Wednesday, August 27, 2014


We are both the first to admit and the first to claim that far too much time is spent by all variety of baseball obsessives in compiling lists of the "all-time greats." We are not immune from this behavior, though we are much more circumspect about it than most.

Oops..wrong Bill James. But you can read
an interesting account of "Seattle Bill's" life and
all-too-brief times as a pitching ace here...
It's a natural temptation in that it allows for the application of varying forms of grandiosity (even amongst those of us who work a well-practiced "aw shucks" act while spilling their opinions all over the rest of us like a drunk with trembling hands).

Bill James made such behavior safe for "the masses" thirty years ago by whipping out the systematizing apparatus attached to his "family jewels" (yes, we get extra points--and, of course, extra "goodies"--for highlighting our salacious phrases in such felicitous bad taste thanks to our sponsor "Fright Quotes R Us", or "FQRU" for short...) and publishing his Historical Abstract. (One of our favorite wags redubbed it the Hysterical Abstract--a shockingly good shoe-fit, in fact--and the wag has been dogging the tale ever since: the 1999 version of the HA re-set the standards and ground rules for grandiosity.)

Bill is also the guy who conjured up the first Wins Above Replacement (WAR) system, one of the tools that allowed him to add grandiosity to gravitas. That was actually a Good Thing, and while it (along with much else) has been used and abused over the past thirty years, the portion of WAR that measures offense is much less bloodied than its defensive counterpart. So after a sufficient number of sidelong glances, we're going to trot it out once again, albeit with a bit of a twist.

The big, honking, impossibly colorful (and likely blurry, until you find the courage of your convictions--or maybe just your parking tickets) chart that we display here uses OWAR (with data kicked out by the Play Index at Forman et fils, a place a little less like the Land of Nod than the Other Two Alternatives That Dare Not Cross Our Everlovin' Lips...) as a rate stat.

There will be objections. The first one will be global. WAR is a counting stat--or so the claim will go. Rather than bog things down further, we will simply say that we disagree. WAR is also a rate stat--if you bother to do it.

But since it's usually a means to an end even when it's advertised as an end unto itself, it's really OK to use it in unfamiliar (and, frankly, unexamined) contexts. Such as this one.

The second objection is contextual: OK, you're gonna force a rate stat version of OWAR down our throats. That's not your worst offense (and here we thought that those records had been sealed away, even from the prying eyes of the Intelius generation). But couldn't you use something more akin to the way baseball seasons work? Why the eff do you insist on using OWAR per 1000 plate appearances??

There are two reasons. First, we are just as ornery as we've always been, and there really is no better place to demonstrate that than right here. Second, we wanted a rate measure that would produce a bit more conceptual distance between the players being measured.

Nope, no least, not yet.
So, with that, let's talk about the chart, which you've already seen above (believe us when we say we'd never make you read this much text without some images to break things up--though we stop short at showing you Derek Jeter morphed into a cheezy version of the Mona Lisa...or do we??).

The chart, OK, the chart. OWAR/1000 PAs scales it on the left, players are festooned according to their most frequently played defensive position. This shows us distributional scarcity of top-end players, and, as you'd likely expect, catchers are the scarcest in the 8+ OWAR/1000 PA configuration.

AM to DM: "The last time you
mentioned me in your goddam blog
THIS is what happened. This is your
last warning, you bum: mention me again
and I'll sue you for child support even
though you're not the father!!!"
Surprisingly (perhaps), it's not SS or 2B (the other representatives at the left extreme of Bill's "defensive spectrum"--as opposed to the "spectrum of defensiveness" that his wig-wag followers have seemingly absorbed into their bloodstream...) who are bereft of top-end offensive performers: it turns out to be third basemen (though none of them, alas, are named Vanessa Minnillo--or Alyssa Milano, for that matter).

Players with less than 6000 lifetime PAs are shown with asterisks (*). Hall of Famers are shown in bold, active players in red. Players still in HoF consideration are shown in italics. And the great hitters who are the game's Meritocratic Pariahs (which happily enough, rhymes with Mariah...) are shown in plain text with boxes around them (yes, that's right, we traffic in narcosynthetic visual metaphors even while we juggle Derek's impossibly frenetic social calendar).

Many of the players in red (Joe Mauer, Andrew McCutchen, Hanley Ramirez, Ryan Braun) will likely dip below 8 OWAR/1000 PAs before they hang up their spikes, but it's interesting to catch them in mid-career just to get a sense of how their upside fits into this continuum.

And then there's A-Rod, destined to join those key Pariahs (Barry Bonds, Joe Jackson, Dick Allen, Mark McGwire) as the greatest hitters with plausible-length HoF careers to be barred from the silent room of plaques.

So--those are the best hitters of all time, according to this application of OWAR as a rate stat. Those who use WAR in its pick-up-sticks incarnation will wave it off, but so be it. (They are no longer the wave of the future anyway.) We just suggest that the compromise between moralizers and modelers be handled by adopting an approach such as this one and simply enshrining all of the hitters who appear on this list (not counting active players, of course). That's right...and that means "King Kong" Keller, too. (No, we are not shilling for the FQRU folks when we say this--though, come to think of it, what a fabulous tie-in...can you say "ca-ching"? Of course you can...hell, you KNOW you can!!)