Stats Part 5 – WAR Crimes

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“WAR is about the best we’ve got for comparing players’ holistic contributions across eras.” — Ted Berg, USA Today, September 11, 2017

 

“The best we’ve got”

23138a_lgI spent four posts raising minor and moderate objections to the overuse of WAR in today’s game. However, I will fully admit that WAR–when understood and used properly–provides a wealth of good information and gives casual baseball fans at least some quantitative means of comparing–for example–the 2017 seasons of Giancarlo Stanton and Cory Kluber, two entirely different kinds of players. Ditto for 1963 Sandy Koufax and Roberto Clemente. And ditto, with some larger caveats, for the careers of Lou Brock and Carl Yastrzemski.

Of course what all my examples have in common is that the players being compared are contemporaries, playing in the same (or equivalent enough) leagues at the same time. These two conditions are vital to the valid use of WAR. The importance of comparable leagues is probably the easier one to see.

League Matters a Lot

Consider the following hypothetical seasons, with WAR numbers pro-rated to 162 games.

  • MLBLITTLELEAGUE-1100x733Don leads the Majors with a WAR of 10.2.
  • Rick leads all of AAA ball with a WAR of 10.4.
  • Andres leads all of AA ball with a WAR of 10.3.
  • Simon leads all of NCAA Division I with a WAR of 10.5.
  • Carey leads North Venice Little League with a WAR of 10.3.

We can’t and wouldn’t imagine for even a second that these players are comparable simply because their WAR stats are equal. All you could rightly conclude is that each player outperformed his peers (or more accurately, his league’s replacement players) by about the same amount. However, because the population of peers is so different in each of these leagues, there is literally zero reason to believe Andres could head to MLB next season and replicate his WAR number. Similarly, we would presume that if Andres somehow sneaked into North Venice Little League the following season we might see a WAR over 50!

The R in WAR is super important. Where the caliber of replacement players is unequal, any WAR comparisons (hence JAWS comparisons) become apples and oranges.

Era Does Too

KilleferBillrasmusApplying that same logic to eras, WAR-based comparisons across eras rest upon the assumption that the Joe Schmoes from Era 1 are roughly equivalent to the Joe Schmoes of Era 2. In truth, I’ve heard people say the Babe would be the Babe in any era (though I doubt it) and Ted Williams would still bat .400 in today’s game. (Okay, maybe!)

But I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who believes that the typical bench warmer on the 1910 St. Louis Browns is comparable to the typical bench warmer on the 2010 St. Louis Cardinals. On the contrary, I have to believe Colby Rasmus (2010 Cards bench guy selected at random) would have been an absolute star a century earlier. And meanwhile, I kind of doubt that Bill Killefer (random guy on the 1910 Browns) would even compete in AAA today.  (And now the requisite joke: “Of course not, he’d be 130 years old!”)

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Case Study: Big Six and Big Unit

Two pitchers with similar career WAR numbers a century apart are Randy Johnson and Christy Mathewson. In the case of Big Six, he outshone his era’s Joe Schmoes by 102 wins. And meanwhile, the Big Unit outshone his era’s Joe Schmoes by 102 wins. If we believe their various Joe Schmoes were interchangeable, then we can conclude our two aces are interchangeable as well.

Of course, I don’t know a soul alive who truly believes that. Even for the baseball fan who believes certain singular talents (Ruth, Williams Paige) could excel in any era, there is an acknowledgement that what applies to a few does not apply to the masses. The Joe Schmoes of 100 years ago would totally suck if they played today. But as obvious as this statement should be, it leads to an inescapable conclusion.

The very metric fans use to establish the equivalence across eras of HOFers like Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson in fact provides the strongest proof of non-equivalence. If Big Six were truly the equal of Big Unit in anything more than relative terms, his WAR–referenced against far worse players–should be vastly higher than Johnson’s. Instead, the conclusion we are forced to is essentially this:

As much better as random “replacement-level” players have improved over the last 100 years, that’s how much better Randy Johnson was than Christy Mathewson. At least that’s what the WAR statistic tells us. It’s the opposite of the conclusions many fans come to when looking at their WAR stats, but it’s what the numbers actually mean.

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Stats Part 4 – Wins vs Winners

This post is Part 4 of a handful that consider the drawbacks of advanced stats on our enjoyment and understanding of baseball history.

Wins vs. Winners

21784d_lgThe whole premise of the WAR statistic is that wins are baseball’s gold. More wins…good. Fewer wins…bad. But how many baseball fans do you know who go into the year hoping and praying for a lot of wins? Probably none. We dream of championships! The postseason! A shot at winning it all! The truth is, in many sports, if you aren’t making the playoffs you’d rather lose than win!

The Tortoise and the Hare

Let’s look at two ballplayers who in real life never played a lick of ball.

  • Tortoise is the mark of consistency. He plays 20 seasons and comes in with a WAR around 2.5-3.5 pretty much every year.
  • Hare plays only 6 seasons but destroys all comers with a WAR around ten every year. Both players end their careers with lifetime WARs of 60, considered borderline for enshrinement.

And for simplicity, imagine that each player joined an average team and stayed there their entire careers.

hare_fanatic_baseball_jerseyUnless Tortoise’s team competed in the American League West of 1987, it probably never once made the playoffs despite 20 pretty good seasons from Tortoise. No postseason, no pennants, no rings. Just a lot of seasons going 82-80 or so.

Meanwhile, Hare’s team made the playoffs six straight years, were the talk of the town nightly, and always had a good chance at the trophy. It did kind of suck for the fans after Hare retired that the team played .490 baseball for the next 14 years, but oh what memories they’ll treasure for the rest of their lives! Even to this day, half the fans in the ballpark proudly wear their Hare throwback jerseys and line up for hours on his bobblehead night.

Is it even any contest which team you’d rather follow? Maybe the object isn’t to win a bunch of random games. Some players might be better off winning the battle but losing the WAR!

Stay tuned for the final post in the WAR series in which we examine the biggest WAR abuse of them all!

Stats Part 3 – The myth of Joe Schmo

This post is Part 3 of a handful that consider the drawbacks of advanced stats on our enjoyment and understanding of baseball history.

The Replacement Player

The Joe Schmo in the formula is a vital yet underappreciated piece of how WAR is calculated. As such, we’ll take a closer look.

A common definition for “replacement player” is one who may be added to the team at minimal cost and effort. An example often cited is that of a Triple A injury call-up–a guy you wouldn’t normally love on your team but a guy who can help you scrape by while you await your injured player’s return.

Notably, replacement players are NOT defined as average or typical players. They are explicitly defined as below average players–guys who would likely cost you 15-20 runs–about two games–over the course of a full season. (I’m not making up the “two games” part. Underneath the hood, the WAR formula equates every 10 runs or so as a win.) These guys are bad; they’re just not awful. And by definition, their WAR is zero.

Already, there is a surprise for many baseball fans and consumers of the WAR statistic: Your team’s shortstop might play the full season and finish with a WAR of 1.4. Without thinking too hard, you might conclude, “Hey, at least that’s better than nothing.” And yes, it is better than nothing. But don’t make the mistake of assuming it’s even a little good. Specifically, it’s better than AAA but bad for the big leagues.

Stretching that across a long career, this same shortstop may retire with a WAR of 23.3–not exactly Hans Wagner or Cal Ripken, but hey, didn’t it take Mike Trout two full seasons of playing like Superman to get into the twenties? True again, but theree’s nothing exceptional, above average, or good about a WAR of 23.3 accumulatd over a long career.

Rizzuto Phil Plaque_NBLCase Study – “Scooter”

Phil Rizzuto is an instructive example. His career WAR over 13 seasons was 40.8, and he was indisputably a good player for the Yankees. But do we believe for a minute that if Rizzuto never lived, the Yanks would have filled his spot with a bad shortstop like Joe Schmo for 13 seasons? I can’t even imagine it. So let’s look at two alternatives–

  • Rizzuto is replaced by average major leaguers. By definition, the combined WAR of his actual replacements would be 20-25 over those same 13 years. As such, Rizzuto’s career wins above that more plausible substitution would only be around 15-20.
  • Rizzuto is replaced by what Fan Graphs would call a “solid starter”–a player two notches below All-Star but a slight upgrade over role player. Fan Graphs tells us such a player should average about 2.5 WAR per season, hence about 33-34 over thirteen years. And now the real Rizzuto comes in only around 7 wins above that.

A conclusion here is that a good player on a team that churns out good players like there’s no tomorrow actually adds far fewer wins than a good player on a bad team, even if all stat lines and WAR are identical.

9089-157FrCase Study – Wally

A bit more pronounced but not a hypothetical is the case of the American League’s back-to-back home run leader in 1916-1917. This Yankee slugger amassed a respectable WAR of 29.4 from 1915-1924, placing him somewhere between “solid” and “good.” Ten more years of the same, and we might even start hearing about his Hall of Fame credentials behind higher than such luminaries as Harmon Killebrew, Yogi Berra, and Hank Greenberg!

But fortunately (for everyone but him!), Wally Pipp suffered a bad headache one day and forced the Bombers to activate his replacement, Lou Gehrig, who would proceed to start the next 2,130 games at the position. While a headache-free Pipp could have racked up a bunch more seasons in the 3-4 WAR range, we know now that his Wins Above Actual Replacement would have been more like negative 7 per season.

Brett/Aaron or Aaron/Brett?

Something all fans, managers, and GMs know with certitude is that a player with an equally capable replacement is relatively expendable whereas a player with a far worse backup is a tough guy to lose. (Yes, trades and roster moves can smooth out these instances, but at most points in time pretty much every team has at least one situation like this.)

Favre-Rodgers-940Again then, as we ponder value, it is certainly of interest to know how Player X performed vs a fictitious minor league call-up. But it’s also of interest to know how Player X performed against the actual alternatives available to his team. Whatever his numbers, if a guy as good or better rode pine, then value is diminished. In football terms, we can ask if this is Brett Favre with Aaron Rodgers on the bench or Aaron Rodgers with Brett Hundley on the bench. Montana and Young are another famous case of this also.

Special Case: Half of Baseball History

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“Okay, okay,” you say. “But isn’t it more typical that a guy’s replacement really would be pretty bad?”

In truth, for much of the history of Major League Baseball there were absolute studs who could be added to a team with minimal cost and effort–

  • Honus Wagner can’t play today? Give Pop Lloyd a call!
  • Ty Cobb suspended again? Oscar Charleston is ready to go!
  • Jimmie Foxx a bit under the weather? Put Josh Gibson at the cleanup spot!
  • And let’s not forget Satchel Paige ready to pitch for any team that has the cash!

There was obviously the matter of the “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” but all it would have taken to break it was the will. As such, if we recognize that behind almost every Major Leaguer of the era was a Negro Leaguer as good or better, a tremendous number of the elite, HOF-calibre WARs of the era head below zero and into the negative.

I’m not trying to beat up on these guys–I love them, I have their cards, and I truly believe they were great in their era! But I do believe that a by-product of those segregated times (and clearly nowhere near the worst by-product!) was that so many of the superstars we know and love actually cost their team games compared to players the team could have used, in some cases for pennies on the dollars. Of course we’ll really never know.

Tune in for the next installment where I take a closer look at the W in WAR: wins!

Stats Part 2 – Should vs. Did

This post is Part 2 of a handful that consider the drawbacks of advanced stats on our enjoyment and understanding of baseball history.

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“WAR! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! Say it again…WAR!” — Bruce Springsteen aka “The Boss”

Okay, I don’t actually believe that. But I do take issue with how swiftly WAR (or its close cousin JAWS) has become the means of ranking players, settling MVP arguments, and evaluating Hall of Fame worthiness. I also wonder just how many of its patrons actually understand the statistic.

If you’ve read this far, you probably already know that WAR stands for “wins above replacement” and represents the number of extra wins a player’s team should expect from having that particular player instead of Joe Schmo. And since baseball is all about trying to win games, it stands to reason that a guy who adds more wins is better than a guy who adds fewer.

Fair enough, but let’s take a closer look. I’ll call this first argument the “should vs. did.”

Should vs. Did

WAR is about expected wins, not actual wins. It’s about what should have happened, not what did happen. Certainly these two things are well correlated, particularly over the course of a long season or career. However, it still matters that they are not the same thing.

Consider these two players, with statistics embellished a bit for illustrative purposes–

  • On the way to winning the NL West, Player 1’s stats didn’t jump off the page this year, but he seemed to come up big when his team needed him most. Of his 25 home runs, 19 of them either tied the game or gave his team the lead. And despite batting only .270 on the season, his average with runners in scoring position was .388.
  • On the way to a fourth place finish in the AL East, Player 2 had a career year, upping his average to .270 with 25 round-trippers. Notably, 21 of the home runs were solo shots, and 17 of them came in losses. Despite otherwise solid numbers, his average with runners in scoring position was an anemic .190.

The descriptions tell us very clearly which player was a difference maker, despite nothing in the descriptions ruling out Player 2 from having a significantly higher WAR (e.g., 6.4 vs. 3.8).

Bill-Mazeroski-s-walk-off-home-run-pittsburgh-pirates-8859387-666-800

WAR tells us what a hypothetical player with similar raw stats ought to add to a team, and truthfully that may be exactly what you care about if you’re a GM shopping for free agents. However, when evaluating actual performance (e.g., selecting an MVP), the correct focus is on what did happen.

Bobby Thomson, Bill Mazeroski, Kirk Gibson…these names are baseball royalty because they actually did huge things on baseball’s grandest stage. When the game or the season is said and done, there are a lot of things that could have happened and should have happened, but most important things are the ones that did happen.

Tune in to Part 3 for a closer look at “replacement player” and its unheralded role in the WAR statistic.

Stats Part 1 – Willie, Mickey, or the Duke?

This post is Part 1 of a handful that consider the drawbacks of advanced stats on our enjoyment and understanding of baseball history.

Willie, Mickey, and the Duke

What more can you say about this amazing trio? A combined .299 batting average with over 1600 home runs, 22 pennants, 10 World Series rings, 52 All-Star Games, and the list goes on. And of course, all three playing the same position in the same city at the peak of their careers. No wonder the baseball minstrels sing their exploits!

Thankfully, the baseball geniuses out there have NOT invented a stat to blemish the greatness of New York’s amazing Hall of Fame trio of centerfielders (even if some will be quick to remind us the Duke never quite measured up to Bobby Grich)! But even as Willie, Mickey, and the Duke still occupy a cherished place in baseball lore, a close companion of theirs is approaching extinction.

Willie, Mickey, or the Duke?

Willie, Mickey, or the Duke. Think of the debates that question sparked for decades! I like to imagine brawls broke out, stories were fabricated, innocents were defamed, cousins stopped breaking bread, parents wrote kids out of their wills, and cabbies refused fares–LIVES WERE ALTERED!

On the cardboard side, there were kids who would gladly trade away their freshly pulled 1952 Mick (and then some!) for the mangled Snider card lodged in their ex-friend’s bicycle spokes. And lest any financial implications cause later regret, hardly an issue since both moms soon enough trashed both collections before any windfall could be reaped. THAT, my friend, was the Golden Age of Baseball. We ate, slept, and drank baseball. And some of us could even PLAY it. But most of all, we talked baseball. And it was loud.

But enter the Age of Enlightenment–

FAN #1: “Willie, Mickey, or the Duke?”

FAN #2: “According to baseball-reference.com, Willie Mays had a WAR of 156.2, Mickey Mantle had a WAR of 109.7, and Duke Snider had a WAR of 66.5. So Willie was the best, then Mickey, and then the Duke, who was actually worse than Bobby Grich, by the way.”

Really? Of course, not ALL baseball fans settle the argument just so. At least some modern fans know better than to think you can just look up WAR on a website and call it a day!

FAN #1: “Willie, Mickey, or the Duke?”

FAN #2: “According to baseball-reference.com, Willie Mays had a JAWS of 115.0, Mickey Mantle had a JAWS of 87.2, and Duke Snider had a JAWS of 58.2. So Willie was the best, then Mickey, and then the Duke, who was actually worse than Bobby Grich, by the way.

Never mind the fact that when it came to actual jaws, Snider was unmatched. The reason this argument does NOTHING for me is that it’s not even an argument. I do agree that Willie Mays was the best, but shouldn’t we at least talk about it?

“You’re not wrong, Walter. You’re just an asshole.” — Dude, The Big Lebowski

lebowski Dude Walter DonnieUnless you are an actual GM with a time machine to transport you back to the 1950s or hopelessly addicted to baseball sims, there is zero need for you to know the answer to this question. The whole point of the question is to match your uninformed, biased, and subjective thinking and gut against someone else’s–to passionately disagree, vigorously object, endlessly debate, baffle with occasional bullshit, and fully enjoy.

This right here is what makes baseball something special–

FAN #1: Call me crazy, but I’d take the Duke! I once saw him smack four homers in a single game!

FAN #2: Nah, dude. That was Gil Hodges.

FAN #1: Shit…maybe so. But either way, the Duke was good as they come. He used to buy cigars at my uncle’s shop–even signed a ball for him once. THAT was a ballplayer!

FAN #3: Get serious! Nobody–I mean NOBODY–tops the Mick! He had it all…fast as lightning, strong as a brick shit-house, and looked like a goddamn movie star with that blond hair and those blue eyes of his…

FAN #2: Blond hair and blue eyes? For real? What kind of Aryan Nation racist bullshit is that? Mays was just as fast, hit the ball almost as hard, and was ten times better in the field. I got two words for you: The Catch! Not to mention over a hundred home runs more than Mantle…

FAN #1: (Breaking a beer bottle over Fan #2’s head) Oh yeah? That’s what I think of your Say Hey Kid. Who needs his glove when Duke’s hitting four home runs every night?

In the next several installments of this series, I’ll spend some ink examining the technical issues of WAR and other modern stats in comparing the game’s all-time greats. But for this inaugural piece, I’ll simply lament the precious things we surrender as baseball fans when we decide we’d rather be right than happy. We’re not GMs. We’re fans. Let’s enjoy!

“When I reach for the edge of the universe, I do it knowing that along some paths of cosmic discovery, there are times when, at least for now, one must be content to love the questions themselves.” — Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist

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Rating the Hank Aaron all-star cards

Hank Aaron played on a record 25 all-star teams at the Major League level, a record that will almost certainly last forever. Four were “extras” in that there were two all-star games each year from 1959-1962, but duplicates notwithstanding it’s hard to imagine any player making the all-star team 21 straight years like the Hammer did from 1955-1975. (Mays and Musial were all-stars for 20 seasons, while the “modern” record goes to Cal Ripken with 19.)

All in all, Aaron’s all-star accomplishments were reflected four different ways by Topps:

  • All-star subset (one player per card): 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1968, 1970
  • All-star subset (two players per card): 1974 with Dick Allen
  • All-star designation on Highlights card: 1975

It’s easy to see that the nine cards identified above fall well short of 21, and there are two main reasons for this:

  1. As Wax Pack Gods notes, Topps did not have all-star subsets every year. During Aaron’s cardboard career (1954-1976), all-stars were only noted from 1958-1962, 1968-1970, and 1974-1976. (I am not counting the 1965 Topps Embossed set since all 72 players were identified in that set as all-stars, which just wasn’t true!)
  2. Hank Aaron was not always a starter. The games he started were in 1957-1960, 1963, and 1965-1974. (Credit Roberto Clemente for earning the nod in RF those other years of the 1960s.)

Accounting for these two explanations, the only “missing” All-Star card for the Hammer was in 1969. However, it’s also important to realize that while Topps sometimes honored the all-star game starters, they chose other years to go with the all-star sections of either Sport Magazine (1958, 1960) or the Sporting News (1959, 1963, 1968-1970). For example, while Don Drysdale started the 1968 All-Star game for the National League, the 1969 Topps set instead chose Bob Gibson, who (for very obvious reasons!) was named the Sporting News All-Star at pitcher over Drysdale. And sure enough, the Hammer was nowhere to be found in the magazine’s all-star outfield of Curt Flood, Pete Rose, and Billy Williams. (As a weird aside, Topps gave Billy Williams’ spot to Lou Brock, who was neither selected by TSN nor an ASG starter.)

So of the nine Hank Aaron all-star cards, how do they rate? Here are my rankings from worst to best.

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9. 1974 Topps

Nothing against Dick Allen, but the 1974 card takes last place simply by virtue of being a multi-player card. Topps could have paired the Hammer with Jesus Christ himself, and I’d still vote the card into ninth (and perhaps pay dearly in the afterlife). Fact is, Hank Aaron always deserves his own card! I also dock some points for Aaron’s position being first base. This wasn’t any fault of Topps since Aaron really was a first baseman that year; still, the legendary hero we all think of when we think of Hank Aaron is definitely an outfielder.

1970

8. 1970 Topps

On the plus side, I’m a big fan of this particular Sporting News design, also used in 1961. I’m also a fan of the Atlanta hat logo shown on the card. However, I’m otherwise not much in love with the photo. First off, Aaron is neither smiling nor looking mean, which really are the only two acceptable expressions on an awesome baseball card. (And depending on the situation, a look of intense concentration might work too.) Additionally, the drab color of his uniform practically disappears into the equally drab background, giving the shot something of a driver’s license photo look. And overall, combined with the colorless card design, the overall look of the card is somewhat dull.

1968

7. 1968 Topps

I’m just not a fan of pretty much anything Topps did in 1968, so it’s hard for me to rate this card highly. The burlap border is practically a death sentence, and the card loses additional points for relegating Aaron to only about half the real estate. To beat a dead horse, the “68” reminds me of one of those tests you take at the eye doctor to see if you’re color blind. And finally, the background behind Hank is a bit hard to make out. It almost looks like he’s in the desert.

 

1960

6. 1960 Topps

I tend to prefer the portrait layout over landscape, which tends to bias me against pretty much all things Topps from 1960. However, I do find a lot to like about this card. In contrast with the 1968 design, which gives half the card to the year, Topps was skilled here in putting the year in the background while still making it readable. (Of course, the year is also given in the top red bar, so maybe it’s still kind of a lame design.) The black outlining or shadowing of Aaron’s photo works for me here and keeps Hank’s uniform from disappearing onto the card background. Overall though, there’s still too little Hank for the card, which I think tends to be the case just about any time you go to a landscape layout–1971 Thurman Munson excepted.

 

1962-Topps-Hank-Aaron-394-209x300.jpg

5. 1962 Topps

I’m not crazy about the wood grain (though I’ll take it over 1968 burlap), but I do like some things about the design of this card: the borderless white frame around the picture matching up with the borderless white Sporting News banner. The oval name placard bugs me and the “outfield” line seems a bit crammed to the bottom, but let’s call those things minor. As another small point, I like the color the uniform adds here, but I wish both fours in 44 were visible. If I were the photographer, I would have said, “Please, Mr. Aaron…if you could just turn a bit more toward me.” Or maybe I’d just move a step or two myself. The pose itself is also a bit mysterious to me. I suppose Aaron is demonstrating how he takes the ball out of his glove after making a catch, but something about it doesn’t look quite right.

1975

4. 1975 Topps

Before talking pluses and minuses, I’ll first note that Topps did something unique here. All other all-stars in the set have their designation on their base card. However, in Aaron’s case, Topps threw it onto his “Highlights” card. I suspect the main reason for this was because Hank’s base card depicted him as a Brewer, and it would have been too strange to have an NL All-Star designator on a Milwaukee Brewer card. (Not anymore, I guess. But this was back in 1975 when the Brewers were an AL team.) Then again, look carefully at 1975 Topps Bobby Murcer, and you’ll see an “AL All-Star” designation on a Giants card. But alas, onto the pluses and minuses!

On the plus side, “Aaron Sets Homer Mark” is about as bad ass as a baseball highlight can get. As far as baseball history goes, I’d put this in second place all-time behind only Jackie Robinson’s major league debut on April 15, 1947. Another plus is the shot itself. This is obviously not a young Hank, but the age captured in the photo only adds to the magnificence of Aaron’s record and career. You can juxtapose this shot with Hank as a rookie and realize, “Wow, that’s how long he had to be awesome!” As for negatives, I’m a bit on the fence as to whether the All-Star/Highlights combo really works for me or not. It’s definitely the best Highlights/Record Breaker card of all-time, but the purist in me might have preferred Hank’s all-star designator to fall on his base card.

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3. 1961 Topps

I was tough on the 1970 card of similar design, but I am actually a big fan of this one. I know some collectors aren’t fans of hat-less cards, but I think it works here. The outdoor background behind Hank is a bit blurry but still adds just enough color and contrast to make the overall card a winner. No smile or menacing glare, but again I can live with it, perhaps because there’s something nonetheless regal in Hank’s gaze. And adding to the allure of the card is the faux headline of the Sporting News that day. It’s pretty unusual to start a sentence (or even a headline) with the verb “Grabs,” which made me think it might actually be a proper noun here. However, the only baseball player I could find with that name or nickname was Billy “Grabs” Grabarkewitz who would have been a young teenager at the time this card was issued.

59topps5612. 1959 Topps

This card has a ton going for it. The bold red background with the white outline logo of the National League is fantastic. Combined with the Sporting News banner, these elements give the card a timeless quality and connect Aaron’s all-star selection the history of organized baseball itself. The bottom of the card also does a good job capturing various pertinent elements in an economical manner. (Team is omitted, but this was true all the way until 1974!) The pose is a good one, but I’ll knock it a little for having Hank’s bat blend in with the background a bit too much and also for Hank’s eyes being mostly closed.

654551. 1958 Topps

I know a lot of collectors who put the 1958 All-Star subset as one of the very best that Topps ever did. I’m no exception–I just love these cards. I’d give top honors to the cards of Mantle, Banks, Spahn, and Mays, but the Aaron is still very much a winner. The photo itself is not identical to but greatly recalls the photo from Aaron’s rookie card. So there’s that big plus. But most of the big points this card scores come from the simple but awesome design. This is just a beautiful set to look at, particularly when you intersperse the American Leaguers and their red backgrounds. Then you’ve solved the puzzle, pairing the blue and red backgrounds with the white stars to see baseball as the Great American Game that it was.

 

The All-Non-HOF Team of the 1980s

It’s always fun to read posts that name all-decade teams throughout baseball’s rich history. One twist I don’t think I’ve seen is an all-decade team of non-HOFers. Of all the years that make up baseball’s glorious (and inglorious) past, I feel like this is the one I know best.

From skipping school in 1980 to catch the one-game playoff between the Dodgers and Astros to my firsthand experiencing of the Loma Prieta earthquake that interrupted the first ever Bay Bridge World Series, these were ten years of my life that revolved around baseball obsessively. As such I bring not only a ton of knowledge but more importantly (for debate) a ton of bias to these picks–more so than I’d be capable of with any other decade.

DISCLAIMER #1: I know this will ruin the page for many of you, but I’m excluding juicers from my selections. However great their final numbers–and even their pre-juice numbers–they are all banned for life in my book. I don’t collect them, I don’t want them in Hall, and I don’t even want them on a little read web page of also-rans.

DISCLAIMER #2: While my list is riddled with Detroit Tigers, I swear I’m not a homer. I grew up in L.A. and followed–still follow–the Dodgers religiously.

frontCATCHERS

  • Starter – Lance Parrish – This man gets my vote for the most under-rated player of the decade. Parrish notched seven of his eight (!) career all-star appearances in the 1980s, scooping up three Gold Gloves along the way. True there’s not a ton of black ink on Parrish’s record, though he does hold the dubious distinction of leading the league in passed balls at least one season in three different decades. (My guess is he’s the only catcher to claim that honor, but I haven’t actually checked.) Over the four-year stretch from 1982-1985, Parrish averaged 30 HR and 99 RBI.
  • Backup – Tony Peña – A five-time all-star and three-time Gold Glover during the decade, famous for throwing runners out without even standing up, Peña also batted .395 during the 1987 postseason, collecting 17 hits in 43 at bats.

donma19tosu5FIRST BASEMEN

  • Starter – Don Mattingly – Donnie Baseball played only six full seasons during the 1980s, but they were easily the best six seasons of his career. In addition to winning the AL MVP award in 1985, Mattingly made six all-star teams and took home five gold gloves. His 1986 season (.352/32/113) represented the first .350/30 season since 1961 and put him in the most elite of pinstripe company (Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle). When Mattingly closed out the decade with a .323 career average, I doubt you could find a person anywhere who didn’t regard him as a lock for Cooperstown. We’re talking about Donnie Baseball, for Chrissakes–I mean the man’s last name is BASEBALL after all!
  • Backup – Will Clark – Despite only playing four seasons in the decade, Will the Thrill–along with teammate Kevin Mitchell–turned the hapless Giants into one of the best teams in baseball, capturing NL West crowns in 1987 and 1989. The only major leaguer ever–and possibly the only person ever–to boast the middle name Nuschler, Clark batted .304 for his abbreviated decade, averaging 25 home runs and 88 runs batted in. I know fans can make a strong case for Keith Hernandez here, and they may well be right. I’ll call the middle name the tiebreaker.

front (1)SECOND BASEMEN

  • Starter – Lou Whitaker – Five straight all-star selections from 1983-1987 (one wearing a souvenir stand uniform!), three gold gloves, and a decade long pairing with Alan Trammell to form one of baseball’s best middle infield combos ever, it’s crazy to me that his HOF votes topped out at 2%. And meanwhile, Johnny Evers has a plaque in Cooperstown because he was in a poem! Did voters even notice how Whitaker signed his 1982 Topps card?
  • Backup – Frank White – This five-time all-star and eight-time Gold Glover (three and five in the decade, respectively) is another under-rated player from the 80s. Not spectacular but very good for his position over a pretty long stretch.

4d9039c2b8546ce968d3facb82d02d79--cincinnati-reds-baseball-cardsTHIRD BASEMEN

  • Starter – Buddy Bell – This may well be where the HOFers at the position (Schmidt, Brett, Boggs) just destroy my best non-HOFers. Sidebar, but when I was in elementary school in the late 70s–for no good reason other than his name–this was the player my best friend and I made fun of all the time. He was pretty much our stand-in for sucky baseball player. Little did we know he’d finish his career with over 2500 hits and dominate the first half of the next decade with four all-star appearances and five Gold Gloves.
  • Backup – Carney Lansford – From 1981-1984 Lansford batted .300 every season, winning the AL batting crown with a .336 average in the strike season of 1981. His lone all-star appearance came in 1988 as a member of the AL Champion Oakland A’s squad. Bonus points awarded for stylish batting stance.

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SHORTSTOPS

  • Starter – Alan Trammell – A five-time all-star and four-time Gold Glover during the decade, I will commit heresy here and say I’d be fine if my team had Alan Trammell while the other guys had Robin Yount or Cal Ripken. I’m not saying he’s better or even as good–just that he isn’t really THAT much worse. I know everybody and their cousin topped 20 HR in 1987, but I still drool over any .343/28/105 season I can get from a shortstop not loading up at BALCO.
  • Backup – Dave Concepcion – The final three of Concepcion’s eight consecutive all-star appearances came from 1980-1982. I can’t say a ton more about Davey, who clearly peaked during the previous decade, other than I remember his bounce throws to first being featured on an episode of This Week in Baseball.

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s-l225 (1)s-l225OUTFIELDERS – Sorry, I know I have way too many of these guys.

  • Starter – Kirk Gibson – I am ignoring all stats here and basing this selection solely on Gibson’s mammoth homer of Goose Gossage in the 1984 World Series and his unbelievable game winner off Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 World Series. You may remember the “Sports Talk” players of the late 80s where you  put an oversized baseball card into a player 200x the size of an iPod and listened to a short bio or highlight reel. Well the Kirk Gibson one was outstanding–it featured Padres HOF skipper Dick Williams heading out to the mound to see if the Goose wanted to walk Gibby. Well, you can guess that Gossage said no. And then, holy sh*t! I think Gibson hit the ball to the freaking moon.
  • Starter – Pedro Guerrero – Five all-star selections, an MVP calibre season in 1985, and a World Series co-MVP in 1981 aren’t so shabby, but one wonders what might have been if Pedro hadn’t suffered a gruesome baserunning injury just prior to the start of the 1986 campaign. As a huge Pedro fan growing up, I was incredibly bummed that he got traded for John Tudor in 1988 and missed out on another ring.
  • Starter – Dale Murphy – Seven all-star selections, five Gold Gloves, and back-to-back MVPs during the decade earn Murphy a starting spot on the squad. I know it’s cheating to combine different seasons but here are Murph’s highs for the decade: .302 BA, 131 R, 44 HR, 121 RBI, 30 SB, 115 BB, 29 IBB. So good that Topps gave him TWO rookie cards!
  • Backup – Darryl Strawberry – This 1983 NL ROY followed up his rookie campaign with eight consecutive all-star selections, six of them in the 1980s, and I was so sure he would hit 500+ homers that I bought a “200-pack” of his 1990 Upper Deck card. (Yes, that’s what it sounds like–a stack of 200 cards–all being 1990 UD Darryls.) I was lucky enough to meet Darryl following an insane Gooden vs. Valenzuela pitching duel (tied 0-0 after nine innings) in 1985. He was super cool and kind enough to sign a trading card for me, even while holding his baby, D.J.
  • Backup – Willie Wilson – This man started the decade right with a then-record 705 at bats (darn you, Jimmy Rollins!) and was an absolute terror on the bases. Some Willie Wilson facts you might have forgotten include his five triples titles in the decade, a batting title, and highs of 133 runs and 230 hits. Haters can key in on his then-record 12 strikeouts in the 1980 Fall Classic; however, I am pretty sure 12 Ks won’t even crack the top ten five years from now.
  • Backup – Dwight Evans – I know a lot of Boston fans who really believe Dewey belongs in Cooperstown. I’d say he’s borderline in that he wouldn’t hurt the Hall by being in, but he doesn’t hurt the Hall by being out. As for the 1980s though, he was definitely Boston Strong. His 162 game averages were .280/.373/.497 with 106 R, 28 HR, and 99 RBI. Worse players have made it to Cooperstown, and worse players will continue to make it to Cooperstown.
  • Backup – Eric Davis – I gotta put this guy on the list based solely on this: In 1986 he had 27 homers and 80 stolen bases; the following season he had 37 home runs and 50 steals. Obviously, E.D. wasn’t able to keep that up for his whole career, but it’s still pretty ridiculous.
  • Backup – Bo Jackson – Hard to come up with bigger bummers in sports than thinking about what Bo might have done in baseball and football without that terrible hip injury. Bo could ground out and strikeout better than most guys could hit home runs.
  • Backup – Al Oliver – Besides having one of the coolest cards in the 1976 Topps set, Scoop was an all-star the first four seasons of the decade, batting .300 or better in each of those seasons. Oliver could also drive in runs, driving in 117 Rangers in 1980. (I’ll spare you the fancy sabermetrics, but this would be like driving in 150 guys on an average team or 200 on a good team.)

STARTING PITCHERS

  • dwight-goodenStarter – Dwight Gooden – Doc’s first two seasons–like Guidry’s first two seasons seven years earlier–were so freaking good that he would have made my list even if he did zero for the rest of the decade. (And I know you’re thinking, “Isn’t that pretty much what he did do?”) In fact, Gooden’s worst W-L percentage for the remainder of the decade was .667 (eat your hearts out, Bert Blyleven and Nolan Ryan), and he was actually a very good pitcher every one of those seasons. He just wasn’t God anymore.
  • answer_man_orel_hershiser_talks_dodgers_baseball_boogie_and_jugglingStarter – Orel Hershiser – The Bulldog’s 1988 second half and postseason were so incredible that he’d make the team with nothing else under his belt. First, here is Hershiser’s September: 6 G, 55 IP (huh!?), 5-0 W-L, 0 R, 0.00 ERA. And now his October: 6 G, 42.2 IP,  3-0 W-L, 5 ER, 1.05 ERA, and a huge save! But let’s definitely add bonus points for going 19-3 with a 2.03 ERA in 1985. Most years, that gets you better than 3rd in the Cy Young voting.
  • 2b32f4320b8c9ef8569c3b72bda20505--tigers-baseball-detroit-tigersStarter – Jack Morris – The Tigers ace was the winningest pitcher of the decade (162 W), which in any prior decade would have made him a Hall of Famer. His no-hitter on April 7, 1984, let the world know just how scary that Tigers team, only the third in baseball history to lead wire-to-wire, was gonna be. For what it’s worth, I’d happily send this man to the mound any day of the week, and he gets a Hall vote from me as well. I definitely don’t put him in the Bob Gibson/Walter Johnson category, but I don’t think he’d be too much of a poser hanging with the Burleigh Grimes/Bert Blyleven crowd.
  • 1987fleer-davestiebStarter – Dave Stieb – A six-time all-star during the decade, his 140 wins were second behind Jack Morris. And while I’m not a big sabermetrics guy, some of you will be excited (and possibly surprised) to know that Mr. Stieb led all 1980s pitchers in WAR!
  • Backup – Dave Stewart – Not a ton to get excited about over the first 7 years of the decade, but what a finish! The first three of his four consecutive 20 win seasons and of course that menacing glare from the mound. (By the way, I wouldn’t be surprised if we never see a guy rack up four straight 20-win seasons again. And yes, it makes me sad to type this.)
  • Backup – Fernando Valenzuela – Here is the pitcher with the fourth most wins of the 1980s (128 W)–or more precisely, tied with Charlie Hough. In case you’re wondering if it’s unusual for none of a decade’s top five winningest pitchers (Morris, Stieb, Welch, Valenzuela, Hough) to be Hall of Famers, it sure is!
  • Backup – Bret Saberhagen – Two Cy Young Awards for the decade gives Saberhagen an automatic in. Of his six seasons, three were terrific, two were average, and one was awful–though he still made the all-star team!
  • Backup – Mike Scott – A top three pitcher in MLB from 1985-1989, Scott averaged 17 wins over that stretch and had the dubious distinction of having won every game I ever saw him pitch. He was the 1986 NLCS MVP, even though his team lost, going 2-0 with two complete games, an ERA of 0.50, and 19 strikeouts.

RELIEVERS

First off, it pains me to add this category as I feel like the disappearance of the complete game and shutout is the single worst change to the game over the course of my lifetime. I get it that data favors a fresh arm out of the pen over a starter facing batters a third or fourth time; however, I also feel like the game is simply not as fun to watch. Never mind that chapters of the record books have now been permanently closed. Consider instead how much time–all of it commercials–gets added when the new normal is for an average of 9-10 pitchers to enter every single game. The all-time lowlight for me was when Dave Roberts pulled Ross Stripling who was pitching a no-hitter in his major league debut. (Of course, the next batter homered to win the game!)

But eff it. Here we go.

  • 155Dan Quisenberry – As much as I hate relief pitching, I gotta admit I enjoyed watching this guy. Similar to when I watched Kent Tekulve in the 1979 Fall Classic, I mostly just thought to myself, “How the hell does anyone hit this guy?” Quiz opened the decade strong with a 12-7 record and 33 saves (okay, I DO respect any reliever that nails down double-digit wins), good for fifth in the AL Cy Young voting. But this was all just prelude to one of the most dominant relief stretches ever, when Quiz finished in the Top 3 for Cy Young all four years from 1982-1985. I still marvel at the man’s 1983 Topps card–just look at that arm angle!–but give zero props to Fleer in 1982 for one of the lamest action shots ever. On a sad note, Quisenberry also finishes high on the list of modern baseball players who died way too young, only making it to age 45.
  • Lee Smith – Even though Smith’s top years came in the 1990s, he was solid enough in the 1980s to earn mention here. He was a very good reliever for fourteen straight seasons (1982-1995), retiring as the (former) all-time leader in saves.