   But when you get to the point of throwing Babe Ruth out of the boat (for 1916) or Pete Alexander, Tris Speaker or Joe Jackson, then four isn’t enough.

              In 1949, four superstars is enough—until you get to the point of throwing Jackie Robinson or Bob Feller out of the boat.  The reality is that they are both superstars.  The same now.  People may SAY that there are about seven superstars in baseball now, but when you reach the point of throwing Miguel Cabrera or Clayton Kershaw or Giancarlo Stanton or Buster Posey out of the boat, they’re going to ask for a couple more spaces.  As a practical matter, the idea that only 7% of stars can be identified as superstars is unsustainable.   It has to be more like 15%.  

              Sixth, the concept of superstar is used widely in our culture in non-baseball areas, and part of the functional definition of it in other areas is "transcendent".   A superstar must in some sense transcend the usual rules, transcend the usual limitations. 

              Illustrating that with a practical example:  in July, 2001, we took our three kids to New York City.  There was one horribly, horribly hot day, I think it was July second; we visited the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island and the Empire State Building, and we dragged ourselves back to the hotel de-hydrated and exhausted.  We were on maybe the third floor of the hotel, pretty low, and about 6:30 I looked out of the window of the hotel, and discovered that Ray Charles was performing at eight o’clock directly across the street, maybe 40 feet from where I was sitting.  I showed my wife, and we checked to see if tickets were still available.  She agreed that, tired or not, you just can’t pass up something like that, so we tried to talk the kids into getting their day clothes back on and crossing the street.   They didn’t know who Ray Charles was or didn’t hardly know, and they didn’t want to have ANYTHING to do with it, and eventually we didn’t go. 

              Within three years Ray Charles was dead and there was a hit movie about his life, and then the kids thought that we should have forced them to go to that concert.  That’s a transcendent star:  the normal rules don’t apply in this case.  We weren’t in any mood for a concert, didn’t care about the genre of music that Ray Charles represents, but. . doesn’t matter.   He transcends the genre. 

              A few years later, Brittney Griner was playing in Allen Fieldhouse, near our home.  Brittney Griner, Baylor, was the best women’s player in the history of college basketball up to that time, the transcendent star of women’s college basketball.  My wife and I have season tickets and normally go to the women’s games, but our son Reuben (the only one still at home then) didn’t want to go with us and didn’t, which is fine.   But when Brittney Griner was in town, remembering the Ray Charles experience, we insisted that he go, like it or not.   It’s like, if you had a chance to see Wilt Chamberlain play and you didn’t, how would you feel about that?   She wasn’t exciting or visually remarkable, but after watching her play you knew with absolute certainty that if she had chosen to score 75 points in that game, she would have scored 80.  Reuben now insists that he went voluntarily, and that we did NOT have to twist him arm.   OK, you remember it your way, I’ll remember it mine, but the point is that college women’s basketball is one thing, but Brittney Griner transcended the experience. The usual rules don’t apply.  

              There are many different criteria that define "superstar", but that particular criteria—transcendent—is very, very difficult to isolate.   When exactly does a player transcend the genre that those they compete with are proud to inhabit?  

              I think it is this point—the sixth point, transcendence as an element of the practical definition—which really throws the discussion into turmoil.   It is this element which causes us to have two different standards of what a superstar is in our mind—one limited by the expectation of transcendence, and one defined by performance within the genre.  The 7% standard, and the 15% standard. 

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

              Doubling back now to an earlier point in the article, I sent out a tweet, "How many players in baseball today would you regard as Superstars":


              1 to 3

              4 to 10

              11 or more

              1,954 people responded to the poll.   2% said "none", 24% said "1 to 3", 62% "4 to 10", and 12% said "11 or more".   But when people answered, many also responded with their lists of who they thought was a superstar.  Mike Trout was the player most frequently cited, but second-most often mentioned was Bryce Harper.   I was surprised by that, and said so in a tweet:


Thank you all for participating in my poll about how many superstars there are now in baseball. Consensus answer was about Seven. Amazed at how many people think of Bryce Harper as a superstar. To me, he is nowhere NEAR that standard.


              150 people responded to that tweet, of whom at least 130 were upset by my suggestion that Bryce Harper was not a superstar.  I heard repeatedly from many of these fine people.  Among their lead arguments were that Bryce Harper is going to be a Hall of Famer, and that he is going to get a $400 million contract as a free agent.  And then there is this:


That’s the thing- Accomplishing an OPS with a large-enough sample size by age 25 is the point. Being THAT young w/ what is in front of him during a period where more strikeouts occurred that at any other point in the history of baseball ..qualifies him as a superstar.


              He has had one great year and he is young, so he is certain to have many more great years.   But if that was true, Vada Pinson would be in the Hall of Fame, and Cesar Cedeno.   Among players who had better seasons than Bryce Harper at age 24:  Carlos Gonzalez, John Olerud, Willie Wilson, Johnny Callison, Will Clark, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Ramirez, Harlond Clift, Charlie Keller, Evan Longoria, Bobby Bonds, Dale Murphy, Rudy York, Robin Ventura, David Wright, Bobby Tolan, Mike Greenwell, Greg Luzinski, Rocky Colavito and Chet Lemon.   Among those who had better seasons than Harper at age 23: Jose Canseco, Tommy Davis, Juan Gonzalez, Woody English, Augie Galan, Don Mattingly, Willie Wilson, Andruw Jones, Johnny Callison, Jimmy Wynn, Ruben Sierra, Troy Glaus, David Wright, Carlos Baerga, Lloyd Moseby, Jim Ray Hart, Harlond Clift, Jim Fregosi, Bobby Bonds, Dusty Baker, Mark McGwire, Jose Reyes, Pete Ward, Hank Blalock, Robin Ventura, Justin Upton, Jeff Heath, Evan Longoria, Gary Templeton, Chet Lemon, John Mayberry, Hanley Ramirez, Bobby Tolan, Pete Reiser, Cass Michaels, Yasiel Puig, Eric Chavez, Aramis Ramirez, Chet Lemon, Del Ennis, Earl Williams, Darryl Strawberry, Jose Ramirez, Alvin Davis, Ellis Burks, Wally Judnich, Lenny Dykstra, Matt Nokes, Kal Daniels, Rocky Colavito, and hundreds more that I have not mentioned. 

              My point is that not all players move forward from where they are at ages 22, 23, 24.   They move forward on average, of course, but they move forward from ages 22 to 27 in large part because, at age 22, they have mostly just arrived in the major leagues and are just learning the game.   Bryce Harper has now played 800 games in the major leagues.   He is NOT going to be better than he has been, at his best; it is a question of how consistently, over his career, he can stay AT that level, not a question of whether he is going to be better.   I don’t know, but the signs are not good. 

              There is a talk-show level of debate which passes for "analysis", but which is not really analysis.  In the talk-show level of debate you pick a position on an issue—ie, Bryce Harper is a superstar, or Bryce Harper is not a superstar—and you say whatever you have to say to in order to support that position. You can talk about things that players are going to do as if that was actual evidence about who they are.   In real analysis, you begin with the question itself—ie, is Bryce Harper a superstar—and you try to think through how you could arrive at a definitive answer to that question.   Talk-show analysis is the same generation after generation; the debate about Bryce Harper is just the same as the debate was about Gary Sheffield in 1998, about Jose Canseco in 1988, about Dave Parker in 1978, about Dick Allen in 1968.  In real analysis we try to define terms, and try to create actual knowledge about some of the internal issues, so that the next person who debates the same issue draws from a better stucture than the last person did.   I often forget that the talk-show level of debate exists, because I don’t listen to talk shows—ever—and I try not to participate in debates that operate at that level.  

              In this case I failed to do that.  In this case I asserted a position on an issue or what seemed to others like a position on an issue, and thus was trapped into defending one side of an issue, rather than looking at the issue itself.  I’m supposed to look at the issue itself; I’m not supposed to look at it from one side. 

              But this reminded me that we are still very much a minority.  The world of sabermetrics is thousands of times larger now than it was in the 1970s, tens of thousands of times larger—but we have not really changed the intellectual structure of the discussion, as it effects the common fan.  We have simply contributed information to the debaters, so that they now say "He has a .900 career OPS" in the same way that they used to say "He is a .300 hitter."   There have been two enormous advances in the discussion as a consequence of what we have done—first, that the advocates will now say "he has a .900 OPS" and "he had 10 WAR", whereas they used to say "he is a career .300 hitter" and "he drove in 120 runs", and second, that people now treat aging patterns as if they were invariable laws of nature, whereas in the 1970s there was no understanding whatsoever of aging patterns.  But in terms of people understanding what we do, why we are different from talk show hosts, we are exactly where we were 40 years ago. 

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

            About 1964 or 1965, someone wrote an article for Sport Magazine about the disappearance of superstars.   Fairly sure it was Arnold Hano; also fairly sure that one of you readers can identify the article and the publication date, etc.   Anyway, the thesis of the article was that Superstars were disappearing from baseball, that there used to be many more of them, but that now there were only three—Mays, Mantle and Koufax—and they were the last ones; after them there would not be any more.  The conditions that created superstars had disappeared, and they would never come back. That always stuck with me; it seemed such a curious thing to say.  It’s been 50-some years, but I still remember lines from that article like you would remember a nursery rhyme. It was the first time I became aware of the.  . .the conflict, the consternation and confusion, which has always circled around this word. 


*     *     *     *     *     *     *


Star Type Accomplishments

              The discussion about "what is a superstar" is bollixed for six distinct reasons:

              1) That the term "star" has an elusive element in that it relies to an extent on how others react to the player, rather than on what the player himself has done,

              2)  That there is no general consensus as to what percentage of stars should be separated out as superstars,

              3)  That most of us want the term "superstar" to have a special meaning, and as a consequence of this have two different definitions of "superstar" in our minds, one theoretical and one practical,

              4)  That the term "superstar" implies a person who transcends his genre, whatever it is, and we have not thought through the issue of what that really means,

              5)  That the term "superstar" is shared with non-baseball celebrities in a way that the term "star" is not, and some confusion enters the debate from that source, and

              6) That people actively resist reaching consensus to advance the debate in this area.


              It thus becomes apparent that we cannot unravel all of these issues in one article. 

              My second attempt to contribute something toward understanding in this area is quite modest, and I acknowledge that it doesn’t move the needle very far.    What we can say, I think, is that certain types of accomplishments are star-making accomplishments, that no player becomes a star without doing these things, and that no player who does these things fails to become a star.   Perhaps we could work along that line to make a little bit of progress?

              After thinking about it for a couple of hours, I concluded that there were 21 accomplishments for a hitter (non-pitcher) which make a player a star.   Note that this has nothing to do with the Hall of Fame.  I have done things like this before, but in worrying about the Hall of Fame, we give weight to each accomplishment, and mark off multiple points along a ladder.  If winning the Rookie of the Year Award is worth one point, winning the MVP Award must be worth three or four, and if hitting 30 home runs is worth one point, hitting 40 must be worth two.  Here we are not doing any of that; what we are doing here is simpler than that, and cleaner.   We are simply counting the number of star-type accomplishments by each player.   We are not measuring value, like WAR or Win Shares, and we are not predicting who will win the MVP Award, although, coincidentally, we probably will. 

              I decided that there are 21 clearly identifiable "star" accomplishments for a hitter.   Altogether I think that there are 25,299 Star Accomplishments by position players in baseball history, although in any given season 81% of players will have no Star Accomplishments at all, and 75% of players who play in the majors will have no Star Accomplishments over the course of a career.   I’ll introduce the 21 Star Accomplishments in inverse order of their importance in the system.

              1)  Establishing a season’s record in a significant category (in 1930 or before) or breaking a season record after 1930.   We split at 1930 because, prior to 1930, baseball had little sense of its history.   Players and writers really didn’t know when a record had been set or broken, as often as not; there weren’t organized resources on the subject, and there wasn’t really any way to check.   By about 1930 that was changing. 

              Only 23 players are listed for accomplishments in this area, or 1/10th of one percent of all Star Accomplishments.  Those 23 players are:

              Hack Wilson, for holding the RBI record.

              Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds for setting and breaking the single-season home run record.

              Billy Hamilton, Ty Cobb, Maury Wills, Lou Brock and Rickey Henderson, for setting and breaking the single-season stolen base records.

              Hugh Duffy, Nap Lajoie and Rogers Hornsby, who are all cited (or were all cited, in the past) as holding the record for batting average in a season, not broken since 1930.

              Earl Webb, for setting the season record for doubles, not broken since 1930.

              Owen Wilson, for setting the season record for triples.

              Billy Hamilton and Babe Ruth, for setting the season records for runs scored.

              George Sisler and Ichiro Suzuki for setting and breaking the record for hits in a season, and

              Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds (3 times) for setting and breaking (three times) the record for walks in a season. 


              In the scheme of the system these points are trivial and irrelevant, in the sense that they don’t change any conclusions that you might draw from the study; I just thought that they had to be included, because you can’t discuss the star status of Roger Maris or Maury Wills or Mark McGwire without taking note of the singular accomplishments that basically made them stars.  


              2)  Hitting 30 homers and stealing 30 bases in the same season.   This is the only "tandem" or two-part Star Accomplishment on my list, thus it is, in a sense, an exception to the general rules of the project, and also, hitting 30 homers by itself is a star-type accomplishment, which makes it double-counted for these players, which is also a contradiction of the ground rules for the system, which say that each accomplishment is counted only once.  It just seems to me that it gets mentioned too often not be listed.  Any time a young player comes to the majors who has some power and some speed, announcers will identify that by saying "He has the potential to be a 30-30 player some day."   I think I have heard that said a thousand times, so you have to acknowledge that that’s a "star" accomplishment.   In reality only 60 players have done it.   It’s been done 60 times; less than 60 players.  About 40 different players.  

              Again, it’s trivial in the scheme of the system, representing just 2/10ths of one percent of the list. 


              3)  Winning the Rookie of the Year Award.   102 players, or .004 of the list of Star Accomplishments.   The Bryce Harper defenders often cited the fact that he had won the Rookie of the Year Award as evidence of his superstardom.


              4)  Winning the Most Valuable Player Award.   173 players, or .007 of the list of Star Accomplishments.  


              5)  Leading the league in Stolen Bases.   261 players have done this, or 1% of the list.   There are three entries here for stealing bases, and I can see how that might concern you, that 3 of the 21 star accomplishments are stolen base stuff.   But it’s not really that way; it’s three separate categories, but adding the three together they represent less than 1/40th of the "points" in the system.   Trying to avoid calling them "points" because that makes them sound arbitrary, like they don’t count except in my system, when in reality the whole point is that they DO count, even without this system; these are the things that make players stars.   It’s not 261 "points"; it is an accomplishment that has been achieved 261 times. 


              6)  Led the league in Batting Average.   269 players have led the league in batting average.   The count is higher than for stolen bases because, in some early seasons and in some leagues, there were no counts of stolen bases. 

              7)  Led the league in RBI.  282 players have done this.  The count is higher for RBI than for batting average because it is not uncommon for two players to tie for the league lead in RBI, whereas players never tie for the league lead in batting average. 

              8)  Led the league in Runs Scored.  292 players have done this. 

              9)  Led the league in Home Runs, or tied for the league lead.  304 players have done this.  We’re still at 1% of the list.   If you add up all of the Star Accomplishments I have listed so far, they only add up to 7% of the total.  That begins to change now.   With the next item, we jump to 2% of the list. 

              10)  Stole 50 bases in a season.   488 players have done this, although most of them did it a long time ago.    One reason I decided to credit stealing 50 bases as a star-type accomplishment, in addition to the fact that it obviously is, is that most of the players who did so did it a long time ago, when there were no Rookie of the Year Awards and MVP Awards and other things that are part of the system for modern players, so this gives them a little bit of a chance to get even.   A little bit more even. 

              11)  Had 200 hits in a season.   533 players have done this, by my count.  Sources disagree about season totals for some players in the early history of the game.  

              Anyway, it’s 2% of the system, and we have now exhausted all of the things that Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 didn’t do.    There are 21 accomplishments that are part of the system.  Yastrzemski in ’67 did 15 of these things, which is the most of any player ever.   There are six accomplishments we take note of that he didn’t do.  He didn’t break any single-season records, didn’t have a 30-30 season or win the Rookie of the Year Award, because he wasn’t a rookie.   He didn’t steal 50 bases or lead the league in stolen bases, and he didn’t have 200 hits.  But he did win the Triple Crown (three accomplishments), led the league in runs scored, and won the Most Valuable Player Award, so he had done five of the 11 things we have listed so far, plus he did all ten of those that we haven’t listed yet.   Five players have had 14 Star Accomplishments in a season (Ty Cobb in 1909, Babe Ruth in 1923, Joe Medwick in 1937, Mickey Mantle in 1956 and Frank Robinson in 1966), and six players have had 13 Star Accomplishments in a season (Ty Cobb in 1911, Lou Gehrig in 1936, Stan Musial in 1948, Al Rosen in 1953, Larry Walker in 1997, and Miguel Cabrera in 2012.)   All of those guys were pretty good players. 

              Thirty players have had 12 Star Accomplishments in a season, so I won’t list all of those, but they were all good players, too.  Eighteen of the 30 won the MVP Award, and some of the others played before there was any MVP Award.

              12)  Winning the Gold Glove.   969 players have won the Gold Glove Award, or 4% of the total of Star Accomplishments.   We know that it is a Star Type Accomplishment because, if an announcer is trying to convince you that someone is a star and he has won the Gold Glove, he will mention the Gold Glove.   Very often, even if the player hasn’t won the Gold Glove, the announcer will say that he hasn’t won a Gold Glove yet, but he deserves one and will probably win some in the future. 


              13)  Hitting 30 Home Runs in a Season.  1,326 players have hit 30 home runs in a season, or 5% of the list of star-type accomplishments. 

              You may say, if hitting 30 home runs in a season is a star-type accomplishment, isn’t hitting 40 home runs in a season even MORE of a star-type accomplishment, or hitting 50?   Of course it is, yes, but I was trying to avoid double-counting the same accomplishments, or weighting them so that we are no longer making a true statement.   If we say that Nelson Cruz has 27 star-type accomplishments in his career, which is the same number that Cesar Cedeno had and Derek Lee and Carlos Lee and Josh Hamilton, that is a true statement with respect to this list of accomplishments.   But if we credit him with one "point" for hitting 30 home runs in a season and a second point for hitting 40, then it’s no longer a true statement, because one accomplishment is being credited as two.   I’m trying to avoid that as much as I can.   Crediting a player with one accomplishment for hitting 30 homers and another one for leading the league in homers is going to the edges of this rule, but it isn’t violating it because they are clearly different accomplishments.   Players have led the league in home runs with less than 30; hundreds of players have hit 30 and not led the league.   But everybody who has hit 40 has also hit 30, so that’s just double-counting.  

              Hank Aaron and A-Rod hit 30 homers fifteen times each, the most of any player.   In his career, Aaron had 134 star-type accomplishments, or basically five times as many as Nelson Cruz, and A-Rod had 119. 


              14)  Having a .400 on base percentage as a regular, "regular" being defined as 400 plate appearances.  1,595 players have done this, or 6% of this list. 

              I debated whether I should put this on the list, because historically, having a high on base percentage did not make a player a star.   It was an invisible skill.  On Base Percentage was not figured or put in any sources until the 1950s, and was not regarded as an essential skill until the sabermetric revolution in the 1970s and 1980s.   Players like Roy Cullenbine, Joe Cunningham and Elmer Valo not only were not stars, they had difficulty staying in the lineup, because people literally were not aware that they had very high on-base percentages, and were not aware that it was very valuable to have a high on-base percentage.   Baseball people had been taught since childhood to think of walks as something that the pitcher did and to which the hitter was incidental, so that was how they thought about it.  It seems stupid now, but how stupid is racism, for example?  If you’re taught to think in a certain way, that’s how you think.  

              But what we’re most concerned about is how people think about players now.    Now, people understand the value of a high on base percentage, and if a young player is emerging as a star and has a .405 on base percentage, the announcer will quite certainly tell you that he has a .400 on base percentage.  So it’s relevant now.  

              Ty Cobb had a .400 on base percentage with 400 plate appearances 18 times in his career, the most of any player.   Cobb had 136 Star Accomplishments.


              15)  Starting an All Star Game.  1,623 position players have started an All Star Game, by my count, or 6% of the total points.   Playing in an All Star Game is one of the things that makes you a star, obviously.    I would have preferred to count the number of times that each player has played in an All Star game, rather than the number of times that he has started one, but I just don’t have that data in my system.   If you’re using this article 20 years from now and updating the process and have data sources that can do things like that, count All Star appearances, rather than All Star starts. 

              Willie Mays started 18 All Star Games, the most of any player, and had 132 Star Accomplishments.   Henry Aaron has almost the same numbers, 17 and 134.    Rod Carew and Ivan Rodriguez stand out from that list, in that they both had large numbers of All Star starts, but they really don’t have huge numbers of Star Type Accomplishments overall—16 and 61, for Carew, and 12 and 54 for Pudge.   Del Crandall started 8 All Star Games, but had only 14 Star Type Accomplishments, whereas Albert Pujols started 8 All Star Games but has 109 Star Type Accomplishments. 


              16)  Driving in 100 Runs in a Season.   1,915 players have driven in 100 runs in a season, or 8% of the list. 

              This will draw blowback from some slower readers, who imagine themselves to be too sophisticated to pay attention to RBI.   From my standpoint, it is obvious that 1) Driving in 100 runs has always been a "star" accomplishment, 2) It still is, and 3) There is every reason why it should continue to be.  

              Yes, of course team context is an element in a player driving in 100 runs.  There are contextual elements in all Star Type accomplishments.  At least 85% of players who drive in 100 runs are very good players.   68% of players who drive in 100 runs also have slugging percentages over .500.   91% of them have OPS over .800.    Those who didn’t have an OPS over .800 include, for example, Thurman Munson in 1975--.318 with 12 homers, 102 RBI, but also a .374 batting average with runners in scoring position. 

              Sure, there are a certain number of pretenders in the 100-RBI group, but there are pretenders in all Star Groups.   There are pretenders who make the All Star Game.  There are pretenders who win Batting Titles.   There are pretenders who win Gold Gloves, or used to be, anyway.   People are picking on RBI because it is possible to drive in 100 runs without really being a good player, but it’s possible to lead the league in home runs without really being a good player.   Chris Hoiles had a 1.000 OPS in 500+ plate appearances in 1993; you think he wasn’t a pretender?   Richard Hidalgo hit .314 in 2000 with 44 homers, 1.000+ OPS; you think he wasn’t a pretender? 

              It’s a counting stat.   There’s a narrative; all you have to do is say something is a counting stat, and it’s no longer valid.  Well, yeah; when somebody drives in a run, that’s a good thing.   The higher you count, the better.   Of course counting stats can be deceptive, but there is a tremendous difference between saying that stats can be deceptive and that they are deceptive.  

              The other objection to 100 RBI is that 100 RBI is a magic number.   100 RBI, you get a marker; 99 RBI you don’t.

              Well, yes, that’s a valid objection in a certain context.  If someone were to say that Bryce Harper was not a superstar because he has never driven in 100 runs, that would be silly because (1) it ignores the things that he HAS done, and (2) he hasn’t driven in 100, but he has driven in 99, which is 99% as good.  

              But this approach that I am using here is not really vulnerable to that counter-argument, because we’re looking at the total picture of what the player has done, rather than at a single category in a single season.   A player drives in 99 runs, that’s one Star Accomplishment that he has missed—but he’s not going to drive in 99 runs every year.   Over the course of a career, a player who straddles the lines is going to hit one, miss the next one.   For the odd player who doesn’t even out—Jim Ray Hart—you can simply observe that his luck has not evened out, and make an adjustment.  It’s not a real issue, in an approach of this nature.

              There are five players in history who have driven in 100 Runs 13 or 14 times—A-Rod, Pujols, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx.   They all have over a hundred Star Type Accomplishments.  


              17)  Scoring 100 runs.   2,212 players have scored 100 Runs, or 9% of the list. 

              Henry Aaron scored 100 runs 15 times in his career, the most of any player. 


              18)  Being a starter on a World Series team.  By my count, 2,324 players have been starters on a team that went to the World Series, or 9% of the list.   Yogi Berra was a starter on 12 World Series teams, the most of any player; Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle were part of 10.    The most for a non-Yankee was 8, by Frankie Frisch. 


              19)  Having a .500 Slugging Percentage, as a regular.   2,490 players have had a .500 slugging percentage as a regular, or 10% of the list.   Hank Aaron had 18 seasons with a .500 slugging percentage, the most of any player. 

              20)  Having 4.0 WAR in a season. 

              Obviously having 4.0 WAR in a season is not a traditional reference point for a star, but I hear it a lot now.   You hear 4 War; you hear 5.  Only about 6% of players in a season will have 4.0 WAR; between 3 and 4% will have 5.0.   Of course the percentages are higher for regulars.   Among players who play in 100 games in a season, about 17% have 4.0 WAR, and about 9% have 5.0 WAR. 

              Actually, I couldn’t use Baseball-Reference WAR; I had to use estimated WAR as a substitute.   It’s about the same, but I could have credited some players as 4.0 who were actually 3.5 by Baseball Reference and 3.1 by Fangraphs or something. 

              Anyway, there are 3,811 players with 4.0 WAR in a season by my estimate, or 15% of the listed Star-Type Accomplishments in my system.   Ty Cobb had the most 4-WAR seasons, 19 of them.   Bonds, Mays, Aaron and Speaker had 18; probably Ruth did too if I could get his pitching seasons in the same format as the hitting seasons, but it doesn’t matter.   We know where Ruth stands; we don’t need a system like this to figure out where Ruth stands relative to other players.


              21)  Hitting .300.    4,247 players have hit .300 in 400 or more at bats, or 17% of the listed points.     Seems justified to me.   Hitting .300 has always been the biggest thing in a player becoming a star.  


              OK, putting all this together and trying to edge a little bit closer to the question of what does it require to be a star, what does it require to be a superstar. . . .

              It generally requires 40 to 60 Star Accomplishments to make a Hall of Fame career.   Ray Schalk is in the Hall of Fame with only two Star-Type Accomplishments, being a regular on two World Series teams, but there were no Gold Gloves and no All Star teams in Schalk’s era.   If there were, he’d have another 20, more or less.   Rabbit Maranville had only 6 Star-Type Accomplishments.  

              These are exceptions.  In general, you don’t get into the Hall of Fame with less than 40 Star Type Accomplishments.  There are 8 players with 35 to 39 Star Type Accomplishments who are in the Hall of Fame; there are 20 who aren’t.   Above 40, the Hall of Fame becomes more likely; above 60, it becomes the dominant pattern.   In the range of 60 to 64 Star Type Accomplishments there are 14 retired players who are eligible for the Hall of Fame.   Eleven of them are in the Hall of Fame.   The other three are Larry Walker, Sammy Sosa and Gary Sheffield, all recent retirees. 

              With regard to the MVP Award, players generally but not universally have 9 or more Star Type accomplishments in their MVP seasons.   There were several catchers and middle infielders in the 1920s who won MVP Awards with only one other star-type accomplishment.   The thinking about "WHAT is an MVP" hadn’t really solidified then.   Anymore an MVP usually has a list of star-type accomplishments to point to.   Andrew McCutchen had only five (four plus the MVP Award) in 2013.  


              Getting finally to the issues, what is a star, what is a superstar, where is Bryce Harper in this mix?

              Bryce Harper’s position in this system is stronger than I would have guessed it would be.   Harper through age 24 has 19 Star-Type Accomplishments:  A Rookie of the Year Award, an MVP, one season scoring 100 runs, one season hitting 30 home runs, two seasons hitting .300, one season leading the league in Home Runs, two seasons with a .400 on base percentage, two seasons with a .500 slugging percentage, four seasons starting the All Star game, one season leading the league in runs scored, and three seasons with 4.0 WAR.     That’s really a pretty impressive list.   You become a viable Hall of Fame candidate at about 40 Star-Type Accomplishments.   He’s basically half-way there—at the age of 24. 

              On the other hand, he has 19 Star-Type Accomplishments with 768 major league games played before the 2018 season.   It is not an awesome ratio.   It is not one of the 7 best ratios of Star-Type Accomplishments to games played in the major leagues; it is not one of the 15 best.   The best ratio is Aaron Judge, with 10 star-type accomplishments in 182 games.   Of course that’s just one season so it doesn’t mean a lot, but Mike Trout already has 45 Star-Type Accomplishments, 925 games.   Trout’s ratio of Star Type-Accomplishments to games played is basically twice what Harper’s is.   Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera have far higher ratios of Star Type Accomplishments to games played than Harper does—and have played about three times as many games.   This chart compares Harper to 19 other players.   The category "Ratio" means "Star Type Accomplishments per 162 games played:"








Star Total


























































































































              Bryce Harper has fewer star-type accomplishments relative to games played than numerous other players with comparable age and games played—Jose Altuve, Kris Bryant, Nolan Arrenado, Mike Trout of course. Mookie Betts, who is the same age, has 15 star-type accomplishments in 260 less games. 

              It does not seem to me that Bryce Harper has made himself a superstar, based on his own accomplishments—unless you want to argue that Mookie, Altuve, Bryant and Arrenado have also done so.  That’s not a terrible argument; Altuve and Bryant have won MVP Awards, and Mookie and Arrenado are close.   You can reasonably say that all of those men are superstars. 

              Saying that he is above that group. . . .well, that rests on projection, or on giving him credit for Hype.   I don’t like Hype.  It has always been my belief that it is our responsibility to see through the hype and the distortions and the misunderstandings, to focus on the underlying realities and to put them in perspective.  







COMMENTS (22 Comments, most recent shown first)

Can Superstardom be fleeting? Were Mazeroski and Thomson superstars for a few years based on their one dramatic moment?

The other thing that occurs to me is a market/marketing thing. You mention Ralph Kiner, a small market guy named Ralph with a vanilla, low-key persona. But if he was called "Coal Miner Kiner" with A Yogi Berra quotability, would those power years have led him to superstar status?
10:22 AM May 26th
The other day I mentioned Katerina Witt to a colleague and we noted our ages, since we knew who she was and remembered her skating in her black leather jacket. I went to see Nadia Comineci at Madison Square Garden on the night of the fourth and deciding ALCS game between my Yankees and Bill James' Royals.

I have no interest in either figure skating or gymnastics. But those two were superstars, both because I went to see them despite not caring about their sport per se, and because I would not have gone had they not been superstars. Ray Charles syndrome.

Yankees won that night by the way. Saw in on Youtube years later.
1:00 PM May 20th
According to Google's Ngram Viewer, the word "superstar" was basically nonexistent in published books until the early-to-mid 1960s. It roughly coincides with the rise in "superpower," although not exactly. "Superpower" first appears just after World War I, whereas "superstar" basically doesn't exist until the 1960s. However, "superpower" and "superstar" both have big rallies in the early-to-mid '60s, basically right after the Cuban Missile Crisis.


There are definitely uses of "superstar" prior to the 1960s, even in a baseball context, but for all intents and purposes, it wasn't common parlance until the '60s.
5:47 PM May 15th
Marc Schneider
My understanding is that the term "superstar" was coined after WW II and largely applied to Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. (Perhaps it also had something to do with the United States being considered a "superpower" with the advent of nuclear weapons.) There were other great players, of course, some perhaps even better, but the combination of big-city hype (both played at least parts of their careers in New York) and performance made them, to me, the personification to this day of a superstar. In common parlance, it clearly does not pertain only to actual performance.

To me, the only way to consider Bryce Harper a superstar is to base it on hype and charisma. He has been the focus of attention since long before he was in the majors, he plays with a flair (which a lot of people don't like apparently) and is, simply, a famous baseball player. But, in terms of performance, as Bill points out, he isn't a superstar. He isn't anywhere close to Mike Trout in terms of performance but I guarantee lots more non-fans know who Bryce Harper is than know Mike Trout, for a variety of reasons. My feeling, as a Nats fan, is that Harper is a very good player who is incredibly fun to watch and often does truly spectacular things, but, at this point, is no more than that. Whether he becomes consistent enough to be more than that is an open question. I agree with Bill that a lot of Harper's superstar hype comes from the fact that he was a productive player so young. But he's not particularly young anymore.
10:29 AM May 15th
Why is it necessary for there to be a constant number of superstars in each season? A constant [i]average[/i], yes — within a fairly tight range — but:

1) The number of worthy MVP candidates varies from year to year. So do the numbers of .300 hitters and players with 30 home runs, and many other Star Characteristics on the list.

2) taosjohn is right: Some players never do age out of Superstardom. Pujols and Cabrera haven't, although Cabrera still might. C.C. Sabathia, Jose Reyes and maybe Joe Mauer were once superstars but no longer are. A Superstar Emeritus should not keep a Superstar On Merit from joining the circle.

As to what constitutes superstardom, it might be as simple as: A superstar is whoever the general public (or general baseball-following public) says is a superstar. It might be as simple as danfeinstein's Google Test.

That's certainly one definition. It's probably not a satisfying definition to most of us here. The public has decided there is no such thing as a "model" who appears on television; they are all "supermodels." The number of superstar singers is likewise an inordinately high percentage of the number of singers.

I think our goal here is to distinguish Deserved Superstars from Perceived Superstars.

Maybe the next step is to apply thresholds to the Star-Characteristics points -- thresholds that change based on age and seasons played. Maybe the Star Points should be lightly supplemented with Season Scores or Win Shares. Or not. I'm just brainstorming, maybe braindrizzling.

Next might be to make a list of Superstar Characteristics — 50 points for both pitching and playing a hitting position, 5 for pitching with both hands, 10 for each national commercial. That kind of thing. It might also help to make lists of today's definite, emeritus, likely, possible and definitely-not superstars, to help determine what separates Pujols and Cabrera from Cano and Beltre.

About Harper: I started listing players I [i]wouldn't[/] trade for him, and came up with 20 before the commercial break was over.
11:12 PM May 14th
The way I see superstar in relationship to Hall of Fame discussions is public perception of the player.

When Bill James enlightened many of us in the 1980's with new revelations about baseball, he challenged many mainstream ideas. Some mainstream ideas were proven to be valid, others were invalid.

Over time, some of those previously invalid mainstream ideas found ways to be helpful in certain game situations. I don't like one-run baseball strategy; however, late in a game and down by one, it makes sense for a team to sacrifice a player into scoring position to greater increase the chance to get the one run to give a team another opportunity to get the big inning. For some players, stolen bases are a great tool.

What's clutch situation for one player is not a clutch situation for another (may be it's the last chance for a player to remain in the show--that situation may be the clutch situation for him--how does he do?). 100 RBI may be team dependent, but someone is still assigned the task of driving the runs home. The lead off man has to get in scoring position and score--run scoring may be team dependent, but the player has to be in scoring position to have that chance to score.

I'm a Reds fan, but there's no doubt in my mind that Steve Garvey is a HOFer no matter what we see in RETROSPECT about certain aspects of his game. He was THE big name, the face of the franchise, on an excellent Dodgers baseball team for a decade. How is that NOT fame? Surely, he would be a superstar? (finished in top 6 in MVP balloting 5 times in 7 years?) How would he not be famous? Because 30 years later we decided he wasn't as good as advertised because we changed the rules or found different measurements? Those measurements weren't being used at that time.

Bryce Harper is one of the absolute best known players in baseball today, especially among youth. That's fame. Joey Votto is one of the absolute best baseball players today and never gets voted to an all-star team. Yet, they are both superstars for different reasons. I think measurements of fame and stardom need to be measured both by performance and public perception.

Bill's comments about Harper being young is important. Fame may not last or may be fleeting as the saying goes. Cesar Cedeno and Dave Parker's fame did not last, but they were unquestionably phenomenal young talents and famous for awhile. Parker still accomplished some "star" stat seasons in his latter years

It's fun and useful to have these discussions. It matters to teams (what fills seats?-- normally wins, but losing teams need a player draw, too). May be "superstardom" occurs after so many years of being a star? When would Johnny Bench have reached superstardom? He was already considered the greatest catcher ever by 1972, but was only 24 years old...At one point, would he have crossed the threshold.

Superstars in the public's mind has to be based on who are they willing to pay to see and who do they perceive to be stars? From a baseball team perspective, superstardom may be based on what the player can contribute to a championship team.
8:42 AM May 14th
well, I don't think you can ever divorce the term Superstar from celebrity. Reggie back in the day was good (a star), but is now remembered as Mr October and his WS HRs project him into SuperStardom. A big part of Ruth was that he was beyond the game played that day, win or lose, people paid to see the Babe. And if he hit one out, they all went home happy with a story. And you can't take away Superstardom from one getting old : Bill mentions Ray Charles, a great Superstar, wanting to see him at the end of his career, only great then in the eyes of the beholder who still loves what Ray did in the past. I'd be excited to see the superstar Babe taking batting practice in '38 or so with the Braves. Babe was Only great then in the eyes of the beholder. Like all our old superstars: maybe the defining term for Superstars is that we love/remember them long after their peers are gone ..... Superstar, its a Qualitative term, not defined by stats. Kinda like what the Supreme Court said about porno - I know when I see it ......
8:36 PM May 13th
I think no matter how advanced you think people following you on Twitter are, 8 out of 10 couldn't tell you how often a winning home team bats or number of games in a season or name three guys inducted into the HoF in the last five years.

Plus perhaps you are getting crime enthusiasts (hopes your publisher) or people drawn by non-baseball tweets you have on poluitics or other witty stuff that are widely distributed.

What was my thought? Oh yeah, citing polls on Twitter is garbage in.
2:55 PM May 12th
Nice article. For me when I was a kid around 1971, Mays, Aaron, Yaz, Frank and Brooks Robinson, Tom Seaver and Johnny Bench were all super stars. For me, a super star is a player who can carry a team when the team is struggling. A super star would say get on my back I can take it from here. A super star is the player you want at bat with the winning runs on base and you know he will get the big hit. For the pitcher, you know he will win the big game.

Thank you.

Take Care,
Tom Nahigian
8:02 PM May 11th
I'm way late on this, but reading the paragraph about 30-30 seasons reminded me of one of my all time favorite bits of baseball trivia: that the only two players in baseball history with five 30-30 seasons are Bobby Bonds and Barry Bonds.
6:03 PM May 11th
Laughing audibly. "[A] sick bastard who just likes to argue about stuff." You've finally put a proper diagnosis to it - now we need to Latin that crap up to give doctors a name they can use!
1:57 PM May 11th
You are all wrong Reggie Jackson was a Superduperstar, as stated Sport Illustrated on the June cover of their magazine. You can get a framed copy from Amazon for $40. Only 9 copies left so you better get a move on it.
12:34 PM May 11th
Who was the football coach who said football doeasn't build character, it reveals it? Achievements do not make a superstar maybe, they just allow us to see superstarness? And it is more like a promotion or a peerage-- in that it never goes away? Willie Mays was a shadow of his former self in 1973-- but he was still WILLIE MAYS.

When Charlie Blackman showed up for spring training of his second year as a regular, his first year with the presumption of a job, he told a local interviewer his plan for the spring was to "try to do more leadoffey things."
It was just a quirky comment that added to his legend as a quirky character and didn't mean much else-- but he did precisely that, going from the probable best choice to leadoff for a bad but improving team, to a true Leadoff Man. It showed us something in his makeup that his statistical record serves to reveal and confirm, not create.
11:08 AM May 11th
These discussions - Bill's twitter and this article, the comments thereof - illustrate not only that it's a fools errand but that the same things can be applied to the never ending and useless discussions about who belongs in the Hall of Fame.
10:29 AM May 11th
"Which players are household names in England? Whose jerseys are sold in Japan? To me that's the right track."

I always thought the idea of a 'superstar' was a media and fan concept. This goes back to the beginning of baseball and Ross Barnes. I would have never thought of putting numbers to it.

Those guys who put up the numbers to be 'superstars' were what I considered (in my simplistic Missouri way) as great players, and everyone knew it.

I knew Reggie Jackson was a great player because of his numbers, and because I saw him play.

I knew he was a superstar because he was on television all the time, and the cover of every sports magazine, and we were constantly told he was a superstar.

I guess I'm missing something on the concept here, but I'd rather have 'great players' than 'superstars' any day.

10:15 AM May 11th
100 rbi seasons are Neat. It was fun seeing the likes of Garvey and Tony Perez pile them up back then. And I'm happy to see Bill agrees. They're not the be all to end all, and very dependent on the lineups etc yak yak, but whatever. Look at what Gehrig did with his opps. Pretty cool.

Superstar is such an amorphous term-my namesake, for example, wasn't likely one, save for what, his career year of '28, maybe '26 when he won the batting title, and that 3 year run with the Senators '32-34. The rest of the time-well Manush was good at plunging into mediocrity fast-'24, '27, '31, '35 etc. So I don't think you'd call him a 'superstar' in those seasons.

Reggie Jackson-now that was a superstar. Ask him am sure he'd agree.
9:17 AM May 11th
"Superstar" is such a nebulous word that I'm not sure that any consensus can be reached, but for what its worth, I do not see it as a subset of "great player" but rather an adjacent and often overlapping group. Steve Garvey and Mark Fidrych were superstars (to me, obviously) but not great players. Tim Raines and Bert Blyleven were great, great players, but not superstars.

Trying to quantify this is all but impossible, but in part it is public attention, whether affection (we loved Junior Griffey) or disdain (we loved to hate Barry Bonds). As a proxy for this, I did a very quick Google search for [player name] and "superstar." Some results:

Bryce Harper 170,000 hits
Nolan Arenado 38,900
Joey Votto 52,500
Miguel Cabrera 85,000
Albert Pujols 123,000
Paul Goldschmidt 36,200
Mike Trout 173,000
Kris Bryant 73,800
Shohei Ohtani 118,000
Ichiro 157,000 / Ichiro Suzuki 75,100

Said differently, Joey Votto has a LOT more "greatness" points than does Harper, but the latter may very well be more of a star.

9:12 AM May 11th
I am very interested in what Bill has tried to do here. I see it as parallel to the last article he wrote about Hall of Fame seasons. He's asking, essentially, what do people have to do to be considered superstars by the media and public, just as he asked then, what do players actually have to do to get them into the Hall of Fame? These questions aren't designed to use or create objective measurements, they are designed to measure what goes into subjective opinions.

For the record, this isn't an exercise I would ever do, and to the extent that these issues come up in my book, it's merely to point out how mainstream opinion has been wrong about various players who were judged on factors other than their performance--such as their good fortune in having great teammates and playing in New York (see Reese, Pee Wee, Rizzuto, Phil, Jackson, Travis, and many others.) But it is an interesting exercise.

I would like to run another way of looking at the issue by Bill and everyone else. The only reason I'm bringing it up is that Bill invented it. It comes from the Keltner test, and the question is (paraphrasing), "If this guy were the best player on your team, is it likely that you could win the pennant?" That question always struck me as an excellent test of a Hall of Famer--or of a superstar. I turned it into the foundation of my book, and I discovered, empirically, that a player with 4 or more WAA in a season (about 6 WAR for those who prefer that stat) meets that definition. That is, in the pre-wild card era, it was very unusual for a team to win the pennant without at least one player that good, and even now most teams that reach post season have such a player. Meanwhile, I unscientifically defined a "star" season as any season from 2 to 3.9 WAA. Which, as it happens, matches the 4 WAR figure that Bill cites as very commonly being used to refer to a star.

Bill is absolutely right, however, that a lot of people have had seasons that good who never were regarded as superstars and shouldn't be. So the next question would be, perhaps, how many times do you have to reach that level to be a superstar? And I can't answer that. I found, again empirically, that 5 such season usually will get you into the Hall of Fame, while 4 are much less likely to do so. (That's for hitters). But I think we would all agree that "superstar" and "Hall of Famer" aren't supposed to be synonyms. So the question is open.

At some point I will try to do a little research and translate my 4 WAA level into win shares.

David K

8:13 AM May 11th
What I think you’ve discovered, Bill, is that who baseball fans think are superstars is very subjective. We all have different tick boxes in our heads of things that tally up to superstardom. Many fans might think that being named captain, dating a celebrity, winning a World Series MVP, winning any play-off game with a home run, or striking out 15 batters in a complete game win are matters that earn superstar points. It might simply be the number of articles we’ve seen written about that player.

Evidently all that hype and accomplishments of Bryce Harper’s before he even reached the Majors contributed to the perception that he is a superstar. Perhaps, the fact that he reached the Majors at such a young age at around the same time as Mike Trout who was also very young and within a short while both were producing like “stars” causing baseball fans to compare them to Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays who came up roughly together at roughly equally young ages. This files Harper in the same head space as Mantle, Mays, and Trout. You and I see his accomplishments as lagging behind the other three, but he hasn’t proven that he won’t get back on his horse and ride with them, so to many, he is still wearing a big S under his baseball jersey. Deserved or not, he still has superstar allure.

Yes, I am doing the talk show thing of starting with conclusion and trying to find justification for it. However, in talking about what is a superstar, that is a valid approach. It’s a gut thing, not a fixed definable thing. I might be more generous about who is a superstar one day (just Mike Trout) than another day (plus Albert Pujols, Clayton Kershaw, Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Bryce Harper, Mookie Betts, and so forth). It might depend on the context of what I am discussing.

For me having a fixed set of accomplishments that a player must have to be considered a superstar is too rigid. Words as subjective as “superstar” are purposely mysterious. Besides, the relative importance people give to various stats has changed (thank you, for that). So, some accomplishments today add a different amount of superstar points than they would have decades ago.
7:49 AM May 11th
Can I just say three cheers for 100 RBI? Hurrah! Like most readers here, Bill turned me onto Sabermetrics in the early 80s. I buy all its arguments (except WAR). But there will always be a place in my heart for 100 RBI and a .300 average. I remember fondly stealing my Dad's paper and scouring the Red Sox box scores to see how close Jim Rice was to that 100th RBI, figuring out how many more games till he gets it, praying that he does reach it (he usually did). I know I know context, lineup position, etc, etc., but I loved, and still love 100 RBI. May it never wither.
6:37 AM May 11th
Hi Bill. I've been reading your stuff since the 1982 Abstract, met you at a SABR meeting in a North Kansas City, but am only a very recent subscriber to BJOL, so trying to generally catch up on things.

I really enjoyed this article (and really, really am enjoying the best player in baseball by position articles.)

Things that stuck me about this article are (and I'm soooo novice, nothing at all may be a very valid comment!):

1. You are discussing tip-of-the iceberg elite. With such a small sample size of 4 or 7 or 15, it is very likely the actual number of superstars could very significantly by year. Or maybe the number of people needs to stay fixed, but the threshold to "get in" is harder in some years than other.

2. When I do my own "studies" at home, I always check results against what you, ummm, "know." Sometimes you look into it and say, yes, Dwight Evans is every bit the superstar of others who have more star power. Other times, you might decide on careful consideration that Bryce Harper is not. But a list of superstars that does not include Babe Ruth is going to be a bit suspicious, even in his early years. I also fully agree with the way you are discussing a superstar that it seems morally wrong to bounce people on and off the list. What it seems to me is that a list of this type is more subjective than 98% of the work we do. For instance, in growing up, it was accepted that Reggie and Nolan Ryan were "superstars." Even back then and even as a kid, it seemed to me they were overrated. With just some of your earliest work, it was likely that Schmidt and Morgan and Bench were going down in history as all-time greats at their positions and that Jackson and Ryan were not. But Reggie and Ryan had a persona and they did things that people noticed. To me, this list isn't about arguing whether they are superstars, just maybe accepting that somehow they were.

3. You mentioned a backdating of superstars. Some of my own studies are simply done to decide which baseball cards each year get pulled into the "could be a superstar" list and which cards just put in the team boxes. So my "studies" look at stuff like WAR to date and MVP awards or MVP voting "points" the black and grey lists, your HOF standards, etc. and then to high similarity score players to see what others did after your player's current age. You mentioned way back in the early 80s something that still seems true today: those who are called up young seem to have much higher upside than those who aren't. If you project Aaron Judge, you just don't come up with the superstar potential of Kris Bryant. But it seems like a superstar list should try to early-identify superstars as much as possible.

My only point in all this is that I kind of read the purpose of your study to be much more subjective that almost any other study. You just can't quantify the star power of Ray Charles, right? Maybe it's harder to prove Satchel Paige is a superstar, but clearly he is. Or maybe Sandy Koufax, if you use career totals. Or Campanella or Clemente. Or trying to decide when Pujols was a superstar and when he wasn't. I'm wondering what happens if you start with the list of people you "know" are superstars and allowing yourself to be subjective just this once, you can include Dwight Evans just because you want to include Dwight Evans. You could pick a player, like Pujols, choose the years you'd call him a superstar and recognize there is some period at the end where even a fair to middling fan realized he is no longer a superstar. But with that, you have a gut feel superstar list, then you go back and see how many there are per year, look at your lists each year to see if any adjustments are needed, and finally you have a number of superstars per year.

For what it's worth (I won't say my two cents worth because I don't want to over-inflate the value of my opinion!), I'd say Trout and Kershaw are the two obviously superstars who will likely be on all-time rankings 20 years from now as all time greats. Maybe Correa or Seager or Betts or Machado or Bryant are likely candidates to be added soon. Altuve or Stanton; I'm just not sure? Pujols and Cabrera are the obvious elder statesmen superstars, but on my subjective list, I might have then off by now. (I'm a huge Cardinals fan and will be a Pujols fan no matter what team he plays with or how well or not well he is playing. But even I know the star power has fallen. In my own subjective list, I don't think I'd include Judge, not because he hasn't been spectacular, but just because I'm not sure I project a path nearly as high as the guys mentioned above. But your list might include him because it's your list!

This is way too long, sorry if I've broken any protocols. Just kind of started thinking and didn't stop quickly enough.

But thanks for the article. This is exactly the kind of article from you I've loved reading over the years.

5:12 AM May 11th
This seems an important idea:

++ First, if you use a strictly rational approach to the issue of "Which X players in Year Y have the best claim to be considered superstars", then—even if you use multi-year measurements of performance—

players pop on and drop off the list in ways that make no sense.

A player will be listed as a superstar in 1924, 1926 and 1929, but not listed in 1925, 1927 and 1928. ++

It's a logical tool also favored by Copernicus, who argued "Your drawing of the solar system gets 9 out of 10 things right, but it's got to get all 10." If we use algebra to define a superstar we might get 9 things right ...


The Ray Charles idea is most compelling in my view. Wilt Chamberlain was super-duper-starry for his transcendence. I'm not at all the type to reserve "superstar" for one or two guys (who just happen to be my favorite players). But I do think we need to keep our eyes on this transcendence view.

Which players are household names in England? Whose jerseys are sold in Japan? To me that's the right track.

You can cast a "broader net" by using Japan instead of Russia if you like, creating 15 superstars instead of two.

But I don't think you can play well enough to be a superstar! As you say, the word "star" has recognition built into it. I would emphasize more strongly the idea of transcendence -- even if only to transcend generations (Pujols), or transcend arguments against your superstardom (Trout), or transcend something.


Finally, it's harder to be recognized as super-great when the gap between stars and ordinary players is less. Why wouldn't it be natural for there to be 15 superstars in Ruth's era but only 5 now?


4:38 AM May 11th
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