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Asher's Response to Nomar/Flick/Terry
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Asher's Response to Nomar/Flick/Terry
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
September 18, 2009

A funny thing happened today – I checked BaseballEvolution.com and saw an article by Keith calling me out for failing to rank Elmer Flick, Nomar Garciaparra, or Bill Terry on my Top 200 list.

What makes this funny is that when Keith and I revealed our lists to each other, those three guys really were guys that I thought Keith had no excuse for, and whose absurdity spoke for themselves.

Apparently, Keith feels that they are not only not absurd, but are actually the crown jewels of his list.

You wanna know what I love about Keith? If a guy plays three great seasons and then falls off the face of the earth, Keith makes them immortal. If a player is dominant for a very short period but then simply disappears from the baseball world, Keith sees a legend – right this way, Spud Chandler, Smokey Joe Wood, Hal Newhouser, Nomar Gariciaparra, Elmer Flick, and Bill Terry.

On the other hand, if a player plays for twenty seasons and in amongst an otherwise average-to-above-average career posts those same three dominant seasons, Keith tells the player to get lost – get outta here, Robin Roberts, Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Ferguson Jenkins, Ernie Banks, and Cal Ripken, Jr.

Thankfully, he has drawn this aspect of himself out in his choice of choosing players to chastise me over.

Nomar Garciaparra

That Keith ranks Nomar Garciaparra eleven spots behind Ernie Banks, which is essentially a tie when you are talking about shortstops in the 101-150 range, is merely troublesome on its face. While both guys put up three or four of the greatest offensive shortstop seasons of all time, the sheer fact that Nomar has enjoyed about 60% of the career that Banks did kind of gives you pause.

What does that 60% translate to in terms of full seasons played? For Banks, it means fifteen seasons as full-time major league regular, including six seasons out of seven leading the league in games plays plus one season in which he played 163 games without leading the league. For Nomar, it means six full seasons (including his 135 games in 1999) as a major league regular, followed by six more seasons of injury-riddled partial seasons in which he was not a full-time contributor.

Fifteen seasons vs. six seasons, and Keith sees a tie. Questionable, but fine. If Nomar really is that much better of a player than Banks – which an argument could be made – then it doesn’t take fifteen seasons to match and exceed Banks. You’d like to see a guy who you consider one of the top 200 players of all time manage more than six full seasons, but whatever.

Actually, wait, let me rephrase: I’d like to see a guy who I consider one of the top 200 players of all time play more than six seasons. Keith has no problem with it.

Where Keith really starts to lose me, however, is when I ask “Hey, how do Banks and Garciaparra compare to their contemporaries?”

During his years as a shortstop, Ernie Banks hit forty or more homeruns five times, leading the National League twice. He posted OPS+ totals over 140 six times, and over 155 twice. He led the league in slugging once, RBI twice, and total bases once. He also led the NL in extra-base hits four times, and he finished in the top ten in adjusted batting runs six times, and in the top five four times.

In short, for a nine year period Ernie Banks was one of the top sluggers in the National League, as a shortstop. Do you know how many contemporary shortstops were also amongst the elite hitters in baseball during this period?

None. Zero. There’s no one.

Indeed, from 1901 to 1960, the only as-good-or-better hitting shortstops in baseball were Honus Wagner, Arkie Vaughan, and possibly Lou Boudreau and Luke Appling, but not really. After Banks’ years as a shortstop were done, you really didn’t get hitting shortstops again until the 1980s with Robin Yount and Cal Ripken, Jr.

But what about Nomar Garciaparra? Nomar led the AL in at-bats, hits, and triples as a rookie in 1997. He won consecutive batting titles in 1999 and 2000. He led the AL in doubles in 2002. He finished with an OPS+ over 140 three times, including seasons of 153 and 155. He scored 100 runs in six straight full seasons, had over 190 hits every year, and missed 100 RBI only once. He finished in the top 10 in adjusted batting runs twice, and in the top ten in OPS+ twice.

In short, for a six year period Nomar Garciaparra was one of the top hitters in the American League, as a shortstop. Do you know how many contemporary shortstops were also amongst the elite hitters in baseball during this period?

Actually, plenty. For starters, one of the greatest players in baseball history was a shortstop during this period, Alex Rodriguez. Another one of the greatest players in baseball history was a shortstop at this time, Derek Jeter. Both are better hitters and have had twice the careers (or more) of Nomar Garciaparra.

No one will argue that Miguel Tejada is better than Nomar, but it is worth noting that he has eleven full seasons at shortstop. He has hit 30 or more homeruns four times, led the league in RBI once, doubles once, and games played five times. On the flip side, he also has tons of double plays and his offense is overrated. But this is a guy who we consider overrated by today’s standards who would have been in the Hall of Fame if he’d played in Banks’ day.

Even after those three guys, offense has reared its head in several individual seasons during Nomar’s career – Michael Young had some good ones, Barry Larkin enjoyed a successful offensive career, Edgar Renteria has had a couple of good years, Rafael Furcal had a couple of above-average seasons, Jose Reyes has been dandy, Jimmy Rollins has done things. None of these guys are Nomar, 1997-2003, but all of these guys would have been anamolies in previous eras.

This is the freakin’ hey-day of the offensive shortstop.

In 1990, Jay Bell played in his first full season for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He played in 159 games, and came to the plate 696 times. He hit .254 with 7 homeruns and 52 RBI, while collecting 39 sacrifice hits and a 94 OPS+. Nine years later, in 1999, Bell played in 151 games and hit 38 homeruns with 112 RBI, a .931 OPS, a 131 OPS+, 28 adjusted batting runs, and 132 runs scored. That was also the year Nomar Garciaparra had one of his two best years.

Are we really supposed to get excited about a guy who put up great offensive numbers from 1997 to 2003 just because he played shortstop? Is offense at the shortstop position so shocking in this day and age? In an era in which there were more great shortstop seasons in a decade than in the previous ninety years of baseball combined, does six seasons of performance elevate Nomar Garciaparra to the Top 200 baseball players of all time? Because make no mistake about it – if Nomar is an outfielder, he doesn’t make Keith’s list.

Just to round out the Nomar point, Nomar put up his finest seasons (his only Top 200 caliber seasons) hitting in Fenway Park, in the American League, during the steroid/expansion era. If we are comparing to Banks – which I guess we are – then the ballpark is a wash; hitting at Fenway and hitting at Wrigley are potato-potahto. But Banks played in a hitting neutral/depressed era in a designated hitter-less National League in 155 games seasons, while Nomar played in a hitting-explosive era in a designated hitter filled AL in 162 game seasons.

In essence, this is what Keith has done – Keith has created a mental spreadsheet, and on that mental spreadsheet there is room for player name, player position, and adjusted batting runs. Keith sees Nomar’s adjusted batting runs and position and, completely ignoring about ten contextual factors that indicate that offensive performance is totally inflated during Nomar’s era compared to that of any other shortstop, and completely ignoring about ten other contextual factors that indicate that offensive performance for shortstops is relatively common-place compared to any other era in baseball history, has anointed Nomar Garciaparra the 129th best player of all time based upon six inflated seasons and nothing else.

That’s not how I rank players.

Elmer Flick

What can I say. I overlooked him. You understand, right?

I mean, after all, it’s not like Elmer Flick played a long time. He debuted in 1898 and retired in 1910, which means he enjoyed exactly ten seasons during the era (1901-1910) which we take into account when we rank players.

And surely you can understand how I could miss a guy who only technically played 10 post-1900 seasons, since he played only nine games in 1908, 66 games in 1909, and 24 games in 1910.

Surely I can be excused for accidentally missing a guy who only enjoyed seven seasons during the period in which we look at players.

I would also expect to be excused for having missed Elmer Flick because he is a right-fielder, and we have so many right-fielders. Indeed, of all the right-fielders I considered in preparing my list, approximately fifty of them had more plate appearances than Flick did, so you can imagine how he gets lost in the shuffle.

And of those 50 right-fielders, only Ichiro Suzuki and Rob Deer had a lower (PA*OPS+), an imperfect stat but one that gives you an idea of excellence combined with longevity. So you can understand how I could have missed him.

But maybe Keith has a point. Boy, Flick’s numbers sure do look great from 1901 to 1907. Of course, let’s be fair – we sneak a peak at pre-1901 numbers every now and then, like with Cy Young, Nap LaJoie, Honus Wagner, and Fred Clarke. So, really we could look at Flick’s pre-1901 numbers; they were awesome too.

Indeed, it is a shame that I once again forgot to include Elmer Flick. His numbers were truly amazing. Especially considering the fact that he wasn’t a left-handed hitter playing in band-boxed stadium (two actually) with sub-300 foot right-field foul-lines and enormous right-field walls taller than Fenway Green Monster that kept everything from being caught but also kept everything in play.

Oh wait.

On second thought, maybe Flick isn’t one of the top 200 players of all time after all.

That’s not how I rank players.

Bill Terry

Keith’s final player-issue is with Bill Terry, and represents a fundamental flaw in Keith’s perception of the 1920’s and 1930’s. To be sure, Keith is right on the nose in terms of why I am down on Terry – because his best season came in the most offensively inflated season of all time, the 1930 National League. What Keith fails to grasp is that 1928, 1929, 1931, and 1932 were also hugely inflated seasons, though not to the same degree as 1930. There is a whole class of players whose careers rise and fall with the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, among them Kiki Cuyler, Hack Wilson, Chuck Klein, Lefty O’Doul, Lloyd Waner, and yes, Bill Terry.

It is not that his one great season came in a big offense-inflated season. It is that all of his great seasons came in offense-inflated seasons. And before those seasons, he wasn’t a full time major leaguer.

Keith raises a number of silly examples of my rankings of players that purportedly show that I am being inconsistent in my rankings when, in fact, his examples do no such thing.

I can’t possibly imagine why Keith would take issue with Norm Cash – after all, he has more adjusted batting runs and a higher OPS+ than Terry. Cash’s stats are skewed by his one great season, in an expansion year, followed by many “this is the player I really am” seasons during the hitting depressed 1960s. Seems to me that when you remove anamoly years, Cash was the better player. Now, Cash hit better at home while Terry’s incomplete numbers show that he clearly hit better on the road. This is an issue, though not necessarily a compelling one.

Comparing George Sisler to Bill Terry is like comparing apples to oranges. Keith has continued to selectively ignore that George Sisler was one of the best hitters in baseball before he suffered a bizarre and apparently unique injury that cost him his unblurred vision. I am willing to entertain the notion that I have treated Sisler more like Addie Joss and less like Nomar Garciaparra than I should, but I don’t see it that way. Generally speaking, where an old-time player suffers what we today consider an easily treatable injury, or from a war, or from segregation, or from being held down in the minors – see Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Lefty Grove, Joss, Ed Delahanty, Sisler, perhaps even Sandy Koufax – we have given them some credit for that. Whether you agree with that or not, the point is that Sisler and Terry are two different issues – how do you rate the value of a player who suffered a bizarre injury vs. how do you rate the value of a player who only hit well during offensively inflated years.

And really, the only reason Keith dislikes Sisler is because he kept playing. If Sisler’s career had been ended by his illness, rather than just missing a whole season and then coming back impaired, Keith would have him in his top 30 based on what he did before his injury.

Sometimes I like to gain perspective on a player by comparing him to another player. In this case, I just have to ask:

What makes Bill Terry better than Don Mattingly? Mattingly was more dominant during his period of greatness – 1984 to 1989 – than Terry was in his – 1927 to 1932, and Mattingly did his dominating in a neutral era.

For that matter, why is Elmer Flick better than Don Mattingly? Flick’s 1901 to 1907 is actually very similar to Mattingly’s 1983 to 1990, and they seem to have been similarly dominant with respect to their leagues. They also both come from over-stocked positions – first base and right field. I suspect Flick was better than Mattingly, but not so much so that Flick should be 111th of all time while Mattingly should be unranked.

Conclusion

In truth, Keith has adequately and accurately picked out three players from our Top 200 lists that represent the essential difference between the way Keith and I rank players. Given two players who had five great seasons, Keith will always choose the guy who had fewer non-great seasons to go with those great seasons.

It is a philosophical difference – to Keith, non-great seasons should be deducted from any credit a player gets for his great seasons; to me, the great seasons are great forever and what the player does for the rest of their career adds to, rather than subtracts from, his resume.

I get Keith’s point in this analysis – a player contributes to his team with positively or negatively, and at the end of his career you add it all up and that’s the value of the player – but I disagree with it. Yes, we’re ranking the value of a player to his team, but we’re also ranking the abilities of the player to play the game of baseball.

That Nomar Garciaparra was great for six seasons but couldn’t come to the park everyday for the rest of his career, to me, is bad. To Keith, it is not only good but it is a better outcome than if Nomar had been healthy but not as good as he had been.

That Elmer Flick was amongst the best offensive players of his time for seven years at the beginning of the Century but has only those seven seasons and plays a position filled with guys who were not quite as good but played for much longer, to me, is bad. To Keith, Flick’s greatness for seven seasons is apparently preferable to that of Darryl Strawberry, who did what Flick did but did it longer before spending a nomadic decade of self-destruction adversely impacting his career numbers.

That Bill Terry was no where to be found before the age of 28 and then played his last full season at the age of 36, and enjoyed some facially impressive seasons in an era of offensive imbalance, and did it at a position replete with other guys who put up almost-as-good numbers for much longer periods in more balanced eras, to me, is bad. To Keith, Terry’s inflated numbers in an inflated era are apparently preferable to those of Orlando Cepeda, who was good enough to get a job as a full time major league baseball player before the age of 28, who had better seasons with respect to his league than Terry, and who despite sticking around longer than he should have fighting injuries in his thirties actually finished with more adjusted batting runs than Terry.

It is not that I don’t get why Keith had ranked these guys where he has; I do get it. I just don’t agree with it.

That’s not how I rank players.






Questions? Concerns? Comments? Asher lives in Philadelphia, PA, and can be reached at asher@baseballevolution.com.

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