NPF: MANTLE & MAYS REDUX

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on July 27th, 2012 by Ed

Sometimes fate conspires to create natural rivalries between athletes. When two players begin their careers simultaneously (i.e., Eli Manning and Philip Rivers) and share similar roles it is obvious that their careers will be measured against one another. Perhaps the most famous example comes from the 1951 baseball season when two brilliant rookies – 20 year old Willie Mays and 19 year old Mickey Mantle – began their careers within weeks of one another. Over the next two decades they were inextricably linked as they smashed records, won awards, and on two occasions (1951, 1962) squared off in the World Series. Mantle enjoyed more success, winning an astounding seven World Series titles to Mays' one, while Mays racked up better numbers and was arguably the more complete player.

Obviously I was not alive in 1951, but most accounts of their rookie season indicate that the career path of both players was apparent the moment they reached the majors. That is, everyone knew as soon as they laid eyes on these guys that they would be superstars (although note that Mays' first great season didn't come until age 23, after a year of military service. Anyone else surprised to see that he missed a year for Korea? I certainly never knew that.) They both passed the eyeball test. Now certainly there is a hindsight bias in effect here; it is easy to look back on a superstar and say "Ah, I knew it all along!" Nonetheless, the near-immediate success of both players – Mantle led the league in OPS in his second season – suggests that it did not take a ton of prescience to recognize that these guys were both going to be incredible.

I feel like baseball fans are experiencing the same thing this season, a rare opportunity to see two young players who are quite obviously generational talents entering the league together. I'm referring to 19 year old Bryce Harper and 20 year old Mike Trout. Simply put, I've never seen two players enter the league at such a young age with such obviously elite talent (with the possible exception of Alex Rodriguez, who was similarly impressive at 20). Everyone knows about Harper, a #1 overall draft pick who has made headlines since he was 14, but if not for a baseball obsessed friend mentioning some of his mind-boggling minor league numbers I would not have been familiar with Trout before this season. Lots of young baseball players show the potential to be great, but not many of them are already great. Especially with Trout, it is so obvious to even the most casual fan that he has an astonishing level of talent that it would be more surprising if he wasn't a Hall of Fame caliber player 15-20 years from now.

Harper is playing a good CF – a position, mind you, that he never played in his life twelve months ago – and has more natural power than anyone this side of Josh Hamilton. His speed is above average but not elite, but he is likely to put up .300-35-100 seasons for the next dozen-plus years with the potential for 40-50 homer seasons. Trout, conversely, might top out power-wise at ~25 HR but he has ~.350 plate discipline and is probably the fastest player in the majors right now. There are some batting titles and 50+ SB seasons in his future, and probably a lot of them. More importantly, his talent looks completely effortless, whether he's leading the league in steals, winning the batting title by 20 points, or making over-the-wall catches he has no business making in center. He missed the first 20 games of the season languishing in the minors and yet he leads the league in three counting stats – runs, steals, and WAR – while putting up a ridiculous .356/.414/.606 at the moment. If he doesn't falter, he's likely to be just the third player to win RoY and MVP awards in the same season.

To make the comparisons more compelling, Harper and Trout have personality differences similar to Mays and Mantle. Mays was flashy, a big talker, and an anomaly in an era when black athletes were expected to Know Their Place. Harper is similarly brash – the words "arrogant" and "asshole" have been bandied about over the years – reflecting his healthy ego. Mantle, on the other hand, was seen as the quieter, all-American (read: white) boy with almost unbelievable five-tool talent, similar to Trout. Let's hope Trout doesn't turn out to be a surly closet alcoholic too.

There are only two previous times that I saw a player and immediately thought, "This guy is going to be in Cooperstown if he doesn't get hurt" – A-Rod and Frank Thomas, the latter of whom clearly lacked the all-around skill sets of guys like Trout and Harper. Even Ken Griffey Jr. didn't strike me as great immediately, and the numbers reflect that it took him several years to build up to superstar-level numbers. No one can predict the future, of course, and Harper/Trout might blow out a knee tomorrow and never be the same player again. It's also possible, albeit unlikely, that this is just a fluke and they will revert to being average players soon enough. Caveats aside, if I had to bet my life savings ($57) on one or both of these guys modeling for a bust in Cooperstown 25 years from now, I would do it with confidence.

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NPF: JETERMANIA II

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on August 5th, 2011 by Ed

The over-the-top sycophancy with which ESPN covered Derek Jeter's quest for 3000 hits almost irritated baseball fans enough (check out Jeter Filter, the Chrome app that removes Derek Jeter from your internet) to obscure what a remarkable feat #2 accomplished. While in practical terms the milestone represents an arbitrary act repeated an arbitrary number of times, from a baseball perspective the 3K Hit Club is among the more difficult to join. It almost inevitably requires a player to break into the majors full-time at an early age (preferably no later than 23), play more than 18 seasons without losing any significant time to injury, and remain productive into ages (40+) at which most men injure themselves getting out of bed.

Put it this way: 200 hits is considered a remarkable season, a feat managed by only a handful of players annually. If a player played 15 seasons, say from ages 23 to 38, he would need to average 200 hits per season to total 3000. For reference, only two players (Ichiro and Pete Rose) have ever gotten 200 hits ten times in a career. So yes, we saw something rare when Jeter crossed 3000.**

The question is, when might we see it again? A brief overview of the active leaderboard suggests that we may be waiting for some time. Some players who appear close have reached the dead end of their careers, while the number of promising young players is small.

Before we take a look, I consider 2000 hits by age 35 to be a useful cutoff point. If a player has not reached that, his odds of reaching 3000 are essentially nil unless he A) can rack up an improbable 200 hits per year from 36-40 or B) plays productively to 42-45. It's not impossible, but the odds are very long.

The closest active players are Ivan Rodriguez (2842, Age 39) and Omar Vizquel (2835, 44). I-Rod has tried valiantly to be the first catcher to join the club, but he is now hitting a feeble .210 in part-time duty with the Nationals. His next stop is the glue factory. Vizquel is already well beyond a reasonable playing age and is riding the bench for the White Sox. He has 36 hits this season, so he would probably need to play four more years, i.e. to 48 or 49, at his current rate to reach 3000. Nope.

The next two players are more likely, Alex Rodriguez (2762, 35) and Johnny Damon (2678, 37). A-Rod's challenge is to stay healthy at this point. He's declining but still productive. 250 hits in 3 or 4 more seasons should be a snap, but he's also regularly missing months at a time with various ailments. Odds of success: 80%. Damon, conversely, is healthy but no longer the player he once was. He has averaged over 150 hits annually since 2006, so his challenge will be to find a team that will let him play full time for two more seasons – while hitting about .270 without power, defense, or speed. His odds are about 50/50.

Vladimir Guerrero (2526, 36) seemed like a good candidate for most of his career, but he is the kind of player who ages terribly. And he has. With his body falling apart and his swing-at-everything approach suffering at the hands of Father Time, I don't see a team offering him full-time DH duty for 3 or 4 more seasons while OPSing .720. 20% chance. Chipper Jones (2567, 39) has better odds of impregnating another Hooter's waitress.

No other active players have 2500 hits. In the 2000-2500 club, most contenders are too old and/or clearly shot. Miguel Tejada (2357, 37) is embarrassing himself at this point, OPSing .600 as a utility man. Bobby Abreu (2353, 37) and Todd Helton (2338, 37) are still decent hitters but too far away for their age. Magglio Ordonez (2127, 37) is broken down and even farther away. Jim Thome (2255, 40) is on his last legs. Edgar Renteria (2297, 34) started strong, playing full time at age 20 and reaching 2000 hits before 30, but just fell apart when he turned 30. No way. Carlos Lee, Orlando Cabrera, and Scott Rolen (all < 2100 and Age 36) are all in serious decline; only Lee is a full time player anymore. So if A-Rod and Damon fail, who will be next? The odds are in favor of the youngest members of the 2000 hit club: Albert Pujols (2005, 31) and Adrian Beltre (1996, 32). Pujols seems like a lock, but we will need to see where he is in 3-4 years to get a better idea of how his production changes as age takes hold. 80% chance. Beltre is in the Guerrero class – swings at everything, never takes a walk, and won't age well. I'd put his odds lower, around 20%. Juan Pierre (1959, 33) seemed like a good bet throughout his 20s (four 200 hit seasons!) but now is such a liability in the field and at the plate that he won't be a full time player for much longer.

Of players still in their twenties, the current hit leaders are: Carl Crawford (1559, 29), Miguel Cabrera (1521, 28), Jose Reyes (1261, 28), David Wright (1202, 28), and Robinson Cano (1201, 28). Crawford is on a good pace, but is he having a fluke bad year or is 2011 a sign of bad things to come? Of this group, who are all too far away to project, the best odds would seem to belong to Crawford and Cano, who is entering his prime and shows durability. Cabrera may make it if alcohol and weight don't do a number on his body.

The short answer, then, appears to be that if A-Rod or Damon do not make it in the next 2 or 3 seasons, we will probably be waiting a decade or more to see another player reach 3000 hits. That Jeter fellow may be overrated and overexposed (not to mention the worst defensive player in baseball) but what he has accomplished at the plate is indeed historic.

**The same could be said for Craig Biggio, but I don't recall ESPN caring much about that one.

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NPF: CRIME DOG vs. NUMBER WORSHIP

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on October 8th, 2010 by Ed

All but the most casual baseball fans know that Eddie Murray is a legend – first ballot Hall of Famer and a rare member of the exclusive 500 home run, 3000 hit club. There is nothing to be gained by debating something as obviously true as Murray's status as one of the greats. Similarly, serious fans understand that, despite having the most staggeringly awesome nickname in baseball history, Fred "Crime Dog" McGriff is not going to make it into Cooperstown. He probably won't even be on the ballot anymore after a few years.

We know Crime Dog's problem because we have all heard the argument: good but never great, no MVP awards, no singular defining moments in big games, and only six All-Star selections in 19 seasons. He is the classic "accumulator", a guy who approached big milestones simply by playing forever at an above-average level. Never a true star. If there was a Hall of the Very Good, McGriff would be in it. But not the Hall of Fame.

So it would be pretty silly to compare Crime Dog to Steady Eddie Murray, right? Of course it would, inasmuch as they were the exact same player. No, I take that back; McGriff was better.


PLUS, TOM EMANSKI COMMERCIALS. TAKE THAT, MURRAY.

McGriff retired with 493 HR and 2490 hits, both short of the magical 500/3000 markers. Murray posted 504 and 3255 hits, easily clearing the hurdle on hits but just squeaking by on HR. If McGriff had hit a paltry 7 more HR over 19 years, he would get into the HOF. Why? Because everyone with 500 HR gets in. Because it's 500! Which is a magical number! McGriff with 493 = good not great. McGriff with 501 = Hall of Famer.

Crime Dog matches up favorably with Murray in almost every category. 6 All-Star appearances in 19 season (8/21 for Murray). No MVP awards for either. One World Series ring each. A slash line of .284/.377/.509 (.287/.359/.476 for Murray). OPS+ of 134, five points above Murray's 129. Both played first base, and defense is one area in which Murray clearly outdoes Freddie (3 Gold Gloves, 6.5 career defensive Wins against Replacement). But let's not kid ourselves, nobody voted for Murray because of his D and no one will vote against McGriff on that basis either.

Here's the best part: McGriff's failure to hit the 500/3000 marks was nothing but a stroke of bad luck. Consider the following:

  • In 1994, McGriff fell victim to the players strike/lockout. That year he averaged 1 HR every 14 plate appearances. He played 113 games. Assume a normal season in which he plays 150 games at 4 PA per game. He lost 37 games, or 148 PA. At his HR rate, that means he lost 10 HR. So without the strike, McGriff ends his career with 503 HR. Murray hit 504.
  • McGriff's first season as a full-time player was age 23. Murray started at age 21. So on a per season basis, McGriff averaged 131 hits and 26 HR. Murray averaged 155 hits and 24 HR per season. Murray crossed 500 HR just by playing a little longer – he was an Accumulator.
  • Murray hung on until the dog-ass end of his career to reach 500 HR. McGriff tried but couldn't find a team to give him the at-bats. McGriff's last season, age 40, lasted only 27 games and a 53 OPS+. Murray's, age 41, was 55 games at the same terrible OPS+ (55). The big difference was that at age 40, Murray managed to convince the Orioles to bring him back for a sentimental homecoming…and 152 games/637 plate appearances of playing time. They put him out on the field that much even though he was horrible (87 OPS+). So basically Murray should have hung it up at age 40. But he didn't. He found a team to let him play a full season and tapped out 22 HR, including his 500th.

    In short, Murray was the classic Accumulator. He was never a true superstar and he crossed the 500/3000 because he played forever and never got hurt. None of his career statistics differ significantly from McGriff's (not to mention other Accumulators like Paul Konerko, Rafael Palmeiro, or Dave "I'll play until I'm 43 to get 3000 hits" Winfield). He was a better defensive player than the Crime Dog but that is about it.

    So the question is why Murray is a first ballot Hall of Famer and McGriff is not HOF-level. It boils down to the worship of arbitrary statistical milestones, namely the 500 HR barrier. In the most important stats like OPS+ or OBP, McGriff was actually better than Murray (and Winfield). A player's career does not become more impressive – certainly not in any meaningful way – when he moves from 499 to 500. Usually sportswriters and HOF voters fall back on the "no championships" argument, but Murray and McGriff each own a ring and the same number of WS appearances. Instead, they have to rely on dumb statistics like wins, total hits, and career HR totals to include or exclude players who never played in New York or Boston failed to meet the nebulous standards of true "stardom."

    (PS: If I really wanted to be mean we could have used Andre Dawson, Jim Rice, or Winfield as a comparison instead of Murray. WTF on Dawson. Nice 119 OPS+ and .323 OBP, loser.)

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    NPF: FREQUENCY

    Posted in No Politics Friday on June 20th, 2008 by Ed

    Whenever I'm required to proffer reasons that baseball is compelling ("It's fuckin' boring" is frequently given as a comprehensive explanation among those who dislike it) I am going to rely on the following statistical anecdote to keep me on the moral high ground. After reading these two facts in relatively rapid succession, the comparison between the two was striking.

    Since the approximate "modern" era of Major League Baseball began in 1901, fifteen human beings have thrown perfect games (out of ~150,000 games played) and twenty-six human beings have orbited the moon. For males who lived in the 20th century, the odds of orbiting the goddamn moon were about 40% greater than the odds of throwing a perfect game.

    One of the most irritating games I have ever seen, Mark Buerhle's no-no (a rare feat in its own right) against the Rangers in 2007, gets even more irritating when I see stats like this. He allowed a single baserunner, a walk on an exceptionally questionable 3-2 pitch to Sammy Sosa that umpire Eric Cooper decided was outside. But while calls for instant replay will inevitably make some aspects of the game better, baseball will always contain a human element that adds to its appeal.

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