Baseball BeatDecember 09, 2008
If Gordon, Then Why Not Grich?
By Rich Lederer

If you're reading about baseball and come across the abbreviation "GG," what do you think of? Gold Glove, right? I mean, that's what would occur to me.

That said, there are two comparable second basemen in terms of hitting and fielding whose last names start with the letter "G," and, to be honest, I can't think of one without the other. The GGs in this case are Joe Gordon and Bobby Grich.

Gordon was elected to the Hall of Fame yesterday. He was named on 10 of 12 ballots by an odd Veterans Committee charged with the responsibility of reviewing ten candidates who began their careers prior to 1943.

I am happy for Gordon, who died in 1978, and his children. He was an outstanding player for the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians from 1938-1950. Gordon was named the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1942 and played in nine All-Star Games and for five World Series champions.

Gordon's induction should open up the doors to Cooperstown for Grich. Not to take anything away from Gordon but Grich was every bit as good as the Hall's newest member, both defensively and offensively. If you don't believe me, then stick around and take a look at the facts.

Let's start off with their basic counting stats:

              G     AB     R      H     2B   3B    HR   RBI   SB   CS   BB    SO
Gordon      1566   5707   914   1530   264   52   253   975   89   60   759   702
Grich       2008   6890  1033   1833   320   47   224   864  104   83  1087  1278

Grich had 1684 more plate appearances than Gordon. The extra playing time should be viewed in a positive light but, in all fairness, it must be pointed out that Gordon missed the 1944 and 1945 seasons while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. As such, he may have lost out on about 1275 plate appearances (his combined total in the previous two years).

Given the disparity in opportunities, it may be instructive to examine their career rate stats:

            AVG    OBP    SLG    OPS+
Gordon     .268   .357   .466    120
Grich      .266   .371   .424    125

As shown, Gordon and Grich had similar batting averages while the latter had a better on-base percentage and the former had a superior slugging average. However, it is important to note that Gordon played during an era of higher offense than Grich. For example, the league-wide, park-adjusted averages during Gordon's career were .271/.350/.395. The only major difference between Gordon and the league average was in SLG where he out-slugged his fellow players by .071. On the other hand, the league-wide, park-adjusted averages during Grich's career were .258/.324/.384. Grich outperformed his peers across the board with significant advantages in OBP and SLG.

While Gordon out-OPS'd Grich .823 to .795, Grich actually had a higher OPS+ (which adds context to OPS by adjusting for park factors and league averages) than Gordon (125 to 120). In other words, Grich was 25 percent and Gordon 20 percent better than average when normalized to the league.

Grich (164) also had a higher peak OPS+ than Gordon (155) and had more seasons in the 140s (two to none) and 130s (three to two). Grich, in fact, led the AL in OPS+ in 1981 in a 14-team league whereas Gordon's highest ranking was fourth in 1942 and 1947 in an 8-team environment.

The bottom line is that Grich had better counting and rate stats, as well as a higher peak, than Gordon.

Moving to the defensive side of the equation, Grich and Gordon were two of the best second basemen in the game's history. Using traditional fielding statistics, Gordon posted a .970 fielding percentage over the course of his career, leading the AL in assists four times and double plays three times. Grich had a .983 fielding percentage while leading the AL in assists, putouts, and double plays for three straight seasons. He committed only five errors and set a then major-league record with a .995 fielding percentage in 1973 when all 12 AL fields were grass.

Grich earned four consecutive Gold Gloves, tied for the seventh most among second sackers. Gordon may have also won multiple awards had he played in the Gold Glove era (1957-on). Although Boston's Bobby Doerr would have provided stiff competition, it doesn't take away from the fact that Gordon was one of the slickest fielders of his generation. In the book Win Shares, Bill James assigned Gordon and Grich with letter grades of "A" for their defensive work. It's hard to say with any authority that one was better than the other in the field. We'll say "too close to call" and rate them a push with the leather.

Speaking of Win Shares, this measure is as reliable as any other when combining offense and defense to compare two players such as Gordon and Grich. Let's take a look to see how they stack up in Win Shares:

            Career WS    Top 3     Top 5     Per 162
Gordon         242     31-28-26     134       21.07
Grich          329     32-31-29     143       26.54

No matter how you slice it, Grich tops Gordon when it comes to Win Shares. He had 36% more career Win Shares with better peak seasons and a much higher rate per 162 games. Whether your preference is quantity or quality, Grich gets the nod here.

Grich also compares more favorably to Gordon using Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP), a Baseball Prospectus stat designed to measure player value in terms of wins above a marginal big leaguer at the same position.

              WARP3         Top 3         Top 5      Per 162
Gordon         94.2     11.5-11.1-10.6     53.3        9.74
Grich         123.9     11.8-11.6-11.0     55.6       10.00

If Grich bests Gordon offensively and hangs with him defensively while generating more career and peak value, then why doesn't he get the same respect as his fellow second baseman? Well, I believe it comes down to two things:

1. Gordon won a Most Valuable Player award and Grich never won an MVP.
2. Gordon played for five World Series champions and Grich never played in the World Series.

Gordon won the AL MVP in 1942 even though he finished fourth in Win Shares. In fact, he had FIFTEEN fewer Win Shares than Ted Williams, who just happened to capture the Triple Crown that season. Gordon hit .322/.409/.491 with an OPS+ of 155, while Williams hit .356/.499/.648 with an OPS+ of 217. Although Gordon had a great year, two of his Yankees teammates – Charlie Keller (34) and Joe DiMaggio (32) – had more Win Shares than he did that season.

In Grich's best offensive season, he finished FOURTEENTH in the MVP voting even though, like Gordon, he was fourth in Win Shares. In 1981, Grich led the league in home runs, slugging average, and OPS+ (did I mention that he was a second baseman?), yet a relief pitcher (Rollie Fingers) was named MVP and 12 of the 13 players who received more points than Grich were either pitchers or played a corner defensive position. Only center fielder Dwayne Murphy (.251/.369/.408), who placed three spots ahead of Grich in the voting, played one of the four up-the-middle positions.

If the truth be told, voters did a better job of evaluating the merits of middle infielders and catchers during the 1930s through the early 1960s than in the more modern era when a fixation on RBI has overpowered defensive position and value. It says here that Grich would have had a better chance of winning the MVP had his 1981 season taken place during Gordon's era and Gordon would have had almost no chance of winning his MVP had it taken place in Grich's era. Think about it for a second . . . Can you imagine a second baseman who didn't lead his league in any category other than SO (95) and GIDP (22) being named MVP in the same year when another player won the Triple Crown? Unfathomable.

Gordon also had the good fortune of playing in a smaller league and on more dominant teams than Grich. Gordon's teams won five World Series championships, whereas the clubs Grich played for went 0-5 in the American League Championship Series. As such, while Grich may not be perceived as a "loser," it is safe to say that Gordon is thought of as a "winner."

Maybe Grich will also get his due one day. If so, let's just hope that it doesn't take 58 years after the time of his retirement or 30 years after his death for him to be honored in Cooperstown along with Gordon, a fellow second baseman who, at best, was no better than Grich.

Correction: Grich won a World Series with the Baltimore Orioles in 1970 even though he did not appear in a World Series game that year.



Good post. However some players, though very good for a long time, just don't capture the voter's imagination. Grich can get in the "non-capturing voters imagination" queue behind Blyleven and Santo.
3 players who are equal to many players currently in the hall when you drill into the stats but will have a difficult time being elected by the current crop of voters. Does this make it right? No, it's just the way it is.

Now if you want to talk about the ridiculously low vote totals of Dwight Evans and Tim Raines, I'm all for hearing that also...

In linking to this article at THT Live, Dave Studeman confides that "Bobby Grich is one of my all-time favorite ballplayers. Every time I saw him play, I had the distinct impression he was the best ballplayer on the field. He was a superb fielder and batter, particularly for a second baseman."

Studes reiterates an interesting observation that he made two years ago: "If Grich had come up to the majors two years earlier in his career, he'd be in the Hall right now. When he was 21, he batted .383 in 235 at bats in Triple-A and played a fine shortstop. The next year, still blocked by Mark Belanger and Davey Johnson, he was the International League MVP, hitting .336 with 32 home runs. Think he'd be in the minors that long these days?"

Grich not only was the International League MVP, he was named TSN Minor League Player of the Year in 1971. Grich and Don Baylor (who was TSN Minor League POY in 1970) were ready to play in the majors in 1971 but the Orioles were coming off a World Series victory over Cincinnati and were one of the most powerful clubs in baseball.

As a side note, Grich was in the Marine Corps Reserve that season and missed many weekend games to fulfill his military obligation. Rochester didn't fare well with him out of the lineup, going 0-10 during the regular season when he was away.

Excellent article. I think Grich may be the most under-rated player in baseball history. I don't think there is a bigger gap between a player's public perception and his actual value.

Recently on Dugout Central, I brought up the fact the Grich was one of the top 100 position players of all time. I was greeted with dozens of "get a clue" or "he was a nice player, but not great".

I don't think people fully realize that he was among the best players if not the best player in the American League from 1972-1976.

I think two things hurt him:

1-Memorial field kept his batting average and his overall offensive numbers down.

2-The Big A kept his numbers down plus, he got lost in the shuffle with all of those former MVP winners on those Angel teams in the 1980's.

"He committed only five errors and set a then major-league record with a .995 fielding percentage in 1973 when all 12 AL fields were grass."
Actually, Comiskey had artificial turf then.

Grich is better than your numbers show, relative to Gordon. This is because of the DH rule, which spreads out WS among 9 hitters instead of 8.

Don't get on that slippery slope.

Election of one undeserving member does not justiy election of another.

Who's next, Bret Boone?

Re the "slippery slope," I disagree with you in the case of Grich. He is fully qualified and would not dilute the standards for second basemen or the average member of the Hall of Fame.

You make a good case for Grich. Add Alan Trammell to the list of underappreciated middle infielders.

One thing that has always confounded me -- Grich was *not* underrated in Baltimore, at least not when he was a Gold Glove-winning, All-Star regular. He only became underrated in Anaheim, even though the teams there had many competitive seasons during his run there. Some contributing factors:

* There was never enough oxygen in that clubhouse for Don Baylor alone, let alone Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson, Fred Lynn and so on. Baylor, by calling himself "team leader" all the time, essentially distracted the contemporaneous press from the fact that it was Grich and Downing, not Baylor and Carew, that were contributing the most to a reasonably successful franchise.

* Even though he was menacing in the field, he looked like an insecure wreck at the plate, constantly fiddling with his stance, wiggling around, and directing his power to right-center. Baylor just stood on the plate, daring you to hit him. Carew was an artiste. Reggie was Reggie.

* He stumbled out of the gate with a disastrous, injury-marred 1977, when all eyes were upon him, and when the league was putting on one of its rare offensive outbursts of his career.

* He saved some of his best offensive seasons for some of the worst offensive climates -- 1981, 1976, and 1974 were essentially dead-ball seasons, so his raking then look puny out of context.

Nice post! I've always wondered if Grich himself had any idea that there was a robust analyst community out there for whom his HoF qualification was not only on the table, but a no brainer....

Gordon won the MVP in a year Ted Williams won the TRIPLE CROWN? Are baseball writers SANE? Or are they all from NY?

I agree with Al Doyle about Trammell for sure, but let's compare 2B men here.

Lou Whitaker's .276 bests Gordon's .268 or Grich's .266.

Lou's 244 HRs puts him between Gordon's 253 and Grich's 224.

Sweet Lou beat both of them in hits, runs, RBIs, 2Bs, 3Bs, SBs, and BBs. He was caught stealing less and struck out less than Grich.

Lou was a RoY and played in a World Series.

And Whitaker, like Trammell, was brought up to Detroit largely because of his defense - the offense was a bonus.

Neither of those guys belong in the HoF if Lou Whitaker isn't in there ahead of them.

Of course I believe the HoF is a joke for not enshrining Alan Trammell, who has a stronger case at SS than Lou has at 2B.

Rank Whitaker's seasons by Win Shares from first to last, and do the same with Grich, and this is what you get:

LW: 29/26/25/24/24/22/22/20/20/19/19/19/19/17/14/12/11
BG: 32/31/30/29/28/28/24/21/20/20/20/19/16/11/07/02/02

(Note: All seasons adjusted to 162 games.)

This expresses a couple of important things:

* Grich was one of the 10 best, probably 5 best, defensive 2Bmen to ever play the game. Whitaker wasn't.

* Whitaker played more than 152 games in a season only once. Reason? He couldn't really hit left-handed pitching (240/.324/.334).

He was a great player, perhaps deserving of the Hall, but he gets in behind Grich.

It may be more a case that Ted Williams antagonized a lot of baseball writers, particularly in Boston, rather than that there was a NY bias.

And possibly the fact that NY won the AL pennant by 9 games over Boston that year also affected the vote, possibly even more that it would today.

I am sure anyone here could write the story of why Gordon "deserved" the MVP that year according to the many traditional virtues/flaws that both he and Williams represent in traditional thinking. Here's a head start; be sure to use the word "selfish".