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More on George Sisler
by Asher B. Chancey, Baseball Evolution
January 29, 2006
When I first bought what we like to refer to as "The Bill James Book," I think that I went into reading the book with sort of an adversarial stance. There are two prime reasons for this – 1) I already knew Bill James had ranked Craig Biggio as the 35th player of all time, which I thought was lunacy, and 2) he had been very unkind to Andre Dawson, which I totally took personally. For these reasons, I generally found a bone to pick with everything he said, and wanted more than anything to discredit Bill James.
There are still many things I disagree with him about. His constant waxing moralistic with respect to Rogers Hornsby allows him to ignore how great Hornsby was. He ranks Ty Cobb below some players that I think there is no excuse for. He has Willie Mays listed as his top centerfielder even though the Win Shares system clearly demonstrates that Willie should be at least fourth, behind Cobb, Mantle, and Speaker. I mean, why create a system to rank players if you are just going to ignore it to make Willie your third best player of all time? He also has a tendancy to discredit RBI generally, but then use RBI numbers to support players he likes.
I also think he waxes moralistic with respect to Negro Leaguers, which allows him to rank, subjectively, players for whom he has little or no basis for comparison. My favorite line in the whole book, which I repeat often, is "Lots of people said (Oscar Charleston) was the greatest player ever. John McGraw, who knew something about baseball, reportedly said that." I mean, why don't we just discard all
statistics and rank players based on compilations of first hand accounts of people who know baseball?!?!?!
Anyway, one thing led to another, my Bill James Book went the way of Hurricane Katrina, and for a few of months I was without the book. Then, I got the updated version for Christmas. I must say, the second time around, I definitely appreciate Bill James more than before. Since my first reading of the book, Bill James has come to realize that he ranks Craig Biggio too high, and I have come to realize that Andre Dawson had flaws.
That having been said, I still think James treats some players unfairly. My primary case in point is George Sisler. The Bill James Book has no shortage of tales of players who were great, and then injury pre-maturely ended/affected their careers. The bit on Ernie Lombardi is enough to move one to tears. Yet, for some odd reason, James sees it fit to essentially tear Sisler a new one. In ranking him the 24th best first baseman of all time, he says that Sisler is "Perhaps the most overrated player in baseball history." He continues by pointing out that Sisler had a lower on-base percentage than a host of guys whose averages were way lower than Sisler's .340. He then dresses him down by disputing the possibility that he was a good fielder, pointing out that Win Shares just doesn't see him as such.
James' analysis of Sisler is one-sided and, frankly, mean-spirited. With respect to defense, we will give James the benefit of the doubt, because it would appear that Sisler was no better than an average fielder. But what James completely ignores is the player Sisler was before his injury in 1923. This was an injury which, anytime after 1960, would simply not have happened. He would have developed sinusitis, sought treatment from the team doctor, and would have been fine in a few days, maybe a week. I don't think Sisler should be given credit for the injury, but an analysis of him must take the injury into consideration.
As I mentioned, James dresses Sisler down for his low on-base percentage. Sisler finished his career with an on-base percentage of .379. But before his injury year of 1923, Sisler's on-base percentage dropped below .390 only once, and that was his rookie year. In the six years leading up to 1923, his on-base percentage was .390, .400, .390, .449, .411, and .467. In the three years after the injury, his on-base percentage was .340, .371, and .327. Clearly Sisler was not the same player after the injury as he was before.
What Bill James does with George Sisler, and frankly I think this is very unlike him, is look solely at Sisler's final career stats and make his judgment based on that. He demonstrates no awareness that Sisler's career can be divided into two distinct halves, and in the first half of his career Sisler was a significantly better player than in the second. And that is simply unfair.
I will reiterate that I don't necessarily think that Sisler should be ranked any higher than James has him. I just think his analysis is a little short-sighted, and that calling him the most overrated player in baseball history ignores what he accomplished from 1917 to 1922.
There is another point to be made here, which fits Sisler well, but deserves a more thorough analysis and is a sidebar to my main point here. Let us take two players – say, Fred McGriff and George Sisler. Fred McGriff has a career average of .284, and a career on-base of .377, while George Sisler has a career average of .340, and a career on-base of .379.
Bill James is a big proponent of what he calls "secondary average," which he defines nebulously as what a player does other than getting hits (I paraphrase). I am pretty certain that James looks at two players like McGriff and Sisler, and just based on the ratio of their average to their on-base percentage, decides that McGriff was a better player because his on-base percentage tops his average by a greater margin (93 points vs. 39 points). I am almost certain that this is why James favors Joe Morgan (.271/.392) over Rogers Hornsby (.358/.434).
The simple point that I would like to make is that on-base percentage is not exclusive of batting average. There are many ways to get to a .379 on-base percentage. Some do it by hitting much and walking little, some do it by hitting and walking about the same, and some do it by hitting little and walking much. But isn't it the end result that we should be concerned with? Which is more valuable, a guy who bats .379 and never ever takes a walk, and ends up with an on-base percentage of .379, or a guy who never gets a hit but walks all the time and ends up with an on-base percentage of .379? I think
the guys who gets the hits wins the day, but I may be wrong. My point is that I don't care how you get there - .379 is .379. Giving on guys credit over another guy because he has a lower batting average is kind of silly.
But that is more of a sidebar.
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Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Asher B. Chancey resides in Alexandria, Virginia, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org