"Listen, Buster" Redux (Part Two)
Moving on to Olney's second article (after reviewing his first piece yesterday), Buster begins by mentioning that he received a lot of email over his Friday piece and then jumps into a discussion on Adjusted OPS (aka OPS+).
Adjusted OPS+ is a useful number. And if this your be-all, end-all statistic, keep in mind that:
Mark McGwire and Frank Thomas rank higher than Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Joe DiMaggio.
Jim Thome ranks higher than A-Rod and Gary Sheffield.
Lance Berkman ranks higher than Ken Griffey Jr.
Brian Giles ranks higher than George Brett, Al Kaline, Orlando Cepeda, Tony Gwynn, Rod Carew and Roberto Clemente.
Adam Dunn ranks higher than Eddie Murray.
I'm not sure where to start here. But let me say that OPS+ should not be anyone's "be-all, end-all statistic." On this front, Olney and I agree. No single stat, in fact, should be viewed in such a manner.
More than anything, Olney's comparisons demonstrate a lack of understanding and appreciation for walks and OBP. Every player that he questions is well known for his ability to get on base by taking a walk. Maybe it's just me, but I don't find it so outrageous that Frank Thomas (157) has a higher OPS+ than Willie Mays (156), Hank Aaron (155), or Joe DiMaggio (155). That said, I believe Olney's splitting hairs here. These four players all have virtually identical OPS+ totals.
OPS+ measures hitting, not fielding or baserunning. Thomas was a great hitter – one of the best ever. However, the Big Hurt's offensive prowess doesn't mean he was a better player than the Say Hey Kid, Hammerin' Hank, or the Yankee Clipper. Mays and DiMaggio were two of the best defensive center fielders of all time, Aaron was a quality right fielder, and all three ran the bases extremely well. Thomas was a poor fielding first baseman or a DH and was a slow runner for the vast majority of his career. Shake it all up, and I'm quite certain that every reputable baseball historian and analyst would take Mays, Aaron, and DiMaggio for their all-round play over Thomas. But that doesn't detract from Thomas' hitting or from OPS+ as a measurement of offensive production (ex-baserunning).
Jim Thome (.281/.409/.565) over Gary Sheffield (.296/.397/.522)? Sounds plausible to me. Thome has out-homered and out-walked Sheffield in 1726 fewer plate appearances.
Adam Dunn over Eddie Murray? Oh my gosh, who thought of this stat anyway? Comparing a career rate stat for a player through his 27-year-old season to another who played up to the age of 41 tells us more about Olney than it does either Dunn or Murray. But, if the truth be known, Murray had a higher OPS+ (143) than Dunn (130) at a comparable point in their careers.
And if you think that Adjusted OPS+ is a set of numbers that generally creates a level statistical playing field for all of the eras of baseball, then you'd have to ignore the following. Of the top 63 players all time in OPS+, there are:
Nineteen players who performed the bulk of their careers in the years leading up to 1920.
Eight players who performed the bulk of their careers in the years from 1920-1939.
Seventeen players who have performed the bulk of their careers from 1990-2007.
And a total of 17 players from the 50-year period of 1940-89.
That all may be true. However, I'm not sure why Olney chose to measure the "top 63", but nine of the top 24 (if you include Hank Greenberg) are from 1940-1989. That works out to 37.5% of the sample size, which just happens to match the sample period (50 years divided by 132 years). Interestingly, only four of the top 24 career leaders (16.7%) are from 1990-2007 (13.6% of the overall time frame).
Getting back to Olney's point, I don't believe OPS+ is necessarily weakened by the fact that the distribution of superior results may not be equal throughout baseball history. I'm not aware of any statistic that "creates a level statistical playing field for all of the eras of baseball." Take league leaders. There is only one per category each year, yet the number of teams and players has increased over time (as Olney acknowledges in the next section), making it increasingly more difficult to lead the league – or rank among the league leaders – in any stat.
Part of the reason, of course, is there are more teams now. But part of the reason is that in years in which there is less offense, generally, it is more difficult to create a plus/minus disparity in this statistic.
I tend to agree with the latter assertion.
If you don't think that Adjusted OPS+ is a statistic that skews toward the elite players of the Steroid Era, well, then that's your story and you're sticking to it.
OPS+ might be skewed by the higher run-scoring environment and even steroids, but that does not take away from the fact that Jim Rice hit .320/.374/.546 in a highly favorable park environment at home and .277/.330/.459 on the road. His raw counting stats and unadjusted rate stats should not be compared to those from the so-called "Steroid Era," just as they shouldn't be compared to those from the Dead Ball or Live Ball eras.
But Rice's OPS+ should absolutely be compared to players of his own era. I don't think one can quibble with that unless, of course, they don't like what they see. Using Olney's hand-picked years (1975-1986), Rice ranked 11th in OPS+ among players with 4000 or more plate appearances. Jack Clark, Ken Singleton, and Fred Lynn posted higher totals. Greg Luzinski had the same OPS+ as Rice. Keith Hernandez, George Foster, Dave Parker, and Dale Murphy rank directly behind Rice.
I would submit that Foster is a pretty good comp. Same era, same position, same type of hitter/slugger. Both players won an MVP award. Rice led the AL in HR 3x and RBI 2x. Foster led the NL in HR 2x and RBI 3x. Maybe Rice was better. But, if so, the difference between the two was minor (and mostly a function of playing time), yet Foster never received more than 29 votes for the HOF (or 6.9% of the total).
If you place a lot of weight on playing time and counting stats, then perhaps Parker should be viewed more favorably than Rice. Again, both players were from the same era. The Cobra was a Gold Glove-caliber right fielder and a much better baserunner during his peak. Like Rice, he won an MVP. He also led the NL in AVG and SLG 2x, and TB 3x. As it relates to HOF consideration, Parker's vote total peaked at 116 (24.5%) in 1998 and his candidacy has been trending downward ever since.
Joe Morgan, Gary Carter, and Johnny Bench are the only three players with a lower OPS+ during Rice's best years who have been inducted into Cooperstown. None of them played left field indifferently. In fact, all three were outstanding defensively at much more difficult and important positions. And, to be fair to Morgan and Bench, the chosen period didn't capture all of their best seasons.
If we're going to get behind a player from this era, let's focus our time and attention on Bobby Grich. Note that the slick-fielding second baseman ranks 20th in OPS+ during that same period. There are only three non-OF/1B above him on that list. The three? Mike Schmidt, George Brett, and Morgan. Three of the greatest players in the history of the game. But I digress. I'll give Grich, who garnered almost zero support from the voters, his due in a separate article at a later time.
It's not a perfect statistic. There aren't any perfect statistics.
Agree. No single metric is flawless, whether they're counting or rate, unadjusted or adjusted. They all have flaws. None of them are perfect, especially as standalone measures. It's important to put all stats into their proper context.
While I'd generally agree that to focus on building a Hall of Famer's credentials around a single year of MVP voting might be dubious, the numbers cited in Friday's column accounts for hundreds of votes from every AL city over more than a decade. A lot of writers who watched Rice play daily, at the time he was on the field -- rather than through the time-machine prism of Adjusted OPS+ -- thought he was pretty damn good.
I don't doubt or dispute that. But I think it is only fair to point out that writers have always been biased toward RBI (check out the MVP award winners over time for proof) and rarely, if ever, adjusted for park effects – particularly in Rice's day. As a result, I believe it follows that Rice was overrated by writers back then and is benefiting today from the misperception that he was better than he actually was. Importantly, by making this statement, I'm not revising history. The fact that writers "thought he was pretty damn good" doesn't necessarily mean he was pretty damn good.
If you want to quibble with the fact that he won the award in 1978, or with his placement in some particular year, OK, I get that. But to ignore the MVP voting entirely, as if it isn't at least some kind of barometer of his play over the course of his career, is embarrassing. This is like saying, "Hey, forget the Oscar voting of the 1950s. Marlon Brando was clearly overrated."
At the risk of speaking on behalf of serious fans and students of the game, I believe we would all like for the MVP voting to be a "barometer" of Rice's (and everyone's) play. We're not "ignoring the MVP voting entirely." Instead, we're just discounting it. Doing so shouldn't be "embarrassing" to anybody. After all, Roger Maris and Dale Murphy won back-to-back MVPs and never even sniffed the Hall of Fame.
Look, I've never met Jim Rice, didn't grow up a Red Sox fan, don't think he is one of the very elite players of all time. I understand why someone wouldn't vote for him (but don't agree). But to portray his career as entirely unworthy of Hall of Fame consideration is silly.
I've never met Jim Rice either, didn't grow up a Red Sox fan or hater, and certainly don't think he is one of the very elite players of all time. I understand why someone would vote for him (HR and RBI titles plus an MVP). That said, I disagree. When put in the proper context, Rice was not as good as he appears to be on the surface.