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Using External Factors to Assess Value
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Using External Factors to Assess Value
by Asher B. Chancey,
July 30, 2009

One of the greatest challenges when ranking players is trying not to be fooled by their statistics. Looking at a player’s statistics, you want to know whether the statistics purely represent the abilities of the player, or whether they represent factors that have nothing to do with the player that makes that player look better than he should.

This deception manifests itself in many ways. Primarily, there is the home ballpark factor – baseball is the only major American sport in which the dimensions of a playing field are not strictly regulated. As such, what it takes to hit a homerun in one ballpark can be quite different in another ballpark. For the most part, statistics are most deceptive in regard to whether a player would have been able to put up the numbers he put up in a different ballpark (or conversely whether his numbers would have been better in another park).

The second major factor which can distort a player’s statistics is era. A player in the Delgado Era will be more likely to hit a homerun than a player in the Downing Era. A player in the 1920s will be more likely to hit a homerun than in the 1910s.

These first two factors have been grappled with quite capably by baseball statisticians and, according to my understanding, when you say “OPS+” or “adjusted batting runs,” you are referring to numbers which have been adjusted for ballpark and for era.

But these are not the only factors which can distort a player’s statistics. There are a few more factors which, although subtle, remain quite important and can seriously misrepresent a player’s abilities. For example:

Time missed due to outside factors. These factors are essentially limited to wars, segregation, other leagues, and strange fluke diseases. It is important to realize that players have missed playing time due to World War I, World War II, and the Korean War; they have missed time due to the Negro Leagues, the Mexican League, the Federal League, and baseball in Asia. And while injuries are a part of the game, when players succumb to diseases or disasters – meningitis, car wrecks, suicide, plane crashes, earthquakes, etc. – a career cut short by those factors improperly influences our perception of a player and his abilities.

One thing is for sure – the total measure of Roy Campanella’s value cannot be derived from his career statistic totals. Campanella missed, probably, five or six seasons at the beginning of his career due to baseball’s color barrier, and had his career cut short by an automobile accident which left him paralyzed from the shoulders down (we’ll leave aside the question of whether his numbers were benefited by the premature end to his career). For that matter, George Sisler had half his career impacted by a bout with sinusitis, Addie Joss died of meningitis, and Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash. Those factors must be taken into account.

Excellence derived from a supportive lineup. There can be no doubt – zero, zilch, none – that playing in the same lineup with an elite player can bring out a career year in a guy. If a player is a slightly-above average player and then joins a team with one of the top 20 players of all time, or even a roster full of excellent if not elite players, and becomes an All Star and an MVP, then his abilities are probably being misrepresented. Guys like Jeff Kent, Roberto Alomar, Joe Morgan (I don’t mean to be picking on second basemen here), Davey Johnson (no, really), Scott Rolen, Roger Maris, and Jim Edmonds all performed better, or in some cases significantly better, when they were in lineups with future Hall of Famers than they did during other parts of their careers. This is something of which we must be mindful.

Beware the breakout season. If a player is ordinarily quite competent and a contributor to the team, and then busts out for a season like none he’s ever enjoyed before, chances are it had more to do with context than with the individual player’s ability. Whether it is Andre Dawson playing an abundance of day games in the abnormally explosive 1987 season, Brady Anderson blasting 50 homeruns in 1996, or Jim Gentile having one of the great seasons of all time in 1961, the breakout season is usually explained by something other than “the guy just put it all together for a year.”

In particular, maybe a subset of this rule, there is the rule that one should beware any elite play in certain seasons. We know for sure that certain seasons were explosive, and not without justification. If you see a guy blowing up in 1930, 1961, 1969, 1977, 1987, 1994, 1996, 1998, or 2001 in a way that he never did before or since, then you can at least be suspicious (you are at least on notice) that something may be awry.

Having now been through the factors, one may wonder how we deal with them. I have one suggestion: adjusted batting runs is one of the two or three best statistics we have for measuring a player’s overall statistical value. So, what we can do is look at a player’s season-by-season accumulation of adjusted batting runs, and determine whether, for example, Brady Anderson accumulated an adjusted batting runs total in 1996 – the year he hit 50 – that was significantly out of proportion with his career total. Let’s take a look:

Player Year Best Total %
Brady Anderson 1996 50.1 110.0 46%

What this table tells us is that Brady Anderson derived 46% of his career adjusted batting runs from one single season, which by the way was nicknamed "The Year of the Homerun" at the time. So, chances are pretty good that Brady's 110.0 adjusted batting runs are probably overstating his value, because for all but one season of his career, he was really a 60 ABR guy.

As another example, let's look at the following players from the 1930 season:

Player Year 1930 Total %
Carl Reynolds 1930 34.8 30.2 115%
Fred Lindstrom 1930 40.8 66.7 61%
Ed Morgan 1930 43.9 85.9 51%
Lefty O'Doul 1930 63.4 210.8 30%
Hack Wilson 1930 75.9 317.3 24%
Babe Herman 1930 71.1 324.3 22%
Chuck Klein 1930 62 337.8 18%
Bill Terry 1930 60 333.4 18%
Al Simmons 1930 61.1 377.1 16%
Earle Combs 1930 36.2 229 16%
Gabby Hartnett 1930 35.3 242.9 15%
Joe Cronin 1930 34.9 240.7 14%
Kiki Cuyler 1930 36.8 264.4 14%
Frankie Frisch 1930 18.5 142.5 13%
Sam Rice 1930 18.6 160.4 12%
Wally Berger 1930 29.8 260.3 11%
Mickey Cochrane 1930 28.7 256.2 11%
Goose Goslin 1930 35.9 350.3 10%
Lou Gehrig 1930 93.8 982.9 10%
Charlie Gehringer 1930 32.4 354.6 9%
Earl Averill 1930 26.6 310.6 9%
Jimmie Foxx 1930 54.1 782.9 7%
Babe Ruth 1930 95.2 1387.5 7%
Harry Heilmann 1930 34 539.2 6%
Mel Ott 1930 49.2 793.8 6%
Tony Lazzeri 1930 12.5 204.8 6%
Paul Waner 1930 28.8 488.8 6%
Jim Bottomley 1930 1.6 256.7 1%

I am not sure how clear or obvious this is, but anything over 20% of a career value in a single season is very high. On this list, you'll notice that Babe Ruth had 95.2 adjusted batting runs in 1930, and that was only 7% of his career value. But Babe Herman (22%) and Hack Wilson (24%) basically made their careers in 1930 alone. Given that we know that 1930 was the most offensively explosive season of all time (particularly in the National League), these numbers confirm the fact that Herman and Wilson's careers are distorted by 1930.

In my opinion, if Hack Wilson accumulated 317.1 adjusted batting runs in his career, but almost a quarter of them came in one season, then his abilities as a player have been inflated by that one season, and he likely shouldn't be compared to players with a similar number of adjusted batting runs.

Here are some other notable individual seasons:

Player Year 1930 Total %
Brooks Robinson 1964 37.5 57.3 65%
Davey Johnson 1973 33.5 74.6 45%
Jim Gentile 1961 63.8 158.6 40%
Alan Trammell 1987 48.1 123.9 39%
Roger Maris 1961 54.2 187.2 29%
Sammy Sosa 2001 92.6 330.6 28%
Luis Gonzalez 2001 70.6 270.8 26%
Nomar Garciaparra 2000 48.0 188.7 25%
Ryne Sandberg 1992 36.8 150.5 24%
Dale Murphy 1987 51.4 224.8 23%
Norm Cash 1961 85.1 377.1 23%
Toby Harrah 1982 38.1 181.9 21%
Jeff Kent 2000 60.4 289.4 21%
Derek Jeter 1999 55.4 277.6 20%
John Olerud 1993 77.0 386.6 20%
Arky Vaughan 1935 71.6 364.3 20%
Scott Rolen 2004 44.8 246.9 18%
Ernie Banks 1958 46.8 259.8 18%
Darrell Evans 1973 49.6 278.6 18%
Ernie Banks 1959 45.5 259.8 18%
Jim Edmonds 2004 56.1 328.7 17%
Moises Alou 1998 49.8 295.1 17%
Charlie Keller 1942 49.3 295.2 17%
Mark McGwire 1998 95.2 589.2 16%
Andre Dawson 1983 33.1 216.4 15%
Ken Singleton 1977 55.4 365.6 15%
Todd Helton 2000 66.5 450.9 15%
Reggie Smith 1977 51.8 355.7 15%
Orlando Cepeda 1967 49.9 343.9 15%
Bob Johnson 1944 55.6 392.4 14%
Wade Boggs 1987 66.1 475.0 14%
Wade Boggs 1988 64.6 475.0 14%
Carl Yastrzemski 1967 72.3 535.7 13%
Edgar Martinez 1995 74.2 565.9 13%
Tim Raines 1987 42.1 332.8 13%
Joe Morgan 1976 62.2 496.4 13%
Jim Thome 2002 73.3 587.1 12%
Alex Rodriguez 2007 69.2 575.7 12%
Ken Griffey, Jr. 1993 60.8 513.7 12%
Joe Morgan 1975 57.7 496.4 12%
Rickey Henderson 1990 62.4 544.4 11%
Harold Baines 1989 32.4 287.2 11%
Eddie Murray 1984 49.8 462.9 11%
Hank Aaron 1959 71.6 919.7 8%
Willie Mays 1965 62.6 844.4 7%
Ozzie Smith 1987 9.7 -132.3 -7%

You'll note that in their best seasons, Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays were all in the same general class, seven to eight percent of their total ABR. These guys put up the numbers every year.

By the way, Ozzie Smith's number is what happens when you divide a positive single season total by a negative career total. If I were a math major, I'd know how to make that represent a number that comports with what we are doing. Basically, I suspect that -7% is the equivelant of well over 100% of total value.

So there you have it. We'll do some more guys later, as they occur to me.

Questions? Concerns? Comments? Asher lives in Philadelphia, PA, and can be reached at

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